Jaya Posts

Visiting International Publishers Delegation, Sydney, 29 April – 5 May 2019

Every year the Australia Council for the Arts in partnership with Sydney Writers Festival and Writing NSW organises the prestigious Visiting International Publishers delegation. The list of VIPs alumni is a formidable list of publishing professionals from around the world. According to the website:

Delivered alongside the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the VIPs program supports international publishers, scouts and literary agents to participate in a week-long schedule of business meetings, networking events, industry forums, writers’ festival events, and panel discussions with Australian publishers and agents. The program showcases Australia’s literary talent, and promotes the sale of rights to Australian titles in international markets.

The visiting delegation will immerse themselves in Australia’s unique literary culture, share insights into global publishing trends, strengthen relationships with their Australian counterparts, and expand opportunities for Australian authors overseas.

VIPs is one of the Australia Council’s signature strategic initiatives, and this year marks the 21st anniversary of the program. Since its inception in 1998, the VIPs program has welcomed 270 international guests to Australia, from 28 countries, with more than 300 Australian titles sold into overseas markets through the program.

In 2016 and 2017, the Australia Council conducted a five year longitudinal evaluation of the VIPs program from 2011-2016, which included a survey of Australian publishers and agents. The report is now available here.

The evaluation revealed that for every $1 the Australia Council invests in the VIPs program, $5.45 is generated for the Australian literature sector – a 445% return on investment.

The evaluation also revealed:

  • More than $4.1 million in rights sales has been reported over the five years ($3.8 million in direct sales to VIPs who attended, and a further $300,000 in indirect sales through referrals from VIPs to other international publishers);
  • Participation in the VIPs program in 2016 accounted for 15% of all rights sales for Australian publishers;

I am honoured to have been invited to join this delegation later this month. This the 21st delegation being organised and hosted by the Australia Council for the Arts. The biographies of the 2019 visiting delegates is now available online.

Ia Atterholm, Literary Agent – Ia Atterholm Literary Agency, SWEDEN
Faye Bender, Literary Agent – The Book Group, USA
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose – International Publishing Consultant, INDIA
Peter Blackstock, Senior Editor – Grove Atlantic, USA
Simon Boughton, Publishing Director – Norton Young Readers, W.W. Norton & Company, USA
Joanna Cárdenas, Editor – Kokila, Penguin Random House US, USA
Li Kangqin, Senior Acquisition Editor & Rights Manager – Shanghai 99 Readers’ Culture, CHINA
Job Lisman, Editorial Director – Prometheus Publishers, NETHERLANDS
Pamela Malpas, Literary Agent – Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency, USA
Stephen Morrow, Vice President – Dutton, Penguin Random House US, USA
Julia Reuter, Editor – Carlsen Verlag, GERMANY
Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout – London Literary Scouting, UK
Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director – Walker Books US, Walker Books International, USA

16 April 2019

Book Post 33: 7- 13 April 2019

Every week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 33 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

15 April 2019

“Written in History: Letters that Changed the World”

Best-selling and prize-winning writer of history and fiction Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘s Written in History: Letters that Changed the World is a fantastic addition to his list of publications. It is a selection of correspondences between eminent people at significant moments in history. Matching form for form, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s introduction too is in the form of an epistle addressed to the reader. In it he describes the principle upon which his selection of letters has been arranged. He also gives a crisp and informative account of the various purposes letters have served over the ages. “Some letters were intended to act as publicity, some to remain absolutely secret. Their variety of usage is one of the joys of a collection like this.” This collection consists of letters that are public letters ( like Balfour promises a Jewish homeland), letters that were designed to be copied out and widely distributed in society such as the public letters of great correspondents ( Voltaire and Catherine the Great were enjoyed in literary salons across Europe) or official letters announcing a military victory or defeat. Or letters that were political and military in nature revolving around negotiations or commands and could not be read out in public. For instance Rameses the Great’s disdainful note to the Hittite king Hattusili or Saladin and Richard the Lionheart negotiate to partition the Holy Land. This is a fine selection of letters originally written in cuneiform, on papyrus, then letters written on parchment or vellum, until paper was created in China around 200 BC. Letter writing belonged to all spheres of life. The beauty of letter writing is that nothing beats the immediacy and authenticity of a letter.

Written in History is a splendid anthology. It is a fabulous introduction to different moments in history made ever more delightful by the short notes written by Simon Sebag Montefiore preceding every letter. It is a wonderful, wonderful book which balances the act splendidly between providing information, being sensitive to the correspondents and being a sophisticated performance of a walk through history.

In March 2019, London-based Intelligence Squared’s acclaimed events on great speeches and poetry presented an event based on Letters That Changed The World. Joining the author on stage were No 1 bestselling novelist Kate Mosse. Together they discussed letters by Michelangelo, Catherine the Great, Sarah Bernhardt, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing and Leonard Cohen.

A cast of performers, including Young Vic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, rising star Jade Anouka, Dunkirk actor Jack Lowden, and West End star Tamsin Greig, brought the letters to life on stage.

In January 2019 Simon Sebag Montefiore attended the Jaipur Literature Festival. He gave a splendid public lecture-cum-performance on the Romanovs. Here is a recording of the event where he held the audience spellbound. Much like the reader is with Written in History.

10 April 2019

Book Post 32: 28 March – 6 April 2019

Every week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 32 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

8 April 2019

Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive”

Everything that was there between Arkansas and Oklahoma was not there: Geronimo, Hrabal, Stanford, names on tombstones, our future, the lost children, the two missing girls.

All I see in hindsight is the chaos of history repeated, over and over, reenacted, reinterpreted, the world, its fucked-up heart palpitating underneath us, failing, messing up again and again as it winds its way around a sun. And in the middle of it all, tribes, families, people, all beautiful things falling apart, debris, dust, erasure.

Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive is a modern road novel about a young family moving across states. They are unnamed. For most of the novel the mother is the narrator till it switches to the young boy in the last part. Along the way the narrator is preoccupied with an immigrant mother for whom she helped translate in court and now the mother is trying to get two of her daughters across the border into USA. Unfortunately it goes wrong with the two daughters missing. While on this long drive across the country, the unnamed narrator and her family also witness a group of young children flanked by armed guards being deported. The family watches the little children board a small plane. It is a journey at multiple levels — the actual journey on the road, the journey that the couple are taking in their marriage which is slowly unravelling, the journey their two little children travelling in the back seat are making as step-siblings and as two children transforming into thinking individuals in their own right. This is a book that is the first written originally in English by Valeria Luiselli. It is loosely based upon her experiences as volunteer interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking legal status in the United States.

While Lost Children Archive has been notably longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 and may even justifiably be shortlisted for it, it may be a long shot if it wins it. The author who is obviously more than moved by the plight of the immigrants in USA has created this incredibly magnificent piece of fiction but unfortunately loses her grip on the art of creating characters and voices when seemingly in empathy she wishes to share the litte boy’s perspective too.

Claire Messud writing in the New York Review of Books says about Valeria Luiselli “Art is an act of transformation: the passage of material through an imaginative crucible, and the creation of something new. That something new must have its own integrity, must be greater than the sum of its parts. Camus’s explorations of the absurd in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus measure the distinction between a novelistic embodiment of human experience and an essayistic distillation of thought. Many elements of Lost Children Archive are extraordinary, and yet the ultimate act of transformation has not occurred. One might of course contend that, in this ghastly time, such a transformation is no longer possible; but Luiselli’s decision to write a novel at all surely affirms otherwise.” ( “At the Border of the Novel“, NYRB, March 21, 2019 issue)

Lost Children Archive is worth reading for the fictional landscape gives space to a critically relevant issue about migrants and their children — more than an editorial or a feature article can ever hope to achieve.

6 April 2019

“Where Reasons End” by Yiyun Li

No, just feeling sad, I said.


Still? I said. Sometimes I’m so sad I feel like a freak.

That sounds like self-pity unrestrained, he said.

I thought about my language. Indeed he was right. Not only was it immoderate but it was imprecise. How do you compare sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano to sadness that stays inside one, still as a still-born baby? People talk about grief coming and going like waves, but I am not a breakwater, I am not a boat, I am not a statue left on a rocky shore, tested for its endurance.

Let me revise, I said. Sometimes sadness makes me unable to write.

Why write, he said, if you can feel?

What do you mean?

I always imagine writing is for people who don’t want to feel or don’t know how to.

And reading? I asked. Nikolai was a good reader.

For those who do.

For weeks I had not read well. I picked up books and put them down after a page or two, finding little to sustain me. I was writing, though, making up stories to talk with Nikolai. (Where else can we meet but in stories now?)

See my point? he said. You cannot not write. You don’t even mind writing badly.

Because I don’t want to feel sad or I don’t know how to feel sad?

What’s the different? He said. Does a person commit suicide because he doesn’t want to live, or doesn’t know how to live?

I could say nothing.



Orphan, widow, widower, I thought, but what do you call a parent who’s lost a child, a sibling who’s lost a sibling, a friend who’s lost a friend?

I told you nouns are limited, Nikolai said..

Words are, I said.


Yiyun Li’s novel Where Reasons End is a tender-hearted, very moving, novel that delves into memories and half-finished conversations by the unnamed narrator with her dead child. It is achingly painful to read given that it seems as if the reader is eavesdropping upon very intimate moments between mother and child. Grief takes many forms. This is one. Losing a child but a teenager is terrible. Here the mother hearks back to conversations with her child. Holds on to the few memories she has. When a mother talks to her child, it is as if they cut off everything else in the world and are completely focused upon each other. It is in many ways like the oneness of being that a mother experiences with her child when it is in vitro.It may be hauntingly sad, grief-stricken book, a eulogy to one who took his life. It may mirror to some extent Yiyun Li’s life as her sixteen-year-old son committed suicide. But in an age where parenting and motherhood is spoken of ad nauseum. Motherhood narratives are rapidly becoming a critical genre of literature. Where Reasons Endbelongs very much to this literary space.

Yiyun Li is based in USA and writes in English. In a fabulous New Yorker essay published in January 2017, she explains why she chooses to write in English. Here are some extracts that shed some light on the manner in which she chose to craft her novel Where Reasons End.

Yet language is capable of sinking a mind. One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language. I used to think that an abyss is a moment of despair becoming interminable; but any moment, even the direst, is bound to end. What’s abysmal is that one’s erratic language closes in on one like quicksand: “You are nothing. You must do anything you can to get rid of this nothingness.” We can kill time, but language kills us. … When we enter a world—a new country, a new school, a party, a family or a class reunion, an army camp, a hospital—we speak the language it requires. The wisdom to adapt is the wisdom to have two languages: the one spoken to others, and the one spoken to oneself. One learns to master the public language not much differently from the way that one acquires a second language: assess the situations, construct sentences with the right words and the correct syntax, catch a mistake if one can avoid it, or else apologize and learn the lesson after a blunder. Fluency in the public language, like fluency in a second language, can be achieved with enough practice.

Perhaps the line between the two is, and should be, fluid; it is never so for me. I often forget, when I write, that English is also used by others. English is my private language. Every word has to be pondered before it becomes a word. I have no doubt—can this be an illusion?—that the conversation I have with myself, however linguistically flawed, is the conversation that I have always wanted, in the exact way I want it to be.

In my relationship with English, in this relationship with the intrinsic distance between a nonnative speaker and an adopted language that makes people look askance, I feel invisible but not estranged. It is the position I believe I always want in life. But with every pursuit there is the danger of crossing a line, from invisibility to erasure.

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction.

Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living. Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. That emptiness is filled with public language or romanticized connections.

Yiyun Li, “To Speak Is to Blunder: Choosing to renounce a mother tongue.” The New Yorker, January 2, 2017, issue.

4 April 2019

Asterix Speaks Hindi Now!

Guest post by Dipa Chaudhuri & Puneet Gupta, Co-translators of the Adventures of Asterix in Hindi

Astérix albums have been published in 111 languages and dialects, making it the best-selling comic book series worldwide, with 375 million copies sold to date. The series, popularly known as The Adventures of Asterix, was written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo and first appeared in the Franco-Belgian comics magazine Pilote, on 29 October 1959.

These satirical comics focus on the adventures of the protagonists Asterix and Obelix, and their village of Gauls, fending off Roman offensives in 50 BC, with the help of a magic potion brewed by the venerable village druid, that temporarily imparts the Gauls superhuman strength. Today, these adventures have been adapted to animated and live action films, video games, theme parks, and more. The first four albums—Gaulwasi Astérix (Asterix the Gaul); Sone ki Darati (Asterix and the Golden Sickle); Astérix aur Gawthwasi (Asterix and the Goths); Astérix Talwarbaz (Asterix the Gladiator)—are now available in Hindi.

Ajay Mago, Publisher, Om Books International, acquired the Hindi translation rights of The Adventures of Asterix from Hachette Livres, France, after nearly 5 years of negotiations that started in 2009 with a blind call at the Frankfurt Book Fair. He just walked into the Hachette Livres stand, hoping to just walk out with the Hindi rights for Asterix, a logical step after having recently acquired the Hindi translation rights for The Adventures of Tintin from Editions Casterman.

Hachette Livres wanted to see a detailed marketing plan for the books in Hindi. They also insisted that the translation be carried out in Hindi from the original comics in French and not from English. Given that I speak French (I have an M.Phil. in French Literature from Université Paris Diderot-Paris 7) and have been Chief Editor, Om Books International, since 2010, Ajay suggested, I come on board. Thereafter, we got on board Puneet Gupta, an advertising professional and a producer of audio visuals, who writes science fiction novels, short stories and humorous poetry in Hindi. A die-hard comics enthusiast since childhood, he has translated the comic series, Tintin, in Hindi, also published by Om Books International. We then had to send Hachette Livres a sample 10-page translation of Album 1 to prove our credentials. After about a month, we received the stamp of approval—the translation was much appreciated with a few changes here and there. Clearly, we were dealing with publishers who needed to be convinced that they were interacting with a team of professionals in India who would do right by the bestselling comic series in the world. The rights were finally granted in 2014.

Given the number of comics in the Asterix ‘canon’, and in the entire series, it was clear that Ajay, Puneet and I were in it for the long haul. To begin with, Puneet and I read up the entire series a few times to get the drift of the constants and the variables. (At the moment, the first four albums are out.  Completing the series would take, at the very least, another couple of years.)

It was obvious that we were not dealing with a straightforward narrative and Puneet does not speak French. So I would share with him the multiple meanings of each dialogue/ frame, the wordplays and the etymology as also the distortions in the French originals. I would do that primarily in Hindi with the truly odd recourse to English. (it was a conscious decision taken by both of us to leave English out of the process). Thereafter, both of us would come up with multiple parallel possibilities in Hindi, till we got the context and register right each time. This is amply clear from the revisions on each draft (see scanned examples of handwritten revisions for Gaulwasi Asterix).

At the very outset, we realised translating comics have practical constraints. The first and immediate constraint is fitting the Hindi translation into each speech bubble, despite Hindi being syntactically longer than French also because of the maatras on the top, bottom and the side (in French, the accents are only on the top and bottom).

While the French comics are hand-written, we had to look for a similar font in Hindi that could be typed out on the keyboard. At times, we needed to choose different fonts that would establish the distinct accent with which a Goth would speak for instance (in the English translation, the Gothic font was used for the Goths). The font of the main copy was Kruti Dev 010. Kruti Dev 240 was used for Goths in Asterix Aur Gauthwasi.

Besides the fonts, we had to ensure that each linguistic community spoke with the accents phonetically associated with it. So, the Goths took on harsh and guttural sounds in Hindi. The accent was also a challenge when we were translating the speech of a drunken sod. Besides slurred speech, words altered forms constantly through a series of dialogue to indicate a constantly altered perception of reality as is wont to happen when one is sloshed.

Apart from Asterix and Obelix, the various gods and goddesses, and historical figure like Julius Caesar, Vercingetorix, Cleopatra, whose names remain unchanged, renaming the characters, designations, geographical coordinates was a challenging exercise as each name in French and in Hindi has multiple meanings.

Each language has a set of distinct sounds or onomatopoeia. We had to work our way through the sounds from French to Hindi too, and already have a directory of over 150 onomatopoeia.

For pure visual effect, more so after a vigorous exchange of fisticuffs, sounds in Hindi had to be drawn and manually fitted into many frames without speech bubbles.

As we went along, it became clear that we were translating not only from French to Hindi, but depending on the provenance of the protagonist, we were translating from Latin, and on occasion, German too. This shall only get more complicated as Asterix and Obelix travel out to Britain, Egypt, Corsica, Spain, India, amongst other places, for the distorted nuances in French are likely to be borrowed heavily from the languages spoken in these places. So before translating the nuances into Hindi, we shall have to go into the etymology of the words, the idioms, the phraseology of the region in which the Asterix and Obelix find themselves. Negotiating between different registers of each language to establish the social hierarchy that binds the characters, was part of the task at hand.

The series is replete with French songs, nursery rhymes, ditties, military marches etc. that have often been distorted in the French version itself. That posed the twin challenge of first decoding the original versions and then translating these into Hindi with as many implicit and explicit layers of meanings carried forward.

The comics are also replete with intricate word play, sometimes running through a series of dialogue, and on occasion, through several pages. As the word plays became more complex, finding suitable translations became more challenging; we worked through various options till we stumbled upon that epiphany, that elusive translation which worked well.

Puneet Gupta says “We had to decide on a few guidelines that would be followed in the course of translating the entire series. These included the set of names of the central characters, the Roman garrisons surrounding the village of the Gauls, the various ethnic groups—the Romans, the Germans, the British or the Egyptians, to name a few, all identified with a unique suffix as given to them in the original text. Apart from historical figures such as Vercingetorix, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cleopatra, etc., all the other character names are puns and mini jokes in themselves. In Sone ki Darati, there is a shifty dealer Lentix, who we translated as Dal-me-kalix.

Barbaric Germans tribes have funny sounding names, ending with a suffix “ic”—Teleferic, Metric, Theoric, Periferic, Choleric and Histeric. According to their mental make-up, we renamed them Atyacharik, Maardhadik, Becharik, Bimarik and Mahamarik. The suffixes particular to linguistic and cultural communities were retained as in the original.

We have also tried to retain the original flavour of many names. The dog, Idefix, or of fixed ideas, was renamed Adiyalix, someone who is doggedly obstinate, and loyal too.Druid Panoramix has become Ojha Aushadhiks. The village of the Gauls, is almost tribal in nature, and the druid is a combination of a medicine man and a witchdoctor, who brews potions with magical powers. Another character Cetautomatix, has been named Svachalit Loharix.

The military terminology was interesting too. Ranks such as Centurion and Decurion had to be suitably translated as well. So after much deliberation over the existing ranks in the Indian military, we took a cue from Senapati, and coined ranks like “Dashpati” for Decurion (a commander of 10 soldiers), and “Shatpati” for Centurion (commander of 100 soldiers) than settle for Major, Colonel etc. For every proverb, popular joke and clever turns of phrase in French, we hunted for a befitting equivalence in Hindi to ensure that the punch, wit and humour of the original were not lost in translation.”

Is the humour in Asterix in consonance with the underpinnings on which the edifice of humour per se reposes? Pretty much yes, so humour at its most irreverent, whether anti-establishment or otherwise, feeds off cultural and ideological superiority, racial, ethnic and linguistic slurs, gender stereo-typing and other devastating premises that go beyond the pale of politically correctness. But most of us play along since there is an unspoken pact between the participants-interlocutors that it is all in jest and good cheer.  

The Adventures of Asterix is a comic series with a very significant graphic element, the largely visual slapstick humour is conveyed efficiently through the excellently drawn panels. Whether its our Gaul heroes settling scores with an adversary, with only his teeth or sandals in the speech bubble to speak for the devastating aftermath of the encounter, or the effect Besurtalix’s singing has on everyone, a handful of translated sound effects in the panels suffices to convey the drama and humour.

Literary humour is rather difficult to translate. Fortunately, with the rich repository of words, jokes, proverbs, songs, rhymes, poems, riddles and of popular lore in Hindi, the search was usually crowned with sensible outcomes.

All through, however, it was clear to us that we were not ‘converting’ the comics by translating them into Hindi just as competent translations of the French, Italian and Russian literary masterpieces into English or other languages were meant to ‘communicate’ the narratives instead of ‘converting’ or ‘customising’ them to the cultural construct of the target language. Also, the imposing visuals of Asterix would make it near impossible to ‘Indianise’ the comics. The comics are being translated with the desire to share a cultural experience that is quite unique, different, yet not dissimilar in the gamut of human experiences.

This translation project has been partly sponsored by the PAP Tagore Programme in Paris and locally by the Institut Français en Inde. The idea of embarking on a new narrative in each comic with its fresh round of challenges is interesting for the simple reason that like all great classics, one is forever discovering something new each time we look at a dialogue or frame, and for the joy of decoding the wordplay, the cultural ciphers, and hopefully learning a bit of the art by unravelling the code. We all would have picked up similar linguistic and cultural subversions from the body of James Joyces’ works too.

What stays with us is the great art of writing comics that are important alternative histories that also deride such histories. Asterix is at the end of the day, a great body of satire. 

Indians being polyglots, read in multiple languages. A considerable part of post-colonial India and Indians have already been exposed to a plethora of world literature, including comics and cartoons. We have grown up reading Superman, Phantom, Mandrake, Modesty Blaise, Archie comics, Tintin and Asterix alongside Chacha Chaudhry and Deewana (our home-grown version of good old Alfred E Neuman), RK Laxman, Sudhir Dhar, Mario Miranda, and more. Our colonial heritage, now a part of our socio-cultural DNA, is paradoxically a bane and a boon. We do not resist either reading, writing or speaking in the language, supposedly, of the ‘others’ that over time has been embraced as a personalised mode of expression by the ‘I’. There is already a huge readership of Asterix in English in India, a country that has had a very strong tradition of comics not only in English and Hindi, but in several regional languages as well. Asterix in Hindi is not only for the strictly Hindiphone readers, but for comic buffs and collectors, artists, ethnographers, translators, educational institutions across linguistic boundaries, and across India and the world.

(C) Dipa Chaudhuri & Puneet Gupta

3 April 2019

“Billion Dollar Whale ” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope

Billion Dollar Whale is an unbelievable story about businessman turned international financier Low Taek Jho or the Asian Gatsby. He was the mastermind at the centre of the extraordinary Malaysian IMDB financial scandal. The 1MDB fund was designed to boost Malaysia’s economy through strategic investments. Instead it turned into a fantastic embezzlement story. The stories told in this book of renting airport hangars to throw extravagant parties with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Hosting parties at presidential suites of hotels where Hollywood stars troop in and out to discuss film productions. The manner in which a country was swindled of billions of dollars is astounding. For it to happen because Low Taek Jho managed to convince people around him of his lies is truly mind boggling. This is the information age when much of the information can be verified, so to accept anything that this man said or offered as the truth is quite presposterous. Nevertheless Tom Wright and Bradley Hope interviewed many, many people for this book. It is an attempt at investigating the story.

Today the superyacht linked to this scandal has been sold for $126m which is far less than the original $250m it was bought for!

For now investigation has begun into this financial scandal. Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak has gone on trial for his role. He faces seven charges in the first of several criminal cases accusing him of pocketing $681m (£522m) from the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. ( BBC News, 3 April 2019 “Najib 1MDB trial: Malaysia ex-PM faces court in global financial scandal“) Meanwhile Jho Low remains a fugitive and has been charged in absentia in Malaysia. He is probably in China now. According to the authors this book is really an indictement of the failure of Wall Street, of global finance to self-regulate.

Asia’s Great Gatsby: New book chronicles Malaysia’s fugitive financier from CNBC.

One day this book will be transformed into a film as Michelle Yeoh has optioned for the rights. Till then read the book.

3 April 2019

“Hijabistan” by Sabyn Javeri

Again that dark, piercing look, the shine in her pupils which made me sense that she was smiling behind her veil, as she said, “Did you ever read those books as a kid where you got the power to become invisible?”

I laughed. ‘Your veil draws more attention than a woman in a bikini.’

‘Yes, perhaps. But still. Inside, it’s my own little private world. No one knows what I look like, what I wear, how I style my hair. . .”

‘So, are you saying it makes you feel powerful?’

Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan is a collection of short stories exploring the idea of wearing a hijab / head scarf. It also manages to open conversations whether real in the story or imagined in the reader’s mind about the position of women in families and society. Somehow it does not seem to matter which nation the protagonists reside in – whether Pakistan or Britain – it is the mind sets that they carry with them that are critical for defining their identity. The protagonists can choose to evolve or remain where they are—caught as if in amber with a conservative outlook that literally shackles them to a god-fearing life.

Years ago, The Guardian, published an article by a young journalist who opted to wear a hijab for one week. She did this in London and documented the reactions to her dress by people on the street and her friends. It also transformed into a diary of her changing outlook. One week is all that it took for her to question so much around her. (I have been trying to locate the link for you but failed to do so.) It would be an interesting article to share given how the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern had covered her head while meeting the relatives of those killed in the recent mosque attack or while attending the memorial meeting. Wearing the veil is a complicated topic that has been tackled by many writers, most notably Rafia Zakaria in her wonderful book Veil.  

Hijabistan is fascinating for the fact that Sabyn Javeri chose to explore alternate viewpoints while respecting those who opt to wear the garment out of choice. The multiple perspectives the author offers from the young child (“Coach Annie”) to the young wife (“The Good Wife”) to the young office goer (“The Date”) are illuminating. Of course there is the accepted view that Islam demands it of women but Sabyn Javeri presents alternative options in her fiction as to why the women choose to wear the hijab. It is a great way of offering readers’ different viewpoints. More importantly what shines through her stories are that the women are strong individuals in their own right despite donning the hijab and looking the same outwardly– a “sea of burkhas” — as the younger brother grumbles to his Api in “The Date”. What is fascinating is that the women characters come across as strong women, radiating sexuality, are feisty and exercise their individual choice. “Fifty Shades at Fifty” is a fantastic example of this. It is a story about a middle-aged wife, bound to the house, looking after her bedridden mother-in-law but exercises her freedom in choosing to read what she desires much to the bewilderment of her husband. Lovely!

Many times the stories take one’s breath away as with “Radha”, “The World without Men”, “Full Stop” and “Malady of the Heart”. Somehow the reader gets the sense that the twists will come but when they do, they are sharp. At such moments in the stories I marvelled at how much the author must have observed, heard, recorded, remembered and written down probably as she heard/witnessed it. If it was pure fiction, there would be a dull edge to it since in fiction one tends to smoothen the edges. Reality is cruel. A fine example of this is the evocative “Only in London” where Sabyn Javeri encapsulates so brilliantly the sights and sounds of Tooting, “this forgotten SW17 ghetto that doesn’t even have the novelty value of a China Town or the East End”. The tiny details about the protagonist being a desi and called out as “sister” by the locals although she really does not feel a part of the crowd. She is a desi and yet not. So confusing, so lonesome.

But truly the tour de force is “Coach Annie” and its last few lines. What a superb story! It is as if it belongs to the later batch of Sabyn Javeri’s writing, so her skills as a short story writer have been honed. There is much, much more in the story than the previous ones. “Coach Annie” has layers to it, it has details, in a few lines she captures the hostility of the boys to the head scarf to the change in attitude and their protection of their coach when the newcomers try and tease her. It is a triumph!

Hijabistan is bound to get visceral reactions to this book. Some readers would love it for the writing, many others would be either mildly amused or shocked to see mirrors of their lives in your stories and yet others would be appalled at giving women a voice, an identity and their individuality, even to go so far as exploring sexual freedom, all the while wearing the hijab — a sacrosanct symbol of Islam and its connotations of a “good” woman. 

The anger at the injustice Sabyn Javeri perceives, witnesses and perhaps has even experienced has been channelled brilliantly to write these stories. It would be worthwhile to see what she crafts in future. It would also be fascinating to watch how in her future stories she sharpens her literary skills to use her words sparingly but deliver quite a punch. “Coach Annie” shows the beginnings of that skill.

Hijabistan will always have a shelf life. The issues raised are so relevant. So topical. They will never go out of fashion. Sometimes fiction achieves that which no other form of literature or conversation can ever achieve. These are thought provoking stories.

Hijabistan is an utterly stupendous book. It is! Short stories are amongst the toughest literary prose form to create. So much to pack in such few words. And yet Sabyn Javeri achieves it. 

I look forward to more of Sabyn Javeri’s writing!  

31 March 2019

Interview with Markus Zusak, author of “Bridge of Clay” and “The Book Thief”

Bridge of Clayby Markus Zusak is an extraordinary book. It is a story about a family of five brothers and their parents. Penelope Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar, the mother is an immigrant who is dearly loved by her second husband, Michael Dunbar, and father of the boys. One fine day it all falls apart with the discovery that the mother has cancer. It is a slow death. A grief so searing that it tears the family apart. The father drifts away, abandoning the boys, expecting them to fend for themselves. It is a story told slowly, flipping back and forth in time, by one of the sons – Michael Dubar. Bridge of Clay is about the Dunbar family, Michael returning to the boys seeking their help to build his dream bridge and the younger son, Clay, offering to help.

Bridge of Clay is quite unlike Markus Zusak’s previous novel, The Book Thief. Yet, Bridge of Clay is a fabulous novel for its craftsmanship, its unique form of storytelling, its pacing, its brilliant unexpectedness. It builds upon expectations of the readers of The Book Thief but as Markus Zusak says in the interview, “the challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for.”

I met Markus Zusak at the Jaipur Literature Festival where he was a part of the delegation of writers and publishers brought across by the Australian High Commission. It was then he kindly agreed to do an interview for my blog.

Here is an edited version of the interview conducted via email.


Markus Zusak, Jaipur Literature Festival 2019
Picture by: Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

JBR: Bridge of Clay can only be read if one places oneself in that fog which comes with grief and numbness of sorrow. What prompted this story?   How do you work out the voices of the characters?

MZ: I had this story in my mind since I was twenty years old…I was walking around my neighbourhood back then, in Sydney, and I had this vision of a boy who was building a bridge and he wanted it to be perfect – one beautiful, perfect, great thing.

The voices of the characters came the way all ideas do – from spending time with the book, getting to know it. After I’d written The Book Thief, I realised it was finally time to take on the boy and his bridge. And as soon as I did that, I thought, ‘Well, you can try to write a smaller, quieter book…or you can bet everything.’ I decided to bet everything, and the first part of that was seeing Clay, the protagonist, as one of five brothers. Next came the multi-generational story, and I took it from there.

JBR: This kind of fluid writing, languid, placid, calming tone of the narrator, all the while creating a disruptive narrative is very emotionally draining to craft. Yet it feels special in Bridge of Clay.  Did it take many revisions to achieve?  What was your routine to write this book? Did it differ from your other books?

MZ: Routine is everything. I actually have a friend whose first question to me when we meet is, ‘How’s your routine going?’ The idea of the writing in Bridge of Clay was very exact. Matthew is trying to make order of the chaos in the epic, sprawling and sometimes shambolic history of the Dunbar family, and I was trying to write in the spirit of Clay’s bridge-building. I feel like that was one of the reasons it took thirteen years to write this book. I was writing for the world championship of myself.

JBR: Did this book involve research? 

MZ: It took a lot of time researching this book – not only bridge building and the artworks of Michelangelo, and horseracing, and details of Eastern Europe during communism, but also the biggest research of all – which is getting to know the characters themselves. Being with the characters and working for them is what gets a book over the line, I think. In the end you’re not writing for the audience anymore – you’re writing for them – the characters inside the book. In this case I was writing for Clay and all the Dunbar boys, and the animals in their household, and for Michael…but especially for Penny Dunbar, who is the true heart of the book.

JBR: Why jumble the sequence of events? 

MZ: The structure of this book works in two ways: one is that it continually builds, which is why each part is still titled with the previous part. For example, Part Two is called Cities + Waters, rather than just Waters. Part three is Cities + Waters + Criminals. I did this because it replicated the building of the bridge, but also because we don’t just live things and leave them behind. We carry our stories with us.

The second part of the structure is tidal – where the past and present come back and forth like the tide coming in and going out. I like the idea that we start becoming who we are long before we’re even born. Our parents’ stories are embedded in us, and so are their journeys and sacrifices, their failures and moments of heroism. I wanted to recognize those stories. I wanted to write a book about a boy in search of his greatest story whilst recognizing the stories that got him to that point.

As Clay is makes his way outwards in the world, the history of the Dunbar family is coming in…and I think that’s how our memories work. We are always caught in the current between looking forward and behind us.

JBR: Pall of death looms large. It is not discussed easily in families. Yet a nickname soon takes on a proper noun — “Murderer”, a terrible reminder of Death. Why choose this horrific literary technique? 

MZ: Matthew Dunbar names Michael, his father, the Murderer because he left the family after their mother, Penelope, died. He claims that he killed their family by doing this, so it’s really a play on words. I also used it because I think we all know when we see a nickname like that, that there must be more to it. Is he really a murderer? Or is he taking the blame for someone else – and in what capacity has a crime been committed?

We spend this entire novel getting to know its characters (and especially Clay), and when we finally understand the irony of the nickname, we have one of the last pieces to understanding its protagonist.

JBR: Why have such a slow paced novel at a time when every else is writing fast paced detailed novels? Is this novel about the creation of art, creating something unique? How did you decide upon the chapter titles? A piece of artwork that is only completed with the complete engagement of the reader otherwise the story glides past.

MZ: Why follow a trend of continually making this easier, faster, and too easily known? We live in a world now where we feel like we deserve to know everything right now – and I see the role of novels as a saving grace where we can still say, ‘Come on – do some work. Think a little bit. I promise you’ll be rewarded.’ Maybe novels are one of the last frontiers where the pay-offs aren’t instant. You can be offered a whole world, but it also demands your attention. They’re the sort of books that have always become my favourites.

JBR: What came first — the story or the narrator? 

MZ: The story was always there. I had several different attempts at narrators, and settled on Matthew about seven years into writing the book…In the end he deserved it – he does so much to keep the Dunbar family together, and he’s telling the story to understand and realise just how much he loves his brother, and how much he wants him to come home.

JBR: How did it feel to create the character of Clay?

MZ: Clay was always there. He was always there, attempting to be great. He kept me honest writing the book. I wrote this book to measure up to him.

JBR: Who is Penelope modelled upon? Why does it seem that she is not necessarily based on her namesake from the epic?

MZ: All characters become completely themselves from the first time you fictionalise something about them. In the case of Penelope, she was based on my parents-in-law, who came to Australia from Poland. When they got here they were shocked by the heat. They’d never seen a cockroach before. They were horrified…but they had made this epic journey to start a new life – and that was the first seed for Penelope’s story – but from the moment I saw her practising the piano and being read to from The Iliad, she was only ever Penelope Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar.

As for not being a based on the exact template of Penelope in The Odyssey, she’s certainly patient, and determined – but I also wanted her to be more. All of the characters in this novel are heroic in their own way. Penelope, as I said, is the heart of the book, and I wanted her to be stoic, and deceptively strong. She’s perennial – a survivor and mother, and certainly a formidable opponent in the Piano Wars with her sons

JBR: Which edition of the Odyssey and Illiad did you read? When did your love for the epic start? What prompted you to reimagine it? 

MZ: My editions are the Penguin classics, translated by E.V. Rieu. I never studied them at school or university, but I decided one day that I needed to read The Iliad. I always loved the bigness of them – the larger-than life characters and language…the overwroughtness of it!

As for it’s thread in Bridge of Clay, it came to me when all of the characters started having nicknames, and when Clay is training – the start of the novel is like the Games in Ancient Greece. Then, when I thought of Penelope being called The Mistake Maker, I immediately saw her practising the piano in Eastern Europe, which I called a ‘watery wilderness’, which was a direct quote from Homer’s description of the sea. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what Bridge of Clay is. It’s a suburban epic that pays tribute to the bigness of our everyday lives.’ We all think we have dull, drab existences, but we all fall in love, We all have people die on us. We all fight for what we want sometimes. It all just seemed to fit, and then I thought of Penelope being sent to Australia with a copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I never doubted that part of the story.

JBR: What was it like to interact with readers in India when you visited the country in January? 

MZ: To be in India with a book is like being with your fiercest friends. Indian readers are special in that they love showing you how much they love you, and as a reading culture it is like no other place in the world. I loved every minute.

JBR: Why release the book for two types of readers across the world particularly in an important book market like USA where it has been labelled as #yalit?

MZ: I’ll often answer this question by saying it really doesn’t matter because a book will find its true audience. I had a choice to release this book with a different publisher to place it firmly in adult territory, but I love the people I work with, and I wanted to stay with them. That’s the only reason it was released as a young adult novel there. I think that was possibly an easier proposition with The Book Thief, because it’s an easy book to love – but I think Bridge of Clay does makegreater demands of its reader. It’s a tougher book to read. Liesel is given to you on a plate; she’s easy to love – orphaned, in a book about loving books – but Clay is a character to fight for. You almost have to prove that you can withstand all he goes through to fully understand him.

In short, a reader almost has to earn the right to love him – and so maybe it’s more a novel for true believers in my writing, which makes it a harder book to market for teenagers.

Either way, the challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for. Every decision was made to make the book exactly what it needed to be, and follow its vision completely.

28 March 2019