jaya Posts

Anuradha Roy, “Sleeping on Jupiter”

Anuradha RoyAfter I had finished reading Anuradha Roy’s third novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, I wrote her an email. With the author’s permission I am publishing an extract from our correspondence. 

Dear Anuradha,

I am stunned by your book on many accounts. Primarily because I did not expect this after the first two novels. You caught me off guard. It is a sobering lesson on respecting a writer’s evolution and not necessarily expecting the author to be predictable. Unfortunately given the way publishing is working these days, if an author has been successful with a certain style of writing, not necessarily formulaic, it is assumed the person will continue in a similar vein.

Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian, talking about Sleeping on Jupiter with Anuradha Roy at Asia House, London, April 2015.

Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian, talking about Sleeping on Jupiter with Anuradha Roy at Asia House, London, April 2015.

You took my breath away with this novel. I think it was the violence depicted in the story that rattled me. I know you are a brilliant novelist but I seriously did not expect this from you. It requires great deal of reserves to come up with such a story, detailing the violence, rape, brutality, lynching, hitting the dog etc. You have a wide range of depraved human behaviour depicted in the supposedly peaceful, religious, sleepy town of Jarmuli. It is probably not only the real and physical violence that is chilling but also the pain evident in the conversation of the three women pilgrims from Calcutta — typical women who are old friends feel they can get away by saying anything, sharing secrets, but are very barbed hurtful remarks; the son ( Suraj) not paying heed to his chattering mother, so taken off guard when he spots the elderly women in Jarmuli;  the violence that faithful experience such as the pilgrim rolling on the temple floor leaving bits of pink flesh on the stone; the sad, sad sub-plot of Badal and Raghu — it stung when

Raghu gave Badal a twisted smile and said, “So, that’s how things are, is it? You don’t say!” (p.201)

Even the experience of the girls at the ashram, the Guruji, the adoption process requires immense strength on your part to observe, assimilate and write as you have done. The power of your writing lies in its details. After I had finished reading the book, certain locations such as the layout of the ashram, the hotel room, the tea shack, the beach, the train compartment etc were crystal clear in my head. I kept thinking, this is exactly what Ibsen set out to achieve in 19C theatre, Anuradha has done it with words and the relationship an author develops with the reader. It is a feat not easily achieved. How did you do it? The only explanation I find lies in the tautness of your writing, not a single word out of place, yet it is the display of a master craftsman — the exquisiteness with which you find appropriate words; the sentences and paragraphs befit the emotion, setting, pace of novel and personality of characters; the structure of the novel too is fascinating — with the first five days of journey + being in Jarmuli being 2/3 of the novel, interspersed with the flashback technique and then rapidly you move to the eighteenth day. In a way I keep feeling the novel is like an Aristotlean tragedy ending in catharsis for Nomi. It holds true even for Suraj, Nomi, Toppo, Badal etc.

I like the way you said in an interview you can only write once it is clearly visual in your head. “…made up places make me feel free to wander and in my head I can see every bend and building in Jarmuli”. ( All though I have no idea why the interviewer was being polite when referring to the rape scenes “loss of innocence”. It makes your novel sound so Victorian which is far from the truth!)

The link between materialism, religion and exploitation is so real, to place it in a made up place does not in any way mitigate the shocking reality. Godmen and their ashrams are mushrooming all over India like a bad rash. Frighteningly being endorsed by powers that be. There was a time when one heard of Osho, Waco, Aum Shinrikyo etc as stray cases but now with religious fundamentalism on the rise and religion continuing to be an opiate of the masses, exploitation cannot be far behind. Hats off to you for not describing the “faith” Guruji ascribes to. Making him so “universal”, the character can be true to any ideology.

Given the wide variety of literature (printed and digital formats) being produced on women and violence, this particular novel shines. I am very glad you wrote it, however hard it may have been on you. It is a novel that has to be read at one go, otherwise the horror depicted will be so overwhelming it would be easier to abandon the book than persist in reading it.

There is a quiet strength and determination in your writing that is admirable. It is as if the ills evident in society are not being addressed sufficiently. Instead you have converted the pent up anger in you to constructively portray it in fiction. Hopefully this magnificently disturbing storytelling will have the desired effect.

Oh, this is a book I am going to recommend for a long time to come.

Thank you for writing it.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

7 May 2015 

Anuradha Roy Sleeping on Jupiter Hachette India, Gurgaon, India. Hb. pp.260 Rs 499

On travel writing and translations

Between WorldsIn recent months I have read two books of travel writing translated from Urdu and Bengali respectively. They were first written a century apart but the English translations were made available six months of each other. The two books are:

1. Yusuf Khan Kambalposh Between Worlds: The Travels of Yusuf Khan Kambalposh, translated and edited by Mushirul Hasan and Nishat Zaidi, published by Oxford University Press ( 2014). Original title: Tarikh-i-Yusufi (1837-38), first published by Naval Kishore Press ( 1898)

2. Syed Mujtaba Ali In a land far from home: A Bengali in Afghanistan translated by Nazes Afroz, published by Speaking Tiger ( 2015). Original title: Deshe Bidishe, first published in 1948

There is something fascinating about accessing the past through contemporary literature. Making translations of such texts available to a modern audience is a commendable effort since many such texts are tucked away in personal collections, archives, and libraries. Selecting an “appropriate” text for a 21-century reader is dependant on a variety of factors — not just on the book’s own merit. It is probably relevance of the text being translated. For instance, Between Worlds, is about thirty-three-year-old Yusuf Khan Kambalposh who decides to visit England. He had no patronage, was not dependent on anyone for financial support or for social contracts but made the journey on his own. He was in London to see Queen Victoria being coronated. All though he often wrote in Persian, this travelogue was written in Urdu, a fascinating choice given the time it was written in. But it also shows the impact the Delhi Vernacular Translation Society ( 1843) had in popularising the language among the masses of readers in North India. Most translations were made available in Urdu. It is also a significant travelogue since it is a rare perspective offered by an Indian and not necessarily from a Colonial perspective. It is also about Victorian England at a time when modern literature about Queen Victoria is gaining importance.

With In a land far from home there is a firsthand account of a non-Afghan, a Bengali traveller, having travelled so far North, living in land_far_from_home_coverAfghanistan, witnessing a tumultuous period of history. It is when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls and giving them the choice of removing the burqa. Branded a ‘kafir’, Amanullah was overthrown by the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao. ( An extract from the book may be read on Caravan magazine’s website: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/why-bengali-traveller-was-flummoxed-afghani-hospitality . )

Both the translated texts are worth reading from an academic point of view. They are footnoted and with plenty of prefatory material. Fascinating for the old world they reveal especially when seen through the prism of contemporary socio-political-economic conditions in these regions. Otherwise not easy to read. Somehow I found a few travelogues written by women easier to read particularly a lovely one All the Roads are Open: the Afghan journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole). She too is in Afghanistan at the time of Amanullah’s reign but her account is easier to relate to, probably because these were meant as regular dispatches to various newspapers in Germany. ( http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/blog/of-women-travellers-and-writing/ )

Having said that the anecdote about the massacre of sunbathing turtles on the high seas to be later made into a feast of kebabs in Between Worlds is just the reason why one picks up travel books. To get a random detail that is not commonly heard of but will forever remain embedded in one’s brain as a piece of trivial but astounding information.

6 May 2015

 

 

A. C. Grayling “The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times”

A C Grayling3 May is World Press Freedom Day.

3 May 2015 is also when the unfortunate hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia is trending on Twitter. The people of Nepal are hugely disappointed with the journalists from India covering the horrendous earthquake. Ironically they seem to have support from many others across the Indian subcontinent. For instance, http://scroll.in/article/724851/your-media-are-acting-like-they-are-shooting-a-family-serial-nepalis-trend-gohomeindianmedia .

Later this week, on 5 May 2015, PEN American Center will be honouring the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/ Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. It has resulted in six prominent authors dropping out of the PEN Gala, with more than 145 authors distancing themselves from the event. The six authors are Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, Francine Prose and Rachel Kushner. Many opinions have been offered in the press. For instance, Andrew Solomon, President, and Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, of PEN American Center wrote on 1 May 2015, “Why we’re honoring Charlie Hebdo” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/02/opinion/why-were-honoring-charlie-hebdo.html?_r=0); Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, 30 April 2015, “PEN Has Every Right to Honor Charlie Hebdo”   (http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/pen-has-every-right-to-honor-charlie-hebdo ); Masha Gessen in Slate.com on 1 May 2015, ““Paying Attention and Paying Respect Is All That Writers Can Do: Why PEN is right to honor Charlie Hebdo.” (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2015/05/pen_and_charlie_hebdo_why_the_foundation_is_right_to_honor_the_magazine.html) ; Katha Pollit in The Nation on 30 April 2015 ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Deserves Its Award for Courage in Free Expression. Here’s Why.” ( http://www.thenation.com/blog/205897/charlie-hebdo-deserves-its-award-courage-free-expression-heres-why); Salil Tripathi, Writer and former co-chair, English PEN Writers-at-Risk Committee wrote about the courage it takes to write without fear and importance of freedom of expression. ( http://www.pen.org/blog/courage-continuing); Garry Trudeau’s speech in The Atlantic, 11 April 2015, “On the abuse of satire” ( http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/the-abuse-of-satire/390312/);  Susan Bernofsky on 1 May 2015 in Translationista”Why I signed the PEN protest letter” ( http://translationista.net/2015/05/why-i-signed-the-pen-protest-letter.html) and Joe Sacco in the Guardian on 9 January 2015, “A response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks” ( http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/jan/09/joe-sacco-on-satire-a-response-to-the-attacks).  

Closer home, in India, we have for the past eighteen months had innumerable instances of muzzling of voices, authors such as Perumal Murugan, being coerced in such a manner that he has vowed to give up writing. Here is an excellent speech given by noted historian Romila Thapar on religious sentiments and freedom of expression, published in the Hindu on 13 March 2015, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments” (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece). Like him, there are many more sad examples.

In this context it is worth reading a brilliant essay, “Free Speech” by British philosopher A.C. Grayling. I am reproducing extracts of it below but the entire essay can be read in A. C. Grayling “The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times”, published by Bloomsbury. Many of the essays originated in places as various as Prospect magazine, the Guardian, Observer, Times, New Statesman, New York Review of Books, talks on the BBC, chapters in edited collections, and elsewhere. Unfortunately there are no dates given for the published essays, so it is impossible to gauge the time they were written in. Yet, the essay under discussion seems pertinent even today. 

…though liberty is indivisible, regimes of liberties have a structure. The keystone of the arch is free speech. Without free speech one cannot claim other liberties, or defend them when they are attacked. Without free speech one cannot have a democratic process, which requires the statement and testing of policy proposals and party platforms. Without free speech one cannot have a due process at law, in which one can defend oneself, accuse, collect and examine evidence, make a case or refute one. Without free speech there cannot be genuine education and research, enquiry, debate, exchange of information, challenges to falsehood, questioning of governments, proposal and examination of opinion. Without free speech there cannot be a free press, which although it always abuses its freedoms in the hunt for profit, is necessary with all its warts, as one of the two essential estates of a free society ( the other being an independent judiciary). Without free speech there cannot be a flourishing literature and theatre. Without free speech there are limits to innovation and experiment in any walk of life. In short and in sum, without free speech there is no freedom worth the name in other respects where freedom matters.

The principle of freedom of speech promiscuously allows bad free speech, ranging from the stupid to the malicious and dangerous. If it is genuinely dangerous to life, as for example in direct incitement to murder, it invites a case-specific limitation. But generally the remedy for bad free speech is better free speech in response. In the case of libel and slander there is, as an instance of this, the post facto remedy of the courts. True, malicious mud-slinging is damaging even if a libel action is won, but free speech does not come free, and in a mature society we have to recognise that benefits carry costs, and this is one of them. So vital is free speech to the health and liberty of a society that the plea of ‘feeling offended’ by what people say about one’s choices and beliefs is not and can never be a reason for limiting free speech…. .

…The assault on free speech is well under way: it is the time for defence of it to get well under way too. ( p. 172-174)

A.C.Grayling The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2015. Pb. pp.300 Rs499

( This blog post was updated on 4 May 2015 to include a few more links on Charlie Hebdo.)

#GoHomeIndianMedia

#GoHomeIndianMedia

Literati – “Serial publishing” ( 2 May 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 May 2015) and will be in print ( 3 May 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article7164472.ece. I am also c&p the text below.

Published over 20 years ago, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, a single-volume hardback at over 1100 pages, was bulky to hold though printed on Bible paper (a thin grade of paper used for printing books with a large number of pages). It was not unheard of to rip the novel into two or three volumes to read it easily. It inevitably triggered conversations about Victorian England when serial publishing was fashionable and lending libraries in Victorian England preferred to lend three-decker novels to members.

This practice was instituted by Mudie’s Lending Library and Mudie’s Subscription Library. Charles Mudie, known for his sharp business acumen, introduced the guinea yearly subscription allowing a customer to borrow an unlimited number of volumes at any time. He also profited from simultaneously lending different parts of a novel to different customers. Of course publishers and authors benefited immensely from Mudie’s select list of books since an order from the library/retail usually meant buying up print runs, certainly a substantial number of units that helped boost sales.

With the Industrial Revolution, rapid technological advances had a tremendous impact on book publishing. With mechanisation it was easier to produce cheap books for a mass audience. Printers too had acquired new technologies, notably the practice of stereotyping — casting a metal plate based on an impression from hand-set type — which permitted both quick reuse of the type for other pages and multiple copies of the metal plates for even faster printing of multiple copies. Writers like Charles Dickens managed to be financially secure by catering to working class audience sensibilities, weaving in characters in his serial and monthly stories that endeared themselves to readers up and down the social ladder. For instance, with Pickwick Papers, the monthly print run rose from 400 (March 1836) to 40,000 (November 1837). As Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer (2011) points out “the sales of each of the last three numbers of Dombey, in January, February and March 1948, were around 34,000, and people continued to buy back numbers for months afterwards. In 1847 he earned £3,800, and for the first time ever he had enough money in the bank to be able to invest.” (p.200)

Suddenly there were a flood of books available, a first since moveable type had been invented some centuries earlier. In the 20th century, it was Allen Lane’s introduction of the paperback edition that made a significant difference to book publishing.

***

Self-publishing

Fast forward to 21st century. Technological advancements, especially with the introduction of smartphones and e-readers meant that in less than a decade, e-books were easily available to access and download — most cheaply priced or for free! This fuelled the exponential growth of self-publishing as people discovered how “easily” books could be produced and sold at a reasonable price directly to customers. Like in Victorian England, new reading communities were discovered/created. At the same time, digital long reads came into vogue, usually standalone commissioned articles. Slowly the impact of this form is becoming discernible in the crafting a novel.

Instead of the long story being “complete” and polished equally from beginning to end, it is obvious to a trained eye that portions of the story are given more care, probably to be offered as extracts to digital and print media or to be read out at author interactions. This is affecting the form of a novel with experiments in interconnected stories being considered as a novel. Serial publishing too is making a comeback with authors offering their e-books as serials or intentionally writing serials, testing it on readers and later converting it into a book — mostly seen in self-publishing programmes. A deluge of books has resulted in the creation of monthly subscription models such as Oyster and Kindle Unlimited offering readers an unlimited number of e-books. Given the paucity of time but increase in commuting time and variety of handheld e-devices the rise of short fiction (flash fiction and short story) as a popular form of writing is inevitable. Yet I wonder if it is not time for serial publishing to make a comeback. It will engage a reader; the author can gauge the reader’s reaction to the story and tweak it accordingly, so the book’s sale is assured, ensuring writers and publishers benefit.

2 May 2015

An update ( 8 May 2015) 

Coincidentally, two days after my column was published I read a fascinating post on Melville House blog on serial publishing. “Two For Tuesday: Should Books Be Snackable, Serialized, and Delicious?” ( 5 May 2015,  http://www.mhpbooks.com/two-for-tuesday-should-books-be-snackable-serialized-and-delicious/)

Ruskin Bond, ” A Gathering of Friends”

Ruskin BondEarlier this month, Aleph Book Company, published Ruskin Bond’s A Gathering of Friends. It is a collection of twenty-one short stories. These have been chosen by the author himself, from a body of work written over a period of fifty years. The well-known and much loved stories include “The Blue Umbrella”, “Panther’s Moon”, “The Cherry Tree”, “The Night Train at Deoli”. “Susanna’s Seven Husbands”, “The Night Train at Deoli” and “The Prospect of Flowers”. This book has been published to coincide with the 81st birthday celebrations of Ruskin Bond. 

“Rust-free fiction”, the foreword by David Davidar, Publisher, Aleph is a wonderful List of contentssnapshot of fifty years of publishing and storytelling. I was delighted to discover the connection between legendary publisher, Diana Athill, and legendary storyteller, Ruskin Bond. When Diana Athill was at Andre Deutsch she gave Ruskin Bond his earliest break as a writer. Both of them are admirable. Today Diana Athill is ninety-seven years old and writing. Ruskin Bond is in his eighties and writing.  Ruskin Bond’s introduction to the book can be read at the DailyO

Given the number of books Ruskin Bond has written it is impossible to read them all. A Gathering of Friends is a fine introduction to this fantabulous storyteller who excels in detailing the ordinary like an exquisite miniaturist. This book is for keeps, to be passed on from generation to generation.

 With the permission of the publishers, I am reprinting the foreword.

Rust-free Fiction

by David Davidar

Over fifty years ago, in a world that no longer exists, a young man in India decided that he wanted to be a writer, a novelist to be precise. At the time, if you wrote in English, and belonged to the erstwhile colonies, in order to be taken seriously you had to publish in London, so our would-be-man-of letters set sail for England.  The English publishing world of those decades could have been lifted from the pages of a P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh novel. Men (and the occasional woman) from the English upper classes, with plummy accents, would decide the fate of would-be-writers over long, bibulous lunches at their clubs or restaurants like Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, with scant regard for the nuances of profit and loss accounts and, more discouragingly, the work of writers outside their ken. Unsurprisingly, it was a closed world, and one that was difficult to break into. The young man from India would soon discover this, when the rejection slips began to mount. However, there was a chink in the closed ranks of British publishing – a resourceful maverick of Hungarian origin called Andre Deutsch. The eponymous publishing house he owned, and Diana Athill the brilliant editor who worked for him, soon became a major force in the London publishing world. They launched the careers of several brilliant ‘foreign’ literary novelists, Wole Soyinka and V.S. Naipaul among them.  They would provide a home for The Room on the Roof, the first novel of the young Indian writer we’ve been following, Ruskin Bond.

Today, British publishing is no longer the force it once was, bleeding as it is from a thousand tiny cuts, but the star of the author of The Room on the Roof continues to be in the ascendant. The publishing firm Andre Deutsch no longer exists as an independent entity, but Ruskin Bond, the recipient of multiple honours and awards, has over a hundred books in print and can legitimately claim to be India’s best-loved author. And, to the great good fortune of readers, even though he is now in his eighties, he shows no signs of slowing down.

What is it about Ruskin’s work that gives it its extraordinary vitality, clarity, and what can only be called luminosity? From the oldest work to the most recent, his stories shine with a brightness that rises from what the great American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, called  ‘true sentences’—creative prose of weight, distinction, honesty and insight that does not strive for effect by being unnecessarily clever, showy or pretentious. Ruskin’s fiction never seems to rust or date, and seems as fresh today as the day on which it was first written. Impervious to the dictates of literary fashion or changing trends, it continues to ensnare generation after generation of readers.  I asked him why he thought his writing held up so well, why it didn’t lose its lustre, decade after decade, reading after reading.  ‘I’m flattered that you think that,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘But I never think about any of that. I have always approached my writing with the wide-eyed curiosity of a kid. It’s the same today as it was in the beginning, and if there is any secret ingredient to my writing that would be it. I hope I never lose that.’

 

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This piece is adapted from the foreword to Ruskin Bond’s latest book, A Gathering of Friends, published to commemorate his 81st birthday

Ruskin Bond A gathering of friends: My favourite stories Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp.250. Rs 395 

 

 

Toni Morrison “God Help The Child”

God Help the ChildI wasn’t a bad mother, you have to know that, but I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her. Had to. All because of skin privileges. At first I couldn’t see past all that black to know who she was and just plain love her. But I do, I really do. I think she understands now. I think so. 

Last two times I saw her she was, well, striking. Kind of bold and confident. Each time she came I forgot just how black she really was because she was using it to her advantage in beautiful white clothes. 

Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget. She’s got a big-time job in California but she don’t call or visit anymore. She sends me money and stuff every now and then, but I ain’t seen her in I don’t know how long.  ( p43) 

It has been more than a month since I read an advance proof of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. Yet, I cannot get any of it out of my mind. Bride or Lula Ann as she was named at birth, is successful in the cosmetics industry. She is known for her beauty, enhanced considerably by her black skin contrasted by the sharp white garments she wears. As the designer she consulted for her makeover, Jeri, told her, “You should always wear white, Bride. Only white and all white all the time. … Just you, girl. All sable and ice. A panther in snow. and with your body? And those wolverine eyes? Please!” ( p.33-34)

Despite being a very successful professional, Bride as she prefers to be known, is haunted by her unpleasant memories of her childhood. For instance the innumerable instances of shadism or of child abuse such as witnessing the rape of a young boy by their landlord.  As an adult too she is abused and comes across other victims such as Rain. It is as if this cesspool of violence coexisting with “normal” life is a given. There is a moment when Bride ( innocently) hopes that she can “right” a “wrong” she did in her childhood with a repercussion she did not anticipate. While recovering from the episode, Bride decides to set off on a quest in search of her boyfriend, Booker, who disappeared from her life.

God Help the Child is a fine blend of all that is familiar in Toni Morrison’s novels and interviews. Her preoccupation with portrayal of women, Black culture and history, race and child abuse. Her fine expertise as a master craftsperson shows in the novel. There is a hint of magic realism in the storytelling along with the confident play of different narratives, juxtaposed in a manner that jolt the reader into realizing none of the narrators can be relied upon. Yet, every voice that tells their version of events is a strong personality. It is possible to envision the speaker, especially the women, clearly whether it is Booker’s elderly and kind aunt Queen, Bride’s mother Sweetness, ex-convict Sofia, or child prostitute Rain.  The ending of the novel is chilling with its disturbing note, ironically couched in circumstances that offer hope.

Toni Morrison began writing God Help the Child as a memoir a few  years ago, but abandoned it midway. She resumed working upon the manuscript recently as a work of fiction, deciding never to write her memoir. Instead of critically analyzing this literary fiction masterpiece threadbare, it may be worth considering the story as wisdom being shared by an 84-year-old woman who has packed in many lifetimes into one. It has a tired (but angry) tone of an elderly woman and an award-winning writer, who after having written 11 novels and edited many other well-known writers, marking her stamp as a formidable force in American Literature, sees little change in the modern world. The publication of this novel is timely when USA is preoccupied with issues of racism and riots such as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland or that of 51-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston. For Toni Morrison “Race is the classification of a species…and we are the human race, period. But the other thing – the hostility, the racism – is the moneymaker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.” In her NPR interview she makes it clear that her emphasis on Bride’s dark colour was to make the distinction from race, the preference and hierarchy for skin colour being a social construct and responsible for racism.

In a delicious interview where Junot Diaz interviews Toni Morrison at NYPL , December 13, 2013. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5kytPjYjSQ ), Diaz says that upon reading Song of Solomon at Rutgers University, “the axis of my world changed and never returned”. Eight novels later, it holds true with God Help the Child. Toni Morrison retains the magic to tell a story and making the reader think.

Read it.

Some links:

1. “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison New Yorker, February 9, 2015 issue ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/sweetness-2 ). This is the first chapter of the book, an extract published in the New Yorker.

2. Toni Morrison in the New York Times. “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison” By RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH,  APRIL 8, 2015. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 )

3. ‘I Regret Everything’: Toni Morrison Looks Back On Her Personal Life, NPR, 20 April 2015. ( http://www.npr.org/2015/04/20/400394947/i-regret-everything-toni-morrison-looks-back-on-her-personal-life )

3. A glowing review http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/19/god-help-the-child-review-toni-morrison

4. An ambivalent review http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/18/toni-morrison-spins-a-lame-fairy-tale.html

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Chatto & Windus, London, 2015. Hb. pp.180 £14.99

21 April 2015 

Two powerful books of fiction and farmers in India

ForeignFor the past few years, India has witnessed a rise in the number of suicides by farmers. The primary reason is the inability to pay of the debt cycle they find themselves in. These could be due to a variety of reasons, some of which are genetically modified seeds that cannot be used for propagation in the next season, poor harvest and displacement due to the construction of dams etc.

Few people have been recording this horrific phenomenon of farmer’s suicides in India, such as award-winning journalist like P. Sainath who has been doing so systematically. He refers to himself as “Rural Reporter”. ( http://psainath.org/) As founder editor he launched a website called, “People’s Archive of Rural India: The everyday lives of everyday people” ( http://www.ruralindiaonline.org/ ) where he and his team have been posting fantastic articles from rural India. But all these articles make for fascinating ( and disturbing) reportage. For such grim issues –farmer suicides and poor compensation for land and harvest destroyed– to make its presence felt in fiction and powerfully too continues be extremely rare. But it does happen.

Sonora Jha makes the suicide of cotton farmers focus of her debut novel, Foreign ( 2013) and Na. D’Souza’s novella, Dweepa ( first published in 1970 in Prakasha, a weekly from Manipal and translated from Kannada into English by Susheela Punitha for OUP in 2013) is about the displacement of farmers in the DweepaMalnad region due to the building of the Linganamakki dam on River Sharavathi. For both writers, gestation of the fiction was grounded in their research and day jobs. As Sonora Jha said to me in an email, “It started as a research project for me. I am a social scientist by training, with a Ph.D. in Political Communication, focusing on the reporting of social movements and social protest. So, I was researching the reportage on the farmer suicides. That’s what took me to Vidarbha, to interview farming families, activists and journalists. There was the pre-Vidarbha research and the post-Vidarbha research. Apart from my interviews, I read everything I could get my hands on.” Similarly, Na D’Souza says in his introduction to the novella, “The problem of submersion of land in the cause of modernization and the ensuing displacement of local people is something that has bothered me for a long time. I worked for about twenty-five years in areas connected with the Sharavathi hydroelectric project…[in the late 1950s]….The film version of Dweepa won the President’s Gold Medal in 2006 besides many other awards.”  Even Foreign was shortlisted for the prestigious Hindu Lit Prize 2013.

Both books are worth reading and gain significance given how distressingly “topical” they continue to be. Sonora Jha puts it across well when describing why she chose cotton farmers as the focus of her first novel? “I believe that the farmers’ suicides and the farmers’ crisis is a global story and is one of the biggest, most frightening stories of our time. But it isn’t gripping people’s hearts the way other stories of more immediate and glamorous disasters do. I wanted to tell the story in a way that it connected with ordinary readers. … One big purpose for me with Foreign was to get the issue of farmers’ suicides even more in the press, through the back door. Anyone who reviewed Foreign and/or interviewed me had to write about the farmers’ crisis in India. That gives me so much satisfaction.”

And now with the “rational explanations” being provided for land acquisition by the government, the nightmare for Indian farmers seems to be far, far from over.

Read these books. Discuss the issues.

13 April 2015

Sonora Jha Foreign Random House India, India, 2013. Hb. Rs 399

Na. D’Souza Dweepa ( Island) Translated from Kannada by Susheela Punitha. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India, 2013. Pb. pp. 100. Rs. 195

 

A fistful of journalism: An interview with Deca collective

Deca( I interviewed some members of  the DECA collective. Founder-member, Sonia Faleiro facilitated the conversation via email. This was uploaded on the Hindu website on 11 April 2015 at: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/a-fistful-of-journalism/article7088990.ece and a shorter version of it in print on 12 April 2015. I am also c&p the text below.) 

The members of Deca, a global journalism cooperative, share the reason for sharing it, and the future of web publishing. 

Deca is a global journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices ( www.decastories.com and @decastories). It takes its cue from Magnum Photos, a member-owned cooperative that changed the rules of photojournalism in the 1950s. Magnum’s founders, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, took advantage of the technological shifts of the time — portable 35mm cameras and fast, cheap film processing —to strike out on their own, covering the stories they felt were most important. With journalism entering an era of dramatic change with tablets and smartphones replacing print books and newspapers, established journalists can now bring their stories directly to readers. These shifts — and agencies like Magnum — are Deca’s inspiration.

Deca’s members have authored acclaimed books and articles in magazines like Harper’sThe Atlantic,The New YorkerTimeScienceRolling StoneGQNational GeographicOutsideBloomberg Businessweek, and The New York Times Magazine. The members — who are based in Rome, London, Shanghai, Barcelona, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Seattle, Washington DC, UAE, Lebanon, and South Africa — include winners and finalists of prestigious awards like Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, PEN Literary Award, Livingston Award, Whiting Writers’ Award, and Los Angeles Book Prize. Since Deca’s launch in mid-2014, five stories have been published. Sonia Faleiro’s 13 Men was No. 1 on Amazon India and was selected as a ‘Kindle Select 25’ (one of 25 best books in the Amazon Kindle storefront across all markets).

Once a month, Deca publishes a non-fiction story about the world, somewhere between a long article and a short book. Each piece is written by one member, edited by another, and approved by the rest. The eight founding members are Sonia Faleiro, Stephan Faris, McKenzie Funk, Vanessa M. Gezari, Marc Herman, Mara Hvistendahl, Delphine Schrank, and Tom Zoellner. Recently, Elizabeth Dickinson, Rania Abouzeid, and Richard Poplak became members too. In a freewheeling interview, Deca’s members talk about why they started Deca and the future of publishing on the web. Excerpts:

What prompted the creation of Deca?

Our inspiration — and proposed response to any coming changes — are one and the same. New technologies may be gutting the market for print journalism but they have a silver-ish lining: If journalists want to write directly for their readers, it’s now cheap and easy to pull off. No longer do the two sides need a magazine in order to find one another. Note that we also found inspiration in newer photo cooperatives like Noor and VII, which came about after a more recent sea change in photography: digital cameras. We wanted to tell the important stories of our times, to do so in detail, and for as wide a readership as possible. But we also wanted to maintain the standards we’ve become used to working for great traditional media. We wanted to be sure we’d be well edited, copy edited, and beautifully published. Deca does all of this along with providing us the support and security of working with a group of similarly idealistic but also very hard-working people.

Once you publish the long-form stories, what next?

Photo cooperatives have long functioned as a way to keep archival photos by its members from disappearing in the dust bin. It’s likewise possible that Deca could package and put out anthologies of its members’ work — stories sitting in our individual archives that are newly relevant today.

What are the rules that you foresee changing of making content available on smartphones?

A shocking proportion of people now read their news and books on their smartphones. It helps that screens keep on getting bigger, which is true of Amazon’s phone as well as the new iPhone, apparently. Stories can now live independently of their publications.

How will crowdsourcing work for this collective?

Kickstarter’s been a smashing success so far. But it will go on in some fashion via our website and a campaign on the new crowdsourcing platform Tugboat. Many publications are now using a slow-drip version of the NPR model: “If you like us, please support us.”

How will the collective work add new authors?

New authors will be added subject to a unanimous vote. We’re obviously looking to work with great writers. But we are a co-op so we also want to be sure that whoever we bring on board understands that this is about shared effort, responsibility, wins and losses. They must also be pretty easy to work with.

What is the selection process?

We publish only members’ work and have no plans to do otherwise. We do have plans to eventually translate members’ stories to other languages, however.

Will you develop this into a subscription model or will it remain as an offering of digital singles on KDP?

Yes. Subscribers are signing up now via Kickstarter. Our app is up and running and so is our subscription service. So basically we now sell singles on Amazon. We sell singles and subs through our app that people can download to their smartphones or digital devices. Readers can subscribe to Deca for $14.99, which buys them 10 stories (http://www.decastories.com/store/subscribe/). Readers can also buy singles from our website to read online (http://www.decastories.com/13men/)

Why did you opt for a Digital Restrictions Management (DRM model) when models such as Creative Commons are becoming popular?

Perhaps mainly because we’re a bunch of writers, not techies or business people, and funding our work via the DRM is the model we could most easily wrap our heads around. Creative Commons is great, but we’ve yet to understand how, if readers don’t pay, we can’t fund reporting trips, let alone pay ourselves. So we’ve started with a pay-to-read model and are crossing our fingers. The money for research has to come from somewhere. Readers supporting journalists directly — outside the framework of a magazine or a large media organisation — is also a trend. Even so, our subscription for a full year costs about the same as a single night out at the movies, and directly expresses your support for the continued existence of this kind of journalism.

Will you ever consider anthologising these e-singles in print? (Guernica announced in summer of 2014 it will be publishing an annual print-anthology.)

Absolutely considering. We’re still fond of print, even if we’re enabled by digital. And there may already be cases when you see Deca’s work in print: When new Deca stories come out, we aim to partner with magazines and publish excerpts therein. In fact, Of Ice and Men was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. They published a whopping 9k word excerpt.

12 April 2015

Ian Caldwell, “The Fifth Gospel”

the-fifth-gospel-9781451694147_hrNever had I seen a book made that way. Like a prehistoric creature found living at the bottom of the sea, it bore only the faintest resemblance to its modern cousins. The manuscript’s cover was made with a sheet of skin hanging off like a satchel flap, designed to wrap around the pages again and again, to protect them. A leather tail dangled from it, beltlike, looping around the book to cinch it closed. 

I undid the straps as carefully as if I were arranging hairs on a baby’s head. Inside, the pages were gray and soft. Flowing letters were penned in long, smooth strokes with no rounded edges: Syriac. Beside them. inked right there on the page, was a Latin index written by some long-dead Vatican librarian. 

Formerly Book VIII among the Nitrian Syriac collection.

And then, very clearly:

Gospel Harmony of Tatian (Diatessaron).

A shudder went through me. Here in my hands was the creature invented by one of the giants of early Christianity. The canonical life of Jesus of Nazareth in a single book. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fused together to form the super-gospel of the ancient Syrian church. 

( p.60-1)

Ian Caldwell’s second novel, The Fifth Gospel is a Vatican thriller which took more than a decade to write. The story revolves around the Vatican hosting an exhibition in the hope of earning some revenue. It promises to be an exciting one since it is about one of the oldest relics in Christianity — the Turin Shroud. It also involves the possibility of exhibiting the Diatessaron, discovered in the library. But a week before the exhibition is to open, the curator, Ugo Nogara, is found dead on the grounds of  Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer palace. The body is discovered by his friend the Roman Catholic priest Simon Andreou, who is soon joined by his younger brother, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest. Thus begins the murder investigation, implicating Father Simon Andreou. He is to be tried by a Vatican court. Meanwhile Father Alex Andreou is determined to get to the truth. Unfortunately there are moments when not only does he expose himself, but also his five-year-old son Peter, to danger, but the little fellow is made of  quite stern stuff. ( Father Alex Andreou being a Greek Catholic priest is allowed to marry unlike his brother who remains a celibate.)

The Fifth Gospel is a fascinating account of life within the Vatican, a murder mystery, duplicity of the Vatican, the complexity of theology, the fascination with relics, and of course, the importance of family — related by blood or the banding together of the priests to create a sense of family. It is a stunning book. The details of daily life at the Vatican and the intricate and rich backdrop to the plot are mesmerising to read about. The reading experience is enriched by the deft characterisation — many of them such as Simon, Peter, Alex, Uncle Lucio, his secretary Diego, and even minor characters such as Alex’s friend Swiss Guard Leo, Alex’s wife Mona and Alex’s childhood friend Gianni Nardi remain memorable. They exist with you even after the novel is finished.

The twelve years spent by Ian Caldwell in research and writing show in the details of the literary landscape and the court scenes all though the murder mystery plot is basic. Yet it does not make the story any less gripping. What makes it even more astounding is that Ian Caldwell has never visited the Vatican. As he says in the KLTA5 interview, he has a young family and it would have been impossible to leave them for long periods to do his research in Italy. He was required at home. So he did the next best thing. He interviewed, met, spoke and discussed  with many priests, canonists, professors, seminary instructors, Church lawyers, and prominent Catholic scholars who answered all his questions in detail “but sometimes spoke openly about their experiences at the Vatican”. (p.430) It is an interesting coincidence that within a week of this novel being released, and its focus on the acrimony and hostility that Christian relics can create within the church, the New York Times publishes an article on 4 April 2015, “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones”. It is about two ancient artifacts that have set off a fierce archaeological and theological debate. At the heart of the quarrel is an assortment of inscriptions that led some to suggest Jesus of Nazareth was married and fathered a child, and that the Resurrection could never have happened. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/world/middleeast/findings-reignite-debate-on-claim-of-jesus-bones.html?_r=0 ) Timely perhaps, blurring the lines between the worlds of reality and fiction.

Despite having a convenient and a satisfactory conclusion it is a novel worth spending time with. The Fifth Gospel may be written in a similar vein to a Dan Brown mystery, but it is far superior.

Buy it.

Some links worth browsing through:

A Q&A With Ian Caldwell, Author of March’s #1 Indie Next List Pick By Sydney Jarrard on Tuesday, Mar 03, 2015 http://www.bookweb.org/news/qa-ian-caldwell-author-march%E2%80%99s-1-indie-next-list-pick

KTLA5: New Book Reveals Vatican Life POSTED 9:24 AM, MARCH 26, 2015, BY NANCY CRUZ http://ktla.com/2015/03/26/new-book-reveals-vatican-life/

Ian Caldwell at the House of SpeakEasy on March 9, 2015, at New York’s City Winery. https://vimeo.com/122093010

7 March 2015

Ian Caldwell The Fifth Gospel Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 450 £12.99

 

Literati – Of books and launches ( 5 April 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 4 April 2015) and will be in print ( 5 April 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-columns/literati-of-books-and-launches/article7067754.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

Last week I attended a book launch at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. A small distinguished

(L-R) Mrs Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament, HE Pranab Mukherjee, President of India and Mrs Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha

(L-R) Mrs Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament, HE Pranab Mukherjee, President of India and Mrs Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha

audience gathered in the Yellow Drawing Room to witness the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, launch former and first woman Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar’s Indian Parliamentary Democracy: Speaker’s Perspective in the presence of the current Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, and senior-most Parliamentarian, L. K. Advani. This volume — published by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi — contains selected speeches delivered by Kumar at various multilateral conferences and during bilateral visits to several nations in India and abroad during her tenure. It was a book launch that ran with precision, partially due to protocol but also in a large measure due to professionalism of the politicians. These people have known each other for decades, yet made the effort to spend some time reading the book, offering their personal perspective on the importance of speeches to negotiate issues of government policy and to strengthen Indian diplomacy. Listening to the frank conversation made a ‘dry’ book about the efficacy of parliamentary diplomacy as an evolving medium of communication among nations seem worth reading. It was an effective launch as it interested the audience in the book and was not just another occasion for a photo-opportunity.

***

Book promotions are a two-pronged affair. One is a planned strategy to promote a book: an author tour, book launches (preferably with a celebrity launching it), circulating review copies, book trailers on YouTube, interviews and interactions on all media platforms, the author participating in literary festivals, writing articles discussing and describing the writing process threadbare … all in a very short span of time. With the explosion of social media platforms, the variety of ways in which books and authors can be promoted is staggering — podcasts of interviews and literary salons, online book clubs, using photograph-based websites such as Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram to showcase book covers and promote reading experiences.

Tie-ups

According to Publishers Weekly, “HarperCollins is working with Twitter Commerce, the social media platform’s effort to offer ‘native commerce’, or offering firms the ability to send out tweets with buy buttons embedded in them.” The new promotion allowed fans to purchase a hardcover edition of theInsurgent movie tie-in edition at a 35 per cent discount, direct from HarperCollins Publishers US, without leaving the social media site with a buy in-tweet available only on March 23, 2015. Both HarperCollins and Twitter sent out a series of promotional tweets directed at fans talking about the Veronica Roth book series and movie adaptation.

This is similar to a recent partnership between the Hachette Book Group and Gumroad, an e-commerce venture that enables creators to sell content via social media, to promote and sell Hachette titles via Twitter. In August 2014, Amazon ‘buy it now’ buttons were embedded in Washington Post articles about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, assuming impulse buying will propel sales, but these were quickly pulled down after a massive outcry on Twitter (http://mashable.com/2014/08/18/washington-post-amazon-buy-button/). Amazon and Washington Post are both owned by Jeff Bezos. All these publicity efforts by the publishers, authors and vendors are to boost sales.

The Buried GiantA second and crucial component of book promotional activity is the preview critic and book reviewer. A good review is fair and unbiased. For instance, Neil Gaiman’s review in The New York Times of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new and oddly fascinating novel, The Buried Giant, says it is “a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love.” It is a balanced, constructive and informed critique by the superstar of contemporary mythographers of another exceptional storyteller.

With the democratisation of social media platforms too, bloggers (word and video) and online reviewers have made their mark. Many are professional and their opinion is valued tremendously. But there is a tiny core in the online community offering “book reviewing plans” to promote a book, by publishing reviews on specific websites, blogs and online vendors — for a price. Unfortunately these reviews gush hyperboles. The mistake often made is that a paid promotion needs to be positive. This does not sell a book; only honest and constructive engagement with the book does.

4 April 2015

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