By Mitali Chakravarty

He wears a tattoo of a typewriter on his right arm as a mark of his trade, as his “stigma”. He wrote a poem about his tattoo. He writes what he believes, no longer with a typewriter (as he did when he started to write in the 1980s). This is a writer, who, despite staying rooted to his surroundings, sees no boundaries in literature. He reads what comes his way and does not specifically think of literature in terms of regions, like ASEAN. That writing is universal and remains borderless is well borne out in his interview as in his writing and the influences they have had…

The author of 13 books across multiple genres, including five volumes of poetry, two children’s detective novels and a trilogy of humour stories, Felix Cheong has been invited to perform his works at international festivals all over the world, including Edinburgh, West Cork, Austin, Christchurch, Sydney, Bangalore, Hong Kong and Ubud. Cheong is the winner of Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2000, and holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. In 2010, he was named by Readers Digest as the 29th Most Trusted Singaporean. He is currently an adjunct lecturer with the University of Newcastle, Murdoch University, Singapore University of Social Sciences and LASALLE College of the Arts. Felix Cheong’s latest collection of poetry is B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018.

Felix Cheong
Felix Cheong

 

Mitali: You have been writing poetry for more than two decades now. What made you start writing poetry?

Felix: Like sex, you always remember the first time. It began innocuously enough when I was in junior college (high school in Singapore). As a geeky teen blessed with all the social skills of a wallflower, I could only impress a classmate, on whom I had a crush, by writing her a Valentine’s Day poem. It was handwritten on a card I had made; such was the entrepreneurial spirit I had back then. But as Auden famously says, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’; so nothing happened. In any case, it was bad poetry at its finest hour, which I would have cheerfully disowned now!

Mitali: In your latest book, B-Sides and Backslides, you have spoken of how both T. S. Eliot and Beatles fascinated you. What is it in T. S. Eliot’s poetry or in the Beatles’ compositions that had this effect on you? Do they still draw you as much or do you feel that you have got over your fascination? In “We are the Salary Men”, you say that while ‘We may be the hollow men but the least we own is our honesty to know…’

Felix: Beatles’ music was instrumental in making me pay close attention to words and by extension, poetry. I remember spending hours – talk about the devil finding work for idle hands to do! – trying to write down what they were singing (thank goodness there was no Google back then).  Through the sheer act of transcription, I had my first lesson in poetic rhythm. I loved – and still do – the musicality of their lyrics, such as “A Day in the Life”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”.

Eliot’s poetry, particularly “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, affected me in a different way when I read it at the still-impressionable age of 22. It sprung me into a modern diction that spoke to my sense of alienation. It was also Catholic in the way it articulated spiritual emptiness. I recall memorising parts of the poem while preparing for my first-year university exams. His cadences and imagery would imprint themselves on my early poetry.

Advertisements

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

I Sing the Glory of this Land - Front Cover

Title: I Sing the Glory of this Land
Author: Bharathiyar, Translated by M. Rajaram
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2018)
Pages: 240 (Hardcover)

Subramania Bharati first came to me in the arguably less-than-inspiring pages of my history- and-civics textbook in middle and high school. Though not exactly a footnote, without the presence of his poetry or the context of his scholarship and vision, his was merely another name to remember as part of the annals of India’s freedom movement. Such is the unfortunate, even exanimate nature of our education system. When his name reappeared in a series of interviews I did with former students of Tamil schools in Delhi in relation to a current non-fiction project, Bharati came across as a towering figure who continues to serve as the spiritual and linguistic compass for Tamil children similar to what Tagore does for their Bengali counterparts. Reading through I Sing the Glory of this Land, M. Rajaram’s recent book of translations of Bharati’s verses, I could see why.

While I’m disadvantaged by my lack of Tamil to appreciate the cadence and music of the original, the clear-eyed directness of Bharati’s (popularly known as Bharathiyar) verses didn’t fail to strike me. As did the expanse of his poetic canvas. The eleven sections of the book – including God, Freedom, Bharath, Women and Children and Nature – bear out this multiplicity of themes even as they trace their intersections. Kneading them together is Bharati’s unwavering accent on liberty, equality and fraternity — the three pillars of the French Revolution — as he envisioned them in British-ruled India.

Human dignity is one of Bharati’s preoccupations and manifests itself in poems like “Labour” with exuberance. In the scope of that single poem, he places workers, farmers and creative artists on the same plane — each group celebrated for its contributions to mankind.

Starting this week, Kitaab will bring to you excerpts from Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 and Best Speculative Fiction anthologies.

Click on the links given at the end of the excerpt and help us sustain our efforts to bring literature from across Asia to you. Read on!

**********

TBASS

Prologue

If you are to fall asleep while being physically transported, you will start experiencing something out of this world. To be specific, if you happen to be moving at an extraordinary pace while in deep sleep, your consciousness will not be able to catch up, and you can be separated from your physical being. You will, then, be in two different places at the same time.

When that happens, you will cease to breathe. Your brain will start to wander, and conjure up a third place to make sense of it all. This is when you wake up at The Place.

The Place is a manifestation of consciousness; being ever-evolving, it can have unlimited variations. Its eventual form is perceived differently, based on each individual’s experiences and hopes for the future. Whatever the case, if you get too attached or fail to leave The Place quickly enough, you get stuck there.

Forever.

Hailey

Hailey was staring at an oil painting. She neither understood the intense mess of the strokes, nor the utterly mismatched colours used. There was a mishmash of painting techniques and a total disregard of the colour wheel. All the disorder made her nauseous, almost seasick. Blinking hard, Hailey stepped back from the chaos and took in a deep breath.

By Barnali Ray Shukla

Jhilmil Breckenridge’s new book of poetry, Reclamation Song, was just released in May 2018. Barnali Ray Shukla, filmmaker and writer, lived with the book for a few weeks and several questions emerged. Here are Jhilmil and Barnali in conversation about the book, its themes, and how Jhilmil came to be the confessional poet she is.

Jhilmil Breckenridge

Barnali – Breaking away, the bruised love… is that the cynic, the poet, the student, the mystic?

Jhilmil – A long time ago, in Delhi, my yoga teacher, Shivachittam Mani, taught me a concept in meditation – in every breath we die, in every breath we are born again. This tenet has stayed with me through my darkest days, through all the heartbreak, the ups and downs, that if I have my breath, it’s going to be ok. In fact, the name of this collection originally was Just One Breath.

Barnali – Does confessional poetry make you more vulnerable? Would you have it any other way?

Jhilmil – Confessional poetry is definitely not for the faint-hearted or the ones who care about log kya kahenge! I think those of us, who can and do write confessional poetry, have been through a fair amount of pain and have dealt with vulnerability, shame and frankly don’t care about society and her rules any more. In my case, when I started writing, I had no idea that I would bare all, i.e., I had no plan when I started writing that I would write confessional or autobiographical poetry, I truly thought I should aim to write sonnets or something like Wordsworth, etc. (no offence to the Masters!). You ask whether writing it makes you more vulnerable — on the contrary, it makes you more resilient because you can write your pain away and so, writing this style makes you stronger even though you bare all. I would have it no other way. I believe poetry has to come from witnessing, from living, from feeling, and so what else if not confessional poetry?

Barnali – Your influences (apart from what I noticed in the list of acknowledgements).

Jhilmil – I am a late entrant into this space. Although I have been an insatiable reader all my life, I stayed away from poetry. Perhaps it was the boring way we were taught, perhaps it was the learning by rote. So I read genre fiction, non-fiction and literary fiction a lot; some of my favourites are Alan Hollinghurst, Philip Pullman, Franz Kafka and a new favourite, Carmen Maria Machado, her style is so poetic! Three years ago, I was bit by the poetry bug and I have not looked back. In poetry, I am influenced by the work of Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Faiz, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ellen Bass, and of course Claudia Rankine, Warsan Shire, and Ross Gay. In British poets, which is the community that I am living within, and have been adopted because of the #metoo anthology, which included my poem, “Button”, my absolute favourites are Kim Moore and Carol Ann Duffy.

Paradise at War

The Siege of Hazratbal

In April 1993, the same month Prime Minister Sharif promised Prime Minister Rao that Yakub Memon would be extradited to India, the valley was rocked by a JKLF occupation of Hazratbal, a delicately beautiful Shia shrine built in white marble, rising from the banks that separate the majestic Dal and dreamy Nigeen Lakes. Hazratbal was the most popular shrine in Kashmir, a place that Sunnis also worshipped at and that Sheikh Abdullah had made a centre of his political mobilization. The JKLF controlled the streets and outlying areas of the Hazratbal area and had gradually moved to occupy the shrine and adjoining buildings in the Hazratbal complex. The Indian Army cordoned off the mosque and, after negotiations led by Rajesh Pilot, then minister of state for Home Affairs, the guerrillas accepted safe passage in return for vacating Hazratbal.

The Indian Army protested the offer of safe passage. A siege of the mosque, they argued, would force the guerrillas to surrender and be arrested. But the Rao administration, through Pilot, was committed to restart backchannel talks with the JKLF that started under Governor Saxena and continued under his successor. Rao had just taken office when the April occupation took place. On the JKLF side, Hamid Sheikh, who was imprisoned with Yasin Malik, was principal messenger in the backchannel. Released in 1992 in the hope that he would persuade the JKLF to enter a peace process, he ended up rejoining one of its militias and was shot by the BSF in November, along with a group of guerrillas who were trying to cross the Jhelum to flee across the Line of Control. The Hizbul Mujahideen, security sources added, set up death squads after Sheikh’s release to ensure peace negotiations would fail. In April 1993, the Hizbul guerrilla Zulqarnain murdered Abdul Ahad Guru, a doctor and JKLF mentor, who negotiated the releases of Congress leader Saifuddin Soz’s daughter, Naheed, and Indian Oil executive director, K. Doraiswamy, in 1991. Though it was a Hizbul guerrilla who killed Guru, the police colluded in his killing, according to Habibullah. Guru presented ‘a reasonable face of separatism’ and was widely respected, so he was a counter-insurgency target. Zulqarnain was killed in a security operation soon after. Frustration in the security forces grew in the months to follow. In Sopore, the aftermath of the market firing saw growing support for insurgency. Reports of guerrillas massing in the town began to flow from May 1993, but the state and union governments did not react. ‘Intelligence and others urged decisive and early action’, wrote Arun Shourie, editor of the Indian Express. ‘Nothing was done. By September, about 600 [of the guerrillas] were reported not only to be there, they were reported to have entrenched themselves in bunkers dug out in some houses at various points in the town. Minimal action in May–June would have seen the end of them. By September, a Blue Star-type operation alone would have sufficed. And intelligence was warning that if that sort of action was not launched immediately, and the snow were allowed to set in, the mercenaries would get another four to five months to fortify their presence. What sort of an operation would be necessary then?’

Reviewed by Shabana Zahoor

Vegetarian India

Title: Vegetarian India – A Journey through the best of Indian Home Cooking
Author: Madhur Jaffrey
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 416

It’s a challenge as well as a delight to review a book as elaborate as Vegetarian Indian by Madhur Jaffrey. When I first got hold of the book, I made a kadak cup of chai for myself and sat down to slowly savour the book along with the freshly made strong concoction.

The book tasted better with every sip, whetting my appetite and my curiosity. What we’ve got here is a seriously huge book, one that claims to bring together Indian vegetarian dishes from north to south and from east to west. The very thought of such geographical vastness and diversity of region and people brings to mind the many possibilities of vegetarian dishes from across the country. I don’t know how Jaffrey has managed to do this with detail and meticulousness; this is not an easy feat when you have so much to choose from.

The range she brings to the table is breathtaking. It goes from as simple a snack as boiled peanut with shells to bondas, fritters, to stir fries, mouth-watering gravies… the list is endless, but a pattern emerges – Vegetarian India focuses on simple preparations; most of the dishes featured here are easy to make, without the need to sweat it out in the kitchen.

The book has various sections such as soups and appetizers, vegetables, dals, grains, eggs, drinks, and desserts. The appetizers are inviting. It’s not that I haven’t cooked or eaten any of these, but the pictures make you salivate. Fried Okra, bondas… fresh and crisp… ummm….

By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?