Thursday, 16 May 2013

Laugh ‘til you cry, cry ‘til you laugh: The Small Hours by Susie Boyt

No good deed goes unpunished. That is the dark conclusion of Boyt’s brilliant tragicomedy of charitable intentions and damaged histories. Heroine Harriet Mansfield is a blousy woman of big emotions and large scale, strong in intention, rich in feeling, emphatic in speech, full-bodied both literally and spiritually. She wants to open a nursery in a poncy part of town and conjure up a perfect girlsworld of harvest baskets, under-fives woodworking sessions and dress-up games, far from the twinge of WiFi and the smell of crisps. Her desire is to be Dream Proxy Mommy to a cohort of privileged little girls who’ll remember the institution for the rest of their (consequently) happy lives. It does not take the godfather of psychoanalysis to work out that this is because she herself had an unhappy childhood, but the forensic way in which Boyt explores Harriet’s karmically restitutional urge is sheer genius.

Using money from an inheritance and wordlessly encouraged by her enigmatic shrink – Boyt is brilliant on the agonies of successful psychotherapy in the early pages of the novel – Harriet opens the nursery. It’s a success: to break even you only need half a dozen pupils if they’re all rich. Then stuff happens.

Though providing much delight, in both sincerely heart-warming and satirically keen ways, the nursery is not the locus of the meaningful action. That occurs on the periphery and concerns Harriet’s parents and brother. The crucial, toxic events of Harriet’s life actually happened in the past and it’s an indication of Boyt’s excellence that the reader, so caught up in the jolly romp of Harriet-the-schoolmistress, does not notice the foreboding elements encroaching from the outskirts until it’s too late. 

The Small Hours, as the title indicates, is about what happens in the gaps between our survival strategies, the long nights when the nursery is not full of children, the weekends when Harriet’s professional acumen is unneeded, the intervals between lessons and the moments before and after grand endeavours. It explores the generational after-effects of abuse, the never-ending fractal of consequences, the way adults betray children – and, of course, the positive way in which damaged adults vow to nurture future generations.

And at the same time it’s really funny.

The psychological precision of this novel is breathtaking. Boyt’s greatest accomplishment is her creation of Harriet, an eccentric, humorous and perceptive adult who is humiliated by the cruelty of others yet whose own sincerity remains undiminished. Harriet understands her own pathology and sees herself as a wounded healer, a pained Pied Piper leading Holland Park’s children out of the darkness and into the light. Her striving nature, friendliness, energy, sensuality, emotional sensitivity and crushed yet accurate intelligence make her a heroine amongst children. Somehow, they can tell that she is benign. Yet her desire to give love overwhelms her more circumspect adult peers. She is not afraid of embarrassing herself and yet, funnily, this largeness of soul embarrasses others. And so it goes on in a never-ending loop of delicious comic irony.

Apart from the nice staff members at the nursery many of the adults in the Small Hours are spiritually ugly, emotionally mean and morally poor, particularly those who’ve benefited from the greatest financial privilege and exhibit the most outward stylishness. Being two-faced themselves, they mistrust Harriet’s transparency. She in turn is acutely aware of the way her grand candour makes the timid feel awkward and the asinine feel superior. And their perverted and agonising misinterpretation of her successfully makes her self-conscious and therefore ungainly.

Part of the clever pain of The Small Hours is watching Harriet ask plainly honest questions, offer love and seek answers only to have her wholesomeness met with irritation, contempt and aversion by those who are just as damaged yet far more defensive than she is. As I read the novel I kept thinking, Harriet thinks of herself as huge and desperate and clumsy. I bet, if I were to meet her, she would be the opposite. Harriet’s brother, an uptight tightwad, has projected his own trauma onto her; everything she does riles him, because he is riled by his own past, of which she is a reminder. Because he never shows his emotions, when she shows a tiny bit of hers they seem elephantine by comparison. 

And I haven’t even started on the mother. Or the dad.

Finally, every sentence of this novel is at once a bitingly witty summation and a deadpan indictment of the brutality of life. If I quoted the sharpest bits I’d wind up reproducing the whole thing. I haven’t, deliberately. Go and buy it.

The Small Hours by Susie Boyt is published by Virago but why don't you go straight to Amazon instead?

Monday, 13 May 2013

The power of simplicity: reducing maternal mortality in districts in Sierra Leone and Burundi

Following my piece about maternal health in India, and in advance of the UCL symposium on community-based global maternal care next week, I wanted to focus on two smaller-scale success stories and examine what makes them work. Medecins Sans Frontieres has been working on two projects aimed at reducing women’s risk of death in childbirth in the Kabezi district in Burundi and the Bo district in Sierra Leone.
MSF has produced an analysis of the challenges and gains of its work in a report called Safe Delivery (link takes you to a short précis) which looks at their work in Kabezi since the 2006 start of the project, and in Bo since the MSF began running a hospital there in 2003.

Image taken for MSF by Sarah Elliott, showing a successful emergency
birth in Burundi - I love the woman's smile.
Both Sierra Leone and Burundi are at a disadvantage when it comes to maternal care as their health infrastructures – along with much else – have broken down during and in the aftermath of civil war. The long effect of such breakage is a deficit of human, educational and practical resources: so medical facilities are needed, as are qualified healthcare workers, as are the systems to employ them in a sustainable way and the educational infrastructures required to train them. This is before we tackle the important issue of patients’ own access to healthcare and the importance of antenatal and postpartum care. All this requires investment, establishment, organisation and management. According to MSF Burundi has a national average of 800 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, and Sierra Leone has a national average of 890 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Sierra Leone has the third-highest rate of maternal death, after Chad and Somalia. The main causes of maternal death are haemorrhage (25%), sepsis (15%), unsafe abortion (13% - and the report states clearly that “abortions need to be performed by skilled medical workers in a safe and hygienic environment”), hypertensive disorders like eclampsia and pre-eclampsia; and obstructed labour.

As the report – which can be read in full here - states,
Every year, some 287,000 women die [globally] from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Most are young, active and healthy. And for every woman who dies, another 20 women suffer from chronic ill health or disability due to conditions such as obstetric fistula.* 
Across the world, in every country and every  population group, approximately 15 percent of  pregnant women develop complications that are potentially life-threatening. But the fate of a  pregnant woman is very much dictated by where  she gives birth in the world. In fact, 99% of  maternal deaths occur in poor countries, where – for many people – medical services are out of reach or simply unaffordable
Yet the local district projects  (serving a population of nearly 600,000 in Bo and just under 200,000 in Kabezi) have shown that when addressing this issue the implementation of basic – or rather, obvious – measures has steeply reduced rates of maternal death. The report stresses that the problem is not a lack of “state of the art facilities” and shows how the establishment of an ambulance system and the availability of emergency in-hospital emergency obstetric care, with trained staff and appropriate medical supplies, twenty-four hours a day, for free, have brought the Kabezi figures down to 74% less than the national level for Burundi and the Bo figures down to 61% less than the national level for Sierra Leone. In both cases the cost of providing such measures to the population for free is less than 2 Euros per head in Bo and a tiny bit over 3 Euros in Kabezi.

One of the UN Millennium Development Goals is to reduce maternal mortality (in comparison with figures from 1990) by 75% by 2015. Judging by the success of the projects I’ve described above, extreme change is possible through the implementation of simple but profoundly important measures. As the report states,
A common assumption is  that improving access to emergency obstetric care is too costly, but MSF’s experience shows that this need not be the case.

*Despite the triumphs of the two projects I’ve described, in February of this year MSF released a press alert announcing that Burundi’s only free provider of treatment for obstetric fistula, which is caused by complications during childbirth, is under threat of close due to a lack of trained medical staff. The Urumuri Center, in the city of Gitega, is run jointly by Burundi’s Ministry of Health and MSF and treatment is provided by foreign volunteer surgeons on short-time assignments.

Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow for the International Reporting Project. She is reporting on issues of global health and development. 

Persephone Speaks: The forgotten women of Bosnia

I am urging everyone to back a major new documentary by the brilliant film-maker Ivana Ivkovic Kelley, whose project Persephone Speaks focuses on the use of rape as a war strategy. The film follows a survivor's quest to shed light on the international community's failure to acknowledge the effects this crime has on women's lives, long after the war has ended. There are only 10 days left before the fundraising campaign is over.

The project is more timely than ever, given that global awareness of this issue is rising. It's also amazing to witness the power of film-making on global politics, with William Hague stating that his consciousness was raised by Angelina Jolie's hard-hitting 2012 film In The Land of Blood and Honey, which focuses on the issue. That feature was a sombre and extremely admirable fictionalisation of real events, strongly influenced by actual witness and testimony. 

For readers who want to know more about the global issue of rape in war (although, I should add, rape and all forms of gendered sexual violence and gendered abuse are absolutely endemic in peacetime societies too, everywhere in the world, regardless of colour, class, religion, culture, language and hemisphere) then I strong recommend the Women Under Siege Project, which provide extremely gritty and exhaustive documentation, testimony and research. A trigger warning strongly applies. 

Persephone Speaks shows a survivor tracing and confronting perpetrators, testifying to the reality and aftermath of rape and seeking formal justice in the international community and courts system. As Kelley says, she wishes to
...acknowledge the effects this crime has on women's lives, long after the war has ended. Females are nonstop targets during wartime, as demonstrated by the mass rapes implemented as a policy of genocide during the Bosnian war. Because this atrocity is grossly ignored by the international community and international tribunals, this film revisits one survivor, Bakira, who continues to fight for justice on behalf of others all over the world.   
From her tiny smoke-filled office on the shrapnel-damaged outskirts of Sarajevo, to her monthly sojourns to the Hague, her goal is for perpetrators to be brought to justice. To this day, war rape survivors continue to join her group, finally sharing their stories with this woman who will ensure their testimonies are heard in the courts in Sarajevo or the Hague.  
 In many cases, the perpetrators are either awaiting trial or have been rewarded by the Serbian government for successfully running a "camp", often in the form of a promotion within the local police force. We have witnessed incidents of this same "reward" behavior in similar conflicts around the world. In situations such as these, many survivors have expressed anger, fear, and shock, especially when they see their attacker, years later, in high level positions or vacationing beside them on the Adriatic coast.  
Bakira... sets out to find where the perpetrators, named in numerous testimonies, now live, subsequently providing this evidence to the Hague and other courts.
Kelley and her team have initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise $12,000 which will enable the completion of Persephone Speaks by autumn so that it can hit the international film festival circuit when it debuts. More than $8,000 has already been pledged (disclosure: I pledged some after reading the Women's Views on News feature - Kelley is a stranger to me) but according to Kickstarter custom the full target must be reached, or nothing.

Please help. In the words of the director,
It is through projects such as these that light is shed on human rights issues. The continued treatment of women around the world, especially during times of conflict, needs to be heard through as many channels as possible. Unfortunately, war rape survivors are often seen as a problem, a by-product of war that needs to be swept under the rug. Our work will be done when the world comes together to ensure female victims of war are not forgotten and the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Be a part of making Persephone Speaks happen by becoming a backer here and showing your support on the documentary's Facebook page here.

You might also be interested in finding out about Women for Women International's March of Peace from 5th-12th July 2013, which follows a 120 km route through Bosnia and Herzegovina to Srebrenica - the exact route taken by refugees of the war.

Tracing the inkline of beauty and history: Delhi Old And New by Kavita Iyengar

I've just discovered a new, absolutely beautiful artist's tribute to Delhi, one of India's most historic, complex, vibrant and inspiring cities. Kavita Iyengar's Delhi: Old and New is a stunning edition of original, fiercely observed and intricately traced images of the city, at once delicate and utterly fresh. Iyengar's images give the reader a strong visual tour of Delhi, yet are themselves so crisp and classy that the book feels timeless, lifted out of the daily bustle of cosmopolitan life. It does so by focusing on representing multiple Delhis through the centuries, via those architectural and cityscaped parts that still remain, from ancient temples to mosques, forts, palaces, colonial buildings (thanks, chaps) and the "New New Delhi" of post-Independence India. In Delhi, Old and New the vast weight of history is here made both accessible and inexpressibly gorgeous.

Full cover spread - click to enlarge

This is a book for everyone who loves art, or loves India, or both. And for those who want more of the exquisite works, here's a privileged look:

All images by Kavita Iyengar

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Novelist Kishwar Desai's Sea of Innocence: women, India, safety, secrets and violence in paradise

I wanted to support The Sea of Innocence, the Costa-winning novelist Kishwar Desai's latest book, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on 30th May in hardback at £12.99. The text below is from the press release - but I love Desai's novels for their brilliant combination of urgent topicality, taut plotting, strong style and an unforgettably clever, funny and resourceful heroine.

Kishwar Desai sprang onto the literary scene in 2010 with Witness The Night, which introduced the characters of the tough, cool social-worker-cum-detective heroine Simran Singh, who was investigating a murder case and tackling the issue of female infanticide. This powerful debut went on to win a Costa and was also longlisted for The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, The Man Asian Literary Prize and The Impac Award.

Desai’s second novel, Origins of Love, saw Simran travel between Delhi and London in a story involving the exploitative, largely unregulated and hugely profitable international surrogacy industry. It
received rave reviews and helped spark a global debate - which I wrote about in this New Humanist piece.

In her third novel, The Sea of Innocence, Desai’s heroine Simran is holidaying in Goa with her daughter when she is sent a video of a blonde teenager alone with a group of Indian men. The teenager is missing and Simran knows she must act, and fast, in order to save her. Everyone seems to know what has happened to her, but no-one will talk. Soon Simran herself is targeted to force her into silence and her Goan paradise becomes a living nightmare.

Like all Desai’s novels, The Sea of Innocence is a gripping detective story, but it is also the exploration of a serious social problem. In 2011, 21 British Nationals died in Goa and the book reflects on the infamous case of Scarlett Keeling, who was raped and murdered there 5 years ago, and the recent gang rape in Delhi. Desai looks at the role of women in India. She explores how, in the age of globalization, such issues affect all of us.

Kishwar Desai is an author, broadcaster and journalist who splits her time between Delhi, Goa and London. She will be in the UK around publication and will be available for interviews and to write features.


  • For further information contact Hannah Corbett;
  • ...or Gina Rozner at Giant Rooster PR:

Extradited to a future of torture: the reality of solitary confinement and a screening of Valarie Kaur's film Worst of the Worst

UK premiere of film about the Connecticut Supermax prison that houses two extradited British nationals. With Amnesty International & Special Guests from the USA Solitary Watch.
Flagging up an upcoming special event entitled “Extradited to a future of torture: the reality of Solitary Confinement in the USA”, hosted by the International State Crime Initiative at King’s College. The event will feature the UK premiere of Worst of the Worst (link takes you to the trailer), a new 30 minute film made by Valarie Kaur with the Yale Visual Law Project. Valarie Kaur, is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith leader based in Connecticut who wanted to make this film on Supermax prisons after visiting Guantanamo Bay. She is the founder of Yale Visual Law which was launched in 2010 with two primary goals in mind: to create a cutting-edge pedagogical space where law students could be trained in the art of visual advocacy and to produce well-researched, professional documentary films on legal and policy issues. See the trailer online by clicking here. The film tour the UK with dates TBC in Scotland, Wales, North England in Summer 2013.

Worst of the Worst exposes the physically and psychologically abusive conditions of confinement in the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut, the prison that houses extradited British citizens Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad.

Talha Ahsan is an award-winning British muslim poet and translator. He was been detained over 6 years without trial, charge or prima facie evidence on the controversial 2003 US-UK Extradition treaty on allegations relating to association with an obsolete foreign jihad website from 1997-2002 covering Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. He was extradited to the USA on 5th October with his co-defendent Babar Ahmad and is now in solitary confinement in Connecticut at the Northern Correctional Institution. The trial will be in October 2013. Full details on the case and family campaign:

Babar Ahmad is Talha’s co-defendant. Before he was extradited, he was detained without trial for over 8 years, the longest period of detention without trial faced by any prisoner in British history. An e-petition to have his trial in the UK gathered over 149,000 signatures. See the site Free Babar Ahmad for more information.

Special guests from the USA James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, directors of Solitary Watch, and Amnesty International’s Tessa Murphy will discuss the issues in a human rights framework. James Ridgeway and media editor Jean Casella co-founded Solitary Watch in 2009, in order to "bring the widespread practice of solitary confinement out of the shadows and into the light of the public square." Their work has helped to fuel a growing national movement opposing the use of solitary in U.S. prisons, jails, juvenile facilities, and immigrant detention centers. 

The Amnesty International report on Supermax prisons by speaker Tessa Murphy can be read here. In a 2012 statement of concern about Talha Ahsan & Babar Ahmad’s extradition, Amnesty International noted: 
There is ample evidence in the USA and elsewhere that prolonged confinement to a cell with social isolation can cause serious physical and psychological harm. Concerns about such impact are heightened with regard to individuals, like some of those extradited, who have pre-existing medical conditions or mental disabilities. (Full statement available here).
Talha Ahsan’s new creative writing from Supermax prison will be read by his brother Hamja Ahsan. Writings from other prisoners in solitary confinement will be read by poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad.

Special guest James Ridgeway said :
Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units are America's domestic black sites, these are places where genuine torture takes place. 
People in the UK should care about what happens in American supermax prisons, just as they care about what happens at Guantanamo... [because] British nationals are now being extradited to the U.S. to face decades of torture in solitary confinement.
Aseem Mehta, co-director of Worst of the Worst, said :
In making the film, we listened to all of the actors whose lives were touched by supermax - the inmates in solitary, the guards who report for duty each day, the policymakers and officials who oversee the facility, the architect whose legacy has become the prison, the family members and friends whose loved ones are inside, the lawyers and advocates who navigate the law that governs the prison's logic. We came away with the conclusion that the institution harms everyone who it touches, that everyone who enters Northern ultimately leaves damaged.
The event host is Dr. Ian Patel of International State Crime Intitiative.  Dr. Patel is in the law department at King's College London. He specialises in criminal justice, criminal law, and international human rights. He is a fellow at the International State Crime Initiative. His recent article on Talha Ahsan case and prolonged solitary confinement was published in the New Statesman here.

Further resources: