Thursday, 29 March 2012

Mighty Be Our Powers, by Leymah Gbowee with Carol Mithers

I don’t often read autobiography, so I probably would never have picked this off the shelves to read, but I was given it by my friend Mel as a Christmas present. Partly I have been put off the genre by the proliferation of the so called mis lit (misery literature) books that take up huge sections of bookstores with their tales of women overcoming their depressing and dire circumstances. As much as this book is at heart a story of a woman overcoming difficult circumstances, it also, thankfully, sheds light on a part of the world I know shamefully little about. As recipient of a Nobel Peace prize, Leymah Gbowee has a story worth telling.

Gbowee was only 17 when the first Liberian Civil War began. Previously she had led a sheltered life. War put an end to plans of attending college as the family fled the fighting. Gbowee does a good job of showing how quickly, and utterly, life changed for urban Liberians. She captures the shock of a recognisable, everyday existence changing to life in a war zone - where family members are separated, food is scarce, and people are gunned down in the streets in front of you - within a matter of days. She eventually fled Monrovia (the Liberian capital) with some of her family and ended up in a refugee camp in Ghana. There she first met Daniel, who would become a long term partner, father of her children, but who was also an abusive and manipulative man.

While Gbowee’s story could not be told without it, the long sections on her marriage did test my patience a little. After the interesting personal account of the war I felt it got bogged down in the details of this abusive relationship. It isn’t in any way irrelevant, both in that it shows how destructive war can be (would the confident Leymah at the beginning of the book have been as susceptible?), and that while this relationship was going on Gbowee began working as a trauma counsellor; the contrast between her professional life and what she put up with at home is striking. Four children later she ended the relationship and really began the work she is now famous for.

Gbowee started out as a counsellor, trying to heal the damage inflicted on women and children, especially the notorious child soldiers. At a work conference she met other likeminded women who wanted to start a women’s organisation, which is now WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Network). Gbowee became the leader of the Liberian Women’s Initiative. By now the second Liberian Civil War had begun. Gbowee and the women she worked with were inspired not just to mop up the trauma afterwards, but to fight for an end to war in Liberia. Some of you may have heard of the sex strike that was part of the tactics used by women in Liberia to garner attention to their calls for peace. But that was only a fraction of what they did. Working across the religious divide with Muslims and Christians, and with members of various tribal groups, they attended churches and mosques to speak to women there. They drew pamphlets with pictures so they could be understood by the illiterate. Eventually what was now the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace were staging huge sit-ins of thousands of women, first in a market, then in a football field Charles Taylor drove past twice daily, demanding Taylor begin peace talks to end the war that was tearing Liberia apart. When talks began in Ghana, they attended in protest every day. As it became clear that the talks were not being taken seriously, the women encircled the rooms, linking arms, threatening to keep the men prisoner until they knuckled down to business.

Gbowee and her colleagues gave a voice to those most often disenfranchised by war. As she emphasises in the book, how women and children are treated in war is an amplification of how they are treated in peacetime. If it is acceptable to rape and beat your wife and family, how do you think those men will treat civilians in a war zone, when all around them is chaos and violence? It is a reminder why the rights of women around the world still need our attention.

Mighty Be Our Powers is not a perfect book, but what limitations it has in terms of style are more than made up for in content. The story is far bigger than can be contained in one memoir, but this gives a focus to the book that makes it accessible. It also deserves to be praised for its ability to explain necessary context to those like myself who know very little about the political background, without losing its audience in the detail. It is also an inspiring story of what people can achieve, against the odds, once they set their mind to it. Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Yemeni activist Tawakel Karmen, in 2011. It is humbling to think she is still only 40 years old.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Mastiff, by Tamora Pierce

I first read Tamora Pierce’s books when I was 11. As an avid reader I had somewhat outgrown the children’s section of the public library, so on one of our frequent visits my mother asked someone to recommend young adult books for me. One book they pulled off the shelf was Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book in the Song of the Lioness Quartet. So began a love affair that continues today. Sitting on my bookshelf are two cancelled library books from that series that I bought at the whopping price of twenty cents each. I have read those books over and over again, and when anything new is published, well, I have to read that too.

The first series, The Song of The Lioness, tells the story of Alanna, a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can train as a knight. Set in the fantasy kingdom of Tortall, it involves magic, meddling gods, and swords - all the classic fantasy stuff. Many of Pierce’s other series are spin-offs, involving connected characters; Alanna herself often appears as an adult in a minor role. Mastiff is the third of The Beka Cooper trilogy. It is also set in Tortall, but we have travelled back in time to tell the story of an ancestress of another major character from the first series, George Cooper.

Tamora Pierce set out to write strong female characters in her series, something she felt was lacking in many of the books she read as a child. This is probably one of the things I loved about the books growing up. So often fantasy aimed at young adults, even specifically girls, have weak female roles. The classics of the genre, Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, are often specifically criticised for this; however recent books can be almost as bad, such as megahit Twilight with pathetic Bella; even Hermione in the Harry Potter books is the ‘clever one’ and sometimes a bit of a wimp. One, otherwise good, young adult book someone I know has recently read featured a woman whose superpower is to read peoples’ minds - by having sex with them. Filling this void of characterisation are Tamora Pierce’s heroines; they are strong willed and tough, and yet remain feminine, even in the middle of a soldiers’ campaign.

As Pierce’s books often take place over many years, they can follow their main characters through adolescence into adulthood, exploring all the terrain that comes with that change. Relationships with the men in their lives are complicated, occasionally messy, but always portrayed as an equal partnership. Pierce is also admirably frank about sex as a natural part of healthy adult relationships. Sometimes the books probably even get ahead of their intended readers, as in the fourth Lioness book, when Alanna realises the difficulties of mixing having a family with the man she loves and her chosen career as a Knight of the Realm.

The books also tackle more universal themes. Loyalty and betrayal are a major theme in Mastiff. How the rich or powerful treat those weaker and poorer than them is a recurring theme in many of her books. And while her books focus on female characters, they don’t do this to the detriment of male characters. Platonic friendships between male and female characters are portrayed well. Some of my favourite characters are the men; and I’m pretty sure my first real literary crush is courtesy of these books too…

I’ve been reading Tamora Pierce’s books for well over half my life now, and I have of course outgrown them to a degree, but my respect for what she has achieved as a writer has only grown. I don’t love her recent books, such as Mastiff, in the same way I love the books I read as a child. But that is more a product of my development rather than a reduction in quality. So to those of you out there who might be wanting to give a book to a young adult reader anytime soon, I couldn’t recommend these highly enough.