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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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10 great reads from the feminist lesbian sci-fi boom of the 1970s

(From Literary Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

When I was a little girl with little crutches and braces, science fiction was the only place I saw disability represented in a positive way. Of course, the characters weren’t named as disabled. They were humans adapted for high-G worlds who couldn’t exist back on Earth without an assistive exoskeleton or aliens who had to use adaptive breathing mechanisms because their world had a methane-based atmosphere. These characters could be benevolent space farers, evil pirates bent on the pillage of our planet, or just regular people trying to make a living mining in the outer rim asteroid belts. They could be anything and I grabbed hold of that.

I kept reading science fiction. Sturgeon’s story “Affair with a Green Monkey” spoke to my still unnamed lesbian self, the ultimate heroism of Heinlein’s Podkayne and L’Engle’s Meg helped me become sturdy in a world that didn’t expect that of me, and the integrity of LeGuin’s characters (Semley!) has served me well for 50 years.

It was the mid-70s, and I was in my mid-twenties—immersing myself in feminism and coming out—when (from my point-of-view) women, often lesbians, simply took over science fiction. Women had always been there, but the sheer volume of mind-twisting feminist plots and not-creepy lesbian characters on bookstore shelves was heady stuff. By the 80s I was part of a feminist bookstore, and you bet I expanded and carefully curated our science fiction section with great joy. It was as if I and this genre that had supported me most of my life were evolving together. My own bookshelves, despite many moves and purges, are still filled with books from those times. They’re piled around me while I write. Here, I’m going to mostly choose the most forgotten. (Readers will be pissed about the ones I leave out; heck, I’m already mad at myself.)

Read more at the Lit Hub link here


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Forget Cinderella, these 5 books tell kids it’s okay for boys to cry and girls to be strong

(From edexlive. Link to the complete article given below)

From Cinderella to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Little Red Riding Hood to Sleeping Beauty — traditional stories may come with morals, but there is no denying the fact that they tend to pander to gender stereotypes and perpetuate biases. The fair maidens and chiseled princes, the damsel in distress and the knight in shining armour routine, kissing women in their sleep (sexual assault lawsuit, anyone?) — these stories are riddled with ‘chivalrous’ crap (for lack of a better word) like this. Who said girls can’t rescue themselves or that all boys are brave?

In today’s world, there is no scope for kids to relate to these characters or situations, despite the various retellings and re-readings of these tales over the years. Children need, scratch that, deserve better stories that they can resonate and relate with. And for that, we need better writers. This is where ‘The Irrelevant Project’ comes in and it’s more relevant now than ever. Started by Alishya Almeida and Meghna Chaudhury as a series of workshops, which has now turned into a power-packed punch of five illustrated books that were released this January, these books tell children that it’s okay for boys to cry and girls to be strong.

Let’s do this

If every conversation between Almeida and Chaudhury, ever since they met through the Young India Fellowship, was subjected to the Bechdel Test, they would easily pass as all they spoke about was intersectionality, feminism and the education scenario. “There is space for more and there needs to be more,” says 29-year-old Chaudhury, during our call with the feisty duo. They decided to initiate a pilot workshop to understand the deep-rooted biases that creep into the minds of kids, in 2015. This was done in four classrooms of two government schools in New Delhi. The activities that they conducted helped children recognise the stereotypes that exist in their minds and the environment, along with certain critical thinking and problem-solving exercises. The inferences they gathered compelled them to start The Irrelevant Project. “We have five books with children, who are all of different builds and temperaments so that more and more children connect with them, as the protagonists,” explains 26-year-old Almeida. And this is just the beginning.

Read more at the edexlive link here


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Counterview: Urvashi Butalia’s rejoinder to AR Venkatachalapathy on women publishers and editors

Long years ago, when I began working in publishing, it was an almost entirely male world. Women were to be found in some publishing houses, but mainly in administrative and secretarial positions. The bosses were all men – at least in English language publishing in India – and so were the editors. There was something about their anatomy that seemed to qualify them more to work in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge – an activity that is generally governed by the brain, something that lies between the ears (and not the legs) and looks the same no matter what sort of bodily shell it’s placed in.

As women, we – the handful of us who joined the industry at that time and who slowly made our way to becoming editors – knew well we would never rise to the top of our professions. My bosses at the Oxford University Press were concerned that I was a woman: “We’ve never employed a woman in an executive position,” they told me. “They get married and go away.” They made it sound like a crime – one, clearly, that the men never had to answer for.

The Oxford University Press, where I began work, was filled with kind and caring men: Charles Lewis, Santosh Mukherjee, Ravi Dayal, Adil Tyabji, Adrian Bullock, Dipen Mitra. Yet none of them ever had to answer to the kind of questions posed to me. None of them needed to worry about how they would get home at night if they had to work late. None of them needed to be concerned about the safety of seedy hotel rooms when they travelled on business. None of them had to defend themselves against leering printers who wanted to take you out to coffee when all you wanted was to get a book printed. Not surprising then that their paths to the top were smooth, whereas ours were non-existent.

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A rare conversation with the cult Chinese writer Xi Xi

I first became entranced with Xi Xi through one of her most famous short stories, “A Girl Like Me,” about a young woman working as a make-up artist for the dead. The girl sits in a café, struggling with the uneasy love of a man who doesn’t really know her and his anticipated reaction to her secret life in the morgue. Xi Xi’s gentle subversion of what is normal and monstrous had all the mastery of an Angela Carter story.

“Oh everyone loves her,” my Chinese professor told me, adding that Xi Xi has had an almost cult-like following in the Chinese speaking world since publishing her first story in 1965.

What little of her work that is available in English (two short story collections, two novels and a recently published book of poetry Not Written Words) provides a tantalizing teaser for what lies out of reach: seven novels, 21 short story and essay collections, several screenplays (including a re-telling of West Side Story), her therapeutic memoir Elegy for a Breast. The titles for her newspaper columns alone give a sense of her enchanting range: “Movies and Me,” “My Scrawling Room,” “The Flower Column,” “Ear man,” and “How Xi Xi views soccer.” Most recently she published The Teddy Bear Chronicles, a hybrid text in which her own handcrafted bears complement myths from our real and imagined past.

It’s a dexterity of form reflected in her pen name (her real name is Zhang Yan). In Chinese xi (西) means west. Doubled up, the characters 西西, resemble the legs of a girl playing hopscotch, she says. And this reflects one of Xi Xi’s most distinctive tools; her use of “childlike perception” to zoom in on liminal, overlooked characters and to glimpse grand historical narratives afresh: she has often reinterpreted fairytales to challenge social mores, most notably Hong Kong’s disputed status and the traditional happily-ever-after narratives imposed upon young women.

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Book Review: Frazil by Menka Shivdasani

By Jhilmil Breckenridge 

Frazil

Title: Frazil
Author: Menka Shivdasani
Publisher: Paperwall Media
Pages: 154
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According to the dictionary, ‘frazil’ is the soft, needle-like ice on top of lakes and rivers that are too turbulent to freeze. Living in Lancashire, near the lakes, I often see this. Thanks to Menka Shivdasani’s new collection, Frazil, I now have a word for them. The poems in Frazil are a lot like the needle-like ice, glittering and beautiful on the surface but hiding angst within. Her unusual imagery allows you to see the world forever altered while her humour lurks, teasing.

Shivdasani’s wry look at women, their worth as defined by breasts and ovaries, in the poem, ‘The Whole Deal, states, “It takes much to know the burning coal / that lay inside of you / is now a charred and empty space / and the river is no longer red.” Much of this collection, spanning 37 years from 1980 to 2017, speaks of love, desire, sex, and issues that concern many women, but her keen mind also writes, with sarcasm, on religion, eating fish, bees, the ethics of killing animals for our own pleasure, and of course, as with many poets, death – there are a lot of death poems in Frazil.

‘Bees’, for instance, mulls over the beehive adjoining her own home, sharing the same wall, and ends with, “Now I carry their sweetness squeezed into a jar, / alone again, except for that one queen bee / who keeps flapping about / wondering where her home disappeared.” Poetry is often political and Menka Shivdasani’s politics is displayed clearly and openly in her work, be it talking of how a bee’s home is as important as ours, or in ‘What We Do To Our Gods’: “… we serve death on our dining tables / and the taste on our tongues is great.”

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About feminist presses in South Asia

In November last year, the shortlist for the DSC literature prize was announced at LSE. Ritu Menon, co-founder of Kali for Women, and one of the judges of the prize, spoke to Rebecca Bowers about the decline of the feminist press in the West, and the challenges facing women in publishing today.   

RB: As chairwoman of the judging panel for the DSC literature prize, what in your view makes an award-winning publication? What are the ‘secret ingredients’?

RM: I think as part of the jury and speaking on behalf of the jury I think what we were looking for and I think what we have found is exceptional literary quality, confidence and maturity in the writing, skill, good craft, and very compelling stories. I think if you can get that combination then you have very commendable writing, so that’s what I think we have found in the shortlist and as to the winner well that will be decided later.

RB: Although female authors are now rightfully coming to the forefront of the literary world, what challenges would you say that they still face today?

RM: I wish that I could say they are coming to the forefront but I’m not sure that they are. They are being published a little more. A little more. They are somewhat better represented as far as reviews go, as far as reception in the market goes, and I suppose as far as a certain degree of visibility is concerned but I think if one were to look at their representation in awards, they’re still woefully slim. So I’m not sure that they are in the forefront. They are definitely present but there is a way to go. The very fact that we speak of women writers when we don’t speak of men writers, it makes them other than the norm.

RB: That’s very true.  In fact, with that in mind, what do you believe can be done to make literature more inclusive not only in terms of authorship but also in terms of readership as well?  

RM: Well you see, I think there are several aspects to this. There is a literary establishment worldwide which is male dominated – I think the power hierarchy is pretty clear.

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Badass disabled women from history you should know about

International Women’s Month is the perfect time to draw attention to the many women who have been overlooked throughout history in favour of their more privileged male counterparts. But one demographic who are frequently missing from these round-ups are disabled women.

Earlier this month, I was wondering where all of them were. As a disabled woman, should I believe there was no-one like me who managed to succeed in the past? Did we all simply not exist? Did we all spend our lives hidden away? Or were we just not being talked about?

It’s true, that to be a disabled woman in the distant and not-too distant past was even more of a struggle than it is today, with the double disenfranchisements of patriarchy and ableism in full-swing to contend with, which held women as being worth less than men, and disabled people as being less than human. And that’s even before we begin to consider the archaic medical systems, or the even greater struggles disabled Women of Colour faced in simply surviving in such a world, let alone thriving.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when my research revealed not just one or two, but hundreds of stories of disabled women from around the world, who not only led fulfilling lives, but were instrumental in shaping the times they lived in.

In Part One of this series, I’ve brought together six incredible disabled women who helped shape the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923)

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Poetry: Mysteries by Aparna Vincent

Mysteries by Aparna Vincent

Aparna Vincent

Aparna Vincent enjoys working with diverse layers of imagery in her fiction.She has lived in three Indian cities so far and fell in love with all the three. Currently, she is working on her Ph.D at the University of Hyderabad. Her work tries to understand rhetoric and symbolism in protest politics. She likes rains, long walks and oceans and makes good friends with animals. Trees make her feel safe and knitting keeps her sane. Her work has previously appeared in The Hindu and Counter Currents. She blogs at aparnavincent.wordpress.com

Writing Matters: In conversation with Nayomi Munaweera

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Nayomi Munaweera

Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Nigeria and lives in USA.  In 2013, her debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the Commonwealth Book Prize, Asian region, and was long listed for the Man Asia Prize and the International DUBLIN Literary Award. In 2017, her second book, What Lies Between Us won the State Literary Award for Best English Novel, 2017. Along with renowned Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai, Nayomi has been a part of the Write to Reconcile Programme in Sri Lanka.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane: Nayomi, welcome to Kitaab. Congratulations on winning Sri Lanka’s State Award for your second book.

I’m intrigued by the titles of your books Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us – the first visually evocative and the second ironic in its use of the word ‘Lies’. What led to the choice of these titles?

Nayomi Munaweera: I actually do not title my own books. It’s very difficult after you’ve worked on a book for multiple years, eight for the first, four for the second to find a phrase that encapsulates all the thought and complication that you have attempted to explore. Both the titles came after about 3 months of consultation with my publisher, my editor, my agent, my family. The first title came out of an 80 title list. It was a really difficult process to find it. The second was similarly difficult – I think we came up with 60 and before I picked this one. So I would rather write a 300 page book than title it. I leave that to other people.

Sucharita: What was it like to write Island from either side of the socio-political divide while living in a country removed from the scene of this trauma and then to rely on and deal with ‘memory’ as inherent to this story?

Nayomi: Hard.

I had a lot of fear about whether I was the person to tell this story. Whether it was mine to tell since I had not lived in Sri Lanka since I was three years old and only visited the country every year. I was very aware of my out-sider-ness. I think all writers deal with this. But if you stop there you’ve let fear swallow up your writing. A great deal of writing is about being recklessly, stupidly adamant that you will do the thing. It might not be good but you have to try. It was that sort of foolhardiness that got me through eight years of writing that book and the subsequent three years it took to find a first publisher.

Sucharita: What Lies Between Us leaves behind the politics and history of a country and turns inward to a space that is intensely fissured, to memory that is slippery. For you as the writer, living in the mind of a single character through the traumatic events she internalises, did her emotions, fears and responses come naturally to you, the organic process, or did it involve a lot of research?

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