feminism Posts

Elif Shafak’s “10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World”

Zaynab122 nodded as a cloak of sadness engulfed her. Religion for her had always been a source of hope, resilience and love — a lift that carried her up from the basement of darkness into a spiritual light. It pained her that the same lift could just as easily take others all the way down. The teachings that warmed her heart and brought her close to all humanity, regardless of creed, colour or nationality, could be interpreted in such a way that they divided, confused and separated human beings, sowing seeds of enmity and bloodshed. If she were summoned by God one day, and had a chance to sit in His presence, she would love to ask Him just one simple question: ‘Why did you allow Yourself to be so widely misunderstood, my beautiful and merciful God?’

Elif Shafak’s latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World is about a prostitute, Leyla Afife Kamile or Leila, who has been killed and her body dumped in the city waste bin. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds also alludes to the time it takes for the brain to remain active after a patient has been declared clinically dead. While the clock is ticking to the final 10 minutes 38 seconds, Leila in the dumpster, begins to recall her past — her childhood, her family and the group of five friends in Istanbul she considered her safety net — Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra. It is a motley bunch of folks in Leila’s inner circle consisting mostly of runaways like herself. They are on the fringes of society which gives them the freedom to move and comment easily. But for Leila five was a special number. It was a number found across all faiths. Five were the number of books in the Torah, Jesus suffered five fatal wounds, Islam had five pillars of faith, King David had killed Goliath with five pebbles, Buddhism has five paths while Shiva had five faces, looking out in five different directions and Chinese philosophy revolved around five elements — water, fire, wood, metal and earth.

In the patchwork of memories that Leila chooses to share with the reader there are instances of conversations between women in her village. There are conversations between the two wives of Leila’s father. There are conversations in the police station or waiting lines at the public hospital. There are conversations between clients and her pimp. Leila even reflects upon the sexual abuse she faced from her paternal uncle that the whole family chose not to acknowledge even though they, including her father, knew that Leila was telling the truth. There are the stories of her friends and their migration to Istanbul. Her friend the Somalian Jameela of mixed parentage ( Christian and Muslim) escaped ethnic cleansing and sexual exploitation who “like all foreigners, she carried with her the shadow of an elsewhere”. The other friends had similar stories. While these are stories that add up to create a fascinating narrative, what is truly remarkable is that Elif Shafak uses her literary skills to tell the stories of women and the marginalised. These are groups of people who are “normally” silenced in fiercely patriarchal societies. Using Leila to tell these stories is a magnificent literary device. For Leila’s voice is strong. It has an authoritative tone while sharing her story. It cannot be challenged for she is dead. Leila is free to share her experiences and opinions without any judgement being passed on her whatsoever. She is telling her story in the manner she likes. It is liberating. It also holds true for her friends who to some degree have the same freedom of expression as Leila as they are dismissed as “lunatics” by the coroner, so are not necessarily heard. They are free to express their opinions on even sensitive topics like religion. They are “devastated” with the loss of Leila but it is not something to be considered in the State’s opinion as they were not blood relatives. Instead the decision is taken to bury Leila in the loneliest graveyard in Istanbul — the Cemetery of the Companionless.

Elif Shafak said in the 2018 New Statesman / Goldsmiths Prize lecture “Why the novel matters in the age of anger” that in a world ruled by fear and division – novelists no longer have the luxury of being apolitical.

The novel matters because it connects us with the experiences of people we have never met, times we have never seen, places we have never visited. The novel matters not only because of the stories it brings alive, but also the silences it dares to explore. As novelists we keep our ears pricked all the time, attentive to the rhythm of the language, the usage of words, the stories and legends swirling in the air – but we must also listen carefully to the silences. Here we find the things that cannot be openly talked about in a society; the political, cultural, sexual taboos.

The novel matters because, like an alchemist, it turns empathy into resistance. It brings the periphery to the centre, it gives a voice to the voiceless, it makes the invisible visible. And it also distils the deluge of information into drops of wisdom – as argued by the German-Jewish philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. Writing at a time when Nazism and the ideology of hatred were on the rise, and the world was turning upside down, Benjamin repeatedly made a distinction between “information” and “wisdom”. He believed that the writer, in the depth of solitude, shared his or her own experience or the experiences of others, and by doing this, shed light on “the perplexity of living”. But here is where Benjamin’s theory becomes all the more relevant for our world today. The more information is available and the faster it spreads, he thought, the deeper was the perplexity of living. The proliferation of information at the expense of wisdom, and the widening gap between the two preoccupied Benjamin. He was worried that this might bring along the demise, and eventually the death of the art of storytelling.

The job of a writer is to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised. As many who have lived through horrors have told us, including the Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, the opposite of love, kindness or peace is not necessarily hatred and war. The opposite of love is numbness. It is indifference.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World exemplifies much of what she Elif Shafak said in her lecture. As a feminist she makes visible the domains of women and the marginalised by looking into their very souls. She makes the invisible stories visible and gives a voice to the voiceless. By dipping into the stories of her characters Shafak unveils the multi-culturally rich stories that exist all around us in a “comforting harmony”. These stories abound irrespective of the toxic politics of ultra-nationalism or religious fundamentalism or authoritarianism that are on the rise and with them misogyny and sexism. This is why she firmly believes that the age we are living in is an important crossroads for global solidarity, global sisterhood.

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When politics becomes toxic and countries slide backwards, we women should be all the more concerned, because every time ultra-nationalism or religious fundamentalism or authoritarianism are on the rise, so are misogyny and sexism. This is why, the age we are living in is an important crossroads for global solidarity, global sisterhood…. I love this photo, together with the wonderful Delphine O, who represents the city of Paris and the person taking the picture is the great scholar Cas Mudde 📚📚📚 Ne zaman siyasetin sert ve hoyrat dili toplumları yapay fay hatlarıyla bölse ve memleketler geriye gitmeye başlasa, kadınlar ve azınlıklar çok daha duyarlı davranmak zorunda, çünkü aşırı milliyetçiliğin yahut bağnazlık ve köktendinciligin yahut otoriterliğin artışa geçtiği topraklarda muhakkak ki cinsiyet ayrımcılığı ve tüm farklılıklara tahammülsüzlük de yükseliş gösterir. Kadına yönelik şiddet ve önyargılar ve kabalıklar artar. Öyleyse yaşadığımız tarihsel dönem global kızkardeşliğin, dayanışmanın daha da önem kazandığı bir an. Bu fotoğrafı çok seviyorum , Fransa'nın önemli kadın hakları savunucularından Delphine O ile, fotoğrafı çeken de çok değerli bir akademisyen, Cas Mudde, belki görebilirsiniz yansımasını… #womensrightsmatter #sisterhood #hopeeveryone #genderequality #cinsiyeteşitliği #kadinyazarlar #bethechange #değişim #edebiyatvesanat #ideasmatter #diversityandinclusion

A post shared by Elif Şafak Elif Shafak (@shafakelif) on

Read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World !

28 May 2019

An extract from Radha Kumar’s “Paradise at War”

Dr Radha Kumar is a historian and a policy analyst who has written several well-regarded books on ethnic conflict and feminism. She was one of the interlocutors appointed for Jammu and Kashmir by the Manmohan Singh administration in 2010. Paradise at War is her latest book  on Jammu and Kashmir published by Aleph.

According to the book blurb:

Paradise at War is Dr Radha Kumar’s political history of Kashmir, a book that attempts to give the reader a definitive yet accessible study of perhaps the most troubled part of India. Beginning with references to Kashmir as ‘a sacred geography’ in the Puranas, Kumar’s account moves forward in time through every major development in the region’s history. It grapples with the seemingly intractable issues that have turned the state into a battleground and tries to come up with solutions that are realistic and lasting.

Situating the conflict in the troubled geopolitics of Kashmir’s neighbourhood, Kumar unpicks the gnarled tangle of causes that have led to the present troubles in the region, from wars and conquest to Empire and the growth of nationalism; the troubled accession of the state to India by Maharaja Hari Singh during Partition; Pakistani attacks and the rise of the Cold War; the politics of the various parts of the former princely state including Jammu and Kashmir, and the areas administered by Pakistan; the wars that followed and the attempts that Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders, starting with Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, made to find peaceful solutions, including taking the Kashmir issue to the UN, which had unintended consequences for India; the demand for plebiscite; the Simla Agreement, turning the ceasefire line into the Line of Control; communal riots in the 1980s and the growth of insurgency; increase in security forces in the state in the 1990s leading to public resentment; and the guerrilla occupation of Hazratbal, the fifteenth-century mosque. Showing that a changed Post-Cold War milieu offered new opportunities for peace-making that were restricted by domestic stresses in Pakistan, Kumar analyses the Lahore Declaration and its undoing with the Kargil operation; the morphing of insurgency into an Islamist jihad against India; India’s attempts to parley with separatist groups; and the progress made towards a Kashmir solution via peace talks by various Indian and Pakistani governments between 2002 and 2007.

Kumar’s descriptions of the contemporary situation—the impact of 9/11 and the war on terrorism; the Afghan war and the Mumbai attacks which created pressure on Pakistan to take action against radical Islamists; the blowback in Pakistan resulting in the growing radicalization of Pakistani institutions such as the judiciary and its spill over in Kashmir; the Indian government’s failure to move Kashmir into a peacebuilding phase; the trouble with AFSPA; the anti-India feelings that were triggered by counter-insurgency responses in 2010, the contentious coalition of 2014 and the killing of suspected terrorist Burhan Wani in 2016—underline the tragedies which ensue when conditions, timing and strategy are mismatched.

Drawing on her experience as a government interlocutor, Kumar chastises the Indian government for never failing ‘to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to the state’s political grievances’. Equally, she shows how Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has been ‘an unmitigated disaster’. While arguing that India can do a great deal to reduce violence and encourage reconciliation within the former princely state, she concludes that if Kashmir is ever to move towards lasting peace and stability, the major stakeholders as well as regional and international actors will need to work together on the few feasible options that remain.

Timely and authoritative, the book cuts through the rhetoric that cloaks Kashmir to give the reader a balanced, lucid and deeply empathetic view of the state, its politics and its people.

With the publisher’s permission here is an extract ( p. 339-341) from Dr Kumar’s concluding chapter entitled “Conclusion: Faint Hope for a Peace Process”.

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Looking back over the history of Jammu and Kashmir, the last seventy years have seen a tragic collision between aspirations for democracy and the grim realities of war. After centuries of imperial rule, the territorial state of Jammu and Kashmir emerged in the nineteenth century and the political state only after India and Pakistan became independent countries. From 1947, two opposing trajectories were evident. On the one hand, India–Pakistan conflict devastated daily life and severely hampered governance in the former princely state. On the other hand, all parts of the state steadily improved economically, though their economies remained heavily aid-reliant. Their residents acquired education and healthcare where once, not so long ago, they did not. Roads and rail lines were built, enabling connectivity and trade. Natural resources such as water were developed, and even though these resources were shared with India and Pakistan, residents still had more than they did sixty years ago.

Politically, however, there was a steady decline, from the first flush of hope in a post-monarchical order to growing disappointment and anger spurred by war and conflict every fifteen to twenty years. Albeit in sharply divergent ways, each of the divided parts of the former princely state found that its status and rights were determined by conflict and its government’s powers varied according to security and economic dependence on India or Pakistan. It seems counter-intuitive to say that the people of the Kashmir valley suffered the most poisonous politics of the regions of the former princely state, when they had a greater measure of democracy and civil rights, on paper, than their counterparts across the Line of Control. But the Kashmir valley also suffered the most stifling conditions, because it was the arena of violent conflict.

Looking back over the past decade or more, it can be seen that the Pakistan Army’s hostility towards India has cumulatively increased rather than decreased after 9/11. Musharraf cooperated with the US against the Taliban on the grounds that if he did not, it would advantage India. The first few years following 9/11 saw an intensification of cross-border violence in Jammu and Kashmir. During the peace process that followed, with considerable international facilitation, violence decreased sharply in Jammu and Kashmir but terrorist attacks against India rose, both in other parts of India and in Afghanistan. Eventually, the peace process was put on hold by a beleaguered Musharraf in 2007.

The civilian government that took over in Pakistan did not build on the framework for Kashmir of the Musharraf backchannel. But they took cautious steps to improve trade, and developed customs and transit infrastructure at the Wagah border. Though the 26/11 attacks were the most horrific terrorist act in years, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India declined overall. When the Zardari administration was succeeded by the Sharif administration in 2013, the initial months were promising. Sharif and Modi did briefly try to revive a peace process, but guerrillas succeeded in disrupting their efforts and Sharif soon fell foul of the Pakistani military.

Clearly, each country has yet to come to terms with the other’s red lines. Pakistan’s red line was, and remains, that terrorism would not be curbed unless Kashmir was also discussed. For India, terrorism had to end. The hard facts were that Pakistan was unlikely to give up support for anti-India groups like the Lashkar and Jaish until conflicts over Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen were resolved. The best that could be expected was that the Pakistan Army, under pressure, might restrain them. Equally, India would not settle with Pakistan until convinced that its government was ending support for anti-India militancy, including by non-state actors. First Vajpayee, then Musharraf, and then Singh, Zardari and Sharif, learned these hard facts the hard way, through trial and error, but the learning curve in each country appeared to be individual rather than institutional or collective.

Most Indians believe that the Pakistani position would change were the military to accept civilian precedence, but the chances of that happening are nil. Many would further argue that a sustained military-to-military dialogue would also soften the hard-line attitude of the Pakistan Army. Thus far, however, such a dialogue has proved elusive. The fact that the Pakistani NSA appointed in October 2015 was a retired general gave hope of a direct line to the military. After Pathankot, the jury was still out on whether this access helped. The two countries’ chiefs of army staff do not meet and their DGMOs have met only occasionally to talk CBMs. There have been intermittent and secret NSA talks since 2016, with no discernible impact.

A large and growing new challenge for both countries has been how to deal with the media. In the past four years, the role of electronic media in both countries has been understandably but unforgivably negative. With little substantive information to go on, Indian and Pakistani talking heads resorted to such virulent slanging matches in the run-up to the India– Pakistan NSA talks in August 2015 that they had to be cancelled. Some anchors questioned whether Pakistan fell into a trap by reacting so strongly to the Indian media, but this begged the question of whether the Indian media themselves fell into a spoilers’ trap. The Indian media muted criticism to some extent in 2018, with most channels supporting the ceasefire and questioning the toppling of the Mehbooba administration.

Astonishingly, the Indian government has never failed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to Jammu and Kashmir. From Nehru taking the conflict to the UN and arresting Sheikh Abdullah, to Indira dismissing and replacing elected governments, to Singh shying away from taking CBMs to political resolution, to Modi withdrawing the ceasefire before it had time to take hold and the BJP toppling the state’s coalition government[i] —almost every Indian prime minister has shown the state pusillanimity at best and authoritarianism at worst.

Pakistan’s leaders have done no better. Some might argue they did worse. Expressions of dissent were severely repressed and the powers of the elected leaders of Pakistan-administered Kashmir were little more than municipal. Gilgit–Baltistan suffered decades of sectarian conflict. But neither entity was subjected to the gruelling and attritive violence that Jammu and Kashmir was. While the reason was clear—India did not target Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the way that Pakistan targeted Jammu and Kashmir—it did not mitigate the suffering in Jammu and Kashmir.

As I write this conclusion, the Jammu and Kashmir conflict is at its nadir. Levels of violence continue to rise and abduction, torture and murder of Kashmiris in the security and police forces is becoming a new normal. The people of the valley are more alienated from mainland India than ever before and Jammu’s communal polarization between Muslim- and Hindumajority districts is greater than ever before.

Ladakh is the one clear ray of hope despite the distance between its two districts, Leh and Kargil. But its light cannot be shed on the valley and Jammu since it has always been quite separate from the two, both physically and in its polity.

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[i] Rajesh Ahuja and Mir Ehsan, ‘Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir to end, security ops will resume, says Rajnath Singh’, Hindustan Times, 17 June, 2018; ‘Mehbooba Mufti resigns after BJP pulls out of alliance with PDP in Jammu and Kashmir’, Times of India, 19 June, 2018.

22 February 2019

Book 23: 9 December 2018 – 5 January 2019

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 23 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received during the holiday season.

Enjoy reading!

7 January 2019

“Kama” by Jaya Misra

Jaya Misra’s erotic novel Kama: The Story of the Kama Sutra is about Vatsayayana who wrote Kamasutra. Set in 273 AD Jaya Misra’s Kama is a fictionalised account of  Vatsayayana, trying to imagine who he was, what prompted him to explore ancient texts and ultimately write the Kamasutra. According to the AIS sent by the publishers, Jaya Misra is “deeply influenced by the works of Anais Nin, Erica Jong, and Virginia Woolf, Jaya takes a keen interest in issues pertaining to women’s rights. Jaya believes that Vatsyayana was not a mere ascetic, but one of ancient India’s first feminists”. This may be true but any explorations of Vatsayayana’s “feminism” are certainly not evident in the story.  Kama reads like a steamy airport novel happened to be set a few centuries ago.

Jaya Misra Kama: The Story of the Kama Sutra Om Books International, NOIDA, India, 2018. Pb. pp. 335 Rs 295 

13 June 2018 

Jordan B. Peterson “12 Rules for Life”

[bwwpp_book sku=’97803458160230000000′]

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos lays down rules for a better living in a noisy modern world. There is an authoritarian tone to the rules as listed in the table of contents.  The arguments laid out in the book stem from his online discussions on the popular platform Quora.

Every chapter is preceded by an alarmingly disturbing ink illustration involving children. “Alarming” because every single image rather than being hopeful and a cofidence building measure inevitably has a tone which hints that it is best where you are, do not try and have dreams. Take for instance Rule 3 which  states “Make friends wtih people who want the best for you” is accompanied by an illustration of the statue of David by Michelangelo with a very tiny figure of a child looking up at this enormous statue. It looks positively monstrous in the illustration. It is a matter of perspective possibly but to have such distressing illustrations will serve the sole purpose of terrifying people, forcing them to remain where they are and to accept institutional systems and their social conditions as is, instead of questioning or being ambitious and hopeful. These forms of intellectual arguments are detrimental to the growth of an individual and for society at large but most people will know no better for undoubtedly Jordan Peterson is fairly persuasive in his arguments.

Pankaj Mishra in a justifiably scathing attack of Jordan Peterson’s book in the NYRB ( Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism, 19 March 2018) has this to say:

 

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts.
….
The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.
Peterson, however, seems to have modelled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell.
Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailedVladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.
Meanwhile the book continues to sell and has climbed the bestseller charts worldwide although it never made it to the New York Times Bestseller list. So much so that Jordan Peterson was moved sufficiently to write a “Thank you note to booksellers” commending them for their good work. In the letter circulated he lists the 12 books which influenced his 12 rules. These are:
BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL by Friedrich Nietzsche
MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl
MODERN MAN IN SEARCH OF A SOUL by Carl Jung
THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE by Mircea Eliade
THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER by George Orwell
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST by Tom Wolfe
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Fyodor Dostoevsky
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
ORDINARY MEN by Christopher Browning
THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte
The fact is that Jordan Peterson like conservative intellectuals who through their tub thumping articles persuade individuals to focus on themselves increasingly and not necessarily look at the world in a broader context do far more damage to society. Writing such “self-help” books that explicitly encourage an individual to narrow their landscapes considerably to the microcosm create more havoc than be an “antidote to chaos”. An illustrative example is that he offers of a rape survivor to illustrate his Rule 9 “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t” is a a very messed up argument. There are pages and pages of his analysis and reporting his conversation with the victim but this particular passage stands out for its misogyny.
She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped and neither did I. Life is very complicated.
Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something. “Was I raped?” can be a very complicated question. The mere fact that the question would present itself in that form indicates the existence of infinite layers of complexity — to say nothing of “five times.” There are a myriad of questions hidden inside “Was I raped?: What is rape? What is consent? What constitutes appropriate sexual caution? How should a person defend herself? Where does the fault lie? “Was I raped?” is a hydra. If you cut off the head of a hydra, seven more grow. That’s life. Miss S would have had to talk for twenty years to figure out whether she had been raped.
As Pankaj Mishra points out:
Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.
Writer Matt Haig in a different context had this to say on Twitter about feminism and patriarchal mindsets. It is applicable in the context of this book:

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is a book that will be discussed for years to come. Read it if you must while bearing in mind the larger picture of intellectual discourse.
Jordan Peterson 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, London, 2018. Pb. pp.410 Rs 699
21 March 2018 

Of Bitches

11 October 2017 is International Girl Child’s Day, declared by the United Nations. The idea is to raise awareness of issues facing girls internationally surrounding education, nutrition, child marriage, legal and medical rights. The celebration of the day also “reflects the successful emergence of girls and young women as a distinct cohort in development policy, programming, campaigning and research.”

But what happens when the young woman gains consciousness in a world where many of the structures are still very patriarchal; they inform and dictate many relationships and policies. Feminism, particularly women’s movements, of the 1960s onwards have influenced young girls world over. Women learned how to express themselves in a manner that enabled them to be heard. Slowly and steadily the impact was discernible in different spheres. In publishing too for the first time women’s presses were being set up. Virago and  Kali for Women were established. The magazine Ms was launched by Gloria Steinem. Women in Publishing was established at this time by Liz Calder, one of the co-founders of Bloomsbury. In India for the first time Status of Women Report ( 1975) was released. There was definitely a shift in perceptions and constructive action was being taken. Soon publishers worldwide recognised the growing importance of giving a space in their lists to women’s books — either by women or for women.  In living memory there has been a dramatic shift with now there being more and more women authors being published.

In this context there are three collections of essays that I read recently — Bad Feminist ( Roxane Gay), Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults ( Laurie Penny) and The Bitch is Back ( ed. Cathi Hanauer). These three books can be yoked together not only for their feminism but also that they mark the manner in which the feminists conduct themselves, the choices they make and how they evolve as individuals. Some of the older feminists as those sharing their experiences in their essays included in The Bitch is Back comment upon living their feminism by negotiating their spaces regularly and thereafter making peace with the decisions made. The common thread running through all these essays is how challenging at times it can be to find the same sense of equality and entitlement that men of diverse backgrounds seem to have in all societies. Women have to negotiate their spaces and stand by their choices, at times it is not easy, but feminism has granted this at least — the space to negotiate and as some of the older women discover it is also about making peace with having your own identity. There are two particularly fine essays that encapsulate and address many of these issues in The Bitch is Back — “Trading Places: We both wanted to stay home. He won. But so did I.” by Julianna Baggott and “Beyond the Myth of Co-Parenting: What we lost — and gained — by abandoning equality” by Hope Edelman.

These books are meant for everyone and not necessarily for feminists. Read them. Discuss them. Share them and not just with the girls in your circle as they come of age. It is a way of seeing. Hopefully reading about alternative gendered perspectives will enable a healthy debate in society and contribute to the transformation of traditional patriarchal structures of thinking.

11 October 2017 

 

“Vegetarians Only: Stories of Telugu Muslims” by Skybaaba

I read Telugu writer and Telengana activist Skybaaba’s short stories rapidly. They give an insight into the lives of ordinary Telugu Muslims living in the Deccan and the challenges they experience — loneliness, communal prejudices, casteism, love, hostility, living in penury etc. The English translations done by a team of translators are functional but make a valid contribution to Indian literature by highlighting the diverse cultures we have in India. This collection of stories was published by Orient Black Swan a couple of years ago and has been a steady seller. In fact The Little Theatre group did a dramatised telling of the stories.  

I interviewed Skybaaba after locating him online. He very kindly agreed to do the interview. It turned into an interesting process. He can read and understand English but is most comfortable responding in Telugu. So even if I had to chat to him via Facebook Instant Messenger to get clarifications, I would pose my questions in English and he would reply in Hindi using the Roman script. When I sent the Q& A he replied in Telugu on the document which then a friend of his, Dr. Jilukara Srinivas, Department of Telugu, University of Hyderabad, translated into English. 

Here are edited excerpts: 

Interview with Skybaaba about ‘Vegetarians Only’ Stories of Telugu Muslims

  1. How long did it take you to write these stories?

I took 11 years to write these stories. Initially I wrote poetry. But as feminism, Dalit movement in literature Muslimvadam had to be discussed  in the mainstream I began to write stories. Muslimvadam got recognition as an identity movement as feminism and “Dalitism” did in Telugu literature.  In that process I have played an important role. I have edited many poetry anthologies, stories collection ‘Vatan’, and Mulki, a special issue on Muslims. I had to spend lot of time and had to face a lot of pain. I lost my secured life for completing these works. I think it’s the first time in the history of Indian literature that a hundred muslim writers have come together and created an identity movement for Muslim community.  To make it a ‘movement’ I have maintained a continuous interaction with many Muslim writers who have been engaged in writing lives. In 1998 I compiled many wonderful poems by Muslim poets as Zalzala. It was ground-breaking poetry, first of its kind powerful poetry in Telugu. It was the time in which Muslimvadam came up significantly. There were doubts and uncertain conditions at that time. An opportunity was there to brand Muslimvada literature as a fanatic and religious one. We tried to make it clear that Islam is a religion and the word ‘Muslim’ is a social nomenclature as Dalit. Zalzala, as a poetry collection, was an effort with this understanding.   Dalit poetry has not received any opposition because it was considered as a problem of “Hindu” society. Its not the same with Muslimvadam. It can be branded as “other”. Not only that, there was a possibility that it could be termed as terrorism. I was ready to face all the charges and hardships. The poems in Zalzala criticise the Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists equally. There are multiple dimensions to the anthology. I say this collection of poems is a milestone in the literary history of India and Telugu literature too. Zalzala (1998) and  Aza (2002) were two anthologies consisting of poets of two states Telangana and Andhra.  A few poems of Zalzala were translated into English and Hindi. In 2002 along with another poet Anwar I also published poetry on Gujarat genocide titled Azaan. After both were received well, I started working from 1999 to 2004 and collected 52 Muslim stories from 39 different writers and published the first ever Muslim stories compilation titled Watan. Around that time, I started writing stories and started weaving my stories from different angles of Muslim life.

  1. At times it seems these stories particularly those about migration read more like reportage than fiction. Was that the intention?

I depicted realism of lives. I think you can’t write aesthetics when life is ending in pathetic situation. My stories in fact very have a colourful beauty in terms of content, weather, language and narrating style. All my stories end sadly. Lives are same too. In reality, most of the lives are like that. I tried to portray the lives as they are with such detail which enables the reader to find alternative solutions –that is the crux of my writing.

The two ways of finding solutions are — One, create a space in the story for the reader to engage and in understanding and let him find a solution to the problem pictured in it. Second, a solution can be suggested by author to a reader. I prefer the first way. Let readers have an opportunity to find their ways in resolving issue.

  1. How did the translation come about? Why were there so many translators for the stories?

Translation came really well but  the team of translators and editors worked extra hard to achieve it. Because my language is special. It belongs to me too. I created my story language. I am a pro-active muslim. I belong to Telangana. Our household speaks Urdu. Street language is Telangana Telugu. But the language of educated belongs to coastal Andhra who dictated for quite long time. Even language of every magazine is costal Andhra dominated. Hence I consciously chose the language I was raised in and speak which is a mix of Urdu and Telangana Telugu.

Telangana Telugu is different from Andhra Telugu. Telangana language was dishonoured by Andhraites. I use to write Urdu words like Aapa, abbajan, bhaisaab and etc. I kept Urdu sentences for dialogues. For the nativity I used familiar Urdu words at the outset of story. It was to suggest that dialogues are going on in Urdu. “Zaldi Zaldi Jani is going towards Edgah” – it’s a line in a story. Zaldi, Zaldi, Edgah, and Jani are Urdu words. Telangana words like dikk’, nadustundu, Jebatti, Adaada, and chestunnay are mixed with Urdu words to form beautiful sentences.

So it came out as special language. Translators had a hard time translating my stories into English. Similarly, editors had to edit it precisely to get the feel of the language and content. They had to consult me also many times on that. My stories have depicted vulnerable conditions of Muslim woman. These characters will haunt after reading. For this reason editors have selected 5 famous women translators who have fabulously grasped the feelings of women characters in the stories. This was a big project which took three and a half years to complete.

  1. Why did you include a glossary in the book instead of including the meaning of the words within the context of the story, as is largely practised now in modern translations?

Muslimvada literature has started a trend in using Urdu words. Readers will look towards the Muslims in their neighbourhoods with curiosity. So we came to a conclusion that meanings of Urdu words should not be given immediately We thought this method will create interest among readers. We followed the same for English version too but publishers asked us to provide at the end.

  1. Were you involved in the translation process? If so did you work on the stories for the English version or do they all remain true to the original stories in Telugu?

I’m not acquainted with English language. Complete rendering of my stories has been carried out by the translators and editors. They have discussed with me about the atmosphere, context in which words are used and sense of the certain Urdu terms too. I feel the translators have done a tremendous job and have exceeded my expectations.

  1. Are any of the stories autobiographical? I get the sense that the story about the young couple house-hunting as well as “Urs” are about you. I may be wrong.

Your perception is correct. Many of the stories are made out of my experiences. It means many of my stories are autobiographical — “Jani Begum”, “The Wedding Feast”, “Sheer Khorma” , “Life in Death” , “Urs” and”Vegetarians Only” too. My wife and I, in fact, have experienced all the situations while searching to rent a home. “Vegetarians Only” which is about a young married couple house hunting but constantly being denied accommodation as the landlords did not want beef-eating tenants and preferred vegetarians. Ultimately it was a dalit family willing to rent a tiny room to the couple. I wrote this story as a reflection of the prejudices Muslims experience on a daily basis.  Now this story is being taught as part of the post-graduation syllabus for 400 students in Kakatiya university.

  1. Why did you choose the pen name “Skybaaba”?

I’m Shaik Yousuf Baba. When I was in school I would write my name as “Skybaba”. “Sk” from Shaik, “Y” from Yousuf which made it sky and then I added “baba” to it. I introduced myself as “Skybaba” to literary friends. My first poem was published with this name. From then it has been my name. many have suggested me to keep Yousuf. But I like Skybaba. You know, when I tried to use it for Facebook, and for a blog, it was not available. So, I have added a syllable “a” making it “Skybaaba”. Now nobody can use it in social media as a name for a profile. We used the same in translation too. In two Telugu states, people will recognize me with “Skybaaba” only.

  1. In the introduction it is mentioned that your father was well-read but most of the women were uneducated. I am struck by how educated your father was and how many stories he read. How did this disparity in education levels between him and his wife come about? I ask since some of the women you have in the stories are educated even if it means fighting for the space.

My father studied up to 9th standard but he was able to read in Telugu, Urdu and Hindi.  He read many novels in the three languages. I use to listen him while he narratied the stories to my mother. I also use to listen to my mother tell the very same stories to the neighbours. In my father’s generation  there was no opportunity to get education for woman. You cannot see the identity movements at that time. I mean that social justice and equal rights to backward classes, untouchables and minorities. It was a result of awareness. It does not mean that opportunities have come to me. But the Muslim community has received something like Muslim reservation out of my struggle.  In Telugu, it was started before our generation. Like me, many of us have reached this stage because of identity movements. It is the reason behind keeping our stories as lessons to the students and reason for conducting researches on our literature.

  1. There is a reference to the anthology of 52 Telugu Muslim stories Watan: Muslim Kadhalu ( 2004) by 39 Muslim writers. Is this available in English?

No. It’s not available. It is as yet to be translated.  It was a result  out of my five years hard work. It contains 400 pages. For this I travelled two Telugu states and met Telugu Muslim writers to persuade them to submit their stories. I compiled it with good stories after editing and making writers to rewrite some stories. With this collection of stories even the movement of Muslimvadam was received well and its situation got changed. A lot of change occurred in the expression of stories. A lot of people appreciated it. One of my critics told me to keep the book available in the market always. So that non-Muslims can learn the lives of Muslims who are the equal sufferer of poverty, violence and humiliation as other marginalized sections. By reading this book, the hatred which is propagated against Muslims will reduce.  Misconceptions like Muslims are anti-nationals, terrorists and foreigners will be erased from the psyche of masses.  People will realize that Muslims are their friends. Muslims like any other community experience poverty, unemployment, love and affection.

  1. Please tell me more about how you came to be a writer. I know this is a clichéd question but after reading this book and reading the notes in the book I want to know. I am impressed by one of the small jobs you explored was a “book-renting shop” (why don’t you call it a library?), becoming the editor of the literary page of Telugu daily Andhra Jyoti etc.

The  uncompromising nature of my mother, courageous nature of my father, grand mom’s different integrity and commitment, my village Kesarajupally’s nature, my close friend Janardhan’s atheism, Parasharamlu’s experiences with untouched social system, my keen observations, and dedication, extensively reading habit from childhood, stories, novels, poetry of woman’s issues, etc all have shaped my personality and integrity. I have a great respect and sympathy for women’s issues and problems. My love, failure, discontinuity of education, poverty, failures in business have made a good writer. Everyone cried after reading my stories. As an activist I have attended thousands of meetings and visited a lot of villages so that I became mentally strong. In a single word, I stood up because of Sufism which I have internalised  and my inherent nomadic nature.

  1. You have started several literary magazines – “Telugu Dalit Voice” ( 2005-2006), “Mulki” ( 2002-2004), “Chaman” ( 2006-2007) and “Singdi” ( 2010-2011). Why did you feel the need to start a literary magazine? How were they different to each other? How did these magazines find their audiences? What did they contain?

Yes, I have started my literary magazines and encouraged others to start. I have also worked for many small magazines too. For the reason of mainstream media which is not supporting Dalits, Muslims and Telangana issues. Now the situation has become worse. In such a situation, I tried to disseminate the ideas and information to educate the communities. “Dalit Voice” is all about Bahujan politics whereas “Mulki” and “Singidi” is about Telangana Movement. A special issue of “Mulki” and “Chaman” have been brought out to sensitize the readers about Muslim’s issues. As an activist I tried to make them available at public meetings, gatherings and in serious book points. Useful information, interviews and articles for the social movements were given priority in the publications. They helped readers out across the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana.

  1. Is Nasal Kitab Ghar your publishing house? Does it still exist?

Yes, it’s been working. It’s my own publishing house. So far, I have brought 16 books out. They are very valuable as no publishing house came forward to print the Muslimvada writings. Even NGOs were not agreeable.  So, I have established Nasal Kitab Ghar. Isn’t it great to record a victim’s version? Is it not valuable? I have recorded diversity of Muslim community and its social and economic situation. I know some of the issues like burkha, parda, caste structure among Muslims which I recorded in anthologies will not be received well even by our own community. Yet these stories have their relevance in Telugu literature. Nasal Kitab Ghar will be there till my last breath. I will bring wonderful books forward.

  1. Why did you feel the need to have a strong Muslim identity to define your literary activities such as Muslimvada poetry and the short-lived Muslim writers’s forum Marfa ( 2003-2004)? Is the Telengana writers’ forum Singidi ( 2010) which you co-founded also with a strong Muslim identity?

From 1995 feminism and the Dalit movement came forward with a strong ideological base and argument. I and some other Muslim writers were inspired by these movements. We launched Muslimvadam. I worked very hard for the movement. All the important collections of writings have been published by me only. We have provided a view to look into and understand the Indian majoritarian social order. It is Muslim view point. We tried to educate Muslim community to think in terms of social and political. We also sent a message to mingle with other communities which are struggling for justice. We made them to realize that all the SC, ST, OBC, MBC literary movements are brotherly things to Muslims. ‘Haryali’ Muslim Writers Forum, ‘Marfa’ Muslim Reservation Movement intended to do the same. As a founder and leader of these organizations I worked as a key person. Unlike feminist and Dalit movement there was no support readily forthcoming for Muslimvadam. I had to bear the brunt of all the burden. I had to put my security at risk. There were threats to me from Hindutva groups but I persevered and worked steadily for years.   I worked in Singidi as a Muslim representative among SC, ST, BC and women representatives. Singidi was a collective voice of oppressed sections. Dalit, BC, Tribal and Muslim literary movements have an understanding that all these communities have same roots and divided from one stem. It’s an indigenous perspective. It’s the base for these movements. It extends the concept of brotherhood among victims.

  1. What is the Nilagiri Sahiti group?

I see Neelagiri Sahiti as a “mother” institution since it was instrumental in shaping me as a poet. It taught me what literature is. I attended its inaugural meeting and then after I worked as a secretary for five years. Dr. Sunkireddy Narayana Reddy was its founder who was a Telugu lecturer. He is a famous poet, critic, cultural historian of Telangana. He founded many literary organizations.. He is my literary mentor. With his vision and support I have become an uncompromising writer as  I have my commitment towards oppressed communities. I know there are many opportunities for the writers and activists who surrender to the state. I never thought of working with the State which denies the basic human and civil rights to Muslims , Dalits, OBC and Tribes. So, I was branded as a stubborn and headstrong poet.  I may be branded in any manner but I will not abandon interests of my communities. We have organized number of programmes which have helped me grow as a powerful writer.   I learnt many ideological issues from debates, conferences and talks organized by Nilagiri Sahiti. Eminent poets, writers, and intellectuals were invited to monthly and weekly meetings.

Buy the book here or by clicking on the book cover image. 

27 July 2017 

 

Scaachi Koul “One Day We’ll Be Dead And None of This Will Matter”

For those of us who are not in a position of power — us women, us non-white people, those who are trans or queer or whatever it is that identifies us inherently different — the internet means the world has a place to scream at us. The arguments range from the casually rude — people who want me to lose my job, or who accuse my father of leaving me and my mother, which would explain all my issues with authority — to comments deeply disturbing, ones that even my greatest enemises wouldn’t verbalize to my face. 

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter  Scaachi Koul’s debut is a collection of essays. These are mostly about being a Kashmiri Pundit immigrant from Jammu and Kashmir in Canada. Unlike her family Scaachi Koul was born and brought up in Canada. Her family moved to Canada when her brother was a toddler.

Being an immigrant and a fiesty feminist makes Scaachi Koul’s razor sharp wit a pure delight to read. For example her delightful breezy style of writing as as illustrated in the essay “Aus-piss-ee-ous” which is about her cousin’s arranged wedding in Jammu. “There are prison sentences that run shorter than Indian weddings.” She is smart and sassy in her quick repartee on social media too, a quality that endears her to many while exposing her to trolls as well. One of the incidents she focuses upon is particularly horrifying. Realising the need for diverse voices in the media and as the cultural editor of a prominent online magazine and an immigrant herself she put out a call for more writing from “non-white non-male writers”. It was a conscious decision on her part for some affirmative action. She was wholly unprepared for what followed. The online harassment unleashed a tsunami of angry trolls.

…several days of rape threats, death threats, encouragement of suicide, racial slurs, sexist remarks, comments on my weight and appearance, attempts to get me fired or blacklisted…Nothing was unique, nothing was new, nothing unheard of. 

She felt she had to engage as she had encouraged conversation at first but it was relentless till her boss advised her “You shouldn’t feel like you have to play.” She was fuming and very upset at being targetted for being a non-white woman with an opinion till she she deactivated her Twitter upon listening to reason offered by her boss. “…you don’t owe anyone anything. You don’t have to be available to everyone. You can stop.”

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter  is a brilliant collection of essays by a feminist. She represents the new generation of young women who are using the freedoms won for them by previous generation of women’s movements cleverly. Women like Scaachi Koul are able to see clearly the patriarchal double-standards by which most of today’s world continues to operate by and yet true to a twenty-first century feminist she knows her rights and expects to be treated at par with her male counterparts. This self-confident poise shines through the essays even when Scaachi is testing her ideas with her father despite getting his silent treatment.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is a collection of essays seething with controlled rage at the innumerable examples of embedded patriarchy. While sharing her testimonies of her firsthand experience of some of the funnier and nastier episodes this memoir also charts her growth as a young well-protected non-white girl to a maturer, sure-of-her-mind woman. This book will resonate at many levels with readers globally for there is universality in these experiences — immigration, forming a sense of identity especially while at loggerheads with patriarchy, learning to articulate your own feelings without feeling guilty and taking action rather than retreating from life.

Read it! This book is meant for all genders!

Scaachi Koul One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2017. Pb. pp.246  Rs 399

25 July 2017 

The 2017 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction: a Formidable Shortlist and Winner

(I wrote about the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction on 7 June 2017, the day the winner, Naomi Alderman, was announced. It was published in Bookwitty. ) 

Research has long shown that major literary prizes have not acknowledged women writers. The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was established in 1996—first as the Orange Prize for Fiction, and after this year’s prize it will be renamed the Women’s Prize for Fiction—by co-founder and writer Kate Mosse to “celebrate women’s creative achievements and international writing, whilst also stimulating debate about gender and writing, gender and reading, and how the publishing and reviewing business works.”

The inspiration came the year of the Booker Prize in 1991 when none of the six shortlisted books was by a woman, despite the fact that almost 60% of the novels published that year were by female authors. A group of women and men working in the book industry got together to discuss the issue and the idea for the prize was born. From 2018 onwards there will be a family of sponsors instead of a title sponsor, the award will continue to be £30,000.

Now in its second decade, the prestigious literary prize is recognized worldwide for its exclusive spotlight on women writers. The winners have dealt with a range of subjects in the past but more than its uniqueness it has been the experiment with form, language and style while creating something new and memorable which has stood out as the winning mark. This year too, the shortlist of six novels was extraordinarily fine: there’s the winner, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me, and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Of the six novelists Linda Grant is a previous winner of this prize with her When I Lived in Modern Times (2000) and was previously longlisted for the Prize in 2008 for The Clothes On Their Backs. C. E. Morgan’s Sport of Kings was nominated for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and she won the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize, Madeleine Thien won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Do Not Say We Have Nothing and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Ayòbámi Adébáyò is making her debut as a writer. The common thread linking all of these women is not only their sharply confident voices but also their ability to observe and convey gender dynamics within society and across history.

Despite years of women’s movements being active in various countries and now with the second wave of feminism, women continue to negotiate for their space and are unable to experience the same sense of entitlement that men have within society. This is well illustrated in Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me when the husband, Akin, and wife, Yejide, argue about choices open to them as individuals. Yejide has been relegated to first wife status with the arrival of Funmi –a decision foisted upon them by their families—as Yejide has been childless. Yejide is furious with Akin:

‘So now you can talk? You can blurt it all out? Who married another woman? In this house who married another woman, tell me? Tell me now! Which bloody cheat did that?’

He traced the brown coffee stain with his thumb. ‘We’ve talked about that, we’ve settled it.’

I was so angry I could hardly breathe. I stood up and leaned across the table to stick my face in front of his. ‘OK now. Something else is settled. I want a baby and since you are too busy at your new wife’s place to try and get me pregnant, I can get a baby from any man I want.’

He got up and grabbed my arms just above the elbows. The veins in his forehead popped. ‘You can’t, ‘he said.

I laughed. ‘I can do anything I want.’

His nails bit into my arms through my shirtsleeves. ‘Yejide you can’t.’

I wagged my head. ‘But I can. I can. I can.’

He shook me until my head bobbed and my teeth rattled. Then he let go suddenly. I crashed into a chair, grasping the table for balance.

It all boils down to a matter of perspective, brought out searingly in Gwendoline Riley’s slim novel First Love. Young writer Neve is reading from a “strange document” to her husband, an older man, Edwyn, the brutal domestic violence her mother experienced in her first marriage.

“Listen to this,’ I said. ‘Slapped, strangled, thumbs twisted. Hit about head while breast-feeding. Hit about head while suffering migraine. Several kicks at base of spine. Hot pan thrown, children screaming.’

‘Oh, she kept a list, did she?’ Edwyn said.

‘Not at the time. She had to write it down for her solicitor. Not that anyone listened.’

‘I see. And how long were they married?’

‘Eight years.’

‘And she could remember that far back, could she? Did she keep a diary?’

‘Did she keep a diary? What a weird, horrible question.’

He frowned slightly, but he was smiling too, his eyes were glittering.

‘It was a genuine question,’ he said. And as he went one, he spoke slowly, softly, as if I were very stupid. Stupid and volatile.

‘She must have a very good memory, that’s all. Some people do. Of course they do. ‘That’s all I wanted to know. I’m interested. It’s very interesting to me. That she’d remember, quite so clearly, all of these …what might you call them?’

‘Assaults,’ I said.

He tilted his head, musing on whether to allow that.

‘Well – incidents,’ he said.”

It is not surprising then, given the overwhelming patriarchal blindness that continues to exist in societies that Naomi Alderman’s The Power, winner of the 2017 prize,  is a tantalizingly refreshing vision of a society where women are in authority—an idea notably explored by many women writers including, of course, Alderman’s mentor and co-longlisted writer, Margaret Atwood. In The Power women intimidate others, particularly men, by shocking them with an electric charge their bodies create naturally. Unfortunately, besides its strong and feisty women, there is little creative imagination at play as the characters have merely been supplanted in a social structure, which is similar to patriarchal norms.

 

The novels by Madeline Thien and C.E. Morgan are very different for their historical sweep about politics and literature told through inter-generational family sagas. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about a Chinese family that lives through the Cultural Revolution and then emigrates to Canada. It is a novel in which a “Book of Records” and the playing of Western Classical Music in a communist regime are interspersed with detailed historical research. Similarly Sport of Kings is ostensibly about breeding thoroughbreds and horse racing while it raises crucial discussions about slavery, racism, Darwinism, histories of the marginalized, and modern American civilization. Despite a little sidetracking into rambling backstories, C.E.Morgan’s exquisite craftsmanship is on display.

Linda Grant’s novel, on the other hand, falls just short of being a period piece even though bulk of the plot occurs in 1949 in a sanatorium for tubercular patients supported by the newly formed NHS. It is the last one-third of the book which brings the story into twenty-first century Britain, exploring ‘new freedoms’ between men and women, anti-Semitism, ‘immigrant scum’, refugees fleeing wars, poverty in post-World War II and the public health care system that leaves a haunting impression on the reader.

Picking a winner from the formidable shortlist of talent must have been tough for the judges chaired by Tessa Ross, Sara Pascoe, Aminatta Forna, Katie Derham, and Sam Baker!

11 June 2017 

 

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: an Interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal

My interview with Balli Kaur Jaiswal on her new novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows has been published on Bookwitty today, 8 May 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean-based author of Indian origin. She is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, and Sugarbread, a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is her third novel, for which film rights have been acquired. The novel’s premise is a young girl under the impression she will be leading a creative writing workshop at a gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship, in Southall, London. Instead, she is confronted with a room full of mostly bored Punjabi widows, some barely literate, who have enrolled in classes to pass the time. In an unexpected turn of events, the women discover they are able to narrate and share raunchy stories which are quickly transcribed by a young educated widow amongst their midst. Before anyone realizes it, the stories are being copied and circulated around London. Exploring the Punjabi Indian diaspora community via this vibrant group of women unearths a Pandora’s box of social mores. Despite its incredible title, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a fascinating exploration of how women fight for their space and how feminism is lived within the community today. Balli Kaur Jaswal kindly answered the following questions for Bookwitty:

What sparked this story?

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with questions surrounding identity, migration, women’s sexuality and notions of honor in close-knit communities, among other things. Those themes are prevalent in all of my writing. About ten years ago, I spent some time in Southall, London’s Punjabi enclave and I knew it was the perfect setting for a novel which explored these ideas. I was particularly interested in how elderly traditional women experienced and expressed desire in these male-dominated communities, and I started questioning what would happen if I got those women together and gave them a space to talk freely about what they wanted.

Bringing together the concept of the Brothers, a young band of men who have been indoctrinated with a militant version of religion, along with the rising confidence of women in the local Sikh community is well done. Was it inspired by real events?

This is one of the strangest things about writing – you create a fictional character or scenario and then you see it play out in real life and you’re either thrilled or horrified. In my case, it’s the latter. I made up the Brothers, and through multiple drafts of the novel, I kept pausing and thinking, “Would Sikh men do this? Has the policing gotten this zealous and organized?” I decided that I could afford to ask the reader to take that leap with me. Then, a few months after the novel sold, I read reports in The Guardian about groups of British-born Sikh extremists in the UK protesting interfaith weddings in the gurdwara and intimidating the family members. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, it’s the Brothers.” It was heartening to read responses from moderate Sikhs in the UK decrying these acts and calling upon these people to focus on the important issues that need urgent addressing in the community, like domestic violence and alcoholism.

Linking the deaths of Maya, Karina and Gulshan to honor killings in the story is impressive. Was the subject difficult to research?

It did hit a raw nerve. I actually read about honor killings when I lived in the UK because around that time, Jasvinder Sanghera’s memoir Shame had just come out and there was a lot of talk about it. What she went through to escape a forced marriage, and the advocacy work that she so bravely pioneered, are remarkable and inspiring. A few years later, she published a memoir of her experiences in supporting honor crime victims. The stories were heartbreaking, and they served as a reminder that her experience was part of a wider problem that still affects girls in this generation. I think what struck me most was the idea that loyalty to the community overrode common sense and conscience. In one of her books, she recalled giving a speech in a Punjabi community in England about being a victim of forced marriage, and she mentioned her work in raising awareness about honor crimes. Afterwards, women lined up to meet her and a few whispered into her ear that they had stayed silent while rebellious daughters or nieces had been sent to India and “taken care of.” I thought about this moment a lot when I wrote this thread into the narrative – it made sense to me that once the women found their voice to discuss their suppressed desires, they’d also find the courage to speak up and act on bigger injustices.

Offering different perspectives of women—modern, young and confident (Nikki), young and conservative (Mindi), young widow (Sheena), distraught mother and lonely wife ( Kulwinder), is a fascinating journey in understanding how women operate in a conservative patriarchal structure. How did you achieve this? Did you need to work on separate character sketches or did they all come together as you were working on the novel?

The best way to create a character is to think about how others would react to them. Nikki was easy enough to conceive because she was a lot like me and so many women I knew in my early twenties. For Mindi, I wanted a character from that same generation to counter Nikki and introduce us to the conservative and traditional “going back to our roots” subset. Mindi calls out Nikki on her one-sided take on social justice and liberalism, and actually reveals herself as somebody with more autonomy than we initially think. Sheena was a sort of bridge from Nikki to the widows. Quite literally: she did some translating, but also she was young and accessible and they developed a friendship which brought Nikki into the fold. Kulwinder was the anathema to Nikki, and I enjoyed alternating their perspectives because it really felt like a cat and mouse game between the protagonist and the antagonist. I would say all of the characters pivoted off Nikki, which is how I usually write – start with the main character and work out who everybody else is and how they help or hinder her.

Your novel seems to represent the second wave of feminism very well. From its references to Fem Fighters and feistiness as displayed by Nikki to the more moderate opinions offered by her sister who focuses on exercising her choice, even if it veers towards conservatism. Even with the bibis, the band of widows, different shades of women exist but they represent a range of women’s voices that could be representative of feminist movements. Did this involve research or did it happen naturally as a consequence of living your feminism?

The research in this area was experiential and anecdotal. I didn’t read up on feminist theory while writing this novel—it was definitely more about the day-to-day applications and how they become complicated by other facts of life. I attended a liberal arts women’s college as an undergraduate which forever changed the way I looked at the world. I found that in the years after, and even now, I’m drawn to people who have that perspective as well. I’m a little surprised when I meet people (women and men) who flinch when you bring women’s rights to the conversation because it’s 2017; who is still regarding “feminist” as a taboo word?

The contrast between the open-mindedness of the widows compared to the more politically correct and careful opinions offered by the younger women such as Mindi is striking. Were these at any point modeled on real conversations and experiences you may have witnessed?

I really wanted to convey the idea that feminism comes in different forms and that one character can be conservative in some ways but quite progressive in others. We can also define modernity and independence depending on our contexts and what balance works for our circumstances. There isn’t a prescribed way to be a feminist; this is the major lesson for Nikki in the novel. Mindi and Nikki have differing definitions of “choice” and they exercise their independence in ways that put them at odds with each other. The widows come from an interesting perspective because they have been marginalized by patriarchal structures but they are also powerful matriarchal figures in a culture that respects and fears mothers. This is why there is room for them to speak up through these classes. I can’t pinpoint any actual conversations or experiences but I know that throughout my adult years, I have observed the various ways in which the same women who command respect are also silenced when their voices become too inconvenient for people in power.

A classic straitjacketing comment often used by women to ensure no one strays from the flock is “Women like us”. You use it sparingly but well in the novel. How well does the phrase sit with you?

I find it worrying when women buy into this narrative about how they should behave, but even more so when they start reprimanding other women. It’s an insidious way to maintain compliancy, and it has its roots in the larger policing carried out by men, especially in conservative communities. The fathers, brothers and uncles who want to keep “their women” in line are aware that there are spaces exclusively for women that they cannot enter, so certain self-appointed women do their bidding for them. “Women like us” sounds deceptively inclusive as well but it’s still about ownership – you can be part of the club but we’ll be charge of what you wear and how you speak.

Given how you show widows as women with real feelings and not individuals to be ignored, silenced and discarded, do you think that writing this novel will have repercussions on your personal life?

So far, I’ve received very positive responses from readers. The only repercussion I’ve faced is becoming a confessional for other people’s secrets, especially Indian women. They come to book signings and then they lean in and whisper these stories from their lives about their mothers doing special prayers after finding their birth control pills or their husbands being turned on by some of the saucier scenes in the novel. But I’m happy to listen!

What are the challenges that lie ahead for women’s movements?

Awareness of intersectionality is an issue. That’s the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to feminism and especially that women from certain backgrounds are vulnerable to other forms of oppression which influence and compound their experience of sexism as well. I’ve experienced this firsthand; people who rally for feminist causes being quite ignorant of the hurdles faced by women from minority races. I know some feminists who will say, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman” but if you said, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman and I’m a minority,” they are dismissive or they say you’re playing the race card. I’m not sure where this glitch in the system came from—where if someone mentions suffering from more than one kind of institutional oppression, instead of empathizing, people get indignant and protective over their own stake in the issue. I hope we can resolve it with more open and judgment-free conversations.

Do you think diaspora fiction needs to be pinned down in the “thingyness of things” such as illustrated by Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and those of the Bengali women as seen in Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s novels to resonate effectively with readers across the world or would a more general form of literary fiction be equally powerful? 

Readers connect to novels that they can identify with, and I think the days of navel-gazing singular “who am I” narratives are probably over. That element exists in all diaspora fiction of course (and arguably in all literary fiction regardless of the audience or the cultural background of the characters) but it needs to converge with a larger narrative. I think it’s an exciting time for diaspora fiction because readers want to be challenged and they’re open to nuance. Some exoticism still exists but readers have a more savvy experience of other worlds now.

Who are the writers and other creative people who have influenced your writing? 

The list keeps growing but a very early influence was Judy Blume because she told those stories that we needed to know. Like most people who grew up with her novels, I felt as if there was finally an adult in my corner, somebody who understood and didn’t judge the confusion of growing up. A number of writers exploring the migrant experience in the UK have shaped my perspective as well – Andrea Levy, Nikita Lalwani, Zadie Smith, Sathnam Sanghera and Meera Syal to name a few.

Balli Kaur Jaiswal Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows HarperCollins 

8 May 2017