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Dear Readers,

I will in the future of this blog have a “Buddy read” about the Italian novel “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante with Missmagicgirl. I will later give more dates and details.

I will try to review “Secrets” by Jaqueline Wilson as promised next month.

Take care/ Maaretta

Dear readers, I joined a group on Goodreads called Top 5 Wednesday. It was created by a bookblogger and booktuber called Ginger Lainey, and is now hosted by Sam from the Youtube channel “Thoughts on Tomes”. Check Sam´s stuff out, she´s smart and classy. The topic which engaged me is a couple of weeks old but I was inspired to write about it regardless: novels that deal with disturbing issues.

1.“Holy Week” by Jerzy Andrejevski: This polish novel was published in 1947, and tells the story of a woman of Jewish descent named Irena who during WWII seeks refuge in hiding at her former lover Jan and his new wife´s home. What follows is the haunting anxiety of waiting and precarious hiding, while the trio discusses gentile privilege, hopes and cynicism in the face of war and genocide. While Irena revolves around her anger towards a society that is determined to wipe her kind out, the wife of the hiding couple follows a different path of denial as she is pregnant and therefore can´t afford to believe that the Germans will never leave Poland. Jan, numbed by events is clueless in the face of the horrors of the regime, but he knows he must go on hiding Irena. The book, though occurring in a horrid past, really revolves around issues that resonate even today and has one of the most brutal, heartbreaking endings of all time. This forgotten gem of a novel not only discusses what it meant in those times to have privilege in the face of the ultimate oppressed, but also discusses the religious side of anti-Semitism and even touches upon the sexual assaults that Jewish women experienced during the war. The novel, while keeping the reader in a tight grip, makes the reader continually hold their breath to find out what happens to Irena and the polish couple hiding her. “Holy Week” was a pioneering work, and should be rediscovered by new readers.

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2. “The Hunger Angel” by Herta Müller: This novel is Nobel Prize winning Herta Müller´s magnum opus. It tells the story of a young man who is sentenced to a labor camp during Ceausescu´s regime in Romania. The man endures harsh, soul crushing labor while being essentially starved, like all of the other prisoners at the camp. The man, it is implied, is sentenced to the camp due to being of the German speaking population in Romania, much like many prisoners who find their sentences as the ultimate ghastly act of the absurd and arbitrary. Müller, through haunting poetic language and simple but deep symbols, exposes the reader to the constant hunger, the cruelty, and dehumanization that the labor camps were. Müller´s inspiration for the novel came from the witnesses that her own mother experienced, who was a survivor of such a camp, and a single other close friend who provided her with the majority of the research. “The Hunger Angel” is not only heartbreaking, but uncomfortably real. A must read.

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3. “Native Son” by Richard Wright: This novel is about a young man named Bigger Thomas, who is a disillusioned black youth during the US´s era of segregation. Published in 1940, the novel tackles the stereotype of the dangerous black man and, through its shocking but subtle social commentary, deconstructs the racist caricature imposed on people. Bigger ends up killing two women, the first by accident in a state of panic, the second one in an act of expression of his rage. The novel digs into Bigger´s mind and psyche, showing how systematic racism effects and damages a person. “Native Son” shows alcoholism, poverty and the horrors of condescending language that is tough to read, but is a document of an uneasy time and an exploration of how society creates its own bad guys.

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4. “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov: A classic novel about a man who falls in love with a 12-year old girl, and then proceeds to first marry the child’s mother, only to (possibly) kill the mother in order to rape the child. One of the most beautifully written, but also wildly misunderstood, books to ever be written, “Lolita” is from a manipulative, sadistic mans point of view. The novel is filled with nightmare-like context, making the reader squirm while reading it and creates a space in the narrative where you feel like a actual sociopath is sitting next to you, explaining away his atrocities, tempting you to believe him, but every once in a while his narration slips and the true horror is shown. One of the most chilling scenes is when Dolores (the girl’s real name) sees a police car and tries to escape, only for Humbert (the man) to blackmail her into silence. Worth a read, but disturbing.

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5. “Prince de la rue” (“The prince of the street”) by Dominique Mwankumi: This is a picture book aimed for toddler aged children about two homeless young boys in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of The Congo. The story is based on the experience of many children in Mr. Mwankumis homeland. Shégué is a young, inventive small child (around 8-9) who makes a living by using thrown away objects and trash to make toys, which he sells. It is mentioned early that his parents simply didn´t want him and since his early childhood he has been living on the streets. The picture book has a clear, sad tone with beautiful, gentle drawings that feel like an art museum of its own. The book follows the boy’s survival tactics and the constant struggle to avoid adults who wish to harm them. Yet, despite this cruel situation, the boys strive to overcome their setbacks and the story implies that one day their luck may turn. A sad tale, but important and with fantastic art.

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A picture from the book

There´s my picks. Anyone else read a really good book with a really tough subject? Comment below!

Trigger warning: This post will have discussions of sexual abuse. Reader precaution advised.

This is my third post for Child Abuse Awareness Month.

My first introduction to Dr. Patton was when I read her piece in the Washington Post, “Why is America celebrating the beating of a black child?”. This article cast a critical eye on the heaps of praise a woman got for forcefully getting her son to leave a protest in Baltimore. Taken with Patton´s arguments, I ordered a copy of her memoir which delved into the subject of child abuse from the perspective of her own survival of brutal physical abuse. Patton is known for her work with children´s rights issues as well as race, which her memoir discusses in great lengths.

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The memoir opens up with college student Stacey suffering from flashbacks of abuse and deciding that the means to end her suffering was to kill the people responsible for the abuse, her adoptive parents. However, this plan did not succeed as she forgets to add bullets to her gun, and decides to abandon the plan. Motivated by the memories of her own past, and the desperate act that she felt pushed into is followed with the adult Doctor Patton’s research into the institution of American slavery; this begins the memoirs journey. Stacey Patton recalls all the times her foster mother beat her, with telephone cords and twitches; a pain so great she often thought she “will surely never survive this”. Such beatings were consistent through her childhood, with some of the beatings going so far as the young Stacey having to go to the emergency room.

When five years old, the young Stacey Patton was removed from foster care and adopted by a couple. The mother turned out to be an irritable, constantly angry woman who beat Stacey for the slightest and absent provocation. The memoir captures the sorrows and fears that abuse has on the mind; Stacey recalls crying herself to sleep many nights and being terrified when her adoptive father informs her will be late home as the absent father means she will be completely at the mercy of the violent whims of the mother. Ms. Patton mentions more than once that as a child, she feared that she might even end up dying one day as a result from the violence. These are feelings and emotions that many abuse survivors will recognize and the anxieties of a child locked in such a situation are beautifully, heartbreakingly captured.

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The scenes of physical abuse are not just directed towards a young Stacey. The memoir recounts how other members of her adoptive family beat other children for simply playing/pretending to be preachers or how she witnesses a classmate being beaten by his mother for calling a white girl “honky”. Even at an early age Stacey questioned these actions, where we can see the beginning of the seeds to her later activism.

Her years in school were tumultuous and troubled, since the teachers only saw Ms. Patton as a slow child, to which Patton states: “Let me tell you that your mind is changed if you are beaten every single day”. The text is tragic in its description of abuse, but what makes “That mean old yesterday” a diamond in the rough is that Ms. Patton not only details her years of abuse, but also finds a link to her situation and to the horrendous legacy that American history has had on its own disenfranchised people, with special concentration on the Black American community. Using the springboard of her own brutalization Ms. Patton delves into the abuse of children and offers a critique of societal norms when it comes to violence and children.

The memoir is about the double oppression and marginalization of being a black child. When speaking of her adoptive family, where her silence and capitulation are enforced, the young Stacey lives with both fear of abuse from the hands of the mother, and a terror of being abandoned by her. Stacey as a young girl learns from her parents that her thoughts and experiences are secondary to the adults. Adults are the ones that call all the shots. The memoir discusses how violence seems common place in the house holds around her. Which through the books narration on the history of slavery gives a certain historical explanation to the violence. Institutional racism and racial violence has forced Black Americans to live in the constant shadow of white terrorism. Patton argues that this leads to a mindset that is reflected in that the parents try to protect their children by giving rough upbringings to make sure their children won´t end up dead or hurt by white supremacy. two running themes in the memoir are best expressed in a scene where Stacey and her foster mother visit a hair salon.

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While the women there all critique white paretns for being too “soft” on their children, and explaining how beating their children will ultimately protect them, a single black woman offers a counter opinion. She expresses that this rationalization dates back to the days of slavery, where slaves beat their own children in hopes it would spare them from the punishments from the slave owners. The woman explains that her own parents did not use corporal punishment on her, which shows that this kind of upbringing is possible. The salons other women silence and dismiss her, but the young Stacey feels hope after hearing her words. For the first time Stacey witnesses that someone is actually speaking up for children.

In that scene, Patton illustrates what the whole book is about: how history has shaped and still plagues us today, how children are marginalized and how, without knowing it, speaking up on injustice might spark someone to reconsider their views, to inspire someone or give comfort to someone. The scene greatly shows that speaking up is worth it, even if it seems like the opposite.

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The most disturbing parts of the memoir are however the scenes where Stacey is sexually abused. The mother had an unhealthy obsession with the small child´s genitals, having rituals where she “inspected” and touched the girls private parts. This trauma is further shown when the young Stacey tries to insert a tampon for the first time and has horrible flashbacks to the mothers unwanted touching. Later when Stacey, after hearing a testimony from another young girl who has been molested, states that no one could really understand what it felt like, “when someone treats your own private parts as if they are not your own, but someone else´s playthings”; this line is one of the most poignant, heartbreaking ways of writing about the damage done from sexual abuse that I have ever read.

Ms. Patton states in all honesty that it took her years to realize that she had been sexually abused and in her memoir she is shown denying the abuse more than once. This form of sexual abuse is one that is not often discussed or talked about; that of when the molester of a child is female. And in addition, when the violating touching doesn´t seem to come from pedophilic desires, but from the non-sexual desire to completely control, humiliate and/or hurt the child. Sexual abuse of children takes many shapes and forms, and this form where the motivation is other than desire is one that should be more discussed and talked about. Some parents, in their tyranny, go so far to control and frightened their children that they demand control over everything and therefore they commit illicit touching.

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As a final note, a fair warning that the book dives into slavery and the history is heavily disturbing. However the importance of speaking of these crimes cannot be underestimated; racism against Black Americans is so deeply rooted that even today, violence against Black Americas perpetrated by White Americans is at horrific proportions’, which unlawful killings by policemen and mass incarnation being a huge part of everyday racism. To discuss race in America, one must be honest with the bloody history. The past must be visited to move forward.

Ms. Patton depicts her college years as a place of learning but also a place of sorrow. There she for the first time clearly encountered everyday racism. The white girls Stacey shared her dorms with belittled and verbally humiliated blacks, her literary and historical canon was entirely white, and her teachers were not always varying of any racist comments the white students made. Stacey went into a depression. The turning point was when she one day opened up to one kind teacher in which she was able to find a kindred spirit who willingly listened to her point of view.

As a reader, I was moved by how just one teacher could offer so much comfort by just listening and believing the struggles Stacey was going through. Even if the memoir didn´t state this, it seems that if anything, sometimes when people of color speak out and talk about their experiences with racism the right thing to do is to listen and believe them. Your place is not to tell them they are overreacting or misunderstanding, your place is to show support. Something so simple, yet so rarely seen.

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As a last small note, the book also shares Stacey´s skeptical views on religion and on god. In the memoir she identifies as non-believing. It´s always great to come across books with skeptics and other non-believers; if any of you readers can recommend me any other memoirs with skeptic/non-believing narrators please tell me.

A fantastic memoir, with lots of provocative and insightful views into many important, complex issues. “That mean old yesterday” is a sharp critic on all forms of violence against children, as well as a explosion of the poison and destruction that white supremacy and racism has had on black lives, destroying the myth of there being no constitutional racism anymore. Check it out, it´s more than worth it.

Stacey Patton also has a website about alternative parenting ways free from violence. It´s called “Spare the kids”, go check it here.

Note/Spoiler alert!: If you have not read this book, It is my sincere suggestion that you should read this fine novel first before reading this post. It is a book that´s fantastic with a surpising and well done plot twist.This is also my second post for Child Abuse Awareness Month.

Lygia Bojunga, like Guus Kuijer in my previous post regarding child abuse, has won the Astrid Lingren Memorial Prize. Bojunga was born and lives in Brazil, and received the Alma award in 2004. Her books are petite, as with ”Seis Vezes Lucas” being discussed here, and the novel ”My friend the painter”, barely reaching the length of a hundred pages. Her main motives in her writing is seeking out a strong solidarity with children, and questioning “adult” society . She mixes a stark, harsh realism with the recurrent sense of wonder of childhood, with often clear criticism of a society which forgets and ignores the fragility of the young.

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Lygia Bojunga

Aiming to capture the child´s perspective, Bojunga formulates a prose which sounds believable for the young while detailing a story coherent and focused in its intent to interrogate the adult social world. In ”Seis Vezes Lucas” Bojunga delightfully captures just the right tone in the experiences and feelings of the six years old Lucas. His voice, actions, considerations and mannerisms are evocative of childhoods groping, and the young protagonist Lucas stands in the novel as a true personality in his own right. He is more than a the stereotypical little boy, he is an individual.

The form of child mistreatment that Lucas is subjected to is active emotional abuse which consist of belittling, mockery and erasure of personhood, as well as a general neglect. Lucas’s selfish and spiteful father abandons the responsible role of parent and nurturer, turning instead to hostile abuse. The mother enables the horrors meted out to Lucas by the father despite it being clearly destructive for the growing Lucas.

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From the very first chapter we are shown the fearful abandonment of the young Lucas by the father for all night soirees. When Lucas confronts his mother about the fears, and terrors that are apart of the long nights alone, pleading to be allowed to accompany his parents for just one night, his fears are causally glossed over in their hurry to leave for the night and the only concern is that the father hates having to wait. The parents then returning very late is however no relief for the anxious Lucas, but another horror as it is filled with a continuous fight due to the father´s constant philandering leading inevitably to the father violently bellowing and belittlement of both the mother and Lucas. Enclosing the young Lucas and the mother as “against him” the father scripts the young Lucas as anything but ”manly”. A tirade continually pointed at the brittle youngster.

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Lucas has found some relief from the misery of this abuse in a children´s art class where the frail child has developed a formative crush on the teacher. She teaches Lucas that good art pieces have to express, in some way, the soul of the creator artist. Therefore Lucas begins an exploration of his dismay which results in a tiny mask. Lucas begins an exploration of his heart and fears in the speaking of his very own art.

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On his birthday, Lucas ´father goes out and finds a stray dog, and gives it to Lucas as a present. Lucas is instantly enamored with the dog as in the long and forbidding nights of solitude he has often dreamed of a pet to dissipate his loneliness and fears. He and the dog soon become inseparable, and even in her dismissals of the child the mother notes grudgingly how the dogs presence is helping Lucas to become brave and independent. Unfortunately, this turns the father´s irritable focus upon the dog and a grand dislike begins to ferment.

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The focus of the dog, and Lucas’s feelings of connection and emotions to the dog, become the beginnings of a tipping point for Lucas in the novel. As the family one day is driving out of town for a short visit, the father suddenly becomes so angry at the dog that he stops the car and forcefully throws the dog out, leaving the beloved dog behind. Lucas enters a state of shock, but a budding distance is created in Lucas from the father and a founding ground is created to give Lucas the possibility of growth.

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The second tipping point is when the father begins an affair with Lucas art teacher. While the father has previously mocked Lucas ´artistic interest, he fakes interest later to be able to seduce and begin an affair with Lucas teacher. Lucas ends up witnessing parts of the seduction, that pushes him to verbalize in his mind what he has long denied to himself; his mounting rejections of the verbal violence and abuse embodied in the father.

Lucas grows to the realization that it “is not fun to like daddy anymore”. Due to the fathers belittlement and violent rejections, Lucas has always been pushed forcefully to a distance with his father, but due to the twin betrayals of the father in abandoning the comfort and safe haven of the dog, and then the seduction of his teacher (whom the father knows Lucas´ has a crush on but still goes ahead with the affair anyway), Lucas admits to himself that it is difficult for him to like his own father. This insight of rejection of the cruelty of the father is hard fought in Lucas however, leading to a great load of shame and a wonder by Lucas about his abnormality.

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“Lonely child” by Emma Jane Beech

Bojunga masterfully says so much in so little, in a simplicity that is complex. Lucas´ thoughts are of shame for realizing that his father is less than agreeable. However, as it is with many victims of abuse (emotional or any other kind) Lucas feels shame for something that is not his fault. This is due to the taboo of speaking of less than ideal, less than loving families. There´s also the fact that children´s thoughts and emotions are often looked down on, not seen as worth notifying. Lucas is especially been told he is not important, and, due to the father overruling anything Lucas ´says and his mother constantly prioritizing the father over Lucas and herself, Lucas is positioned to reject himself instead of beginning the building of the personality he will become.

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The ending is particularly heartbreaking, but yet quite empowering. The mother, tired of the father´s affairs, decides to move away. This delights Lucas, in that he won´t have to be near his father anymore. Unfortunately the mother becomes too fearful of being alone and due to this phobia moves back to her husband after an extremely short separation. Wondering if the affair with the teacher was a precipitation of his mothers leaving, Lucas comes to find a web of lies and deceits his father lives and imposes, along with his aggressions, on all around him. His returning mother is told by the father that he will end his philandering and become a faithful husband, but to the art teacher he has given the impression that he loves her in return and will leave his wife. Gathering his feelings and beliefs finally into himself, Lucas calls his mother out on once again prioritizing the father over him and concludes that adults don´t make such great decisions. As he puts it: ”I thought that you adults knew better”.

This somber ending, tells of a violence and deceit which must be rejected. The constant deceptions and ruthless bullying are shown as unforgivable. The child most certainly does not have to love or like their parent, in this case, and even in doing so circumvents what will make them possible to become as independent adults themselves. Lucas concludes that his parents are neither rational nor kind, and even if he does not state so explicably, Bojunga tells the reader, through Lucas´actions, that he has found it impossible to like his father, and that it is okay to feel this way. Lucas may be too young to change his situation, yet he can still empower himself by knowing that his parents are in the wrong in the way he has been treated. This rejection is the true path to adulthood, and a rational world.

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Many adults have noted the dark tones of the book, and have considered it untenable for children. However, I strongly disagree. What this book tells children is necessary and, ultimately, can be comforting. If a child is a victim of emotional abuse, they have a right to be displeased and that love is not a mandatory of anyone. By giving children an option instead of telling them to always blindly love and honor, Bojunga´s work empowers children who are stuck. Bojunga´s novel, ”Seis Vezes Lucas”, tells verbally bullied and neglected children that they have a right to be angry, a right to see the fault – because it is true, if the feeling of liking your parent ”is no longer fun” for a long period of time, that is no shame on the child. Despite its gloom, Seis Vezes Lucas is a powerful, helpful book for children who´s needs are too often not considered. A unique, honest and important masterpiece for children and for adults.

(This is Part 1 in the theme month of Child Abuse Awareness)

Guus Kuijer is a respected children´s books author who has won several awards, including the prestigious Astrid Lingren memorial prize. His bibliography includes novels for both young and old, and is a household name for exploring faith, multiculturalism and dementia in his works. His magnum opus however is “The Book of Everything”, about a young boy named Thomas who, like his mother, is ruthlessly and routinely physically abused by his zealot father.

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Guus Kuijer

The novel is slim, yet captures and intertwines many issues in a complex manor. The main focus of the story is the devastating effect physical abuse has on young Thomas and his mother. The novel chronicles their struggle to survive in a violent home and their forlorn attempts to overcome the mental prison the father has created. The book also shows the problematic aspects of loyalty inside families while baring witness to the strengths of such loyalty as well and illustrates the residency of the unimaginable power positive communities can bestow. Kuijer, while following this predominate story of abuse, additionally, tackles the issues of superficial appearances and our uncritical responses in a tangent thread which the story details with Thomas coming to different realizations regarding his thinking towards many of the characters in the novel. As Thomas grows in the storyline he comes to see many people around him in a completely different light than what he does at the novels beginning. By combining all of these themes, Kuijer paints a breathtaking and moving story of how, through courage and altruism, one can use the willpower and thinking to right the wronged.

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From the first chapter Kuijer presents us with Thomas who is often and regularly beaten by his father for so-called sins. While this is devastating for Thomas, he is much more concerned about his mother, who is as often beaten for her “sins”. From the very first pages, we are pitted into Thomas’s deep despair and abject feelings of powerless to save himself or his mother and the first chapter ends on a prayer where Thomas in his devotion pleads to god: “I hope you exist. He (the father) hit mother just now and it was not for the first time”.

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As the story unfolds we discover more about nine year old Thomas and the 50´s Dutch town he lives in. Thomas is in love with a teen girl who is often ostracized for having a fake leg and he is very much afraid of his neighbor, whom the children have gossiped about being a witch. However one day, after being beaten senseless by his father the previous night, Thomas happens upon his “witchy” neighbor and spontaneously offers to help her carry her bags. This leads to the surprising discovery that she is in fact a kind and generous person and one who, in her kindness, introduces Thomas to the realm of books. After establishing a friendship, the woman asks Thomas if he is beaten at home. Thomas, out of fear and confused loyalty, quickly denies this well-founded charge. Kuijer in this scene illustrates a sad yet very realistic event for the abused. Where the vast chaos of the abused subjects mind, created by confusions of the ever present trauma of violence, fuses with the constant fear and hate with an immeasurably, and horribly misplaced, loyalty to the abuser. Thomas´ emotions are a bundle of self-blame, anxiety and hopelessness.

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The father (per classical abuser manipulations) upon finding out Thomas has found a passage outside of his control, condemns Thomas’s reading of books (other than the bible) and demands he revoke the companionship of the neighbor, whom he sees as a “dirty communist”. Yet the real tale of the neighbor is whispered to Thomas in the absence of the horrific father when the mother recounts how the woman had hidden people from the Nazis during WWII and grants Thomas access and encouragement to foster the friendship. Even in the despairing prison of abuse the mother encourages Thomas in the appreciation and harboring of the altruistic, and that she struggles against the onslaught of destroying violence to give alternative life advice to her children differing from the father´s absolutism. Her bravery shines multiple times as beacons of hope in the dark cruelty, where she repeatedly attempts to defend Thomas from her husband´s aggression. Kuijer’s novel is continually punctuated with scenes like these, describing the ghastly nuances used in abuse and in fleshing out a subtle horror and hope in Thomas´ character as well as his mother´s.

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The Book of Everything”, though looking appallingly askance at the violent religious fundamentalism of the father, is embedded with strong sacred elements combined with magical realism; for instance throughout the entirety of the book Thomas witnesses odd things that resemble the plagues of Egypt. Whether these are real or not are dubious, adding an unsettling but lingering touch to questioning the reader about its authenticity. As with most classic magic realism tradition, the fantastical is strongly symbolic and reflective of the strong emotional situation that Thomas is in while, as occurrences of events, play a titanic task in giving Thomas psychological strength.

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But the real emotive power of this novel lies in its climax, where Kuijer illustrates the possibility of depowerment of the tyrannical abuser and the gaining confidences of the suppressed and abused. From the onset of the novel the character of Margot, Thomas´s teenage sister, is seen as “stupid”, however this assessment comes to a startling change when her character takes surprising action. Late in the book once again we find the vicious repetitions of the father threatening Thomas with violence, yet now the simple Margot dives at her father and holding a knife to his throat, exclaiming: “Now I have had enough. I´ve had it up to my throat with this. You always say mum and Thomas are bad, but you´re wrong, they are more than kind, but you are not kind. Don´t think I won´t do it, I’m just like you, I am not nice neither”. With this final desperate act we come to understand, finally, that throughout trails of the family the supposedly simple Margot has been persistently challenging the brutality of the father in subtle ways, and now, when all else has failed, she goes to the final resource of physical in a scene that will have the reader cheering her on. Through this instance of Margot’s rage and agency, the mother finds an inner strength, and she, together with the kindly neighbor, arrange for a celebratory party later that day. The mother, motivated by Margot´s counterexample, rejects now all of the father´s opinions, manipulations, enticements, and lastly the importance of his person: “´But what about me? Yelled dad from upstairs. ´What am I suppose to do tonight?´. He got no reply”. Margot’s act gives the mother a chance to wrench herself and Thomas from the obliteration of the father and to become a part of a whole community which calls to them. The community opens them up to new possibilities, a place to become oneself with others who encourage and, as a final nurturing, a place which will protect her, and her family from the violence of the husband. Through new found friendships and community, the mother and Thomas rekindle there lust for life.

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A novel of immanent power, this book for older children is a MUST read for even adults. It´s a portrait of the damage of abuse, but also of survival and love. “The Book of Everything” is above all, a story of two souls who not only survive abuse but find the power to live on and embrace new changes.

Since April is considered a national “Child Abuse Prevention Month”, I have decided to dedicate the following blog post this month to novels that discuss physical abuse aimed at children and teenagers. Three of the books are aimed at children, while one is a memoir meant for adults. The books I´ll write reviews for and discuss are the following:

“The book of everything” by Guus Kuijer,which tackles domestic abuse where both children and women are subjected to this horror.

“Seis veces Lucas” by Lygia Boujunga, which tackles emotional abuse.

“That mean old yesterday: a memoir” by Stacey Patton, which tackles child physical and sexual abuse as well as racism and the legacy of slavery and other racial oppression.

“Secrets” by Jacqueline Wilson, which tackles both physical and emotional abuse.

Feel free to tell me if there´s any books or films I should look into regarding this subject!

Best wishes/ Maaretta

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Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American writer who has made a name for herself with short story collections and novels. She won an award for her short story collection “A Thousand years of Good prayer” and made her Scandinavian breakthrough with the novel “The Vacurents”. Moving to the US when she was 18 years old, with the intent to continue her studies in science fields, Yiyun Li discovered her love of literature there instead. Ms. Li has stated that a good practice for aspiring writers is to read at least one classic novel per year. And even if this story has no real importance to this blog post, I can´t help but mention this endearing story: when Ms. Li was visiting Stockholm´s International writer’s scene in 2013, she mentioned that while growing up her mother was a complete tiger mum. After explaining to the Swedish audience what this meant, the interviewer asked if she was a tiger mum to her children. Ms. Li replied: “Oh no, I´m too easy going. I´m more of a chicken mum; I let my kids run free and make their own path”.

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In “A Thousand years of Good prayers” Yiyun Li casts Chinese people as the majority of her protagonists (and one Mongolian person), a modus operandi in her fiction writing. This ethnicity though is greatly varied, as it is with the lived experience of any group. Some of them are people that live in the more rural sides of China, some have immigrated to the United States (one story features a gay man who has sought out asylum in the US) and some live in the large cities of China. The stories touch on many different issues such as disability, estrange families, the stigma of supposedly having lost ones virginity before marriage, and being disillusioned by corrupt politics. The running theme is Chinese culture, society, the personal and family dynamics. While I enjoyed many of the stories, one stood out to me due to a particularly interesting subject matter. The story “Son” is about a mother-son relationship where the son is an atheist and his mother has just converted to Christianity, and is a bit too enthusiastic about her new found beliefs.

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The narration follows the Son´s perspective. It is his thoughts that the reader gets to know intimately, and his loving, but frustrated, feelings towards his elderly, widowed mother.  The son is, on top of their different relations to religious belief, gay and has never come out to his mother. He has always wanted to be more of a dutiful son and not disappoint her. His closeted state related to his sexuality makes sense in the context of growing up in the 1980´s China, as homosexuality was illegal in the country until 1997 and considered a mental illness until 2001. His mother, enmeshed in the societal beliefs of the culture, has grown up with this conservative view on sexuality, and the son deems that his mother would especially condemn him now with added incentive of her new found religion.

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While the son hasn’t come out as gay to his mother, he has always been open about being an atheist. When the story begins, Li gives you the sense that this repudiation of religion is accepted by the mother until the advent of her recent conversion. Due to her new found faith, the mother is now quite insistent on converting her son as well, to which he responds more and more angrily as time goes on. While on the surface the son would come off as a stereotypical angry atheist, the story takes a deeper look behind what is fueling his angry reaction towards his mother. While he is trying to be dutiful and kind son, his mother is testing his patience by continually pushing her beliefs on him. On top of this, his mother´s behavior seems more than false to him, since he still holds resentment for her burning his bible when he was twelve years old – something the mother claims the father had forced her into.

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By balancing the son’s cynicism with the mothers naivety, the story asks hard moral questions. It is left to the reader to decide whether the mother was at fault for her behavior in her sons tween years, are if she is telling the truth. This antagonism between son and mother, hypocrisy and honesty, is for grounded in a scene where it is revealed that the mother pays two street children that (it is heavily implied) are clearly being exploited by an adult ringleader. The son sees them as cheating his mother, the mother sees possible conversion candidates, and the reader is questioned to regard the moral direction of two adults and their reply to child exploitation. Li shows us both characters motives and asks the reader if this was the right response or not. The reader is placed in a morally grey zone, motivating a consideration of our own beliefs and consequent actions.

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“Mother and son” by Hu Yongkai

Through the son´s point of view the reader also gets to see the story of his first crush at twelve, where he fell for a fellow schoolmate who it seemed returned his affections, but due to the intolerant environment neither one of them really wanted to admit the situation. Through just a few sentences Ms. Li paints a bittersweet tale of childhood wonder and first love, that was trapped in not being able to be confirmed but still cherished.

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The son´s atheism and cynicism however are the real star of this story. Usually writers would have these points of views be a straw argument, but the sons skeptical approach is often proven to have legitimacy. He points out that the so-called “catholic” church his mother attends is run by the government, which means that it is more than likely a place where sermon is full of propaganda. He wonders how his mother can easily defend herself for being previously strongly opposed to Christianity, and now strongly for it. He believes that people are feeble about their beliefs, that people are mostly fair weather believers, fickle in what they preach, and hypocritical in their actions, whether it be motivated by religion, culture, or politics. This narration is enjoyable not only because it embodies strong character building, but also because here we have a fair depiction of skepticism which yields a moral grappling with consistent ethical actions. What the son stands for gestates an indeterminate validity, whether we agree or not.

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What many atheist feel

“Son” shows us an atheist protagonist who is more than just an atheist, and not one without reason in an irrational world. Plus, his non-belief has only become an issue due to his mothers’ persistence in bringing it up.

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Traditional word for “Son” in Mandarin

 

A fine tale of family and lack of belief. “Son” by Yiyun Li is superb.

(Trigger warning for discussions of Child physical abuse and Mental Illness)

Elina Hirvonen is a Finnish writer and documentary filmmaker residing in Helsinki who has written three novels to date with her first foray into the literary world being nominated for the2003 Finlandia Literary Prize. Her latest novel, “Kun aika loppuu” (“When Time Ends”) was published in 2014, and has been getting prominent praise for her insightful grappling with a slew of difficult political and existential questions highlighted with frank considerations and bare depictions of often grim subject matters,  such as mass suicides. Her cultural work as a writer also includes numerous columns in major newspapers such as “Helsingin Sanomat” which have detailed and delved into such diverse subject matters as censorship, racism and even into the questions and struggles of writing itself. Notably, in an interview with the newspaper “Kodin kuvalehti”,  Hirvonen candidly discussed the myriad of normative social pressures applied to us all with her recounting of her teenage years under the constant stress of trying to be a straight A student and to be constantly perfect. This pressure also meant that she felt forced into being constantly polite and happy, which lead to self-harm; something that the adults circling around her and her anxiousness seemed oblivious to. Hirvonen has made a name for herself in her frankness in her opinions, telling her own story of mental health and last, but by no least, writing books that brutally show the dark side in everyday life. This brings us to the review of her debut novel, “When I Forgot”.

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When her debut was translated into English in 2009 the novel obtained a review in “The New York Times”, and was in 2014 translated into Swedish, where it saw an outpouring of favorable reviews from the Swedish literary press.  Both of these, along with being translated into Polish and other numerous languages, gave the book an international audience which is unusual for a Finnish Language novel and novelist. The story is a merger of narrative lines navigated between the course of a single day, and the exploration of memories triggered by its events. The plot is put into motion when Anna, a young woman, gets a phone call from her mother asking her to visit her brother in the psychiatric hospital in Helsinki. Anna is reluctant and expresses huge resentment towards her brother, stating her constant and adamant resolve to reject the company of her brother. This request for a visit to her brother unleashes memories of her first meeting of her soon to be American live-in boyfriend, and begins a mental wandering tracing the memory landscape of her childhood traumas.

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Exploring the terrain of her childhood Anna recalls the vicious and abusive actions her father lashed out onto her older brother, beating him savagely. It is not only physical abuse Anna remembers her father committing; he was also frequently cruel and dismissive, unreservedly malicious regarding the deadly spiral of Joona´s growing mental health problems, which in turn seem to be inexorably linked to the violence Joona suffered at the hands of his father. Even in the midst of this obvious abuse to her brother, the deadly dynamics of this abuse casts Anna in a web of insecurity mentally making her see herself as secondary to Joona. This lethal doubt of Anna is fueled as the fathers own violence towards Joona being spontaneous and unpredictable, which are followed by a discordant favoring of Joona. The father also insisted that the family just simply ignore his violent behavior, and its effects on Joona´s mental health. Anna´s pathway through her memories fills her with guilt, horror, and exhaustions in the web of violence and ignorance – they bring her to many times struggle with taking care for her ill brother.

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Original Finnish cover

Along with the strong narrative trail of weaving Anna’s past and present to explore her mental and moral struggles, the novel interestingly breaks this rotation of past and present in featured letters and papers Joona writes throughout his life, giving glimpses into his feelings of happiness, sadness and paranoia. And we find a added sphere of examination to Anna’s enclosure in the horrors of memory in Ian, her American boyfriend, who’s intersection with events entice another angle and question to the story .

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I´ll try not to spoil too much, so this review is going to focus more on the themes in this novel. A major themed explored is family dynamics and domestic abuse. Anna is haunted by the violence her father played out on the body and mind of her brother, which leads her to feel uncertain and axious about herself as a individual. This violent past also haunts Joona insistently, as explored in the narrative device of the biographical papers he writes as a child detailing his growing unstable mind. The descriptions of the assaults are graphic, which makes them all the more unsettling. Even more disturbingly, one assault occurs after Joona lights a small fire; Anna´s narration makes it clear that he starts the fire because of his mental health problems. Despite this behavior being motivated by the growing mental problems in Joona, the father still fails to recognize this action as a current in Joona’s declining mental condition and viciously beats Joona.

Elina Hirvonen explores the toxic series of abuse and mental degradation in this scene detailing the horrific enclosure of abuse and its social/behavioral ramifications where it is ignored that the child´s disadvantages prove that their actions are out of their control, an aspect unhappily not often investigated in stories and media. “When I Forgot” explores societies silences around this aspect in child abuse and brings to light the ableism that sadly exist more than often in domestic abuse causes. Hirvonen stands on steady narrative grounds here as statistics actually have shown that a large percentage of children with disabilities and illnesses (whether physical or mental) are in fact more likely to face excessive violence in home environments.

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Painting by Bruno Amadio

As hinted from this direction of the novels  themes comes also a nuanced examination into  the despairing struggles  of being mentally ill, and the conflicting feelings tormenting the loved ones operating around the individual with these dreadful battles. Joona, through the letters he writes, illustrates the fear and suspicion people around him express towards him in the midst of his battles of the mind. These letters describe a fierce rejection for openly and honestly admitting his health issues, both in dating scenes and in contact with his landlords. Anna on the other hand despairs that her brother may never have a normal life or even his own family. When others recognize Joona´s struggles with his mental issues, his opinions are directly discounted, his thoughts dismissed, and his personhood ignored. He is branded only as a mad man outside of community and the social. This aspect was particularly interestingly discussed in the novel, since Joona has legitimate concerns and thoughts about the world, but whenever his ideas or desires are expressed they are considered irrational at best, and nonsense in the usual case. However the mode of the narrative, and the line of thinking detailed in the novel, shows the reader that similar expressions, when stated by the “normal” actor, are taken seriously and considered evidently rational.  Hirvonen plays here with double standards. Actions/thoughts, even if irrational, are taken more seriously if we view the person as sane, if we don´t we dismiss the very same actions and thoughts.

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Polish cover

Anna throughout the entire novel struggles with her role as caretaker for Joona. While usually these plotlines paint the ill loved one solely as a burden, Joona is explored in the novel in a much more subtle and complex fashion. His erratic behavior, while in most instances is a burden for Anna, have also occasionally bordered on the heroic in situations where she has needed him. Anna, also, honestly describes her own actions toward Joona as sibling rejection, and often as straight out betrayal. Anna has complex emotions in these situations; she loves Joona but is uncertain what to do about him most of the time. She wonders if her actions really help him or not, if she is a hand in stabilizing Joona or if she contributes to the shove downward adding to his misery. This despair is exposed on the surface of Anna’s ambivalence as reflected in the face of a Joona who may never be able to fit into society, to be seen as “normal”.

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German cover

In the midst of this morass of confusions, though, we still see a Joona who attempts to grasp and control his own life and actions.  His narration is often motivated in the attempt to defend himself from rejections and accusations, and depicts a person with a deep sense of what´s right and what´s wrong. He has a strong moral compass, which tragically is drowned out often by his severe problems. And the relationship of brother and sister, regardless of the disintegrations of abuse and mind shattering problems, strives and achieves a strong bond. Under the guise of this bond and struggle the true trajectory of novel, transcending the horrors of abuse, could be read as Anna and Joona´s unconditional love for each other being tested, and whether or not it can remain. Intense stuff.

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The final theme I want to discuss is the novels depiction of the growing Anti-Americanism that started to grow in the early 2000´s. At the onset of “When I Forgot” Ian, as an expat American,  struggles in Finland Post 9/11 and, with the Iraq war just emerging, he finds himself branded only as a political and social outlier. Ian has moved to Finland and speaks Finnish, yet can sense that his students and colleges at the University he works at are, quite unsubtly, being passive-aggressive towards him or aggressively dismissive. This escalates into full blown nasty remarks, which leads him mentally into a confused state and creates doubts about his identity to himself (since he doesn´t sit well with being “just another American”). Ian realizes that people will now look at him only through the distorting and singular prism of the nation/state.  As his own identity is quite tangential to the notion of a “nation”, and since he has few happy memories from back home, returning to the states seems an impossible option.  Hirvonen uses the cliqued reading of individuals as bounded by only state (as well as others are bound by race and ethnicity) and explores how this misreading (here the anger towards Americans) is a misguided and a confusion and often dripping with hypocrisy and self-righteousness.  Hirvonen explores how this mentality (which reduces individuals to nations, races, sexes, etc:) is injudicious and only makes Others who are guiltless a focus of hateful dismissal.  In this device the novel interrogates why Anti-Americanism (as with any prejudice: to racism, ageism, sexism) is so simplistic and toxic, especially inside of progressive movements (this can be accepted since Americans have “power”. But the reading should be individual as the government of a Nation should not be ideologically bound to individuals).

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One of the most Infamous anti-American propaganda works

Being hostile to someone just for being from a nation, a religion, ethnicity, etc. shows our irrationality and inclinations for simplistic aggressions, and we can find great thanks that this form of “Othering” the individual is grappled with by Hirvonen in the midst of all of the other despairs and hates she explores in this strong and forceful work.

Go check this novel out. It´s got great themes, it´s short so it won´t be difficult to get trough, and it´s utterly touching. A solid work.

For another account on Anti-Americanism, check out Bess Rattnay´s account on it at Salon.

It´s International Woman´s day! Usually for this day I would do a list of articles concerning Women´s rights and liberations across the world, but this year comes a decision to change things up a bit. Instead I will list a few feminist books and stories that are more than worth checking out. In order to explain what, in this list, is meant by a feminist read I´ll make a short explanation: it is a story that has three dimensional female characters and either deals with the subject of female liberation or deals with the subject of female oppression. Let´s get started.

Quick Note!: Most of these books can be triggering due to dealing with rape and violence.

1.“Changes: A love story” by Ama Ata Aidoo: This is a classic work of African literature, and for no small reason. The book takes place in the 1990´s Accra, Ghana, where the independent Esi decides to divorce her husband due to having endured a rape at his hands. After that she falls in love with a Muslim man named Ali, which leads her to question whether or not she should become his second wife. “Changes” was published in 1993 and was one of the first African books that dealt with women trying to balance home life with work as well as the stigma of being an independent woman. But it also openly deals with marital rape and its aftermath, which even to this day is still a taboo subject in much of literature and culture (including western). Esi´s struggles against expectations are shown in a complex light; while she is determined to keep her job and independence she finds herself still inclined to forgo her autonomy to please Ali and others. The book is honest and human. As the saying goes, the personal is highly political, especially for Esi.

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2.“Purge” by Sofi Oksanen; This novel takes place in both modern times free Estonia and the Estonia of WWII, when it was under Russian occupation. The story is about an old woman meeting a young woman; Aliide Truu, a woman who was rape and sexually tortured by KGB agents in her youth, and Oksana – a youth who has escaped from the hands of traffickers. Oksanen delves deftly, but horrifically, into a story of two forms of sexual violence; that of politically motivated rape and that of modern day sexual slavery. The novel is heavily disturbing, but the characters, especially Aliide, are wonderfully complex and the illustration of female oppression is powerfully exposed. It´s best to not say too much, since the plot´s enigmatic structure makes it a book best to read blindly.

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3.”The Ribbon Maiden”: This fairy tale, which originates from the Chinese ethnic minority of the Miao, is about a woman who people proclaim as the maker and creator of the most beautiful sowing and ribbons found in the land. The emperor, wanting this skill only to himself, has The ribbon maiden kidnapped and held against her will unless she makes him a continuous supply of the elegant ribbons. She submits to the emperors demands, but due to her great talents she is able to make the emperors bondage of her backfire on him. The tale is laden with female power – from the Ribbon Maidens wish to return home so she can reunite with her female friends, to her refusing to submit to the bully emperor. It is impossible not to cheer on this woman as her many gifts, and powerful sowing, defeats her captors and manifests her freedom in the face of oppressions both political and ideological. A really, really cool fairy tale.

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Miao woman wearing traditional clothing

4.“Blood and Guts in High School” by Kathy Acker: The most absurd and weird novel on this list tells the story of a woman who endures emotional abuse, trafficking and abandonment. The writing is surrealistic and the story is told in a nonsensical order, with Ms. Acker´s own NSFW yet creative drawings. The prose is a surging gush of rage and aggression, delivering a punk-themed punch to the capitalist patriarchy. Beautifully random.

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page from “Blood and Guts in high school”

5. “Ladies Coupé” by Anita Nair: This book is formed of an assorted set of narratives focused on diverse women of Today´s India. A woman aboard a train contemplates if she should run off with a younger man she´s in love with or stay with her conservative family instead. Finding herself in the company of a group of women during her trip she asks for advice. What follows are a myriad of tales of life and struggle – the serene joy of learning to swim, of getting the last wondrous laugh against a bully husband, and the lonely tragedy of being impregnated via rape. The tone continuously pivots from the lighthearted to the cruel throughout the entirety of the narrative, with both the epic and minute of characterizations. Despite some stories being tragic, the novel leaves a clear hope in the end, depicting a happier life just around the corner.

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6.“From a crooked rib” by Nuruddin Farah: This novel takes place in 1980´s Somalia, where a nineteen year old girl runs away from home to escape an arrange marriage, only to find herself having to marry other, equally unpleasant men, in order to survive. Beyond all hope, and needing both men to ensure her social and monetary survival, she navigates a precipice to keep secret her twin marriages from both men (she hasn´t legally divorced either one of them). Farah illustrates the economic and political challenges facing women in Somalia and minutely exposes how the social mores, and legal system is biased against women (and laying bare double standards applied to men, as opposed to women, when it comes to marriage and relationships). While the heroines husbands both indulge openly and continuously in second wives and many lovers, the protagonist finds herself mercilessly slut-shamed, tormented and ostracized by the community for falling outside of the hallow prescripts of monogamy. “From a crooked rib” was Farah´s debut novel, but you would never guess that.

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7.“The Butcher´s Wife” by Li Ang: Based on real events, this story is about a Taiwanese woman, Lin Shi, who after taking years of absolutely ruthless abuse kills her husband in self defense. The story begins when the protagonist’s parents, fearing Lin Shi’s youthful behavior as signs of uncontrollable and uncontainable sexuality, marry her off to a local butcher, who it turns out is fond of making Lin Shi scream in agony. He abuses her both physically and sexually, and when she starts to defend herself he starves her. One of the toughest books I´ve ever read, but none the less this novel remains gripping and spellbinding. The novel not only showcases abuse, but critiques neighbors and family members that enable abuse through ignorance and acceptance, as well as showing a side of the local Buddhist religion which is not a flattering depiction to say the least. Thought-provoking yet brutal.

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8.“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros: The story of a Mexican-American family is told in a series of drabbles in this short book. Through the narration of the adolescent Esperanza these petite deft drabbles explore poverty, culture, sexual assault and hope. The stories are like extended poems, with heartbreaking scene after heartbreaking scene. From Esperanza witnessing her father grief stricken by her grandmother’s death to Esperanza being sexually attacked by racist white boys, the novel makes a depressing, memorable quick read.

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9.“The House of Bernarda Alba” by Federico Garcia Lorca: This was not only an unusual play for it´s time for its open brutal criticism of Spanish honor culture, but is also remarkable by even today´s standards in being a play with a all female cast with no speaking roles for men, as well as dealing with female sexual frustration. The play is about a classist, narrow minded mother who rules over her five daughters with an Iron fist, never allowing them to socialize with others in the town or marry. This leads to a major conflict when a young man arrives and three of the same sisters are smitten with him. Things become especially disturbing when the youngest daughter is implied to be pregnant without being engaged. The sisters play off each other perfectly, and the deep seated melancholy and sense of being trapped in being an “honorable woman” echoes through the story with great strength.

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10. “Woman at Point Zero” by Nawal El-Sadaawi: the angriest and fiercest work in this list by fair, El-Sadaawi´s classic novel tells the story of a woman on death row that has killed her pimp. The woman details her life from girlhood to the point where she ended up in prison, describing her ordeal with female genital mutilation, male betrayal and violence. Through the course of the novel the protagonist makes abundantly clear how she has come to be so angry and uncompromising with the world she lives in, where, beginning with her birth as a woman, she was set up for pain. The woman´s narration bursts with a fire at the face and fact of an unjust world. It is provocative and unapologetic, an instant masterpiece.

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Ms. Nawal El-Sadaawi

That´s a few recommendations. What feminist novels, short stories/ fairy tales or graphic novels do you readers recommend? Comment done below and A Happy International Women´s Day to all sisters, Cis to Trans, out there!

Without a doubt, we are in a new golden age of Children´s Animation Shows. Series like “Gravity Falls” portray mystery and family dynamics. Shows like “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” details the values of team work, tolerance and a diversity of different kinds of femininity. Even shows that I don´t necessarily like, for example “Adventure Time”, are an admirably and innovative experimental venture in storytelling and narrative structure. And of course, we have shows like “Steven Universe”, an animated family science fiction show which deal with homesickness, queerness, and the questions of a Post-war environment. Despite these downbeat themes, the universe of Steven and his family and friends is a funny and upbeat show, with a constant of heartwarming moments and admonishments to tolerance and compassion. Mixed with a slew of sly insights in a surreal environment bouncing off of a bounty of really, really cool concepts “Steven Universe” is a gem in the harvest of the new children’s programming.

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“Steven Universe” centers on a young, 13-year old Steven who lives with his deceased mother´s former friends, the crystal gems. The crystal gems consist of Pearl, Garnet and Amethyst who, in quasi-human form incarnations, are aliens protecting the earth from the authoritarian and destructive species of their own kind, as well as mysterious creatures focused on vicious intent towards our planet. These Crystal Gems have the individual power to summon a personal weapon, per their own unique personality, and are almost indestructible. Steven is the child of the now deceased Rose Quartz, the former leader of the crystal gems, and a human father, Greg and the first season finds Steven´s struggling to discover how to control his powers bequeathed to him through being his mothers progeny, and how to summon his own variant of the crystal weapon. The second season depicts him as having discovered his weapon, and follows him as he learns to summon it at will and wield it in communal protection of the earth with the Other Crystal Gems. The show, now in its second season, is a narrative of wondrous world building, bubbling tolerance, and open optimism in a world prone to the dark twist.

“Steven Universe” is one of the few shows where every character, main and secondary, are individually detailed and given specific and elaborated characteristics making each presentation of personage in the animation memorable, noteworthy and precise. As the major protagonists of the show, the triad of the crystal gems have contrasting, fun personas; Steven is adorable, good-natured and charitable, as well as a great role model for young boys. His father Greg is amusing, open-minded, struggling, and lovable, and the various regulars of which the town is composed of have a surprisingly diverse and detailed cast. Steven´s best friend and possible love interest Connie is Indian-American, an African-American family runs the town’s single pizzeria and we find a roster of the shows characters being ambiguous regarding the question of ethnicity (as seen notably in the city mayor´s son, who appears sturdily biracial, though with a obviously stereotypically white Politian father. The ethnicity of the character goes without mention in the show, nor sight of a possible black mother, leaving this a normal condition to the shows population. This is note worthy story telling since the actuality of inter-ethnicity is becoming more and more of the majority of the population of the earth as time goes on).

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Pearl, one of the Gems that Steven lives with, is one of the shows most complex characters. Through her character, and her biographical history, the show has explored subject matters as prejudice, consequences and normalcy of bad decisions (and how to transcend them through the everyday actions of living and the acceptance of a broadminded community of peers), and homesickness. The subject that this post will focus on is Pearl´s homesickness in all its bittersweet depiction.

The beauty of many fantastical works is that through the use of fantasy, surrealism or science fiction is that, when done cleverly, the imaginary world can explore and develop subject matters that are universal, deeply philosophical or describe sociological subjects in a clear language. “Steven Universe” as a show was created by Rebecca Sugar to explore gender and sexuality. In “Steven Universe’s” first season it is revealed that the gems are aliens, and are in fact somewhat stuck on Earth. Due to complications from their decision to protect the earth, they both physically and politically cannot leave the planet. While Garnet and Amethyst are fairly ok with this, Pearl has a lingering longing for space, and the questionable companionship of her, sadly, authoritarian species.

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Right to left: Garnet, Amethyst, Steven and Pearl

In the episode “Space Race” Pearl starts to tell Steven about how she and his mother used to travel the galaxy together. This was a big deal to Pearl; in fact the show has implied that those years were some of Pearls most happy years. She tells Steven that she wishes she could show him how amazing the vast diversity of space and its travel is. This prompts Steven to suggest they build a space ship together, which Pearl enthusiastically accepts. Steven and Pearl work idealistically on this project, with a the shanghaied Greg contributing to the dubious enterprise. Upon finding that Greg doesn’t take the project seriously, Pearl rejects his further contributions and determines to build the space ship herself. She does in fact build one, and while Greg is asleep Pearl tries to sneak herself and Steven on a test drive of the newly created ship.

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Unfortunately the space ship starts to fall apart while leaving earth, with Pearl having to confront her illusion of leaving the confines of the planet, Steven desperately laments: “I know you worked hard, and I know you miss space, but sometimes you got to know when to bail”. Pearl in reluctance ejects herself and Steven from the failing apparatus of the ship.

While confronting the dilemmas and depressions of homesickness and alienation, this episode has amazing pacing and truly fantastic dialogue. When Pearl says somewhat bitterly that she used to travel the galaxy but that she´s know “on earth, forever”, it perfectly captures the frustration of feeling trapped, lost, and the other to yourself. Pearl doesn´t quite understand Earth; she puts on a brave face for Steven but the life on Earth is in fact alien to her. She goes into denial after Steven´s innocence has awoken hope in her, and it is just heartbreaking to watch Pearl accept that she can´t leave earth despite hard work and the resolve to capture a life abandoned to all of her correct and noble decisions. To feel nostalgia for another world and to even, to some extent, idealize it is a common trait of homesickness in people who have immigrated or otherwise feel at odds of where they are located. To feel resentful to where the homesick person lives is all too real, which Pearl´s dialogue hints at. The show doesn´t hit you over the head with its directness but with sincere story telling of the dilemma of loneliness and alienation instead; Pearl´s actions and words are subtle and gently animated getting to the core of a feeling not resolvable.

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The most powerful part of this episode however is when Pearl cradles Steven as they parachute back to Earth. Steven comforts Pearl by saying that while she waits for a new chance to get to space she can stay on earth with him. Pearl can find a home with a new community of acceptance, while not denying her aches of otherness in her new address.

This episode explores how Homesickness is not always and necessarily about wanting to go Back home. It is more about wanting to feel like you belong, experiencing things that are familiar, not wanting to be the odd one out. Pearl is shown to be in deep mourning for both her lost sense of belonging to a place and the added loss when Steven´s mother died, becoming mirrored reason for her longing for space. Pearls feelings comes from a myriad of conflicting and confusing directions – her difference from humans, her loss of autonomy in the lack of travel, and the loss of friendship in the empty unfillable space left by Steven’s mother. Recognition by the community around Pearl, especially by Steven, of the many causes of loneliness and longing becomes acceptance, sadness and comfort for the possibility of a new home.

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In these times with immigration being a norm for almost all countries, and many people perhaps feeling like they were born in the wrong place, Pearl´s story most certainly can resonate with many people.

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Pearl´s decision and conclusions to the irresolvable question of homesickness (and the feeling of otherness) also mirrors many of the decisions regarding immigration and resettling seen in our contemporary moment. Resettling individuals and general immigration, is founded on a myriad of diverse reasons, most directly related to the case exemplified in Pearl is the person who finds love or have children in the new land. Additionally Pearl finds, as many a political/cultural immigrant, she is forced to resettle to earth because going back might be dangerous. Pearl, also has the added moral and communal incentive of having to be the new family for Steven after the demise of his mother (and naturally to protect the Earth from monsters which would threaten Steven and his species). Her new responsibilities and identity make her stay on earth more prominent, but also easier as her ethical imperative is to be a family for Steven. (We can find a like, and real world example, of this ethical imperative to family in the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim who stated, at the Stockholm Literature conference of 2015, that one of the overriding reasons that he hasn’t moved from Finland is because of his son who was born in Finland, and because of the Finnish mother of this son).

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While Pearl complains, and has deeply sad feelings about being confined and alienated upon Earth we simultaneously see a Pearl as determined and devoted, even creating herself as immigrant and other, to protect and give Steven stability, love, caring and a family. Given the real activities and world of immigrants, this following by Pearl of the moral imperative of family, community, and obligation to comforting the young, is one hundred percent believable. Pearl´s struggles and realization is a true and determined call to action for a world facing the questions of nationality, community and immigration, despite being fantasy.

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Steven: “You can stay here with me”  Pearl: “Yes, with you”

In “Space Race” this show tells the struggles of many, many people worldwide, and is able to show that despite not always getting to go back home, one can always make the best of what one has and in doing so make the world a better place.

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