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.

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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!

Big Girl Now/ Neti Neti, Anjum Hasan (2010)

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I first encountered Anjum Hasan through her story in Zubaan’s 2007 collection of young, female Indian writers’ work, 21 Under 40: New Stories for a New Generation. In a generally impressive anthology, Hasan’s “Like a Scene from All Those Movies” is certainly a standout, reflecting on the different, often contradictory pulls that young, educated Indians are facing at the present-tradition, westernisation, the lure of the big city. Her introspective, slightly cynical tone appealed to me, and when I was in India last I saw her speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival and picked up a copy of her first novel, Lunatic in My Head. Big Girl Now is (the Australian title of) a sort of sequel to that first novel, the genesis of which can be clearly seen in that earlier story, “Like a Scene from All Those Movies”. It identifies Hasan as one of the most promising, unique and attractive of contemporary Indian writers (along with Githa Hariharan, I would say, though she is a generation older than Hasan, and has been active for quite some time).

I said that Big Girl Now is the Australian title of this book, because it was originally published in India with the title Neti, Neti (which, I believe, suggests something like “not this, not this”). Published by Brass Monkey Books, a Melbourne-based imprint that has recently set about making more high quality Indian literature available to Australian and New Zealand readers. They were absolutely right in identifying Hasan as one worthy of a larger audience, but I don’t think they have done the book any favours with their packaging. If I hadn’t already been a fan of Hasan’s, I certainly wouldn’t have picked this book up in a bookshop (the old adage of not judging a book by its cover should be true, but who can honestly say that they don’t?) The title, for one, is banal, and unless one has read Lunatic in My Head and is already familiar with the central character Sophie Das (who, in the first novel, is an eight year old girl, and in this is a twenty-five year old woman), could lead the reader to believe that this is some type of romance. I understand that the original title (Neti, Neti) was probably not marketable to a non-Indian audience, but if marketing was such a concern, Big Girl Now doesn’t seem like an ideal title.

But that gripe is extra-literary, and should not detract from the fact that this is a wonderful book. Hasan’s protagonist, Sophie, is a bit of an odd-ball, but the reader is thrown so thoroughly into her world that we entirely empathise with her neuroses, obsessions and self-destructive trains of thought. Sophie is from Shillong in India’s Northeast, and, having failed to win a scholarship to study in America (every young character’s dream) that she thought she wanted because her father wanted it for her, moved to Bangalore. Like so many other young, educated Indians with limited prospects in their small-town homes, she works in a Business Process Outsourcing company (BPO), transcribing subtitles for western movies. She is neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with her job, her eclectic and eccentric group of friends, or her boyfriend, Swami. This ennui is finally shattered when one of her friends brutally murders his girlfriend, and Sophie travels back to her small-town home to seek the balance she feels is missing from her life. Of course, the answers cannot be found in Shillong, with life and relationships there being just as messy as in the metropolis.

Underlying the chain of events in Sophie’s life is the question of what it means to be a young Indian at this moment in time, with the pull of roots and the potentiality of rootlessness. But more than this, it is about being an outsider in the place where one is encouraged to believe one belongs. Like Hasan herself, Sophie and her family are considered “settlers” in the Northeast, not belonging to a “native” tribe, but not really belonging anywhere else, either. Sophie considers Shillong home, but her parents do not, and neither do the indigenous inhabitants of the area. She ponders:

“Maybe it was the weed, but the word “India” lodged itself in Sophie’s brain. Somewhere in the depths of her childhood she had formed the idea that India was an exact feeling, a fixed series of things in contrast to everything else in her environment which was simply what it was and had no relation to India. […] The little flags with their dripping orange and green watercolours, which she and her sister used to laboriously paint when they were little, were self-evidently India. […] At school, the girls who oiled their hair and worried about exams reeked of India, as against those who wore their skirts short and who, already at thirteen or twelve, understood the mysterious workings of sex.” (page. 128)

These themes run through all of Hasan’s work, with varying emphasis on the periphery, the metropolitan centre, or the sought-after, elusive and fleeting mirage of the west. The wry, cynical but strangely hopeful final sentence of Big Girl Now (and I don’t think I give anything much away here) suggests that Sophie’s story may not be at an end just yet: “The only problem we’ll have in life from now on is the problem of where to find parking space.”

“Indian Feminist Publishing and Political Creative Writing”

Anyone who has access to the International Feminist Journal of Politics (13.1 2011) through a university subscription can check out my review of the following four books:

Suad Amiry’s Menopausal Palestine: Women at the Edge (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2010)

Feryal Ali Gauhar’s No Space for Further Burials (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2007)

Easterine Iralu’s A Terrible Matriarchy (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2007)

Chandrakanta’s A Street in Srinagar (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2010)

Zubaan Cultures of Peace Festival of the Northeast, January 2011, Delhi, India Habitat Centre

Sanjoy Hazarika talking about the Northeast