Hello and welcome to our latest episode of WHAT ARE YOU READING??. This week we’re reviewing three works of fiction in translation!
We’ll kick this off with a review of Chewing Gum, an esoteric novel by Libyan writer Mansour Bushnaf, which was originally published in Arabic and translated by Darf Publishers in 2014.
The story of Chewing Gum revolves loosely around Mukhtar, a jilted lover who freezes in time for a decade after his lover Fatma abandons him to pursue sex work and fund her obsession with chewing gum.
Fatma, hollowed out and with an insatiable appetite only for gum, remains uninterested in the love that cripples Mukhtar. Is author Mansour Bushnaf giving us hints as to how Fatma is seen in her social context? Or is his portrayal of her as an unfeeling, greedy woman simply to contrast that of Chewing Gum’s lovestruck protagonist? It doesn’t quite transpire.
What’s clear, however, is that Mansour Bushnaf’s novel casts a wry eye over Libya’s ascetics and academics, art historians and philosophers: the chewing gum craze, it seems, stands in for the onslaught of westernisation arriving in single-serve packets, which they attempt to make sense of through their work.
Meanwhile the narrative is told from different standpoints, from hero to heroine, over often seemingly tangential figures. Physical locations shift and are put in a spotlight, like the Tripoli National Park which becomes central to the unfolding of the story.
Chewing Gum does a brilliant job of satiring Gadaffi’s Libya straight-facedly. I found myself googling various parts of the story. I’m still unsure whether a chewing gum craze did, in fact, wrack the Libyan population. Expect to have your curiosity ignited for more with this novel.
Review by Henna Zamurd-Butt
Our next review is of One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jungeun, a fantasy novel addressing issues around socio-economic class in South Korea’s capital.
One Hundred Shadows is a novel published by Tilted Axis, a new independent press publishing gorgeous books in translation (with even more gorgeous covers).
Part social commentary and part fantasy, the book follows the story of two repair workers, Eungyo and Mujae, who develop a friendship in the slums of Seoul. Set against their relationship, an unsettling phenomenon unfolds: when an electronics market is on the brink of being torn down by the city, people’s shadows begin to ‘rise’, leaving their bodies and compelling their hosts to follow.
Hwang Jungeun’s writing skillfully captures the alienating and precarious nature of life under late capitalism. This is not a bleak or didactic novel, however. The warmth of human relationships in the slum’s market, the awkwardly endearing relationship between the two protagonists, and the fun dialogue keep this novel from descending into the dreary grit of realism.
As South Korea continues to be famed for exports of electronic gadgetry and K Pop, Jungeun’s novel offers an offbeat glimpse into the life of the country’s working class. As such, this book feels refreshingly different to the more bougie fare that dominates contemporary literary fiction.
Review by Layla Mohamed
And our final review is of Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, translated from French, a novel that tactfully merges history and fantasy into a highly relevant piece of literary fiction.
I first discovered I, Tituba at the age of 19. As a young black woman on her first solo travel expedition, I took the novel with me after stumbling across the greyish black softcover book in my family’s living room.
The story of Tituba – free woman, slave, rebel and ‘witch’ – begins on the slave ship that transports her mother Abena from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean island of Barbados. When Tituba herself is then transported from Barbados on to Boston, she faces the impossible struggle between freedom and enslavement, the house and the field, and between wealthy white masters and those struck by poverty.
Maryse Condé, who is Guadeloupean, based Tituba’s character on the true account of an enslaved Barbadian woman. Although very little is known about her actual life, records confirm that Tituba was tried for witchcraft in Massachusetts, during the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century.
The characters of Tituba, her mother and her teacher Mama Yaya, arrived to me as both ancestor and aunty. And for the best part of a decade, I have taken comfort in their story, despite its agonising tragedy. Through their characters, Condé’s novel offers an exploration of the rich histories of spiritual practices associated with Yoruba people and their descendants, including herbal healing, animal sacrifice and communicating with the dead. But rather than reinforcing the myth that Tituba was a witch, Condé dismisses the notion of witchcraft entirely to create a space in which the story of Tituba can breathe freely.
What evolves is a seamlessly woven history of witchcraft and slavery; one which crafts a black feminist narrative of the era and is dotted with timeless truths, commenting on the many hardships and struggles of being a black woman in today’s patriarchal and white supremacist world.
From a few lines in an archive, Maryse Condé has taken this black woman’s forgotten story and offered her a world to exist within, thereby reminding us that we all have a responsibility to write our ancestors and aunties into history where we can.
Review by Zahra Dalilah
Like the sound of our picks? All books are available here:
- Chewing Gum, by Mansour Bushnaf: The Hive
- One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jungeun: The Hive
- I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, by Maryse Condé: The Hive
And if you like this series and want to tell us what you’re reading, send your flash review (150-300 words) to our online editor Mend or tweet at him if you have any questions: @mendlusi
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