Leave a comment

‘17,000 islands of imagination’: discovering Indonesian literature

In February last year, I was sitting in Cafe Batavia on Fatahillah Square in Jakarta, talking to an Indonesian friend. We were discussing how any novelist might describe a country to a readership who know nothing about it. We were surrounded by framed photos of Indonesian politicians and Hollywood stars, and the ceiling fans turned overhead. Outside, it was hot and overcast, and students milled around the front of the History Museum, built by the Dutch in 1710 and now housing objects from the founding of Jayakarta in 1527. How could any writer portray such a diverse culture?

My friend smiled wryly. “You only have the same problem as the rest of us,” he said. “Indonesia isn’t a nation. It’s an imagination.”

There are some countries so vast and diverse that any attempt to summarise them feels insulting: such is Indonesia. With a population of 258 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest formed by an archipelago. When it was guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair last year, it appeared under the banner “17,000 islands of imagination”, a phrase describing its geography but also encapsulating the complexities of representation. Indonesia is home to hundreds of different ethnicities speaking as many languages, and, along with Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, has a majority Muslim population that is the largest in the world. But, as yet, little of its literature has been translated into English.

Elizabeth Pisani is a writer and epidemiologist who has lived in Indonesia for many years. She has a simple explanation for this: ignorance. “Indonesia has no place in the British imagination,” she says. “It wasn’t a British colony and there’s virtually no Indonesian diaspora here, which means Brits aren’t even introduced to the country through food or a cultural presence.” In the absence of such historical links, can literature fill that imaginative gap?

Read More

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Sometimes the best way to read is to mark up the book

Nineteen years old, I sat at a long table in a small room, a poem in front of me. “Harry Ploughman” by Gerard Manley Hopkins felt impenetrable. A jumble of syntax. Frequent semicolons and dashes choked my reading. While I listened to my professor speak about Hopkins and Robert Bridges, I noticed her own copy of the poem was littered with pencil streaks and pen jabs. My copy was pale. Unmarked, and truly, unread.

In order to understand writing, I have to annotate it. I started with Hopkins. I bought a used edition of his selected poetry and prose, and started writing in the margins of the beige pages. This wasn’t defacing; this was an act of communion.

There’s a difference between line-editing and annotating. When we edit—when we are edited—the goal is to transform a draft into something better, something finished. When I annotate a poem, I am receiving words that have been formed and felt and hoped. “Harry Ploughman” exists without my acknowledgment or enjoyment. I’m there to learn from Hopkins. “Hard as hurdle arms,” the poem’s first phrase, is enough for me to linger on—and we’re a few stanzas away from the combined word “Amansstrength.”

In order to appreciate Hopkins, I had to walk my pencil among his phrases. The spirit of his lines opened; that is not to say that all of his mysteries were revealed, but I could follow the turns of his rhythms. “He leans to it, Harry bends, look.” When I marked that final word of the phrase, the terse stop of look, I was documenting the poet’s accomplishment. Annotation can be an action of reverence.

Ever since, it’s been impossible for me to read a book, or analyze a poem, or follow the routes of an essay without underlining, circling, drawing arrows, making notes in the margins. Most writers and readers I know love to mark up their pages.

Read More


Leave a comment

The moon is beautiful tonight: On East Asian narratives

1.
Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.

“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”

That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.

Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?

It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.

Read More


Leave a comment

Book Review: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast by Sanjoy Hazarika

Reviewed by Gouri Athale

Strangers No More -- Sanjoy Hazarika

Title: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast
Author: Sanjoy Hazarika
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 472 (Hardcover)
Buy

 

The title says it all: they are no longer strangers. They are now part of the Indian mainstream despite hiccups in the form of discrimination against them in the rest of India merely because they look different. These are people of the North East, alienated from the rest of the country due to many reasons, not least that of geography (access was difficult), social set up and appearance – differences that were deliberately cultivated and exploited by the former imperial power, Britain.

The book gathers steam only after a very long (nearly 50 page-long) ‘Introduction’, which brings the region to the reader. This is an irritant. After this over-long Introduction, the author notes the many causes for the feelings of alienation among people of the Seven Sisters but omits (at least in this book) the role of the Church in creating this sense of alienation, or its continuing role in Nagaland and Mizoram (and that of the Mother’s Committee of Manipur) in insisting on prohibition. Liquor companies could provide a better insight regarding the sale of liquor (including beer) with alcoholism a serious problem in the region.

In the very first chapter, Hazarika comes to grips with the demand which reverberates across the North East as well as in the Kashmir valley: repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Or at least make it more humane and make armed forces personnel liable for their conduct under relevant sections of the civil and criminal law. Like many opponents of AFSPA, the author’s view does not take into account that an insurgency or an internal revolt is essentially a civil war fought in a limited area. It is, nevertheless, war and the rules of war, not civil law, apply. The armed forces cannot operate without the legal cover of AFSPA while the other side (freedom fighters or revolutionaries) is free to use tactics like patrolling, raids and ambushes.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Short story: Coming Home by Pravinsinh Chavda

Translated from the Gujarati by Mira Desai (from Pravinsinh Chavda’s short story collection Ek Evun Ghar Maley, published by Gurjar Granthratna Karyalaya, 2005)

Pravinsinh Chavda

Ranjit dressed in clothes that he’d carefully ironed and told his father, ‘I’ll be back in a while.’

His father would drape a napkin on his shoulder and sit in an armchair on the front porch all day; his loss of vision had bestowed a certain grace to his posture. If he heard a vehicle pass by or footsteps approaching, he would smile in expectation and his smile would last even after the footsteps had faded away. Ranjit was at a loss as to how to fill in the vacuum of unending time even on Sundays, so he’d pick any direction and begin to walk, enjoying whatever he encountered along the way. His vision had been sharpened, so everything that he saw sprang to life.

Where will you go, son? His father didn’t ask such questions. There wasn’t much that was different in sitting idle on the otlo, the porch, or wandering about like his son did; perhaps he knew this.

That morning Ranjit walked with a special energy; he’d remembered Shriram Mulay as if he’d stepped forth from an old sepia photograph, dressed in his school uniform khakhi shorts and a toothy smile. They didn’t meet very often now; at times a gap of six months or a year would pass before they met, but Shriram’s riverside house and the surrounding backyard often impinged on his memory. When he’d reach Salvivad with his schoolbag on his way to school, Shriram’s Ayi would be waiting on the porch to see him off. All the happenings and news that they collected during the course of the day would be brought out carefully and shared in the evening by that house. Shriram would lead him indoor for a drink of water, and from there they’d step into the backyard as if drawn there. He could still see Shriram’s Ayi walking up to them with a bowlful of goodies, a ladoo or perhaps a til sweet.

The rustic tea stall and the flour mill at the entrance to the neighbourhood were still there. There weren’t too many changes in the locality either; he felt as if he were stepping into the past as he climbed up the steps to the porch. He stood there quite a while after he had gently knocked on the screen door. After what seemed like infinity, Shriram trudged to the door pulling his shirt into place and stared at him quizzically from behind the door-bars.

‘Who is it, bhai?’

‘Just a passer-by. I’ve come here for some water.’

Shriram didn’t laugh out loud. ‘Come,’ he said indifferently and turned away. This was a new way of greeting. Whenever they met in the past, they would trade accusations by way of greeting: You’ve become an important person. Your time is too precious… Only after both of them were satisfied that neither had become overly important would Shaliniben offer a cup of tea as a peace offering.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

How do we judge translations?

Look to the whole, the translator asked.

The line comes from Helen Lowe-Porter’s correspondence, and can be read as an early plea (from a letter to her publisher Alfred A. Knopf, dated 11 November 1943) against the kind of translation review which proceeds by finding and scrutinizing the apparent lapse, the moments of inattention, the local mistake or infelicity—which might always be of the order of a conscious decision on the translator’s part—and making these stand in for the quality of the full translation.

Michelle Woods discusses this very common form of translation-evaluation in the section titled “Gotcha!” of her account of Kafka’s English-language translators and translations. The expression comes from the translator Mark Harman, whose 1998 translation of Kafka’s The Castle was widely reviewed and discussed. In this kind of review, as Woods writes, “reviewers often hone in on perceived ‘mistakes’ in order to justify their own taste preferences and to present their own legitimacy as experts in judging a translation. Rarely glimpsed is a consideration of the translator, or where translation fits into their career and their background. . . and what the nature of their contribution should be.”

Looking to the whole is a call to consider the way the thing is working and reading altogether, the way its many parts work in relation to one another, and the larger ways in which the translation relates to the circumstances and motivations for making it (a call that, as Woods points out, Lawrence Venuti makes repeatedly throughout his work).

Read More


Leave a comment

“The tragedy of going back”: Jhumpa Lahiri on her work as a translator

In 2012, having published four books and won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome. There, she experienced what she described as “a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.” A set of preconceptions had hardened around her writing, and in Italy, Lahiri hoped to jettison these in pursuit of a new vulnerability. She looked to the Italian language to reinvent herself on the page, restoring the joy and freedom in her work.

One consequence of this immersion was In Other Words, Lahiri’s memoir about language, and her first book written in Italian. (An English translation by Ann Goldstein appeared in 2015.) Just as important, in their way, were her first efforts at translation—a pair of novels, Ties and Trick, by her friend Domenico Starnone, the author of more than a dozen books and a winner of Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize. Ties, published last year, tells the story of a marriage in extremis and dissects a lifetime of accrued routine, deception, and petty resentment. When it came to light that Starnone is married to the writer who goes by Elena Ferrante, critics returned to Ties, suddenly eager to read it as a counterpart to Ferrante’s own Days of Abandonment.

Trick, Lahiri’s second Starnone translation, out in March, is another vivisection of family life, a novel as lean and unflinching as its predecessor. An elderly illustrator, Daniele, visits his childhood apartment, now his daughter’s home, to babysit his four-year-old grandson. The boy’s frenetic energy fills Daniele with foreboding, forcing him to reckon with his past and his senescence—to accept that his creative powers are waning and his body is failing him.

In a pair of phone conversations—one last year, after Ties came out, and one more recently, following the publication of Trick—I talked to Lahiri about the raw power behind Starnone’s work; about her approach to translation and her love of the Italian language; and about balconies, which are scary. 

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to Ties, and what made you decide to translate it?

LAHIRI

Well, I read it when it was first published in 2014. I was living in Rome, and I knew Domenico already.

Read More


Leave a comment

Writing Matters: In conversation with Suchen Christine Lim

By Mitali Chakravarty

Suchen Christine Lim

 

What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.

— Suchen Christine Lim, Second Fragment, A Bit of Earth

 

She wanted to run a chicken porridge stall in Singapore. Instead, she wrote about the coolies, the illiterate and the chicken porridge stall owners. Meet Suchen Christine Lim, an established voice in ASEAN literature with multiple awards and fellowships to her credit.

The first thing I notice when we meet is her humility. I remember listening to her during a panel discussion on ASEAN literature where Suchen said that she picked up bits of garbage and put them together to make a story. To me, her stories are anything but a bit of garbage. They record the history of Malaya and then, Singapore and Malaysia. Her works have been lauded by The Straits Times as ‘worthy literary landmarks that capture a slice of South-east Asian history’. Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University, Malaysia, sees her works as ‘brilliant stimulating and a compelling read’; Lily Rose Tope, PhD, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Phillipines, says, Suchen makes ‘history personal… a joy to teach and a riveting read’. Martin Marroni, a Scottish poet wrote to Suchen: ‘Astonishing tour de force. You have created a physical and social landscape and peopled it with characters with real human feelings on issues of political import as well as on the strains of personal and social survival.’ Yet, when I ask her where she sees herself in the ASEAN literary context, her response is that it is for the critics to decide. ‘I don’t see myself as anything except being able to write.’

Her passion for writing developed in the course of her teaching career. The characters she wrote about in her novels and short stories came to life for her as she went about her daily chores. She became the weaver of tales for these imaginary personas who led her through their adventures. She talks of her works in terms of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) based on the belief that puppets have a life of their own and their needs must be respected. She sees herself as the dalang, the puppet master, not a puppeteer, she emphasises. ‘And to me, the relationship between a novelist and a character is that of the dalang and the puppet, which eventually evolves a life of its own.’

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Why the new wave of East Asian authors is targeting YA

It took Emily X.R. Pan nearly a decade to write her debut novel The Astonishing Color of After. She’d initially conceived the book as a 40-year exploration of her grandmothers’ coming-of-age in Taiwan, but due to a lack of information about how she grew up, the author reworked her premise — and her genre. “It was adult literary. I tried middle-grade, I tried YA, I tried adult again,” she recalls. Compounding the difficulty of categorizing the book was the way her own life was seeping into the material. She lost her aunt to suicide in 2014 and refashioned the narrative to center on a Taiwanese-American teenager whose mother dies by suicide. The genre? YA.

Pan is one of many East Asian-American authors to recently make a splash in the YA space with highly original and culturally specific fiction. Her book is a relatively literary entry in the canon, a nearly 500-page novel set in Taiwan which combines mystical and realistic elements. The protagonist, Leigh, goes to be with her grandparents in Taiwan after her mother’s death, and — believing her mother has turned into a bird — seeks to find and speak with her, and in turn gain a better sense of self.

Pan had been toying around with the image — without any particular significance attached — of a person turning into a bird for a long time. And as her own grieving process made its way onto the page, she found that the image attained a rich emotional significance. The book is layered with Buddhist ideas, and Leigh’s belief of what happened to her mother reflects the religion’s concept of post-death spiritual limbo. “I didn’t want to write an intentionally Buddhist book at first because I was really nervous that it would seem too inaccessible to people,” Pan says. “I worried that the religious culture would alienate people.”

Read More


Leave a comment

Writing Matters: In conversation with Sudeep Chakravarti

By Shikhandin

Sudeep by Ushinor Majumdar Colour

Photo Courtesy: Ushinor Majumdar

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction – Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014, and most recently, The Bengalis. He has written two novels (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings) and his essays and short fiction have appeared in collections in India and overseas; like his books, these have been translated into several languages.
He is among India’s leading independent commentators on matters of conflict and conflict resolution, democracy and development, political economy, and the convergence of business and human rights. An extensively published columnist at Mint and elsewhere, he has over three decades of experience in media, and has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career, and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media.
An avid scuba diver, Sudeep’s key interest away from writing and travelling remains marine conservation. He lives in Goa and in the Velliangiri Hills, Tamil Nadu.

Shikhandin: In the acknowledgements page of The Bengalis, you have touched upon how the book came about. Could you let us know a bit more here?

Sudeep Chakravarti: I have for long wanted to write a book on the social and political aspects of Greater Bengal — by that I mean West Bengal and East Bengal, now Bangladesh — with a personalized touch. My personal history is rooted in both Bengals, as it were, and such an approach lends a great degree of reality and immediacy to seemingly dry history. I had even proposed it to a major publisher, but I put it on ice for a couple of years on account of a few issues with that particular publisher. I subsequently brought the project to David Davidar of Aleph. The Bengalis assumed a more rounded avatar after my discussion with David, whose idea was a fuller portrait of the Bengalis, almost a biography.

I was keen to translate research, interviews, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling. I apply that approach to all my books, fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. The difference with The Bengalis is that I am occasionally involved in the story as a participant. But I was determined to maintain a distance, and address thorny issues of history and ethnicity alongside all that is justly celebrated about the Bengalis. It’s not so much about a different eye as a necessary eye: The Bengalis is not a brochure, it’s an attempt at a portrait of a people painted with what I hope is honesty, honour, some horror and a lot of humour. David liked that approach right from the first draft. A second draft and a couple of proofs later, we were done. He and Aleph’s managing editor, Aienla Ozukum, really got into The Bengalis.

Then there is the cover, a work of great care and aesthetics by Aleph’s art director, Bena Sareen (who also designed the cover of my book Red Sun when she was at Penguin). The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: a hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting. The image by Plabon Das works wonderfully. As to the content, the book of course attempts to deal comprehensively with all this and much, much more.

There was a process to the selection of this image. We were very concerned that the image should not crudely reflect a stereotype, or alienate a vast number of Bengalis. There were other images in the initial design line-up; for instance, a beautiful image of a rickshaw puller in front of a grand North Kolkata mansion. I felt that was too ‘guidebook’ or ‘coffee-table’, like a couple of other options. In any case we didn’t want something to be too Kolkata, as it were, as if other places in what I like to call Banglasphere don’t exist.
Continue reading