World Book History #5: Jailbirds: Lessons From A Women’s Prison

Image credit: Grazia Horwitz Flickr

Between 2014-2017, UK-based writer and charity worker Mim Skinner worked in prisons as an art teacher. Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison is the product of running various creative courses for inmates in a women’s institution. The mainstream UK press is quick to cover occurrences in men’s prisons, but just like in wider society, women’s prisons are a blind spot for many and hardly ever feature in the wider discussion around the criminal justice system. Jailbirds seeks to change that.

In her introduction, Skinner writes that ‘we hear headlines and news reports and Jeremy Kyle’s views, of course, but rarely hear the individual stories of those whose lives are tangled up in the criminal justice system’. This quote entails almost everything Skinner is attempting to do with the book; change the perception of women in prison and attitudes towards prison in general.

Whether dealing with drugs, mental health or intimately feminine issues like pregnancy, Skinner focuses on tackling stigma. This is not just the stigma around women in prison, but also addiction and the decisions people make when in the most desperate of situations. It’s easy to look and judge from afar, but one can never know how they’d behave or react until they were in that situation.

An interview with a series of American female prisoners. A different country but with many of the same issues.

One of the biggest problems people face upon release is rehabilitation back into everyday life and the ongoing mental health of those struggling to adapt. As Skinner writes at one point, ‘The NHS and prison budgets, it seemed, could stretch to pills but rarely to CBT or counselling’. The problem is that oftentimes these people aren’t seen as redeemable, but they’re just as capable of contributing to society as anyone else, if given the chance.

There are consistent examples throughout the book of the residents being encouraged to form a real sense of identity for themselves and as a family. This is particularly pertinent when Skinner writes about one of her classes entitled A Stitch in Time and that ‘this was the first time anyone had asked these women what their dreams for the future might be’.

This is symptomatic of the ignorance of the ruling/upper classes in Britain; those less well-off never feel validated or cared for. This is, of course, something we’ve seen extensively in Britain over the past decade and has been highlighted by Brexit. The socio-economic issues that can contribute to women winding up in prison permeate the rest of society and restoring class balance is imperative if these women are going to be supported upon release.

One paragraph in particular is almost as a call to arms:

                                           ‘If you’re a member of the press, rest assured –

                                           being in prison isn’t nice. It also isn’t that good at

                                           rehabilitating people, because politicians don’t

                                           want to look like they’re putting money into the

                                           prison system rather than the NHS… It’s about time

                                           we acknowledge that both of these institutions

                                           deal with our national health’.

If society is going to become better at supporting women and gaining maximum equality, then it needs to start with those who have the very least. Prisons are centres of punishment, but the discussion around the circumstances that see women deprived and forced into them needs to become more widespread. Jailbirds is helping to kick that narrative into gear.

You can find out what life is really like within women’s prisons by ordering a copy of Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison today.

World Book History #4: Inside Voices, Outside Light

Image credit: Jen Flickr

Iceland is often perceived as one of the world’s most mysterious countries. Exposed in the far north, miles from any mainland, it’s sometimes depicted as a lonely, cut-off place, with harsh winters but one of the planet’s most breath-taking landscapes.

Yet, just like its fellow Scandinavian countries, it has an incredibly rich and historic literary culture. Sigurdur Palsson, whose repertoire includes plays, poetry and prose is one of Iceland’s most renowned exports. Inside Voices, Outside Light was translated by long-time collaborator Martin S. Regal and published in 2014 and features poems from almost 40 years of Palsson’s work.

There are a number of ways in which Palsson’s poetry can both reflect and educate humanity. Just like much Icelandic poetry, Palsson constantly references Icelanders’ deep relationship with land and the power of nature. It takes all of Iceland’s previously discussed idiosyncrasies – particularly its landscape and geographical nuance – and turns them into a beautiful component of national pride, one which is shared by pretty much all Icelanders.

As Regal writes in his forward for Inside Voices, Outside Light: ‘Even the most complex of Palsson’s images or meditations are outward looking, not products of a dramatized or analysed self; they are offerings to the reader rather than insights into the writer’s mind’. Palsson’s vivid and gorgeous vision works in tandem with the wider implications of global warming. The systematic protection and upkeep we, as humans, need to devote to the planet is absolutely our responsibility – and we’ve been neglecting it.  

This has been part of the very fibre of his work right from the earliest collections. In ‘Nocturne for Saturn’ (1980) the title planet is depicted as a ghostly, wraith-like presence full of ‘blonde tears’ and silence; not worlds away from the potential future of Earth in 2019. By contrast, the final contribution, ‘By River and Ocean’ (2012), draws on Greek mythology and tracks the beauty and growth of Earth through the millenia, indulging in mankind’s consistent misunderstanding of nature.

But there are also lessons in how to emphasise the power of natural beauty in writing. ‘Plywood’ (one of the poems Palsson specifically asked Regal to translate) references the ‘nature vs industrialism’ debate that has been engulfing Iceland for decades. Ultimately though, it asserts that Iceland owes all its beauty, pliability and growth to both the elements and mankind working in conjunction.

Image credit: Chris Yunker flickr

In ‘The Art of Poetry’ he suggests that his writing is entirely dictated by the actions and patterns of snow blizzards, and in ‘The Black Land’ he asserts that without its freezing backdrops and icy/snowy measures Iceland feels like a paralysed, alien world. The dense winter snows make vast swathes of the country impassable, but in Palsson’s view they open up the potential for real, raw beauty.

Inside Voices, Outside Light doesn’t preach – in fact, it seems as though social consciousness was never at the top of Palsson’s writing agenda. But his connection with nature, so clearly persistent here, should be a point of inspiration.

In Part three of ‘Poem Energy Need’ (2009), he writes that we are ‘throwing stones from glass houses, or glass from stone houses, depends on the mood’. We, as humans, have a duty to save the planet. In 2019, it is only us that can do so, and only us that can condemn it to death. Inside Voices, Outside Light presents the message we should have been aware of all along.

If you want to explore more of Palsson’s intoxicating relationship with nature, then pick up a copy of Inside Voices, Outside Light today.

World Book History #3: With Their Backs to the World

Serbia, Belgrade. Credit: Alex Blokstra

People who were born in the 1990s probably won’t remember the Balkans war. However, as the images of the horrendous conflict flooded evening news bulletins here in the UK at the time, they were difficult to ignore. Asne Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist whose 2005 book With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia is as authentic a depiction of the region post-war as there ever has been.

The book documents her time spent travelling around Serbia and the neighbouring states between 1999 and 2004. It follows and presents the lives of ordinary Serbs leading up to and following the fall of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and the chaos that continued to engulf the region afterwards.

The divisions in the Balkans run so deep and so historically that it’s impossible to get a complete guide to the situation from just one source. Seierstad doesn’t attempt this in With Their Backs to the World. Instead she engages the most honest journalistic trait possible – to present these people without judgement and delve into the true psyche of a nation in crisis.

Throughout the ‘90s and into the 00s, there was a real sense of ‘otherness’ towards the Balkan situation in Western and Northern Europe. As Seierstad writes in the forward of her book: ‘I read everything I could get my hands on… But I found little that really told me who they were, these people who – virtually overnight – found themselves cast as warmongers and butchers.’

Indeed, the situation in Serbia was bleak. But what Seierstad’s sensitive, humane approach does is show how a lot of these people are victims of their own circumstances. Take Michel, a man who poses as a lingerie salesman on a high street but actually participates in illegal (at the time) currency trading and selling gold, jewellery and cars on the black market. Or Bojana Letvic, the stoic journalist who sacrifices almost all pleasure in life in her attempts to topple Milosevic’s state-owned TV channel.

There are remarkable parallels between the mentality of Serbia in the early noughties and the increasingly fiery discussions about the European Union today. Firebrand rhetoric and dishonesty revolve around the same political viewpoints; the nationalism of the Brexit Party and the anger of the generally youthful left. In Britain, it feels like certain newspapers either side of the divide are as embroiled in their own vision as Milosevic’s TV channel.

Soldiers in Croatia during the Balkans war, 1991. Credit: Peter Denton

The book demonstrates the troublesome reality of tarring an entire nation with one brush. Most wings of the UK press stop short of this directly, but the implied hegemony of certain cultures is a growing issue in Britain and on the European mainland. The idea that people adhere to the same ways of life, opinions and march mechanically inline with one another is becoming ever more dangerous in political discourse.

Books like With Their Back to the World represent the way in which subjects like this should be presented. Journalism has never been completely unbiased, but books like Seierstad’s prove that it when it is, it can be just as powerful and important.

Get inside post-war Serbia yourself by picking up a copy here today. 

World Book History #2: Dubliners

Where do you even start with Brexit these days? It’s safe to say that most of the country has spent the last three years in a state of almost complete confusion. Whatever your views, it has been incredibly divisive both in Britain and on the European continent.

James Joyce’s Dubliners was first published in 1914, when Europe was on the cusp of the first world war. Joyce would also be alive for the beginning of the second world war over twenty years later. He spent much of his life living in and travelling around Europe and used his worldliness as a crucial component in all of his writings.

Dubliners mostly revolves around life in Joyce’s city of birth and is written from a despairing point of view. But given that Joyce put so much stock in European identity and unity, there are lots of parallels to be drawn between Europe in 1914 and modern Britain.

Three stories in particular exemplify this, and reflect the disassociation and disappointment many people are feeling.

After the Race

This story, although ultimately sad, is delivered through the lens of a proud European identity, centring around four friends from different states and with different backgrounds. 

The four men represent the organic friendships that many people both in modern Britain and Europe have formed thanks to freedom of movement. Joyce clearly references wanderlust and community inclusion, as well as the alliances the European Union symbolises. 

Brexit has given voice to many people who feel certain ways about national British identity. But for many younger people in particular, the same desire to travel and indulge in foreign culture is very present in After the Race. In both 1914 and 2019, Europe represents change and exploration in the most positive way.

A Little Cloud

These days, London is considered to be one of the greatest cities in the world. When Joyce wrote A Little Cloud it was not nearly as buzzing, but it still signified freedom, art and a place where one could spread their wings and live a fulfilling life.

As a city that voted Remain in the EU referendum, it’s easy to see that the same joys and excitements that inspired Joyce still exist today. London is proudly multicultural and has a huge amount of growth and development as a result. Whereas most of England’s South-East voted to leave, London represents the continued love of multiculturalism that Joyce had.

A statue of James Joyce in Dublin. Credit: Mike_fleming

Ivy Day in the Committee Room

Joyce was famously a proud Irish nationalist and given that Brexit has reopened old wounds resonating from the Troubles, the inspirations behind Ivy Day in the Committee Room have somewhat come full circle.

But Ivy Day also describes the perceived imbalance between the ‘metropolitan elite’ and the rest of society that informed much of the Brexit vote. There are particular references to patriotism – a word that has become just as muddied and uncertain as everything else since Brexit – that could be analogous to politicians on either side of the 2016 referendum, depending on your opinion. The independence referred to in Ivy Day exists under completely different circumstances to Brexit, but it’s profound in that the same debates about national identity were being had a hundred years ago as they are now.

James Joyce’s Dubliners is proof that history has a way of haunting the present. You can find out the other ways it does so by picking up a copy today.

World Book History #1: The Girls of Riyadh

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city. Credit: ujahabdul

Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyadh is one of the most famous modern Arabic novels. First published in Lebanon in 2005 and immediately banned in her home country of Saudi Arabia, it’s certainly had its fair share of controversy.

Following the lives of four young women struggling with notions of romance and life in privileged but suppressive Riyadh society, it immediately inhabits a world unfamiliar to us here in the West. Observations of Islam and Arabic writing via the Qu’ran are at a dangerous fever pitch in 2019, so the book is certainly as relevant now as it was then, if not more so.  

Within the last few years we’ve seen a proposed travel band on Muslims in the USA. We’ve seen the increased prevalence of the far-right anti-Islam group the EDL here in the UK (though thankfully they now seem to be more forced onto the fringes).

We’ve seen would-be British Prime Minister Boris Johnson say that women in full burqas resemble ‘letterboxes’. Though Saudi Arabia lags behind other states still in terms of equality, all of those assertions have been made without any insight into everyday life for these women.

US President Donald Trump, whose Muslim travel ban made headlines around the world. Credit: Gage Skidmore

In the World Economic Forum report for Global Gender Gap parity in 2018, Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 149, which is higher than previous years. Progressive attitudes towards women in Saudi Arabia have been incredibly recent.

Some of the changes, as further outlined by this article, have only occurred in the last five years:

  • The first university that women could attend, the Riyadh College for Education, wasn’t opened until 1970
  • It wasn’t until 2015 that women could legally vote and get elected to government
  • Until 2018, there was a driving ban for women.

The Girls of Riyadh doesn’t shy away from or deny some of the seemingly bizarre restrictions that dominate Saudi law. But the main philosophical sticking point of the novel is living within one’s means within the world around you. It’s something that all humans have to contend with, and especially women. It’s easy to think of the UK and US as egalitarian utopias, but the rise of fourth wave feminism has had to fight on many a hill.

Women in the West want to be successful, independent and stable, just like women in Saudi Arabia. By bridging that gap, Alsanea reduces the idea that the way Arabic women think, behave and exist is alien. The issues the four female protagonists deal with are issues experienced by most women; the societal parameters in which they operate are merely different.

There has been some controversy around the book’s misrepresentation following its translation from Arabic to English. But Alsanea herself has always been happy with the end result. In an interview with Penguin Random House in 2008, she said: ‘there aren’t many books Arabic books translated into other languages and that’s why people know so little about us’.

True enough, the translation has been a certified smash. It’s a bestseller across Europe and the US. But as more dangerous rhetoric becomes enabled, nuance is glossed over. Even if you think you’re well-informed but still find Islamic society mysterious, The Girls of Riyadh would at least provide you with an insider’s perspective.

The Girls of Riyadh is available from all good book shops and Amazon. Open your mind and bridge the cultural gap today.

Welcome to World Book History!

Do you remember studying English Literature at school? Lots of my friends hated it, and it could be an awful slog at times.

Library bookshelves full of slow-burning Victorian classics and slightly odd analysis of Sigmund Freud can only have so much appeal. There’s also the troublesome idea of reading something because you HAVE to; the endless lists of ‘books you must read’. 

This TED Talk by the writer Ann Morgan examines the importance of reading and seeking out literature from other cultures.

Granted, Shakespeare and the roll call of romantics are essential to British literature. But with little or no time given to works beyond the Western literary cannon, it can be easy to miss that material’s value. Here at World Book History, I’ll be attempting to change that.

In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, entire cultures often find themselves back-handed away with carelessness and, at worst, prejudice. But all of those cultures have thousands of years of history, politics and experience – a lot of which is often strikingly relevant to today.

Here in the West, perceptions of those cultures are often incredibly concrete, and any attempt to shine a new or different light on them is buried in anger. More likely than not, that anger is based on falsities.

World Book History will try and smash those perceptions. Once a week, I’ll take a book from all corners of the globe – either new or old, fiction and non-fiction – and examine its presentation of that region’s history and societal culture. In doing so, I hope not just to bring lost or forgotten literature from around the world to the fore. I want to shed new light on more famous works that expose the inner workings of the cultures both in the past and in the 21st century.

We’ll be asking questions such as:

• How real is Rajaa Alsanea’s depiction of living as a woman in Saudi Arabia?

• Is James Joyce’s Dubliners relevant to Brexit Britain?

• Is the vision of Russia that we see here in the West as total as it seems?

The world famous Chilean author Isabel Allende. Just how influential has she been? Credit: Shawn

As time goes on, I hope to cover more obscure works and bring hardly-known worlds and periods of history to life. If I can spread awareness of these books and the lives and stories behind them, hopefully it’ll go some way to increasing the interest in non-canonical literature.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter to keep up-to-date with all the articles and musings that are published here. We’ll also be posting polls and surveys, and maybe even competitions with some nifty literature-based prizes.

Here’s to a long future of refreshing and enlightening reading.