Seeking Libya (The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar)

“Pain shrinks the heart. This, I believe, is part of the intention. You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination.”

In The Return, Hisham Matar provides two stories: the story of Libya and the story of a dissidents’ disappearance and the family left behind. We gain more than a glimpse into Libya’s history – from its little know past and vague borders through the Italian-colonial period, revolts and coups, to political intrigue involving Egypt and Britain, to cultural insights into the Bedoin and a family saga, the impact of exile (“Guilt is exile’s eternal companion.”) and especially the struggle of a man to find his father.

Hisham Matar is a young man studying in London when his father disappears from the family’s exile in Egypt. At the time, Libya has been taken over by Gaddafi. Much of the first part of the book looks back at the history of both the country and the family. Of his father, he writes that “he was a writer responding to ghosts and to history.” As the story progresses, Matar questions official stories and contemplates what happens to those left after the disappearances of dissidents: the dearth of creativity, the shrivelling of the soul.

Through the passing years, Matar waffles emotionally, often succumbing to the likeliness that his father is dead. “But then hope, cunning and persistent, crept back in… .” We ride emotional storms and political frustrations as the search moves from a personal one to an international one. Slowly, over decades, facts leak out, and eventually there is a regime change. The son makes a visit to the now-empty prison.

Abu Salim is the last place Jaballa Matar was known to be alive. It’s the site of the massacre of 1,270 prisoners, “the incident that all those years ago had started a chain of events that ultimately led to the overthrow of Gaddafi.” He visits the prison but fails to find closure: “The body of my father is gone, but his place is here and occupied by something that cannot just be called memory.” And later: “My father is both dead and alive… . I live, as we all live, in the aftermath.”

Matar’s writing and research skills are clear throughout The Return (as they are in his novel In the Country of Men that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.) The memoir attempts a balancing act. However, I frequently found that he succumbs to an emotionally flat tone, and I wonder if it is a way to maintain a distance from the pain of loss and of grief forever raw and unresolved. But this is a small complaint given the scope of the story, its range across time, generations, the personal and the political.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between

Language’s Power (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See)

“For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me – as a girl and later as a woman – to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.”

In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan we enter the life of 19th century women living in isolated Hunan Province, China. This is during the era when little girls’ feet were bound in order to make them beautiful in the eyes of husbands – at times hints of sexual overtones slip into the narrative, but these are not explored and remain subtle and innocent.

All I knew was that footbinding would make me more marriageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life – a son. To that end, my goal was to achieve a pair of perfectly bound feet….

Lily was seven when the bones in her feet were broken and shaped over painful time into tiny arches.

Lily and Snow Flower lived in an era of matchmakers, during a time when a special bond, called laotong, might be formed between two young girls, and when fortuitous marriage matches were dreamed. It was also an era of girls’ and women’s isolation and of a secret written language called nu shu that was known only to women. Lessons – life-lessons – were taught in an upstairs women’s-only chamber. But when famine and war struck, all these beautiful-footed women’s lives became at risk. They could not run; they could barely, and only in pain, walk any distance.

Lisa See creates an intimate glimpse into women’s lonely lives. The narrative is packed with historical details that lend authenticity to the haunting tale of lives seen through the lens of Lily who was born in 1823 and who lived through the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). Lily shares a lifetime of hopes and realities as seen from her eightieth year, from “one who has not yet died.”

The writers among readers will be fascinated with the lyrical story the two girls write on the fan that passes between them throughout their lifetime. The messages are poetic, while adhering (for the most part) to tradition. The rituals and conventions of the time are stark and vivid. See delivers them without judgement and with honesty. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan provides a look into how women understand their lives and how they experience what love they manage to find.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Memories from Fort St. John, B.C.

Travel memories: Winter in Canada has kept me reading and sketching, hence the book reviews and now this ink and watercolour sketch.

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Without travels, I’ve been kept inside reading-like-a-writer (my creative writing muse seems to be on vacation) and sketching. These moccasins, purchased from the Beaver People in northern British Columbia Canada, now have holes in the soles. I still treasure them and the memories of that visit in the 1990s. Here they’re rendered in ink and watercolour.