Leave a comment

The Asian American Women Writers Who Are Going to Change the World

This past year of national chaos has often had me thinking, What if? What if, before this year, I’d spoken up more, given more, fought more? On the one hand, if I’d allocated the entirety of my waking hours toward canvassing for the side of political good, I still, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have prevented this year’s kakistocratic events. But if a thousand people like me had done more? Ten thousand?

What-if rue like this is mostly useless, but it can, at least, help lead to future action. Toward that end, I’ve felt heartened and inspired by the examples set forth by fellow writers — especially, at times, by politically outspoken Asian American women. It’s a demographic often expected to be relatively quiet, even docile; what’s more, we’re routinely labeled the so-called model minority, a hateful idea trying to press us into the service of white supremacy. It’s evil shit, and not-at-all-quiet exemplars abound, including Nayomi Munaweera, Celeste Ng, Vanessa Hua, Nicole Chung, Alice Sola Kim, Jarry Lee, Rachel Khong, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Aimee Phan, Vauhini Vara, Jenny Zhang, Karissa Chen, Mira Jacob, Kat Chow, Steph Cha, Kirstin Chen, Tracy O’Neill, Larissa Pham, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Suki Kim, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Sonya Larson, Shuchi Saraswat, Catherine Chung, Shanthi Sekaran, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Jia Tolentino, Hasanthika Sirisena, Nina McConigley, Krys Lee, Solmaz Sharif, Ru Freeman, Lisa Ko, Janice Lee, Katrina Dodson, Aja Gabel, Sonya Chung, Jade Chang, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, T. Kira Madden, and, and, and.

In this roundtable, I spoke with four such vocal women: V.V. Ganeshananthan, Porochista Khakpour, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Esmé Weijun Wang. They’re all versatile writers who frequently work across genres, splendid novelists who also write candid, powerful nonfiction, and who are brilliantly forthright about their political views. Here’s Ganeshananthan in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Margins about who gets to write what they don’t know, and her essay “The Politics of Grief” in Granta. Here’s Khakpour on writing as an Iranian American in Catapult, and her essay “How Can I Be a Refugee Twice?” in CNN. Nguyen wrote about being a refugee in Literary Hub, and, along with Karissa Chen and Celeste Ng, published a rap-battle response to Calvin Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” Finally, take a look at Wang in Buzzfeed about the “good” schizophrenic, and in The Believer about metaphors of mental illness.

Read More

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Book Review: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

By Kaamna Jain

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

The second most interesting thing about former High Court judge Mahesh Sharma’s peacock theory is that somehow being celibate makes the peacock a superior animal. The first thing of course is that it’s a completely unscientific fact which has been quoted while giving judgment in a criminal case. The judge needs to be reminded that he as well as the entire human race is a product of sexual reproduction. Then why celebrate and put organisms that reproduce asexually on a higher pedestal?

For years students of science have been taught that sexual reproduction is better than asexual reproduction for evolution because it creates genetic variety. This helps a species in adapting to constantly changing and challenging environment, even though sexual reproduction is more cumbersome and less efficient. That is the reason sexually reproducing species are at the highest rung of the ladder while single cell organisms which reproduce asexually are at the very bottom of the pyramid.

It is the taboo surrounding sex that sets the context for the book, “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows”, written by Singapore based author, Balli Kaur Jaswal. Published in early 2017 by Harper Collins, movie rights have already been sold to Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions, and Film4.

The title is an intriguing misnomer. Erotic stories? Sure, any time. But for Punjabi widows? In a patriarchal society, widows are deemed to be even lesser beings than women and somehow supposed to be asexual beings, bereft of desires and fancies once their better halves leave for their heavenly abode. The word “widow” conjures the image of a lady clad in white, engaged either in religious or household chores. That such a creature could have erotic stories to share or sexual fantasies, takes time to get used to. Once you get used to the idea, the surreptitious thrill of enjoying something forbidden also screams out loud from the title. I quickly ordered a copy online. Now I happened to be travelling and thanks to the title, was extremely uncomfortable about getting it delivered to a neighbour’s house for safekeeping. After that, I could not bring myself to say the name of the book when asked by an elderly uncle what I was reading currently.

The story is set in Southall and Enfield, London. The protagonist is a young British girl of Indian origin, Nikki, who is trying to figure out what she wants to do in life. Brought up in Enfield, which is a more British part of London, she gets tricked into an assignment to take writing class for Punjabi windows in a Gurudwara in Southall. She wants to “help the women” and believes that “everyone has stories to tell. It would be a rewarding experience to help Punjabi women to craft their stories”.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

This Side of Syria: Best Books to Understand the Syrian Experience

Americans have long prided themselves on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. Even considering the complexity of this notion, the idea itself remains a point of emphasis in our national identity. One of the most enduring symbols of the United States is a woman holding a torch aloft in a harbor beckoning travelers to safe refuge, our Statue of Liberty. And yet in times when we have perceived that our security is waning, we lash out at these very immigrants who, in times of relative safety, we claim as a point of national pride.

Now, in the midst of a staggering global refugee crisis, we are seeing the fabric of our nation’s identity being tested once again. The brutal civil war plaguing Syria has displaced millions, forcing Syrians to flee their war-torn home and seek solace from inhumane and terrifying conditions. The United States has often stood at the forefront of refugee resettlement, but under the cloak of fear, President Trump is pushing this country to once again close off its borders.

It is, unfortunately, easy to ignore this crisis, to forget that those fleeing are seeking refuge from cruel circumstance – and often death. Literature once again, though, proves to offer a powerful window of empathy – a reminder of the essential humanity in all of us. In times like these, empathy and understanding are paramount. To hopefully help gain a better understanding of Syria, its people, and its rich literary tradition, we’ve pulled together a number of books and novels by Syrian authors or simply about the Syrian experience.

Read More


Leave a comment

The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Jaina Sanga

By Aminah Sheikh

J Sanga - photo

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I was always fond of reading. When I was young, I read constantly, often finishing a novel in a day. But I never aspired to becoming a writer. In school I was fascinated by chemical equations and lab experiments, but was never encouraged to go into Chemistry. I studied English Literature in college and graduate school and worked as a professor for some years. I write because that is the only thing I know how to do.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

Tourist Season (published by Speaking Tiger), a collection of two novellas is my most recent book. Having written a novel, Silk Fish Opium, and a book of short stories, Train to Bombay, I was eager to take on the challenge of the novella. It is a difficult and eccentric form, but offers immense possibilities. I was also attempting to focus on environmental issues, and this theme is embedded in both the novellas.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I try to write everyday, from about 8:00am until 2:00pm. I use a laptop computer for the manuscript, but outline scenes and take notes longhand on chits of paper. Whenever I get stuck while writing, I pace the floor. I end up pacing a great deal.

Who are your favorite authors?

That’s a difficult question. There are so many authors I admire for different reasons. But to name a few, I’d say John Banville, Ian McEwan, William Trevor, ItaloCalvino, Haruki Murakami, Gustave Flaubert, Magda Szabó, Ruth Ozeiki, Laleh Khadivi, Hillary Mantel, Michael Ondaatje, and J. M. Coetzee.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Short Story: The White Envelope

By Juanita Kakoty

Sameera baji rushed down the narrow steep stairs of the building, her sandals going ‘clap clap’ with every step she descended, ignoring the pain in her knees that morning when every other day she cried out curses for the anonymous builder who planted these, what she called, ‘high rise stairs.’

She tore down the stairs of the scraggy yellow building calling out to her friend who lived in a small plot of land right across. Ameena baji! Ameena baji! Did you hear?

Ameena baji came out of the two-room humble dwelling into the courtyard and looked up. Thank God her husband had not succumbed to the lucrative temptation of selling their little plot of land to builders who have built stiff ugly buildings all over Shaheen Bagh such that if one wanted to stare at the sky, only a strip of it would peer through the mesh of buildings, or one would have to climb up to a terrace. But from Ameena baji’s house, one had the luxury to stare at a good patch of the sky from the ground – a rectangular piece of blue that soared above the pale yellow and grey buildings towering over her little plot of land.

There she saw Sameera baji at one corner of the second floor landing, leaning against the intricately carved black railing and looking down excitedly. The tenants living on that floor had tied a thick yellow synthetic rope above the railing from which hung a purple bed sheet with huge red and white flowers merging with each other, still moist. Sameera baji was so excited that she did not even push the bed sheet to the side. She stood there looking down at Ameena baji’s courtyard, the moist bed sheet clinging to her back.

What? Ameena baji cried out.

Did you get the white envelope? Sameera baji asked with a strange gleam in her eyes.

***

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Book Review: Adventure Stories of Great Writers

By Mitali Chakravarty

Adventure Stories of Great Writers

Title: Adventure Stories of Great Writers
Author: Dr Usha Bande
Publisher: Kitaab

Adventures Stories of Great Writers is a collection of episodes from the lives of well-known writers across the world through different periods in history. These vignettes from the biographies focus on adventures faced by twenty such persons transcending borders and nations. The different stories touch upon the lives of great writers like Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Knud Holmboe, Washinton Irving, Herman Melville and T.E. Lawrence ranging from a variety of countries including Denmark, India, America, England, to name a few. The stories are set on the rough seas around the world, including the Arctic Ocean, where Arthur Conan Doyle was thrown off his ship among frozen chunks of ice in the cold waters; in the deserts of Arabia and Africa where, T.E. Lawrence fought for the Arabs and which Knud Holmboe made into his own home; in India, where John Masters battles a deadly man hunting tiger; in apartheid ridden South Africa, where Gandhi learns never to give in to injustice… Transcending borders, religions and creed, the common thing that strings these stories together is perhaps best expressed by a quote from Rabindranath Tagore at the start of an episode from Gandhiji’s life:

“Power said to the world, ‘you are mine’.

The world kept it prisoner on her throne.

Love said to the world, ‘I am thine’.

The world gave it the freedom of her home.”

Most of the episodes reflect compassion, kindness and love for mankind. Some depict indomitable spirit, courage and boldness while some focus on the spirit of adventure and innovative solutions to get out of situations that seem impossible. Conviction in one’s beliefs, the energy and the determination to push through to achieve one’s objective and to make changes that were felt to be necessary are also highlighted by these vignettes. All these episodes go to show what has been summed up by a quotation from Swami Vivekananda at the start of a chapter on Sir Winston Churchill:

“The history of the world is the history of

a few men who had faith in themselves.”

Continue reading


Leave a comment

The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Chhimi Tenduf-La

 

Chhimi Tenduf-La Photo

By Aminah Sheikh

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I can edit what I have already written but not what I have already said. So in a first draft of a story, I can say whatever I want in a way I can’t when I speak. This makes writing enormous fun. Also, with age I am getting worse at everything else I enjoy doing, such as sports and looking human. With writing, I imagine I will get better with time.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

Loyal Stalkers is a collection of linked short stories. An author who read it told me that it was like a painting coming to life with each chapter filling in the colours of one other corner of that painting. With it I want to challenge assumptions about gender roles, sexuality, etc. With each story I think there is a message; for example, that the fear of shame can break up families and ruin futures. There is a lot in there about what is wrong with society, but my hope above all else is that people will find it compelling, moving and surprising.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I am terrified of a reader being bored so I try to get in and out of a story or scene as quickly and as smoothly as possible. I try to be punchy, sometimes almost rap-like. I try to create rhythm. I want to surprise and shock, make people laugh or cry. I try not to be overly descriptive because as a reader I like to fill in the blanks and imagine settings for myself. In some ways I write imagining my stories as a movie. I imagine the soundtrack and the dramatic pauses. Because of this I try my very best to make my dialogue as punchy and as natural as possible and in this regard I am influenced more by say, Tarantino, than any author.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

The Best Books on Sri Lanka Recommended by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Editor’s Note: fivebooks.com took this interview in 2009. They call it one of the saddest interviews on their site in which Ahilan Kadirgamar, the Sri Lankan activist, takes readers down the years tracing the best books written about and during the civil war and its many injustices.


So the first book you chose was written back in colonial times: The Story of Ceylon by Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk. Why choose such an old book?

This is my favorite history of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was then called. It was written in the late 1950s, just at the time of the escalation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Ludowyk grew up in Sri Lanka, he was a Shakespearian scholar, half Sri-Lankan, half British, I believe, who taught at the University of Ceylon. He taught my parents’ generation, the generation that saw Ceylon gain independence from Britain in 1948 and after he retired he returned to England and died there. But before doing so, he wrote this book.

And for me, it is like reading something written by someone from an unimaginable era. Ludowyk tells the story of Ceylon, and he is conscious where it all might be heading, and you have glimpses of where 50 years later it could all end. But what is so refreshing for me is that it is also clear from the book that it didn’t have to go in this direction. That for people of that generation, and my parents’ generation, it would have been almost impossible to imagine the militarized conflict that would subsequently erupt. And looking back, it makes me wonder what went wrong: Why couldn’t we resolve our problems politically? Why did Sri Lanka’s history become so tragic?

I read this book a number of years ago and it made an enormous impression on me. Also because it takes a very sobering look at the history, which is at the centre of many of the claims made by both sides in the conflict.

History is at the center of the conflict? In what way?

Nationalism was used to polarize the two sides, and that nationalism was partly based on history.

On one side there is the myth of Sri Lanka’s origins. This idea that the country was blessed by the Buddha. That’s a large part of the basis for Sinhala nationalism. And on the other side the Tamils claim that certain areas always belonged to them, that they have had a clear homeland since time immemorial. And what Ludowyk points out is that in reality society was very mixed, very hybrid. The nationalists used history to polarize everything, but in fact the two sides were very interlinked, even by marriage.

So your next book is written when the conflict is already well under way.

Yes, The Broken Palmyrah—the palmyrah being a palm tree and a symbol of Jaffna.

Read More


Leave a comment

Excerpts: Singha Durbar: Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime of Nepal by Sagar S.J.B. Rana

R642

Chapter Three

The Nepalese and the Holy City

‘Banaras is not only a city, but a culture in itself — those who can sense and be part of it can experience its revealing consciousness,’ said Kamal Gupt, a local scholar. Brahma, the Creator of the Universe in Hindu mythology, is said to have remarked, ‘You balance all the heavenly deities on one side and Kasi on the other, and the gods will be lighter.’ The celebrated poet-seer Vyasa established his hermitage here. Tulsidas wrote his Ramacharitamanas here. Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath nearby. Kabir, Ravidas, Ramanand, Munshi Premchand, Girija Devi, Sitara Devi, Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Laxmi Prasad Devkota and a host of other great philosophers, and men and women of the arts and letters found inspiration in this holy city.

The connection of Nepal with Kasi is as old as history itself. Some of the rarest texts of the Skanda Purana preserved in Nepalese palm-leaf manuscripts, dated AD 810, are available in Kathmandu. It is ordained by the scriptures that the practice of yoga and even merely spending one’s last days in Kasi, will lead to moksha. Even before the history of these cities were recorded with exactitude, and until the mid-twentieth century it was the ardent desire of most Nepalese to visit Kasi at least once in a lifetime or better still, to ‘attain deliverance from the body’ in Kasi.

Kasi has always been the centre for Nepalese pilgrims and priests, but it also sheltered those exiled from the country. ‘Some days after Jung Bahadur took control of governance, he asked King Rajendra to choose a destination for him and the queen to settle down, outside of Nepal. The king replied, ‘there are many places of worship and for meditation in Kasi. The holy River Ganga flows and the God of Gods, Lord Vishwanath is there. Many Nepalese people have lived in Varanasi for generations. That is where I wish to go’. This is how in 1846, King Rajendra and Queen Rajya Laxmi came to live in Varanasi with their large retinue. My great-grandfather, the Raj Purohit and his son, my grandfather were part of that retinue’. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, fondly remembered as Kishunjee, was born at an outhouse of the palace the royals built. He followed the footsteps of the family helping his father in the performance of religious rites in Banaras and Ramnagar, a town located in north Bihar across the Chitwan district at the palace of Mahendra Bikram Shah, alias Ram Raja. But once his elder brother, Gopal and he joined the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the 1940s, they were absorbed by the revolutionary spirit that engulfed India and joined the movement against British rule in India and the Rana oligarchy in Nepal.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

10 Syrian Writers You Should Know

Syria’s literary tradition is just part of the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of a country which has faced many difficulties and hardships. Here we profile ten of Syria’s most prolific and influential writers, who have made a name for themselves both nationally and internationally.

Salim Barakat

Born in Qamishli in northern Syria, of Syrian and Kurdish descent, Salim Barakat’s literary works focus on Kurdish culture and heritage and explore its place in the wider Arab world. A prolific writer, Barakat has published dozens of novels, short story collections, and poetry anthologies, and is distinguished from his contemporaries for the innovative use of style and theme within his writing. He has been credited by literary critics for introducing the genre of magical realism to Arabic literature, with works such as The Caves of Hydrahodahose incorporating elements of the fantastic and mythological – including a society of centaurs – in order to reflect on contemporary culture and society.

Ali Ahmad Said Esber (Adunis)

Ali Ahmad Said Esber, known by his pen name Adunis, is arguably one of the Arab world’s most prominent poets, and has been regularly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1988. Adunis’ poetry epitomizes modernity and rebellion, building on the historic tradition of Arabic poetry in order to subvert it; his poetry often deals with themes of transformation, exile and reform, and he rejects classic poetic structure and form in order to experiment with verse, meter and prose poetry. He has been internationally recognized, and was awarded the prestigious Bjørnson Prize in 2007 by the Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression, as well as winning the Goethe Prize of the City of Frankfurt in 2011.

Read More