Laurinda, Alice Pung
Alice Pung’s Laurinda is the brilliant Asian version of Looking for Alibrandi in some ways, and indeed Pung credits Melina Marchetta in the acknowledgements (along with John Marsden — what Aussie reader or writer of our generation wouldn’t?). On the surface, both are about an ‘ethnic’ girl on a scholarship at a posh school where the pecking order is determined by whose parents are making $50,000 donations. They’re also both about identity, being a part of two different worlds, and the fusions and confusions that brings. And they’re super enjoyable. Alibrandi is wittier, but Laurinda’s protagonist is also utterly endearing and she goes deeper than Alibrandi, looking for diversity and shades of grey within the communities as well as contrasting the communities generally with each other. I belong to neither of the two worlds examined, but the portrayals of both forced me to examine myself and I reckon a novel that does that is a fantastic achievement.
Stains on My Khanga, Sandra Mushi
This is a collection of short stories and poems by a Tanzanian writer. The poems are a bit like ‘vague-booking’ but the short stories are fantastic. Mostly they’re about women’s lives and many of them lay bare the domestic abuse that is all too often secret. There are layers to Mushi’s writing. She delights in having a twist in the final sentence, and in ambiguity such that agency and powerlessness exist alongside one another. The stories are written in beautiful and lyrical English with a few phrases in Swahili which are explained in the glossary in the back.
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego
Miscarriage of justice has been in the news quite a bit recently because of various cases in the US, but a story like this stops us Aussies from feeling too superior about our situation. Szego’s a journalist and this is the story of her investigation of Farah Jama’s trial. He was a teenager at the time of his arrest and subsequent conviction for raping a woman in a nightclub. He was later categorically acquitted. Szego argues that his poor defence, representation, and wrongful conviction were at least in part due to racism: Jama is part of the Somali community in Melbourne, and a Muslim. There were other things going on as well: a fraught media climate and some incompetence are far more compelling pieces of the puzzle. But whether you concur with her conclusions or not, the questions Szego asks of herself, and by extension all of us, are incisive.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
Rosemary’s childhood is divided into the time before her sister Fern went away (and her brother started leaving), and after. It’s hard to say much about this novel without giving away the major twist that comes about a third of the way through, but Rosemary’s Dad is a scientist and their family encounters some pretty tough questions about what makes us human and what makes us people. Science both illuminates and obscures these. So do relationships. Best to read this when you’ve got some time to read consistently though as the story starts in the middle and then jumps around a bit so it might be hard to keep track of if you’ve put the book down for a while.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.