State of the TBR – December 2021

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It’s time to share the state of my TBR and report on all those November reading challenges. And at the very end of the post, an announcement of my 2022 reading challenge!

I read 26 books in November, which was probably an all-time record, at least since I lived alone in London in the 1990s (one was for Shiny New Books and one for my other blog, so haven’t appeared on here yet). It was down to a) doing Novellas in November, so 15 of the books were under 200 pages, b) not having a huge work schedule so time to read in the daytime, and c) having the Terrible Cold which gave me 2 weeks of milling around feeling a bit rubbish and not spending time running. I’m thrilled to report I’ve taken a total of 23 books off the TBR for my TBR project 2021-22 (one DNF, the others read) so I only have 62/85 left to read (this may be a bit wonky: I will reassess when they’ve gone down a bit more) and am ahead of target (in fact a month ahead of target). I read 16 titles (two in one volume) for Novellas in November and really enjoyed doing that project, and 15 for Nonfiction November, as well as doing all five NonFicNov prompts (one to come out on Friday), and two for AusReading Month. Phew! I read four of my planned NetGalley reads for the month, I didn’t get round to “Unleash the Girls” and didn’t finish “Carefree Black Girls” (it was a valuable read for the author’s experiences but so rooted in a cultural milieu of American contemporary and older TV programmes and musicians etc. that I was having to look up more than I read).

Incomings

Some incomings first. So many incomings. From the woman who doesn’t buy books in Oct/Nov/Dec in case other people buy them for her (to be fair, only one of these was on my wishlist …

In print incomings, first of all I saw mention of Sam Selvon’s “The Housing Lark”, a sequel to his marvellous “Lonely Londoners” on Ten Million Hardbacks’ blog and had to order it, and at the same time, there was mention in “Saga Land” of Kari Gislason’s own book about his search for his Icelandic father, “The Promise of Iceland”, so an order went off to Hive. Then, I went to Oxfam Books to buy presents for a Not So Secret Santa recipient and found they had some brand new social justice type books I couldn’t leave behind – “Rife” ed Nikesh Shukla, which is a 2019 collection of memoir pieces by young people, Kehinde Andrews’ “The New Age of Empire” about the effect of empire around the world, “This is Why I Resist: Don’t Define my Black Identity” by Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu which is a rallying call for anti-racism, and Remi Adekoya’s look at multi-heritage people and their place and experience in the UK, “Biracial Britain”. Then I saw mention of Amrit Wilson’s “Finding a Voice” on The Market Gardener Reader’s My Year in Nonfiction post and realised this classic of oral history / sociology with Asian women in Britain had been updated, and Lenny Henry has edited “Black British Lives Matter” with essays by leading Black British writers, so that was a must-buy, too (more ordering from Hive).

In ebooks, first of all I was so lucky to be sent two lovely D.E. Stevenson novels by Dean Street Press, “Five Windows” and “The Fair Miss Fortune”. They’re out very early next year so I’ll be reading them soon. Then I got a bit tempted by Kindle offers and picked all these up for 99p each – Elizabeth Acevado’s “The Poet X”, a coming of age story told in free verse about a young woman of Dominican descent in New York, Farhad J. Dadyburjor’s “The Other Man” about a closeted gay man in Mumbai dealing with a doomed arranged marriage, British Malaysian comedian Phil Wang’s memoir, “Sidesplitter” and Elise Downing’s run around the British coast in “Coasting”.

I got a bit excited on NetGalley this month: as well as winning several books I’d requested a while ago, I went a-clicking on the main website (I do try not to do this!). Kodo Nishimura’s “Ths Monk Wears Heels” is an inspiring book by a Japanese monk who featured on Queer Eye (out Feb); Christine Barlow’s “Heartcross Castle” is a Christmas reawd about a woman inheriting a crumbling castle (Dec); Janet Pywell’s “Someone Else’s Dream” has the heroine having to take over the cafe her (soon ex-) girlfriend dreamed of running, and finding support in the community (end Nov; reading now); Emily Kerr’s “Meet Me Under the Northern Lights” is a Christmas novel (Dec); Shellee Marie’s “Influenced Love” has an online influencer finding that world is not all it’s made out to be (Feb); Monica Ali has a new one out, “Love Marriage” is apparently a gripping tale of what happens when people from two cultures try to blend their families (Feb); Kasim Ali’s “Good Intentions” has a similar theme (Mar); Daphne Palasi Andreades’ “Brown Girls” is another New York coming of age novel and a love letter to women of colour everywhere (Jan); and Celia Laskey’s “Under the Rainbow” has a group of LGBTQIA activists descend on a US town that has been declared the homophobia capital of the US (Dec).

Currently reading

I’m currently reading Tristan Gooley’s “How to Read Water”, which is about different forms of water, their clues and patterns, apparently not prioritising the organic over the inorganic in talking about things around the water that help shape it. I’m not very far in yet but it’s very interesting. I’ve also started the NetGalley read “Someone Else’s Dream”, which is pretty enticing so far.

Coming up next

I’ve got quite the variety in paper books to get read this month. Two Christmas novels (Sophie Pembroke’s “The Wedding on Mistletoe Island” and Jenny Colgan’s “An Island Christmas”, both parts of series and hopefully that won’t matter) that have lingered since last year and a Christmas bird book originally given to Matthew which is languishing on the TBR, Stephen Moss’ “The Twelve Birds of Christmas”. Then there’s my last Anne Tyler, “Redhead by the Side of the Road”, which is a really short one, another volume of Maya Angelou, “A Song Flung up to Heaven”, one last British Library Women Writers book, Winifred Boggs’ “Sally on the Rocks” (women fight over a man in a village), and then as we’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing this year, Craig Revel Horwood’s “In Strictest Confidence” felt appropriate to pick up!

I will also have a few NetGalley and other books on the go. I think I’ll just keep the Kindle on the go for downstairs reading this month and get these read and hopefully a few more.

So I have a good few of my November acquisitions on here, plus “The Arctic Curry Club” by Dani Redd (more light Christmas novel reading), Matthew finally has a space for Richard Osman’s “The Man Who Died Twice” in his audiobook schedule coming up so I’ll read the equivalent of an hour’s worth of audio a day on that at some point, and then I have those lovely D.E. Stevensons.

One last, very important thing … my 2022 Reading Challenge!

I’ve chosen my reading challenge for 2022 (this year it was Anne Tyler, last year Paul Magrs, before that, Iris Murdoch (again)) … and it is … Larry McMurtry. Click on the link for details and how to take part. Fancy joining me?


How was your November reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection? And thank you for bearing with me while I posted and posted and posted – it should be a bit quieter in December!

Book review – Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”

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Still managing just to hold onto my schedule, I have two books in this picture left to finish (I’ve started “Miguel Street” and I’ve managed to get nicely ahead of my TBR challenge plan. I do need to say however about this book that I was very wrong when I used to say, airily, “Oh, I don’t read books about Africa”. Oh dear. This usually meant Africa south of the countries along the northern edge, and didn’t include the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. And over the years, I did read a few books set all or partly in Africa (“Americanah” for instance. This was mainly down, to be fair to me, to my perception of the habit of publishers to share in my market mainly books that featured bloody and violent conflict (similarly to the idea that there must be Icelandic books published that are not noir, but not that many reach us). However much I know we must not look away from bloody and violent conflict, especially that caused essentially by colonialism, I also have issues with reading and watching violent content. However, I was OK reading about Partition in India, just about. And I think I did have a sea-change and change of heart after reading “Roots” with its horrific scenes. And then, of course, it turns out that books about Africa are not all about bloody and violent conflict anyway (thanks, unconscious bias and stereotyping) and I really should have read this amazing 1970s classic earlier. Anyway, confession over, I bought this book in July this year in my Book Token Splurge, having seen Emecheta’s work featured on a TV programme about African writers a few months previously.

Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”

(01 July 2021)

They were kind, those women in the ward. For the first few days, when Adah was deciding whether it was worth struggling to hold on to this life, those women kept showing her many things. They seemed to be telling her to look around her, that there were still many beautiful things to be seen which she had not seen, that there were still several joys to be experienced which she had not yet experienced, that she was still young, that her whole life was still ahead of her. (p. 115)

This 1974 novel is of course as brutal and psychologically horrific as any narrative of war in its way. But it’s also powerful, enchanting and very readable. Adah, a Nigerian Igbo woman, having had a tricky start in life, getting herself as educated as she could do through various means and wanting to become a librarian, marries young and manages to use the family dynamics of her in-laws to ensure that when her husband, Francis, travels to London to “study”, she accompanies him. Francis is a terrible waster, refusing to work or even study properly, quick to strike out physically or verbally and messing around with other women (this is staged as a practice to relieve her when she’s had one of their many children). She has to use all her wits and guile to get a job, get housing – it’s set in the 1960s and racial prejudice is still rife, so she’s refused housing when people find out she’s Black, and with two, then three, then four children – and work out how to operate in this strange, unemotional land, where you certainly don’t make up a stompy revenge song and dance if someone annoys you. Things get worse when she tries to access contraception so she can stop popping out a baby a year, and finds she has to have Francis’ signature to get it.

She inhabits twin worlds of slightly shady boarding houses and the lovely atmosphere of public libraries, where her colleagues are kind and supportive, and bring a light into her difficult world – there’s a particularly lovely part near the end where a Canadian colleague orders books by Black writers through the library system then the workers share them around and discuss them. She encounters White women who have married or had children with Black men and sees her husband’s pull towards White women, too, but shows sympathy for everyone who is just trying to get by. It’s a heartbreaking book but with enough points of light from kind people, from the fellow-patients in the maternity ward to their GP, to relieve the reader as well as Adah, and moments of reflection and beauty in the scraps of nature Adah finds in London.

I loved the clear, almost naive but penetrating and intelligent writing style (it reminded me a bit of my great favourite author R. K. Narayan) and indeed she talks about this near the end of the book when Adah is considering becoming a writer.

Yes, it was the English language she was going to use. But she could not write those big, long, twisting words. Well, she might not be able to do those long, difficult words, but she was going to do her own phrases her own way. Adah’s phrases, that was what they were gong to be. (p. 177)

Unfortunate in her choice of husband, desperate to escape after he makes a big attempt on her identity and half-kills her, beaten down psychologically in London to be made to feel she’s a second-class citizen (at best), she retains her hope and spirit, determined she will be proud to be Black and inculcate that in her children. I loved this book and will be acquiring and reading the rest of her works, and soon.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 20/85 – 65 to go! It was Book 14 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book review – Zoe Playdon – “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes”

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A review of a fascinating book I have read through NetGalley today (and of course also a NonFiction November read), this covers a shocking 1960s legal case that was hushed up and suppressed, even though it continued to affect English and Scottish law for the next few decades.

Zoe Playdon – “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes”

(14 October 2021 – NetGalley)

Zoe Playdon is Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of London and co-founded the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity with Dr Lynne Jones MP (my old MP!) in 1994. She worked for 30 years on the front line in LGBTI human rights, including working with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC; it was during her working life that she came across the case but only in her retirement that she had the time to research and present it. The book hinges on the case of Ewan Forbes, a Scottish member of the aristocracy who was born female but identified as male, lived a happy outdoor life, got his birth certificate changed in the 1950s, as you could then, and married and was practising happily as a doctor when a series of deaths in the family with no adjustment of wills meant that his cousin suddenly challenged him for his titles and land on the basis of him not being born male.

This turns out to be all to do with primogeniture, the arrangement by which only males could inherit titles and land – seen to have been changed by the Queen regarding Royal Succession, where now the oldest child whoever they are inherits. But at the time, it put the wind up the Establishment, as it seemed to show that gender was mutable and there was no such thing as a clear man or woman. So the case was not only found in favour of Ewan, but on a very narrow basis, but was then suppressed by what we’d call now a super-injunction, having a knock-on effect on the April Ashley case and between them making it then illegal to change the gender on a birth certificate.

I’m not a legal expert, but English and other UK law is based on precedent, and that precedent is recorded publicly. Here, precedent was based on a suppressed, invisible case which Playdon had to get dug out of the archives by the highest legal authorities in England. She then studied the case and Forbes’ life and has in this book placed it within the context of 20th and 21st century trans people’s lives and liberties. As Forbes didn’t name himself a trans man (he left a memoir which had a narrative of always being male) and there are few records about him, Playdon did have to fill in a few gaps with “he must have felt this” and “he must have felt that” which left me a little uncomfortable. But her work setting this within the context of the way trans people had to conform to medical narratives, the way the medical establishment in the UK and US (here, pathologised in order for psychiatrists to make money back from medical insurance, among other motivations) and abominable treatment of trans people in the law and society is impeccable, even exhaustive, following it back to then and right up to date with the moves forward in legal protection and the backlash from some trans-exclusionary radical feminists.

I was aware of quite a lot of this history from other books on trans history I’ve read recently (although I was not aware that the notorious Charing Cross Hospital gender identity clinic gatekeeper, John Randell, was a secret and guilt-harrowed cross-dresser), but it’s a good thing to have these narratives presented with different perspectives and focuses. The book also reminds us that a narrative of pushing for accoutrements of their correct gender from a very early age and the obsession with trans people having operations to correct their bodies are constructs, not truths, created by a medical profession that sought to control and gatekeep, often very much not in the best interests of trans people themselves.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this book available to read via NetGalley. “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes” was published on 11 November 2021. It’s formed part of my NonFiction November reading.

Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert / Ask the Expert

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It’s Week Three of Nonfiction November and it’s The Thousand Book Project’s week – see the main post here.

Week 3: (November 15-19) – Be The Expert/ Ask the Expert/ Become the Expert with Veronica at The Thousand Book Project: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert). 

I wasn’t sure what to use for Be The Expert, then I realised people have been asking me about this, even recently, and I have an important point to make about timing …

Be the Expert (Guide?) – Books on Social Justice and Equality I’ve read this year

So this topic, especially Black Lives Matter, was certainly not just for 2020, even if the proliferation of lists and recommendations seems to have gone a bit quiet. I have continued reading books on social justice, marginalised people and equality/equity through this year (and always will do), using the groundswell in publishers’ interest to pick up books as they’re published. The book in the image is a case in point, “Black British Lives Matter” edited by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder pulls together pieces by Black British artists and activists and is just out and on its way to my bookshelf as I write this.

So here are the nonfiction books on social justice, marginalised people and equality I’ve read this year, all recommended (there’s a leaning towards the British experience here: our racism and class issues are quite different from the US, although just as insidious, and I’ve been trying to start from where I am). They’re in order of when I read them, not otherwise arranged. Note, these are books from the last year. I am adding categories for social justice – race, gender sex and sexuality, disability, class and neurodiversity this week so you can find all the books in a category on the blog not just these newer reads.

June Sarpong – “The Power of Privilege” – unpicking privilege and what we can do about it

Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – “The Good Immigrant” / “The Good Immigrant USA” – immigrant experiences in both countries

Reni Eddi-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” – history and a call to action

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (eds.) – “Loud Black Girls” – essays by British Black women

Catrina Davies – “Homesick” – working class and housing inequality

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (ed.) – “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children” – stories from people who came from the Caribbean to Britain in the 1950s and their descendants

Kenya Hunt – “Girl” – essays by a Black woman

Sathnam Sanghera – “Empireland” – the effect of Empire on Britain today

Christine Burns (ed.) – “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows” – vital essays on the history and experience of trans people in the UK

Mike Parker – “On the Red Hill” – older and younger gay male couples and their different life experiences

Guvna B – “Unspoken” – race and class in South London

Jeffrey Weekes – “Between Worlds” – an exhaustive history of the gay liberation movement in Britain

Maya Angelou – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” etc., – race relations in the US and Africa; so many statements we are still hearing today.

Danny Assaf – “Say Please and Thank you and Stand in Line” – the Lebanese community in Canada

Jonathan van Ness – “Over the Top” – a happy but still traumatic LGBTQIA+ life in America

Kit de Waal – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers” – class alive and well in Britain in this set of memoir pieces

Akala – “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire” – race and class in Black communities in London and the UK

Juno Dawson – “Gender Games” – growing up trans in Britain

Anita Sethi – “I Belong Here” – woman of mixed heritage explores the British countryside

Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice” – a British Bangladeshi life

Trystan Reese – “How We Do Family” – a trans man, his husband and their fight to have a child

Johny Pitts – “Afropean” – exploring African communities across Europe

Stormzy – “Rise Up” – class and race in music in the UK

David Olusoga – “Black and British” – history of Black people in and in association with Britain. Seminal. TV series also recommended, though different.

Damien Le Bas – “The Stopping Places” – the life of Travellers in the UK and Europe

Sophie Williams – “Anti Racist Ally” – provocative ideas and concrete things to do

Emma Dabiri – “What White People Can Do Next” – you thought the above was provocative!? Really made me think.

Pete Paphides – “Broken Greek” – growing up in the Greek Cypriot community in the Midlands

Armistead Maupin – “Logical Family” – creating a family when yours rejects you for being gay

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire (eds.) – “Black Joy” – there’s joy, but often in overcoming challenges

Johnny Agar and Becky Agar – “The Impossible Mile” – a life lived well with cerebral palsy in the mix

Michaela Coel – “Misfits” – a call to be a misfit and to extend the ladder down to help other marginalised people in the entertainment industry

Shon Faye – “The Transgender Issue” – debunking the myths and showing the struggles of the trans community; a call for lifting all marginalised people through mutual aid

Hassan Akkad – “Hope, not Fear” – inspiring story of a man who escaped from Syria and joined the NHS, campaigning for refugees and low-paid workers

Raynor Winn – “The Salt Path” – class and homelessness and health

Anita Rani – “The Right Sort of Girl” – race and class and growing up unconventional in a traditional Indian expatriate community in Yorkshire

Something for everyone there, right?! and of course there are more to come!

Ask the Expert – Books on Returning (especially to Africa)

I’ve read quite a few books this year that have featured returns to African roots, whether that’s Afua Hirsch in “Brit(ish)” packing up her English life and going to live in Ghana for a few years, Alex Haley finding his tribe through language then finding his people in “Roots” or Maya Angelou living in Egypt and then Ghana, too, in her autobiographies, and discussing at length the experiences of mostly Americans who have ‘returned’ to Ghana. Toufah, of course, bravely returns to The Gambia to help justice be done, although she’s not away in Canada for very long. On the TV, Afua Hirsch’s African Renaissance series showed Jamaican people who have moved to Ethiopia to connect with the foundation of Rastafarianism, and I caught a bit of Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson on the TV, which had him reconnecting with his ancestral Benga tribe in Gabon and being welcomed into it in an emotional ceremony. So these returnees have been following me and interesting me.

I am aware of the book “Return” by Kamal Al-Solaylee, which looks at various returnees and includes a chapter on Africa, and I’ve read Jackie Kay’s “Red Dust Road“, in which she traces her Nigerian roots. Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora’s edited collection, “Of This Our Country” about Nigeria and Britain has some examples of writers who have gone from Britain to Nigeria. But there must be more narratives, preferably but not only modern ones, about people who have found their roots in Africa or tried going and living there and re-establishing a link with their ancestry and/or families.

Suggestions, please!

Book review – Jessica Nordell – “The End of Bias”

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I was really glad to win this from NetGalley back in June because I had a hunch (and I was correct!) that this would be a good pairing with Pragya Agarwal’s “Sway”, and so it proved to be. However, this meant I had to read “Sway” first (see my review here) and that was quite a substantial book and so was this!

Jessica Nordell – “The End of Bias”

(24 June 2021 – NetGalley)

I found a hidden topography of interventions, a patchwork of scrappy, inventive organisations, researchers, and lay people rooting out discrimination through curiosity, creativity, and brute force.

As I was hoping, although this book started off with good, clear definitions of implicit or unconscious bias, this part was a lot less exhaustive than in “Sway” and we soon got into the other side of things – the way in which organisations, in the main (though these vary between kintergarten classrooms, university departments, police departments and others) have addressed and sought to reduce bias and its effects. The main biases looked at here are gender and race, with some class mixed in, too (there’s nothing on ageism or disability, for example, which “Sway” covered a little, and gender has to be assumed as being binary as there is so little research on nonbinary gender and bias at present). But the precepts and general ideas covered here are applicable in other areas, too, of course.

Nordell opens with the case of Ben Barres, a trans male professor, who discovered with his different gender a whole set of advantages and lack of discrimination – he’s even praised for his work being “better than his sister’s” when of course both sets of work were done by the same person. Of course, Nordell hastily moves to make the point that the advantages trans men can enjoy can also disappear in a moment if their trans status is discovered – she’s very careful in her assertions and also talks a in detail about how she’s identified and addressed her own biases. We move on to other experiments where having a control has allowed bias to be seen, and then look a little at how bias is formed and more about how it’s evidenced.

The main interest in the book is in the detailed case histories of organisations which have reduced bias. In all cases, and Nordell is careful to point this out, it comes down to a mixture of personal work and cultural/organisational work – so the power of diversity is only unleashed in a ‘learning’ environment where people see the differences between themselves but opt to learn from those differences, and for that to happen, the culture needs to make that possible. There’s also reference to systematic cultural change needed throughout society, and that’s perhaps the hardest to achieve.

Removing bias from everyday practices is essential but not sufficient for creating a truly inclusive environment. To foster a climate that includes all, everyday practices must be built on a foundation of learning from and valuing differences. And this environment need not be a workplace. These dynamics play a role in places where people live, worship, and learn.

Nordell ends with a call for personal, organisational and systemic change, which will benefit both those on the receiving end of bias and those who have acted with bias. She asks us to pause and examine where we’ve got the beliefs we subscribe to (like a newsletter, as she describes on branch of research as stating) and the associations we hold unconsciously (which spam us). A good, careful and powerful book that gives the examples and best practices you might be looking for.

Thank you to Granta Books for approving me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The End of Bias” was published on 23 September 2021.

I’ve read this book for Nonfiction November!

Book review – Toufah Jallow with Kim Pittaway – “Toufah”

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I was interested to spot this book in a NetGalley email, with its subtitle “The Woman who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement”. And it was an inspiring and fascinating read indeed. It was also my second book set at least partly in The Gambia (like “Roots“) and has inspired one of my posts for the upcoming Nonfiction November challenge!

Toufah Jallow with Kim Pittaway – “Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement”

(25 September 2021, NetGalley)

This insistence on using ‘allegedly’ when it comes to rape can’t be explained away as simply protecting the rights of those not convicted, because the word isn’t just attached to the person named as perpetrator, it is attached to the crime itself … I notice the same tendency in report about other crimes in Canada and abroad: when men say they are beaten or assaulted, the word ‘allegedly’ is rarely inserted. When someone says they’ve been robbed, ‘allegedly’ almost never appears. But when a woman says she was raped, her assertion is often framed as ‘she claimed she was raped’ or ‘she was allegedly raped’. Whether in The Gambia or Canada or the United States or the United Kingdom, when women say they were raped, the men they accuse are given the benefit of the doubt. The women? They are simply doubted.

Toufah grew up in a traditional home in The Gambia, first of all in a multi-family household made up of her father, his three wives and their children, then in a compound her mum has scrimped and saved and worked at two jobs to afford to build, brick by brick. Not only is her mum independent and a feminist in the way a woman can be in traditional, Muslim Africa, but her mum’s mum made sure she could get to university before being married off, and tried to find her a husband who didn’t already have a wife. Her aunt wears trousers and has moved to the UK.

The women in my family, and in other families too, subverted men’s power where they could; made choices in their own interests where they could; and where they could created a world in which their daughters had a little bit more power, more choice. Social and religious circumstances pushed them down. Their strength and will pushed them forward – and perhaps in these ways they were more similar to the mothers and graddmothers of Western feminists than is often acknowledged.

So she’s learned from example to stand up for herself and she knows her mum will stand up for her, too. That’s why, when something awful happens, she has no choice but to flee her home country and become an international refugee.

Toufah is encouraged to enter a competition, a pageant (more than a beauty queen competition, she must produce a performance, answer questions and put forward a proposal for change in the country), the first prize of which, she is led to believe, is a scholarship to a university abroad. Winners are typically lavished by the president, Yahya Jammeh, with gifts for themselves and their families – laptops, furniture, jobs … But when Toufah first turns down a job then more from Jammeh, he has his fixer bring her to him during an Eid festival, and rapes her.

Toufah knows she’s being followed by the authorities. Resourceful and clever, she manages to escape and, through a network of Gambian citizens who have left the country for various reasons, she is able to throw herself on the mercy of the police in neighbouring Senegal. And they don’t know what to do with her, because they get political prisoners, journalists, people who have tried to overthrow the administration, but no one has come to them who has been raped. In fact the word “rape” doesn’t even exist as a word in the languages of The Gambia, and so she has to either skirt around the issue or be horribly direct.

Once in Canada, Toufah lives in accommodation for refugees where all the people around her try to teach her to how to live as a Canadian – and she does the same as new people come along. Once more, people who think refugees seek asylum and refuge in other countries in order to access wealth and benefits should read her accounts of grinding poverty and basic, shared accommodation, of trying to heal while working at several jobs, of not being able to access her own Gambian community because of the misinformation being shared about her.

And now here she is, back giving evidence at the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission after Jammeh has been deposed, in her own name, her face showing, detailing what he did. She’s lived in Canada in the meantime, making a life for herself, making friends, working hard in multiple jobs and studying for qualifications that will help her support other women going through the same situation. A hashtag, #IAmToufah, allows other women to tell their stories under the veil of anonymity, and she has set up a foundation to support women’s safety and mental health. She has an all-round, holistic view of what needs doing, and is starting to achieve that, getting funded to provide audiovisual materials on rape and sexual harassment for the country as the book is written.

I know from my own experience that simply focusing on one aspect – telling young women they can be what they want to be, say no if they want to say no – was actually dangerous if those shiny ideals weren’t backed up with practical supports, effective laws and societal structures to hold abusers accountable.

The end section of the book shares powerful African women who Toufah sees as role models and offers to her students as such. There are definitely some people to look into there as well as the ones I was more familiar with. What an example to us all Toufah is, and her story is deftly crafted by Kim Pittaway while leaving it feeling like her own speech and thoughts.

Thank you to Steerforth Press for giving me a free copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Toufah” was published on 12 October 2021 and you can find the Toufah Foundation in many places online, including Facebook.

Book review – Pragya Agarwal – “Sway”

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I won Jessica Nordell’s “The End of Bias” on NetGalley back in June (it was published at the end of September) and had decided I really needed to read this one first, which explains unconsious bias (and I hoped help end it, too). Then I somehow didn’t get round to it until this month, but it’s done now and I’ll get the Nordell book read as soon as I can. Phew! This one was also a loan from my friend Sian that I’ve had for far too long, so all neat and tidy now all round.

Pragya Agarwal – “Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias”

(Feb? 2021, borrowed from Sian)

As we talk about gender bias, let us not forget about intersectionality and how certain multiple identities can further stigmatise women and render them even more invisible. Yes, there is change, but it is glacial. And to all the sceptics, I would just say, ‘Am I not believed because I am a woman?’ (p. 251)

This is a long and dense book which covers a lot of research, well-known and more niche, about unconscious bias, i.e. the decisions we make and opinions we form in a split second, more automatically the more tired or under pressure we are, which affect how we perceive and treat other people. Agarwal contends that this is a product of both individual learning and wider cultural environment, which I tend to agree with. There was a fair bit in here I’d encountered before, but who knew that hurricanes given ‘feminine’ names end up with more fatalities than those with ‘masculine’ names, because people don’t treat them as seriously and don’t evacuate to safety in such numbers?

In the early chapters she goes through the neuroscience of how the brain operates and what ‘activates’ in the brain when looking at people, recognising in-groups (broadly, people who share one’s race, accent, social class, other characteristic) and out-groups (those we might see as a threat or ‘other’). There’s a lot of detail here and the images of the brain would have been better within the chapter than stuck at the end. Anyway, then we get into characteristics such as race, gender, and smaller categories such as height, weight or age, demonstrating through discussing many academic studies how bias and stereotypes are formed and exemplified.

Agarwal takes in a world perspective in the book, showing how bias works in Indian and American politics and how various examples show up around the globe. She addresses issues of intersectionality (the double bias a Black woman might face, etc.) and makes it clear she’s considered non-binary and transgender people in her gender chapter, while pointing out that there’s not enough research on these groups at the moment to be able to draw conclusions.

There’s an interesting section at the end about how AI systems, which we must remember are taught using data from real-world phenomena, can become biased from the beginning (for example, if the criminal justice system treats Black offenders as more likely to re-offend and lets White offenders, off, any AI system created to make those judgements is going to take these data and amplify them, ending up even more racist than the originating humans; if driverless cars aren’t shown enough images of Black and Brown pedestrians, they are less likely to recognise them as pedestrians and more likely to run them over than White pedestrians – it’s all pretty horrific). She does demonstrate how human intervention can work against this.

Agarwal puts enough of her own experiences into the book to make it interesting and personal, but not too much, retaining the scientific rigour. At one point, she bravely makes job applications in both her original name (used here) and her married name, double-barrelled with her White British husband’s name, thus not getting five out of six invitations to interview in one of the two sets (you can guess which). The academic rigour is certainly there, but angled to the popular science reader, too – there are lots of footnotes explaining scientific and sociological terms, and a good set of notes easily found which point to the academic studies referenced.

There’s only a small section in the back about how to work against bias: the usual stuff of be aware and don’t go with the first instinct till you’ve thought about it, consider using anonymous job applications to remove name bias, and also notes on how we can’t be exonerated by it being unconscious and reiterating the double dose of personal and societal bias. Lots of information is packed into this book and it’s valuable for pulling all of that together. It’s written accessibly, there’s just a lot of it!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 3/85 – 82 to go.

Book review – Maya Angelou – “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes”

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Please forgive me for getting a bit ahead of Ali in her, Meg’s and my readalong of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies: I wanted to get this one read this month so I could add the next one into a couple of challenges, and also I wanted to find out what happened next! Here is Ali’s review.

Maya Angelou – “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes”

(April 2021)

The drive was too short to clear my mind. I had never been face to face with royalty and didn’t know the protocol. I suspected that I had been sent for to discuss some incident pertaining to the presence of black American residents, and I was nervous. I knew I was given to dramatic overstatement, or was known to waffle about repetitiously. To further complicate matters, I was sincere. Sincerity badly stated elicits mistrust. (p. 118-9)

In this volume of the autobiography, published in 1986, we spend the whole time with Angelou in Ghana – a country I didn’t know that much about, so very interesting from that perspective, as we do learn something of its history and what it was like in the 1960s. With her son injured in a car accident, she decides not to move on to Liberia as she’d planned, but to stay in Ghana. Here, while Guy integrates into the student population, she becomes part of a group of Black Americans who have moved to Africa, and she has quite a lot to say on the interesting subject of different types of people who have often saved up to ‘return’ to their roots, only to find that they’re not effusively welcomed by the Ghanaian population.

Angelou meets another fascinating big man and my heart sank but this time she seems to have learned a bit and when he proposes a lifestyle and country change to her, to move to Mali and settle in as his second wife, she realises she won’t be able to summon up the requisite meekness and turns him down (and his gift of a fridge!). It is good to see her staying independent and resisting this offer. She also comes into contact with other highly powerful people (well, men) and even kings, which manages to dent even her self-confidence!

Malcolm X comes to visit Ghana and one stage and it’s fascinating to read about his time there, even more fascinating when he encounters a young Muhammad Ali but is snubbed by him as he’s recently split from the Nation of Islam. He’s someone Angelou of course knows from her New York activism times, though she was at that stage on the side of Martin Luther King Jr and his non-violence. But, as they discuss, what has that produced and is it time for more action? By the end of the book, she’s realising she needs more than African can offer her, and needs to be somewhere she fits in better, and is planning to return to the US to work for Malcolm X’s organisation.

While Angelou finds it wonderful to be in countries where everyone, presidents, airline pilots, senior managers, newspaper owners, are of course Black, she also encounters some horrifically racist commentary on Ghana and the Black Americans who live there too from European members of the university she works at for a time. But the common room steward gently gives his own take on the situation after she has embarrassed herself yelling at them intemperately:

He said, ‘This is not their place. In time they will pass. Ghana was here when they came. When they go, Ghana will be here. They are like mice on an elephant’s back. They will pass.’ (p. 58)

Venturing into the countryside alone, Angelou encounters old buildings that were used to hold slaves before they were shipped to America, and she imagines vividly a tableau of enslaved people suffering. She dwells on the possibility of her origins, fearing her ancestors might have been sold by their own people, and finds a weird experience in another village, originally decimated by slavery, where she once again (she’s already been mistaken for two other types of African person) resembles their families and the people remaining very strongly. But, like Alex Haley really found in “Roots”, she can’t know for certain if this is where she came from, although in her case she wasn’t seeking an exact place. It’s a very moving scene, though.

After a brief trip to Europe (and a very upsetting scene for her in Germany) to revisit a play she’d been in, we leave Angelou getting ready to set off back to America. As usual, I can’t wait to know what happens next, and I’m sad there are only two books of her autobiography left to read!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 2/85 – 83 to go.

Some mini-reviews for Shiny New Books

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Anita Rani – “The Right Sort of Girl”

In this excellent memoir, Anita Rani, lately of Strictly and Countryfile, but I’ve been watching her since she presented Desi DNA back in the day, tells of her crisis of confidence in her 40s and her need to address the issues of her life and culture which may have held her back.

In case you’re worried it’s all protest and journeys, this book is also warm, funny (she makes much of the “Illuminaunty” network of bossy, nosy women who know everything) and endearing (she’s excited when she makes friends with John Craven, who she used to watch on Newsround). She’s very proud of her Yorkshire roots and extols the virtues of her home county – and when she learns to drive, the first place she goes is up on the moors, away from everyone, on her own and free in nature.

Read the full review here

Shon Faye – The Transgender Issue”

An important book I also reviewed on here in a more personal capacity (see link below)

It’s a very human book, certainly not all facts and figures. Faye interviews people from the trans community, from parents of a young trans child who knew nothing, but could access a lot of information and support online to a man running a shelter for homeless trans people who provides support and information to them. In addition, various news stories are carefully debunked and the people they are about honoured, and myths such as trans people and their doctors being in cahoots overturned with an explanation of the long and fraught process of having gender transition needs recognised and progressed. It’s very interesting to see that a lot of the media narrative about trans people echoes almost exactly the narrative about gay people from 30-odd years ago: in terms of a claim of cults who are trying to turn everyone’s children gay/trans, and all sorts of other hysteria.

Read the full review here and I have reviewed this more fully on this blog here.

Lev Parikian – “Light Rains Sometimes Fall”

Parikian, writer, birdwatcher and conductor, had already started this project to map British nature against the 72 seasons of Japan in February 2020. Yes, you get a chill when you see those dates, don’t you! So it didn’t start as, but did turn into, a sort of coronavirus lockdown project, and we’ve seen a few of these lately, but this is very nicely done and certainly not all about the lockdown, or made difficult to read because of that aspect.

Each Japanese mini-season has its name and a lot of the joy of the book comes from Parikian’s alternative British names for the sets of days. For example, the Japanese name for 9-13 February is “Bush warblers start singing in the mountains”, which Parikian replaces with “Dunnock song defies traffic noise”. In fact, I can contribute my own here, as I finished reading it during what the Japanese call “White dew” for the larger season and “Swallows leave” for the smaller, Parikian calls “House martins leave” and I term “Large electrical goods are replaced” as this has happened in this week two years running.

There’s a lovely recognisable moment when a blackbird sings the beginning of a tune and he always answers in his head, as we used to have “the Toreador bird” who would sing the first few notes of the song from Carmen repeatedly.

Of course I learned things; did you know Flying Ant Day isn’t when the ants hatch, but when they mate? There are pleasing moments when the seasons coincide and he does indeed see some wagtails during the “Wagtails sing” season, and he’s great on the privilege of seeing tiny details, crows mobbing a hawk, a flower growing in a crack, without being mawkish or sentimental (and there is some death and decay and some worry about fledglings, but nothing too challenging in that regard). He acknowledges that this year of observation has given him more insight into his patch and into the human-constructed context and its interplay with nature, a lovely positive to draw from a time of constraint, and he states it has made the year more bearable.

Read the full review here.

Book review – Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora (eds) – “Of this Our Country”

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This excellent book collects essays by the Nigerian writers Nels Abbey, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Yomi Adegoke, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Oyinkan Akande, Ike Anya, Sefi Atta, Bolu Babalola, J K Chukwu, Abi Daré, Inua Ellams, Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ, Caleb Femi, Helon Habila, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Anietie Isong, Okey Ndibe, Chigozie Obioma, Irenosen Okojie, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe, Lola Shoneyin, Umar Turaki, Chika Unigwe and Hafsa Zayyan to provide a multi-faceted view of Nigeria.

Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora (eds) – “Of This Our Country: Acclaimed Nigerian Writers on the Home, Identity and Culture they Know”

(18 August 2021 – NetGalley)

by the age of 6, i was fluent in English, Hausa, Yoruba and my Igbo was conversational. But truly my first language had no words: it was Nigeria. It was my dialogue with the space it contained, the interaction with the ground, the touch of the breeze, the kitchen sink I’d climb into to cool down, the skin of mango I’d suck on, the sounds, colours, shapes, patterns, the people. All the things that I conversed with through my senses before I could assign words to them. (Caleb Femi – “Home History”)

Having noticed how many Nigerian writers were getting published and well-known, the editors decided to commission a book of essays by Nigerians on their homeland, and came up with this excellent collection. It truly is multifaceted, with perspectives by men and women, older and younger, and based in Nigeria, based in the UK, or moving between the two. I would imagine it will give a sense of recognition and visibility to readers connected with the country, and it provides an entertaining and thought-provoking read for those less knowledgeable about Nigeria and its diaspora. I certainly learned a lot and kept calling out interesting statistics to my poor husband. Well, did YOU know that a fifth of African people live in Nigeria?

There’s a huge variety of experiences but they crystallise around the political situation of the country since independence, and the disappointment many feel in the lack of progress that has been made, given the achievements of Nigerians outside Nigeria, and lots of commentary on why this must be; education, the power of education, and where it should take place; and parties and commemorations. I had encountered quite a few of the authors through my reading, and the bios in the back of the book (one disadvantage of the ebook is the difficulty in flicking to these as you’re going along) make me want to approach a good few more of them.

There’s a lot of good stuff on moving between Nigeria and the UK – from feeling free in a Black body, unpoliced, when in Nigeria to viewing protests against police brutality from a distance but not wanting your daughter to get involved. Writers reflect on going to the market and how that reflects all human life, on organising a parent’s funeral and feeling the communal love of the village, on moving to a different country and discovering life could be different from that in Nigeria. There are reflections on class and race and war, on the differences between the north and south of the country, on national service, on parents and children.

This is a book written with love, and that love is unsparing and shines a bright light on corruption and complicity, but it’s also an often-lyrical portrait of a country in its good and bad that is a valuable and enticing read.

Thank you to HarperCollins for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Of This Our Country” was published on 30 September 2021.

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