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Could Eco-Literature be the Next Major Literary Wave?

Eco-literature includes the whole gamut of literary works, including fiction, poetry and criticism, which lay stress on ecological issues. Cli-fi (climate fiction), which deals with climate change and global warming, is logically a sub-set of eco-literature. Most of the current writing under this genre looks at human activities that have been killing nature slowly.

Cli-fi often ventures into the realms of sci-fi and/or speculative fiction when the narrative gets rooted in future or in an imaginary geographical locale. The litmus test is how far such fiction evokes in the reader a sense of urgency towards an action to save the environment, or, if they are capable of leaving a deep impression to humans conscious of their role in saving the earth.

The crux lies in ensuring that such literary works do not sound like propaganda and should necessarily carry with them deep literary values. Authors need to ensure that they do not artificially structure their plots or introduce characters in their narrative to justify their labelling as eco-literature, which they have largely failed to do. This is why the eco-literature wave did not reach greater heights, though the modern eco-lit wave started in the 1970s. Authors could induce a tendency in the readers’ minds to dismiss them off as a kind of “moral literature” dictating the dos and don’ts towards the environment, albeit in a subtle way through a structured ‘moral’ story.

The genre of cli-fi seems to have given regular novelists just another platform and locale to shift their storytelling from the normal world’s heinous crimes to ecological crimes perpetrated by either villainous individuals or corporations. Such crimes include causing massive glacial ice melting and flooding cities, resulting in huge disasters with heroic characters rising up to the occasion to save humanity. But such plots, more often than not, make uninteresting reading.

The real ecological issues lie elsewhere. There has been a rapid loss of ecological species with the progress of time. Natural habitats keep shrinking due to human activity. Wildlife poaching has resulted in species becoming endangered, pushed to the brink of extinction. Illegal largescale mechanised fishing has resulted in the erosion of ocean biodiversity. Large scale deforestation across the world has led to displacement of tribal populations and consequently, loss of their culture and languages.

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Photos: The Tragic Tale of Vietnamese Heroine Kieu, from the Epic poem ‘Kim Van Kieu’

Kim Văn Kiều, or the Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), is a jewel in the crown of Vietnamese classical writing. In Vietnam, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen (2003: 18) points out, the Tale of Kiều has been embraced by the general public, who see it as a romance, a book of divination, and a moral fable, while scholars explore its literary, linguistic, philosophical, political and social aspects.

The eponymous heroine is the most acclaimed lady in Vietnamese literature, and her captivating but tragic story has inspired many artistic depictions. The most outstanding version in the British Library collection is undoubtedly a manuscript which was completed around 1894 (Or 14844), written in Hán-Nôm with illustrations of scenes from the story on each page, and a fine yellow silk binding with dragon patterns. Shown in this post are a selection of images of Kiều from this beautiful manuscript, alongside more recent portrayals from printed books.

Literary critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802-1945) which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behaviour was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high ranking minister under the Le dynasty.

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Orhan Pamuk: Taking Photographs in Istanbul

In 1962, my father bought me a camera. My brother had been given one already, two years before. His was like a camera obscura, a black, metallic, perfectly square box, with a lens on one side and a glass screen on the other, on which you could see projected the image inside. When my brother was ready to transfer that murky image onto the film inside the box, he would push on the lever—click!—and as if by magic, a photograph would be taken.

Taking a photograph was always a special occasion. It called for preparation and ceremony. In the first place, film was expensive. It was important to know how many exposures would fit on a roll, and the camera kept a running tally of photographs taken. We spoke of rolls and exposure counts as if we were soldiers in some ragtag army running out of ammunition; we chose our shots carefully, and still wondered whether our photos were any good. Every photograph required a degree of thought and deliberation: “Does this look right?” It was around this time that I began to think about the significance of the photographs I took—and why I took them at all.

We took photographs so as to have something to remember the moment by. As subjects, we faced the camera and posed for others—mostly our friends and families but also our future selves—who would be looking back at this image months and years later. So really, we were having our photographs taken in anticipation of our own gaze back. When we faced the camera, we were “posing” for the future.

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The man who saw the future: Yashwant Chittal and his place in modern Indian literature

The city — as a place of immense possibility and wrenching displacement — made only a fleeting appearance in Kannada literature in the decades after Independence. In the 1970s, Bengaluru was more Malgudi than Mumbai, more a sleepy town of towering rain trees and slow living than the city it burst into three decades later. For readers, a foretaste of life in a teeming metropolis came in Shikari, a novel written in 1979 by one of the most important Kannada writers and modernists, Yashwant Chittal. “To read Chittal is to see the whole nightmare and vision of a city,” says Girish Karnad, writer, filmmaker and playwright.

That nightmare is seen through the eyes of Nagappa, the protagonist of Shikari, an engineer at the peak of his career in a chemicals company in Bombay. The novel begins, dramatically, by shoving Nagappa right into a mysterious ordeal: “As the situation he found himself in began to make some sense to Nagappa, he recalled K, the hero of Kafka’s novel The Trial that he had read years ago. Just like it had happened with K, somebody must be spreading false rumours about him.” Those rumours have led him to be suspended from his job on “serious charges” that have not been specified. As the novel proceeds, Nagappa is swept away by a swirl of paranoia and conspiracy in a cut-throat, competitive world in which nothing is as it seems to be. In an essay written for the Outlook magazine in 2012, author Aravind Adiga had described Shikari as a searing Bombay novel, and Chittal as a novelist “who has captured the city as well as Suketu Mehta or Salman Rushdie”. An English translation of the novel, Shikari: The Hunt, published by Penguin Random House, releases this month.

So, who was Chittal? What is his place in modern Indian literature? How does he imagine an urban modernity? Was he the man who saw tomorrow?

Yashwant Chittal was born in Hanehalli village in Uttara Kannada district in August, 1928, in a family of remarkable talent — the eldest of five brothers, Damodar, was a lawyer and politician; Gangadhar, five years older than Yashwant, was one of the finest modern Kannada poets.

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How Urmila Pawar broke the barriers of caste and patriarchy armed with only words

The struggle of Dalit women in India is often perceived as a fight against patriarchy, and caste — as separate entities. The truth, however, is that their struggle is against against caste-ridden patriarchy, essentially an offshoot of Brahminism in India. Therefore, the claims of the Dalit woman in the the anti-caste struggle are more powerful, subtle, theoretically holistic and thought provoking. Not only this, Dalit women, through their narratives, seem to broaden the scope of movement against caste.

Right from the era of Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh and Mukta Salve, Dalit women’s writing has had a rich history. Needless to say, it provides a background to the discourse of feminism in India that has always been denied by Brahmin women who call themselves feminists. The position of Dalit women as ‘Dalit within Dalits’, is the crucial factor that makes their struggle theoretically fertile and, a discourse which feminism in India cannot afford to avoid.

When Urmila Pawar’s autobiographical work Aaidan was first published, it sent waves of discomfort in society, among men and women alike. I remember sometime in 2014, when I went to watch a play based on her work at the National Centre for Performing Arts, located in an elitist area of South Mumbai, witnessing for the first time on stage, the lives of women I had seen around me. Pawar came on stage before the play began and shared her experiences of writing her first book. She had faced opposition from male agencies across castes, including her own home — where her book (initially) was not celebrated, but looked down upon.

As a Dalit woman, Pawar wrote about her life experiences, dared to articulate them intimately and explicitly — and that was the point of arrival from which Dalit narratives against caste society became clearer to the world. Though pioneering writers like Shantabai Kamble and other Dalit women had already put their struggle into words, it was Pawar’s work which received wide readership. In her book, one of the instances she mentions is of the menstrual cycle, illustrating how the the idea of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ not only fractured Brahmins psychologically but also victimised Dalits till a certain point of time. When she, as a girl, was made to sit in a corner by her mother to avoid touching anything during her cycle, Pawar recounts thinking: “As if I wasn’t discriminated (against) enough by others outside, now (my) family too, has set rules for me”.

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Essay: The Side Effect of Living

Editor’s note:

‘Depression’ sets alarm bells ringing in individual and collective minds, raising ogres of doubt, fear, hopelessness… Bijaya Biswal writes a personal account of how ogres can be abolished, at least sometimes, and life lived trekking to the top of the world or simply sitting, legs dangling over terrace ledges.

By Bijaya Biswal

Bijaya Biswal

Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?
Albert Camus

Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?

It seems of the same order to me. It’s been months now that I stand at the terrace, looking at the ground below and wondering if it must take a very long fall – a very long time spent in the air to rethink if the problems were fixable, a very long period of helplessly jerking your arms seeking help with nothing to hold on to, and a quiet last second when you hit the ground and everything blacks out and you finally find out if there was a God at all. You fool yourself into living another day with tiny excuses. Vesting hopes on the last leaf of the tree outside your window till its fall, only to come back from college and see that the storm took down the tree itself. Reaching out for a piece of poetry, or a cigarette butt, another cup of coffee or another romance but the thing about them is, at one point they all come to an end, leaving you sniffing for more and it’s just a vicious cycle that goes round and round. Like days and nights which mean nothing for someone who does not sleep. Like the ceiling fan which gives me company while I stay awake; like my aching heart which beats like it’s a backward countdown every single day but does not dare to stop and ends up counting all over again.

I think they call suicide an act of cowardice, because they know no one is bold enough to succeed in it the first time. We can see it in the signs it leaves behind – the scars of a thousand shallow cuts before a deep one; too many public breakdowns and family embarrassments before your mother can boldly accept something has to be wrong; a lot of worthless questions from the therapist before it’s too late to start with the right ones; too many occasions of having denied sex to the boyfriend before he takes you out one day and with welled up eyes asks you if there is someone else. Your hands intertwined in his tremble like a broken heart and you nod and swallow some of your words and say, “Yes there is. Me.” You hold each other and cry for the rest of the night.

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West Asia: Ancient legends, Modern Idioms

Artists of western Asia are heirs to the first civilizations known to man and their landscape is rich with examples of art, from the first human-form statues to Islamic and modern art. In the twentieth century, artists borrowed elements from their respective ancient patrimonies in an effort to create a national and regional cultural identity. Several artists’ groups formed between the 1930s and ’60s adopted European artistic modes of expression to produce works inspired by their heritage and by a rapidly disappearing landscape victim to urban migration and industrialization. This trend was most evident in Iraq, Jordan, and, to a limited extent, Israel and the Arabian Peninsula. Each country had its unique stages of development characterizing its artistic production, forging a synthesis of ancient western Asian cultures and Western styles. This unique synthesis is represented in the work of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in Iraq, and the Jewish Bezalel school of the early 1920s in Jerusalem. Jewish artists, traumatized by the Holocaust, rejected their European roots and turned to “Canaanite” myths and symbols in their quest for a national Hebrew identity. At the dawn of the twentieth century, life in many villages of western Asia had much in common with ancient life. Intrigued by this reflection of their heritage, artists depicted idyllic scenes of village life in areas such as the marshes of southern Iraq, a region ravaged in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein’s regime drained the wetlands and relocated the inhabitants.

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LGBT Writing in West Asia: How writers are using the pen to fight stigma and oppression

Many Armenian, Persian and Kurdish artists and activists address homosexuality and gender issues through their work.

On May 28, 2013, a small group of environmentalists gathered at Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the removal of trees. The police’s brutal response sparked the indignation of the city’s residents and soon, Gezi Park was flooded with ordinary citizens and activists. They voiced a number of grievances, chief among them the government’s refusal to engage with citizens about urban planning. The protests lasted for weeks and the makeshift camp erected in the Park featured a dizzying array of groups: ecologists, Armenians, Kurds, Zazas, Alevis, Communists, syndicalists, anti-capitalist Muslims and LGBT rights organisations.

The diversity of identities on display brought into the open the complex and sometimes confusing imbrications composing individuals’ self-identification in contemporary Turkey. Since the 1980s, sexual identities have played an increasing role in this construction, and over the last decade the stories and struggles of Turkish sexual minorities have been featured in a number of different media

To be certain, homosexuality, lesbianism, transgenderism and cross-dressing are far from new concepts to Turkish culture. Same-sex intercourse has been legal in Turkey (and the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor state) since 1858; 110 years before the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. The topic of gay and lesbian relations in Ottoman society and its imagining among Orientalist writers is particularly popular among Western scholars.

While Turkish authors do treat similar subjects within their works, contemporary issues of social, political and economic equality, as well as the battle against discrimination, are more likely to be explored within Turkish academic publishing. Scholars Cüneyt Çakırlar and Serkan Delice, have been particularly active in their writings, whether in collections of contemporary Turkish studies on gender, queer identity and politics or in their participation in the Queer Düş’ün series by *SEL Yayıncılık, which seeks to bring English-language Queer writing into Turkish. Other writers, too, address difficult issues, whether theoretical or practical. Evidence of such comes to us from works such as Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet: Türkiye’de Beden, Sağlık ve Cinsellik (Neoliberalism and Intimacy: Body, Health and Gender in Turkey), where we find Cenk Özbay’s study of neoliberal sociology and the case of rent boys, as well as Yener Bayramoğlu’s look at heterosexism and homosexuality within contemporary advertising.

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Mythomania – The Latest Craze Among Indian Readers

How Indian publishing discovered its “Game of Thrones” and created a literary phenomenon.

WHEN the world’s highest-earning novelist launches his new thriller in January, his co-author may not be familiar to Western fans. James Patterson, an American crime writer whose estimated annual revenues of $95m dwarf even those of Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, sometimes joins forces with local writers when he sends his investigators abroad. “Private Delhi” will be his second murder mystery with Ashwin Sanghi, a novelist from Mumbai who is far better known among Indian readers for his contribution to popular mythological fiction—one of the most remarkable, but overlooked, publishing stories of the past decade.

In the age of Patterson, Potter and “Game of Thrones”, Indian authors have brought their own special flavours to the table: mass-market fiction based on reinterpretations of the two great Hindu epic narratives, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Canny authors enlist ancient fables of gods and heroes, of rival clans, gigantic battles, perilous quests and fearsome ordeals as a way of unlocking the crowd-pleasing genres of mystery, fantasy and historical romance.

These stories have helped transform publishing in a nation of 1.3bn people with improving literacy rates and—in contrast to long-term trends in the West—a growing appetite for the printed as well as the electronic book. Adult literacy rose from 65% to 74% between 2001 and 2011; the projection for 2020 is 90%. The annual value of the book market has swollen to an estimated $3.9bn, with 90,000 new titles added each year. Chiki Sarkar (who is married to a correspondent in our Delhi office) used to run Penguin Random House in India and has now founded her own company, Juggernaut Books. She believes that the establishment of book chains that emphasise promotions has meant big books are becoming bigger, just as they have in the West. “Into this landscape you’ve now got an old genre that has found new vitality,” she adds.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata have long nourished Indian popular culture, whether through village storytelling, puppet-shows, television serials or Bollywood movies. Indian novelists writing in English used to be known abroad purely as a source of strenuous literary works; now they regularly produce gaudy blockbusters that marry these ancient tales with the latest trends in genre fiction.

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Life and Times of Literary Magazines

 Bangladesh’s English language literature over the years

Ironically, it was the 1947 Partition and the carving out of East Pakistan that had brought a measure of English to Bengali Muslims. Partition meant Hindus departed en masse for India, and in its place emerged, blinking and hesitant, a native Muslim elite. As the-then head of the English department of Dhaka University, Professor A G Stock, wrote in her memoir of those times, “severance from West Bengal… conscious of its differences with West Pakistan,” made East Pakistan “vividly conscious of its identity and of the need to find an outlet to explain itself.” One such outlet was an English literary journal called New Values (NV) brought out by K S Murshid – then “in his twenties” and later a hugely respected academic. NV, Stock wrote:

kept a high standard of writing; kept it, in matters literary and artistic, above the mutual admiration level which would have made it a ‘little magazine’… [tempering] its Bengali preoccupations with good articles from overseas and translations and critical discussions of modern writing from other Islamic countries.

This, historically, is where it began for us.

Other developments accelerated this encounter between English and Bengalis. Oxford University Press (OUP), based in Bombay and Calcutta during colonial times, now came to Pakistan. In a symbolically powerful move that ‘severed’ Calcutta’s control of East Bengal’s publication market, it opened a branch office in Dhaka. In 1958, strongman Ayub Khan came to power in Pakistan, and enacted new educational policies: English now was to be a compulsory subject in schools. OUP prepared the necessary English course books, and later also published university textbooks. It also published specifically for the East Pakistan market, and gave English translations a boost by bringing out works such as that of revered folk poet Jasimuddin – The Field of the Embroidered Quilt: A Tale of Two Pakistani Villages.

By the mid-1960s, the Dhaka office was humming. East Bengali Muslims were now doing things they had scarcely done before – run an administration, teach at colleges and universities, travel abroad, play cricket. And aspire to write in English – Syed Waliullah’s short stories appeared in Miscellany, the publication of Pakistan PEN, in the 1950s. Razia Amin, of Dhaka University, also wrote fiction in English. Academics wrote essays and literary criticism. Newspapers and magazines opened up their platform to poems and other writing.

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