The face tattooed women, a slowly dying tradition

Lin Shwe Htang, from the Mun tribe is at her home with some of her grandsons. It’s their day off school, so they all hang together while their parents are working in the fields. When heavy rains starts to pour, everyone goes inside. As her grandchildren sit down around her, Lin Shwe lights an old pipe with locally grown tobacco and starts smoking, slowly. She’s been a smoker for a very long time. Lin doesn’t know her actual age, but explains that she started smoking as a child, to scare mosquitoes away and to warm up in winter.

Lin Shwe Htang smoking a pipe at her home.

When Lin Shwe was around 14, she got her face tattooed with natural ink made with a mix of black charcoal and green tomato leaves, a very old tradition in her area. The process was so painful that other women had to held her down while the tattoo artist was carefully marking her face. The eyelid area was particularly hurtful, she recalls. However, she went through it twice more, to get the tattoo stronger and make it last longer, because the ink wasn’t good enough. 

 The outside of Lin Shwe Htang’s home, a small one-room dark bamboo hut, is full of animal skulls. She shows us some bows and arrows her family uses for hunting. Sometimes they perform animal sacrifices, like other Animist villagers. 

Animal skulls outside Lin Shwe Htang’s home.

 In Chin State, located in Western Myanmar, bordering India and Bangladesh, people were originally Animists, believing that all animate and inanimate things possess a spirit or an essence. But after the British colonisation in 1886 and the arrival of Christian evangelists, a vast majority  of people in Chin State converted. Nowadays, 90% of the population is Christian, with the Chin State being the only part of the country were there are more churches than pagodas. That is something rare in a country predominantly Buddhist. Still, there are other villagers holding Animist beliefs. In a home near Lin Shwe’s, there’s a long wooden post with an egg placed on top of it. We’re told it’s because a member of the family is sick, and they believe the egg has healing properties.

Like with the Animist religion, female face tattoos has been a tradition for a long time in the Chin state, but it is not clear how and when it originated. A widely believed story tells that, at the time when Myanmar had Kings, they used to travel around the country to look for wives-to-be. They would choose the most beautiful girls and take them to his personal ‘harem’, far away from their home and families. Since Chin women were renowned for their beauty and their families didn’t want to see them taken away, they came up with a solution: tattooing the girls’ faces, so the King wouldn’t find them beautiful any more. 

However, as the tradition persisted and became the norm, face tattoos made the women feel beautiful and proud, becoming pretty much necessary to find a husband. And today, the pride of having face tattoos can still be seen in the elder generations of Chin women.

 Every Chin tribe has a different tattoo pattern. This is why 67 year old Ning Shen shares Lin Shwe’s tattoo. However, the marks on her face are surprisingly clear: it’s because she got the tattoo done when she was 35. Her parents didn’t want her to get tattooed, so she waited until both of them had passed away. All her female friends and villagers had face tattoos, and she wanted them too. She didn’t want to be different, she wanted to be beautiful like the rest.

Ningh Shen posing outside her home.

 In a region of farmers with low income, the tattoist was usually paid with animals because the families had no money. In fact, according to the 2017 Poverty Report produced by Central Statistical Organization with support from the World Bank and UNDP, Chin state is the poorest of Myanmar’s states and regions, with almost six out of ten people living in poverty. 

To get her tattoo, Ning Shen had to give away two chickens and two blankets. After getting it, her face was swollen for a week, and she didn’t let anyone outside her family see her. Five years after that, she got married. Now she has 9 children and several grandchildren, and continues to work as a farmer.

Views of the Chin State.

The tradition of faces tattoos has been banned for some time. In 1960, in an attempt to “modernise” the country, the government declared this practice illegal. However, it hasn’t been until recently that it has become less and less common, with most young people not carrying on the tradition, but not because of the law but because of a change in the mentality. The youngest tattooed woman of the Mun tribe is 27 years old. She hasn’t tattooed her daughters and says she won’t do it. Parents don’t want their daughters to go through the painful process, and girls, having received an education and having been in contact with the outside world -especially thanks to phone reception-, don’t find face tattoos appealing anymore. What inside their villages was once the norm, is now slowly disappearing. Some elders are worried about this tradition dying with them, and complain that now they cannot differentiate the Burmese from the Chin villagers.

 One of the oldest woman with face tatooes is 92 years old Yun Eian, from the Magan tribe. She has almost become a celebrity by playing the flute with her nose, something her mum taught her many years ago. Nowadays Yun occasionally plays the flute for tourists in exchange of some money, which helps the economy of her family. 

After playing a song for us, she complains: at her age, she cannot blow the flute like before. We’re also in the school where her daughter works, so there’s a lot of students’ background noise, and the melody is soft. We don’t care. It’s like with her face tattoos: the ink faded over the years, but she is still beautiful.

Yun Eian playing the flute.
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STREET ARTIST REVIEW

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GIVING A SECOND LIFE

Everything can be art, it depends on the way you look at it. For example, someone can be moved to tears by seeing a Caravaggio painting or listening to a Beethoven symphony and then critisize some tags written on their door. But I can be mesmerised by the tag and not appreciate the painting or the symphony. As everything in life, it depends on your point of view, you know, your freedom ends when mine starts or where the police sees you paint”. That’s what Nain Fingers, a graffiti artist, believes of art. 

 Born and raised in Barcelona, Nain Fingers started painting with his friends because it made them feel like “badasses”. But soon he got hooked and realized that “if you do it in the proper space and you give the appropriate message, you can catch the attention of those who are not really into the graffiti world and make them think”. As graffiti are outside museums or art galleries, they take you by surprise so the impact is greater. He paints big graffiti in more or less legal zones like abandoned spaces or factories in ruins in order to avoid getting in trouble with the police. However, it’s not always like this and he bombards the walls with random paintings of his signatures until he runs out of paint or time. 

The pseudonim of Nain Fingers stems from a motorbike accident where he lost a finger. From that moment on, it became not only his signature but also his identity. However, as in Spain English is normally translated in a literal way and people pronounced [nine] instead of [najn], he decided to change it. 

Although doing graffiti is a way of channeling his emotions, he doesn’t do it just for himself but for the spectators as well. This is why he tries to paint graffiti “with an agressive message about something I believe in so you have to give it more than a look to understand it”. Paradoxally, when he doesn’t care about the message beyond the artwork and just lets his hand go with the flow, it’s when it doesn’t leave indifferent and, indeed, makes people think the most. 

Simple, strinking, rare and constantly evolving. This is how he defines his own style. He has always liked the chiaroscuro, that’s why his colour palette basically consists of black, white and grey. At first, he tended to draw only lines, outlines and shadows, without filling them. But afterwards, he became obsessed with realism, old photographs and its details. And that’s what he did. Nevertheless, he admits that another possible explanation for the lack of colour is his laziness. 

Birds are one of the recurring images that most appear in his graffitis. Although it may seem an aesthetic decision, it has a deeper significance. During an epoque where he was “screwed up emotionally”, he could only paint birds. It was as if he had “a strong longing for freedom or something like that”. He is not the first -neither the last- to paint birds. The brasilian street artist L7m, one of his biggest influences, also uses these feathered creatures even though they appear in flashy tonalities. 

But he isn’t the only influencer in Nain Fingers’ masterpieces. Vhils, a portuguese artist who has made a name for himslef in the artistic world with its unique method of carving walls, has contributed to the Spanish artist in the figures: they both paint faces. However, Nain puts more empashis on women visages. “Painting women has always fascinated me: their eyes, their wrinckles… I must confess that I’m an inconditional fan of women. All of them are crazy but if it wasn’t for them we would be really bored”. 

To conclude, Nine Fingers not only paints beautiful graffiti to express his feelings but also to give a second life to those demolished and unused spaces. As the american writer Jarod Kintz said:“Rather than demolish an abandoned warehouse, why not just cover it with graffiti and call it art?

MUSIC REVIEW – Hozier’s concert

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2 YEARS, ONE TOUR AND 13 SONGS

Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the 25 years old Irish born and raised artist, came to Barcelona for the first time on the 19th of February, with the company of his six piece music band formed by a cellist, a drummer and a trio of vocalists. Razzmatazz was the concert hall chosen to host the concert, and it was great. The low-light atmosphere of the room was in perfect consonance with Hozier’s gothic settings and the sound quality was not bad.  I listened to all of the songs many times as I have the vinyl, but listening to it live was a really different experience.  I’ve always loved live music, but sometimes there are artists who play the same songs and change nothing, and it can be a bit disappointing. Hozier didn’t do that. He added a cover song and also gave much more important to the cello, which brought tenderness to the show.

Everything was great but the audience. I realized that most people were foreigners, but I couldn’t have possibly cared less. However, my discontent came when a soft lyrical song started and people started talking so loud I couldn’t enjoy the song completely. Why would you pay a 30 euros ticket and not listen to the music? The answer to this question is still a mystery to me.

Hozier seems a quiet and shy person, but when he is on a stage, he acquires more presence, security and confidence. As for his appearance, it is not what you usually expect of a singer, but much more casual and unpreoccupied instead. In fact, he seems not to care much about the clothes he wear or the way he looks. He is skinny and pale, and always wears a ponytail, even though his managers complain because they would prefer him to wear his hair loose. For someone like him, having the pressure of different clothes label who want him to support their designs is really stressful: “I’d never thought about how I looked, how I dressed, before all this. I had a winter coat and a denim jacket”.

There are many alternative singers nowadays, so what makes him so special? On the one hand his unique and incredible voice; dark, strong and powerful. He has been compared to George Ezra because they are both young but have a voice that seems of an old man. However, Hozier doesn’t share Ezra’s country-like sounds, but has a style that mixes soul, blues and rock –the song Jackie and Wilson is a good example-. His father was a local blues musician, so Hozier was very influenced by this kind of music, but also by choirs: he sang in a coral group when he was 15. When asked, he also pointed Leonard Cohen and John Lee Hooker as his influences.  

Hozier’s success came when his hit Take Me to Church video– about love, absolution, the Church and gay rights- went viral. The video shows a gay man being beaten up by homophobes in Russia. It came out in the context of the Sochi’s Olympic Games, as a protest against the anti-gay actions that took place in Russia back then, and which Hozier described as “no less than nightmarish”. Later, the ballet dancer Sergei Poulinin appeared dancing the song in a video directed by David LaChapelle, which went viral again. Until now, the hit has won an Ivor Novello, it became Spotify’s most viral tune in 2014 and has been five times certified platinum in the United States.

Nevertheless the song was nominated on the Grammys Song of the Year in 2015 but didn’t win. “The biggest reason “Take Me to Church” won’t win Song of the Year is that it’s ahead of its time. The Grammys (in fact the entire music scene) may not be ready for the strong lyricism that explores sexuality and its place in religion” said the writer Marilisa Sachteleben in an article published in AxS.

Like all of Hozier’s songs, Take Me to Church is really lyrical, metaphorical and with a strong idea behind it, that the artist wants to send to the audience. Consequently, he has been asked many times about the meaning of the song, and he answered “The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love.”  However, it has been criticised because it makes a point about how harmful religious doctrine can be. Hozier also claimed that “Sexuality, and sexual orientation – regardless of orientation – is just natural. An act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation”, and that was what was sinful and offensive, even to God.  Growing up in Ireland, he had felt the power the Church holds over people lives. “For me growing up, I had a Christian upbringing and I just noticed this Catholic influence in school. It has an aversion to sexuality and to women and it institutionalizes sexism and homophobia”, he said.

As we see, Hozier is very critical with the Church, but still, he said he wouldn’t define himself as an atheist: “it’s too absolute. But I don’t have any faith. I think faith is an absurd thing but I’m OK with that. There are no answers because the universe never asked a question in the first place.”

After playing this afternoon in Istanbul, Hozier is returning home. It has been a long first worldwide tour for him, as it started two years ago. He has played in the States and Australia; Europe was his last stop. No one knows what is going to happen next, but I am not the only one who after more than two years longs for a new CD. He’s been singing the same 13 songs for a long time, so now might be time for new ones. Yet, having achieved fame and success on his first CD also has a negative effect, because fans are not going to be contented with less.  

ART EXHIBITION REVIEW

Culture

EXPRESSING THE INEFABLE

Dialogues of the gaze’, Fundació Suñol’s current art exhibition focuses on the importance that gaze has in art, where it is no longer only about the act of seeing but goes way further than that. Art can be a link between reality, imagination and symbology, and therefore looking at it is not enough, as it also implies understanding and feeling it. Art is something subjective, personal and intimate because it manifests emotions. Through art, artists are expressing themselves, communicating with the spectators using different objects, supports and techniques. In the Fundació, there are works by 28 different artists: some paints, drawings, photos, sculptures and installations.

On this occasion the Foundation presents pieces from its own collection, made by different artists on different periods of time, which are selected and organised into various sections related to seven different subject areas: Gazing, Reading, Covering up, Value, Walking-resting, Circles or holes and Red. Each of them gather completely different works, but this organisation makes sense and is not too difficult to see why they are grouped together. For example, on the section ‘Gazing: do we see or are we seen?’ everything is related to sight. However Zush’s Sabrina Eyeya painting was the piece that had a more obvious relationship with gaze: it is a woman’s body with eyes on it. Paradoxically, its soft colours are peaceful but I found the presence of the eyes quite troubling and disturbing.

All sections make a perfect union in which all elements are related and connected one with the other. However, there is one painting in ‘Red: image and matter’ which breaks the harmony: an untitled work by Max Bill is the only colourful piece we find in the entire exhibition, and its excessively bright colours are a bit too much.

I’ve sometimes found myself visiting museums so big it was impossible to see everything, and they left me with a feeling of emptiness and disappointment because I wish I had been able to see more. This is something that doesn’t happen in the Fundació Suñol, as it is quite small and you can visit the whole exhibition in less than an hour.

Theoretically, the exhibits provide “a reciprocal gaze that turns into a three-sided active dialogue: the work of art condensing the artist’s gaze; the spectator enquiring about the work from his or her own individuality; and the immensity of the world, understood as an unfathomable vessel where art constitutes an effort to put it all in order”. Nevertheless, you need to read the information sheet about the exhibition to understand that dialogue while you walk throughout the rooms. If not, you may find yourself lost among interesting but incomprehensible art work, because unlike other exhibitions, there is neither a single explanation of the work nor the meaning of the areas.

One of the sections I really enjoyed is ‘Reading: from the object book to the book-object’, where is Jaume Plensa’s Book of life. This book has transparent pages with silkscreen prints and poems by the Catalan artist and poet Antoni Tàpies, who also has works shown there. It is interesting because it’s a reinterpretation of the concept of the book and it plays with perspective. It mixes art and poetry, and in that sense it reminded me of the ‘visual poetry’ Joan Brossa did, an experimental type of poetry which contains plastic elements or images closely related to the text. “Visual poetry is not a drawing, nor a painting, is a service to communication” said Brossa, and it can also be applied to the Book of life.

But in my opinion, the most interesting section is ‘Value: from the poetical to the political’ because it proves that art and social critique are often related. Zush, one of the artists of the exhibition, creates an “imaginary, contradictory and real” ‘Mental State’, a space of freedom where everything is possible. Still, this state is not anarchy and it uses some symbols to guarantee order, although we only see one of them in the exhibition. At first I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but as I read the information sheet everything started to make sense.

The Foundation is a private non-profit organisation which aims “to promote, disseminate and spread art in general, but with particular regard to the Josep Suñol Collection, with the objective of researching, conserving and preserving art and the study of art, obtaining help for artists, students and scholars of Catalan art worldwide”. The General Manager Margarita Aguilar believes “culture should be accessible to anyone” and that is the reason why in 2014 they lowered the entrance fee and have not raised the price since.  The standard ticket is 4 euros and for students it is even more affordable, only one euro. Josep Suñol, founder, president and collector explains that he isn’t “pursuing or getting an economic benefit, but providing the necessary funds to face the activity and management of the Fundació Suñol, year after year”.

As for the location, it is really central, in the 98 of Passeig de Gràcia, where Josep Suñol was born. The building is classical from the outside but it is very modern inside. You might be blinded by the bright white walls and white floor rooms, but the art works stand out between this lightness. For Margarita Aguilar it is also “a place of meditation” and she points out that “it is quite impossible to believe that one can find a quiet space that allows you to see and learn from art in the middle of Passeig de Gràcia”. And she is right: if you visit the Foundation on a work-day you might be lucky and have the entire exhibition just for yourself. If that is the case, be sure to take your time to enjoy it. In the peacefulness of silence, it is easier to see, hear and feel Art. Art with a capital letter; Art as the expression of the ineffable.

*All translations from Catalan people have been translated by the author of the article.

MOVIE REVIEW – Suffragette

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THE ONLY LANGUAGE THAT MAN LISTENS TO

On the 20th of December the citizens of Spain went to the polling place to choose the new Spanish president. We –men and women- queued, showed our ID and voted; there was nothing strange in that. We weren’t thinking that not too many years ago women weren’t allowed to do so, and that back in the twentieth century some women had to fight to get that right. They were called The Suffragettes and their struggle is revived on Sarah Gavron’s new film Suffragette

It needs to be remarked that even though the title is in singular and the movie focuses on the life of Maud Watts, it is also a testimony of the bravery of the women from the working class who risked everything fighting for their right to vote. They saw how peaceful protests changed nothing with disappointment, and consequently radicalised by turning to violence smashing windows and blowing up mailboxes. As “War’s the only language that man listens to”, vandalism was the only way to make their cause be noticed.  

Maud Watts is a young lower-class Londoner who works in an industrial laundry. Her daily routine is shaken up when she is caught in the middle of a Suffragette riot. It is very interesting to see how Maud’s character evolves throughout the film. At the beginning she is not a Suffragette at all and she criticises the vandalism. Later on, when she is faced with the brutality of the police and the lies of the government, she loses her temper and –a bit involuntarily- gets involved. It is the first time that her hair literally gets messy, yet she claims she isn’t a suffragette, but afterwards her innocence and passivity vanish, she sees her maturity and then affirms she is a Suffragette. Maud is no longer just what the patriarchal and sexist society has made her, a mother and a wife, but someone who stands up for her rights. The Suffragette’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech in a clandestine meeting had been of great influence to her. Pankhurst had said: “I would rather be a rebel than a slave”, and Maud is sick of being a slave: women didn’t have a voice in the Parliament, but neither in their work nor their home. She is determined to change that.

This screenplay was written by Abi Morgan, with whom Sarah Gavron had already worked before in 2007, when she wrote the script of Brick Lane, which is also set in London and focuses on a lower class family with a dramatic life who faces a melodramatic separation. Nevertheless, in Brick Lane there is also the exoticism of India and some rural scenery, whereas in Suffragette we can only see the industrialized London. 

The setting of the film is based in London 1912 time, and it has been perfectly pictured with its streets with antique cars and buses, a carriage driven by a horse, many puddles on the ground, some newspapers on what it looks like a kiosk, the façade of an old chemist, etc. There is a clear contrast between East London, where the working class lives and Central London, where people look wealthier and are dressed fancy. But, what is more impressive is the Glasshouse Laundry where Maud works: the steam that fills the atmosphere and the sweat in the clothes of the workers create a realistic ambience which makes you able to imagine very clearly how hard it was to work in such bad conditions.

But it wasn’t movies Gavron started filming. At first she started with documentaries, which seemed easier but what she really loved was narrative filmmaking. In Suffragette two of the characters are based on historical Suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst –performed by Meryl Streep- played an important part in helping to found the Women’s Social and Political Union, organisation that gathered the Suffragettes, and Emily Davison –performed by Natalie Press- was a WSPU militant. Yet, Maud Watts is a completely fictional character, and we musn’t forget that Suffragette is a film and not a documentary, even if the historical background is realistic. As Abi Morgan highlights, they did a lot of historical research, like reading original testimonies and public records about police surveillance operations. It took six years to get the film made. 

It is easy to find historical documentaries about women fighting for their rights, and specifically to have the right to vote, such as One woman, One vote. However, most of the documentaries are made in the United States, and consequently only refer to the movement in that country. In 2004 Katja von Garnier directed Iron Jawed Angels, a TV movie about north-American suffragists, but there aren’t many more examples. Suffragette brings this historical reality closer to a wider public who may not be interested in documentaries, but love a blockbuster. 

This film was clearly designed to be a blockbuster, and it is through the cast that the commercial aiming of the film is obvious. Not only a well-known actress like Carey Mulligan got the lead role –being named ‘Actress of the Year by the Hollywood Film Award- and Helena Bonham Carter a secondary yet essential one. But Meryl Streep also has her moment of glory and she even appears in all of the official posters. Still, Streep isn’t too important and her presence in the film only lasts few minutes. On the contrast, Anne-Maria Duff has an important role in the film but is absent on the poster, maybe because she isn’t as famous as the others. To me it seems that the choice of the actresses that appear in the promotional images was made to attract a larger public.

All of us know how the story ends; therefore I can say it without needing a spoiler alert: women got the right to vote. However, this victory is rather bittersweet as now, a century later, there is still a long way to go to reach equality between men and women. Furthermore, the film also makes you think about legality; in the twentieth century the law prohibited women to vote. That law needed to be broken, as sometimes disobedience may be necessary. Violet Miller, Maud’s colleague says to her: “You want me to respect the law? Then make the law respectable!”.

BOOK REVIEW – Les llavors del silenci

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WAITING TO REACH THE SURFACE

There have been lots of historical novels written on the Spanish civil war. There is For Whom the Bell Tolls, written by Ernest Hemingway, or Soldados de Salamina by the Spanish writer Javier Cercas. However, Les Llavors del Silenci (Silence’s seeds*), novel by Àlvar Caixal, goes one step further and is no longer just about the war. Instead it goes in depth about the human condition, highlighting the importance that our origin has in building our identity and emphasizing how the past shapes our present and therefore demonstrating that oblivion always has negative effects.  

The Spanish civil war ended many years ago but in Spain there are still some open wounds, particularly in relation to what is known as “historical memory”. Many victims of the Franco-era were buried without being identified and some living relatives, frustrated by the Spanish government, have turned to Argentina´s judicial system for help to push the government to carry out exhumations.  Àlvar Caixal’s novel is more relevant today than ever: only last month, Ascensión Mendieta, a 90-year old woman, managed to see the reopening of the common grave where her dad had been buried after he was executed by Franco’s soldiers.

For people like Ascensión, the past cannot be buried and forgotten. Alfred, the main character of the novel, feels the same way which is something that troubles him deeply. After his father’s suicide he discovers some hidden documents that relate his mother to members of the International Brigade who went to Spain to fight for the republic. Consequently, Alfred starts digging into his family’s past searching for the secrets that had always been hidden from him. His search to discover more about his origin and identity leads him to England, the country where Emma Tavistock lived. She was a young woman who loved a British volunteer who fled to Catalonia and the reader learns her story through some letters that her niece has kept safe for many years.

Àlvar Caixal, as the main character, is a digger himself: he is an archaeologist and Les Llavors del Silenci is his first novel. When he won the BBVA Sant Joan award in 2013 he was completely unknown in literary circles. Him winning was quite surprising because in the previous years, the prize had only been awarded to famous authors. Being an archaeologist has certainly had an impact on his writing. Not only that he did an exhaustive documentation for the historical episodes and worked slowly, digging into his characters past layer by layer, but it even took him four years to finish the novel. He wrote and rewrote until he was satisfied with his work.

In spite of the apparent realism of the novel, throughout the story magic elements appear, such as dreamlike images and inexplicable facts. Alfred is convinced that a sort of “power of nature” is responsible for all of the strange things that keep happening to him and that seem to be leading him to the answers he longs for. It’s in that sense that the novel reminded me of the magical realism of the Latin American writer Gabriel García Márquez, who accepts magic as intrinsic in the rational world. These magical elements don’t undermine the credibility of the whole story but paradoxically they create an atmosphere of surreality that is really easy to believe.

In a world where everything is consumed at a high speed –fast food, tweets, instant news -, books like Les Llavors del Silenci can modify your reading habits; it is not something you can read on short journeys in the underground, but a novel to be read slowly, without any distraction. Only this way you won’t miss the delicacy of the prose, the exquisite, chromatic portraits of the sceneries and filled with plenty of adjectives. Every single word that appears in the novel seems to have been chosen very carefully and accurately. A novel written in such a poetic and lyrical style requires you to take time delighting in it. Even the title is poetic and suggestive: Alfred’s family had been silent about their past, but those secrets had germinated into the next generation, waiting to sprout out and finally reach the surface.

*Literal translation, the book hasn’t been translated.