Book review – Kate O’Brien – “The Land of Spices”


My second read for Reading Ireland Month, and like “How Green was my Valley”, I took it on holiday, though it was my plane home read and I finished it at home. 

I bought this one in Stratford last October when I met Scott and Andy from America. The books I bought then I shared in this blog post and I haven’t read and reviewed any others of them yet.

Kate O’Brien – “The Land of Spices”

(18 October 2022, Oxfam Books, Stratford-upon-Avon)

From the beginning, chilled more than she knew by the shock which drove her to the purest form of life that could be found, and hardened in all her defences against herself by the sympathetic bleakness of Sainte Fontaine, she grew into that kind of nun who will never have to trouble about the vow of poverty, because poverty is attractive to her fastidiousness; who has looked chastity in the eyes with exaggerated searching, and finding it in the perverse seduction she needed at a moment of flight from life, accepted it one and for all with proud relief; but who sill have to wrestle with obedience. Not that she does not understand its place in the ideal, or that specific acts of submission trouble her. But because it is a persistently intellectual sacrifice, it is always an idea. (p. 19)

Like “Small Things Like These”, this book centres around a convent in Ireland, however this is a positive story with no laundries, just a school and a community of nuns, their mother convent based in Belgium and Mother Mary Helen, an English woman raised on the Continent who is mistrusted and somewhat feared by the mostly Irish nuns and school girls and the priests who are associated with the school.

The book follows both a linear narrative and a non-linear one, as we follow Anna Murphy’s progress through the school (starting very young, the youngest girl in the school) and dot back and forth through Mary Helen’s life so we only discover mid-way through the book what compelled her to rush into a vocation aged 18. Both women experience tragic losses and both experience spiritual development in this very subtle book, which has no sentimentality or melodrama, but a close and careful look at the petty jealousies and bad behaviour of nuns, school girls and old girls and the ways in which they can console themselves.

There are lovely, touching moments of friendship and fierce defences of what is right: I don’t know much about Kate O’Brien but Clare Boylan in her introduction names her an unsentimental feminist, and there is a strong thread supporting women’s education and right to have their own freedom running through the book. Different kinds of moralities are presented, with Anna’s brother giving his opinion on the nature of their father’s alcoholism and Mary Helen’s father presenting an atheistic view of the world, which makes for interesting contrasts but no lectures or over-philosophising. Another thread is the loss of innocence, again shadowed by the two main characters.

It’s a gently paced book with some remarkable scenes and I very much enjoyed it: I might not have picked it off the charity shop shelves without this challenge to read it for, and I’m glad I did.

I read this book for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy746Books and it was the second of the two I had hoped to read for the challenge, and completes my Reading Wales / Reading Ireland double challenge with two books for each. It also fills in a year of my Reading the Century project, which hardly ever happens these days!

In another Bookish Beck Serendipity moment, this and “How Green Was My Valley” were published within 3 years of each other (1942 and 1939 respectively) and were set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, not a gap I encounter frequently – I also note I chose to share a quote from p. 19 of each book!

Book review – Richard Llewellyn – “How Green was my Valley”


It’s Reading Wales 2023 and this is my second read for the Month, read on holiday in Southern Spain, somewhat oddly, although we were staying in quite a working-class area. I bought this especially for the challenge as I’d agreed with Mallika from Literary Potpourri that we would do a buddy read of it (we both read it at the same time and are sharing each other’s reviews but didn’t discuss it separately to these, mainly for reasons of my holiday!). A classic of working-class literature, it reminded me in parts of “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” and, while distressing quite a lot of the time, is very well worth reading. Here is Mallika from Literary Potpourri’s review, do go and visit it, too! Do also visit Brona’s interesting piece about the controversies around Llewellyn’s claimed heritage and knowledge/experience (I’m still counting this for Dewithon as it’s set in Wales …).

Richard Llewellyn – “How Green was my Valley”

(13 January 2023, The Heath Bookshop)

In the evening after we had finished tea we all sat on the grass on horse cloths and sang hymns and songs, and we had prizes for the best. Indeed if I was not chosen again for the best voice among the small boys. There is pleased my father was. I will never forget the way he looked when Mr Prosser, St. Bedwas, gave me the sweets.

Singing was in my father as sight is in the eye. Always after that he called me the family soloist. That night he held my hand tight all the way home, with my mother on his other side, and my sisters behind us. (p. 19)

We meet Huw Morgan as a small boy, the youngest in his family, his brothers and sisters settling (or not) into their roles, and we follow him into his late teens; however, his story is being written from much later life, with the horror of a pit slag heap that’s slipped pressing and pressing onto the little house where he was raised and lives now. That gives a feeling of only barely repressed menace throughout the whole book, not particularly needed when everyone is going down badly maintained pits, struggling against the mine owners or struggling at school against bullies and anti-Welsh sentiment.

Huw has a temper on him and inflicts some damage on people, but that’s seen, I think, to not in the end help, as he’s still stuck where he started out, alone and looking back at the green grass of his youth, now obscured by slag heaps (this book was published in 1939, long before the horror of Aberfan; now the Valleys have been greened again by various initiatives, whether or not that will help the social and economic deprivation they have experienced).

There is a feeling of progressive doom about the whole book, as Huw’s siblings push against their constraints and end up leaving, his sister makes a choice of husband that may not be the best and Huw’s chance to escape may not be taken up. There are also some absolutely brutal scenes, especially when the community seeks justice for the assault and death of a child, and the passages where a long strike brings starvation to the people. Huw’s father is the centre of his life, even though he fundamentally disagrees with the actions of his own sons towards unionising, and, appropriate for a review published on Mother’s Day, you can only feel sorry for his poor mother, though she has her own flashes of temper and giddiness, as she is forced to watch her children leave, not able to understand the map of their travels she’s shown.

gbThere are flashes of positivity and possibility, with the local clergyman providing education in books, morals and carpentry, and humour, especially with the bad boys, Dai and Cyfartha, who wreak havoc and revenge wherever they go (but are revealed to be devoted and loving friends (a couple?) as the story goes on). And there are of course beautiful descriptions and all done in a Welsh way of speaking which is done beautifully and not clumsily, feels authentic and was probably quite surprising at the time. As it winds to its conclusion, it feels both inevitable and gutting: a book you have to sit with for a while after finishing it.

Both a classic story of coming of age and an impassioned appeal against capitalism, it’s an absorbing read that I am happy to highly recommend

This was Book 2 read for Reading Wales 2023.

Book review – Monica Macias – “Black Girl From Pyongyang”


My second NetGalley read of the month and a very interesting one at that. Who would have thought you would read a book about someone from West Africa moving to North Korea?

Monica Macias – “Black Girl from Pyongyang”

(08 November 2022, NetGalley)

From that day on, I realised that I had no choice but to accept the order and discipline of the school, and finally embraced the rigours of the life I had been given. Even now, as an adult, structure is threaded through my daily habits. This lifestyle has helped me to focus on my tasks and goals, to be productive and manage stress successfully.

As seen in the quote above, this book records an exercise in taking what you’re given and trying to do the best you can with it, and you can’t help but admire Macias for doing that under the circumstances. Born in Equatorial Guinea, West Africa, to a Guinean father and Spanish mother, Monica and her siblings and mother are sent to North Korea when she, the youngest, is seven, for their own safety as her father becomes president of the country after its independence from Spain (and quite soon afterwards is assassinated by his own nephew in a coup). From then on we are given a life story which involves quite a lot of work but also quite a lot of flying around the world, and a narrative that the two strong man country leaders she is raised by are benevolent and misunderstood by the rest of the world.

Monica is placed in a military-style school (there are no others) and we are surprised to read that girls are introduced to the school just for Monica and her older sister to have classmates, matched to their height so a few years older, as Monica is really tall for her age! It seems to be that you are not allowed to have real friends, too, as the child she is closest to is only allowed to be a friend and watcher. Then her mum goes back home to look after her oldest brother, who had been sent to Cuba, and Monica resolves to forget her previous life and become only Korean, to such an extent that she forgets Spanish, her native tongue, then can’t communicate with her mum (there’s a long string of regret about their relationship).

Monica’s eyes are gradually opened to the single-perspective education she’s received, and matures from running away from an American she encounters on a permitted trip to Bejing to living in New York for three years. She moves to Spain first, then various countries, hustling away doing cleaning and shop jobs to keep going, spending quite a lot of time researching her father and their home country and working out whether their reputation is warranted (she apparently interviews thousands of people and presumably there’s another book in that). The main person she quotes and bonds with is one of her father’s former colleagues, who becomes yet another father figure for her.

At some time in the 2010s she publishes the book up until then in Korean, then promotes it when living in South Korea. Then later she’s written the rest again herself and published it all in English, after various encounters such as meeting North Korean defectors. She also puts herself through a Master’s at SOAS so as to understand her father’s actions and reputation. Some of the book is a little dry and/or repetitive, and she uses some unusual terms when defining language around racism and world unity, but it does in the main hold the interest, and it’s certainly an unusual story that makes you think about the reputations different countries have in other countries. There isn’t much self-reflection or acceptance of what might be true in bad reputations – North Korea’s food insecurity is brushed over as a difficult time for the country that people don’t really understand.

Thank you to Duckworth for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Black Girl from Pyongyang” was published on 02 March 2023.

An interesting Bookish Beck Serendipity: in this and “How Green Was My Valley” (review to come), we find people entering an educational institution (here university, there the second school the narrator attends) and being forbidden to speak their native language, instead only English.

Book review – Nikesh Shukla – “Stand Up”


Finally getting through my NetGalley reading, though also continuing with Reading Ireland and Reading Wales, here’s an entertaining YA read from campaigner and author Nikesh Shukla (he edited the Good Immigrant books and has also written “Coconut Unlimited” which I’m fairly sure is somewhere on my Kindle.

Nikesh Shukla – “Stand Up”

(30 January 2023, NetGalley)

‘Come on, dude, I’m trying to work. I’m not a walking encyclopaedia of India, just cos I’m brown. I don’t ask you whie guy shit like why Kanye is actually a proper artiste or why Mad Men’s sexism and racism is actually cool or why railways were a good exchange for all the resource- and asset-stripping the British empire did, right? You can’t just go around assuming people like me will drop everything to answer your facile questions that you’ve decided we must know the answers to because of the colour of our skin. I would tell you what word we use to describe that behaviour but I’m actually just wondering, seeing as it’s my job to do so, that your wine is looking a little low. Would you like another bottle?’

Madhu is 17 and her Kenyan Indian parents have been running a shop since shortly after they arrived in England, although they’ve moved away from living over it into a flat and Madhu works at a pizza place rather than in the shop. She misses her older sister, whose story we gradually discover, and she’s feeling pressured to apply for law at university when what she really wants to do is stand-up comedy.

When she tries an open mic night for the first time, Madhu freezes and panics, but then her take-down of a friend’s ex, filmed and shared without her permission goes viral and she’s invited to go on her comedy idol’s TV show. However, idols can become nemeses and when, after practising and learning with the support of enemy-to-friend Jazz (there’s a fair bit of not judging by first appearances as Jazz’z mum seems awful at first but comes out with some good stuff) and an inclusive cafe locally, the experience with Kareena isn’t what she expected, and that “you can’t be what you can’t see” role models can also be super-protective of their unicorn status, she can either buckle down and do what she’s supposed to do or push through for her dreams.

Set in Bristol, a nice change from London-based books, and full of realistic micro- and macro-aggressions, friendships and struggle, it’s a nicely done novel, with learning points but a good dose of humour.

Thank you to Hachette Children’s Group for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Stand Up” was published on 2 March 2023.

Book review – Maya Angelou – “Even the Stars Look Lonesome”


I got the bus into town on my own on Saturday and picked this book of essays up to read on the way there and back – and pretty well finished it at the end of my journey. Sometimes it’s nice to just grab something from the shelf to enjoy in a day, isn’t it? This one arrived for my birthday from Ali – it was a special birthday hence the huge pile of books – and of these I have read but a few so far but they are on the top shelf of the TBR. You’ll see a few NetGalley reads from now on as I pick all those up (eight of them, oops!) but here’s a print delight.

Maya Angelou – “Even the Stars Look Lonesome”

(21 January 2021, from Ali)

The first Africans were brought to this country in 1619. I do not mean to cast aspersions on my white brothers and sisters who take such pride in having descended from the Pilgrims, but I would remind them that the Africans landed in 1619, which was one year before the arrival of the Mayflower. We have experienced every indignity the sadistic mind of man could devise. We have been lynched and drowned and beleaguered and belittled and begrudged and befuddled. And yet, here we are. Still here. Here. (p. 125)

Uncompromising, straight-spoken and always up for doing some reframing, here we have Angelou’s essays mainly as an older woman, in her 60s and talking about ageing and also the loss of her mum (with some great stories about her mum to accompany that). She discusses Africa and attitudes to the continent and its countries, tells stories from her past and tells it how it is. Visiting a museum including slave huts, she’s horrified to see a sanitised history of a horrific past, and near the end of the book calls passionately for museums and galleries that show Black people their own faces and experiences reflected back to them. As always, powerful and interesting, and the book could have happily been twice as long!

Book review – Stephen Burrows & Michael Layton – “Ta-ra-a-bit, Our Kid”


On Thursday, I went to The Heath Bookshop twice, once with my friends Claire and Jaime and Genny, who I know from the LibraryThing Virago group and then when I ran into my other (local) friend Claire and found she was having a book emergency (what to buy for a friend’s birthday?) and I marched back up with her there to help her choose, and I had said I wasn’t going to buy any books but this little slip of a thing, bought on the first visit, didn’t count, did it? And then I’d finished a Shiny review book and there it was, so now it’s read, and after a quick check with local friends (because, really??), here are a few thoughts on it.

Stephen Burrows & Michael Layton – “Ta-ra-a-bit, Our Kid: A Little Book of Language Used by Brummies”

(09 March 2023, The Heath Bookshop)

To gambol: To perform a forward roll. Everyone in Birmingham knows what this is, but few realise that hardly anyone else in Britain does. (pp. 35-36)

This is a little book about language used by people from Birmingham and the Black Country, traditionally kept separate (most people who try to do a Birmingham accent do a Black Country one) but here mixed in to reflect how these words and phrases echo through many a Midlands home.

After an introduction mainly explaining how most of these terms have obscure origins and a note on pronunciation, we start off with phrases and move on to verbs and nouns, with lots of colourful and amusing entries in a somewhat random order. There were plenty I’d heard and others I hadn’t; the authors take a slightly old-fashioned view, not keen perhaps on things being too PC (although there’s nothing offensive here apart from a few dodgy phrases for women) and while I’m no grammar pedant even though people think I am because of my job, it could have used a bit of tidying up and consistency here and there.

But like an old town museum, there are little jewels here and it does also record language that might fade away with time, although a group including my contemporaries and younger certainly chimed in enthusiastically when I checked on one term! Yes, a gambol = a forward roll up here. I’d never heard that, but then I thought everyone in the UK ate “gypsy tart” [sorry for the outdated word; it’s still called that in recipes up to the present day] and then found out that was pretty well only a Kent thing!

Book review – Liv Bolton – “The Outdoor Fix”


Vertebrate Publishing is Britain’s leading publisher of outdoor and adventure books, a lovely independent publisher with deep and exciting lists in cycling, climbing, running and wildlife. I’ve bought quite a number of their books for myself and friends since I first came across them, and I’m also fortunate to be on their reviewers’ panel. When they told me about this one I knew it was an ideal read for me, and so happily requested it – and it was everything I hoped for.

Liv Bolton – “The Outdoors Fix: Stories to Inspire You to Make the Outdoors a Bigger Part of Your Life”

(23 February 2023, from the publisher)

I was now the first woman of colour to complete a solo and unsupported trek to the South Pole. I remember thinking, ‘I’m so glad I didn’t listen to the people who told me I couldn’t do it. Nothing’s really impossible.’ (Preet Chandi, p. 141)

Liv Bolton has been running the Outdoors Fix podcast for some time now and this book has come from the participants in her podcast. Each of the 30 features has lovely photographs, including portraits of the interviewees and landscape shots, and also images of their work, and after an introduction looks at their journey to where they are now, what they do and how it affects them and others, and a set of tips related to them, so that could be tips on nature photography, getting into climbing, doing sustainable adventuring, etc.

After an introduction by Liv setting out what she does and why, there’s a short but detailed guide to enjoying the countryside respectfully and safely, and then we’re into the groups of participants: career-changers, community-builders, movers, after-work adventure seekers, wildlife warriors and big-trip adventurers (of course, several of them could fit into more than one category).

What I of course love is the diversity of the participants: more than half are women, there’s a transman, several from the global majority people community and a woman who uses the most amazing all-terrain motorised wheelchait to access quite gnarly nature. There is also a good proportion of older women, including those talking about menopause and post-menopause, and most of them are very relatable, so so many people can see themselves here, and resources are signposted to help all sorts of people access the countryside and nature as well.

While most of the 30 people are located in the countryside, many in Scotland and the Lake District, there’s a chap from Birmingham who accesses different places around his work, and a nurse from the city who encourages others to try indoor and outdoor rock-climbing, a hijabi woman who runs a youth club in Ashton-under-Lyne and a woman from London who helps lead Black Women Hikers groups there.

Community is a big theme, with most of the people featured working for, supporting or setting up charitable organisations and initiatives, with a big emphasis on mental health. The Covid pandemic appears of necessity in a good few of the features, but mainly in terms of how nature helped people through it, although it did pause some people’s big plans, picked up again resiliently afterwards.

Between sets of chapters there are great little sections on “20 small ways you can make your life more outdoorsy right now!” and “20 outdoors spots to explore in the UK”, both filled with notes from the participants. At the end, there’s a page to write down your own plans for making the outdoors a bigger part of your life (my picture above reminds us that there are adventures to be had in suburban nature and parks, too!), a glossary, a list of resources, including books and websites, and a list of contributors with their or their organisations’ social media contact details. The book is also beautifully produced with brightly coloured and subtle images and French flaps!

Thank you to Vertebrate Publishing for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review. “The Outdoors Fix” is published on 9 March 2023, and you can find more about it here (and do sign up to their newsletter for special offers!).

Book review – Charlotte Williams – “Sugar and Slate”


It’s Reading Wales 2023 and so of course I’m reading the book everyone read for the challenge last year! (I was holding out for an affordable print copy and gave up and bought an e-book at the end of March 2022). Lots of people loved this memoir of a woman of mixed heritage growing up in North Wales and I was determined to get round to it, so here I am, having done so! This book was first published in 2002 and then with a revised preface in 2006.

Charlotte Williams – “Sugar & Slate”

(21 March 2022, e-book)

They were little acts of resistance; small gestures of defiance from a very limited repertoire. How would we have known how to organise for resistance? We were far too isolated and in any case the pressure to conform kept a firm grip on any spontaneous acts of rebellion.

Charlotte grew up in North Wales, her and her four sisters very much the only people of colour in their small town, their mum a proud, strong Welsh woman, their father from Guyana but living a lot of the time in various countries in Africa, returning to Guyana in his old age. We end up in Guyana with Charlotte and her husband in the latter part of the book, her White husband fitting in in some ways better than her.

The narrative is not linear and straightforward, but you can follow it, and we return, like Narnia’s Wood Between Worlds, to an interstitial Trinidadian airport where Charlotte waits for a flight to Guyana and interacts with a Rastafarian from Slough in an Africa t-shirt who is setting off to become a tomato farmer.

We get the story of Charlotte’s father, a notable artist who is however not around much, and her strong mother, and the marvellous interval when both parents are in Africa negotiating the end of their marriage and the girls run deliciously wild, though without the theoretical framework to use that wildness for much effect apart from upsetting their neighbours.

We also learn about different aspects of Black Wales – the boys from the Congo buried near the missionary college they attended, the notable African independence politicians and thinkers who also gathered at the college, the Black community in Cardiff that goes back 150 years and gives Charlotte’s friends some slightly envied roots, the links between Guyana and a town in Wales, both centred on aluminium smelting and its raw materials. I also didn’t know that the Cardiff riots of 1919 triggered an upsurge in insurrections and Black consciousness in the Caribbean.

Moving between Wales, Africa and the Caribbean and South America, Charlotte charts how she feels and is seen in each place and mulls on identity and belonging, allowing space for no conclusions to be reached. She intersperses her narrative with her own poems and others’ and excerpts from her father’s books and historic books about the missionary centre, etc., giving a kaleidoscopic picture that is effective and moving.

This was Book 1 read for Reading Wales 2023, hopefully I will get “How Green Was My Valley” read soon.

An interesting Bookish Beck synchronicity (I allow these over a couple of books as I don’t read as many at the same time as she does), in this book, Charlotte is drawn to the shape of a Guyanese woman’s square shoulders and bottom shape, realising they match hers, and in “Windward Family“, Alexis Keir realises that his “small head” is just the head size and shape of his people in Saint Vincent.

Book review – Claire Keegan – “Small Things Like These”


It’s Reading Ireland Month and this was a quick win read in one or two great gulps, as I’m reading two books to review for Shiny New Books but wanted something to talk about here, too.

My lovely friend Meg kindly gave me her copy of this wonderful book in November 2022 (of the seven print books incoming in that month I have read and reviewed two, but that’s not that long ago, is it … ). I feel like everyone in the world has read this jewel of a novella, and it’s hard to say anything new about it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad I have read it at last.

Claire Keegan – “Small Things Like These”

(November 2022, from Meg)

Always it was the same, Furlong thought; always they carried mechanically on without pause, to the next job at hand. What would life he like, he wondered, if they were given time to think and reflect over things? Might their lives be different or much the same – or would they just lose the run of themselves? (p. 19)

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror? (p. 108)

Deceptively simply written, as so many great books are, and with an air of almost a fairy tale, this beautiful and perfect novella takes an ordinary man, runs us through his life, thoughts and emotions, gives him time, indeed, to think and reflect over things, shows us his community and his upbringing, subtle hints woven throughout (a kind man; a man who was himself the child of a single mother; a man who will give the change in his pockets to the child in poverty with an alcohol-abusing father; a man who worries if his daughters will be resilient enough for the modern world) and then has him do first one strange, out of character thing and then one absolutely extraordinary thing.

We’ve all read about a man finding someone in a coal shed when doing deliveries, but there is much more to it than that: a man who was adopted by a Protestant widow in a big house but whose mum died when he was a child still himself, and a Catholic convent on the hill with whisperings about its “training school” and who exactly does the laundry work. What’s shocking is that this story about the Magdalen laundries is set in 1985 and that the afterword explains the last one was closed in 1996, thousands of young women incarcerated and often worked to death, their babies taken from them to be adopted or to die.

So there’s a pretty modern world of shops and phone calls and offices and then a terrible place on the hill where the nuns clearly close rank and punish anyone who steps out of line. Who shut Sarah in the coal shed and what eventually happens to her we will never know; but she is named, she is seen, and Bill Furlong makes sure of it. The women characters are superbly done, especially Bill’s wife, Eileen, and the whole is enthralling, enchanting and heartbreaking. A Christmas tale that can be read any time of the year, a lovely Irish turn to the language and a very special book.

I read this book for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy746Books and it was the first of two I hope to read for the challenge.

Book review – Amrit Wilson – “Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain”


Well, I didn’t get as many books read for #ReadIndies Month as I had hoped – out of my image here I have read and reviewed three, started and rejected two and am part-way through one. But I did read two extras that came in during the month, and I don’t think I thought I’d get all of them read.

Here’s a great work of sociology, recently updated and republished by Daraja Press, a not-for-profit independent publisher based in Quebec, which “seeks to reclaim the past, contest the present and invent the future. Daraja is the KiSwahili word for ‘bridge’. As its name suggests, Daraja Press seeks to build bridges, especially bridges of solidarity between and amongst movements, intellectuals and those engaged in struggles for a just world.”

I first read this book in the 1990s and then spotted it in The Market Gardener Reader’s My Year in Nonfiction post in November 2021 and ordered myself a copy. Out of the eight print books I acquired that month, I have read and reviewed three – these are coming to the top of my print TBR now so should get to the others soon.

Amrit Wilson – “Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain. New and Expanded edition”

(18 November 2021)

The book is celebratory because it makes us realise how far we have come. The conservative views on mixed marriages that some Asian women express in the 1970s is no longer a dominant view in this country, and that is reflective of progress. However, institutionalised racism, the scraping away of social welfare programs that aid mothers, the gig economy that exploits and works against people of colour, have not made life easier for Asian women, and this book is a great reminder of how far we have to go in order to achieve equality and justice. (Foreword, p. vii)

This book was first published in 1978 and was a pioneer in studies of South Asian women (Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Christian) in the UK, a magnificent work of oral history which was published as the Grundwick Strike was still happening. I came across it in the mid-90s, presumably from Lewisham library, in its original edition: this edition was published in 2018, on its 40th anniversary, and has lots of additional content.

The new foreword by Meena Kandasamy makes it clear how important it was at the time in understanding structural oppression and how so much in the book hasn’t changed in the intervening 40 years. After Wilson’s introduction, which interestingly documents her battles with the White feminists of Virago Press, her original publishers (when she protested against the printing of selected sections in the newspaper and resorted to threatening direct action, she found,

‘She’s running amok in the Observer office! Stop her’ The displeasure I incurred from Virago as a result of this event was long-lasting. I realised that the warmth and support that they had shown me when I was writing the book had been conditional on my accepting their white middle-class version of feminism. (p. xvii)

The original content takes a wide view of the history of South Asian immigration into the UK, mostly looking at larger waves in the 20th century, and pointing out that people came from both India/Pakistan/Bangladesh and East Africa when they were expelled from previous UK colonial territories. It’s interesting to have the book point out the beginning of the changes in policy which worked against people being able to come to the UK as the government decided whose labour it wished to exploit when.

Wilson looks at the village economy most people came from, but also the life of luxury some people from East Africa lost, and how disconcerting it was to have to map that life onto a poor, urban, exploited life in a capitalist Western country. We’re taken through chapters on themes such as isolation, family, work outside the home, school life and marriage, each blending together oral records which Wilson recorded herself then translated into English, then there’s a powerful chapter of only oral testimonies from various women, in “Sisters in Struggle”. Labouring under both their own patriarchy and the capitalist one of institutionalised racism in the UK is a double burden that some women are sinking under heart-breakingly.

After Wilson’s own reflections, there’s a super long section called “In conversation with Finding a Voice: 40 years on” which includes pieces by women reacting to the book and discussing the role it’s had in their own lives, activism and practices. This includes the very necessary discussion of where we might find Queer spaces in these women’s testimonies, never made explicit in the originals, giving an added dimension, and also a piece by Wilson’s daughter about the experience of living with the book, typewriter noises in the evenings after Wilson’s day job was done. Last, there’s a section of photographs of powerful women in mostly strike situations, black-and-white and grainy but still moving.

This book is a call to collective action and sisterhood, a memorial and an instruction to keep going. In her Reflections, Wilson points out White feminists need to let Asian women work on their own problems while standing in support, not intrude and try to sort their issues out for them, and the valuable material she gathers in this book is indeed because she was part of the communities she was studying, speaking to the women in their kitchens in their own languages. I was so pleased to be able to revisit this wonderful work.

This is Book 6 of my contribution to #ReadIndies month!

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