HarperCollins Posts

“Pashmina” by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina by Nidhi  Chanani is a graphic novel about a young Indian-American teenager Priyanka, growing up in America, where she lives alone with her mother.  She has plenty of questions about India and her father. Her mother gives her information as and when she feels it necessary otherwise manages to evade them. One day at home she discovers a Pashmina shawl, beautifully embroidered. It falls out of the cupboard. Priyanka is enthralled by its beauty and wraps it around herself. When she does her world transforms and she is transported magically to a different world, represented colourfully in the plates which are otherwise black and white. These magical interludes in her life only strengthen Priyanka’s resolve to visit India and find out more about her roots. Despite her mother’s resistance she is able to book a flight to India by using the prize money she won at an art competition. While in India she discovers the truth about her identity, her mother’s decision to migrate and the history behind the shawl.

Pashmina is a beautiful coming-of-age story much like the desilit of nearly two decades that had suddenly become popular except in this case the format is graphic, a generally more acceptable form of storytelling nowadays. Having said that there is a statement on the glossary page saying “Traditionally, the term ‘pashmina’ is associated with shawls that are made from very fine Kashmiri wool. However, in this book, pashmina refers to the embroidered silk shawls that are woven in Nagpur, Maharashtra. ” Even though this clarification has been printed in the book it is misleading to have an entire story which is ostensibly set in America and western Indian state of Maharashtra to have the shawl and its title taken from the state of Kashmir, which is in the north.  It may not be confusing for those unfamiliar with India, for whom the exoticism of this story will be appealing rather than the details but it is unfair to stretch the creative license of storytelling to transplant the handloom unique to a state to a different region. Handlooms and handicrafts are unique to every region and representative of the cultural identity of the state. It is also an identity that the artisans and others working in this sector for the preservation of handicrafts strive for — particularly in registering Geographical Indicators (GIs)under the TRIPS Act. So books like Pashmina while creating awareness indirectly about the beautiful shawls also cause damage by blurring regional identities in the minds of people who will ultimately be counted upon preserving handlooms.  While writing for children and young adults, of impressionable minds, it is imperative that facts are checked, even if the story is purely fictional.

This book has been whispered about and discussed for a while now and its production quality has not disappointed one at all. In fact there is a lovely essay available online by the cover designer on the many avatars his designing underwent before the team selected the final layout.

Be that as it may despite the reservations about the mixed regional identity of the handloom, Pashmina is a lovely introduction to the community of  Indian-Americans and the possible questions of identity that plague the younger generations. It is wonderfully represented in the storyline and the artwork. Well worth reading!

Nidhi Chanani Pashmina HarperCollins Children’s Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, 2018. Pb. pp. 170 Rs 399

5 May 2018  

*Note: All images are off the Internet. If you own the copyright to them please let me know and I will acknowledge it.

 

Books on advice for women

Three books of advice for women spread across more than a century is a great way of mapping the enormous strides women have made over the decades. Don’ts for Wives by Blanche Ebbutt ( 1913) is a list of instructions to women advising them on how to survive, particularly on how to manage their husbands. Tucked away in it are some gems like this:

Don’t forget that you have a right to some money to spend as you like; you earn it as wife, and mother, and housekeeper. Very likely you will spend it on the house or the children when you get it; but that doesn’t matter — it is yours to spend as you like. 

Published in 2017 are Little Black Book by Otegha Uwagba ( HarperCollins)  and The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman  by Lalita Iyer ( Bloomsbury India) are two handybooks on what it takes to be a professional woman while juggling a million other responsibilities. There is plenty of sound advice offered by Otegha Uwagba whereas Lalita Iyer imparts similar nuggets of information but in a more personal way through anecdotes. There are many, many more books of a similar nature being published and of late there is practically a deluge of these books since the women reader market is burgeoning. Suddenly from a niche area it has become a mainstream market so there is a range of information available. All said and done all the books advise that women need to focus on self-preservation, maintaining their sanity, identity and self-respect and not necessarily capitulating to all that is expected of them. Sharing stories is one way of being able to get through to other women.

16 August 2017 

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

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Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

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Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

Happy Birthday HarperCollins!

2017. A landmark year for HarperCollins worldwide. The publishing firm is celebrating its bicentennary and the Indian office is marking 25 years of its operations locally. Stories from HarperCollins Publishers ( 1817 – 2017)  a succintly produced edition chronicling the firm’s history. There are fascinating nuggets in it. 

HarperCollins Publishers began as J. & J. Harper, a small family printing shop run by brothers James and John Harper in New York City in March 1817. In 1825 the company posted an advertisement in the United States Literary Gazette announcing five forthcoming titles. Scotsman Thomas Nelson ( born Neilson) opened a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh in 1798, eventually publishing inexpensive editions of noncopyrighted religious texts and popular fiction. Collins also started out as a small family-run printer and publisher. Chalmers and Collins, established by millworker and seminarian William Collins and Charles Chalmers ( brother of evangelical preacher Thomas), published its first work in 1819. It began by publishing only the writings of the Reverend Dr. Thomas Chalmers, but soon published other authors, eventually forming William Collins and Sons.

In 1962 what was then known as Harper & Brothers merged with textbook publisher Row, Peterson & Company, forming Harper & Row. HarperCollins as a brand came into existence in 1989 after News Corporation purchased Harper & Row ( 1987) and Collins ( 1989). Today HarperCollins global brand publishes approximately 10,000 new titles every year in 17 languages and has a print and digital catalogue of more than 200,000 titles. Along the way it has acquired other well-established businesses with robust identities of their own such as 4th Estate, Angus & Robertson, Amistad Press, Avon Books, Caedmon Audio, Ecco Press, Funk & Wagnalls, Granada, Harlequin, J.B. Lippincott, the John Day Company, Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., Thorson’s, Unwin Hyman, William Morror and Company, Zondervan, HarperCollins Christian Publishing and others. Many of these remain as imprints of HarperCollins.

Over the years it established credibility as being an author’s publisher for it protected rights and fought against piracy. In the 1800s Harper brothers ensured that they were fair in paying royalties to their authors, particularly those who were overseas. Their fiercest competitor was Mathew Carey’s publishing house of Philadelphia. A cease-fire between the rivalry happened in 1830s and “The Harper Rule” agreement was reached. According to Stories from HarperCollins Publishers “in [this] a publisher would cease printing when a competitor purchased advance proofs and announced forthcoming titles, or had previously published a British author.” This enabled the Harper brothers to invest more in finding and developing relationships with authors. They also began to explore other markets in the 1800s such as Canada, Australia and India. Interestingly they broke into new markets with texts such as prayer books, geography, gospels, dictionaries, schoolbooks, readers and primers.

Poet Gulzar and veteran Bollywood actress-turned-politician Hema Malini cutting the HarperCollins 25th anniversary cake, New Delhi, July 2017.

The stable of authors associated with HarperCollins is extraordinary. The firm published the American edition of Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak ( 1823), Edward Lytton Bulwer’s The Coming Race ( 1871), and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds ( 1898) and The Invisible Man ( 1898). These were deemed as “scientific romance”. Later with the acquisition of Unwin Hyman by Collins the firm discovered the winning formula of fantasy worlds furnished with maps and illustrations as has been proved with the success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit ( 1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy ( 1954 – 55). Other writers include ( listed in no specific order) C. S. Lewis, Paulo Coelho, Deepak Chopra, Erle Stanley Gardner, Aldous Huxley, Herman Melville, Harper Lee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, George R. R. Martin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Agatha Christie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sylvia Plath, Pearl Buck, Doris Lessing, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Martin Luther King Jr., Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, E. B. White, Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, Judith Kerr, Armistead Maupin, Alan Cummings, Caitlin Moran and Roxane Gay.

In the 1800s the publisher made exploratory trips to India too and witnessed an explosion in fiction writing in the 1890s due to high population density coupled with growing literacy. In 1992 HarperCollins establish a base in India when it entered into a partnership with the Indian firm, Rupa Publications. After a few years a new collaboration was forged with the India Today group. Finally HarperCollins became an independent entity of its own and its headquartered in Delhi NCR. The CEO is Ananth Padmanabhan.

To celebrate 25 years of its impressive presence in India, HarperCollins India ( HCI) has launched a campaign that consists of special editions of 25 of its iconic books and short films promoting storytelling and books. This list includes writers such as Anuja Chauhan, Anita Nair, Kiran Nagarkar, Rana Dasgupta, Siddharth Mukherjee, Satyajit Ray, Akshaya Mukul, Vivek Shanbhag, B. K. S. Iyengar, Arun Shourie etc. HCI has also launched a scrumptious list consisting of 25 facsimile editions of Agatha Christie novels.

Happy Birthday, HarperCollins!

2 August 2017 

 

 

J.R.R. Tolkien, legal battle with Warner Bros and two new books

On 3 July 2017 news broke that HarperCollins and Tolkien estate have settled a £62m or $80 million lawsuit against Warner Bros, filed in November 2012. According to The Bookseller  it was “over the licensing of online games, apps, slot machines and other types of gambling merchandise based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings following a five-year dispute, Warner Bros has confirmed”. According to the Telegraph, Tolkien’s estate had accused the defendants of violating a 1969 agreement allowing the sale of “tangible” merchandise, by associating the books with the “morally-questionable (and decidedly non-literary) world of online and casino gambling”. The estate claimed this “outraged Tolkien’s devoted fan base” and irreparably harmed the legacy of the English author and Oxford English professor who died in 1973 at the age of 81. Curiously the estate was alerted to this fact when a SPAM email selling this merchandise landed in the Tolkien’s lawyer’s inbox!


The settlement could not have been better timed given that Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien has just published Beren and Lúthien. It is a new book by JRR Tolkien published for the first time a 100 years after it was first written. It has been described as a “very personal story” that the Oxford professor thought up after returning from the Battle of the Somme. It is edited by Christopher Tolkien and contains versions of a tale that became part of The Silmarillion. The book features exquisite book illustrations by Alan Lee, who won an Academy Award for his work on Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. Tolkien specialist John Garth, who wrote Tolkien And The Great War, said the Hobbit author used his writing like an “exorcism” of the horrors he witnessed in World War One. John Garth reviewed the book for New Statesman . He writes:

Beren and Lúthien contains one thread, woven in turn from strands as diverse as the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen and the German “Rapunzel”. Tolkien’s big idea was that his “Lost Tales” were the pure, ungarbled originals of such oral stories. Aided by his storytelling verve, and embedded in his matrix of invented history, geography and language, it rises far above pastiche. A wild, ragged wanderer and an elf princess meet by unlikely chance and fall in love. Her scornful father sets what seems an impossible marriage condition – regaining one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of the satanic enemy Morgoth.

That inspirational moment in the wood at Roos, Yorkshire, was central both to Tolkien’s creative and to his personal lives. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved under his name (1973) and Edith’s (1971) on their Oxford headstone. So this book – with watercolours and pencil sketches by the veteran Tolkien artist Alan Lee – is presented by its editor, their third child, Christopher, as a memorial to his parents. And it is the capstone to a job Christopher began with The Silmarillion, published in 1977 – a seamless editorial construct from a bewilderment of posthumous papers, which he gave the full scholarly treatment in his later, 12-volume History of Middle-earth.

Isolating the thread of the Beren and Lúthien story, Christopher (now 92) walks a difficult line, but successfully conveys its evolution by making generous selections from Tolkien’s own versions, with some bridging comments of his own. The book includes the early “Lost Tales” plus nearly 3,000 lines of a verse version begun in 1925 and abandoned in 1931, The Lay of Leithian. Interspersed are portions of chronicle-style retellings from successive Silmarillions written in 1926, 1930 and 1937 – the last of these abandoned in mid-flow when a publisher demanded a sequel to the newly published Hobbit instead.

A couple of years ago Christopher Tolkien had also released his father’s delicious translation of Beowulf. It is enriched by the endnotes and lectures.

Given this context and that good content in the twenty-first century is considered as valuable as oil then the legal battle won by the Tolkien estate and his daughter is absolutely stupendous. These books are still not out of copyright and certainly not the recent ones published by Tolkien’s children. So the estate stands to gain.

In March 2017 it was revealed that Oxford University’s Bodleian Library will release a title featuring illustrations, letters and other material from Tolkien’s archives that have never before been seen by the public, to coincide with a major exhibition on The Lord of the Rings author in 2018. It will open in June 2018.

( Both the books have been published by HarperCollins.)

4 July 2017 

 

 

 

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

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

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

What sparked this story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balli Kaur Jaiswal Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows HarperCollins 

8 May 2017 

Molly Crabapple, “Drawing Blood”


Art is hope against cynicism, creation against entropy. To make art is an act of both love and defiance. Though I’m a cynic, I believe these things are all we have. ( p.320)

In blank notes I put painful bits of my past on the computer screen. As I wrote, these memories became external to me. They were art now, less a burden than a product. They couldn’t hurt me anymore. ( p316)

Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood is a memoir which is most Molly's Factoryextraordinary. ( http://mollycrabapple.com/ ) It is like a picture book for adults. The pictures complement the text and vice versa. But the words too recreate in minute visual detail each memory she chooses to recount. There are pages and pages of description that is like walking through an exhibition of dioramas brilliantly laid out by a talented artist. The memories recounted are those that seem to matter the most to Molly Crabapple. There seems to be no inclination or desire to delve into spaces that may give the socio-cultural co-ordinates of the artist. Only what is relevant to her narrative is shared even to the extent her grandfather, the painter, is referred to only because of the artistic inheritance evident in her mother and in Molly’s talent. But it is the incidents she chooses to dwell upon are an extraordinary insight into society, not just the underbelly of modern society but of the marginalised groups and the fight for survival, the fight for rights, the fight against injustice. Her series from Guantanamo Bay for the online journal Vice catapulted her to fame. ( http://www.vice.com/read/molly-crabapple-draws-gtmos-camp-x-ray and http://www.vice.com/read/molly-crabapple-sent-us-sketches-from-khalid-sheikh-mohammeds-trial-at-gitmo )

And this is the opening line of Drawing Blood.

I was drawing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. ( p.1) Khalid Mohammed in G Bay, drawn by Molly Crabapple

In that one sentence Molly Crabapple brings reading to a grinding halt. The visual image it conjures up of an artist peacefully sketching a man in an orange jump suit, shackled and behind bars in a court room, far, far away…with the drawings later to be stamped by an official inspector marking his approval for the sheets to be publicised as a cruel reminder that Guantanamo Bay is a high-security zone. Yet, there is no denying the painful intensity of her drawings as is evident in the sketches tipped into the memoir.

30tmag-crabapple-1-facebookJumboIt takes a while to return to the text but once back it is incredible to read how much experience Molly Crabapple has packed in a short while. Beginning with the time spent as a seventeen-year-old at Shakespeare Molly Crabappleand Company Bookshop in Paris to wandering and drawing in the streets of Morocco, Turkey, participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement to painting sex workers, gay and trans refugees fleeing Syria, migrant workers building Abu Dhabi’s great museums etc. It is no surprise then if you type in the search words, “Molly Crabapple”, there are a number of options that appear for her art work — Art, Burlesque, Illustration, Drawings, Political Art, and Marvel– highlighting her multi-faceted interests. But it is her humility, a rare trait, that shines through the memoir — “As I worked abroad, I began to recognize my own smallness in the vast world, and the learning I still had to do.” ( p.335)

In her concluding paragraph she says:

I started drawing as a way to cope with people: to observe and record them, to understand them, charm them, or to keep them at arm’s length. I drew to show Moroccon street kids that I was more than a tourist. I drew to win the attention of beautiful women and to mock authoritarian twits. I drew from the wings of burlesque shows, when the girls peeled off their gloves and poured glitter into the crowd. When the world changed in 2011, I let my art change with it, expanding nightclub walls to hotel suites and street protests. My drawings bled into the world. 

I continue to draw, out of a gluttonous desire for life in all its beauty and horror. I draw everything I hate and everything I love. I fill new notebooks every week, sketching refugee camps and rebels, performers and migrants. 

My work has taken me past the edge of burnout. It’s burned in. 

Art gave me a way to see, to record, to fight and to interrogate, to preserve love and demand reckoning — to find joy where once I could see only ash. 

I’d take on the world, armed only with a sketchbook.

I’d make it mine. ( p. 335)

Read Molly Crabapple’s memoir. She is like the Elvis of New Age Literature blazing a unique trail of her own while building upon the artistic traditions she has inherited in an informed manner.  Read Drawing Blood. You won’t be sorry.

Molly Crabapple Drawing Blood Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2015. Hb. pp. 335. Rs 1299

16 March 2016

Literati: ” A book in any other form” ( 20 December 2015)

(My column, Literati, in the Hindu was published online on 19 Dec and in print on 20 December. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-reading-experience/article8005049.ece )

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300Book-lovers want to be satisfied with time spent reading. It could be in different formats as long as the reading transports and immerses the reader into a different world

My daughter Sarah and I have a bedtime ritual. She brings along a book (if I am lucky, it is only one!) to read. She plumps up her pillow, tucks herself into the crook of my arm and orders, “Read.” It is a long process since I have barely begun to read when her questions come tumbling out or she reads out words in no particular order before I do! She is not yet six, so requires assisted reading. To her the length of the book is immaterial. It is the joy of storytelling, appreciating different styles of illustrations and discovering new landscapes. Sometimes when there is that unnerving-silence-which-should-not-be with a kid at home, I discover Sarah lying on her tummy flipping through her books.

She is charmed by the Kingfisher Encyclopedias, especially the scatological one Don’t Flush, she wants to try the tricks in DK’s illustrated Children’s Book of Magic and squeals with delight when she opens up The Pop-Up Book of Ships or reads over my shoulder L. Pichon’s hilarious The Brilliant World of Tom Gates. She strokes the magnificently detailed illustrations by P.J. Lynch in Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomeyand is very satisfied to discover it matches the text when she impatiently asks, “Show, show!”

Grown-ups are no different. They too want to be satisfied with time spent reading. It could be in different formats as long as the reading transports and immerses the reader into a different world as does Helen MacDonald’s moving memoir H is for Hawk. In 2015, it is claimed printed book sales surpassed ebook sales, yet reading on smartphones is on the upswing as is evident by the establishment of Juggernaut Books and the launch of Pratham Books’s Storyweaver. A survey of bestsellers and critics concluded that the average length of books has increased by 25 per cent in the past five years. For instance, Man Booker Prize winner 2015 Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind and Hanya Yanagihara’s deeply disturbing A Little Life. Yet there has also been a noticeable boom in short stories with Colum McCann’s absorbing but stunningly painful Thirteen Ways of Looking, the incredible range of writing exhibited in the late Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories translated by Katrina Dodson with plenty more being published in stupendous online spaces like Guernica, The Literary Hub, The Electric Literature, Asymptote and Words without Borders. In fact, the popularity of translations to access world literature can no longer be ignored. Seagull Books, based in Kolkata, announced its Arab list to be launched in 2016. According to the Bookseller, reclusive Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s has made in the U.K. “£1.6m this year through BookScan, 1,254 per cent up on her sales in 2014”. Chad Post in his Three Percent blog post on translation databases in the U.S states that Amazon Crossing has been responsible for a large number of translations, surpassing many independent presse (http://bit.ly/1QrGxV7). Indian publishers too are increasing their translation programmes with notable titles of this year being Daya Pawar’s Baluta (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger), Tiruvalluvar’s The Tirukkural (translated from Tamil by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph), Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi’s Sarasvatichandra Part 1: Buddhidhan’s Administration (translated from Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud, Orient Black Swan), Bhisham Sahni’s Today’s Pasts: A Memoir (translated from Hindi by Snehal Shingavi, Penguin), Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls (translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin), Intizar Husain’s The Sea Lies Ahead (translated from Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins) and the Hindi edition of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton published by Vani Prakashan.

With this mish-mash of emerging “trends” in international publishing, it is not surprising for firms to ensure a reliable stream of income by publishing manuscripts of dependable storytellers. For instance Wind and Pinball, the early novellas of Haurki Murakami, Ideal: the novel and the play by Ayn Rand, Go Set a Watchman, an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Bedtime Story by Kiran Nagarkar, The Mountain Shadow by Gregory Roberts, the to die-for-richly illustrated editions of George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (illustrator: Gary Gianni) — prequel novellas to A Song of Ice and Fire and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (illustrator: Jim Kay).

I cannot say whether Sarah will become a voracious reader, but she has unknowingly discovered that reading is like meditation. The same holds true for adults. The genre is not always crucial to the experience.

Literati: A Spiderweb of Yarns ( 14 November 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 14 November 2015 and in print on 15 November 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-spiderweb-of-yarns/article7872752.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

The old lady chuckled. “Each story that sinks into the book becomes a part of an ancient spiderweb full of stories.”

“As more stories are added in, the spiderweb gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it forms an invisible blanket that covers every city and town, every village and every forest. And when someone who is walking by touches the web accidently, stories will flow into their head and from their head to their fingers and from their fingers on to paper…”

(Suraya’s Gift: The Story Catcher Children by Malavika Nataraj. A chapter book published by Puffin Books)

Suraya's GiftSuraya has been given an exquisitely designed blank notebook by her aunt. She scribbles stories in it for a while only to abandon it. Later, unable to locate it she encounters the Story Catcher who tells Suraya the book has been passed on to another child who has better use for it. Malavika Nataraj’s is a stunning debut.

Ranjit LalThe importance of stories can never be stressed enough. Ranjit Lal’s new novel Our Nana was a Nutcase (Red Turtle) is about Nana, who is bringing up his daughter’s four children. (Their parents are busy diplomats.) It is a super brilliant, sensitively told novel about the children witnessing their Nana’s gradual decline with Alzheimer’s, their coming to terms with it and slowly realising they have to be the caregivers for their Nana. A similar story about the heartwarming relationship between grandfather and grandson is found in the bittersweet David Walliam’s David Walliamsbestseller Grandpa’s Great Escape (HarperCollins).

Stephen AlterStephen Alter’s slim novella The Secret Sanctuary (Puffin Books) is a little beauty too. It introduces three school children to the magic within a forest they tumble into while walking to school. It is a secret sanctuary where they can be in close proximity to the animals without the beasts being aware of their existence. They discover nuggets of information from the naturalist, Dr. Mukherjee.

MananManan (HarperCollins) by Mohit Parikh is an “odd little tale” as he calls it. Manan attains puberty and is fascinated how reaching this milestone changes his perspective on life, transforming him in more ways than one. It is a first novel about an ordinary family in a small town.

MunnuMunnu: A Boy from Kashmir (HarperCollins), a graphic novel by Malik Sajad with autobiographical elements, is already causing a stir internationally. Sajad anthropomorphises the Hangul deer to tell the chilling account of being a young boy in Kashmir when it was torn apart by conflict. Munnu capitalises upon his excellent drawing skills to draw political cartoons.

Some other examples of well-told stories are: Scholastic India’s annual offering For Kids by Kids featuring short stories by young writers between the ages of 10 and 16. Paro Anand’s Like Smoke (Penguin Books), a revised edition of her young adult stories Wild Child; Parismita Singh’s stupendous graphic story retelling the Naga folktale Mara and the Clay Cows (Tulika); Karishma Attari’s debut novel I See You (Penguin Books), a chilling horror set in Mumbai, and the gorgeously produced retelling of the Baburnama called The Story of Babur by Parvati Sharma, illustrated by baburUrmimala Nag (co-published by Good Earth and Puffin Books). Scholastic’s Branches book series like Dragon MastersThe Notebook of Doom and Owl Diaries ( http://www.scholastic.com/branches/), and Simon and Schuster’s travelogue series Greetings from Somewhere ( http://www.simonandschuster.com/series/Greetings-from-Somewhere) with helpful illustrations, easy-to-read text and simple plot lines designed for newly independent readers, are strong on storytelling Wimpy Kidtoo. Then there is the astoundingly popular Jeff Kinney, whose Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School within a week of its release has already sold 100,000 copies in India. Timed with its release has been the launch of the Puffin Car that will be used to build excitement about books and the habit of reading among children.

For Kids By Kids 2015

***

Stories have a way of working their way into becoming a part of one’s mental furniture and creating cultural landscapes that stay forever. A wonderful example to ensure stories continue to be shared is the “Libromat” in South Africa bringing together laundry and reading established by social entrepreneurs from Oxford University.  ( http://www.libromat.com/ )Inspired by a study that said dialogic book-sharing is an interactive form of shared reading (http://1.usa.gov/1MVTK7E), an early childhood development centre in Khayelitsha was outfitted with washers and dryers, and the women were trained to read with their children. libromat-inhabitots

( Note: Images used on this page are off the Internet. I do not own the copyright to them.)

15 November 2015 

Literati – Of books and launches ( 5 April 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 4 April 2015) and will be in print ( 5 April 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-columns/literati-of-books-and-launches/article7067754.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

Last week I attended a book launch at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. A small distinguished

(L-R) Mrs Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament, HE Pranab Mukherjee, President of India and Mrs Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha

(L-R) Mrs Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament, HE Pranab Mukherjee, President of India and Mrs Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha

audience gathered in the Yellow Drawing Room to witness the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, launch former and first woman Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar’s Indian Parliamentary Democracy: Speaker’s Perspective in the presence of the current Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, and senior-most Parliamentarian, L. K. Advani. This volume — published by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi — contains selected speeches delivered by Kumar at various multilateral conferences and during bilateral visits to several nations in India and abroad during her tenure. It was a book launch that ran with precision, partially due to protocol but also in a large measure due to professionalism of the politicians. These people have known each other for decades, yet made the effort to spend some time reading the book, offering their personal perspective on the importance of speeches to negotiate issues of government policy and to strengthen Indian diplomacy. Listening to the frank conversation made a ‘dry’ book about the efficacy of parliamentary diplomacy as an evolving medium of communication among nations seem worth reading. It was an effective launch as it interested the audience in the book and was not just another occasion for a photo-opportunity.

***

Book promotions are a two-pronged affair. One is a planned strategy to promote a book: an author tour, book launches (preferably with a celebrity launching it), circulating review copies, book trailers on YouTube, interviews and interactions on all media platforms, the author participating in literary festivals, writing articles discussing and describing the writing process threadbare … all in a very short span of time. With the explosion of social media platforms, the variety of ways in which books and authors can be promoted is staggering — podcasts of interviews and literary salons, online book clubs, using photograph-based websites such as Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram to showcase book covers and promote reading experiences.

Tie-ups

According to Publishers Weekly, “HarperCollins is working with Twitter Commerce, the social media platform’s effort to offer ‘native commerce’, or offering firms the ability to send out tweets with buy buttons embedded in them.” The new promotion allowed fans to purchase a hardcover edition of theInsurgent movie tie-in edition at a 35 per cent discount, direct from HarperCollins Publishers US, without leaving the social media site with a buy in-tweet available only on March 23, 2015. Both HarperCollins and Twitter sent out a series of promotional tweets directed at fans talking about the Veronica Roth book series and movie adaptation.

This is similar to a recent partnership between the Hachette Book Group and Gumroad, an e-commerce venture that enables creators to sell content via social media, to promote and sell Hachette titles via Twitter. In August 2014, Amazon ‘buy it now’ buttons were embedded in Washington Post articles about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, assuming impulse buying will propel sales, but these were quickly pulled down after a massive outcry on Twitter (http://mashable.com/2014/08/18/washington-post-amazon-buy-button/). Amazon and Washington Post are both owned by Jeff Bezos. All these publicity efforts by the publishers, authors and vendors are to boost sales.

The Buried GiantA second and crucial component of book promotional activity is the preview critic and book reviewer. A good review is fair and unbiased. For instance, Neil Gaiman’s review in The New York Times of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new and oddly fascinating novel, The Buried Giant, says it is “a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love.” It is a balanced, constructive and informed critique by the superstar of contemporary mythographers of another exceptional storyteller.

With the democratisation of social media platforms too, bloggers (word and video) and online reviewers have made their mark. Many are professional and their opinion is valued tremendously. But there is a tiny core in the online community offering “book reviewing plans” to promote a book, by publishing reviews on specific websites, blogs and online vendors — for a price. Unfortunately these reviews gush hyperboles. The mistake often made is that a paid promotion needs to be positive. This does not sell a book; only honest and constructive engagement with the book does.

4 April 2015