Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Posts Tagged ‘Verso Books’

Book Review – Threads: From the refugee crisis

Posted by lucypopescu on June 25, 2017


Calais was once famous for the art of lace-making; now it is better known for the groups of desperate refugees who gather in its port hoping to cross into Britain. In early 2016 the cartoonist and activist Kate Evans (who is also the author of Red Rosa: A graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, 2015) volunteered for a brief stint in the refugee camp known as the Jungle. Her new graphic novel Threads depicts the shantytown before it was demolished later that year. A ribbon of lace frames each page, the delicate threads standing in sharp contrast to the refugees’ harsh existence.

Instead of finding sanctuary in Europe, they live in limbo. Evans’s subjects are shunted between camps in Calais and Dunkirk, and she meticulously documents their helplessness, along with their remarkable endurance. Her eyewitness reportage is punctuated with news headlines about the various atrocities fuelling the refugee crisis – the Russian fighter planes bombing Syria and US forces bombing the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, for example. Evans also captures in separate cartoons the political prejudice of Theresa May, Britain’s then Home Secretary, claiming that there is no economic benefit to migration, and France’s Marine Le Pen encouraging distrust of Muslims as she addresses a rally in Calais.

The squalor of the Jungle is evident in Evans’s illustrations. Only twenty-four toilets are provided for 5,000 people, and the water tests positive for faecal contamination. The diversity of the inhabitants is represented by the ramshackle colourfulness of her sketches of them. Attempts to help the refugees, some of whom are unaccompanied children as young as seven, can be chaotic: Evans depicts aid workers trying to distribute children’s clothes, overwhelmed by lines of desperate men. Swimming goggles are dis carded as impractical and, too late, it is recognized that they would have provided a useful defence against tear gas. Evans is quick to note the Kafkaesque decisions of the authorities – on two separate occasions, refugees and aid workers are prevented from bringing fresh bread or dry bedding into the camp.

Evans also shares the pejorative texts she has received condemning her voluntary work. When one text message claims, “These refugees are safe in France where they could claim asylum if they wanted 2 shame they want our benefits too much!”, she responds with a series of stark illustrations (leached of colour, the frames increased in size) showing three refugee men being brutally beaten by unidentified assailants. One victim later remarks, “they were wearing blue suits. Like the ones that the police wear, but with the emblems torn off”.

Police brutality is seen as shamelessly open. Evans’s illustrations convey the terrifying spectacle of rows of riot police and bulldozers, and the fear of the Jungle’s inhabitants as they are tear-gassed. The author learns of one fifteen-year-old boy whose skull has been fractured, and a pregnant woman who has been slapped by police. Again and again, her narrative emphasizes the desperation of people trying to reach safety, and she includes some haunting snapshots explaining why they have fled their native countries, ranging from torture and rape to sustained persecution for being gay. The appalling threads of these people’s lives coalesce to form a bigger picture with an underlying message: we need to treat our fellow humans with care and respect, for inhumanity breeds inhumanity.

A mother herself, Kate Evans depicts her young subjects with remarkable tenderness. We’re not told about a child’s boredom, fear or meltdown – we see it. Their lives are on hold and many are battling despair. Back in Britain, the author depicts herself watching the demolition of the Jungle on her phone and remarks: “It’s more than some people’s homes that are being destroyed. It’s their minds”. Her book ends on a chilling note: after the eviction, 129 lone children disappeared from the camps. As Threads makes clear, one child is too many; 129 is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Originally published by the TLS


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Book Review – Beauty is a Wound & Man Tiger

Posted by lucypopescu on August 5, 2016

Beauty is a WoundSet in the fictitious Indonesian port of Halimunda, Eka Kurniawan’s ambitious, multi-layered novel Beauty is a Wound chronicles the life of Dewi Ayu, the mixed-race granddaughter of Dutch plantation owners, and her four daughters. It opens boldly in 1997, with Dewi Ayu rising from her grave, “after being dead for twenty-one years”, and then leaps back and forth in time introducing us to an array of characters.

The story covers almost a century, from the final years of Dutch colonialism to the fall of President Suharto, and includes the Japanese occupation, the postwar revolution, the acts of genocide against Indonesia’s Communist party and Suharto’s brutal dictatorship. Beauty is a Wound is the acclaimed Indonesian writer’s debut novel, published in his own country in 2002, and now published in English.

On returning to the land of the living, Dewi Ayu immediately thinks of her fourth daughter, born just 12 days before her death. She had been a particularly ugly baby and Dewi Ayu had gleefully named her Beauty. Setting the tone of the novel, Dewi Ayu declares: “There’s no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat.”

We are then taken back to Dewi Ayu’s childhood and precocious teenage years. At 18, she is forced into prostitution by the Japanese and circumstances compel her to continue “whoring” after the war. Displaying a rare beauty and a quiet self-possession, she is popular with the local men and distrusted by the women. Dewi Ayu gives birth to three beautiful daughters, all with different fathers, all of whom suffer tragedy.

Three hapless men — bandit Maman Gendeng, independence fighter Shodancho, and Comrade Kliwon, a communist leader — are in thrall to Dewi Ayu and her exquisite offspring.

The fate of the women of his homeland, Kurniawan suggests, was largely determined by such men, be they Dutch colonisers, Japanese occupiers, independence fighters or Suharto loyalists. Local myth and superstition also influence the lives of Dewi Ayu, her daughters and her grandchildren. One legend tells of the beautiful Princess Rengganis, who marries a dog and settles in Halimunda, “Land of Fog”. Her story serves as a warning to beautiful women in the region. Centuries later, beauty is still equally revered and feared.

In Kurniawan’s world, the lust for revenge is never-ending, from the time of Dutch colonisers to the bloodletting in the two years preceding Suharto’s three-decade dictatorship. Indonesia’s internal and political conflicts are his novel’s central themes, and he vividly depicts their impact on ordinary people’s lives. Take this chilling account of the military’s 1965 massacre of communists and alleged leftists: “The city of Halimunda was now filled with corpses sprawled out in the irrigation channels and on the outskirts of the city, in the foothills and on the riverbanks, in the middle of bridges and under bushes. Most of them had been killed as they tried to escape.”

The abuse of women and girls is presented as the inevitable fallout of violent conflict, and makes for difficult reading. After being raped by Shodancho, Dewi Ayu’s eldest daughter Alamanda lies helpless as he crows, “It’s too bad you met me, Alamanda. I win every war I fight, including the war against you.”

Annie Tucker’s skilful translation captures Kurniawan’s matter-of-fact prose and black humour. Elements of the supernatural and oral storytelling combine powerfully to evoke a brutal past and some of the pivotal events that helped shape Indonesia today.

imgresHis 2004 novel Man Tiger (translated into English by Labodalih Sembiring last year), is a slimmer volume but just as savage a critique of violence against Indonesia’s women. Set in another fictitious coastal township, the central character Margio, “a child of domestic rape”, believes himself to be possessed by a tiger — “white as a swan, vicious as an ajak”. As in Beauty is a Wound, it opens with the discovery of a corpse, then tracks back in time to reveal why Margio, now an adult, murdered his philandering neighbour Anwar Sadat (not the Egyptian former president). Like Beauty, Man Tiger is inspired by Indonesia’s oral storytelling tradition, so we are given the consequences of an act of violence before we learn the reason why it occurred.

In both novels, Kurniawan creates a vivid sense of poverty and rural isolation and weaves magic realism into his narratives to terrific effect. It’s easy to see why he is being compared to Gabriel García Márquez and hailed as one of the leading lights of contemporary Indonesian fiction.

Originally published by the Financial Times

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Speed Reading – London walking

Posted by lucypopescu on August 29, 2015


As the days being to lengthen what better time to explore London armed with a book that gives a social and historical context, educates and entertains.

London overgroundIain Sinclair is a master at stripping back the familiar to reveal fresh layers of interest. In his latest book, Sinclair, accompanied by artist and film-maker Andrew Kötting, follows London’s Overground network, the Ginger Line. As Sinclair remarks, “this novel fairground railway, Boris puffed, freighted with boasts… [is] a very old railway revamped.”

During the trek, Sinclair shares snippets of conversation and memories, recalls old literary haunts and the ramblings of other writers and connects figures “binding the territory together”. Sinclair delights in the surreal, describing the Kensal Rise pop up library, erected in protest at the intended closure of the original, as “anti-library: it doesn’t let books out, it gathers them in…a shrine to conspicuous altruism.”

rebel footprintsIn Rebel Footprints, David Rosenberg explores areas in London that from the early 1830s to the end of the 1930s were home to campaigning groups and individuals who agitated for political and social change. These range from the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street to the suffragettes’ protests in Westminster. Given the current anti-immigrant rhetoric it is timely to read about past exploitation such as the East End “Sweatshops” dominated by “greeners” (new immigrants) working for depressed wages. Nine chapters conclude with a map and walk highlighting various revolutionary landmarks.





Those with a more literary bent will relish Matthew Beaumont’s Night Walking. Beaumont covers a vast period from the thirteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. His nocturnal study illuminates the history of English literature as well as revealing some of the city’s past secrets.




Originally published by The Tablet

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Book Review – The Happiness Industry

Posted by lucypopescu on May 26, 2015

The Happiness IndustrySocial media offer a platform for us to acknowledge our changing moods and encourage an unnatural obsession with how our wellbeing and happiness affect our working lives. Today, we can buy gadgets and apps that measure our sleep or assess the benefits of our physical activities. Self-help books about how to be happy proliferate and ensure that we remain fixated on the subject. There are even organisations which use cameras to track our smiles. Rather more worryingly, this technology and knowledge is being harnessed by corporations, policy makers and governments. According to William Davies, the science of happiness “has now penetrated the citadel of global economic management … the future of successful capitalism depends on our ability to combat stress, misery and illness and put relaxation, happiness and wellness in their place”.

In his impeccably researched book, Davies traces the history of the happiness industry back to the work of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher and social reformer who believed human actions should promote happiness for the greatest number. Davies also examines the work of Gustav Fechner, a theologian and physicist who founded psychophysics; the economist William Stanley Jevons; the physiologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt; and the animal psychologist John B Watson whose research eventually led him to join the U.S. advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He illustrates how these disciplines overlapped and how happiness studies became entangled “with economic and medical expertise”.

His main criticism of “the science of well-being” is that it encourages us to blame ourselves while ignoring political and economic contexts, Futhermore, those in power exploit the science for “private profit” or “social control”. As Davies underlines, “unhappiness and depression are concentrated in highly unequal societies with strongly materialist, competitive values”. The opinion poll Gallup estimates that “the unhappiness of employees costs the US economy $500 billion a year in lost productivity, lost tax receipts and health care costs.” No wonder wealthy states are so interested in measuring happiness. But the solutions offered, Davies argues, further isolate the poor.

It’s an erudite and far-reaching study but, because Davies covers so much ground, The Happiness Industry can be difficult to unpack. Davies suggests that the positive psychology movement (aimed at improving everyday happiness) has advanced to the detriment of more subjective methods geared towards identifying what constitutes emotional wellbeing. His conclusion is that only through “understanding the strains and pains that work, hierarchy, financial pressures and inequality place upon human well-being” can we challenge them. Rather than allowing our emotions to be bought and sold, we need to stop focusing on our inner lives and train our minds “outwards upon the world”.

 A shortened version was published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

Syrian NotebooksIn mid-January 2012, the American-French author Jonathan Littell travelled to Homs in Syria with his colleague Mani, a photographer and translator.

They were smuggled into the city by opposition fighters with the Free Syrian Army and spent three fraught weeks bearing witness to the regime’s bombing of residential neighbourhoods and snipers picking off innocent civilians.

Littell was there to write a series of articles for Le Monde. On his return he realised that his extensive notes could also make a book documenting a pivotal moment in the conflict. Littell’s own emotional journey follows the sad trajectory of the opposition’s resistance.

At first he appears almost buoyant in his macho naming of the guns and weaponry used by both sides and their likely provenance. Littell adopts a nom de guerre, drinks whisky, the preferred panacea of hardened war journalists, and never complains about the discomfort of sleeping in bombed-out houses with the sound of gunfire all around. Gradually though, as the violence escalates, Littell starts to tire. He can’t shake a bad cough and becomes obsessed with meal times. He finds it increasingly hard to bear witness to the atrocities being committed day and night.

Listening to the numerous accounts of activists, fighters, doctors and ordinary citizens, Littell and Mani (aka Ra’id) have to sift through the information and decide what is fact and what may have been embellished. Some members of the FSA are suspicious of them, wary of it being reported that civilians have joined their ranks in case it supports the regime’s claims of “terrorism”. Others claim every death is regime-orchestrated.

A doctor describes in graphic terms how the wounded, both civilians and fighters, would be taken to the military hospital where he worked and were brutally tortured. He offers them evidence filmed on a camera-pen. “There were two torture tools,” he tells them, “an electric cable and strips of reinforced rubber.”

The YouTube videos the activists share with the journalists are gradually replaced by the physical bodies of the wounded and the dead. Littell conveys his sense of horror in stark, fragmented prose. After one particularly brutal day, his despondency is reflected in his writing and deteriorating health: “The coughing fits… undo me completely, leave me empty and trembling for a long moment.”

On his return, Littell warned Alain Juppe, then French foreign minister, that “the regime was doing its utmost to provoke cycles of sectarian violence while the FSA was frantically trying to contain them; born out of despair the Islamist temptation was growing but had yet to gain any serious ground.” Tragically, Islamic State is one consequence of the West’s inaction.

At the time, Littell was not to know that Homs would be bitterly fought over until last May, when rebel forces evacuated the city. But he clearly foresaw that “playing the extremists against the moderates” would serve President Bashar al-Assad’s regime well. More importantly, he realised that if nothing was done to curb the bloodletting, Islamist extremism would take hold.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – La Lucha

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

La LuchaMexico has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and human rights activists to work in. Critics are often abducted or murdered with impunity. Furthermore, over the past two
decades, gender based violence reached such epic proportions: Juárez city, for example, has become known as the “femicide” capital of the world. This is the chilling backdrop to Jon Sack’s graphic novel, part of a series published by Front Line Defenders (FLD), a Dublin based international human rights organization.

The book centres on a real life figure, Luz (Lucha) Estela Castro Rodríguez, a lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights in the state of Chihuahua, considered one of the most violent regions of Mexico. In 2002, Lucha cofounded the organization Justice for Our Daughters, and in 2005 the Center for Human Rights of Women. Through her work, Sack and Adam Shapiro, head of campaigns at FLD, gained access to the stories of ordinary Mexicans who have been devastated by the murder or disappearance of loved ones and of those who have fled to the United States.

These include the Salazar Reyes family. Josefina, a wellknown activist, protested against a proposed radioactive waste site in Sierra Blanca, opposed the militarization of
Juárez, and denounced the mass murder of women in the region. In August 2008, the military abducted her son Miguel Ángel. After being tortured for sixteen days, he was released. Three months later, Josefina’s other son, Julio César, was murdered at a wedding. Josefina continued her protests until January 3, 2010, when she, too, was murdered. Her
brother Rubén was killed seven months later. On February 25, 2011, the bodies of Magdalena Reyes Salazar, her brother Elias, and his wife Luisa Ornelas Soto were found dumped along
the side of a road in Guadalupe, Chihuahua.

By using black and white comic book art – arguably more effective at drawing the reader in than a block of text describing the violence – Jon Sack immerses the reader in his subject; his representation of shootings and torture powerfully conveys that violence is commonplace in Mexico. Employing light and shade to great effect, he presents the killers as shadows – a chilling reminder of how Juárez’s faceless murderers continue to escape justice.

Originally published the TLS

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