gender Posts

Scholastic India’s Pride list ( Oct 2018)

Scholastic India has just announced a fantastic collection of LGBTQ titles meant for young adults. Conversations about sexuality at the best of times are a difficult space for parents and educators to negotiate with teenagers but when it comes to having frank and open conversations about the gender spectrum then many folks are flummoxed. This Scholastic India list is a tremendous selection to begin with. The Scholastic group having accrued nearly a century of book publishing experience understands and is sensitive when it comes to making books, especially for young adults. So this is a fine selection of really powerful, thought-provoking and well written books exploring gender issues. Here is a peek in to what Scholastic India has to offer.

3 October 2018 

 

 

 

 

“I’m a REAL Boy” by Clayton Koh

The idea of masculinity which dominates across societies around the world is that of a heterosexual male oozing testosterone. The moment a male shows signs of being away from the “norm”, then the person is ridiculed. It is particularly difficult explaining to little boys that it is perfectly acceptable to be who they are, the choices they make whether in dress, speak or how they conduct themselves. People can be cruel. Children pick their cues from adults and are extremely vile. They are blunt in their actions and words towards children they do not recognise as “acceptable” or as has been dinned into their little minds.

This is where picture books like Clayton Koh’s I’m a Real Boy are extremely useful.  Every single episode in the story undermines the “norm” while slowly impressing upon the young reader that it is perfectly acceptable to be yourself. You could be scared of the dark, to be picked last for the school team and yet resolve to do my best, to make choices like wearing pink or baking or playing with girls in the playground or standing up against peer pressure. There is nothing wrong in these decisions. By doing so the story validates for the young reader the choices they make. The layout of the picture book is fascinating for it has all the prescriptive behaviour for little boys such as being a superhero, being rough and macho, playing with boys and their “boy toys” like trucks, being the team leader and sports captain, wanting to play war games etc.

Clayton Koh is an elementary school teacher who loves to swim, knit, paint with watercolours, kickbox and read. In an interview with The Star Online about I’m a REAL Boy he said:

[He] got the idea to write the book, which he also illustrated, during his final year at university.

“As part of my honours programme, I was required to do a research thesis before graduation. I chose the topic ‘Modern Masculinity’ and how masculinity deve­loped in Western societies over the decades and also cross-culturally,” explained Koh, whose parents are nurses.

“Boys feel a lot of pressure to conform to what society expects of them. Girls as well, but the feminist movement helped change that and broadened their potential,” said Koh, 23.

He added that men have always dominated the political, economic and employment sectors, therefore they face less discrimination in terms of getting equal rights or job opportunities.

“But in terms of interests or ­certain careers that men can pursue, there are certain mindsets and perceptions.”

He also felt that men were “not allowed” to express their emotions freely, which can lead to suicide and depression, and that many do not seek help until it is too late.

“So I decided to research these issues, put it in a kids’ perspective and hope this will reshape the way society thinks about masculinity,” said Koh, who emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three.

Now here is a true story posted on Twitter by @BijlaniDiksha about her younger cousin who was being ridiculed by his “stereotypical alpha-male centric household” for being a “chakka” (transgender).

Later Diksha adds:

Children (and adults) need to talk about sexuality and gender. This is exactly why there is a crying need for books* like I’m a REAL Boy to be read, shared and circulated, perhaps even translated in multiple languages.

Clayton Koh (text and illustrations) I’m a REAL Boy Scholastic India, Gurgaon, INDIA, 2008, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 32. Rs 80

22 June 2018 

Read more on “Literature and inclusiveness” ( Nov 2016)

Panel on “The Business of Books: Is there a Gender Gap in Publishing?”

(L-R) Aditi, Aarti, Rashmi, Jaya, Shantanu and Arpita

( Update: An expanded version of this blog post was published by Times of India on their website on 16 March 2018.)

To celebrate Women’s Day, ShethePeople organised a day long Women Writer’s Fest at Instituto Cervantes, New Delhi on Saturday, 10 March 2018. There were a range of fascinating panel discussions organised. I was moderated the midday session on “The Business of Books: Is there a Gender Gap in Publishing?”.

The panel consisted of eminent publishers such as: Aarti David, VP – Publishing, SAGE India; Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India; Arpita Das, founder Yoda Press and co-founder Authors Press; Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal, Director, Copyrights and Translation, Vani Prakashan; and Rashmi Menon, Managing Editor, Amaryllis. The panel was a good representation of different kinds of publishing as they exist in India/ world today. SAGE is a multinational firm specialising in HSS (Humanities and Social Sciences) academic books and journals. Scholastic is a multinational firm specialising in children’s literature and is widely known for its direct marketing initiatives like school book fairs. Amaryllis is the English language imprint/firm launched by the Hindi publishing firm Manjul. Manjul Publishing is known globally for publishing the Hindi translation of Harry Potter. Recently Amaryllis announced its collaboration with HarperCollins India to distribute their books. Vani Prakashan is a family-owned business specialising in Hindi literature across disciplines and was established by Aditi’s grandfather. They also publish translations of international literature. Yodakin is an independent publishing firm co-founded by Arpita specialising in gender, social sciences academic books. They were the first to launch an LGBTQ list in India. A couple of years ago they announced a collaboration with SAGE India to co-publish titles. She is also the co-founder of a self-publishing firm called Authors Press.

The conversation which ensued was fascinating with anecdotal experience about publishing. Aarti David spoke of her entry into publishing after being told by a HR consultant that now she was the mother of a two year old child it would be very difficult for her to get a job. Fortunately the person who interviewed her at SAGE India for the post of an executive assistant was the legendary publisher, late Tejeshwar Singh. After the interview he offered her a post in the marketing department. She has never left the firm. In fact there is gender parity at SAGE evident at the senior management level too. Of course as Arpita pointed out this has to do with the insititutional culture given that one of the co-founders of SAGE is Sara Miller McCune.

Rashmi Menon asserted that this was a complicated topic as depending upon which layer of publishing function one viewed there were gender gaps to be seen. For instance in her experience gender gap was noticeable in every top layer of management but much less in the editorial departments of a publishing firm.

Arpita Das was very clear that a gender gap existed as she rightly pointed out, “Always ask who controls the money?” She too shared some powerful examples of how gender equations work within firms and the publishing eco-system. Unfortunately in her experience after many years of being a publishing professional none of these deeply embedded attitudes have disappeared or are showing any signs of lessening. To illustrate this point she spoke of the male messenger in her first publishing job who had been entrusted with the task of taking their final manuscripts to the printers. At the time of handover this person would stare at the chest of the editor who inevitably was a female. Once Arpita called him out and asked him to look directly in to her eyes and speak. Ever after that all her handovers to the printer had mistakes. Even now, years later, she finds that these scenarios are repeated with her younger colleagues and she is still having the same arguments.

Shantanu Duttagupta was the only male publisher in a women dominated panel. He was also the only publisher to be representing children’s literature which is more often than not viewed largely to be the purview of women editors. He was clear from the outset that the gender gap in their firm is rapidly narrowing. In fact according to a recent statistic released by their HR department nearly 60% of their employees are women. This includes departments that are otherwise not viewed traditionally as women-oriented roles like production, accounts, and sales. He also reiterated that in his opinion this gender gap was in all likelihood being corrected by the ever growing list of books by women where the gender role plays were being discussed, demonstrated and subverted. Classic example of this being Scholastic’s bestseller the Geronimo Stilton series that are written by an Italian woman and then translated into multiple languages.

Aditi had a fascinating perspective to share. Vani Prakashan traditionally sells in the Hindi-speaking belt of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In her experience publishing firms established outside the metros in tier-2 and tier-3 towns as well as in the villages are increasingly being managed by women. They are even responsible for printing, publishing and promoting their books. Selling it in the market while balancing a baby on their hip. Nothing deters them from continuing with the business of publishing books. Even at their own firm it is her mother who is responsible for ensuring the GST is filed on time, the office is opened on time, all branches of the firm work efficiently with the employees clocking in on time and leaving on time too. Her mother plays an integral part of the daily running of the firm. But as Arpita pointed out that in many family owned business the role of the woman gains importance which may not necessarily be the case in corporate systems.

After listening to the various perspectives I shared my own experience in the industry. I shared how in the past nine months since the new taxation policy of GST ( 1 July 2017) was announced it has become amply clear how the business lines in this industry are divided. I say this from personal experience at having witnessed and/or participated in events that have been about the business of publishing. Soon after GST came into effect I chaired a panel discussion of tax lawyers with publishing professionals. For the first time in my career (and I have been associated with this industry since the early 1990s) I witnessed a gathering representing finance, production, and editorial. There were people from independent publishers to multinational firms. There were self-publishers. There were language publishers. There were trade, children’s literature and academic publishers. Both men and women were present with men outnumbering the women. In the past year whenever I have attended policy meetings, had conversations about the business of publishing, attended the recently concluded 32nd International Publishers Association Congress and researched for my reports on the book market of India, I have inevitably come across more men than women in key decision-making positions. By “key” I mean designations where the professionals have the authority to comment upon their firm’s business models, income-generating streams, focus on business of making money in an industry which traditionally survives on razor sharp profit margins or those who are at a liberty to speak on behalf of their companies. Having said that there is a perceptible shift in this gender composition of firms to see women workforces in accounting, sales, and production departments and some are distributors and buyers for book retail chains and increasingly men in editorial departments. This gender disparity is “reversed” where the feminisation of the creative side the publishing ecosystem is visible. Increasingly there are more and more women writers, translators, designers, freelance editors, typesetters, reviewers, bloggers, publicists, and booksellers. These creative spaces are where there is less money to be made upfront. Also it is work that can be done juggling other responsibilities like domesticity and caregiving. This part of the workforce is as critical as all the other aspects listed above but is underpaid because  a) they are perceived as being a part of the gig economy and b) because of an inherent gender bias their labour is undervalued since the costs of production are “contained” within reasonable limits. After all the end product, i.e. the book is a price sensitive commodity, even though in my humble opinion every single book is akin to being a design product and needs to be recognised in this manner. Frankly everyone ( irrespective of gender) involved in this publishing ecosystem needs to recognise the importance of being critically aware of how the business of publishing needs to be aligned severely with the creation of books and knowledge platforms. It is probably then that some form of gender parity may begin to creep into the industry. Green shoots of it are already noticeable with some key positions being held by women. Having said that feminisation of the editorial and creative community continue to exist. To my mind this appalling given how the evaluation of this industry is growing in leaps and bounds. According to the latest figures released by Nielsen Book Scan the Indian Book Market is valued at $6.5bn. This is an industry that creates something of value based upon the creative output of others, ie the authors.

So yes, I sincerely believe there is a gender gap in publishing, particularly when it comes to the business of books. There are many, many more strands I can pick up in this discussion but due to constraints of time I am unable to do so.

All said and done it was a fabulous session that according to the wonderful organisers, Kiran Manral and Shaili Chopra, not only went down well with the audience but also gained a lot of traction over social media. If it had not been for the competent emceeing of Saumya Kulshreshtha we would have continued chatting on stage for hours. There is so much to say on the topic!

13 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 

 

Interview with Shikhandin

My interview with Shikhandin was published in Scroll on Sunday, 10 September 2017 as “‘The writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders’: Shikhandin“. 

Immoderate Men by Shikhandin is a remarkable collection of stories published by Speaking Tiger Books. These stories meander through the minds of men giving a perspective on daily life which would ordinarily be dismissed. For instance stories like  “Room Full of Presents”, “Salted Pinkies”, “Hijras on the Highway” and “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” if taken at face-value are regular stories with a mild twist. On the other hand these stories also dissect with finesse the preconceived notion of “What is masculinity?”  By delving into the mental makeup of the protagonists the author explores bewildering scenarios; thereby brilliantly subverting notions of patriarchical norms by blurring gender lines as often this confused state of mind is attributed to women and not men.

Here are edited excerpts of an interview with the author:

  1. How did these stories come about?

Mostly from the world around me, past and present. A couple are from dreams and visions. Some from newspaper articles, photographs, a conversation overheard, a person observed in a crowd, and so on. My stories usually come from life itself, whether dreamt or experienced or watched. “Room Full of Presents” came to me in a pre-dawn dream, all of it, more than a decade ago. I still remember waking from it, the sensations of the dream falling off me like water droplets as I sat up on my bed, trying to stay still, just feeling the story over me, around me. Dreams have their roots in reality, regardless of their form and shape. I was sure I had seen/met the characters somewhere, sometime. “Ahalya” came from a vision of a girl with cascading black hair running up a hill. I was half asleep, but I could see her clearly; the hill felt mysterious; this story crept up on me at first without any specific shape, smoky, yet tangible. Most of my stories run like little movies on a little screen before my eyes – that is my first sighting of the story. I write what I see and hear in that mental screen. This is how it has always been for me, even when I wrote press ads and ad films for a living, years ago.

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

The stories in this collection, and others too, were written over a period of almost two decades. I love short stories (and novellas and novelettes), but everybody keeps saying there isn’t a market for them. So for many years I didn’t put together a manuscript of short stories, though I continued to submit and be published in journals, mostly abroad. The earliest story in this collection was written in 2002 and first published in an American Magazine the same year. Individual stories have their own pace. Some, like “Mail for Dadubhai,” was written in one sitting. Ditto for “Ducklings”, “The Vanishing Man” and “Black Prince”. They were edited/fine-tuned after what I call the resting/roosting period. In general, a single story may take me anything from one or two days to a week. I leave them alone after that for as long as it takes, before I revisit. Some may take longer, like “Salted Pinkies”. I was inhabiting the minds of young men, the kind who loiter in Calcutta’s cheap cafes. Even though I was confident of their language and mannerisms, I kept stopping to check, which was difficult because I no longer lived in Calcutta. At times I literally had to mentally transport myself to North Calcutta, walk the streets in my mind. Watching the boys and men all over again. The writing time, I would say, really depends on the story. There is a story that I have left incomplete for almost two decades, because I have imagined several alternative endings for it; one will rise up and push out the others I know. For me, it’s the story that dictates. I am merely the conduit.

  1. Are they pure figments of imagination or are borrowed heavily from life or inspired by events? (I ask because there is a tone to them that makes me feel as if there is a pinch of reality infused in the stories)

They are both and neither. Like dreams, our imaginings are also based on reality, grounded in the material world. Even a fantasy-scifi movie like Avatar, is at the end of the day, a story about thwarting colonial intrusion. If my stories are relatable, I have succeeded in writing a true one. By true I don’t mean factually correct or historically acceptable. Truth, as I see it, in fiction is about emotional sincerity, that kernel that makes you weep, laugh, sing or rage with or against the character or situation; the narrative that makes you walk through to the end, because it is probable, plausible, relatable, even when the world the story brings forth seems impossible or in the case of literary stories, unfamiliar and totally strange or even shocking. Having said all of the above, yes, there are stories that were inspired by something almost physical. Like “Ducklings” for instance, which is from a photograph I had seen in a newspaper. Avian flu was sweeping across Bengal and Orissa and also Bihar. It was around 2006 I think. There was this black and white photograph of a Bengali woman, weeping as she clutched ducklings, her pets, to her breast. The ducklings were looking innocently back at the camera/photographer. Having grown up with many animals and birds, and experienced the pain of loss, I am not ashamed to say that I wept for that woman, mourned her loss for days. And then I re-imagined her life.  “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” is inspired from an actual conversation, part of it, that I had heard while passing through a similar park in that city. A few old men were gossiping, about the young girls they had seen or knew, and their daughters-in-law. An incident in the story (kissing a baby boy in the crotch) was actually witnessed by me during my college days in the early eighties, and it is still practised. These traditional Bengali men didn’t/don’t think they were/are doing anything wrong. Saluting a baby boy like that is acceptable; displaying a boy baby is a matter of pride. I stitched that incident into my story. And I became an old man in my head when I wrote it.

  1. Curiously you chose to write about the world of men while inhabiting their minds. With this technique it is fascinating the multiple layers of reading it lends itself to. How did you train yourself to write in this manner?

For this I really must thank my rigorous advertising training. One of the exercises copywriting entailed was mentally switching places with the consumer. I discovered it works quite well for fiction when you are writing as someone else, seeing things from another’s perspective. My short experience with theatre also helps. That apart, since my childhood, I’ve had this tendency to feel things intensely- be inside the book I am reading or the music I am listening or the movie I am watching, the food I am cooking. Once my mother tore my drawing book into shreds because I hadn’t replied when she’d called me. I wasn’t ignoring her or being disrespectful, I actually hadn’t heard, but of course I wasn’t believed. Similar problems would crop up in school too. Be that as it may, it’s great fun becoming someone or something else even momentarily! Adventure and action, madness and mayhem all in the safety of your own mind. It helps that I am mostly by myself on any week day. I can laugh or cry without being seen as a lunatic! Right now, a part of my head is a dog, doing doggie things; two dogs actually in two totally different stories, so I had to apportion off my grey cells!

  1. Why use a nom de plume?

Actually in my case, it is not so much as a nom de plume, as acknowledging to myself and everyone, that the writer in me doesn’t have a gender or is made up of all the genders. I ought to have used Shikhandin right at the beginning, but felt shy about it; didn’t want to come across as pretentious. It’s hard enough replying “I write” when folks ask me what I do.

I could have picked up any other gender nonspecific name or initials. There are several versions to the Shikhandin narrative in the Mahabharata. The common thread running through all is that Shikhandin, who was princess Amba of Kashi, in a previous birth, through deep penance and austerities and after several rebirths and a Yaksha’s boon, became a male, Shikhandin, and succeeded in destroying the man (Bhishma) who was responsible for her humiliation and ruin in her first life. Whichever version you read, Shikhandin’s life is a fascinating story of grit, determination and resolve against all odds. For most people Shikhandin represents members of the LGBT community, or those who have rejected gender stereotypes. For me, Shikhandin represents a mind so strong that it can overcome physical boundaries and frailties. It doesn’t matter what you are born as, but who you can become.

I had heard about Shikhandin as a young child listening to tales from the epics. Later, while still in school, I read a bit. Shikhandin has been with me for decades. And because of Shikhandin I questioned male-female roles as dictated by society, and the kind of character and personality ascribed to each as acceptable. I wondered then, and still do, how gender specific are we in the purely intellectual or cerebral sense. How much of our gendered lives are in fact centuries of conditioning. I think it is nonsense that only women can understand women and likewise for men. Physical violence is not a male characteristic, just as daintiness is not a female thing. As a writer, I don’t want to belong to any specific place or slot. I don’t matter, the story does. At the time of writing, I should have the freedom to become whatever is necessary, whatever is required of me, for the story to unfurl as truly as it can.

  1. When did you gravitate from writing children’s stories to stories for adults?

It’s the other way round actually. I have been writing for adults ever since I can remember.  I wish I had started writing children’s stories earlier. That’s another regret, and hope I can make up for lost time now. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But the Children’s First Contest curated by Duckbill, Parag (an initiative of Tata Trust) and Vidya Sagar School has boosted my confidence . I enjoy reading children’s fiction a lot, even today, after my own children have grown up. And every time I have written a story or poem for children I’ve come away feeling so euphoric – the sheer joy of being a child is like an elixir. I enjoy listening to children’s patter too. Their sense of logic and observation astounds me. They also know more than many grownups about many things.

  1. Do you think there is any difference in your methodology while writing for children or adults?

Yes, certainly. There is a poem that I’d written and published several years ago, which I think can give you an idea about the kind of heart needed when writing for children:

WHAT THE CHILD DOES

When gossamer tufts come cascading down

From the silk-cotton tree’s bright scarlet crown

Who chases the tufts? Say who does?

The child does

When plump raven clouds thundering their refrain

Suddenly shed weight in vast feathers of rain

Who raises a fountain? Say who does?

The child does

When dew beads strung across blades of new grass

Glisten like rows and rows of glowing elfin glass

Who sees the rainbow? Say who does?

The child does

When within that pupa clinging to a tree

A butterfly softly struggles to be free

Who hears the cry? Say who does?

The child does

When deep down in winter’s icy waters

A timid sun’s shy white ray quivers

Who feels the arrow? Say who does?

The child does

Ah! Everywhere in this world, a new world unfolds

And unwraps and unfurls, expands and grows

Who stands in wonder, then? Say who does?

We do! We do! Yes. But first the child does!

  1. At times you hold yourself back from describing in greater detail the surroundings or situations. Why?

In short stories less is more – usually, because there are always exceptions to prove the rule! The best are those that without shouting, slip inside your head and start to niggle, urging you, the reader, to create possible endings and solutions, extend the surroundings or simply stay on with the story. I try to emulate that standard. I try.

Shikhandin Immoderate Men: Stories Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 299 

12 Sept 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 

 

Of two memoirs — A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi” and “Man Alive”

“You have to fight for yourself,” Parker had said when we first got together, and again, and again. “Wherever you are,” she’d said, “whoever you are, you have a right to be here.” 

( p.82 Man Alive)


Within the past few weeks two powerful memoirs have been published. Coincidentally both are by transgenders — Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s  A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi ( Penguin Books India) and Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive ( Canongate). Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s life history as recounted to Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey charts her transformation from a man to a woman and of her pathbreaking appointment to a college as its principal. Along the way Manobi describes the very conservative family she was born into and how very difficult it was to survive. In fact many people in her family and the village recognised her for being gender fluid and would taunt her as well as sexually abuse her. It was horrific. The Mint’assessment of the biography in its own way documenting the queer Indian history particularly from the mid-1990s is a fair one. Sometimes it is biographies such as this that give insights into the rapid socio-historical transformations taking place in society but being still too near in recent past to accord any objectivity.

Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive is equally disturbing. He writes mostly in first person not only about the transformation from being a woman to a man but also the regular sexual abuse he suffered in childhood from his mother’s husband. As an adult he experiences happiness in love and ultimately marriage too but its deeply painful as it seems to be getting to the core of the writer. Its almost as if this process of writing these chapters were part of some cathartic process. He did for some years have a column in the Rumpus called Self-Made Man. Here is a brilliant interview in the Guernica too.

Conversations about gender fluidity even today continue to be challenging to have; this despite so many conversations, publicity campaigns, changes to laws worldwide etc. So personal journeys like these memoirs are a crucial contribution to the public discourse. There are commonalities in the two transgenders experiences of sexual abuse, violence and opting to make the decision to undergo a physical transformation from the gender assigned at birth to the one of their choice. These are not easy. Apart from the obvious physical transformation there are many psychological and emotional consequences that too need to be addressed for the individual and their immediate family. But the stark differences lie in the narrative style of the two memoirs. Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi though a remarkable biography for its subject matter including the legal cases she is battling are worth reading about but it is cautious in tone. Whereas Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive is far more absorbing though at times terrifying to read for its direct approach; at times it is impossible to read and the book has to be put down before resuming it once more.

According to filmmaker Paromita Vohra and founder of the Agents of Ishq  17 May is International Day Against Homophobia Biphobia and Transphobia ( #IDAHOBIT ). To commemorate it she published an article worth reading about transgenders dating where five people talked about love and dating.

Despite all the violence directed towards them and denial by conservatives that transgenders exist in society the fact these memoirs have been published is a step in the positive direction — it is opening room for conversations and hopefully, change.

17 May 2017 

Alex Gino, “George”


George“Are you nervous about the audition? Kelly asked. “Don’t be. My dad says that men performing in non-traditional gender roles is good for feminism. He says it’s important, as an artist, to be in touch with his feminine side.”

Scott snuck glances her way too, but where Mom’s eyes were filled with concern and confusion, Scott looked at George as if his sibling made sense to him for the first time. George had never been gladder to have an older brother.

 George heard her name coming from kids talking to their parents, as well as the word boy. Adults’s heads turned her way. Most looked at her with open faces of surprise. A few smiled and waved. Others crinkled their faces in disgust. George stepped offstage and out of view of staring eyes. 

“Well, you can’t control who your children are, but you can certainly support them, am I right?” Principal Maldonado’s earrings sparkled in the auditorium light. 

Alex Gino’s debut novel George was twelve years in the making and it has already won an award — the 2016 Mike Morgan and Larry Roman’s Stonewall Book Award for Children. (http://www.alexgino.com/ )  George  is about a ten-year-old boy who believes s/he is a girl. She takes her best friend, Kelly, into confidence and it takes Kelly a while to come to terms with the revelation. Later Kelly proves to be George’s best ally when she quietly gives up the lead role of Charlotte the spider in the class play of Charlotte’s Web without the permission of their teachers. George proves to be an incredible actor. The audience claps approvingly many of whom do not even realise that George is a boy!

George is fantastic! So sensitively done. The ending is a bit too convenient and sugary, but satisfying. To put in the tough conversations about being a transgender, hormonal therapy and the possibility of surgery as an adult could not have been easy. The reactions of adults and children ( including the bullying incidents) to George are beautifully done. The range of emotions George faces from pure disgust to his kind to the kind-heartedness of the school principal to quiet acceptance by the elder brother, Scott, to coming-to-terms but ultimately joy by Kelly. Using theatre as a literary technique to help George in coming out is cliched but works very well. Even setting the stage with the tiny Shakespearean drama background in the early pages is neatly done.

It took a while for me to understand the author’s name, Alex Gino, as an acknowledgement of her being a transgender and referring to herself in the plural on the book jacket. It is not common. The idea of using literature as  a way of opening conversation about sexuality with children is good.

These conversations about transgender rights have been gaining momentum for some time. But last year with the news of Olympic decathlete champion Caitlyn Marie Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, announcing her transformation as a transgender caught the world by storm. It opened up debates about diversity and LGBTQ rights. When the announcement broke there were some fabulous opinion articles published, including one in the Guardian by a transgender activist. ( Alas, I am unable to locate the link for now.) But there are a few more essays that are worth reading such as Urvashi Butalia on transgender or hijra, Mona Ahmed in Granta, ( http://granta.com/monas-story/), photographer Dayanita Singh’s book on Mona called Myself Mona Ahmed http://www.dayanitasingh.com/myself-mona-ahmed),  Scott Esposito’s essay, “The Last Redoubt”, published in the White Review ( November 2014, http://www.thewhitereview.org/features/the-last-redoubt/ ) and Scott Esposito on Juliet Jacques’s “Beyond the Trans-Memoir” in the Literary Hub ( September 2015, http://lithub.com/beyond-the-trans-memoir/). In India, the Supreme Court ruled in 2014, that transgenders will be introduced as a “third gender category”.  Also how can one forget Welsh author Jan Morris’s memoir, Conundrum, published in 1974 and advertised as a personal memoir of transsexualism.

Challenge will lie in having this book discovered by the target audience. Even if you have liberal minded librarians and educationists willing to keep the book, parents will be up in arms. Gatekeepers come in all hues. Also a big question will be if knowing one’s sexual orientation is possible as a ten-year-old — it is debatable. Is it really possible that George can be so confident and sure about herself and spew so much information about being a transgender? The confident voice is that of a transgender adult. Also youngsters like to experiment. It’s a given. Absolutely nothing wrong with it. So a question that begs to be asked: do such books address diversity in literature and add to social debates or do they given young readers the license to explore sexuality and provide them with information? And George does discuss and analyse a lot of ways about becoming a transgender person.  All said and done, George, is a significantly magnificent contribution to young adult literature and must be read.

Alex Gino, George, Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. pp.200. 

16 Feb 2016

 

 

 

“Idris” by Anita Nair, book review ( 6 December 2014, The Hindu)

Idris( My review of Anita Nair’s Idris was published in the online edition of the Hindu Literary Review on 6 December 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/journeys-galore/article6667608.ece . It will be published in the print edition on 7 December 2014. This novel has been shortlisted for the Hindu Lit Awards 2014 as well. The winner will be announced in January 2015.)

He knew the folly of having friends. Friendship was a responsibility; it demanded making an effort to nurture relations and never asking why. It meant expectations and subsequent disappointments. A lone traveller needed no friends; what he needed to cultivate were acquaintances. (p.21)

Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is from Dikhil, a small place between Abyssinia and Somalia. He is a middleman who facilitates trade in anything — textiles, camels, spices, pearls, diamonds — but draws the line at the lucrative business of slaves. He arrives in Kozhikode, on the Malabar Coast, on the persuasion of a Yemeni merchant to attend the biggest cattle fair in the world—Vaniamkulam chanda. He gets separated from the Yemeni group and decides to wait the night out by a pond in a home. As it happens, it belongs to a Nair. He meets Kuttimalu, mother of his son, Vattoli Kandavar Menavan. When the boy is born, the midwife reminds the family the infant is the image of Kuttimalu’s grandfather. Otherwise Kandavar — who was as black as the night like his father — and his mother are in danger of losing their caste and being excommunicated.

Ten years later, in 1659, Idris returns to Kozhikode to witness the Mamangam festival at Thirunavaya. At the Mamangam, the Chaver Pada or Suicide Squad wants to ambush the bodyguards of Aswathi Thirunal, the new Zamorin. Unknown to the Chavers, Kandavar is following them since he wants to join them since he is eager to participate like his older cousin, Kesavan, a Chaver and trained at Kalari. Idris spots the boy hiding behind a tree and prevents him from proceeding further. He realises that Kandavar is his son andwhisks him away from the place, but not before they witness Kesavan (Kandavar’s cousin) being dismembered. Discovering he has a son Idris readily accepts Chandu Nair’s offer to be their guest and show Kandavar “how to think of other things, rather than grooming himself for certain death 12years from now”.

Idris takes his son under his wing. At Nair’s behest, Idris enrolls Kandavar in a different Chaver to the one the family traditionally went to—to prevent his head from being filled with “stuffed with nonsense like honour and pride in death”. But Idris gets restless and wants to proceed with his voyage. Persuaded by the Nair clan, he takes his son along too. They travel to Serendippo, contemplate trading in silk since the Dutch pay a good price for it, go pearl diving at Tharangambadi, but the ultimate aim is to reach Golconda diamond mines. Idris is curious about the “stones that turned men into hyenas…ready to lie and betray; worse, to kill and plunder”. It takes them over a year to travel and explore before returning home to Kozhikode.

In Keeper of the Light, the first of a trilogy, the recurring themes of Anita Nair’s fiction —gender and caste — are explored once more with competence. The rigid caste structures are challenged by the existence of the “family” of Idris, Kuttimalu and Kandavar. The objectification and identity of a woman in relation to the presence of a man in their life, even in Kerala’s matriarchal society, are challenged in the story, leave a powerful impression. The four women —Kuttimalu, Margarida (a child prostitute), Madinat al-Yasmin (a widow) and Thilothamma (a wealthy farmer) — are all seen briefly, usually as Idris’s lovers, yet they are strong and independent women. As Thilothama says “Women should be like trees. Growing towards the light, shaped by the wind…” Even Kuttimalu’s Brahmin teacher “… didn’t think education was to be decided by gender; it was the mind that he sought to fill.” A sentiment that echoes Anita Nair’s firm belief in promoting literacy irrespective of gender, as exemplified in her officiating as a guru at a Vidyarambham ceremony at Bangalore on Vijayadasami day.

Literary fiction can be challenging to read. Its complexity comes from the sophisticated, layered, and nuanced writing. In Idris, the reader’s patience is tested as one has to grapple with a bewildering storyline in the opening pages, not made any easier by the liberal sprinkling of Malayalam words. Also some issues such as the rivalry between the Zamorin and Chavers is never explained. Yet Idris is a pleasure to read.

Anita Nair Idris: Keeper of the Light Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, Hb. Rs. 599.

6 December 2014