Monday 10 August 2015

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Review: What Was Never Said by Emma Craigie

What Was Never Said by Emma CraigieWhat Was Never Said by Emma Craigie (review copy) - 15-year-old Zahra has lived in England most of her life, but she is haunted by memories of her early childhood in Africa: the warm sun, the loud gunfire, and happy days playing with her older sister before "the visitors" came. It is hard for Zahra to make sense of everything that happened, and the terrible events are impossible to talk about, but when three familiar women arrive unexpectedly for tea, Zahra realises that the dangers of the past could still destroy her.

What Was Never Said is the powerful story of a girl navigating the demands of two very different and conflicting worlds; a tale of surviving loss and overcoming fears.
From Goodreads.

About the important subject of female genital mutilation (FGM), What Was Never Said by Emma Craigie is a book I just had to read. A very shocking and eye-opening read.

Zahra moved with her family to England from Somalia when she was five, to escape the civil war. Now 15, she is troubled by memories of life back in Somalia and struggles to move forward from the events she witnessed. Then one day visitors arrive to her home, visitors from Somalia. Zahra recognises these women, and is filled with fear. All she knows is she and her little sister Samsam have to get away, to escape the same fate as her older sister, Rahma.

FGM is something I know very little about, but something I've always been horrified by. I know it can go wrong. I know girls who have this done can experience pain for the rest of their lives, more so when having sex. But I didn't know too much about why certain cultures performed FGM on their girls. What Was Never Said covers all these things through Zarha's experiences. The story focuses on Zahra trying to keep her and her little sister same, away from the cutter.

What Was Never said is quite a short novel, only 200 pages long, so not only did I fly through it, but it's quite a tight, compact story. You learn about what happened in Somalia, what happened to Zahra's older sister, and all that led to the move to England. However, because of how short it is, and the focus on staying same, we don't learn as much about the Muslim culture in general, or about the specific beliefs some Muslims - in the case of this story (though it does point out that this isn't the case for all Muslims) - have about FGM. We learn why they perform FGM, but not the why behind their beliefs so much. Even so, what we are told is unbelievably shocking. This from a flashback to when they were in Somalia:
'Aunty Noor was speaking, "You need to face up to it. Look at her. It won't be long. How are you going to protect her? You need to think of the future."
"Anyone can steal from an open purse," said Grandma.' (p96)
And when Zahra explains to a friend, Krysty, her fears about the women who turned up at her house:
'"Women who carry out this practice, of... Well," I pause. I don't know how to sound real. I can't help talking like an information leaflet. "In my culture there is a tradition of, um, performing... of cutting young girls. You know, like circumcision, but for girls. Sometimes it's called FGM."
"Oh my God. What are you saying? That you think they had come to cut you and your sister?"
"I don't know. I was scared that they would."
"Come on. Surely people don't really do that nowadays?"
"They do. In lots of countries. Egypt, Africa... It's a very old tradition. People think it's good, keeps women clean and pure. You know."
"So, what, it's like women can't enjoy sex or anything?"
"It's not just cutting, usually they stitch you up... stitch up the vagina. It's so you can't have sex. Not easily. To keep you pure."' (p79)
It's terrifying to imagine, even more so when you think that this is a very real thing facing, or experienced by, many girls around the world. So when Zahra is faced with this fear, she is so brilliantly brave to get her and her sister out as soon as possible. She doesn't know if she's done the right thing, if maybe she's misunderstood, or what she's going to do now she's out of there. She's scared about what might be waiting at home, but worried about where she's going to go, how she can get out of this rather than just stall it. But she knows she can't let it happen. She won't. She has so much courage, and I am filled with so much admiration and love for this young girl who is trying to keep herself, but mostly her six-year-old sister, Samsam, safe and whole. It's a hard-hitting novel, and really gets you thinking. In her Acknowledgements, Craigie tells us, "According to the World Health Organisation between 100 and 140 million women and girls worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM." And yet this is something we hear so little about. It makes me so angry. Why aren't we hearing more? Why aren't we being told how we can help?

Amazingly, there are a few other issues touched upon in this novel. They don't get developed very much, but there is enough to make us uncomfortable and think about things like cultural stereotypes, pressure to conform to (other) cultural traditions, racism and treatment of black people by police, and child grooming/abuse. As well as treatment of women within culture, it also touches on other aspects of sexism.
'"Why do you want it all in the living-room? Isn't it easier if everyone helps themselves in here?"
Noor untied her apron. "If we have it in the living-room the men can easily help themselves in seconds."
"Oh sorry of course. We've got to make sure the men are happy. Can't have them making any effort to feed themselves." [sic]' (p28)
What Was Never Said is a brilliant book. Without being too graphic or heavy-handed, it doesn't shy away from the truth, but forces you to sit up and listen. FGM is still being forced on girls, a fact that's almost too horrific to comprehend - but there is help out there. This doesn't have to happen. A really amazing story, and one that should be read and discussed.

Thank you to Short Books for the review copy.

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Published: 7th May 2015
Publisher: Short Books
Emma Craigie's Website


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