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Writing Matters: In conversation with Kamila Shamsie

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2018), for her novel Home Fire – also long listed for the Booker Prize in 2017 – an extraordinary book that serves as a reminder of the times in which we live. Her other books include In the City by the Sea (shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), Salt and Saffron that won her a place on Orange’s ‘21 Writers for the 21st Century’, Kartography, Broken Verses, Burnt Shadows (shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction), and A God in Every Stone.  She was one of the five judges for the Golden Man Booker winner and is one of the three judges for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, 2018.

Kamila_shamsie

Kamila, welcome to Kitaab! Congratulations on winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Sucharita: Antigone sets up a conflict that ruptures a family and raises complex ethical questions related to the personal and the state, family and identity. When you decided to write Home Fire, what was the immediate trigger to turn to Greek Tragedy and to this particular text?

Kamila: Sometimes the best ideas come from other people.  In this case, it was Jatinder Verma, the artistic director of Tara Arts in London who suggested to me that Antigone could work very well in a contemporary setting. That made me go back to the text, and as soon as I started reading it I saw how directly it spoke to our contemporary times.

Sucharita: Home Fire is a political story firmly rooted in the age of global terror and what it does to individuals and families. It is also about the difficulty of moral certitude in an age of deepening schisms, most evident in Karamat Lone, making him perhaps the most conflicted character in the book, dealing with much more, it seems, than Eamonn or Aneeka – a complex, modern adaptation of Creon’s character in Antigone. The moral burden is terrifying and rests squarely on his shoulders. What led to this positioning of the book’s moral complexity?

Kamila: I’m always interested in the ways in which different readers respond to the characters in the novel. Some see Karamat as shouldering a moral burden; others see him as acting out of political expediency with no interest in the moral questions. I prefer not to interpret the characters and get in the way of readers’ freedom to do so. So all I’ll say is that Karamat and Isma are the two characters who really inhabit the world of adulthood with all its messy complications and contradictions.

Sucharita: At the time of writing the book, the idea of a Tory from a Muslim immigrant, working class family as the country’s Home Secretary would have seemed unbelievable. In fact, you thought it to be ‘ridiculous’. Eventually, when Sajid Javid became Britain’s Home Secretary, how did the writer in you respond? What does prescience mean to a writer?

Kamila: I would love to claim prescience, but the truth is, my first instinct was, as you say, that the idea of such a Home Secretary would be ridiculous, but then I thought a little harder about it and considered the fact that Britain had three prominent up-and-coming politicians from Muslim backgrounds: Sajid Javid, Sadiq Khan and Sayeeda Warsi. One or two is an aberration; three suggests that something has shifted in the political culture. That’s why I was able to create Karamat Lone – because I started to see that actually a Home Secretary from a Muslim background was possible. But it also seemed to me that Muslimness would be something he or she would have to find a way to negotiate around, possibly by creating distance from it.  So what I’ll say about prescience is that actually it’s just paying attention to the currents around us and guessing what’ll happen if you move things forward just one step.

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‘Ponti’ is about how society turns women into monsters

(From Electric Literature. Link to the complete article given below)

Ponti, a debut novel by Singaporean-born writer Sharlene Teo, weaves dark, arresting narratives about the lives of three women: Szu, her distant and beautiful mother Amisa, and her high school friend Circe. Spanning between 1968 to 2020 in hot and humid Singapore, the novel traces the intimate and vicious ways in which the women’s lives are entangled to one another. Szu and Circe are drawn to the memory of Amisa and her short-lived career as an actress of a cult horror series, Ponti! As characters try to cope with loneliness and failure, the uncanny dimensions of Amisa’s film role as Pontianak, a bloodthirsty female ghost in white dress, seep silently into their daily lives. Winner of the Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award, Teo crafts each sentence with precision, evoking vivid imageries of how women experience their bodies and space, dream and reality, connection and disconnection.

I met Sharlene at the 2017 Sydney Writers Festival, where we spoke in the same panel and exchanged views on women, horror, and Southeast Asia. As an Indonesian writer, I was immediately captured by the universe of Ponti, which felt very close to home; similarities can be found in language, food, cultural expectations, and even in how our actions are structured by what Szu calls “a hot, horrible earth.” The Malay legend of Pontianak, known in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, could be seen as a projection of the fear towards women who refuse to conform to the societal norms. Ponti explore the rich cultures of Singapore and Southeast Asia while offering a fresh perspective on relationships between women, history, and (screened) memories.

A recipient of the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship and David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Award, Teo is currently completing her Ph.D in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. Prior to the U.S. release of Ponti, we conversed over email about the Orientalist connotations of Asian femininity, myth-making as ciphers of fear, and turning the pockets of weirdness and decay in cosmopolitan Singapore into its own character in her novel.

Read more at the Electric Lit link here


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Excerpt: ‘Restless: Chronicles of a Policeman’ by V.R. Sampath

Restless

Epilogue

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.

—MURIEL RUKEYSER

Every human being, at some point in time, needs to develop a concept of life. Science rests on two principles— experimentation and repeatability—before accepting any hypothesis. I decided to employ the same method on spirituality. In a way, it is easy to accept something by faith, and all religions demand faith, to begin with.

My theory goes somewhat like this: the life of an individual is the story of his evolution towards full potential, which, in other words, can be defined as the purpose of their life. I might have had smaller objectives and aims within this framework, such as aiming for a good education, making a career, earning well and starting a family. However, life’s purpose can be different things for different people; it can even just be an aim to be happy, whatever that happiness may mean. But a larger picture is essential to obtain a better perspective and to avoid certain complications and complexities. Chasing happiness may sometimes become tiring if you don’t know what will make you happy or what happiness means.

This overarching view of life, as a process of self-evolution towards reaching one’s full potential, opened many questions and possibilities. What exactly do the words ‘self’, ‘evolution’ and ‘potential’ mean and how am I supposed to attain this goal? I was born with certain things and I had no choice in the matter, such as a body, a mind and the environment into which I took birth. These are irreversible, and I could have done nothing about it. I needed to work from that point towards realizing my full potential. To that extent, these things which are given to me at birth become my tools for such a work; a body with all its limitations and potential, a psychology including my mind and its possibilities, and the cosmology, which includes the environment into which I was born.

When I say I am given my body and mind, that implies that I’m not them. If I have a car, I’m not the car. Then who am I? Shall I call that the self? The Bhagavad Gita calls it atman. My body has a name, Sampath, and address, some qualifications, family and possessions, and terabytes of impressions and experiences pouring out of all these things every second of my life and existence. If I’m not my body, then who enjoys the fruits of such experiences? My body can’t because it’s inert, it’s driven like a car which can’t enjoy the coastal ride. It’s the occupant of the car who enjoys the journey or suffers injuries when met with an accident. Shall we then say it’s me, myself or simply the ‘self,’ which enjoys or suffers the experiences?

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Country of Focus: Korea

(From the South China Morning Post. Link to the complete article given below)

A Korean woman struggles in 19th century France in Man Asian Literary Prize winner’s latest book, The Court Dancer

The Court Dancer, the latest novel by Man Asian Literary Prize winner Shin Kyung-sook, is likely to be read in several different ways. The first, and in some ways the most commercial, is as East-West romantic period fiction in the tradition of, say, Alessandro Baricco’s Silk or any number of English-language examples.

In the late 1880s, at a time of growing international threat to the Joseon dynasty, Yi Jin, a court lady, confidante to the queen and accomplished dancer, attracts the eye of the newly arrived French legate Victor Collin de Plancy, just as the queen starts to worry that Jin’s beauty might also catch the eye of the King. Jin has, fortunately or coincidentally, been taught French by a French missionary.

Victor is smitten and, contrary to both tradition and protocol, asks for her to visit the Legation, where she has her first encounter with both Berlioz and champagne: “Jin took a sip of champagne and closed her eyes. It spread in her mouth a fragrance as sweet as the music floating in her ears.”

More substantially, Jin finds herself attracted to Victor’s library.

Victor soon asks for her hand – Jin’s own feelings are ambiguous and remain so, but has little choice in the end – and he is permitted to take her back to France. There, her beauty and fluency in French create a sensation; she impresses real-life author Guy de Maupassant when she reads his work at a gathering at the fashionable Le Bon Marché, and helps translate some of the first Korean literature into French. But she’s a fish out of water, and Victor takes her back to Korea, where she finds she no longer fits either.

Read more at the South China Morning Post link here


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Waiting for the monkey’s return: Review of Amitabha Bagchi’s ‘Half the Night is Gone’

(From The Hindu. By Shreevatsa Nevatia. Link to the complete review given below)

One would think the Ramcharitmanas is impossible to include in modern literature. Tulsidas’ epic poem drips with a piety and excess that are seemingly hard to make relevant. In Half the Night is Gone, Amitabha Bagchi not just climbs that mountain, he lifts it. Of all the references he makes to that sacred text, there is one that is repeated more often: “Ardh raati gayi kapi nahi aayau/ Ram uthai anuj ur layau” (Past midnight and the monkey has not returned/ Ram lifted his brother’s prone body and held him to his heart). The couplet describes a scene Hinduism has, of course, made iconic over the years.

Lakshman has been fatally wounded in battle. Only a certain magic herb can save him. Hanuman flies to fetch it. He gets confused and brings back the entire mountain. We know Lakshman will be saved, but in the moment when half the night is gone, the prince is something of a Schrodinger’s cat: dead and alive. Like Lakshman, the characters of Half the Night are simultaneously one thing and its opposite: loyal and selfish, banal, yet oddly poetic, brawny and weak, familial, yet very individualistic.

Three generations

The architecture of Bagchi’s novel is intricate. He details the turbulence that besets two families and their three generations.

Lala Motichand is a typical Delhi merchant who does not let patriotism preclude profit. All revenue, he realises, is hard-won in a pre-independent India.

Read more at The Hindu link here


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The Women of Block 2

(By Aamer Hussein. From Dawn. Link to the complete article given below)

When Shahbano Alvi, my friend and the publisher of my forthcoming book, asked me to give the first of a series of talks she planned to hold at her new bookshop, The Silent Reed, I suggested that instead of a routine discussion of my life and works, we bring together a group of artists (in the wider sense) and journalists to discuss the influence of Karachi, the city we had in common, on our work and practice.

About a dozen of us gathered that July evening. But our conversation spun off in an entirely unexpected direction: our audience was keen to discuss its present fears and future hopes. Looking back at how the city had affected our imagination and our aesthetic remained in the shadowlands of our dynamic, sometimes diffuse conversation.

But a recurrent motif was evident in some our interventions: the continuous presence, over at least three generations, of women in all walks of Karachi’s arts and letters. Asif Farrukhi mentioned the multi-talented Amina Nazli, best known as the editor of the literary journal Ismat and also renowned for her very popular compilations of recipes, whose long career spanned the years from the Raj to the Zia era. Her underrated stories and plays have just been reissued in two volumes that include hitherto uncollected material. Shahbano herself — when her company, Ushba, began to publish a series of gumshuda tehreeren [lost writings] — came upon a family legacy of hidden gems written in the early years of the 20th century by the women of her grandmother’s family: poetry, essays and notably some delightfully wacky mysteries written by Binte Fatima Naqviya, the most prolific among these young women. Most of those talented sisters and cousins migrated to Pakistan, bringing with them their writings to be rediscovered and shared with the public by their descendants.

Read more at the Dawn link here


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Mohsin Hamid: ‘It’s important not to live one’s life gazing towards the future’

(From The Guardian. Link to the complete interview given below)

Mohsin Hamid appears to have a preternatural ability to summon up the spirits of his time. He finished writing his latest novel, Exit West, which was published early last year and shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, well before Trump and Brexit brought questions of borders and national identity to the forefront of the global narrative. The novel was in part a response to the migrant crisis that was unfolding in various corners of the world as Hamid was writing, but it also predicted with almost uncanny prescience the rise of nativist paranoia and racial intolerance, which have become such features of life in 2018.

The novelist Kamila Shamsie, a friend of Hamid, told me another story about his proleptic powers. “On September 9 or 10, 2001, I was having dinner with Mohsin in London and he told me about the book he was working on,” Shamsie said. “It was about a young Pakistani man doing very well in the corporate world in New York. Despite all his success, one day he found himself listening closely to a speech by an extremist Muslim – it wasn’t the religious content of the man’s words that caught his attention, but the political content. I saw Mohsin again on September 12, 2001. ‘Mohsin, your novel… ?’ I said. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘I think I have to go on writing it.’ ‘Of course you do,’ I said.”

That novel, Hamid’s second book, became The Reluctant Fundamentalist and was seen by many as the definitive literary response to 9/11. Certainly it was far more successful both critically and commercially than the attempts of more established authors to address the twin towers. John Updike, Martin Amis, Don DeLillo – the great and good of Anglo-American letters queued up to respond to the attacks, but it was Hamid’s protagonist Changez, bursting with charisma and ambition, who spoke with the greatest clarity and authority about what might have driven the terrorists to act.

Read more at The Guardian link here


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V.S. Naipaul, a writer of many contradictions and obvious greatness

(From the New York Times. Link to the complete article given below)

V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate who died at 85 on Saturday, had so many gifts as a writer — suppleness, wit, an unsparing eye for detail — that he could seemingly do whatever he wanted. What he did want, it became apparent, was to rarely please anyone but himself. The world’s readers flocked to his many novels and books of reportage for “his fastidious scorn,” as the critic Clive James wrote, “not for his large heart.” In his obvious greatness, in the hard truths he dealt, Naipaul attracted and repelled.

He was a walking sack of contradictions, in some ways the archetypal writer of the shifting and migratory 20th century. His life was a series of journeys between old world and new. He was a cool and sometimes snappish mediator between continents. Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth, Naipaul attended Oxford and lived in London, where he came to wear elegant suits and move in elite social circles. “When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I’m not just using a metaphor,” he said. “I’m speaking literally.”

His breakthrough book, after three comic works set in the Caribbean, was “A House for Mr. Biswas” (1961), a masterpiece composed when Naipaul was 29. It has lost none of its sweep and sly humor. It’s about a character, based on Naipaul’s father, who begins his life as a sign painter in Trinidad and Tobago and improbably rises to become a journalist. The first sign he paints reads, in words the industrious Naipaul seemed to take to heart: “IDLERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER.”

The richest and most eminently re-readable books of Naipaul’s fiction after “A House for Mr. Biswas” include “In a Free State,” an intimate suite of stories concerned with colonialism and the vagaries of power. Set in Egypt, America, Africa and England, it won the Booker Prize in 1971. “Guerrillas” was called “probably the best novel of 1975” by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. It is Naipaul’s most propulsive book. Set in an unnamed Caribbean country where the air is thick with postcolonial British dominion, it offers a complex portrait of the manners and motives of third world revolutionaries. It is an uncanny meditation on displacement. You never quite know where the novel is heading. Its author would later say, “Plot is for those who already know the world; narrative is for those who want to discover it.” His last great novel, set in postcolonial Central Africa, may have been “A Bend in the River” (1979).

Read more at the New York Times link here


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The Lounge Chair Interview: 15 questions with Saikat Majumdar

By Neha Mehrotra

Head of the English department at Ashoka University, Saikat Majumdar is an academic, novelist and critic. He is the author of Silverfish (HarperCollins, 2007), Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire (Columbia University Press and Orient Blackswan, 2013 and 2015), The Firebird (Hachette 2015 and 2017). The Scent of God (Simon and Schuster) is forthcoming in 2019.

The Firebird was one of Telegraph’s Best Books of 2015 and a finalist for the Atta-Galatta/Bangalore Literature Festival Fiction Prize in 2015 and the Mumbai Film Festival Word-to-Screen Market in 2016. His 2013 book on global modernisms was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association Annual Book Prize in 2014.

In addition to being published by major journals such as PMLA, NLH: New Literary History, Cambridge History of the Indian Novel in English, Modern Fiction Studies, and Literary Activism: A Collection of Perspectives, Saikat’s writing also features regularly in mainstream publications such as The Hindu, Outlook, Times Higher Education, Hindustan Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Indian Express, Caravan, Scroll, Telegraph, and Times of India.

Saikat Majumdar

Saikat Majumdar

How do you identify as a writer?

Primarily as a novelist. That’s the core to which I keep returning. I do other kinds of writing too, but I realize I do them all on a novelist’s terms. So my literary criticism is criticism by a novelist, and my nonfiction and newspaper essays are often novelistic in spirit and style. Not to say they are ‘fictional’ – hopefully I speak the truth when I mean to – it’s rather about the assumption of a voice of my own and a kind of an eye through which I see the world and think about it. Even when it’s the real world and not a fictionally crafted one. But since I actually do different kinds of writing, I like the term ‘writer’ and the looseness it evokes, and the way it avoids attaching itself to any particular genre or book. I’m not a fan of the word ‘author’ unless it’s used in connection to a particular work – it carries too much authority.

What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?

A ghost grabs me and makes me. Seriously, I don’t choose any of the themes or stories of my books – they always choose me and when I realize I have no choice whatsoever but to write, I know I have a real book there. Usually it’s a ghost from my past. A bit different with newspaper articles, or contributions to edited volumes or collections and there is more conscious choice there. But the books, the most important things, especially the novels, I can only write when I feel that absolute compulsion, and at one level I can never make out where they come from.

Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.

This morning I put the finishing touches to an essay on Calcutta that is part of an anthology of writing by novelists on the cities they’ve written about, Writing in the City, edited by Stuti Khanna, with contributions from Siddharth Chowdhury, Manu Joseph, Amitava Kumar, Indra Sinha, Amit Chaudhuri, Rupa Bajwa, Anjum Hasan, Manju Kapur and several others. Much looking forward to seeing this in print and how everybody has approached the subject.

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Countries in focus: Singapore: Book review

Book review of The Magic Circle by Charmaine Chan

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Magic Circle

Title: The Magic Circle
Author: Charmaine Chan
Total number of pages: 302
ISBN 978-981-11-3996-3
Publisher: Ethos Books, 2017
Price: S$18.60

The Magic Circle is a memoir by Charmaine Chan written for her sister who died of cancer. This book was justifiably short-listed for ‘The Singapore Literature Prize, 2018’. According to Jennifer Chen, the editor of The Peak, it is ‘a breathtaking rumination’.

The book is an attempt to recreate the sister she knew for her niece, Yazmin, and to bring the youngster closer to her maternal heritage and culture. Elaine, the sister who dies of cancer, spent a major part of her life in New Zealand and eventually married a New Zealander; her daughter, born and bred in New Zealand, was merely six when the mother passed away. On the brink of death, Elaine made an impassioned plea to her globetrotting sister, Charmaine Chan, writer, journalist, editor, poet and former lawyer from Singapore. ‘Don’t let Yazmin forget her Asian side, make sure she knows all the Asian dishes I love,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t let her forget me…’

Charmain Chan kept her promise and spent a decade creating a perfect memoir for her niece. She writes, ‘For her (Yazmin), I have sealed them(memories of Elaine and her heritage)into black and white, preserved them in print.’

The book is poignant when it deals with sorrow and the impending death that looms over her sister. A skilful weaver of words, Charmaine Chan creates a tapestry of images and feelings that bring to  the fore a lively, vivacious woman cut off from her propensity to enjoy life by the throes of a lingering death, a loving family, grief, a childhood full of sunshine and youthful nostalgia about a sister who formed part of a ‘magic circle’. The three sisters born and brought up in Singapore eventually moved to different corners of the world and had what Chan called ‘a magic circle’, an invisible bond, which was sundered by the untimely death of the middle sister Elaine.

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