Motherhood Posts

“Where Reasons End” by Yiyun Li

No, just feeling sad, I said.

Still?

Still? I said. Sometimes I’m so sad I feel like a freak.

That sounds like self-pity unrestrained, he said.

I thought about my language. Indeed he was right. Not only was it immoderate but it was imprecise. How do you compare sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano to sadness that stays inside one, still as a still-born baby? People talk about grief coming and going like waves, but I am not a breakwater, I am not a boat, I am not a statue left on a rocky shore, tested for its endurance.

Let me revise, I said. Sometimes sadness makes me unable to write.

Why write, he said, if you can feel?

What do you mean?

I always imagine writing is for people who don’t want to feel or don’t know how to.

And reading? I asked. Nikolai was a good reader.

For those who do.

For weeks I had not read well. I picked up books and put them down after a page or two, finding little to sustain me. I was writing, though, making up stories to talk with Nikolai. (Where else can we meet but in stories now?)

See my point? he said. You cannot not write. You don’t even mind writing badly.

Because I don’t want to feel sad or I don’t know how to feel sad?

What’s the different? He said. Does a person commit suicide because he doesn’t want to live, or doesn’t know how to live?

I could say nothing.

(p.55-57)

….

Orphan, widow, widower, I thought, but what do you call a parent who’s lost a child, a sibling who’s lost a sibling, a friend who’s lost a friend?

I told you nouns are limited, Nikolai said..

Words are, I said.

(p.114)

Yiyun Li’s novel Where Reasons End is a tender-hearted, very moving, novel that delves into memories and half-finished conversations by the unnamed narrator with her dead child. It is achingly painful to read given that it seems as if the reader is eavesdropping upon very intimate moments between mother and child. Grief takes many forms. This is one. Losing a child but a teenager is terrible. Here the mother hearks back to conversations with her child. Holds on to the few memories she has. When a mother talks to her child, it is as if they cut off everything else in the world and are completely focused upon each other. It is in many ways like the oneness of being that a mother experiences with her child when it is in vitro.It may be hauntingly sad, grief-stricken book, a eulogy to one who took his life. It may mirror to some extent Yiyun Li’s life as her sixteen-year-old son committed suicide. But in an age where parenting and motherhood is spoken of ad nauseum. Motherhood narratives are rapidly becoming a critical genre of literature. Where Reasons Endbelongs very much to this literary space.

Yiyun Li is based in USA and writes in English. In a fabulous New Yorker essay published in January 2017, she explains why she chooses to write in English. Here are some extracts that shed some light on the manner in which she chose to craft her novel Where Reasons End.

Yet language is capable of sinking a mind. One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language. I used to think that an abyss is a moment of despair becoming interminable; but any moment, even the direst, is bound to end. What’s abysmal is that one’s erratic language closes in on one like quicksand: “You are nothing. You must do anything you can to get rid of this nothingness.” We can kill time, but language kills us. … When we enter a world—a new country, a new school, a party, a family or a class reunion, an army camp, a hospital—we speak the language it requires. The wisdom to adapt is the wisdom to have two languages: the one spoken to others, and the one spoken to oneself. One learns to master the public language not much differently from the way that one acquires a second language: assess the situations, construct sentences with the right words and the correct syntax, catch a mistake if one can avoid it, or else apologize and learn the lesson after a blunder. Fluency in the public language, like fluency in a second language, can be achieved with enough practice.

Perhaps the line between the two is, and should be, fluid; it is never so for me. I often forget, when I write, that English is also used by others. English is my private language. Every word has to be pondered before it becomes a word. I have no doubt—can this be an illusion?—that the conversation I have with myself, however linguistically flawed, is the conversation that I have always wanted, in the exact way I want it to be.

In my relationship with English, in this relationship with the intrinsic distance between a nonnative speaker and an adopted language that makes people look askance, I feel invisible but not estranged. It is the position I believe I always want in life. But with every pursuit there is the danger of crossing a line, from invisibility to erasure.

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction.

Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living. Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. That emptiness is filled with public language or romanticized connections.

Yiyun Li, “To Speak Is to Blunder: Choosing to renounce a mother tongue.” The New Yorker, January 2, 2017, issue.

4 April 2019

Louise Erdrich “The Blue Jay’s Dance”

Novelist Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance about balancing life as a mother and a writer is a fascinating account. It was written in the mid-nineties but is ever so relevant decades later. There was a lovely essay written in the The Paris Review by Sarah Mekendick on revisiting The Blue Jay’s Dance. It was published on 10 May 2017. It is a book certainly worth reading by many especially new mothers.

There are many passages that are beautifully written encapsulating the new life women professionals find themselves plunged into with the birth of a child. Two really stand out. These are:

To keep the door to the other self — the writing self — open, I scratch messages on the enevelopes of letters I can’t answer, in the margins of books I’m too tired to review. On pharmacy prescription bags, dime-store notebooks, children’s construction paper, I keep writing. 

(p.5)

and the second is:

Most of the instruction given to pregnant women is as chirpy and condescening as the usual run of maternity clothes — the wide tops with droopy bows slung beneath the neck, the T-shirts with arrows pointing to what can’t be missed, the childish sailor collars, puffed sleeves, and pastels. It is cute advice — what to pack in the hospital bag (don’t forget a toothbrush, deodorant, a comb or a hair dryer) — or it’s worse: pseudo-spiritual, misleading, silly, and even cruel. In giving birth to three daughters, I have found it impossible to eliminate pain through breathing, by focusing on a soothing photograph. It is true pain one is attempting to endure in drugless labor, not “discomfort,” and the way to deal with pain is not to call it something else but to increase in strength, to prepare the will. Women are strong, strong, terribly strong. We don’t know how strong we are until we’re pushing out our babies. We are too often treated like babies having babies when we should be in training, like acolytes, novices to high priestesshood, like serious applicants for the space program. 

(p.11-12)

28 November 2018 

Shandana Minhas’s “Rafina”

Shandana Minhas is a publisher and a writer. She established her independent publishing firm Mongrel Books recently. ( I interviewed her in 2017 for Bookwitty.) Rafina:A Novella published in 2018 but is one of her earliest books. It was written in 2004.

Rafina is about a young girl who is trying to supplement her newly widowed mother’s income by working in a beauty parlour. Rafina begins to learn the trade from her mother’s best friend Rosie khala who moonlights by attending to rich clients in the comfort of their own home. After a few months, suitably impressed with Rafina’s hard work, Rosie recommends her to the parlour she works in — Radiance. Ever since Rafina could recall she had dreamed of being a model as famous as the one on the hoarding visible outside their cramped government accommodation. Working at Radiance she firmly believed was the first step to earning that fame. Rafina is a lovely modern day version of Cinderella, the beautiful girl who against all odds rose to the top of society to be lauded by the very same people who had earlier ignored her.

Given that it was written in 2004 Rafina is a pleasant enough read with glimpses of the confident writer Shandana Minhas evolves into. I interviewed the author via email. Following are edited excerpts of the interview:

Why a modern day version of Cinderella? Are there not enough versions of the story? 

The older, darker versions of Cinderella, hopefully. Nearly every culture has a fable of a woman who uses her beauty as a weapon in class warfare, going back hundreds of years, featuring greed, violence, self mutilation, and lust more nakedly than Disney did. The details vary but the conflict and the endgame –upward mobility through some form of concubinage – remain the same. In the Brothers Grimm’s ‘Aschenputtel’, the dropped shoe is not dropped but stuck in pitch laid down by the king’s son to trap the object of his desire after she keeps running away from his advances. Pigeons fly down to peck out the eyes of the evil stepsisters as they escort the girl they persecuted in and out of the church when she eventually marries him. Rafina is set in a city though. In Karachi the pitch is invisible. And the pigeons would get fried on kundas.

Rafina is an unusual name. 

I chose it because I met a Pakistani girl called Rafina when I was young and it was such an unusual name it stayed with me.

Frankly I am super impressed that with your hands more than full with parenting, toddler, ageing  parents, new publishing house etc you found the time to see Rafina through publication.

Me too.

Even though you wrote it in 2004 was it your first completed piece of fiction? How is it the novella was not published then, why now? 

Rafina was created mid-2004. I was a mother to a toddler, and months away from having a second child; I was in the run up to writing my first novel, Tunnel Vision, a draft of which I completed during that pregnancy. I suspect a lot of young fiction writers feel they can’t really call themselves writers till they’ve had a first novel published, and that at that point in time, facing the idea of being completely subsumed by motherhood, I too was more interested in reaching that – as it turns out entirely illusory – benchmark.

Why Rafina is being published now is because my literary agent, Kanishka Gupta, was looking for a publisher for The Good Citizens, a collection of my shorter fiction; it included Rafina, and there was interest in it as a standalone.

Did you have to tweak it a bit given that it was being published 15 years after it was written? 

Apart from minor restructring for flow, and turning up the dial on certain elements (her sexuality, for instance, was subtextual in the first draft) and down on others, I stayed with the story I first told. Teesta Guha Sarkar’s astute editing sharpened Rafina at the level of the sentence and the word by highlighting repetitive words and phrases and expressions that really hadn’t aged well. Kanishka pointed out plot points that needed reinforcing. I also referred to feedback writer friends had offered over the years. I found I was seeing Rafina and the world she was moving through more clearly than I first had. It was an illuminating exercise, draping language onto a fuller-figured story, mouth full of pens instead of pins.

How did this story come about? 

The original Rafina was actually about 14,000 words longer than this. When I started writing it I thought it was a short story but it turned out to be a novella. And about six years ago, when The Good Citizens began to crystallise, I tried to condense the novella down to a long short story. And now I’m thinking this is actually the first in a series, a desi Claudine. Rafina continues to refuse to fit into a box just because somebody wants her to.

Tell me more about Rafina. Did she develop as a character as you had wished or is there more to her? 

I think she’s well developed for a 17-year-old Pakistani girl, in that there is more to her than the desire to please other people and she embraces that rather than stepping away from it. Setting your own market value rather than letting others set it for you, that’s journey enough for a slim volume, I think.

I like the way you get the crowd of people working furiously in the salon but with distinctive personalities. Are the characters inspired by real people? 

For a brief period in my early twenties I had some exposure to the inner workings of the local fashion and beauty industry; the voyeur in me took notes of course. I was always more interested in the people behind the scenes than the ones in the limelight. The ensemble cast of the styling world started as composites of people I came across, or heard about. During fashion or film or TV shoots, my hours with stylists and their assistants were spent haw-ing and hai-ing over their experiences, and gossip about various industry players. Hair-raising. Literally. I’d like to clarify though, in case the owner of the salon my loyalty currently lies with is reading this, that all female employers in the industry are not bad, in fact some treat their employees with the dignity they deserve, and respect their legal rights too. I think we can sense it when we walk into a salon, the happiness quotient of the people who work there. And they often have to do with the littlest things, like putting up a Christmas tree and lights when some of your staff is Christian.

If you had to write this story in 2018 would you change bits and pieces in it? Would you tackle it differently or let it remain? 

I’m so glad you asked about tackling it differently or letting it remain as it was. It was THE question, for me. The answer I eventually arrived at was, I could refine language, I could tweak plot, but I couldn’t touch character. Character was what was giving this book the heart people seemed to be responding to, and my cold authorial hands were better left tucked in my armpits.

As for whether I would tackle it differently now, Rafina is in a way a historical document too, as fiction is; it is set in the time right before social media exploded in Pakistan. This is a different world, there is more room for ambitious young women to attempt escape, and more consequences too. I would have no choice but to tackle it differently.

 What are you working on next? 

I am working on finding the time to write again.

Shandana Minhas Rafina: A Novella Picador India, an imprint of Pan Macmillan Publishing India, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 170. Rs. 450 

17 June 2018 

A new Zadie Smith, a new set of difficulties in reading, a new pleasure


( My review of Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, has been published in Scroll today. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/824448/a-new-zadie-smith-a-new-set-of-difficulties-in-reading-a-new-pleasure . I am also c&p the text below.)

 

The baby was surrounded by love. It’s a question of what love gives you the right to do.

Zadie Smith’s latest novel Swing Time is about two young girls, Tracey and a nameless narrator, who live in council housing of 1980s London. These young girls are of mixed parentage who have been born different shades of brown as a result. They are not exactly social misfits but are not entirely accepted by their classmates as is apparent when they get invited to Lily Bingham’s tenth birthday party. The two girls are completely out of their depth as are their mothers who are clueless on how to guide the youngsters.

Was it the kind of thing where you dropped your kid off? Or was she, as the mum, expected to come into the house? The invitation said a trip to the cinema – but who’d pay for this ticket? The guest or the house? Did you have to take a gift? What kind of gift were we getting? …It was as if the party was taking in some bewildering foreign land, rather than a three-minute walk away, in a house on the other side of the park.

Swing Time is narrated in first person bringing to the story an intimacy, a close involvement between the reader and narrator, which would otherwise be missing if it was narrated in third person. This intimate relationship between narrator and reader helps particularly if Swing Time is read as a bildungsroman. The firm childhood friendship of the narrator and Tracey seems to peter away in adulthood. Yet the narrator’s flashbacks focus inevitably on the time she spent growing up in Thatcherite London with Tracey, to a large extent informing her adult life — emphasising the quality of “shared history“, an important aspect of friendships to Zadie Smith.  (Friendships are a characteristic trait of her fiction.) Swing Time zips particularly once the billionaire singer, Aimee, hires the narrator as one of her personal assistants. The storytelling pace matches the heady life of the superstar who flits through her own life juggling various roles such as of being a mother, her performances, recording music, and charitable “good work” in Africa by sponsoring schools.

Amongst the early book reviews of the novel there is a common refrain that the story fails to match the potential of a writer like Zadie Smith, deteriorating into contrived, formulaic and predictable storytelling. Trying to read Swing Time in the traditional manner is an excruciating task. The sentences are structured in such an unpredictable manner – sometimes running on in a Jamesian style for pages on end in an uninterrupted paragraph. The swift shifts in tone from meditative introspection to commentary and sharp judgement by the narrator can be disconcerting. But if you shift the classical expectations of what the book should deliver to that of a novel written by an artist AND a mother — it suddenly transforms. It is more about an artist being a successful professional while managing her time as a mother too. Here is the narrator talking about her mother who puts herself through college while her daughter is still in school, later the mother becomes a prominent politician.

Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself –but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down her arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her – especially in the last, painful years of her life – for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself. When I was young her refusal to submit to me confused and wounded me, especially as I felt none of the usual reasons of refusal applied. I was her only child and she had no job – not back then – and she hardly spoke to the rest of the family. As far as I was concerned, she had nothing but time. Yet still I couldn’t get her complete submission! My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood.

There are portraits, references and pithy observations on mothering or the relationship between mothers and children. There are the mothers of the two girls – Tracey and narrator, the grandmothers in the family compound of African schoolteacher Hawa, the mothers of the African school children, Aimee and her children and Tracey and her brood. In some senses this novel too with its overdone cultural references especially of the recent past also becomes a record of events for Zadie Smith’s children’s generation.

In June 2013 Zadie Smith along with Jane Smiley objected to the suggestion made by journalist and author Lauren Sandler that they should restrict the size of their families if they want to avoid limiting their careers. Writing in the Guardian, Zadie Smith said, “”I have two children. Dickens had 10 – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers?” said Smith. “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Smith added that the real threat “to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse”. A sentiment echoed in Swing Time when she writes: “The fundamental skill of all mothers [is] the management of time”.

In the end the narrator learns to appreciate Tracey’s balancing act as a professional and a mother  — like a dance.

She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.

Swing Time is a mesmerising if at times a challenging read. It is the portrait of an artist AND a mother.

Zadie Smith Swing Time Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Pb. Pp.454 Rs. 599

Anne-Marie Slaughter “Unfinished Business”

unfinishedbizSheryl Sandberg and I agree on many things. We both encourage women to speak up and take their place at the table; we both want to see many structural changes in the workplace. To some extent the difference between us is largely a matter of which side of the equation to emphasize — a difference that, on my side, at least, is a function of relative age. I would have written a very similar book to Lean In at forty-three, Sandberg’s age when she published her book. My kids were very young and I had never met a work-life challenge that I could not surmount by working harder or hiring people to help out. By fifty-three, when I wrote my article, I found myself in a different place, one that gave me insight into the circumstances and choices facing the many women who have found that for whatever reason, leaning in simply isn’t an option. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business was published in 2015. It is a book based upon her extremely popular article published in the Atlantic in 2012, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” (July/Aug 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/ ). It went viral. Three years later this book was published and another article in the Atlantic. This time by her husband, Prof. Andrew Moravcsik called, “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First” ( Oct 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/why-i-put-my-wifes-career-first/403240/ ). She also did a TED talk in 2013, ‘Can we all “have it all”?’   ( https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_marie_slaughter_can_we_all_have_it_all?language=en ).

Of late there have been many conversations about women, feminism, the work and home balance etc. Many puritanical feminists firmly believe that men should do their share of household chores and chipping in with parenting etc. Many women are made to feel wretched for not being professional enough at work if they mention their children and family responsibilities as being of concern too. Many women are denied opportunities to grow professionally for being mothers and having a family. Being a single woman or preferably a woman without children raises the chances of professional growth exponentially. But seriously, is it important to lean in so much that either work or family suffers? Why cannot it all be seen as a slow dance that evolves and grows?

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business is the feminist bible for now.  Another text may come along and replace it very soon given with what speed content is being uploaded on the internet. But for now this book works wonderfully well. Its arguments about striking the balance, importance of family and institutional support for working women, essential to have male role models like her husband who opted to look after the children without any hassles and of keeping egos at bay. Many marriages fall apart since it is so deeply ingrained in society that the man should be earning more than the wife and if roles are reversed, even when the husband is supportive, societal pressure can get to be so much that it puts undue stress on the relationship.

Personally I feel that many of the institutional structures are based on a very fixed linear notion of how time operates, inevitably a patriarchal construct. Whereas most women work on “stolen time” especially when there are children involved and they are the primary caregivers. Alas, it is this masculine interpretation of time as being linear that dominates our daily function. Motherhood is a slow, nurturing process and sometimes it is the mother’s presence that is required more than the father’s — an argument that may not go well with too many traditional feminists. Similarly with work responsibilities and one’s career. But it is true. Feminism is not simply about being empowered by acquiring more masculine characteristics to prove that irrespective of being born a woman, you can do everything on an equal if not a better footing than a man. Modern day feminism is about being an empowered woman who has the ability to voice her opinion, make her choices and stand by them. Women negotiate and make choices on a daily basis in whichever space they inhabit. This is why Unfinished Business is relevant for everyone.

Read it.

Anne-Marie Slaughter Unfinished Business Oneworld Publisher, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 330. Rs 499

24 February 2016

 

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Wild GirlsAt the recently concluded World Book Fair, New Delhi, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu publications gave me a copy of Wild Girls, Wicked Words.  An anthology of four women poets who write in Tamil –Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. The poems have been translated from Tamil into English by well-known translator, Lakshmi Holmström. This book is a joint publication of Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Publications. It can be ordered online from Flipkart: http://www.flipkart.com/search?q=wild+girls+wicked+words&as=off&as-show=off&otracker=start . 

I enjoyed reading the poems. Powerful poetry. The themes range from love, war to oppression. With the women poets included in this anthology they write about the feelings commonly shared by women. Poetry is a form of expression that helps them to articulate their feelings and experiences. I can only read the poems in English but the Tamil versions have also been made available. 

Given below is an extract from the exquisite introduction to the book. In it Lakshmi Holmström gives a nuanced and sensitive context to the poets featured, and places them within the traditions of Tamil literature and poetry. It is being reproduced with permission of Lakshmi Holmström, Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Publications.

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Introduction

Lakshmi Holmström

In 2003, at a time when politicians and other establishment figures of Tamil Nadu were caught up in a surge of Tamil chauvinism, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets, particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. They charged the women with obscenity and immodesty.Malathi Mythri

These women poets came into prominence at the same time; their first collections of poetry were published between the years 2000 –2002, when they were in their late twenties and early thirties. Though each of these poets is unique in what she has to say in her poetry, there are some themes which are common to all of them, notably the politics of sexuality, and a woman’s relationship to her body. For the moral police, such language was not permissible for Tamil women. So the poets were condemned and vilified. The debate gained focus with the publication of Kutti Revathi’s Mulaigal (Breasts, 2002). The poets received abusive letters from individuals as well as literary organizations. The media had a field-day. A popular song writer for films gave a much publicised interview to a literary journal condemning women writers in general. This was followed by another film-song writer, Snehithan, who appeared on television declaring that these women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive.

kutty revathiIt might have been easy for these self-appointed moral guardians to assume that the young women poets were all ‘powerless’ and, therefore, particularly vulnerable: none of them comes from a privileged background. Salma comes from a conservative Muslim family based in a small town near Madurai; Sukirtharani is a school teacher in Lalapet, and a Dalit. On the contrary, despite considerable persecution and even death threats, the women refused to be intimidated, insisting on their freedom to write as they chose. Malathi Maithri sought legal advice, and made a complaint to the Women’s Commission against Snehithan.

The Tamil literary world was divided in its response. Kalachuvadu, a literary-cum-political journal which has always engaged with political and literary issues, called a meeting in Chennai on 21 November 2004 to debate the issues that had been raised by the violent response both towards the poetry written by these four women poets, and towards the women personally. The meeting was chaired by Indira Parthasarathy, and attended by well-known writers such as Prapanjan, Ambai and Ravikumar, and older women poets Krishangini and Thaamarai. Rajasekaran reports in Kalachuvadu that the discussions were mostly to do with the larger issues of freedom of expression: Ravikumar spoke at length about the need to struggle against all oppressions, Prapanjan about patriarchy’s various and subtle workings, and Krishangini about why men find it so difficult to accept it when women write in specific and personal terms about their sexuality. However, Rajasekaran also pointed out that none of the critics and writers present analysed in any detail the specific poems which were at the root of the controversy.Sukirtharani 1

Meanwhile, by 2005, the national press more generally was taking up the issue of moral censorship of Tamil women by all the political parties of Tamil Nadu. About this time too, two film-makers, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, made a documentary on our four poets, entitled SheWrite. The film was important in that it brought to the notice of the nation at large the courageous stand the four women had taken; it also served to bring out many insights about their personal lives and backgrounds. However, in the film, the poetry was shown mostly as the focus of a controversy, and not examined in any detail for its own worth and value.

It is now ten years since the publication of Mulaigal. During this decade, each of our poets has published more than one further collection, continuing to write and publish as courageously as before. Each of them has won national and international acclaim. However, the grumbling against the language and thrust of their poetry goes on, while the wider issue of what Tamil women are allowed to wear, say, and where they choose to socialize continues to be raised from time to time and debated by the politicians, and in the press.

salmaWhen we look back at the history of Tamil poetry, the marginal status of women in the literary canon and their relatively meagre output is evident since classical times. It is true that, in modern times, Tamil women have been writing and publishing in various genres, but as far as poetry is concerned, we have seen a gradual change only since about 1970. Women such as R. Meenakshi and Sugantha Subramaniam were being published throughout the 1970s and 80s, yet it was only in the late 80s that their poems appeared in significant numbers, both in anthologies and single volumes. Then, suddenly, in the 1990s, the contribution of women to Tamil poetry became notable. This was a poetry that had to be noticed, not because it was written by women, but because it was different from what appeared in the mainstream.

As V. Geetha points out in her Introduction to an anthology of poetry by women from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, Paratthal Athan Sudandiram (Flight is its Freedom, 2001), not all the contributors to the book are feminists, nor even necessarily sympathetic to feminism, yet they bring completely new themes into Tamil poetry: an engagement with the minutiae of everyday life, new perceptions of familial lives, the truth about a sudden end to childhood, about bleak marriages, the joys and sorrows of childbirth and motherhood. And some women, at least, were writing with boldness about their inner lives in very different terms, using an awareness of their bodies and their sexuality. Drawing attention to an overall tendency in the anthology towards inwardness and the inner world, V. Geetha calls upon the Tamil women poets of her time to engage more with the outer world and its politics; to consider social and cultural oppressions and inequalities more widely. She suggests that the difference between the Sri Lankan women and those from Tamil Nadu lies in the political engagement of the former; that as far as the Sri Lankans are concerned, even when they write about ‘myself’, ‘my love’, ‘my sorrow’, there is an underlying political discourse that pushes the individual story into a wider context.

That was in 2001, and it was important to say it at the time. Since then, we have seen another generation of women poets whose poetry does indeed engage with a wider political discourse and a more nuanced feminism. Yet, in the case of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani, ever since the events so publicised by the media in 2003, their poetry has been grouped together and discussed only in terms of their engagement with questions of sexuality. It is also clear that a deep divide persists in the way readers and critics perceive women poets as a whole, today. The editor of a well-known literary journal observed to me that for these past years, Tamil women poets have been categorized into ‘Bad Girls’ who write ‘body poetry’ and ‘Good Girls’ who refrain from doing so.

This anthology, then, celebrates four women poets, Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi, and Sukirtharani, and showcases, through English translation, a small sample in each case, of their work over a decade. My attempt has been to bring out the beauty, originality, and above all the individuality of each of these poets. It is perhaps useful to remember that the traditional values prescribed for the ‘Good’ Tamil woman were accham, madam and naanam (fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame). Our poets have chosen instead, the opposite virtues of fearlessness, outspokenness, and a ceaseless questioning of prescribed rules. It is surely significant that at different times and variously, they have claimed as their foremothers, role models and equals, Avvai, Velliviidhi and Sappho; Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath and Kamala Das. And Eve, above all, who defied divine authority to pluck the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Bad Girls indeed, all of them.

***

There are many common themes and tropes among the poems presented here: light ‘prowls like a cat’, the tiger stalks within the bedroom and along the imagined mountain landscape. But there are also profound differences, which the reader will note. Each poet has struggled to find a language of her own to express her particular vision. ‘Language must be redeemed from the grave of its own inadequacy’, Malathi Maithri wrote in 2001, in her Editor’s Note to Paratthal Athan Sudandiram, putting forward, later on, the possibility of a pey (demon) language. Sukirtharani seeks an ‘infant language’, with all the rough and physical reality of new birth, still sticky with blood. Kutti Revathi invents a blazing language of love. Salma reaches out, even to the ‘rust of silence’.

Above all, in this anthology, I have wanted to celebrate the courage of each of these poets in breaking out of and defying easy categories. As Sukirtharani puts it in her magnificent poem, ‘Nature’s fountainhead’ (Iyarkaiyin peruutru):

I myself will become
earth
fire
sky
wind
water.
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over,
Nature’s fountainhead.

***

Wild Girls, Wicked Words Poems of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. Edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström. Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House, Nagercoil, India, Dec 2012. Pb. pp. 240. Rs. 295

26 Feb 2014

My review in “Tehelka” of Zubaan’s “Of Mothers and Others” ( 11 April 2013)

My review in “Tehelka” of Zubaan’s “Of Mothers and Others” ( 11 April 2013)

My review of a new Zubaan title, published in Tehelka earlier today. The url is given below.

http://tehelka.com/mommie-dearest/ ( published online 11 April 2013)

This is a collection of essays, fiction and poetry published in support of Save the Children. The contributors are all women except for one — Jai Arjun Singh on the mother in cinema. Various aspects of motherhood are discussed — pregnancy, crankiness about mothering, time taken away from professional space and intellectual sustenance, adopting children, bereavement, becoming mothers to special children and on being motherless out of choice. Or being grandmothers, loving your grandchildren, smothering them with affection as the delightful Bulbul Sharma does to her brood of five. But when her grandchildren complain, “Why must you travel so much? All nanis should stay at home,” Bulbul argues that “the new generation of grandmothers work, travel and play golf. They attend board meetings and fight cases… but they are still grandmothers at heart.”

Being a mother never quite ends, even when children become adults. When they are babies, children consider their mothers as extensions of themselves. As Shashi Deshpande writes, “What really overwhelmed me was the way my entire life had been taken away from me by the baby and his needs. There was no space left for anything else.” Children can take over every minute of your life, but as Maya Angelou pointed out in a conversation with the BBC about her memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, mothering means learning to be patient with one’s offspring. Mothers are their children’s safety nets; they teach, nurture and love. This is not necessarily an inherent or ‘natural’ trait that women are born with. It is not inevitable that a maternal instinct is kindled the moment a mother sees her children, biological or adopted. The essay ‘Contests and Critiques in Surrogacy’ raises the pros and cons of the commercialisation of surrogacy, with its most immediate impact being on the family of the surrogate mother. She may opt to rent her womb as an economic necessity, but its emotional and social repercussions are still uncharted territory.

The most powerful essay has to be Manju Kapur’s, grieving for the loss of her 21- year-old daughter in a car accident 20 years ago. She had been helped by many to walk the “long, long road ah ead” till she experienced the “light again, a different light from the one they thought they would live in earlier, but light nonetheless”. Juxtapose this with Tishani Doshi’s poem, ‘The Day After the Death of My Imaginary Child’ and the pain experienced by Kapur is even more searing.

As always, Urvashi Butalia, when she writes, is very readable. Her essay on being childless (which has been widely shared on the Internet) dwells upon not having had a biological daughter. She comments upon the relationships other mother-daughter duos have, including that of her friend, Mona Ahmed, a hijra, and her adopted daughter, Ayesha. Once Ayesha and Urvashi talked “about her life, a young girl, brought up in a hijra household, the father (Mona) actually her mother, the grandmother (Chaman) referred to as ‘he’ by everyone but Dadi, grandmother, to Ayesha. ‘Can you imagine what it was like?’ she asks me. They gave me so much love, but a young girl growing up, she needs some things, she has questions to ask about herself, her body, who was I to ask? There was no other female, only these men/ women, these people of indeterminate sexuality. I was so alone. Perhaps motherhood can’t be learnt after all.”

This book has been making its presence felt, given its release at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January by Shabana Azmi. At the Delhi launch, actress Nandita Das released it while holding her son on her hip. After closing this book (which I read in one sitting), I thought that the contributors raised some very valid questions on the “naturalness” of motherhood and other popular social canards. What concerned me was that, except for Anita Roy, no one commented on the importance of nutrition and, by extension, the importance of the mother’s self-preservation. I say this advisedly, since late last year Zubaan co-published a book with Cequin, a Delhi-based NGO that, among its other efforts to aid the marginalised, runs nutrition camps to teach urban poor women to balance their diets within budget. Maybe a short comment could have been included from Cequin on the kinds of mothering that exist in the space they inhabit? Having said that, Of Mothers and Others is a fine, worthy read.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist

Of Mothers and Others:Stories, Essays and Poems, Ed by Jaishree Misra Zubaan. 285 pp; Rs 495