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Mohsin Hamid: ‘If you want to see what tribalism will do to the west, look at Pakistan’

Mohsin Hamid is depressed. The novelist, twice nominated for the Man Booker prize, has seen the three places he calls home – Pakistan, America and Europe – betray their fundamental ideals and become increasingly unwelcoming.

In Pakistan, where he was born, the elected government caved in to a mob of extremist protesters by sacking a minister they accused, essentially, of being a bad Muslim. In a country created as a homeland for south Asia’s Muslims, the fight over who fits that bill means hardly anyone is safe from unfounded accusations of blasphemy. Students have been lynched arbitrarily and, in 2011, the governor, Salman Taseer, was shot for criticising the blasphemy laws. To Hamid, the stunning capitulation to the mob signals the breakdown of an uneasy coexistence between the government, the military and the courts, allowing “raw power” to rule.

“These are incredibly disheartening times. I feel more depressed than I have in a long time about the political direction of Pakistan,” says Hamid at his home in Lahore, where he now lives with his wife and two children. “Since Pakistan was founded in 1947, there has been a conflict between the notion that citizens are equal, and that certain people can ascribe to themselves the right to decide who is Muslim,” he says. “The question is: who is Muslim enough? And 70 years after creation, the answer is that nobody is Muslim enough.”

But Pakistan is not alone in narrowing definitions of who belongs. Hamid thinks western countries that tout principles of equality fail one group in particular: migrants.

That is the topic of his recent novel Exit West, a story of desperation, love and, ultimately, liberation, which won him a second Man Booker shortlisting this year following that for The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2007.

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Eluding censors, a magazine covers Southeast Asia’s literary scene

HONG KONG — At Monument Books, a bookstore in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the magazine racks are stacked with copies of The Economist and other titles from Britain, Australia, France and the United States.

But one top-selling magazine there was founded in Phnom Penh and takes its name — Mekong Review — from the mighty river that runs beside the city’s low-rise downtown.

Mekong Review was first published in October 2015, and each quarterly issue has featured a mix of about 10 to 20 reviews, essays, poetry, fiction, Q.& A.s and investigative reports about the culture, politics and history of mainland Southeast Asia. Supporters say it is a welcome platform for Southeast Asian writers and scholars of the region, as well as a sharp political voice in countries where speech is perennially threatened.

“It’s an incredible beacon of light to see someone bring something like the Mekong Review into being, and I just hope it can continue,” said William Bagley, a manager at Monument Books, which has nine stores across Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and caters to tourists, expatriates and English-speaking locals.

Minh Bui Jones, Mekong Review’s founding editor and publisher, said he saw the magazine as a vehicle for cross-border connections in a region that lacks a sense of a shared historical narrative.

According to Mr. Bui Jones, it also aims to be for Southeast Asia what he said The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books had been since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “brave, trenchant critics of their respective governments.”

Mekong Review is a long shot on many levels, not least because it covers a region where English literacy is patchy, postal systems are unreliable and newspapers that are not controlled by governments tend to struggle against censorship and chronic financial constraints.

One such newspaper in Phnom Penh, The Cambodia Daily, closed in September, after 24 years in operation, amid allegations by the government that it had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. The closure was widely seen as linked to a steady loss of free expression in the country.

Mekong Review would not be subject to the same direct pressure because it is based in Sydney, Australia, Mr. Bui Jones’s hometown, where he resettled in 2016 after living for nearly a decade in Britain, Cambodia and Thailand.

But Mr. Bui Jones faces other challenges, including a shortage of manpower. He said that while his wife and father-in-law, along with a friend who lives in Kashmir, help out with copy editing, he edits and commissions all of the articles. “It’s a very modest enterprise,” he said.

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Short story — Joy and Sorrow by Dawood Siddiqui

All the labels are yellow-bright like the setting sun. It bothers Akbar. Not the colour but the memories. These labels are everywhere. On the refrigerator. Inside the refrigerator. TV, washing machine, dish washer, plates, cups, shoes, shoe rack, bed, switches – anything that can have a label on it has a label on it. The whole house is plastered with them. One fine day, there was even a label on his forehead. It read Akbar. The label on the refrigerator says, refrigerator (cooling device). On the shoe rack it says shoes and on the shoes it either says mine or not mine.

The wind rattles the window panes. Dark, grey clouds hover above the skies of Derby. He sits up on the edge of the bed, staring at a point just in front of his toes. He doesn’t move, just the occasional blink of an eye. An eerie silence that has crept inside his soul since Noori’s departure haunts the house. Last night he broke three ceramic plates, a cup, and a glass just after he had washed them. It was no vent to any frustration. He did not smash them against the wall. He is too old, too tired for that.

He walks into the kitchen and opens a container with a label on it – Lisinopril. His blood pressure has gone haywire since he had taken the terrible decision of sending the love of his life away. He pops the pill and washes it down with a glass of water.

Akbar is sixty years of age; he has unkempt hair and a bushy beard. The wrinkles on his forehead and under his eyes are like little cracks on an arid piece of land. He stares at her handwriting, the slant in the R’s and her upright T’s. It has been more than a month since she left for the old age home in Belper, a quaint village on the outskirts of Derby. Last month, when she was still home, they had a spat. With nothing left to label, she had wanted to label herself; it set him off like a firecracker. And in that moment, he knew that Noori, his loving wife, had to go. In the beginning, she sometimes forgot if she had taken her pills or if she had locked the door – banal things, it hardly affected them. Heck, they even laughed about it. They could laugh at just about anything. Loud farts and sudden sneezes. Jokes of unknown comedians on TV, the accent of an old Scottish lady living right next to them. But dementia is like cancer; it grows worse with age. Her mind stopped retaining important things. The kettle on the stove, the food in the pan. One day, while she was out for grocery, she forgot her address. Akbar found her in the parking lot, crying like a kid separated from her mom.

She stopped cooking, doing dishes, washing clothes, dusting and wiping tables – all the things she had loved, all the things she considered her duty. Instead, she started labelling everything. She rummaged through the drawers and turned the house into one big exhibition of yellow labels. Why don’t you take her to an old age home? A friend suggested. Akbar never talked to him again.

He opens the refrigerator, licks his parched lower lip. There is no food. He closes the door and the label stares at him. He presses it with his fingertips. A rumbling sound emanates from his stomach. He orders a meal and seats himself on the couch, twiddling his thumbs, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Outside, the dreaded rain has arrived.

His mind wanders to his first day in England. It was raining that day too. And almost every day since. He was a boy of twenty-five, with bubbles in his stomach and a giant smile on his face.  Glad to have left Kashmir, glad to be in an ‘evolved’ country, glad to be among the company of women of different races –white and black and brown.  Compared to back home, everything was in high definition. The streets of London, the famous telephone booths, parks, houses – everything was crisp and refreshing. He had enrolled in Derby University for a course in analog systems (an excuse to get inside the country). In truth, he would have even chosen a course in shit hauling to come here. The first thing he wanted to do in the new country was have sex. Like every student he knew from the subcontinent, he wanted to hook up with a white girl. He wanted a brand new start to his life with no interference from his relatives, from people he hardly knew, from the suffocating society in general.  Where he came from, even the sight of a ‘white’ female forearm titillates horny men more than the native breast. White, English speaking women, dressed in short skirts and cleavage revealing tops gave him a painful erection. His first few days were spent in a state of constant erection. He masturbated every day, sometimes even twice or three times. Teeth clenched and with pants down, he would plunge into libido land. But when he was around girls, he grew conscious – about his skin colour, his hair style, his body odour. Would they want to have sex with him? The question plagued him.

Back in India, he had a plan for wooing British girls. Gandhi was all the rage in the western world; he decided to casually slip in his name when talking to white girls. His march towards erotica was backed by such lines. Little did he know it was a congregational line of all Indians looking for a fuck. Youthful Gandhis obsessed with puritanical sex.

He was never going to sweep a white girl off her feet; he understood that pretty quickly, so he did what all desperate, horny losers do – visit whore houses in neon lit establishments in dark alleys full of scantily clad women and choose the whitest girl, all the while his heart about to burst through his chest. He would gulp and point to the girl of his fantasy. Alone with her, he would smile and greet her, try to make small talk and in about two minutes, he would run out of words. The room would descend into complete silence. Just the sound of his heavy breathing and his heart pumping blood.

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In the age of litfests, this model of intimate literary exchange is a vastly different experience

Since 2008, the Almost Island Dialogues have offered a literary gathering that offers what expansive literary festivals cannot – intimacy and a meaningful exchange of ideas through the lens of literature. At this year’s conclave in New Delhi (December 15-17), they will celebrate a decade of the Dialogues, with writers like the Chinese poet Bei Dao, the Arabic poet Mohammed Bennis, the Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec, and, from India, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Allan Sealy, and Joy Goswami. Almost Island also publishes an online literary magazine as well as a small number of books. Sharmistha Mohanty, founder-editor of Almost Island, spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that keeping the Dialogues small and intimate is important to you. What would you say intimacy achieves in the literary space?
It is very difficult to have any meaningful discussion in a setting where there are hundreds of people and writers must speak as part of a panel for ten minutes on a very deep subject. This is what the big litfests have done.

Unlike a literary festival, which concentrates on a product, be it a book or a reading or a performance, Almost Island is concerned with process, with how things are learnt, explored, created, and created again. It is concerned with the unravelling of things, in a stretched time, in being within the labour of literature, and not in the end product of its presentation. Literature is not a performing art and it requires a certain degree of quietness and closeness for things to unfold, for writers to speak genuinely and slowly about their work and their lives. Intimacy and small gatherings allow that. I have seen it work repeatedly at our Dialogues. In our India-China dialogues our Chinese writer friends spoke with candour about everything – a father who commits suicide because he is pursued by the Party, how and why some of them were exiled – because trust could be established in the closeness of our meetings.

The great Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai spoke to us for over three hours about his life in Communist Hungary and how his novels emerged from his life in that context. He spoke about his work with the community in a small town and how the government retaliated by burning his library of thousands of books, a library he has never been able to rebuild. What he gave us was not a talk or a lecture – he was speaking to all of us who were there as if one to one. It was a very moving experience for all of us there.

The Dialogues complete a decade this year. How would you say they have evolved over the last ten years?
I would say that there has been a kind of lateral growth, a fullness that has been achieved with these meetings. Not a linear evolution. The fullness is in the wide register of voices we’ve had, in poetry and prose, and from many different parts of the world. What connects them is that they enlarge – through the innovativeness of their work – the spaces of prose and poetry. The wide register is rigorous and not merely there for the sake of diversity.

That said, I have been thinking of new ways to have these meetings. There may be other ways that I haven’t discovered yet. Ten years is a good watershed and I intend to give some time to thinking about that in the next year.

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Could Eco-Literature be the Next Major Literary Wave?

Eco-literature includes the whole gamut of literary works, including fiction, poetry and criticism, which lay stress on ecological issues. Cli-fi (climate fiction), which deals with climate change and global warming, is logically a sub-set of eco-literature. Most of the current writing under this genre looks at human activities that have been killing nature slowly.

Cli-fi often ventures into the realms of sci-fi and/or speculative fiction when the narrative gets rooted in future or in an imaginary geographical locale. The litmus test is how far such fiction evokes in the reader a sense of urgency towards an action to save the environment, or, if they are capable of leaving a deep impression to humans conscious of their role in saving the earth.

The crux lies in ensuring that such literary works do not sound like propaganda and should necessarily carry with them deep literary values. Authors need to ensure that they do not artificially structure their plots or introduce characters in their narrative to justify their labelling as eco-literature, which they have largely failed to do. This is why the eco-literature wave did not reach greater heights, though the modern eco-lit wave started in the 1970s. Authors could induce a tendency in the readers’ minds to dismiss them off as a kind of “moral literature” dictating the dos and don’ts towards the environment, albeit in a subtle way through a structured ‘moral’ story.

The genre of cli-fi seems to have given regular novelists just another platform and locale to shift their storytelling from the normal world’s heinous crimes to ecological crimes perpetrated by either villainous individuals or corporations. Such crimes include causing massive glacial ice melting and flooding cities, resulting in huge disasters with heroic characters rising up to the occasion to save humanity. But such plots, more often than not, make uninteresting reading.

The real ecological issues lie elsewhere. There has been a rapid loss of ecological species with the progress of time. Natural habitats keep shrinking due to human activity. Wildlife poaching has resulted in species becoming endangered, pushed to the brink of extinction. Illegal largescale mechanised fishing has resulted in the erosion of ocean biodiversity. Large scale deforestation across the world has led to displacement of tribal populations and consequently, loss of their culture and languages.

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16 Writers on Their Favourite Translated Titles From Across Asia

Earlier this year, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop launched the Transpacific Literary Project, an editorial initiative to publish new and exciting writing from across East and Southeast Asia on The Margins while building a body of work that might help us better understand the importance of the Pacific World to literature. In an increasingly divided world, translated literature brings us closer together. As the year draws to a close, we asked some of our most beloved writers—from Viet Thanh Nguyen and Kimiko Hahn to Hari Kunzru and Tash Aw—to tell us about their favorite books in translation out of Asia and the Asian diaspora. Collected below are works that meditate through medieval texts, reimagine the immigrant story, and above all explore selfhood in surroundings.

Red Dust by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

In 1983, Ma Jian, a painter and poet, became the target of a rectification session during China’s 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. A colleague began the denunciation by saying: “I asked why a face in one of [Ma Jian’s] paintings looked like the face of a corpse. He laughed and said everyone puts on a mask but underneath our souls are ugly shameful things. He said we are born in a daze and die in a dream . . . He sees life as a great blackness. I feel he should confront his disturbed psychology.”

Alerted that his arrest is imminent, Ma Jian leaves his home in Beijing. Barred from leaving the country, he instead walks a path through it, traversing thousands of kilometres. His book, Red Dust, documents a movement through levels of containment: the captive mind looking for a doorway out into the world, or deeper into oneself. Red Dust is a book I have read a dozen times. It is a despairing, bawdy, provocative portrait of the artist, a memoir that creates its own form, asking, How can one be free in one’s mind when one’s body lives within an authoritarian state? How to see through the red dust of illusion?

Of his country, Ma Jian has written, “There is a collective fear of truth.” I grieve that the same can be said of all our countries; we are living in a conflicted age of revolution and denunciation, an age in which we abandon one another at our peril. The call to each of us to question ourselves, to think for ourselves, is urgent. “You have about twenty thousand days left before you die,” he writes. “Why are you wasting your life? You must focus your mind and do something.”

—Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien is the author of several books including Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won the 2016 Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Her second novel Dogs at the Perimeter was just published in the United States by W.W. Norton this year.

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Photos: The Tragic Tale of Vietnamese Heroine Kieu, from the Epic poem ‘Kim Van Kieu’

Kim Văn Kiều, or the Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), is a jewel in the crown of Vietnamese classical writing. In Vietnam, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen (2003: 18) points out, the Tale of Kiều has been embraced by the general public, who see it as a romance, a book of divination, and a moral fable, while scholars explore its literary, linguistic, philosophical, political and social aspects.

The eponymous heroine is the most acclaimed lady in Vietnamese literature, and her captivating but tragic story has inspired many artistic depictions. The most outstanding version in the British Library collection is undoubtedly a manuscript which was completed around 1894 (Or 14844), written in Hán-Nôm with illustrations of scenes from the story on each page, and a fine yellow silk binding with dragon patterns. Shown in this post are a selection of images of Kiều from this beautiful manuscript, alongside more recent portrayals from printed books.

Literary critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802-1945) which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behaviour was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high ranking minister under the Le dynasty.

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11 Books to Read if You Want to Understand Caste in India

In Lithub, S. Shankar, author of ‘Ghost in the Tamarind’ lists 11 representative books that “serve as an introduction to caste”, that explore the intricacies and the indignities of caste in India.

Caste is not unique to India, and no country should be reduced to a single social category, no matter how intrinsic a part of its reality. Nevertheless, to understand India you have to understand caste, whose intricacies are unarguably difficult. It is not just one of the most prominent social features of India; it is at the heart of many of the past and present fissures of the country.

I grew up in India living the reality of caste every day. Even so I had to learn, and unlearn, many things about caste while completing my two most recent books: the novel Ghost in the Tamarind, which narrates an inter-caste romance between a Brahmin man and a Dalit woman against the backdrop of powerful anti-caste movements in southern India; and a co-edited collection of academic essays on caste and life narratives.

What exactly is caste? You might have heard somewhere (perhaps in a high school or college classroom) that there are four ancient and unchanging castes in India ranging from Brahmins at the top, through Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in the middle, to Shudras at the bottom, with a fifth group of so-called Untouchables—the preferred term now is Dalits—even further below. These, though, are only partial truths, for history is replete with examples of the changeability of caste, and in practice there are thousands of castes. One truth about caste, however, is undeniable: in all its manifestations through history it has been the name for a monstrous and irredeemable system of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

The various social groups collected most recently under the name Dalit have felt the power of this irredeemable system with the greatest force. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, acknowledged in an enlightened moment that the historically disadvantaged Dalits needed special support to advance socially and economically, and then set out to provide it. Since then, India has had a Dalit President and a powerful woman Dalit Chief Minister of a state. Nevertheless, the oppression of Dalits, ranging from daily humiliation (such as the maintenance of separate glasses for Dalits in some village tea shops) through sexual violence to outright massacre (alas, so many that the name of Khairlanji, where in 2006 four members of the Bhotmange family were brutally murdered, must suffice as stand in) continues till today. Reality is never neat or singular.

This is one reason “the Boom in Dalit literature”—as some have called it—of the last few decades is so important. The Boom represents the entrance of new and vital voices onto India’s literary stage—that is into forms of artistic production from which they had formerly been excluded (of course, Dalits, often musicians and performers, have had their own powerful expressive forms going back centuries). Many trace the origins of the Boom back to Dalit writing in Marathi, which began to gather force in the Seventies. From there, the Boom spread to other languages, and now there are significant bodies of work in Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and other languages.

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Malaysian Festival Highlights Rise of Pan-Asian Literature

In a beautifully refurbished colonial building next to George Town’s coastal thoroughfare, a tight-knit yet diverse crowd is hungry for answers. A microphone is passed around, and people rock nervously in their chairs as they wait to throw questions at a row of international authors and editors, who are animated after a heated discussion. Above their heads, the demeaning word “monsters” poses a question: Are writers really monsters — prodigious or hideous — in the age of fear and globalization?

“This year’s George Town Literary Festival’s theme — ‘Monsters and (Im)mortals’ — could not be more timely,” said Gareth Richards, owner of Gerakbudaya Bookshop Penang and Impress Creative editorial, and one of the festival’s co-curators — the other is translator Pauline Fan.

“We live in what Junot Diaz calls a ‘dystopian age’ or Pankaj Mishra terms an ‘age of anger,'” said Richards, referring to authors from the U.S. and the U.K. “Writers need to address these realities in their work and in their ‘civic labor’ if we are to imagine and realize a better world.”

The seventh edition of the George Town festival showcased an annual event that is growing in popularity. After a humble start in 2011, hosting only five writers, the gathering has grown into one of Southeast Asia’s most important literary events, attracting an audience of around 4,500 this year — the highest ever attendance. They are drawn by the increasingly diverse talent on the stage. Year after year, the festival has gathered a mixed crew of about 50 Asian and Western authors, poets, academics and critics, who wrestle with ideas and concepts over three days of panels, book launches and practical writing workshops.

“One lesson from the past — and this has been highlighted in the shortcomings of other festivals — is the importance of preparation and good-quality moderation. A bad moderator can kill a conversation. So a lot of thought goes into choosing an experienced and engaged team, and to begin[ing] conversations in advance of the festival itself,” said Richards, who moderated panels ranging from the return of print magazines in Asia to constructing futuristic literary utopias and the dynamics of publishing the works of Asian writers in translation.

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How to Tell the Dalit Story

Moving beyond the narratives of victimhood and survival, Sujatha Gidla’s book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India, has come out at a time when more Dalits in India are asserting their rights, and more non-Dalits are speaking up against the discrimination towards the community. Gidla’s book, published in the US in July and in India this month, is the story of the country through the eyes of the “untouchables”. India has completed 70 years of its independence, but caste still exists and discrimination based on it manifests itself in different forms. At 26, Gidla, a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh, moved to the US, where she worked as an app designer at the Bank of New York. She was laid off during the recession in 2009, and has since been working as a conductor with the New York City Subway.

In a phone interview, Gidla, 54, speaks about her book, writing, her raw anger, and caste in India. Edited excerpts:

How do you describe yourself? Which identity precedes the other?

A Dalit, someone who is left-leaning, then I guess…a conductor. Caste is first because we are made aware of it all the time. If I go to India, I know it based on how we are treated. And since I wrote this book, caste has become my first identity here as well. In fact, my basic identity even now is that of a Dalit more than a writer. It is more like a conductor who became a writer rather than a writer who is also a conductor. I am more caste- and class-conscious than anything else. When I was young, I would say I am a Naxalite or a Communist first. I think I started becoming conscious of my Dalit identity in 1985, after the Karamchedu massacre in Andhra Pradesh, where an entire settlement of untouchables was attacked by a mob of high-castes. It really jolted me and many of us out of our oblivion.

You started out trying to figure your story. At what point, on interviewing your family, did you realize you needed to write a book?

Initially, the phone calls were about finding out where I came from, but very quickly it became clear to me that it constitutes a book. I was shocked to realize that very few generations ago we were actually living in the forests and living off of the forests, and how we came to settle to doing agriculture—which is basically the point of civilization. My family was a part of that huge transition—from hunter-gatherers to agriculture. Unlike, say, places like Germany, where it took several centuries, these huge transitions took place in a very small duration of time for my family—from forests to plains, from tribals to civilized people, from tribals to untouchables, from worshipping totems to practising Christianity. Also, I realized how one becomes an untouchable. It’s not like some people randomly got assigned untouchability, some Brahminism. There is a material basis for this segregation. That caste and its evolution can be explained was fascinating to me.

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