So, along with last week’s announcement that I will be taking up the role of Assistant Managing Editor at Kitaab, I would like to announce the launch of my brand new travel writing blog: http://www.wildernessmetropolis.com
I’m sure to be kept busy, between the literary writing and editing and the travel writing. Please head on over to Wilderness, metropolis and take a look, there will be more and more South Asian content added in the coming weeks. Thanks everyone!
I have recently been given the role of Assistant Managing Editor at Kitaab, a website with the aim of promoting Asian literature in English. I’ve had a few reviews published there before, and now I’ll be taking on a bigger role.
Which means this blog is going to go into hiatus for a while. I may return to it one day, but right now my interest in, and concern to promote, South Asian literature will be met by the role with Kitaab. I encourage you all to follow the Kitaab site, and to look out for me!
Nepal is a country about which there is an extremely warped image in the minds of outsiders. The stereotypes do not need repeating, because anyone who has not been to Nepal but has given the country even a cursory thought, knows what they are. There is also very little literature available outside of South Asia that engages with the country in any meaningful way—Canadian-Nepali Manjushree Thapa’s fiction and non-fiction being notable exceptions. Therefore, it is refreshing and promising when non-Nepalis with an extensive knowledge of the country turn to literature to record their experiences.
Joe Niemczura’s The Sacrament of the Goddess and Martin David Hughes’ Jaya Nepal! are two fictionalized accounts of American aid workers’ experiences in Nepal, published by small North American presses. They both have at their heart naïve young men with the best of intentions, who find love and friendship in Nepal. Both Niemczura’s protagonist Matt and Hughes’ protagonist Ben end up working in Nepali hospitals—Matt in the small town of Beni (the site of a large battle between Maoists and the Nepali army in 2004) in the Annapurna region, and Ben in an improbably-named settlement on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Pepsicola Townplanning. Both men have experienced love and heartbreak, the underlying reason for their being in Nepal.
My review of Mohammad A. Quayum’s The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain has just been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.
Here is an extract:
Born in 1880 in what is now Bangladesh, and having died in Calcutta in what was still undivided British India in 1932, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (whose name can be spelt in a variety of ways) has come to be known as one of Bengal’s first feminists. She is particularly known as one of its first Muslim feminists, especially for writing Sultana’s Dream, a “utopian” novella in which women rule and men are kept in purdah. With The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, editor and translator Mohammad A. Quayyum adds to the body of scholarship on this interesting figure, with some previously-untranslated essays, articles, letters and extracts in translation from Bangla as well as some that were originally written in English. Quayyum describes the inclusions as some of Hossain’s best works.
Gangtok, Sikkim Winter Carnival, 14th-19th December. Various cultural and other events around the town.
Delhi, Friday December 12th, 6.30pm, at the India International Centre. Radhaben Garwa, author of Picture This!: Painting the Women’s Movement, a visual history of the rural women’s movement in Kutch, will be present with her sakhis from the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, speaking with Anjolie Ela Menon, Vimala Ramanchandran and Farah Naqvi. There will also be an exhibition of Radhaben’s pictures.
New York, Wednesday December 10th, 6pm. ‘Around the Globe: International Diversity in YA Writing’. At the New York Public Library, main branch. Featuring Indian author Padma Venkatraman, among others. RSVP here.
Canberra: Saturday December 6th, 10am-5pm, Christmas drinks at The Asia Bookroom. Japanese Shakuhachi performance, 12-1pm.
What I’ve been reading:
‘Documentaries do not always have to be didactic, says Farida Pacha’, by Sweta Kaushal, in The Hindustan Times.
‘Persian Letters’, by Kevin Schwartz, in Reorient.
‘Stand Up For Your Rights’, by Sabin Iqbal, in Tehelka. Discusses CK Janu, an Adivasi leader from Kerala, who is the subject/author of an interesting book, Mother Forest, that I have written about, academically.
‘The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer-review’ by Hirsh Sawhney, on The Guardian.
‘In a complicated relationship with a book’, by Paromita Vohra in Mid.Day. I have one of those reclining reading ladies 🙂
‘The 2013 SAARC Festival of Literature’, in La.Lit. The SAARC summit is currently being held in Kathmandu, and this article–along with so many other non-literary stuff I’ve been reading–points out what a white elephant the organisation is.
‘Book Review: Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess is Undercut with Anger”, by Aishwarya Subramanian, in The Hindustan Times.
‘Funny Moments From India’s Litfest Carnival Circuit’, by Arunava Sinha, on Scroll.in.
Himal Southasian, Kathmandu, seeks Assistant Editors. Take this from someone who has done this, it’s a great experience and a lot of fun. Salary, however, is below subsistence level, important to know from the outset.
I devoured this in about three days when I had lots of other work I should have been doing. ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ is a wonderful, honest account of a young woman’s encounter with an alien culture that she hadn’t been all that interested in coming face-to-face with, and it was that honesty from the outset that made me like, and empathise with, Elizabeth Enslin.
A young anthropology student in the 1980s, Enslin meets her future husband Pramod while at grad school. She had intended to specialise in some part of Africa, but as Pramod becomes an increasingly important part of her life, she switches academic tack and forces herself to become interested in South Asia. Her descriptions of the confusion and desperation of finding your path through grad school is so relatable to anyone who has been through this themselves. Her attempts to combine her research and love interests leads her to the Nepali Terai–the plains bordering India–where her husband’s family live. She admits never having been drawn to Nepal, even while her peers were taking themselves off on pilgrimages to the mountains, and this is something I feel an affinity with. After having lived in Kathmandu for a year myself, I feel a strong attachment to the country now, but while I loved India and was constantly drawn back to it, I still am, it was really only my job in Kathmandu that took me there, and it might have taken me several more years to make it there if not for the job. I still don’t entirely understand the stereotypical hippy-trail pull of Nepal, and neither did Enslin.
While the Gods Were Sleeping is Enslin’s account of how she trod the very tenuous line between Nepali daughter-in-law and foreign anthropologist, how she had to make enormous compromises and sacrifices in both roles, but was ultimately successful–in that way that ambitious, talented women often are–in making it all work, imperfect as it was.
Although the sub-title of this book–‘A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal’–is actually perfectly descriptive of what transpires, as Enslin is involved with some women’s movements in Chitwan, knowing what I do of Nepal, I thought it meant the Maoist insurgency. In fact, the book is set some years before that, in the 1980s, but it was only when I was quite a long way into it that I realised that particular rebellion had no part in the story. It’s a minor thing which might not bother a reader who knows less about the country, but I thought it was unnecessarily misleading.
Anthropology is a discipline that, as a student of literature and history, I was always taught to be suspicious of, and I admit that I still am, even after completing a PhD at an institution in which it was strong. While the Gods Were Sleeping, while not an overt critique of the discipline, certainly raises a lot of the issues that we should be suspicious of, particularly those concerning neo-imperialist attitudes. Even as a pretty savvy young scholar, Enslin had some rather naive beliefs that can be largely attributed to the need for an academic to structure their work in a particular way to meet funding requirements and so on. For example, Enslin writes:
“When I switched from Africa to India, I had hoped to base my work in an area where there would be a clear divide between oppressors and oppressed, and some grassroots movement welling up from the latter. When I gave up on India and resigned myself to Nepal, I knew the grassroots movement would be hard to find but still hoped for some line between the haves and have-nots.” (p. 89)
Enslin was approaching Nepal as somewhere that didn’t fit the parameters that she required for her PhD study, that failed to rise up and meet her, rather than vice versa. But, to her credit, she recognises this in hindsight and that’s what makes her account the nuanced, self-reflexive study that it is. She writes, later:
“I grew to love that concept of culture the way I loved my Swiss army knife. If culture, rather than human nature, made us who we were, there was nothing natural or inevitable about racism, hate, war. With a concept of culture, we anthropologists could fix anything, or at least explain it. But too deep a love can disappoint, and that concept of culture had so far mostly failed me in Nepal. Ever since my first arrival, Pramod’s family and village had offered a perfect opportunity for intimacy with another culture. My pregnancy offered even more. Even when I didn’t plan research there, I should have been more curious. Yet all along disappointment nagged at me: these Brahmans I lived among were not the kind of Others I had in mind when I decided to become an anthropologist.” (p. 120).
Enslin is the author of an influential academic essay, ‘Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limits of Ethnography’, which I have been encouraged to read after reading this book.
While the Gods Were Sleeping is not a ‘mainstream’ book that a large number of readers will be able to identify with, but anyone with an interest in real South Asian issues, feminism, athropology and the developing world will find it immensely satisfying.
My review essay of three recent novels by Pakistani women–Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin–has just been published in the latest print edition of Himal Southasian. This isn’t available online for free–although many other great articles are on the Himal website–but hard copy and digital issues can be purchased on the website.
The same issue also includes an excellent review of Kaushik Barua’s Windhorse, a novel about Tibet, written by my friend and ex-colleague, Scottish writer Ross Adkin. Ross’ fiction has featured in an earlier issue of Himal.
Below is an extract from my review. I have also reviewed two of these novels, Bhutto’s and Khan’s, on this blog.
“For a few years, Pakistani English literature has been on the verge of a ‘boom’; not quite an explosion, but what scholar of contemporary Pakistani literature Claire Chambers has called a ‘flowering’. While the hoped for (from the Pakistani side, at least) equation with the Indian English literature boom that began around 30 years ago may be far from materialising, Pakistani writers are consistently bringing out new works, particularly novels, in English. Internationally best-known among them are Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, and if we are to include a British author for Pakistan (India claims Salman Rushdie, so why not?), Nadeem Aslam. But, this boom-set is not limited to male writers. A small crop of successful and acclaimed Pakistani female writers are creating significant work, including Uzma Aslam Khan, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsie.
With Shamsie’s latest novel, A God in Every Stone, having been published earlier in 2014, her inclusion in Granta’s 2013 collection of the top 20 British writers under 40, the release of Bhutto’s debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon in late 2013, and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin nomination for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, now is a good time to take stock of this ‘growth’ in Pakistani women’s literature by looking at three recently published novels: Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, and Khan’s Thinner than Skin.”