Guernica Posts

Akil Kumaraswamy’s “Half Gods”

“Refugees can’t be picky. . .   .” 

Akil Kumaraswamy’s debut Half Gods is a collection of interlinked short stories. These are stories revolving around a father-daughter duo who are Tamil Hindus of Sri Lankan origin and now based in the US. Along the way the daughter, Nalini, a nurse, has married a Punjabi Sikh and has two sons — Arjun and Karan, named after two demigods from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. They also have a circle of friends, consisting mostly of immigrants. It is a motley bunch that manages to share experiences and find some common ground to have conversations. It is only when their “back stories” are shared that it becomes clear their pasts have been traumatic. For instance, Nalini and her father fled Sri Lanka after their house had been attacked by mobs and her mother and twin brothers had been lynched. It is a horrific past to live with but they do and find a way to get across to the US.

In a fabulous interview with Sara Novic, Akil Kumaraswamy discussed Half Gods. In it Akil Kumaraswamy says she has never been to Sri Lanka but “the war has inhabited such a vast part of my consciousness growing up”. She agrees with Sara Novic when the latter says “I worry about most is how the war is being taught to this new generation of children who weren’t alive during the conflict or in its immediate aftermath. It’s such a complex tangle of money and power and hatreds, and it’s easy to flatten or try and ignore completely”. This is also Akil Kumaraswamy’s preoccupation with histories of conflict especially in South Asia, where many of the countries experienced horrific violence at the time of their establishment or subsequently too such as the Partition of the Indian subcontinent or the 1984 riots in Delhi upon the assassination of the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

The author’s rationale for writing Half Gods as interlinked stories is that “War messes with any conception of chronology, and the past can feel more lived-in than the present. Also, since the work deals with displacement, I knew it would not be fixed by one geographic location. I eventually found that the interlinked short story form allowed me both expansiveness and a tight construction for the work.” Interestingly enough Half Gods began life as “a play and it only focused on the family and the story of the Mahabharata ran tangentially to it. I had these large monologues where Gods in their full regalia talked about their lives on earth. It was strange but it opened up the book in my mind. There is a scene in Half Gods where Karna shows his class a picture of his family and one of the drawings is of the sun dressed up in a suit. I am interested in how the mystical or divine brush up against the ordinary—something that often happens when the pressure is building, when reality becomes unbearable.”

Every story is powerful and it is difficult to choose a particular favourite. But if one were to then it would be the hauntingly powerful “The Office of Missing Persons” ( LitHub, 5 July 2018) which is about the entomologist whose son suddenly disappears. It is eerie for it does not seem like fiction as such stories are constantly being repeated in conflict zones and often reported in the morning newspapers. Two of her other stories that can be read online are “At the Birthplace of Sound” ( Boston Review, 21 April 2015) and “Shade” ( Guernica, 1 June 2016) .

Akil Kumaraswamy is a promising new voice in the literary landscape. As with most debut writers it is always fascinating to know what will be their next piece of work — will it be fiction in a similar vein to their first book or will it be a leap of faith in to narrative non-fiction? Whatever it is to be, will be worth looking forward to since once a writer has waded into conflict literature there is no looking back.

To buy on Amazon India 

Hardback 

Kindle

3 November 2018 

 

 

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 

A fistful of journalism: An interview with Deca collective

Deca( I interviewed some members of  the DECA collective. Founder-member, Sonia Faleiro facilitated the conversation via email. This was uploaded on the Hindu website on 11 April 2015 at: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/a-fistful-of-journalism/article7088990.ece and a shorter version of it in print on 12 April 2015. I am also c&p the text below.) 

The members of Deca, a global journalism cooperative, share the reason for sharing it, and the future of web publishing. 

Deca is a global journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices ( www.decastories.com and @decastories). It takes its cue from Magnum Photos, a member-owned cooperative that changed the rules of photojournalism in the 1950s. Magnum’s founders, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, took advantage of the technological shifts of the time — portable 35mm cameras and fast, cheap film processing —to strike out on their own, covering the stories they felt were most important. With journalism entering an era of dramatic change with tablets and smartphones replacing print books and newspapers, established journalists can now bring their stories directly to readers. These shifts — and agencies like Magnum — are Deca’s inspiration.

Deca’s members have authored acclaimed books and articles in magazines like Harper’sThe Atlantic,The New YorkerTimeScienceRolling StoneGQNational GeographicOutsideBloomberg Businessweek, and The New York Times Magazine. The members — who are based in Rome, London, Shanghai, Barcelona, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Seattle, Washington DC, UAE, Lebanon, and South Africa — include winners and finalists of prestigious awards like Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, PEN Literary Award, Livingston Award, Whiting Writers’ Award, and Los Angeles Book Prize. Since Deca’s launch in mid-2014, five stories have been published. Sonia Faleiro’s 13 Men was No. 1 on Amazon India and was selected as a ‘Kindle Select 25’ (one of 25 best books in the Amazon Kindle storefront across all markets).

Once a month, Deca publishes a non-fiction story about the world, somewhere between a long article and a short book. Each piece is written by one member, edited by another, and approved by the rest. The eight founding members are Sonia Faleiro, Stephan Faris, McKenzie Funk, Vanessa M. Gezari, Marc Herman, Mara Hvistendahl, Delphine Schrank, and Tom Zoellner. Recently, Elizabeth Dickinson, Rania Abouzeid, and Richard Poplak became members too. In a freewheeling interview, Deca’s members talk about why they started Deca and the future of publishing on the web. Excerpts:

What prompted the creation of Deca?

Our inspiration — and proposed response to any coming changes — are one and the same. New technologies may be gutting the market for print journalism but they have a silver-ish lining: If journalists want to write directly for their readers, it’s now cheap and easy to pull off. No longer do the two sides need a magazine in order to find one another. Note that we also found inspiration in newer photo cooperatives like Noor and VII, which came about after a more recent sea change in photography: digital cameras. We wanted to tell the important stories of our times, to do so in detail, and for as wide a readership as possible. But we also wanted to maintain the standards we’ve become used to working for great traditional media. We wanted to be sure we’d be well edited, copy edited, and beautifully published. Deca does all of this along with providing us the support and security of working with a group of similarly idealistic but also very hard-working people.

Once you publish the long-form stories, what next?

Photo cooperatives have long functioned as a way to keep archival photos by its members from disappearing in the dust bin. It’s likewise possible that Deca could package and put out anthologies of its members’ work — stories sitting in our individual archives that are newly relevant today.

What are the rules that you foresee changing of making content available on smartphones?

A shocking proportion of people now read their news and books on their smartphones. It helps that screens keep on getting bigger, which is true of Amazon’s phone as well as the new iPhone, apparently. Stories can now live independently of their publications.

How will crowdsourcing work for this collective?

Kickstarter’s been a smashing success so far. But it will go on in some fashion via our website and a campaign on the new crowdsourcing platform Tugboat. Many publications are now using a slow-drip version of the NPR model: “If you like us, please support us.”

How will the collective work add new authors?

New authors will be added subject to a unanimous vote. We’re obviously looking to work with great writers. But we are a co-op so we also want to be sure that whoever we bring on board understands that this is about shared effort, responsibility, wins and losses. They must also be pretty easy to work with.

What is the selection process?

We publish only members’ work and have no plans to do otherwise. We do have plans to eventually translate members’ stories to other languages, however.

Will you develop this into a subscription model or will it remain as an offering of digital singles on KDP?

Yes. Subscribers are signing up now via Kickstarter. Our app is up and running and so is our subscription service. So basically we now sell singles on Amazon. We sell singles and subs through our app that people can download to their smartphones or digital devices. Readers can subscribe to Deca for $14.99, which buys them 10 stories (http://www.decastories.com/store/subscribe/). Readers can also buy singles from our website to read online (http://www.decastories.com/13men/)

Why did you opt for a Digital Restrictions Management (DRM model) when models such as Creative Commons are becoming popular?

Perhaps mainly because we’re a bunch of writers, not techies or business people, and funding our work via the DRM is the model we could most easily wrap our heads around. Creative Commons is great, but we’ve yet to understand how, if readers don’t pay, we can’t fund reporting trips, let alone pay ourselves. So we’ve started with a pay-to-read model and are crossing our fingers. The money for research has to come from somewhere. Readers supporting journalists directly — outside the framework of a magazine or a large media organisation — is also a trend. Even so, our subscription for a full year costs about the same as a single night out at the movies, and directly expresses your support for the continued existence of this kind of journalism.

Will you ever consider anthologising these e-singles in print? (Guernica announced in summer of 2014 it will be publishing an annual print-anthology.)

Absolutely considering. We’re still fond of print, even if we’re enabled by digital. And there may already be cases when you see Deca’s work in print: When new Deca stories come out, we aim to partner with magazines and publish excerpts therein. In fact, Of Ice and Men was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. They published a whopping 9k word excerpt.

12 April 2015