It is that time of the year again – the threshold – a time to look back and a time to look ahead, to take stock and to plan. This is the time when the publishing world turns to scores of year-end lists for readers. At Kitaab, we have turned the gaze inwards.

Much has been written on Kitaab’s pages in the past 12 months: reviews, interviews, fiction, essays (though we could do with more on that page), curated articles from across Asia… We have spread the ground to publish writing from Tibet, Korea, and a lot of Singapore this year.

Asian writing in its diversity and rich heritage has found its way into two powerful anthologies from Kitaab’s books publishing division – The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 and The Best Speculative Fiction 2018 and into the pages of kitaab.org. We have interviews from some of the best writers across the continent, powerful poetry, fiction and book reviews that have covered almost all ‘genres’ of writing. We have kept our promise of sharing our platform with debuting writers and independent publishers. What we have in return, is the gift of a profusion of voices, styles, themes and subjects from writers exploring their skills to those who have already proved their mettle.

As we wrap up the year, we would like to thank all of you who have contributed to Kitaab’s wealth of literature with your poetry, stories, reviews, essays and interviews; we are grateful to the writers and poets who have taken time out to engage in conversation with us.

Much remains to be done, but for now here’s the best of Kitaab, 2018:

In conversation with

 

 

 

Nayomi Munaweera – Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Charles Ades and Smita Sahay – Shikhandin
Dr Mohammad A Quayum – Shikhandin
Bhuchung D Sonam – Shelly Bhoil
Sudeep Chakravarty – Shikhandin
Siddharth Dasgupta – Pervin Saket
Anjum on Bergman – Zafar Anjum
Saubhik De Sarkar – Dolonchampa Chakraborty
H.S. Shiva Prakash – Kamalakar Bhat
Kamila Shamsie – Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Gopi Chand Narang – Rahman Abbas
Hannah Kim – Mitali Chakravarty
Felix Cheong – Mitali Chakravarty
Zafar Anjum and Monideepa Sahu – Sucharita Dutta-Asane

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By Mitali Chakravarty

He wears a tattoo of a typewriter on his right arm as a mark of his trade, as his “stigma”. He wrote a poem about his tattoo. He writes what he believes, no longer with a typewriter (as he did when he started to write in the 1980s). This is a writer, who, despite staying rooted to his surroundings, sees no boundaries in literature. He reads what comes his way and does not specifically think of literature in terms of regions, like ASEAN. That writing is universal and remains borderless is well borne out in his interview as in his writing and the influences they have had…

The author of 13 books across multiple genres, including five volumes of poetry, two children’s detective novels and a trilogy of humour stories, Felix Cheong has been invited to perform his works at international festivals all over the world, including Edinburgh, West Cork, Austin, Christchurch, Sydney, Bangalore, Hong Kong and Ubud. Cheong is the winner of Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2000, and holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. In 2010, he was named by Readers Digest as the 29th Most Trusted Singaporean. He is currently an adjunct lecturer with the University of Newcastle, Murdoch University, Singapore University of Social Sciences and LASALLE College of the Arts. Felix Cheong’s latest collection of poetry is B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018.

Felix Cheong
Felix Cheong

 

Mitali: You have been writing poetry for more than two decades now. What made you start writing poetry?

Felix: Like sex, you always remember the first time. It began innocuously enough when I was in junior college (high school in Singapore). As a geeky teen blessed with all the social skills of a wallflower, I could only impress a classmate, on whom I had a crush, by writing her a Valentine’s Day poem. It was handwritten on a card I had made; such was the entrepreneurial spirit I had back then. But as Auden famously says, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’; so nothing happened. In any case, it was bad poetry at its finest hour, which I would have cheerfully disowned now!

Mitali: In your latest book, B-Sides and Backslides, you have spoken of how both T. S. Eliot and Beatles fascinated you. What is it in T. S. Eliot’s poetry or in the Beatles’ compositions that had this effect on you? Do they still draw you as much or do you feel that you have got over your fascination? In “We are the Salary Men”, you say that while ‘We may be the hollow men but the least we own is our honesty to know…’

Felix: Beatles’ music was instrumental in making me pay close attention to words and by extension, poetry. I remember spending hours – talk about the devil finding work for idle hands to do! – trying to write down what they were singing (thank goodness there was no Google back then).  Through the sheer act of transcription, I had my first lesson in poetic rhythm. I loved – and still do – the musicality of their lyrics, such as “A Day in the Life”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”.

Eliot’s poetry, particularly “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, affected me in a different way when I read it at the still-impressionable age of 22. It sprung me into a modern diction that spoke to my sense of alienation. It was also Catholic in the way it articulated spiritual emptiness. I recall memorising parts of the poem while preparing for my first-year university exams. His cadences and imagery would imprint themselves on my early poetry.

By Barnali Ray Shukla

Jhilmil Breckenridge’s new book of poetry, Reclamation Song, was just released in May 2018. Barnali Ray Shukla, filmmaker and writer, lived with the book for a few weeks and several questions emerged. Here are Jhilmil and Barnali in conversation about the book, its themes, and how Jhilmil came to be the confessional poet she is.

Jhilmil Breckenridge

Barnali – Breaking away, the bruised love… is that the cynic, the poet, the student, the mystic?

Jhilmil – A long time ago, in Delhi, my yoga teacher, Shivachittam Mani, taught me a concept in meditation – in every breath we die, in every breath we are born again. This tenet has stayed with me through my darkest days, through all the heartbreak, the ups and downs, that if I have my breath, it’s going to be ok. In fact, the name of this collection originally was Just One Breath.

Barnali – Does confessional poetry make you more vulnerable? Would you have it any other way?

Jhilmil – Confessional poetry is definitely not for the faint-hearted or the ones who care about log kya kahenge! I think those of us, who can and do write confessional poetry, have been through a fair amount of pain and have dealt with vulnerability, shame and frankly don’t care about society and her rules any more. In my case, when I started writing, I had no idea that I would bare all, i.e., I had no plan when I started writing that I would write confessional or autobiographical poetry, I truly thought I should aim to write sonnets or something like Wordsworth, etc. (no offence to the Masters!). You ask whether writing it makes you more vulnerable — on the contrary, it makes you more resilient because you can write your pain away and so, writing this style makes you stronger even though you bare all. I would have it no other way. I believe poetry has to come from witnessing, from living, from feeling, and so what else if not confessional poetry?

Barnali – Your influences (apart from what I noticed in the list of acknowledgements).

Jhilmil – I am a late entrant into this space. Although I have been an insatiable reader all my life, I stayed away from poetry. Perhaps it was the boring way we were taught, perhaps it was the learning by rote. So I read genre fiction, non-fiction and literary fiction a lot; some of my favourites are Alan Hollinghurst, Philip Pullman, Franz Kafka and a new favourite, Carmen Maria Machado, her style is so poetic! Three years ago, I was bit by the poetry bug and I have not looked back. In poetry, I am influenced by the work of Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Faiz, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ellen Bass, and of course Claudia Rankine, Warsan Shire, and Ross Gay. In British poets, which is the community that I am living within, and have been adopted because of the #metoo anthology, which included my poem, “Button”, my absolute favourites are Kim Moore and Carol Ann Duffy.

By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?

The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, edited by Monideepa Sahu, series editor Zafar Anjum, set the tone for Kitaab’s Best Asian series that includes literary and speculative fiction, travel writing and crime. Zafar Anjum shares with us his vision for this seminal book and for the series that he has envisioned. Monideepa talks about her experience as editor for TBASS 2017.

Monideepa Sahu
Monideepa Sahu, Editor, The Best Asian Short Stories 2017

Sucharita: Zafar, what was your vision for the series? Why did you feel the need to bring together short stories from across the continent?

Zafar: The whole idea behind Kitaab is to connect Asian writers with readers everywhere in the world. Coming from this context, I felt that we needed to collect the best contemporary Asian writing across themes in edited annual volumes. I had seen this kind of anthologies in the USA, but nobody was doing it in Asia, collecting Asian voices. That’s how the idea behind the Best Asian series took shape. The vision is to create a series of The Best Asian writing in fiction (literary and speculative), crime writing, and travel writing. Each volume is a mix of new and seasoned voices that makes it so exciting. Through the pages of these volumes, you get a glimpse of what the respective societies in Asia are going through. If there is enough support by readers, hopefully we will be able to sustain the series. That’s my hope.

By Neha Mehrotra

Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories, Seahorse, a novel and The Nine Chambered-Heart, a novella, published by HarperCollins India in November 2017 and HarperCollins UK in May 2018. In 2013, Janice won Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writer Award and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction; in 2015, she was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize for her novel Seahorse.

Janice studied English Literature at St. Stephens College, Delhi and went on to study History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She currently lives in Delhi; among other things, writes a monthly literary column ‘Paperwallah’ for The Hindu and teaches creative writing at Ashoka University.

The Nine Chambered Heart is currently being translated for publication into six languages, including Italian, Spanish, French and German.

Janice Pariat.jpg
Janice Pariat

How do you identify as a writer?

By writing? I don’t see what else would suffice. Although I’d hasten to add that identifying as a writer implies something of a stasis–and I think, for me, it’s about “being” a writer or seeing that identity (as with all?) as something that’s perpetually in flux. One is always “becoming” a writer. It isn’t some pleasant destination you arrive at, at the top of a mythical hill. It’s also an identity to which people are keen to prefix with labels – “woman”, “Northeast”, “Indian” – while I would prefer to shrug them all off. Labels say very little about me, and tend to skew expectations of what I should write, the kind of stories I should be telling, where my books should be set.

What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?

I’m afraid I’m not very good at anything else – painting, pottery, playing a musical instrument. I feel kinship though with literature and books and writing. Reading impels me to write. As does remembrance, and memory. Bleakness. Joy. Frustration. Fun. Anger. Sadness. At the risk of sounding like one of those terrifically earnest people, writing is at the very centre of everything I do because it helps me make sense of the world, to record it, unravel it, and give it away. They say we write the books we want to read? Perhaps. I guess I write the books I do to explore aspects of myself, and other people and the world that most intrigue me.

Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.

A terrible poem which must never see light of day. Hastily scribbled notes, which may make it into the next book. To be honest, I’ve been reading more than writing this summer.

By Rahman Abbas

K7

‘To write is to fight…’

Dr Gopi Chand Narang (born 11 February 1931) is one of the finest literary critics in the history of modern Urdu criticism. His works deal with the cultural study of classics, stylistics, oriental poetics, post-modernism, structuralism and post-structuralism. He has taught at Delhi University, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, University of Oslo and Jamia Millia Islamia University, and in 2005, the University of Delhi named him Professor Emeritus. He is also Professor Emeritus at the Jamia Millia Islamia. The Aligarh Muslim University, Central University of Hyderabad and the Maulana Azad National Urdu University have conferred D.Litt. Honorus Causa on him. He is the only writer who has been decorated by the President of Pakistan as Sitara-e Imtiyaaz and by the President of India with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Sri. He was vice-chairman of the Delhi Urdu Academy (1996-1999) and the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language-HRD (1998-2004), and Vice-president (1998-2002) and President (2003-2007) of the Sahitya Akademi, National Academy of Letters. His important books includes Urdu Zabaan aur Lisaniyaat (2006), Taraqqi Pasandi, Jadidiat, Maba’d-e-Jadidiat (2004), Urdu Ghazal aur Hindustani Zehn-o-Tehzeeb (2002), Sakhtiyat, Pas-Sakhtiyataur Mashriqui Sheriyat (1993), Adabi Tanqeed Aur Usloobiyat (1989), Amir Khusrow ka Hindavi Kalaam (1987), Saniha-e-Karbala bataur Sheri Isti’ara (1986), Usloobiyat-e-Mir (1985), Hindustani Qisson se Makhooz Urdu Masnaviyan (1961) and others.

His seminal work on Mirza Ghalib – Ghalib: Ma’ni-Afrini, Jadliyaati Waza, Shunyata aur Sheriyaat (Ghalib: Innovative Meaning, Mind, Dialectical Thought & Poetics (2013) has been considered a milestone in understanding Ghalib. Besides the Padma Bhushan (2004) and Padma Shri (1990), Narang has received hundreds of awards across the globe – Bharatiya Jnanpith Moorti Devi Award (2012), Madhya Pradesh Iqbal Samman (2011), the European Urdu Writers’ Society Award (London, 2005), Mazzini Gold Medal (Italy, 2005), Alami Faroghe-e-Urdu Adab Award (Doha, 1998), Sahitya Akademi Award (1995), Amir Khusrow Award (Chicago, 1987), Canadian Academy of Urdu Language and Literature Award (Toronto, 1987), Ghalib Institute Ghalib Award (1985), and the Association of Asian Studies (Mid-Atlantic Region) Award (US, 1982). Besides India and Pakistan, he has made presentations almost all over Europe, USA, Canada as well as Russia, Uzbekistan, China and Japan.

 

 

Rahman Abbas: You are the most discussed literary critic in the world of Urdu literature. How do you assess this unparalleled journey of your life which started from Balochistan when the subcontinent was undivided? Could you also put some light upon your early connections with Urdu?

Gopi Chand Narang:   I am simply a lover of Urdu. I was born in Balochistan. My mother tongue is Saraiki, but my father spoke Baluchi and Pushto. He was a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit as well. I was brought up in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environ. The common speech of bazaar and school was Hindustani and Urdu. Language is nobody’s monopoly. It belongs to whosoever loves it. The newly independent India gave hope to many young people like me that there would be ample opportunities for fulfilling our ideals and aspirations. The Urdu Department at the Delhi University had come into being at the personal intervention of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was Minister of Education, also played a role in this. As I later pursued my doctoral degree, I was extremely fortunate to have had guidance and patronage of some of the brightest minds of that time, including Dr. Zakir Husain (who later became President of India), Dr. Tara Chand, Dr. Syed Abid Husain, Prof. Mohd. Mujeeb, Khwaja Ghulamus Syeddain, Dr. Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi, Sajjad Zaheer, Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor, Syed Ehtisham Husain, Maulana Imtiaz Ali Arshi, Qazi Abdul Wudood, Malik Ram, Masood Hasan Rizvi Adeeb, Najeeb Ashraf Nadvi, and Dr. Syed Mohiuddin Qadri Zore. These people symbolized values of our composite Indian heritage and they were true role models of our highest ideals. When I look back and remember these unique personalities, I cannot but feel very fortunate for having had them as my patrons and role models.

Rahman Abbas: Some years ago, due to your stark criticism of the fake modernism in Urdu, you were personally targeted. It was unfortunate that instead of countering your opinions, your minority identity was targeted. Did that affect you? What was your reaction then and now?

Gopi Chand Narang: It is a sad story. As a young writer you must have witnessed all that happened. As long as Ale Ahmed Suroor, Khalil ur Rahman Azmi, Waheed Akhtar, Sulema Arib, Mahmood Ayaz and some seniors were alive and active, they wanted to develop a dynamic model which was alive to India’s  new social and pluralistic needs. But soon after, when Shams ur Rahman Faruqi and his journal Shab-Khoon took over, a period of misconceived notions and a hidden agenda of sectarian fake modernism set in. This is a period of great turmoil and overlapping. Faruqi with his arrogant self-esteem, one-upmanship and know all bravado started polemics which had more sound than sense. He and his cronies, through over heated debates, set flawed standards for fiction, poetry and ghazal.  This confused and misguided a whole lot of promising young writers. Waris Alvi, Baqar Mehdi and some others resisted but they had no theoretical base. At this stage, avoiding labeling and indulging in the misguiding polemics, I switched from my earlier cultural studies and stylistics base and started writing on Theory (both Western and Oriental) and postmodernism. Across the border, Wazir Agha, Qamar Jameel, Intezar Husain, Jameeluddin Azmi, Zamir Ali Badayuni, Faheem Azmi and many other genuine writers joined hands. We wanted to respond to the new social and epistemological shift absorbing the new light of the times, stressing the freedom of the creative voice of the writer, while constructing a genuine model which should be alive to our own pluralistic cultural, realistic and truly subversive, ingenious and in tune with our practical complex social concerns.