Eunice de Souza Posts

An interview with Roanna Gonsalves

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Fantastic collection!

 

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Here are excerpts of an interview with the author:

  • How long were these stories in the making?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Have you been trained in theatre?

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

  • What are you writing next? 

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

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

3 July 2018 

 

Eunice de Souza: A Tribute by Salil Tripathi

This morning poet Adil Jussawala posted on his Facebook page: 

Image from the Internet

Eunice de Souza
(1 August 1940 – 29 July 2017)
Gone suddenly.

Social media exploded with shock. Very soon some extraordinary tributes began being pouring in for an extraordinary woman. One of the earliest tributes posted on his Facebook page was by noted journalist Salil Tripathi. It is published below with his permission. 

Those who did not know her thought she was temperamental, but those who knew her knew she was generous. She was encouraging and warm if she thought what you wrote deserved to be read more widely, sharp and incisive if she thought you needed to work harder, and candid without being cruel if she thought you should not try writing.

Ammu Joseph edited Post Script, the wonderful weekend magazine of the Indian Post, which we were all part of when it was launched in 1987, and Eunice De Souza edited the books page, and as Ammu reminds us below, she brought her own ideas and was receptive to other ideas to make it what was easily the best weekend magazine of its time. Eunice discovered new voices and gave recognition to some old ones among critics. Jeet Thayil was our poetry editor.

Those were heady days for English poetry in Bombay – Dom Moraes had returned to writing, Nissim Ezekiel ran PEN and organised readings at Theosophy Hall, Arun Kolatkar could be found at Kala Ghoda at Wayside Inn, Dilip Chitre was a regular feature at readings, Adil Jussawalla was at Debonair and with Udayan Patel published poetry under the imprint Praxis, Saleem Peeradina taught at the Open Classrooms in Sophia (where I was a student, as was Arshia Sattar), Gieve Patel wrote poems, plays, and found time to run a medical practice, and there was Newground and Clearing House and OUP still published poetry.

And among all those male voices, there were strong women voices present – Eunice De Souza and Melanie Salgado.

Along with Jeet, Ranjit Hoskote, and Menka Shivdasani had begun writing their early poems then, and it was a small circle, and I’m probably missing out some names, but it was one of those moments where it felt like saying – bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!

Eunice was terrific at spotting young talent. I was one of two editors who edited the op-ed page of the Indian Post, and she introduced me to some of her bright students, many of whom went on to write for the Indian Post. I remember in particular Dinyar Godrej, who is now at the New Internationalist and the late Alan Twigg who we lost so tragically and too early, who reviewed films (and wrote a fine piece on Brodsky when he won the Nobel). She also wrote for my page, on literature, feminism, and occasionally, the city itself.

Her poetry was funny, sharp, bold, and strong. I remember Fix, her first collection, with which she announced her presence. I particularly liked the next collection, Women in Dutch Painting. She had at least two more collections to follow.

She read my poems, and urged me to continue, asking me to avoid sentimentality that she though crept into my poems because when I started writing poems, I wrote in Gujarati. She stressed I should write in a more ‘clean’ way.

Many years later, in her columns, she wrote two fine pieces about my recent books – reviewing them with care and attention, and reading the pieces this morning I feel that impulse of hers again. Urging me to go on. I will, as will many others who were lucky enough to have known her. She won’t be with us in one sense, but in many ways, she will always be. Miss you, Eunice.

Salil Tripathi 

29 July 2017 

Vivek Tejuja’s recommendations, 25 Books by Indian authors ( Nov 2014)

Vivek Tejuja’s recommendations, 25 Books by Indian authors ( Nov 2014)

The Other Side of Silence( Vivek Tejuja posted this list on his Facebook page on 26 Nov 2014. I am reposting it on my blog with his permission.) 

In his post, Vivek Tejuja writes “25 Books by Indian authors that Everyone should read , according to me. This is just my opinion of these books which I have loved and enjoyed over the years. I know there are way too many more which can be added here.”

1. All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani
2. Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi
3. In Custody by Anita Desai 
4. Collected Poems by Eunice de Souza
5. In A Forest, A Deer by Ambai
6. The Book of Destruction by Anand
7. Hangwoman by K. Meera
8. All for Love by Ved Mehta
9. A Life in Words by Ismat Chughtai
10. The Music of Solitude by Krishna Sobti
11. The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia
12. Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal
13. Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash
14. Seven Sixes are Forty Three by Kiran Nagarkar
15. The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
16. Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
17. The Guide by R.K. Narayan
18. Rasidi Ticket by Amrita Pritam
19. Selected Short Stories by Kalki 
20. Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla
21. Randamoozham or Bhima by M.T. Vasudevan Nair
22. Divya by Yashpal
23. Suraj ka Saatwan Ghoda by Dharamveer Bharati
24. Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant
25. Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra

27 Nov 2014 

On poetry — my thoughts ( 29 Jan 2013)

On poetry — my thoughts ( 29 Jan 2013)

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry
Edited by Sudeep Sen
HarperCollins Publishers, India, 2012. Pb. Pp.540. Rs. 599.

Panchali’s Pledge Subramania Bharti
Translated by Usha Rajagopalan
Everyman Classics, Hachette India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 274 Rs. 350

Dom Moraes: Selected Poems
Edited with an introduction by Ranjit Hoskote. Penguin Books India, 2012, Pb. Pp.282. Rs 499.

The River Speaks: The Vaiyai Poems from the Paripatal
Translated by V. N. Muthukumar and Elizabeth Rani Segran
Penguin Classics, Penguin Books India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 176. Rs. 250

These my Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry
Edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo
Penguin Books, India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 450 Rs. 499

In the company of a poet: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir
Rainlight, Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2012. Hb. Pp. 206. Rs 499

2012 was a delicious year for poetry from and being published in India. There were plenty of books to choose from — anthologies, collections, translations and some even for children. The anthology edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo (p.xxi) “comprises almost thirty languages and dialects, all translated into the English except of course those poems written in English. It includes poems, folk songs, and oral narratives that have now been transcribed. We have sought for a collection which tries to represent the breadth and diversity of Indian poetry – we wanted poems that surprised and delighted, poems that illuminated, and inspired further reading—a book for readers, not scholars and academics. We chose poems that worked in translation, those which crossed the boundary of language, which faithfulness to the original combined with adaptation to produced work that existed on its own merit.” It gives a good bird’s-eye view of what was written over the centuries, the various traditions that spawned poems and the transformation to the form over time. While reading it, you get a sense of the variety of poetry, the forms, the reasons why poetry is written and what can actually travel in translation. It is extremely difficult for me to even give a snippet of what is in the anthology since every poem is perfect. It forces you to engage with the content, takes you to a different world and time, and yet encourages you to move on to read the next poem. In no way is it dull to read such a volume.

In fact the editors achieve very well what Gulzar says in the absolutely delicious book In the company of a poet: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir that poetry is about “direct communication” and “What a poem says on the surface is not all that it means. You have to unpick the lines and see the shadows of words. That what makes it poetry, otherwise it would be prose. You usually have to be less ambiguous in prose, which is often an elaboration of thoughts: whereas in poetry, thoughts are usually compressed. A poem has an element of mystery. You have to unravel that mystery. Of course it depends on every poet—how much they reveal, and how much they choose not to.” He adds, “when you understand a poem’s meaning, you can never forget it. You find yourself reciting it at some occasion and it is appreciated. The idea of writing poetry appealed to me because reciting poetry is so pleasurable and the appreciation I got made me happy.”

I wish though that Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo had a longer note about the translation process. Or at least got a few of the translators to speak and then carry a transcript of it as an afterword on their experience at translating poetry. Obviously it takes a while for a satisfactory conclusion to be achieved. An insight into this is given by Sudeep Sen in his Aria introduction on translating poetry “Sculpting language, altering tongues, intoning arias” (p.4), “In almost all instances — whether it be Hebrew, Danish, Korean, Macedonian, Polish, Persian, Spanish or Portuguese — I have worked closely with poets of the source languages themselves. They would do literal translations of the original poems in very raw prose. Once I got down the contents in an accurate version, I would then enter the process more proactively and often singularly to sculpt and revise the jagged prose texts to give them a poetic shape in English. After every revision and draft, I would ask the poet to read aloud the poems in their original tongue, so that I got down the rhythm, rhyme, and the cadence correctly — getting them as close to the original as is possible. Once both the poet in the original language and I as a translator were happy with the versions we came up with — which happened through several working sessions over extended periods of time — we would let go of the poems in their new avatar, in a new language.” Maybe knowing this he chose to consciously create a useful anthology of English poetry by Indians (based in the country and from the diaspora). It was fifteen years in the making, but it is time well spent. Unfortunately that is not the case with Usha Rajagoplan’s translations of Subramania Bharti’s Panchali’s Pledge. I cannot read the poems in the source language but I realize that the translations are missing something from the original.

Of the recent set of publications on poetry my favourites are the translations of Lal Ded’s poetry by Ranjit Hoskote (I, Lalla) and his selection of Dom Moraes poems. Even if you have never read poetry or been hesitant about taking a dip in it, start with Ranjit Hoskote’s introductions. His selection, translations and arrangement of the poems introduces you to the poets, their techiniques, form and evolution very well.

And if you have children. Then some of the anthologies that I absolutely enjoy reading out aloud to my daughter are The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes; The Puffin Book of Nonsense Verse selected and illustrated by Quentin Blake; The Puffin Book of Modern Children’s Verse edited by Brian Patten, illustrated by Michael Foreman (revised and updated); The Macmillan Treasury of Poetry for Children with a foreword by Charles Causley and A first poetry book selected by Pie Corbett and Gaby Morgan (published by Macmillan). As Charles Causley who used to be a school teacher till one day he discovered the joys of reading poetry to his students says, “A poet, of course, is not obliged to make a poem, whatever its form, entirely accessible at a first reading. A poem, by its nature, may hold certain qualities in reserve. It may not burn itself out, so to speak, in one brilliant flash of light. A poem is a living organism, capable of continuous development and the most subtle of changes. It may contain both a revelation and a mystery. We need to be aware not only of what is said, but of what the poet most carefully has left unsaid.” Pie Corbett says it aptly “Let the poems become shafts of sunlight to brighten up the day.”