autobiography Posts

Elton John’s “Me”

I read Elton John’s autobiography Me that has been written with the assistance of journalist Alexis Petridis. It is so full of enjoyable trivia about the music scene. There is not much about the business of music except for passing references to his hunt for a reliable manager or how he founded his own company, Rocket, and discovered new talent. He readily admits he was good at discovering talent and not necessarily nurturing new talent. He talks about his upbringing and never once is his family left out of the narrative. They are always present in his story. It is not as if stardom went to his mind and he forgot his roots.

It is also a memoir that documents his coming out as gay and then his stratospheric rise as a performer. Outrageous acts that helped him become more of the man he was. It also points out that gayness and being gay was not fashionable then as it is now and yet when he came out to his friends or dressed flamboyantly, the circles he moved in did not bat an eyelid. Interestingly he was always so astonished at his meteoric fame that when he began to hobnob with the rich and famous, he could not get over the excitement. A memorable line in the book is about the door of his green room opening and musicians of The Band trooping in. He was astonished. He says it was as if the record sleeves of his music collection had come to life. There are so many instances like this. All along it is so obvious that he simply had the talent to play the piano and he had no qualms catering to the masses as long as it made Bernie Taupin and him money. Even so, they were very critical of some of their very commercially successful songs and albums.

What I find extraordinary is the confident voice. Also he has no problem damning people. I do not know if it is that he has been more than fifty years at the top of his profession that he really could not care less about what others think of him. He has a very refreshing way of talking except that after a while it begins to pall and you begin to wonder when will the showman be done with this gig. Even his arguments with his mother and her bad behaviour on the day of his civil partnership with David Furnish is so much domestic drama detail. Quite unnecessary. It is of course delightful to come across anecdotes of Elton John doing drugs with John Lennon in a hotel in USA when there is a knock on the door. It is Andy Warhol which astounds Elton John who is still very starry eyed about the business but John Lennon does not allow Elton John to open the door as Warhol is known to always carry a camera and Lennon did not want a picture of two rock stars doing drugs becoming known publicly. There is another delightful one of Elton John and his then partner sitting by their swimming pool in their London home when they spotted an old lady cycle up their driveway. They thought she looked very much like Katherine Hepburn. And lo and behold, it was her. She had been told by a neighbour, whose guest she was, go across to Elton John’s home where you can use his swimming pool. 🙂

I wish there had been an interview or an essay by the Guardian journalist who helped ghost write this book. He has captured Elton John’s voice marvellously well. But there are so many questions I would like to know for instance, how on earth did Elton John remember so many details over the past decades? How much of this is really accurate? Did he research this for a while as a passing reference to his being awarded a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame is available on YouTube? How long was this book in the making? How many interview sessions and how many hours of tape were recorded? How many pages of transcript were there? This is the kind of autobiography that Richard Holmes is not exactly fond of the step-by-step account of a person’s life but I suppose a super star’s life cannot be hid. It is so much gossip and at the same time I get the feeling that much of the gossipy sections of the book are mainly about those who are long dead and gone and cannot really speak up for themselves.

On the other hand, compare this autobiography with that of Karan Johar. Both are showmen. Both had their autobiographies ghost written. These books were created after innumerable interview sessions. But Elton John’s maybe frivolous and champagne chatter but it is definitely not insipidly thin as Karan Johar’s book is. I also liked the fact that Elton John is respects himself tremendously — as it should be. In his first live-in relationship, his partner was violent and was known to have a bad temper. Elton John tolerated him because he was in love. But the day the partner hit Elton in their own home and Elton John’s nose was bleeding and face was scratched, Elton John swore he would not remain in an abusive relationship. The self-realisation of a DV victim is so critical irrespective of genders.

I would think an ideal book launch or a panel discussion should be between The Boss and Elton John. Both of them have written autobiographies that seem to ring true. Bruce Springsteen’s biography is stupendous especially his account of his childhood. Both musicians come from tough backgrounds, the Boss more than Elton John. Yet they were astounding successes and it would be fascinating to hear them in conversation with each other about deciding on how much of their life should they make public, what is the best balance to strike, is less more or do you give your fan base more or less how you perform on stage etc. It could be moderated by another book man who comes from as impoverished circumstances as Bruce Springsteen, Damian Barr, and he too has written a tremendous memoir.

Regrettably except for a stray reference and that was because the paper dedicated a section to “celebrity memoirs”, Me has been overlooked in most year-end recommended reading lists. Sad. Nevertheless, read it for yourself. It is a rollicking read!

6 Dec 2019

Book Post 48: 22-28 Oct 2019

Book Post 48 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

29 Oct 2019

Book Post 47: 14 – 21 Oct 2019

Book Post 47 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

22 Oct 2019

“First Person” by Richard Flanagan

My review of award winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s latest novel First Person was published in The Hindu on Sunday, 4 February 2018. I am also c&p the text below. 

Flanagan examines the art and artifice of autobiography writing

Kif Kehlmann, a writer struggling to write his first book, is approached by his childhood friend Ray to ghost-write a memoir of Ray’s boss. The said boss is Australia’s most notorious conman Siegfried Heidl or Ziggy, who had swindled banks of 700 million dollars. Ziggy is out on bail.

This gives his publisher, Gene Paley of Schlegel Trans-Pacific Publishing, about six weeks to commission a “page-turner” and have it published in time for the trial.

For this Ziggy is to be paid the handsome sum of $250,000 whereas Kif is offered $10,000, with no royalties, to be paid in equal instalments upon submission of the manuscript and the publication of the book. If Kif failed to deliver he would be paid only the termination fee of $500.

Faustian pact

The book is about Kif attempting to get Ziggy to share incidents from his life which he could then convert into a saleable story. This Faustian pact is a soul-sapping task for Kif as Ziggy is evasive or spins incredibly fantastic tales that are impossible to verify.

There are rumours of Ziggy’s links to the CIA in Laos in the early 1970s, of him being hired by NASA to establish a rocket facility in the southern hemisphere, being involved in the deposition of Australian Prime Minister Whitlam and his alleged role in the Allende-Chile affair. Kif’s description of Ziggy is apt: “Even working with him it was hard to see him. I remember he didn’t have much hair and he was of indeterminate age, small, slightly stout, [a] hobgoblin… little sorcerer… From the beginning he was always there and never to be found.”

The novel traces Kif’s growing frustration with his elusive subject. Kif had hoped that the book would be his ticket out of writerly poverty and perhaps fetch him a better publishing contract. While those possibilities seem to recede, his current publisher becomes more and more difficult.

Paley dispels any notion Kif may have had about artistic freedom by mentioning that in France ghost-writers are called Nègres or slaves.

With such limiting conditions, Kif sets to work, inventing where he cannot find facts. He delivers the page-turner within the stipulated time by “learning to distract from the truth by amusing the reader; to flatter the reader by playing on what they believed to be their virtues — their idea of goodness and decency — whilst leading them even further into an alien darkness that was the real world and, perhaps, the real them; and, on occasion, I feared, the real me.”

In the early 1990s, Richard Flanagan had been hired by the fraudster John Friedrich to ghost-write his autobiography in six weeks as he awaited trial for a 300 million dollar fraud. Friedrich died during those six weeks, as does Siegfried in the story.

Writing the self

Although First Person is promoted as a novel, it closely follows Flanagan’s experience of ghost-writing a novel for a criminal. It brings into focus much-debated issues of craftsmanship, of remaining true to one’s art or capitulating to market forces.

Flanagan also questions the premise of autobiography as an art form. Autobiographies are trending now as they go well with the general preference for reality shows and intimate confessions made in the first person.

For Flanagan, an autobiography is a literary selfie.

When Kif dwells on the fine balance between truth and storytelling in an autobiography, he too concludes that “a memoir was a series of selected lies”. Kif is a nom de plume, a short for “keefer” — a substance, especially cannabis, smoked to produce a drowsy state.

Isn’t the reader expected to suspend her disbelief while reading the novel?

First Person; Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, ₹599

Ravi Singh’s speech introducing Ruskin Bond, 20 June 2017

On 20 June 2017 Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing was released at Taj Man Singh Hotel, New Delhi. He was in conversation with noted journalist Nalin Mehta. To introduce Ruskin Bond his long time editor and co-founder Speaking Tiger, Ravi Singh, read out a beautiful speech remembering their decades of association. With Ravi Singh permission the speech is published below. I am also including a short clip I made at the launch of Ruskin Bond talking about the noted Hindi writer Rakesh Mohan being his teacher at Bishop Cotton School, Simla and later Bond’s poor attempt at translating Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” into Hindi. 

L-R: Ravi Singh, Ruskin Bond and Nalin Mehta

I remember my first meeting with Mr Bond. It was in 1995, shortly after I’d entered publishing, and I was both excited and nervous. I’d read his stories in school—‘The Kite Maker’, ‘A Face in the Dark’, ‘The Room of Many Colours’, ‘The Tiger in the Tunnel’—and I’d gone back to them many times: there was wonder and magic, of course, but they were also about unusual things—about losing and dying; children finding fellowship with elderly strangers; mutual, unspoken respect between people and animals; and some very subtle and scary ghosts. He was to me the equal of Chekhov, Tagore, Premchand or Dickens—like a benevolent but unreachable legend. By the time I met him, I had read many of his other works, including the intensely moving classic The Room on the Roof—and the memorable long stories A Flight of Pigeons, Time Stops at Shamli and Delhi Is Not Far.

So I wasn’t at all prepared for the understated, warm, witty and utterly approachable person who treated me as an equal and made me a friend. This happened so effortlessly, that it was only much later that I was surprised and grateful. It seemed entirely natural to have such an engaging and generous companion. And that is exactly whatRuskin Bond’s stories have done to millions over 60 years—to readers of all ages, and in big cities, small towns and little hamlets. Only the greatest writers can do that.

Lone Fox Dancing is the story of the making of this extraordinary storyteller and human being, who has never been afraid to be simple and entirely himself. The autobiography begins in Mussoorie in the 1930s, moves to Jamnagar, Dehradun, New Delhi, Jersey, London, and returns to Mussoorie. There’s mischief and adventure in it; there’s also loneliness, resilience, eccentricity, conviction, compassion—and above all, there’s friendship—with people, with birds and animals, with great trees and with little flowers growing out of broken concrete.

Read this book to see what’s been gained and lost in India since the 1930s and 40s—not in the halls of power but in the streets and mohallas, bazaars and cinema halls, jungles and railway stations. Read it to know how writers are made, beyond noise and glamour. Read it for the art of carrying on when you lose a beloved parent, when your work is rejected or under-appreciated, when someone you love doesn’t love you back, when people fail you or you fail them, when your earnings are paltry though your responsibilities are growing, or when winters get cold and miserable.Ruskin Bond has found there’s always reward if you persevere; there’s spring and birdsong after harsh winters, there’s beauty and there are friends in unexpected places, and a sense of humour—a good joke—and plain old optimism will sustain you through hard times and keep you grounded in good times.

Mr Bond’s long-awaited autobiography has everything we’ve cherished in his enduring stories and essays.

I really shouldn’t stand any longer between you and one of our finest, most entertaining and best-loved writers—except to say how delighted and privileged we are to have published his autobiography…

26 June 2017 

Guest post: On Krishna Baldev Vaid

(Dr Shobhana Bhattacharji retired as professor of English Literature from Delhi University a few years ago. Her doctorate is in Lord Byron’s drama. She is fluent in English and Hindi. She reviewed Krishna Baldev Vaid’s novels when they were first published by Penguin India in the 1990s. Now the books have been rejacketed and reissued. Here is her review with a short introductory note.)

The translations of Krishna Baldev Vaid‘s two autobiographical novels were so different to each other that I read the Hindi versions to see whether the difference was in the originals. Till then, I had not read the original of a translated work I had to review on the principle that a translation is meant for a target audience and I tried to read it like an ideal target reader. Reading these novels in Hindi, however, taught me how much a translator, even if the translator is the author himself, can alter a novel. The Hindi title of Steps in Darkness is Uska Bachpan. The title of the second novel in Hindi, written 25 years later, was Guzra Hua Zamaana, which was also a famous Madhubala/Lata film song from the sad love story Shirin Farhad, filmed in 1956. It is Shirin’s final goodbye to her beloved Farhad as her ‘doli’ (bridal conveyance) leaves for her husband’s home. She begs Farhad not to accuse her of infidelity; her marriage to another man was not of her making. Vaid‘s novel is a searing farewell to his beloved pre-Partition India.

 I met Krishna Baldev Vaid for the first time soon after the review was published two decades ago — August 1996. He told me he had liked it very much. All these years later, I am still honoured and delighted that he did.
Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharji ( June 2017) 

These two novels, written a quarter of a century apart, centre around Beero, who lives in a small town in undivided Punjab. In the first novel, confused by the adult world, and suffocated by the poverty of his home, Beero is young enough to enjoy snuggling in his grandmother’s lap. His parents are embarrassed to beg the shopkeeper for goods they cannot pay for, so they send Beero, whose dignity is lacerated by this as it is by his torn shorts and having to fetch his father from the gambling den. He escapes into his dreams. The filth and stink of their slum assail the reader but Beero entertains himself with a hornets’ nest in the drain. He dreams of tying some hornets together by their legs and making a kite for himself. None of his dreams is fulfilled. There is no money to buy or make kites. His happiness in his grandmother’s stinking lap is free, but is taken away because his mother hates it.

His friends unwittingly remind him of his unhappiness. Aslam, for instance, has a happy home and a beautiful married sister, Hafeeza, whom Beero gets a crush on. Beero’s mother hates “Muslas” and warns her son against them, but Beero eats at Aslam’s home and becomes “half a Muslim,” as he says in the second novel in which he also recites the kalma. Beero’s own home is riven with misery. The parents have terrible fights over money, the father’s drinking, gambling, and friendship with a sardar, called “Miser” by Beero’s mother who suspects her husband–rightly, as it turns out in the second book–of sleeping with the Miser’s beautiful wife. The mother spits venom and turns everything into tense misery. Her rages dominate Beero’s life but not his understanding. There is a searing passage where a bored Beero, who wants to hear about kings and princesses, listens to what he considers his mother’s complicated repetitious story of her early married life:

O, it was hell. Your Granny used to starve me for days on end. She used to lock me up in the lumber-room; I wonder I didn’t die of fear. No one ever cared for me. Neglected, I used to cry all by myself all the twenty-four hours. Your father was even then addicted to loafing. He never came home from school. Your Granny is to blame for spoiling him. She was always reproachful toward me because I had no sense. What sense could I have at that age?. . . Girls of my age were still playing hide-and-seek in the lanes while I had to wash mounds of clothes. In winter my tiny hands were always numb. I had fever every night; my bones used to ache; and all I had to sleep in was a worn-out blanket. Oh, the long dark frightful winter nights I spent shivering and crying, silently, for at the slightest sound your Granny would get up and start cursing the day she married her son to me. . . .Very often just as I lay down late at night after a day’s drudgery I would be commanded to press your Granny’s legs. While doing that if I happened to doze off I was kicked and beaten. (49-50).

Stories weave a complex pattern through the novel. There is, for instance, the richly ironic echo of the Ramayan in Beero’s mother’s name, Janaki. Beero’s love for fairy stories is soon replaced with fantasies of a fight-free home. Once he actually makes a fantasy come true. Anticipating a storm if his mother comes out of the kitchen and sees a hated neighbour talking to Devi, Beero’s sister, he efficiently lies to both parties of the potential war and gets the neighbour out of the house. Beero has two aims: to comprehend the world and to make it a less anxious place. When the domestic violence gets out of hand, he tries to die, but even that escape is not permitted. We leave him looking into a mirror which he has broken.

The wonder of Steps in Darkness lies in its graceful intermingling of the child’s confusion with solid details of the place, its people and their relationships. Its power is in its language. When one responds in two languages to a book, one wonders how much of Tolstoy and others one has missed. Some translation, of course, is better than none, and some translations are better than others. In this one, for instance, the curses, especially the vivid “progeny of swine” or “progeny of a dog,” require less than a second to translate back into the original and with it come stomach-knotting memories of school in Punjab where either curse would result in furious battles. Because of such violent consequences, “kutte ka bachcha” means much more–at least, it did forty years ago–as an insult than “son of a bitch,” and one is grateful that the author did not use “son of a bitch” in his translation. There are few glitches. For instance, “loaves” for “chapatis” doesn’t work. “Loaves” would probably remind most middle-class readers of Britannia bread. For readers unfamiliar with chapatis, to speak of two or three loaves per person, even among the well off, would be unbelievable.

On the whole, however, the translation has a cultural flavour that the second book does not. Its English is smoother, less defamiliarized, but sometimes, as in “soul” of a singer’s voice (27), one is uncertain what the original might have been. (It is “soz”.) Occasionally, the translation  illuminates both versions, e.g. “gorilla” for “pehlwan.” Of course, not every reader will respond in two or, as these books require, three languages, but one misses the immediacy of Steps in Darkness.

There is a lot of mysteriousness in the novel. Why do Devi and her father weep at the end of the novel? What is Naresh’s relationship with his “mother”? Why is Aslam withdrawn after his sister leaves for Lahore? Some of the incomprehensibility is consistent with the child’s steps in darkness, but there should have been some way of making the reader know more than Beero.

The wonderful preface of Guzara Hua Zamana has been dropped in The Broken Mirror. In it, the character Beero talks of how the writer created an incomplete Beero in the first novel and then tried to flesh him out in later stories. Twenty-five years later, Beero tells him that he cannot escape another novel about Beero and that if the novelist is going to drag his feet over it, Beero himself will write it. At this point, he says, he fainted and when he recovered, the novel had been written.

In this first person narrative, Beero tries to piece together the images split by the shattered mirror of the end of the previous story but gives up the attempt because, as he says in passing, the partial stories he had written were lost in the Partition riots. The Broken Mirror is composed of his different worlds–Lanes, Bazaar, Lahore, and Borderlands. The English version does not have Beero’s caustic critique of the first novel. Other minor details that have been dropped also take away from a richness that Guzara Hua Zamana has. For instance, Allah Ditta’s incompetence is wonderfully conveyed in the casual comment that he must have murdered some Iranian doctor, stolen his degree, and set up practice here. No one believes this, of course, but the remark has a vigorous and delighted inventiveness which is characteristic of much Punjabi speech (and Bombay filmi dialogue).

Still, The Broken Mirror resolves much of the mysteriousness of Steps in Darkness. Although the publication details in this edition wrongly suggest that it was written nineteen years after Steps in Darkness, the style bears out that it is more than a sequel. The hesitation of the earlier novel which may have been the child’s as well as the author’s, and which resulted in withholding information from the reader, is replaced with a crisp narration of details. The powerful story of Beero’s adolescence and the unlooked for political freedom which incarcerates them in fear and Bakka’s barn does not need stylistic fancy footwork to impress the reader.

The most powerful aspect of The Broken Mirror is the building up of events towards Partition. Initially, the idea of separation remains in the background. Muslim, Sikh and Hindu friends hang out together. Then Aslam notices that the two Sikhs in their group have begun to talk strangely and advises Beero to be circumspect before them. Language and humour are the first casualties of this growing monster of hatred. Occasionally people mention the possibility of Pakistan. Then, with a mere change of tense, they talk of “when the riot occurs,” and Hindus begin to send their belongings to the “other” side. Finally, Pakistan is a reality. Communal positions harden, bewildering Beero even more than the adult world did in Steps in Darkness. In a magnificent few pages, Krishna Baldev Vaid narrates the activity of a Peace Committee meeting which has been called by the marginalized of the town: a Congress man, Keshav, In-Other-Words, and an aging prostitute who says she is like Gandhi because she does not discriminate against any community in her work. The unpredictable swings from hostility to brotherhood and back again are terrifying because they defy rationality, and because we have seen them again in the run-up to and aftermath of the breaking of the Babri Masjid. Then come the engulfing madness and killings of 1947.

Hiding in Bakka’s barn, Beero’s mind is a spate of words. Narrative breaks down just as everything else has. He struggles to understand events and himself. All he knows is that he lacks Keshav’s courage to die for a cause, and that he cannot kill anyone or blame any one side for being the prime mover of the violence. Eventually, in tearless bewilderment and with heads down, they go to the makeshift refugee camp in the school. There, beside an abandoned, bloodied baby girl, Beero finally cries.

With a book that achieves the nearly impossible business of hiding its craftsmanship, there is little one can do except break the unwritten code for reviewers and tell the story. But no retelling can capture the delicacy, intricacy, and strength of this extremely moving novel.

Krishna Baldev Vaid  Steps in Darkness (trans. from Hindi by the author); The Broken Mirror (trans. from Hindi by Charles Sparrows in collaboration with the author) New Delhi: Penguin India, rpt 2017, 1995 (first publd. New York, 1962); New Delhi: Penguin, rpt 2017, 1994 (first publd. In Hindi, 1981)

14 June 2017 

Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography by Ruskin Bond ( An exclusive extract)

(Ravi Singh, Publishing Director and co-Founder, Speaking Tiger Books, sent this exclusive extract from Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing. It is one of the publishing highlights of 2017 given the tremendous fan following Ruskin Bond commands. This autobiography at 100,000+ words is the longest book ever written by Ruskin Bond.) 


And here I must pause to tell you a little more about Ayah, my guardian angel, surrogate mother, friend and beloved all rolled into one and wrapped up in a white sari. My mother, young in years and younger at heart, was often away attending the lunch and tea get-togethers that the ladies of the royal household liked to organize, or she would accompany the younger royals on picnics and excursions. My father spent more time with me, but he would be at work through much of the day. I would be left in the care of the servants—all but the ayah provided by the Jamnagar State. I had no objection to the arrangement, because they indulged me. Most of all, Ayah.

She was probably from one of the fishing communities of Kathiawar or from the poorer Muslim families from the north of India who worked in Christian and Anglo-Indian households. She must have been in her thirties and was unusually large and broad-limbed for an Indian woman, and shaped like a papaya, expansive at the hips and thighs. I was told she had a family of her own but I never saw them, and she never spoke of them. She was the one I spent the most time with at home—she stayed all day, washing my clothes, giving me a bath and telling me stories in Hindustani about jinns and fairies and the snake transformed into a handsome prince by the loving touch of a beautiful princess.

Ayah had large, rough hands and I liked being soaped and scrubbed by her, enjoying the sensation of her hands moving over my back and tummy. She could also use those hands very effectively to deliver a few resounding slaps, because I really was a little devil. But her anger vanished as quickly as it came when she saw me break into tears. And then she would break down herself, and cover me with big, wet kisses and gather me into herself, pressing my face to her great warm breasts. To be hugged and kissed, and generally fussed over, is one of the joys of infancy and childhood. My mother was not a physically demonstrative person—the occasional peck on the cheek was enough emotion for her. But Ayah more than made up for it. She would kiss my navel and nuzzle my tummy and tell the other staff, ‘I want to eat him up! I want to eat him up!’

I was in love with Ayah—it was a child’s love for a mother, but it was also a sensual, physical love. I loved the smell of her skin and her paan-scented breath and her dazzling smile. She was in love with my soft white skin and bathed and dressed me with infinite tenderness, and defended me against everyone, including my parents.

If I swallowed an orange seed, Ayah would say an orange tree would grow inside me. Being an imaginative child, this rather worried me because orange trees, I was told, had thorns on them. I did not want to worry my parents unduly, so I took my problem to Mr Jenkins, who looked serious, thought about it for a few moments, then said: ‘Don’t worry, it will only be a small tree.’

Still worried, I consulted Osman, who laughed and said, ‘Your ayah is just a gapori, don’t listen to her.’

‘What’s a gapori?’ I asked.

‘One who makes up stories—and exaggerates. Go and tell her you’ve swallowed a bean.’

I did, and she said, ‘Oh, baba, now you’ll have a bean-stalk growing inside you!’

‘And there will be a giant living in it?’ I asked.

She burst into laughter, seeing I’d caught her out.

‘Osman says you’re a gapori,’ I told her. And she and Osman had a terrible fight. She chased him around the house and forgave him only when he said he meant she was a pari, a fairy, not a gapori.

Still, I think I learnt something about telling stories from Ayah, as I did from Osman, although I had no idea that I would become a gapori of sorts one day.

Ruskin Bond Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography Speaking Tiger Books, New Delhi, India, 2017. Rs 599; hardback; 288 pages + 32-page photo insert

9 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 November 2016 

Salman Rushdie, ” Two years eight months and twenty-eight nights: A novel”

RushdieHistory is unkind to those it abandons, and can be equally unkind to those who make it. (p14)

Salman Rushdie’s latest book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is fiction like nothing before it. It is in the same class as Midnight’s Children —ground breaking literary fiction. Like the One Thousand and One Nights that it echoes in its title it is an intricate web of stories within stories, which showcase Rushdie’s technical, verbal and literary expertise. It is tales within tales spread over many centuries. It is about a Djinn, Duniya, and her love for a human – Ibn Rashd better known in the West as Averroes– and their family. ( Ibn Rashd was also the name Rushdie’s grandfather adopted and adapted to created his surname. “Rushdie” is not an inherited family name.)

He has created a world, sufficiently far-off in the future to create and discuss life today without really disturbing anyone’s equanimity in the present. It is very hard not to consider parts of it as being autobiographical, particularly when the authorial narrative intrudes to comment upon war, freedom, choices made as humans etc. Although in an interview with poet Tishani Doshi for the Hindu, Rushdie says categorically that autobiography is less and less important for him. He writes “something original and strange and unusual, and now there’s a mood for real life stories and so my book is the kind of anti- Knausgård”. ( http://bit.ly/1OmOcla ) Yet it is hard to separate the two parts of a man — the lived/autobiographical element and the literary fiction. For a man who has lived under the shadow of a fatwa, he has lived daily with the fear of death, much like Scheherazade the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights. In Rushdie’s case, it has made him fearless and outspoken. His speeches and articles on freedom of expression are admirable for their clarity and sharpness. For instance, listen to Rushdie at the India Today Conclave on 18 March 2012:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNzGgYvz92s . It is this confident, breezy style evident in his literary experimentation. From his very first novel it has been evident but over time it has been taken to another level — another landmark in modern literary fiction for writers to admire, probably emulate.

In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights Rushdie sparkles when his anger simmers through the novel, but at first glance it does not seem so to exist. It just seems like a magic realism tale where innumerable characters waltz on and off the page as and when they need to play their parts. There is little time for the reader to create a “bond” with any character save for a tenuous one with Geronimo the levitating gardener. It is more like a manifesto of Rushdie’s experiences as  a writer. In a Paris Review interview of 2005, he had said: “My life has given me this other subject: worlds in collision. How do you make people see that everyone’s story is now a part of everyone else’s story? It’s one thing to say it, but how can you make a reader feel that is their lived experience?” (Salman Rushdie, The Art of Fiction No. 186 Interviewed by Jack Livings, The Paris Review, Summer 2005, No 174 http://bit.ly/1OmU2Tv ) This twelfth novel too is like an amalgamation of his experiences — cultural and literary — brought forth as a fabulist tale. It can be read for what it is at first reading or appreciated for its multiple layers. Richness of the text lies in the degree of engagement you can have with it as a reader. Ironically this novel makes a mockery of the information-overloaded age since many of the literary, cultural, political, historical and linguistic references are acquired over a period of time with reading and experience. The text cannot be deciphered by looking up references on Wikipedia. It won’t make the text work satisfactorily. Rushdie is delightfully unapologetic about blending languages and cultural references. He is what he is. This is it.

In the 2005 Paris Review interview Rushdie had been asked, “Could you possibly write an apolitical book?”. He had replied, “Yes, I have great interest in it, and I keep being annoyed that I haven’t. I think the space between private life and public life has disappeared in our time.”

If possible, read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights  in conjunction with Joseph Anton, his memoir. But read you must.

Here are links to some recent articles and interviews with Rushdie published to coincide with the launch of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

Rushdie interviewed by Tishani Doshi in The Hindu, 13 September 2015. ” ‘I kind of got sick of the truth’ ” ( http://bit.ly/1OmOcla)

Nilanjana Roy’s wonderful analysis of the novel in Business Standard, 7 September 2015. “2.8.28: More hit than myth”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmP0qe )

Salil Tripathi’s review-interview with Rushdie in The Mint, 4 September 2015.  “Salman Rushdie: ‘I have no further interest in non-fiction’ ”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmQnVW )

A profile in the Guardian. An interview conducted in Rushdie’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie’s office, by Fiona Maddocks, 6 September 2015  “Salman Rushdie: ‘It might be the funniest of my novels’ ” ( http://bit.ly/1OmNtAn )

Ursula le Guin’s review in the Guardian, 4 September 2015   “Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie review – a modern Arabian Nights”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmNKDF )

An interview with Alexandra Alter in the New York Times, 4 September 2015. “Salman Rushdie on His New Novel, With a Character Who Floats Just Above Ground”  (http://nyti.ms/1OmPhJU )

“The novel is vividly described and rich in mayhem – Isn’t this mayhem reminiscent of the knowledge we carry in our head” Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, 12 September 2015.  “Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights review: Rushdie on overdrive” ( http://bit.ly/1OmPWec )

Salman Rushdie Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books India, Gurgaon, 2015. Hb. pp. 290 Rs 599

13 September 2015

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 4 October 2014 and in print on 5 October 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6471249.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

Memoir is specifically an individual remembering their life as well as a period. It does not have a single narrative nor is it a teleological narrative as an epic is—it is episodic and a collection of personal anecdotes that the memoirist chooses to recall and share publicly. Ian Jack wrote in the Guardian ( 2003): “Writing one’s own personal history used to be called autobiography, Now, more and more, it is called memoir. The two words are often used interchangeably and the boundary between the two forms is fuzzy, but there are differences. An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment. … The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks – the tricks of the novel, of fiction – because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good.”

Some of the notable memoirs, each representative of a distinctive subject, in recent months have been Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister, Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, Naseeruddin Shah’s And One Day, Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives; Pamela Timms’s Korma, Kheer & Kismet: Five Seasons in Delhi, Malala Yousafzai with Patrick McCormackMalala, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18, David Omissi (editor), Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, by the singer’s security guards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, with Tanner Colby. The popularity of this genre has had an effect on contemporary writing in that they are in the oral form of storytelling and are dependent upon personal histories. For instance, journalist Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee is about the “story of Mill’s friendship with the Lee sisters”, but the author’s note states it is a “work of nonfiction”. A similar book is Veena Venugopal’s brilliant and disturbing The Mother-in-Law, it consists of experiences of daughters-in-law profiling their mothers-in-law to Veena over a series of interviews.

Many novels rely upon autobiographical experiences to create a story but as Akhil Sharma points out, “I think nonfiction requires an absolute commitment to the truth. In non-fiction I need to include things to present the situation and characters in a rounded way. I don’t know if I do that in my novel. Family Life is so completely a story that many boring but very important things were left out. All fiction draws on life but that does not mean all fiction should be viewed as managed non-fiction.”

The fact is memoirs sell at a brisk pace for traditional publishers and constitutes a large chunk of self-published books. On digital platforms too— Facebook status updates, longreads and blogs— posts that are read and discussed animatedly are those written from a personal point of view. For instance Sudhanva Deshpande’s moving tributes uploaded on to his Facebook wall as he watched his father, the noted Marathi playwright, G. P. Deshpande, lie in a coma or Vandana Singh’s blog post “Some musings on diversity in SF” about travel writing and scifi.  In fact, Andrew Stauffer of Book Traces (a crowd sourced web project to find drawings, marginalia, photos and anything else in copies of 19th and early 20th century books) says “It’s certainly true that readers used the margins of their books for a kind of journaling and memoir-writing, in the quasi-private, quasi-public space of the domestic book. I don’t know if that obviates the desire for long-form memoirs. You might think about our current digital culture of commenting and liking online, and how that incremental curation of a persona is a stand-in for autobiography.”

This raises the question of how do we classify biographies such as A.N. Wilson’s splendid Queen Victoria that draws heavily upon the Queen’s personal correspondence and diaries, making her at times speak in her own words—is it a memoir as well? But as Diana Athill, legendary editor who wrote an essay in the Guardian recently about death, while reflecting upon an incident from her childhood involving her mother says, “It was a shock to come up so suddenly against the fact that what to me was history, to her was just something from the day before yesterday.” For me this is the prime objective of a memoir—making the past accessible through a personal account.

6 October 2014