Attention displaced bookworms! For this month’s column, Beth Green has some eclectic picks for displaced reads—all of which feature women who transcend national boundaries.
Hello again, Displaced Nationers!
Mother’s Day is coming up in the United States on May 8 (the UK celebrated its mums in March). As an American who lives abroad, I am marking the occasion by reading the beautiful, intriguing A Mother’s Secret, by Renita D’Silva, which came out in early April.
Now living in the UK, D’Silva grew up in a coastal village in South India. Reflecting that background, D’Silva’s debut novel, Monsoon Memories, was about an Indian woman who has been exiled from her family for more than a decade and is living in London (it was a Displaced Nation pick for 2014).
Her latest work, A Mother’s Secret, which came out in early April, tells the story of Jaya, the British-born daughter of immigrants. Jaya struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, Durga, followed by the loss of her baby son in a tragic cot death. Looking through her mother’s belongings, Jaya finds diaries that unlock the secrets of her mother’s unhappy past, before she emigrated to England. Part of the story is told by Durga, through diary excerpts, and part by Kali, a mad old lady who, like Durga, was doing her best to survive and succeed in traditional Indian culture.
I haven’t finished A Mother’s Secret yet—and hadn’t even planned on reviewing it—but I’m still willing to recommend it on the strength of D’Silva’s mesmerizing descriptions of India, along with the finely woven mystery connecting Jaya to her mother and to Kali. In D’Silva’s hands, the the India of several decades ago becomes a place of lush, gothic beauty. Take, for instance, her description of a ruined mansion feared by the villagers and rumored to be haunted:
“Oh there’s a curse all right,” the rickshaw driver huffs. “No boy child survives in that family. Everyone associated with that mansion is cursed with unhappiness, insanity, death. You must be out of your mind to go there, and I have warned you plenty. But it’s none of my business, as long as you pay me three times the fare like you promised.” The rickshaw driver’s hair drips with sweat as his ramshackle vehicle brings them closer and closer to the ruin, which looms over the earth-tinged emerald fields, painting the mud below the dark black of clotted blood.
While on the theme of women’s lives, allow me to segue into another book I finished recently, My Life on the Road, by American feminist activist Gloria Steinem. (It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list, and also a pick by fellow Displaced Nation columnist HE Rybol for a 2016 read.)
As one doesn’t automatically associate with Steinem with travel, I was surprised to learn how much time she has actually spent “on the road.” Her childhood, I was fascinated to discover, consisted of a series of road trips across the United States with her nomadic parents, who made a living selling antiques. She credits these childhood travels with shaping her later talents as a journalist and organizer. And although she no longer leads a peripatetic life—she bought property and established a home base—she estimates she spends more nights out of her house than in it.
Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories— in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.
Notably, one of Steinem’s formative experiences came after her graduation from Smith College, when she won a fellowship to study in India for two years. Living in India broadened her horizons and made her aware of the extent of human suffering in the world. India was also where she learned about the “talking circle”—an intimate form of storytelling “in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.”
The book isn’t a chronological history of this 82-year-old iconic figure’s travels in America and abroad, but rather a (sometimes disjointed) collection of thoughts about why she enjoys constant movement, and a series of vignettes about the people—and personalities—she’s met along the way.
One of the biggest personalities is her father—a larger-than-life figure from whom Steinem has inherited a love of the nomadic life:
I can’t imagine my father living any other life. When I see him in my mind’s eye, he is always the traveler, eating in a diner instead of a dining room, taking his clothes out of a suitcase instead of a closet, looking for motel VACANCY signs instead of a home, making puns instead of plans, choosing spontaneity over certainty.
When I first picked up the book, I was a little apprehensive that it would be all about Steinem’s political views. (Given that this is an election year in the United States, I’m getting my quota of political reading from the daily news!)
Naturally, Steinem does write about politics—after 40 years devoted to leading a revolution for women’s equality, how could she not? For example, Steinem was at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and she drops the usual names you’d expect from that era.
But the majority of her stories are what the title suggests—tales about ordinary people she has encountered on the road, such as taxi drivers or people she met at roadside diners or in airports while on her way to conferences or political events. An example:
Our older driver is like a rough trade character from a Tennessee Williams play— complete with an undershirt revealing tattoos, and an old Marine Corps photo stuck in the frame of his hack license. Clearly, this is his taxi and his world.
The friendships she forges with people across the country, particularly with Native American activists, enliven the book and underscore Steinem’s interest in getting to know local communities—though I sometimes got the bittersweet feeling that, given her restlessness, she will never be more than observer of these grassroots circles. In one such passage, Steinem details a trip she once took to a Native American site in Ohio with the author Alice Walker and Walker’s assistant, Deborah Matthews:
That night we join Deborah’s mother, her eighty-six-year-old grandmother, and teachers and neighbors at a community potluck supper in the school gym. It’s a welcome for us. With the slow-paced humor and warmth I’ve come to cherish, they talk about the history of small-town Ohio, and are delighted that we are interested. Deborah’s grandmother has lived her entire life near Adena mounds that may be even older than the one we just saw. They reminisce about everything from romantic outings in the Great Circle Earthworks to the connection they feel to people they just call “the ancients.”
In short, I’d recommend My Life on the Road not only to anyone interested in Steinem herself and the 1960s American feminist movement, but also to anyone with a passion for travel. (That said, if you’re fed up with hearing about American politics already this year, you might wait until after November to start reading!)
Before I sign off for this month, a book I’d like to mention to any readers thirsting for some armchair adventure is Displaced Nationer and current expat Jennifer S. Alderson’s Down and Out in Kathmandu, which came out at the end of last year and was in my to-be-read pile for 2016.
The first in a planned series of international thrillers, the book introduces us to protagonist Zelda Richardson, a burnt-out Seattle-based computer programmer who is heading to Nepal for a volunteer teaching gig.
Teaching English in Nepal is nothing like Zelda expects—relationships with her host families are fraught, facilities are limited and the students are less than impressed with Zelda herself. While struggling to deal with the strange culture and her unruly classroom, she crosses paths with Ian, an Australian backpacker who is on a teaching sabbatical and simply searching for the best weed he can find.
And then, of course, as often happens when you link up with backpackers, Zelda finds herself entangled with an international gang of smugglers who believe she and Ian have stolen their diamonds. They also cross paths with Tommy, a shady Canadian in Thailand…
Alderson’s next Zelda book, The Lover’s Portrait, is set in Amsterdam and is due out at the end of next month.
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Until next time, happy reading!
As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!
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Thank you Beth Green and The Displaced Nation for including me on this incredible list! Truly an honor. – Jennifer S. Alderson
Hi, Jennifer. ML here. I love that you imagined a female protagonist who is “down and out” in an exotic setting like Katmandu—it certainly makes a change from hearing about the adventures of a penniless British writer in Paris and London. (That said, I still love you, George!)