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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Secret Places: New Writing from Nepal, ed. Frank Stewart, Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa (2001)

Another gem courtesy of the Canberra Lifeline Book Sale. This special edition of Manoa, a literary journal produced by the University of Hawai’i, is one of the few collections of contemporary (well, reasonably) Nepali writing that I have come across. It contains essays, poetry, short stories, most in translation from Nepali, and photographs. I found it a refreshing collection because, for all my familiarity with Indian literature, Nepali literature has slipped beneath the radar.

Some of the reasons for this are outlined in Manjushree Thapa’s essay, meant as an introduction to this collection (and I’ll come to that again later), called “Reaching One’s Own People, Reaching the World.” Here she traces the progression of modern Nepali literature, which has a comparatively short history, having developed from the mid-nineteenth century. As a literary scholar I found this the most interesting piece in the collection. Literature is rarely something done by an isolated, brilliant intellect disconnected from the practicalities of the real world. Thapa outlines:

“The economic situation in Nepal, one of the poorest countries of the world, also works against the development of its literature. Nepal’s undeveloped and disorganized economy–a mix of agrarian and market systems that keep half the population below poverty level–provides scant reward for the literary writer. The few publishers who are willing to print fiction and poetry offer no royalty payments; more often than not, writers must subsidize their own publication. To support themselves, even the most established writers work as teachers, bankers, lawyers, newspaper columnists, accountants, and editors–or they must rely on patrons or family wealth. For most writers, the purchase of books is beyond their means, and in any case, few books are available in the country. It is humbling to think that almost all Nepali literature is still labouriously written and revised by hand on foolscap sheets.” (p. 68)

Humbling indeed, when one considers that next-door neighbour India is experiencing a publishing boom.

Other themes that emerge through the essays, short stories and poetry of Secret Places are the oppression of women, and the poverty of the countryside. Maya Thakuri’s short story “Trap,” translated from Nepali, is a particularly poignant and memorable story about the trafficking of women and girls for sex work, a major problem in Nepal.

The Nepali content of Secret Places is excellent, but the editing of the volume overall is simply baffling. Despite the sub-title “New Writing from Nepal,” the fact that a picture of a Nepali temple adorns the front page, and that beautiful black and white photographs of Nepal by Linda S. Connor are interspersed throughout the volume, Secret Places also contains some writing from Japan, Korea and elsewhere. Not in a separate section, but dispersed throughout the Nepali writing. Surely Special Issue means Special Issue, not partly-Special Issue? The worst aspect of this editorial decision was that Thapa’s essay mentioned above, that clearly acts as an introduction to the volume, appears on page 67. Some of the writing she introduces has already been read! Perhaps the editors weren’t anticipating anyone sitting down and reading this journal as a book, from front to back, as I did.

This layout was frustrating and annoying, but did not completely detract from the pleasure of being introduced to this varied literature from a place still under-represented on the world literary scene. It was published quite a long time ago now, in 2001, shortly after Nepal had been through a period of immense turmoil stemming from the murder of several members of its royal family. I hope this collection has not been, nor will be, a one-off.

Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India, Karen Chase (2011)

I’m not usually one to read poetry, I find its brevity unsatisfying. But I bought Karen Chase’s Jamali-Kamali not knowing it was of this genre, and was glad that I was forced out of my literary comfort zone. Jamali-Kamali is a long narrative poem recounting the love affair between sixteenth-century Mughal court poet Jamali, and his male lover Kamali.

But more than just a poem, this book is a whole visual and historical account. A long introduction by art historian Milo Beach sets the context for Chase’s poem. The Jamali-Kamali tomb today lies off the Mehrauli-Gurgaon highway in Delhi, in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, just south of one of Delhi’s most visited tourist sites, the Qutb Minar, but receiving far fewer tourists itself. It is intricately decorated with blue and red tiles and decoration, in a way that many of north India’s Mughal monuments must have once been, and is quite well preserved and maintained. Several photographs of the exterior and interior of the building accompany Beach’s short essay. The building contains two tombs, side by side, Jamali’s and Kamali’s. Jamali was a court poet of Sikander Lodi’s reign in the sixteenth century, but nobody knows who Kamali was. As Beach notes, legend and oral histories variously state that Kamali was Jamali’s pen-name, that she was Jamali’s wife, or that he was Jamali’s male lover.

Chase has followed the last suggestion. As the court poet, the narrative voice largely belongs to Jamali, and this is where the poem begins:

In the plump dusk, I hear/ a peacock screech,/ eye marks on my lover’s neck.

Kamali, let’s go/ to the lake/ to moisten our love scars.

I will wash mud from/ your muscled legs.

My secrets rest/ in the wedding/ hut. I visit another/ man as the moon/ circles down.

Come my protege,/ my Kamali, to bed./ I will show you/ moves of a new/ planet as no/ astrologer could.

(p. 23)

Jamali was known to be an extensive traveler, traveling to places as far away as Spain in his role as court poet. The poem recounts the pain of the long periods of separation that Jamali and Kamali would have had to endure. Finally, Jamali is killed while accompanying king Humayun on a military expedition west to Gujarat. Kamali’s poetic voice is heard, more staccato than Jamali’s as he, of course, is the narrator purely of Chase’s imagination, with no historical persona upon which to draw:

Nights now/ sleepless.

Gulping water./ Tuk tuk tuk–the owl.

I am dismantled/like glass chips.

(p. 61)

Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India contains a beautiful poem, but as a book it is more than this. It is the sum of several parts–photography, historical essay, poem–that together, add up to an experience, a suggestion that history does not just lie in the known and the unknown, that the unknown can perhaps be imagined and put into words to become an alternate possibility.