Human Acts- Han Kang

“How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies? Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?”- Han Kang, Human Acts

It’s hard for me to think of South Korea as being in a dictatorial government a mere few decades ago given how modern and democratic the country is now. I’d never heard of the Gwangju uprising before and thanks to Han Kang I at least now have attached an emotional aspect to the uprising, realizing how crucial it is to understand those lives that were lost and altered by the events, and to honour all their braveness.

This is a sad, heartbreaking book, filled with death and tragedies. So many of these stories will be with me for a long time. Each death and torture has a story , in fact several, going back in time, and connecting and intersecting with others, and continuing on into the future. Feelings and thoughts do not end after an incident.

The narrator, the dead boy, was the one who pulled at my heartstrings the most. A lost future.

“Some memories never heal. Rather than fading with the passage of time, those memories become the only things that are left behind when all else is abraded. The world darkens, like electric bulbs going out one by one. I am aware that I am not a safe person.”

Han Kang dealt with the deaths and grief with so much dignity. The best word I can choose to describe her style is haunting. I’ve never read a book that dealt with death in this way. My short review doesn’t do this book much justice. Highly recommended.


A True Novel- Minae Mizumura

“I gradually came to see that though we’re given only one chance to live our lives, we’re at the mercy of something larger than the abilities and personalities we’re born with, something that is beyond our control.”- Minae Mizumura, A True Novel

I saw this book marketed as the Japanese “Wuthering Heights”, which initially put me off as I didn’t enjoy Wuthering Heights much. However, it came highly recommended and I’m so glad I gave it a go. It took me over half the book before I realized why it was marketed in the way it was, and even if you’re not a fan of Wuthering Heights I would still highly recommend it.

“A True Novel” starts off with a focus on the life and thoughts of Minae, a Japanese girl who moved to the States with her family due to her father’s work. I immediately felt drawn to her as person who also left the country she was raised in at a pivotal time in her development, and how she held on to her past even as her birth country was rapidly changing. Some of her feelings really resonated with me and she put into words so perfectly the emotions and feelings that come with the nostalgia Third Culture Kids feel, and also how they feel when they return “home”:

“As I had left Japan just as my childhood was ending, my memories of those years were locked away in a magic chest deep inside me. When I moved back to Japan and faced its day-to-day reality, my desperate longing for my home country quickly dissipated into thin air. But the locked chest remained. When, once in a while, some random happening pried the lid up, I would be overwhelmed by the bright jumble of things inside- by their aura sounds, and smells- qualities that only childhood memories possess.”

Mizumura shows expertly just how Japan changed. I’m always enthralled by literature that attempts to show us the changing mentalities and realities of a place over time. When one of the characters tells us about her childhood in a Japanese village, where there was no travel and there is the tedium of every day being pretty much the same, the daily meals being the same, the people being the same, it makes me think about how globally the world has changed and how there really is more variety and diversity.

Minae also has great cultural insight and I liked her observations of Japanese folk in the US, how they are seen by Americans and vice versa. These moments really caused me to recall the 6 or so years I worked for a Japanese company in Vancouver, a time when I was always meeting Japanese newcomers to Canada and got to know them well enough to find out their views about Canada, and to observe how they embraced western culture, or how they perceived western culture to be. The fairly awkward Christmas party that Minae attended in the book reminded me of the equally awkward first Christmas party my former employer hosted where my Japanese coworkers and students and my Canadian coworkers interacted in a social setting for the first time. What was great about these parties was eventually they became a great opportunity for cultural exchange as they became a fusion of both Japanese and Canadian culture, and as I prefer sushi to turkey I liked that shift. Reading Mizumura’s depiction of the Christmas party reminded me of how fortunate I was to witness what I did.

The focus throughout the book is on the mysterious Taro, who has so much uncertainty surrounding him, and who we only know through the narratives of others. Taro is used by the author to illustrate Japanese impressions of class, education, and being mixed race. Initially we don’t know much about him but when Minae, as an adult, meets Yusuke, a Japanese newcomer to the US, more of the puzzle of who Taro is is filled in through Yusuke’s telling of Taro’s story. Taro’s origin story fascinated me and helped me understand why he was the way he was. This is where the story really sucked me in:

“At long last Yusuke started to tell me his tale, beginning hesitantly but then going on as if unable to stop. I listened with the stillness of deep sleep. The present disappeared. The place where we were disappeared. Even Yusuke and I disappeared. With my sense of the solid reality around us dissolving, the yellowish glow from the small bulbs on the wells looked like will-o’-the-wisps, ghost fires. The wildness outside the little house now seemed distant, as if the power of nature couldn’t penetrate our world.”

There are glimpses to so many worlds in this book, including post war Japan, the lives of upper class Japanese, the life of the Japanese in America and so on. Despite all the complexities that are apparent in writing a novel that contains all these themes, including the fact that Mizumura manages to not only write a novel within a novel in this book, as well as add a chapter of literary criticism, it’s done so seamlessly. I am truly in awe. By far my favourite fiction read so far this year.

“The young man himself didn’t have much of Japan about him, though. One could usually tell, as there’d be an unspoiled air about the new arrival, like a package wrapped in the fresh crisp paper of Japanese department stores.”

All in all this book connected me to so many wonderful characters

On Tràigh Lar Beach- Dianne Ebertt Beeaff

“Stories as thick as clotted cream spring out of these Harris peat bogs.”- Dianne Ebertt Beeaff, On Traigh Lar Beach

Those of you who follow me on Twitter might know about my contribution to Clare Carlin’s Pieced Work. One of the premises of the project is that there are often stories behind objects, and those stories might surprise you. Since I submitted my piece I’ve been thinking a lot about the histories surrounding objects so it felt serendipitous that I came across this book where stories behind objects was a theme.

This book introduces us to a writer who won a prize for her book but since then has had issues with writer’s block. After coming across some objects that have been washed up on a Scottish beach, she is inspired to write a short story that explores the story behind each object. And from writing those short stories she is inspired even further to write a novella based on a fictional Scottish band named Datha. 

The stories in the book to be very powerful, shocking at times. There is often the sense of tragedy and all sorts of strong emotions, things you wouldn’t guess by just looking at the object. Whenever I read a book I often pay attention to the thoughts and ideas that go through my head, and this one got me thinking about humankind on the whole, and how we are all connected, as cliché as it may sound. The objects that washed up on the Scottish beach come from various parts of the world, another reminder.

The author’s writing is very beautiful and I especially loved the way she described nature, which is always there amidst the tragedy, the sadness:

 “How I treasured the velvet dampness of black loam crumbling in my hands. Spring earth sliced with fresh shoots as snappy as wintergreen, autumn’s crunch and rustle, the chilled sea greens of deep summer– those long sunlit afternoons when sweet peas popped like limey jewels into colanders and new potatoes cracked the earth like nuggets of gold.”

The novella, Fan Girls, took me back to my teenage obsession with the Backstreet Boys. I hadn’t really thought about the emotions that go behind being a serious fan of a group for a while, so it was interesting to read the thoughts of the fans of Datha, some of whom remind us just how cathartic and life changing art can be.  As one of my favourite characters, Emily, says, “Datha’s words and the power of their music had ignited a glimmer of my own potential. Isolation melted away with an intensity so intoxicating I could still ball it up in my fist like lightning. I’d stretched my soul out into the glittering darkness, released from expectation, from dependence and fear, determined that whatever threads still held together the thin fabric of my existence, being beaten could not possibly be one of them.”

This was definitely one of my favourite reads of year, especially welcome in a year in which I couldn’t find much to maintain my attention. Thanks so much for Smith Publicity for the complimentary copy!

“Catching” Stories

My grandmother wrote her own obituary. I wasn’t surprised that she did this because this is a woman who has always been strong and deliberate with her words and message. Writing her obituary gave her power over her own story, and it also shed light on what was important to her and how she wants to be remembered. But the obituary doesn’t tell her entire story of course.

As of this date (November 19, 2020), my grandmother is still very much alive. I have a copy of her obituary, which she wrote in Chichewa. She is 91 years old and has been contemplating the afterlife for a while now. I can understand her fixation on death in a sense, I guess it’s only natural at her age. Before she gave me a copy of her obituary in December she made me promise I would contribute to her funeral expenses, and of course I agreed. I read the obituary while I was with her and it felt strange reading about her in the past tense when she was right in front of me. All that’s missing on her obituary is her date of death and the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who survived her. Since I last saw her, a great-granddaughter has been added to her list, so clearly my grandmother is still very mindful of future changes.

As a child I only ever saw my grandmother in the role of grandmother, not really as a person in her own right, with her own history, struggles, desires, feelings, dreams dashed and dreams achieved. I was always in awe of her, a bit intimidated at times, truth be told. I was named after her so we have always shared a special bond because of that (she always likes to remind me of the time when at age 5 I opened her mail because I read my, our, name on the envelope). Even now as she has shrunk to below 5 feet tall she is still a force to be reckoned with and she still commands respect. As an adult I wanted to to learn more about what stories and experiences contributed to the personality of this extraordinary woman.

During the last few years I’ve been working on my family tree and have found out some very interesting information. Names and dates on a family tree are interesting and useful, but what’s even more enlightening are the stories. Families are more than a case of A begat B, C was born on this date, D died on that date, and I’d been thinking about getting my grandmother’s story before it was too late. I wasn’t even sure she’d be willing to share. In the past it was very often my grandmother telling me stories unprompted, and I just wanted to be entertained so I listened. This time I was older and knew the questions I wanted to ask her, questions that would help me understand not only her but my paternal family and where we come from.

She didn’t even give me much warning when she started telling me her story in that very powerful and sure voice of hers. She had been a teacher before she retired and to me she has always embodied that spirit of a teacher. She had taught elementary school English and in her presence I often feel like I’m one of her students. 

She loves us, that we have always known and felt. Family is important to her and we know our visits make her very happy. Her little living room is filled with mementos from her life, including pictures of my sisters and I in our school uniforms in Scotland. She likes to reminisce, and never throws out a single card or letter. I had always joked about my grandmother being a hoarder but now I understand the significance of the mementos she keeps. In that regard I did take after her. I collect too, I collect things to remember but also to understand. My grandmother has lived in the same country her entire life; she has strong ties to it obviously, and she knows the land she came from and where her people came from. I see her history, the history of my paternal family, in the landscape as she points things out to me. My gran told her story with so much authority and certainty whereas for me I am still trying to connect the various threads of my story, to make sense of them being, as it were, removed by distance from my motherland, living a life here in Canada continents away from the majority of my family.

It’s always interested me how different of a perspective you can get of a person when they share something personal from their life. I realized that, despite her conservatism, my grandmother has been, at times, radical. The fact that she and her friend walked from the then-capital city of Zomba to the city where I was born, Blantyre, a distance of 70km, stuns me. She went there for work, in an era where young women got married young and had babies, not move to the big city to find jobs. She talked about how she and her friend were scared that they would encounter wild animals alongside the road because back then there was a lot more wildlife in the countryside. She told me about how broken-hearted she had been when the man she was supposedly engaged to had, all the while, been engaged to another woman. She never did tell me his name, perhaps because it didn’t matter anymore, and I’m glad she had her happily ever after with my late grandfather Arnold, whom she still misses. 

I learned the term “storycatcher” from Christina Baldwin and after hearing my grandmother’s story, and subsequently hearing stories from other relatives, I feel I was destined to be one myself. My conversation with my grandma put me on that path. I now feel inspired to act, to take down my family’s most important stories, share them, make sense of them. I’m grateful for the opportunity that I had to speak with my grandmother and hear her story.


A coworker of mine, a woman who I considered a sort of kindred spirit,  passed away unexpectedly a couple of months ago. I had always liked Helen; she was friendly and had a warm and exuberant  personality. She was curious about life, and interested in helping people. She was also the first person I knew who lived on a boat and during wind storms I always worried about her because I get motion sickness and couldn’t even imagine being in a boat at a time like that. What drew Helen and I closer, though, was a story, one Helen remembered prompted by something I had said. It was a quiet day at the office and I was chatting about my writing aspirations and my love of literature. My story activated her memory and I remember Helen getting a little bit emotional when she started thinking about her own experiences. Helen said hearing my story brought her back to her university days and a teacher of hers who had encouraged her to focus on poetry and literature. Looking back I feel sharing her story had a healing property on Helen, while hearing her story reinforced my own positive choices. As different as we were, we were able to see a commonality and grow closer in the space of several minutes. 

Helen’s story went on to something spectacular over the next few days. If Helen were still alive I’d have asked for her permission to share it, so you’ll have to believe me when I say that sometimes you never know what path a story will lead you on; it sometimes has a mind of its own. When I think of Helen, which I do often, I think of how we connected through storytelling and I think of how, although she left far too soon, she left me with a beautiful story that I will treasure forever

So Long a Letter- Mariama Bâ

We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the ‘hard sweat’ that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive. Mariama Bâ, So Long a Letter

Mariama Bâ means a lot to me because she was the first African woman writer I’d ever read. I like to think I recognized her genius at age 14 when I read So Long a Letter for the very first time but it’s only now as an adult with more awareness and lived experience that I really understand how powerful of a writer she was.

This book seems simple enough in storyline, a long letter written by Ramatoulaye to Aissatou, her long time friend on the event of Ramatoulaye’s recent widowhood. The letter  contains so much more than just words to a friend though;  incorporates feminism, Senegalese tradition, religion, and history, all the things that were very relevant to the lives of these two women. Ramatoulaye, mother of 12 children whose husband of 30 years abandoned her 5 years prior to his death for a much younger second wife, details her childhood, marriage struggles and so on. The emotions that are brimming under the surface may not have had an outlet in many circumstances but in this case the protagonist has an audience in her best friend Aissatou who, when her husband decided to take on a second wife, divorced him rather than stay in a polygamous household against her wishes.

I’ve always been interested in stories that take place during times of transition and this letter details a lot of the thoughts and observations of the transition from colonialism to independence. This winter I sat down with my 90 year old grandmother who was a young primary school English teacher during colonialism and she told me about what a hopeful time independence seemed to be for African women. She told me about how empowered she felt being able to work, and another thing she mentioned was how people thought that she, as a woman in the 1940s and 50s, must be pretty eccentric to even want to work. I had always thought of my grandmother as very conservative and traditional but hearing her story made me realize she was more of a rebel than I’d ever be. Mariama Bâ was coincidentally born in the same year as my grandmother so rereading her thoughts on African feminism during this time really made me reflect on my conversations with my grandmother and how life changed for African women during transitions:

We were true sisters, destined for the same mission of emancipation. To lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us: these were
the aims of our admirable headmistress.

It’s interesting reading this book in the 21st century, over half a century onwards from independence and realizing that that hope the continent felt was sort of misplaced and didn’t come to fruition in many ways because of poor governance. A powerful book that I’m sure I’ll love forever.


Assumptions: what happens when the cover doesn’t “match” the contents?

I remember how, when I was 12 years old my American teacher in Malawi asked me if I had copied the story she had assigned we write for English class. She was kind when she was interrogating me, and looking back I sensed she was gently trying to teach me a lesson. The story I’d written was about a group of children, à la Famous Five, having an adventure in the Scottish countryside. I’d spent my childhood reading lots of Enid Blyton books, and adventure stories by other writers and they were definitely my favourite genre. I was lucky to have grown up with fellow imaginative readers who liked faking adventures in the Scottish woods, and a best friend whose mother worked for Harper Collins, so when my teacher asked us to write a story, it only made sense that I’d want to replicate the theme I loved the most, in a setting I knew well. I didn’t talk very much in class because I was still very conscious about being teased about my accent, so there is a chance that my teacher didn’t know I had just moved to Malawi from Scotland less than a year ago. When I took my international school’s entrance test  I remember the headmaster, Mr D., being so amused by this black kid who spoke with a Glaswegian accent that he invited a group of teachers into the room to hear me speak! I lost track of all the students and teachers who teased and bullied me because of my accent (to this day I still have no idea why I was called a Scottish monk as an insult). There are events that take place, especially when you are younger, that you don’t have the vocabulary  to verbalize, but you know they are important, and hopefully when you are older you can determine why. This was one of those events.

I didn’t even know what plagiarism was in those days, and I thought that the issue my teacher had with me was my writing a story that she didn’t think I had the right to write. Why would I, a black child, be writing about Scotland?  I was always fairly gifted when it came to literature but I wouldn’t say my writing was that good at age 12, so my still naive understanding told me that maybe I had done something wrong by having been inspired by British stories. I haven’t written a story since, and looking back I see that situation was one of several transformative ones that made me understand that how I looked did not align with what people expected of my reality and my lived experiences. Over the years it made me adamant that I would not assume someone’s story based on their appearance.

 Since that fateful day in English class, I’ve  learned plenty about myself and my place in the world, and how people like me are called Third Culture Kids, those who are often stuck between cultures and end up creating their own culture, a third culture. I’ve written and talked about being an invisible immigrant and how it’s hard to find a place to belong. My personal experiences have helped me empathize with all sorts of people and even now I do delight in meeting people with unusual stories, stories you could not possibly imagine based on their appearance, nationality, etc. It’s a learning experience when assumptions are shattered, and hopefully it serves as a reminder for us to get to know people before assuming we can put them in a predefined box without doing the work.  

Had I had the words back then I’d have said to my English teacher Mrs H., yes I was a Scottish-Malawian child writing a story based on the only country I knew intimately, in a country that, although was my birth country, I felt rejected me due to my foreignness. Yes, I was familiar with the gorse, heather, thistles and daffodils because I had not yet learned the flamboyants, jacarandas, and frangipanis. I needed, at that time, an anchor, and literature has always been my anchor. That story I attempted to write and then tore up out of shame was the one I needed to write to feel connected to a country I missed at a time when I felt alien in my own country of birth, when I mispronounced the name of my own neighbourhood, where despite looking like the majority, I still had a strong sense of unbelonging that others could not possibly see or imagine. In the end, it was literature that provided me with a safe place in which to connect with familiar experiences and remember my past, the one where I felt comfortable in, accepted, aware and knowledgeable of my surroundings, the culture.


The Door- Magda Szabo


In Emerence’s world there were two kinds of people, those who swept and those who didn’t, and everything flowed from that.- Magda Szabo, The Door

This is a book I’d gladly recommend to anyone. I love books that focus on a character storyline, and Emerence is one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever come across in literature. Szabo really fleshed her out so much that I could almost envision her. She’s one of those stubborn women clinging on to her own way of life, refusing to understand the present changes in society, yet her perspective is crucial and in a way you could say her life is better because it’s simpler. I don’t really know much about Hungary, but this book introduced me to Hungary after the war, after communism. It’s narrated by a writer in post-war Hungary who, with her poorly husband, decides to hire the elderly and energetic, but strange, Emerence as her housekeeper. Emerence is “fearless, enchantingly and wickedly clever, brazenly impudent”, a strange woman with her secrets, and when she enters the narrator’s and her husband’s lives it’s clear they will never be the same again.

What I like the most about the book is how we really get to see and understand Emerence, a woman with a mysterious past, a stubborn nature and just so much strength, as well as a really unique way of looking at life, which perhaps wasn’t so unique back in the day. Being illiterate and folksy, it’s so hard or downright impossible to impress her, and she’d rather trust in her own old school wisdom.

While I was reading this book I was reminded of My Antonia by Willa Cather, another book I love because of how real the protagonist feels to me. Like Antonia, Emerence’ spirit “shines bright, but through a cloud of steam. Such a thirst for life, but so diffused over everything; such immense talent, achieving nothing.”




The Cardinals and Other Stories- Bessie Head


The whole principle of living and learning is dependent on what is going on in the mind. The mind is like a huge, living tapestry. Everything we see, hear, learn and experience gets fixed into this tapestry for good and, each day, more impressions are being imprinted on it.- Bessie Head, The Cardinals

Bessie Head’s writing really resonates with me. Since I learned a bit about Head’s own sad but inspiring life, it’s been almost impossible for me to read any of her work without thinking of how her own experiences informed her writing by changing how she viewed the world. As painful as it was for her to be an outsider, it also gave her freedom  as she was often able to see what others couldn’t, and she could afford to be more honest, after all, what did she have to lose if she didn’t pledge allegiance to any group?  Born during apartheid of an illegal union between a white woman and a black man, much of Head’s life was clearly about coming to terms with unbelonging, and  one of the ways she did this was by ridiculing the system that deemed her an illegal person. Along with Mariama Ba, Nawal El Saadawi, and Buchi Emecheta,  Head is one of the African woman writers who I feel did a lot to look closely at and critique the systems they were a part of. Like the other women mentioned, she was a keen observer of her society, and was able to point out the hypocrisies and highlight the stories that others ignore or gloss over.

This is a book of short stories, the titular one, The Cardinals, being a novella of 120 pages. It’s the one that impressed me the most, although the shorter stories at the end of the book were also really good. The Cardinals is about Miriam, later nicknamed Mouse, a young woman of uncertain paternity who is described by Johnny, the male protagonist, as having been born in a dung heap. The story calls to mind the many people who are born in environments that don’t nurture them, but somehow are able to make some sort of life for themselves and utilize their gifts. Mouse escapes from a shanty town near Cape Town and starts working for a trashy South African tabloid. Head uses her work as a reporter to illustrate the absurdities of the Immorality Rule wherein the races were not allowed to mix and have sexual relations.

The relationship that develops between Mouse and Johnny is quite unnerving. There’s a connection between them that others can’t explain, because “Mouse is only a woman and a rather dull, drab and colourless  one at that…No man in his right mind would look twice at her.” With Johnny being considerably older and definitely more worldly, there’s also a power dynamic and plenty of antagonism.  We see Johnny as a mentor to Mouse’s writing and Head uses him to share some of her own succinct views of life, love, and writing.

You come from the same environment that I do and there are things that happened that marked me for life. I just cannot obliterate the scars.


In writing, as in every other aspect of my life, I observe no rules or style. Just the thought of having to follow a set of rules or wedging myself into a style is enough to make my hair stand on end. Style must conform to me—my every mood, whim or fantasy.”


The funny thing about writing is that it makes you start thinking. Once you’ve started the process, you just can’t stop. It makes you articulate too. If you write and write every day you begin to feel that your brain is like a well-preserved machine churning out things that will eventually prove to be of use to someone, somewhere.


Definitely a 5 star read.

Between Two Worlds- Miriam Tlali


I had thought I had seen everything there is to see, heard everything there is to hear, in my experience with people, black, white and brown, in this Republic of South Africa. But I was to realize that I had so far seen and heard very little of this beloved land of ours, especially as far as relationships between the different races are concerned. – Miriam Tlali, Between Two Worlds

I have no idea how I’d never heard of Miriam Tlali before I came across this book by chance at my local library. Tlali, I learned, passed away in 2017 and she had the honour of being the first black female South African novelist to be published.

Between Two Worlds is a story that illustrates apartheid in 1960s South Africa through the eyes of Muriel, a black bookkeeper who is overqualified for the position at the Metropolitan Radio, a retail store that sells radios, electrical appliances, and furniture in Soweto.  On a daily basis Muriel has to deal with petty racism, reminders from her white coworkers that they consider her to be less than human, and knowing she would be able to find better work had there not been an apartheid society.

Tlali’s writing gives us an important lens into various parts of South African society, such as race relations, the Land Act, and Pass Laws. It’s easy to have a basic idea of what apartheid was, what it was like for the people living under it, but without hearing stories from the actual people involved, it’s difficult to imagine how it permeated every area of people’s lives, and the many different ways it manifested. Apartheid without question was a gross injustice and learning more details through Tlali’s novel really had me very indignant at, for example,  how despite racist societies putting down a group of people and seeing them as subhuman, those in power still did their best to take advantage of these people and take them for every penny.

Tlali is so observant and often witty too, and it is so reassuring that she was able to see the hypocrisies she faced on a daily basis so clearly. Also, she never had any doubt as to what a brilliant black woman she was, although the society she lived in tried to say otherwise. She was aware of the ethical dilemma she faced being a black woman employed by white South Africans:

“How was I going to work with people who were not even prepared to give me a chance and who were squeezing as much money as they could out of my own black fellow workers?”

Another thing I liked about this book was it’s a snapshot of how communications were conducted in the 1960s. Before the internet, the main way to communicate was through letters, and it was dizzying to think about how many letters and follow-up letters had to be written before email came along.

These links share more about the life and activism of this incredible woman: