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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 

Meg Rosoff, “Jonathan Unleashed”

Award-winning young adult writer Meg Rosoff is a brilliant writer. No wonder she has been awarded the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award ( ALMA) this year or what is fondly referred to as the Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature, given its whoppingly delicious prize money of £430,000. It is given to an author for their body of work. ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/05/meg-rosoff-wins-astrid-lindgren-memorial-award-how-i-live-now ) What is particularly satisfying is that such a passionately ferocious storyteller is conferred the award for her work in young adult literature within weeks of the publication of her first adult trade novel, Jonathan Unleashed.

Jonathan Unleashed is about Jonathan Trefoil, in his twenties, living in New York, working in an advertising firm that he does not particularly relish but the saving grace in his life are the two dogs he is babysitting. Dante and Sissy belong to Jonathan’s brother who has had to relocate to Dubai for a job. Thrown into this mix are his girlfriend who does not particularly care for the menagerie, a vet and old school friend/colleague. His girlfriend persuades him to get married online since her magazine will sponsor it. He has a breakdown with the pressures of work and a love-life that is nerve-wracking — Jonathan has a better sleep at night cuddled up in bed with Sissy, the cocker spaniel, than his girlfriend! It is a Meg Rosoffromance novel with the rawness and honesty of young adult writing and at a quick pace that is never dull to read. Meg Rosoff gets the various emotions of dogs ever so well. Not surprising given her love for the four-legged beasts. The relationship between humans and dogs is superbly executed and can only be written by one who has lived and observed dogs closely. Jonathan Unleashed is hilarious and impossible to put down.

Read it.

Meg Rosoff Jonathan Unleashed Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp.280 Rs 499 

18 April 2016 

 

Alex Gino, “George”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 Feb 2016

 

 

 

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar “The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey”

Rupi Bhaskey“…We are living in a free country now. Don’t we have the right to demand what is good for us?” ( p.71)

A debut writer inevitably strives to observe and write about a landscape that they are familiar with, but otherwise is little known about in fiction already available. It also helps in getting the book discovered once published. After all it is a new story, new voice and not necessarily new treatment of an oft-repeated theme. In The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes about Jharkhand, the Baskeys. It is about Rupi Baskey over a period of time, her relationship with the family and villagers, but what shines through is her fortitude and the choices she makes — many that seem to go against popular opinion, yet she stands by her decision. The book details a terrain, customs, people, beliefs, superstitions, faith healers and local history that Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is very well acquainted with, since he is a working as a doctor in the region. In fact the matter-of-fact descriptions of bodily functions including birthing can only have been written by a medical professional. Stories like these are revelatory since they give a perspective of which is little known at the national level like the impact of the Kharsawan massacre of 1948 , but is of significance to the locals.

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014. A well-deserved spotlight for Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar but an award will have to wait.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar  The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 220 Rs. 295

 

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’  Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’ Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

On 20 July 2014, The Hindu Literary Review carried an interview I had done with Zia Haider Rahman. A shortened version was published in print, a slightly longer version on the newspaper’s website ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-really-an-interruption-of-reading/article6228449.ece ) and I reproduce below the complete and unedited version of the interview that the author sent and approved. The book is available in India with Picador India, PanMacmillan India. ISBN: 9789382616245

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanZia Haider Rahman’s novel, In the Light of What we Know, is a forceful debut. It is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first meet as students at Oxford. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008.

Zia was born in rural Bangladesh but migrated to the United Kingdom before his sixth birthday and was raised in a derelict squat before moving to state housing. His father was a waiter; his mother a seamstress. Zia won a scholarship to read mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and completed graduate studies at Cambridge, Munich and Yale universities. After working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, he turned to practising as an international financial lawyer before moving to human rights work.

1. What was the gestation period for this manuscript? How long was the first draft? How much time did it take from manuscript to printed book?

Many of the ideas and images in this novel have been percolating for rather a long time; some of the governing themes have grown out of preoccupations that have been with me for the whole of my life. I imagine this must be true of many authors and must hold for even books subsequent to their first.

The first draft was about the same in length as the final one, as I recall. Before I began revising anything, my editor made some helpful suggestions conceding that those comments might actually increase the length of the novel by ten or so per cent. In the end, I decided to make a few small cuts here and there and so the word count did not change much between the first draft and what is there now in the printed book. I find that certain writing is not improved by tinkering or revising, particularly passages or scenes of strongly emotional content: the rawness is a vital part of the energy.

From final manuscript to printed book, it took about three to four months. I made life a little difficult for myself by choosing to keep the British English version and the American English version distinct; the punctuation as well as vocabulary, of course, is different. The US version, for instance, has adopted the serial comma, which most non-American readers would find inhibitive to fluent reading.

2. How many notebooks did you maintain to create this novel or was it written directly on the computer? When and where was the research done? Does it ever cease?

As a matter of routine, I have always kept notebooks, jotting down ideas and things of interest. I used to try to keep track of them. Once I’m through a dozen or so, I sit down and take a few hours to type them up. This refreshes my memory but also allows me to discard ultimately uninteresting material. But the real reason I do it is that an electronic document is easy to search through.

While writing the novel, my note-taking activity increased hugely. I was quite itinerant at the time, so it was vital to have something to hand in which to record thoughts as they arose, if I was waiting for a train or plane, or if I woke up with a thought that I wanted to record. But when I was properly drafting any text for the novel, I did this on the computer. I type very much faster than I write long hand.

The research was done in various places. Some of it was done on the internet, although the internet is really only helpful as a starting point and also to confirm some fact or other. At one point, I used the internet to watch what felt like every US congressional hearing on the financial crisis, which was considerably more than was necessary for the novel, but I found them inherently fascinating and full of drama. The libraries I used were principally the British Library in London, the New York Public Library and the library of a small town in upstate New York, near Yaddo (a foundation for writers,  artists and composers, where I wrote most of the novel). The last library is actually plugged into the wider library system of upstate New York and has very swift access to the many books within the system. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, with large sunlit rooms and many shelves of books, as libraries used to have, and has not been overrun by technology, multimedia and so on.

It’s no doubt possible to do more research than necessary. But if the activity of research is in itself rewarding then one is not so much doing research as merely indulging oneself in the pleasure of reading.

3. Who are the authors and writing styles/ traditions that have influenced you?

Everything I read leaves something and I can no more identify my literary influences than I can point to particular meals I’ve had that have been exceptionally nourishing. Over the years, many, many books and authors have had an emotional impact on me, although whether and how they might have influenced my writing is, in most cases, harder to see. To name a few that spring to mind: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Philip Roth’s novels and Coetzee’s, James Baldwin’s, and the list goes on and on, as one might expect of any author, because writing is really an interruption of reading and vice-versa.

4. You have a lot of epigraphs in the novel but they seem to be used in an unusual way. What is their purpose?

You’re right. There is something unusual about them. Ordinarily in novels, epigraphs are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain; here, the narrator has actively included them after retrieving them—or most of them—from Zafar’s notebooks, as he himself explains. There is also the fact that near the end of the book the epigraphs of a particular chapter are the venue for a disclosure: the epigraphs actually do a job of storytelling. Described in this way here—and not encountered in the course of reading—it might seem like the assignment of epigraphs to and by the narrator is a breach of a convention of the novel. After all, epigraphs typically stand above, aside, aloof. I have no aversion to breaches of convention, provided they are effective, but I’m not sure there is a breach here in any event. All that is happening is that the narrator is laying claim to real estate on the page ordinarily owned by the author.

5. At a time when it is easy to Google for information why did you introduce extensive footnotes in the text?

As you know, the narrator himself does precisely that—go to internet search engines in order to look things up. The narrator uses footnotes where he wants to elucidate something that Zafar says, without interrupting the flow of Zafar’s account. Having said that, there are also a couple of rather long footnotes, notably one likening map projections in cartography to the translation of poetry and another relating to the war of 1971, where one has the sense that the narrator simply doesn’t want to omit something that Zafar said or wrote and yet cannot justify to himself the inclusion of the material in the main body of text. The narrator, as one quickly gathers, is to a certain degree rather unreliable: he thinks he is smarter than he actually is, he has a rather undeveloped attitude to women, and, of course, he is fundamentally compromised by a certain set of circumstances which we cannot go into without issuing a spoiler warning. The footnotes—their presence, form and the kind of material they include—are an example of what emerges from the first person perspective here. In a third person narration, they might not have emerged in a necessary way.

6. How did your training in mathematics impact your manuscript drafts and plot structure?

Mathematics is fundamental to my outlook on very many things and in ways that I cannot easily measure. In my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that our species does, though I am no longer a part of the mathematical project.

The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my insistence on reasons for a claim—reasons that that are capable of yielding to interrogation. Mathematics gave me that. Other experiences might have left me with the same outlook, as I expect other things do to other people. But my debt is to mathematics. Nothing in life can be relied upon in the way that a mathematical proof can. Nothing anyone ever says or does or tastes or feels will so much as perturb the trust we have in a mathematical truth. And though elsewhere in life we cannot achieve the same conviction, the presence of this standard in one realm ought to be regarded as a beacon illuminating the dark poverty in the quality of reasoning we seem to settle for in other aspects of our lives, in the political and social especially.

I am unsure how to begin to answer your question—or even if I can—since thinking mathematically, day-in and day-out for a long time and at a formative age means that its effects are marbled into my foundations.

7. The analogy between cartography and translation is a fascinating concept on the art of representation via illustrations and word. How do you view your novel in the light of this theory?

In the novel, the narrator relates Zafar’s observations on one underlying similarity between map projections and the translation of poetry. There are many ways to represent the curved surface of the planet on a piece of paper. And there are many ways to go about translating a poem in one language into another. In cartography, for instance, you might choose to preserve relative areas or relative subtended angles. In poetry, you might choose to preserve rhyme or meter. The list of things to consider is actually quite long in both cases. Both involve choices about what to preserve and what to let go. Moreover—and this is crucial—in both cases a decision to preserve one thing limits or even destroys the freedom to preserve others. In both cases, also, the underlying need that drives the enterprise is that without either a map or a translation nothing would be knowable; after all, you cannot give someone a miniature globe with all the details of the earth’s surface along with a powerful magnifying glass and tell her to use these to navigate her journey across New York, London or Delhi, any more than you can give her a poem by a Hungarian poet along with textbooks to learn Hungarian and expect her to be moved to tears—assuming she’s not a native Hungarian speaker, of course!

The similarity of the two enterprises speaks to the pervasiveness of an underlying point: in order to gain access to the world, we undertake an activity of representing it that necessarily involves destruction. We are forced to abandon any hope of seeing some things in order to see anything at all. Zafar’s perspective is bleak, on one level, but on another it could be read as epistemic humility, an acknowledgement of one of the kinds of constraints on our perception of the world and on our access to knowledge. There are several themes in the novel but its backbone is to do with the status and nature and limits of knowledge.

8. There are so many identities that you mention in your novel whether defined by religion, nationality or language. Even within one religion there are many sub-categories such as Wahhabi and Sunni Muslims; Coptic, Arabic and Pakistani Christians, Anglicans and Catholics. Would you say that In the Light of What we Know is exploring the concept of a “global or an immigrant” novel?

I remember walking into a famous independent bookshop in New York a few years ago and discovering that under fiction they had an “Asian writers” section, as well as other ethnically or regionally defined categories. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon. But it is impossible to criticize the bookshops themselves; the industry of bricks and mortar booksellers is under enormous strain, with outlets folding by the day, not to mention whole chains of stores. Bookshops are simply responding to customer demands and preferences; in an environment in which margins are being squeezed, there is little room to do anything but organize books in a way that caters to customer tastes and maximizes sales. Some are throwing in the towel and have transformed into cafés or gift shops in all but name; if they can flog you a book on your way out, that’s a bonus.

The geographic and cultural categories into which novels are placed, often by people, other than the author, assigning her an identity, is driven by a market that has become habituated to conceiving of literature in terms of these categories. The root of the problem is a word: novel. The novel is such an expansive menagerie, holding such varied beasts, that a taxonomy is inevitable because it is useful. But the expansiveness of the idea of a novel gives rise to all manner of problems. For instance, it means that two novels might be compared that are fundamentally incommensurable. The label novel is misleading. But the publishing industry needs it in order to widen the market for every book it promotes: You like novels? Well, here’s a novel. I suspect that your question has more to do with aspects of my own particular novel. But I think that the question is related to the business of book-selling. The publishing industry is slightly schizophrenic in a certain respect. Discussions about lofty ‘literature’ rarely include matters of publishing industry realities.  I understand this—in fact, a little part of me dies when I hear talk about the art of novels and the business of publishing in the same breath. But—to bring us to your question—it seems to me that the current taxonomies are not responsive to the changing world and our changing understanding of the world. What happens twelve time zones away has as much impact on us as something happening on our doorstep. The geographic, economic, and social scope of the particular world each of us inhabits is widening, the perceptual field broadening. To return to the taxonomy analogy, even biologists have been introducing new taxonomies of living things that reflect better understandings of relationships between organisms.

9. Post-9/11 there have been a number of novels tackling the issues of identity, cultural politics, and new geo-political orientations, with literary conversations dissecting the rise of the Muslim novelists. Yet In the Light of What we Know focuses on “conflicts” happening along various fault lines—in the world of finance, within marriages or on real battlefields. The frightening truth to emerge in your story is the sense of wrongs and injustices of history being repeated over and over again, going against the popular theory of one particular community being responsible for terrorism. Please comment.

Every general election anywhere seems to mark a turning point, we’re told. Or something is a landmark event. Every military surge is a new initiative that will turn back the tide. The consumption of news would fizzle out if it did not bear the sense that what is happening is new in the sense that it is bringing in change, is going to alter the way things are. We all like to plan—we can plan like no other animal—but our ability to plan goes hand in hand with an appetite to learn what’s new, what’s news, what might affect our plans. News media feeds this appetite endlessly and would do itself out of a living if its reports ran along the lines of, say: Such and such happened today and it’s terribly similar to what happened ten years ago and also to what happened forty years ago and everybody thought then that it was going to change everything but it didn’t.

There is hubris in regarding ours as the pivotal moment in history—a shocking hubris given that every age has thought this way—but it is vital to the sale of news to maintain this pretence. To see the repeated patterns may not actually make it easier to resolve the problems we now face—after all, the most common repeated pattern is one of failure—but I have wondered whether it would lead to a feeling of familiarity, which would have a calming effect, a sense that we are not at the edge of a precipice without parallel. Of course, this is a nightmare to those who rely on us feeling frightened all the time.

10. During the Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict, London (June 2014) the birangonas stories were not shared in the official programme; a silence that was marked by protests. Whereas in your novel there are many epigraphs drawing the reader’s attention to the Bangladeshi women raped during conflict. Please comment.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Tahmima Anam, the distinguished Bangladeshi novelist, has written evocatively about the plight of the Birangonas. But one finds oneself still asking: who is listening? Every aspect of the suffering that these women have been through at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators is stomach-churning. But it galls me to think that after rape and violence during the war many of them returned to communities that turned their backs on them.

11.  How would you define yourself? By the country of origin or domicile or a bit of both like Zafar who is perceived as “Anglo-Bangla”?

I am often asked where I’m from—in Europe, mainly because of my skin color, and in the US, mainly because of my British accent. I know that this is the case because in the US when I say that I was born in Bangladesh, nine times out of ten, an American probes further to get an explanation of the accent. But if, instead, I tell Americans that I grew up in the UK, there seem to be no further questions. I’m explaining this because nobody ever actually asks me to define myself; the question is invariably “Where are you from?” and behind that question there is a desire to have something specific resolved—why the skin color or accent? Nor do I myself ever stand in the mirror and ask: Zia, how do you define your identity? Identity, per se, has not been an issue I have felt a need to resolve. Does a lion need to know that it is called a lion?

That said, I have long sought a sense of belonging to a place, something lacking in my psyche. The insufficiency is not without its advantages, of course. I think it keeps one a little removed from things, which is a helpful vantage from which to observe. And this slight dislocation can make for interesting personal experiences. But the cost is brutal. Human beings need roots, perhaps not all humans, but I rather suspect it is the norm to attach to a piece of land, to the ground that will one day take us back.

12. You are represented by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie, a dream beginning for a debut author. How did this come to pass?

I was introduced to the agency by a mutual acquaintance. I have been lucky in many ways over the years beginning with the enormous good fortune of having access to healthcare and schooling and libraries and, at least after the first few years, to a decent meal every day, all the way through to the sheer luck of living in a place where university education did not require me or my family to bring resources of our own. If humanity cared enough about fairness, then luck of this kind would have no place in determining the fate of a child.

22 July 2014 

 

 

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

( My review of Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What we Know, has been published in the Hindu Literary Review on 6 July 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/two-worlds-apart/article6180418.ece . I am also c&p the text below.)

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanBefore 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed – not just noticed, but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? Was that the incidental effect of no longer being of a piece with the background of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation. ( p.20)

Many people do know quite a lot about Bangladesh. They happen to be living in the region. I don’t think Indians and Pakistanis are quite ignorant about Bangladesh as the people you have in mind, and they make up a fifth of the world.

What about writing for a Western audience? I asked.

Bridging two cultures?

Why not?

How well will a book about modern India sell to a Western audience, a  non-fiction book about this shocking economic trend-bucking phenomenon, if it were written by an Indian?

You could write against that, with one foot in the East and the other in the West. ( p. 320-1)

In the Light of What We Know is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first met as students at Oxford. Zafar is of Bangladeshi origin and his family is not very well off; unlike the narrator is from an affluent Pakistani family whose parents are academics, equally comfortable with the intelligentsia, politicians and high Society of New York as they are in Cambridge. The two friends after graduation went on to become bankers, soon to go their separate ways and lose touch with each other. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008. There are moments when the narrator supplements the information with extensive notes he has read in Zafar’s diaries. At times it seems to meander into digressions (also lengthy epigraphs and extensive footnotes) that are packed with discussions revolving around cartography and the quality of translations (“Both of them face the same problem, namely, that they cannot capture everything exactly and they have to give up some things in order to convey anything at all.”); about war, atrocities committed during conflicts, experiences of an insider ( irregular) dealings in trading derivatives with the bankers who were the brains of these operations becoming collateral damage,  discussions about philosophers such as Erich Fromm the Jewish German American philosopher, Western Classical music, science and mathematics such as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a theorem of mathematical logic about the impossibility of proving certain truths.

There is a story, albeit a thin one. It is about the relationship between two friends, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi, two nationalities, belonging to two different parts of society yet it is a sense of belonging to the Indian subcontinent that keeps them together. Otherwise they have very little in common. Urdu, spoken in Pakistan and by Zafar’s parents, is not the narrator’s “mother tongue” so they resort to using English. These young men are representative of their generation—a South Asian professional of the diaspora—a close attachment and understanding of their own history, but acquire the sophistication required to move with grace in different societies. Along the way these young men become intellectual jukeboxes with sufficient bytes of information and cultural titbits to be accepted in various pockets of the world. It is like being a participant of a cultural tsunami. They encounter people of other nationalities who are like them too—Arab Muslims, Wahabi, Sunni, Israeli and Russian, Pakistani Christians, Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Coptic Christians, Englishmen who were in the Burma War—who in all likelihood have an equally complicated mixed bag of religious, cultural and nationalistic considerations to think about.

Read In the Light of What We Know as a middle class reader of twenty-first century experimental literature. Have no expectations of it being a novel of the classical form—a structured, chronologically told, multi-layered story. It is not. It is probably a biography, but even the narrator is not quite sure what to term it—“current enterprise” or “present undertaking”. The Internet is creating a new kind of fiction where sections of a novel that would work very well as an independent digital long read are being embedded in the architecture of the printed story. Zia Haider Rahman’s first fiction is a sound example of South Asian literature becoming a global novel, not necessarily an immigrant novel. It is at the cusp of the Anglophone novel infused with the confidence and characteristic of South Asian literary fiction. It is unapologetic about its style and is best read like a stream of consciousness set in an absurd drama. The novel could have been reduced by at least 100 pages without any harm done, yet it is a forceful debut—definitely one of the new and promising writers of 2014.

6 July 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman In the Light of What We Know Picador India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. Pp. 560 Rs. 599 

Eimear McBride, “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”

Eimear McBride, “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”

Eimee McBrideOh my God I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell but most of all because they offend thee my God who are all good and deserving of all my love I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins to do penance and to amend my life. 

Life. Death. Amend your death. Amen. I go in. Is there any chair for me? No one. Holy sitting next to thee. And I. Excuse me. Move out of my way I’m. My brother. I get there. That one. Give me his chair. Thanks she says to him. I say nothing. Don’t dare look at me. ( p.186)

Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction 2014 was won by Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. The story is narrated by a young girl. She has an older brother who has been diagnosed with brain cancer. They are being brought up by their devout Catholic Irish mother. Their father has abandoned the family. The narrator and her brother are very close to each other. The story is also about the narrator’s relationship with her uncle, who rapes her when she is 13. It is also about her sexuality ( not necessarily promiscuous), tenuous relationship with her mother, but also about the tussle of a teenager with her Catholic upbringing.

It is a very powerful novel. But it is not at all surprising to hear that it took nearly a decade for Eimear McBride to find a publisher. It is an experimental novel, not necessarily in the content but the form of storytelling it adopts. The sentence structure mimics the Irish lilt; the best way to read the novel is in one fell swoop, preferably reading it out aloud. Listen to Eimear McBride reading an extract from it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siKw6xpfSZk s . It takes a while to get into the novel, but once in, it is unputdownable. It is also  disturbing to read. 

It was Eimear McBride’s good fortune that she had bookseller Henry Layte believe in her book. She showed him the manuscript at his Book Hive bookstore. Her novel had been rejected umpteen times by publishers. A decade. Then she showed it to Henry Layte, for his newly established indie press, Galley Beggar Press.  ( http://www.thebookseller.com/news/bookseller-henry-layte-discovering-mcbride.html  ) He liked the experimental novel and decided to publish it. According to The Bookseller report of 6 June 2014, “Galley Beggar Press, formed by Layte and two of his bookshop customers, Guardian books journalist Sam Jordison and his wife, writer Eloise Millar, was established to “publish titles with potential that bigger publishers have shied away from taking a risk on.” From this perspective, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was bang-on brief.” This was in 2010. On 17 March 2014, it was announced that Faber&Faber would partner with Galley Beggar to publish the mass market paperback edition of the novel. By then the novel had won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize  and the Kerry Prize, it was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize and Desmond Elliot Prize too. After the Irish author won the Bailey Prize, Faber announced it would be publishing 25,000 copies.

A novel worth reading, if you have the appetite for experimentation.

Here are some links worth viewing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1YkrS7rcC4 Meet the judges: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XRg0Fa1XT8  Eimear McBride Wins 2014 Kerry Prizehttp://www.elleuk.com/magazine/book-club/interview-with-baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-winner-author-eimear-mcbride-2014#image=1 5 minutes with Eimear McBride

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/05/eimear-mcbride-serious-readers-challenged-baileys-womens-prize Eimear McBride: ‘There are serious readers who want to be challenged’

Eimear McBride A Girl is a Half-formed Thing Faber & Faber, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 210. Rs. 450.

24 June 2014 

 

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Arctic Summer, AlephThe closer he came to those caves, the more he began to falter. He knew that something took place in the dark, a sexual attack across racial lines. The caves held that kind of power. But it wasn’t simply a question of the action; it was what the action arose from — what it meant. The problem was fundamental. No matter how he tried it, the words sat on top of the deed; they had no soil and no roots. There was something wrong with how he had imagined it, something essentially dishonest and out of balance, and as his narrative crept toward the threshold, the rock refused to open for him. ( p.142)

E. M. Forster is known for his novels Howards End and A Passage to India. He also left an unfinished novel Arctic Summer. He began writing it in 1909 but it was never published. More than a century later, South African writer, Damon Galgut has written a fictional biography of E. M. Forster. He says, “I have used actual dialogue recorded by Forster ( and others) in letters or diaries, I have sometimes altered the words a little, on the assumption that nobody recalls conversations, even their own, with complete certainty.”

Arctic Summer begins with a journey that Forster makes to India in October 1912. He was following a young Indian whom he had met in England — Syed Ross Masood, associated with the Aligarh Muslim University. The book is a well-researched account of E. M. Forster’s life, his search for love, living under the shadow of his mother even though he was beginning to be recognised as a successful author. Yet the novel is written so gently and with a great deal of sensitivity, it is also difficult to distinguish between the real and imagined worlds, a credit to Damon Galgut’s fine craftsmanship.

A bio-fic is one of the best ways to know a historical period, apart from getting to know the protagonist/figure intimately. It is probably one of the most demanding genres to be dabbling in. The author has to do extensive research to get the facts right, then creatively build a story, suitable for contemporary readers, bordering on historical fiction but focused upon one person ( in this case Forster) to carry the story forward. Prior to Arctic Summer the seminal biography of Forster was written by P. N. Furbank ( whom Damon Galgut met as well). Arctic Summer though accurate about many details of Forster’s life tends to make details public about his homosexual relationships than probably Forster would not want to acknowledge so openly; though many of his close friends knew of these liaisons.  Maybe Damon Galgut has the good fortune of being able to write Arctic Summer at a point of time when conversations about same-sex relationships are recognised and being discussed regularly in society, albeit some people continue to view such alliances with hostility, anger and outrage. So to take a respected author such as Forster, to discuss his sexual life as being an inextricable part of his career ( since for love he travelled to India the first time), Damon Galgut has taken on a bold aspect of Forster’s life — homosexuality— and created a fantastic story. It is also appropriate to publish Arctic Summer in 2014 when there is  a flood of literature on World War I; this will be top of that heap, probably even on the list of some literary awards. 

Damon Galgut Arctic Summer Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 360 Rs. 595

Tara Dairman “All Four Stars”

Tara Dairman “All Four Stars”

allfourstars_finalGladys Gatsby is an eleven year old who has been cooking gourmet dishes since she was five. Her parents have not a clue even when she nearly burns the kitchen down while making creme brulee using a discarded blow torch found in the garage. Instead her parents ban her from the kitchen urging her to engage in activities more appropriate for her age like playing on the tablet and surfing the internet. Soon she finds an opportunity to pay for the damages and indulge in her passion by becoming a freelance restaurant critic for a well known New York newspaper.

All Four Stars is well-written, light and funny. The excitement that Gladys has at spotting a Larousse Gastronomique at her neighbour’s or savouring samosas and gajjar ka halwa at her friend Parminder Singh’s home are palpable. ( All though Sikh women are only referred to as ‘Kaur’ not ‘Singh’ which is reserved for men.) The novel does not get weary with adults interfering or sermonising too much. They are not monsters. The other characters in the books like Mr Eng and his wonderful store of exotic food ingredients, Miss Quincy the new teacher, the friendly neighbour Sandy Anderson,  the obnoxious and spoilt rich girl Charissa Bentley with a soft corner for delicious desserts, and her two girlfriends — Rolanda Royce and Marti Astin are equally entertaining.

All Four Stars is Tara Dairman’s debut novel. It has been brewing for ten years. It is due to be released in July 2014 with the sequel scheduled for 2015. It is book that will be enjoyed by young and older readers. It will be published by G. B. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group, USA.

 

Saba Imtiaz “Karachi you’re killing me!”

Saba Imtiaz “Karachi you’re killing me!”

Saba Imtiaz“The literature festival is one of Karachi’s biggest cultural events, so everyone turns up. It’s free, there’s the chance to meet authors, listen to poetry, discuss books and get into long, passionate arguments that aren’t fuelled by alcohol. If only it wasn’t for the blasted diplomants who turn up in droves: every year, the organizers of the festival schedule at least two — or five — sessions on Afghanistan or Kashmir so it becomes ‘newsy’. And the diplomats always up a chunk of money, which means we have to sit through their unending speeches at the opening ceremony, which usually feature a variation of this quote: ‘Reading and books are how we will defy the extremists who want to destroy our way of life.’ 

( p. 48 Karachi you’re killing me!)

Ayesha is a reporter with Daily News where she “reports on everything from cupcake bakeries to clashes between warring gangs”. Kamran is her boss and owner of the newspaper; not exactly a brilliant pay master. Ayesha has a tight circle of friends which includes Zara, a reporter with Morning News TV and Saad an old friend, confidante and companion. Karachi you’re killing me! is told from Ayesha’s perspective, written in the diary format but not exactly so. The time span is less than five months. It moves at a trot, without ever getting tedious or fluffy. Karachi you’re killing me! may be loosely modeled on Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones but the similarity ends with a young workaholic heroine who is pining for her young Lochinvar. Saba Imtiaz has written a delightful story — it makes you chuckle and gurgle with its descriptions and tongue-in-cheek remarks.  The ease with which Ayesha flits in and out of different parts of Karachi society, the social and political milieu while trudging through the streets and in government hospitals, in search of stories is a constant reminder not only of the tough life a young reporter has, but also of the volatile mix of violence, politics, conservatism co-exist with an extremely hep, sophisticated younger generation. Ayesha, Zara, Saad and even Kamran negotiate these spaces deftly on a daily basis with some funny and some sobering tales to share.

A gorgeous debut. 

Saba Imtiaz Karachi you’re killing me! Random House India, Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 270. Rs. 299. Ebook available.