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Interview with Flemish writer Gaea Schoeters

(c) Author photograph: Annelies Van Parys.

This interview with Gaea Schoeters has been facilitated by the European Union Prize for Literature.

I am posting snippets of my correspondence with Gaea as it would give readers an insight into how mind blowing her writing is.

Dear Gaea,

I like how you quote Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One of my all-time favourite books. 

Yet, I made many false starts with The Trophy. It is a very discomforting novel. The rhino charge is very real and it brought back memories for me. I was once in the Kaziranga Sanctuary, Assam with my father. The sanctuary was closed because of the monsoon, but we had been given access by the forest department. As a result, the place was devoid of tourists. It was quiet and lovely and my dad, who is an avid photographer, asked for the jeep to halt at one point, so as to take some pictures. As soon as the engine went silent, out came from the thick, long grass, a rhino. It was a new mum wanting to protect her calf which she thought was under threat. Everyone was startled. The driver tried starting the engine and it refused to. For a few seconds there was pin drop silence in the car as well as complete panic and then just as the large animal came out of the grass in a rush, the driver started the car and sped away. A very real “What if?” scenario. Unforgettable. 

But it is more than about the rhinos, isn’t it? You explore so many ideas such as living museums, collectors, attributing a value to a thing (notional or real), etc. If I had read your book in print, it would have been thoroughly dog eared and underlined. It is hard to do so on a pdf. Thank you for sharing it. I hope one day you can bring it to India. 

If The Trophy is anything to go by, I would definitely like to read your first book, Girls, Muslims and Motorcycles. Is it available in English? I read the brief on your website. In fact, years ago, I read All the roads are open: an Afghan journey, 1939-1940 by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a writer whom you seem to have referenced as well. 

Dear Jaya,

do not worry. Actually, from a writer’s perspective, I can only be overjoyed that my book elicited such strong feelings in you that provoked such a direct response. And even more so that you feel such a direct connection that it invites a correspondence which does not need further formal introduction – it seems the book was enough of an introduction. Or, if you look at it that way, a rather direct (and harsh) piece of reading that I dropped onto your reading table without warning. 

So again. Do not worry. 

I find your questions very interesting and want to answer them decently. (I’d prefer to answer them in depth rather then quickly, since you’ve clearly put some thought into them as well – and especially because the book has affected you so.)

Oh, and concerning your question about Girls, Moslims & Motorbikes – unfortunately it has not been translated yet, so I’m afraid I can’t help you there… but Schwarzenbach (& Maillart) were indeed a big inspiration; we followed their tracks and had their books with us while travelling.

Warm greetings!

Gaea

***

Gaea Schoeters (1976) is a writer, screenwriter, librettist and journalist. She made her debut with the travel book Girls, Muslims and Motorcycles about a seven-month motorcycle trip through Iran, Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. This was followed the novels Diggers (Manteau), The art of falling (De Bezige Bij) and Untitled #1 (Querido) and the interview-collection Het Einde (Polis). Her latest novel, Trofee, was shortlisted for various prizes and won the Sabam Prize for literature. With illustrator Gerda Dendooven she made Nothing (De Eenhoorn), a philosophical picture book for children young and old. With composer Annelies Van Parys she wrote several award-winning operas and music theatre pieces; their work is performed at venues such as Biennale Venice, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Folkoperan Stockholm, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Deutsche Oper, Operadagen Rotterdam and Theater aan Zee. And in collaboration with Johanna Pas she translated Kae Tempest. All her work lies at the intersection of formal experimentation and social engagement. She is a much sought-after columnist and essayist for various newspapers and magazines, and the curator of the Dead Ladies Show, a café chantant that spotlights forgotten women.

Q1. Your portfolio resume says that you are a journalist, an author, a librettist, and a screenwriter. Why do you choose to make Art, with a capital “A”? Are all forms of art commercially viable for the artist? How do you balance making art, communicating ideas, and making a living? 

I don’t think making art is a choice. I’m afraid I have to write — telling stories is who I am and what I do. All choices I have made in my life have always led me back to this point. It is my way of trying to understand life and the world we live in, and trying to influence it by sharing my ideas or insights with others. Art is to me, more than anything else, a form of communication. A way to raise questions and hope that readers reflect on them, or to confront them with their own feelings and prejudices. Literature is a spotlight that I can point at things, forcing people to look at them from a certain angle and making it impossible to look away. And contrary to other forms of writing, like opinions, art does not have to provide answers — always much less interesting than questions.

(The idea of becoming a writer shaped itself in my mind when I, still very young, saw the film Henry & June in the cinema: a biopic about Henry Miller and Anais Nin in Paris in the thirties. It presented ‘the author’ as someone who spent his or her life discussing the world, literature and philosophy sitting in bars all night long surrounded by beautiful women. To me, that felt like an attractive future, but my parents saw things differently, so I studied interpreting. After university, I enlisted for a journalism master and there one of my teachers told me I should write fiction, so I did an extra year of scriptwriting. But looking back at it now, I have actually never not written: literature was always there and thinking about the world and sharing these ideas through language is indeed what I do. However, the idyllic bar idea is in reality much less romantic — writing is hard work, especially if you want to live of it.)

Making a living of literature is, especially in a small language area like Belgium, nearly impossible. That I am able to live of my writing, is because I combine so many different things. I once calculated that one day of scriptwriting equals to one week of writing for the newspaper, one month of working for opera or theatre and one year of novel writing. So for a long time, I financed my novels with writing soap for television. Also, I (luckily) like to be on stage, so I do a lot of performances and created my own programme, the Dead Ladies Show, a café chantant where we honor important women from the past. All these things make it possible to live of my writing, in a very broad sense. And these collaborations are, very often, also artistically enriching.

Q2. Your website states that you prefer to work at the intersection of “formal experimentation and social engagement”. How? 

For me every book needs a story, a theme and form. The one cannot exist without the other, and they have to be very closely linked. What sets literature apart from other forms of writing, is that it is not only crucial what it conveys, but also how. Explore the possibilities of telling narratives in non-classical ways is half of the fun. (We are obsessed with classical structures, driven forward by conflict and causality. This also shapes our (western) world view. But is this really the only way of thinking and of telling stories? Can different narratives create different ways of thinking, different ways of solving problems? Does art reflect the brain, or train it – or both?) I have, for example, tried to find out if it is possible to base the structure of a story on the structure of a musical piece ( a classical piano trio), by connecting characters to instruments and themes to musical themes and using the score as a building plan for the novel. It does work! It reads differently, less linear and with more repetition and variation, but I found it fascinating.

On the other hand, I am aware of the fact that I, as an artist, am at the same time part of the world / social reality that I live in, and, being an observer, also a privileged outsider. I don’t know if art can chance the world, but I am convinced that it can chance the lives of individual people. (If a book can touch one person to such an extent that it really impacts his or her life, it was worth writing.)

Also, I believe literature has the power to create empathy with ‘the other’. Maybe that is why I have a fondness for unpleasant characters or characters who are very different from myself; I feel a deep need to explore the mind of people with whom I’d probably get into a fight very quickly in real life. And to try and find out why they think what they think and do what they do. For me, fiction is a place where we can push ethic questions to the extreme to map their consequences, safely juxtapose different mindsets and try to find common ground which can be the beginning of a dialogue and of understanding — and therefor of change. (In the case of Trophy, a shared love of nature was the point of connection with the world of hunting and the character of Hunter.)

Q3. What prompted you to write The Trophy? Why do you use “Hunter” as a noun? Whereas in the context of the story, he is quite literally the hunter in pursuit of his game, his prize. It is a name, true. But, in the context of this story, it is unnerving. This is a very testosterone driven novel. How did you get into that mind space so as to write this story that is so white, male, masculine, and with a deep sense of colonialism*? Did it involve a lot of background research? ( * It is a brand of colonialism that is linked with those in the years gone by. Yet, this story is set in our contemporary world. It is unnerving.) 

I know it is unnerving. I am sorry. I wanted it to be. I wanted to lure the reader into following Hunter’s thoughts and perspective, to be able to confront him or her brutally with the consequences of this white male gaze from within. I am aware it is a harsh read. But I think it is far more effective to make people feel this than to tell them from a safe third person perspective.

If anyone had told me five years ago that I would write a novel about trophy hunting in Africa I wouldn’t have believed it; I am the kind of person who catches mosquitos alive and carries them out to the balcony. I had no connection at all with hunting or trophies. But while scrolling on Facebook, I bumped into a small advertisement for a trophy hunt on a rare kind of ibex in Pakistan, announcing that a protection programme would be set up with the money from the hunting licences. This (hunting rare species as environmental protection) sounded so paradoxical that it stuck to me and I started to do some research on trophy hunting. Shortly after, I stumbled upon a photo by David Chancellor — an image of a large game hunter (a man who looked very much like my accountant) in his trophy room, walls lined with stuffed giraffes, lions, etc. I wanted to know who he was and why he did this, shamelessly. And then I read an article about the ‘relocalisation’ / ‘reintegration’ of a local group of San, using precisely the same words we use for reintegrating wolves and bears in nature. That shocked me — language gives away what we think: if we talk about people with the words we normally use for animals, that means we look at them in that way. In one split-second, the story formed in my mind.

I did two years of research on hunting, fauna, flora, guns, … emerging deeply also in discussions between environmentalists and hunters. I wanted to get every detail right. But above all, I wanted to get into Hunter’s mind. For that, I returned to an old genre (searching for the correct form was crucial) of old colonial ‘hunting literature’ where professional hunters describe their hunts in a very macho way, but (even though their vocabulary is very colonial) with a lot of respect for the local people they work with. This helped me understand Hunter’s way of thinking. And although we no longer live in colonial times, I am afraid many things are not so different nowadays. As Jeans puts it at a certain point: Hunter has never been to Africa. The place he visits is a colonial fata morgana, a white gaze fantasy with no relation to reality. He has no idea of the continent and no interest in it; he sees it merely as a theme park that exists for his pleasure. His hunting ground.  (Or as he says himself: he doesn’t like Africa, but as he likes its wildlife, he tolerates the continent.) That is a crude summary of the common utilitarian Western view on the continent: even in these post-colonial times, the exploitation of the continent continues in a different form. (And not only by the West; a whole new Great Game is played out there.) Companies go on taking from the African countries the resources and riches they need, disturbing nature, climate and society, but refuse to take responsibility for the effects caused by this ongoing pillage. 

Q4. Your seething rage is evident through sentences like this: Idiotic whites with their idiotic rules; Ethics, as Hunter has learned, has the same colour all over the world: that of the dollar; How one animal hunts another is none of our business, as humans. How did you remain calm, if at all, while writing this book? What has been the reception to this book? 

As a writer I try to keep my personal anger out of a book — at least on the first level. I think it is more powerful to introduce the reader to all perspectives and let him/her walk to his own downfall. But of course, the whole book is an accusation of how ‘the West’ deals with the world, and my indignation about that was the trigger to write it.

Hunter, like most Westerners, sees himself as a morally superior to the local people, but isn’t aware of the fact that his moral ideas may not or cannot function in a world which is completely different. The West tends to want to impose its moral concepts on the rest of the world, without taking into account the local preconditions. Is ‘our’ system the only system, and is it really so superior?  Does it work everywhere, in every context? (And how unaffected is this context? Jeans is a pragmatist, because he has no other option in a world disturbed by the effects of colonialism. And how free are the members of the local tribe in their choices, as the conditions of their existence have also been altered or determined by it?) Or could it be that other moral systems and ethical rules are equally valuable, or maybe even better, than the Western one, within certain contexts? It is this clash of thinking systems and their consequences that I wanted to explore.

Balancing my own feelings about things while writing is not easy. I always try to project my opinions into my characters, rather than letting them seep through in author’s comments — this way you make it part of the conflict inside the story. My anger is spread over Van Heeren’s cynicism, Jeans’ pragmatism, Dawid’s retained rage etc. But in order to make the story work, I also had to get inside Hunter’s head, and while I was there, I had to understand and even ‘love’ him, at least as much as he loves himself. I spent two years living with him, every day — that wasn’t always easy.

Many readers have told me that the book affected them deeply. That it stuck with them for days after reading. That they were shocked by how far they had followed Hunter’s logic and how close to him and his thinking they had come. I take that as a compliment. Also, many hunters have told me that for the first time, they felt understood. That, too, is a compliment. I wasn’t looking for black and white judgement, that is too easy. I wanted to describe things in all their complexity, and leave the conclusions to the reader.

Q5. So, like it or not, trophy hunting is the only form of rhino conservation that works, and the only chance the species has for survival. The six-figure sum he has paid to be allowed to shoot that single male is not only financing a breeding programme, but also giving the rest of the herd a fair chance of being protected. But that’s something these ‘conservationists’ don’t seem to be able to understand. This is a paradox. Is this really true in the field of conservation? Why is it not talked about more? 

It is certainly true from Hunter’s point of view, and that is what counts for the story. In the real world it is more complex and debatable — I spent days reading well-researched discussions between ecologists, biologists and hunters about this theme. However, it is alas unquestionably true that within the capitalist logic and in a post-colonial Africa which is largely affected by (historically induced) corrupt or reigned by corrupt regimes, wildlife is only worth protecting when economical value is attached to it. Otherwise, it is more interesting to be bribed by poachers, or simply not a priority in poverty-struck countries to invest in wildlife protection – which is very understandable. Add to that the pressure on wildlife and ecosystems caused by overpopulation, poverty leading to small poaching and bushmeat being sold on the black market, etc. and you get an idea of why things are so complicated. (The discussion even goes to the point where wildlife parks and animal protection are called ‘ecocolonialism’ or ‘green colonialism’, which I also understand — if the pillage of natural richesses continues, it is a bold thing to impose Western green ethics (which we hardly apply closer to home) on a continent which Western companies continue to plunder.)

That it is not talked about, is probably because it is not our field of interest. The West only shouts scandal when an individual ‘cute’ animal is threatened, like when the American dentist shot Cecil the lion. There’s a certain hypocrisy to that, if one thinks of the ecological drama that is unfolding in the amazon forest or in the oceans due to climate change.

(I had a quick look at the situation in India and think that in spite of the strong hunting tradition in colonial times trophy hunting is now forbidden there, but I would have to check properly.)

Q6. Your writing mimics the pace and content of the story. Is it intentional? 

I never start a novel without a clear idea of the theme and the form; for me these things are intertwined and the one cannot work without the other. Sometimes it takes years to find a form for an idea, or an idea that fits a certain form. This time I was lucky: during my research I found out that there is a (merely Anglo-Saxon) genre called colonial hunting literature. Very male and macho, adventure story like, fast and plot-driven, but also (in spite of the vocabulary which we now find unacceptable) very often full of rich anthropological observations and deep respect for the knowledge of the local people these professional hunters collaborated with. Think of writers like J.A. Hunter, or, on the more literary end of the spectrum, Hemingway. I believe that applying certain old forms or genres in new contexts is part of the dialogue of contemporary writers with the canon, which enables us to maintain an ongoing conversation with the literature and the literary tradition of the past. Using a colonial genre in a novel which is in fact a critique of this colonial past was the kind of irony that fitted my story perfectly — as Hunter is also driven to his destiny by precisely this old-fashioned view on the African continent. On the other hand, I wanted to make a link with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — but instead of the downfall of one white man driven to madness, I wanted to show the collapse of the alleged Western moral superiority in this collision of cultures.

Also, as the story is so extreme, I had to find a way to lure the reader into reading it fully once he’d started. So, I set it up like a trap: the increasing tension and increasing speed pull the reader deeper and deeper into the story, unable to let go, just like Hunter is pulled deeper into his hunt. I also wanted to create an increasing claustrophobic feeling, a darkness that wraps around the reader without him noticing it, but then suddenly surrounds him fully. I wanted it to be a trip-like experience, like a nightmare. And when Hunter’s world and logic starts to fall apart, I wanted the language to reflect that. I can only hope that it does.

Q7. How do you work with your translator? If you are proficient in English and Flemish, do you read and comment on the translation drafts? Do you edit them? Or do you accept the translation as it is from the original language to the destination language? 

I tend to work closely together with my translators, even if I don’t speak or read their language. I’m trained as a translator myself and I still love to do it from time to time because it forces you to a very close and analytical reading of another writer’s work, which is very interesting for me as an author too. I occasionally translate poetry and plays, so I am very well aware of how valuable and how difficult translators’ work is. I never edit them, as I can never be as precise as a native speaker, but I try to be available to answer their questions. Sometimes things are just unclear, or you cannot directly transfer them into a different language without loss — then it is nice if you can search for a good solution together. Also, I think translators should be valued more, and their name should be on the cover of the book — in a foreign language you are only as good as your translator, and in the best case, they even make your book better.

Q8. Is climate-fiction and eco-fiction an essential contribution of writers to literary canons? How effective are they in raising social awareness? 

We should all write about what moves, worries or amazes us, and I think climate is right now such an essential part of our times that it comes up automatically. Literature always reflects the time segment it is written in, and climatological change is so omnipresent that it will sneak into all books soon, even very unpolitical love stories. If this can help raising awareness I don’t know; very often people who read fiction are already on the more informed and aware side of the spectrum. (One cannot deny that (having access to) literature is very often still a privilege.) But were it can certainly change things, is in youth literature and in schools. I really believe in the formative power (also as a builder of empathy) of literature and art education.

Secondly, I think it can help us to look at ecological issues in a more open way, as fiction escapes the political / ideological frame in which most discussions take place. The public debate sticks to the capitalist viewpoint and very rarely thinks outside that box. Dystopic and utopic literature and scifi can easily escape this and think beyond this frame or question it. In a way Trophy, as a thought-experiment, also operates in this ‘free zone’.

Is it planetary fiction? Not consciously, but it can be read as such. As (eco)philosopher Val Plumwood put it: trouble began when people stopped considering themselves part of the food chain and put themselves above nature instead of seeing themselves as part of it, both hunter and prey. (Plumwood, just like Hunter, got a rude wake-up call when being nearly eaten by a crocodile.) In this way, Hunters vision on hunting (even though he, like many hunters, is much closer and in a more natural relation to nature and his food than most modern people) differs from the perspective of the local hunters, who see themselves as part of the ecosystem, instead of a species superior to it. The borders fade when Hunters feeling of mastery and superiority begins to fall apart when he is confronted with the brutality of wild nature, and realises his survival depends on coexistence and respect instead of human dominance, as his gun cannot protect him against this force. This change of perspective has moral and practical consequences, both good and bad – if these concepts make sense in this context at all.  That is, if you want, a metaphor you could apply on our relationship with the planet.

Q9. Why do I get the impression that you are writing this text almost as if you can see every scene clearly in your mind’s eye and then are writing out the details. Did you see a lot of films and documentaries before writing The Trophy? Or is it your screenwriter skills that come to the fore? 

To be honest: the story appeared in my mind as a film first. But time has taught me that film is an expensive and very slow medium when it comes to financing, and very often stories and ideas are trimmed by producers’ wishes and financial realities. So I decided to write the novel first; we can always turn it into a film later (and there is quite some interest for that). But while writing, I saw the characters and the scenes before my eyes, like in a movie; if I got stuck, all I had to do, was watch and write down what I saw. (Also, I’m not sure it would be a film I’d be able watch in the cinema. It has a tension and a harshness, even a cruelty, that I can bear on paper, but would find very difficult to watch on a screen. And writing it down had one other big advantage: I could really chose to stick to Hunter’s perspective and tell everything through his eyes. Such a viewpoint is much more difficult in film, but it was somehow crucial to how I wanted to tell this story.  — because it’s precisely that choice that turns this story into a critique on white gaze.

Q10. Do you have any Flemish author/book/literary website recommendations for readers?

That’s a difficult question, I’ll try to aim a bit for books which – I think – are translated. Luckily, we have very good illustrators, whose works doesn’t need translation, like Peter Van den Ende’s wordless book De zwerveling or the fantastic Gerda Dendooven with whom I made a wonderful philosophical book, Nothing. The poet Paul Van Ostaijen is something special, and so is Louis Paul Boon — a bit of a national monument. And I’m a keen reader of Harry Mulish, but he was Dutch. As far as contemporary writers are concerned, I really like the absurdistic work of my colleague Annelies Verbeke, who writes great theatre texts and short stories. And I’m very fond of the work of Jacqueline Harpman, maybe Belgium’s best writer ever, who originally published in French. Doeschka Meijsing is interesting too, but she’s also Dutch. It’s also not a coincidence that I named more female writers than male colleagues; all too often the opposite is the case. That brings me to an interesting website: the female writers’ collective Fixdit has made really cool podcasts about female Flemish and Dutch writers, unfortunately only in Dutch. But we’re also aiming to set up an international network of female writers, and for that it would be great to include women writers from allover the world!

(C) EUPL

Interview with Armenian author Lusine Kharatyan

This interview with Lusine Kharatyan has been facilitated by the European Union Prize for Literature.

I am posting snippets of my correspondence with Lusine as it would give readers an insight into how well-crafted her pieces are.

Dear Lusine, 

I read your articles. It has taken a while to assimilate your incredibly powerful writings. On the face of it, these are simple articles and observations, but if I try to read it slowly or even try and emulate your writing style, it is challenging. It is almost as if you have thought through every word used, every sentence written, and the arrangement. It happens in any piece of writing but in yours it is almost as if to give the reader some sense of the feeling of dislocation that you have probably experienced. Almost as if to create a shared empathy without any sentimentality seeping in, but merely to understand the situation. 

It has been a few days since I read your articles but I could not bring myself to compose the questions immediately. When I finally did, I found myself in the midst of an unusual task. I transcribed each question at least three times even if it were being copied without any changes. I am still unable to understand this act of mine except to say that it is your writing that moved me tremendously. I wanted to strike the right tenor while formulating the queries. 

Dear Jaya, 

Thank you! It took me a while to answer your questions, as you definitely did your “homework” very well and each question invited a long conversation. Anyway, I tried to be short, but feel free to ask more questions if anything is not clear.

Lusine Kharatyan is a Yerevan-based writer and cultural anthropologist. Born and raised in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia, she lived and studied in different parts of the world, including Egypt and the USA. Her writing is significantly influenced by her anthropological research, fieldwork, and travels. Kharatyan’s first novel ծուռ գիրք (The Oblique Book), was published in 2017. Her second book, collection of short stories Անմոռուկի փակուղի (Dead End Forget-me-not) was published with a monetary prize from the First Yerevan Book Fest, and shortlisted for the 2021 European Union Prize for Literature. In 2019, Kharatyan was awarded a grant from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport of Armenia for writing her second novel, Սիրիավեպ (A Syrian Affair), which was nominated from Armenia for the same prize in 2023. Lusine’s short fiction has been published in English and Georgian, including her own translations of #America_place from 9/11 to 11/9 and #America_place Pregnant published at Asymptote site for world literature in translation. 

Kharatyan holds a master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota (2004), a Diploma in Demography from Cairo Demographic Center (2000), and a Diploma of higher education in History/Socio-cultural Anthropology from Yerevan State University (1999). Since 2018, Kharatyan is a member of the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. She is a member of PEN Center Armenia and the Chair of its Women Writer’s Committee since 2021.

Q1. You are bi-lingual. Do you translate and change the text when writing or translating from Armenian into English? 

I would not say I am bi-lingual. Well, sometimes it feels like I live in three languages, also visually, as all three use different letters- Armenian, English and Russian, but my language is Armenian. While I probably understand Russian deeper and better than English, with almost all possible nuances and in all possible contexts (not only because I was exposed to it since childhood and also studied it as a second language at school, but also because Russian was the language of the literature I read during my formative years) I am not sure that I can write in that language, as I haven’t practiced writing in Russian since the 1990s. Also, I do not feel comfortable speaking and/or writing in Russian to native Russian speakers, as there is always some feeling of ‘inferiority’ or rather impediment/disability involved in using the language of the colonizer while speaking to the colonizer. I do not feel that I am able to express my thoughts at an equal level, hence I prefer communicating in English with native Russian speakers, so as we are at equal terms. With English, I do not have a similar feeling, as I do not share a similar history with native English speakers, who are probably “The Colonizers” for Bharat (…if I get it right one of the reasons to change India’s name into Bharat was to get rid of the remnants of that colonial past). So, our relationship with a language is always very context-specific and has all the burden/weight of both collective and personal experience/memory and power dynamics involved. I remember, for example, when I was first reading Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, of course in the original language, I kept thinking whether it would be possible to translate his unprecedented style and language with all the nuances, and particularly the bureaucratic and/or power’s language used in very unexpected contexts and places into Armenian. I was not sure that Armenian had the same capacity and richness, given that it was not the language of the conventional “power” or authority. However, after several attempts at translating some passages I was surprised how well it was possible to not only find appropriate words and phrases, but also to convey the very tone and style. This encouraged me to translate my own texts. When translating, you always have to make difficult choices, sometimes maybe to give up on style or tone, or preciseness, sometimes to invent words. And as I am not a native English speaker, I am not always sure whether my translation really delivers what the Armenian text is saying. I am usually trying to stick to the original as much as possible, but sometimes I feel that it is at the expense of the style or the language quality, and at times it feels like writing a new text. Interestingly, it is much easier to do so in English, as it seems more democratic or tolerant towards non-native speakers, given that it is the most spoken/widely used language in the world. Or maybe it is because I do not have the same level of proficiency in English to notice all the nuanced mistakes that I make. However, until now I have not dared to translate texts, which are very context-specific, which are entrenched in the context, since I am not sure that I can translate the context without too many footnotes, so that it would make sense and still have the same depth and layers, and at the same time would keep the lightness of the language and style.

Q2. Is being sensitive to cultural sensibilities an important consideration to your writing? Or is it that the art of communicating in a nuanced manner is appreciated more? 

Being sensitive to cultural sensibilities is in general a very important aspect of me. I believe anthropology is first of all a way of life, and not a profession. This way of life also implies not only being sensitive to different cultures, but generally respecting and accepting them as they are, without imposing your own. At the same time, you can’t stop doing autofiction, since ethnography, or participant observation is always switched on in you, and you keep walking through your life having that internal camera or a reading glass looking at everything around you, including yourself, from somewhere above. You are a participant and an observer at the same time. Sometimes you wish you could actually be more participant than an observer, to feel more or deeper, and that this “observer” part of you would keep the feelings on hold, but then you fictionalize and it somehow helps with not only reflecting but also feeling and finding others who share your feelings and who are eager to borrow your lenses. It is some kind of an effortless stream of conscience that flows into literature. This is where you also try to communicate in a nuanced manner, but then you find yourself stuck in orientalism and you either try to also “orientalize” the protagonist or the author, so as to be at equal terms, or to rewrite the text. By default, I always have these lenses in whatever I do. This allows multi-perceptivity and makes the text to look and read like an effortless flow; which is at the same time richer, multi-layered and more nuanced. However, sometimes I intentionally try to put these lenses aside, so as the text is not perceived as “censored” or “politically correct”, but has all the roughness and some touch of supposed “sincerity” or expected “honesty.” Yet, it does not always work, as this type of honesty means dishonesty to myself, because that is not the way I see the world, that is not who I am, and I prefer my text being vulnerable, more nuanced and sensitive to cultural sensibilities.

Q3. How challenging is it for a cultural anthropologist to write fiction? 

Well, as mentioned, anthropology is a way of life for me. On the one hand that way of life greatly helps to find themes and topics, times and places, issues and protagonists, human stories, dramas and comic situations for writing. But it also brings some challenges․ One of the main challenges is probably the ability of putting the researcher aside and finding a different frame and language to tell the story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And the same happens the other way around, when the writer in me gets stronger than the researcher.

Q4. Is it possible to define terms such as identity, ethnicity, home, & community? In the few examples of your writing that I read, I got the sense that you were exploring these terms without casting them in stone. To my mind, these are fluid as in “ever evolving” concepts, but what do they mean to you? 

I have a friend who kept saying that every time she was asked to present herself, the very first thing she would tell was that she was Armenian. This is how strong she felt about her Armenian identity. But then I asked her once, whether she would do the same when presenting herself to an Armenian in Armenia, or was that when she would present herself to foreigners or someone from the diaspora whom she met abroad. She was surprised by my question, and after a bit of thinking answered, that this was probably when she would present herself to foreigners or diasporans abroad. Then she thought more and said that in Armenia it always depended on the situation and the people she presented herself to. In some cases, she would say that she was a teacher, in other cases she would first refer to the district of Yerevan where she grew up, yet in some circumstances she would speak of her workplace or where her parents came from. And she went on and on, until she ended up counting around 10 different identities, as we agreed to call those “ways of presenting herself.” Thus, depending on the situation and context, one of our identities can become more active than the others.

While the researcher in me understands and knows that there are people/societies/cultures where the identity/ethnicity/belonging is still perceived as something homogeneous, rigid, solid and cast in stone, I do believe that this kind of understanding is self-deceiving, as a person living in our post-Hiroshima, post-Gagarin, post-man-on-the-moon, post-cold-war, post-modern, post-industrial, post-post-post, patchy and fragmented world of AI and digital reality cannot pretend or afford to have this clear-cut homogeneous identity. We should simply accept our fragmented, fluid, ever-evolving and spongy identities and try to live with them in peace, without a multiple personality disorder. And most of my writing is as fragmented and patchy in terms of style, themes, plots and genre as our identities are.

Q5. What is it that you seek in women’s writing? As a woman writer, what is it that you wish to convey or gender distinctions are immaterial? 

Gender identity is one of the most active and vibrant identities we have, and I always look for that perspective in women’s writing. I want to see the world also through those lenses, as we have been deprived of this opportunity for ages. When writing, I do not put a special effort to convey things from a woman’s perspective, but since being a woman is an important part of me, it is unavoidable and is reflected in my writing. There is this stereotypical thinking in the Armenian literary circles that the literature crafted by women is “weak” and “shallow”, that only men can write “strong” literature. Many from the generation of women writers before mine tried to “conceal” their gender identity by writing texts which would be as much like the texts of their male counterparts as possible, so those texts would be perceived as “strong” pieces of literature. Some were even proud when critics wrote and spoke that they “have a male pen”, or that “their writing is so strong that it is not possible to understand that the writer is a woman.” Fortunately, that is changing and we now see more women writing very sophisticated, rich, deep literature without mimicking “male” texts.

Q6. What is the OH project mapping memories from Armenia and Turkey about? 

This was a very important and defining project for me. Actually, my first novel, ծուռ գիրք, was inspired by it. I do not know how aware are your readers of Armenian-Turkish relations, so for those who do not know much, probably some background information is necessary. At the beginning of the last century Armenians used to mostly live in their ancestral homes on the territory of two empires, Ottoman and Russian. We, Armenians, call the part of historical/ancient Armenia, which is now on the territory of current-day Turkey, Western Armenia, and the part that constitutes the current-day Republic of Armenia and some other territories are called Eastern Armenia. Thus, what would be Armenians’ homeland was divided between Russian and Ottoman Empires at the time of World War I. With the rise of national-liberation movements in the 19th century, and particularly on the territory of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians living there also started demanding more rights and freedoms. To these demands Ottoman authorities responded with several Armenian massacres in the late 19th– early 20th century. When the WW I broke, the new Ottoman Government of Yung Turks decided to get rid of the “Armenian Issue” through organizing the first Genocide of the century, where over a million Armenians were marched to death, burned in their homes or churches, slaughtered and massacred. Most surviving Armenians spread all over the world, forming diaspora communities. Some of the survivors found refuge on the territory of the current-day Republic of Armenia, then- the Russian Empire. Today, a century after the events, Turkey still denies the Genocide, while for the Armenians this is a defining trauma, a master narrative which greatly influences our identity. So, the project you ask about was trying to plant some seeds for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation through oral history and adult education. The idea behind was that through collecting oral histories about a particular location on the territory of nowadays Turkey where Armenians used to live before the Genocide from both sides of the border, i.e. at the place itself and among the Genocide survivors originally from that place who now live in Armenia, we can create the history of the place as it is remembered, narrated and imagined today. One of the outcomes was the book “Moush Sweet Moush: Mapping Memories from Armenia and Turkey”, where in the introduction we state the following: “Even though we have included a brief factsheet on the history of Moush focusing on the area’s cultural significance for Armenians and some statistics from the beginning of the 20th century, we do not intent to present the local history of Moush as a set of facts, a definite truth about the place or events that happened in that place. In a sense Moush is a discourse in this book. We are not simply presenting its history. We are presenting the place as it is remembered, imagined and narrated in Turkey and in Armenia. We do not want to define, describe or locate Moush politically, administratively or historically. We do map Moush, but not as politicians or official historiographers do. We map it through people’s narratives and our group experience. While current political maps with their defined borders interfere with this discourse, we believe that they do not dominate mental maps of people.”

Q7. How instrumental was the covid pandemic in opening up memories and thus, presumably, impacting your writing? 

There is probably no person in the world that was not impacted by the Covid pandemic. For me, as much as it opened a door for memories, it also helped with reflection, as due to the isolation you have more time for thinking and reflection, which nowadays is a luxury. At some point I started posting daily photos on my Facebook early in the morning. Over time, these early coffee/tea “good mornings” became very popular among my Facebook friends and beyond. They became a kind of “safe space” for “sharing and caring,” and were collected in an album Isolator #1. Eventually, I was invited to organize a photo exhibition in one of the galleries in Yerevan. The poster of the exhibition was the last photo from the album, where you see an upside down coffee cup (with small coronas/crowns on the cup) looking for a coffee fortune reader, thus ending the entire period with a question mark. And the answer was quick to come: we opened the exhibition on the evening of September 26, 2020, and woke up to the war next morning on September 27, 2020, learning that Azerbaijan had attacked Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh. The Covid isolation ended in the 44-day-war. This isolation and the process of me posting on Facebook was also reflected in a short piece of writing, The Summer of Chomalag, written before the war. However, as every story in our Netflix-era world goes on for several seasons, I could not stop there. As the war started, I have received requests from friends and acquaintances to continue with my morning photo-posts as they helped to wake up with a hope for a brighter future. So, I started a second season with a new album, Shelter #1, and my Facebook story-telling experiment triggered by Covid evolved through dialogue and took me to really unexpected places.     

Q8. How do you define “maps”? These can be physical as well as mental, rt? 

To me the definition is very simple- we are our maps. All these different identities we spoke about earlier are as much mapped in our minds and very bodies, as they are on the body of the earth. Sometimes I even visualize people moving in space and time taking their maps with them and making those maps bigger. Those are endlessly elastic. However, as much as they widen and enlarge, they can also get narrower and smaller, up to a size of a dot. A more inclusive identity means a bigger map. The narrower gets your map due to war, limited right to movement because of inequality, social injustice or simply being born in a part of the world that does not allow you much movement, your inability to see the world bigger due to illiteracy or lack of access to different carriers of information, or due to the narratives you grew up with, the grimmer and slimmer gets your world. In one of my short pieces, #America_place from 9/11 to 11/9, the protagonist first time in her life sees a map drown differently than what she is used to, an America-centered map. And it is only then that she realizes that the way she sees the world very much depends on where she is physically located. It is very bodily and also mental experience at the same time. Also, our mental maps consist not only of places and names of geographical locations, but of people and our connections. I have never met you, but you are already on my map, and when I think of India now, I already think of a bit different India, India that has Jaya in it. 

Q9. What is it about making lists that appeals to you as a writer and as a custodian of cultural memories?

Lists are how you define your map, a deliberate choice of including some things and excluding/dropping other things. 

Q10. Do you have any Armenian authors / literary website recommendations for readers? 

I’d suggest starting from last years’ Asymptote’s Fall Issue that features Armenian writers in translation. Then they can explore more.

(C) EUPL

Interview with journalist Snigdha Poonam on her award-winning book “Dreamers”

Snigdha Poonam is a journalist with The Hindustan Times (HT) in Delhi. Her work has appeared in Scroll, The Caravan, The Times of India, The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta and The Financial Times.  Her article ‘Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love‘ was runner-up in the Bodley Head / Financial Times Essay Prize, 2015. She won the 2017 Journalist of Change award of Bournemouth University for an investigation of student suicides that appeared on Huffington Post ( 1 June 2016). Dreamers is her first book. It won 2018’s Crossword Book Award (Jury) for nonfiction and was listed by various publications, including Financial Times and Hindu, as one of the best books of the year. It was also longlisted for the 2019 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($10,000) announced by PEN America. ( Read an extract published in the literary magazine, Granta: “The Fixer”, 9 Feb 2015).

Dreamers is a collection of essays of reporting from India’s small towns. The people profiled in it are young and ambitious — representative of nearly 50% of India’s 1.3b population born after 1991. They are confident and want to make their dreams happen as soon as possible and not while away their entire lives boxed in by social indicators such as gender, caste, socio-eco class etc. For many of the individuals profiled in Dreamers these are mere notional barriers meant to be broken. They think for themselves rather than be intimidated by traditional rules of social engagement. As Snigdha says the same themes are repeated of “aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world”. The profiles range from that of a young milkman who became a teacher of conversational English and established a coaching centre to that of a young girl who decided to become a feisty student politician, making history with her election to the Allahabad University student council. These extraordinary profiles were written by Snigdha Poonam after shadowing her subjects over some years.

Snigdha Poonam’s trademark is longform reportage which mostly focuses on investigative stories of issues concerning young India. Stories that hurtle you into the heart of the issue, forever creating a sharply etched mental image for the reader of the places and people Snigdha visits and meets, respectively. Stories that she selects would in all likelihood be missed even when they make front page news like that of the little boy murdered in a school. The slightly different peg chosen by her is to follow the story of the bus conductor wrongly accused of the boy’s murder. A story that not only creates empathy for the impoverished family of the bus conductor but also offers an alternative way of looking at the horrific story that many were chattering about. She seeks stories that should be the hallmark of all journalists but only the brave engage in. Some of her astonishing stories that are available online are written hot on the trail of the predominantly young, aggressive, male Hindu pilgrims called Kanwariyas ( HT, 24 July 2017);  on the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya, rural India’s first feminist newspaper who speak up for women in a notoriously patriarchal belt  ( The Guardian, 30 March 2015), “How the fake-jobs industry scams Indians” ( co-authored with Samarth Bansal, HT, 21 Aug 2017), or on the horrendous clashes that take place over electricity and water in urban pockets ( HT, 30 May 2018).

Here are excerpts of an interview with Snigdha Poonam:

JBR: What prompted this book? Has it been translated?

SP: Starting in 2009-10, I had been writing a series of stories looking at non-urban young Indians’ efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing world. I wrote, for example, about commercial Hindi and Hinglish fiction (OPEN magazine, “The New Heroes of MBA Lit”, 17 Oct 2014), personality development classes ( New York Times, “Developing India’s Personality”, 5 July 2013), and online dating ( Caravan, “Casting the Net”, 1 March 2012). I found the same themes repeating: aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world. In 2014 this led to the idea for a book that would follow the lives of a set of people in small towns: what they want, how they are trying to get there, and what that means for their future and ours.

Dreamers hasn’t yet been translated. It’s out in the US and UK and awaiting publication in China.

JBR: How do you find your stories/subjects?

SP: Other than reading a range of newspapers — Hindi and English, regional and national– I keep an eye out for unusual things everywhere, from SMS spam to wall posters to advertisements nailed to trees.  I travel widely across the country for work and let people tell me stories outside of the reporting framework. I also spend a lot of time digging into the lives of strangers on the internet: on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok.

JBR: How many stories did you write/ follow in order to publish the few mentioned in Dreamers?

SP: I wrote at least ten profiles. Among those that didn’t make it to the final draft were the stories of an FM star in Ranchi, a crime reporter in Lucknow, and a wedding planner in Ahmedabad. I wanted to prioritise stories that showed the effect of time on the people and their actions, so only those made it into the book.

JBR: Has your writing style evolved after having published this book?

SP: Yes. I am far more receptive to details. I try more consistently to draw out the nuances in people’s characters, politics, and actions. I play much more with the material until I have the right narrative structure for a story.

JBR: What do you think are the qualities of a listener? I find it remarkable how you channel the stories with minimal judgement but then offer an opinion/perspective.

SP: I have no other real interest in life than other people, so I can listen to anyone who is telling me anything, and if you listen to people at such length, you are forced to acknowledge that they are more than just good or bad. People are genuinely complicated, with so many intersecting forces driving their views and actions, and the most interesting stories you can tell about them are in the space between the extremes.

JBR: How do you record your interviews?

SP: I no longer record interviews unless it’s more than one person talking to me. Taking notes keeps me more grounded in the moment.  I have a decent shorthand, and I flesh out the whole interaction – from what people said to what I observed – before that day is over.

JBR: Do you in any way feel or become responsible for the people you interview or does everyone move on?

SP: I am more attached to the people in Dreamers than those I meet for regular stories. I talk to them about all kinds of things going on in their lives, from wedding plans to job changes. They, too, ask me about what’s going on with me, my work and my family.  

As a journalist, it’s often not people you keep track of but the issue you wrote about. For example, because I wrote an investigative story about job scams, people write to me from across India about having paid someone money for a job they didn’t get. Every once in a while, I have to chase the police in their respective areas to take action.

JBR: Have you ever followed up on these stories?

SP: Not deliberately. I feel exhausted with the issues of young men and want to engage more with women in the upcoming projects.

JBR: Who is your ideal reader? Have any of your subjects in this book read Dreamers?

SP: My ideal reader is curious and patient.

Some of the people featured in Dreamers have read it. One of them presented a copy to a leading politician, another keeps up with its sale at his local bookshop.

24 February 2019

Scott Galloway “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google” and Yanis Varoufakis “Talking to My Daughter About the Economy”

Imagine: a retailer that refuses to pay sales tax, treats its employees poorly, destroys hundred of thousands of jobs, and yet is celebrated as a paragon of business innovation. 

A computer company that withholds information about a domestic act of terrorism from federal investigators, with the support of a fan following that views the firm similar to a religion. 

A social media firm that analyzes thosands of images of your children, activates your phone as a listening device, and sells this information to Fortune 500 companies. 

An ad platform that commands in some markets, a 90 percent share of the most lucrative sector in media, yet avoids anticompetitive regularion through aggressive litigation and lobbyists. 

This narrative is also heard around the world, but in hushed tones. We know these companies aren’t benevolent beings, yet we invite them into the most intimate areas of our living. We willingly divulge personal updates, knowing they’ll be used for profit. 

Scott Galloway’s debut The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google is a brisk analysis of these four technology driven companies. This is the man who week before the deal actually happened predicted that Amazon would buy Whole Foods. He argues in his book that these companies will be the first to break ( if they have not already done so) the trillion dollar barrier. The secret of their success is dependant not necessarily on their providing services such as being an effective online search engine (every one in six questions asked of Google has never been posed before), a massive marketplace ( Amazon’s online retail store purports to be the biggest shopping complex making it convenient for shoppers to buy from the comfort of their homes), connecting people across the world by preying on their psychological need to be loved and cared for as exemplified by the “like” button on Facebook or that the of the iconic design of Apple products creating a desire amongst people “permitting” the firm to price its commodities exorbitantly, earning irrational profits and yet, always have ready customers. According to the author, Apple controls 14.5 % of the smartphone market but captures 79% of global smartphone profits. In his TED Talk he says “the combined market capitalization of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google is now equivalent to the GDP of India. ”

The Four is narrated at a brisk pace, almost as if Galloway is lecturing to his students in the classroom. It is a sharp understanding of these four modern day business empires which together are worth $2.3 trillion. He focusses on the speed at which technological advancements permit people to buy, mine the Internet for information or even be connected to people across the globe in miliseconds whether using social media platforms or their smartphones.  He recognises how these companies synonymous with the information age are focussed on delivering a product or a service for the prime objective of earning a profit — a fact often concealed niftily from the end consumer, i.e. you and I, but making these four no different to any other manufacturing firm. Oddly enough these companies such as Google “ages in reverse,becoming more valuable with use” which harnesses the power of 2 billion people every 24 hours. Facebook connects 1.2 b of the 7.5 people in the world.  Apple’s cash on hand is nearly the GDP of Denmark. Amazon is growing at the rate of 20% plus each year. He acknowledges in the book that these companies have benefitted in a manner of speaking by governments which grant them special treatment regarding antitrust regulation, taxes, even labour laws.  The financial worth of these companies is heavily dependant upon the sensitive personal and credit information shared willingly by millions and millions of humans around the globe.

The Four  is very readable in its arguments except that by focussing primarily on the branding and market identity of these companies. Galloway prefers to focus on the consumerism of these services without ever really discussing the impact it has on humans, particularly in terms of the debt incurred by consuming these services offered. This is where Yanis Varoufakis preferance for calling this consumerism as a “a commodification of everything” and how the rise of profit as a major incentive for people to do things come hand in hand with a new role for debt. According to Varoufakis this commodification is the “unstoppable vicotry of exchange value over experiential value” — a characterstic trait of the market society which most modern economies have transformed into.  Individuals now have to rely upon multinational companies that have technological capability to  fulfil their every need. The companies in order to guarantee their profits, use patents to assert legal onwership of their produce. Usually this shift in produce and consumption patterns is done with the help of the state. “To put it simply, private wealth was built and then maintained on the back of state-sponsored violence.” This lucid historical analysis of  modern economy or global capitalism is available in the former Greek Finance Minister’s brilliant Talking to My Daughter About the Economy. Or watch this fantastic lecture on the concept of money he gave at the Google HQ on 29 April 2016 called “And the Weak Suffer What They Must?

These two illuminating books are significant publications of 2017 and very worth reading!

*****

Scott Galloway is the founder of L2 Inc, teaches brand strategy and digital marketing and the NYU Stern School of Business.  He was named “one of the world’s 50 best business school professors” by Poets & Quants in 2012. He is also the founder of Red Envelope and Prophet Brand Strategy. He was elected to the World Economic Forum’s Global Leaders of Tomorrow and has served on the boards of directors of Urban Outfitters, Eddie Bauer, The New York Times Company and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Yanis Varoufakis is a former finance minister of Greece and a cofounder of an international grassroots movement, DiEM25, that is campaigning for the revival of democracy in Europe. He is the author of the international bestseller Adults in the Room, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, and The Global Minotaur. After teaching for many years in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, he is currently a professor of economics at the University of Athens.

6 December 2017 

An Interview with Publisher Michael Bhaskar on the Power of Curation

My interview with Michael Bhaskar, co-founder, Canelo was published in literary website Bookwitty on 24 January 2017. I am c&p the text below. ) 

Michael Bhaskar, co-founder and publishing director at Canelo, is known for being at the cutting edge of digital and traditional forms. Very active on Twitter with his perceptive comments on publishing, Bhaskar’s first book was the prize-winning monograph, The Content Machine. In his second book, Curation, he puts forth forceful arguments about the merits of curating content, especially to add value to businesses. His research focuses on the way digital technology is transforming the business and cultural context for publishing and other industries.

Bhaskar has been a British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur, a Frankfurt Book Fair Fellow and is currently a Visiting Researcher at the Oxford Brookes International Centre for Publishing.

Following are edited excerpts of an interview with Bhaskar:

Is there only one definition of “curation” as borrowed from art circles or after your research would you have a modern definition for the term?

Curation is interesting as the word, in English at least, has evolved. It came from the Latin ‘curare’ which meant to be take care of but eventually morphed into putting on and looking after museum and art gallery exhibitions. Then something interesting happened: about twenty years ago, with the web starting to become mainstream, the word curation suddenly started being applied to all kinds of things. Now we use it all over the place. The definition I use, and the definition I think most people intuitively understand, is that curation means ‘selecting and arranging to add value’. That, for me, is the modern understanding of the term.

How does curation, primarily a social skill, convert into financial capital?

I wouldn’t say curation is a social skill… for me it’s also about expertise, understanding, talent. The reason it’s so valuable today is that we are overloaded in so many contexts. Supply more just doesn’t work as a strategy. For example, just releasing another song or a book won’t work without some curation to make sure it finds its audience. Whenever you have a saturated market then, curation becomes invaluable to making sure it carries on functioning.

It is said content is the oil of the 21st century. How do you monetize curatorial abilities? The evidence in your book shows how companies, particularly Netflix, have benefitted tremendously but how can individuals?

There is no easy answer to this. I like to say that curation itself isn’t a business model but is baked into a business model. So Netflix wouldn’t work without curation, but it doesn’t get paid for it; it gets paid or providing people with the things to watch. The curation is kind of folded into the business model. The same is true if, for example, you run a shop. You get paid when people buy something, but the better curated your shop the more likely that is.

How is curation applicable to publishing? Are curatorial skills and the ability to discover dependent on the medium like digital or print matter?

We have far too many books in the world – one million new English language titles released every year. So publishers should be (and are) defined by what they say no to, by the choices that they make, by the careful, considered and highly curated nature of their lists. To me it’s this curatorial element that is central to publishing of all kinds and is only becoming more important.

With human behavioural patterns on the Internet changing rapidly and in the process transforming various social media platforms, the arguments about big data vs small data are gaining momentum. In this scenario how can the concept of curation be still important?

I actually think curation spans big and small data, human selections and automated systems: curation for me is broad and diffuse rather than narrow. So if you look at any of the systems and arguments you mention, they tend to come down to ways of selecting and arranging information, media and even people in various ways. Curation is at the heart of it! Almost every decision and project in digital media has the concept of curation at the heart of it – just look for example at the discussion of Facebook and the US election.

Is human touch / intervention important for curation or can it be left to machines and algorithms?

The truth is we need both. There is this tendency in the tech world to think technology will just take over. It won’t. We value that personal, idiosyncratic touch. We want to know about things precisely because they come from an individual. Yet in the age of big data this isn’t enough – to sift through millions of songs or newspaper articles, you need an algorithm. So the future isn’t about one or another but blends of both.

If curation adds value to a business why don’t we see more posts in firms for such a role?

A few reasons: one, because as I mentioned, it’s baked into the business model. So a buyer, or an editor, or a merchandiser, or an information architect, or a holiday planner, or a DJ: all of these roles are curators but we don’t call them that. Secondly I think we are seeing more such roles being created every day – all the big tech companies have been on a hiring binge for people in these roles over the past year.

Isn’t the ability to curate or access curated material exclusively a middle class phenomenon?

Partly. It’s true to say that it impacts on more affluent people more than less. But that doesn’t mean it’s not spreading because it is. Anyone with access to the Internet is experiencing these trends. Yes, there are a lot of people in the world without access – but fewer with every passing year. So while much of this curation is relevant only to the better off, the direct of travel is that is becoming more significant everywhere.

Doesn’t curation of information have inbuilt biases that may in the long term perpetuate prejudices?

It can do, which is why we need a strong distinction between good and bad curation. Good curation is that which breaks us out of prejudices and goes beyond filter bubbles, bad curation just confirms it. We need to become literate about the kinds of curation going on out there and watch for it closely.

You are at the cutting edge of curatorial abilities in publishing. What do you think lies ahead in publishing? Will business models transform?

I’d like to think the work we are doing at Canelo, the digital publisher I co-founded, indicates the direction of travel. We are a digital publisher, but carefully curated; we take the best of the old world of publishing but combine it with an embrace of new technology and methods; we have a completely redrawn contracts for authors, which we think are much fairer. We believe in digital but we also believe in writers and words. It’s this kind of mixing of the old and the new, the tried and tested with the innovative that I think is the future of publishing.

Michael Bhaskar Curation Piatkus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette, 2016. Pb. pp. 354. Rs 499 

24 January 2017 

Chris Riddell on the importance of reading out aloud

These pictures have been downloaded from Chris Riddell’s personal page on Facebook and shared with his permission. 

 

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c031The Scholastic India released the Kids & Family Reading Report on        2 Sept 2016 also stressed the importance of reading out aloud to children. It makes them into frequent readers. It also discovered that children who are given time for reading in school for independent reading at school are more likely to become readers than those who are not given the time. It also has many added advantages as highlighted in the accompanying graph. The report may be downloaded at: http://scholastic.co.in/readingreport .

4 October 2016 

Hanif Kureishi “Love + Hate”

Love + HateThe cultural collisions he [Powell] was afraid of are the affirmative side of globalisation. People do not love one another because they are ‘the same’, and they don’t always kill one another because they are different. Where indeed, does difference begin? Why would it begin with race or colour?

Racism is the lowest form of snobbery. Its language mutates: not long ago the word ‘immigrant’ became an insult, a stand-in for ‘Paki’ or ‘nigger’. We remain an obstruction to ‘unity’, and people like Powell, men of ressentiment, with their omens and desire to humiliate , will return repeatedly to divide and create difference. The neo-liberal experiment that began in the eighties uses racism as a vicious entertainment, as a sideshow, while the wealthy continue to accumulate. But we are all migrants from somewhere, and if we remember that, we could all go somewhere — together. ( p.166-7)

Hanif Kureishi’s latest book Love + Hate is a wonderful blend of essays, commentaries and some fiction. It marks a period of time wafting in and out of his life. The theme of the immigrant that is evident through much of his writing is noticeable here too. The publication of Love + Hate takes significant proportions given the media coverage about refugees fleeing conflict zones, economic crisis globally and the astounding reaction to this humanitarian crisis by some nation states. The concluding essay, “A Theft: My Con Man” is a deeply personal one. It is an account of Hanif Kureishi’s life savings being stolen by a con artist. I still remember the number of Facebook posts he posted the day he discovered the theft. Naturally he was distressed at discovering the loss. But this essay is a little calmer than the facebook posts since it was written a little later, when the author had had time to reflect, but it does not take anything away from the shockingly painful experience.

Read this anthology. It is an excellent commentary and a sobering reminder on what we are witnessing today has happened before. The horror is no less.

Hanif Kureishi Love + Hate: Stories and Essays Faber & Faber, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 220 Rs 799 

8 October 2015 

Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

jon-ronson-publicly-shamed‘I’m writing a book about public shaming,’ I told Clive. ‘With citizen justice we’re bringing public shame back in a big way. …’

If ever there was a chilling book on the impact of social media platforms, then Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tops the list. This book is about ordinary people who were publicly shamed through an ill-timed and foolish tweet or a Facebook post, which unfortunately went viral, resulting in the “shamed victim” losing their jobs and becoming a recluse. Jon Ronson began to write this book when his identity was hijacked by spambot. He managed to wrest his identity back only after having publicly shamed the team which had created the spambot, otherwise they were determined to keep the infomorph alive, asking Jon Ronson to “play along”. It was after this personal experience of having publicly shamed the creators of a robot version of himself did Jon Ronson realise the power of citizen justice and democratization of justice. But this incident made him decide “the next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer — the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way — I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.” ( p.10-11)

This is exactly what he did. He documented a range of people who had been publicly shamed — from bestselling authors like Jonah Lehrer ( who continues to be represented by literary agent Andrew Wylie) for making up stories about Bob Dylan; a politician who had concealed his sexual orientation was shamed into going public about it; Justine Sacco who sent a tweet with a racist overtone and a couple of young men attending a technology conference who posted a seemingly innocuous joke about a dongle but with sexist underpinnings. He tracked many cases, meeting many of those people involved. His findings are disconcerting. ( Jon Ronson, 12 February 2015 , NYT “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0 )

Many people who posted messages online did it on an impulse, under the mistaken belief the messages would be read by only their circle of acquaintances, familiar with their personalities. Little realising whatever content is created online rarely disappears and stoked by the mysterious ways in which the Google algorithms work posts can go viral with very unexpected consequences.  A link to a page or a post is like a nod of respect. If the page linking to the particular page has a lot of links to it then the page counts for more votes. The internet particularly social media platforms are like an echo chamber where the number of “likes” approving a post can push it to a high PageRank. “The Google algorithm prejudges them as well liked.” As Jon Ronson discovered the Internet is not necessarily about the individual but about the big companies dominating data flows of the Internet. It made Ronson wonder if companies like Google made money from destruction of Justine Sacco?

Could a figure be calculated? And so I joined forces with a number-crunching researcher, Solvej Krause, and began writing to economists and analysts and online ad revenue people. 

Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place – a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of $0.38 for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: 38 cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million people were searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $456,000. 

But it wouldn’t be accurate simply to multiply 1.2 million by $0.38. Some searches are worth far more to Google than others. Advertisers bid on ‘high yield’ search terms, like ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Jewellery’ and ‘Kenya vacations’. It’s quite possible that no advertiser ever linked their product to Justine’s name. But that wouldn’t mean Google made no money from her. Justine was the worldwide number-one trending topic on Twitter. Her story engrossed social media users more than any other that night. I think people who wouldn’t otherwise have gone onto Google did so specifically to hunt for her. She drew people in. And one they were there I’m sure at least a few of them decided to book a Kenya vacation or download a Coldplay album. 

I got an email from the economics researchers Jonathan Hersh. He’d come recommended by the people who make Freakonomics Radio on WYNC. Jonathan’s email said the same thing: “Something about this story resonated with them, so much so that they felt compelled to google her name. that means they’re engaged. If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue. Google has the informal corporate motto of “don’t be evil”, but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.’ 

In the absence of any better data from Google, he wrote, he could only ever offer a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation. But he thought it would be appropriately conservative — maybe a little too conservative — to estimate Justine’s worth, being a ‘low-value query’, at a quarter of the average. Which, if true, means Google made $120,000 from the destruction of Justine Sacco. 

Maybe that’s an accurate figure. Maybe Google made more, or possibly less. But one thing’s certain. Those of us who did the actual annihiliating? We got nothing. 

( p.263-4)

Given this disquieting discovery, it is not surprising companies such as reputation.com have been established. They offer a “strategic schedule for content creation and publication…create a natural-looking activity online…a lot of accumulated intelligence” with the purpose of creating a bland internet presence for a person, preferably moving the negative posts to pages beyond the first page.

While I write this blog post, noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has posted on his Facebook page a long note about  his latest Bollywood film, Bombay Velvet. Critics have not been kind about the film but as a Facebook post points out, “there is a bit of schadenfreude of bringing him down a peg or two. (a few of them have are his fanboys, by the way.)” Noted journalist, Poonam Saxena, says “the negative chorus around the film reminds me of a lynch mob.” There is a term for this — “virtual lynching”.

A simple fact easily forgotten when navigating one’s way through cyberspace is that usually an online identity is a real person. So the online activity on a person’s social media timeline is more often than not a direct projection of their real personality. Under the mistaken notion that the Internet is a place where anything can be said  people make the classic mistake of revealing more than they should, especially when speaking to strangers. Truth is that the same rules and etiquette that exist in real world must be observed online too. In fact to err on the side of caution would be preferable since nothing is ever lost on the internet. By strewing these careless digital breadcrumbs as many of the people shamed discovered to their horror get embedded in a vast and intricate “surveillance” network, i.e. the Internet. There will always be people who will not allow the shamed person to forget.

In fact the extract published in the New York Times earlier this year about Justine Sacco was shared by schools too to alert parents and students to the consequences of irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour online. This is a fabulously disquieting book meant to be read, discussed and shared.

Jon Ronson So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Picador, London, 2015. Pb. pp.280 Rs 599

17 May 2015

 

 

 

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

( I read Veena Venugopal’s fabulous book, The Mother-in-Law, in one sitting. Instead of posting a review online, I immediately wrote her an email.  It was a mad flurry of emails one morning. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. )

The Mother-in-Law8 July 2014

Dear Veena,

I finally finished reading your book. Earlier I had only dipped into it. But last night I sat up till well after 1am reading it through.

Fantastic work! Thank you for making these vices public and not making them only the purview of the Saas-Bahu serials.

What stomach-churning experiences you have recounted. What is horrifying is that these are real. You do not intrude into the narrative too much but without having the personal, how can you possibly write something like this? Everyone has a mother-in-law story. I wonder why you only stuck to the arranged marriage route? Unfortunately the 12 stories you include in book only confirm the MIL image as being a dragon, a nasty one at that too. (Bollywood is going to have a gala time using your stories for their films. Think about it.)

I have always maintained that the worst perpetrators of crimes and violence towards women are other women. Also the most manipulative, shrewd, wily and preservers of patriarchal traditions are women. I am not making excuses for men at all but stating a point of view I have evolved. This is after spending years of working in the development sector, with feminist publishing houses, engaging with women’s NGOs, mapping the women’s movement visually etc.

I am absolutely stunned by the impressive work you have done. It must have drained you to be privy to so many conversations, gently teasing out these narratives is not easy. For the reader they read smoothly but did you actually write these essays in one fell swoop? Surely you went back and forth. I ask since traumatised women tend to gloss over a lot of details or create these fictional bridges at the heart of which lies the truth. So to create a clear story as you have done calls upon some sharp journalistic skills and a sensitivity that is commendable. The women you have profiled too are brave to come forth and share their stories.

Years ago the newspapers used to carry regular news stories about dowry deaths. At least it kept the conversations about domestic violence alive. People may or may not have been sensitised to it. It resulted in the Domestic Violence Act and much more. But now that DV has been “addressed”, it has been wiped off the news pages, thus silencing a crime that continues to exist. I suspect it is getting worse with the greed for material comforts.  I have a theory and I have not tested it as yet. The more our society gains in creature comforts and the middle class is able to show-off its wealth, the women are fast becoming the victims to this new form of imprisonment–birds in a gilded cage. The women are bejewelled, wearing only branded stuff, splurging money on retail therapy, always smiling and available for chit-chat, gossip; ultimately representative in direct proportion to their family’s prosperity. It makes me gasp at times. I flinch internally when women with smiles plastered on their faces tell me “Oh, I am happy all the time”, but scratch the surface and stories come tumbling out. I see how well-educated, professional women have been mocked at by their husbands for pursuing their dreams. …their husbands have thrown money at them and said, stop working for measly amounts. If it is money you want, I will give you more but forget this job. Made the wives quit. Mostly made the women cite the reason of the children and family’s health. It makes me wince since I feel helpless. I do not know what to do about it.

Your book The Mother-in-Law gives a peep into the complicated world these middle class women inhabit. There are constraints that they have to take into account. There is no point in putting the women down for appreciating a bit of material comfort, but at the cost of being shackled to a mind-numbing degrading life baffles me. I am so glad you have written this book. You have made public the daily struggles most women go through to achieve these balances. Thank you for writing this book.

….

What truly saddens me is that these stories never end. It is a vicious cycle.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

 

Dear Veena,

A short postscript to what I wrote earlier.

I like the fact you kept reiterating that a supportive husband is very essential. Also laying down the ground rules early on in the marriage. If this book of yours can become a handy manual for young women on the threshold of marriage, I would be truly happy. More than that, I suspect it is the women/brides who have to be mentally and physically very strong to prepare for an Indian marriage. I liked it when you said aggressive feminism is here to stay. Unfortunately many young women of today seem to take much of the freedom they relish as “for granted”. They are unable to see the struggles many before them went through to achieve this basic freedom and dignity. Also it is like a mirage. It is there and yet not. It is the daily negotiations that are important to keep that flicker of breathing space available. For that to happen women need to be able to see the injustice and most importantly have a language to articulate it, without going off the handle. If only the grooming and etiquette classes held regularly included a component or two of gender studies/workshops on how to recognise and address silences. Not necessarily make these spaces in the activist mode but in a genteel manner, infused with forceful ideas. Otherwise the women who have signed up for the classes will run a mile!

I may be speaking in a garbled fashion for now but I simply had to send these emails off to you asap.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

PS A supportive and understanding husband is a rarity!

 

Thank you so much Jaya, it is heartening and encouraging to receive a mail like this from you.

The book was hard to write and I must confess I struggled with the voice right through it. I started my research for the book with Rachna’s story, when she had met Gaurav for the first time. I thought it hilarious, this very Rajinder Nagar mother-in-law taking her under her wing, going on shopping sprees and movie dates. And I assumed all the stories would be like that– a caricature of all the stereotypes of mothers-in-law that one hears about. It shocked me how quickly the stories turned dark. And as the year progressed, I began to worry about Rachna. I remember Copote was annoyed waiting for a verdict on the murderers so he could finish his book. I truly hoped Rachna would dump Gaurav and get out from Auntyjis iron fist even though it would mean that i wouldn’t be able to use her story.

And then I met Deepa and Nikita and Keisha and the stories kept getting worse and worse. Some of them are active on Facebook. Keisha for example is one. And if you saw her profile or read her posts you wouldn’t believe that she lived that life. I was very, very disturbed after meeting Keisha. And eventually came Arti and I couldn’t sleep for a week. Her story is the worst. And the strangest thing was how easy it was to find these stories.

The interviews themselves were spread over a period of time. I would ask them the same question in various different ways. I would point out inconsistencies in their telling of an incident. It was hard to ascertain the authenticity of their stories. I am sure if I spoke to their mothers-in-law I would have got their side of the story, but no one would have been honest knowing fully well that I had a channel of communication to their MIL. (Most of the stories were love marriages in fact. Only Lalitha, Arti and Rachna’s were arranged.)

I agree with you about violence in families. It is during the research for the book that I began to start railing against the term “fabric of Indian society”. Arun Jaitley used it a lot in keeping marital rape outside of the new rape law. The fabric of Indian society is a soiled rag, sadly, and I see no reason why it should be preserved. It is appalling the kind of abuse people take. With Keisha especially I kept wondering why. It is, I suppose, easy to be an uninvested third party and see clearly that she should have got out long ago. But she felt a certain urge to not worry her aunt, her grandmother. And I suppose because of the fact that her aunt didn’t marry in order to look after Keisha, she feels that love is necessarily an unconditional sacrifice. I see her now, she is the first to “Like” any post about the book. She was desperate to get copies of it. I think for her participating in the book was her final retribution. She gets a great degree of joy from the fact that her story is out there.

… I think I should use the book to build a community of daughters-in-law – give them a place to vent. At the end of the day, that’s what most people want – a forum where they don’t have to pretend that everything is hunky dory in their family. I just worry that i don’t have the bandwidth to run that along with my job. Like you said, these stories never end, and if just talking about it makes people temper their future behaviour, then it should be worth squeezing some time out for…Let’s see.

The ideal husband is a rarity, I know, but I’m hoping there are more mothers out there raising some than there were in the past.

Warmly

Veena

 

Dear Veena,

Do you realise that your interest in putting together a forum for women is to step into a vacuum left by many women organisations drifting away from this focus? It has been now over a decade but fewer and fewer women NGOs maintain helplines. The time required to listen and counsel victims/women and their community is a mind-numbing and thankless task. Also it is not recognised as a crucial need. I guess more of a social service. So there is no funding available for these activities. Your idea is a good one …Just remember to think this through. Helping women or any individual should not be a lifetime crutch, but a brief sounding board to help them address their challenges and to face the world. Otherwise you will be an emotional wreck.

I am not surprised at Keisha “liking” Facebook posts abt the book. There are many women who are in a much messed-up space. Sometimes, and I do not know if this makes me a coward, I simply do not want to know. The horrifying stories one sees more than hears is very depressing. I used the word “sees” advisedly. Many times you see these women trotting about all dolled up, but observe carefully and you will see the chinks. Try telling me that a slim gym-going figure, well-groomed, well-dressed young mother, carrying a new born infant in her arms and doing the school run with the older kid has not been put through pressure to look respectable to the outside world. It worries me about the women and for their children. And these are the middle class and nouveau riche I am talking about. It is equally worse for women of other socio-economic strata. I am not generalising.

Women’s movements have really painted women into a corner. It is only a clutch of women who can speak with confidence about injustices they experience or perceive. Others now have this dual burden of being a professional and efficient at home. This is where I feel your book is showing the chinks. Look at the amount of stress these women are subjected to?

…..

With warm wishes,

Jaya

 

Veena Venugopal The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. Pp. 264 Rs. 299.

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