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All-Time Favourites

By AndreaMacPherson
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Books that have inspired, challenged and haunted me.
Fall on Your Knees

Fall on Your Knees


Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book

Following the curves of history in the first half of the twentieth century, Fall On Your Knees takes us from haunted Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, through the battle fields of World War One, to the emerging jazz scene of New York city and into the lives of four unforgettable sisters. The mythically charged Piper family--James, a father of intelligence and immense ambition, Materia, his Lebanese child-bride, and their daughters: Kathleen, …

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Silent Pictures

They're all dead now.

Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, towards an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.

Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.

Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.

Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her house-dress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad - they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.

So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.

Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.

There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.

Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.

Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.

Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."

And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbour once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.

But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?

But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.

All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.

Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.

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The English Patient

The English Patient

also available: Hardcover

With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal,and rescue illuminates this book like flashes of heat lightening.

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She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill toward the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.

In the kitchen she doesn't pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.

She turns into the room which is another garden--this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.

Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.

She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky.

She pours calamine in stripes across his chest where he is less burned, where she can touch him. She loves the hollow below the lowest rib, its cliff of skin. Reaching his shoulders she blows cool air onto his neck, and he mutters.

What? she asks, coming out of her concentration.

He turns his dark face with its gray eyes towards her. She puts her hand into her pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.

He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.

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Modern Classics Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage

Modern Classics Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage


In this superb collection from one of our finest writers, nine stories draw us immediately into that special place known as Alice Munro territory—a place where an unexpected twist of events or a suddenly recaptured memory can trace the arc of an entire life. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage provides the deep pleasures and rewards that Alice Munro’s large and ever-growing audience has come to expect.

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A Student of Weather

A Student of Weather


From some accidents of love and weather we never quite recover. At the worst of the Prairie dust bowl of the 1930s, a young man appears out of a blizzard and forever alters the lives of two sisters. There is the beautiful, fastidious Lucinda, and the tricky and tenacious Norma Joyce, at first a strange, self-possessed child, later a woman who learns something of self-forgiveness and of the redemptive nature of art. Their rivalry sets the stage for all that follows in a narrative spanning over th …

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Sweetness in the Belly

Sweetness in the Belly



Set in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia and the racially charged world of Thatcher’s London, Sweetness in the Belly is a richly detailed portrayal of one woman’s search for love and belonging. Lilly, born to British parents, eventually finds herself living as a devout, young, white Muslim woman in the ancient walled city of Harar in the years leading up to the deposition of the emperor. She is drawn to an idealistic young doctor, Aziz, but their love has only jus …

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Harar, Ethiopia

The sun makes its orange way east from Arabia, over a Red Sea, across volcanic fields and desert and over the black hills to the qat- and coffee-shrubbed land of the fertile valley that surrounds our walled city. Night departs on the heels of the hyenas: they hear the sun’s approach as a hostile ringing, perceptible only to their ears, and it drives them back, bloody lipped and panic stricken, to their caves.

In darkness they have feasted on the city’s broken streets: devouring lame dogs in alleyways and licking eggshells and entrails off the ground. The people of the city cannot afford to waste their food, but nor can they neglect to feed the hyenas either. To let them go hungry is to forfeit their role as people on this wild earth, and strain the already tenuous ties that bind God’s creatures.

A hundred years ago, when the city’s gates were still closed at night — the key lodged firmly under the sleeping head of a neurotic emir — the hyenas were the only outsiders permitted access after dark. They would crawl through the drainage portals in the city’s clay walls. But the gates are splayed open now, have been for decades, a symbol of history’s turn against this Muslim outpost, a city of saints and scholars founded by Arabs who brought Islam to Abyssinia in the ninth century, the former capital of an emirate that once ruled for hundreds of miles.

For all the fear they inspire, though, if a hyena must die, one hopes it might do so on one’s doorstep. Pluck its eyebrows, fashion a bracelet, and you are guaranteed protection from buda, the evil eye. Endure the inconvenience of having to step over a hideous corpse baking in the African sun all day, but be assured that by the following morning, thanks to hyenas’ lack of inhibitions regarding cannibalism, the street will once again be licked clean.

As every day begins, the anguished cries of these feral children grow dim against a rising crescendo of birds quibbling in the pomegranate and lime trees of the city’s courtyards. And then the muezzins call: beckoning the city’s sleeping populace with a shower of praise for an almighty God. There are ninety-nine of them within the walls of this tiny city — ninety-nine muezzins for ninety-nine mosques. It takes the culmination of the staggered, near-simultaneous beginnings of a hundred less one to create the particular sound that is heard as Godliness in Harar.

* * * * * * *

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Part One
London, England

Scar Tissue

On a wet night in Thatcher’s Britain, a miracle was delivered onto the pockmarked pavement behind a decrepit building once known as Lambeth Hospital. Four women standing flanked by battered rubbish bins looked up to a close English sky and thanked Allah for this sign of his generosity. Two women ululated, one little boy, shy and tired, buried his face in his mother’s neck, and one baby stamped with a continent-shaped mole tried out her lungs. Her wail was mighty and unselfconscious, and with it, she announced that we had all arrived in England. None of us had hitherto had the confidence to be so brazen.

I was one of those four women. I trained in this God-forsaken building, a gothic nightmare of a place, a former workhouse where the poor were imprisoned and divided — men from women, aged and infirm from able bodied, able-bodied good from able-bodied bad — each forced to break a daily quota of stone in order to earn their keep. Adjacent is the old infirmary, which once had its own Register of Lunatics, among them a woman named Hannah Chaplin diagnosed with acute psychosis resulting from syphilis while in residence there with her seven-year-old son Charlie, some eighty years ago.

I don’t share this history though I’ve moved within its walls. In the places I have lived, the aged and the infirm and the psychotic are not separated from the rest of us. They are part of us. I don’t share this history, but as a child, I did see a Charlie Chaplin film in a cinema in Tangier through the smoke of a hundred cigarettes. I sat cross-legged between my parents on a wooden bench, a carpet of peanut shells at our feet, the audience roaring with laughter, united by the shared language of bodies without words.

Amazing that humour could ever be borne of this place. The building now stands condemned, slated for demolition, and I work at South Western, a hospital largely catering to the poor from the beleaguered housing estates in the surrounding areas: the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the unemployed white, the Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and the refugees and asylum seekers, the latest wave of which has been rolling in from torn parts of East Africa, principally Eritrea and Sudan.

Many of these claimants avoid the hospital, overwhelmed or intimidated as they are by the agents and agencies of the state — the customs officers, police, civil servants, lawyers, social workers and doctors — with their unreadable expressions and their unreadable forms. I know this, because they are my neighbours. I encounter them in the elevator, in the laundrette, in the dimly lit concrete corridors of high-rises on the Cotton Gardens Estate. I’ve lived in a one-bedroom council flat on the fourteenth floor of one of these buildings since the autumn of 1974 — compensation for the circumstances of my arrival.

My white face and white uniform give me the appearance of authority in this new world, though my experiences, as my neighbours quickly come to discover, are rooted in the old. I’m a white Muslim woman raised in Africa, now employed by the National Health Service. I exist somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present. I can translate the forms for them before kneeling down and putting my forehead to the same ground. Linoleum, concrete, industrial carpet. Five times a day, wherever we might be, however much we might doubt ourselves and the world around us.

I was not always a Muslim, but once I was led into the absorption of prayer and the mysteries of the Qur’an, something troubled in me became still.

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A Dark Boat

A Dark Boat

tagged :

'A Dark Boat', a new collection of poetry by Patrick Friesen, is heavily influenced by 'cante jondo' (Spanish "deep song", or flamenco) and 'fado' (Portuguese songs of longing). Friesen approaches music as a method of weaving his poems with both Spanish and Portuguese aspects of longing, imagistic leaps, and darkness.

The poems in 'A Dark Boat' try to shake hands with darkness; the kind of darkness that is rich and necessary for a full human life, the darkness of soil into which seeds drop and gr …

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The Cinnamon Peeler

The Cinnamon Peeler

tagged : canadian

Michael Ondaatje’s new selected poems, The Cinnamon Peeler, brings together poems written between 1963 and 1990, including work from his most recent collection, Secular Love. These poems bear witness to the extraordinary gifts that have won high praise for this truly original poet and novelist.

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the peacock means order
the fighting kangaroos mean madness
the oasis means I have struck water

positioning of the stamp — the despot’s head
horizontal, or ‘mounted policemen’,
mean political danger

the false date means I
am not where I should be

when I speak of the weather
I mean business

a blank postcard says
I am in the wilderness

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Notes on Arrival and Departure

Notes on Arrival and Departure

tagged :

Rachel Rose follows her award-winning first book with a dazzling, urgent collection of new poems that look unflinchingly at our errors and our longings, in images that range from the disturbing to the spectacular. Anchoring the collection is a rich, unsentimental suite of lyrics on the journey of pregnancy and new motherhood. These poems are humanist, lushly imagined, and compellingly voiced.

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Dear Marjan,

Blind lion, face-­scarred, rib-­thin,
pacing the bars of your rusty cage. And Donatella,
dear old bear, snout-­wound suppurating
from the sword-­slash of a Taliban,

did you not hear?
The North American experts have been called in.
Hollywood mobilizes its tax-­deductible donations.
Once again our better inclinations

have been misguided, abused. Other keepers
are flown in, deals made with other zoos.
Whose fault that two animals are front-­page news,
while the orphans are so numerous they remain anonymous?

Dear Mammals, what was unbearable
has become the way things are.
The Buddha is blasted to gravel,
and we must make sense of an airplane becoming flame

against the sharp hip of a building.
Some try simply to recall the name of a bear
O Donatella! who once raised her broad palms in the air
and solemnly danced

for the children of Kabul,
girls clapping boldly next to their brothers,
the sun sharing its warm gifts
with them all.

Dear Mother,

I am writing without feeling, having flown from France
September 11th, your grandson bouncing
in his caa-­approved car seat, safe as milk.
I’m sorry you worried we had been exploded

those long hours you spent on hold,
consulting with the airlines,
having no idea where our plane was.
We knew nothing until we began to descend

and the pilot shared what he had kept for hours,
where we were, where we would not be going.
I thought, insanely, of buying a car,
of never flying again.

The airport was a mob of stranded tourists,
hushed sobs. We were stuck till 3:00 a.m.,
your grandson mercifully conked out on the luggage.
My lover comes from another country —

we would have to fly again, and soon. Just after 3:00, we got a room.

Dear Meena,

You began the women’s revolution;
you were its first martyr.
I can neither forget you nor tell your story.
I’ll talk instead of myself,

the modern, post-­postmodern method, one soul
that cannot ever know another,
or imagine another’s dreams.
Where I live, one in four Canadians

identifies as a poet. Where I live,
nobody reads poetry. Thank you for the poem
in which you wrote: I’m the woman
who has awoken.

You wrote: I’ve said farewell to all golden bracelets.
And then you were shot.
What did I care
until I came that close to terror?

I have dreamed a country of women
living in rooms with blackened windows.
I have imagined the blue cotton weave
through which

you viewed the world.
Pictured the soul grown thin, thin,
sunlight filtered through mesh.
Pictured the bones’ hollow piping,growing more porous each year,
more troubled. Framed your sisters
in their brightest moments, your sisters at home
blooming in darkness. Remember?

The way you flourished, nipples sweet as olives,
buried alive when the gardener grew jealous.
The way you fought: a burqa to conceal a camera,
a poem to reveal a woman’s war.

Meena, forgive me for not writing before.

Dear Isabelle,

The pilot clears his throat, the overhead
clicks dead. The child between us sleeps on.
Fingertips touching, we lean back on our descent
with nothing to say. We barely bounce

on the runway. I lean into you, spiralling back
in time, back to last week, climbing Mont Saint-­Michel
with our son swinging between us. Beneath
the thin blue American Airlines blanket,

when few words are necessary,
we hold on. Isabelle, thank you
for these eight years, so good
so far, for giving your seat to the stewardess in tears.

Thank you for the urgency of your love,
knowing we are not safe, though still safe enough,
in a world where our love is answered with stones.
We are decadence incarnate,

two women in comfortable shoes, we kiss cheeks
like sisters when we must, speak each other’s endings,
live in relative comfort. Isabelle,
the weight of the heart under siege takes its toll.

Thank you for not letting go.

Dear Anonymous Woman Executed for Adultery in the United Nations—Funded Sports Stadium,

Dear — What was your name? Exactly when
were you caught? Did you know where
you were being taken, does your family
know your grave plot?

Did your lover cry out, did he rend his clothes in secret?
I know the crowd watched carefully as you tripped
on the hem of your robes in the hot air
before you were shot, and fell,

in the middle of the arena to a noise, not applause,
like cicadas thrumming. I saw the film, the kohl-­dark ingots,
your brain’s last clotted thoughts
spilled onto your hair and shrouded head.

I saw your burqa in the dry air trembling with blood.
But I never saw your lover. Please, let it have been love,
not something violent, grown malignant
within you. Did he get away with murder?

Dear Anonymous Woman Who Filmed the Execution,

And Dear — On what food did you grow
impossibly brave? You stood
in the crowd at the stadium. God has many names
and none of them mattered.

You dared: God was your camera.
God hid under the dark-­woven folds
of your required robe. God’s eye
was made to record

with a small noise, hanging in the film
between your breasts, a woman’s
execution curled in the undeveloped roll,
as though death had not yet

occurred. As if, were the film never processed,
you could switch past to future, correct
the present imperfect. She would not have been shot.
You would be at home, peeling an orange.

Dear Executioner,

What were you thinking as you stood
behind her, as she knelt
and you carried out the sentence,
gun in hand, followed through

on God’s command? Did you
think of your wife or simply of the task?
The wind rose, briefly fingered your hair.
God is the sentence and the execution, but – Dear,

God is the lovers’ brave infidelity, too, singing
long after the heat dissipates. Once
He created a garden: partridges,
almonds and pomegranates.

Oasis of song, cloistered sapling.

Said: Do you not know me in my nakedness?

Said: I am the bloodstain
left in the dust after her shrouded body
is hauled away in your truck, both hands broken
behind her back.

Said: Only the speechless hear me.
Only the silent do not turn away.

Do you not know me by my song?

I am the song of spilled blood, fragrant as lanolin,
as vernix from the skin of newborns,
ripe as a lemon tree
springing from the ribs of the earth.

I am the slow circle
of the bear’s dance. I am the wild lions of the desert
and I am their carrion feast, too,
Marjan’s blind and crusted eye. Pray

For I am the pigeons that fill the twilit stadium
lifting and settling, quietly calling one another home,
drawn to that dark patch, that mineral stain
after the crowd has gone.

A Word About the Poem By Rachel Rose
I started composing the poems in “September Letters” as a way to calm myself as our plane attempted a landing in the chaos of the airport in Montreal on September 11, 2001. The idea was that if I had these poems to finish, we’d somehow make it home, which we did. But then the changes that September 11 wrought continued to haunt me, as they did so many who’d been brushed by the wings of terrorism (though I was, of course, perfectly safe). As I learned more about the situation, I learned also about the profound bravery of the women like Meena, murdered founder of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, who fought the Taliban and smuggled out images of the cruelty inflicted upon other women, and I felt I must write to her, and apologize for only paying attention after my own chance encounter with being airborne at the wrong time.

How the Poem Works By Susan Olding

Every correspondence, even an imaginary one, proposes a sender and a recipient. In “September Letters,” the series of seven poems that Rachel Rose began while her plane attempted to land following the collapse of the World Trade Center, recipients include those one might expect — the speaker’s mother and lover — as well as those one might not — a caged lion and an executioner. The recipient of the third poem, “Dear Meena,” is a revolutionary and martyr, a poet of tremendous courage and commitment who has become a symbol for liberty in a land where people, and women in particular, are denied the most basic of freedoms. Meanwhile, the sender writes from a “modern post-postmodern” place where “one in four Canadians/ identifies as a poet,” but “nobody reads poetry.” Here, we are free to commit to whatever we choose, yet we seldom commit to anything; here, ironic detachment merges with hypocrisy, as we proclaim identity with what we do not even bother to support. How can a person from a culture like ours speak to someone like Meena? Insulated from terror until the poem’s occasion, yet in our ignorance far from innocent, how can we address those whose struggles have suddenly, belatedly been brought home to us?

The answer, of course, is honestly. In language that is direct, unfettered, and unadorned — fitting in a tribute to a woman who claims to have “said farewell to all golden bracelets” — the speaker of “Dear Meena” admits the difficulty and acknowledges her insularity: “…you were shot./ What did I care/ until I came that close to terror?” On that self-implicating question the poem turns. Only after accepting responsibility is the speaker able to do what until now she has claimed she cannot do — that is, to imagine her way inside the “rooms with blackened windows,” and then ever deeper, inside the burqa, inside the body and even the bones, all the way to her recipient’s soul. Only then can she see the “sisters” her recipient sees through the burqa’s “blue cotton weave,” and when she sees them, she begs forgiveness for not writing before. By the poem’s conclusion, Meena’s line, “I’m the woman who has awoken,” has become the speaker’s — and the reader’s — own.

Meena’s compatriots in the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan concealed cameras beneath their burqas to uncover the cruelty of the Taliban. In using an instrument of repression to expose oppression they achieved the apparently impossible. “Dear Meena” performs its own impossibility. It adopts irony to transcend irony, turning an icon into an intimate.

Susan Olding is a Vancouver-based writer whose work has been published in literary magazines in both the U.S. and Canada.

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