biographies Posts

Biographies for the new-age reader

Biographies of well-known personalities have always delighted readers for generations. Apart from being curious about how personalities reached the zenith of their profession/chosen field, life histories are always inspirational stories. What more can one ask for if they are presented in stunning layouts with rich colours and crisp text. In this audio-visual age even printed books are becoming more and more splendiferous to behold.

Of the books discussed in this article the original idea was launched by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo when they crowd sourced funds for Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women. According to the Indiegogo site they used to crowdsource funds  $1,287,433 USD were the total funds raised, which was 1689% funded on May 26, 2016. It became a publishing phenomenon as it was an idea that caught the imagination of people all over the world. Apart from which the project was over subscribed. The book published lived up to expectations with its mini-biographies of over 100 women thrilling girls and boys. It is a zany collection of profiles with crisp storytelling and beautiful layouts. The second volume has also been announced.

The success of this unique publishing idea inspired many more and this time the books were readily commissioned by the firms. For instance, Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different: True Tales of Amazing Boys Who Changed the World Without Killing Dragons by Ben Brooks, published by Quercus. Once again an eclectic collection of mini-biographies that more or less adhered to the formula launched in the bestseller Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Ben Brooks has profiled a diverse and inclusive set of individuals from around the world who were not all necessarily famous but “went on to make the world a better place through compassion, generosity and self-belief”. Once again it is a fabulous collection of wacky mini-biographies that are just the right mix of text and full-page illustration to spark an interest in the individual and their achievements to hopefully prompt the reader to explore further. In any case the mini-stories make for fascinating tales.

In India an equally splendid hardback compilation such as the previous two books mentioned, Like a Girl: Real Stories for Tough Kids is of women achievers and was launched by Westland/Amazon. An interesting collection of 51 biographies that spill into more than two or three pages. Nevertheless the neat experimentation of exploring art styles for illustrating the profiles with a variety of artists and different techniques is a unique way of creating a book. It was inspired by Rebel Girls but Like a Girl veered away from the formulaic presentation and developed a character of its own which is fine except that the biographies presented are of all “well-known” Indian personalities. It is not a combination of the established names as well as those equally significant women who made their mark at local and national level. Perhaps a second volume is being planned which will take into account a wider variety of names. ( Read more about the collaboration in this Hindu article, published on 17 July 2018.) 

Nevertheless these books are a delight to behold, possess and read. They tickle the mind in the right way so as to make one curious about the people and their world. Like these books there are a couple more examples that are worth listing. The Periodic Table of Feminism which is delightful in the way the “precious metals” or the initials of prominent women have been classified according to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th waves of feminism. The book is a pure delight if it were not for the spelling error of Malala Yousafzai in the end papers where “Malala has been spelt with a “y” — “Malaya”. A bit unfortunate since Malala is a figure recognised globally apart from which she is the youngest Nobel Prize winner so this spelling mistake is rather unfortunate. The second book worth mentioning is Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World and its companion volume Women in Sports.

All in all a visual and informative treat that will work splendidly as books for pleasure as well as edutainment.

30 July 2018 

 

 

 

Allen Say “Silent Days, Silent Dreams”

Caldecott medalist Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreamis a biography of self-taught artist James Castle (1899-1977).  It is a “memoir” as narrated by a fictionalized nephew of Castle who shares details about his deaf, mute, autistic and dyslexic uncle who was completely closed in himself and yet learned how to draw. Castle’s father was the postmaster for a small community they lived in Idaho. The family’s drawing room doubled up as the postmaster’s official space so it was cluttered with parcels, catalogues, paper etc. The little James Castle probably taught himself to draw while whiling away his time in this room. Over time he was found to be of absolutely no help to his family on their farm or other household chores so he was left to himself. He slowly found quiet in the attic of an old barn which he converted into his “studio” which in subsequent shifts was the chicken coop in an empty barn. He drew and drew and drew. For lack of sophisticated art materials he drew using the soot of wood combined with spit and used junk paper. When he was about seven his parents sent him off along with his older sister to the Idaho School for Deaf and Blind. There too he tried to draw in secret ( only girls were permitted to learn drawing, not boys) and punished if discovered. He never did learn to read and write and was sent home when he was fifteen years old. While at the school he did discover the joy of being in the library, surrounded by books and watching his teachers “create and stitch new books for their students. Years later his drawings were “discovered” and he did one-man shows. Upon his death he left more than 15,000 pieces of work that are estimated to be less than one-third of his productivity during his lifetime, as every time Castle’s family moved, all his paintings were left behind and lost.

The research Allen Say did for this book was intensive. He even tried to recreate the illustrations for Silent Days, Silent Dreams using the soot from the wood fireplace in his home. He tried to emulate the drawing style of James Castle to create as “authentic” an account of Castle’s life. Most of Castle’s drawings were made from reclaimed trash he found on the property such as junk paper, construction materials, and rags. Allen Say was assisted by his wife in creating the toys in a similar fashion for this book.

In Allen Say’s graphic novel memoir The Inker’s Shadow Kyusuke, Allen Say’s cartoon double, advises him to draw what’s around you”; much like what James Castle later become famous for too. Allen Say like James Castle had a room to call his own, a retreat, a studio, that was given to him first by his mother in Japan and later when he moved to America by his guardian Major Bill at the American military school he was studying at.  In his part memoir, part graphic novel Drawing From Memory which is about his relationship with his sensei, spiritual father, and well-known cartoonist Noro Shinpei, Allen Say says about his childhood “I drew what I saw and what I imagined,  and I copied from comic books. When I was drawing, I was happy. I didn’t toys or friends or parents.’

The story of James Castle probably resonated with Allen Say who too became an artist against all odds as his father was convinced his son had to learn English to “become a success in life” and was shunned for his artistic leanings. Both the artists’ artistic temperament was not appreciated by their families and they were shunned; so they “withdrew” to draw in makeshift studios. For Allen Say “Art is like translating my dream world, put that on paper”, much as it was for James Castle who drew all that he wished for. No wonder Allen Say says “my discovery about Castle’s art was that the act of drawing was an act of possession”.

What a treat it is to discover these books! Biographies as picture books are a fine art form. It is an excellent way to introduce an eminent person to a younger generation. It is not an easy form to tackle but if done well it is purely magical. In the case of Silent Days, Silent Dreams there is something extra special for one artist describing another’s life and discovering the many similarities.

Dream books to possess!

Allen Say Silent Days, Silent Dreams Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2017. Hb. 

Allen Say Drawing From Memory Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. Hb. 

Allen Say The Inker’s Shadow Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. 

6 May 2018 

 

Amazon for Authors, KDP in Delhi, 30 November 2017

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Author Academy is hosting an event over lunch at Hotel Le Meredien, New Delhi . It is to introduce and discuss their self-publishing programme– Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP.  The panel will include Sanjeev Jha, Director for Kindle Content, India, Amazon. I will moderate the conversation.

Anyone who is interested in selfpublishing their book online is welcome to attend. It could be a book or a manual ranging from fiction, non-fiction, self-help, parenting, career advice, spirituality, horoscopes, philosophy, first aid manuals, medicine, science, gardening, cooking, collection of recipes, automobiles, sports, finance, memoir, biographies, histories, children’s literature, textbooks, science articles, on Nature, poetry, translations, drama, interviews, essays, travel, religion, hospitality, narrative non-fiction, reportage, short stories, education, teaching, yoga etc. Any form of text that is to be made available as an ebook using Amazon’s Kindle programme.

In December 2016 Amazon announced that Kindle books would be available in five regional languages in India — Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. This is a game changing move as it enables writers in other languages apart from English to have access to a worldwide platform such as the Kindle. Best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi called it an “outstanding initiative by Amazon India. It’s about time that vernacular writing moved out from the confines of paperback. It will also enable out-of-print books to be made available now.” Another best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, said this will address the inadequate distribution and marketing of Indian language books, for the much larger market is the one in Indian languages. “I am personally committed to this and am very happy that of the 3.5 million copies that have been sold of my books, a good 500,000 of them are in Indian languages.” Others remarked upon the best global practices it would bring to local publishing.

Sanjeev Jha
Director for Kindle Content, India, Amazon

cordially invites you for a session on

Amazon for Authors:

Navigating the Road to Self-Publishing Success

Hear how Indian authors have used Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to build and reach audiences across a variety of genres

Date: Thursday, 30 November 2017

Time: 12 -1pm (followed by lunch)

Venue: Hotel Le Meredien, Delhi

This event is free. Registration is mandatory. Please email to confirm participation: jayabhattacharjirose1@gmail.com .

 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
International publishing consultant

 

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

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

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

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

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

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

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

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Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

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Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

Prof. Alok Rai, writer and translator

Prof. Alok Rai, writer and translator

Alok Rai 2Prof. Alok Rai, Ex Faculty, Department of English, University of Delhi.

Born and bred in Allahabad, Prof. Alok  Rai grew up in an affluent Hindi – Urdu environment which explains his strong linguistic background. He holds a graduate degree in modern English literature and became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. At, the University College of London, he had written a Ph.D. dissertation on George Orwell and later he has also published books on the said author while also writing on the formation of modern Hindi. As a translator his translation of Nirmala was published by Oxford University Press many years ago. He has been involved with the business of writing, with language in society. His interests include, Modern English Literature; cultural processes in modern North India, with particular reference to issues of language and literature.

He is also the grandson of the legendary Hindi writer Premchand. Years ago when I was guest-editing the special issue of Children’s and Young Adult literature of The Book Review I asked him for a review of series of biographies that had been published in Hindi by Children’s Book Trust. ( Chirsmaraniya Mahaan Vyaktitva Vol 1-9, Illustrator: Sahana Pal Children’s Book Trust, 2001) I no longer have the bibliographical details with me but I discovered that the review had been posted online. ( http://www.orchidapps.com/goodbooks/node/5968#.Uhs0T5Jgdsl ) . I am reproducing the review as is. 

We hate poetry, Keats wrote, that has a design on us. This set of short “inspirational” biographies, published by the Children’s Book Trust – with an average of 5 or 6 worthies per each one of nine volumes – goes well beyond design. This is, as the criminal lawyers say, “intent”- as in “loitering – and the intent is deadly serious. Because of course the underlying purpose of the series, indeed of such series, is nothing less than the abduction of the young, seizing their minds well before they have reached the age of consent. Even more crucially, of dissent.

There is a tendency in our gerontocratic civilization to treat matters pertaining to children as being not very important. There is no reason, here, to run through the familiar complaints about the priorities that enable aging gentlemen to acquire toy phalluses at enormous state expense even as they can’t find the funds to provide schools, or meals, or medicines for millions of children. And yes, of course, I know that there is a distinction to be made between the said aging gentlemen and the good men and women who have collaborated in this CBT project of providing these inspirational biographies – and of course I’m joking when I accuse them of “criminal” intent. But there is a serious argument here: what we do to our children, whether with the connivance of the NCERT or without it, is crucially important. And while this CBT series might seem a somewhat modest vehicle to bear the burden of a serious argument, at least there is no danger here of offending Their Lordships, and so understating the seriousness of the issues on which They have pronounced breezy obiter dicta.

But let us get over the grosser matters first. No one can assemble a list that is universally acceptable, and while one may quibble about why X or Y is or isn’t one of the persons chosen for such hagiographic, inspirational treatment, the actual CBT list is, for better and worse, catholic and random. There are sundry 19th century figures – Gokhale, Dadabhai Naoroji, Sir Syed – and lots of the other kind. Muslims? – aforementioned, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Kidwai, Azad –and I wouldn’t expect Jinnah here anyway! (No Nehru or Gandhi, either, by the way.)  Women? – Vijayalakshmi Pandit (!), Annie Besant, Kamla Nehru, Ba. Writers – Bankim, Bharati, Iqbal – and scientists – Meghnad Saha, Bhabha, Visweshwarayya. Lots of politicians, of course: whatever would we do without them? More importantly, whatever shall we do with them?  I might have said that the inclusion of Savarkar and Shyamaprasad Mukherji in this august company is surprising – but it isn’t, is it?

It is also not my case that there is no room for inspirational stories in the necessary socialization of the young. Indeed, I would argue that it is the neglect of this essential dimension of education in our schools that is both a cause and a symptom of the coarsening of our society, the rampant desensitization that emboldens a Modi or a Singhal or a Togadia to gloat over the grief of the victims of Gujarat in the hope of reaping an electoral advantage. Persons – and so, a collective, a civilization of persons – is distinguished by the texture of their moral anxieties, by their unique sense of moral occasion, and by the narratives in which the implications of their defining moralities are laid bare. Nothing very complicated, this is Arjuna at Kurukshetra, being lectured to by his charioteer – endlessly kitschified, this still fulfils an essential sustaining function. Just as the moral conflicts that are regurgitated by Bombay melodrama do. We are the kind of people who notice, so to speak, moral conflicts. And that indeed is exactly where my problem with this inspirational gallery assembled by the CBT lies. Quick clarification: whether or not our society is rapidly descending into anomie, into a moral vacuum, is not at issue. The question is, how is this situation to be addressed? Are the self-proclaimed and much-touted doctors really equipped with a cure – essentialized religion, 100% proof ! – or are they themselves only symptoms of the malady, and more likely than not, will only exacerbate the situation by their crude ministrations? My answers to these question are, respectively and respectfully, no, yes, and yes.

Elizabeth Taylor, the well-known philosopher, once said, “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”  Well, there aren’t many vices on offer here – but there is a serious danger of OD-ing on virtue!  OK, cut to the chase – obviously, every “life” is a selection – children discover very early on that you can’t even tell a single day in its entirety. So, my problem is not with the fact that the biographies here assembled are selective – but rather with the understanding that motivates the selection. The way I understand it, inspirational narrative works through the common narrative experience of identification: above a certain minimal level of complexity, the reader/listener is enabled to identify with a number of characters or, modishly, subject positions, with good and bad, with high and low, so that one can experience moral difficulty, because it is only out of moral difficulty that one develops a sense of moral complexity. Children’s fables about always  being good and always telling the truth and always always respecting your elders are treated by children with the contempt they deserve.  The trouble with these monsters of goodness is that no one can identify with them – one may be forced to admire them, or one admires them, but one cannot identify with them: they inhabit a mythic realm far above the muddled worlds in which we must live. So, what’s wrong with that? They are models of goodness, towards which we aspire, right?

Wrong! In fact, such “heroic” biography has been the staple of fascist pedagogy: larger than life characters who never never do anything wrong, except to draw some significant moral lesson from it, so that their narrated lives are a relentless accumulation of virtue – virtual money in a virtuous bank, so to speak. However, this dread moral lesson works rather paradoxically, because its highly coloured universe succeeds only in communicating not the possibility of virtue for us mere mortals, but its impossibility. The humanist alternative to such fascist “heroic” biography is biography that enables us to identify with the common humanity – common to reader and narratee, to mahaan vyaktitva and child reader – by showing the great man also as being vulnerable to human frailties etc. The possibility of virtue. We are enabled, ideally, to redeem the ordinary life we live by aspiring to live it differently. “Heroic” biography – the mode that I have designated as fascist, both by association and tendency – on the other hand, encourages one to turn to such biographies as necessary and necessarily mythical for a life that is rendered unredeemed and unredeemable. That is the sense in which such simple-minded, direct reaching after unalloyed virtue, through the instrumentality of selective biographies is not just naïve and pointless, it is positively harmful:  even worse than the TV that our poor children would rather watch. And who can blame them?

26 Aug 2013

(C) Prof. Alok Rai

Logo

Prof. Alok Rai will battle it out along with three other renowned experts at the forthcoming JumpStart festival

( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home ) during the session entitled ” The Great Language Debate”. It promises to be provocative – even revolutionary – ideas about the future of our languages and cultures. Are we building a healthy and sustainable ‘bibliodiversity’ for the next generation? Or are we creating a whole generation of linguistic exiles, neither ‘at home’ in their mother tongue nor in English? Can we move towards a common language without ‘flattening’ culture? 

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