Literary Prizes Posts

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 August 2017 

 

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

To continue reading the essay please visit:  “India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

Paro Anand interviewed by RJ Chris, Radio 94.3 FM, Delhi ( 5 July 2017)


Award-winning writer Paro Anand was interviewed by RJ Chris, Radio 94.3 FM, Delhi ( 5 July 2017). Paro Anand has been recently conferred the Sahitya Akademi award for her collection of short stories for young adults — Wild Child . In its new avatar, a revised edition, it is called Like Smoke, published by Penguin India. 

Here are the audio files from the interview. These files are courtesy Delhi One FM. Here these in sequence the files are arranged.

In the last segment Paro Anand refers to her latest book, a graphic novel called 2, published by Scholastic India. It is an Indo-Swedish collaboration. In terms of book production too it is unique since it is a book with two authors, two illustrators and two book covers.

12 July 2017 

 

 

Paro Anand wins the Sahitya Akademi Puraskar for “Wild Child”

In 2010 well-known children’s writer Paro Anand and I began working on a collection of stories. I had commissioned the manuscript as a publishing consultant for Puffin India. It was a slow creative process which was hugely rewarding for the calibre of stories Paro Anand wrote. We worked at it patiently ignoring schedules focused on quality. Wild Child and Other Stories was published in December 2011. It sold in vast numbers. It was so popular that in 2015 Penguin India revised the edition. Paro Anand added a few more stories to the volume. It was rejacketed and relaunched with a new title — Like Smoke. The book in its various avatars has been in circulation for six years and continues to sell well.

Interestingly earlier this month Paro Anand wrote an article in The Indian Express ( 2 June 2017) on how at least two of her books, No Guns at My Son’s Funeral and Like Smoke , are being banned by schools in India.

She writes:

In recent months, these two books have been taken off reading lists. In one school, teachers decided that they were “inappropriate”; in another, parents apparently objected to their children being made to read such “improper” children’s books. The school authorities have withdrawn them.

This, after years of being taught to class nine and ten students. I am now being invited to talk in schools on the condition that I don’t bring up these titles under any circumstances. I am told that I should stick to some of my “safe” ones.

Is this happening out of fear? Is it the worry that, in these black and white times, a mob will find out about these books and come at the school, guns blazing? Is it a “better safe than sorry” thing? The “suppose something happens” factor? In a way, I can understand this — after all, young children are involved.

But, on the other hand, aren’t we robbing our young of open debate and critical thinking? Of late, we have been repeatedly giving in to a handful of people with easily hurt sentiments. But is our children’s curriculum to be decided by the mob? By khap panchayats? Are young people to stay forever within the safety of the lakshman rekha drawn by Cinderella? When the mob infantilises even adults with violent censorship — think Ramjas College — it’s no surprise that children’s literature is in the firing line, too. The only surprise is that it didn’t happen earlier.

Acknowledgements page of “Like Smoke” by Paro Anand

Being awarded the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Puraskar 2017 for Wild Child and Other Stories and her contribution to children’s literature is a validation of Paro Anand’s decades of work in this field. Here is an example of the fan mail she receives for the book. This letter came in a couple of weeks ago.

Hi.I don’t know if you remember me. I wanted to thank you. I was in class 8th when I first met you and i still am in awe of you to this day. It was a beautiful memory that I long to revisit. You were in my school for an author meet. …It was you, who made me realise that life is worth when you live for others. It was you who inspired me to become who I am. It’s been nearly 5 years. You autographed on my copy of wild child that you’d hope to get my autograph one day and trust me that was day I aimed to be the best so as in to prove my mettle and I gave my best to be the school’s literary president. I owe that badge to you, mam. The day you signed that book was such a proud moment for me. I went to my class with a big grin and all my peers were jealous. My parents were very proud of me. Not that I’ve never won anything before, but that day I won respect. I was more than a role model to my sibling, more than just an achiever to my parents. Your words filled my heart with optimism and hope. I’ve had quite a few lows in my life. But somehow your words flashed back this one time and I’ve been strong ever since. I really want to thank you. It is these little things that actually affect a person’s life and I, from that very day tried to be a person like you. You’ve helped me in a way I never thought of. Your words have always been heart wrenching yet so inspiring. Thank you, I’ll never forget how you appreciated my innocence back then and answered all my questions tirelessly. Thank you for that beautiful afternoon. Wild child will forever be my book and you shall always be a tender, loving yet fearless inspiration to me. Thank you for being a part of my childhood. This isn’t Shabir Karam… Haha this is ….. I’ll have my kids(if I ever do that is), tell them about fats or bela’s troubles or about pepper. Thank you, I guess it is never too late. 

Yours gratuitously, 
XYZ
As her commissioning editor for the book my joy at Paro Anand winning this award is indescribable. I am truly delighted our constructive energies and hard work resulted in her being recognised in this manner.
Congratulations Paro!
26 June 2017 

The 2017 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction: a Formidable Shortlist and Winner

(I wrote about the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction on 7 June 2017, the day the winner, Naomi Alderman, was announced. It was published in Bookwitty. ) 

Research has long shown that major literary prizes have not acknowledged women writers. The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was established in 1996—first as the Orange Prize for Fiction, and after this year’s prize it will be renamed the Women’s Prize for Fiction—by co-founder and writer Kate Mosse to “celebrate women’s creative achievements and international writing, whilst also stimulating debate about gender and writing, gender and reading, and how the publishing and reviewing business works.”

The inspiration came the year of the Booker Prize in 1991 when none of the six shortlisted books was by a woman, despite the fact that almost 60% of the novels published that year were by female authors. A group of women and men working in the book industry got together to discuss the issue and the idea for the prize was born. From 2018 onwards there will be a family of sponsors instead of a title sponsor, the award will continue to be £30,000.

Now in its second decade, the prestigious literary prize is recognized worldwide for its exclusive spotlight on women writers. The winners have dealt with a range of subjects in the past but more than its uniqueness it has been the experiment with form, language and style while creating something new and memorable which has stood out as the winning mark. This year too, the shortlist of six novels was extraordinarily fine: there’s the winner, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me, and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Of the six novelists Linda Grant is a previous winner of this prize with her When I Lived in Modern Times (2000) and was previously longlisted for the Prize in 2008 for The Clothes On Their Backs. C. E. Morgan’s Sport of Kings was nominated for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and she won the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize, Madeleine Thien won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Do Not Say We Have Nothing and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Ayòbámi Adébáyò is making her debut as a writer. The common thread linking all of these women is not only their sharply confident voices but also their ability to observe and convey gender dynamics within society and across history.

Despite years of women’s movements being active in various countries and now with the second wave of feminism, women continue to negotiate for their space and are unable to experience the same sense of entitlement that men have within society. This is well illustrated in Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me when the husband, Akin, and wife, Yejide, argue about choices open to them as individuals. Yejide has been relegated to first wife status with the arrival of Funmi –a decision foisted upon them by their families—as Yejide has been childless. Yejide is furious with Akin:

‘So now you can talk? You can blurt it all out? Who married another woman? In this house who married another woman, tell me? Tell me now! Which bloody cheat did that?’

He traced the brown coffee stain with his thumb. ‘We’ve talked about that, we’ve settled it.’

I was so angry I could hardly breathe. I stood up and leaned across the table to stick my face in front of his. ‘OK now. Something else is settled. I want a baby and since you are too busy at your new wife’s place to try and get me pregnant, I can get a baby from any man I want.’

He got up and grabbed my arms just above the elbows. The veins in his forehead popped. ‘You can’t, ‘he said.

I laughed. ‘I can do anything I want.’

His nails bit into my arms through my shirtsleeves. ‘Yejide you can’t.’

I wagged my head. ‘But I can. I can. I can.’

He shook me until my head bobbed and my teeth rattled. Then he let go suddenly. I crashed into a chair, grasping the table for balance.

It all boils down to a matter of perspective, brought out searingly in Gwendoline Riley’s slim novel First Love. Young writer Neve is reading from a “strange document” to her husband, an older man, Edwyn, the brutal domestic violence her mother experienced in her first marriage.

“Listen to this,’ I said. ‘Slapped, strangled, thumbs twisted. Hit about head while breast-feeding. Hit about head while suffering migraine. Several kicks at base of spine. Hot pan thrown, children screaming.’

‘Oh, she kept a list, did she?’ Edwyn said.

‘Not at the time. She had to write it down for her solicitor. Not that anyone listened.’

‘I see. And how long were they married?’

‘Eight years.’

‘And she could remember that far back, could she? Did she keep a diary?’

‘Did she keep a diary? What a weird, horrible question.’

He frowned slightly, but he was smiling too, his eyes were glittering.

‘It was a genuine question,’ he said. And as he went one, he spoke slowly, softly, as if I were very stupid. Stupid and volatile.

‘She must have a very good memory, that’s all. Some people do. Of course they do. ‘That’s all I wanted to know. I’m interested. It’s very interesting to me. That she’d remember, quite so clearly, all of these …what might you call them?’

‘Assaults,’ I said.

He tilted his head, musing on whether to allow that.

‘Well – incidents,’ he said.”

It is not surprising then, given the overwhelming patriarchal blindness that continues to exist in societies that Naomi Alderman’s The Power, winner of the 2017 prize,  is a tantalizingly refreshing vision of a society where women are in authority—an idea notably explored by many women writers including, of course, Alderman’s mentor and co-longlisted writer, Margaret Atwood. In The Power women intimidate others, particularly men, by shocking them with an electric charge their bodies create naturally. Unfortunately, besides its strong and feisty women, there is little creative imagination at play as the characters have merely been supplanted in a social structure, which is similar to patriarchal norms.

 

The novels by Madeline Thien and C.E. Morgan are very different for their historical sweep about politics and literature told through inter-generational family sagas. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about a Chinese family that lives through the Cultural Revolution and then emigrates to Canada. It is a novel in which a “Book of Records” and the playing of Western Classical Music in a communist regime are interspersed with detailed historical research. Similarly Sport of Kings is ostensibly about breeding thoroughbreds and horse racing while it raises crucial discussions about slavery, racism, Darwinism, histories of the marginalized, and modern American civilization. Despite a little sidetracking into rambling backstories, C.E.Morgan’s exquisite craftsmanship is on display.

Linda Grant’s novel, on the other hand, falls just short of being a period piece even though bulk of the plot occurs in 1949 in a sanatorium for tubercular patients supported by the newly formed NHS. It is the last one-third of the book which brings the story into twenty-first century Britain, exploring ‘new freedoms’ between men and women, anti-Semitism, ‘immigrant scum’, refugees fleeing wars, poverty in post-World War II and the public health care system that leaves a haunting impression on the reader.

Picking a winner from the formidable shortlist of talent must have been tough for the judges chaired by Tessa Ross, Sara Pascoe, Aminatta Forna, Katie Derham, and Sam Baker!

11 June 2017 

 

An Interview with Deepak Unnikrishnan, Author of the Debut Short Story Collection “Temporary People”

My interview with debut writer, Deepak Unnikrishnan, was published in Bookwitty on 13 April 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – May 24, 2016: ( Photo by Philip Cheung )

Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi and has lived in various cities in the United States. He studied and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and at present teaches at New York University in Abu Dhabi. His extraordinary, kaleidoscopic collection of short stories, Temporary People vary in style from magic realism to the surreal, and curiously enough, to a list of jobs available to immigrant labor. There is a rich texture to the stories not just for the magical plot lines such as the one of a woman who goes around at night “fixing” the broken limbs of migrants with glue, but the strong rhythm underlying them. This is his first book, which has received wide critical acclaim and was also the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Unnikrishnan generously took the time to answer questions for Bookwitty here:

Why these stories?

Personally, there was a need for the tales to get out. I think the question to ask would be why these people. Why linger on them the way I do, be they man, woman or child. I suppose a part of me wanted to resurrect the city that raised me. Couldn’t do that without thinking about people. And once your mind grants refuge to the folks you’ve imagined, uncles and aunties and friends and strangers, they take over your mind. But after years of lugging them around in my head I wanted to be rid of them, and the only way I could manage that was to write them out of my system. But I knew, as I began to write this thing I began, I wanted the work to be populated by individuals from different age groups: the young, the old, and those in between. So you could say I’d pocketed these people like children pocketing marbles. When I was young I didn’t understand remembering people was my method of making them immortal. When I left the Gulf, they – such people – became my souvenirs. And I wanted them in the book. As realization hit about what I was writing about, I found myself wondering for the first time whether I was writing about my people. Or people like me, whatever “me” meant. It was one thing to claim a place, another to claim people. But it’s also the strangest thing to write about a place like the Khaleej (Arabic for Gulf) when you’re not there anymore. Abu Dhabi felt different from afar. In New York and Chicago, Abu Dhabi could only be distant. Yet because I thought of home often enough, the city I left drifted close enough for me to miss it. As well as engage with my version of what I believed the city to be.

You seem to be fascinated by the form of a story — soliloquy, interior monologue, poetry, short story, prose, etc. Is the power of a story dependent on its form? 

I’m not terribly old, but I’ve been told tales, in bars, cabs, rooms, at night, twilight, past midnight. Men, women, and children have told me stories sitting in a chair, nursing a drink, minutes after a kiss. They’ve all been different, these tales. Sometimes the delivery was off; other times the tales fizzed and popped like firecrackers. I don’t remember them all, but I do recall the care these people (especially children) took with their tales, even if the world could have been breaking outside, why saying something mattered so much to them, why being listened to mattered so much to them. And they all went about reciting their pieces differently. Their tales/fables/anecdotes were wedded to their personalities. And on good days, I’d hear (and read) stories that bobbed and weaved in between forms I adored. As someone who writes, I still hesitate to tell people I write. I’m not sure what that means yet but I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of narrative form. I want my work to count. I’ve thought about the text. I wish to be heard. But I’m not toying with form because I want you (“you” being the reader) to know I can do this and that and juggle mandarins while I’m at it. Temporary People needed chapters that operated like players in an orchestra. Everything mattered, everything counted. And why experiment? Well, sometimes I’m bored, so I try things.

Men, women, and children have told me stories sitting in a chair, nursing a drink, minutes after a kiss

Why depict so much violence that produces a visceral reaction in one while reading it?

I ran into someone I went to high school with at a reading in New York. So I’ve read thirty pages, he said. And, he continued, I am miserable. That broke my heart a little. So you haven’t seen/found any joy yet? I wanted to ask him. You’re right, the book’s doused in violence. But conversations about the book can be steered in multiple directions depending on what kind of violence you’re interested in talking about. If it’s physical violence, graphic descriptions of beatings and punishments, by men, women and children, then sure, there’s a lot of that. But if you’ve responded to any of these moments of chaos, I’m also grinning a little, because that means I’ve taken you somewhere and left you there to think over what’s been written, especially since some of the violence pays more homage to Tom & Jerry than Tarantino. But if you’re referencing another kind of violence, this one more mental, because you’re reading about children of [temporary people] pravasis fending off people who pick on them because of what they represent, and pravasis grappling with what they’ve become, then you’re more in tune with what the book’s attempting to do, figuring out what kind of mythologies develop over time in a city populated primarily by people from elsewhere.

Which was the first story in this collection and how did the rest develop?

“Mushtibushi” is the oldest chapter in the book. I started it in 2003. I finished it in the fall of 2012 or the spring of 2013. The rest arrived in stages. “Gulf Return”, that opens the book, was written in 2013. Back in the day, when the tales began to populate notebooks and Word and Open Office documents, I was convinced I was working on a collection. But over time, I realized I was interested in architecture too, how text looked and operated on the page, how one flawed piece could piggy back on top of something whole to produce an effect neither could manage on their own. Now see, novels are allowed to fiddle with form and do all sorts of fun things. Few people blink. A collection on the other hand is rarely allowed much room to maneuver. It’s either supposed to be a bunch of disparate tales or linked stories, if I were dip into clichés. But I wanted my work to do something more. I wanted my work to question things. Not fuck genre, but camouflage it. I knew I wanted to capture the din and growl of my city but I also instinctively knew that the stories needed each other to not only breathe and communicate with one another, but to create and flesh out another animal, something I couldn’t define, but wanted to make. I can also make a case that the book is primarily about language. The people are incidental, but it’s through them that the book negotiates the city and languages that raised me.

How did you decide upon the titles?

Mostly: trial and error. You get lucky too. Some titles write themselves, like “Fone”, and “Mustibushi”. Others, like “Kloon”, took more time, since the original title, “The Clown Confessions”, was terrible. The titles were signposts, calling out to readers. Urging them to dip into the unknown. But you know, when you’ve got over a decade to work on a project, you name and rename things so often that you’ve got time to make stuff sound interesting. At least that’s what you tell yourself.

Are you fascinated by languages, rules of grammar and how far can these be explored or challenged?

In school (pre, middle and high) I struggled with English syntax. My poor teachers would pull out their Wren & Martins. Whenever they did, I’d shudder because grammar didn’t make sense. The Brits and the Yankees couldn’t agree on stuff: spellings, slang, idioms, sentence lengths. Then throw in the desi accent and watch mayhem ensue. It was a bit much, all these rules, because I didn’t speak like the BBC. Or Hollywood. Yet I’d snigger at my father who didn’t sound cool, or hide his Malayaleeness, although his command of English far outweighed mine. He’d ask me how to pronounce certain words sometimes, my [father] acchan, and I’d ask him to repeat them so I could laugh at him. We had a huge row once about the word “coup”. I kept telling him to pronounce the “p.” You don’t, he said. As if you’d know, I yelled back. But even back then, I knew language was power. English that sounded white, coming out of the tongue of a brown boy/man, confused people. But English wasn’t the only language in play. In Kerala, my cousins could’ve ripped me to shreds because my Malayalam was below par. They never did because they were kind and wanted to communicate, but my friends in Abu Dhabi made fun of my Malayalam all the time. In fact there was one dude who always made it a point to pick on my accent. And I wanted to pick on his English because mine sounded better. But we could both communicate in different tongues. That should have been enough, but it wasn’t. There was this need to highlight our superiority over certain languages, because we wanted to feel better about ourselves, because we thought we were better than other people who weren’t smart enough to sound sophisticated. And I suppose I used whatever English I knew to balance the Arabic I didn’t know, even though I learned Arabic in school for over a decade. But if there’s anything Abu Dhabi taught me, it’s that misspellings or bad grammar didn’t mean you couldn’t communicate. The menu in some cafeteria down the street may say “chiken mayonnaise”, but you knew what that was. Or when your Arabic teacher asked one of your classmates to “open the AC”, you knew what he wanted. And English, I instinctively knew, was malleable. And open to marrying other words from other worlds. “You understand, w’allah?” But language to me has always been synonymous with experimentation. The book is therefore an extension of my mind. If I were to put it simply, I don’t like being told what to do. I’m also saying don’t tell me what words ought to come out of my mouth. If you tell me something foreign must be italicized because it’s not English or English enough. I say no. Respectfully. No!

If you tell me something foreign must be italicized because it’s not English or English enough. I say no. Respectfully. No!

Your stories are like performance poetry. There is a very strong sense of rhythm. Was it from the word “go” or did you work upon it while editing the manuscript?

Rhythm’s absolutely crucial to the work. If language constitutes the book’s blood and bone, rhythm’s its spine. I wanted the reader to hear things. I wanted my words to grab hold of people. And not let go. I suppose another reason the book reads the way it does is because I’ve got characters that don’t/won’t shut up. Whether it’s Taxi Man, or little Maya. They want to be heard, these characters I made. And it’s fascinating you claiming the work channels performance poetry. You know, I remember watching Wim Wenders’ Pina, his documentary about Pina Bausch. Early on in the film, you’ve got her dancers marching to Louis Armstrong’s West End blues. And they’re miming seasons marching single file: spring, summer, autumn, winter. After they mimed winter, I remember, my favorite season, I experienced unadulterated bliss. I couldn’t believe it someone had managed to reinvent winter for me even though I assumed I knew what winter felt like. As a writer, I’m interested in stuff like that, in how readers respond to what I’ve managed to do on the page. After watching Pina, I remember thinking: I want my book to do THAT. The work should dance.

Despite being surrounded by people there is a terrible sense of loneliness in the stories. Did this emotion emanate from the stories of their own accord or was it a conscious decision on your part to tease it out?

Sure, some characters in the book address various states of loneliness. You’ve got the isolation that stems from feeling cut away from family, especially if you’re on your own in the Khaleej. There is also the fear of being misunderstood, of wanting to be seen as something worthy, something beyond skin or nationality. Then we’ve got the paranoia of children and teens, creatures of perpetual angst. But we’re also talking about individuals trying to negotiate a city like Abu Dhabi. And cities – take your pick: New York, Mumbai, Sao Paolo – can be tough. When you’re temporary, a proverbial transient, you’ve got your own language and register. And your sense of time is perpetually ten minutes or ten years ahead. But then you’ve got characters like the cabbie in “Taxi Man”. He’s fine, his world’s fine, but he’s also hyper aware of his surroundings, like everyone else who populate the book. I’d like to think the book isn’t all about loneliness. Like I stated earlier, it’s about language, and memories, people letting you into their thoughts.

Most debut writers find it very challenging to place a short story collection with publishers. Yet you not only were published but won the Restless Books Immigrant Prize as well. How did this come about?

I found my agent, the wonderful and tenacious Anna Ghosh, in the fall of 2014. She shopped the book around in the States for over a year. We came close. Some publishers wanted to know if I had a novel, something more traditional, which they’d put out first of course. Others weren’t sure how to see the book. Difficult to market was one comment. Not everyone got what I was trying to do. But mostly, the editors were kind and encouraging, but no one would commit. Then we tried India. Again, crickets. In fact, we didn’t even get close, and that upset me because I was looking for an excuse to vent. Then in October or November of 2015, Anna sent me a note about an inaugural book prize. The press was Restless Books. Submit the work, she suggested. By then I had pretty much downed several cocktails of self-pity and passive-aggressive woe-is-me soliloquies, but I trusted Anna. So I cleaned up the manuscript, included a cover letter, sent everything out. And pretended I forgot about my submission, but noted the date when the short list was going to be announced, the spring of 2016. The rest, well, you know the rest.

Who are the writers you most admire?

There are far too many to list them all. I gave a talk/reading at the Seminary Co-Op bookstore in Chicago. After committing to the event, I was asked if I could provide a critical reading list that could inform readers about my various influences. Making that list took me well over an hour. There are names on there that will be familiar: J. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Arundhati Roy, Primo Levi, Salman Rushdie, George Saunders. But there are also other names that may be less familiar to some readers (even though they shouldn’t be): A. Sivananthan, Daniil Kharms, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Beth Nugent, Kuzhali Manickavel. There are poets and non-fiction writers on that list too, like Inger Christensen and Marco D’eramo. Then there are works and artists who blend genres, artists/writers like Chris Ware, and books like The Photographer (by Didier Lefevre, Emmanuel Guibert and Frederic Lemercier). But some names, like Charlie Kaufman, or the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (his Dekalog was extremely instrumental in how I saw architecture in stories), didn’t appear. Much music, by Gil Scott Heron, Nina Simone, or bands like The Verve, didn’t appear either. And they matter too to my practice, even though you were mainly asking about writers. But since you asked about writers, let me end with writers. I remember being floored after reading Dorthe Nors’s “The Heron” in The New Yorker. I read it on the train. Probably mouthed, Man that was dope. I also experienced a similar sense of respect and admiration after reading and hearing the writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri. He’s dope too.

 

8 May 2017 

Kunskapsskolan Book Week ( 1-5 May 2017)

I was invited by Kunskapsskolan Gurgaon to curate their book week. They have nearly 1200 students. The book week had to be created for all grades from pre-Nursery to Form 10. Since it has been recently established in India the classes are bottom-heavy with a larger number of students in primary school. Also the teaching staff is young, energetic and eager to learn new ways of learning particularly using technology.

Kunskapsskolan has been established in India via a joint venture partnership between Sweden and India. The schools follow the KED programme whose motto is: “Personalize each student’s education according to their individual needs and abilities. All resources in the school are carefully designed and organized around the student in a complete and coherent system.” Another characteristic of Kunskapsskolan schools is to align themselves with the educational system approved by the government of the country they are establishing schools in. So in India they are recognised by the CBSE board. Having said that they implement the curriculum using theme-based learning and from grades 3-8 it is primarily using digital resources. A unique aspect of Kunskapsskolan is its inclusive policy to have students with behavioural and learning challenges. There is a department that has skilled educators and councillors who are instrumental in the integration of these special children with rest of the school community.

Given the interesting mix of students with varying capabilities and incorporating the simple mandate of the school management — “By making a qualitative difference to the school community by immersing everyone in a world of books. It is also to introduce children to the love of reading via various methodologies and a well-curated book exhibition.” It was decided to hold the book week along with Scholastic India. With ninety-five years experience of publishing for children worldwide, of those twenty in India, Scholastic India is equipped to meet the requirements of the school. For instance putting together a theme-based book fair, introduction to audiobooks, ebooks and levelled readers for students such as Book Flix ( primary) and LitPro ( middle and secondary).

Teacher’s workshop led by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, 29 April 2017

The book week began with a workshop for the school teachers on the “promotion of reading and digital resources”. I led two workshops. First for early years and primary school teachers. The second one was for middle and secondary school teachers. The emphasis was on importance of reading as a lifelong skill to acquire and not just to complete school curriculum. Given that this is the information age where its imperative to know how to read and glean

Anu Singh Chowdhary

knowledge, reading as an activity has to be enjoyable. It has to inculcate a love for reading without making it a chore. Today there are multiple formats by which children can access books for pleasure and information. According to Kids & Family Reading Report 2016 (KFRR ) children prefer reading for fun and helps develop a fondness for the activity. Parents too agreed that reading is important.

  • 86% of kids interviewed said their favourite books – the ones they were likely to finish – were the ones they pick out themselves. This is close to the USA average of 93%.
  • Across all ages, an overwhelming majority of children (87%) say they would read more if they could find more books that they like.
  • Children and parents prefer curated selections as it is easier to discover books. The top sources of books are the school book fairs, book clubs and word-of-mouth recommendations.  Libraries and bookshops are a close second.

    Anupa Lal

A primary school teacher’s feedback on the sessions and book fair, 5 May 2017

The teachers were introduced to online digital resources ( free and subscription based) that were age-appropriate and supported their curriculum. The workshops had been customised to align with KED methodology. So though the focuse was on resources available online many scrumptious examples of print books were also shared to gasps of astonished delight. A teacher who works primarily with children who have learning disabilities wrote in later to say “I simply loved the session!”

Something similar was witnessed at the Kunskapsskolan Book Week.

A student’s enthusiastic response to the book fair.

On the first day two little tiddlers hurtled down the stairs breathless with excitement, ” This book fair is awesome! The collection is so good!”

Paro Anand reading out aloud “Wingless”

Every single day there were sessions with authors, illustrators, storytellers, dramatists, cartoonists and editors. The idea being to introduce children to different aspects of books and reading. There were even sessions planned around audio books and animations based on popular stories as with Book Flix. Unfortunately due to privacy issues I am unable to upload some of the magnificent pictures taken during the events. Children, irrespective of whether they were toddlers or young adults, were mesmerised by the sessions. I have pictures of children who were trooped into the sessions and sat very quietly not knowing what to expect. Within minutes of the resource people beginning we had children absorbed listening to the stories in wide-eyed wonder, small or big the students were sprawled across the carpets, some were sitting under classroom desks and peering out, others were clapping their hands in glee and yet others body language was a delight to watch.  Inevitably within minutes the students would surround the resource person and it was absolutely marvellous to watch the adult engulfed in a sea of blue with loud chirrups of happiness from the children.

Simi Srivastava, storyteller

Simi Srivastava told a deliciously onomatopoeic tale about a bear. It was narrated accompanied to music. It went down very well with the toddlers. After the session a little boy came and gave her a tight hug while planting a slurpy wet kiss of appreciation on her cheek. Another girl came up politely and said “It was nice” but her twinkling eyes noted her deep appreciation of the storytelling performance.

Paro Anand, an exceptional storyteller, read out aloud her brilliant fable Wingless to a mesmerised audience of 9 and 10 year olds. ( According to KFRR, across all ages, the overwhelming majority of kids (85%) say they love(d) being read books aloud.) When she said she had written 27 books for children, a tiny little hand went up and a solemn little child said, “It means you are ‘experienced'” much to Paro’s delight.

Later Paro Anand had a session with the senior children around her recently launched graphic novel 2. It is the first Indo-Swedish collaborative book and it was apt that the first school event was held at an Indo-Swedish school. Paro Anand has written this book with Swedish writer, Örjan Persson. Her session was converted into a writing workshop too. The children were broken up into teams of two and given the task of writing stories together, aping the collaboration between the authors of 2. They were given two days to work on the stories. Three winning teams were awarded prizes along with notes of appreciation by Paro Anand.

There were sessions planned with renowned storytellers like Anupa Lal, Anu

(L-R) Anu Singh Chowdhury, Anupa Lal and Blossom D’Souza

Singh Chowdhury conducted a session in Hindi introducing children to Gulzar’s poetry and stories, seasoned publisher-cum-author Arthy Muthana led a workshop on editing and book production wherein the children looked astonished upon hearing of the “small pile” of manuscripts waiting to be read on her desk, dramatist Vanessa Ohri had the children spellbound, and cartoonist Ajit Narayan’s infectious enthusiasm for drawing characters was palpable as children quickly sketched in their art books while he demonstrated. He was provocative with his remarks like “I still have not found the right picture” but it only spurred the children on to improve. They drew furiously and clucked around him for appreciation.

Ajit Narayan

Arthy Muthana

While the book week was on a team of student volunteers had banded together to form a temporary editorial team. These four senior school students were entrusted with the task of creating “books” documenting the book week. They could choose any form of narrative as long as it contained highlights of the sessions and brought in different perspectives. For this they interviewed the resource people, students and teachers to get their views too. The students chose to illustrate with line drawings and soon took photographs to accompany the text. The books are to be placed in the school library. The exercise helped give an insight into the team effort, creativity and patience required to put a book together.

By the last day I too had students smiling and greeting me. The primary school students would give a broad smile or a hug. The senior school students were a little more reserved but it did not prevent them from lurking behind pillars and popping out unexpectedly to waylay me for a chat. It was a tremendous experience and I look forward to many more such occasions.

8 May 2017

*All the pictures except for the one of the school entrance have been taken by me and posted with permission of the school management.

Seagull Books ( 2017)

One of my favouritest independent publishers is Seagull Books. They have a magnificent stable of writers. They specialise in world literature making translations from across the world available in English. They have distinct lists too. For instance Africa, French, German, Swiss, Italian and India lists. Their lists on Art, Cinema, Conversations  , Culture Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies etc are equally delicious and worth exploring.  As for their Fiction list — it is stupendous! 

Seagull Books has been publishing exquisite books for some decades now. What is truly remarkable about their publishing programme is that they do accord equal respect to their readers worldwide. So it is immaterial where you may purchase a Seagull title but the quality of production will always be the same. Seagull Books have now signed a contract with Pan Macmillan India to make Seagull World Literature available in India.

The founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, believes in publishing what he wishes to as he told me in an interview ( 2013). In fact for his work he has been awarded the Goethe Medal. Every year the publishers produce a fine catalogue which is a collector’s item by itself for the author contributions and Sunandini Banerjee’s incredible designs. Take a look at the current Seagull catalogue ( order form). It is delicious!

16 March 2017 

“Letters to a young Muslim” by Omar Saif Gobash

Omar Saif Gobash is the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia. In addition to his post in Moscow, Ambassador Ghobash sponsors the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation and is a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in collaboration with the Man Booker Prize in London. Ambassador Gobash wrote Letters to a Young Muslim for his two sons.

I write these letters to both of my sons [Saif and Abdullah], and to all young Muslim men and women, with the intention of opening their eyes to some of the questions they are likely to face and the range of possible answers that exist for them. …I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity. 

Ambassador Gobash has been in this current diplomatic post since January 2009. UAE has a population approaching ten million, with over 180 nationalities represented. The ambassador’s mother was a Russian and descended from Orthodoxy clergyman. Although his wife is from Al Ain in the Emirates and her upbringing was “more uniformly Arab and Muslim” than her husband’s they took the joint decision “that we were not going to let our children be educated to hate”.

The ambassador writes:

Because I speak English, Arabic, Russian and French, and have friends and colleagues in the United States, Europe, Russia, and the Arab world, I have had access to the thinking that takes place within different cultures and political systems. The longer I perform my job, the more I am convinced of the power of ideas, and language, to move the world to a better place. 

One of his most significant testimonies in the book is that ” We need to find a theological and social space and place for the following ideas: doubt, question, inquiry and curiosity”.

Letters to a Young Muslim are an extraordinary set of letters written by a father to his son explaining Islam, modern geo-politics, the growing hatred towards Muslims and explaining the importance of ideas and personal experience and not just reliance on texts interpreted by a few to make the world a better place. The format of writing letters is age-old but has come back in vogue with the powerful award-winning Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Writing in the epistle form gives a sense of intimacy and allows a certain amount of “frankness” which other forms of structured prose may constrict.

It is worth reading.

Omar Saif Gobash Letters to a Young Muslim Picador, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 245 Rs 499

12 March 2017 

 

 

 

Publishing newsletter, 27 Feb 2017

Recently Amazon India has been adding an “Import Deposit Fee” on to the imported books bought off its website.

When AmazonGlobal products are shipped to eligible countries, an estimate of the Import Fees will be levied on the items in your order for shipment to countries outside of the U.S. … The Import Fees Deposit is an estimation of the taxes and duties that may apply and isn’t an actual calculation. Customs regulations and tax rates applicable to certain goods may change between the date the taxes and duties were estimated and the applicable taxes and duties on the date of import into the destination country. The duty or tax rate is often determined by the classification of a good, which varies by country and region.

But books in India are not taxed nor does anyone have pay an import duty for bringing books into the country. So I am baffled by Amazon India levying this charge on to its customers who buy books? It will increase the final bill considerably. Increasingly regular Amazon clients, including Amazon Prime, are shifting to buying second-hand books on the premise that new books too are becoming more expensive to afford and these extra duties to be paid by customers will only further hamper online sales of books.  Shouldn’t all stakeholders who are a crucial part of the publishing ecosystem strive for best practices or is that too idealistic a notion to hope for?

India is a price sensitive market for all goods and commodities but when it comes to books Indians think twice before spending. This is apparent by the flourishing trade in second-hand, pirated books and buying books by the kilo as is visible in local markets, pavements, railway stations and at crossroads. Some writers even consider it a backhanded compliment if they spot pirated versions of their books at any of these vendors. These books are sold at very low (read affordable) prices where the paper, binding and at times even printing is of poor quality but at least the text is easily available. These are exactly the characteristics which determine the pulp fiction market too – facts pointed about academic Awanish Kumar while discussing the Hindi writer late Ved Prakash Sharma and pulp fiction. Another socio-economic indicator which distinguishes between pulp-fiction and mainstream publishing is the very real social differences of class, as Mrinal Pande, noted journalist and daughter of renowned Hindi novelist Shivani, pointed out some years ago.

The two distinct strata of publishing co-existing within the local ecosystem is bound to have interesting consequences. It is already discernable with English publishing firms rapidly making provision for popular Hindi pulp fiction on their translation lists – good editorial move but underpinning it is sound economic sense to give readers what they are already familiar with.  So instead of cogitating about piracy being 25% of the total Indian publishing industry probably the publishing professionals need to focus on getting great books to readers at the right price points. (And piracy or giving books away for free does not damage the sales of a book instead it boosts them as pointed out by Joanna Penn.)

Oh well! It is a conundrum not easily resolved to all stake holders’ satisfaction.

Having said that the engagement between writers and readers is thriving as evident by the huge success of the Urdu Literature Festival, Jashn-e-Rekhta, organised in Delhi. For more read the links on publishing gupshup and literary prizes.

Jaya Recommends

Vasudhendra’s Mohanaswamy

Maha Khan Phillips Curse of Mohenjodaro

Omar Saif Ghobadan’s Letters to a Young Muslim

JAYA