first person Posts

“First Person” by Richard Flanagan

My review of award winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s latest novel First Person was published in The Hindu on Sunday, 4 February 2018. I am also c&p the text below. 

Flanagan examines the art and artifice of autobiography writing

Kif Kehlmann, a writer struggling to write his first book, is approached by his childhood friend Ray to ghost-write a memoir of Ray’s boss. The said boss is Australia’s most notorious conman Siegfried Heidl or Ziggy, who had swindled banks of 700 million dollars. Ziggy is out on bail.

This gives his publisher, Gene Paley of Schlegel Trans-Pacific Publishing, about six weeks to commission a “page-turner” and have it published in time for the trial.

For this Ziggy is to be paid the handsome sum of $250,000 whereas Kif is offered $10,000, with no royalties, to be paid in equal instalments upon submission of the manuscript and the publication of the book. If Kif failed to deliver he would be paid only the termination fee of $500.

Faustian pact

The book is about Kif attempting to get Ziggy to share incidents from his life which he could then convert into a saleable story. This Faustian pact is a soul-sapping task for Kif as Ziggy is evasive or spins incredibly fantastic tales that are impossible to verify.

There are rumours of Ziggy’s links to the CIA in Laos in the early 1970s, of him being hired by NASA to establish a rocket facility in the southern hemisphere, being involved in the deposition of Australian Prime Minister Whitlam and his alleged role in the Allende-Chile affair. Kif’s description of Ziggy is apt: “Even working with him it was hard to see him. I remember he didn’t have much hair and he was of indeterminate age, small, slightly stout, [a] hobgoblin… little sorcerer… From the beginning he was always there and never to be found.”

The novel traces Kif’s growing frustration with his elusive subject. Kif had hoped that the book would be his ticket out of writerly poverty and perhaps fetch him a better publishing contract. While those possibilities seem to recede, his current publisher becomes more and more difficult.

Paley dispels any notion Kif may have had about artistic freedom by mentioning that in France ghost-writers are called Nègres or slaves.

With such limiting conditions, Kif sets to work, inventing where he cannot find facts. He delivers the page-turner within the stipulated time by “learning to distract from the truth by amusing the reader; to flatter the reader by playing on what they believed to be their virtues — their idea of goodness and decency — whilst leading them even further into an alien darkness that was the real world and, perhaps, the real them; and, on occasion, I feared, the real me.”

In the early 1990s, Richard Flanagan had been hired by the fraudster John Friedrich to ghost-write his autobiography in six weeks as he awaited trial for a 300 million dollar fraud. Friedrich died during those six weeks, as does Siegfried in the story.

Writing the self

Although First Person is promoted as a novel, it closely follows Flanagan’s experience of ghost-writing a novel for a criminal. It brings into focus much-debated issues of craftsmanship, of remaining true to one’s art or capitulating to market forces.

Flanagan also questions the premise of autobiography as an art form. Autobiographies are trending now as they go well with the general preference for reality shows and intimate confessions made in the first person.

For Flanagan, an autobiography is a literary selfie.

When Kif dwells on the fine balance between truth and storytelling in an autobiography, he too concludes that “a memoir was a series of selected lies”. Kif is a nom de plume, a short for “keefer” — a substance, especially cannabis, smoked to produce a drowsy state.

Isn’t the reader expected to suspend her disbelief while reading the novel?

First Person; Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, ₹599

On Chetan Bhagat’s “One Indian Girl”

As a woman I seek justice in a patriarchal world. i-want-to-destroy-myself_website-480x748

Malika Amar Shaikh, I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir *

frontEnough 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.

ratika-kapurSome of the modern writers to consider who are questioning, portraying, and contributing a significant amount to the conversation about who is a strong woman kiran-manraland 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 bems-draupadi-kuru-b_090816092030
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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.

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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.