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.

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera, 2013

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera. Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2013. Purchased in India.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is a beautiful, if unnecessarily complex novel. Set during Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, and told from the standpoints of a Tamil and a Sinhala girl (amongst others), it recounts the horrific recent history in haunting and beautiful language. The novel begins prior to the war, so when its full ferocity becomes evident it takes the reader as much by surprise as it does many of the young, relatively isolated and apolitical characters.

There were echoes here and there of Rushdie, something perhaps natural in contemporary South Asian literature, but that I find a little problematic. The man has his own stylised techniques and ways of formulating fantastical plot elements so that they appear natural (almost, if you can suspend disbelief for the course of an entire book). So when I encounter echoes of Rushdie in a realist narrative, I am jarred. Two of Munaweera’s protagonists are born at the same time, to women known to each other, forever connecting their fates in a way somewhat reminiscent of Midnight’s Children:

“Shiva and I are born on adjacent beds in a large white room while the nurses stroke the thighs of our writhing, crying mothers. We enter the world on waves of our mothers’ iron-flavored blood. First, I, secretive and shy. I did not cry, they say, until he too had arrived. Purple faced, I had to be slapped into breathing. And then immediately after me, Shiva, as if he had been waiting for me to test the terrain. But when he does arrive, our crying fills the room, makes our tired and torn mothers laugh. Our fathers come rushing to claim us.” (p. 60)

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but the connections between these characters’ fates and those of their country, of personal and national destiny, reminded me of Midnight’s Children in ways that the novel could have done without. Surely there are more inventive and plausible ways of aligning an individual’s life with the fate of their country.

The shortish novel (225 pages) was overly complicated in other ways as well. Multiple characters were used to tell the story, coming to a head in Chapter 12, which switched rapidly between narrators. I’ve called out this trait (that I do consider to be a flaw) in other, inferior works as well (such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed) but I think this practice of switching between narrators to tell multiple sides of a story is usually a sign of weak writing. It takes an expansive canvas or superior literary skill to pull off effectively. It is understandable that an author would want to approach a deeply emotive and problematic topic such as the Sri Lankan civil war from multiple perspectives–so as not to be seen to be siding with one faction over another, to demonstrate that in war there are no winners among civilians, the explore the many ways that violence alters the lives of ordinary people. But switching between narrators frequently but also fairly haphazardly can also come across as a sign of incomplete character development. Perhaps it takes more skill to flesh out a single character with real-life human nuances than furnish a host of characters with the spectrum.

But, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a good book, reflective of an exciting young talent from Sri Lanka, and I think these critiques arise from the fact that it is a debut. The civil war must be an obvious, though difficult, topic for Sri Lankan authors to address, so it will be exciting to see what Munaweera does next.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors was nominated for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

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!

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.

Film Southasia festival 2013

The Non-Hiker's Guide to Nepal

Today was day one of the four day long Film Southasia festival of documentary films. It is being held at the QFX Kumari cinema in Kathmandu, and runs until Sunday 6th October. I was blogging on it today for the FSA website (rather challenging as the wifi was out for much of the day). For news info on the films, check out the blog and the FSA website: http://www.filmsouthasia.org/blog/ / http://www.filmsouthasia.org/

The major news of today was that the Sri Lankan government has pressured the Nepali government into banning the screening of the three Sri Lankan films that were part of the festival. This goes against the entire ethos of the festival, and the organisers of FSA refuse to be silenced by the governments of Sri Lanka and Nepal. As Kanak Mani Dixit, Chair of FSA and Editor of Himal Southasian, stated, the spaces for open dialogue are being steadily constricted in this country (Nepal), and this…

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Himal Southasian now available to purchase online

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Shameless spruiking, but what’s the point of having a personal blog if you can’t do some self-promoting at times?!
My employer, Himal Southasian magazine, has just set up an online payment portal so that international readers can buy copies of the magazine and subscribe. Readers in Southasian countries may be able to find the magazine in bookshops, depending on where you are located, but the distribution doesn’t reach everywhere. I encourage anyone who has any interest in Southasian culture, society, politics, literature, history, to consider a subscription or purchase of single issues. I used to read and enjoy the magazine long before I started work here, so I can vouch for its quality from a reader’s perspective, and not just an employee’s!

Furthermore, my reviews of William Dalrymple’s Return of a King and Hanifa Deen’s On the Trail of Taslima appear in the April and July 2013 issues, respectively.

As always, Himal has a great online magazine, too, with different content from the print issue.

A Change of Skies, Yasmine Gooneratne (1991)

A Change of Skies

Yasmine Gooneratne’s portrayal of the immigrant experience is as funny and poignantly ironic as Jhumpa Lahiri’s work on a similar topic is earnest. That is not necessarily a criticism of Lahiri’s work, but it demonstrates that not everything about the meeting and clashing of cultures need be deadly serious. A Change of Skies is the Sri Lankan-Australian academic and author’s first novel. Bharat and Navaranjini Mangala-Davasinha move to Australia from Sri Lanka in the late 1960s/early 1970s, initially temporarily, for Bharat to take up a lecturing position at Southern Cross University in Sydney. Friends and family warn them that Australia is a complete backwater, the ends of the earth, a cultural wasteland, and that soon they will be pining to return to the centre of civilisation, Sri Lanka. What was a five year stint becomes a permanent move. Bharat and Navaranjini even change their names to Barry and Jean Mundy, to fit in in Australia.

What makes Gooneratne’s style so appealing to me in this novel is that it is clear that her tongue is firmly in her cheek as she writes from both perspectives: she both mocks and praises aspects of both her adopted country and her homeland. I read A Change of Skies while leaving Australia, my own adopted home, and travelling to Asia, first Malayasia and afterwards India. It held so many parallels, perhaps inverted parallels, with my experiences of travelling to a place where social and public behaviours are different from those I have internalised. As a westerner (whatever that means, I am somewhat allergic to the term), descriptions in travel accounts of arrival in exotic Asia are all too familiar to me. I am bored of reading the clichés of the assaults on the senses that arrival in India (or China, or wherever) brings about. So Gooneratne’s inversion of this amused me. On arriving in Australia, Bharat observes, rather panicked:

“I became suddenly aware of a series of white lines that divided the road we were on into lanes. With a file of cars before and behind us, with similar files on our left and right, we seemed to speed along at an alarming rate in complete silence, the cars on our left and right now drawing level with us, now leaving us behind, now falling back, so that it seemed to me we were like racehorses all coursing onward together, separated from one another but moving with one consent towards a single goal.” (p. 58)

Just the other day I was complaining with an American woman about the incessant honking in Delhi. It’s enough to give anyone a headache, and frequently does me. But she was saying that Indian friends of hers in the US had expressed that when driving without the horn, they initially felt at risk, like other drivers wouldn’t know they were there…. Makes sense as long as all drivers do the same.

Stories of being horribly conned and ripped off in India are shared like greetings about one’s health, or the weather, between western travelers in India, and the result can often be a horrible over-defensiveness that leads to behaviour that nobody would ever consider acceptable at home, like telling a shop owner to f@#$ off when they invite you into their shop, or simply never trusting anyone and therefore missing out on kindnesses that would never occur at home (I was a couple of thousand rupees short of being able to pay in cash for something I wanted in a Kashmiri shop today, and my credit card declined–instead of me coming back later, the shop keeper told me to take my purchase and come back tomorrow to pay. I am still astonished). Again, Gooneratne’s descriptions of her characters’ return to Sri Lanka seemed to mirror my experiences at the moment. Bharat and Navaranjini are determined not to act like expats: “Expats make scenes, expats complain about the food being ‘off’ in expensive hotels, about faulty air conditioning, about the absence of toothpaste, about the dubious cleanliness of sheets, about the disgusting state of public lavatories. Expats make fools of themselves by losing their tempers. Nationals don’t do any of these things.” (p. 262) Replace “expat” with “tourist”, and you may get my point.

A charming and amusing quirk is Gooneratne’s naming of her Anglo-Australian characters after fish. As well as the main characters changing their names to Jean and Barry Mundy, Bharat/Barry’s workmates include Maude Crabbe, John Dory, Angel Fysshe, Pat Whitynge, and so on. Credit to Gooneratne, I picked up on this rather late. As well as having a comic effect, this is also a postcolonial writing back; Gooneratne explains in the Author’s Note: “For my Western characters I have used an ichthyic code modelled on what appears to have been a colonial tradition of naming natives of a colonised country after animals, vegetables, or articles of food” (p. 327).

I’m not sure how easy A Change of Skies is to get hold of these days; I noticed at least one online bookseller saying it was out of print, though I can’t confirm the accuracy of that. I picked up my copy at the legendary Canberra Lifeline Book Sale, and I strongly recommend others try to do the same.