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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 MatterScaachi 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
(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?’
‘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.
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!
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
Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a slim little book which developed out of a letter she wrote to her friend. It contains advice to Ijeawele on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. There are some fine pearls of wisdom such as “Teach Chizalum to read.” Or ” Teach her that the idea of ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense”. Chimamanda Adichie selects fifteen of the classic arguments associated with feminism that are bandied about which are primarily internalising patriarchal arguments. For instance, mixing up feminism and femininity, choice of dress being confused with morality, perceiving marriage as an achievement and using the language of ‘allowing’ which encapsulates the power equations, learning about gender-neutral roles instead of capitulating to definitions that are primarily patriarchal constructs, rejecting the idea of gender roles, appreciating to identify yourself as an individual who is composed of many parts to make the whole — motherhood is not the sole definition of a woman’s identity, talking about female sexuality and celebrating it rather than being ashamed of it, and finally not to be caught in biological arguments that ultimately constrict a woman’s movement and ambitions.
But, but, but…Dear Ijeawele reads too much like a primer for feminism. Agreed it is a good starting point for those who want to understand what feminism is about, the exercising of choice and all genders being equal. Adichie does warn against generalisations from one’s personal experience and does try and encompass various aspects of the feminist spectrum. Yet it is too simple and reductive. For instance it is all very well to stress on the independence of a woman and how to negotiate for her spaces in the world but how can she do it if she does not have financial independence? Adichie touches upon it but specifically within the context of Igbo culture being materialistic so “while money is important — because money means self-reliance — you must not value people based on who has money and who does not”. Whereas this is the crux of feminism and a woman’s identity for economics is the basis of any relationship. Most cultures around the world are deeply embedded in patriarchal structures that essentially clip a woman’s financial means by domesticating her and reminding her of her primary responsibilities being towards the family and children. But if women are taught to be financially sound to earn their independence it will be the first step in “correcting” the social imbalances which exists today in relationships. Otherwise all the good advice which a commercially successful author such as Adichie gives on feminism will sound hollow. ( Brittle Paper, 27 March 2017 “As Sales Approach the Million Mark, Is Americanah Now Adichie’s Signature Novel?” . Also see “New Yorkers just selected a book for the entire city to read in America’s biggest book club“, a “One Book One New York” programme started by NYPL. )
Ultimately feminism like any other ideological language has to be lived daily. The basic tenets can be taught and shared but it varies from individual to individual on how to practise it and thus bring about the social change is aims for. As for bringing up children and introducing them to feminism — the best way is by the parent/s being role models. Children learn best through action and not instructions.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 68 Rs 250
Malika Amar Shaikh, I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir *
Enough outrage has been expressed on various platforms at Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, One Indian Girl . Critics, readers, journalists etc have ripped the novelist apart for his attempt at portraying a feminist protagonist, Radhika Mehta. The story has been told in first person for which Chetan Bhagat says he interviewed and spoke to more than a hundred women. But alas, portraying a “feminist” does not a feminist make. Feminism is a way of living and it cannot be possibly imbibed to tell a story particularly in an attempt to capitulate to the current trend of being just and aware of women’s rights. The fact is patriarchal structures are far too deeply embedded in society and if popular writers like Chetan Bhagat who too remain shackled to these interpretations it will be challenging to progress further. What is alarming is that there is the distinct possibility of much of the space fought for and won by feminists will be rapidly lost.
If One Indian Girl is analysed within its contemporary literary milieu it becomes evident that the novelist is fairly clueless about how far the idea of a powerful woman is being explored. In fact much of the progressive interpretations of what constitutes a strong woman (whom some may interpret as a feminist) is being explored in fiction published nowadays — available in English and in translation. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism whether they chose to acknowledge it or not.
Some of the modern writers to consider who are questioning, portraying, and contributing a significant amount to the conversation about who is a strong woman and what can be construed as woman power are: Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni, Sremoyee Piu Kundu, Kiran Manral, Ratna Vira, Kota Neelima, Sowmya Rajendran, Sakshama Puri Dhariwal, Trisha Das, Vibha Batra and Ratika Kapur write in English. In translation there are a many who are now being made available such as Malika Amar Shaikh, Ambai, Lalithambika Antharajanam, K. R. Meera, Bama, Salma and Nabaneeta Dev Sen. This is a list that can easily be added to and it will be self-evident how far women writers have evolved to depict the ordinary and how challenging the most seemingly innocuous task can be — such
as asking a man to love her as K. R. Meera does in The Gospel of Yudas or the horror of living with a famous man like Namdeo Dhasal who in his public life spoke of rights and was concerned for others but showed least sympathy for his own family as narrated by his wife, Malika Amar Shaikh, in her memoir I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir. Another writer to consider is Rupi Kaur whose self-published Milk and Honey has sold more than half a million copies and yesterday ( 12 October 2016) she signed a two-book deal with Simon and Schuster. Milk and Honey is erotic fiction which is remarkable for the strong feminine voice and gaze employed with which she narrates the tale. Rupi Kaur is also responsible for the photo-campaign which went viral recently on social media about a woman whose clothes were stained with blood during her period.
Ironically many of these women writers would fall into the same category of fiction as Chetan Bhagat of being commercial fiction writers and yet, there is a chasm of difference in how they view and portray women. But Chetan Bhagat is in good company of other commercially successful male writers like Novoneel Chakraborty who too employ the first person literary technique to write from a women’s perspective but alarmingly incorporating the “male gaze”. ( http://bit.ly/2eiUXuR ) Thereby regressing any gains the women’s movement may have made by getting women their due rights and space. It is a dangerous precedent being set in literature by male writers like Chetan Bhagat of appropriating women’s space in an insensitive manner with little understanding of how complicated women’s literature and writing is. It is irresponsible use of the immense influence these writers have upon new readers since they will create confusion in these minds about how to behave and respect women, what is right and wrong social behaviour amongst genders and not to undermine a woman’s choice by imposing a patriarchal construct on it. Good literature can only be seen as feminist through nuanced writing not via terrible conversation and aggressively marketing the protagonist as a feminist.
*Malika Amar Shaikh is the wife of Namdeo Dhasal, co-founder of the radical Dalit Panthers.
13 October 2016
Note: All images are off the internet. I do not own the copyright to any of them. If you do or you know of anyone else who does please let me know and I will acknowledge them in this post.
‘Till you take decisions for Rama’s sake and not yours, it will continue to pursue you, Sita. Look at yourself. You are enduring great pain. You think you are enduring for the sake of someone else. You think that you have performed your duty for the sake of someone else. Your courage, your self-confidence …you have surrendered everything to others. What have you saved for yourself?’
‘What is “I”, sister? Who am I?’
‘The greatest of sages and philosophers have spent their lifetimes in search of an answer to this question. You means you, nothing else. You are not just the wife of Rama. There is something more in you, something that is your own. No one counsels women to find out what that something more is. If men’s pride is in wealth, or valour, or education, or caste-sect, for women it lies in fidelity, motherhood. No one advises women to transcend that pride. Most often, women don’t realize that they are part of the wider world. They limit themselves to an individual, to a household, to a family’s honour. Conquering the ego becomes the goal of spirituality for men. For women, to nourish that ego and to burn themselves to ashes in it becomes the goal. Sita, try to understand who you are, what the goal of your life is. It is not easy at all. But don’t give up. You will discover truth in the end. You have that ability. You haev saved Sri Ramachandra, can’t you save yourself? Don’t grieve over what has already happened. It is all for your own good, and is part of the process of self-realization. Be happy. Observe their lives. You belong to this whole world, not just to Rama.’
( Ahalya in conversation with Sita. p 40-41)
Volga’s Vimukta or The Liberation of Sita is a slim collection of five stories. It has been translated from Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijaysree. ‘Volga’ is the nom de plume for Popuri Lalitha Kumari. These are five interlinked yet independent stories inspired by Valmiki’s Ramayana. In each of them Sita meets the minor characters of Valmiki’s epic — Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya. With each interaction Sita learns a little more about herself and more importantly about what it means to be a woman, have her own identity rather than it being defined by the presence of a man in her life. As the translators say in their note: “The title story signals Sita’s emergence as the liberated one while the final story, ‘The Shackled’, shows Rama imprisoned in the bondage of Arya Dharma.” According to them Volga’s stories belong to a literary tradition of feminist revisionist myth-making but she takes it further and makes it her own.
Volga does not use re-visioning merely as a strategy to subvert patriarchal structures embedded in mythical texts but also as a means to forge a vision of life in which liberation is total, autonomous and complete. She also creates a community of women by re-presenting myths from alternative points of view, and by networking women across ages and generations. She achieves this through different narrative strategies: giving voice to women characters marginalized in the ‘master narrative’, extending the story of a character beyond its conventional closure; forging female bonds and creating a female collective; and redefining many conventional epistemes including liberation.
In fact reinvention of myths has figured prominently in Indian women’s writing. For instance, Mahashweta Devi’s ‘Dopdi’ and ‘Stanadayani’ ( Bangla), Yashodhara Mishra’s ‘Purana Katha’ ( Odiya), Muppala Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Visha Vrikham ( Telugu), Sara Joseph’s Ramayana Kathakal ( Malayalam) and Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s magnificent Palace of Illusions. Now Volga’s brilliant 2015 Sahitya Akademi award-winning The Liberation of Sita can be added to the list.
Volga was an active member of the Communist Party of India ( ML) but quit it in 1980, frustrated by the party’s patriarchal attitude towards women, she quit left politics and devoted herself to propagate feminism among Telugu readers through her activism and writing. Her favourite genre of writing are the short story and criticism. She has written over fifty books. For many years Volga was at the helm of the brilliant women’s organisation Asmita which is based in Hyderabad. Asmita were in fact responsible for creating the iconic “pink poster” which I fell in love with while curating Zubaan’s “Poster Women” — a visual mapping of the women’s movement in India.
It is commendable that HarperCollins India chose to print the name of the translators on the book cover rather than on the back cover or only inside. Translators names need to be displayed prominently too. A practice that has as yet not been widely adopted by publishers.
The Liberation of Sita is truly Volga at her feminist best. (For once I have to agree with the book blurb! )
Volga The Liberation of Sita ( Translated from the Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree) Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Pb. pp. 130 Rs. 199
I interviewed award-winning Australian writer, Charlotte Wood, for the fantastic European literary website bookwitty.com . It was published on 27 July 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/a-qa-with-australian-author-and-2016-stella-prize/57961bbeacd0d0170d1e421a . I am also c&p the text below.
From Stella Prize website
Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, is a an allegorical tale about the power relationships between women and men. Winner of the prestigious 2016 Stella Prize for women’s contribution to literature and the Australian Indie Bookseller’s Award, the Natural Way of Things is about ten women who have been kidnapped and taken to an abandoned station in the Australian outback from which there is no escape.
These women have little in common with each other save for the public scandals associating them with prominent men – politicians, footballers, clergymen etc. “… they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut.” The story is set in an altered present that explores deeply entrenched patriarchal structures in society and yet, as the story proves, these gendered equations are a mirage; women and men are equal. This is apparent in the gradual transformation of the two main characters, Yolanda and Verla, who take on what would otherwise be deemed as “manly tasks” of hunting, skinning rabbits and providing food for everybody.
It may be fiction, but it is a landscape that echoes what a woman feels on many occasions. Having worked with women artisans, in a feminist publishing house, curated the visual mapping of the women’s movement in India by documenting posters made across the country since the 1970s and now reading a lot of women’s literature, I am more than familiar with many of the stories women share. What continues to amaze me is how similar the experiences are across continents and how various forms of violence, whether physical or psychological, exist in patriarchal structures across socio-economic classes. The sensation of being trapped with no hope is ghastly, but in Wood’s novel, with no escape route possible as illustrated by the electric fence encircling the compound, it is suffocating. The rules are set by a diabolical corporation, Harding International, represented by the two men hired to guard the ten women; Boncer and Teddy. Mostly their arbitrary rules are horribly violent. Their swift, violent reprimands echo real life.
It is remarkable how the bleak and rough landscape turns into an symbol of sisterhood. In reality this exists too, although it is rarely acknowledged. Unconsciously women who may be complete strangers to each other will band together if need be. This is brought to life in the description of the chained women mastering “the rhythm of marching when chained so none of them is jerked or stumbles. This way of moving, shackled together, has become part of them, unremarked, unconscious.”
Charlotte Wood has imbibed the vocabulary of feminist activism, turning it to her advantage in storytelling, neatly encapsulating a range of feminist discourses.
The dystopian representation of a woman’s world in the novel may be too close to reality for many women. Women, universally, irrespective of their socioeconomic class, are often trapped in situations from which there is no escape.
Charlotte Wood, who is deep in the throes of writing her next novel, kindly agreed to an email interview.
Why this story? What inspired it?
Charlotte Wood: The first glimmer of the story came to me in an ABC Radio National documentary about the Hay Institution for Girls, a brutal prison in rural New South Wales, where ten teenage girls were drugged and taken from the Parramatta Girls’ Home in the 1960s. At this place, which operated in extreme cruelty until 1974, the girls were forced to march everywhere, were never allowed to look up from the floor or speak to each other, and endured all kinds of official punishments. But there were also many sadistic unofficial punishments inflicted on them. I was drawn to writing about a place like this, and how someone might survive it, but I needed to immediately to unshackle my story from the real place – for various reasons, including that many surviving women have written their own testimonies, and I didn’t want to appropriate their experience. Equally importantly, I needed the creative freedom to go anywhere with the story, without sticking to established facts or history.
But a more powerful engine even than this arose in the early stages of the writing, which was that setting the book in the past, in a purely naturalistic style, was not working at all. The writing was dead and sludgy and lifeless.
Around this time, when I was having this difficulty and trying to make the work live, I began noticing something. It was already in my mind that the reason many girls were sent to the Parramatta and Hay homes in the first place was that they had been sexually assaulted – at home, or wherever, and had told someone about it. It was this – speaking about what had happened to them – that got many of them sent there. They were deemed to be promiscuous and ‘in moral danger’. This seemed to me the cruelest thing, that their crime was that they had been abused, spoke the truth about it, and were punished for doing so.
I began noticing things in the news, things happening around me in contemporary Australia, that showed these attitudes about punishing women for speaking up were not of the past. We had David Jones department store CEO Mark McInnes resigning after sexually harassing an employee, we had the Australian Army soldiers Daniel McDonald and Dylan Deblaquiere secretly filming a fellow (female) cadet having sex, and broadcasting it to their mates. In both these cases, the woman was vilified for speaking out. The David Jones employee was labelled a gold-digger, the army cadet became known as ‘the Skype slut’ by her peers. Around this time there were also football group sex scandals where the women were reviled for speaking about it and public apologies by the men were made to their wives, families and employers – the assaulted woman, by implication, deserved what she got. We had women assaulted by the likes of Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby derided as liars and money-hungry, publicity hunting ‘sluts’.
And I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, it’s not old, this stuff. These attitudes are not historical, they’re absolutely flourishing right now.’ And then, partly out of this sudden bucket of cold water and partly because the book was not working – set in the past, written in naturalistic prose – I decided to do what I sometimes do when things aren’t working: try the opposite. So instead of setting it in the past, I thought, what if I set it in the future, or some kind of altered present? Instead of writing ordinary realism, what if it became a bit surreal in its narrative style? And I started writing about ten contemporary, urban Australian girls who find themselves abducted and dumped in this remote prison because they’ve been involved in some kind of sexual scandal with a powerful man or men, and they either spoke about it or were found out.
And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker.
And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker. I just came to understand that I could only keep writing the book if I let it get weird, as weird as it wanted to. More than any other book I’ve written, I feel almost like someone else wrote this, sort of through me. I don’t believe that of course, but this tapping into the darkest and strangest things in my unconscious, or subconscious mind, was the only thing that would let this book come out.
At the same time, I was actively keeping a lookout for contemporary representations of incarceration – which in our country, mainly come from images and discussion of our immigration detention centers. The grotesque cognitive dissonance between the bland, PR-spin language of corporations that run these prisons and the horror stories emerging from them (all kinds of violence, sexual assault of women and children, self-harm, suicide, illness and death) attracted me as an artist. You go to stuff that is complicated, contradictory. A quick scan of the real company Serco’s website, for example, yielded a slogan for my fictional corporation Hardings International: ‘Dignity & Respect in a Safe & Secure Environment’. That seemed simply bizarre and obscene to me, that a company running a prison could use such schmaltzy language.
How long did it take you to write the novel? How much research was involved? Some of the descriptions such as skinning the rabbits & cleaning the leather with rabbit brain to create fine chamois must have required research.
CW: Around three years. Strangely, not much research beyond the first radio documentary (I deliberately did not seek out more information about the Hay or Parramatta homes), and visiting an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia of images and objects from children’s homes in our country (where many, many children were abused and ill-treated). For the rabbit skinning, I did watch a few YouTube videos (!) and I had heard about using the brains to cure skins on a television program somewhere. I grew up in the country and had friends who lived on grazing properties where rabbit traps of the kind in the book (now illegal) were used. I kept a file of images from the internet of all kinds of things to do with my book, in a Pinterest board – you can see it here. Other than that, I used my imagination rather than research.
Why is the character Verla given so much space in the story especially when it comes to her feverish dreams?
CW: She’s one of the two main characters. Dreams were a way of creating another consciousness, a world where she could drift into her memories and experiences of beauty and culture, a way of escaping the horror of her present experience. Her fever dream where she finds a river and feels the kangaroos rushing past her is a way of looking at the beauty of nature rather than the horror of their prison.
How did you feel while writing this book and later editing it?
CW: For a time in writing this book I really struggled with the darkness of the material, and felt that something must be wrong with me for letting myself be drawn there. But once the first draft was written, and the mess of it was in front of me, then the job of the novelist kicked in: to shape it into a compelling story. The artistic job was to make the material into something shapely and even beautiful in its darkness – but most of all I wanted to create a gripping story. The book’s main question grew more and more urgent: Will my girls escape or won’t they? Who will rescue them? How can they rescue themselves?
Tell me more about the title The Natural Way of Things?
CW: The title comes from a section in the middle of the book where the authorial voice steps away from the characters and muses on whether the girls will be missed in their own lives; whether anyone cares that they have vanished; and ultimately, whether harm that comes to women is their own fault – it’s the ‘natural way of things’. But the title also plays with the question of what a ‘natural’ female body is, plays on the notion of a return to nature and whether there is such a thing as a ‘natural state’ for humans – and whether that natural state is to revert to primitivism in gender relations. It also reflects the book’s interest in the natural world as a redemptive force, if the girls choose to see it that way.
If your book was ever optioned for a film or television do you think it could ever capture the feral anger so dramatically etched in your story?
CW: The book has been optioned for a film to be made by a team of young women filmmakers in Australia – I have handed all creative control to them as I would like the film to be a completely new creation of its own, and for them to have total ownership of it.
You can read an extract from Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Thingshere.
Charlotte Wood The Natural Way of Things Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2015. Pb. pp. 316
…while there may have been a many-shaped gulf between Julio and me on the parenting experience, the chasm separating male and female writers was of another order altogether. From the day that Ishaan was born to the day I am writing these words, I have worked in open-doored chaos, stealing sentences in between settling sibling spats, sneaking in edits while supervising homework, and forcing my mind to seek silence within my head, as a maelstorm of toddler tantrums and playful shrieking engulfed my body.
Award-winning foreign correspondent Pallavi Aiyar’s Babies and Bylines is a memoir about maintaining the tricky balance being a mother and having a professional identity. Babies and Bylines is an insightful account of what it means to bring up children while striving for some me-time too. Irrespective of how much of a feminist the parents are there is no escaping the hard fact that babies require their mothers more than their fathers especially when they are infants. It is simply not a gendered comment. But by living your feminism the family learns to give spaces to the mother. For instance when Pallavi lost her job and had to look after two children, her husband Julio, supported and encouraged her travel to research her fabulous book Punjabi Parmesan about the economic collapse across Europe.
It was Julio who encouraged me to feel liberated by the lay-off and go travelling on book research instead of lamenting my joblessness. Once again he proved that although he might not always have lived up to my parenting ideals, my husband was the best thing that had ever happened to my career. ( p.137)
Babies and Bylines is a personal story about parenting with Pallavi Aiyar and her globetrotting family. They have lived in Beijing, Brussels, Jakarta and are now en route to Tokyo. They are a blueblooded example of a mixed family since Julio is Spanish and Pallavi is Indian. It leads to some interesting experiences in the languages the children learn at home to the food they are used to eating.
We simply didn’t seem capable of ‘pure’. We were linguistic muggles. Nico’s first word was in Chinese, ge ge or older brother. We used a random mix of Hindi and Spanish terms thrown into English sentences. Pajama drawstrings were always ‘nada’, rinsing the mouth after brushing one’s teeth was ‘kulla’. But we often used Spanish for body parts. Cheeks, especially before they were about to be kissed, were mofletes. … breasts were tetas. We used the Indonesian macet for traffic jam.
More importantly the exposure to diverse cultures allows for Pallavi to learn and adapt rapidly to local parenting styles. It also makes spaces for Pallavi to compare and imbibe parenting advice but ultimately choosing what is suitable for her. Whether it is striking a balance between play dates and extra classes for the children to learn skills or being a hands-on mother ensuring the children eat well and observe hygienic practices for their own good but also for her own sanity and self-preservation. Nursing a sick child can take away many hours from a mother working from home. She also learned that having a nanny is immensely useful since it allows for the mother to have some time to herself yet as the children grow and begin to ask questions it is abundantly clear that a nanny is not optimal company for a four-year old. As Pallavi observes, “My four-year-old was beyond the stage when someone without multiple advanced university degrees could meet his needs.” His questions ranged from — “Why don’t numbers end?”, “What is beyond Pluto?”and “When shall I pass away?”
In Babies and Bylines Pallavi Aiyar effectively brings together various schools of thought on parenting starting from baby book Bibles such as What to Expect to American paediatrician Harvey Karp, online discussion forums to thought-provoking commentaries by Judith Shulevitz, Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Mixed into this were huge dollops of “wisdom” Pallavi Aiyar picked up from her extended circle of nannies, family and friends.
Micromanagement of family life is a full-time job. If a woman can find the space in it to create her own identity it stems from a passion for your work, desire to have an identity distinct from being a mummy and comes with a great deal of determination. Time takes on a different meaning once the children arrive. Every task is imbued with a sense of urgency so as to gather the few opportunities the day provides to find time for yourself. Having said that this compelling need for the mother to have her own space does not in any way undermine her overwhelming love for the brats. It is these constant tugs of war between being a mother and a professional which make life rich. At times it may be very taxing and physically exhausting to have it all. It means being pulled in different directions but it is also so satisfying that many women like Pallavi Aiyar would not want it any other way.
Babies and Bylines is a fantastically empowering modern-day Bible on parenting for both mothers and fathers.
A must read.
Pallavi Aiyar Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the Move HarperCollins Publishers India, Noida, 2016. Pb. pp. 222 Rs350