Dispatch from JLF on Asymptote blog

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(L-R: Rahul Soni, Carlos Rojas, Jerry Pinto, Sachin Kundalkar, Geetanjali Shree)

A look back on the “Woodstock, Live 8, and Ibiza” of world literature

“The Jaipur Literature Festival, which just hosted its tenth edition, has been called “the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding.” In 2013, over a quarter of a million footfalls were recorded, with 2014 promising even higher numbers. Travelling to the JLF this year (my third festival visit) from Kathmandu on a work-related trip, I attended days two, three and four. The full programme, over the course of five days, featured over 200 sessions in six venues. This year’s poor weather may have dampened things (quite literally) thanks to chilly thunderstorms throughout north-western India on day five and cold temperatures and fog on the other days—but the uncomfortably large crowds continued to congregate, turning the Diggi Palace grounds into something akin to Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station during rush hour.”

Read the rest at the Asymptote blog.

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Year of Reading Women

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(Bookmarks by Joanna Walsh)

2014 has been designated the Year of Reading Women on a couple of fronts: Critical Flame journal has designated 2014 a year in which they will only read and publish in women writers and writers of colour; Joanna Walsh has started the #readwomen2014 campaign.

I am probably in an opposite situation to many readers out there: for the four years that my PhD lasted, I read books almost exclusively by Indian women (apart from a few scholarly books), so when I’d done with the PhD I promised myself that I would read a bit more broadly, including plenty of men!

But I’m aware that the literary and publishing establishment the world over still favours men, white men at that. Not always deliberately or consciously, but nevertheless (statistically speaking, anyway) books by women authors receive less attention than books by male authors.

Unlike the Critical Flame journal who got the ball rolling, and some other readers and bloggers out there, I’m not going to pledge to read more female authors of colour this year, because I really do think I read plenty–ie, the majority of what I read. But I read a good piece on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recommending a book by an Arab woman author for every month of the year, as a way in for those readers who perhaps don’t know where to start.

So here are my recommendations for South Asian women’s books to read this year:

January: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History. I’m not of the opinion that women should always write exclusively about women, as even feminists of some persuasion do. Thapa writes cleverly and humorously about the political and social turmoil of contemporary Nepal, showing that women writers can have enormous breadth of experience and imagination.

February: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man/Cracking India. This Pakistani author’s fictionalised account of her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947 is published under two different titles. It is a brutal account of the horrors of communalism.

March: Anjum Hasan, Lunatic in My Head. This young author from India’s Northeastearn Meghalaya state wittily brings together small town and metropolitan India.

April: Mahasweta Devi, Breast Stories. You can’t go wrong with anything by Mahasweta Devi, but this powerful collection from the fierce Bengali author is a good place to start.

May: Yasmine Gooneratne, A Change of Skies. This Sri Lankan-Australian author wrote about the immigrant experience before Jhumpa Lahiri et al made it fashionable (one could even say passe…)

June: Sorayya Khan, Noor. Khan was one of, if not the first Pakistani English-language novelist to address (West) Pakistan’s crimes in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971.

July: Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day or Baumgartner’s Bombay. This prolific Indian author has many short novels to her credit, and has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, though she has never won. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker in 2006 though, with The Inheritance of Loss. Many consider the mother the better writer, and these two suggestions, amongst her best loved, are good places to start.

August: Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel. Hariharan is also a prolific author, with many good novels. This recommendation is a retelling of the classic Thousand and One Nights.

September: Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The only work of non-fiction to make this list, Butalia’s work of oral history is a stunning and groundbreaking work of feminist oral history.

October: Qurratulain Hyder, My Temples, Too. This Urdu-language Indian author translated her novels into English herself, which many critics say altered them enormously in the process. Several of her novels are sprawling histories, but the English translation of her first novel, My Temples, Too, about India’s Independence, is quite accessible.

November: Meena Kandasamy, Ms Militancy. The only collection of poetry to make this list (I don’t read much poetry), Kandasamy’s fierce anti-caste and anti-patriarchy poems live up to the collection’s name.

December: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. If there’s one novel by a South Asian woman that the wider world is likely to have read, it is this Booker Prize winner. If you haven’t already, you can still fit it in in December!

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 4

Day 4 of the JLF 2014 brought sunnier skies, meaning that sitting around outside became much more pleasant. It was also a Monday, so much of the throng had returned to Delhi (or wherever else from whence they came), making movement between venues at Diggi Palace less of a scrummage.

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(Vikram Chandra and Adrian Levy)

At every festival there are people who you’ve penciled in to see, and those who you end up listening to because you have a free hour and have managed to secure a seat. Sometimes these latter prove to be revelations, introducing you to writers not otherwise on the radar. Adrian Levy (in conversation with Vikram Chandra, whose epic Bombay gangster novel Sacred Games I am a big fan of) was one of these finds for me, not least because I had a long chat with him over dinner this same night and he proved to be a thoroughly nice man. Levy, with his partner Cathy Scott-Clark, has most recently written The Siege, a non-fiction work on the 26th November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. Most of the session was spent discussing his main ‘protagonist/antagonist’ (my term, not his) David Hedley, a fascinating and complex creature. As Vikram Chandra described him, “If I had made him up and put him in one of my novels, nobody would have believed him.”

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(Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours)

My Himal Southasian colleage, Aunohita Mojumdar, appeared in the next session, ‘Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours’, along with representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. The chair, a former Indian diplomat, opened by saying that while India might be an elephant, elephants are widely loved, gentle creatures. Aunohita rightly pointed out that they also have a tendency to crush things in their path, indiscriminately.

This afternoon was also spent at the Bookmark event for publishing professionals. As I wrote yesterday, this was industry-related, so while it was interesting and important for those in the industry, I don’t think it needs South Asia Book Blog’s special attention. Being our last evening in Jaipur, we stayed for the entertainment at Clarks Amer hotel, and I’m glad we did: the fabulous Tuarag band from Mali, Tinariwen, played for about an hour. After some lovely conversations with writers over dinner in the delegate lounge, I was sorry to be leaving the festival a day early, having to travel back to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu the next day. Despite the excellent networking opportunities for work, there were so many interesting people I didn’t get to see. Gloria Steinem! Nadeem Aslam! Robyn Davidson! But, we woke up the next day to torrential rain and thunder storms, which lasted all the way through Rajasthan and into Delhi, so in the end praised our own good foresight at calling it quits when we did.

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Jaipur Literature Festival 2014, Day 3

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I kicked off day three of the JLF, my second, with a well-attended but not oppressively crowded session called ‘Beauty and Fidelity: Texts in Translation’, featuring a Chinese-English translator (Carlos Rojas), a Hindi author (Geetanjali Shree), her English translator (Rahul Soni–also Asymptote literary journal’s India editor-at-large), a Marathi author (Sachin Kundalkar) and his English translator (Jerry Pinto). The pairing of the authors with their translators made for fruitful discussion, as did the addition of somewhat of a wildcard, Carlos Rojas.

The panel immediately discarded the topic, which summarised that old adage of translation (“that translations are like women: either beautiful, or faithful”) and, as Jerry Pinto stated, is both offensive to translators and to women. Having not heard of Marathi-language author Sachin Kundalkar, I was enticed into buying the English translation of his novel Cobalt Blue by the wit that both he and his translator, Pinto, displayed. A favourite anecdote of mine was when Kundalkar told how the Marathi and English versions of the novel have reached different audiences. The young weren’t drawn to the Marathi version, but he now gets messages from youngsters saying how much they enjoyed his book and look forward to the Marathi translation!

The second session of day 3, ‘Dispensable Nation: Afghanistan after the US Withdrawal’ (with a panel of scholars, writers and journalists specialising in Afghanistan, and moderated by William Dalrymple) was so crowded that I was sat on the ground a metre from the stage. Despite the fact that I could only see Dalrymple’s face and could barely make out any voices because of my awkward proximity to the side of the speakers, I would have endured the full session had there not been a freezing cold, foggy wind. So I went book shopping instead. Several others I spoke to after the session were disappointed that William Dalrymple tended to dominate the discussion with his war-horse stories of Afghanistan.

Being a huge fan of Urvashi Butalia, I attended her session ‘Savage Harvest’ with Navtej Sarna, the son of an eminent Punjabi author who wrote about Partition. Translation was once again pointed to as a necessary way of disseminating forgotten or ignored experiences, and the fact that Partition literature can still be discussed in such terms six and a half decades after the event shows how much more needs to be done.

In the afternoon I attended the parallel event that was being hosted this year: Bookmark, held at the nearby Narain Niwas, an effort to get publishing professionals together to talk about challenges and opportunities that the industry faces. By all appearances it was a small event this year, and attended mainly by small publishers, but the event is something that the JLF organisers will be trying to develop in future years. The discussions–from Indian and international publishers, editors, book-sellers, and so on–were more specialised and industry-focused than many of those held at the Diggi Palace, but for people with any interest in the industry it was a welcome opportunity to interact with other professionals. And the calm of the Narain Niwas grounds was more than welcome.

Fragments of Riversong review in the Asian Review of Books

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Fragments of Riversong, by Farah Ghuznavi. Dhaka: Daily Star Books, 2013. (Author supplied review copy).

Find my review of Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi’s debut short story collection Fragments of Riversong at the Asian Review of Books.

Here’s a preview:

“Although Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi’s stories and flash fiction have earlier been published in various Bangladeshi and international publications, and she has edited Lifelines, a 2012 collection of short stories in English from Bangladeshi authors, Fragments of Riversong is the first collection entirely her own. Seven of Fragments of Riversong’s twelve stories had been previously published elsewhere.

One of Ghuznavi’s missions is to represent, as well as promote, Bangladeshi fiction in English…”

Read the rest here.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 2

The biggest perk of my job in Kathmandu so far has been a last-minute trip accompanying my boss to the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival. I returned from a three week holiday to Australia and Cambodia fully expecting to wallow in the rest of the Kathmandu winter, barely enduring tepid bucket showers and twelve-hours-a-day power cuts, missing my partner, with few lights on the horizon expect the monsoon season and hot showers again.

Less than two weeks later I’m in Jaipur, staying in 5 star luxury at the ITC Rajputana! And doing two of my most favourite things–being in India (all the better, Rajasthan) and being bookish.

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(The lobby of my home for four nights, the ITC Rajputana hotel)

Being a work trip, we haven’t come for the full five days of the festival, and I’m busy jumping around between sessions so haven’t been able to do the same amount of reporting as I did for the 2013 JLF (see day 1 here, day 2 here, day 3 here, day 4 here, and day 5 here). My experience of the festival this year has been somewhat different, but I think that’s worth reporting in itself.

Our first day at the festival was day 2, Saturday. The crowds are even worse this year, and there are 6 different stages at the Diggi Palace, as well as a separate publishing event, Bookmark, being held at Narain Niwas a short drive away. The crowds have been crippling: it was always the case that if you weren’t early for a session, you wouldn’t get a seat, but now there isn’t even standing room if you don’t arrive early. Surely the organisers will have to start seriously thinking about this for future years, either by setting it in alternative or parallel venues, or perhaps introducing some kind of token fee system for some sessions.

Day 2 began, for me, with an interesting session on the global novel, featuring Ethipian-American writer Mazaa Mengiste, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, and Chinese-British Xiaolu Guo, and moderated by Chandrahas Choundhury. The whole gamut of perspectives on that slippery term ‘global literature’ were put forward. Jhumpa Lahiri stated the common opinion (among literary and academic types, anyway) that ‘global’ is a current marketing term for literature and music, and that perhaps ‘international’ or ‘universal’ is more apt for the kind of literature being discussed. Mazaa Mengiste shared a different opinion, telling the audience about a cousin of hers who moved from their home country to Italy, and then Bulgaria, and finally the US, and is now a filmmaker. This kind of ‘global’ citizen is the person writing truly global literature, sharing experiences and entering language worlds that are beyond simple marketing categories. Jim Crace held a much more simplistic perspective, stating that, to him, global literature is that which intrigues readers from outside, that gives the broader world an insight into Nigeria or Poland or Brazil. But, as Jonathan Franzen rightly suggested, this perspective runs the risk of being simply a nostalgic exoticisation.

Other highlights of day 2 were the horrendously cliche-titled panel ‘Behind the Veil’ which brought together women writers from Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Somalia, moderated by the ever-wonderful Urvashi Butalia; and a discussion between talented Nepali author Manjushree Thapa, new Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi (see my review of her short story collection Fragments of Riversong in The Asian Review of Books), and Indian feminist publisher Ritu Menon. Someone had pointed out to me earlier in the day that it seemed as if women writers were being put together, leaving the ‘general’ or ‘mainstream’ panels male dominated. This may be true to some degree, but these panels consisting entirely of women were very well attended, and one young lad was brave enough to ask “why don’t more men support feminism?” A good question, which prompted just wry smiles.

Palpasa Cafe, Narayan Wagle (2005, English translation 2008)

Palpasa Cafe
Palpasa Cafe, by Narayan Wagle. Translated from the 2005 Nepal novel of the same title by Bikash Sangruala. Kathmandu: Nepa-laya, 2012. (Purchased in Nepal).

The collective literary wisdom in Kathmandu seems to be that there is a serious dearth of willing, let alone good, Nepali-English translators. Indeed, Narayan Wagle, in his acknowledgements in the English version of Palpasa Café, writes: “This novel was translated by Bikash Sangruala. Unfortunately, the lack of skilled and enthusiastic translators in Nepal is one reason Nepali literature is not more often published in foreign languages.” I know I am not alone in interpreting this as Wagle’s dig at the quality of this particular translation.

But this time I’m not subscribing to that common disclaimer that the quality of this book could be down to the difficulties of translation. Palpasa Cafe is simply a bad novel, and it’s quite clear that even the best of translators couldn’t have rendered it good.

The novel is set some time in the early 2000s, in the midst of Nepal’s ten year long Maoist insurgency. The protagonist and narrator is an artist from Kathmandu, largely shielded throughout the war from its worst effects. He falls in love with a mysterious woman named Palpasa. A friend of the narrator’s is a Maoist sympathiser, and invites him to the hills to witness all that is happening. He thinks that his art can help bring about, and reflect, revolutionary transformation. Events are witnessed, tragedies occur, life lessons are learnt.

I don’t wish to be flippant about the topic of the novel, because it is important. Nepal suffered, it still does, and fiction is one powerful way of telling and disseminating serious issues. But Palpasa Cafe just doesn’t work. Wagle–one of Kathmandu’s most prominent journalists–tries to stretch thin characters too far, rolls out important descriptions of poverty and insurgency in the hills far too quickly and superficially, and relies too heavily on dialogue. Pages and pages and pages of dialogue. Dialogue is used to expose much of the political debate at the heart of this novel (and at the heart of Nepali society), which makes it come across as diatribe, polemic:
“‘Most of the people who’re being killed are representatives of the old power elite. True, some innocent people are getting caught in the cross fire,’ he conceded. ‘But consider how the crisis first arose. Wasn’t it the state which drew first blood? Didn’t the state first arrest, torture and kill unarmed people?'” (p. 92)
And it’s not even good, convincing dialogue. People simply don’t talk like this:
“Though you fall into the reactionary camp, I feel it’s my duty to show you the right path because you’re a creative person and I believe there’s some hope for you.” (p. 96)
I’m willing to concede that this stilted manner of speech may be the fallout of translation, but it’s the only concession I’ll make to a novel with a weak plot, cliched characters and, despite all obvious intentions to the contrary, a banal outcome.

Ironically, a passage of Palpasa Cafe reads:
“I wasted my time reading a bad Nepali novel, a recent release. It took real effort to finish it. It had nothing new in substance or style. I would’ve been better off watching a movie, going to a restaurant or visiting Nagarkot or Kakani. I prefer Kakani to Nagarkot because it’s closer to the mountains and windier; my imagination runs free in the breeze. Standing on a windy hillside, I feel far away from Kathmandu. But the badness of the novel truly upset me. Why had I wasted my money on it? I couldn’t sleep and spent the while night painting. It was morning before I finally went to sleep.” (p. 45)

Nepali-language literature must have greater depths than Palpasa Cafe, and growing its international recognition not just a matter of cultivating competent translators: it’s about choosing the right books to translate.