Saturday, 18 September 2021

Srebrenica Genocide Survivor Nedžad Advić Speaks About His Experience

I'm reading Ann Petrila and Hasan Hasanović's Voices from Srebrenica: Survivor Narratives of the Bosnian Genocide. The book is a series of oral histories from survivors of the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995; I've only made it through the section on execution site survivors so far. It is slow-going. Each story deserves pause and consideration, a moment of reflection on the gravity of loss and the miracle of survival.

Nedžad Advić's story was particularly powerful. Advić is the same age as my 'baby' brother and thus, in the eyes of an older sister, a child when the events of Srebrenica took place. At the age of 17, he was amongst the men and boys separated from their families at Srebrenica and taken to execution sites to be massacred. He survived despite being shot four times and left to die. Advić and the man who saved his life were the only two survivors from the Petkovci Dam execution site.

So touched was I by Advić's account, I went out in search of other media relating to his story. Advić gave the interview below on the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.

25 years on: Srebrenica massacre survivor Nedzad Avdic recalls how he escaped death in 1995


(note: this post contains affiliate links; I will receive a small commission if you purchase using these links at no extra cost to you).

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Friday, 28 May 2021

'Letters from Diaspora' by Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura | Book Review

Letters from Diaspora by Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura | Book Review

If you've ever contemplated how people 'get over' war and genocide, Arnesa Buljušmić-Kustura has the answer in her debut novel Letters from Diaspora: Stories of War and its Aftermath: they don't. The war follows them everywhere, their trauma never leaves them and it simply gets quieter.

Letters from Diaspora: Stories of War and its Aftermath reads like an oral history and it's written in a very similar voice to that used by Svetlana Alexievitch. Alexievitch's Voices From Chernobyl was one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read and I very much enjoyed both the style and content of the book, however grim.

Letters from Diaspora is not a book that is enjoyed. It's fiction, short at 98 pages and is twelve stories about twelve survivors of war and genocide in Bosnia. All of the subjects are living in the diaspora and speak about rage, loss, grief and being told to move on.

There is no moving on.

I finished Letters from Diaspora in one sitting; not surprising perhaps, given the length. It's an incredibly difficult subject matter to read but is a necessary and beautifully written book. I'd highly recommend this book, especially to teens. The short, accessible stories would be an ideal starting point for exploration and discussion.

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Saturday, 30 January 2021

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper | Book Review

Greenwood District, Tulsa, Oklahoma was once home to a thriving African American community. On May 31st and June 1st 1921, a mob of armed white Tulsans attacked the community, killing as many as 300 African Americans and displacing 8,000 more. 2021 will mark the 100th anniversary of what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, the history of which was suppressed for seventy-five years.

Unspeakable The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper | Book Review

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre is a picture book by author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Floyd Cooper. It's short at 32 pages but aims to help young readers understand these terrible events so that "we can move toward a better future for all". It's aimed at the 8-12 years age group.

Reading Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre was physically painful. In the beginning, the book describes the thriving community of Greenwood District and the high street that became known as the "Black Wall Street". The descriptions of culture, fashion and community reminded me so much of what I've read about Sophiatown and District Six in South Africa, communities with vibrant cultures that were similarly razed to the ground.

Weatherford has done a fine job of simplifying the events for young readers, but presenting sufficient detail to draw older readers into healthy debate and discussion. It would be a good platform to stimulate further research and self-study too. The author's and illustrator's notes were particularly interesting, detailing their personal reasons for being involved in this work. Of particular note is the author's comment that the event was not even taught in Oklahoma schools until the twenty-first century.

Unspeakable The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper | Book Review

The illustrations by Floyd Cooper are exquisite, showcasing the fashions and vibrancy of Greenwood District, and ultimately the violence and devastation. The illustrations do a great job of bringing the events and people to life, ensuring that the reader relates to them and to the injustice of the events.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre is published by Carolrhoda Books, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book and am pleased to note that it's being released in both the US and UK (and presumably around the world).

An advance, electronic copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purposes of this review.

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Sunday, 4 October 2020

Book Review: West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line by Lynn Hudson ★★★★☆

I know very little about American civil rights history from the late 19th to early 20th century. This is not surprising; my focus has primarily been on Africa (especially South Africa) and on genocides in the 20th century. It has been interesting to learn that anti-miscegenation laws and job-colour bars weren't the invention of Apartheid South Africa but originated in North America. Specifically, a set of so-called Jim Crow laws emerged in America from about 1880 that sought to enforce racial segregation and these laws would be a highly influential on laws adopted by South Africa.

West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line by Lynn M. Hudson | Book Review

In West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line, Lynn M Hudson focuses on the African Americans who moved to California to escape Jim Crow, expecting freedom and the benefits of full citizenship but instead realising that Jim Crow and racial segregation were all too present in the west.

This is not simply a recounting of the racism, fear-mongering and obsession with eugenics that featured so prominently in white society for the century after the Reconstruction Era (although these are mentioned in some detail throughout the book). West of Jim Crow is about the tireless efforts of Black Americans to assert their citizen rights, establish respectability, secure equal opportunities and protect their men and women from the scourge of lynching and the rise of the KKK.

It is also notably about the role of Black women, their agency and the significant roles they took in journalism, activism and other roles to secure their rights both as women and as human beings. As Lynn M Hudson remarks on many occasions, just because there is little in the written records about Black women's struggles for freedom and activism, does not mean there wasn't significant agency and activism present.

West of Jim Crow is structured around six chapters, each concentrating on a specific event in Californian history:

  • Reconstruction: the initial gains and setbacks in the period following the Civil War, with the rise of Jim Crow and associated Jim Crow entertainments and minstrelsy
  • The Panama Pacific International Exposition: a look at the systematic erasure of civil rights gains, the emergence of the NAACP, the popularity of Birth of a Nation and the rise of eugenics
  • The Rise and Fall of Allensworth: the town founded by and for African Americans, doomed to fail because of misrepresentation, geographical and environmental issues
  • On Lynching: an account of the events that divided a country into those who supported lynching and those who were appalled by it; eerily prescient of Trump, tiki-torch marches and the gun lobby
  • On the Ku Klux Klan: fighting arson and intimidation while the KKK infiltrated law enforcement and local government in California
  • The Fight to Desegregate Pasadena's Municipal Swimming Pools: how activists began to use the damages of Jim Crow to argue for civil rights, winning the Pasadena pool case and later the Brown v Board of Education case

West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line by Lynn M. Hudson | Book ReviewWest of Jim Crow covers an incredible wealth of information and provides an interesting, readable account of African American history in California. Initially I felt a bit exhausted by the repetitive, circular mode of writing, featuring titbits and breadcrumbs followed by elaboration and exposition. I've noticed that this form of writing is favoured by many historians and while it can be taxing to read, the truth is it is preferable to a dry, linear account and also aids significantly in the reader's retention and comprehension of historical information.

Despite this small reservation, I give West of Jim Crow an excellent four out of five stars and highly recommend to those wishing to know about this particular area of Black history.

★★★★☆

West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line is available to purchase from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk (disclosure: affiliate links. I will earn a small amount if you purchase using these links, at no additional cost to you).

My thanks to University of Illinois Press and Netgalley for advance, electronic copy of this book.

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Thursday, 3 September 2020

Alfred Birney’s ‘The Interpreter from Java’ - Blog Tour and Guest Post

I’ve previously covered the suppressed history of Dutch atrocities in post-war Indonesia on this blog in 2012 and I was very interested to hear about Alfred Birney’s novel about a man named Alan Nolan who discovers his father’s memoirs about the atrocities he committed in the Dutch East Indies during the war with Japan – his life as an assassin, the murder of Indonesians in the service of the Dutch and his escape to the Netherlands to avoid execution. Today I’m taking part in the blog tour for the English-language release of The Interpreter from Java and thank Alfred Birney for the guest post below.


Colonial Shame by Alfred Birney

The Netherlands’ colonial past has been resurfacing regularly in the national media since 2016, spurred on in part by the success of my novel The Interpreter from Java. Slavery has also become a staple of public debate, though activists often face a barrage of criticism for asking the Dutch to take a broader look at their own history.

Colonial history has never been top of mind in the Netherlands, but things took a dramatic turn for the worse with the introduction of a new education system in the 1970s: secondary school students were allowed to pick and choose much of their own curriculum and history lost its status as a compulsory subject. And so we set about producing entire generations with the historical awareness of your average mollusc. Grist to the mill of a nation that was all too eager to sweep its own colonial history aside while pointing the finger at Germany, a country more inclined to shoulder the burden of guilt and apologise for its wartime atrocities. That same finger was pointed at Japan for having the temerity to invade the Dutch East Indies. But what about the troops – over 100,000 of them – dispatched from the Netherlands to reassert Dutch colonial rule after the war by mowing down Indonesian freedom fighters? No British-style Round Table Conferences preceded Indonesia’s independence.

Alfred Birney portrait - credit Eddo HartmannUnsurprisingly, the Dutch were happy to join in the worldwide protests against the US bombing of Vietnam. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s railing against abuses that occur far from our own little patch of mud. But many Americans now look back with a profound sense of what was done in their name. Countless movies and songs about that wretched Asian war have seen the light of day. A ten-part series on the Vietnam War, complete with blunders and atrocities, is now available on Netflix. And what have Dutch post-colonial sensibilities produced? Little more than small-screen adaptations of books from before 1900.

The Dutch government is spending over four million euros on an ‘independent study’ into war crimes committed during our great colonial war, a war we lost. This is a farce. Everything of note has already been recorded and filed away, nothing new will surface. These millions are earmarked for the Royal Netherlands Institute for South East Asian and Caribbean Studies, the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Netherlands Institute for Military History.

A study conducted by three government-funded institutes – how independent is that? The men in charge say they welcome cooperation with Indonesia, yet failed to invite a single Indonesian to their obligatory kick-off event. They are eager to talk to Indonesian eyewitnesses from the colonial war of independence, all of whom are long dead.

While the stated aim of this study is to analyse the violence on both sides, the Netherlands refuses to simply translate the work of Indonesian historians. Every effort will be made to explain Dutch violence in the broader context of post-war decolonisation, a framework of international political, administrative, judicial and military justifications. International, eh? They’ll be blaming the Allies next!

But there is hope. Truly independent researchers in the United States and Flanders are sifting through the facts and taking up their pens. Free from that peculiar mix of colonial shame and arrogance that inflicts the Dutch, they will one day rap us on the knuckles as firmly as we have done with other nations.


The Interpreter from Java is translated by David Doherty, published by Head of Zeus and available in hardcover from today.

Photo credit portrait of Alfred Birney © Eddo Hartmann

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