As I seek out novels from every country in the world, I am constantly surprised how much harder it is to find novels written by women than by men. I assume it’s a mix of a male-dominated publishing sector and cultures that either do not give women either the chance to write, or the chance to publish when they can write. Here are the best women writers I have discovered so far, who should really be better known. They have written poignant stories of women in war, or finding their place in the modern world.
1. Dasa Drindic (Croatia)
With European integration increasingly challenged, Sonnenschein (Titled “Trieste” in the English edition) is a timely novel about the Holocaust centred around the border town of Gorizia/Goritz/Görz/Gorica/Gurize, a town on the border between Slovenia and Italy that has passed between several countries and regimes in the 20th century.
Today you can stroll from Gorizia in Italy to Nova Gorica in Slovenia without knowing you are crossing a border, were it not for a small sign. Through Gorizia flows the beautiful river Soča, along which vicious battles were fought in WW1:
“A river of a vivid turquoise hue. In its riverbed it holds a history which eludes historians. Quiet one moment, raging the next. When it rages, it is mighty. When it is quiet, it sings.”
This is a book about History, with a capital ‘H’. The weight of history and the Holocaust.
It’s about the many stories behind the many names that together create a historical blur in our history books and memorials. About shifting borders and memories (personal and collective), and people dealing with the past.
Following the thread of one women it weaves in many lives, many tragedies. It starts gently but before long drags you deep into the darkest depths of history. It is hard to read and hard to talk about. It is precise, compelling, terrifying. I’m not even going to try to get into the plot: all you need to know is that it brims with anger and it very skilfully weaves together personal and narrative history.
The English title of the book is Trieste, where some of the plot takes place, which is far less appropriate than Sonnenschein (sunshine), the original title in Croatian and the name of a castle turned into a “euthanasia centre” by the Nazis.
A whole cast of characters are called to bear witness: like a Swiss family who remember seeing the trains bearing Jews from Italy to their death passing through their town, about which they said nothing. Moral ambiguity is everywhere: a Jewish woman has a child with a senior Nazi officer, a family convert to survive.
From an old woman’s rocking chair, fleeting memories and moments, trial transcripts and biographies, flit by, characters like Francesco Illy of Illy coffee, members of the S.S., the people who suffered and died, the people who carried out despicable atrocities, and the people who kept quiet and survived. The people who lived “while trains rumbled past”:
“In war and skirting war, these blind observers look away with indifference and actively refuse to feel compassion; their self-deception is a hard shield, a shell in which, larvae-like, they wallow cheerfully.”
The power of the book can be summed up by the list of 9,000 murdered Italian Jews (which a former student posts the old woman when he like, so many others, discovers the terrible history of WW2) — Alhadeffs, Ottolenghis, Sonninos. Drndic spares no scorn for the hypocrisy of a world that continued life after the war as if nothing had changed while also challenging us not to understand the ambiguous individual decisions made in wartime. As Drndic says in an excellent interview with the Paris Review:
“If football—soccer—fanatics can memorize teams of players through time, it is polite at least to scan through a list of victims for whose destinies all of us bear responsibility.”
Sonnenschein/Trieste is a painful, but necessary read, a little like the protagonist feels sifting through her memories and documents:
“Haya senses that a little cemetery is sprouting in her breast with a jumble of tilting tombstones…knocking against her ribs.”
Judge this book by the blurb on its cover that says: “A masterpiece”.
2. Shani Boianjiu (Israel)
Boianjiu’s characters struggle to maintain their basic humanity against the conformity of army life and military orders. The normal preoccupations of a teenage woman is magnified by the mostly monotonous, sometimes terrifying experience of military service.
So when Lea is manning the checkpoint, she cannot help but see people, not danger as the army wants:
“…I would still only notice what I happened to notice. This was because I couldn’t realize I was a soldier. I thought I was still a person.”
And when reservists are called up:
“They wore green, they had guns on their backs, but they weren’t soldiers. they had beards, long hair, jobs in factories, jobs elsewhere, mortgages, wives, children. Reservists, they went fast in that war – not the fastest, but they went fast.”
As army life starts to grind Lea down, we see more humanity, not less. When she goes out to the desert to urinate behind a dune and a civilian follows her to hassle and harangue her, he does not “catch her with her pants down”, but the patch of wet sand stands between them:
“When I lowered my eyes and stood without words, I saw that the fruit flies swarmed over the wetness”
Boianjiu describes the transitions to adulthood and the struggle to regain basic feeling in civilian life in completely unique ways. When Lea reaches the end of her service she struggles to imagine the future:
“She guess she must want a family or to get into a good school, but she guessed it from the data around her. She did not feel the want herself.”
The strength of these stories is how they thrive in the everyday. These are everyday women leading what is for Israelis everyday lives, but Boianjiu brings them to life with brilliantly sardonic turns of phrase, and pure attitude:
“Maybe trouble isn’t something you do, it is something you are.”
And these three women are trouble, for themselves and others.
Read this book for the way Boianjiu finds beauty in the mundane, everyday detail of military life:
“On her way back to the caravan, grasshoppers were catching their reflections in the gasoline pools that had formed from all the weapon cleanings, and plunging into them.”
Nor does she shy away from the dark side of Israeli society, human trafickking, marital violence and racism are dealt with subtly but directly.
For example, the little hints of the racism against Jews from North Africa, are not overpowering, and the characters do not let them dominate their story:
“There was one cook, the oldest of all the soldiers, a twenty-seven-year-old man from a kibbutz in the desert who used to make ha-ha-angry jokes at Mom all the time and say her skin was dark as an old chocolate cake or shit, and that she should not be allowed in his dining room because it was a health risk either way, and who gave her kisses on her neck and hard-boiled eggs he had left over.”
Few books succeed so well at speaking to the reader in their character’s voices the way this one does.
3. Dorthe Nors (Denmark)
Perhaps the most original and playful work of literature in recent years, ‘ Minna needs a rehearsal space / Karate Chop‘ produce pastoral scenes of modern life, told in very sparse, unadorned prose that lays bare everyday life with a simultaneous sense of humour, respect and irony. These are stories about the small towns and small people you won’t see on TV (except maybe reality TV).
The short texts take on cancer, bullying, domestic violence, depression, and internet addiction unsparingly, compellingly getting straight to the heart of the matter without ceremony.
Dorthe Nors has a brilliant, sympathetic eye for the seedy sides of life, like when she describes the town drunks:
“Like rooks, they tended to attract each other so that certain parts of the town or clusters of people with indistinct a pronunciation and chinking shopping bags.”
This has been pitched as a book for the digital age, for those with short attention spans thanks to the internet. It has been published very originally by Pushkin Press, with one longer novella on one side, and a series of short stories on the other (hence the cover).
That novella is poetically composed purely of one-liners, a conceit that works brilliantly in depicting loneliness in the digital age. In The Guardian, Nors describes it as “a novel in headlines”. The composer, Minna “is alone but surrounded”, starts by being dumped by text message, which spurs her to go to an island to escape city life:
Minna has gotten Lars to elaborate on his text.
Lars has written, but I’m not really in love with you
Lars has always understood how to cut to the chase
Minna can’t ring anymore out of him
Lars is a wall
Lars is a porcupine
The stream of headlines gives a simple story and great pace, and a gentle irony to the simple annoyance of life, like bumping into annoying people you don’t want to talk to:
“Disappointment inhabits her mind like rainy weather”
is immediately followed by
“Minna really wants an asshole filter”.
4. Zee Edgell (Belize)
Set in modern Belize, ‘The Festival Of San Joaquin’ book is another hidden gem from the flawless Caribbean Writers Serieswhich exposes a world beyond the tourist photos that most people think of.
Sadness drips from every page. The story jumps back and forth between different scenes in a tragic life of a woman just released from jail after killing her violent, alcoholic husband.
It is a hard read because the sheer force of emotions, delivered in simple, unadorned prose just takes your breath away as the hero, Luz Marina (meaning
light of the sea), struggles against poverty, class divisions and domestic violence, compelling you into deeper sympathy with the doomed effort to rebuild a life.
Luz Marina tells us how she saved a rich woman’s life and was sent to work for her — (how she saw the food on the table, feels hungry, but asks for nothing, and hides her dirty feet):
“I though of telling her that I wanted to be a teacher but I didn’t and the moment passed….My parents were hoping that with my help, Concha and Perla would go to high school.”
Zee Edgell weaves a subtle mix of politics and culture, full of rich
characters and haunting family histories, with religion and superstition intermingling, especially around the festival:
“A house, it is said here in San Joaquin, has, depending on the circumstances surrounding its construction, the power of destroying the families who live in it.”
Zee Edgell, journalist, professor, activist, has written a tragic account of lives destroyed by alcohol and poverty that is breathtaking: you literally need to pause for breath at times.
5. Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia)
“Living is dangerous these days.”
Last week Ethiopia declared a state of emergency, making it a good time to read ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, about a country slowly slipping into brutality, and how ordinary people are driven to resistance or are broken by it, set in Addis Ababa during a military coup of 1974.
This beautiful book starts gently from the perspective of Emperor Haile Selassie as his reign ends and of one family as their normal life slowly crumble but takes on a breathless pace as the military regime tightens its grip on the contrary.
In the most brutal and powerfully written parts the father of the family, Hailu, to whom we have been introduced as a dignified, caring and peaceful doctor, is tortured – we see how soul and body are broken, only to be salvaged in the final pages. What we see are perfectly measured lines (and it’s not easy to write torture scenes without going in to far in either direction clinical or abstract) that show how the rational mind is slowly worn down.
The writing deals with the brutality of dictatorship with delicate subtlety. As when people waiting outside the jail to see their loved ones within, when someone arrives to turn themselves in with her suitcase:
She tottered on high heels.
“They told me to turn myself in. How do I get in?” she said.
A sympathetic murmur lifted from the crowd. They cleared her path to the door.
The young woman went to the door and began to knock.
“Why are you here?” The security guard asked. “Don’t you know what they do?”
“My husband is inside,” the young woman said. “They told me that if I didn’t come, they’d kill him.” She bit her lip. “I don’t know what he did. “
Then time seems to stand still:
…they watched the sunburn pale, then yellow, red and gold in a darkening horizon. Then the front door swung open just long enough for three soldiers to grab the young woman and drag her inside.
Mengiste brings us along the part of a young man – the doctor’s son Dawit – from optimism to activism to violence – with sympathy but also honesty about his flaws. From the early excitement of a protest marcher to his early encounters with death:
“One day, he would tell his father this: that the eyes die first, that we make our way to dust and ash blindly. Dawit would tell of the night he learned of this, the night they found the still breathing woman by the road, her broken bones and open wounds covered in grass and dirt.”
I won’t spoil it, but Dawit then engages in a unique, gruesome yet incredibly beautiful act of resistance against the brutal dictatorship.
This is one of those novels that can make a remote moment of history personal and poignant in a way that history cannot.
Mengiste melds rich symbolism with hard facts that add colour to how a brutal regime takes shape:
“There was a new jail rising on the horizon near his home, a slab of concrete and steel carved into the forest where Dawit was once played amongst tall trees and thick grass.”
How people turn against each other like the informers of the police station when one brother goes to find his little newspaper-selling brother — innocent but taken away — and the policeman assumes he is just another informer:
“If you want to report someone just drop the name in the box over there.” He pointed to a square white metal box near the entrance.
A tiny detail but so sinister, typical of a book that depicts darkness falling upon all its characters, and across an entire society that to this day is yet to fully recover.
6. Faiza Guene (France)
Set in the contemporary Parisian suburbs, Some Dream for Fools tells a much more mundane and genuine story of the banlieues than the violent cliches of the news.
Guene tells a soulful tale of dead-beat, no-prospect life in the Parisian periphery, and its accompanying struggles with bureaucracy, violence and racism, told with a brilliant, raging flippancy. The protagonist, an Algerian immigrant, moves through service jobs while caring for her disabled father and trying to keep her younger brother out of trouble.
It is at its most poignant when describing the small injustices, the humiliations of migrants reapplying for a residence permit, queueing from 5 AM and still waiting all day for their turn:
An old man, a Malian I believe, missed his turn because he didn’t recognise his name. The women called Mr. Wakeri, once, twice, three times before moving without any qualms to the next person.
He had been waiting there since dawn, and his name was Mr. Bakari, and that is why he did not get up. Somebody told him in bambara that they had certainly already called his name, she tried to negotiate his way to the counter, but it was too late.
He had to come back the next day.”
The heroine starts spending time in a cafe where the waitress sees her writing her diary and thinks she is a writer, and asks her what she writes about:
“Its mostly social stories, I would say. The stories of people who slave away because society hasen’t given them a choice, who try to find a way out and know a little bit of happiness.”
“And that interests people?”