THE PLOT: ‘My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird’ is the first collection of short fiction by Afghan Women in English translation. Brought together by Untold, an NGO that develops writers marginalized by ongoing conflict, the project took two years to complete and was severely disrupted by the Taliban takeover in Summer 2021. These 18 brave writers persevered and completed the collection despite fears to their lives. The 23 stories cover a myriad of themes, including family and gender roles; childhood and war. Yet they all encompass a central theme of resilience and love, which is more poignant now than ever.
RATING: I’m giving this book five stars because I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to give it any less. It’s important to judge this book on what it represents as well as its content. The number of girls in primary school went from almost zero in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2018. By August 2021, 4 out of 10 students in primary education were girls. But today girls and women are being deprived of this fundamental right: they are no longer allowed to attend secondary school and higher education, which must be having an impact on primary school enrollment (if it is even allowed in practice and not just rhetoric from an abhorrent “government”). This collection represents the power of women’s education. It represents the power of fiction and the role of the artist to stand up to authority in the hope of making life better.
GOOD BITS: I enjoyed several stories but I’d like to highlight the following. ‘Companion’ a story about an older woman whose children live abroad struck me because it reminded me of my own mother. Although devastating, I liked the use of language in ‘The Most Beautiful Lips in the World’. The LGBT story ‘I Don’t Have the Flying Wings’ was unexpected yet profoundly necessary. ‘D is for Daud’ had an exciting twist. ‘The Red Boots’ has a loveable child protagonist. Finally, ‘Blossom’, inspired by an insurgent attack on a high-school, was heartbreaking and beautiful in equal measure.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Firstly, most of the stories are very short and, given the sheer volume, I struggled to sink my teeth into some of them. I wished there were fewer but longer. Secondly, I was worried about the editorial process as I hoped these writers were getting the strong editorial feedback and career development that would be offered to western writers. I am always cautious about NGOs or Donor Governments exploiting the talents of grassroots populations in order to pat themselves on the back. However, the afterword reassured me that Untold is still supporting these writers and not just abandoning them to their fate.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this to lovers of ‘We Are Displaced’ by Malala Yousafzai and The Persephone Book of Short Stories. However, unlike Malala’s book – which I read in a day – I’d recommend reading this slowly, selecting one or two stories daily alongside your novel or audiobook. This will allow you some respite from the strong, emotive themes and to appreciate each story on its own merits.
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