POB recommends | 13th August 2022
Michelle Jana Chan, author of the novel Song, has written an exclusive article for PoB Hotels.
Set in the late 1800s, Song is the story of a boy who leaves his homeland of China to travel half-way around the world to the rainforests of British Guiana hoping to seek his fortune. It’s available to order here or is on sale at most bookshops.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
This is Ondaatje’s first book in seven years, and comes just after he was announced the winner of The Golden Man Booker for The English Patient, chosen by the public as the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the Man Booker Prize. Ondaatje’s latest melancholic, mesmerising book is narrated by 28-year-old Nathaniel, reflecting on his strange, adventurous adolescence. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals” he begins, and Nathaniel then continues to sift through memories of his childhood, so-called “fragments of their story” to explain “the confused and vivid dream of my youth”. There’s some resonance with one of my favourite books of all time, Ondaatje’s semi-fictional memoir Running in the Family, exploring his own childhood in Sri Lanka. Running in the Family was a huge influence on me in writing my novel, Song: from its setting in the colonial era to the tropical environs to the drawing of both kinship and friendship. At the end of Warlight, Nathaniel says: “We order our lives with barely held stories.” Indeed how we do.
Scraps of Wool by Bill Colegrave
An anthology of travel that Colegrave explains is “…bits and pieces of the random world…little more than scraps of wool on a barbed wire fence; they’re there to be collected, spun and woven into the fiction of the book…”. Colegrave weaves together A Journey Through the Golden Age of Travel Writing (by the same publisher who took on my novel Song – Unbound) using an original and engaging construct: he asked an array of today’s travel writers and editors – such as Sara Wheeler, Dervla Murphy, Jan Morris and Kapka Kassabova (see below) – to select passages that inspired them to hit the road, giving rise to a collection by authors such as Bruce Chatwin, Freya Stark and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Disclaimer: I was also asked to join in and chose two books about East Africa that have carried me from my childhood to dusty roads around the world. The Flame Trees of Thika is a story about the author, Elspeth Huxley, as a little girl in Kenya in the early 20th century. I wanted to be her, of course. The second, Out of Africa, is another love song to Kenya; the chapter I chose was from the writer leaving the land she gave her all. I remember picking up these well-thumbed books on my shelf again and again, reading and re-reading; they were some of my first strong triggers in longing for another land.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
An apocalyptic, tough-talking, yet poetic meditation for black America, set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and depicting a broken family living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. It’s a heart-breaking tale that doesn’t apologise for its truths (and thereby predictions): “After the first fat flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants”. Be prepared for a strong read. Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book award for fiction in the US and Ward has been justly lauded the new William Faulkner, echoing his As I Lay Dying.
Border by Kapka Kassabova
Winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year 2017, this is a restless tale about the much-overlooked border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, from the period of the Ottomans to the Cold War and beyond. At this geographical non-nexus, a range of low mountains force much of the traffic between Europe and Asia to run either side, meaning unique customs and strange superstitions survive in these roadless uplands. Kassabova describes the remote Bektashi temples, the remnants of a mystical strain of Sufi Islam that accompanied Ottoman armies centuries ago; the prosperous green tobacco fields and decaying villages; a new world of drug trafficking and prostitution, and the latest wave of migration, this time made up of Syrians, Kurds and north Africans. A fascinating chronicle, Kassabova shows how this border has marked the people who lived and live along it and how its legacy endures. But this is also a personal story about the author’s own Bulgarian roots and her meaning of home.
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
Hirsch’s first book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging looks at the multi-faceted questions surrounding identity. Where are you from? No, where are you really from? No, seriously though, where are your parents from? That’s where the book starts – with a series of questions Hirsch has been asked throughout her life. As have I. Here she explores exactly that, where she is from, her identity and sense of self, reflecting on what Britishness looks like to a mixed-race child of immigrants. She brings together the personal and the political, mixing memoir and reporting, trying to reconcile Britain’s past steeped in colonialism and its post-Brexit-vote present. She writes: “We are a nation in denial about our past and our present. We believe we are the nation of abolition, but forget we are the nation of slavery. We are convinced that fairness is one of our values, but that immigration is one of our problems.”
100 Poems by Seamus Heaney
An essential anthology, which the poet meant to put together before he died but which the Heaney family have now completed. It runs from “Digging”, the 1965 poem by which this son and grandson of farmers announced his intention to set out on a literary career: “I’ve no spade to follow men like them. / Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it” – to a poem written for his granddaughter just ten days before he passed away. Heaney gave the commencement speech when I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and as an English major I was one of the students who looked after him during his stay. What a privilege. I can hardly bear that this man – so kind, so grounded, so witty – has left us. But I take solace that he has left us so much, including this latest collection. He entered my life, like he entered the everyday lives of so many.