Anyone who also visits Mark Thwaite over at ReadySteadyBlog will know that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced this week (Mark is one of the judges). One of my unofficial reading goals for 2009 is to read more fiction in translation so I’m happy with anything that gives me more of a clue about what’s out there. I’ve recently read two of the books on it (The Armies and How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone), both excellent but of which I preferred How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone. I’m happy to see it on here, as I think it’s a book that deserves to be much more widely read. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it makes it to the short list. I’ll also try and write up my thoughts on The Armies at some point.
This week also the announcement of the winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Writing - Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. I found out from Stephen Mitchelmore over at This Space (one of the judges) that one of my current reads The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman was the runner-up. Although Stephen didn’t notice any coverage for this book it did win the 2008 Index on Censorship Book Award, which is how I heard about it. So far so good, but I'll write up my thoughts properly once I've finished it.
But back to business with my thoughts on Fethiye Cetin’s My Grandmother: A Memoir (introduction and translation by Maureen Freely). I read this slim book in one sitting and very much enjoyed this spare but powerful story of how one woman survived the Armenian genocide in Turkey. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a personal insight into an often overlooked area of history.
As a child growing up in provincial Turkey, Fethiye Cetin knew her grandmother Seher as a loving, resourceful Turkish housewife at the heart of the family. This selfless woman thinks only of others and is available to all, acting as the provider of everything from "candles for the newborn to coffins for the dead". But as Fethiye gets older she slowly realises that this stalwart of her family and community has a story more extraordinary than anything she can imagine.
For most of her life, Seher's true identity as a Christian Armenian has been suppressed. She was born Heranus, to a well off family eventually caught up in the events of the genocide. After witnessing a massacre, Heranus is forced onto a death march in 1915 with her mother and brother. Both herself and her brother are ripped away from their mother, given Muslim names and sent to live and work in different Turkish households. As Seher (as she's now called) grows up, the memories of her true family and identity stay with her. But, for her own safety and the safety of her family, she keeps them hidden. Her tragic story is made even more moving by her knowledge that her parents managed to reunite in America, to be joined by her brother after his escape from Turkey. She lives, and eventually dies, with the knowledge that her remaining family continued to live many thousands of miles away from her.
Once Seher reveals her secret to her granddaughter, Fethiye discovers that her family’s true history acts as a microcosm of one aspect of the formation of modern Turkey. But politics doesn't interfere with the telling of what is ultimately a story about the strength of the human will. Maureen Freely's introduction also contextualises the story, reminding the reader how courageous Cetin is to write this story, in a country that not only doesn't acknowledge the genocide but also has severe repression of free expression.