Debut novel Posts

Tuesday Reads (Vol 5), 16 July 2019

Dear Reader,

Choosing a book or two to write about always throws me into a pother. The three mentioned in today’s post are not to be missed.

Writer and translator Shanta Gokhale’s autobiography One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body is brilliant. Shanta Gokhale is known for her translations from Marathi into English but she is fluently bilingual in English and Marathi. One Foot on the Ground is an account of her childhood, her father’s insistence on sending her to England to complete her school and later University. She returned home to become a teacher and then later joined the PR team of Glaxo. Ultimately she became known for her work as a journalist/columnist, screenwriter, translator and writer. She quit her day job once her children were old enough. Most interestingly, as the subtitle indicates, this is an autobiography that documents the various stages of her life through memorable experiences pertaining to the body. From the first remembered instances of molestation by the cook, dental troubles, babies, cancer, glaucoma etc. Then there are those other quiet assertions of her identity and her self, like filing an affidavit in the court to use her maiden name while still married, allowing her ex-husband to share her apartment till he had found a place for himself ( which was not to be for some years!), revelling in the joy of having her own space, her own bed where she could stretch out and read/work, ultimately recognising that she “needed a room of her own to be the person I was”. The calm tenor and poise with which Shanta Gokhale discusses her life, her body, her responsibilities and her ambitions is delightful. One Foot on the Ground is like reading the testimony of a woman who lives her feminism and do so contentedly. ( Read an extract published in Scroll on 10 July 2019. )

The second book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel is an extraordinary debut novel by award-winning queer Asian-American writer Ocean Vuong. Written in the first person by the narrator, Little Dog, it is a coming-of-age tale in America. It is about the boy, his Vietnam War veteran grandfather, his schizophrenic maternal grandmother and his mother who suffers from PTSD. It is a thinly veiled autobiographical account of Ocean Vuong’s life, of migrating to USA as a two-year-old refugee via a brief stay at a refugee camp in the Philippines. The precision of his writing, much as the fineness of description that is associated with poetry, is a remarkable transferance of creative talent into prose. The long beautifully crafted flowing sentences. In fact Ocean Vuong wondered in an interview if it was a comically futile effort. He had to contend with various multiplicities while also being very aware of the American lineage of biographies. Yet the agency as an artist is also very important to him. He adds that he was very inspired by the American idea that one can create a mythology for oneself.

Once at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched gold with ‘Nam Vet 4 Life‘, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it.

A coming-of-age novel that can be seen to exist firmly within the American tradition of literary biographies but at the same time is that of an Asian-American negotiating his adopted country. By writing this novel, Ocean has put together the best of literary traditions of his country of origin and his adopted country — the written word with the oral tradition and its folksy element. Thereby making it possible to speak of his schizophrenic grandmother and his mother who suffers from PTSD. There is plenty to unpack in this novel. It has many autobiographical elements which Ocean acknowledges in his various interviews but it has been announced as a novel. Ironically this is in the form of a long letter to his mother who is unable to read English. He states “the chance this letter finds you is slim — the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it impossible.” At the same time Ocean Vuong rightly points out that “Conflict driven plot becomes its own protagonist” . Here is a wonderful profile of Ocean Vuong published in the Guardian. ( 9 June 2019).

The final book is another debut novel that has been considered by its publishers “the most coveted debut of 2019, an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession”. Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory is set in Victorian London, at the time of the Great Exhibition and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Doll Factory is about the heroine Iris who aspires to be an artist while employed with her twin sister painting dolls faces. Iris soon finds herself a part of the PRB. She is hired as a model. It is a fine mix of nineteenth century preoccupation with details and twenty-first century preoccupations of modern storytelling while being very aware of concepts like male gaze. There are moments of pure gorgeousness in the book especially when the author is describing the Great Exhibition.

Elizabeth Macneal is a graduate of the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia where she was the Malcolm Bradbury Scholar, and The Doll Factory has won her the Caledonia Novel Award. It has been sold to 28 territories so far, while TV rights have already been snapped up. Alan Massie puts it well in The Scotsman review:

It’s accomplished; there’s nothing raw about it. Today’s young novelists have all been schooled in the making of a novel and they have usually submitted drafts of it to fellow students as well as teachers, and taken their suggestions and criticisms on board. Their novels are far less clumsy, far less raw, than first novels so often were a couple of generations ago. The Doll Factory is a perfect example.

In the acknowledgements Macneal thanks a long list of people for their help and encouragement. No doubt they have all been useful. Nevertheless, it’s fair to assume that only she is responsible for the novel’s charm. It is indeed charming. But is it about anything that matters? Perhaps we shall have to wait for a second or even a third novel before knowing whether the author’s evident ability can carry her beyond charm so that she deals with matters of significance, writing something which has the reader engaged in both feeling and thought.

The Doll Factory will undoubtedly be seen on longlists and all the noteworthy literary prizes meant for debut authors. Ultimately Elizabeth Macneal may win one of the big literary prizes for a later novel she writes, by which time she will have rid herself of all the creative writing school learnings and learned to be confident of her own voice. She will have learned to trust herself.

For now enjoy this wonderful Twitter thread by Elizabeth Macneal describing how the exquisite book cover was designed:

One Foot on the Ground, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and The Doll Factory are three unmissable books of 2019. They have the incredible quality to stay with the reader long after the books are over and done with.

Enjoy!

JAYA

16 July 2019

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

Book Post 29: 3-9 March 2019

At the beginning of the week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 29 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

11 March 2019

Shubhangi Swarup “Latitudes of Longing”

Former journalist Shubhangi Swarup’s debut novel Latitudes of Longing is a plot spread across a few decades, loosely held together by some characters particularly the scientist Girijia Narain Mathur. The novel is a tramp through different climatic belts and geological formations while firmly remaining within the latitudes that define the subcontinent. It is also a walk through time and political upheavals in India and Burma. While the reader is a mute spectator to the events, it is fairly obvious that a man’s lifespan is just a blip if the forces of Nature are to be considered. The book is divided into four sections with each section focused on a different part of the subcontinent; beginning with the Andaman Islands, then Burma, Nepal and finally, Ladakh. There are a handful of characters but it is Giriraj Narain Mathur who remains a steady presence throughout, even after death. This is a novel which is a mix of fact, fiction and generous dash of magic realism so there are plenty of ghosts, or colonial ghosts as the author loves to refer to them. ( She first researched the colonial ghosts of Andaman islands in 2011.)

On Monday, 22 October 2018, I was in conversation with Shubhangi Swarup at The Bookshop, Jorbagh, New Delhi. Shubhangi Swarup is soft spoken but when it comes to describing the Panagea or the geological formations of the subcontinent she begins to speak animatedly. It excites her knowing that man is just a tiny being in this vast cosmos, geological formations are a testament to how long earth has been around. Or for that matter the landmass called India we take for granted is still in the process of formation with the tectonic plates constantly hitting each other to push the Himalayas higher and higher. Years of being a journalist and an activist have ensured that her first novel has innumerable incidents with plenty of backstories. At the beginning of the evening when being called upon to read an extract from her book, “I am not a performer!” but soon caved in and read a short piece about the drug smuggler in Thamel, Nepal.

Latitudes of Longing has been seven years in the making. While writing the book she also filed several articles and inevitably did stories that would help her travel in the areas she wished to research further for her book. There are portions in the book that seem heavily inspired by folklore. Whether it is the shapeshifting turtle or the appearance of Yeti or even the creation myth that Giriraj churns out to explain to his daughter Devi how she was conceived:

‘Where did you find me, Papa?’ she will ask, mildly annoyed by his grip. ‘Why did you bring me home?’

In conversation with Shubhangi Swarup at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh, New Delhi on 22 October 2018

Girija Prasad will weave a story from the embers of twilight to pacify her. ‘It was a beach just like this, an evening just like this, when your mother and I came across an empty bottle, half-buried in the sand. We opened it to find a note inside: Please put all the ingredients of your dreams in this bottle and shake vigorously. And so we did. Using a prism, I trapped sunlight in the bottle. I closed it with a cork and shook it vigorously for hours. Then your mother opened it. She took a deep breath and exhaled into the bottle. That was your first breath.’ For the ingredients, Girija Prasad will concoct a fantastical list to arrest her wandering imagination: golden sands from the dunes of Rajasthan and white sands from Havelock Island; shreds from the swiftlet’s nest and petals of a fuschia pink rose; a piece of bark from the oldest padauk tree on the islands; ash blessed by the riverbank baba; a crocodile’s tooth, an elephant’s eyelash; and drops of the monsoon mingled with Himalayan snow. 

Shubhangi Swarup’s reliance on folklore and local storytellers who could tell her neverending stories comes through stupendously in the story. Once she met an 8yo shepherd who was legendary in his village for the stories he told, mostly to entertain himself. He is like an intellectual jukebox. According to Shubhangi “You give him the elements you want to hear in a story and he immediately sets off. At some point he has to be told ‘enough’ and he switches off leaving the tale hanging in the air for the next time.” There are moments of pure beauty in the language used that seem to come from some place else, of having withstood time and developed a life of their own and found a place in this story. Whether it is that of the shape-shifting turtle or the Yeti that comes visiting and many other instances.

In her obsessiveness with faultlines and geological formations Shubhangi manages to weave a story across various geographies. In fact many of the episodes in her novel can be directly linked to a story she wrote as a journalist. For this she had a very valid explanation as in that she required to do the research but did not always have the necessary resources to undertake the trip. Being a journalist travelling on a story helped her tremendously. It is no wonder that Latitudes of Longing was on the JCB Prize 2018 shortlist. After this impressive debut many readers will await Shubhangi’s second offering but it will probably be some time in the making as she said “She has nothing on the cards for now. It has been seven years to write this book.”

Till she does opt to write, we will wait.

To buy on Amazon India

Kindle

Hardcover 

 

26 October 2018

“Crudo: A Novel” by Olivia Lang

Kim Jong-un had called Trump a dotard, perhaps they’d all be blown to smithereens. Still, ants at least would proceed, building up their infinite cities, stealing honey from the cupboards. She held on to her bag. She waited for her flight. She loved him, she loved him. Love is the world, pain is the world. She was in it now, she was boarding, there was nowhere to hide. 

Olivia Lang’s debut novel Crudo is about Kathy, a writer, and her impending marriage — the bare storyline. While reflecting on her personal life undergoing a massive transformation. She, who is in her early forties, successful writer and teacher who is at ease in Britain and USA, soon-to-be-married, third wife of her future husband, ponders over what it would be like to share spaces with a husband. While reflecting upon the changes in her life she inevitably begins to look at the socio-political landscape.  She cogitates about Brexit.  She wonders about the consequences of electing Trump as President of USA and few months into his presidency has been a series of catastrophes. She often remarks upon the acrimonious relationship between the presidents of USA and North Korea. She escapes to social media (” stalking the internet”) often but its a noisy universe.

People weren’t sane anymore, which didn’t mean they were wrong. Some sort of cord between action and consequence had been severed. Things still happened, but not in any sensible order, it was hard to talk about truth because some bits were hidden, the result or maybe the cause, and anyway the space between them was full of misleading data, nonsense and lies. It was very dizzying, you wasted a lot of time figuring it out. Had decisions really once led plainly to things happening, in a way you could report on? She remembered it but distantly. A lot had changed this year. The people who opposed it were often annoying but that didn’t make them wrong. 

Kim Jong-un and Trump, Singapore, 12 June 2018

Olivia Lang captures exquisitely the loneliness of a person in a rapidly evolving world which engulfs an individual 24×7 in a cacophony of images, words and experiences particularly if they are hooked to social media. Olivia Lang’s character Kathy seems to be an amalgamation of all the lonely individuals Lang describes in her non-fiction bestseller The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. It is as if Lang wishes to explore further how an individual who seems to be successful in all senses of the word — professionally, socially and economically — how do they actually exist? The Lonely City is a collection of essays reflecting upon the decadence of humans on technology particularly noticeable in cities. And yet, ironically, while there is this veneer of being super connected, socially active and part of a thriving community there are many who are terribly lonely in the city.  In some cases this solitude is by choice. Olivia Lang is curious and understanding about this individuals while being inquisitive too and this inquisitiveness she hopes will be fulfilled to some degree by her character Kathy in Crudo who is an epitome of all the lonely souls of The Lonely City. The political commentary that is as fascinating to her as the changes in her personal space makes her a sharp and perceptive observer, a trait many quietly reserved souls exhibit. Towards the conclusion it is hard to discern the difference between Kathy the character and Olivia Lang the writer, they seem to become one:

Writing, she can be anyone. On the page that I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly. 

Concealed behind the thin guise of fiction, it is perhaps “easier” to express fear about the increasing political instability in global politics, its ramifications on the individual, and yet “she was in it now, …, there was nowhere to hide.” Take for instance the conversation about Kim Jong-Un and Trump, Kathy/Olivia are fearful of what the stubborness of the two leaders may result in and yet who was to know that weeks before the publication of Crudo* ( 28 June 2018) the two leaders would actually meet in a historic summit held in Singapore on 12 June 2018.

Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction lives off reality. Politics and literature have always been and always will be inextricably linked. Crudo is a stunning testament to the fact.

Olivia Lang Crudo Picador, Macmillan, London, 2018. Hb. pp.  156 

12 June 2018 

*I read an advance review copy ( ARC). While this blog post was composed and written on 12 June 2018 as mentioned it was not made public till after the release date of the book of 28 June 2018.

** All images are off the internet. I do not own the copyright. If you do please let me know and I will update the blog with the correct information.

 

 

Luke Kennard “The Transition”

‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Maybe there is something wrong. Something wrong with you which The Transition can’t fix. Your parents could take some responsibility there. They could have given you more of a sense of enterprise and self-reliance instead of coddling you into believing that the world owes you a living. They could have set you up with the basics in life, but then I suppose they were the sort of people to have five kids without thinking about it.’

Award winning British poet and critic Luke Kennard’s debut novel The Transition is about a young man, Karl, who after running up a tremendous credit card debt along with online fraud and tax infraction faces either imprisonment in a low security prison for fifteen months or has to join a programme called The Transition run by the government.

The Transition was founded, the notary public had explained to him, because there had been a steep increase in cases such as Karl’s. A generation who had benefited from unrivalled educational opportunities and decades of peacetime, who nonetheless seemed determined to self-destruct through petty crime, alcohol abuse and financial incompetence; a generation who didn’t vote; who had given up on making any kind of contribution to society and blamed anyone but themselves for it. 

Karl was considered to be an ideal candidate for admission to the programme since he had been “conditioned into total indifference”. He is required to move into his new home with his wife, Genevieve, as soon as possible.

The Transition is set in a dystopic world in the near future but it is unsettling for the scenario it etches is plausible. The seemingly middle class bonhomie presented in the pamphlets advertising the scheme is carried through with happy, smiley individuals and yet the mentors selected for every new couple moving in can resort to some particularly horrendous ways of disciplining their wards. The correction systems may have graduated from the poor workhouses of the nineteenth century to be transformed into genteel homes situated in middle class suburbs yet little else has changed in terms of measure of punishment meted out.

Karl tries to rebel against the system especially when it dawns upon him that he is probably part of an “exploitative social-engineering experiment”. He also wants to protect his wife who is mentally fragile and needs to be cared for, he is also good at recognising the signs of her spiralling downwards, except that his mentors who are so focused on the correction aspect fail to see Genevieve’s deterioration.

The Transition is a rare debut novel where the simple plot haunts one for days after having read it. As the Financial Times said it is “too real for comfort” yet entertaining.

Luke Kennard The Transition 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 328. 

28 Sept 2017 

 

Wyl Menmuir, “The Many”

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

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

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

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

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

Read it.

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

9 August 2016 

*Book sent by the publisher, Chris Hamilton- Emery

* Images off the Internet

Nell Zink, “The Wallcreeper”

The WallcreeperNell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, was published in 2014. (It has recently been followed by Mislaid.) The Wallcreeper is a slim novel, about Tiffany and Stephen who met when they were colleagues at a pharmaceutical firm in Philadelphia USA. They married within few weeks and relocated to Berlin, Germany. Tiffany learns, “I wasn’t a feminist. Even men in their seventies…would raise their eyebrows when I said I had followed my husband from Philadelphia to Berne and then to Berlin. I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.” The Wallcreeper  is also about birding, open marriage, environmental activism and later, environmental sabotage too.

From the opening line of the novel you are hooked to the story. “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the marriage.” The novel continues in the same calm, confident, feisty and forthright tone. The former bricklayer and secretary, fifty-year-old Nell Zink was published for the first time last year at the insistence of Jonathan Franzen. She had written a fanzine to him a few years ago. Upon reading her prose that she began sending him regularly, he persuaded her to stop writing for an audience of one and consider a larger readership. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper, had already been accepted by a small press called Dorothy that specialises in women’s writing. So Nell Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, was represented by Franzen’s agent and got Zink a six-figure advance. Both the novels have received a resounding reception in USA and are soon to be available in India too.

When you write for an audience of one, it is inevitable that the writing is imbued with a rawness and a sense of intimacy that is refreshingly confident. It a no-holds-barred style of writing. Surprisingly Nell Zink’s novels are churned out rapidly in a period of three weeks. They are well structured, with no flabbiness to the prose and bring in pithy observations on issues such as science, ethics, environment, feminism, freedom, the institution of marriage etc. On marriage, Nell Zink writes, “Marriage isn’t a sacrament. It’s just a bunch of forms to fill out. It either works or it doesn’t. Do what you want.” She is an eclectic and voracious reader judging by the literary references sprinkled throughout the novel. Otherwise how else do you account for a casual reference made yoking together Stanislaw Lem and The World of Apu in one paragraph? ( The World of Apu is a 1959 Bengali film drama made by noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray. It was based on the 1932 Bengali novel, Aparajito, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.) She writes as people would speak when sure that their statements are being made in confidence. The one-liners that are embedded throughout her story come across as off-the-cuff perceptive comments that seem to have been carried over from the spoken word onto paper and fixed. This probably occurs due to the speed at which she thinks and writes prose. It is an incredible form of writing.

The cover design for the book is stupendous showing a wallcreeper feather. Yet I cannot help but think the design is Burial Ritesvery similar to another fantastic debut novel, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

This profile of Nell Zink in the New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz published on 18 May 2015 is fabulous. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/outside-in . Some other links worth reading are:

Robin Romm, review of The Wallcreeper, NYT, 17 Oct 2014  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/nell-zink-wallcreeper-review.html?_r=0

From the Guardian, January 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/04/nell-zink-jonathan-franzen-clear-distinction-taking-career-seriously-writing-seriously

The Paris Review, December 2014:  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/08/purity-of-essence-one-question-for-nell-zink/

An interview in  Vice, June 2015: http://www.vice.com/read/nell-zink-is-damn-free-585

A profile in The Literary Hub, May 2015: http://lithub.com/the-mislaid-plans-of-nell-zink/

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is not necessarily only for the story, but the style too.

Nell Zink The Wallcreeper Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2014. Hb. pp.168 

4 September 2015 

 

Saad Z. Hossain, “Escape from Baghdad!”

EFB-front

( Aleph sent me an advance reading copy of Saad Z. Hossain’s debut novel, Escape from Baghdad!  Upon reading it, Saad and I exchanged emails furiously. Here is an extract from the correspondence, published with the author’s permission.

I read your novel in more or less one sitting.  The idea of Dagr, an ex-economics professor, and Kinza, a black marketeer, make a very odd couple. To top it when they discover they have been handed over a former aide of Saddam Hussein who persuades them with the promise of gold if they help him escape from Baghdad is downright ridiculous. But given the absurdity of war, it is a plausible plot too. Anything can happen. Escape from Baghdad! is a satirical novel that is outrageously funny in parts, disconcerting too and quite, quite bizarre. I do not know why I kept thinking of that particular episode of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and his colleagues trying to make gin in their tent while the Korean War reached a miserable crescendo around them. The micro-detailing of a few characters, inevitably male save for the chic Sabeen, is so well done. It is also so characteristic of war where there are more men to be seen, women are in the background and play a more active role at the time of post-conflict reconstruction. They do exist but not necessarily in the areas of combat. It is a rare Sabeen who ventures forth. Sure women combatants are to be seen more now in contemporary warfare, but it was probably still rare at the time of Operation Desert Storm. Yet it is as if these characters are at peace with themselves, happy to survive playing along with the evolving rules (does war have any rules?), not caring about emotions and learning to quell any sensitivity they had like Dagr remembering his wife’s hand on her deathbed.

Saad: Thanks for the kind words, and for getting through the book so fast. Aleph has been amazingly easy to work with, they are clearly good people 🙂

JBR: Why did you choose to write a novel about the Gulf War?
When I started writing this, it was before Isis, or Syria, or the Arab Spring. The Gulf War was really the big war of our times, and looking back at Iraq now, I feel that it still is. I wanted to tell a war story, and the history of Baghdad, with all the great mythology, and just the location next to the Tigris and Euphrates was really attractive. I think I started it around 2010. I wasn’t very serious about it at first. The book was first published in Dhaka in 2013 by Bengal Publications.
According to an interview you did with LARB, you never went to Baghdad, and yet this story? Why?

I wrote the story as more of a fantasy than an outright satire or war history. For me, large parts of it existed outside of time and logic. Much of it too, was set in closed spaces, like safe houses and alley ways, and this was just how it turned out. In the very first chapter I had actually envisioned a sweeping, circuitous journey from Baghdad to Mosul, but I couldn’t even get them past two neighborhoods.

But isn’t that exactly what war does to a society/civilization? 

Yes, that’s why I prefer using fantasy elements/techniques to deal with war itself. The surreal quality represents also the mental state of the observer, who is himself altered by the horrible things he is experiencing. I’m also now beginning to appreciate the long term after effects of war on a population’s psyche. For example Bangladesh is still so firmly rooted in the past of our 1971 War, almost every aspect of life, including literature is somehow tied to it. The damage is not short lived.

Bangladesh fiction in English is very mature and sophisticated. Much of it is set in the country itself, focused on political violence, so why not write about Bangladesh? Not that I want to bracket you to a localised space but someone like you who obviously has such a strong and nuanced grasp of the English language could produce some fantastic literary satirical commentary on the present. In India Shovon Choudhary has produced a remarkable satirical novel — The Competent Authority, also published by Aleph.

You are right, of course, Bangladesh is ripe for satire, as are most third world countries. I’m a bit afraid because I want to do it right, and I know that if certain things don’t ring true, I’ll face a lot of criticism at home for it 🙂 Technically, I am still struggling to develop a voice that I’m comfortable with. I need my Bengali characters to operate in a certain way, yet I still want them to be authentic, and plausible. I also rely on mythology and fantasy a lot, and this poses a linguistic challenge. I’ve found that sometimes the flavor of mythology doesn’t really translate very well. Each language has a lot of mythology built into it, like English uses a lot of Norse and Greek mythology, for example in the way the days of the week are named after Odin, Freya, Tue. There are situations where you are trying to describe an Asian fantasy element in English, and it doesn’t quite work. It is necessary, in a way, to rewrite mythology from the ground up, which is a very big job.

Fascinating point. Now why do you feel this? Is there an example you can share? 

Well just the word djinn, for example. The English word is genie. A genie is a cute girl wearing harem pants granting wishes to Larry Hagman. How can I get across the menace, the fear, the hundreds of years of dread our people have of djinns? How much space do I have to waste on paper trying to erase the bubble gum connotation of genie? Will it be successful in the end, or will the English reader just be confused? What about a word like Ravan, which has an instant connotation for us, a name like a bomb on a page, but in English, it’s just a foreign sounding word that requires a footnote, something alien that the eye just blips over. For me to convey the weight of Ravan, I’d have to build that up, to recreate the mythology for the reader, to act out everything.

Isn’t the purpose of a writer to disturb the equanimity?  Will there be a second book? If so, what? Btw, have you read The Black Coat by Neamat Imam?

I haven’t read it. I just googled it, it looks good, I’m going to find a copy. There isn’t a second book, this was not designed to have a serial, the ending is left open to allow the readers to make their own judgments for the surviving characters. I am writing a second novel on Djinns, which is set in Dhaka, so I hope to address some of the issues facing us there.

The story you choose to etch is a fine line between a dystopian world and a war novel. Is that how it is meant to be?

Yes, in my mind there is not one specific reality, but rather many versions which exist at the same time, and if we consider war as a pocket reality, it would certainly reflect a very dystopian nature. While we do not live in a dystopia, there are certainly pockets of time and space in this world which very strongly resemble it.

It is particularly devastating to consider a people who believed in economics, and GDP growth, education, houses, mortgages, retirements and pensions to suddenly be pitched into a new existence that has neither hope, nor logic, nor any use for their civilian skills.

True. I often think we are living a scifi life. It makes me wonder on what is reality?

My understanding is that the human brain uses sensory input to create a simulation of the world, which is essentially the ‘reality’ we are carrying around in our minds. This is a formidable tool since it allows us to analyze situations, recall and recalibrate the model, and even to run mental games to predict the outcome of various actions. For a hunter gatherer, the brain must have been an extremely powerful tool, like having a computer in the Stone Age. But at the same time, because these mental simulations are just approximations of what is actually there I can see that reality for everyone can be subtly different, and if we stretch that a little bit, it makes sense that many different worlds exist in this one.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed for political nationalism and neverending skirmishes, with peace not in sight. Living in Dhaka and writing this novel at the back of car while commuting in the hellish traffic Escape from Baghdad! seems like a strong indictment of war but also builds a case for pacifism. Was that intentional?

War is a complex thing. It’s easy to say that we are anti-war, and for the most part, who would actually be pro-war? I mean what lunatic would give up the normalcy of their existence to go and bleed and die in the mud? Even for wars of aggression, the math often doesn’t work out: the cost of conquering and pacifying another country isn’t worth the consequences of doing so. Yet, for all that, war has been a constant companion of humanity from ancient times. It is, I think, tied into our pack animal mentality. The very quality which allows us to freely collaborate, to collectively build large projects, is the same thing which leads to organized violence as a response to certain trigger situations. I believe that the causes of wars have all been minutely parsed and analyzed, broken down into the actions and motivations of different pressure groups, but all of this still does not explain the reality of battalions of ordinary people willing to strap on swords and guns and armor and commit to slaughtering each other. That willingness is a psychological problem for the entire human race to contend with, I think.

JB: As long as you raise questions or leave situations ambiguous, forcing readers to ask questions about war, the novel will survive for a long time.

The creation of old women especially Mother Davala are very reminiscent of those found in mythology across the world. It is an interesting literary technique to introduce in a war novel.

Mother Davala is one of the three furies of Greek myth, the fates whom even the Gods are afraid of. They are also in charge of retribution, which was apt for this particular scenario. This was one of the things I was talking about earlier, with the mythology built into the language. The Furies have such a resonance in English, such a long history in literature, that they carry a hefty weight. I could have used, instead, someone like Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and conflict, but that name has no real oomph in English, and so it would be a wasted reference.

So if you find it challenging to work mythological elements from other cultures into your fiction, how were The Furies easy to work with? 

I think the challenge is to use non English mythology while writing in English. English mythology kind of covers Norse, Greek, Arthurian, as well as Christian mythology, of course. To use elements of any of those is very easy because there is a lot of precedent, and the words already exist in the lexicon. The problem arises when you are writing in English about a non western culture. Then you are forced to describe gods, goddesses, demons, etc, which sound childish and irrational, because they have no linguistic resonance in English. If I say the words Christ and crucifixion, there is an instant emotional response from the reader. If I describe the story of the falcon god Horus who was born in a strange way from his mother Osiris, and performed magical acts in the desert and then eventually died and returned to life, it just sounds quaint, and peculiar.

Have you written fiction before this novel?

I’ve been writing for a long time, since I was in middle school, and my earlier efforts have produced a vast quantity of bad science fiction and fantasy. It started with a bunch of friends trying to collaborate on a story for some class. We each picked a character, and made a race, history, etc for them. The idea was to create a kind of mainstream fantasy story. I remember we all used to read a lot of David Eddings back then. The others all dropped out, but I just kept going. Writing a lot of bad genre fiction helps you though, because you lose the fear of finishing things, plus all that writing actually hones your skills.

How long did it take you to write this story and how did you get a publication deal? Was it an uphill task as is often made out to be?

I took a couple of years to write this. It started when I joined a writers group, and I had to submit something. That was when I wrote the first chapter. The group was very serious and we had strict deadlines, so I just kept writing the story to appease them, and then I was ten chapters in and growing attached to the characters, so I decided to go ahead and finish it. This was a group in Dhaka, it was offline, we used to physically meet and critique stuff. A lot of good work was published out of that. It’s definitely one of the critical things an author needs.

Publishing seemed impossibly daunting at first, but when it happened, it was easy, and through word of mouth. I knew my publisher in Bangladesh, and when they started a new English imprint, they were looking for new titles, and I was selected. Some of my friends knew the US publisher, Unnamed Press, and I got introduced, they liked it, and decided to print. Aleph, too, happened similarly. You can spend years querying and filling up random people’s slush piles, and sometimes things just happen without effort. My philosophy is that I am writing for myself, with a readership of half a dozen people in mind, and I am happy if I can improve my craft and produce something clever. The subsequent success or failure of it isn’t something I can necessarily control.

Saad Z Hossain Escape from Baghdad! Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp 286. Rs. 399

28 August 2015

 

Marcos Giralt Torrente, “Paris”

parisNo word  can change the past, and no word is the right word if you say it when what it describes as the past and not the present. In the present, there are no words. Words come later, and then we use them in the same way, we can all describe things and give our opinions about is not ours, even though it never happened to us. We don’t need someone to spell out what he or she is telling us is the whole thing or only part of it, and our doubts will remain unassuaged. 

Paris p.337)

Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, won the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize in 1999 and the Spanish National Book Award in 2011. Fourteen years later it was translated from Spanish into English by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Hispabooks. It is about a young man who tries to recall his past and put together a narrative, for this he relies solely upon his own memory. At the same time observing acutely that “memory is a great temptation, and what could be easier than to highlight some memories at the expense of others and retrospectively draw up a synthesis adapted to what has endured rather than what actually happened?” ( p.69) He is trying to understand what happened when he was a young boy of nine and his father was whisked away by the police, release and subsequent disappearance from their life; his relationship with his mother and her’s with her sister, Aunt Delfina and the innumerable conversations he heard or was privy to. But he is most curious to know why his mother left him with Delfina and went off to Paris for eight months. He never discovered the reason or what she did there and now when he is trying to recall it is too late, his mother has dementia.

The novel meanders and explores but never gets dull. In fact the reader gets the feeling as if they are shadowing the narrator and being able to listen to all his thoughts and conversations clearly. It is an odd feeling of being in a space that is a peculiar blend of being immersed in a cinematic experience of watching the narrator talk, observe, reflect, reminisce and yet at the same time to read and absorb at leisure the events that unfold. There is nothing in the measured pace of storytelling that prepares you for the unconventional conclusion.

Paris was on the inaugural list of a new independent publishing house established in Madrid –Hispabooks. Founded in 2011 by editors, Gregorio Doval and Ana Perez Galvan, Hispabooks is a publishing house focusing on contemporary Spanish fiction in English-language translation, both in eBook and trade paperback format, targeting readers around the world who want to explore the best of today’s Spanish literature. ( www.hispabooks.com and an interview with the founders: http://bit.ly/1EnBdqc)

This is a fine book to have been published and worth reading. Hence I was a little disappointed when it did not make it to the shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award 2015 ( http://bit.ly/1EnBRnO) announced on 5 May 2015.

8 May 2015

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