Review: My Real Name Is Hanna

I am beginning to realize that freedom means you can be who you are meant to be, whatever that is. . . That breathing without any thought to it is a gift. Now, I think about breathing all the time. What is it like to take your last breath? What if the sound of it gave you away?

Tara Lynn Masih has dedicated five years of research and writing into her first novel—My Real Name Is Hanna. The narrative is set in the years of World War II in which fifty-six countries were involved between 1939 and 1945. At the heart of the disputes were rising nationalism, fascism, and unresolved territorial boundaries. Germany and Italy were seeking to control Europe, and in Asia, Japan was expanding its territory by invading the Pacific. From German U-boats and Panzers to Japanese Kamikaze and American atomic bombs destruction and death ruled. Estimates vary about the number of lives lost during the war, but the consensus is that roughly 62 million people died, including the estimated 12 million in the Holocaust. The historical narrative of World War II is distorted with every generation, but one thing remains constant—the stories of the people who survived it.

Set in Eastern Europe, in an area that once was a part of Poland, Masih’s YA novel is the story of Hanna Slivka—a mother who reveals to her children why her real name is not the name they know her by, and why it has been kept secret.  The author was inspired by the powerful matriarch, Esther Stermer, and her extended family along with four other families, who sought refuge in the caves of Ukraine during the Holocaust. In the novel, war has come to the untroubled home of the 14-year-old Hanna, in her hometown of Kwasova. Being Jewish, she was used to the occasional name-calling, but she could count on her brother Symon to stand up for her. With the arrival of the war, her life becomes more complicated. Her freedoms, as well as her family’s, are increasingly restricted until they diminish.

Masih crafts the story in such a way that you paint pictures on the blank canvas inside your head. I could visualize Hanna and her family fleeing and hiding in the forest outside their shtetele. I could hear their footsteps as they walked in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows. I, too, was transported there.

My Real Name Is Hanna is a moving novel that takes you through a dark chapter in Ukrainian history. It is a journey that will lead you from the depths of calamitous sadness to the heights of ethereal joy. It is a story that teaches you how life should be: “being able to move about in space with no chains or fears or limits.”

Her name is Hanna.

And this is her story.

***

Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.

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Review: Transit of Venus (Poetry Anthology)

Courtesy of Tyler Wanlass

In 2012, three poets from Germany flew to New Zealand to witness the transit of Venus across the Sun, recreating the 1769 journey of Captain James Cook, who had sailed to Tahiti not only to record the transit but to continue further on to find the fabled hidden land of the Pacific. It was this onwards journey that led to the European discovery of New Zealand, paving the way to the colonialization of the South Pacific.

What these German poets wrote on their travels came to form part of the poetry volume The Transit of Venus. I had come across and purchased the volume at Arty Bee’s bookstore in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, not only because of its relevance in a country coming to grips with the wrongs of colonialization but also because of the cover art. The front cover shows a black dot set adrift among the off-pink orb of the sun—and it is fitting for the poetry within, which drifts and crosses in front of the eyes as if it is on a trajectory to something far more important than to merely live on the pages of this collection. More importantly, however, this artwork reflects the nature of the country that has been my adopted home for over 20 years—a land itself in transit, attracting tourists in droves for its natural beauty, only for them to find a nation with far more to offer than just a breathtaking exterior. Read More

Review: No Longer Human

Depression has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in fiction. It presents a peculiar set of problems, in that if a piece of writing is to be effective it must grab the reader. It has to do so with energy. Some form of sustained momentum is necessary to propel the reader through the text. An aspect, any aspect, must engage them, and invite them to stay, chapter by chapter, line after line. And what makes this so difficult for writers who choose depression as their subject is that it is an affliction characterized largely by a subject’s inability to summon a feeling of interest.

To the depressed person, nothing is of interest. Nothing manages to grip them. The sadness they feel doesn’t manifest as a sharp pain or sorrow, but a flatness, an absence. An all-encompassing lack. The body is there, held in place, going through its day, its motions, and that numbness just swirls away inside them. The question for the author writing about this tragic, unbelievably difficult state of being is: how do you do the concept of such emptiness justice, when your only option is to fill blank pages with a pile of words?

This is the task Osamu Dazai set for himself in his novel No Longer Human. It is the story of a deeply sad, self-conscious person. Someone whose every action is lorded over by their own overwhelming shame and fear. Having finished it, I’d say Dazai achieved what he set out to do. But it’s hard to know where to go from there. Read More

Review: Pencil Letter by Irina Ratushinskaya

You must not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to hate. Not because your tormentors have not earned it. But if you allow hatred to take root, it would flourish and spread during your years in the camps, driving out everything else, and ultimately corrode and warp your soul. You will no longer be yourself, your identity will be destroyed, all that will remain will be a hysterical, maddened and bedevilled husk of the human being that once was.

Ratushinskaya, from Grey Is the Colour of Hope

In March 1983, on her 29th birthday, Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years in a hard-labour camp for crimes against the Soviet regime. What was so terrible a crime that the authoritarian government of Konstantin Chernenko thought to sentence a former schoolteacher and physics graduate to a seven-year maximum sentence in harrowing and torturous conditions? The crime was poetry.

Born in Odessa, she wrote poetry while working as a schoolteacher before graduating with a Masters of Physics in 1976 (deciding to pursue a technical profession due to the oppression of the humanities by the then-communist regime), and she continued to write poetry after receiving her degree. Even though her early work centred on the theological, romantic, and philosophical, it was still enough to warrant the inquisition of the Soviet power structure. Read More

Review: A Jihad for Love by Mohamed El Bachiri

Part autobiography, part ideology, part diary, A Jihad For Love is emotionally charged. The collection is an eloquent plea to those who judge Islam or twist its nature to the purpose of committing devastating criminal acts, and also to those who practice it in its many forms—to not take its teachings literally, but to apply its tenets in the context of the modern world. It implores followers to follow a path where the teachings of Islam do not conflict with the world we all have to inhabit.

It was on a Tuesday morning, the 22nd of March 2016, when commuters at Maalbeek metro station in Brussels awaited the Arts-Loi/Kunst-Wet connection. The platform bustled with commuters undertaking their daily pilgrimages to work; parents carried children, men and women read the papers, and buskers played music as the crowds mingled. At 9:10 am, they began to board the three carriages whose doors had just opened. At 9:11 am, some of them would be dead. As the train readied to depart, an explosive device planted in the middle carriage of the three detonated, rending apart its fragile metal surroundings, and within a second, sixteen lives were extinguished. Read More

Review: The Best Small Fictions 2017

What do you read if you don’t have the time to read a book like War & Peace? Luckily, much like the modern world, where immediacy and quick fixes are all the rage, literary greatness can be found in writings of a much more digestible length. Flash fiction stories still wield a philosophical heft and still leave the reader mulling on greater questions, but are restricted to far more compact length limits. Hard-hitting and captivating, they are usually no longer than a few pages and combine the storytelling of the great works with the ability to be read in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee (or even just the time to take a sip!). So, if the burden of reading Atlas Shrugged isn’t for you, then The Best Small Fictions 2017 may be the answer.

Back for its third year, this anthology of the best international flash fiction of 2017 is a heavyweight collection of emotion-laden injections of pure fiction heroin. The wholly volunteer team at TBSF have drawn together some of the most compelling flash fiction, and they have shown once again why this is not a genre to be scoffed at. With fifty-five stories, the volume is enthralling. Even as a lover of long detail-abundant stories, I found myself unable to put the collection down, forcing myself to stop reading only so that I could digest the content and ruminate on what the stories left unsaid, before once again entering the rabbit hole of content squeezed between the covers. Read More

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

Courtesy of Biafraforum.com

Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have time to be in it and to move slowly.

― Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

My first touch with Africa was through Hemingway’s infamous book Green Hills of Africa. Although it is an account of a hunting safari on the Serengeti Plains and a chronicle of adventure, it revealed to me the beauty of this strange land – a continent full of contrast and opportunity. As inspiring as this book was, however, it missed one vital element – humans. After all, as Albert Camus once said in one of his essays: “What’s a city but the people?” Read More

Review: Incognegro – A Graphic Mystery

It was the summer of 1919. Just after the First World War, white supremacists, fueled by generations of hatred, began targeting returning African American GIs for violence. Meanwhile, more African Americans flooded into northern cities looking for job opportunities and an escape from the oppression of the American South. They, too, were met with violence in cities such as Chicago and New York. It was the Red summer, when blood flowed from battered skulls and from the trees like blossoms of the “Strange Fruit” of the old jazz standard. From the shadows emerges a hero, the Incognegro.

This graphic novel deals with the fictional story of Zane Pinchback, an African American man whose light skin tone allows him to pass as a white man. This trait, presented almost as a superpower in Incognegro, has helped him slip into the shadows and report on lynchings in the South. Suddenly, the work – always dangerous – becomes personal as his brother has been placed in jail for the murder of a white woman, and the sentence will be carried out by the angry lynch mob that sits outside the jailhouse day and night. Read More