What We're Reading - July 2020

Our Literature team share their recent reads during lockdown, and recommendations for the summer.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

I have just finished Square Haunting by Francesca Wade and I loved it so much. It turns out that some of my favourite writers, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy L Sayers and the poet H.D, all lived on Mecklenberg Square in Bloomsbury during the interwar years, along with two incredible trailblazing female academics, Eileen Power and Jane Harrison. For each of them, the home they made in the Square formed them in different ways, and Wade does a beautiful job of contextualising and bringing out each woman’s similarities and differences in their careers and lives – how they intersect and influenced each other. It’s also a reminder that the answer to external strife is to work hard at dismantling power structures in whatever way you can, whether it be recovering the hidden female pantheon of Greek goddesses like Jane Harrison or crafting manifestos for women’s writing like Woolf.

Appropriately, I’m also reading Feminism Interrupted by Lola Olufemi. It’s a short, clear book which is like a (much needed) sucker punch to white feminism. Olufemi goes through the blind spots of corporate ‘lean-in’ feminism and uncovers the power structures that underpin them. It’s a brilliant book and I recommend it to all readers.

Harriet Williams, Literature Programme Manager


Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre

Published by Jacaranda Books, René Depestre’s Hadriana in All My Dreams (translated by Kaiama L. Glover) is a glorious dance through the Haitian town of Jacmel. The novel blends rumour, Vodou, and the rites of French Catholicism to create the heady story of a priapic butterfly bent on sexual pleasure, a wild and wonderful Carnival, a beautiful young woman who appears to die on her wedding day only to become a zombie, and the young man who attempts to bear witness to it all.

Hadriana in All My Dreams is written not as a straightforward narrative, but as stories within stories – a combination of anecdote, gossip, folklore, and faith. Patrick, the novel’s primary narrator, quotes Lévi-Strauss: ‘the effectiveness of magic […] is a social construct’. So too, the narrative is constructed of the tales we tell each other: the truth becomes what is believed. Patrick writes, ‘I wanted to offer a personal perspective, situated somewhere between a serialised novel and a monograph’. The novel is this and more: a surrealist blend of rumour and fantasy, religion and ritual, love and lust. 

Rose Green, Literature Programme Coordinator


The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

Lockdown was probably the wrong time to read The Piano Teacher – Jelinek’s gallows-humour dispatch from the noose of capitalist patriarchy – but here we are. It’s the story of Erika Kohut, a thirty-something woman trained since birth to become a great musician, whose mother claims to have 'sacrificed' her life for Erika while actively sacrificing Erika’s happiness to the cutthroat world of the Viennese music industry. Secretly, Erika begins an affair with one of her students, discovering violently, tragically, but also hilariously, that the oppressions of the labour market are no different from – and often combined with – the oppressions of misogyny.

Swithun Cooper, Research and Information Manager Literature


Just So You Know: Essays of Experience Edited by Hanan Issa, Durre Shahwar and Özgür Uyanik

Just So You Know: Essays of Experience is a collection of essays from marginalised voices, collected through an Open Call, and published by Parthian Books in August. The editors’ introductions address the problematic nature of defining a ‘marginalised voice’, and the terminology around this – should it be ‘under-represented’ or ‘unheard’? Who decides which voices qualify and which do not?  The essays themselves are difficult to pin down; the writers all have a connection to Wales, but they are as different as they are similar. As a result, these creative, reflective pieces stand as a wonderful kaleidoscope of approaches, topics and perspectives. I was drawn back again and again to Kandace Siobhan Walker’s piece ‘Everything I Will Give You’, which delivers a contemporary experience of an abusive relationship in parallel with an exploration of myths and legends from across cultures – Welsh and Kenyan fairytales – and what they say about power and the entrenched nature of violence against women. I was also struck by Ricky Stevenson’s piece ‘What is boccia? Don’t ask me, I just play it’ and Taylor Edmond’s essay ‘Finding Voice’, where she writes about the ‘power in poetry’ to get people talking. My hope is that these important essays will do the same; I can’t think of a better starting point for a conversation than the writing captured in this fascinating collection.

Sinead Russell, Director Literature 


Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie

This week I’m reading Irenosen Okojie’s incredible first short story collection, Speak Gigantular, which was published by Jacaranda in 2016. Full of magical realist storytelling and allegory this collection is strong and unpredictable. Very dark moments of pain and loss reveal universal human flaws with clear and razor-sharp narrative. Okojie is a skilful and exciting writer and I’d encourage you to explore her work in full.

Rachel Stevens, Director Literature


Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone by Minna Salami 

Minna Salami’s exploration and insight into the topic of 'sensuous knowledge' provides a wonderful and powerful roadmap for people who are exploring non-Eurocentric understandings of power and identity both in terms of immediate interpersonal patterns as well as at a collective and community level.

I really appreciated the structure and African-centred approach of this book – it provides a series of discussions that show different angles and aspects of the ‘Europatriarchal’ dominant culture in our understandings of beauty, liberation and more. Time and again I found the language, concepts and stories illuminated my own experiences and clarified the challenges I see coming up across all areas of society. Whilst proudly rooted in a long history of Black feminist work, Senuous Knowledge provides refreshing insights supported by Salami’s imaginative use of popular culture.

The relatively concise nature of the book (190 pages) also makes it very approachable and a good springboard for wider research and discovery. Senuous Knowledge is published by Zed Books

Rochelle Saunders, Literature Coordinator 







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