South Asia Posts

An interview with Bina Shah on her feminist dystopic novel “Before She Sleeps”

Before She Sleeps is Pakistani writer Bina Shah’s fifth novel. ( On Twitter: @binashah ) It is about an “illegal” commune of women who reside in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Green City. Their space is called Panah which in Persian means shelter. These women are led by a leader, Lina, and only appear under the cover of darkness. They survive by paying their bills in cryptocurrency with purchases usually made on the black market. Their business is to offer platonic cuddles to male clients in Green City but it is all to be kept under wraps otherwise the “Agency” will hunt them down. The story revolves mostly around twenty-four-year-old Sabine who has been living in Panah since she was seventeen.

The premise for Before She Sleeps is so plausible since it seems much of it already exists if we search long and hard. None of this is really fiction, it’s only pushing the boundaries of truth or reality as we know it today a little further. The Panah can be a metaphor for the silent community women tend to form together even in the most public of spaces with one or two looked up to as guides/mentors. This bonding happens amongst strangers too. Sometimes it is fleeting, sometimes more permanent. Though the dark side of the viciousness of women towards other women too exists.

The relevance of Before She Sleeps with references to “rare whales and giant turtles that had been cloned back into existence”. More so given recent news coming in of 40,000-year-old worms being revived to life. Or “All beef, eggs, in fact anything natural, is created in a lab with synthetic polymers, proteins, DNA.” as news trickles in of meat being manufactured in labs.

Yet the further one reads Before She Sleeps the sense that the story is an excuse for the author’s personality and beliefs that run deep through, definitely more in this book than any of the previous novels Bina Shah wrote. Before She Sleeps will become her transitional work in her oeuvre in time to come. It’s the channelling of herself into a new kind of writer, one who does not abandon her past but looks ahead firmly taking along with her all the recent socio-political experiences accrued. The gender violence evident in the discrimination towards women (otherwise why would there be such a shortage of women in the city?), the persistent patriarchal constructs of social rules of engagement, the very recognisable authoritarian figures in most of the male characters even the nameless ones like Rupa’s “father” who tries to rape her are symptomatic of her simmering rage against the horrors that perpetrated towards women continuously. There is undeniably something different in this novel as compared to her early works. Take for example the section on recipes. “When I found the cookbook, it’s spidery, ethereal handwriting already fading from the pages, I wanted desperately to save it’s contents, if not it’s form. Our mothers, aunts, grandmothers live only in representations of their lives as we, their daughters, try to re-create them.” This is not an off-the-cuff observation by a novelist but it is a sharp observation by Bina, the woman, the thinker, the opinion maker, who has been mulling on this truth for a very long time. In her correspondence with me, Bina Shah says “Unfortunately I think what caused that beyond a doubt was the assassination of my friend Sabeen Mahmud. Suddenly everything because so much more intense, grief-filled, and serious, when I was writing the novel back in 2015. I poured all my emotions about her death – anger, grief, fear, helplessness – into the book, into Sabine’s thoughts.”

Before She Sleeps is an important addition to the rapidly expanding science fiction literature from South Asia and increasingly from the Middle East.

*****

Bina Shah has recently become a regular contributor to the International New York Times. She is a Pakistani writer who is a frequent guest on the BBC. She has contributed essays to GrantaThe Independent, and The Guardian and writes a monthly column for Dawn, the top English-language newspaper in Pakistan. She holds degrees from Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is an alumna of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Workshop. Her novel Slum Child was a bestseller in Italy, and she has been published in English, Spanish, German and Italian. A Season for Martyrs is her U.S. debut. She lives in Karachi.

  1. “No citizen is permitted to write or maintain a personal journal or diary” Is the crux of this dystopia is it not? Women need these private spaces to share their thoughts but you take it away they are walking bombs, ready to explore at any moment. This is reality. How and why did you devise this horrific rule?

A regime doesn’t want witnesses to its horrors, and diaries and journals are specific forms of resistance. I was thinking of the diary of Anne Frank, but also the diary that Malala Yousufzai kept under the Taliban and published in the BBC as Gul Makkai. They are historical records as much as personal accounts, and most authoritarian regimes don’t want evidence of the crimes they’ve perpetrated on their victims.

2. How and why did you start thinking of Before She Sleeps especially when the modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be published and now exists on television too?

I wrote a short story called “Sleep” which became the first chapter of my novel, back in 2006. I added to it until it became about 100 pages long. Then I left it in a drawer, thinking it was a ridiculous premise and I couldn’t execute it. I took the short story to a literature festival in Copenhagen in 2013, and when I read it to the audience, the poet Warsan Shire, who was also there, told me that I had to turn it into a novel. I listened to her, and started working on it in 2014, long before the television series came out. The Handmaid’s Tale was not much of an influence on my work. 1984 by George Orwell was much more on my mind in the devising of such an authoritarian regime. But also the dictatorships that I have lived under in Pakistan, and those of secular dictators in Middle Eastern countries, as well as repressive Islamist regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

3. Isn’t this novel quite a shift for you in the stories you select to tell though the strong women remain the focal point? 

It’s a change in genre which was risky and quite frightening for me as a writer. It’s easier and more comfortable to stick with what you have always been doing. But it represented a huge challenge and I decided to give it a try.

4. Has your maintaining the Feminstani blog and writing for papers like The New York Times informed your writing style for novels? Do you notice a shift in the way you present material?

I don’t write the same way in a novel as I do in my blog or my journalism. The writing I do for fiction is more poetic, more musical, more laden with references to other texts, literary (poetry and prose), artwork, religion (there are Quranic references, influences from Sufism, Islamic philosophy), and politics and history. It’s much more creative than my blog or my journalism can ever be.

 5. “My fear is an animal I can’t hide”. Isn’t this true of all women? 

It’s true of all humans sometimes.

6. Why choose the first person narrative to tell this story for Sabine and third person for the others?

Only Sabine has the first person narrative and that is to make you feel more close to her. It’s more intimate. The others are all told in third person. I wanted to distinguish Sabine from the other narrators, make you feel more invested in her story. I needed both men and women to lend their voices to this narrative, to show the effects of the regime on both genders. I’m making the argument that a world without the female gender is an unbalanced world, and hurts everyone. Most proponents of male domination don’t seem to understand that at all.

7. Is this your first spec-fic book? How did you invent terms like “currency stick”, genetic switch chips, virtual tunnels on the Deep Web, memory slips, and thought-to-device to name a few innovations mentioned? 

It’s my first speculative fiction, dystopian book. I never imagined I’d write one. I made up those technologies that you mention. Others, like lab-made meat, or cloned animals, seemed a logical extension of the science we have already, although I did write about them long before they came into the news.

8. How much research this novel require?

A lot! I did a lot of research on the science, since several of the main characters are scientists. I also researched the geographical area I was writing about. I travelled to Dubai several times to observe the landscape, the buildings. And I was caught in a huge dust storm the likes of which I’ve never seen in my life. It appears in a seminal scene in the book as a kind of deus ex machina.

9. “Sometimes I’m seized by sorrow at the position we’re all in, how fragile our inner safeguards against the betrayals that can happen to us in many ways, internal and external.” Why do I get the impression that this is a lament by Sabine not just for the immediate story but by you as well at a larger level too?  

It seems a fairly self-evident observation about the world. I’m sure all of us have felt this way at least once in our lives.

10. What is the short story that this novel grew out of? Is it available online? 

No, it’s not available online, it was only published in Denmark by a boutique publisher in a very limited edition. Sorry – but this one is miles better!

Buy the hardback and Kindle edition on Amazon India.

14 August 2018 

 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni “Before We Visit the Goddess”

ChitraOne day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my  hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away. … That’s what it really means to be a fortunate lamp. 

Before We Visit the Goddess is Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. Simply put it is in the fashionable mould of contemporary fiction to have a five-generation saga. It predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women — Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakurni’s novels are the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories every woman experiences and the cultural differences of living in India and USA.

To her credit Divakurni creates charmingly and deceptively “simple” women-centric novels. A utopian scenario is never presented which focuses only upon women at the exclusion of any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly develop their strong personalities. For instance, it could be timid homemaker Bela’s insistence of taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise winning. With the earnings she established a sweet shop in her mother’s name — Durga Sweets. Or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbour, Kevin, who by just being a good person helps her to establish herself as a food blogger successfully. Even bright Tara who disappears from her family’s life after her parents divorce except for a stray phone call or two has quite an adventurous decade. It includes working at a secondhand store called Nearly New Necessities, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs for being a kleptomaniac, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive” or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Pearland to equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. Yet what is admirable about these women is despite the humiliations and hardships they have borne, they strive on.

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without blunting or sentimentalising any of the experiences. For instance the hurt and pain of the young Bela is searing. So is the loneliness, whimsical and wretched behaviour of Leelamoyi, her wealthy benefactress. As with many successful writers they evolve with each book written. In Divakurni’s case her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but in this sixteenth book the inter-generational differences are created magnificently. Her book is also timely for it being published when a debate rages in USA whether to replace the word “India” with “South Asia” in school history textbooks. According to New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.” ( 4 May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/us/debate-erupts-over-californias-india-history-curriculum.html?_r=0 ) Whereas Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s books elegantly examine identity — what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi. In Before We Visit the Goddess young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians– not ABCD any more but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had for generations. So a posting in this country is as much of an exciting new adventure as it is for anyone else visiting India for the first time.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s stories are ageing gracefully with her. Read Before We Visit the Goddess. 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

8 May 2016

 

Chhimi Tenduf-La, “Panther”

Chhimi Tenduf-LaSri Lanka is such a beautiful country. We have it all; the beaches, the history, the hills, the heritage, the food, the smiling faces, the hospitality — and now the peace. I am getting used to this. I think I can move on. …I call up some old friends; Gish and Gayan ( Sinhalese Buddhists), Khuzi (Muslim), Gajen ( Tamil Hindu), and Shoban ( mixed-race Christian). All different, but all very similar. All just young guys, enjoying life, enjoying peace. 

My batting technique is still strong, so the boys encourage me to take up cricket professionally. I am not too old, I know it, but do I have the heart? Is it my calling? Can I use my experience to make a difference, like one of the greatest cricketers of all time, Kumar Sangakkara? He said, ‘I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.’

Chhimi Tenduf-La’s second novel, Panther, is a cross between young adult fiction and a war novel. It is not necessarily because of the story plot and it being set in Sri Lanka, but it is also the style of writing. It has the gritty, bold experimentation in narrative, character sketches and issues often seen contemporary young adult fiction. At the same time it has the urgency and inexplicable situations often seen in war novels, surprisingly always taken in one’s stride since bizarreness is a way of life in war torn areas. So the explosively weird beginning to the novel where Prabu’s family is scattered, after which he is admitted to a posh private school given his wonderful cricketing skills is surreal, yet plausible — after all it is a society being reconstructed after civil strife.

As is common with a lot of contemporary South Asian literature there are intense conversations about identity. But it is not just about the conversations, it is the literary landscapes explored in novels like Panther  making it very clear that despite extreme fundamentalist forces in South Asia preferring to identifying a nation with a particular socio-religious entity, they are simply unable to make sufficient fissures in the community.  Panther has plenty of frank, honest and open conversations about religion, identities, attitudes — a characteristic trait of young adult fiction. It is perfect that the novel revolves around cricket, the national pastime game in many South Asian countries. Another aspect that sets this novel apart from contemporary Sri Lankan literature is the boldness with which it makes no qualms about identifying communities and mixed-races of the individuals. It plots places and people on a very real landscape unveiling the rich complexity of the nation rather than leaving it vaguely as a story about war-torn Sri Lankan, predominantly a conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese with some Buddhists too.

Chhimi Tenduf-La is half-English and half-Tibetan who grew up in Hong Kong, London, New Delhi and Colombo. He now lives in Colombo with his family.

Read Panther.

Chhimi Tenduf-La Panther Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, NOIDA, India. Pb.pp. 270 Rs 299

18 September 2015 

A conversation with Prajwal Parajuly

A conversation with Prajwal Parajuly

The Gurkha's daughterI first heard about Prajwal Parajuly in winter 2012. He had the book launch of his short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, in December 2012. He was being discussed as a new author to watch out for. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, world’s largest literary prize for young writers. It was extraordinary that his debut as a writer was marked by a collection of short stories. To top it he had signed a two-book deal with Quercus in London, UK and then launched in India by Penguin India. ( Quercus are known as the English-language publishers of Steig Larsson.) It is understood that he has sold the rights to his books in twenty-six countries, a dream run that any debut author would be pleased to have. In 2014, Prajwal Parajuly has already launched his novel, Land where I flee, and is promoting the book extensively in South Asia, USA and UK. Every time Prajwal and I meet, we have intense discussions about writing and publishing, but this conversation was conducted via email. 

prajwal-parajuly-land-where-i-flee1.  How do you visualise your stories? Do you create back stories or does an idea grip you? 

I don’t visualise my stories. I really don’t. I have tried doing it in the past, but the characters do crazy things and the plot sprouts wings of its own. I sit down to write and things happen. Wow, I am so pretentious. Ha.

2.  During one of our conversations about writers and writing, you mentioned that you write of the “very ordinary”, which may be true, but the detailing is minute. Do you take extensive notes while meeting and observing people or does storytelling come naturally to you?

No, I don’t. I am not one of those writers who think about writing every second. I am so far removed from writing most of the time that it never occurs to me to take notes. Observing people and their idiosyncrasies comes naturally to me – I don’t even ‘feel’ myself doing it – as I am sure it does to a lot of writers.

3.  In the recent article in New Statesmen “What use is Gross Domestic Happiness to Bhutan’s 106,000 global refugees?” ( http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2014/02/what-use-gross-domestic-happiness-bhutans-106000-global-refugees) you are not referred to as a successful author but someone who writes about “about Nepali-speaking people – the Nepalis of India, Nepal and Bhutan”. Isn’t this identity exactly what defines your writing?

Well, for now, yes. I am two books old, and both my books have been about the Nepali-speaking world. Perhaps my third book will be different? I don’t know.

4.  When and why did a copywriter, based in NYC, opt to write best-selling fiction? 

I wasn’t a copywriter. I was an advertising account executive. I am impulsive by nature. The job was fun in the beginning, but do it for three years, and you want to do more exciting things. Also, the idea of returning home was appealing at that time. It helped that I was gradually forgetting how to read and write in Nepali – that reads dramatic, but it once took me 45 minutes to read what I’d have normally done in 15. Writing just happened. I had traveled a bit and didn’t know what to do with my life. Telling the world I was working on a book meant I was semi-okay and not frittering my life away.

5.  What do you think is lacking in contemporary writing in, about and from the northeast and Nepal that makes your fiction and voice stand out so distinctly?

I don’t think there’s anything lacking. English writing from the northeast and Nepal continues to grow. Perhaps one reason I stood out was – and this has nothing to do with how good or bad a writer I am – because I garnered a lot of  (undeserved) press even before the books came out. That’s how it is in India – we still look at the West for approval. Had mine not been a multi-country book deal, chances are I’d have received very little press. So, yes, I stood out even before my books came out – I doubt my voice and fiction had anything to do with it.

6.  Your short stories and novel are linked yet can be read independent of each other. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen? Also which came first in creation – The Gurkha’s Daughter or Land where I flee?

Yes, there are very, very minor links – so insignificant that the novel can survive without the references to the characters in the short-story collection. I call it my attempt to nudge-nudge-wink-wink at a very serious reader. I thought it would be fun. The Gurkha’s Daughter was written before Land Where I Flee.

7.   You have done a master’s in creative writing course from Oxford. Do you think it helps an author to enroll in at least one course while writing? Are these of any help?

It depends on your personality and the nature of the course. I joined my course because there was nothing to do. My course helped me become a better poet, a mediocre screenwriter (I knew nothing about screenwriting when I started the course) – which made me a better writer of fiction. And I didn’t have to go to class every day – definitely my favorite thing about the course.

8.   What next? Will it be more fiction about Nepali-speaking people or will you explore fiction? 

So many plans. Phew. I am tired of writing about the Nepali-speaking world, but I am tempted to write a sequel to the stories in The Gurkha’s Daughter. Or a Land Where I Flee prequel. Or a children’s book. Or an American-campus-based novel. I will be on tour almost all of this year. After I get done with the promotion of Land Where I Flee in India, the UK, South Africa and Ireland, I need to go to America, where The Gurkha’s Daughter comes out in June.

9.   Is it fair to ask if there are any autobiographical elements in these two books? Is Ruthwa loosely based upon your experiences as an author?

Ruthwa isn’t who I am, but some of his experiences are what I experienced as an author. When I was writing Land Where I Flee – which I did once the book deal happened and triggered a media frenzy – I’d often lie awake wondering what would happen if the same media declared I wasn’t worth the hype. That’s how Ruthwa’s character came about. I wouldn’t be very comfortable writing about my family the way Ruthwa does, though. I don’t understand the entire ‘your-first-book-is-almost-always-about-your-life-and-family’ claptrap. I lead too dull a life for it to translate into a good book.

10. Your fascination by strong women characters, is that a conscious choice made in writing? 

Female characters, especially strong women, are fun to write. I am tired of reading about the veiled, subservient Indian grandma.

11.  Your novel is one of the recent publications that seems to work like a novel and not with chapters in it that can work as “long reads” online. While drafting Land where I flee who was your ideal reader? The online or print reader?

I still don’t visualise an online reader. This is the first time someone has asked me this question. Interesting. Have writers begun thinking about whether they will be read online or print? Should I be mindful of it? Perhaps not.

4 March 2014