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

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.


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:


City of Lies- Ramita Navai


From above, Tehran has an ethereal glow. An orange mist hangs over the city, refracting sunrays: a thick, noxious haze that stubbornly clings to every corner, burning the nose and stinging the eyes. Every street is clogged with cars coughing out the black clouds that gently rise and sit, unmoving, overhead…- Ramita Navai, City of Lies

I’ve always been intrigued by Iranian history and this book was fascinating. It’s a collection of stories from various Tehranis, giving us lots of insight into Iranian society. These are the stories of Tehrani citizens, told to the reporter/writer, citizens including a prostitute, an assassin, an exile, and a closeted Islamic militia member.

What I’ll say is this: people who are obsessed with morals and laws are often the least moral (and the most abusive). Some of the stories in the book are heart-wrenching and so unfair. The hypocrisy of life within a very rigid religious society was so obvious from these stories, particularly the hypocrisy around sexuality.

I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about Iran; for example, I had no idea that in the 1970s lots of Iranians provided cheap labour to Japan, doing the ‘3K’ jobs ; kitanai (dirty), Kitsui (difficult), and kurushii (painful). Nor did I know about the chronic drug problem in the country.

Iran seems to be a place of contradictions, and a place where people, young women in particular, seem to be oppressed. Take Somayeh whose family believes that “religion means living by the words of the Koran and the Supreme Leader’s fatwas to earn a place in paradise”:

Somayeh and her friends strongly believed that the hejab should be enforced. They agreed with the law, which states that if your make-up and clothes are contrary to public decency and you intend to attract attention, you can be arrested and taken straight to court…The girls were not to blame for their misogynous views. They had been fed the regime’s line on hejab, which was usually touted around the city via huge billboard advertisements, since birth.


I’m always interested by how oppressive regimes use children to further their agendas, and how they program them to do so. For example:

Morteza’s own views were not changing so much as being formed for the first time. The lectures were having an effect. Islamic scholars thundered about the dangers of moral decay, titillating the boys with enough morsels of lascivious detail to keep them interested and entrusting them with enough responsibility to keep them excited. The boys were wide-eyed with pride when they were told tha they were the guardians of their citizens’ virtue.

I was incredibly frustrated by the limitations such regimes put on its people, the hypocrisy which unfortunately hurts the women and children the most, and how people have to often hide who they truly are. Navai did share some important stories though, and regardless of how oppressive the regime is, people do their best to live, and I’d say that’s pretty inspirational.

The book did remind me of Persepolis, the feminist graphic novel set in Iran, and it’s no wonder because the women in these stories were treated abysmally.

Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto- Jessa Crispin



Making feminism a universal pursuit might look like a good thing—or at the very least a neutral thing—but in truth it progresses, and I think accelerates, a process that has been detrimental to the feminist movement: the shift of focus from society to the individual. What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world has become identity politics, a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories. It has separated us out into smaller and smaller groups until we are left all by ourselves, with our concern and our energy directed inward instead of outward.- Jessa Crispin, Why I am not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

There’s something that Martin Luther King said that I read a few years ago that stuck with me, which is about the importance of reading widely, including reading views that you don’t agree with. I learned that is true and that we can learn a lot from people who think differently.  In the past this isn’t the sort of book I’d have picked up, I mean so many of my readings are feminist-focused; as a black woman I’m interested in feminism, and how to make my life, and the lives of the women in my life, better, so my defenses were slightly up when I read this one.

From my perspective, this book is a critique of feminism, and in my opinion every movement should be critiqued. As Crispin says, “Feminism is—should be—a movement, not an excuse to stand still.” She makes many good points and gave me food for thought. Overall she did make me think about labels and how important it is for us to understand what we are claiming when we take on any label. Basically, this requires self-reflection, and Crispin assumes that feminists do not self-reflect.

Being confronted almost daily with pinkwashing  capitalism, I was really glad that Crispin addressed how feminism is used in advertising.  Crispin says “ It is often supposed that acceptance of the feminist label will also result in the acceptance of the meaning behind it, but the meaning has been drained away by this psychotic marketing campaign. A woman can now take up the feminist label without any true political, personal, or relational adaptations whatsoever. It’s just another button on her jacket, another sticker on her bumper. The inner contents remain unchanged.”

I do agree with this, and additionally I agree with the importance of not celebrating someone just because they are a woman. See this article:

Throughout the book I found myself disagreeing with plenty, and part of that reason was Crispin seems to be focusing on white middle-class feminism, which clearly I have little to no connection with at all. Crispin also uses examples from feminism online, and that makes me think that her data is skewered towards the West, as so much else is. I find that  it’s so easy to forget that there are worlds out there outside of the West, and the citizens of those places might not have the word “feminist” in their vocabulary, may not have access to the internet and other resources, but they are still fighting to improve the lot of women, and in very diverse ways, ways that are not mentioned in this book. Crispin also made several sweeping assumptions that surprised me, such as that feminists hate men.

But still, despite Crispin’s sometimes arrogance and blanket statements, I feel this is an important read. It’s a quick one too, and you can probably skip over a few of her essays as some of the stuff is repetitive.


White is for Witching- Helen Oyeyemi



 “I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home, I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read–I tell you where you are. Don’t turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don’t look.”- The house in Helen Oyeyemi’s “White is For Witching”

Although I bought an Oyeyemi book a few years ago, this is actually the first book of hers that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it although reading the review from the Toronto Star that referred to Oyeyemi as a “kin of Morrison” really rubbed me the wrong way as very lazy and misleading because Oyeyemi’s writing is really not like Morrison’s at all and it’s clear to me that she’s carved her own niche and did so well.

This was a great story, one which I admittedly found it hard to follow at first. However, it’s a story I was rewarded for not giving up on. There is a very unusual stricture wherein a new character starts speaking IN THE MIDDLE OF A SENTENCE! I personally found this brilliant after I got over my initial confusion. Once I got used to that quirk and realized that more like it were coming, it was a fun read. It’s essentially a neo-gothic storyline featuring a demented house which is one of the characters in the book, a pair of strange twins, the spirit of a deceased mother, and a Nigerian housekeeper who watches Nollywood movies. It has some contemporary storylines that focus on refugees and immigration detention centres in England:

You come without papers because you have been unable to prove that you are useful to anyone, and then when you arrive they put you in prison, and if you are unable to prove that you have suffered, they send you home.

I’m really looking forward to reading more from Oyeyemi, i don’t think I’ve ever come across a writer like her, and as young as she is it will be great to see how her craft develops. Definitely recommended.

Angel of Harlem- Kuwana Haulsey



“Sometimes Harlem would just do that, you understand. It would open up and reveal itself in a rigorous display of scents, various and commanding, floating its sounds around and above you, where they swirled generously, like autumn colours. In  a while, you couldn’t tell what was what, really, or where the sensations came from.”- Kuwana Haulsey, Angel of Harlem

This is one of the most beautifully-written books I’ve ever read. Inspired by true events, it’s the story of Dr. May Edward Chinn, the first black woman physician in Harlem (in the 1920s). While reading the story, it’s natural to be amazed by how tenacious people can be, especially marginalized women.  Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about hearing about the first person to do something, to gain some sort of achievement. Even now there are always firsts but it’s not until I read this book that I thought more deeply about what being the first black female doctor in Harlem entailed. Not only is she black, she’s also a woman, so the question that entered my mind was this: How do marginalized people, women in particular, continue on despite society telling them from all angles that they are not supposed to be there?

The story begins with May’s struggles with education, and the barriers she faces from both black and white communities, and from her own father, who doesn’t understand why women need to be educated. He brings up the age-old discussion about how educated women won’t find men:

“Don’t no man want to marry someone got more education than them. Even those college-educated boys don’t want that. Can’t have two men trying to run the same house.”

I think of the genius this woman had, genius that wasn’t nurtured because the world she lived in did not make any room for her. This is a lady who became a doctor and yet was initially in a music program that she was forced out of due to racism:

“The music soothed me. In fact, it flooded me. Music became my joy, my spirit, the bulk and the width of my memories. The notes became integral to me in a breathing way, a way that only my mother’s presence had ever occupied my soul.”

Her foray into music was very important because she came of age during the Harlem Renaissance era. She becomes Paul Robeson’s accompanist and meets a lot of the Harlem Literati. I adore how Haulsey got Zora Neale Hurston’s  and Langston Hughes’ voices down so well on paper. It was interesting reading of a doctor who was in the Harlem Literati group, particularly because the Harlem Renaissance is often seen as a very masculine era, and the women in it were, until recently, not acknowledged as often as the men (see Cheryl T. Hall’s Women of the Harlem Renaissance). Hurston was an important voice in this book as a black female member of the Harlem Literati who also had her own struggles in education. Back then any woman who wanted to do something that was deemed “white” or “male” had a struggle on her hands, and tenacity was a must. So with her musical background, being accompanist for Robeson, and hanging out with the Harlem elite, how did she ever become a doctor?

“The only way a Negro woman had ever gotten inside Harlem Hospital was if she’d been shot, stabbed, beaten or poisoned. I think one or two may have been cleaners, but even those jobs were reserved for the Irish and German women who trekked over from Riverside and farther north up in the Bronx. I was the first. The only.”

Discussion between Zora and May: “First of all, I belong everywhere I am. That’s obvious. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be there. I figure it this way–I didn’t get into Barnard by accident. That being the case, I’m not gonna let anybody play me close. Especially not when the bottom line is that all they want to be is me anyway. They wish they had my nerve. They won’t admit it. Not in so many words. But a cat is still a cat, whether it’s got long hair or short.”

One dimension to the story that was helpful to me in understanding human nature was the story of May’s father, a man who had escaped from slavery.  If you think about the era this story was taking place in, and realize that in the 1920s the memory of slavery was very fresh, then you realize slavery  was the memory her father carried. It can’t have been easy for him to dream, therefore how could he see more for his daughter? His relationship with his daughter reminded me of that of James Baldwin and his stepfather, and how Baldwin was able to understand his step-father a bit better after he considered his life history and the society he was a part of.


My review doesn’t do the book enough justice. This is an amazing book written by an extremely talented writer. I’m so glad to have read it and I hope you will too.