Secret Places: New Writing from Nepal, ed. Frank Stewart, Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa (2001)

Another gem courtesy of the Canberra Lifeline Book Sale. This special edition of Manoa, a literary journal produced by the University of Hawai’i, is one of the few collections of contemporary (well, reasonably) Nepali writing that I have come across. It contains essays, poetry, short stories, most in translation from Nepali, and photographs. I found it a refreshing collection because, for all my familiarity with Indian literature, Nepali literature has slipped beneath the radar.

Some of the reasons for this are outlined in Manjushree Thapa’s essay, meant as an introduction to this collection (and I’ll come to that again later), called “Reaching One’s Own People, Reaching the World.” Here she traces the progression of modern Nepali literature, which has a comparatively short history, having developed from the mid-nineteenth century. As a literary scholar I found this the most interesting piece in the collection. Literature is rarely something done by an isolated, brilliant intellect disconnected from the practicalities of the real world. Thapa outlines:

“The economic situation in Nepal, one of the poorest countries of the world, also works against the development of its literature. Nepal’s undeveloped and disorganized economy–a mix of agrarian and market systems that keep half the population below poverty level–provides scant reward for the literary writer. The few publishers who are willing to print fiction and poetry offer no royalty payments; more often than not, writers must subsidize their own publication. To support themselves, even the most established writers work as teachers, bankers, lawyers, newspaper columnists, accountants, and editors–or they must rely on patrons or family wealth. For most writers, the purchase of books is beyond their means, and in any case, few books are available in the country. It is humbling to think that almost all Nepali literature is still labouriously written and revised by hand on foolscap sheets.” (p. 68)

Humbling indeed, when one considers that next-door neighbour India is experiencing a publishing boom.

Other themes that emerge through the essays, short stories and poetry of Secret Places are the oppression of women, and the poverty of the countryside. Maya Thakuri’s short story “Trap,” translated from Nepali, is a particularly poignant and memorable story about the trafficking of women and girls for sex work, a major problem in Nepal.

The Nepali content of Secret Places is excellent, but the editing of the volume overall is simply baffling. Despite the sub-title “New Writing from Nepal,” the fact that a picture of a Nepali temple adorns the front page, and that beautiful black and white photographs of Nepal by Linda S. Connor are interspersed throughout the volume, Secret Places also contains some writing from Japan, Korea and elsewhere. Not in a separate section, but dispersed throughout the Nepali writing. Surely Special Issue means Special Issue, not partly-Special Issue? The worst aspect of this editorial decision was that Thapa’s essay mentioned above, that clearly acts as an introduction to the volume, appears on page 67. Some of the writing she introduces has already been read! Perhaps the editors weren’t anticipating anyone sitting down and reading this journal as a book, from front to back, as I did.

This layout was frustrating and annoying, but did not completely detract from the pleasure of being introduced to this varied literature from a place still under-represented on the world literary scene. It was published quite a long time ago now, in 2001, shortly after Nepal had been through a period of immense turmoil stemming from the murder of several members of its royal family. I hope this collection has not been, nor will be, a one-off.

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Elen

Travel writer at www.wildernessmetropolis.com. Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

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