Leave a comment

In the age of litfests, this model of intimate literary exchange is a vastly different experience

Since 2008, the Almost Island Dialogues have offered a literary gathering that offers what expansive literary festivals cannot – intimacy and a meaningful exchange of ideas through the lens of literature. At this year’s conclave in New Delhi (December 15-17), they will celebrate a decade of the Dialogues, with writers like the Chinese poet Bei Dao, the Arabic poet Mohammed Bennis, the Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec, and, from India, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Allan Sealy, and Joy Goswami. Almost Island also publishes an online literary magazine as well as a small number of books. Sharmistha Mohanty, founder-editor of Almost Island, spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that keeping the Dialogues small and intimate is important to you. What would you say intimacy achieves in the literary space?
It is very difficult to have any meaningful discussion in a setting where there are hundreds of people and writers must speak as part of a panel for ten minutes on a very deep subject. This is what the big litfests have done.

Unlike a literary festival, which concentrates on a product, be it a book or a reading or a performance, Almost Island is concerned with process, with how things are learnt, explored, created, and created again. It is concerned with the unravelling of things, in a stretched time, in being within the labour of literature, and not in the end product of its presentation. Literature is not a performing art and it requires a certain degree of quietness and closeness for things to unfold, for writers to speak genuinely and slowly about their work and their lives. Intimacy and small gatherings allow that. I have seen it work repeatedly at our Dialogues. In our India-China dialogues our Chinese writer friends spoke with candour about everything – a father who commits suicide because he is pursued by the Party, how and why some of them were exiled – because trust could be established in the closeness of our meetings.

The great Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai spoke to us for over three hours about his life in Communist Hungary and how his novels emerged from his life in that context. He spoke about his work with the community in a small town and how the government retaliated by burning his library of thousands of books, a library he has never been able to rebuild. What he gave us was not a talk or a lecture – he was speaking to all of us who were there as if one to one. It was a very moving experience for all of us there.

The Dialogues complete a decade this year. How would you say they have evolved over the last ten years?
I would say that there has been a kind of lateral growth, a fullness that has been achieved with these meetings. Not a linear evolution. The fullness is in the wide register of voices we’ve had, in poetry and prose, and from many different parts of the world. What connects them is that they enlarge – through the innovativeness of their work – the spaces of prose and poetry. The wide register is rigorous and not merely there for the sake of diversity.

That said, I have been thinking of new ways to have these meetings. There may be other ways that I haven’t discovered yet. Ten years is a good watershed and I intend to give some time to thinking about that in the next year.

Read More

Advertisements


Leave a comment

How to Tell the Dalit Story

Moving beyond the narratives of victimhood and survival, Sujatha Gidla’s book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India, has come out at a time when more Dalits in India are asserting their rights, and more non-Dalits are speaking up against the discrimination towards the community. Gidla’s book, published in the US in July and in India this month, is the story of the country through the eyes of the “untouchables”. India has completed 70 years of its independence, but caste still exists and discrimination based on it manifests itself in different forms. At 26, Gidla, a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh, moved to the US, where she worked as an app designer at the Bank of New York. She was laid off during the recession in 2009, and has since been working as a conductor with the New York City Subway.

In a phone interview, Gidla, 54, speaks about her book, writing, her raw anger, and caste in India. Edited excerpts:

How do you describe yourself? Which identity precedes the other?

A Dalit, someone who is left-leaning, then I guess…a conductor. Caste is first because we are made aware of it all the time. If I go to India, I know it based on how we are treated. And since I wrote this book, caste has become my first identity here as well. In fact, my basic identity even now is that of a Dalit more than a writer. It is more like a conductor who became a writer rather than a writer who is also a conductor. I am more caste- and class-conscious than anything else. When I was young, I would say I am a Naxalite or a Communist first. I think I started becoming conscious of my Dalit identity in 1985, after the Karamchedu massacre in Andhra Pradesh, where an entire settlement of untouchables was attacked by a mob of high-castes. It really jolted me and many of us out of our oblivion.

You started out trying to figure your story. At what point, on interviewing your family, did you realize you needed to write a book?

Initially, the phone calls were about finding out where I came from, but very quickly it became clear to me that it constitutes a book. I was shocked to realize that very few generations ago we were actually living in the forests and living off of the forests, and how we came to settle to doing agriculture—which is basically the point of civilization. My family was a part of that huge transition—from hunter-gatherers to agriculture. Unlike, say, places like Germany, where it took several centuries, these huge transitions took place in a very small duration of time for my family—from forests to plains, from tribals to civilized people, from tribals to untouchables, from worshipping totems to practising Christianity. Also, I realized how one becomes an untouchable. It’s not like some people randomly got assigned untouchability, some Brahminism. There is a material basis for this segregation. That caste and its evolution can be explained was fascinating to me.

Read More


Leave a comment

The Reading Life with Parul Sehgal, Book Critic at the New York Times

On Privacy, Profile Writing, and Avoiding the First Person
Interview: Durga Chew-Bose

In Sehgal’s “First Words” columns for the Times Magazine, on topics like privilege and its devalued import, or cultural appropriation, or the rhetoric surrounding the use of ‘survivor’ in place of ‘victim,’ or in 2015, the frequency of ‘flawless,’ Sehgal recasts today’s usage (or erosion) of faddish language, recontexualizing occurrence in favor of meaning, ideological precedent, and perspectives that are rarely centered. There’s nothing showy about her criticism. Sehgal finds the thread and invites her reader to see not just as she sees, but to marvel at how she’s arranged her discoveries just so.

Sehgal is so precise and alive to, it seems, the pursuits and even strange tendencies authors of varied spheres might share—that lettered chromosomal-ness—that even the most popular-reviewed ‘it’ book, reads like an exclusive. An interception. Of Arundhati Roy’s two-decade-later return to fiction, with her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sehgal wrote this past summer in The Atlantic: “You will encounter no victims in this book; the smallest characters are endowed with some spit […] From the fine-grained affection that stirs [Roy’s] imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.” Her interrogation of Roy’s novel is a perfect instance of Sehgal positioning literary criticism beyond a work’s achievements or shortcomings, and locating its value not only within a literary tradition, but beyond. How art and criticism provide dynamic ways for understanding instead of limiting how to be a person in this world. And more urgently, how to pay attention.

ON GROWING UP

I was born outside of D.C. We moved a lot—every three years. I lived in Delhi, Manila, Budapest when I was little. I think I thought we were on the run, because it was always so abrupt. I remember my mother found me in the library of my school in Manila when I was nine, and she was like, “Okay, we need to go home early and pack.” And I was like, “Where now?” And she said India. It was a life of jump cuts.

Read More


Leave a comment

Writing Matters: In Conversation with Aamer Hussein

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?

Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.

SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?

AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught.  I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat.  Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too.  Urdu is a retreat.

SDA:   In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Interview with Suchart Sawasdsri

Veteran editor Suchart Sawasdsri made a name for himself as a literary talent spotter on whose desk the manuscripts of many of Thailand’s acclaimed contemporary writers have landed. Over his nearly fifty-year career as editor of various literary magazines as well as a journal of social and political commentary, he has come to be regarded as an encyclopedia of Thai literature. Most notably, from 1978 to 2010 (with a couple of hiatuses, dividing the magazine’s run into three eras), he edited the legendary short-story quarterly Chorkaraket (Screwpine Garland). For a budding writer to make it into the magazine, and in particular to win its prize, was considered the ultimate stamp of approval. Suchart has been part of the Thai literati since the sixties, the period that led up to two key events in modern Thai history known as the October 14, 1973 Event and October 6, 1976 Event (the first marking the student-led uprising that took down the military dictatorship and the second signifying the massacre of protestors after which the country returned to military rule), which still loom large over the imagination of Thai writers who are now the old guard. In those days, the artist as political activist was the paradigm for Thai writers, and that legacy still has some hold on Thai writing today. While Suchart himself has always leaned left, as an editor he always sought to give writers carte blanche. He has long been a proponent of “art for the sake of art” in a field where “art for the sake of life” has dominated. Now in his seventies, Suchart has been honored as a national artist of Thailand and remains active in the art and literary world (he is a writer in his own right, and also paints and makes experimental short films, some of which can be viewed here). In response to Thailand’s most recent military coup in 2014, Suchart revived Chorkaraket for a special issue.

We spent hours chatting about the development of Thai prose, its evolution through the years, and the close relationship between literature and politics in Thailand. Ever the demanding editor, Suchart is no shrinking violet when it comes to critiquing the literature to which he has dedicated his life.

The following is an edited and translated version of our conversation.

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): You had mentioned the one-hundredth anniversary of the Thai novel. Can you talk about the first one?

Suchart Sawasdsri (SS): In times past, Thai literature was poetry. It was fiction but written in verse. Prose narrative, with explanation and dialogue, started at the end of the reign of King Rama III, going into the reign of King Rama IV. Looking at primary documents, what I think we can call the first short stories came out in Darunowat magazine in 1874, about a hundred and forty years ago. That was when we saw writing in a form that partly showed influence from abroad, from the West. Later, what is said to be the first Thai novel was a novel that mimics—doesn’t quite mimic, but bears a resemblance to—a work called Kwam Payabat, which was Mae Won’s translation of Marie Corelli’s Vendetta. That was translated in 1900, so that’s about a hundred and twenty years old. The first Thai novel was something like a parody of that, but it had a Thai sense. It was called Kwam Mai Payabat (No Vendetta) by the author who wrote under the pen name Nai Samran, better known as Kru Liam or Liam Wintupramanakul. That was 1915 according to the documents, so that’s about a hundred years ago. It’s so young. But if you go back to the first short stories, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” (“The Conversation between Jit and Jai”) and “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” (“Four Men Fishing”), they actually had characteristics of critical realism. For example, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” talked about Jit and Jai critiquing monks, critiquing people in the royal court, corruption. “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” wasn’t quite fantasy but I’d call it magic realism. It’s about four men with different personalities and different special abilities—one has ears that stick out, one has a pointy bottom, one has a lot of mucus in the nose, and one has three hands—and they go out fishing. It’s a local parable of our own. Prose in Thailand had a good beginning—it had elements of social critique. It had elements of magic.

Read More


Leave a comment

The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Hilary Standing

Hillary Standing

By Farah Ghuznavi

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

Have to – there are so many stories to tell! And if I go too long without writing, I can feel myself getting out of sorts with the world. It’s as if some critical dimension of my existence has gone missing.

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

Most recently, I completed a longish short story, set a few decades into the future, about a Bangladeshi family of climate change migrants that migrates along the ‘New Silk Route’ and ends up camped on a suburban lawn in southern England. It’s told through the perspective of the eight year old boy who lives in the house and secretly makes friends with the girl from the family. It’s essentially a story about the often brilliantly transgressive nature of children’s friendships. Their capacity to transcend adult-imposed boundaries provides the hope for the future.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

‘More is less.’ I am always trying to pare my writing down, to say the most I can in the simplest way. I really enjoy reading dense, rich styles but I think my own strength is in economy with words. And I’m not at all keen on adverbs!

Who are your favorite authors?

Oh, how does one choose? The world is full of brilliant writers. Some current contemporary favourites: Africa – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; South Asia – Neel Mukherjee, Michael Ondaatje; America – Barbara Kingsolver; Middle East – Naguib Mahfouz, Elif Shafak; Britain – Hilary Mantel

Continue reading


Leave a comment

The Rumpus Interview with Anuk Arudpragasam

Editor’s note: Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel The Story of a Brief Marriage won the prestigious DSC prize for South Asian literature, 2017 at the Dhaka Literary Festival. In this interview with The Rumpus, September 2016, he talks about the book and his approach to writing it.

The Rumpus: One of the things that struck me most about the novel is how little historical context is given. Instead, the reader is utterly immersed in the present moment of the main character Dinesh. So often, we read a book set in war which also gives the reader a history lesson. I’m thinking particularly of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the Nigerian civil war. Why did you decide to leave out this kind of context?

Anuk Arudpragasam: It is something I thought about, and there are a couple of reasons behind it. Because the subject matter of the novel is very graphic and it is so hard to be in the presence of, I think there is a natural tendency to find ways to divert one’s attention from these kinds of things.

To use a simple example, if you see somebody in pain or you see somebody suffering in some way, there are usually, if the pain is ordinary—of a conventional kind where somebody’s fallen say or somebody has been bereaved—there are established ways of providing some kind of therapy for the person who is suffering. If somebody is hurt you ask them if they’re okay. You give them a bandage, you rub them on the back. There are all these ways of helping them out. And then, there are situations in which there’s obviously nothing you can do in response to somebody’s suffering or somebody’s pain, and we tend to find other ways to deal with the person. You can’t actually help the person out, so you say, “I know how it feels” or “I’ve been there before” or you try to be with them in other ways.

There is an instinctive urge to act when confronted by the pain of another person, and I think this urge involves, in a way, a discomfort or anxiety about actually seeing that the other person is in pain. In trying to find a way to make their situation better, you’re doing something, and in doing something and in responding actively to someone’s pain, you are, in a way, free from having to contemplate the pain or reflect on the condition of the person. That’s not a bad thing at all.

I feel, though, when it comes to the suffering or the pain of people who are far away or in situations that are very different from your own, that the analog to giving somebody a Band-Aid or rubbing them on the back or talking to them is what you could call a political response. It is to say, “Who did that?” or “What was responsible?” or “When did this happen? How did this happen? Why didn’t anybody do anything?” And then to say, “It was these people. These people need to go to jail” or “These people need to be tried or taken to the international criminal court.” By making these kinds of political diagnoses—and I am not against them at all, they are natural and very necessary—by responding to the suffering of people far away in time and space in this very instinctive way, with some kind of plan for action, I feel that something often gets lost. And I feel that, at least in my case, what gets lost in my instinctive reaction to suffering is an understanding or a contemplation of the condition of the people who are suffering. So, in this situation, I wanted to give very little historical context and social and political context, so that this condition is forced on the attention of the writer or reader.

Read More

 


Leave a comment

Han Kang: ‘Writing about a massacre was a struggle. I’m a person who feels pain when you throw meat on a fire’

Early in 2015 a buzz began to build around a slim novel called The Vegetarian. It was about a woman who turned her face to the wall, refusing to eat meat and scandalising her friends and family, as a prelude to rejecting life itself. “It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions,” wrote its Guardian reviewer.

Its author, Han Kang, is a poet, short story writer and novelist who has for years been one of South Korea’s best kept secrets. Her three-part fable of refusal hit the sweet spot for fiction in translation, or indeed any fiction: it mined universal truths from the culturally particular, it was both painfully close to home and mysteriously “other”.

She returns this year with a novel that is even more disturbing and provocative; it certainly splashes its violence across a bigger stage. Human Acts opens with the 1980 massacre of student protesters in the South Korean city of Gwangju and spares no detail in its scrutiny of the carnage: the slashed throat with its red uvula sticking out, the putrefying toes swelling up “like thick tubers of ginger”.

The writer who has borne witness to this devastation is a quietly spoken 45-year-old mother of one, with a growing circle of admirers in the UK. They include the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who found in The Vegetarian a common interest in “pain, the body and how the struggle to be human involves many strange ways of trying to look after oneself in the face of hurt, cruelty, confusion”, and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, for whom Human Acts is “an intense and magical achievement – a brutal yet lyrical reflection on the universal legacy of injustice seen through the prism of one act of atrocity”.

Han is a charismatically thoughtful woman, who wrote herself into the final section of Human Acts in order to explain why she felt compelled to tell the story. “I was nine years old at the time of the Gwangju Uprising,” it begins. Gwangju, a city in the south of the country, had been her home until four months before the massacre, when her father gave up his teaching job to become a full-time writer and moved the family to the capital Seoul.

Read More


Leave a comment

Q. and A.: Ken Liu on Science Fiction and Chinese History

‘Like steampunk, silkpunk is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. But while steampunk takes its inspiration from the chrome-brass-glass technology aesthetic of the Victorian era, silkpunk draws inspiration from East Asian antiquity.’

In 2012, “The Paper Menagerie,” a short story by the Chinese-American writer Ken Liu, became the first work of fiction to win all three major English-language science fiction awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. It explores the experience of growing up between two cultures, through the eyes of a boy whose mother came to the United States as a mail-order bride from Hong Kong. As he grows older, he comes to resent her for burdening him with her non-American ways — until an unexpected event forces him to reconsider what a mother’s love means.

Mr. Liu’s debut novel, “The Grace of Kings,” published in April, is a reimagining of Chinese history, in which two young men set out to revolutionize the archipelago kingdom they call home, only to turn into rivals. The author has described the novel as silkpunk, a riff on the “steampunk” genre of fantasy writing that incorporates 19th-century design and technology.

Mr. Liu, who was born in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, migrated with his parents to the United States when he was 11 and went on to earn bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard. In addition to writing and translating, he works as a litigation consultant on cases involving technology. In an interview, he discussed the literary uses of history, blending Western and Chinese traditions, and the meaning of silkpunk.

Q.

How did Chinese history inspire your new novel?

A.

“The Grace of Kings” is an epic fantasy reimagining of the Chu-Han Contention [the period between the Qin and Han dynasties, 202-206 B.C.]. It’s not alternate history or time travel. Rather, the major plot points of history are reimagined in a brand new fantasy world with new characters, new technologies, new politics and new cultures.

Yet, some of the themes from [the Han dynasty historian] Sima Qian’s historical account persist in the reimagining. The hope is that the reimagining will offer a critique of that source, as well as of the conventions of epic fantasy.

Q.

What difficulties did you face weaving a historical account with more traditional fantasy elements?

A.

One of the most interesting issues I had to deal with is how much of the power imbalances of history to replicate in fiction. We have never had a society that was truly just. Some groups have always benefited at the expense of others. Women, for example, were an oppressed group at the time of the Chu-Han Contention, though some prominent women were able to exercise power in ways both traditional and nontraditional.

Epic fantasy based on European sources has also traditionally replicated the relative powerlessness of women in medieval Europe, though often such works don’t get the nuances of how women did exercise power correct. In any event, this is a trend that’s being challenged by many writers nowadays.

Read More


Leave a comment

KAVEH AKBAR: “BEWILDERMENT IS AT THE CORE OF EVERY GREAT POEM”

THE CALLING A WOLF A WOLF POET ON WONDER, ADDICTION, AND PRONOIA

“I was not a good person,” Kaveh Akbar tells me. Though it’s the province of his work––in his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and his debut collection of poems, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, both released this year––it’s hard to imagine the charming voice at the other end of the line belonging to someone in the throes of the “deeply miserable” life he speaks to in his poems. Among their myriad themes are the inherently paradoxical nature of being a grateful, recovering, sober alcoholic. Writing these poems, which Akbar calls his “fundamental bedrock,” has earned him a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Akbar and I first met earlier this summer at a poetry reading of his in New York City, where he shared the bill with several poets including Kazim Ali. “That’s big brother for me,” Akbar says over the phone in October. He continues, “Kazim was, I think, the first American poet I knew who was writing about Islam; who was writing about being interested, and in love with, Islam in ways that were complicated by his identity and experience. That’s very much a lodestar for me. Zeina Hashem Beck is another poet who I love for a lot of those same reasons.”

These references to fellow poets, and specifically these expressions of taking care with their work, come up often in conversation with Akbar. Fittingly, part of his new life is built on communing with other major voices in contemporary poetry, as the founding editor of his interview project Divedapper. He tells me that for the site’s interviews, which he aims to publish approximately every other Monday, he doesn’t often prepare formal questions. He explains his belief that, “It’s just conversation, and that’s all I ever really want. You and I are just having a conversation right now. You have these really intensely insightful questions prepared, but they’re based on your having spent time a lot of time with my words, both in my book and other interviews I’ve done. That is very much spending a lot of time with a person.”

The results of our conversation include reflections on humility, discomfort, memory, and having a sense of humor in your work.

Read More