Books of the year

I love this time of the year when you can sink into a good book. Depending on where you are in the world, you could be reading in your deck chair in the summer garden or snuggled up in your favourite chair by the fire. I’m really looking forward to taking a break from work and study and some guilt-free reading time

As the year comes to a close it can be a time for reflection, regardless of your culture or religion. I’ve been thinking about the many interesting and inspiring books I have read this year and wanted to give you some recommendations. It’s hard to pick the best but I have chosen two fiction and two non-fiction books for your summer/winter reading list or as a Christmas gift suggestion.

Fiction

Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenement of the Greengage Tree is an introduction to the wonderful world of magical realism and I highly recommend this for a different reading experience.

This year I re-read an old favourite and thought I would include it. Café Scheherazade by Arnold Zable traces the experience of Jewish survivors whose lives reflect the courage of refugees everywhere.   Arnold is one of my favourite authors – a master story teller.

Non- fiction

City Of Thorns by Ben Rawlence is my stand out book for the year.   It traces nine lives in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya. It is haunting and at the same time inspiring.   I was lucky enough to meet and interview Ben at this year’s Perth Writers Festival.

Not Quite Australian by Peter Mares is easy to read and informative at the same time.  I learnt so much from this book. Peter discusses how temporary migration is changing Australia. Did you know there are more than a million temporary migrants living in Australia today? Case studies, personal stories and supporting data are compelling in this book.

There are so many more books and I am sure you have your own favourites… I’d love to hear from you about your list. 

Season’s greetings to all and happy reading.

P.S. I am really looking forward to a new release called The Power of Good People – surviving Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Para Paheer with Alison Corke.

 

 

Human rights begin close to home

Eleanor Roosevelt HRD“Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured), chair of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said these words 70 years ago when the Declaration was launched. She went on to say unless these rights have meaning close to home they will have little meaning anywhere else.   This is surely something on which to reflect during International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2017.

This is a milestone document that proclaims the inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property birth or other status. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the declaration in 1948. It is the most translated document in the world available in more than 500 languages. There’s more information on the United Nations website.

Wherever you are – there will be all sorts of events to recognise the day.   I’ll be attending a meeting at the Centre for Stories to discuss forming a Western Australian chapter of PEN, which is the worldwide association of writers that emphasises the role of literature in mutual understanding and world culture. PEN is also concerned with opposing restraints of freedom of expression and working to promote literacy itself.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights empowers us all and reminds us of what we all have in common – our humanity. The principles enshrined in the Declaration are as relevant today as they were in 1948. We need to stand up for our own rights and those of others.

 

UDHR Poster idea C2

 

Respect and dignity

Rosemarys Dad (1)

My father, Colin Sayer

My late father was driven by a set of simple values all his life: that all people deserve respect and dignity whoever they are. He often said, ‘I don’t care if you are the Queen of England or a street sweeper – we’re all human and just the same.’

Those values were imprinted on me and today help define who I am. Every day as I continue my PhD studies in human rights and the writing of refugee stories I am reminded of my Dad’s values and by the common threads of humanity that bind us all.

I had the chance to reflect on this a few weeks ago at the Australian Academy of the Humanities two day symposium with its theme of humanitarianism and human rights. Academics, writers and thinkers discussed what it meant to be human and compassionate and what happens when we are not.

My dad would have laughed about the application of academic and social theories to something he saw as so straight forward. I can imagine my explanations of why I needed to study and research these issues as well as be an advocate for human rights. I think it would have baffled him.

However, he would have been horrified at the racist policies of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party and the election of Donald Trump with his nationalistic and divisive views. We would have talked about why people are frightened and how that fear has been shrouded in a security discussion that positions asylum seekers and refugees as potential terrorists… or someone different to us… someone seen as ‘other’. I’m sure he would have been concerned about security issues too, but we would have come back to our shared values of respect and dignity when we discussed the situation on Manus Island or the treatment of people by the Australian government who have been found to be refugees and still don’t have permanent residency and access to the services they need.

scottkim03

Kim Scott, Author

If he’d been at the event he also would have loved writer Kim Scott’s moving and intimate portrait of his life as young Aboriginal boy searching for an identity and a sense of belonging. While my dad was never short of a word, and certainly had strong views on many issues in society, he loved meeting people from different backgrounds and went out of his way to do so. He loved a good story and he listened well. He was empathetic – although he would have told me not to use fancy words.

Like many writers and commentators, I have come to believe that this lack of empathy for others allows some in society to express more racist views and to see human rights violations as ‘not their concern.’ Without empathy, my dad’s values of dignity and respect for everyone seem a distant concept.

human rights conference

Photograph by Barat Ali Batoor

Voices from Iran

What a joy it was to meet and interview three outstanding Iranian writers Sholeh Wolpe, Sanaz Foutouhi and Shokoofeh Azar at the 2017 Ubud Readers and Writers Festival last week.

Our discussion ranged over the rich history of Persian literature, the influence of heritage and why we should all read more works from around the world in translation. These writers are creating a new chapter in diasporic literature.

Sanaz has written a book about meaning and identity since the Islamic Revolution. The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora is a must read for anyone who wants to begin to understand writing from Iran. Sanaz is also the Director of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators and works tirelessly to promote voices from different regions.

Sholeh lights up any room when she reads her beautiful poetry or other work. She is also an award winning playwright and translator. Her translation of Attar’s The conference of the Birds is a book I return to again and again. Attar was considered by Rumi to be the master of Sufi mystic poetry.

And, of course, Shokoofeh Azar is a writer I know well. I have already reviewed her first book in English called The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is an enthralling novel that combines magical realism alongside Iranian politics.

The writers discussed the challenges of working across cultures and how to encourage more people to read literature from Iran.   Perhaps, the most poignant moment came when I asked each of the writers about home. Shokoofeh cannot return to Iran.   She was jailed as a journalist and had to flee for her life. Sholeh feels she may never be able to return to Iran because of what she has written since moving to the United States.   Sanaz, however, returns frequently to Iran from Australia. I felt the great sense of loss from Shokoofeh and Sholeh in missing that connection to their homeland.

In Sholeh’s words:

Home is like a missing tooth.

The tongue reaches

For hardness

But falls

Into absence.

Ubud festival 2017 panel

Spiritual Mount Agung Volcano

Ubud Readers and Writers Festival Founder and Director Janet De Neefe knows the power and beauty of Mount Agung. From the terrace of her famed restaurant, Indus, she has watched Gunung Agung for nineteen years. ‘We respect whatever choice she makes, but we also hope it’s compassionate’, says Janet.

The mountain, which is the highest point in Bali, is a very sacred place. In every Balinese temple a shrine is dedicated to its spirit.mount Agung

Because of a possible eruption from Mount Agung, an estimated 140,000 people in surrounding areas have been evacuated and moved into makeshift shelters and formerly bustling travel hotspots have been left virtually empty. Festival organisers have looked at all options through their crisis planning and have decided to proceed.

We are doing everything possible to help the displaced villagers,” Janet said this week in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. ‘Ubud won’t be directly affected by the volcano and none of the writers has panicked or threatened to pull out. The Balinese are kind of chilled, like, “Ehh – this could take months”,’ she says. ‘But there’s lots of frantic expats out there.’ The Guardian newspaper has a more in depth look at the current situation.

I love this festival and have been attending as a moderator and interviewer for over a decade. This year I am very pleased to be interviewing Jung Chang the author of Wild Swans, Empress Dowager Cixi, Mao: The Unknown Story.

I am also moderating a wonderful panel of Iranian women writers. Sanaz Fotouhi is Director of Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Conference, a writer and filmmaker. Sholeh Wolpé is an award-winning Iranian-born poet, playwright and literary translator and my friend Shokoofeh Azar, is a rising star of Iranian literature, whose first novel has just been published in English. On our panel, we’ll be discussing the magic of diasporic Iranian literature. The writers will contemplate the influence of their ancient Persian heritage and share insights gleaned from working and writing across cultures. I can’t wait to talk to this wonderful group of writers.

The Ubud Readers and Writers Festival was born from tragedy. In 2002, after the Bali bombings, Janet founded the festival to encourage visitors back to the region. It is now regarded as one of the best writers’ festivals in the world, highlighting and promoting Indonesian authors and attracting some of the biggest names in the international literary scene. I always tell people this is the one festival you MUST see sometime.

We are all hoping a rumbling volcano won’t discourage people from attending the 2017 Ubud Readers and Writers Festival.

Ubud writers festival logo

A Country of Refuge

I really enjoyed the anthology edited by Tom Keneally and Rosie Scott. A country too far features fiction, memoir, poetry and essays about seeking asylum by 27 of Australia’s best writers including: Anna Funder, Kim Scott, Raimond Gaita, Christos Tsiolkas, Gail Jones, Les Murray and Dorothy Hewitt.

It was released in 2013 and I can remember attending a writer’s festival event to hearTom and Rosie talk about how the book came together. Rosie talked about the way in which the best writers can get to the heart of things because of their clarity of language and powerful insights. Tom, in in his eloquent way, reminded politicians that the inflammatory and inaccurate language they were using was de-humanising. In the introduction to the book he wrote “the fact that they are talking about the most marginalised people on earth – deeply traumatised refugees who have lost their countries, homes and families through disasters of every kind – is lost in a storm of venom and cliché.”

It is a powerful book of unique voices and experiences.

Little did I know that it also inspired another book in another country. While on holiday, I spent my obligatory self-indulgent morning trailing over all the floors of Foyles A Country of RefugeBookshop in London and came across A Country of Refuge – an anthology of writing about asylum seekers by outstanding British and Irish writers.  Editor Lucy Popescu conceived of the idea in 2014 when she received her copy of A country too far just as the European refugee crisis began to make news when thousands of people fled across the Mediterranean into Europe.

Featuring outstanding writers like Sebastian Barry, Rose Tremain, Marina Lewycka and William Boyd, it takes the same approach as A country too far, combining, memoir, short fiction and essays with poetry. Barry’s opening short story ‘Fragment of a journal, author unknown’ recalls Ireland’s famine years in the nineteenth century when tens of thousands of starving people risked voyages across the Atlantic in hazardous coffin ships. Many disturbing parallels can be drawn between the exodus of the famine years and the current refugee crisis.

The book is poignant and thought-provoking.

Both anthologies are highly readable and can be picked up and put down as the mood strikes, which given the topic, is not a bad way to read and reflect on them.

Barbara Kingsolver, praising the skill required to write a memorable short story, described the form as entailing ‘the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces.’ All The writing in A Country of Refuge and A country too far may be short, but you won’t forget what you read for a long time.

A Country of Refuge – edited by Lucy Popescu (Unbound, 2016)

Recommended reading

While I was on holidays recently I put together a list of some of the most interesting books about refugees that I have found, and added it the website. This reading list is not exhaustive, but it should have something for everyone. My recommended book list includes books about:

  • Personal stories,
  • The Australian situation,
  • The European situation,
  • Fiction, and
  • Other interesting reads.

Some of the books are very new and some were published a while ago. One published over 10 years ago is still a wonderful read – The rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif is likely to remain an Australian classic for many years to come. New publications such as The New Odyssey – the story of Europe’s refugee crisis are wonderfully researched, but give you a personal perspective on the current global situation.

I have also included some fiction, as book clubs contact me for recommendations. What is the what by Dave Eggers, for example, is heart breaking but rewarding at the same time. I’m not sure why some book clubs don’t feel comfortable taking on non-fiction – you couldn’t go wrong with Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit or City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence.

I’ll keep adding to the list and I would love to hear about other recommendations.