#litprize Posts

The brave new mediocre: ‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood reviewed by Anil Menon

Anil Menon wrote a fantastic review of Booker winner 2019 Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments for the Hindu. The review was published in print on Sunday, 27 October 2019 and in digital on Saturday, 26 October 2019. Here is the original url. With Anil Menon’s permission I am c&p the text below.

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A dystopian novel is where the Enlightenment goes to die. Since we’re awash in dystopian novels, perhaps it suggests that far from fearing this eventuality — the onset of a dark age — perhaps we’ve become resigned to it. As Cavafy suggests in his poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ for those weary of civilisation, barbarity may even represent “a kind of solution.”

There are two kinds of dystopias. In dystopias of the first kind — represented by Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, and their numerous progeny — the prison gates are locked from the outside. This means there’s an inside and an outside; there’s a jailor and the jailed; there are secret messages and secret societies; there are betrayals and breakouts; and at the end, a door is either closed for good or left ever so slightly ajar for a sequel to squeeze through. In dystopias of the second kind — represented by Huxley’s Brave New World — the prison gates are locked from the inside. There’s no need for jailors, because the people have jailed themselves. These novels are much harder to write.

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a dystopia of the first kind, and at the end of the story, she chose to leave the door ajar. Thirty-four years later, the much-awaited sequel, The Testaments, tells the rest of the tale. For those who came in late, a brief recap might help. The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the premise that the U.S. has fragmented into a number of independent republics, and one of the largest fragments — the Republic of Gilead — is now run by a Puritan theocracy.

Unlike Tolstoy’s unhappy families, all theocracies are alike. The men are men; uninformed and uniformed, and uniformly jerks. But women in Gilead come in four basic models: the Aunts, celibate women in charge of female indoctrination; the Wives, who are just that; the Marthas, who do manual labour; and the Handmaids, who are wombs-on-rent. Then there are the whores. Of course, there are no whores in Gilead, just as there was no poverty in the Soviet Union.

This set-up offers a lot of scope for misery, and in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood used all the fine English at her disposal to depict just how ghastly a world based on the Womb and nothing but the Womb would be. This world is a dystopia not (only) because men have total power over women, but because women have been coerced, persuaded, indoctrinated, habituated into oppressing other women.

It’s clear Gilead is in deep trouble. Their science is Biblical, their society Saudi, their never-ending wars Balkan, and their economics Soviet. Dystopias of the first kind always have lousy economics. Consequently, for all the horror, the reader may relax: it’s only a matter of time. Nonetheless, it seems some readers couldn’t relax. Atwood mentions in the acknowledgements that she wrote The Testaments to answer a persistent query: “How did Gilead fall?” The urge to please readers is always inimical to great literature.

The Testaments is a plot-heavy novel and has three storylines. The first deals with the musings and machinations of Aunt Lydia, the most powerful of the four Founders of Gilead’s Aunt institution; the second with Agnes, the daughter of a powerful Commander in Gilead; and the third with seemingly ordinary Daisy, who lives in Toronto and is being raised by two very nice and seemingly ordinary people. Daisy turns out to be not so ordinary, and her storyline is the usual Hero’s journey. Agnes serves no real purpose other than to illustrate the life of a “privileged” teen in Gilead. Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia serves up info-dumps, while she waits for Daisy to turn up in Gilead and set the republic’s destruction in motion. The last dozen chapters compress everything into summaries, hasty action scenes, and neat resolutions.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, whose protagonist Offred is entirely ordinary, all the key characters in the sequel are exalted in some way. They are important on account of destiny or social role or birth or ability. It’s not just The Testaments’ plot-heavy nature or its disinterest in ordinariness that gives it a genre feel. Atwood has always had an interest in plot. But she is also interested in subtext. The Handmaid’s Tale had a plot — a threadbare one, to be sure, but there was one — and loads of subtext.

In The Testaments, however, there’s virtually no subtext. The meaning is all on the surface. What you see is what you get. Events cause other events, obstacles are external, sections end on cliffhangers, and characters remain unchanged by the plot. In Atwood’s short story ‘Happy Ending’ (now a writing workshop staple used to discourage plot-intensive stories), she remarks that plots are “just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” That’s not true, but here, in this novel, it is just that.

The writing is always competent — this is Atwood after all — but it could’ve been written by any competent writer. The Handmaid’s Tale requires one to pause frequently and contemplate, as when Atwood writes of a character who has just entered a room: “He was so momentary, he was so condensed.” Or “Old love; there’s no other kind of love in this room now.” The Testaments offers few such pleasures. At one point, in the middle of a flashback on how the Gilead Republic came to be, Aunt Lydia, bored by the all-too-predictable violence, tells us: “How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment.” So too is a novel in the throes of enacting an unnecessary sequel.

This novel is entertaining enough; a film starring Meryl Streep is sure to follow. It boggles the mind however that the novel was even shortlisted for the Booker, let alone managing to win a share of the prize. Perhaps this is truly the age of the “new mediocre,” as The New York Times fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, recently said in another context. Brave new mediocre. If we have lost the ability to distinguish a mediocre literary effort from a superlative one, or worse, if we have lost the courage to even acknowledge there is a problem, then it is not corrupt institutions we should fear. It is ourselves. There is no rescuing prisoners who fancy themselves free.

30 October 2019

Venita Coelho’s “Boy No. 32” wins prestigious Hindu Goodbooks Award for best fiction!

Screenwriter and young adult fiction writer Venita Coelho won the prestigious Hindu Goodbooks Award today at the ongoing Hindu Lit for Life festival in Chennai. Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket series, did the honours of handing over the trophy. Some glimpses of the evening are given in the gallery of photographs.

Meanwhile Shantanu Duttagupta, Publisher, Scholastic India who has published Venita Coelho’s award winning novel had this to say:

We won!!! Venita Coelho’s Boy #32 wins the prestigious Hindu Goodbooks Award for best fiction!!!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️ Goodbooks.in thank you for this honour!!! Scholastic India Venita Coelho

Posted by Shantanu Duttagupta on Sunday, January 13, 2019

On 1 January 2018 I had interviewed Venita Coelho. Her young adult novel Boy No. 32 is an incredibly gripping book about Battees, an orphan named so after the number given to him — 32. ( In Hindi, the number 32 is called “battees”.) The story is about Battees winessing the presence of a dreaded terrorist, Kashmiri Lall, in his city, Mumbai, and he is now the only one who can help put him behind bars. It is a tremendously well-paced and tautly written book. Impossible to put down once you begin it. Also for the fact Venita Coelho never for an instant “talks down” to youngsters, nor is ever apologetic about the violence around us. Absolutely fantastic!

In this novel intermixing the orphans’ quest for locating Kashmiri Lall with encounters with the eunuchs, the Beggar King, and the horrific complicity of even the adults responsible for them such as Aunty and the cop, is done crisply. The “traditional” bad guys of literature like the eunuch are actually shown to be humane with a little more insight on how their community operates. Equally well-made are the cop and the “aunty” who are so incredibly corrupt, they would do anything for a few extra bucks. Venita Coelho is constantly challenging pre-conceived notions about characters. For instance, instead of giving the warden of the orphanage a name, she is referred to as “Aunty” — a big learning curve for Indian readers who are taught to practically revere an older woman, inevitably calling her “Aunty”, sort of seals this relationship.

Boy No. 32 is highly recommended!

13 January 2019

“Chalk Man” by C. J. Tudor

C. J. Tudor’s debut Chalk Man is a thriller that begins promisingly well. It is sinister, fantastically atmospheric.The opening pages of the story are very well written with obvious care to the words selected. The opening scene is unforgettably creepy! Unfortunately as with most first books the energy spent in writing the first section of the novel dissipates fairly rapidly in the subsequent pages. C. J. Tudor’s author blurb reads “Her love of writing, especially the dark and macabre, started young. When her peers were reading Judy Blume, she was devouring Stephen King and James Herbert.” She got a dream debut with Stephen King endorsing her book.

Yet despite this extraordinarily generous blessing from legendary Stephen King Chalk Man does not quite hold together. Chalk Man holds promise but is not quite there as yet. Perhaps by her third novel C. J. Tudor will well and truly come into her own for she is undoubtedly a new writer to watch.

Having said that Chalk Man has been shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2018 Shortlist.

 

 

Nevertheless read it if you enjoy reading thrillers.

Buy it on Amazon and Kindle 

Debate: Aniruddhan Vasudevan declines the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize, 2016 and response by jury member, Githa Hariharan

Aniruddhan Vasudevan, the writer who translated  Perumal Murugan’s Tamil novel  Madhorubagan into English on Monday 29 Jan 2018 declined the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize, 2016.

Madhorubagan, translated into English as One Part Woman, is the story of a couple from Tiruchengode city in Tamil Nadu who face social discrimination due to their inability to bear a child. The novel had led to outrage from Hindutva groups in 2014. A number of cases were filed in the Madras High Court, but the court quashed them in 2016.

In 2016, when the Sahitya Akademi announced the award to Vasudevan for the English translation of Perumal’s book, opponents filed a plea in the Madras High Court. The court allowed the award ceremony to go ahead, but imposed a stay on the prize for English translation, until further notice.

Kannan Sundaram, of  Kalachuvadu Publications, which published Madhorubagan, told The News Minute on Wednesday that Vasudevan did not want to fight a legal battle. “He also does not want eminent writers like Githa Hariharan, Koyamparambath Satchidanandan [who were the jury for the award] and others being scrutinised.”

“He sees this [the case against the prize] as part of the ongoing problem of hounding Perumal Murugan, and does not want to be a part of it,” Sundaram added.

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Githa Hariharan’s Response to Aniruddhan Vasudevan Declining the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation

Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who was a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation 2016, for his translation of Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubhagan, has now written to the Akademi declining the award.

Kongu Kalvi Valarchi Arakattalai, the same group that hounded author Perumal Murugan, also filed a petition in the Madras High Court against his translator, Vasudevan, and the jury that gave him the Sahitya Akademi Award for One Part Woman, the English translation of Madhorubhagan. M Loganathan, who had filed the petition, also alleged that the jury members, in selecting the English translation for the award, were “prejudiced” and “biased.” In December last year, the High Court put an interim stay on the award. The Indian Express quoted the High Court bench’s observation, “…prima facie it appears that the translation is both incorrect and inaccurate.”  Vasudevan, in his letter, stated that he is declining the award as he does not want to start a fresh chapter of controversy around the novel.

Jury Member Githa Hariharan spoke to Newsclick and the Indian Cultural Forum about this development.

What is your response to Aniruddhan Vasudevan declining the Sahitya Academy award?

I wish Vasudevan had not declined the prize. He deserves it. And, in our multilingual country, translation is essential and needs all the support it can get. In this case too, the jury took into consideration the critical function of translation in a multilingual country like ours. As responsible writers and critics, we need to ensure that readers have access to translations of a high quality, particularly of works that we, as well as other critics and scholars, have recognised as an important part of our rich and diverse literary practice. The only considerations before the jury, in this case, were the quality of the translation, and the literary merit of the work being translated.

Why do you think this group filed the petition opposing the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation?

This petition is not about the translation prize. It seeks, instead, to raise an issue that has already been dealt with effectively by the Madras High Court in its Judgement delivered on 5/7/2016 on the original publication. The Judgement observed that the writer should continue to “do what he does best”, i.e., write; and that both the writers and his opponents should move on “as citizens of an advancing and vibrant democracy”. In view of this sound advice, raking up the same issue is a waste of the valuable time of our Courts, as well as a mischievous attempt to impede the free practice of imaginative endeavour that sustains our culture with multiple narratives and viewpoints.

In addition to wasting the valuable time of our Courts, who have a considerable load of genuine petitions, this petition undermines the free practice of literature by writers, critics, publishers and readers, by ascribing to itself the role of judging the merit of literary texts. I would like to remind the petitioners of Jawaharlal Nehru’s views on the individual freedom of the writer. “As soon as writing is put in a straight-jacket,” he said, “it is bound to lose and suffer.”  He added, “A State cannot produce good writing. It can provide conditions where good writing can be encouraged.” Any attack on these conditions — of freedom to imagine, write, translate, judge, discuss, and debate — would hinder our citizens from producing and partaking of varied and critical literary perspectives.

What is your response to the accusation in the above petition that the jury was “prejudiced” and “biased” in their selection?

No award norm was breached. The Sahitya Akademi prepared a short list from the books entered for the prize and sent the short list to the jury members. Each member was not aware of who the other jury members were till we met for the final decision. When the jury members met, they had read all the shortlisted books carefully, and prepared notes on the merits of each translation. All ten books were discussed, and there was detailed discussion on those considered prize-worthy. Based on the criteria of a good translation into the English language, the jury members reached a consensus that Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation, One Part Woman, deserved the award. The book falls within the eligibility period. It is a complete and unabridged translation, and the quality of both the translation and the novel has been acknowledged by critics, scholars, reviewers, and award juries. The jury members for the Sahitya Akademi prize agreed that this translation achieved the difficult task of rendering a specific cultural context and language into a highly readable translation that sounded “natural” in the target language, something every good translation aspires to. Specific mention was made of the skill with which words, phrases, expressions, and songs that are hard to translate were handled by the translator. In short, our discussion of One Part Woman, as well as our choice of the book as the award winner, was based purely on literary indices, i.e. the literary merits of the translation.

The petition alleges that this is not a “true” translation of the work. May I suggest that debates about the quality of a translation belong in classrooms, seminars and the printed page, and not in petitions or Courts? Debates on literary merits are informed and meaningful when conducted by the community of literary practitioners, students of literature and scholars. Such debates are not based on sentiment.

The translation was chosen for the award in good faith, and for valid reasons, free from any sort of bias. Members of the jury had written earlier about the book, and the attack on the book, in our capacity as writers, reviewers and cultural commentators. I must point out that the three members of this jury are by no means the only people who have written about the “controversy”. Across India, a large number of writers have taken part in protests against the attack on the book and its author Perumal Murugan, not because they were “canvassing” for the book; but because of their deep concern for freedom of expression, essential to any form of literary work. Again, the three members of the jury are not alone in admiring the novel. Reviews, articles in the media, and the large number of readers in India and elsewhere, bear testimony to the interest in the book, as literature, by discriminating readers.

The petition further alleged that the three members of the jury have been acknowledged by Perumal Murugan in the Preface of his novel. First, he has acknowledged only one of the three members, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, as a friend. Second, acknowledgements in a literary work do not imply that those thanked for support are in any way responsible for the actual work. Writing a novel is a solitary task, neither planned nor “conspired” by a group. It is ridiculous to imply that any “conflict of interest” applies to a friend or relative who may be acknowledged by a writer as having provided any sort of support during the lonely period of writing a novel.

Petitions such as these are part of the insidious process of misusing the Courts, in the name of hurt sentiment, to harass writers, critics and artists. My submission to the Court — if the case continues — would be to dismiss this and other similar petitions, and lay down a principle that such harassment is an attack on two of our cherished values: critical thinking and freedom of expression.

Such petitions are frivolous at best; and, at worst, a danger to the practice of the arts, as well as the diversity of opinion and critical thinking guaranteed by our Constitution, and upheld a number of times by our Courts.

2 February 2018 

Press Release: Dylan Prize judges announced

dylan-prizeNEWS RELEASE

Monday 24 October 2016

Judges for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize announced

Distinguished novelists, professors, a poet, a historian and Head of BBC Audio Drama UK make up the judging panel for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize in partnership with Swansea University, one of the world’s most prestigious prizes for young writers.

The £30,000 prize, which opened for entries on 5 September 2016, is awarded to the best eligible published literary work in English, written by an author aged 39 or under.

‌‌Launched in 2006, the annual International Dylan Thomas Prize is aimed at encouraging raw creative talent worldwide.  Past winners have come from Wales, England, the USA and Vietnam, and include: Max Porter (Grief is the Thing with Feathers [Faber & Faber]), Joshua Ferris (To Rise Again at a Decent Hour [Penguin]); Claire Vaye Watkins (Battleborn [Granta]); Maggie Shipstead (Seating Arrangements [HarperCollins]); and Rachel Trezise (Fresh Apples [Parthian]).

The judging panel for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize:

•     Professor Kurt Heinzelman: poet, translator and scholar; professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

•    Alison Hindell: Head of Audio Drama, UK for the BBC; Visiting Professor in Radio Drama for the University of Derby and a Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.

•    Professor Sarah Moss: novelist and professor; author of five novels and a memoir based on a year spent in Iceland, Names for the Sea;member of Warwick University’s Writing Programme.

•    Prajwal Parajuly: author of short stories and the novel Land Where I Flee, an Independent on Sunday book of the year; Clayton B. Ofstad endowed distinguished writer-in-residence at Truman State University, Missouri.

•    Professor Dai Smith (chair of panel): historian and writer on Welsh arts and culture; Honorary Raymond Williams Research Chair in the Cultural History of Wales at Swansea University.

Professor Dai Smith, Honorary Raymond Williams Research Chair in the Cultural History of Wales at Swansea University said:

“The panel of judges assembled for 2017 under my chairmanship bring to their formidable task experience of Wales and the world, of the practice of creative writing in prose and poetry, of drama and communication, of readers’ expectations and writers’ risk taking, and, of course, of the multifariousness of Dylan himself. We have a hard act to follow after last year’s panel plumped, spectacularly, and justifiably so, for Max Porter’s poem novel Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, but the entrants for 2017 are already queuing up for the amazing accolade of being acclaimed the winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize in Swansea in May next year.”

The winner will be announced at the final awards ceremony in Swansea University’s Great Hall, Wales, on 10 May 2017.  The closing date for entries is 4 November 2016.

About the judges

Professor Kurt Heinzelman is a poet, translator, and scholar. His most recent book of poems is Intimacies & Other Devices and he has translated Demarcations, a collection of poems by Jean Follain.  He has been the Executive Curator at the Harry Ransom Center and the Director of Education at the Blanton Museum of Art. A Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of Texas-Austin, he is also Editor-in-Chief of Texas Studies in Literature and Language (TSLL), and the co-founder and currently Advisory Editor of Bat City Review.

Alison Hindell is Head of Audio Drama, UK for the BBC.  She has directed over 260 radio plays, from international co-productions to soap opera, and has won many awards.  She runs one of the biggest radio drama production departments in the world and is responsible for the creation of over 400 hours of drama, ranging from the iconic The Archers (including steering the Helen and Rob story to its culmination this year) to award-winning new writing and classics for many BBC radio networks.  Most recently, she has worked with internationally acclaimed theatre director Robert Wilson on a multi-lingual co-production with German broadcasters called Tower of Babel.  Alison worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company before joining the BBC and has directed theatre and worked as voice and casting director on several international animations.  She is currently Visiting Professor in Radio Drama for the University of Derby and a Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.

Professor Sarah Moss was born in Glasgow, grew up mostly in Manchester and studied at Oxford. She began her academic career with a doctoral thesis on Wordsworth, Coleridge and travel writing, and wrote a monograph on food and gender in eighteenth-century literature before turning to fiction. Her novels are Cold Earth (Granta, 2009), Night Waking (Granta, 2011), Bodies of Light (Granta, 2014), Signs for Lost Children(Granta, 2015) and The Tidal Zone (Granta, 2016). She has also written a memoir of a year spent in Iceland, Names for the Sea (Granta, 2012). Sarah has taught at the Universities of Oxford, Kent, Exeter and Iceland, and has been part of the Warwick Writing Programme since 2012.

Prajwal Parajuly is the son of an Indian father and a Nepalese mother. The Gurkha’s Daughter, his debut collection of short stories, was a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize in 2013 and a semi-finalist for The Story Prize. Land Where I Flee, his first novel, was anIndependent on Sunday book of the year and a Kansas City Star best book of 2015. Prajwal is the Clayton B. Ofstad endowed distinguished writer-in-residence at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He has written for The New York TimesThe Guardian, the New Statesmanand the BBC.

Professor Dai Smith is a distinguished historian and writer on Welsh arts and culture. He was Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Glamorgan from 2001 until 2005 and is currently the Honorary Raymond Williams Research Chair in the Cultural History of Wales at Swansea University.

He was Chair of the Arts Council of Wales from 2006 until 2016 and is Series Editor of the Welsh Assembly Government’s Library of Wales for classic works. In 2013, he published a novel Dream On and in 2014 edited definitive anthologies of Welsh Short Stories, Story I & II, for the Library of Wales. His latest fiction, the novella What I Know I Cannot Say, and the linked short stories All That Lies Beneath, will be published in 2017 by Parthian Books.

judges

Notes for editors:

Pictures of the judges, last year’s winner, and the Prize logo can be downloaded via this Dropbox link: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/m3soqlkmsv6xznk/AAB1SwPV1kQQ_XpL_C1JKgGra?dl=0

International Dylan Thomas Prize:

Website: http://www.swansea.ac.uk/dylan-thomas-prize/

Twitter: @dylanthomprize / https://twitter.com/dylanthomprize

Hashtag: #IDTP17

Swansea University is a world-class, research-led, dual campus university.  The University was established in 1920 and was the first campus university in the UK.  It currently offers around  350 undergraduate courses and  350 postgraduate courses to  circa 20,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The University’s 46-acre Singleton Park Campus is located in beautiful parkland with views across Swansea Bay.  The University’s 65-acre science and innovation Bay Campus, which opened in September 2015, is located a few miles away on the eastern approach to the city. It has the distinction of having direct access to a beach and its own seafront promenade.  Both campuses are close to the Gower Peninsula, the UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Swansea is ranked the top university in Wales and is currently The Times and The Sunday Times ‘Welsh University of the Year’. It is also ranked within the top 350 best universities in the world in the Times Higher Education World University rankings.

The results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 showed the University has achieved its ambition to be a top 30 research University, soaring up the league table to 26th in the UK, with the ‘biggest leap among research-intensive institutions’ (Times Higher Education, December 2014) in the UK.

The University has ambitious expansion plans as it moves towards its centenary in 2020, as it continues to extend its global reach and realising its domestic and international ambitions.

Swansea University is a registered charity. No.1138342. Visit www.swansea.ac.uk

For more information, contact Catrin Newman, Swansea University Press Office:c.a.newman@swansea.ac.uk +0044 (0)1792 513454

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