A devastating tragedy about two unlikely people smugglers.
On a whim, two young women make a hastily planned trip to Morocco. Born in Holland, yet of African parentage, Thouraya and Ilham feel perennially dislocated, belonging nowhere. They hire a car, take up with the streetwise Saleh and find themselves visiting a slum. Saleh wants the girls to see the real Morocco. They are taken to a makeshift home and meet a desperately poor family. The mother wants Thouraya and Ilham to smuggle her teenage son, Murat, in the boot of their car to Europe where there is economic opportunity. Saleh assures the girls it will be easy. Murat only has to survive the two hour ferry trip across the Strait of Gibaltar to Spain. The girls reluctantly agree but soon realise it's a terrible decision. They are swiftly plunged into an inescapable nightmare.
Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa has written a taut, elegant thriller that addresses issues of race, identity, refugees, third world poverty and first world entitlement. We want Murat to succeed, to lift his family out of its unrelentingly miserable situation, yet the risks are intolerable. Uncomfortable moral problems are raised in this ultimately tragic story about two accidental people smugglers and their ill-fated human cargo. Harrowing and shocking, The Death of Murat Idrissi will burn in your memory.
The Death of Murat Idrissi, by Tommy Wieringa. Published by Scribe. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Social scientist and professor of psychology, Jennifer Eberhardt, examines how we hold racial biases.
The brain, it turns out, likes to categorise information, putting things into simple groupings, allowing us to navigate busy, complicated daily life. Instinctively, before we even think, we apply this to the faces we meet. Whole races get lumped together in our minds. Fascinatingly, the latest neuroscience reveals that from a very young age we are better equipped at differentiating the faces belonging to our own race. We can see the individual, whereas when asked to identify people of other races, we struggle. White people see black people as a vaguely homogenous group, all looking the same. Jennifer Eberhardt tells of her own struggle differentiating white faces when she first went to a majority white school, having grown up in a predominantly black community.
Bias is hardwired in us and must be managed. From this scientific launching pad Eberhardt takes the reader on a fascinating and disturbing history of racial bias in America. So much has been written on the topic, and one may be tempted to think they already know the subject inside and out, but Biased proves that to be wrong.
Racial biases against African-Americans work at just about every social and economic level, creating entrenched disadvantage. Eberhardt quotes one dispiriting study, where researchers sent off dummy job applications. One set of applications had typically African-American names, such as DeShawn and Shanice, while the other had typically white names. The white names got the bigger response. These results have been replicated in other studies.
Another study, this time examining bias against women, tested job applications for professional orchestra musicians. Applicants were asked to audition “blind”, behind a curtain. Carpet was even laid out to mask the sound of women's heels. The results showed that women were hired at a much greater rate if the examiner didn't know they were women. An ingrained bias exists that men are better musicians.
Is there a way out of bias? We can manage it better by slowing down our reactions. It's when we make lighting quick decisions that our biased, reptilian brain takes over. Employers, institutions, even websites, need to implement tools that help us think twice. Some online platforms are trying to weed out racial bias by making users read and agree to relevant terms and conditions. Research has found this has a positive effect.
Jennifer Eberhardt's Biased is a cracking good read, sure to completely change the way we think about bias. Its mixture of science, research, history and personal story makes it endlessly fascinating. A game-changing, enlightening book that will make you re-examine your own behaviour.
Biased: The New Science of Race and Inequality, by Jennifer Eberhardt. Published by William Heinemann. RRP: $35
Release date 16th April
Review by Chris Saliba
An absorbing new collection of autobiographical pieces by African-diaspora Australians.
Growing Up African in Australia (edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, Magan Magan and Ahmed Yussuf ) is a collection of autobiographical essays by African-diaspora Australians. Most of the pieces collected here are fairly short in length and cover a broad spectrum of nationalities and experiences. There are stories of leaving war-torn countries, the pain of being separated from family, the difficulties of cultural adjustment in a new land, the feeling of not belonging anywhere.
The inevitable experience of racism, in all its forms, whether it be a misguided but well-meaning remark, the cruelty of children in the playground, or the more sinister type, are all candidly discussed. The most common fault of white Australians is to ask: where do you come from? The onus always on the person of colour to validate their identity; the underlying assumption of the question being: you don't belong here.
While there are stories of struggle, pain and suffering, there are also inspiring stories of achievement and personal success, of finding friendships, love, place and community. A large number of the contributors are artists, performers and writers, and their stories are also a testament to the power of creativity to give solace and empowerment.
There is much to learn from this engaging and enjoyable collection. Growing Up African in Australia highlights the power of the word to create empathy and understanding.
Growing Up African in Australia, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke. Published by Black Inc. RRP: $29.99
Release date: 2nd April 2019
Review by Chris Saliba
An ancient historical feud between goblins and elves gets the comic treatment in this razor sharp satire on war and state propaganda.
Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian. He has been sent by spymaster Lord Clivers to the neighbouring goblin kingdom to make peace. He carries with him a carved gemstone, to be presented to the goblin king, Ghohg. Spurge is also charged with an additional mission: to spy and send back reports.
Upon arrival, Spurge is welcomed by his goblin host, Werfel the Archivist. Both men are historians and should hit it off, but they quickly start feuding. Goblins and Elves have been at war for over a thousand years and each party is keen to blame the other for their long history of hostilities. As troubles mount for Werfel in his own country, the historian and archivist learn to tolerate each other, eventually developing a friendship.
Brangwain Spurge is a razor sharp comedy that lampoons the absurdities of war. There are echoes of Cervante’s Don Quixote in M.T. Anderson’s courtly main characters, with their haughty concerns over honour and status. Their absurd and deluded misreadings of Elfin-Goblin history is a pithy reminder of how prejudices become entrenched. Beautifully produced, with entire chapters narrated by Eugene Yelchin’s lively black and white illustrations, Brangwain Spurge is a hilarious romp with a very serious message.
Ages 10 +
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. Published by Candlewick Press. RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Palestinian-American Etaf Rum’s debut novel tackles complex questions of women’s status in traditional Arab culture.
The year is 1990; the place, occupied Palestine. A teenage girl named Isra finds herself being visited by male suitors. Her parents are keen to marry her off, for girls are a burden, almost a curse on an Arab family. Isra finally agrees to marry Adam, who lives with his family in New York. Isra must face a new life, living with Adam's parents, the culturally traditional Fareeda and Khaled.
Her first job, once set up in the dismal basement of her in-laws, is to produce a son. Life becomes increasingly stressful as Isra, to her family’s disapproval and later outright hostility, gives birth to daughter after daughter, four in all. Not only is Isra isolated, forbidden to leave the house alone for fear of what the local Arab community might think, but she is also the victim of domestic violence. What makes the violence even more heinous is the fact that Fareeda and Khaled calmly accept the fact that their son, Adam, beats his wife, all under their own roof. Fareeda even gives Isra make-up lessons on how to cover the purple bruises.
A second timeline jumps ahead eighteen years, to 2018. Isra and Adam, we learn, have died in a car crash. Fareeda and Khaled are now looking after the four daughters, a task they have performed for the last decade. The eldest daughter, Deya, finds herself in the typical predicament of a young Arab woman. The pressure is on her to find a husband, get married and become a submissive wife. Deya resists and rebels against Fareeda's constant interventions, but fears she hasn't the courage to follow her own convictions, defy her grandparents and go to university.
Things reach a climax as the interweaving timelines reveal that Fareeda and Khaled have kept many secrets from Deya and her sisters. When Deya meets Fareeda's only daughter, Sarah, who ran away from home as a teenager, bringing shame upon the family, she learns a shocking truth about her parents’ marriage.
A Woman is No Man is a brave, honest novel that addresses serious issues of domestic violence, the status of women, the difficulties of living between two cultures and the trauma of having to leave your place of birth due to war and military occupation. Etaf Rum has written a compelling narrative, building up a harrowing portrait of a deeply unhappy family that at the same time reveals a rigidly conservative culture that is appalling for women, and not much better for men.
While it would be easy to make this a black and white story of good women and evil men, Etaf Rum takes a nuanced approach, explaining but not condoning the violent trap so many women find themselves in. Even some of the novel's worst characters – Fareeda, whose treatment of Isra is often callous; Adam, who constantly beats his wife – are sympathetically drawn. We are given back stories – often devastating - to help understand their behaviour.
This is a first novel by Etaf Rum, and a few small caveats must be mentioned. The dialogue can be lacklustre and pedestrian, and there are characters that lack definition. Sometimes alternating between the timelines of Isra and Deya, it's easy to forget where you are: both mother and daughter can appear almost identical. But these are small complaints in a novel that is extraordinarily brave in pulling back the veil on the hidden world of domestic violence and misery. Despite occasional clumsiness, A Woman is No Man is constantly absorbing.
An important book that breaks taboos.
A Woman is No Man, by Etaf Rum. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
American journalist Anand Giridharadas pulls back the veil on the world's rich and powerful, exposing a class of anti-democratic, self-serving elites and the courtiers that serve them.
In 2011 writer and former business consultant Anand Giridharadas was made a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, a prominent think tank. Giridharadas was a bit mystified, as the Aspen Institute only takes on proven entrepreneurs successful in the business world and he was not an entrepreneur. Nonetheless, you don't knock back invitations to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful at Aspen, and so he went.
Giridharadas would participate in four one-week sessions over two years where prominent business leaders attempted to solve the world's most intractable problems. He found himself making friends with the rich and powerful, enjoying the jet setting lifestyle. But eventually cracks started to appear. Troubling inconsistencies presented themselves. The rich made money by exploiting the poor, harming the environment and many other greedy and selfish actions. The people who were responsible for so many of the world's problems believed only they could fix them.
The result of Giridharadas' conflicted conscience is Winners Take All, an intellectually rigorous critique of powerful elites and the prevailing orthodoxy that business is better at solving problems than grass roots activism and politics. It also presents stunning insights into the psychology of the rich and powerful. They feel themselves to be victims, unfairly under attack from critics, when all they are trying to do is save the world - and get rich in the process. This sensitivity to criticism means anyone lobbying for their support must temper their language: appeals must be framed positively, with no mention of the ill effects their industries produce. The result is a small, elite group living in an intellectual bubble, sealed off from the world. As Giridharadas explains, they are globalists, shifting their money and resources wherever it will make the best returns, while the rest of the population are locals, loyal to place and community. A convincing argument is made for the success of Trump and Brexit: people voted against globalism, sick of being told what to do by freewheeling elites, and in favour of local values.
Winners Takes All is all the more compelling for being an insider's account. The book's main argument is that democratic politics – problem solving by the people, for the people – has been insidiously eroded by the growing power of a rich, distant, technocratic elite. Their power has been so complete that it has also changed our thinking. We now look at the world's problems and how to solve them through the prism of big business. Giridharadas explains this phenomenon – social, economic and political – in a language that is refreshingly direct and devoid of theory and jargon. It's probably the most important book you'll read this year.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas.
Allen Lane $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books