Friends, Writers, and Other Countrymen: A Memoir

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I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.

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Yet the writer is not bitter. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him and humour fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls.

At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting. The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant.

As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.

A while ago, I got a message from a reader in the US. In the wake of the recent widely reported police killings of unarmed African-Americans and the unrest that erupted in several cities as a result, she was keen to read something that would help increase her understanding of racial tensions in her home country. Had I encountered any such books on my literary adventures that I could recommend? Conscious that this was very much not my area of expertise, I made a few tentative suggestions of things I hoped would at least be a starting point.

So, when I heard that leading Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou who now divides his time between Paris and the US , had written an ode to him, I knew I had to take a look. The intimacy of the portrait neatly demonstrates the link between the personal and the political. The narrative bristles with insights. He has some thought-provoking things to say about African writing too. And at the end of this alley, a man is seated on a bench, a can of beer in his hand. That said, the passively sexist slant of the writing is disappointing.

That would be a shame, because this is a work that deserves to be read widely by people of all genders and ethnicities.

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A masterclass in the way texts and writers can talk to one another across linguistic, temporal, geographical and political boundaries, it has lessons for everyone — not only on some of the injustices that continue to blight human society, but on writing, storytelling and what words have the power to do.

A great and important book. I was curious to know what other stories Sierra Leone had to offer.


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For a long time, the answer seemed to be not much. I did stoogle upon the website of the intriguing-sounding Sierra Leonean Writers Series , but my attempts to contact the company and find out how I could buy its books came to nothing.

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Other than that, most of the books out there from the West African nation — which is still recovering from an year civil war that ended in — seemed to be decades old. Then RebeccaV stopped by the blog and left a comment to say she was also involved in a global armchair adventure, in which she was trying to read around the world in 80 books.

Telling the story of the years Beah spent evading capture by the rebels in the Sierra Leonean jungle and then serving as a child soldier in the army before finally being rescued and rehabilitated, the memoir takes us into the heart of the civil war. Through its frank depiction of the extreme brutality the author experienced and participated in, and the courage and compassion of those who helped him, it reveals the best and worst that humanity is capable of —and the steps by which any one of us might get there. The violence depicted in the book is among the most shocking and severe I have ever read about.

In the midst of the madness, particular sequences stand out — such as the cruel chain of events that saw Beah arriving in the village where his parents were rumoured to be staying only minutes after the RUF had struck, killing everyone in sight. The book brims with descriptions that capture the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world through which he fled. In addition, the writer excels at capturing profound emotional shifts succinctly.

Having inhabited this with him, we are able to understand the reluctance of the child soldiers to be rescued and taken away from the only structure and purpose they knew. We can also appreciate the huge task facing the rehabilitation staff, many of whom expected to deal with traumatised children without realising that they would come in the form of armed and drugged killers bent on violence at all costs. Utterly engrossing, it brought me close to tears several times, made me laugh, took me to places I could never otherwise imagine, and inspired me to marvel at the goodness, kindness and potential in the world.

He added that his work has not been translated into Armenian either. There are even those who insist that a book must also be set in the country in question to count. Nevertheless, I was keen to involve Inezian in some way.


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  6. Were there any Armenian writers whose work he could suggest? I have to confess that my heart sank when my copy arrived. Not only was this, judging by the title and subtitle A memoir of the Armenian Genocide, , a very serious book, it was also a very long one. Its or so large pages were covered with dense and relatively small print.

    Friends, Writers, and Other Countrymen

    The first sentence, too, with its earnest consideration of the political atmosphere of Europe in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, filled me with foreboding. What had Armand Inezian let me in for? Having finished his divinity studies at the University of Berlin just as the conflict began, Balakian travelled home to Constantinople in the hope that he could be of service to the Armenian population there. Caught up in this forced exodus, Balakian spent three years travelling and working in constant fear of being executed like the thousands of corpses he encountered en route.

    With only his ingenuity, determination and faith to guide him, he attempted to shield, hearten and save his Armenian peers, all the while holding on to the hope that he would one day be able to share their story with the rest of the world. Balakian was an extraordinary individual, whose character shines through on nearly every page.

    MEMOIR: A Migrant Heart

    He spares nothing in his effort to convey the horrendous sufferings of his friends and compatriots, many of whom he claims were tortured and hacked to death by mobs bearing household and farmyard implements to save the authorities the cost of bullets. For Balakian, recounting these events is a sacred act. Inevitably, with so much emotional freight to carry, the narrative occasionally gets bogged down. Nevertheless, this is an important and impressive memoir. I emailed a lot of people during the search for this book. Some of the messages bounced. Others disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again.

    This impromptu game of e-tag led me through Guam, New Zealand, Kiribati itself, Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii and the States, until at last I emailed Sudesh Mishra, an associate professor in the school of creative and communication arts at Deakin University in Australia. Perhaps the poet would have a prose manuscript I could read. I dropped Teaero a line. Would I be interested in reading one of those? Curious to see how this mixing of genres worked, I asked which collection contained the greatest amount of short stories. The use of language in the book is fascinating.

    Yet others are written exclusively in Kiribatese.

    For the author, it seems, the three modes of expression have different strengths when it comes to certain ideas and emotions. The inclusion of background details at the end of most of the pieces adds a fascinating layer of meaning to the collection. The frogs were very happy, hopping about and croaking joyously every-merry-where!

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