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[Monday Reading] Fierce Feral Primal Award-Winning Female Voices From Nigeria and Ireland

"Milkman" by Anna Burns | "Freshwater" by Akwaeke Emezi.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community. 

I originally did not intend to put these two stories together, but their voices are just so unique, unabashedly smoking with contained rage, that they feel like they belong together. If I were to really reflect on it, both multi-award-winning titles deal with themes of violence against women, physical and mental abuse, and females reclaiming their own bodies, power, voice.

Milkman [Amazon | Book Depository]

Written by Anna Burns
Published by Faber & Faber (2018)
ISBN: 0571338763 (ISBN13: 9780571338764) Literary Awards: Booker Prize (2018), National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (2018), Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee (2019), The Orwell Prize for Political Fiction (2019). Bought a copy of the book. Book quote layout using Typorama.

I felt slightly out-of-breath as I was reading this novel. I was reading it while I was still in the US and finished it a week after arriving back home in Singapore. The narration had a frenzied, hurried, painfully detailed feel to it, as if there is this struggle to find a word, then a phrase, then constellations of sentences to illuminate, to strengthen, to amplify a burning sensation, a strangled scream, a ripped truth torn from one’s throat.

It speaks so powerfully of the micro-aggressions levelled against the female species, the vulnerability of women, the utter helplessness in the face of disbelief, with neighbours, family, friends – the whole of society shifting the burden of blame always to the women – for something they must have done, or something they have failed to do to protect themselves, as if by wearing a particular clothing or speaking in a nasty way, or in this story’s case – reading-while-walking, or doing so much running around – to deserve the stalking, the preying, the violation of one’s personal space – primarily because one is of a particular gender.

There is outrage here, but also intelligent reflection masking as near-incoherent babbling, but one that is purposive, sharp, astute. Throughout it all is the historical backdrop of The Troubles, the insurgents, the enemy from outside the city’s borders, the pervasive sense of loss that is all-permeating that one prefers darkness more than light, as can be seen in the quote below:

I was especially moved by the phrase above as it also pertains to a peripheral female character in the story – referred to as one of them shiny people – even as she is perceived as strange, tolerated only slightly, but always set apart as not one of us. The fear of the shiny, bright, effervescent beings can be seen so poignantly in this quote:

What if we accept these points of light, their translucence, their brightness; what if we let ourselves enjoy this, stop fearing it, get used to it; what if we come to believe in it, to expect it, to be impressed upon by it; what if we take hope and forgo our ancient heritage and instead, and infused, begin to entrain with it, with ourselves then to radiate it; what if we do that, get educated up to that, and then, just like that, the light goes off or is snatched away?

Hence, one’s existence is bound up by the “constant, unacknowledged struggle to see.”

Then there is the notion of what is proper, decent, earning the society’s tacit nod of approval – as opposed to living one’s truth, seeing mauve and tangerines in the skies rather than just a stubborn blue, and earning the right to own one’s choices in life. At its very core is the novel’s interrogating how women are always obligated to answer to society’s demands, their choices challenged, their decisions questioned – as if they are not entitled to their own minds, their bodies, their personal spaces that define the boundaries between Woman and another. This is an unforgettable novel, one that I hope will find you soon.

Freshwater [Amazon | Book Depository]

Written by Akwaeke Emezi
Published by Faber Faber (2019, first published 2018)
ISBN: 0571345409 (ISBN13: 9780571345403) Literary Awards: Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Transgender Fiction (2019), Wellcome Book Prize Nominee for Longlist (2019), Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2019), Nommo Award Nominee for Best Novel (The Ilube Award) (2019), Aspen Words Literary Prize Nominee for Longlist (2019) Bought a copy of the book. Book quote layout using Typorama.

Everything about this book screams shamans, spirits, priestesses, gods, demons, mythical beings. Yet, it is also All-Woman: with all of female’s frailty, feral courage, total unraveling and eventual rebirth.

The female protagonist here is not one – but many. She is fragmented into multiple beings – but this is not a classic case of dissociative disorder, as Westerners would perhaps minimize the entire experience. It is divinity, belief, and touching, albeit brief and burning, the eternal within one’s consciousness.

As I was reading the story, I am distinctly reminded of cases of sapi in the Philippines, roughly translated as a form of demonic possession. But this is a Western conception and translation of a highly indigenous experience: its animistic roots can be traced from the time before the Christian God, when the indigenous babaylans and catalonans and female priestesses were believed to be one with the earth and are able to commune with spirits and deities who are neither just clearly good nor evil. They can be benevolent, cruel, jealous and punitive – but never just plain good or bad. Hence, this novel spoke to me in an almost-visceral fashion; my cultural reality articulated in a ferocious, gnashing, bone-crushing manner that defies all conventions.

From a clinical perspective, I am also deeply fascinated by how madness or the fragmentation of one’s core has been characterized in a blindingly-clear fashion: all teeth, worming its way into the light, struggling to make its presence felt, perceived, feared. It does not care too much about rationalizations, psychopathological jargons, or even made sense of. It is fragmented, gloriously broken, its pieces lodged in the crevices of the brain or whatever it is that passes for one’s soul.

Yet despite the horrorhorrorhorror, the primal screams, the pulling of one’s hair, the self-mutilation, there is redemption, courage, and an acknowledgment of We within One. 

I had to take several breaths of clean air before I dived back into this narrative multiple times; it is unapologetically filled with rage, but also with an aching vulnerability that sings, chants, and prays. It is both sacred and profane, venerated and vile, holy and wretched. Another unforgettable story that is most certainly one of my top ten reads this year.

#WomenReadWomen2019: Ireland (Anna Burns) | Nigeria (Akwaeke Emezi)

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

4 comments on “[Monday Reading] Fierce Feral Primal Award-Winning Female Voices From Nigeria and Ireland

  1. Milkman has been on my radar for a while, but I’m definitely going to push it higher on the TBR list. Freshwater also sounds amazing. I love the way you included the book quotes!


  2. I’ve enjoyed reading up more on both these titles here on your blog and through Goodreads. I’ll have to see if I can find Freshwater locally. They both sound quite fascinating. Thanks for sharing, Myra!


  3. Pingback: [Saturday Reads] My 2019 in Books: Favourite Reads Across Quarterly Reading Themes – Gathering Books

  4. Pingback: [Monday Reading] The Horror in Akwaeke Emezi’s Stories – Gathering Books

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