My Pen is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Although Afghanistan has a rich literary tradition, life there is a struggle to survive in the twenty-first century, to the degree that writing is almost a luxury, especially for the women.

My Pen is the Wing of a Bird is an unusual title but strikingly conveys that, by writing, these women have the freedom to tell about their lives.  These short stories allow them to expose aspects of what some women experience in language that is stark, honest and very powerful.

This anthology is a project by UNTOLD, a development programme that fosters writers in conflict areas. The stories here are written either in Pashto or Dari, the language of millions of Afghans. English speaking editors have worked with the writers to translate and faithfully represent their ideas and emotions. Publication is then possible, not just locally but internationally.

Life in Afghanistan is portrayed by women instead of men, which allows them to tell of their thoughts, their dreams and dare to describe life there in words that are unadorned but relate universal themes – family, friendship, gender identity, and the mundane of their everyday.  The stories are brief but vibrant and varied in that they are sometimes deeply sad, poignant, terrible, brave also cruel.

A mother who was told to fast in pregnancy gives birth to her eighth daughter who, after the difficult birth, is born very small and at risk. Her disgusted husband, to revenge this birth of yet another daughter, quickly takes another wife….

In the story, ‘Dogs Are Not to Blame’, Sabar aligns with a starving bitch with her eight puppies huddled in the snow. They too have the lonely struggle to survive.

One of the most horrific is about a young girl who becomes a suicide bomber and shatters a happy wedding scene. She had been told she would meet her dead mother in her afterlife. It is based on a real event that happened in Kabul.

There are touching accounts too.

Rahima lost her sight when just sixteen. Her dream to have a family of her own dies. Life brightens for her when she marries a kind man disabled by a land mine explosion.  Together they are happy.

There is the betrayal by a friend and the cruelty of a husband. The most moving of all is the story of Jamshid, a little boy who witnessed his little sister married to an abusive old man who was a grandfather’s age. Driven to end her torture, he stabbed the evil man with a kitchen knife. His teacher, who saw the crime, took the knife and attacked the old man. She then was charged and convicted. She had stabbed once after Jamshid had done so twelve times. Her sacrifice gave him, perhaps, another chance in life…

Disturbing and confronting at times, My Pen is the Wing of a Bird is an important insight into this strife torn country and the lives of some of the women. Their spirit of endurance is obvious and is often accompanied by a courageous determination to live as best they can. This book is a big step forward in underlining the enormous gulf that exists in the quality of life between women in the developed countries and those in Afghanistan where severe famine has gripped half the country.  It is important that we are reminded of peoples who are not as fortunate as we.

My Pen is the Wing of a Bird

New Fiction by Afghan Women


MacLehose Press.

ISBN 978 15294 2221 4

$22.99; 253pp


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