Book review by Katy Cottrell
What We’re Told Not to Talk About (But We’re Going to Anyway) is a collection of stories that navigate the experiences of womanhood which are typically considered taboo, from periods to menopause and everything in between.
The title of the book is apt, within minutes of reading Nimko Ali begins speaking candidly about the female body, seamlessly confronting any topic that might be considered too inappropriate to speak about publicly. Naturally, the candour can be discomforting, but as Ali playfully suggests that she can already feel the reader flushing red in embarrassment, you begin to realise that your unease might just be an internalisation of society’s discomfort with women’s bodies. If you’re a woman, you might realise that your unease is an internalisation of society’s discomfort with your own body.
Though the chapters are labelled Periods, Orgasms, Pregnancy and Menopause, it strikes me that the book is more about love, lust, heartbreak, anger, the bonds between women, and so much more. For example, whilst Zay’s story is about getting her first period in a refugee camp, what is so memorable is the sacrifices her mother makes to ensure that Zay has the products she needs. Whilst Tanya’s story is about not having children, it’s her ongoing love for her late husband and the grief over not being able to have his children that is so emotional.
However, it is the broad themes that bridge together the narratives of women of different ages, cultures and backgrounds. The chapter on pregnancy, for example, does not just focus on women with children, but also those who chose not to have children, or wanted to but couldn’t. The various narratives make it clear that though each woman may have a different perspective, it is the fact that we all have some kind of relationship with pregnancy, or periods, or our bodies that unifies us all.
Ali’s personal experience as a female genital mutilation (FGM) survivor is an important context for the book. Ali is the co-founder and CEO of The Five Foundation which works to bring international attention to FGM and to support grassroots organisations who are fighting against this practice. In the book, Ali speaks openly about her experience, the subsequent medical complications she suffered and eventual reconstructive surgery. Fortunately, by 2030, 70 million girls will have been saved from FGM. In large part, this is due to activists like Ali who have been brave enough to speak so openly about their experiences, bringing this issue to the forefront.
Overall, What We’re Told Not to Talk About (But We’re Going to Anyway) is inspiring in its honesty and vulnerability. Each narrative acts as a reminder of the unity of womanhood and the importance of listening to and supporting other women.