Weekly news

Events:

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.

Dubai, 3-7 March 2015, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Attendees announced, including Mohsin Hamid.

Announcements:

Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great wins the Shakti First Book Prize.

DSC Prize for South Asian literature short-list announced. Read about it on The Guardian. (Honestly, if Kamila Shamsie wins, I will stop taking that prize seriously!)

The New York Times’ List of 100 Notable Books of 2014 is out, and features a handful of South Asian or South-Asian related authors: Ramachandra Guha, Vikram Chandra, Anand Gopal, Anand Ghiridharadas, Akhil Sharma.

What I’ve been reading:

‘On fact-free truths about golden ages’, by Akshai Jain, in Fountain Ink.

‘Kitaab interview with Shashi Deshpande’, by Zafar Anjum, on Kitaab.

‘Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: Allahabad’s Prodigal Poet’ by Mayank Austen Soofi, on Live Mint.

‘A very queer Ramadan’, by Lamya H, in Tanqeed.

New stories:

‘Rasha’, by Bangladeshi writer Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, in Words Without Borders.

Positions advertised:

Words Without Borders is looking for an experienced NYC-based editor.

Pakistani women’s writing

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2014.

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.

Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Delhi: Penguin India, 2013.
Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Delhi: Penguin India, 2013.

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.”

Uzma Aslam Khan, Thinner Than Skin. Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012.
Uzma Aslam Khan, Thinner Than Skin. Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012.

Weekly news

News:

DSC Prize for South Asian literature long-list announced. I’m disappointed that some big-name authors (of varying levels of mediocre) books have been included, as these threaten to overshadow the work of other lesser-known but very good authors. What I have liked about the DSC Prize in the past few years is its inclusion of a very wide variety of South Asian literature, from writing on South Asia by non-South Asian authors, as well as authors from and based in South Asia itself, originally written in English as well as translated into English. This is still evident in this long-list, but I hope the short-list is more discerning. And, now in its fifth year, I think it’s about time the top prize went to a woman, as it hasn’t yet, and South Asia is hardly short of female literary talent. Here’s the list.

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini (read my review here)

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (read my review here)

Helium, by Jaspreet Singh (review forthcoming)

The Gypsy Goddess, by Meena Kandasamy

Mad Girl’s Love Song, by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

The Mirror of Beauty, by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (review forthcoming)

The Scatter Here is Too Great, by Bilal Tanweer

A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie (regular readers will know how I feel about Shamsie’s work, and this novel is no different as far as I’m concerned! I have reviewed it, along with Fatima Bhutto and Uzma Aslam Khan, in the latest issue of Himal Southasian)

The Prisoner, by Omar Shahid Hamid

Noontide Toll, by Romesh Gunesekara

Call for papers:

South Asian Popular Culture journal, special issue on ‘Graphic Novels & Visual Cultures in South Asia’.

Articles I’m reading this week:

Report: Panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature” held in India’, by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, on Kitaab.

In the end, Pakistan champion Muhammad Iqbal had doubts about the Two-Nation theory’ excerpt from new book by Zafar Anjum on Iqbal, on Scroll.in.

Sufism: “a natural antidote to fanaticism”’ by Jason Webster, on the republication of an Idries Shah book about Sufism, on The Guardian.

Time for Peace’ by Salman Rashid, on the Asian Review of Books.

Events:

Mumbai: Tata Literature Live Festival begins this Thursday, 30th October.

Boston, New York, Austin, Houston, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco: throughout November (starting on the 1st) Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag will be touring US universities, followed by q&a sessions.

New issue of Himal Southasian

Himal Southasian 'Reclaiming Afghanistan' cover, March 2014
Himal Southasian ‘Reclaiming Afghanistan’ cover, March 2014

The new issue of Himal Southasian, the first for 2014 and titled ‘Reclaiming Afghanistan’, is nearly with us! Take a look at the preview on our website. In the coming month, a series of web-exclusive articles will be published on our website, and the hard-copy (containing different articles) will be available to purchase/subscribe to on our website shortly. Or, if you happen to live in Kathmandu or Delhi, they will also be available in several good book shops–including Bahrisons at Khan Market in Delhi, and all the big names in Kathmandu.

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.

Review of Return of a King by William Dalrymple (2013) in Himal Southasian 26.2

My review appears in the print edition of Himal Southasian, 26.2. Below is an extract:

History repeating?

Dalrymple’s detailed look at the first Anglo-Afghan war hypothesises parallels between then and now. But how many of these pass muster?

Return of a king

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842, William Dalrymple. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 567 + xl pages. ISBN: 978-1-4088-1830-5

William Dalrymple’s eagerly awaited Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842, is the third of the author’s major historical works that looks at the British colonialists in Southasia from a hybrid British-Southasian standpoint. It is the history of a war that the Afghans never forgot, that still lives in their collective and folk memory, but which Britain wilfully consigned to amnesia. And perhaps for good reason, from their perspective:

At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again, and at a time when traditional forces were everywhere being massacred by industrialised colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation.

The Great Game was at its height in 1839, and Britain was increasingly worried about the threat Russia posed to their imperial hegemony in Southasia. In response to faulty or misconstrued intelligence that Russia was taking an interest in Afghanistan, Britain invaded the latter with an army of some eighteen thousand. They deposed the ruling Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, a popular leader even in some contemporary British accounts, after he seemed to be becoming too friendly with the Russians. His defeat seemed remarkably simple. Shah Shuja, a deposed rival of Dost Muhammad’s who had been exiled in India for many years, was installed by the British as a puppet ruler. Entering the country proved easy, but staying and convincing the Afghans that they had a right to be there did not. The occupation was unpopular with the Afghan people, and resistance gathered behind Dost Muhammad and his cohort.

The rest of the article is available in Volume 26 No 2 of Himal Southasian, available to purchase here.

Packaging Commonwealth Literature

In August 2013, the Commonwealth Writers organisation announced that it was discontinuing the prize it had awarded since 1987 (first as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and then the Commonwealth Book Prize). Instead, they instituted the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Not long after, in September 2013, the Man Booker Prize was opened up to include all novels published in English in the UK, which effectively means it has been opened to US authors. Since 1969 it had only been open to writers from Britain and the Commonwealth. These are dramatic shifts in two of English-language publishing’s most prominent prizes, so what could all of this mean for South Asian literature? I would add the disclaimer here that these developments are largely only pertinent to South Asian literature in English, a booming but niche industry, especially within the region itself. However, I think the two announcements do potentially have a broader impact on South Asian literature in a range of languages.

The Man Booker Prize is “abandoning the constraints of geography and national boundaries”, said foundation chairman Jonathan Taylor, in an effort to enhance the prestige and reputation of the prize. Possible effects of opening the Man Booker Prize to American authors are obvious: there will be more competition for the prize. But it is the changing face of the Commonwealth Prize that provides the most complex and interesting commentary on the state of the literature business in 2013.

The Commonwealth Writers organisation itself has announced that the Short Story Prize will aim to “identify talented writers who will go on to inspire their local communities”. They also announced that the change would enable writers from countries where there is little or no publishing industry to enter, in languages other than English. One could perceive the change, then, to be altruistic. Short stories are often the way budding novelists begin. The presumption here is that the novel genre is the epitome of literary achievement (entirely debatable, subjective tastes aside), and that by encouraging the writing of short stories around the world, the future of diverse World Literature is being assured. Glancing down a list of past winners of the Commonwealth Novel Prize, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India emerge the most frequently. This over-representation of the metropole is not necessarily indicative of where actual literary talent lies, but is more to do with access to publishing centres. In this case, the Commonwealth Writers’ decision to move towards a supposedly more accessible format could certainly be seen as an encouraging, democratising move, the opposite of the Man Booker’s inclusion of American literature, which may have the effect of further marginalising Commonwealth literatures.

But it is also a rather strange move considering that short stories are harder to sell than novels. One could argue that the Commonwealth Writers organisation is not interested in profits for itself or its writers, that they would rather emphasise literary merit and develop talent around the world. But there is another side to this change in focus. Ahmedabad-based scholar of literature and translation theory, Rita Kothari, has written that in this era of print capitalism, anthologies of short stories tend to be pitched as “celebratory… user-friendly, ‘good-value-for-money’ kits that comprise ‘diverse’ voices.” It is possible that the Commonwealth Writers organisation will anthologise their finalists in some way, perhaps similar to Delhi-based publisher Katha’s annual collections of prize-winning translations from a wide range of Indian languages. Indeed, this would be a good idea, as one can imagine readers from London to Mumbai to Wellington picking up an anthology of short stories from Commonwealth countries, being attracted by the possibility of reading a story from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, or any other of the literarily under-represented countries. A compact kit of diverse voices, indeed, and good-value-for-money if locally priced.

There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with readers wanting such compact introductions to regions that had not been on their radar. But is that where engagement with other literatures—and thus other societies—stops? Will the prize’s new form really mean that writers from first-world Anglophone countries are at no more of an advantage than writers from South Asia or Africa or the Pacific Islands? Or will it just mean that western, Anglophone readers get a more diverse bunch to sample and feel good about ‘doing something’ about the problems of the world, how the ‘other half’ lives, by reading about them? That is a cynical view, but I am not alone in suggesting it.

In a September 2013 review essay in Open magazine, Devika Bakshi argues that the proliferation and popularity of novels about India—by Indian authors, nonetheless—based on the hackneyed trope of the ordinary folk struggling to make do in the dog-eat-dog, neoliberal world that is contemporary India amounts to “looking smugly through the peephole of education and privilege into ‘the world’ and patting oneself on the back for accurately characterising it, for being able to sum it up in so many words, to lay it bare and walk away, as though the mere act of documentation constitutes a resolution for whatever conflict is observed.” Bakshi is not suggesting that such books are written for a primarily Western audience, but that in the contemporary global marketplace—where India is the third largest producer and consumer of English-language books—the class position of readers is more pertinent than location per se. Bakshi believes that upsetting encounters between the (comparatively) wealthy writer and the poor subject leads to writers’ attempts to resolve the uncomfortable situation through penning fiction. When it seems that the task of tackling South Asia’s poverty and problems seems too large, fiction is a form of bearing witness. Bakshi’s view is not simply a snobbish dismissal of ‘bad’ books, as many books widely considered quite ‘good’ fit this category. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger comes to mind, as does Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, and that reviewed by Bakshi, Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory (and, of course, these books’ filmic counterpart, Slumdog Millionaire).

This trend seems to be particularly strong in India, as the liberalisation of its economy in the 1990s both stimulated the publishing industry there, and perceptibly widened the gap between rich and poor, providing fruitful material for such middle-class, metropolitan works of literature. But the trend is not limited to India, particularly if we look to diasporic authors, with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner being an Afghan example.

Bakshi’s critique focuses on the writer, but the reader, too, is part of this feel-good literary (non-) activism. Undoubtedly reading geographically widely can be enormously beneficial to one’s understanding of the world, of places that will not be known any other way. But geo- and publishing-politics are tied up with what people want to read. The most popular writers are not necessarily the most original, innovative or even ‘inspirational’ for their communities. The enormous success of Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003) is evidence of this. The author hit upon a topic that was appealing to western readers at the time—Afghanistan a couple of years after the US invasion—and was possibly just the best example of its type, rather than truly well-written or innovative on its own terms. It may have been inspirational to diasporic Afghans, but I find it difficult to believe it was an inspirational book to those within Afghanistan. The judges of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize must include a range of people knowledgeable of what is going on in literature within the countries that the nominations come from if it is to avoid selecting style over substance, the trendy over the long-term valuable, and ultimately a ‘dumbing down’ of literary quality throughout the world.

The enormous proliferation of literary festivals around South Asia in the past five years suggests the difficulties of striking a balance between literary merit and populist appeal. Literature is to be made appealing to the ‘masses’, but much literature is simply unappealing to them, so other means are sought to reel in large audiences and convince them that books are worthy of time and money. I do not wish to be misunderstood: I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in both 2011 and 2013 and thought it was an amazing event, so inspirational and exciting. But I am a middle-class, western, native Anglophone, and what I find inspiring in literature is likely to be vastly different from what the majority of South Asians (and other citizens of Commonwealth countries) do. Literary festivals can be inspiring to writers, intellectuals, scholars, teachers, but to spark interest (and attendance) from the ‘average citizen’, such festivals have opened up to include figures only tentatively considered writers.

A major figure at the 2013 JLF was Javed Akhtar, Bollywood screenplay writer; Oprah Winfrey drew massive crowds in 2012, and Gulzar, film-song lyricist, has made regular appearances. In 2011, Kathmandu’s NCell Nepal Literature Festival’s inaugural year, the festival’s magazine featured actor Rajesh Hamal on the cover. As the 2012 magazine’s editorial stated, putting an actor on the cover of a magazine purporting to be about books caught many by surprise: “our idea was to draw people’s attention to Rajesh Hamal, the reader and not Rajesh Hamal, the actor, thereby encouraging them to take up reading.” It seems that what ‘inspires’ many people is not literature at all, but other forms of entertainment. That is fine, and is the way it always has been. But is the Commonwealth Writers organisation naïve in thinking that privileging the short story will give more people access to literary inspiration? That short stories from the Commonwealth will be able to transcend that conception of ‘showcasing’?

There is nothing to say, of course, that the finalists for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition will fall into the voyeurism of the rich over the poor. However, the fact that the organisers wish to find authors who will inspire their communities runs the risk of fostering a developmentalist attitude that could lead to a dumbing-down of literary merit by finding ‘worthy’ or ‘representative’ authors. Bengali feminist literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has warned against mining the literature of the “third world” for its message rather than its merit. She warns that this happens when insufficient care is taken in translating, so that a type of “translatese” is developed, a phenomenon in which language is flattened and a Palestinian woman’s prose comes to resemble a Taiwanese man’s. Will the Commonwealth Short Story Competition be accompanied by a Commonwealth Translation Competition? Unless it is, the well-meaning aims of the organisation to encourage writers from a broader range of nations may end up contributing to the developments of Commonwealth literatures in ways they perhaps did not intend.

And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini (2013)

Andthemountainsechoed
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. New York: Riverhead Books, 2013. (Borrowed copy).

I am not a fan of Khaled Hosseini’s first book, The Kite Runner, but sometimes I feel that I’m the only person in the world to dislike the book (its convolution, implausibility, opportunism…) as it was so immensely popular. Sometimes you have to wonder if your own taste is flawed, particularly when people whose opinions on books you usually value can have such differing perspectives. But after reading And the Mountains Echoed I can confidently say that I am not a fan of Khaled Hosseini as an author. Much of this has to do with what I think he represents for western (particularly American) readers, a sort of “native informism” that isn’t properly ‘native’ (to put it very crudely) or informative. But that is a different rant and a different essay. Meta-criticism aside, And the Mountains Echoed was too sprawling and eventually flat.

It started very powerfully, demonstrating that on some levels, Hosseini can be a good storyteller. The narrator tells an old Afghan tale of a family forced to give up its youngest, most beloved child to a demon. The father goes mad with grief, but discovers in time that his lost child has been given a better life, and the rest of the family prospered, through the act of sacrifice. The moral is that sacrifice for the greater good is sometimes necessary, but also that one’s desires for possession can be selfish and that perhaps letting go of attachments is the right thing to do, if not always the easiest. And the Mountains Echoed brings this fable into the twentieth century, beginning in 1950s Afghanistan when a young village girl is bought from her family and beloved brother by a wealthy, bored, childless Afghan couple. She is promised a better life with her adoptive parents, which she does receive, but the ramifications of the displacement echo throughout generations. The search for lost history, roots, and family travels across continents–to the US, unsurprisingly, but also to Greece and France–and time, bringing the novel into the twenty-first century with a lot of meandering and jumping across the decades.

This search for that which has been lost is at the heart of the novel, but there is little else convincingly tying the 400 pages together. A non-linear narrative, as Hosseini has used, can be an effective way of creating suspense and keeping the narrative interesting. It is, though, an over-used device employed when there is not enough substance to the plot, characters, or other aspects of the novel to retain the reader’s interest. This felt like the case with And the Mountains Echoed. The more creative, surprising thing for Hossein to have done would have been to employ a linear structure. The power of the story, particularly the psychological traumas various characters face over many years, could have been retained this way, in fact heightened. This narrative ‘experimentation’ (and I use scare quotes because narrative non-linearity is hardly novel) is not a lone example of Hosseini being needlessly ornate. A large section of the novel is narrated through a letter, and the frequent references to and invocations of the reader of the letter, a Greek man implicated in the plot, are very tiresome and unnecessary. Hosseini seemed reticent to employ an omniscient narrator throughout his novel, even though the complex history and multiple characters and locations really called for one.

Multi-generational sagas that span continents can be impressive books, but only when they are done flawlessly. Hosseini, in And the Mountains Echoed threw in so many irrelevant characters that didn’t plausibly have any reason to care for the separation or reunification of the central family that, ultimately, I didn’t understand why I was being asked to care for this family, either. The potential emotional power that And the Mountains Echoed began with was completely lost through too many poorly executed literary flourishes.

New issue of Himal Southasian out now

Himal Q4 cover
The fourth quarterly issue was launched last week at the Bangalore literature festival by none other than Hindi film lyricist Gulzar, appropriate as the topic of the issue is Southasian film: “Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree”. The Nepal release was at the Film Southasia festival, a documentary film biennale held in Kathmandu.

If you live in Kathmandu or major Indian metros, you can find Himal in good bookshops. If you live elsewhere in the world, you can subscribe via the website.