When I was doing research for South Korean literature, I came across a list in Vanity Fair of 5 Korean Novels You Should Read. One of the first things said was “these aren’t Beach Reads”. And indeed – they are NOT. I’m going to take their advice and run with it anyway; three of the five recommendations are sitting in my living room. First up: Drifting House, by Krys Lee.
This book kicked my ass. The long-lasting devastation of war. The destruction, down to the family level, of a nation torn apart. What it means to be an immigrant, and then again the next level of being a first-generation kid, carrying all that weight and more. This collection of short stories digs in deep, grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go. There were moments of wanting to put it down, to just return it to the library and find something else easier to digest, but nope. The author manifested this unflinching thing, and it was on me to stay. Even though it wasn’t always easy, it was entirely worth it.
I’ve been at this blog long enough to kind of predict my reading choices before I start research on a new country. When beachy island nations are on deck, it often means travel guides, or books written by expats or people passing through. Nothing wrong with any of that, but not quite what I’m looking for. But! Turks and Caicos delivers more!
Looking Back in Salt Cay: Preserving Our Life, Our History, Our Legacy by Patronella “Peggy” Been is a personal, candid view into life on Salt Cay, one of the more lightly-inhabited islands in the Turks and Caicos group. It’s like a family conversation at Christmas about how life was back in the day, and just the kind of book I always hope to find. Getting a glimpse into the basics of real life – what the houses where like, what people ate, how they shopped, what toys the kids played with – doesn’t happen every day.
Salt Cay’s fortunes have changed over the last 40 years, and the author lives on one of the other islands now. It was hard to even find a usable (copyright matters, people!) photo of that island, so I chose one of the island I was supposed to visit earlier this year…so lovely!
I struggled with this book. Which is not a bad thing.
It felt incredibly remote and yet uncomfortably intimate, all at the same time. I felt like there was a bit of a desperate truth that was always just out my reach, hidden behind a layer of ice. The whole thing felt…distant. I sat for days with that, trying to make sense of it but kept drawing a blank.
I talked it out with someone who I very much respect and it all started to make sense. The story was about a man in exile, and what he goes through when he can finally make it home. People don’t call themselves exiles for happy reasons; if that word pops up, you have to know there is trauma somewhere close by.
The exile IS the thing, right? Can a narrator who has dealt with that, and has decided to brave returning to the scene of his pain, speak freely? Why would he even want to? Do you deserve to know what he’s gone through? Could you even begin to understand?
The author, Amjad Nassar, is an accomplished novelist, travel writer, and poet. Finding that out after I read the book helped fit another piece of the puzzle; this is a translation from Arabic (by Jonathan Wright), and I’m now painfully aware that I don’t know the traditions of Arabic poetry. I could feel it flow through the prose, but it was an unfamiliar rhythm. More distance…
One of the points of this blog is to find exactly that space. We are molded by our language, the tales we hear as children, the things we read as we grow older. Those things literally form the way we think; I know I’ll never really be able to transcend my ingrained patterns, but my goal is to learn as much as I can about other ways of seeing this world. I’m thankful that books like this have been translated into English, so I have a path to walk.
Once I started reading about Mongolia, I just couldn’t stop. BUT I HAVE TO, since I’ve got 140+ countries left to go on this journey. So, I’m wrapping it up with one more book by Jack Weatherford.
Since I enjoyed the book about Genghis Khan so much I was really excited about this one, especially since I’m all about my sisters throwing it down. But I was a bit disappointed: fascinating history about powerful women, but as it moved away from Genghis and his wives and daughters, I lost interest.
It was hard to keep the thread after the Mongol empire started to really disintegrate; the political and social reality of fraying societies is generally all about constant churn and lots of violence, and to be honest that’s depressing to me. Also, there are just brief glimpses of individuals; that’s understandable, since most cultures have never been that interested in keeping detailed records of women’s lives and contributions, but it was still unsatisfying. It made the book feel strung together, and a bit thin.
Overall verdict: okay but not great, which is a shame.