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Review | My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, New Fiction by Afghan Women | MacLehose Press

Afghan women have been in the news again since the Taliban have banned Voice of America, the BBC and Deutsche Welle after women students and teachers protested peacefully in response to secondary schools for girls being shut down. Writing in Afghanistan is once again a taboo craft for women.

As a schoolteacher put it: “The Taliban are scared of an educated girl. When a girl is educated, a family will be educated. And when a family is educated, a nation will be educated. Ultimately, an educated nation will never, ever nourish the motives of terrorists.” www.democracynow.org

The stories in My Pen is the Wing of a Bird are all ‘true fiction’, based on real experiences. A lonely mother living in Kabul keeps in touch with her children in California thanks to Skype . . .  A schoolteacher is imprisoned for life despite her innocence, to ensure the murderer of the village chief who beat his young wife – a boy in her class, the young wife’s brother – goes free . . . Naghmah hopes the boss of the translation bureau where she works will give her financial support to treat her brother for addiction but he tries to molest her, with dire consequences . . . A young woman is derided for wanting to be a painter, ‘we do not need female artists, focus on your studies’ . . . A family dies of tuberculosis and the surviving daughter – taken in by the imam – plants an orchard that becomes famous in the Balkh province . . . A TV presenter by night and university student by day manages to keep calm during a rocket attack . . . A suicide bomb blast in a Kabul wedding hall turns a celebration into carnage  . . . The stories illuminate the personal impact of war on women’s lives and the ripple effect of endemic violence.

Because of the cold, the city feels like a steel plant. Workers warm their rough hands over barrels of fire placed on the footpath of the river, Darya-ye Kabul, as though they are shielding rubies from which high flames and smoke rise. The smoke is so intense it is difficult to see the outline of the Cinema-e Pamir building. Vendors and shopkeepers are so busy haggling with buyers, ignoring the cold, that even the passer-by forgets its icy burn for a moment’ – from The Black Crow of Winter, Marie Bamyani trs. Dr Zubair Popalzai

The creators of the anthology My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, New Fiction by Afghan Women described the unusual way in which the book came about at the launch held at Waterstones HQ, Piccadilly. The idea was dreamed up in 2019 by Lucy Hannah when she was working on the long-running soap opera, ‘New Home, New Life’.  She discussed prose fiction with the team of women scriptwriters, who told her that it was very hard for women to get published locally, let alone internationally in translation. So fund-raising began for a project to develop the craft of writing and work with translators from Pashto and Dari into English, in order to build up a local fiction publishing industry and reach a global audience. The British Council and Bagri Foundation came on board and backed the initiative.

I was left alone, and so was the empty house. I wanted to be seen; I was hidden from everyone else, but I wanted to be seen, myself for myself’ – from I Don’t Have the Flying Wings, Batool Haidari trs. Parwana Fayyaz

One hundred and thirty stories were submitted, and a further three hundred stories in 2021, after another call for entries was made by way of posters and leaflets across the regions of Afghanistan. Lucy Hannah and her team ended up with a pool of thirty writers, eighteen of whom are featured in the collection.

Communicating was a challenge: over a period of two years or so, every WhatsApp call with a writer was done with the editor and translator. In that way trust was built up, and narratives and themes were not imposed. The writing emerged and flourished, unhindered, respecting the writer’s voice and tone. The translators focused on how best to convey what was in the mind of each writer.

Saber had long ceased to go to the mosque or pray. He had become uncertain of everything – even of God’ – from Dogs are not to Blame, Masouma Kawsari trs. Dr Zubair Popalzai

In 2021 everything suddenly shifted from being a creative process into being a safeguarding one as the situation in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorated. The stories posted online as a showcase had to be taken down and all traces of the writers removed as a protective measure. Many were helped to escape the country. Yet they remained totally committed to the project and risky communication continued. Ten of the writers in My Pen is the Wing of a Bird are now beginning new lives – in Germany, Sweden, USA, Tajikistan, Iran, Italy, and Australia.

Over a century of invasion and war have shaped modern Afghanistan. The use of human suffering as a political tool by leaders, governments and non-state armed groups has become shockingly commonplace. Of all the conflict zones in the world, Afghanistan is one of the worst for children being killed and maimed. 

The sense of place in the stories is invariably tainted by the warring world in which the characters are trapped; living tangled rough lives. They dream of escape and of not having to scratch a living or marry to escape poverty. The struggle to endure and survive is conveyed in skillfully wrought translated prose. The range of styles, forms, and perspectives encompassed in My Pen is the Wing of a Bird – diversity in every sense of the word – reveal much about what is inside each author’s head and where their heart is, affording powerful insights into the lives of Afghan women. 

My pen is the wing of a bird; it will tell you those thoughts we are not allowed to think, those dreams we are not allowed to dream.

My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women £12.00 MacLehose Press | 17 February 2022 PB  EAN/UPC 9781529422214

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Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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