The New York Times 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 

 

David J. Garrow “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”

Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014,  )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”

Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).  But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies.  In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence it is easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the  “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.

The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.

Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.

David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799

28 June 2017

David Duchovny, “Holy Cow”

Holy Cow…My editor told me if I add some sex, curses, and maybe some potty humour, this will sell better to my “audience”. I don’t know who my audience is. I want everybody to hear this story, but my editor says human adults won’t take a talking animal seriously…So she’s gonna market it as a kids’ book. Which is fine by me, I like kids, but then she says, “Adults are gonna read this book to their kids so you have to sprinkle little inside jokes along the way with some allusions to pop culture from the last thirty years so they don’t get too bored. …”  ( p. 29)
 
David Duchovny’s debut novel, Holy Cow, is about Elsie Bovary ( a cow), Shalom, formerly known as Jerry ( a pig who has converted to Judaism) and Tom ( a turkey). These anthropomorphic animals are living happily together on a farm, when for personal reasons they decide to escape. It is a memoir dictated by Elsie to her editor at a secret location. Elsie discovers that most cows end their lives in an abbatoir, so wants to go to India where cows are revered, Shalom is keen to visit Israel and Tom wants to go to Turkey. This motley group of friends manage to buy airline tickets online and go off on international travel. Along the way, Shalom manages to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict and is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

It took about twelve hours for Shalom and Tom to descend from the silly sky. But that’s the thing, you can’t just stay high. What goes up must come down. I had spent a long time dreaming of India, it’s true. But I’m not upset that India didn’t turn out the way I had planned, didn’t in the end  match up with my dream India. Without my vision of a dream India, I never would have gone anywhere, never would have had any adventures at all. So I guess it’s not so important that dreams come true, it’s just important you have a dream to begin with, to get you to take your first steps. ( p.203)  

According to David Duchovny, this story began as an idea for an animation film. He pitched it to Disney and Pixar,  but it was rejected. This was ten years ago. Plus he was always keen to visit India. Finally he was persuaded by Jonathan Galassi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux to write it as a novel. David Duchovny studied English Literature at Princeton and Yale where he submitted a thesis on Beckett called “The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett’s Early Novels”. But as he said in his NYT interview, he likes fooling around with words. He likes language, “more Joycean, although that will sound really pretentious.”

Holy Cow may be a bildungsroman in the guise of a fable for children, but it really does not matter. It is a story that is smart. This is going to achieve cult status for its zaniness, sharp wit and intelligent irreverence with which it takes on “serious issues” such as religion, politics, conflict, animal slaughter, and vegetarian/vegan debates.  The storytelling is pithy, with the dialogue moving at a crackling good pace. As David Duchovny said in an interview to Kirkus, “Years of acting had made me sensitive to dialogue.” The illustrations by Natalya Balnova are perfect. Read it.

Holy Cow novel, UK website: http://www.holycownovel.co.uk/

Elsie on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HolyCowNovel

David Duchovny interviewed by Kirkus: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/tv/video/kirkus-tv-david-duchovny/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=image&utm_campaign=020315

Interviews in the New York Times ( 30 Jan 2015) : http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/magazine/david-duchovny-i-like-fooling-around-with-words.html?_r=0  and LA Times ( 30 Jan 2015): http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-david-duchovny-20150201-story.html#page=1

Reviews from The Guardian ( 4 February 2015): http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/04/holy-cow-david-duchovny-review and Washington Post ( 3 February 2015): http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/actor-david-duchovnys-first-novel-holy-cow-is-a-madcap-fable-about-growing-up/2015/02/03/7638c694-a8b2-11e4-a06b-9df2002b86a0_story.html and Huffington Post ( 3 February 2015): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/02/david-duchovny-book_n_6598702.html?ir=India

David Duchovny Holy Cow Headline, London, 2015. 

5 February 2015

Press Release, Literary event, Embassy of Ireland, India ( 16 Oct 2014)

Press Release, Literary event, Embassy of Ireland, India ( 16 Oct 2014)

Press Release

(L-R) Paro Anand, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amandeep Sandhu, Samanth Subramanian and H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

(L-R) Paro Anand, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amandeep Sandhu, Samanth Subramanian and H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

On Thursday, 16 Oct 2014, H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin of Ireland hosted a literary soiree at his residence. It was organized to commemorate the centenary of World War I.  The event consisted of an exhibition on the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”. The panelists were three Indian authors/journalists—Paro Anand, Samanth Subramanian and Amandeep Sandhu and the discussion was moderated by Ambassador McLaughlin. Ambassador of Ireland Feilim McLaughlin said the event was intended to explore the role of the writer in portraying or interpreting conflict, drawing parallels between the experience in Ireland and South Asia. The evening was curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

Panel discussion on "Conflict and Literature", moderated by H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

Panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

It was a one-of-a-kind evening with the lovely ambience and Irish music playing in the background. The three panelists were authors who had lived, worked with or interviewed persons in conflict zones in different parts of South Asia. Their personal stories and reading of relevant portions from their published works were straight from the heart. The invitees were handpicked. The three Indian authors who spoke were Paro Anand whose YA novel No Guns at My Son’s Funeral is being turned into a film; Amandeep Sandhu, author of the critically acclaimed testimonial fiction Roll of Honour and Samanth Subramanian who has recently published The Divided Island, reportage from Sri Lanka. The select audience were mesmerized silent by the readings and interaction ofAt the Irish Embassy, New Delhi. 16 Oct 2014 the authors. Several shed a tear or two. Most had a lump in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences hit a raw chord in many, especially those with a background or family from Partition, ’84 riots and communal conflicts. Author, Dr Kimberley Chawla says, “In this day and age, one tends to forget or ignore conflict past or present that may be occurring just a few hundred kilometres away, but it continues to be relevant. This literary event brought it right back home and reminded all present how lucky we were to have what we have and that we or our families managed to survive.” Many in the audience were seen congratulating the Irish embassy for pulling off such a topic which actually left the audience sentimental and empathic and there were no accusatory or aggressively political arguments or comparisons with other countries.  Remarkably there was pin drop silence throughout the event.

Keki Daruwalla, Novelist, Poet and Chairperson, DSC Literature Prize 2014: “I feel it was a very fine evening. The Ambassador Mr. Feilim McLaughlin had done his homework. (One normally doesn’t see Their Excellencies getting into the nitty-gritty of a cultural event). The mix was perfect with Paro Anand speaking of the handicapped children. It was very moving. Amandeep Sandhu spoke of 1984. Wish he had read more from his book.”

M. A. Sikandar, Director, NBT ( National Book Trust of India) “A wonderful evening with Authors who highlighted the flip side if real India. I amazed by the intense of reading by these authors who are from diverse background and culture. Credit goes to the Irish Ambassador and Jaya.”

Paro Anand : “Trying to make sense of a long ago war through today’s conflicts brought three writers together. IN the peace of Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave, we wove words of wars and conflicts that do and don’t belong to us….each telling of our engagement with wars without as much as within. It was a journey that none of us would choose to make, but most of us have to.”

Amandeep Sandhu: “it was a brilliant evening curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose and hosted by the Irish Ambassador. I loved that I could meet and converse with a variety of writers, artists and people. I hope we have more such events in which we can discuss art and literature which is relevant to our times.”

Samanth Subramanian: “The event was a wonderful way to discuss the specificities of some conflicts, with the knowledge throughout that all conflicts have so much that in common. Even as we remember the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, we find its themes playing out in the world around us today.”

For more information, please contact:

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com

 *****

The featured panellists:

Paro Anand is one of India’s top writers. Best known for her writings for young adults, she has always pushed boundaries and challenged preconceived notions of the limits of writings for young people. She has been described as a fearless writer with a big heart. She works extensively for young people in difficult circumstances, especially with orphans of separatist violence in Kashmir. Using literature as a creative outlet, she provided a platform for the traumatized young to express their grief in ways that they had been unable to before. This release gave them the ability to move beyond and look into their future, instead of staying frozen in their very violent past. One of the over-riding feelings she came away with was the need to tell these stories to a wider audience and thus bring the alienated back into the mainstream consciousness.

Samanth Subramanian is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has written op-eds and reportage for the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and book reviews and cultural criticism for the New Republic, the Guardian and Book forum. His first book, a collection of travel essays titled “Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast,” was published in India in 2010 and in the United Kingdom in 2013. “Following Fish” won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Andre Simon Book Award in 2013. Subramanian received a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. He has lived in the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, the United States and Sri Lanka. “This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War,” his second book, was published in July.

Amandeep Sandhu is currently a Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany (2013-15) working on his third novel which deals with how art shapes the historiography of a land. His Master of Arts, English Literature (1994-96) was from the University of Hyderabad and Diploma in Journalism (1997-98) from the Asian School of Journalism. In the late 1990s he was a journalist with The Economic Times. He has been a Technical Writer with top Information Technology companies for more than a decade: Novell, Oracle and Cadence Design systems. Over the last few years he has been actively reviewing books for The Hindu, The Asian Age, The Indian Express, BusinessWorld and writing a column in Tehelka on issues related to Punjab.

21 Oct 2014

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. (p.30)

I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed. ( p.153)

Akhil Sharma, Family Lif eFamily Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel. It took nearly a decade to write, but the wait has been well worth it. Family Life is about his family moving to America in mid-1970s. Unfortunately his brother with a promising future, hit his head n a swimming pool, and slipped in to a coma. This incident changed the life of the family.

It is a stunning novel. Not a spare word is used. The flashbacks  to their time spent in India are recorded faithfully, yet referred to in such a manner that an international reader would not get lost. For instance a description from his early days in America recounts how they received ads on coloured paper in their mailbox regularly. But “in India coloured paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint.” It is rare to find a writer of Indian origin who writes painfully accurately on what it means to be an Indian living in America. He captures the bewilderment and confusion marvellously and it is not necessarily having the god men visit them at home, in the hope of looking for a cure for his sick brother. It is in everyday life.

It is a pleasure to read Family Life since it tells a story, also observes and analyses in a matter-of-fact tone. Yet the clarity of writing, the manner in which it resonates with the reader, does not always mask the anguish and torment Akhil Sharma must have put himself through, to write this brilliant book. And then I read  this article he wrote in The New York Times, “The Trick of Life” where talks about the agonizing experience of writing this novel:     http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/the-trick-of-life.html .  Well it was worth it.

It is a novel worth reading.

Here are a few more related links:

9ihttp://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jan/9701fict/sharma.htm ( “Cosmopolitan”, short story, The Atlantic, 1997)

http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/akhil-sharma-when-despair-and-tenderness-collide/

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/book-review-podcast-akhil-sharmas-family-life/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/akhil-sharma-on-writing-family-life.html&mbid=social_twitter

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/01/this-week-in-fiction-akhil-sharma.html

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/akhil-sharma/

http://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/blog/2014/4/tender-and-funny-em-family-life-em-by-akhil-sharma

On 20 June 2014, it was included in a list of the 54 best novels from India published by Brunch, Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/greatest-indian-novels-ever-part-i/article1-1231662.aspx The jury members were Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.

Akhil Sharma Family Life Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499