Fiction Posts

“I’m a REAL Boy” by Clayton Koh

The idea of masculinity which dominates across societies around the world is that of a heterosexual male oozing testosterone. The moment a male shows signs of being away from the “norm”, then the person is ridiculed. It is particularly difficult explaining to little boys that it is perfectly acceptable to be who they are, the choices they make whether in dress, speak or how they conduct themselves. People can be cruel. Children pick their cues from adults and are extremely vile. They are blunt in their actions and words towards children they do not recognise as “acceptable” or as has been dinned into their little minds.

This is where picture books like Clayton Koh’s I’m a Real Boy are extremely useful.  Every single episode in the story undermines the “norm” while slowly impressing upon the young reader that it is perfectly acceptable to be yourself. You could be scared of the dark, to be picked last for the school team and yet resolve to do my best, to make choices like wearing pink or baking or playing with girls in the playground or standing up against peer pressure. There is nothing wrong in these decisions. By doing so the story validates for the young reader the choices they make. The layout of the picture book is fascinating for it has all the prescriptive behaviour for little boys such as being a superhero, being rough and macho, playing with boys and their “boy toys” like trucks, being the team leader and sports captain, wanting to play war games etc.

Clayton Koh is an elementary school teacher who loves to swim, knit, paint with watercolours, kickbox and read. In an interview with The Star Online about I’m a REAL Boy he said:

[He] got the idea to write the book, which he also illustrated, during his final year at university.

“As part of my honours programme, I was required to do a research thesis before graduation. I chose the topic ‘Modern Masculinity’ and how masculinity deve­loped in Western societies over the decades and also cross-culturally,” explained Koh, whose parents are nurses.

“Boys feel a lot of pressure to conform to what society expects of them. Girls as well, but the feminist movement helped change that and broadened their potential,” said Koh, 23.

He added that men have always dominated the political, economic and employment sectors, therefore they face less discrimination in terms of getting equal rights or job opportunities.

“But in terms of interests or ­certain careers that men can pursue, there are certain mindsets and perceptions.”

He also felt that men were “not allowed” to express their emotions freely, which can lead to suicide and depression, and that many do not seek help until it is too late.

“So I decided to research these issues, put it in a kids’ perspective and hope this will reshape the way society thinks about masculinity,” said Koh, who emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three.

Now here is a true story posted on Twitter by @BijlaniDiksha about her younger cousin who was being ridiculed by his “stereotypical alpha-male centric household” for being a “chakka” (transgender).

Later Diksha adds:

Children (and adults) need to talk about sexuality and gender. This is exactly why there is a crying need for books* like I’m a REAL Boy to be read, shared and circulated, perhaps even translated in multiple languages.

Clayton Koh (text and illustrations) I’m a REAL Boy Scholastic India, Gurgaon, INDIA, 2008, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 32. Rs 80

22 June 2018 

Read more on “Literature and inclusiveness” ( Nov 2016)

Sarah Moon’s “Sparrow”

And then there it is, our new, terrible silent routine. And to top it off, I have no birds and the world feels like a different kind of dark than it felt before. Mom isn’t perfect, but I miss her. I miss her picky neatness, I miss her bothering me about taking my nose out of a book and making a friend for once, I miss her getting on my case about my hair. I miss telling her about what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, asking her about work, listening to her carry on about Aunt Joan and whatever drama she’s gotten into. I miss her. There is a sadness I can’t shake, that’s not just from breakfast. There are no birds by the feeder. There aren’t pigeons cluttering the sidewalk as I go to school. I know, now, that last night’s dream was the last flight I’ll take. 

Sarah Moon‘s debut novel for young adults Sparrow is about a teenager of the same name who has a nervous breakdown. Sparrow is fourteen. She was whisked away to hospital from school after being discovered on the roof. Sparrow maintains she was bird watching as she has always been fascinated them fly. Sparrow lives with her mother, who is a single parent. Sparrow is named after the bird by her mother because she was “so small and brown, almost breakable, but so strong. Tiny but mighty…”. Few weeks later Sparrow is released in her mother’s care with the stipulation she takes her prescribed medication and visits a therapist regularly. So it is fixed that Sparrow attends regular sessions with Dr. Katz which are protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and even Sparrow’s mother cannot sit in upon the hour-long meetings. At first Sparrow refuses to speak to Dr. Katz but after weeks of therapy Sparrow begins to come around. It is probably listening to Dr. Katz playlist which begins to break the barriers for Sparrow. So much so she orders the very same songs/bands she heard during therapy for her listening pleasure at home. All through months of treatment and close questioning by her mother Sparrow is adamant that she was not trying to kill herself but just wanted to be with the birds. Probable reason for her being found alone on the roof ledge was she was devastated upon hearing of the tragic death of her favourite librarian, Mrs Wexler, in a traffic accident. Mrs. Wexler had been warm and welcoming to the shy and reserved Sparrow, encouraging the little girl to sit in the library any time she felt like it, read, participate in the book club etc. Mrs. Wexler offered the fragile little Sparrow a refuge from a world which constantly overwhelmed her.

Sparrow begins from the moment Sparrow is released from the hospital. She is portrayed as a very lonely girl who slowly opens out under Dr Katz’s patient guidance. By the end of the novel Sparrow finds the smallest steps like conversing with other girls of her age still a daunting task but at least she is doing it! It suddenly dawns upon her during the finale when she is running away from her responsibility that the feeling of being ready will never come. She has to muster courage. “I am not going to be ready. I’m going  to have to do this without being ready.” The ultimate epiphany is that the very same music that helped her in therapy is where she finally gets what she has been craving for — to fly away, for her limbs to go light. In fact Sarah Moon created her playlist for Sparrow on Spotify. In it are listed all the pieces of music referenced in the story.

Depression comes in many shades. With the recent suicides of two prominent people Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within a week of each other has suddenly put the spotlight on mental health. These issues were always there and always discussed but the magnitude of this problem is unthinkable. To quote Dr Anirudh Kala, Clinical Director, Mind Plus:

Clinical depression is the commonest mental illness and it is true that life time prevalence of depression(which means how many people at one time or the other during their life time will suffer from it) is about 18-20% and many times it just comes out of the blue without any stress like any medical illness which Clinical Depression  actually is a medical illness. Both drugs and psychological treatment methods help and these help the best when used together.
However many well meaning but ill informed persons and some pop psychologists keep telling the person that the key to getting matter is to feel positive implying that the patient can if he willed to feel positive and get better, which is not true. You cannot will away your depression like you cannot will away your fever or your thyroid problem. And it makes the person worse because because he is told he can and he cant’. That is why the quip,’ Positivity is a scam.’
( In fact Dr Kala is also a debut author with his forthcoming collection of short stories The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness)

In Longreads essay “Surviving Depression” by Danielle Tcholakian written after the deaths of the Bourdain and Spade one of the sanest pieces of advice shared for those who battle depression every day as well as those around them is:

…the biggest lesson I’ve learned in wrestling with this illness for nearly 20 years. You can’t get out of it alone. It is also, confusingly, true that no one can save you — you’re always the one who has to do the work, who has to slog through the muddy darkness — but the eminently human kindnesses of friends and family along the way are what make the slog even remotely possible. And the truth is, you don’t have to do much of anything most of the time. Just be there. . . . Depression is a beast that swallows you whole and forces you to live inside it until you fight your way out — always with help, always with the others safely outside the beast who can pull you back. 

Writing about a teenager whose mental health is being questioned by everyone around her even though the teenager herself is under the impression that her reality makes perfect sense is probably not easy. Yet Sarah Moon’s undeniable wizardry is evident in her sensitive storytelling. Sparrow can be challenging even for an experienced author to create as it is a potential minefield if not handled well. It can fall apart easily. After Nathan Filer’s The Shock of Fall this is another great young adult novel to add to a school reading list. Perhaps to be read in conjunction with Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive which is not a young adult novel, nevertheless an excellent memoir about coming-to-terms with depression and easily accessible to readers of all ages.

Do read Sparrow. It is not always easy to read for it can be a challenge to read but it is time well spent.

Sarah Moon Sparrow Arthur A. Levine Books, An imprint of Scholastic Inc., New York, 2017. Hb. pp. 270 

21 June 2018

 

 

 

Siddhesh Inamdar’s “The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage”

Instead of muddling up so many things in your head, why can’t you simply be with me? Here. In the moment. 

Siddhesh Inamdar’s debut novel The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage is about a young couple, Rohan and Ira. They have been married for a while but have known each other since they were students. Now they are feeling the strain of living apart from each other as Ira is studying in New York and Rohan continues to work in Delhi.

The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage is light fiction where the anxiety felt by the lonely husband about his marriage is compassionately presented. The wife’s point of view is equally sharply sketched even though the reader inhabits Rohan’s mind more than that of Ira. Despite being physically absent from Delhi for large parts of the story it is Ira’s character that comes across far more strongly than Rohan.

It is a simple, often to-be-found tale among young Indian middle class couples and yet there is something rather lovely in the way The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage casts its magic spell. It will be a joy to read what Siddhesh Inamdar spins out next.

Siddhesh Inamdar The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India, 2018. Pb. pp. 180 Rs 199

19 June 2018 

Shandana Minhas’s “Rafina”

Shandana Minhas is a publisher and a writer. She established her independent publishing firm Mongrel Books recently. ( I interviewed her in 2017 for Bookwitty.) Rafina:A Novella published in 2018 but is one of her earliest books. It was written in 2004.

Rafina is about a young girl who is trying to supplement her newly widowed mother’s income by working in a beauty parlour. Rafina begins to learn the trade from her mother’s best friend Rosie khala who moonlights by attending to rich clients in the comfort of their own home. After a few months, suitably impressed with Rafina’s hard work, Rosie recommends her to the parlour she works in — Radiance. Ever since Rafina could recall she had dreamed of being a model as famous as the one on the hoarding visible outside their cramped government accommodation. Working at Radiance she firmly believed was the first step to earning that fame. Rafina is a lovely modern day version of Cinderella, the beautiful girl who against all odds rose to the top of society to be lauded by the very same people who had earlier ignored her.

Given that it was written in 2004 Rafina is a pleasant enough read with glimpses of the confident writer Shandana Minhas evolves into. I interviewed the author via email. Following are edited excerpts of the interview:

Why a modern day version of Cinderella? Are there not enough versions of the story? 

The older, darker versions of Cinderella, hopefully. Nearly every culture has a fable of a woman who uses her beauty as a weapon in class warfare, going back hundreds of years, featuring greed, violence, self mutilation, and lust more nakedly than Disney did. The details vary but the conflict and the endgame –upward mobility through some form of concubinage – remain the same. In the Brothers Grimm’s ‘Aschenputtel’, the dropped shoe is not dropped but stuck in pitch laid down by the king’s son to trap the object of his desire after she keeps running away from his advances. Pigeons fly down to peck out the eyes of the evil stepsisters as they escort the girl they persecuted in and out of the church when she eventually marries him. Rafina is set in a city though. In Karachi the pitch is invisible. And the pigeons would get fried on kundas.

Rafina is an unusual name. 

I chose it because I met a Pakistani girl called Rafina when I was young and it was such an unusual name it stayed with me.

Frankly I am super impressed that with your hands more than full with parenting, toddler, ageing  parents, new publishing house etc you found the time to see Rafina through publication.

Me too.

Even though you wrote it in 2004 was it your first completed piece of fiction? How is it the novella was not published then, why now? 

Rafina was created mid-2004. I was a mother to a toddler, and months away from having a second child; I was in the run up to writing my first novel, Tunnel Vision, a draft of which I completed during that pregnancy. I suspect a lot of young fiction writers feel they can’t really call themselves writers till they’ve had a first novel published, and that at that point in time, facing the idea of being completely subsumed by motherhood, I too was more interested in reaching that – as it turns out entirely illusory – benchmark.

Why Rafina is being published now is because my literary agent, Kanishka Gupta, was looking for a publisher for The Good Citizens, a collection of my shorter fiction; it included Rafina, and there was interest in it as a standalone.

Did you have to tweak it a bit given that it was being published 15 years after it was written? 

Apart from minor restructring for flow, and turning up the dial on certain elements (her sexuality, for instance, was subtextual in the first draft) and down on others, I stayed with the story I first told. Teesta Guha Sarkar’s astute editing sharpened Rafina at the level of the sentence and the word by highlighting repetitive words and phrases and expressions that really hadn’t aged well. Kanishka pointed out plot points that needed reinforcing. I also referred to feedback writer friends had offered over the years. I found I was seeing Rafina and the world she was moving through more clearly than I first had. It was an illuminating exercise, draping language onto a fuller-figured story, mouth full of pens instead of pins.

How did this story come about? 

The original Rafina was actually about 14,000 words longer than this. When I started writing it I thought it was a short story but it turned out to be a novella. And about six years ago, when The Good Citizens began to crystallise, I tried to condense the novella down to a long short story. And now I’m thinking this is actually the first in a series, a desi Claudine. Rafina continues to refuse to fit into a box just because somebody wants her to.

Tell me more about Rafina. Did she develop as a character as you had wished or is there more to her? 

I think she’s well developed for a 17-year-old Pakistani girl, in that there is more to her than the desire to please other people and she embraces that rather than stepping away from it. Setting your own market value rather than letting others set it for you, that’s journey enough for a slim volume, I think.

I like the way you get the crowd of people working furiously in the salon but with distinctive personalities. Are the characters inspired by real people? 

For a brief period in my early twenties I had some exposure to the inner workings of the local fashion and beauty industry; the voyeur in me took notes of course. I was always more interested in the people behind the scenes than the ones in the limelight. The ensemble cast of the styling world started as composites of people I came across, or heard about. During fashion or film or TV shoots, my hours with stylists and their assistants were spent haw-ing and hai-ing over their experiences, and gossip about various industry players. Hair-raising. Literally. I’d like to clarify though, in case the owner of the salon my loyalty currently lies with is reading this, that all female employers in the industry are not bad, in fact some treat their employees with the dignity they deserve, and respect their legal rights too. I think we can sense it when we walk into a salon, the happiness quotient of the people who work there. And they often have to do with the littlest things, like putting up a Christmas tree and lights when some of your staff is Christian.

If you had to write this story in 2018 would you change bits and pieces in it? Would you tackle it differently or let it remain? 

I’m so glad you asked about tackling it differently or letting it remain as it was. It was THE question, for me. The answer I eventually arrived at was, I could refine language, I could tweak plot, but I couldn’t touch character. Character was what was giving this book the heart people seemed to be responding to, and my cold authorial hands were better left tucked in my armpits.

As for whether I would tackle it differently now, Rafina is in a way a historical document too, as fiction is; it is set in the time right before social media exploded in Pakistan. This is a different world, there is more room for ambitious young women to attempt escape, and more consequences too. I would have no choice but to tackle it differently.

 What are you working on next? 

I am working on finding the time to write again.

Shandana Minhas Rafina: A Novella Picador India, an imprint of Pan Macmillan Publishing India, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 170. Rs. 450 

17 June 2018 

An interview with Sam Cooney, Publisher, “The Lifted Brow”

The Lifted Brow is an Australian literary magazine which was established in 2007. In a very short time it has gone on to establish a formidable reputation in the global literary landscape. A few years later they established a publishing firm call Brow Books which too has established a fantastic reputation as well. Most recently Brow Books have sold UK and Commonwealth rights of Intan Paramaditha’s Apple and Knife , short story collection, to Harvill Secker.

“Paramaditha’s stories are shockingly bold and macabrely funny, powerfully defamiliarising the cultural lore of patriarchy. What makes them special is their lack of interest in representing women as victims – here, the taboo of feminist anger is flagrantly and entertainingly broken.”
–The Saturday Paper

Sam Cooney is the publisher of The Lifted Brow and Brow Books. He came to India in January 2018 as part of the Australian Publishers delegation. The delegation is organised by the Australia Council for the Arts and has now become an annual feature. The main aim is to encourage cross-pollination of the two publishing industries and fostering business ties. I met Sam Cooney at a reception hosted in January 2018 by H. E. Harinder Sidhu, High Commissioner, Australia at her residence in New Delhi.

When we met Sam gave me a copy of The Best of The Lifted Brow: Volume Two that blew me away with the quality of contributions. This is what I wrote to Sam upon reading the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the second volume. Now I can understand why publishers are reading this journal closely to spot new talent. It is extraordinary craftsmanship you have in the bunch of writers. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, all write with such strength and powerful voices. The manner in which they express opinion and play with the form of prose and poetry to make it their own is splendid. I cannot decide which of the contributions is my absolute favourite. It probably is “Humans pretending to be computers pretending to be humans” about Amazon Mechanical Turk. Wow! It is at moments like this I never know if we are now living in a speculative fictionalised world or is this reality? It is a bit surreal. After reading the essay I cross-checked with a few of my programming friends who said this particular business exemplifies the sheer ingenuity of Bezos to monetize at every given opportunity.

I also like the way the editorial board of TLB has arranged the articles. So while you can dip into it at any point there is a fascinating trajectory from fiction to non-fiction with some of it sounding so real that it is impossible to tell which zone are we in — real or imagined. I was stunned to read the experimental essay “Two or three things auteurs know about auteurs” and that the dialogue in this piece is constructed entirely from quotes by Jean Luc Godard and Baz Luhrmann.

Here is an interview with Sam Cooney. It has been lightly edited.

Sam Cooney.
Photographer: Alan Weedon

*****

Why did you decide to launch the literary magazine The Lifted Brow? How did you select the marvellous name?! 
 
The Lifted Brow was founded by writer and editor Ronnie Scott, with the first issue being published in January 2007 when he was in his very early twenties. He edited the magazine for five years/for thirteen issues. (You can read an interview with Ronnie here at HTMLGiant which sheds a lot of light as to how and why The Lifted Brow was created, and its purpose.) The origins of the magazine’s name are a mystery – some say that the name just magically appeared on the front cover without anyone even typing it, some say that its anagram for the worst swear word there is in the English language, some say you can simply ask Ronnie Scott and he’ll tell you a very straightforward and unremarkable story of how it was decided.
 
How do you seek contributions? According to Wikipedia you have an impressive list of established writers as well. How did you manage to persuade writers like Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood to contribute? 
The various editors of the magazine (you can see them all here) source contributions both by direct commissioning and by reading unsolicited submissions. Each issue of the magazine is made up of a combination of commissioned work and submissions – it’s central to our ethos that we are always open for submissions from new writers/writers we don’t already know. For the bigger writers we’ve published over the years: it never ceases to amaze how easy it is to find the email address of any writer, no matter how famous, and it’s also always a surprise how positively any writer can react to an unknown editor/publication contacting them for new work if that editor/publication is doing so with genuine keenness and built from a love and respect for that writer’s work.
 
What is the process of selection and editing for the essays? 
For each round of submissions, every piece is read and assessed by several people – a mix of editors and interns. These readers assess pieces against criteria we’ve internally agreed upon—criteria that is very specific to The Lifted Brow, specific to the kinds of work we want to publish and why—and then we come up with a longlist of the best pieces, which are then discussed by the editors, who ultimately choose which pieces to work on and publish.
Our editorial process is incredibly rigorous and thoughtful. From all I know of the industry, I have no doubt whatsoever in saying—and it is not meant to sound self-aggrandising to say—that our editorial process is the most generous and detailed of any literary publication in Australia. This is especially important because we choose to work with writers who are often emerging (and this doesn’t mean young), and we also work with writers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of writing. Sometimes we have worked with an writer for over a year on a piece, going back and forth with edits until the piece is the best it can be.
We also sometimes open for pitches and not just for finished pieces – in these instances the editors assess the pitches and then choose the ones they will ask the writers to write for us.
 
What have been your learnings from managing a literary magazine for so many years — publishing, reading patterns, changes in literature, distribution etc ? 
 
My learnings are far too many and far too deep to even outline here properly. But a couple of important ones: I’ve learned that the single most valuable quality that a publication and organisation must maintain is its integrity. What The Lifted Brow—and our entire organisation has—is the complete trust of its communities, whether it be readers, writers, artists, funding bodies, other publications, publishing houses, or people who belong in several of these communities.
I’ve also learned that there is nothing more important than energy and enthusiasm – that the best editors are people who are completely devoted to seeking out the most interesting work, and that there are no shortcuts to do this.  There are too many lazy editors who wait for the writers and writing to come to them, to their inboxes, or via social media, or via their group of friends or acquaintances. This is how the status quo is maintained, and it’s wrong.
The only way the magazine has been able to sustain itself for so long is that our entire staff are all volunteers, and always have been. It sucks, because every single person who has ever worked on The Lifted Brow deserves to have been paid for their time, labour, skills, knowledge, etc. But the plain fact of the matter is that no matter how we’ve been able to find money (sales, government funding, events, etc), once we’ve covered printing costs, contributor fees, and all the many other costs of producing a publication and running an organisation, there’s never been enough money to pay our staff. And we’ve never wanted to change what we make and how we do it in order to chase short-term dollars – we’ve always said that we are trying to make meaning and not money, that our goal is always to make whatever money we can from exactly the work we want to publish. Still, paying staff my single biggest goal, and is why I am now actively pursuing a not-for-profit model, so that we can unlock ways of securing income that will allow us to pay staff.
We’ve recently transitioned from a private company to a not-for-profit organisation. We’ve always operated like a not-for-profit in that any money we make will always go back into our operations, but now we are legally and structurally a not-for-profit, including being registered with various government bodies and having a board and etc. We hope to be able to pursue funding through various trusts and funds that are only open to not-for-profits, as well as looking at philanthropy and other approaches. It’s a model that other organisations have successfully realised, and we are looking to them for clues and guidance.
 
Why did you decide to launch a publishing house — Brow Books — in addition to the literary magazine? Does it not put a strain on the editorial team as the cycles of publishing are very different. 
We launched Brow Books for the same reason that The Lifted Brow was launched – because no one was doing something that we believe is hugely important. (The Lifted Brow was created because Australian literary journals of that era had become quite staid/were closed off to writers who didn’t conform to a narrow definition of ‘good’ writing, and Ronnie Scott was reading other literary publications from around the globe and decided that Australia desperately needed one.)
Brow Books will publish books that other presses won’t take on because they are deemed (often mistakenly, in our belief) commercially unviable, or too weird or provocative – books that are incredibly important to our society and culture, writing that feature voices and ideas that need to have that mainstream platform of being published in book form. We don’t see enough of the kinds of writers and writing we publish in our magazine and on our website go on to publish books, which we’ve long thought was frustrating – and in Australia, if you are a writer then you basically need to have access to book publishing in order to sustain a career.
One central guiding principle to Brow Books is that we won’t publish a book if another Australian press can and would do a better job of publishing that book, and we haven’t strayed from that so far. Brow Books exists to fill a gap – there are too many book presses in Australia publishing the same kinds of books, competing with each other, and we definitely don’t want to add to that noise.
Brow Books staff are largely separate from those who make our magazine – as you’ll see here.
Who commissions books on behalf of Brow Books or is it the same editorial board of TLB? 
 
Me and the rest of the book editors are in charge of finding titles for Brow Books – whether it’s through our open submissions or through commissioning.
In an interview with Kill Your Darlings you remarked that while it is interesting to review existing literary magazines-cum-book publishers such as Granta, McSweeneys, New York Review of Books, these models cannot be copied exactly in Australia. What are these differentiating factors you refer to?
 
I said that these models couldn’t be copied exactly, but that something very similar could work. Different factors include: our population in Australia is smaller and sales numbers are commensurate; there isn’t a tradition or culture in Australia of philanthropy in the literary arts; we’re trying to set our organisation up in an era that is distinct from when these others were established; that pretty much all of these above mentioned literary magazines-cum-book publishers had/have one very rich person propping them up for at least a period of time.
What are the key differences in your editorial practices/commissioning for The Lifted Brow as a literary magazine/longform and for the book publishing programme? Or to put it another way — what are the focus areas of these two very distinct forms of literature that you are now responsible for?
 
In fact, the focus areas are the same! We see Brow Books and The Lifted Brow (as well as our website publishing, our events, and everything else we do) as being different ways to attack the same goals.
 
I liked your phrase “agile publishing”. How do you propose to apply it in your publishing programme/s? Will it also involve experimentation with forms and formats or the experimentation will be restricted to print formats alone?
Any kind agility we have will be due to our size, and our willingness to be proactive in our commissioning. We aren’t reinventing publishing in any way – we are huge fans of books and how publishing has worked, but we also see big gaps and problems particularly in Australian publishing. Our experimentation, at least in the short term, will largely be in respect to content – to who we publish, and what kinds of writing we publish. We are much less interested in experimenting wildly with physical or digital formats – it’s not where our interest nor where our strengths lie.
17 June 2018 

Eid Stories

Today is Eid-ul-Fitr celebrated after a month of Ramzan. Scholastic India published a slim collection of stories to celebrate the festival called Eid Stories. New stories commissioned by established writers like Paro Anand, Siddhartha Sarma, Adithi Rao, Rukhsana Khan, Shahrukh Husain, Devashish Makhija, Samina Mishra and Lovleen Misra. Every single story is extraordinarily powerful.

Paro Anand’s “After that, in Mumbai” is a devastating story about a young boy Ayub being attacked by his classmates for being a Muslim, a terrorist, who is out to kill everyone. This violence broke out after the Mumbai blasts. His parents are appalled given that his father is the Muslim and his mother is a Christian so brought their son up in a secular environment. So with the willing help of the school administration they speak to the class to sensitize them about Islam and invite everyone home to celebrate Eid.

Adithi Rao’s Sweets for Shankar” is a heartbreaking story about the friendship of twelve-year-olds Munna and Shankar set against the backdrop of Partition. The boys work together as apprentices in a shoe shop but it is all abandoned and Munna is asked to stop working by his master since riots have broken out. Even though it is more than seven decades after Independence these stories are very painful to read as the communal violence persists in India.

Award-winning filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s “Red 17: An Eid Story” is a compelling read about an ex-policeman Nandu who became deaf in a bomb blast. He  lost his wife in the terrorist attack. He now works as an assistant in a laundromat owned by Liayqat as he has to pay for his son’s education. While at work he is asked to return the coat of a customer Feroze Aslam in time for Eid. Unfortunately when he goes to Feroze’s house Nandu discovers that Feroz has died. Shocked he goes home where he decides to keep the smart coat, resize it and gift it to his son, Baiju. Few days later he is stricken by guilt and goes to return it to Feroze’s widow who very calmly asks Nandu to keep the coat. She said it was her husband’s wish. It may have been written years ago but it is a fitting milestone in Devashish Makhija’s oeuvre which consists of short stories, picture books and short films like Agli Baar that have a recurring theme of communal violence.

Inevitably all the stories in Eid Stories celebrate the joyous festival while introducing tough topics for children such as prejudice, and bigotry. These stories were first published in 2010 but nearly a decade later they continue to be relevant, perhaps more today than before. The violence in India is rampant and tearing apart its democratic and secular fabric. Children may as well learn early that ethnic violence is not acceptable; India is to be celebrated for its diversity and inclusiveness!

Perhaps it is fitting on this day that Rahul Pandita posted his grief-stricken message on Eid for journalist Shujat Bukhaari who was slain on the eve of Eid in Srinagar. This message is even more poignant as they belong to different communities in a state that has been ravaged by terrible ethnic violence for decades. Rahul Pandita is a Kashmiri Pandit and the late Shujat Bukhaari was a Kashmiri Muslim.

As Badi Ammi wisely advises her grandchildren in Lovleen Misra’s short story that the spirit of Eid is to be applied to life: In giving to others, you give to yourself . . . Keep giving. 

Eid Stories Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2010. Rpt. 2018. Pb. pp. 114 Rs. 195 

16 June 2018 

“Sorry, Best Friend!”

Sorry, Best Friend! is a collection of stories edited by noted writers Githa Hariharan and late Shama Futehally. The stories are about children discovering / encountering friends and neighbours who are different from  us in some way or the other — the way they look, their dress, languages they speak, even the food they eat or even pray to different gods. Ultimately we need to remember that we are all part of one big jigsaw puzzle that is India. According to the editors if we forget that all of us are a part of this puzzle then “very quickly, as if we were never one, we break into a hundred pieces”. The contributors include eminent writers such as Swapna Dutta, Poile Sengupta and Zai Whitaker. Given that this book was published in 1997 they refer to two major incidents of the immediate past when communal violence broke out after the assassination of the prime minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi (1984) and later destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (1992). Subsequently India has experienced many more and regular instances of communal violence notably the riots that broke out in Gujarat after the burning of the train in Godhra (2002). Now communal intolerance is a regular feature of daily existence with lynchings becoming the horrific new normal.

Sorry, Best Friend! has been published many times over; testament to the frightening relevance of these stories for young children. It is a book that needs to be read widely by children and adults widely.

Githa Hariharan and Shama Futehally (eds.) Sorry, Best Friend! Tulika Publishers, Chennai, 1997, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. 70 Rs. 85 

( It is available in English and Hindi )

15 June 2018 

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 was founded in 1996, the Prize was set up for “excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world”.  As always the prize celebrates and helps readers discover fantastic women writers. This year’s shortlist is formidable — a trademark of the Women’s Prize for Fiction even in its previous avatars as Orange Prize and Bailey’s Prize.

 

 

The shortlist consisted of: 

In a wonderful ceremony held in London, Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

There was an enormous roar when Kamila Shamsie’s name was announced as the winner. This is what Kate Moss, founder of the prize, had to say:

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire explores the complicated relationship Isma has with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. It is also a modern retelling of Antigone in which Isma, whose mother has died, works hard to raise her brother and sister. When they reach adulthood, Isma leaves for the US to study at university while her brother, Parvaiz, who has unfortunately become radicalised in Britain, leaves to join ISIS, following in the footsteps of their jihadist father. Aneeka, meanwhile, is torn between her love for her older sister and her twin. The idea of two sisters where one is conventional, bordering on timid but keeps the home fire burning while the other leaves home and enters the world of men with far reaching consequences has been encapsulated in myths and legends. There is Antigone and her sister Ismene from the Greek myth, and Mary and Martha in the New Testament. The Sophoclean chorus giving a background and a perspective on the “tricky” position British Muslims occupy is provided by the character of a Muslim MP and Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn. It’s a prescient novel for it is considered to have predicted the rise of British Pakistani Sajid Javid, current Home Secretary of Britain. In fact she wrote about it in the Guardian too.

Poet-cum-novelist Meena Kandawamy’s When I Hit Youabout her four months as a married woman. At one level it is an account of the horrific marriage she found herself in. She walked into it knowingly having met her husband online while involved in an activism campaign. Her parents and this man shared similar ideological positions which probably coloured her decision to marry. At another level it is as if Meena Kandaswamy puts herself under the scanner and analyses her life using all the feminist theory she has read and practised over the years. Putting the book at this curious intersection is incisive while making the acute conflict of the desi social expectations of a young girl to “settle down” and that of a professional writer/poet. In fact before her marriage Meena Kandaswamy was used to travelling whereever and whenever she desired. She terms herself as a “nomad” in the book. After marriage there was a gargantuan difference. She was suddenly confined to the small house in Mangalore. After walking out of her marriage Meena Kandawamy wrote an article in the first person for Outlook magazine. ( “I Singe the Body Electric”, 19 March 2012). It was the first time she spoke of the domestic violence. Interestingly she chose the first person mode to write of the traumatic experience.

Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is an astonishing bildungsroman for its incredible craftsmanship in telling the story of Turkish American student Selin who is enrolled at Harvard University for literature and linguistics. Set in the 1990s it seems like a different world altogether. From a bewildered young woman, exposed to the academic world where everyone seems to flaunt their “knowledge” who grows in to a sophisticated version of her younger self, of a young woman comfortable in her skin with who she is, her choices, her knowledge and the relationships she forges. It is not an easy book to read. It takes a little while to get into but once past the first hundred pages it is impossible to put down. Elif Batuman’s love affair with Russian literature continues in this novel too beginning with the title which echoes Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is an extremely powerful story about a family of mixed race. The father, Michael, is in prison, but his wife, Leonie, lives with her two children and her parents. Michael is ostracized by his family for marrying a “nigger”. Leonie is a chemical addict who does not have much time for her children or parents yet she is insistent on making the long road trip to fetch Michael once he is released from prison. The narrative alternates between the thirteen-year-old son and Leonie. At times their stories overlap offering different perspectives about their family, their own histories and racism. The sensitive portrayal of the older brother with his baby sister is memorable. Jesmyn Ward is the Toni Morrison for a younger generation. She won the National Book Award 2017 for this novel.

Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel Sight is about an unnamed narrator wondering whether to have a child or not. Every meditative reflection is interspersed with a long interlude about a scientific discovery of the Victorian period.  The first section involves the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays; the second section is about psycho analyst Sigmud Freud and the final section is about Scottish surgeon John Hunter who was exceptionally well known for his knowledge of the anatomy, both human and animal. In fact John Hunter’s fine collection of over 14,000 specimens was acquired by the British government and even today exists at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.  Sight is a literary example of psycho-geography — a combination of personal reminiscences and factual historical content. It is also an attempt to get at a further truth which is about how we see one another and we see ourselves especially the female experience which is most often taken away from human experience.  It is a constantly evolving process of the individual’s subjectivity vs objectivity. It was first discussed in a similar meditative fashion by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria. It is unsurprising given that Coleridge too like Jessie Greengrass was inspired by John Hunter’s work and its focus on the distinctions between life and matter. As Jessie Greengrass remarks in an interview “having a subjective self is something which allows us privacy but also separates us even from the people we are closest to” and this is the angle she explores as a novelist in her powerful debut Sight.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by debut novelist Imogen Hermes Gower is a rich historical fiction set in the Georgian period involving courtesans and mermaids. It is a lovely story, detailed about late 18C England and yet the strong women characters seem as if the 21C attitudes towards women have been supplanted back in time.

The novels shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018* are riveting. Every single one of them is special for the tenor of writing, storytelling, and great diversity in style — memoir-like novels, retelling of myths, magic realism, and bildungsroman. These are books meant to be read as they are changing contemporary literary landscape and the authors will be considered literary giants in years to come.

*My article on Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

7 June 2018 

 

#Horror

#Horror ( Amazon and Flipkart)  is an anthology of horror stories for middle grade.  It consists of various young writers most of whom debut with their stories. Journalist and writer Siddhartha Sarma is the only writer who has previously won a literary prize too — Crossword Prize for his powerful young adult novel The Grasshopper’s Run. It is a pleasure to see his comeback story “Hive” as the opening short story. It sets the right tenor for the volume with its mildly comic plot and an unexpected twist.

The stories are original with familiar themes of zombies, ghosts, school scenarios etc. ( Vampires are missing!) Some of the writers who stand out are Satadru Mukherjee with his magnificently creepy “Wives’ Tale”. It is going to be a while before I can look at a lizard again without freaking out about the ghosts the reptiles may harbour! Anuj Gupta with his freaky “The Smiling Portrait” nudges the perfectly ordinary into a dark, disturbingly sinister space — its very unsettling! Anukta Ghosh ‘s “The Night Bus” may seem to be a predictable ghost story but in her quietly restrained, elegant writing style, she makes the story magical.

#Horror is undoubtedly a sparkling set of stories with a few experiments in formats too — unusual offering in an otherwise predominantly prose collection. For instance C G Salamander and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya’s short story in graphic format “The Textbook” is unforgettable particularly the last frame. “Eterni-tree”, the long poem in rhyming couplets by Kairavi Bharat Ram is astonishing for how it operates at two levels — one of telling a story pleasantly but at another level, the existence of the chilling undercurrent, is fairly mature storytelling for one so young. Kairavi Bharat Ram is a gap-year student with another publication written while she was still in school — Ramayana in Rhyme.

The well-thought out arrangement of the stories is just as it should be. Beginning with the seasoned writer Siddhartha Sarma and slowly introducing new and strong voices, with the subjects ranging from the familiar to the unusual. Thereby ensuring the young readers are not too taken aback by completely unfamiliar themes. An equal amount of care seems to have been taken with the layout and design. There is a crispness with the speckled look for the double page spread between stories, with an illustration to hint at what is to come.

Many of these stories beg to be read over and over again. The stories have the charming, old-fashioned, languid style of storytelling that absorb one completely from the word go. Adults will love the book too!

#Horror is the perfect introduction to horror stories for middle graders. It is also the launch of a fine new generation of young writers who are going to make their mark in years to come.

Grab #Horror asap!

#Horror Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India. Pb. pp. 120 Rs 299

Reading level: 10+ to young adults 

 

29 May 2018 

Anuradha Roy’s “All The Lives We Have Never Lived”

I read award-winning writer Anuradha Roy‘s stunning new novel All The Lives We Have Never Lived which is set during the second world war in British India and Bali. The narrator is Abhay Chand or Myshkin Chand Rozario who many years later in 1992 recounts details of his childhood. His mother was a Bengali Hindu and his father part-Anglo Indian. When Myshkin was nine his mother left the Rozario family. Myshkin was left in the care of his grandfather, a doctor,  Bhavani Chand Rozario and his father, a college lecturer, Nek Chand. A couple of years after his wife’s departure Nek Chand left on a pilgrimage. He returned home with another wife, Lipi and a daughter, Ila.

Gayatri Sen left India for Bali with German artist Walter Spies and another friend of his Beryl. While in Bali, Gayatri would write letters to her son but particularly long and detailed ones to her best friend Lisa McNally. Myshkin receives his mother’s correspondence to Lisa from her children upon her death. 

After finishing the novel I wrote Anuradha Roy a long letter. Here are some excerpts. 

*********

Dear Anuradha,

Today I finished reading All the Lives We Never Lived. It is another one of your stories that will be with me for a long, long time to come.

I loved the dramatic opening sentence “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” It is similar to another novelist I thoroughly enjoy — Nell Zink. I like how you begin as from the present moment, with the boy, now an old man, reflecting back to his childhood. Obviously the opening sentence defined him for years as that is what is crystal clear. He echoes what society says about his mother. Although the rhythm and cadences of the text are so correctly measured with never a word out of place. It is a voice of experience speaking, yet one who is so terribly (and understandably) rattled by his mother’s letters towards the end that he walks through the local marketplace distractedly.

Your descriptions of the women writing letters to each other with every line scrawled upon, as well as in the margins and wherever they could find space transported me back immediately to my days of writing letters. When my friends left India, I would send them letters by snail mail. In those days’ international postage was so expensive for the heavy packets since the letters were long and used a lot of paper. So I devised a method of using an aerogramme and writing as tiny as I could and then writing across the margin and filling up whatever little space I could find on the page.

So you can imagine my delight to discover the letters between Gayatri and Lisa McNally in All the Lives We Never Lived. You had to my mind so effectively managed to make that leap of unearthing memories not only of the characters but also of the reader. So many times I found myself slowing down or grinding to a halt in your descriptions of the plants and trees. The descriptions of the gardener plucking the jasmine and collecting them in a basket of white cloud to later thread them as a gajra for Gayatri brought back a flood of memories. Every morning in the searing summer heat I would go to my grandmother’s garden in Meerut and pluck all the beautiful white blooms off the bushes. Later I would thread the flowers into gajras for the women in the family. It was a daily ritual over summer vacation I loved. The moment I read that passage in your book I got a strong whiff of the sweet fragrance of the flowers –perfect for summer as well as of the needle used to thread would be coated with sticky nectar.

The beauty of nature, the flowering trees whether in the scorching dry heat or in the tropics to the mountain vegetation. The burst of colour in your novel makes its presence felt but what is truly exhilarating is how Gayatri and later her son gets associated with the most vibrantly colourful passages describing nature in the book. The passage where you describe Myshkin filling up his long-unused sketchbooks with studies of trees and plants in the garden while remembering his mother are like the last movement of a symphony, where everything comes together as a whole. It is as if Myshkin is expressing his delight at discovering the joy of who his mother was and experiencing her life through his paintings.

Over the next weeks, my long-unused sketchbooks filled with studies of the trees and plants in the garden that I associated with my mother: the pearly carpet of parijat flowers, Nyctanthes arbortristis, that she loved walking on barefoot; the neem near the bench where she had sat with Beryl listening to the story of Aisha. I barely slept, I forgot meals, I drew and painted her garden as if possessed. I drew the Crepe myrtle and Queen of the Night, the common oleander and hibiscus; the young mangoes on the tree in June, as raw as they had been when Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies first came to our house.

It took me five days to finish my studies of Queen of the Night and then I turned to the garnet blossoms of the Plumeria rubra, the champa. I painted the long, elliptic leaves, the swollen stem tips, the fleshy branches that go from grey to green and ooze milk if bruised or cut. I blended in the ochre at the edges of the petals with the deepening incandescence of the red in the depths of the flower.

Your descriptions of the gulmohar and amaltas trees (though you use the scientific names) are stupendous. One has to live in this ghastly dry heat of the north Indian plans to realise just how much the bright deep rich yellows and fiery reds actually seem pleasant on a hot summer day. Of course the entire sub-plot of the Sundar Nursery and the superintendent of horticulture, Alick Percy-Lancaster, is absolutely fascinating! Years ago I recall you had published the gardening journals of the nursery in a brown hardback with a dustjacket. It is still one of my prized possessions. So I absolutely understood your love for greenery and making a new city green, or the distress at the unnecessary felling of the neem trees in Calcutta and Myshkin’s grief for it was he who had planted the saplings as a young horticulturist.

The characters you create are always so memorable. In a very male household there are only two women – the ayah/cook Banno Didi and Gayatri—who “typically” do not have much of a say in what is happening but the authorial eye gives sufficient clues to the existence of the women and it is not just the tantrums they throw. Or even the religious leader Mukti Devi, head of the Muntazi Seva Gahar, Society for Indian Patriots, whose image in the reader’s mind is created by Nek Chand’s accounts of her. Later even Myshkin’s surprise and then cruel assertion with his stepmother to lord it over in the manner he has seen his father behave, brings into play the sense of patriarchal entitlement men seem to have – even the best of them.  This is exactly why I was so surprised to read the exchange of letters, of which only one set remain, but that is enough to give a great insight into the free spirit Gayatari was. There are so many women in this novel, some prominent (Gayatri, Lisa, Lipi, Banno, Beryl), some absolutely silent (Kadambri, Queen Fatima and Lucille) and others with walk-on parts (Ila’s daughter, Gayatri’s mum, Ni Wayan Arini and many of those in Indonesia). The little interlude with the story of Amrita from Maitreyi Devi’s novel is fantastic too.

The first half of the book is full of men but in the second half the women take over the narrative. You suddenly make visible that is mostly invisible to most eyes, especially male eyes, of the myriad ways in which women manage the daily rhythms of life. It is not just the concerns Gayatri has for her family and mentions it often to Lisa but also the management of it long distance by persuading Lisa to keep a kindly eye on the grandfather and Myshkin. And yet, it is very liberating to see how you make visible the thoughts of the women, their innermost thoughts, their experiences that are usually never made public. Lipi is the only one who upset at her husband’s high-handedness of sending her home instead of allowing her to sit through the musical concert because of her toddler Ila prompts Lipi to create a massive bonfire. She is very direct in her response; almost earthy.

You weave these intricate webs but ever so slightly shift perspectives too. Little Myshkin observes everything, perhaps not always quite understanding it, and yet he absorbs. It becomes a part of who he is and it is best expressed in his writing and later the paintings he draws as an old man. What I truly loved about the novel was how at the beginning the women and men were operating as expected in their socially defined gendered roles despite the magnificent opening line. The prose moves as one would want of a well-structured novel. It lulls one into expecting a good old fashioned story with a few unpredictable twists. Then come the disruptions not just to the domestic setup but also to the prose, the letters make their presence felt and force the reader to engage with the female mind set, even the “common or garden species of readers” is forced to be involved! You reserve many of the tiny details that really evoke the period in the women’s correspondence; later this fine eye for the “thingyness of things” is visible when old Myshkin begins to paint with as much care and attention to detail as his mother may have done.

At another level I felt that Gayatri was trapped yet the manner in which she comes free and you express it so well by changing the text form too. From the “rigidity” of long prose — since it does have a bunch of rules governing it — to the free flowing style of letters. It is not just the breaking of shackles of the form to express herself to Lisa but also the manner in which Gayatri writes. There is a sense of freedom. The correspondence is so much like the intimate conversations women have with each other, whether strangers or friends. They immediately lapse into it.

For someone so one with the elements as Gayatri seems to have been it is does not seem to be out of order to have her engulfed in so many charming stories beginning with Beryl’s own life or her narration of man-woman Aisha, or even Walter Spies himself. The freedom with which they lived; possibly Bohemian but undeniably a very talented group of individuals. Everyone had tremendous “backstories”, some dastardly, all possibly true, and yet their zest for life to explore more and more was so in keeping with character. Through these experiences she meets or hears about different forms of sexualities that exist; Gayatri accepts all these stories and never judges, instead wonders “There must have been a time when love did not have moral guardians saying you may do this but not that – this is how it is in Bali now & how it was in our country hundreds of years ago”.

The parallels that you draw tell another narrative too. For example, referring to Gayatri as “The Indian Painter” and recounting the Amrita story in Maitreyi Devi’s novel is so deftly done as if to silence critics who may be prompted to say that feisty, independent, strong-willed, headstrong women like Gayatri who is “glad to have time to work” could not possibly have existed in British India. The political-historical parallels are unmistakable as well with Arjun’s desire for the country to be governed by a “benign dictatorship” followed by Nek Chand sighing about his students who were locked up for sedition “We are fugitives in our own land.” Gayatri’s statement “I am finding out how limited my world was” seems to resonate at many levels for this story and modern India. Gayatri is ever so magical in the manner in which you create her. She comes across as a modern woman but caught in the wrong time. Sadly though how many women living today can still express themselves or be so confident as to take charge of their own lives as Gayatri did?

The title of the book + the epigraph taken from Tobias Wolff “This is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell”, only coalesce as significant once the book is finished. I loved the way in which you immerse the reader as if to exist within a Greek chorus, a multitude of voices, giving their often unasked-for opinions, and yet doing a fantastic job of recreating a moment or a “truth” within a community. The vagueness of the town adds to the blurriness of incidents happening in the past. I do not know how to explain it to say that the story exists in the past sufficiently and in the memory of Myshkin to be real and yet, a little hazy. Loss of the finer details are immaterial as long as the period is evoked; and even the importance of that fades away as the story progresses. And yet reading my response to your book I realise this story will trigger many memories for many readers for you tease out the floodgates of memory ever so gently and politely. It worked for me. It is a powerful book.

Yours,

JAYA

Anuradha Roy All The Lives We Never Lived Hachette India, Gurugram, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 334. Rs 599 

27 May 2018