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!

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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.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)

The White Tiger grew on me. I started out vociferously disliking it, for all the reasons I had pre-determined I would dislike it. Indeed, I dislike the premise of this book, and its success, more than the book itself. I don’t want this to just turn into another argument about why a Booker-prize winning book shouldn’t have been given that award because they tend to be tedious (though, seriously, if Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy couldn’t win it then The White Tiger shouldn’t have even been longlisted!). So I shall start by stating my (admittedly, largely extra-literary) problems with it, before discussing it’s good points because it is, ultimately, an enjoyable novel. Would I have given it the Booker? Absolutely not. Now that that is out of the way, I will move on.

When I did my PhD research in India in early 2010, when this book was still being talked about in the literary circles I was interacting with, a lot of people expressed that it was not a well-loved book in India. One author told me her son had vociferously rejected it, without having read it, saying “Why would I want to read about servants murdering their employers?! Why would I want to be afraid every time I get in the car!?” She believed this was a common sentiment, but didn’t approve of it herself, recognising that the huge gap between rich and poor in India is something that the middle classes should be facing up to. The White Tiger provides one way, if one should so happen be able to leave one’s house on a daily basis with one’s eyes metaphorically shut.

But I am not a middle class Indian, I am a middle class “westerner” (whatever that is). And I find it distasteful at best, and disgusting, at worst, that periodically our society (again, whatever that is) finds some “third world” emblem to hold up as the epitome of what is wrong with some other part of the world that is not us. Sometimes this is accompanied by some mild anguished chest beating about how we could do more to help them, and then it is quickly forgotten. (Anyone seen anything about Kony 2012 in the last couple of weeks?) Poverty, inequality and exploitation exist everywhere, all the time, and I find it nauseating that such an emblem is required to get people to remember that. Sometimes those emblems, and the attendant “recognition” that they bring to the first world consumers, act in place of any real action (which, fundamentally, would be a complete overhaul of our neo-liberal capitalist society, but that’s another article again…)

And I had presumed that The White Tiger was just another one. Which it is, a bit. But, like Slumdog Millionaire (another such emblem) it’s also quite enjoyable. The premise is already known. The “white tiger”, Balram, is an ignorant village lad from “the darkness” who lands a job as a driver in Delhi. He’s quite a nice young man, exploited by his boss but always willing to do his best, until things go too far. He pre-meditates the murder of his boss, escapes, and sets up a successful business in Bangalore. I haven’t just given anything away, as all this is known from the beginning, and it is the humour of Balram’s exegesis that is the real strength of The White Tiger. Including one of my favourite types of humour, that directed towards silly western tourists in India (oh yes, I have been one, but not this kind, I like to tell myself!):

“every day thousands of foreigners fly into my country for enlightenment. They go to the Himalayas, or to Benaras, or to Bodh Gaya. They get into weird poses of yoga, smoke hashish, shag a sadhu or two, and think they’re getting enlightened. Ha! If it is enlightenment you have come to India for, you people, forget the Ganga–forget the ashrams–go straight to the Natioanl Zoo in the heart of New Delhi.” (p. 275)

But the humour always gives way to something else, the darkness:

“Delhi is the capital of not one but two countries–two Indias. The Light and the Darkness both flow in to Delhi. Gurgaon, where Mr Ashok lived, is the bright, modern end of the city, and this place, Old Delhi, is the other end. Full of things that the modern world forgot all about–rickshaws, old stone buildings, and Muslims.” (p. 251)

So, after all this, do I recommend The White Tiger? Yes, I do, to Indians and non-Indians. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that by reading this book and gaining enlightenment, anything will change.