World Book History #9: Maps Of Desire

Love and compassion bring people together. That sounds obvious, but the current state of world affairs suggests otherwise. Now and throughout history, those things are bypassed in the name of individualistic interest.

Manuel Forcano, one of Catalan’s leading love poets, primarily focuses on romantic love. That’s true of his 2019 collection Maps of Desire (Arc Publications) too.

But he also explores how romanticism can be extended to societal love and community cohesion. As the book’s translator Anna Crowe says:

‘I believe Maps of Desire succeeds in suggesting both the physical and psychological reaching-out towards other parts of the world that characterises the poems within its pages’.

Forcano centres his sense of motion around travel in the Middle East. Crucially, he both celebrates and breaks down the differences by tying communities together via love; we all feel it, we all mourn it when it’s over, and we all need it if society is going to function properly.

So how do the poems offer insight into love’s necessity in a societal context? Here are three interesting ways…

The History of Love and Landscapes

Much of the emphasis in Maps of Desire is on how love responds to landscapes. Or indeed, how landscapes reflect or influence love.

‘The Baghdad Train’, for example, is rich in the history and geographical prowess of the Middle East and, while capturing a contemporary moment, shows how those connections stretch back centuries.

But he also uses history to explore how the end of love can unite cultures:

‘People search among the stones
for pieces of those mirrors where joy
remained engraved. Even now
we dream the pleasure of others.’

Every society around the world has a distinct culture, but feelings are universal. When societies aren’t functioning peacefully, they often look to those who are for guidance.

Foreign aid is one thing, but it needs to come from a true place of love to actually heal divisions.

Baghdad, 2018; the muse for Forcano’s epic ‘The Baghdad Train’.

Identity, War and Peace

Identity and deepening diversions due to it reflect that lack of love.

In ‘The Huge River’, Forcano hones his practice of taking the personal and making it universal:

‘But often love means trying to hold water
in the fingers of an open hand’.

Those fears and perceptible doubts are felt just as keenly by communities healing from conflict as they are by individuals. Whilst those feelings are deep-rooted, by recognising that issue we can start to make a difference.

And Forcano does offer hope for those affected by contemporary conflict. In ‘Beirut’, he combines the sentimental value of memory with nationalistic symbolism to great effect:

‘…And memory,
at first so sharp in the mind
then later leaching colour
like a flag too long in the wind.’

By pointing to decaying authoritarian power, Forcano mirrors the drive to stop the current stream of nationalist uprisings.

People in oppressed communities know they aren’t that different from us. There needs to be further recognition of that from the Western world.

‘Poetry, for me, is like an oasis in a desert of words’. Manuel Forcano on his influences and translation in poetry.

Religion

Organised religion’s relationship with love is a complex one.

With so many factions in the leading faiths having different interpretations, it’s pretty much impossible to pinpoint a unifying definition of love.

Hailing from Catholic Spain, Forcano reflects religion in a societal sense both in terms of community and via the homoerotic tones in his verse. In ‘The Baghdad Train’, he chimes into the idea that (in theory) forms the origin of all religious love:

‘God is beautiful and that is why he delights in beauty,’
someone recited from the Qu’ran’.

But he mines another inclusive angle on ‘Egyptian Mysteries’. After referencing discussions around religion and love, sex and ‘sin’, he alludes to how gay desire is STILL halted by religion within many societies. When he rounds off the poem by saying:

‘I don’t know which I should thank: whether philosophy
or religion’

he shows doubt, before deciding that he looks to religion for guidance in love in too much.

Mainstream religion has a long way to go before being a totally safe space for gay people, but Forcano owns and embraces his sexuality all the same. In some societies that’s currently not possible, but increasing awareness is a kick-starter for a more equal world.

Conclusion

Love – in all its forms – is something everybody experiences.

Identity, religion and history change love’s meaning, and politics struggles to deal with those changes.

It might seem facile to turn to love poetry as a demarcation of unity. But poetry has always been about deeper connectivity, and Manuel Forcano’s work is proof of that in a context which effects every society.

Find out more about how Forcano uses love to reflect society by grabbing a copy of Maps of Desire today.

World Book History #8: Let Me Tell You This

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is let-me-tell-you-this.jpg

In 2020, racism is still a very global problem. Events in the US over the last two weeks have brought about awareness on the biggest scale that many of us can remember. But it’s far from just an American problem.

Here in the UK and wider Europe, the attitude that ‘our society can’t ever be as bad as America’s’ is both widespread and deeply problematic.

And Nadine Aisha Jassat is all too aware of racial divisions in her native Scotland. As a woman of colour, her perspective on race, heritage and integration in the UK is profound and affecting. In her debut poetry collection Let Me Tell You This, she lays out that perspective in direct style that’s brutal, uncomfortable, wise and truthful in equal measure.

It’s a book that – along with those highlighted by this petition last week – could do wonders on the UK educational syllabus. It’s full to the brim with crucial material, but there are three poems in particular which confront that very British strain of racism head-on.

And they are…

Paki Hands

As white people, it’s vital that we start checking our privilege. Early on, Jassat confronts that issue in ‘Paki Hands’. The poem shows just how normalised racist language has become in British dialect, and is pertinent regarding current events in the USA;

I could ask her what she means, but then I’d be told I’m making a scene. But if I stay quiet – gaze lowered to pale-dark hands, feet and knees – what will the silence do to me?

Here Jassat highlights another crucial way in which white people have to become able and proud allies to people of colour. If we’re not checking our friends – calling them out on the use of racist or generally problematic language – then we’re not helping.

So entrenched are offensive ideas about ‘foreignness’ that people are often shouted down for trying to be the difference. But the fight for race equality has never been quick or easy to resolve.

An ITV news report on racism in the UK, dating from 2016. Have thing got any better for BAME people?

Built to Last

A post-colonial mindset still has a strong grip on many Britons. This gets even murkier when nationalist groups, politicians and activists begin re-branding and reinventing the truth about entire sections of society to adhere to some notion of ‘Britishness’. In ‘Built to Last’, Jassat writes:

I’m starting to learn your ways, through your attitude to names. Stories untold, makers’ hands forgotten, once the item is marked ‘sold’ (or ‘gifted’, never stole – )’

At some level, all white people benefit from what other cultures offer us. Jassat’s allusion to that colonial mindset, which positions the values and beliefs of non-white societies as being lesser than our own, is clear-cut and powerful.

Not only does it show the confusion caused by white superiority, but also that people of colour have to work so much harder to gain acceptance in UK society. Only through amplifying voices like Jassat’s is that going to become a thing of the past.  

Hopscotch

Unfortunately, the majority of British people of colour will be familiar with the question ‘where are you from originally?’. Which is why Jassat’s inclusion of it in ‘Hopscotch’ is so pertinent. It’s the sort of thing that many would associate with a mentality from a bygone era. But Jassat, as a young woman, has still experienced it. It’s a signifier that things haven’t changed enough.

Jassat entwines that realisation with notions of toxic masculinity:

              Hey beautiful – isn’t she Gorgeous, Stunning, Bollywood Babe – I want you.

Combined with the inevitable question about origin, Jassat exposes how any supposed ‘compliments’ she’s given are ultimately about control and denigration. They mask a very real, very vicious kind of belittlement.

‘Where your blood comes from is such a small portion of who you really are.’ British people give their perspective on the ‘where are you really from?’ question.

Conclusion

Jassat’s observations are both personal and universal. Personal because she has experienced them first hand, and universal because many women of colour in the UK have experienced them too.

Let Me Tell You This could go a long way to improving the representation of BAME voices in both UK consciousness and representation.

The longer texts like this are ignored, the harder the fight becomes.

Grab yourself a copy of Let Me Tell You This via the 404 Ink website today.

World Book History #7: Music In A Crisis

It has been said a thousand times: music is the great healer.

From the earliest days of ritualistic dancing to cathedral choirs, music has always been the most direct form of creative expression. And many people will be feeling that as keenly as ever right now.

In desperate times, it’s always music that brings people together. Its value has been explored in literature for decades, but never is its impact more powerful for any community than when in a crisis.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that the Coronavirus is inspiring writers to ponder its resonance. Back in March, online music publication Pitchfork published this article detailing which albums its writers were listening to in order to ‘ease the lockdown’.

This article features three books which examine the impact of music in a crisis. From Northern Ireland to South Africa via Serbia, they exemplify just how universal the curative power of music is. They explore not just how music unifies people, but also the way it tracks cultural upheaval.  

‘Trouble Songs’, and music in Northern Ireland

Written by the legendary music journalist and activist Stuart Bailie, Trouble Songs is the definitive examination of music in Northern Ireland. Spanning the entire four-decade conflict of The Troubles, Bailie’s book traverses from the early days of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Radio Free Derry in 1969, right through to the Good Friday Agreement and beyond. Along the way he touches on seminal figures like Terri Hooley, John Lennon’s contrarian support for the IRA and the revelatory power of punk music.

Central to Bailie’s narrative is the way in which music acted as a revolutionary motion for the normal people of Northern Ireland. For many, it was a literal escape from an otherwise disastrous probability. As Jim Reilly of the punk group Stiff Little Fingers says: ‘All my friends I grew up with – they all ended up in the IRA doing long years in prison. And simply because I was playing music that kept me away from that’ (Bailie, 2019).

Stiff Little Fingers onstage in Berlin. Image Credit: Montecruz Foto Flickr

And in Northern Ireland, music counted for the truest representation of the community – a counter to the bias that was appearing elsewhere. Late on, Paul Hartnoll, one half of the English duo Orbital talks about their super-hit ‘Belfast’;

‘We just thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to actually make something that’s beautiful and lovely and soft about Belfast and put it out in England where everybody has a completely different view of the place?’’ (Bailie, 2019).

Bailie proves that during the Troubles, music was both a reaction to the violence and how people come together to rise above it.

How can Electronic Music Save Communities?

Rave culture also has a well-documented history of inclusiveness, from its early beginnings as minority expressionism in the US to the fall-out from the Berlin Wall in 1989. Matthew Collin’s Rave On is meant as an exploration of clubbing across the world, but many of the communities he visits turned to electronic music culture as – just like in Northern Ireland – a reaction to their dire surroundings.

The most obvious example is techno’s birthplace, Detroit. Throughout the book, he hands the narrative over to those who were there at the time, including choice quotes from the likes of scene originator Juan Atkins; ‘There’s nothing to do here. There’s nowhere to go; the scene is dead. That’s why our stuff sounds like it does’ (Atkins, 1988).

The story is similar in Israel, where the psytrance scene has consistently seen Israelis and Arabs push beyond the never-ending conflict and conservatism there. Like in Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs, Collin emphasises how it’s most notably the everyday, normal people that come together to push back against distasteful politics and partisan atrocities.

And in his chapter about the impact of house music in South Africa, he examines why it means so much in a country still marred by racial division. But again, in places like Cape Town and the suburbs of Durban, music is what unites black and white people above everything else. When talking about black and white kids partying together for the first time, he makes a profound assertion; ‘rave culture, with its implicit message of tolerance, suggested… that another way might at least be possible’.

What toll does a crisis take on music?

The Troubles saw a high physical cost to musicians. The horrific case of the Miami Showband Massacre is the most infamous example.

But Asne Seierstad, in her wonderfully human With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia, navigates the mental cost in the final chapter with Yugoslav pop/rock titan Rambo Amadeus.

From the beginning Amadeus’ music reflected civilians’ distrust and their suppression by a malignant regime. He has always cultivated himself as a protest against the uber-nationalistic musical fare that dominated the Serbian charts – and pretty much acted as a propaganda machine – in the late ‘80s.

Rambo Amadeus. Image credit: zeljkoo Flickr

On the one hand, Seierstad spends a lot of time dealing with Amadeus’ cultural importance. When she observes his gigs at the time of writing (1999/2000), he remains as popular and performative as ever, providing welcome relief to students suffering the perennial economic hardships since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

But as he reveals at one point; ‘I’ve asked my parents not to tell me anything related to politics – I’m just sick of hearing everyone complain while nothing happens’. Amadeus expresses what we know many musicians come to feel; that kicking back against oppressive governments – and dealing with everyday political life – is exhausting, and ultimately devoid of romance.

Conclusion

During the coronavirus, many people will have sought solace from music. But a literary approach to why and how it has that power is a useful tool.

Music provides an escape from political wrangling and Machiavellian point-scoring. While much of the press will be focusing on how politicians across the world deal with crises, explorations of music are far more human and relatable.

Music accompanies change, growth and development on a global scale. The three books here, alongside others, are prime examples of why that’s so important.  

Purchase Stuart Bailie’s excellent Trouble Songs from Waterstones here.

Pick up Matthew Collin’s Rave On for an insight into how dance music has also changed Shanghai, New York and more.

And head here to purchase Asne Seierstad’s now classic With Their Backs to the World: Portraits From Serbia.

World Book History #6: Terrorism in Western Literature

How do you write about a lived experience which is not your own? More importantly, *should* you?

Those are questions which must haunt fiction writers all the time. And they need to be considered whenever writing think pieces, articles or blog posts too. It’s clearly not true that everything worth writing has already been written. But when considering certain contexts, there is a discussion to be had around who should be doing the writing.

9/11 and Its Impact on Literature

Post-9/11, terrorism in literature became a small zeitgeist movement in the West. Unsurprisingly, most of that occurred in the US. That horrific day cemented in Western minds the terrifying reality that Arabic, African and Central Asian countries had been experiencing for decades. Terrorism is obviously a well-found fear, but paranoia can be a very dangerous tool as well.

And Western literature hasn’t risen above the more pernicious, xenophobic elements of the aftermath either. It’s not alone in that; that paranoia has been capitalised on right across Western entertainment media. Numerous Hollywood box office hits have laid themselves on a dubious bed bolted together by a distrust of foreigners since.

Unfortunately, in the hands of writers, that same alarm-ism can be wielded in just as worrying a fashion. Just like how war films are often showcases of patriotism without any real nuance or second glancing at the wider situation, authors can be fuelled by the darker connotations of the society around them.

At its core, American Sniper is about white fear
Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s 2014 blockbuster American Sniper.

Notably, you don’t see the same misguided one-sidedness in much Middle Eastern literature. Why? The difference is in that idea of a lived experience.

The Lived Experience

The history of violence in the Middle East is impossible to surmise quickly. It’s as much a result of despotic power structures and foreign intervention as it might be religious zeal or the desire to protect one’s livelihood. The issue with Western authors writing about these situations is that they often have no understanding of them beyond how their media frames them. The distinction comes down to what writers have actually seen.

An example of the dichotomy between an American lifestyle and lived experience is Khaled Housseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’, a novel whose acclaim transcends the cultural divide. Housseini has lived in America since the age of fifteen but sought political asylum during the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s. It’s the beauty of the liquid and emotional praise which makes his book so appealing, and Housseini’s ability to challenge Western readers with both distant horror and relatability.

But when approached by writers who have no lived experience, it becomes problematic. Take the American author Richard Updike, for example. He has famously admitted that the majority of research for his 2006 novel ‘Terrorist’ was conducted via a book called ‘The Koran For Dummies’. It’s an attitude problem. If my friend comes to me and says that he hates immigrants based on the Brexit Party’s manifesto, then it reflects the same desire to absorb the quickest or most reactionary reading material.

A good example of writing which encapsulates the entire complexities surrounding extremism is Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s ‘In Praise of Hatred’. Amidst a maelstrom of violence, torture and hateful worldviews, Khalifa manages (at points) to make one feel pity for some perpetrators, without ever choosing a side. There’s a caveat in this case, in that Khalifa is a man writing from a woman’s perspective. But he writes with the kind of sensitivity and understanding that many Westerners lack towards Arabic gender politics. 

Open letter from Khaled Khalifa
Khaled Khalifa, the author of ‘In Praise of Hatred’.

There are exceptions to the rule. As Ruth Franklin highlights, books like Lorraine Adams’ ‘Harbor’ provides an example of a US author with the nous to intricately research and shape their characters’ perspective and journey. And there’s plenty of ‘Troubles’ fiction which uses drama as a tool for exposing the wider reality, rather than making it a baseless, narrow pool. Brian Moore’s ‘Lies of Silence’, for example, mirrors a lot of Middle Eastern literature in that it depicts the everyday people, who want nothing to do with the violence, as the pivotal victims.

An interview with US author and former intelligence officer J. A. Walsh on writing about terrorism.

Representation of Arabic Writing in Education

Representation and format are to blame too. In the UK, there’s no foreign literature on secondary school educational syllabi at all, so readers are required to seek it out for themselves. They’re often published in anthologies, but as Ruth Franklin wrote for the New Republic; ‘anthologies are panoramas, not stereoscopes; the picture they present is wide not deep’ (2016).

The short story format suffers from the same limitations. For example, in ‘Girl, Balancing’, Helen Dunmore’s 14-page-long ‘A Thousand Roses’ – which revolves around a woman who believes her foreign lodger named Khalid may be planting bombs in her suitcase – falls prey to that very ‘Middle England’ ignorance. But the format doesn’t allow for it either. 

There’s also the tenuous reality of translation of Arabic literature. The translations are re-configured to fit in with Western reading sensibilities. That means that there’s room for the messages to get lost in translation with regards to how the author intended them to be received.

Alongside all this is the long-standing issue of reach and distribution. As outlined in this paper about Saudi Arabian writing, much of the most evocative literature hasn’t travelled ‘beyond the Arab world’s periphery’ (Moghales et al., 2018). Obviously Arabic literature is far from the only type to be undervalued in this way. But on an issue like terrorism, it exposes Western publishing prejudices against certain perspectives.

By extension, the educational value of terrorist literature in the west in general is reduced. By fuelling the inward-facing, arrogant dialogue that has seen the ascendancy of Trump, this model suggests that despite having actually lived these things, Arabian authors’ stories cannot possibly be of as much value as Western writers.

Ultimately, The Answer Is Research

Without any desire to actually understand the people they’re writing about, Western authors will only create more literature that’s shallow and vacuous. If one has not or cannot live the experience they’re writing about, then they have to trust in the perspectives of those who have.

For readers, starting from within a culture and then venturing out is the best way to get the most balanced perspective. It’s just a shame that that option has never been as accessible as it should be.

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.