Reviewed by Mir Arif

A Feminist Foremother

Title: A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Edited by: Mohammad A. Quayum and Md. Mahmudul Hasan
Publisher: Orient BlackSwan Pvt Ltd.
Pages: 312 (Hardcover)
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In an essay entitled “Griha” [Home] Rokeya Skhawat Hossain (1880-1932) says that Indian women are treated worse than animals since even animals have homes, but Indian women have none: they must always be dependent on a man for shelter. It was in such an unfavourable time that Rokeya emerged as a crusader for the emancipation of Indian women and dedicated her life to building a gender-just society. A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Orient Blackswan, 2017), takes a critical look into Rokeya’s struggle and becoming one of India’s most ‘courageous feminists’. Seen within the socio-cultural and historical context of her times, the book also examines her literary works and social reform activities to better appreciate the challenges she faced as a Bengali Muslim woman.

The book contains 13 essays by reputed academics and critics. It is co-edited by Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor of English at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and Adjunct Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia; and Md. Mahmudul Hasan, Associate Professor of English at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). They both have decades-long research on early feminist movement in the Indian subcontinent, especially in undivided Bengal. Professor Quayum has previously edited and translated The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain 1880-1932 (Brill, 2013). Dr. Hasan has a Ph.D in comparative study of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Attia Hosain and Monica Ali.

The first essay, “Rokeya Skhawat Hossain: A Biographical Essay,” by Mohammad A. Quayum provides a comprehensive discussion on Rokeya’s life and works. Professor Quayum highlights how Rokeya—overcoming all kinds of hurdles coming both from her family and society—continued to learn Bengali and English from her elder sister Karimunnesa and elder brother Ibrahim Saber, who contributed immensely to her early literary growth. Her father Abu Ali Saber—whose ancestors migrated to India from Tabriz, Iran in the sixteenth century and settled in Pairaband in 1583—did not want her to learn Bengali or English. For one thing, the Ashraf migrant community and its members, such as Rokeya’s father, looked down upon Bengali as it was spoken by ‘low-born Ajlaf Muslims’. It also deemed Arab and Persian traditions to be ‘authentic Islamic culture’ and detested English as it was the language of a new colonial power. The essay critically evaluates Rokeya’s literary endeavour and social reform initiatives and argues that ‘both her school and her literary works have survived the test of time; both serve as enduring testimonies to Rokeya’s genius and vision as a writer, educationist and social activist.’

By Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee

Born in 1977, Alfian Sa’at is an accomplished and versatile Singaporean writer who has published across all three genres of prose, poetry, and drama, winning awards in each genre, including the Singapore Literature Prize, Golden Point Award and Singapore Young Artist Award. His three poetry collections, One Fierce Hour (Landmark Books, 1998), A History of Amnesia (Ethos Books, 2001) and The Invisible Manuscript (Math Paper Press, 2012) were mainly composed during his undergraduate days in Singapore, and he has since published several plays, translations and two short story collections, Corridor: 12 Short Stories (SNP, 1999; Ethos Books, 2015) and Malay Sketches (Ethos Books 2012; Gaudy Boy 2018). Alfian is the Resident Playwright at Wild Rice, a theatre company in Singapore headed by artistic director Ivan Heng.

As part of an ongoing collaborative project entitled Anglophone City Poetics and the Asian Experience, Alfian talks to Tammy Ho and Jason Lee about his first poetic journeys, his relationship with the city-state he calls home, and his reactions to globalization and the cultural imaginary of the Asian city.

ALFIAN
Alfian Sa’at

Tammy Ho & Jason Lee: You are perhaps more renowned as a playwright these days, but can you tell us what inspired you to write your first poems?

Alfian: I think I was exposed to poetry through an anthology we used in my secondary school (Raffles Institution) called Touched with Fire. It was my first introduction to poets such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, and, if I’m not mistaken, also Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin. I think these poets left quite a significant impression and I started hunting for their collections in the school library. I was at that age when I took on melancholy as adolescent affectation, and I remember committing Larkin’s ‘Faith Healing’ to memory.

I probably started dabbling in poetry when I joined the Creative Arts Programme, which was a residential programme for students who displayed some aptitude in creative writing. This was when I was 15 years old. We spent one week staying at a hostel at the National University of Singapore. Every day, the other students would publish some of their writings in the daily newsletter. This was one of my earliest exposures to a writing community of peers.

Tammy & Jason: Can you list some important moments in your early experiences as a poet?

Alfian: I recall quite distinctly one moment in the canteen, when we were having our lunch. This was usually some rice with a side of meat and vegetables. Just the day before, one of the students had claimed to have found weevils in the rice, and all the complaints about how bad the food was took this rather nightmarish turn. On that day, the newsletter featured many poems, limericks, doodles about weevils.

So I went up to the lady who served us the rice (in styrofoam containers), to top up my drink. She seemed very pleased with the fact that I was returning ‘for seconds’ and asked me what school I was from. I told her, and her response was that I should eat more, since I was ‘so clever’ and used ‘my brain a lot’.

It was that gap, between the woman’s unguarded, even effusive interaction with me, and the fact that she was a target of parody, that made me return to my hostel room to write one of my first poems. I felt all these things that had to do with class and privilege and guilelessness and betrayal and it was something that I could only process through poetry.

in the time of others

From Chapter 17

The soldiers formed a firing squad on Shaukat’s order, waited for the officer to be clear of the scene as they had been ordered, and emptied their rifles into the prisoners.

 ‘Sir? Wasn’t this night a complete waste?’

 Shahbaz had been watching the soldiers dump the bodies into the river. The ones from inside were brought out and also thrown in.

‘Fifteen Muktis a waste?’ Shahbaz said. ‘Nights like this are what we need.’

‘I understand, sir, but – ’

‘You want to keep telling what’s better and what’s not?’ Shahbaz’s head turned slowly.

‘No sir, of course not.’

‘Did you know that in a nuclear holocaust the only living survivors would be cockroaches?’

‘I didn’t know this, sir.’

‘It’s true. The determined, nasty little bastards will survive it all. That’s what these Muktis are. That’s what their race is. They’re nasty little bastards, meant to be crushed, but you can’t get rid of them if you think they’ll just go away, disappear, die on their own. The only good thing is that these Bengalis are flesh and blood humans, and those we can get rid of.’

Shaukat allowed the convoluted analogy to sink in. Offered a cigarette, he accepted it with a quick glance at Shahbaz. Shahbaz’s attention was still pinned on the soldiers’ activities. Shaukat lit his cigarette and felt the wave of the momentary release wash over him.

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

“Diana, can you hear me?”
There was no response.
“Diana?”
Stephanie’s voice echoed through the house. The little glass dome hanging in the corner of the kitchen glowed with pink light. Stephanie put the shopping bags on the marble countertop and sighed. Diana had been sluggish for about a month now, and whenever she was queried about her slow responses, would simply reply, “I recommend that you update my operating system. I assure you that it will greatly improve my ability to serve.”

As compelling as that argument was, Stephanie had been reluctant to comply. Yes, a fully upgraded Diana would provide her with more help, and some of her new features sounded good. Okay, she didn’t understand what they were exactly, as they had names like the Oneiric Satiation Module or the Phronesis Budget Calculator, but she had to admit that they literally sounded impressive. But there was a part of her that took a spiteful glee at saying “no” to Diana, which was odd considering how hard she had pushed Jason to purchase her when they first bought the house.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

state of emergency

 

Title: State of Emergency
Author: Jeremy Tiang
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2017
Number of pages: 245

Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency won 2018’s Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) for fiction. Kate Griffin, one of the judges for the award, wrote in an article, “Erasing Histories” (https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/erasing-histories/): ‘State of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang’s beautifully written first novel, highlights a lesser known side of Singaporean history, exploring the leftist movements and political detentions in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1940s onwards, through the stories and memories of an extended family.’

Focused mainly within the local and Malayan Chinese community, the Communist movement found refuge in the jungles of Malaysia. The novel traces the development and then the quelling of this movement through the stories of three generations of Jason Low’s extended family. Jason’s wife, Siew Lee, chooses Communism over her family and leaves for the jungles of Malaya, partly to save herself and partly to live by her beliefs. Jason loses his sister in the 1965 Konfrontasi terrorist bomb blast in MacDonald House where she worked in a bank. The Konfrontasi was an Indonesian reaction to oppose the colonial decision for the formation of a separate Malaysia (of which Singapore remained a part till August 1966). These political movements in the ASEAN rip through the fabric of the Low family, tearing it apart.  Though his daughter continues to work as a Singapore government official, his son leaves him to immigrate to the United Kingdom and Jason Low finds himself in a ‘C’ class geriatric ward.

TBASS

Monik despised procrastination, that sneaky little pilferer of time and opportunity. Besides, she liked a project. Her love of projects had caused her to walk down the aisle on two occasions because she couldn’t resist planning a new phase of life after the sad demise of a husband. It was time, however, to look to the needs of others.

Natalia needed a man.

At the novena the following week, there was the usual shuffling monotony about everything. Then a voice from the recesses of the church: “For all those who are lonely. We petition Thee, O Heavenly Father, to look upon them with pity. Saint Anthony Wonder Worker, pray for us.”

Could it really be? After all these years? It did sound a bit like him.

It was. Mathias Faleiro had returned.

After the service, he came up to her. “My dear Monik…”

“Mathias, how absolutely wonderful! When did you get back? Is it for good?”

“A week ago. Ah yes, we’ve returned at last to glad Goa.”

Glad? A man who smelt of camphor and old coats probably turned every celebration into a happy requiem. Still, here was a man. But just a coconut-plucking moment. “We’ve returned? You mean you got marri…?”

“Oh, no, no.” Mathias looked at his toes. “I mean Barkis, my trusty canine friend, and I. I retired from teaching five years ago. Then we lost Galileo, and it was a little too painful to stay on. Besides, the ancestral place here was falling to pieces.”

“Galil…?”

“My parrot.”

“Oh.”

“I promise to drop by sometime, Monik, as soon as I can get my place fit for habitation.”

Poor, ignorant man. He had no idea that he was going to be dragged to Villa Rosa. On-a-leash.

“Mathias, do. Please.”

It is that time of the year again – the threshold – a time to look back and a time to look ahead, to take stock and to plan. This is the time when the publishing world turns to scores of year-end lists for readers. At Kitaab, we have turned the gaze inwards.

Much has been written on Kitaab’s pages in the past 12 months: reviews, interviews, fiction, essays (though we could do with more on that page), curated articles from across Asia… We have spread the ground to publish writing from Tibet, Korea, and a lot of Singapore this year.

Asian writing in its diversity and rich heritage has found its way into two powerful anthologies from Kitaab’s books publishing division – The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 and The Best Speculative Fiction 2018 and into the pages of kitaab.org. We have interviews from some of the best writers across the continent, powerful poetry, fiction and book reviews that have covered almost all ‘genres’ of writing. We have kept our promise of sharing our platform with debuting writers and independent publishers. What we have in return, is the gift of a profusion of voices, styles, themes and subjects from writers exploring their skills to those who have already proved their mettle.

As we wrap up the year, we would like to thank all of you who have contributed to Kitaab’s wealth of literature with your poetry, stories, reviews, essays and interviews; we are grateful to the writers and poets who have taken time out to engage in conversation with us.

Much remains to be done, but for now here’s the best of Kitaab, 2018:

In conversation with

 

 

 

Nayomi Munaweera – Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Charles Ades and Smita Sahay – Shikhandin
Dr Mohammad A Quayum – Shikhandin
Bhuchung D Sonam – Shelly Bhoil
Sudeep Chakravarty – Shikhandin
Siddharth Dasgupta – Pervin Saket
Anjum on Bergman – Zafar Anjum
Saubhik De Sarkar – Dolonchampa Chakraborty
H.S. Shiva Prakash – Kamalakar Bhat
Kamila Shamsie – Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Gopi Chand Narang – Rahman Abbas
Hannah Kim – Mitali Chakravarty
Felix Cheong – Mitali Chakravarty
Zafar Anjum and Monideepa Sahu – Sucharita Dutta-Asane