Well – not sure what has happened to October, but it is almost over and we are hurtling towards the end of our month highlighting books set in Afghanistan. But if you have just enough time to squeeze in one more, then please, please give Andrea Busfield’s Born Under a Million Shadows a go.
Like the Kite Runner, this book gives us a look at Afghanistan through the eyes of a child – eleven year old Fawad. But Fawad has had a much tougher time of things than the Kite Runner’s Amir. His father and brother have been killed, his sister has been abducted and he and his mother Mariya are forced to rely on family charity.
The opening line of the novel is enough to send a shiver down your spine…
“My name is Fawad and my mother tells me I was born under the shadow of the Taliban.”
But despite this, and the inevitable horrors and bloodshed of any book set in Afghanistan, Born Under a Million Shadows is a delight.
Things look up for Fawad when Mariya becomes the live-in housekeeper for three westerners — NGO worker Georgie, James the journalist and lesbian engineer May. He is understandably suspicious of his mother’s new employers, and takes it upon himself to spy on them, setting the scene for some wonderful interaction and misunderstandings.
The novel is filled with Fawad’s wry humor and observations. Horrified to discover that foreign women don’t know how to wash clothes without the help of a machine, Fawad questions his mother about Georgie’s other domestic deficiencies.
And he is a bit perturbed by the foreigners’ Christmas and how it compares with their own celebrations for the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
“What we don’t do, however, is drink alcohol from the moment we get up until the moment we fall into bed – or, in James’s case, on the stairs. And after attending my first celebration of Jesus’s birthday I now understand why everybody needs two days off work to recover….As a Muslim I respect the foreigners’ Jesus and I like the fact that they celebrate his birthday even if they have got their facts muddled. However, it was hard to believe that for such a big day in their calendar I never once heard my friends mention Jesus’s name. Although James shouted ‘Christ’ when he slipped on the stairs.” – p103-104
Throughout the novel, Fawad is exposed to a whole lot of perplexing aspects of western culture – alcohol, Christmas, Wikipedia and the Sex Pistols just to name a few – and tries to rationalize how these fit into his own beliefs and upbringing. And while his reactions are so often those of a child, it doesn’t take long to realize that Fawad is a little wiser than the rest of us when it comes to understanding what really matters in the world.
We have read novels before that give us detail of life in Afghanistan, but what I enjoyed about this book was its glimpse into the way locals and foreigners are forced to interact – at least in Kabul. It reminds us that it’s never clear cut, motives are not always obvious and that beneath it all, there is often genuine good will to make a difficult situation work.
There are mentions of contemporary issues and developments – Afghanistan’s first elections, NGO programs and the Karzai government – as well as references to the past. And I’m pleased to see The Buddhas of Bamiyan make another literary appearance (something I believe is mandatory in all novels about Afghanistan!).
Andrea Busfield, who lived in Afghanistan for several years, has managed to write a novel which provides a bit of everything. By the end of Born Under a Million Shadows I had learnt something, had had a good cry and laughed more than I have for a good long-while.
I really don’t want to give away too much about the story, but it is one filled with love and romance (more than one romance in fact!), heartache, and at times almost inexpressible joy. There are warlords, cashmere goats that need combing and entrepreneurial shop-keepers who offer “Free Delivery and Cak”. There is also a host of truly lovable characters, you really won’t want to say good-bye to.
Here is what Busfield has to say in this interview with The Guardian:
“I don’t think you could find two more different books than The Kite Runner and Born Under a Million Shadows,” she says. “Mine is quite humorous I think. I wanted to capture something different; I didn’t want to do another tragic tale about Afghan people.”
In this, I think she really has succeeded. There is tragedy, but the novel is infiltrated with the black humor that is typical of societies that have had to find a way to deal with the almost endless despair of their daily lives.
As Fawad’s mother Mariyam tells him…
“Of course, that was long before the Taliban came. Now look at us! We don’t even own a tree from which we can hang ourselves.” – p15.
You’ll need to brace yourself for some colorful street language and gut-wrenching descriptions – but I would be very surprised if you didn’t turn the last page of ‘Born Under a Million Shadows’ and want to start it all over again.
So go on – as I have left it so late to write this post, you have special dispensation to let your Afghanistan journey spill over into the beginning of November.. pick up a copy of Born Under a Million Shadows today, and let us know what you thought of it.
And I leave you with this, from Fawad.
“The foreigners can keep their talk of beautiful scenery and traditional goodness because all of us would swap it in a heartbeat for just one moment’s peace and it’s high time the sorrow that came to plant itself in on our soil just packed up and went away to terrorize someone else.” – p99
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.
For those of you joining us on the Afghanistan reading challenge – I hope all is going well with your chosen books. And if you haven’t got started yet, then maybe this will encourage you.
In my travels around the internet in search of fascinating tidbits about Afghanistan, I came across a truly fantastic project which is completely in the spirit of Packabook. It is the woman’s writing project AWWP , started by the novelist Masha Hamilton, and it is helping to give Afghan women a voice.
If you visit the AWWP site you can read first-hand what these courageous women are writing, often sharing their stories at great risk to themselves. Most take part in secret. I cannot encourage you enough to have a look around, read their stories and comment on their work – this is how they know their stories are making it out to the wider world.
I was so moved by these extraordinary stories that I asked Masha Hamilton whether she’d respond to a few questions about the project, and she kindly agreed.
What inspired you to start the project?
The inspiration actually came back in 1999, when I saw a smuggled video tape that showed the execution of Zarmeena in Kabul. I understood from this horrific event that Afghan women were not only hidden beneath burqas, but their voices were being silenced. Even after the defeat of the Taliban regime, we rarely hear from Afghan women in their own words, without the filter of media or their men — and that is the mission of this project.
How do you find the women to take part?
In a variety of ways, primarily through direct contacts. The project is spread by word-of-mouth only in Afghanistan.
Most of the contributions from the women appear to be autobiographical or biographical, but do you see a time when they may branch into experimenting with fiction? We certainly need more novels written by Afghan women….
We do have a few women who fictionalize. But many Afghan women who write in our workshops are motivated by a desire to share their own stories, as this has been a path often closed to them and as little worth has been put on their views and experiences.
As a novelist you certainly seem to have a penchant for foreign lands for your settings – what are your thoughts on the contribution novels set in less accessible countries make to our understanding of the world? And will you be writing a book set in Afghanistan?
As a novelist, and as a journalist, I have been drawn to foreign locales for a variety of reasons. One is that I think it helps me understand my own life to view it through another lens. I am working on the next novel now, and yes, Afghanistan does play a small part.
I know you are always looking for donations to help buy women laptops on which to write, but what else are you raising money for?
AWWP’s fundraising at the moment is focused on the writers’ corner that our team is opening up in Kabul, in a safe neighborhood, and a non-descript, unmarked building with a live-in building guard. This is the first step to what we hope will eventually be AWWP support for Afghanistan’s first women-only Internet cafe, so that women in that country can continue to have a pipeline to the outside world, whatever happens on a political or security level. This site, opening this month, will be a place for our writers to read, send us their essays, stories and poems, and also share community along with chai. We are very excited about this step in the project.
I also asked Masha what drove the women to take the risk to write, and she urged me to read what the women themselves had to say. Here are some of their comments.
“The writing project gave me a voice, the project gave me courage to appear as a woman, to tell about my life, to share my pains and experiences. I wonder how big the change in my destiny is because of your work and this project. Who would trust an online class, a writing project, to change a destiny and a faith? AWWP gave me the power to feel I am not only a woman; it gave me a title, an Afghan woman “writer.” … I took the pen and I wrote and everything changed. I learned if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand.” —Roya
“I am writing from Farah, a province in western Afghanistan with a low level of education, and still many men do not like that I write and don’t know why I write. They have tried to stop me from writing, but I never gave up. I will do it more and more and show what I’ve tolerated as a woman and how much Afghan people suffer in their lives. I have thousands of words in my heart to tell the world in thanks to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.” —Seeta
“This project supports Afghan women by showing they are as important as other women in the world. It shows the world that even though Afghan women faced lots of problems, they didn’t lose their ability or courage. It shows the kindness of American women who spend their precious time working for the development of their Afghan sisters.” —Sabira
Please spread the word about the amazing work AWWP is doing – bookmark it, tweet it, facebook it and mention it on your own blogs – let’s see what we can do to these brave women of Afghanistan who are using laptops, secreted USB sticks, and trusted male relatives to reach out to the rest of us.
I am delighted to start our World Party Challenge with a trip to Afghanistan.
True, I have taken the easy option and decided to start with the very first country we have on our list at Packabook’s main site – but it is more than that.
When I think about the books that have truly moved me, there are two that immediately spring to mind – and both of those are set in Afghanistan.
My fascination with Afghanistan began, like many others, with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. And the reason it hit me so hard was that in part of the book Hosseini described an Afghanistan I knew nothing about, that I had never seen on the news or in a movie. This was the Kabul of the 1970’s; a city with tree-lined streets, beautiful gardens and women wearing miniskirts. A city that was known as the Paris of Central Asia.
Why had I never known this? Because like so many others my view of Afghanistan was formed by what I saw on the evening news. If you had asked me to think of Afghanistan what would have come to mind was images of dusty roads, violence, poppy fields, Soviet tank graveyards and the heartbreaking television images of the magnificent Buddhas of Bamiyan being destroyed by the Taliban.
What I certainly didn’t have was an image of trees in Kabul as Hosseini described. And when I read his words it reminded me of just how much power novels like this have. I could have read a hundred history books on Afghanistan, but nothing would have had the same impact as realizing that once there were trees – and then they were gone. For me, it summed up so much of what has happened in that embattled country over the last 30 years.
By their nature epiphanies are pretty personal, but that was mine. And since then I have just wanted to know more about Afghanistan.
I devoured The Bookseller of Kabul, Swallows of Kabul and The Wasted Vigil – all of which are excellent books in their own right. And then Hosseini released his much-awaited second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns.
If I thought The Kite Runner had been powerful, then this was even more so. Because this was about women. And this time it truly hit home.
Hosseini managed to make me understand what it is like to not have any control over your own life, simply because you are a woman. And even now, there’s many a time when I am complaining about the train not turning up on time, or battling the London weather to get to work, that I catch myself whinging. And then I remember Mariam in A Thousand Splendid Suns and I count my blessings.
This is the power of the novels we read.
I was going so use this Afghanistan launch post to tell you about Born Under a Million Shadows, my book of choice for this challenge. But the post has gone on long enough so it can wait for another day.
For now, I encourage you to pull out anything you already have on your shelves set in Afghanistan, have a read and share it with us. If you are looking for inspiration head over to Books Set in Afghanistan and you will find plenty there.
Then in the comments please let us know what you are reading and/or give us a link to your own post or review.
Many of us have governments who are making decisions which impact Afghanistan. I suspect it is a good idea that we read as much as we can about this troubled country, because what we see on our television screens is just a tiny fraction of the many stories to be told.
And apart from that, these novels are damn fine reads. Choose one now, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts…
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.
UPDATE: The World Party Reading Challenge is now over – but we made some great discoveries – you can read the related posts at the following links…
It’s an exciting day here at Packabook as we kick off our World Party Reading Challenge – a challenge which has been gifted to us from the owner of the Fizzy Thoughts Blog after she decided she was not cut out for such a long term project.
Thanks Softdrink and a big welcome to Fizzy Thoughts followers who have come to visit us at Packabook and see what we are all about.
While it would be impossible for me to imitate Softdrink’s delightful and unique reviewing style, I am sure we can tap into some of the enthusiasm she was able to generate with her 12-month challenge to celebrate a country each month by reading a book which is set there.
And we need your help.
This is how it will work.
Each month I will write a post on a particular country with a selection of novels for you to consider reading. I will choose one of those novels and discuss it in greater detail, including some fascinating facts related to the story that I dig up from the internet or possibly my own travels.
You can then choose one of the novels from the list or tell us about something else you have read set in that country. You’ll be able to post comments, and links to your own blog where you discuss the book (or books!)
To make the most of the challenge I’d encourage you to follow Packabook on Facebook and Twitter as much of the discussion will move over there, so that regular blog readers who do not want to be part of the challenge are not inundated with our compelling insights and stimulating comments…(are they listening….are they tempted yet?).
And that’s it. By the end of the month we are going to have a fantastic resource to look back on, and will no doubt feel as if we have traveled to the country itself!
While the challenge will officially begin in the first week of October, I’m giving you a few days head start.
I will be focusing on Andrea Busfield’s Born Under a Million Shadows. Feel free to join me with that one, or read something else.
So are you ready?
Here’s your checklist.
1) Let us know in the comments below that you are taking part, and feel free to post a link to a blog post of your own where you discuss it.
2) Like us on Facebook
3) Follow us on Twitter
4) Choose a book set in Afghanistan
5) Start reading
6) And if you are a blogger and fancy putting a button on your blog. Here’s the code..
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I have just finished reading Marti Lembach’s The Man from Saigon set in the Vietnam War.
While I am fascinated with all countries, I tend to stay away from books set during this war, perhaps because I have seen so many films and television series about the conflict that I feel I already have a pretty clear picture of what it was like. I don’t feel the need to read about American soldiers trying to avoid the Viet Cong as they make their way through the jungle, or try to understand their fear as they struggle with fighting an impossible war – this has all been so well covered already.
But what attracted me to this particular novel is that the protaganist is a western woman, which is certainly unusual in films and books based on the Vietnam War.
Susan Gifford is one of the few female journalists based in Saigon in 1967,and perhaps what makes the story even more endearing, is that she is there to write’ Women’s Interest’ stories for a women’s magazine. She is totally unprepared for the realities of the environment she finds herself in. But our leading lady is resourceful and intelligent if not a little reckless, and before long she finds herself in situations which would challenge the best-trained soldier or most battle-hardened foreign correspondent.
While this novel still sees some trekking through the jungle and avoiding of explosions, it is the emotional context of the writing that I found the most compelling. Susan becomes involved in complex relationships with both her Vietnamese photographer Son and an American television correspondent Marc – relationships obviously complicated by the environment they find themselves in, where the usual rules of play are abandoned and nothing is quite as it seems.
There is no shortage of the realities of war in this novel and like any book about this conflict we are exposed to the blood and fear of the time, but Susan’s interpretations of what she sees give us a slightly different perspective from what you are likely to have seen or read before. There is real emotional depth here, and I especially enjoyed Leimbach’s exploring of love and connection under the most difficult of circumstances.
The world of the foreign correspondents rings true and while I am no expert, Leimbach’s research of all things military appears thorough.
In terms of location, while the book is ostensibly set in Saigon, we spend much of the time out of the city on Susan’s various field assignments – the Mekong Delta, Con Thien, Pleiku, Loc Ninh.
While The Man From Saigon may not give you much of a picture of these places in modern day Vietnam, it is one more valuable addition to our understanding of its past and well worth a read.
And if you’d like to explore the country a little further then take a visit to our page dedicated to books set in Vietnam.