I was trying to think of something to write a blog post about, and then I realized that I should write about what I know. Isn’t that what we are doing when we write anyway?
But what do we actually know? I think when we write about what we know it is the sum total of our personal and public lives, the books we read, the thoughts and emotions we sometimes endure and other times delight in. So we write about rather a great deal as it happens, we could also write about the mundane and the daily routine of our lives where the gift of writing has the potential to turn the everyday into scenes of extraordinary subtlety and pathos.
It was this line of thinking that made me want to share three books with you that humbled me with the quality of their prose. They also moved me with the depth and nuance of emotion they conveyed about people’s lives in very different circumstances to my own. In each case they have both inspired me to write and develop my own material and examine my own motivations for what I write and how I write it. I cannot recommend these books enough.
Azar Nafisi’s memoir in books recounts her life living through the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and on through the 1980’s. It follows her subsequent exile from Iran and eventual return to teach English Literature in Tehran under the new regime and then finally her decision to move permanently to Washington DC with her family. The book is split into four sections each based around a book or an author that she taught in her classes, so we have Lolita, Gatsby, James and finally Austen.
Through these literary vehicles we learn about her life and those of her mostly female students and their enjoyment or rather endurance of life where emotion and sensuality are restricted to the internal space of the mind. This is a world where ‘people were flogged and jailed for wearing nail polish, Reebok shoes, lipstick’ and where the morality police could arrest you for showing a strand of hair, yet the human spirit survived and thrived albeit outside of the public space we take for granted.
The retelling of the four months Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent with the book seller of the title and his family in Kabul in the spring and summer of 2002. The lives of one family in a country far removed from our own is at times alien and also as familiar as our own families must surely be with their hopes, dreams, frustrated ambitions, the squabbles and pettiness.
These universal leitmotifs convey the impression of a city that was broken and derelict but not defeated after two decades of war and is utterly compelling reading, as are the frustrated lives of the women we encounter, and yet life goes on as it always does.
My third choice is not so much reportage but a collection of memories and anecdotes from the survivors of the five hundred West Indians who came to the UK on the Empire Windrush over fifty years ago and their descendants. I read this collection over ten years ago and it still remains one of my most cherished books for the courage of those emigrants arriving in a country that was as foreign to them as it would surely be to me if I could travel backwards in time.
This book also has a resonance with me as I was born in London and grew up in Ealing and among many other nationalities there were many West Indians; they were my neighbors and my friends at school. In addition the West London of my youth was not so far from Harlesden in North West London where there was another large West Indian community, it was also where my Grandmother lived.
One particular memory I have of going to visit my her in the late 1970s is of the Rastafarians and the reggae music drifting from a record shop we would walk past from the bus stop to my Grandmother’s house. The music and the people fascinated my eight year old self and even now over thirty years later reggae music is intrinsically linked to the memory of my Grandmother, the sound of Dub still takes me back to the Harlesden of the 1970s.
What would be your choice of books?