Australia Posts

Aravind Adiga “Amnesty”

A man without rights in this world is still entitled to love.

Award-winning author Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty is set in Sydney, Australia. It tells the story of an illegal immigrant, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam aka “Danny”, who came on a student visa four years earlier but stayed on. Now he earns a living as a cleaner. The action of the novel takes place in less than a day after he realises that one of his former clients, Radha Thomas, has been murdered in her apartment. He is in a pother wondering what to do. He had been on pretty good terms with Radha and knew her secrets quite well such as her long time affair with fellow-gambler, Dr. Prakash. In fact Danny has often accompanied the two on their gambling sprees but only as a companion. Danny was not a gambler. He was also a teetotaller. Two facts about their Cleaner that mystified Radha and Prakash and yet they invited him along.

Amnesty is about Danny in a fix. He is an illegal immigrant in Australia. A fact that many, even his girlfriend, are clueless about. But Danny has learned to survive in Sydney. His predicament on the day Radha Thomas is murdered stems from his quandary about telling the police about Radha and Prakash and coming to terms with the inevitable repurcussions of revealing his presence in the country. It is a horrendous situation to be in as he left Sri Lanka for better pastures given the civil strife. He is also ridden with guilt as his father had managed to collect the handsome sum of over $11,000 Australian dollars to pay for Danny’s education except that Danny chose to stay on as an illegal immigrant. There is so much rushing through Danny’s mind while living in the present. Having occupied this grey area of Australian society where he is visible and yet invisible enables him to observe much more than he lets on or will ever tell. As an immigrant of South Asian origin he is able to witness the incredibly well-defined social structures of society where the whites dominate and is evident in the layout of Sydney’s neighbourhoods. Given his profession as a cleaner, Danny is able to flit in and out of homes, even in the poshest neighbourhoods, and gets a sense of how much variation there is in the quality of living amongst different sections of society. It also fuels his aspirations of being a legal permanent Australian resident rather than return to Sri Lanka. The very thought of returning home is a depressing thought.

In Amnesty the first person narrative is delivered most often as short monologues. At first it is a fascinating literary technique to employ as it helps plunge the reader immediately into a very personal space — Danny’s mind. But with every passing minute it begins to rattle the reader as this flood of memories intermingled with the rapidly unfurling events of the day, is a heady emotional cocktail for it is relentless, unnerving, disconcerting and suffocating. It is as if Danny has neatly co-opted the reader into his quandary. It is disturbing for this is a situation unique to Danny and Danny alone. Unlike with literary fiction where much of the reading experience is completed by the reader’s engagement with the story, here it is a terrifying space to inhabit where the reader is privy to Danny’s every thought and action. Helpless in being unable to guide Danny is an unpleasant prospect for the reader but it is nothing compared to what Danny is undergoing where his internal moral compass strongly suggests he needs to reveal all that he knows to the police but it will inevitably mean deportation to him. It is this fickleness of life and to a certain degree what he construes as unfair that keeps him unsure about how to proceed. Amnesty stems from the Greek word, Amnesia, which is also a play on Danny’s convenient forgetfulness about the visa he used to enter Australia. Yet this one day is critical in his life for it unravels his grit and determination to stay on in the country as he battles his inner self for figuring out what is the right thing to do — share the information he has about the crime committed or not. Ironically it is an amnesty he strikes with himself before taking the decision he makes.

In a sense Amnesty can be construed as a literary recreation of the Stockholm Syndrome which is a psychological response of the captive to align with their captor during captivity. Danny is the illegal immigrant who fears deportation to Batticaloa, the distress in the homeland in his mind is far worse than skulking as a persona non grata in Sydney. The “captivity” of being an illegal alien in a foreign land is infinitely preferable to home. In fact Danny is constantly assessing people by their legal right to live in this city. But he is gripped with worry when confronted with the murder of Radha Thomas. And the drama plays out slowly like a Greek tragedy in the classical one day cycle to figure out what Danny will do. It is very much a modern novel with its global theme of the status of migrants. Literature is able to say much more bluntly that journalists are unable to do or are choosing not to do. Fiction is able to take deep dives into the personal and give a face to the tragedy. Migration stories in journalism present a story that can then be used to influence or change government policies. Literature like Adiga’s Amnesty, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West keep such uncomfortable conversations alive. They are relevant. They are also an assertion by the South Asian diaspora to use their position in the global literary landscape to be heard.

Adiga seems to subvert the Australian literary fiction canon which is very focussed upon its preoccupations by preferring to show the subaltern’s view of Sydney society — a perspective that is Adiga’s literary trademark. In this case, it is the perspective of the South Asian immigrant trying to find a foothold in Australian society while navigating all the tricky socio-economic spaces. Adiga gives a voice to the minority that is not easily visible in mainstream Australian literature; not to say that literature by the diaspora is not making waves in Australia. It is. There are moments in the novel that may alienate the reader for its minute description of Sydney’s streets. Detailing the local landscape does make the head spin but it also helps in aligning oneself with the confusion that must be prevailing in Danny’s mind. Definitely not easy to read but by having a writer of Adiga’s calibre and literary clout speak of these daily preoccupations in his latest novel will most certainly impact contemporary Australian literature. Wait and see.

7 March 2020

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 4), 9 July 2019

Dear Reader,

It is a tough choice to select the books I wish to mention in this newsletter. There is so much good literature being published — a delight to read. Many times the ideas and motives for a book are also tremendous. But sometimes the execution of the idea or perhaps even the production in the book fails. Sadly such moments leave the reader in a pall of gloom.

But let us begin with the first book, a gorgeous, gorgeous collection of essays by the late Oliver Sacks. British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author who passed away in 2015. Fortunately he was a prolific writer and left a magnificent literary estate. His posthumous publications have included two collections of essays. Everything in its Place is the second of these books. It consists of his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!”  Read on more in this blog post.

The second book which I read ages ago but was unable to write about since there was so much to dwell upon was debut writer Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. It is impossible to put in a nutshell the feeling that this book leaves you with. It is a mix between disturbing and thought-provoking narrative. Perhaps it is best to reproduce the book blurb:

For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music and freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.

While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.

Unsurprisingly this book has won or been shortlisted for many awards including the prestigious International Dylan Thomas Prize and Jhalak Prize. It has been a remarkable run for the filmmaker-turned-writer Guy Gunaratne. In Our Mad and Furious City is a tremendous book but it will be Guy Gunaratne’s third book ( if he ever does publish it) that will be the one to watch out for.

The last book is The Churches of India by Australian Joanne Taylor. It is a heavily illustrated book with an interesting collection of churches in India. This book is an attempt to put together a history of some of the better known churches of India. Unfortunately the definite article in the title raises expectations of it being a comprehensive overview of the churches in India, which it certainly is not. It is a book that is focused very much on the churches found on the well-established tourist circuit of Goa, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Puducherry and Chandannagar. The influences of the Portugese, British and French colonial rulers is evident in the architecture. So the churches showcased are definitely magnificent and some of the buildings are many centuries old. Yet, the glaring gaps in the representation of churches even within the National Capital Region of Delhi such as of St. Johns Church, Meerut is unforgivable. It is a church that was consecrated by Bishop Heber when he visited India in the early nineteenth century. It is also the church associated with the events of 1857. It is about an hour and a half drive from the capital city of Delhi so its exclusion is surprising. Similarly by focusing predominantly on magnificent colonial structures with a scrumptious display of images gives the impression that Christianity came to the subcontinent with colonialism and that is far from the truth. Christianity came to the subcontinent with the arrival of one of Christ’s disciples, St. Thomas, nearly two millennia ago — mentioned briefly in the book’s introduction. Subsequently congregations are known to gather in different parts of the country with churches as simple and bare as mud floors and thatched roofs to the more elaborate colonial buildings as documented in this book. The vast silences of churches that exist in central India, north east India with its wide variety of churches belonging to different denominations or the northern states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, to name a few, is inexplicable. Finally, glaring errors such as referring to The Cathedral Church of the Redemption as “Roman Catholic” (p.230) is preposterous. As stated accurately in the book it was built for the Viceroy in 1931 by Henry Medd. Given that the British designed and built it for their Viceroy, a representative of the British Crown, it has to be an Anglican or Protestant church — a fact misrepresented in the entry. While the hardwork of the author is evident in putting together histories of the churches profiled, the reader’s trust in the facts presented is weakened considerably by these errors. Books like this while fulfilling a wonderful requirement of documenting these beautiful buildings mar their very own credibility by being slipshod in factchecking. Perhaps this is something the editorial team could have assisted the author with rather than the entire onus resting upon the author alone?

Till next week!

JAYA

9 July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evaluation also revealed:

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

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

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

16 April 2019

“Poppy Field” by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman

Michael Morpurgo needs no introduction as a writer and nor does the illustrator, Michael Foreman. It is a formidable creative team that has together produced some magnificent books for children in the past. Morpurgo’s stories inevitably deal with stories set in conflict zones whether set way back in the past or in the more contemporary conflicts. This time too Poppy Field focuses on World War One. It is a significant publication as 2018 marks a century since the end of The Great War. Poppy Field is about the origin of using red poppies on Remembrance Sunday and 11 November. It is as always a beautiful story told by Morpurgo that has this quality of immersing the reader in the historical fiction completely. It is done so effectively with minimal details and yet it is a brilliant recreation of the historical landscape. Unlike for adult literature where many more details are provided, in Morpurgo’s landscape there is least amount of detail provided but sufficient markers ensuring that the period of the story cannot be ever mistaken. Poppy Field is the story of four generations. The story is set in a farmland that overlooks farms and poppy fields that were the erstwhile WWI battlefields. Cemeteries and memorials still exist but they are so much a part of the landscape that the present generation barely registers their presence. Martens Markel registers their presence as he often cycles across the fields with his family to visit his father’s grave. Martens father died while ploughing their fields with a tractor that went over an unexploded shell from the war that lay buried for decades in their land. The grandfather is narrating the tale about World War One and the poppy fields to his grandson, Martens Merkel, with references to the fragile piece of paper framed in their home. The framed but crumpled sheet of paper has a poem scribbled upon it with some words scratched out. A poem that would later go on to become very well-known as John McCrue’s “In Flanders Fields”.

Poppy Field is a stupendous hardback picture book that will work for children and adults alike. A hundred years after the war means that few recall the reason why poppies are used remember the many soldiers who lost their lives fighting “on one side of the other, depending simply on where they were born. They fought in a huge and terrible war, the war came to end all wars they called it, which happened so long ago now that no one is old enough to remember it.” The soldiers who lie in the cemetries were born in Britain, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Canada, India, New Zealand, Jamaica, Australia, America. The symbolism of using a red poppy to commemorate the fallen soldiers is credited to Moina Michael of the American Legion who two days before armistice was declared read John McCrue’s poem in Ladies’ Home Journal. It moved her tremendously that she promised to “keep the faith” with the fallen American soldiers and to symbolise the promise by always wearing red poppies. The practice was carried across to the United Kingdom by a French lady called Anna Guerin who persuaded the British Legion ( formed in 1921) to have a Poppy Appeal in time for November 11th. Ever since then the red poppies have come to play a crucial role in remembering fallen soldiers not just in the two world wars but other conflicts since then.  Poppies are also seen as a sign of hope — a hope that one day wars will really will stop for ever, and all the nations in the world will be reconciled and live together in peace. Poppy Field has been created in co-operation with the Royal British Legion.

Poppy Field has been published by Scholastic and is a stunning gift.

27 February 2019 

 

An interview with Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves is from India. She earned her PhD from the University of New South Wales. She teaches creative writing workshops within communities, schools, and universities. Her research focuses on the arts, social media, creativity studies and postcolonial literatures. She created a series of radio documentaries entitled, On the Tip of a Billion Tongues. She received the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endevour Award. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Southern Crossings. She is the author of The Permanent Resident, which won 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Multicultural NSW Award.

 

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Sunita De Souza goes to Sydney is a powerful set of stories that are atmospheric. Packed with detailed descriptions of Bombay/ Mumbai, Goa and Australia. “Home stays with you, in your stories” is a beautifully apt description of immigrant literature coined by by Norwegian resident, originally from Nagaland, and the Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar 2018 winner, Easterine Kiralu. The comment encapsulates Roanna Gonsalves short stories very well too.

It is not clear if the principle of arrangement of the stories is chronological but there is definitely a shift in the confident writing style and evolution of the women characters from the first “Full Face” to the last “The Permanent Resident”. There is a quiet determination evident in the stories to make literature out of the most ordinary experiences such as in the search for Sichuan peppercorns to prepare Kung pa khao chicken for lunch in “Easter 2016”. This is a devastatingly sharp story beginning with the title which is so apt with its double-edged reference to the resurrection of Christ and that of the woman narrator occurring on Easter Sunday. Roanna Gonsalves captures the relationship between her husband, Ronnie, and the narrator so well especially his insistence for Sichuan peppercorns No substitution with Indian peppercorn would suffice. His steely stubbornness that he wanted a change in the menu despite the fact the Easter Sunday lunch had already been cooked. The exhausted wife (not just physically but mentally and emotionally for being stuck in domestic drudgery and childcare, reminiscing about her life back in Bombay when she could also be a professional) agrees to look for the spice even though it is the long Easter weekend and in all likelihood all provision stores would be shut. The descriptions of the people walking on the streets as she goes by in her search is as if a bird has been let out of its cage and watches in numb wonderment. The narrator observes everyone so closely; as if the boundary lines between the narrator and author are blurred at this point. When she finally finds a store open, discovers a packet of the spice, nothing prepares the reader for her defiant act of tearing open the packet of pink peppercorns that are “pink as the sky at dusk over the backwaters of the Mandovi”, munching them and leaving the open packet on the shelf and walking out for a stroll reminiscing on how the fragrance reminds her of her grandmother while the flavour is that of a combination of lavender and Tiger Balm. The story works marvellously well at so many levels!

The dark twist of “Christmas 2012” is gut wrenching. “What you understand you can control” seems so innocuous a statement at first and then comes the story’s conclusion. I found myself holding my breath and was sickened to the core when I finished reading. It is a dark secret of many households even now if one keeps track of child sexual abuse stories. The horror of it is magnified by watching the news of the shocking rape of Dec 2012 but it seems to have no impact on the father.  I cannot get over the image of the bossy Martha, fussing over the linen and cutlery and carving of the turkey, being so precise about the Turkey sauce blemish on the white tablecloth; she knows exactly what home remedy to fix the stain but is clueless on how to “fix” the moral stain on her family. The poor woman stuck in a new land as an immigrant has no one really to speak to and cannot in any way jeopardise her situation or that of her husband by reporting Martin to the police otherwise they will in all likelihood lose their PR (Permanent Resident) status. Hell truly exists on earth and it is usually of man’s own making.

 

The stories are full of very distinct characters, particularly the women. Usually in a short story collection the danger always exists of the personality of the characters blending into each other and acquiring a monotonous tone. This is not the case for Sunita de Souza. With the women characters, the author explores situations and how far can women push their limits. It’s as if they have always had an urge to explore but were boxed in by social rules of conduct back home in India. Whereas being on one’s own in a new land provides an anonymity that pushes one to the brink to discover new spaces — physically and metaphorically too. Driven to extreme situations the women unexpectedly find their voices and take a stand. It is not as if they were weaklings in the first place, they just conform and conform. Then something clicks and they take flight in a good way. They take decisions that change their lives for the better. For instance, the protagonists of “(CIA) Australia”, “Full Face” and “Teller in the Tale” or even the “bold” mother in “Soccer Mum”. All the women try, some do take action and others contemplate it and in the process provide a role model to the readers.

The strongest stories in this collection to my mind are “The Dignity of Labour”, “Easter 2016” and “The Permanent Resident”. The themes of domestic violence, fragile male egos/ patriarchal sense of entitlement that the men exhibit and assertion of the individual’s identity are not new and never will be but come together ever so stunningly in these stories. These are horrendous stories for the violence highlighted. While reading these three stories I could not help but recall the commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. The focus is inevitably on the first half of the commandment but increasingly I feel that women in particular should also learn to focus on the second half — self-preservation is equally critical. Don’t always give and give, but learn to maintain your dignity, self-respect, identity. The sleazy story “Up Sky Down Sky Middle Water” captures this commandment well. The girl was very sure she did not want to be a one-night stand but in that short ride she had done her calculation that having sex with the guy by the roadside would in all likelihood give her an advantage in negotiating her salary. It is a very unsettling story but in it lies quite a remarkable tale of self-preservation. She is near starvation with a very low bank balance and she has to do the quick calculation of whether using her body will give her an added advantage. It is tough to decide whether one passes moral judgement on the girl or appreciates her boldness, her quick thinking to be in some ways emotionally detached from the scene and think ahead of her future. The reader is put in quite a spot with this story.

The phrase “family friendly feminism” is fast becoming fashionable which is annoying for a variety of reasons but as your stories show there is so much work left to be done. Though the stories focus upon experiences of immigrants, specifically within the Goan/Bombay Catholic community, there is a universal truth embedded in every single story.

Fantastic collection!

 

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Here are excerpts of an interview with the author:

  • How long were these stories in the making?

I took about five years to write these stories, but they are standing on over two decades of writing experience.  My first job after graduating from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai was as a reporter with Screen, in India, back in the days when it was a broadsheet. Since then I have written journalism, literary nonfiction, blogs, scholarly pieces in international peer-reviewed journals, radio documentaries, including Doosra: The Life and Times of an Indian Student in Australia  and On the tip of a Billion Tongues, a four part radio documentary series on contemporary multilingual Indian writing. I’ve written for the stage and had short fiction published in different journals, and anthologised in collections. I also wrote a novel (unpublished) which was longlisted for the Vogel Awards, back when I was under 35, which is the cut-off age for that award. As they say, you have to write millions of terrible words before you get to the good words. So all of this writing needed to be done, over two decades, before I could write my book. It took this long not because I’m a lazy or slow writer but because I’ve been a single parent and have had to work in many day jobs to support my family, while writing in my “spare time”.

  • Why begin writing short stories when most publishers shun this genre, especially from a first time author? How did you achieve this stroke of genius to be known as the debut author of a fantastic and now prize-winning collection?

Thank you so much for your warm and generous words, and your fantastic, considered questions. You’re right. It’s very hard to get published, particularly with a short story collection. I felt very honoured to be published by UWAP and Speaking Tiger. I wanted to write short stories because they call forth a respect for the limitations of time and space, and enable a focus on the particular, the intimate, and the fleeting. The short story form offers a set of sharp literary tools with which to sculpt complex experiences and render them economically on the page. This form of the short story felt most suited to writing about the complexities of the immigrant experience. It allowed me to explore different facets of that experience, from the point of view of different protagonists, something which would be harder to achieve with a novel.

  • Who are the short story writers you admire and why? Did their writing influence you in any way?

I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of all kinds of writers such as Eunice De Souza, Michelle De Kretser, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ambai, Kiran Nagarkar, Jerry Pinto, Arundhati Subramaniam, A.K. Ramanujan, Chekhov, Arundhati Roy, Sampurna Chattarji, Arshia Sattar, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Tony Birch, Jeanine Leane, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Damodar Mauzo, bell hooks, and Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve had my fair share of Rushdie-itis, where I tried to magic-realise all my characters. That phase didn’t last thankfully. But yes, I owe a huge debt to Rushdie. So many writers have fed my work. As the Australian poet Andy Kissane says, “poems are cobbled together from other poems”. So too are stories cobbled together from other stories. I’m very aware of the debt I owe to the writers who have paved the way for people like me.

  • How did you start writing about the immigrant experience in Australia?

I started writing about this a long time ago, across various media.  My first piece of fiction, published in Eureka Street, ‘Curry Muncher’, was written as a response to the violence against Indian students in Australia. Having been an Indian student in Australia myself, I felt I needed to render the experience with nuance, and I felt fiction was the best vessel to hold this nuance and complexity. Exploring this topic further, I was also commissioned to write a radio documentary called Doosra, and was a co-writer on a national award-winning play ‘Yet to ascertain the nature of the crime’. All the links to my work can be found on my website.

  • Sometimes the turn in a story like that of the husband grinding the toes of his wife in “The Dignity of Labour” is too cruel a detail to be imaginative. It is as if you heard about it. Do these stories incorporate kernels of real incidents?

That is a lovely comment. However, I have to say that this particular incident is entirely made up. I’m sure this incident has happened to someone somewhere, but in this story it is an imagined detail. Some stories are based on things I’ve read in the media, but all the stories have been filtered through my imagination, and they are all fictional. I think fiction has the power to be truthful in a way that bare facts cannot.

I filtered some details of real stories. None of my stories are entirely based on true stories reported in the media. For example, in the first story, ‘Full Face’, the story of the hairdresser who is murdered by her husband is loosely based on the horrific murder of Parwinder Kaur here in Sydney, by her husband. But the main story itself is based on a different relationship. Yes of course, there is an important place for nonfiction. But the idea that fiction must be based on fact for it to be any good is not something I’m interested in. I believe in the power of fiction, the power of the imagination to help us glimpse our better selves. I’m not saying my fiction does this. But I believe that fiction as a whole has the power to do this.

  • Do you work or are associated with a shelter/organisation for Indian women immigrants?

No, I’m not, but I do know of many amazing Indian women here who work with survivors of family violence in the Indian communities.

JBR: Makes sense then. You have probably heard stories. it is not that I am insisting on looking for links but it is so clear that you are a kind and sensitive listener who has taken some stories to heart.

RG: Thank you.

  • I like the way you keep bringing in the Catholic Associations to support the immigrants, mostly provide them a communal and cultural base. The church communities do provide refuge for newcomers and immigrants. Was this a conscious detail to incorporate in your stories or is it a part and parcel of your own life as well?

Yes, it was completely deliberate to set my stories amongst the Indian catholic communities. One reason I did this was to counter in some small way the almost universal and inaccurate conflation of Indianness with Hinduism. As we all know, there is more to India than Hinduism, however rich and wonderful it may be. I wanted to gesture towards this multiplicity by deliberately focussing on a community I knew best. Yet, as you know, in my work, I do not shy away from critiquing Catholicism or the Catholic church. Yes, the church for Christians, the temples for Hindus, the mosques for Muslims, are all ports of anchor for new immigrants who find familiarity in old religions from the homeland when they arrive in a new country with an otherwise alien culture. I write about Konkani-speaking communities, Goan and Mangalorean and Bombay Catholics, just like Jhumpa Lahiri focusses on Bengalis, and Rohinton Mistry focusses on Parsis.

  • When you observe do you keep a notebook handy to scribble points or do these details come alive when you begin to write a story?

Yes, I keep a notebook, I also type up comments on my Notes app on my phone. I’ve gone back to these notes several times and they have provided rich material for my work. For me, the catalyst for each of my stories has been clusters of words that sound and look good to me. I begin with words that fit together in a way that is pleasing to me. I don’t begin with character or theme or plot. That comes after the words for me. So the notes and scribbles I make are primarily combinations of words that I’ve overheard or imagined suddenly when I’m waiting at the bus stop etc.

  • Your women characters come across as women who make difficult choices but would they be called feminists for making those decisions or just strong women?  How would you describe yourself as – a feminist or a writer of women-centric stories?

I am unapologetically a feminist. I owe everything to the struggles of the early feminists in India and across the world. Were it not for these brave women, I would still be stuck in the kitchen cooking rice and dal for my husband while nursing baby number nineteen. Our independence as women has been won through the struggles of many brave women, and I will never forget this debt. So yes, I call myself a feminist. All my female characters are feminists, in that they are strong women who make choices and are self-aware enough to deal with the consequences, however challenging or empowering those consequences may be.

  • Have you been trained in theatre?

I wish I could act like Shabhana Azmi and the late Smita Patil. However I have no talent and no training as a performer. But I have written for the stage and hope to continue to do so.

  • What are you writing next? 

I am writing a book of historical fiction, based on the imperial networks of the British and Portuguese empires. It’s about Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his Indian servant, set in the early nineteenth century in the south of India, the west of Scotland, and the east of Australia.

Roanna Gonsalves Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney: And Other Stories Speaking Tiger Books, Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 296

3 July 2018 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Cooney.
Photographer: Alan Weedon

*****

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

Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Mint ( 18 Nov 2017)

My interview with the fabulous Australian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah was published in The Mint on 18 Nov 2017. 

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel, Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005), is narrated in first person by a teenager, Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, who lives in a trendy suburb of Melbourne. Her parents were born in Bethlehem, studied medicine in Monash University and became Australian citizens. Her father Mohamed is under the “misguided delusion” that he is still young and cool and drives a metallic-red convertible blasting Italian opera or Palestinian folk songs from his car stereo system. Her mother, Jamila, is a dentist who is obsessive about cleanliness and is loud and energetic. The novel is about Amal’s decision to don a hijab as “I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I’m strong enough to wear a badge of my faith”. Her parents are concerned about the reaction it will elicit in public, not least being called a “nappy head”.

It’s a tremendous coming-of-age novel written immediately post 9/11, which has now been re-released in India, given its relevance in our times. The Australia-based, 38-year-old author’s next novel, themed on immigration, The Lines We Cross, will be published in January 2018 by Scholastic India. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What prompted you to write this book—a chick lit with a twist on religious expression and the importance of choice?

When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and was searching for an agent, I spoke to one agent at length, explaining the basic plot of the novel. After my pitch, she had the audacity to joke: “Is there an honour killing in it?” This was the stock standard narrative space for the Muslim novel and that kind of lazy, dehumanizing genre of writing about Muslim women was what fired me up in the first place to want to write something that challenged such tropes. I wanted to offer readers a feisty, free-spirited adolescent Muslim girl speaking on her own terms and, importantly, delivering a story written by a Muslim female.

It is believed that debut novels tend to be autobiographical. Would it be an accurate statement to make with regard to ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?’ Or is it an amalgamation of stories you have heard as a human rights lawyer?

I actually wrote the first draft when I was a teenager, 15 years old, and it was, at that time, very autobiographical. I was “coming of age” during the first Gulf War (1990-91), at a time when suddenly being Muslim and Arab was no longer an identity description but an accusation. Not only was I dealing with the demonization in the media and political discourse of my Muslim and Arab heritage, but I was also dealing with gendered stereotypes which reduced Muslim women to oppressed and passive victims of faith and culture. That made me want to speak back, and for me writing has always been craft and activism. I returned to the manuscript post 9/11, and realized that the story was even more urgent. So I rewrote the first draft.

How did you decide upon creating the narrator as an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teen? Did it take some effort to get the nuances right?

That part was easy. I drew on my own life, my experiences navigating multiple identities. The nuance was basically my own lived experience so it was never difficult to do!

It has been 12 years since this book was first published. What are the reactions that you get? Have these changed over time?

It amazes and humbles me that all these years later I still have people reaching out to me about the book to tell me that it was transformative in terms of their understanding of Muslims/Islam. Of all my novels, this has been my most popular work, taught in schools, staged as a play in the US, and currently being adapted into a feature film. My Muslim readers around the world tell me that the novel validates their experiences and empowers them to embrace their faith choices. For the majority of my readers—who are, in fact, not Muslims—I am told that the book has changed their perceptions about Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the veil. I still have girls contact me to say they read my book and were inspired to wear hijab or that it gave them that final edge of confidence to go through with their decision. The most touching feedback I’ve received was from a teacher in Canada who told me that on Christmas Eve, an elderly, non-Muslim man was handing out free copies of my book to people passing by a main shopping precinct because, he said, he felt it promoted a message of peace and harmony. It was one of the most beautiful and heart-warming stories I had ever heard.

The issues the book raised immediately after 9/11, about identity, race, immigrants, Islamophobia, are still relevant. Has this book been pivotal in opening conversations about faith, feminism, identity politics and social justice with teenagers?

Indeed it has. When I visit schools and writer festivals, these are the exact topics I address with students, talking to them about how writing can be such a powerful medium for speaking back to injustice, racism, sexism, and how they too can use their writing to navigate these issues.

Has this book been accessed by people across cultures and religions rather than being bracketed as a Muslim book?

Oh yes, definitely. In fact, the majority of my readers are not Muslim. So many of the people who write to me say that the book has helped them through their own identity, family and friendship challenges, and not necessarily from a Muslim perspective.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.
23 January 2018 

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories by P. L. Travers is defined as “autobiographical notes” in her the book blurb. It may be so but are absolutely delightful vignettes of childhood spent in Australia in the early twentieth century. These three stories were written probably as gifts to be shared at Christmas time, printed privately, and are about people — fiesty Aunt Sass or Christina Saraset her great-aunt, loyal and ever resourceful Ah Wong their Chinese cook and colourful Johnny Delaney a farm hand — all of whom had a lifetime influence upon the writer. P. L. Travers is better known as the author of the Mary Poppins stories. Of her great-aunt Travers writes:

…with her died something that the world will not gladly lose, something strong and faithful and tender. A human being that had cast off its rough outer skin to stand forth at last in beauty. A mind that was proud and incorruptible and a heart compact of love. 

When I heard of it, I thought to myself, ‘Someday, inspite of her, I shall commit the “disrespectful vulgarity” of putting Aunt Sass in a book.’

And then it occured to me that this had already been done, though unconsciously and without intent. We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit. I suddenly realised that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet. 

You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins

In her introduction to the book Victoria Coren Mitchell says:

These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers’ great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories. Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations. 

The spirit is there too, and many of the ideas: predominantly, that children know darkness. P.L. Travers disliked the Disney version of Mary Poppins because she found it too cartoonish and sunny. Her own books made room for the fear and sadness of children, their natural and tragic awareness of impermanence. As she says here, in the story of Johnny Delaney: ‘Children have strong and deep emotions but not mechanism to deal with them.’ 

Written in the 1940s but a pleasure to read now seven decades later. Worth getting!

P. L. Travers  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories Virago Modern Classics, London, 1941, rpt 2014. Hb. pp. Rs 599 

16 August 2017 

“Is Writing a Way of Life”

Recently I have come across two articles about what is a writerly life. The first one is by well-known Australian writer, Frank Moorhouse, in Meanjin entitled : “Is Writing a Way of Life …and if so, what is the writerly life?” He has been a published author for more than fifty years.  It is behind a paywall but here are a few relevant lines from it. It is a long article, well worth paying to read it.

Literary writers who eschew sales as an ultimate validation live by the legends of those writers who were wrongly dismissed by critics, whose first book was rejected by 100 publishers, and cherish the belief that their talent will be recognised after death. It is also a characteristic of many literary writers to be ignorant of the economics of our
vocation—some have a disdain for concerns with copyright, even publishing contracts or publicity.

The objective in all writing is to connect with an authentic readership (this may not happen quickly). Another characteristic of the literary author is the influence of the work on other writers and on other art forms because the literary author is sometimes working at the innovative edge either in thought or form and has a degree of
originality either in form or coming from the personality of the author expressed through unusual style. How-ever, some important writers work within the recognisable conventions of form and genre.

Ultimately writers and readers accept that in writing there are many different categories of ‘success’. Some of these categories sound better in French: succès d’estime (reviews, scholarly interest); succès de commerce (sales); succès de scandale; succès de culte. Others include: to be named as a leading regional writer; ‘best of her generation’; best gay, best Greek-Australian; ‘our most interesting young writer’; best ‘emerging
writer’; one of our ‘eminent’ writers; a ‘much loved’ writer; and as a serious writer with a small but devoted readership. There is nothing we can do to determine how we are evaluated at any given time.
It is a bona-fide, continuous, affined readership (not necessarily a large one) that the literary tradition seeks. And of course, some books remain as a valued part of the reading life of the society and ultimately go on, over a lifetime or longer, to outsell the sometimes ephemeral bestsellers of the day (although not all bestsellers are ephemeral
and some are considered literary). As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, ‘Fit audience find, though few.’ But how few?

He argues for public patronage to encourage writers.

Some form of public funding will always remain necessary not only for the encouragement of new talent but also for mid-career and late-career talents—older writers sometimes also require ‘encouragement’ along with financial support. The concept of social rights relating to the special nature of serious writing was absent until the introduction of public lending right (PLR) for payment to authors for the use of their books in public libraries (in 1974, through the initiative of Colin Simpson and the Australian Society of Authors); the reform of the Copyright Act to provide payment for multiple copying of their work and the establishment of the Copyright Agency Limited in 1986 through the initiative of Gus O’Donnell and the ASA; and education lending right in 2001 through the initiative of Libby Gleeson and the ASA for the use of their books in educational libraries. The beauty of these payments is that they are directly tied to the use of the author’s work by the community: the ugliness is that the rates paid are decided by the government of the day and have depreciated over time. Most authors would be happier with the funding of writing if it depended less on schemes ultimately controlled by the government of the day and committees and was based instead on a legislated economic mechanism out of reach of those in power. These sorts of payments, by their nature, protect the author from political discrimination, the problems of peer review and from attacks by those opposed to public funding of the arts.

The place we give the book as a culturally important artefact is evident in our strange economic arrangements for it—a treatment unlike other ‘products’. First, 70 years after the death of the author the work enters the public domain. Second, through compulsory licensing, setting in examinations and teaching by educational institutions
and other uses can occur without the author’s consent (though, now, not without eventual payment by one mechanism or another). Third, the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act allow people to quote from and copy the author’s work for scholarship and research work without payment. Finally, the work is available to the
community free of charge through the free library system. 

The book is important because so much of the activity of the world and the other arts depends upon the book for knowledge and ideas, for the exploration of intricacy, and we depend upon the telling of stories for our personal growth through imaginative delight, enquiry and engagement and for our stability as a person and as a society.

Nine years ago Indian writer, Madhulika Liddle, who gave up her 9-5 job to devote herself to full time writing says in

SM

Author-ity, or What Do Writers Really Do?

This fact – that you do not require a certificate to call yourself a writer – gives the average non-writer the impression that this isn’t a profession to be taken seriously. But, given that literature festivals multiply like rabbits and every year throws up yet another clutch of celebrity writers, it seems obvious (to those not writers themselves) that writers make a lot of money.

The reality, though, is far more mundane and far less glorious. Writing is hard work (and rework – there’s a lot of rework involved). Research is time consuming, creativity is hard to sustain and the entire process needs a lot of discipline. It takes years to write a book, and more to edit it up to the level that you would like to see in print.

What’s more, for the bulk of writers, the earnings from books are abysmal. Let me offer an example: my Muzaffar Jang series, launched in 2008, has so far sold only about 6,500 copies. That includes all four titles, and it includes physical copies and e-books. If you take into account the fact that I get a royalty of 7.5% on each physical book and each book costs somewhere between Rs 300-400, you can easily calculate how little money I’ve made off these books. Also, piracy has drained away some of my potential earnings.

Most of us have to find avenues other than just writing books in order to stay afloat. Articles for publications, both paper and digital, can bring in income. So can editing assignments, contributions to anthologies and the sharing – through lectures and workshops – of the skill and craft of creative writing. Self-publishing, despite the flak it often draws, can pay significantly higher returns than traditional publishing. Plus, a book with staying power can, as long as it is in print, go on bringing in royalties.

All of that helps me keep writing. That, and the knowledge that the greater my body of work, the greater my chances of increasing my readership. The more books I write, the more I get recognised. Most of all, though, the more I write, the more I realise that my decision to leave the corporate world wasn’t a bad one. Writing is fulfilling in ways it is hard to fully communicate. The research itself is intriguing, digging into a world that you thought you knew, but can still surprise you. Then there is the creation of characters, and the world that they inhabit. It becomes a part of you, and you fall in love with it to a certain degree. It is that love that you share with your readers. I will never be rolling in wealth, and making ends meet will probably be difficult for as long as I only write, but at least I will be content.

The bottomline is that a writer’s profession is a hard one, usually without the advantage of a regular income to keep body and soul together. It may seem glamorous but it is not. Yet as is evident from the two articles that writers make their choices.

Two more articles of interest about the writerly life:

Elizabeth Strout ( ‘If I ever return to a small town, I want you to kill me’ The Guardian, 7 June 2017 )

Laila Lalami ( ‘Laila Lalami on the public writer vs. the private self’ Los Angeles Time, 30 March 2017)

Colson Whitehead ( “Write the book that scares you shitless” LitHub, 23 November 2016)

9 June 2017 

On the Marrakesh Treaty and DK Braille Books

cd0877026f8140d697c127619a68bea4On 30 June 2016 Canada became the 20th country to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled (Marrakesh Treaty). According to logothe fabulously informative online community Spicy IP “The significance of this 20th ratification, (almost exactly three years since the date of adoption) is due to Article 18 of the Treaty which provides that the Treaty shall come into force 3 months after the 20th country ratifies it – thus setting 30th September 2016 up for the Marrakesh Treaty to finally become a reality!” ( 3 July 2016, http://spicyip.com/2016/07/the-miracle-of-marrakesh-finally-to-be-realised.html )

Spicy IP continues: “this treaty provides exceptions to copyright in order to provide access to published materials to the blind, visually disabled, and otherwise print disabled persons. With the coming into force of this Treaty, countries that have ratified it will finally be able to exchange accessible format copies across their borders. This is especially good news for countries such as India, where accessible formats are very hard to get.

The 20 countries that have ratified the treaty are India, El Salvador, United Arab Emirates, Mali, Uruguay, Paraguay, Singapore, Argentina, Mexico, Mongolia, South Korea, Australia, Brazil, Peru, North Korea, Israel, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala and Canada. It is pertinent to note that the United States is not a part of this Treaty as yet.

India was the very first country to ratify this Treaty in 2014, and thanks to the efforts of Rahul Cherian and others, back in 2012 had already brought in domestic legislation amendments which were in line with the treaty would eventually go on to say.”a66314d2c14d49bba85591d532aa1595

Given that only 1% of the books published are available in Braille this is a huge market waiting to be tapped. In terms of publishing what is truly exciting is that DK earlier this year began experimenting with Braille books. With the happy coincidence of the Marrakesh Treaty becoming a reality on 30 September 2016 it puts DK in an enviable position since they have spent a good amount of time researching this market space. ( http://www.dk.com/uk/explore/education/an-intro-to-dk-braille-books/ )

Though this project was originally conceptualised in UK, the books are available across book markets including India. They are available at online stores such as Amazon. A few weeks ago I saw some of these books. They are magnificently produced. The aim is to produce a series of high-quality, custom books with braille and tactile images for blind and partially sighted children, or sighted children with blind parents. The emphasis is on making the braille books fully inclusive, books that could be shared with sighted friends and siblings, teachers and parents. According to one of the production team members, Charlotte, who developed this list, “Children that have a visual impairment are more likely to have nightmares and experience them for longer than sighted children. Books about the world can help to reduce or at least mitigate these nightly terrors. Also, being able to access books means that people with visual impairments feel less socially isolated and experience improved mental health.” With this series “visually impaired people around the world can put their hands down onto DK book pages and instead of feeling nothing, words and pictures will reach out to them and will inform them of some of the pretty amazing things about our planet. Sighted readers will be able to feel the images too, and it will be a more interesting, exciting, and immersive experience. Both audiences can learn the same things by reading and sharing the same book.” These braille books are meant to be affordable, globally accessible, and fully inclusive.

Here are some sample images of the books:

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5 July 2016