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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

***

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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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‘The Best Asian Short Stories, 2017’ from Kitaab

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The stories in this anthology by Asia’s best known and well-respected contemporary writers and promising new voices, offer fresh insights into the experience of being Asian. They transcend borders and social and political divisions within which they arise. While drawing us into the lives of people and the places where they come from, they raise uneasy questions and probe ambiguities.

Explore Asia through these tales of the profound, the absurd, the chilling, and of moments of epiphany or catharsis. Women probe their own identities through gaps between social blinkers and shackles. A young Syrian mother flees from war-ravaged Aleppo into a more fearsome hell. The cataclysmic Partition of India and its aftershocks; life and death in a no-man’s land between two countries; ethnic groups forced into exile; are all part of the wider Asian experience.

Life flows on in the pauses between cataclysms, bringing hope. Fragile dreams spread rainbow wings through the struggle to succeed socially, earn a living, produce an heir, and try to grasp at fleeting joys and love. These symphonies of style and emotions sweep across Asia – from Jordan and Syria to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan and Korea. Crafted with love, they continue to resonate after the last page.

As editor Moniddepa Sahu says, these stories come ‘from the heart of Asia, not from the Western perspective trying to make sense of the quaint and the exotic. The home-grown Asian identity runs as a strong undercurrent, with no need to explain and offer apologetic footnotes.’


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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.

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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.

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The Representation of the Syrian Revolution in Literature

“These literary works depict the political, social and religious realities of Syria before and after March 2011 in order to draw a more comprehensive picture of Syria’s culture. These cultural details lay the foundation and act as necessary components for the development of the narratives and their relation to the current situation in Syria.”

…..

The need for writing

It would be inaccurate to assume that the literature centering on Assad’s family regime only started with the outbreak of the 2011 revolution. Some Syrian authors and dramatists have always addressed Assad’s politics in their works despite the fact that their criticism was indirect. They employed historical figures and events, constructing allegorical works so that they met the expectations of the censor. For example, some works were crafted to revolve around an event in pre-Islamic, Islamic or medieval Arab history and they exposed the ways the Arab kings ruled the masses. Through the interactions between the masses and the king, the monopoly of power alluded to the current politics of Syria and its corruption. Authors such as Mohammad al-Maghot, Mamduh Udwan, Sadallah Wanus and Zakaryya Tamer did not miss a chance to criticize the Syrian regime. however, there were not any explicit attempts to condemn that regime or its head.

With the outbreak of the revolution, the allegorical style would be abandoned because of the flooding of news of demonstrations, attacks, shelling and most importantly, the daily killing of innocent Syrians. Such incidents brought a radical change to literature. Due to the pace of news coming out of Syria, the media had to handle it in a way that served the needs of its audience, delivering the most up-to-date news without necessarily pinpointing the background of the revolution or taking into consideration the different constituencies that supported the revolution.

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