Thursday 29 July 2021

Review by Cathi Rae of "Forty Names" by Parwana Fayyaz

The best writing, the very best writing takes you somewhere else, takes you to somewhere you have never been, perhaps somewhere you didn't even know existed.

This collection does just that, taking the reader into the lives of women in Afghanistan and the refugee diaspora, making those experiences real by the telling of family stories, the re-telling of family history. The poems focus on individual experience, so that even if this world is not yours there are commonalities and hooks to help us, the outsiders, connect with these narratives.

The title poem, 'Forty Names,' which won the Forward Poetry Prize for a single poem is the story of forty women who, having hidden in caves to avoid an army of occupation, jump off a cliff to avoid dishonour. As part of the piece, they are named, and women's names - both the names they are given and the names they live by - are central to many of these poems. In a culture where, traditionally, women are often invisible, this naming and the re-telling of their life stories and their struggles brings them into full focus. We can see them as clearly as if they were sitting with us.

There is a strong feel of story telling within the whole collection - from village myths to complex threads of family honour and dishonour and the tiny stories of domestic life. The style is both conversational - you can imagine these poems as conversations over tea - and beautifully crafted and observed, with tiny telling details which convey the refugee experience with the lightest of touch:

           Into exile, next to our little feet and hands,
           My mother carried her box of sewing needle,
           And her Butterfly sewing machine made in the USSR.

This is a collection that will deliver pleasure from multiple readings. Enjoy being taken to another world, another history.

About the reviewer
Cathi Rae is a spoken word artist and somewhat to her own surprise a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

You can read about Cathi's collection, Your Cleaner Hates You and Other Poems, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

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