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Poetry in India

For some peculiar reason poetry is quoted and used extensively everywhere but rarely does it get a regular space in a publishing house. It is often said poetry is too complicated to publish and to sell. It is subjective. Also many customers prefer to read poetry at the store and put the book back on the shelf. For many poets in India, self-publishing their poems has been popular. For generations of poets the go-to place was Writers Workshop begun by the late P. Lal. Some of the poets published by Writers Workshop included Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Nissim Ezekiel, and Ruskin Bond. Some of the other publishing houses published occasional volumes of poetry too.

Of late the practice has continued. Only the rare volume or two is published. Aleph Book Company has published some fine volumes of poetry which has included translations ( Mirabai and Tirukkal) and contemporary poets such as Jeet Thayil, Sridala Swami and Vikram Seth. Some years ago Harper Collins India published The HarperCollins Book Of English Poetry (ed. Sudeep Sen) and recently the excellent collection of poems by Tishani Doshi Girls are Coming Out of the Woods. Also that of  Sharanya Manivannan ‘s The Altar of the Only World which is considered as well to be a very good volume. Penguin Random House India has a reputation for publishing good volumes of poetry particularly of established poets such as 60 Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil. A volume to look forward to in 2018 will be Ranjit Hoskote’s Jonahwhale . The feminist publishing house Zubaan books published a fascinating experimental volume Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess edited and translated by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra and Ravi Shankar.

Speaking Tiger Books has begun to actively publish poetry — at least far more frequently than the other firms. In the past few months alone some of their titles include Rohinton Daruwala’s The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu: Poems  ; Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017) ;  C.P. Surendran’s Available Light: New and Collected Poems ; Guru T. Ladakhi’s Monk on a Hill: Poems ; Ralph Russell’s translations and edited by Marion Molteno A Thousand Yearnings: A Book of Urdu Poetry & Prose  ; Ruskin Bond’s I Was the Wind Last Night: New and Collected Poems ; Michael Creighton’s New Delhi Love Songs: PoemsLater this year the Sahitya Akademi is publishing what looks to be a promising collection of poetry by “younger Indians”, edited and selected by noted poet Sudeep Sen.

Having said that the self-publishing initiatives still continue. For instance a young poet and writer ( and journalist) Debyajyoti Sarma launched the i, write, imprint, press to publish poetry. Some of the poets published ( apart from him) include noted playwright Ramu Ramanathan, Uttaran Das Gupta, Sananta Tanty  and Paresh Tiwari. 

Now there are more opportunities for poets to publish in literary magazines as well. For instance well-known poet Sampurna Chattarji has been appointed the poetry editor of IQ magazine and is looking for submissions and hoping to be read as well! She writes about it on her blog. Another active space for poets is Poetry at Sangam which is edited by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra. It showcases poetry in English and translations as well as essays on poetics and news of new releases. Another vibrant space for poetry especially Urdu is the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival. 

There are plenty more initiatives in other local languages, meet ups, open mike sessions etc where poets can recite/perform their work. In the past decade there has been a noticeable increase in these events whether informal groups that meet at local parks or coffee shops to more formal settings as a curated evening.

Undoubtedly poets and their poetry is thriving, just more publishers are needed to publish the poets.

6 January 2018 

 

 

 

 

An interview with Manoj Pandey, curator of “StickLit”

Manoj Pandey, curator of #StickLit, Literature on Stickers, believes that literature needs to be made more public and the elitism needs to be removed from it. Hence he co-founded the movement #StickLit. There are stickers being posted worldwide on streets and in multiple languages.

Here are excerpts from an email interview with Manoj Pandey:

How did #StickLit come about?
In the same manner #MeToo did. It just surfaced. Because enough was enough. In this case it was the abuse of talent and passion. By institutions of art and literature.

Do you find that with the digital tools, literature has become accessible to many more people but at the same time, ironically elitist?
Yes, because digital has no reach or impact.

Who are the writers contributing snippets on the stickers? Are these new writers or established writers?
They have chosen to remain anonymous. It could be anyone, from household names to rising stars to nobody. They’re just people who’re thrilled by radical ideas such as Aristotle being read by a rickshaw puller. They feel that even this dialogue between two disparate minds, Aristotle and the rickshaw puller, deserves a chance. They feel that even a rickshaw puller deserves more than just a marginal experience. He too deserves once in a day to entertain a phrase such as: ‘To be or not to be.’ He too deserves the luxury of thought.

Who is selecting, rather curating, the information on the stickers?
We initiated it. But now the network and the movement has its own independent bases. Which no one has control over. The power is in the hands of the writers and the artists who feel for the cause and are doing their bit.

Who can print and paste the stickers? As the co-founder of the movement do you keep an eye on all the material using your platform or is it democratic in its use allowing anyone and everyone to use it? ( In this article on #JLF read what Sanjoy Roy has to say about making literature accessible to everyone. Sanjoy Roy’s favourite memory was the most heart-warming of them all; he narrated the story of how once an underprivileged man walking with his child was stopped by the security guard, because he “didn’t look like he belonged”. )
Like I said we initiated it. But now we have no control over it. And we don’t want to also. We wanted to question the institutions on why they’ve turned this dialogue between a writer and a reader merely into a function of money. We wanted to shake things a little before a book, too, turned into a bottle of cola. Or a candy. We wanted to bring back joy in the simple act of writing. That’s all.

Will these stickers be available in all languages or only Hindi and English to begin with?
It’ll be available in as many regional languages as possible.

Why are the authors not identified on the stickers? Does it not defeat the purpose of making literature available to everyone? Or is this a design restriction of being unable to accommodate the writer and translator?
Purpose comes before the person. This whole system of credit, brand name, following, etc., were created by marketers. Note: this is not a promotional platform for authors to sell their work.

2 January 2018 

 

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Author Academy

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Author Academy – Discover your journey into the world of self-publishing with Amazon KDP! – This Academy is geared towards budding writers to help them understand and learn from the experiences of established authors who have taken the route of self-publishing.

It has organised very successful events in Delhi and Kolkatta in the past to showcase the KDP programme. Now in 2017 two events will be organised in Delhi ( 10 Oct 2017) and Mumbai ( early Nov, tbc).

For details visit the link

The events are free. Registration is mandatory. Please email to confirm participation & city: jayabhattacharjirose1@gmail.com .

 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
International publishing consultant

Meeting Arundhati Roy at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh, New Delhi, 25 Aug 2017

On Friday 25 August 2017 The Bookshop held a lovely interaction with award winning writer Arundhati Roy. The Bookshop is a warm space that magically transforms a literary evening into an electric engagement. Personal invitations had been sent to the select audience. There was no structure to the event which was a pleasure.

Arundhati Roy plunged straight into a conversation. She began the evening remembering the late owner and legendary bookseller K. D. Singh. She then read a long passage out of her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness . Hearing an author read out from their own novels is an unpredictable experience but in this case turned out to be extraordinary. Despite the novel being varied and politically charged in many places, reading it alone, a reader tends to respond to the text. Listening to Arundhati Roy narrate it last night was revelatory as she has a soft lilt to her voice which brings out the rhythm and structure of the storytelling, softpedalling to some extent the political punch, but never undermining. Hearing her read out aloud was like being lulled into a level of consciousness where the magic of storytelling overtook one and yet once it is was over it was the politically charged experience of the episode from Kashmir which she chose to narrate that lingered on. It probably would be worth getting the audiobook which the novelist has recorded herself. On the left is a picture taken by Mayank Austen Soofi and tweeted on 17 May 2017 by Simon Prosser, Publisher, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House.  On 24 August 2017 a digital companion to the novel was released called the Re: Reader. It is being hosted on a website of its own. According to the report in the Hindu, “The Re:Reader can be accessed on a smart phone by logging on to its website. The visitor is greeted by a ‘floating menu’ of different chapters, each with its own set of animated icons, sound effects, music, and a carefully chosen excerpt.

“Re:Reader has snippets of text from the 12 chapters of the book. Animations show the text in a new light; music brings the period to life, and with portions read by Arundhati Roy, it makes for a dreamy, heady ride. But none of these bits of ‘media’ are presented as ‘content’ for independent consumption. They are there to tempt, to intrigue, to transport the viewer to the Utmost world, not to reveal or substantially replace it.” Later this innovative reading experience may be converted into an app.

At The Bookshop interaction Arundhati Roy mentioned how when she writes fiction she does not let anyone, including her literary agent David Godwin, know that there is a work in progress as she is unable to handle the questions about when it will be ready for submission. Also knowing full well that once she hands over a manuscript there is frenzied activity and she needs to be prepared for it. Interestingly when the manuscript of this novel was finally completed to her satisfaction she lay down on her couch and wept for hours.

Given the small group sitting in a circle around and at the feet of the author made for a lovely intimate gathering allowing for conversation to flow easily. Sure there were many in the audience who were awe-struck by the celebrity they were enagaging with and yet the vibes were peaceful. It was an evening where Arundhati Roy shared insights about her writing and editing process, some of which I scribbled down in my edition of the novel.

There are many parts of the book which need a book of their own. 

This book is fiction as much as my first novel The God of Small Things was. I use every part of myself to write fiction. Experience informs your writing. Fiction is trying to create a universe which if it were unreal what would be the point of creating it? 

When asked if it was an “autobiographical novel” she said “What is an autobiography? These questions do not matter if this autobiographical or the truth. The character in fiction is more real and eternal than the real person.” 

While writing fiction my body feels very different. With non-fiction there is a sense of urgency. In fiction I am just at my own speed. It is almost like cooking — it takes as much time as it takes. 

When asked about editing her manuscripts she replied “ I don’t draft and redraft sentences which some people attribute to arrogance. I think of structure and characters take their own time to deepen. These are people I want to be able to spend rest of my life with. I don’t write sequentially. I already have a sense of it. It is a combination of control and release.” 

On the structure of this novel she said: “This book is much more complexly structured. It is like a big metropolis in the fluid world. It has its old parts and its pathways. It has its democracy. The crowds have faces in it. When you see the narrative as a city then you are going down blind alleys.”

On writing: “The way things are here and now I would not want to write it scared. Just write.” She added ” Factual knowledge has to be charged. My instinctiveness works the best for fiction.” 

On the parallels being drawn between Anjum and Mona ( made famous by Dayanita Singh’s photographs), she said “Anjum is not Mona but she is in Mona’s situation. Mona is definitely not a political person unlike Anjum.

Arunava Sinha, journalist and established Bengali to English translator, posed an interesting question to Arundhati Roy. He asked if she had had any interesting questions from her translators. Apparently the Polish translator has been flummoxed by sentences such as “evil weevil always make the cut” whereas the French translator has found the “Acknowledgements” the toughest such as “who queered my pitch”. As for the Hindi and Urdu translations she is working upon them line by line.

While discussing her author tours as was done over summer she says she felt as if she herself was a tourist living in Jannat for she visited 20 cities in the space of 24 days. Surprisingly she returned home with no jet lag whatsoever! The reception to her book has been tremendous and she has been reading and promoting the book to packed audiences. In Buffalo, for instance, she was to address a 1000-strong audience and surprisingly not a single copy of the book was sold at the venue since every single member of the audience was carrying their very own dog-eared copy of the novel. Another anecdote was about Kashmir which forms a large part of this novel since “you cannot tell the story of Kashmir in a footnote”.  She has recently returned from a visit to the state where she met Khan Sahib, an old friend, who had scribbled in his copy of the book extensively with comments trying to figure out the references in the book. What was even more incredulous were the visitors she had coming by all night asking her to autograph their editions of the book.

All in all it was a fabulously magical gathering.

26 August 2017 

 

Steinbeck Reissued!

Penguin Random House India has published a selection of Steinbeck novels that have been beautifully rejacketed. Steinbeck is a perennial favourite. To publish new editions in a nifty size which can easily fit in a bag, light in weight and can be read while commuting is a great idea. To have such pure bright colours on the cover is not only a joy to hold an attractive book in one’s hand but it is also easy to locate if misplaced while travelling or one’s bookshelves. The best part are that these editions are also very reasonably priced. Worth buying!

The six titles PRH India has reissued are:

The Grapes of Wrath

East of Eden 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Mice and Men

 

 

The Red Pony  

 

 

 

 

 

 

  The Pearl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Cannery Row 

 

 

10 August 2017 

Procedure of Censorship

Academic Mini Chandran’s latest book “The Writer, The Reader and The State: Literary Censorship in India” is fascinating. It is also pertinent and must be read. Following is an extract, used with permission, from the book about literary censorship and the maintenance of a banned books list by the Indian government authorities.  

Read on… .

Procedure of Censorship

The actual process of censoring books in India is a curious business. The most common censorship practice is to prevent a book from reaching the readers after it has been published. This can be done through a court of law, or a governmental order. It is very rare to have a book prevented from publication in our country simply because there is no system of vetting a book before publication or ‘book certification’ like we have for our films. A writer can write and publish whatever she wants but, if need be, will have to suffer the consequences of her action.

There are no obvious laws to this effect and nobody wants to own up to this rather sordid affair of clamping down on free expression. Rajeev Dhavan notes that all orders to ban are given by the Home Ministry: “Banning books with the full regalia of official notifications is now a thing of the past. Much of the banning is done under the rules. The most important of those were framed in 1955 and 1956. Under a general notification of June 8, 1955 (later to be amended) books, magazines, pamphlets and like publications which, taken as a whole, portrayed the commission of offences, acts of violence and cruelty, incidents of a repulsive and horrible nature or glorifying vice which might corrupt or render those under twenty years of age irresponsive to the finer side of nature or to moral values could not be imported” (“Book Bans are not New”). He is referring specifically to the Customs Act here and observes how The Satanic Verses was banned on the basis of a brief letter sent by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. As observed earlier, banning under the Customs Act means that the ‘culprit’ is denied the right to state his defence in a common court of law. A ban and forfeiture as per the Criminal Procedure Code is the ‘kindest’ as it at least provides the writer with a forum to argue his case.

Pre-publication ban, post-publication ban, arm-twisting the author / publisher to withdraw the offending book without any official or legal coercion, removing the book from the syllabus of a university–all of these acts can be construed as official and unofficial acts of censorship. We can identify three major ways in which books can be banned –

  1. Books can be denied entry as per the Customs Act like The Satanic Verses, where Rushdie could not defend himself in a court of law.
  2. They can be declared obscene / seditious/ blasphemous as per the IPC and the author / bookseller can be hauled to court, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The book can be confiscated as per the CrPC and it also allows the author to file an appeal in a High Court against the confiscation. The court becomes the final censor here as it can uphold or deny the allegation and decide the fate of the book and the author.
  • The book can be declared unacceptable by a particular group of people for reasons they know best and harass the writer flouting all social and legal norms. The government can then ask the author to withdraw the book or ban it under the relevant section of the IPC, citing reasons of law and order or offence to religious sensibilities. This is what happened to James Laine who wrote Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.

If this is a rough outline of how to ban in India, there is the other important question of who bans? Interestingly I discovered that there is no simple answer to this question. I made an attempt to get this information, courtesy the RTI, and underwent a very Kafkaesque experience. Though we have information about books banned in India since 1947, it is very difficult to get an official list of books banned in India. The office of Home Ministry in North Block looked surprised and almost had a very British old-maidish expression like “Banned books! Oh dear! Whatever gave you the idea?!” Banning, they grandly told me, was not the Central Government’s and least of all the Home Ministry’s business. If a book creates a problem, the respective state governments are asked to take action against them. However, I was advised to file an RTI seeking the information. The application was transferred to the Deputy Secretary (Home) to the Government of India who duly informed me that “…this Ministry [Home] does not maintain a list of books that have been banned in India since 1947. As such, it is not possible for this Ministry to provide the information desired by you.”

However, journalist Manini Chatterjee of the Indian Express who wrote about the books we are still not allowed to read in independent India after 50 years of Independence, recalled that she had got a list of banned books without much effort from the same Ministry of Home in North Block. Although this is the ‘official’ take on book banning, we can discern a certain method in the madness. For instance, the government of Delhi (and other state governments) has a certain procedure. After a book is printed, according to the Book Registration Act it is sent to the Home Ministry where a press officer scrutinizes it for objectionable content. If s/he finds it problematic in any sense, s/he sends it to a screening committee. This committee that is headed by the Secretary of Home Affairs and consists of intellectuals and other senior officers of the IAS, IPS and CBI, examines the book and decides if it has to be censored in places or banned altogether. The final authority, however, is the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi who has the discretionary authority to decide on the banning. For allegedly obscene material the book is also sent to the press department of the Delhi police crime branch which examines it. Then it is sent to the press officer in the Home Ministry from where it follows the same procedure as explained above (Gupta 2002, p.213).

The censorship procedure is more or less the same for other state governments as well. In Kerala, for instance, two copies of all printed books and magazines have to be submitted to the Public Relations Director’s Office. These are vetted by the Information Officer (Research & Reference) who is under the PRD. In case of finding objectionable matter in any book, s/he refers the matter to the police who are empowered to confiscate the offending material as per our Criminal Procedure Code. The truth is that very few books have been banned in recent history and this explains the complete bewilderment on the part of the very same government officials when questioned about censorship. “There is absolutely nothing of that sort,” they vigorously deny. And then, as an afterthought comes: “The only books that we might perhaps recommend for confiscation are, you know, very obscene ones like ‘Sexercises’ and so on.” Apparently the requirement by the Registration of Books Act to submit two copies of all printed books is not seen as an attempt to regulate printed matter at all. This is speaking volumes about the efficacy of a bureaucratic system where the right hand does not know what the left is doing and there is obviously no brain that seems to be functioning anywhere! However, as we shall see, these laws have been successfully implemented to prevent books from reaching readers.

Mini Chandran The Writer, The Reader and The State: Literary Censorship in India Sage, New Delhi, India, 2017. Hb. pp. 695

28 July 2017 

St. James Church, restoration fundraiser

I received the following note from renowned historian and member of INTACH, Swapna Liddle.  
St James Church is Delhi’s oldest church, and was consecrated in 1836. It is also associated with one of India’s oldest army regiments, Skinner’s Horse, both the church and the regiment being founded by Colonel James Skinner. The church has been witness to many historic events, such as the Revolt of 1857. It was also the church where the Viceroy of India worshipped from 1912 onwards, when the capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, until a church was built in New Delhi. Located in the historic precinct of Kashmiri Gate, St James’ is a notified Grade I heritage structure.
This historic structure is in need of urgent conservation, for which the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage was engaged by the Church management to submit a Detailed Project Report, based on condition assessment, recommendations and cost estimates. INTACH’s report, which was prepared and submitted, indicates a total project cost of approximately Rs 3.5 crore. For more details please visit this link. The Hindustan Times article on its restoration project was published on 16 July 2017.
Donors can claim income tax deductions by routing their donation through INTACH. Their contribution will be put into the St James Church Restoration fund. All donations to INTACH receive a 50% Tax exemption under Section 80 G of the Income Tax Act. INTACH is also exempt from payment of income tax under Section 10 (C) 23 (iv) of the Income Tax Act. To fund this project through INTACH, drop an email to Kanika Dawar at Intach.

INTACH is registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs for the receipt of foreign grants for the implementation of sponsored projects. Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), Registration No. 231650350.
The church is happy to have both Indian and International contributions, as well as any corporate CSR funds – because heritage is eligible for CSR funding. The contribution form details are given in the image.
Swapna Liddle 
( 22 July 2017 ) 

There’s no GST on books. And yet books will become more expensive: Suppliers will have to pay GST, and that will raise the cost of producing books

On 1 July 2017  the Government of India replaced the existing tax system with Goods and Services Tax or GST. I wrote in Scroll the impact this new tax will have on the publishing industry. My article was published on 8 July 2017. The text is c&p below. 

Update ( 8 July 2017): At the time of writing the GST for author’s royalties was 18% and that of printing was 5%. Subsequently after the article was published reliable sources said these figures had been revised. The GST on author’s royalties had been reduced to 12% and that of printing increased to 12%. This is a situation which is in flux and the numbers have to be constantly monitored on Government of India notifications before the new taxation system stabilizes. 

On the face of it, the fact that no Goods and Services Tax has been imposed on books – there was no excise either earlier – should have been good news for publishers and readers alike. The new tax system, which replaces the older, multi-layered version, envisages zero GST on books of all kinds. However, there’s a catch.

While books attract no GST, many of the components of a book do. All along the value chain, from paper to printing to author royalties, GST payments have kicked in from July 1 onwards, which means that the cost of putting together a book will now be higher. Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins India said, “GST does have an impact on input costs.”

And, to maintain their margins – which have already been under pressure – publishers may have no choice but to increase prices. With most individual titles – barring textbooks and mass market bestsellers – already seeing dwindling sales, higher prices are not welcome right now.

Why prices will rise
What goes into a book? The intellectual property comes from the writer, in the form of the manuscript. The physical components include paper, ink, glue, etc., required for printing and binding a book. And the services are in the form of printing and delivery to the publisher’s warehouse. Now, with GST slapped on each of these components, the paper-supplies and the printer, for instance, will add this tax to their cost. In other words, it will be the publisher, who buys the products or the service from them, who will have to foot this additional expense.

The publishing industry uses the services of freelance experts for many aspects of editing and production – copy-editing, proofreading, type-setting, cover design, illustrations, and so on – all of whom will now have to pay 18% GST instead of 15% service tax. Since they will pass this cost on to the publisher, the expenses will rise further.

Explained Manas Saikia, co-founder, Speaking Tiger Books, “There is an 18% GST on all service providers. If they are registered under GST then they will charge it with their bills. If they are not registered, then there will be a reverse tax charge so the publisher will pay. The exact cost increase will vary and I would say production, pre-press, and royalty costs will go up by 5% to 6% in total.”

But why will publishers not get the same benefit that other industries will get? As with the older Value Added Tax, the GST also includes the concept of Input Tax Credits (ITC). Put simply, this means that the seller of the final product has to pay GST at the prevailing rate, but can claim credits on all the GST already paid by his suppliers. In this scenario, the publisher would have been able to claim ITC on the GST paid its suppliers – had there been a GST on the books it’s selling.

However, since there is no GST on books, the question of claiming such credits does not arise. So, the publisher will find their costs increasing because of the GST paid by its suppliers, which range from 12% on paper to 18% on printing. Said Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette India: “Printers have told us that there is a 5% plus increase in material cost due to GST.”

The impact on royalties
Royalties are the payment that a publisher makes to the writer of a book. It is usually calculated as a percentage of the cover price of the book – usually between 7.5% and 15%, depending on the stature of the writer, the format of the book, and the number of copies sold. This form of payment means that the author’s earnings are proportionate to the number of copies sold. However, some royalties are usually paid as an advance, to be adjusted against actual earnings later. But since publishers do no ask writers to return their advance even if they have not sold enough copies to justify that advance in the first place, this first tranche is thus a sunken cost.

Now, for the first, royalties have come under the indirect tax ambit, attracting a GST of 18%, versus zero earlier. So, an advance royalty to an author of, say, Rs 1 lakh, will now mean a tax payment of Rs 18,000. Who will pay this? As things stand, publishers are preparing to foot this cost as well, using a mechanism called reverse tax, paying the tax on the writer’s behalf as the writer may not have registered for GST.

Another option for publishers as they struggle to contain costs might be to reduce royalty payments to offset the 18% additional tax. That would be bad news for writers – but it may not be a strategy that any publisher will adopt willingly.

Summed up Abraham, “As it appears now, books are poised to become more expensive. Ironic for a category that has been kept ‘GST exempt’, but all the raw materials that make up books have gone up. So publishers may be left with no choice, but to pass on the inflationary increase from GST. Something the government may need to look into, if it kept books exempted so that prices could be held.” Added Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India, echoing a more optimistic view, “It’s difficult to measure the impact of GST on the publishing industry immediately. It is best to wait and watch.”

7 July 2017

Robert Seethaler’s “A Whole Life” translated by Charlotte Collins

One of the most beautiful books I read in 2016 was German writer Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life translated by Charlotte Collins. It is a delicate story about loneliness, solitude, relationships from a masculine gaze so elegantly old. In June 2017 Charlotte Collins won the 2017 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translation Prize. Here is her acceptance speech where she rightly points out that the book is able to show beautifully that death is a part of life.  “Life is one moment after another. They might be big moments or small moments but everyone is precious. And I hope what I have achieved in this translation is that joy in life, the extraordinariness of any ordinary life, any moment in that life. What we have to do is in life live each moment, observe each moment and cherish each moment.”

Here is a lovely passage from the book:

Death belonged to life like mould to bread. Death was a fever. It was hunger. It was a crack in the wall of the barrack and the winter wind whistling through. 

Robert Seethaler A Whole Life Picador, 2016

2 July 2017 

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: an Interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal

My interview with Balli Kaur Jaiswal on her new novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows has been published on Bookwitty today, 8 May 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean-based author of Indian origin. She is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, and Sugarbread, a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is her third novel, for which film rights have been acquired. The novel’s premise is a young girl under the impression she will be leading a creative writing workshop at a gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship, in Southall, London. Instead, she is confronted with a room full of mostly bored Punjabi widows, some barely literate, who have enrolled in classes to pass the time. In an unexpected turn of events, the women discover they are able to narrate and share raunchy stories which are quickly transcribed by a young educated widow amongst their midst. Before anyone realizes it, the stories are being copied and circulated around London. Exploring the Punjabi Indian diaspora community via this vibrant group of women unearths a Pandora’s box of social mores. Despite its incredible title, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a fascinating exploration of how women fight for their space and how feminism is lived within the community today. Balli Kaur Jaswal kindly answered the following questions for Bookwitty:

What sparked this story?

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with questions surrounding identity, migration, women’s sexuality and notions of honor in close-knit communities, among other things. Those themes are prevalent in all of my writing. About ten years ago, I spent some time in Southall, London’s Punjabi enclave and I knew it was the perfect setting for a novel which explored these ideas. I was particularly interested in how elderly traditional women experienced and expressed desire in these male-dominated communities, and I started questioning what would happen if I got those women together and gave them a space to talk freely about what they wanted.

Bringing together the concept of the Brothers, a young band of men who have been indoctrinated with a militant version of religion, along with the rising confidence of women in the local Sikh community is well done. Was it inspired by real events?

This is one of the strangest things about writing – you create a fictional character or scenario and then you see it play out in real life and you’re either thrilled or horrified. In my case, it’s the latter. I made up the Brothers, and through multiple drafts of the novel, I kept pausing and thinking, “Would Sikh men do this? Has the policing gotten this zealous and organized?” I decided that I could afford to ask the reader to take that leap with me. Then, a few months after the novel sold, I read reports in The Guardian about groups of British-born Sikh extremists in the UK protesting interfaith weddings in the gurdwara and intimidating the family members. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, it’s the Brothers.” It was heartening to read responses from moderate Sikhs in the UK decrying these acts and calling upon these people to focus on the important issues that need urgent addressing in the community, like domestic violence and alcoholism.

Linking the deaths of Maya, Karina and Gulshan to honor killings in the story is impressive. Was the subject difficult to research?

It did hit a raw nerve. I actually read about honor killings when I lived in the UK because around that time, Jasvinder Sanghera’s memoir Shame had just come out and there was a lot of talk about it. What she went through to escape a forced marriage, and the advocacy work that she so bravely pioneered, are remarkable and inspiring. A few years later, she published a memoir of her experiences in supporting honor crime victims. The stories were heartbreaking, and they served as a reminder that her experience was part of a wider problem that still affects girls in this generation. I think what struck me most was the idea that loyalty to the community overrode common sense and conscience. In one of her books, she recalled giving a speech in a Punjabi community in England about being a victim of forced marriage, and she mentioned her work in raising awareness about honor crimes. Afterwards, women lined up to meet her and a few whispered into her ear that they had stayed silent while rebellious daughters or nieces had been sent to India and “taken care of.” I thought about this moment a lot when I wrote this thread into the narrative – it made sense to me that once the women found their voice to discuss their suppressed desires, they’d also find the courage to speak up and act on bigger injustices.

Offering different perspectives of women—modern, young and confident (Nikki), young and conservative (Mindi), young widow (Sheena), distraught mother and lonely wife ( Kulwinder), is a fascinating journey in understanding how women operate in a conservative patriarchal structure. How did you achieve this? Did you need to work on separate character sketches or did they all come together as you were working on the novel?

The best way to create a character is to think about how others would react to them. Nikki was easy enough to conceive because she was a lot like me and so many women I knew in my early twenties. For Mindi, I wanted a character from that same generation to counter Nikki and introduce us to the conservative and traditional “going back to our roots” subset. Mindi calls out Nikki on her one-sided take on social justice and liberalism, and actually reveals herself as somebody with more autonomy than we initially think. Sheena was a sort of bridge from Nikki to the widows. Quite literally: she did some translating, but also she was young and accessible and they developed a friendship which brought Nikki into the fold. Kulwinder was the anathema to Nikki, and I enjoyed alternating their perspectives because it really felt like a cat and mouse game between the protagonist and the antagonist. I would say all of the characters pivoted off Nikki, which is how I usually write – start with the main character and work out who everybody else is and how they help or hinder her.

Your novel seems to represent the second wave of feminism very well. From its references to Fem Fighters and feistiness as displayed by Nikki to the more moderate opinions offered by her sister who focuses on exercising her choice, even if it veers towards conservatism. Even with the bibis, the band of widows, different shades of women exist but they represent a range of women’s voices that could be representative of feminist movements. Did this involve research or did it happen naturally as a consequence of living your feminism?

The research in this area was experiential and anecdotal. I didn’t read up on feminist theory while writing this novel—it was definitely more about the day-to-day applications and how they become complicated by other facts of life. I attended a liberal arts women’s college as an undergraduate which forever changed the way I looked at the world. I found that in the years after, and even now, I’m drawn to people who have that perspective as well. I’m a little surprised when I meet people (women and men) who flinch when you bring women’s rights to the conversation because it’s 2017; who is still regarding “feminist” as a taboo word?

The contrast between the open-mindedness of the widows compared to the more politically correct and careful opinions offered by the younger women such as Mindi is striking. Were these at any point modeled on real conversations and experiences you may have witnessed?

I really wanted to convey the idea that feminism comes in different forms and that one character can be conservative in some ways but quite progressive in others. We can also define modernity and independence depending on our contexts and what balance works for our circumstances. There isn’t a prescribed way to be a feminist; this is the major lesson for Nikki in the novel. Mindi and Nikki have differing definitions of “choice” and they exercise their independence in ways that put them at odds with each other. The widows come from an interesting perspective because they have been marginalized by patriarchal structures but they are also powerful matriarchal figures in a culture that respects and fears mothers. This is why there is room for them to speak up through these classes. I can’t pinpoint any actual conversations or experiences but I know that throughout my adult years, I have observed the various ways in which the same women who command respect are also silenced when their voices become too inconvenient for people in power.

A classic straitjacketing comment often used by women to ensure no one strays from the flock is “Women like us”. You use it sparingly but well in the novel. How well does the phrase sit with you?

I find it worrying when women buy into this narrative about how they should behave, but even more so when they start reprimanding other women. It’s an insidious way to maintain compliancy, and it has its roots in the larger policing carried out by men, especially in conservative communities. The fathers, brothers and uncles who want to keep “their women” in line are aware that there are spaces exclusively for women that they cannot enter, so certain self-appointed women do their bidding for them. “Women like us” sounds deceptively inclusive as well but it’s still about ownership – you can be part of the club but we’ll be charge of what you wear and how you speak.

Given how you show widows as women with real feelings and not individuals to be ignored, silenced and discarded, do you think that writing this novel will have repercussions on your personal life?

So far, I’ve received very positive responses from readers. The only repercussion I’ve faced is becoming a confessional for other people’s secrets, especially Indian women. They come to book signings and then they lean in and whisper these stories from their lives about their mothers doing special prayers after finding their birth control pills or their husbands being turned on by some of the saucier scenes in the novel. But I’m happy to listen!

What are the challenges that lie ahead for women’s movements?

Awareness of intersectionality is an issue. That’s the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to feminism and especially that women from certain backgrounds are vulnerable to other forms of oppression which influence and compound their experience of sexism as well. I’ve experienced this firsthand; people who rally for feminist causes being quite ignorant of the hurdles faced by women from minority races. I know some feminists who will say, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman” but if you said, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman and I’m a minority,” they are dismissive or they say you’re playing the race card. I’m not sure where this glitch in the system came from—where if someone mentions suffering from more than one kind of institutional oppression, instead of empathizing, people get indignant and protective over their own stake in the issue. I hope we can resolve it with more open and judgment-free conversations.

Do you think diaspora fiction needs to be pinned down in the “thingyness of things” such as illustrated by Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and those of the Bengali women as seen in Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s novels to resonate effectively with readers across the world or would a more general form of literary fiction be equally powerful? 

Readers connect to novels that they can identify with, and I think the days of navel-gazing singular “who am I” narratives are probably over. That element exists in all diaspora fiction of course (and arguably in all literary fiction regardless of the audience or the cultural background of the characters) but it needs to converge with a larger narrative. I think it’s an exciting time for diaspora fiction because readers want to be challenged and they’re open to nuance. Some exoticism still exists but readers have a more savvy experience of other worlds now.

Who are the writers and other creative people who have influenced your writing? 

The list keeps growing but a very early influence was Judy Blume because she told those stories that we needed to know. Like most people who grew up with her novels, I felt as if there was finally an adult in my corner, somebody who understood and didn’t judge the confusion of growing up. A number of writers exploring the migrant experience in the UK have shaped my perspective as well – Andrea Levy, Nikita Lalwani, Zadie Smith, Sathnam Sanghera and Meera Syal to name a few.

Balli Kaur Jaiswal Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows HarperCollins 

8 May 2017