Prizes Posts

Samantha Schweblin

It was late in 2016 that the cyber-whispers about a magnificent new novel in translation began. Then in January 2017 The New Yorker published a review-article about Argentinian Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream.  Shortly thereafter this slim novel was longlisted ( later to be shortlisted too) for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Fever Dream is about Amanda who is blind and dying. She is conversing with a young boy David. Amanda and David’s mother, Carla, became friends when Amanda moved into the neighbourhood. It was a peculiar relationship which had an unnatural intensity to it evident in the heart-to-heart talks the women had. At times it almost seems as if Carla has taken on the mother’s role to Amanda and yet there are flashes when it seems as if Carla is speaking to Amanda in a confessional mode. Most of the conversations revolved around Carla’s bewilderment about David’s transformation, almost as if he was a changeling.

“Amanda, when I find my real David,” your mother says, “I won’t have any doubts it’s him.”

Surprisingly the conversations between David and Amanda are of the same tenor as that of Carla and Amanda though eerily David sounds the most mature “adult” of the three. He is constantly interrupting Amanda saying “You’re wasting time“,

We need to go faster“,

I’ll tell you when its important to know the details“,

But you always miss the important thing“,

“I’m not interested in this anymore” and

Amanda, I need you to concentrate“.

Its as if the little boy is editing and slowly controlling Amanda’s narrative as if he is privy to more information than she is. There is a sense of urgency to the conversations probably because Amanda is burning with a fever on her death bed.

Amanda has a daughter called Nina. Under Amanda’s watchful eye Nina is never allowed to wander far. The safe distance is measured by what Amanda refers to “rescue distance”. Crossing the imaginary line of this perceived safe distance can catapult Nina into danger given that her mother will not be able to reach in time to rescue her. According to the Guardian, “the phrase is the original, and better, title of the book in Spanish”. And this is the distance that is played upon constantly to fathom what exactly transpired to cause Amanda’s trauma.

“When does it start to go bad, exactly?“,

We’re almost there“,

This is the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.” ,

It is important, but it’s not what we need to understand. Amanda, this is the moment, don’t get distracted. We’re looking for the exact moment because we want to know how it starts.”, 

It’s very gradual.” and “No, no. It’s not about worms. It feels like worms, at first, in your body. But Amanda, we’ve been through all this, too. We’ve already talked about the poison, the contamination. You’ve already told me four times how you got here.”  

Fever Dream may be about mothering and the anxieties that are the defining undercurrents of motherhood.  It also explores that grey area when an adult behaves child-like and vice versa. It happens. It comes through in the conversations. It is further accentuated by the structure of the novel which opens with Amanda and David conversing briefly — this becomes like the framing text. Then there are long passages of Amanda recalling her time with Carla and sequence of events which resulted in her hospitalisation but as the novel progresses these are steadily punctuated by David’s remarks. So what begins like a conversation seemingly between two adults one realises a little later is between a child and an adult but framing the text in this manner juxtapositioning conversations blurs the lines too.

There are always those flashes of adult behaviour apparent in a child which is understandable as they are evolving, also basing their actions on the role models around them. Curiously enough this very fact for which there is a logical explanation can also be disconcerting and challenging for the reader. The powerfully mesmerising writing style which gets carried over in translation as well is commendable but also has echoes of the legendary Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar. He has been hugely influential on contemporary Latin American literature with his two books — A Cup of Rage and Ancient Tillage ( translated by Stefan Tobler). Fever Dreams is the closest to A Cup of Rage in its feverish pace of writing, explosive action and bewildering consequences. Also these two stories create a strong urge to read them from the start upon finishing the last page — as if in a cyclical manner.

Reading Fever Dreams is an exciting exercise by itself but then I came across Valerie Miles recommendation for Samanta Schweblin’s story, “My Parents, My Children” ( translated by Kit Maude) at The Short Story Project . She says : “Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre.” It may be too early to say but this exploration of how the young and old seem to behave inexplicably like each other at different stages of life may become a characteristic trait of Samanta Schweblin’s magnificently disturbing but beautifully crafted writing. It is a wonderful compliment to the translation skills of Megan McDowell for having retained the force of the original text and transmitted it equally forcefully in the destination language.

As with Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith), Fever Dream too raises the bar for literary fiction. Both these novels are extraordinary examples of confident writing whereby the novelists challenge the “traditional” styles of plot, dialogue, structure of text all the while capturing the reader’s imagination. A year on The Vegetarian continues to sell. Fever Dream, whether it wins the prize or not, will also be a steady seller in years to come.

Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream ( Translated by Megan McDowell) Oneworld, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 150 Rs 399 ( Distributed by PanMacmillan India) 

12 May 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 

Jaya’s newsletter 5 ( 1 Dec 2016)

shauna-singh-baldwinSince the last newsletter it has been a whirlwind of book releases, literature festivals and fabulous conversations. For instance a lovely evening spent at the Canadian High Commissioner, H. E. Nadir Patel’s residence for the launch of Indo-Canadian writer, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s essays — Reluctant Rebellions. Shauna read out an extract comparing the freedom women had in different geographies. She added that writing non-fiction was akin to being naked. There is no literary device as there is in fiction to hide the author’s true sentiments. Dr Shashi Tharoor spoke at the event too.

To attend the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai was award winning Australian author, Geoffrey Moorhouse. He is known for his historical fiction such as on the League of Nations. During a quiet lunch at the Australian High Commission, New Delhi, it was incredible to hear Moorhouse describe the research involved for the books. He had thought it would take a few weeks but he spent nearly four years in the Geneva archives. Mostly he was the only person reading the documents.

On 17 September 2016, H.E. Syed Muazzem Ali, High Commissioner, Bangladesh released the gently told but vividfazlur-rahman-book-launch memoir of haemotologist-oncologist Dr Fazlur Rahman. It charts mostly the journey of the doctor from a village to Texas in 1969 with some insights into his experience as an oncologist, caregiver and in setting up hospices. But as the high commissioner pointed out it is in exactly such literature that the history of the subcontinent will be mapped and preserved. During the panel discussion Dr Rahman stressed the importance of empathy for the patient and caregiver and the significance of medical, physical and spiritual sustenance.

with-namita-26-nov-2016The Times Lit Fest (26-27 Nov 2016) was a tremendous success. It was a crackling good mix of speakers and the panel discussions were well curated. Everything ran with clockwork precision even though there were tremendous crowds to be seen everywhere. To discuss her elegant new novel, Things to leave Behind, I was in conversation with Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director of Jaipur Literature Festival. This multi-generations novel is set in the Himalayas, in the Nainital and Sat Tal region, putting the spotlight on socio-economic relationships, independence of women, spread of religious philosophies and the rigid caste system.

As the year draws to a close some significant literary prizes / longlists have been announced.

  1. Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize was won by Akshaya Mukul for Gita Press and the Making of Hindu Indiagita-press
  2. Swimmer among the starsTata Literature Live! Awards were presented with Amitav Ghosh getting the Lifetime Achievement Award and Kanishk Tharoor winning for his stupendous debut collection of stories.
  3. The International Dublin Literary Award ( formerly the IMPAC) longlist was announced and it included two Indian writers on it — Keki Daruwala and Vivek Shanbhag.
  4. The 14th Raymond Crossword Book Awards had an impressive list of winners. Sadly this time there were no
    ranjit-lal

    (L-R): Twinkle Khanna, Roopa Pai and Ranjit Lal

    cash prizes awarded instead gift vouchers were given to the winning authors.

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Jaya Recommends

  1. matt-haig-1Matt Haig’s incredibly beautiful must-have modern fairy tales A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas  ( Canongate Books)
  2. Namita Gokhale’s Things to Leave Behind  ( Penguin Random House) namita-gokhale-book-cover
  3. Ranjit Lal’s Our Nana was a Nutcase ( Red Turtle)
  4. Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari Conversations ( 1 & 2) , Seagull Books jorge-luis-borges

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New Arrivals

        1. Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz ( Simon and Schuster)
        2. Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak ( Speaking Tiger Books)
        3. Uttara: The Book of Answers translated by Arshia Sattar ( Penguin Random House)
        4. Bestselling author Stephanie Meyer’s new book is a thriller called The Chemist ( Hachette India)
        5. White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas by Robert Twigger ( Hachette India)

being-a-dogamba

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Publishing News and links 

  1. Nineteen years after working at PRH India, Udayan Mitra, Publisher, has quit.
  2. The two week long Dum Pukht residential workshop with facilitators Anil Menon, Pervin Saket, Akshat Nigam and special guest Amit Chaudhuri premieres at Adishakti, Pondicherry this Monday, 5 Dec 2016. The workshop also features one-day talks / sessions by poet Arundhati Subramaniam and historian Senthil Babu.
  3. Utterly fabulous BBC Documentary on UK-based feminist publishing house, Virago Press
  4. Neil Gaiman on “How Stories Last
  5. Two centuries of Indian print. A British Library project that will digitise 1,000 unique Bengali printed books and 3,000 early printed books and enhance the catalogue records to automate searching and aid discovery by researchers.
  6. shashi-tharoorTwo stupendous reviews of Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, An Era Of Darkness. The first one is by historian Indivar Kamtekar and the second by journalist Salil Tripathi.
  7. A lovely review by Nisha Susan of Twinkle Khanna’s short stories — The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad.the_legend_of_lakshmi_prasad_300_rgb_1478507802_380x570
  8. Gopsons prints Booker winner, yet again
  9. Best of 2016 booklists: Guardian ( 1 & 2) , New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2016 and Publishers Weekly 

1 December 2016 

‘It isn’t autobiography, but it’s a daughter’s book in every way’: Madeleine Thien

madeleine-thien(My interview with award-winning author Madeleine Thien was published in Scroll on 29 Oct 2016. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/819960/it-isnt-autobiography-but-its-a-daughters-book-in-every-way-madeleine-thien . I have c&p the interview below. )

‘It isn’t autobiography, but it’s a daughter’s book in every way’: Madeleine Thien

The author talks about her extraordinary novel ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’.

Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection, Simple Recipes, and three novels, including Dogs at the Perimeter, which was awarded the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. It is, of course, her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The youngest daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, Thien lives in Montreal. Excerpts from an email interview with Madeline Thien, conducted before the prize-winner was announced:

Please tell me more about the title – Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
The title comes from a line of music – the Chinese translation of a Russian translation of Eugène Pottier’s original French lyrics of The Internationale – which has resonated across 20th century China. The French line, “Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout” (“We are nothing, let us be all”) became 不要说我们一无所有 (Do not say that we have nothing). The translation is by Qu Qiubai, a Communist Party leader, tragically executed in 1935, who is said to have sung The Internationale as he walked to his death. The anthem was also sung by the students in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, as they left Tiananmen Square while the massacre was still unfolding.

Of all the composers why did you choose Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach almost like a chorus in your novel? How does Beethoven fit into the spectrum of Soviet composers you choose to mention – Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich?
Between the composer, Sparrow, who is the conscience of the novel, and me, this was the piece of music that anchored us. It’s a set of 30 variations and canons, all derived from a very simple theme in the opening aria, found not in the melody but in the bass line; and the entire piece begins and ends with the same aria, though by the time we arrive at the end, we have journeyed across timescapes. The Goldberg Variations are just one example of Bach’s extraordinary compositions which are built from strict form and structure, and yet somehow give rise to astonishing freedom, individuality, polyphony and range. In other words, they break you open and remake you.

The musicians in Do Not Say would have had ready access to the works of the Russian composers, as well as to Russian musicians and teachers, up until the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, so they would be foundational to the life and work of Sparrow. Beethoven’s renown in China is a separate story, and a fascinating trajectory, recently told by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai in their new book, Beethoven in China.

How long as the book been a part of you? How many drafts did it take to write?
Once I began writing, it took about five years, and probably 8-10 drafts, and that is quite little for me. The first third was, in some ways, the most challenging because of the foundation that needed to be created, and the strength (physical, artistic) to set a relatively large object into motion. I think the book has been part of me since childhood.

Somehow I had an inkling this was the case. The manner in which the story has been written and details mentioned suggested you had been thinking about it a lot, probably well before the book began its life as a manuscript. Also there was a sense that the book was like a witnessing. As if it was crucial for you to share your experiences in this manner with the younger generations who are probably not as well-informed about the transformations wrought to Chinese society.

In a way, I think of it not necessarily as a book written for younger generations, but as a book written to the older one. It isn’t an autobiographical novel, but it is a daughter’s book in every way. It tries to say that the daughter has grown older, and in living her life, with all its joys, heartbreaks, betrayals, wonder, has finally come to understand something of what her parents lived.

How much research and fact-checking did it involve?
A great deal, about history and music and mathematics and language, and about simply paying attention to life and living. But very few things, perhaps nothing, ever feel to me like pure research. Thinking about the world of the novel was my life, and so reading, asking questions, travelling, wandering, listening to music, and just being in China, was my life. It was expansive and challenging and also joyful, and of course, at times, it was devastating. The middle of the book, which slows down into the summer of 1966, was very difficult for me, and I had to stop writing for a few months after those sections were written. I had to come back to myself so that I could eventually return to the characters.

The pain you describe in the story and then acknowledge having found it tough to contend with makes absolute sense. Writing those words could not have been easy. Even as a reader I had to keep pausing as it was devastating to read the descriptions.
I’m so glad to hear that you paused, Jaya. Sometimes what the writer can’t work into the text are these spaces, pauses and rests, the moments that haven’t quite run their course even though the text had reached the end of the line.

Parts of the story ring true. Did you record oral histories and testimonies for this or referred to some archival material?
No, I didn’t record interviews. I had a lot of conversations, but they ranged from hanging out with composers to unexpected encounters on the street to visiting the small memorial at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, wandering in and out of practise rooms, going overnight into the desert in Gansu province, visiting my grandfather’s village in southern China, or just returning, year after year, to Tiananmen Square and Chang’an Avenue, and trying to absorb all the details. I read widely (the unrelated books are sometimes as important as the related ones) and travelled widely, and I just took the time I needed, as slow as it sometimes seemed. Being in China was humbling, provocative, and life changing.

Did you often make trips to China while working on this manuscript?
Yes, many trips, some longer (several months) and some brief (a couple of weeks). I was fortunate in that, for six years, I was coming to Hong Kong once or twice a year to teach a week-long workshop, and so could regularly add time in China. I was also writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore for one semester, which allowed me to make frequent trips to China.

Do you think this book will be sold in China?
Yes. Not in the present moment, one day in the future that we can’t yet foresee.

I recommended your book to a couple of friends currently in China and Japan and both replied, “Sounds fascinating but we are not very sure if it will be available.”
I hope a translation will be possible sooner than we think. The untranslated book (UK edition) is available in Hong Kong and Japan, but not China.

How do you feel having written it?
As if I have been given something by the book itself. It allowed me to live in ways I could never have imagined on my own.

Why is there no genealogy tree or a timeline of events in the novel? Why are the annotations not starred?
There will be a family tree in the US edition of the novel, but it was never something that came up for the Canadian and UK editions. As a work of literature, a reader comes to know the characters or, to put it another ways, comes to live in the world the characters know. As the pages turn, the circle of that world expands. The annotations are not starred because, for me, the endnotes are a part of the literary work itself. Do Not Say is a book of books, and the endnotes continue the story. They are all open doorways within the novel, because no book exists in solitude.

Interesting that the US edition will have a genealogy. How did that decision come about?
The US publisher requested one. They did a beautiful job, and the design reminds me of notes on a stave.

Is this pure literary fiction or is it a cross between memoir and historical fiction? Why did you choose a writing style that sometimes seems to lapse into a meticulous historical account rather than fiction?
This is literature, in the sense that the novel is a relatively young form, and its borders are still contested. The world exists in storytelling just as storytelling exists in the world; I wouldn’t know how to extricate one from the other. For me, and perhaps this is an artistic failing of mine, I don’t think of it as meticulously historical. We are always with the characters, in their diction and register, in their conflict between public expression (Zhuli’s arguments with herself as she tries to align her thoughts with Chairman Mao’s discourse on the dangers of art for art’s sake) and private expression – in other words, between public and private languages, and public and private selves. All I can say with any confidence is that this is not memoir, as it has almost no overlap with my own family’s history; but I do think of it as a novel of intimacy.

After sending you this question I read that you had categorically denied this is a work of historical fiction. So my apologies. But I do love your description of it as a “novel of intimacy”.
Please don’t worry at all! I’m not sure I’m super categorical about it, but have lingering questions about what we mean by a work of historical fiction, how far back is the historical, etc. I don’t feel that we would call a work partially set in 1960s New York a work of historical fiction.

Madeleine Thien Do Not Say We Have Nothing Penguin, 2016. Pb. pp. 

3 November 2016 

Press Release: Dylan Prize judges announced

dylan-prizeNEWS RELEASE

Monday 24 October 2016

Judges for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize announced

Distinguished novelists, professors, a poet, a historian and Head of BBC Audio Drama UK make up the judging panel for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize in partnership with Swansea University, one of the world’s most prestigious prizes for young writers.

The £30,000 prize, which opened for entries on 5 September 2016, is awarded to the best eligible published literary work in English, written by an author aged 39 or under.

‌‌Launched in 2006, the annual International Dylan Thomas Prize is aimed at encouraging raw creative talent worldwide.  Past winners have come from Wales, England, the USA and Vietnam, and include: Max Porter (Grief is the Thing with Feathers [Faber & Faber]), Joshua Ferris (To Rise Again at a Decent Hour [Penguin]); Claire Vaye Watkins (Battleborn [Granta]); Maggie Shipstead (Seating Arrangements [HarperCollins]); and Rachel Trezise (Fresh Apples [Parthian]).

The judging panel for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize:

•     Professor Kurt Heinzelman: poet, translator and scholar; professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

•    Alison Hindell: Head of Audio Drama, UK for the BBC; Visiting Professor in Radio Drama for the University of Derby and a Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.

•    Professor Sarah Moss: novelist and professor; author of five novels and a memoir based on a year spent in Iceland, Names for the Sea;member of Warwick University’s Writing Programme.

•    Prajwal Parajuly: author of short stories and the novel Land Where I Flee, an Independent on Sunday book of the year; Clayton B. Ofstad endowed distinguished writer-in-residence at Truman State University, Missouri.

•    Professor Dai Smith (chair of panel): historian and writer on Welsh arts and culture; Honorary Raymond Williams Research Chair in the Cultural History of Wales at Swansea University.

Professor Dai Smith, Honorary Raymond Williams Research Chair in the Cultural History of Wales at Swansea University said:

“The panel of judges assembled for 2017 under my chairmanship bring to their formidable task experience of Wales and the world, of the practice of creative writing in prose and poetry, of drama and communication, of readers’ expectations and writers’ risk taking, and, of course, of the multifariousness of Dylan himself. We have a hard act to follow after last year’s panel plumped, spectacularly, and justifiably so, for Max Porter’s poem novel Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, but the entrants for 2017 are already queuing up for the amazing accolade of being acclaimed the winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize in Swansea in May next year.”

The winner will be announced at the final awards ceremony in Swansea University’s Great Hall, Wales, on 10 May 2017.  The closing date for entries is 4 November 2016.

About the judges

Professor Kurt Heinzelman is a poet, translator, and scholar. His most recent book of poems is Intimacies & Other Devices and he has translated Demarcations, a collection of poems by Jean Follain.  He has been the Executive Curator at the Harry Ransom Center and the Director of Education at the Blanton Museum of Art. A Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of Texas-Austin, he is also Editor-in-Chief of Texas Studies in Literature and Language (TSLL), and the co-founder and currently Advisory Editor of Bat City Review.

Alison Hindell is Head of Audio Drama, UK for the BBC.  She has directed over 260 radio plays, from international co-productions to soap opera, and has won many awards.  She runs one of the biggest radio drama production departments in the world and is responsible for the creation of over 400 hours of drama, ranging from the iconic The Archers (including steering the Helen and Rob story to its culmination this year) to award-winning new writing and classics for many BBC radio networks.  Most recently, she has worked with internationally acclaimed theatre director Robert Wilson on a multi-lingual co-production with German broadcasters called Tower of Babel.  Alison worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company before joining the BBC and has directed theatre and worked as voice and casting director on several international animations.  She is currently Visiting Professor in Radio Drama for the University of Derby and a Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.

Professor Sarah Moss was born in Glasgow, grew up mostly in Manchester and studied at Oxford. She began her academic career with a doctoral thesis on Wordsworth, Coleridge and travel writing, and wrote a monograph on food and gender in eighteenth-century literature before turning to fiction. Her novels are Cold Earth (Granta, 2009), Night Waking (Granta, 2011), Bodies of Light (Granta, 2014), Signs for Lost Children(Granta, 2015) and The Tidal Zone (Granta, 2016). She has also written a memoir of a year spent in Iceland, Names for the Sea (Granta, 2012). Sarah has taught at the Universities of Oxford, Kent, Exeter and Iceland, and has been part of the Warwick Writing Programme since 2012.

Prajwal Parajuly is the son of an Indian father and a Nepalese mother. The Gurkha’s Daughter, his debut collection of short stories, was a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize in 2013 and a semi-finalist for The Story Prize. Land Where I Flee, his first novel, was anIndependent on Sunday book of the year and a Kansas City Star best book of 2015. Prajwal is the Clayton B. Ofstad endowed distinguished writer-in-residence at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He has written for The New York TimesThe Guardian, the New Statesmanand the BBC.

Professor Dai Smith is a distinguished historian and writer on Welsh arts and culture. He was Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Glamorgan from 2001 until 2005 and is currently the Honorary Raymond Williams Research Chair in the Cultural History of Wales at Swansea University.

He was Chair of the Arts Council of Wales from 2006 until 2016 and is Series Editor of the Welsh Assembly Government’s Library of Wales for classic works. In 2013, he published a novel Dream On and in 2014 edited definitive anthologies of Welsh Short Stories, Story I & II, for the Library of Wales. His latest fiction, the novella What I Know I Cannot Say, and the linked short stories All That Lies Beneath, will be published in 2017 by Parthian Books.

judges

Notes for editors:

Pictures of the judges, last year’s winner, and the Prize logo can be downloaded via this Dropbox link: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/m3soqlkmsv6xznk/AAB1SwPV1kQQ_XpL_C1JKgGra?dl=0

International Dylan Thomas Prize:

Website: http://www.swansea.ac.uk/dylan-thomas-prize/

Twitter: @dylanthomprize / https://twitter.com/dylanthomprize

Hashtag: #IDTP17

Swansea University is a world-class, research-led, dual campus university.  The University was established in 1920 and was the first campus university in the UK.  It currently offers around  350 undergraduate courses and  350 postgraduate courses to  circa 20,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The University’s 46-acre Singleton Park Campus is located in beautiful parkland with views across Swansea Bay.  The University’s 65-acre science and innovation Bay Campus, which opened in September 2015, is located a few miles away on the eastern approach to the city. It has the distinction of having direct access to a beach and its own seafront promenade.  Both campuses are close to the Gower Peninsula, the UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Swansea is ranked the top university in Wales and is currently The Times and The Sunday Times ‘Welsh University of the Year’. It is also ranked within the top 350 best universities in the world in the Times Higher Education World University rankings.

The results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 showed the University has achieved its ambition to be a top 30 research University, soaring up the league table to 26th in the UK, with the ‘biggest leap among research-intensive institutions’ (Times Higher Education, December 2014) in the UK.

The University has ambitious expansion plans as it moves towards its centenary in 2020, as it continues to extend its global reach and realising its domestic and international ambitions.

Swansea University is a registered charity. No.1138342. Visit www.swansea.ac.uk

For more information, contact Catrin Newman, Swansea University Press Office:c.a.newman@swansea.ac.uk +0044 (0)1792 513454

Volga “The Liberation of Sita”

‘Till you take decisions for Rama’s sake and not yours, it will continue to pursue you, Sita. Look at yourself. You are enduring great pain. You think you are enduring for the sake of someone else. You think that you have performed your duty for the sake of someone else. Your courage, your self-confidence …you have surrendered everything to others. What have you saved for yourself?’

‘What is “I”, sister? Who am I?’

Ahalya smiled. 

‘The greatest of sages and philosophers have spent their lifetimes in search of an answer to this question. You means you, nothing else. You are not just the wife of Rama. There is something more in you, something that is your own. No one counsels women to find out what that something more is. If men’s pride is in wealth, or valour, or education, or caste-sect, for women it lies in fidelity, motherhood. No one advises women to transcend that pride. Most often, women don’t realize that they are part of the wider world. They limit themselves to an individual, to a household, to a family’s honour. Conquering the ego becomes the goal of spirituality for men. For women, to nourish that ego and to burn themselves to ashes in it becomes the goal. Sita, try to understand who you are, what the goal of your life is. It is not easy at all. But don’t give up. You will discover truth in the end. You have that ability. You haev saved Sri Ramachandra, can’t you save yourself? Don’t grieve over what has already happened. It is all for your own good, and is part of the process of self-realization. Be happy. Observe their lives. You belong to this whole world, not just to Rama.’ 

( Ahalya in conversation with Sita. p 40-41)

Volga’s Vimukta or The Liberation of Sita is a slim collection of five stories. It has been translated from Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijaysree. ‘Volga’ is the nom de plume for Popuri Lalitha Kumari.  These are five interlinked yet independent stories inspired by Valmiki’s Ramayana. In each of them Sita meets the minor characters of Valmiki’s epic — Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya. With each interaction Sita learns a little more about herself and more importantly about what it means to be a woman, have her own identity rather than it being defined by the presence of a man in her life. As the translators say in their note: “The title story signals Sita’s emergence as the liberated one while the final story, ‘The Shackled’, shows Rama imprisoned in the bondage of Arya Dharma.” According to them Volga’s stories belong to a literary tradition of feminist revisionist myth-making but she takes it further and makes it her own.

Volga does not use re-visioning merely as a strategy to subvert patriarchal structures embedded in mythical texts but also as a means to forge a vision of life in which liberation is total, autonomous and complete. She also creates a community of women by re-presenting myths from alternative points of view, and by networking women across ages and generations. She achieves this through different narrative strategies: giving voice to women characters marginalized in the ‘master narrative’, extending the story of a character beyond its conventional closure; forging female bonds and creating a female collective; and redefining many conventional epistemes including liberation.

In fact reinvention of myths has figured prominently in Indian women’s writing. For instance, Mahashweta Devi’s ‘Dopdi’ and ‘Stanadayani’ ( Bangla), Yashodhara Mishra’s ‘Purana Katha’ ( Odiya), Muppala Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Visha Vrikham ( Telugu), Sara Joseph’s Ramayana Kathakal ( Malayalam) and Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s magnificent Palace of Illusions. Now Volga’s brilliant 2015 Sahitya Akademi award-winning The Liberation of Sita can be added to the list.

Volga was an active member of the Communist Party of India ( ML) but quit it in 1980, frustrated by the party’s pink ladypatriarchal attitude towards women, she quit left politics and devoted herself to propagate feminism among Telugu readers through her activism and writing. Her favourite genre of writing are the short story and criticism. She has written over fifty books. For many years Volga was at the helm of the brilliant women’s organisation Asmita which is based in Hyderabad. Asmita were in fact responsible for creating the iconic “pink poster” which I fell in love with while curating Zubaan’s “Poster Women” — a visual mapping of the women’s movement in India.

It is commendable that HarperCollins India chose to print the name of the translators on the book cover rather than on the back cover or only inside. Translators names need to be displayed prominently too. A practice that has as yet not been widely adopted by publishers.

The Liberation of Sita is truly Volga at her feminist best. (For once I have to agree with the book blurb! )

Volga The Liberation of Sita ( Translated from the Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree)  Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Pb. pp. 130 Rs. 199 

31 August 2016 

 

Wyl Menmuir, “The Many”

Timothy has come to resurrect Perran. He has come to destroy Perran’s house, to erase his memory. He’s come because that’s what upcountry folk do, to replace the drudgery of the city with that of the coast. He has come to
save them from themselves, or to hold up a mirror to them and they will see themselves reflected back in all their faults and backwardness. He has come to change them, to impose himself on them, to lead them or to fade into their shadows.

The Many is Wyl Menmuir’s debut novel which has been longlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2016. It is a slim novel based in a fishing village in north Cornwall. It revolves around two men — Ethan and Timothy. Ethan is a local and Timothy Buchannan is from the city. They form an unlikely pair and yet seem to spend a lot of their time together — idling, talking and fishing. They are seemingly bound by the fisherman Perran who had disappeared mysteriously some years earlier — Timothy questioning Perran’s disappearance and Ethan reticent about sharing any information about a man he was close to. In fact it is Perran’s abandoned cottage and its spoilt contents which is bought by Timothy when he visits the village much to the local villagers surprise, distaste and discomfort. There is a sense of despair hovering in the air, with the stench of death literally personified by the wasted fish caught in the polluted waters. There is desperation amongst the villagers in trying to eke out an existence by farming the sea for fresh produce which is rarely forthcoming. Whatever little money is to be made is dependant very heavily on the price set by Clem on behalf of the fishermen. The catch is inevitably sold to a mysterious group of people who stand a little away from the beach fixing a price with Clem. It is never very clear what they intend on doing with the poor catch, probably recycle it for the pharmaceutical industry but it is a paltry income welcomed by the locals since that is all they have access to.ev_wyl_menmuir

While reading The Many there are many thoughts unleashed particularly about the slowly decaying lifestyle of a fishing village, the increasing dominance of city ways and yet the inexplicable power ( and cruelty) of Nature and its complicated relationship with Man. It manifests itself in this novel in many ways particularly in the mysterious fevers that plague Timothy and his hallucinations blurring the line between reality and fiction. Yet when reading the novel it all seems so plausible that it is impossible to query it.

This is a novel that has to be read at one go but one of those rare stories that once you have reached the end you start reading it all over again. There are moments one has to pause and wonder if it is reminiscent of similar writing in the past and then realise it would be unfair to compare The Many to any other writing. Wyl Menmuir’s style is wholly original, it grips one with its exquisitely chiselled style to create a stunningly beautiful and memorable novel much like the Cornish coast is. As with most longlists that put the spotlight on new voices and new styles of writing, the Man Booker judges have been correct in highlighting the debut novel of Wyl Menmuir. Whether he makes it to the shortlist or not is immaterial for now. This is a writer worth looking out for in the future. He is a confident storyteller who is aware of what it takes to be a master craftsman.

The Many is a debut novel with an earthiness to it and yet something so slippery and mysterious, with an almost magical quality to it.

Read it.

Wyl Menmuir The Many Salt Publishing, Norfolk, 2016. Pb. pp. 148 

9 August 2016 

*Book sent by the publisher, Chris Hamilton- Emery

* Images off the Internet

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, translated by Deborah Smith

image

Deborah Smith (left), translator of the winning book, The Vegetarian, with author Han Kang at the Man Booker International Prize in London. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images. ( Taken from the Internet)

She was crouching, still wearing her nightclothes, her dishevelled, tangled hair a shapeless mass around her face. Around her,  the kitchen floor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shab-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us form the countryside ages ago, dried croaker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings and endless bundles of unidentified stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge. There was a rustling sound; my wife was busy putting the things around her one by one into black rubbish bags. …She kept on putting the parcels of meat into the rubbish bags, seemingly no more aware of my existence than she had been last night. Beef and pork, pieces of chicken, at least 200,000 –won of saltwater eel.

The Vegetarian or Chaesikjuuija by Han Kang was published in Korean in 2007. The Vegetarian is about Yeong-hye who decides to become a vegetarian. She is discovered by her husband quietly and methodically removing all the meat products from their refrigerator and putting them into garbage bags. A horrifying proposition as her father points out, “It’s preposterous, everyone eats meat!” Yeong-hye is reserved and rarely speaks even to her husband. She prefers to remain confined to a room in their apartment reading and reflecting. After deciding to turn vegetarian despite being more than a competent cook she inexplicably imposes the dietary restriction on her husband too. He seeks assistance from his in-laws in the hope they will be able to get some sense in to their daughter but to no avail. Slowly the mental well-being of Yeong-hye deteriorates when she begins to believe that she is photosynthesising like a plant and has to be institutionalised.

The Vegetarian sub-heading declares it to be a novel. But the published version consists of three interlinked stories told from three different points-of-view: Yeon-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister. While they tell the story there are marginal overlaps of the narrative but slowly and steadily the plot does move ahead in time. It covers the time from the moment Yeon-hye decides to turn vegetarian to her institutionalisation, abandoned by her husband, returns to society to live alone albeit under the supervision of her sister and then back again in an institution. During the course of this time supposedly in the name of an art installation she agrees to her brother-in-law’s suggestion to have her body covered in paint and then filmed having sex with him only to be discovered by her sister. Despite the betrayal by her sister, In-hye, does not stop caring for Yeon-hye and regularly visits her, “despite the probing gazes, that mix of suspicion, caution, repugnance, and curiousity” that she encounters from her fellow passengers en route to Ch’ukseong Psychiatric Hospital, Maseok.

It was first published as three separate “novelettes” and then compiled into a “novel” as described on the copyright page of the English edition. This is how it was published in English too in 2015. An early version of the story that developed into The Vegetarian can be read on the Granta website:http://granta.com/the-fruit-of-my-woman/ .  This curiously mesmerising example of a contemporary magic realism novel went on to win the Man Booker International Prize, the first after it had been combined with the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction.  Han Kang beat other powerful contenders such as Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Elena Ferrante and Kenzaburō Ōe. From this year the prize is now awarded to a single foreign novel translated into English, the money involved—£50,000 ($72,000)—being shared equally by author and translator. Till the win Han Kang and Deborah Smith were little known in international literary circles. Interestingly enough translating this book was one of Deborah Smith’s first professional attempts and she literally struck gold. She has said many times on social media since the win that she was translating the book while learning Korean. It was pure luck that this particular book went on to achieve international acclaim. In an interview, Smith explains how, having completed a degree in English literature, she decided to become a translator. Monolingual until then, she chose Korean “pragmatically,” because she had heard there was a lively literary scene in Korea and far fewer translators than for European languages. But she also very graciously acknowledged in an article how publishing is an industry and translation is a community – “nobody’s in it for the money, largely because there usually isn’t any”. (http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/deborah-smith-publishing-is-an-industry-but-translation-is-a-community-1.2688760) She herself proposed The Vegetarian to an English publisher who accepted it. It is the first novel she has translated. Yet there has been criticism regarding the quality of translation from critics such as Tim Parks who refers to them as “translation niggles”.  (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/06/20/raw-and-cooked-translation-why-the-vegetarian-wins/ )

For someone so passionate about the translated literature it is apt Smith has inaugurated her independent publishing press, Tilted Axis Press, with Bengali writer Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay’s Panty, translated by Arunava Sinha. To commemorate Women in Translation Month* ‪ (#‎WITMonth ) observed in August, Deborah Smith published the second title, a South Korean novel One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon.

*The Women in Translation month is an annual ritual started as recently as three years ago to address the gender imbalances in literature by blogger Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio.  (http://biblibio.blogspot.in/2016/08/witmonth-2016-day-1-ready-set-go.html )

Han Kang The Vegetarian: A Novel ( Translated by Deborah Smith) Portobello Books, London, 2015. Pb. Pp. 184 Rs 499

Tamil author Perumal Murugan stands tall, Bookwitty

(My article on Perumal Murugan and the magnificent judgement delivered by Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul on 5 July 2016. It was published on the wonderful European literary website Bookwitty.com on 2 August 2016. Here is the original url: https://bookwitty.com/text/tamil-author-perumal-murugan-stands-tall/579a0b24acd0d01df04c6447 . As an addendum to the published article I am adding three very significant quotes provided by eminent historian Romila Thapar, lawyer Lawrence Liang and Prof. Venkatachalapathy. Unfortunately due to lack of space these could not accommodated in the original article. Read on.)

 

 

Last July the Madras High Court made a landmark judgement about a book that was under threat of censorship. This had led to its author leaving his home and ceasing to write. At the judgement, Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul stated: “the choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book…the right to write is unhindered.” Using Biblical imagery he continued: “Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write.”

It was the end of a two-year trial that was a sobering reminder of how easy it is to conduct a witch-hunt in modern times.

The author in question is the award-winning Perumal Murugan and the book is Madhorubhagan or One Part Woman, ( published by Kalachuvadu) set about a century ago in Tiruchengode, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Murugan, a teacher at the local government college, has a doctorate in Tamil Literature and is a highly respected chronicler on the Kongu region. One Part Woman is the story about Kali and Ponna, a childless peasant couple. It is an open secret that families on both sides are encouraging Kali to marry a second time, an idea he is deeply unhappy about. Meanwhile Ponna is persuaded by her family to participate in the Vaikasi Visakam chariot festival misleading her into believing that Kali would approve.

When the English translation by Anirrudhan Vasudevan was published, a growing buzz ensued because the crux of the novel focuses on a local practice that allowed for childless couples to participate in a carnivalesque gathering and on the 14th night have consensual sex with anyone under the cover of darkness. Children conceived on this night were considered to besami kodutha pillai or God-given children. This ancient tradition apparently had social sanction.

Ironically, the backlash against the novel began four years after it had been published in Tamil, demonstrating the impact a translation can make. It was the publication of the English edition that concerned the petitioners more for “a foreigner or people from other places who read this novelized history get a wrong notion that Tamil culture is lascivious and that a sexual orgy festival as portrayed in fact takes place in Arthanareeswarar Temple. The novel is thus alleged to be offensive and scandalous, and unless curtailed, would lead future generations to think that the events narrated in the novel are true.”

In late 2014 Murugan had just returned from a literary retreat in Bangalore where he had gone to work on the sequels to One Part Woman. A nightmare was to begin for him: abusive anonymous callers harassed him over the phone, accusing him of being a Christian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Kongu Vellar. A few days later, copies of One Part Woman were burned. Despite lodging a complaint with the police on the night of the book-burning incident, no action was taken. Muragan even issued a long clarification the next day explaining his art and promising to revise his text in all future editions and to scrub out all references to Tiruchengode.

But Hindu fundamentalists remained furious, arguing that Tiruchengode is a historical temple town and that writing about real places “relating it with unreal sexual orgy” is disrespectful to women, suggesting they are prostitutes. A ban of the novel was thus sought on three primary grounds: obscenity, defamation, and that it was derogatory and hurtful to the religious sentiments of the Hindus. A court case was filed against the author. Murugan fled with his family to Madras from where he issued his now famous “obituary”.

The case was then fought for more than a year in the Madras High Court.

In AR Venkatachalapathy’s article “Who Killed Perumal Murugan?” included in Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, an anthology on censorship and free speech edited by renowned poet K Satchidanandan, he writes that from a modern perspective Muragan’s description in One Part Woman of conceiving children may be considered exotic or even immoral but “Such practices are by no means unique. Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices in many pre modern societies with no access to assisted conception. Classical Hindu traditions refer to this practice as niyoga—it’s even termed niyoga dharma, an indication of its religious sanction.”

The recent Madras High Court judgement also documents how the hate campaign against Murugan included circulating eight pages extracted from the novel without any context. Furthermore, it lists sufficient literary evidence to prove many elements of One Part Woman are based upon folklore and older.

After the case was ruled in his favour, Murugan applied for a transfer back to the college where he had been teaching. And within three weeks his short story, Neer Vilayattu (The Well), newly translated by N Kalyan Raman was released for free by Juggernaut Books on their app.

Of the outcome, journalist and Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, Salil Tripathi concluded: “The judgment is terrific in stating clearly what common sense should have dictated all along. This isn’t surprising; after all Sanjay Kishen Kaul had written the wonderful judgment defending the late M.F. Husain’s right to paint. That judgment, and this, together are part of India’s jurisprudence defending the right of any creative person to imagine and create art. After all, art challenges our thinking and may even offend; the way to deal with it is to respond by countering it through argument, through expression (and not violence or intimidation), and even by choosing to avoid seeing it or reading that book. What Husain experienced in his last years was tragic; it is good that Perumal Murugan has received justice – it is now for the state to defend his right to express himself freely.”

Perumal Murugan’s large-hearted response to the judgement was “I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me.”

***

Here are what some of the eminent academics, lawyers, historians and journalists I spoke to said. The following quotes could not be accommodated in the original article but I have reproduced them for their significance.

Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Fellow of the British Academy and a recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, Romila Thapar said “It was a good judgement in support of the right to freedom of expression for writers. It can also be quoted as a precedent in future cases involving attempts to silence writers. As has been pointed out by others, we as citizens must also create public opinion in support of free speech and not leave its defence only to the judiciary.

Prof Venkatachalapathy wrote“… it’s also worrying how everything hinges on the judge. A reactionary judge could have, in the same legal language, upheld all the charges against Perumal Murugan.” He went on to caution that non-state actors who enforce censorship do not respect such judgement so “while such judgments strengthen democratic and liberal forces we need to keep vigil.”

Lawrence Liang adds:

So I see the judgment as belonging to a series of very good high court judgments (some of which are also cited in the PM judgment) including the Husain judgment by Sanjay Kaul, Justice Muralidhar’s judgment in the Kabir case (Srishti Design School)- all of which provide relief in the specific instance, while laying out a wider jurisprudence of free speech for future cases. The reason I point out to the fact that this is a high court decision is that we often rely only on Supreme court decisions (by nature of their binding value) and often in the  terrain of free speech, a lot of the SC judgments were laid down in the fifties and sixties. Further they were large benches which makes them difficult to overrule, so lower courts have to maouevere their way around the thicket of bad precedents.
In the specific case of the PM judgment
1. The court dismisses the argument of causing offensive to communities and explicitly states that any kind of contrarian opinion is met with the accusation that it offends
2. The court recognises the chilling effects principle (laid down in Shreya Singhal) by acknowledging harassment of writers as a threat to free speech
3. The court uses the idea contemporary community standards in concluding that the work is not obscene
For all the reasons cited above, it is a very welcome addition to free speech jurisprudence, and had there not been relief in a case like Perumal’s where an author was driven to the point of relinquishing writing, it would have been both a legal as well as grave literary injustice if the courts did not respond in adequate measure.
3 August 2016

 

 

A Q&A with Australian author and 2016 Stella Prize-winner Charlotte Wood ( Bookwitty.com)

I interviewed award-winning Australian writer, Charlotte Wood, for the fantastic European literary website bookwitty.com . It was published on 27 July 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/a-qa-with-australian-author-and-2016-stella-prize/57961bbeacd0d0170d1e421a . I am also c&p the text below. 

From Stella Prize website

From Stella Prize website

Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, is a an allegorical tale about the power relationships between women and men. Winner of the prestigious 2016 Stella Prize for women’s contribution to literature and the Australian Indie Bookseller’s Award, the Natural Way of Things is about ten women who have been kidnapped and taken to an abandoned station in the Australian outback from which there is no escape.

These women have little in common with each other save for the public scandals associating them with prominent men – politicians, footballers, clergymen etc. “… they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut.” The story is set in an altered present that explores deeply entrenched patriarchal structures in society and yet, as the story proves, these gendered equations are a mirage; women and men are equal. This is apparent in the gradual transformation of the two main characters, Yolanda and Verla, who take on what would otherwise be deemed as “manly tasks” of hunting, skinning rabbits and providing food for everybody.

It may be fiction, but it is a landscape that echoes what a woman feels on many occasions. Having worked with women artisans, in a feminist publishing house, curated the visual mapping of the women’s movement in India by documenting posters made across the country since the 1970s and now reading a lot of women’s literature, I am more than familiar with many of the stories women share. What continues to amaze me is how similar the experiences are across continents and how various forms of violence, whether physical or psychological, exist in patriarchal structures  across socio-economic classes. The sensation of being trapped with no hope is ghastly, but in Wood’s novel, with no escape route possible as illustrated by the electric fence encircling the compound, it is suffocating. The rules are set by a diabolical corporation, Harding International, represented by the two men hired to guard the ten women; Boncer and Teddy. Mostly their arbitrary rules are horribly violent. Their swift, violent reprimands echo real life.

It is remarkable how the bleak and rough landscape turns into an symbol of sisterhood. In reality this exists too, although it is rarely acknowledged. Unconsciously women who may be complete strangers to each other will band together if need be. This is brought to life in the description of the chained women mastering “the rhythm of marching when chained so none of them is jerked or stumbles. This way of moving, shackled together, has become part of them, unremarked, unconscious.”

Charlotte Wood has imbibed the vocabulary of feminist activism, turning it to her advantage in storytelling, neatly encapsulating a range of feminist discourses.

The dystopian representation of a woman’s world in the novel may be too close to reality for many women. Women, universally, irrespective of their socioeconomic class, are often trapped in situations from which there is no escape.

Charlotte Wood, who is deep in the throes of writing her next novel, kindly agreed to an email interview.

Why this story? What inspired it?

Charlotte Wood: The first glimmer of the story came to me in an ABC Radio National documentary about the Hay Institution for Girls, a brutal prison in rural New South Wales, where ten teenage girls were drugged and taken from the Parramatta Girls’ Home in the 1960s. At this place, which operated in extreme cruelty until 1974, the girls were forced to march everywhere, were never allowed to look up from the floor or speak to each other, and endured all kinds of official punishments. But there were also many sadistic unofficial punishments inflicted on them. I was drawn to writing about a place like this, and how someone might survive it, but I needed to immediately to unshackle my story from the real place – for various reasons, including that many surviving women have written their own testimonies, and I didn’t want to appropriate their experience. Equally importantly, I needed the creative freedom to go anywhere with the story, without sticking to established facts or history.

From The Inconvenient Child

But a more powerful engine even than this arose in the early stages of the writing, which was that setting the book in the past, in a purely naturalistic style, was not working at all. The writing was dead and sludgy and lifeless.

Around this time, when I was having this difficulty and trying to make the work live, I began noticing something. It was already in my mind that the reason many girls were sent to the Parramatta and Hay homes in the first place was that they had been sexually assaulted – at home, or wherever, and had told someone about it. It was this – speaking about what had happened to them – that got many of them sent there. They were deemed to be promiscuous and ‘in moral danger’. This seemed to me the cruelest thing, that their crime was that they had been abused, spoke the truth about it, and were punished for doing so.

I began noticing things in the news, things happening around me in contemporary Australia, that showed these attitudes about punishing women for speaking up were not of the past. We had David Jones department store CEO Mark McInnes resigning after sexually harassing an employee, we had the Australian Army soldiers Daniel McDonald and Dylan Deblaquiere secretly filming a fellow (female) cadet having sex, and broadcasting it to their mates. In both these cases, the woman was vilified for speaking out. The David Jones employee was labelled a gold-digger, the army cadet became known as ‘the Skype slut’ by her peers. Around this time there were also football group sex scandals where the women were reviled for speaking about it and public apologies by the men were made to their wives, families and employers – the assaulted woman, by implication, deserved what she got. We had women assaulted by the likes of Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby derided as liars and money-hungry, publicity hunting ‘sluts’.

And I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, it’s not old, this stuff. These attitudes are not historical, they’re absolutely flourishing right now.’ And then, partly out of this sudden bucket of cold water and partly because the book was not working – set in the past, written in naturalistic prose – I decided to do what I sometimes do when things aren’t working: try the opposite. So instead of setting it in the past, I thought, what if I set it in the future, or some kind of altered present? Instead of writing ordinary realism, what if it became a bit surreal in its narrative style? And I started writing about ten contemporary, urban Australian girls who find themselves abducted and dumped in this remote prison because they’ve been involved in some kind of sexual scandal with a powerful man or men, and they either spoke about it or were found out.

And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker.

And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker. I just came to understand that I could only keep writing the book if I let it get weird, as weird as it wanted to. More than any other book I’ve written, I feel almost like someone else wrote this, sort of through me. I don’t believe that of course, but this tapping into the darkest and strangest things in my unconscious, or subconscious mind, was the only thing that would let this book come out.

At the same time, I was actively keeping a lookout for contemporary representations of incarceration – which in our country, mainly come from images and discussion of our immigration detention centers. The grotesque cognitive dissonance between the bland, PR-spin language of corporations that run these prisons and the horror stories emerging from them (all kinds of violence, sexual assault of women and children, self-harm, suicide, illness and death) attracted me as an artist. You go to stuff that is complicated, contradictory. A quick scan of the real company Serco’s website, for example, yielded a slogan for my fictional corporation Hardings International: ‘Dignity & Respect in a Safe & Secure Environment’. That seemed simply bizarre and obscene to me, that a company running a prison could use such schmaltzy language.

How long did it take you to write the novel? How much research was involved? Some of the descriptions such as skinning the rabbits & cleaning the leather with rabbit brain to create fine chamois must have required research.

CW: Around three years. Strangely, not much research beyond the first radio documentary (I deliberately did not seek out more information about the Hay or Parramatta homes), and visiting an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia of images and objects from children’s homes in our country (where many, many children were abused and ill-treated). For the rabbit skinning, I did watch a few YouTube videos (!) and I had heard about using the brains to cure skins on a television program somewhere. I grew up in the country and had friends who lived on grazing properties where rabbit traps of the kind in the book (now illegal) were used. I kept a file of images from the internet of all kinds of things to do with my book, in a Pinterest board – you can see it here. Other than that, I used my imagination rather than research.

Why is the character Verla given so much space in the story especially when it comes to her feverish dreams?

CW: She’s one of the two main characters. Dreams were a way of creating another consciousness, a world where she could drift into her memories and experiences of beauty and culture, a way of escaping the horror of her present experience. Her fever dream where she finds a river and feels the kangaroos rushing past her is a way of looking at the beauty of nature rather than the horror of their prison.

How did you feel while writing this book and later editing it?

CW: For a time in writing this book I really struggled with the darkness of the material, and felt that something must be wrong with me for letting myself be drawn there. But once the first draft was written, and the mess of it was in front of me, then the job of the novelist kicked in: to shape it into a compelling story. The artistic job was to make the material into something shapely and even beautiful in its darkness – but most of all I wanted to create a gripping story. The book’s main question grew more and more urgent: Will my girls escape or won’t they? Who will rescue them? How can they rescue themselves?

Tell me more about the title The Natural Way of Things?

CW: The title comes from a section in the middle of the book where the authorial voice steps away from the characters and muses on whether the girls will be missed in their own lives; whether anyone cares that they have vanished; and ultimately, whether harm that comes to women is their own fault – it’s the ‘natural way of things’. But the title also plays with the question of what a ‘natural’ female body is, plays on the notion of a return to nature and whether there is such a thing as a ‘natural state’ for humans – and whether that natural state is to revert to primitivism in gender relations. It also reflects the book’s interest in the natural world as a redemptive force, if the girls choose to see it that way.

If your book was ever optioned for a film or television do you think it could ever capture the feral anger so dramatically etched in your story?

CW: The book has been optioned for a film to be made by a team of young women filmmakers in Australia – I have handed all creative control to them as I would like the film to be a completely new creation of its own, and for them to have total ownership of it.

You can read an extract from Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things here.