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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.

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11 Books to Read if You Want to Understand Caste in India

In Lithub, S. Shankar, author of ‘Ghost in the Tamarind’ lists 11 representative books that “serve as an introduction to caste”, that explore the intricacies and the indignities of caste in India.

Caste is not unique to India, and no country should be reduced to a single social category, no matter how intrinsic a part of its reality. Nevertheless, to understand India you have to understand caste, whose intricacies are unarguably difficult. It is not just one of the most prominent social features of India; it is at the heart of many of the past and present fissures of the country.

I grew up in India living the reality of caste every day. Even so I had to learn, and unlearn, many things about caste while completing my two most recent books: the novel Ghost in the Tamarind, which narrates an inter-caste romance between a Brahmin man and a Dalit woman against the backdrop of powerful anti-caste movements in southern India; and a co-edited collection of academic essays on caste and life narratives.

What exactly is caste? You might have heard somewhere (perhaps in a high school or college classroom) that there are four ancient and unchanging castes in India ranging from Brahmins at the top, through Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in the middle, to Shudras at the bottom, with a fifth group of so-called Untouchables—the preferred term now is Dalits—even further below. These, though, are only partial truths, for history is replete with examples of the changeability of caste, and in practice there are thousands of castes. One truth about caste, however, is undeniable: in all its manifestations through history it has been the name for a monstrous and irredeemable system of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

The various social groups collected most recently under the name Dalit have felt the power of this irredeemable system with the greatest force. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, acknowledged in an enlightened moment that the historically disadvantaged Dalits needed special support to advance socially and economically, and then set out to provide it. Since then, India has had a Dalit President and a powerful woman Dalit Chief Minister of a state. Nevertheless, the oppression of Dalits, ranging from daily humiliation (such as the maintenance of separate glasses for Dalits in some village tea shops) through sexual violence to outright massacre (alas, so many that the name of Khairlanji, where in 2006 four members of the Bhotmange family were brutally murdered, must suffice as stand in) continues till today. Reality is never neat or singular.

This is one reason “the Boom in Dalit literature”—as some have called it—of the last few decades is so important. The Boom represents the entrance of new and vital voices onto India’s literary stage—that is into forms of artistic production from which they had formerly been excluded (of course, Dalits, often musicians and performers, have had their own powerful expressive forms going back centuries). Many trace the origins of the Boom back to Dalit writing in Marathi, which began to gather force in the Seventies. From there, the Boom spread to other languages, and now there are significant bodies of work in Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and other languages.

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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.

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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.

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The Non-Western Books that every Student should Read

Leading authors pick international classics that should be on student’s bookshelves, but are often neglected by universities.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

I teach it to my first years and return to the book through their degree. It is the perfect introduction to complex ideas: oppressive socio-economic political structures, forms of resistance and defiance, and the point at which violence becomes justifiable. Students always find the book challenging, disturbing and thought provoking. And that is exactly what university syllabi ought to be!
(Sunny Singh, lecturer at London Metropolitan University and author of Hotel Arcadia)

Malgudi Omnibus by R K Narayan

Every literature student should have space on her shelf for the complete works of R K Narayan. Or at least for a Malgudi omnibus, the fictional town in which he set many of his novels, including Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Although Narayan has had Western champions, including Graham Greene and John Updike, his work is perhaps failing to find a younger readership. I teach on the creative writing MA and MFA courses at the University of Surrey, and will be playing my own small part in trying to keep his legacy alive on campus. What we can learn from Narayan ranges from his mastery of setting (Malgudi teems with life), his gently devastating comic technique, to his ability to tackle large issues (such as India’s sterilisation programme) with a light but keenly incisive touch.
(Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize)

Flowers in the Mirror by Li Ruzhen

This Chinese novel from 1827 is a fantasy classic of the Qing Dynasty period, full of sophisticated philosophy, tense quest plot-lines and one of the most wonderful explorations of feminism I have ever read. Li Ruzhen picks up gender roles, caresses them, dresses them and then fully subverts them, creating a realistic, resilient, revolutionary yet humorous setting for the action of much of the novel in the “Country of Women”.
(Sabrina Mahfouz, playwright, poet and screenwriter)

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Ten Books That Changed The World

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first significant text in world literature, and a perfect example of the power of written stories to shape history. By bolstering cultural cohesion across the region, the epic helped maintain the earliest territorial empire. Written in cuneiform, it disappeared without a trace because it was never transcribed into any other writing system, until it was rediscovered by accident two thousand years later. Saddam Hussein, a keen student of history, wrote a novelistic adaptation of the epic. To his great surprise, it failed to secure the survival of his regime.

Ezra’s Bible

Written texts became increasingly important for Jewish life during exile in Babylon, the most literate place on earth at the time. When the scribe Ezra led his followers back to Jerusalem, he held up him Torah scrolls and demanded that the returning exiles bow before them as they would to a god. It was the beginning of sacred scripture, giving rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We have been living in a world shaped by sacred texts ever since.

Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra commemorates the life of the Buddha by portraying his interactions with students and his daily habits in unusual detail. When the sutra was committed to writing long after the death of this great teacher, it became so influential that devoted monks carried it all the way to China. It was here that the Diamond Sutra encountered paper and print. With the help of these technologies, it spread to Korea, Japan and beyond, making Buddhism a world religion.

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My book of the year: Smritichitre. By Jerry Pinto

Smritichitre by Lakshmibai Tilak is the gold standard of autobiographical writing in India. You will notice I do not say that it is the gold standard for autobiographical writing in Marathi, or for women’s writing. I’m saying this is the real thing and we must all be grateful to Shanta Gokhale that she has finally given us the whole book.

How does it happen that a woman born a hundred years ago is able to speak to me directly, as if she is sitting next to me and telling me a story on a sun-baked afternoon in Nashik?

The first and most obvious one is that she was the kind of writer who understood without even thinking about it that there was grace to be found in simplicity. This was the time when people began their stories in all kinds of decorative and ornamental ways. They talked about the glory of their land and the beneficence of their deities.

Lakshmibai starts in medias res. She plunges straight into her story but like a good journalist, she warns us. These are stories that I heard, these are things I was told, she tells us. And then she draws a wonderfully detail-rich pen-picture of her father.

Crisp, interesting

His father-in-law was hanged in the Revolt of 1857 and this must have unhinged his mind and brought on a fit of purity that lasted for the next 27 years. In this country, where it is almost impossible to get anyone to talk about their parents without eulogies, paeans and glowing, no, flaming tributes, this crisp assessment is startling.

It only gets better, because Lakshmibai was to lead an ‘interesting’ life, the kind the Chinese wish on their enemies. She was married young to one Narayan Waman Tilak, a poet whose works are still on the lips of school children all over Maharashtra.

Vandana Mishra, the actor, says in her memoir, I, The Salt Doll: “In the fourth standard we learned Reverend Na Va Tilak’s Kshanokshani Pade (Falling All the Time). Our teacher recited it through a veil of tears. The girls were crying too. I thought of my mother and I missed her and cried all the harder. The teacher tried to console me. It was a heartwarming sight.”

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What we can learn from multiple translations of the same poem

Translating a poem into another language—its content, its form, its tone, its nuance—is, as almost everyone who has done it knows, a difficult business. But it also has enormous rewards: for the translator, for the reader, for poetry itself.

Some years ago, I was asked to teach a workshop about this impossible process. Among other materials, including essays about translation, I gave the participants two side-by-side English translations of a poem by Pablo Neruda, along with the original Spanish. Those translations proved to be the most valuable resource I offered. Seeing what different translators have done with the same poem immediately eliminates easy assumptions that beginning translators often make: that there is a single way, a most correct way, or a best way to translate a poem.

The packet of materials began to grow. Soon I had made several compilations of translations, illustrating different kinds of choices translators invariably make, whether they do so consciously or not. Sometime after that, I began asking the students themselves to compile multiple translations of a single poem for class presentation. Their compilations, added to mine, became our most essential “textbook,” and gave us an excellent basis for asking important questions about literary translation.

We might begin by asking where, on a continuum ranging from the most “literal” to the most “free,” a particular translation lies. Where, on another continuum between most loyal to form and most free of it, does a translation of a formal poem lie? What is gained by attempting to replicate meter and/or rhyme, and what is lost? What about levels of diction? More generally, what is the stylistic “register” of a translation, ranging from formal to colloquial, or is there a mixture of styles? If the latter, does this reflect the original poem, or is it an unfortunate (or deliberate) result of the translation? If the poem isn’t contemporary, what is gained and what is lost by moving the poem toward modern and even contemporary English? Beyond style, does a translation substitute contemporary references for original ones? At what point does a translation become (in a term introduced by John Dryden in the seventeenth century and used by Robert Lowell in the twentieth) an “imitation”—or, beyond even that, a poem in its own right that might make reference to the original by inscribing “after Pablo Neruda” (or whomever) beneath the title?

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10 MUST-READ HISTORIES OF THE PALESTINE-ISRAEL CONFLICT

November 2 marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, when the British government famously promised to establish a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. A century of conflict in Palestine/Israel has produced a vast and ever growing historical literature in English, as well as in Arabic and Hebrew. Conflicting or irreconcilable narratives mean that works which tell the story of, and from, both sides, are rare. Views of fundamental issues like the legitimacy of Zionism or the Palestinians’ right to resistance inevitably color the interpretation of key events from Balfour to the 2014 war over the Gaza Strip. Perceptions can still be polarized about Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, the 1967 war, and the character of the occupation that persists 50 years later. Well-known books, especially by Israel’s “new” historians, have made a big impact on knowledge of the formative pre-state period. Here are ten others which in different ways and at different times have made a significant contribution to illuminating this unending story.

Ronald Storrs, Orientations

Storrs was the first British military governor of Jerusalem after the Ottoman surrender in December 1917. His memoir is elegantly if pretentiously written. It reflects contemporary colonialist assumptions about Arabs and Jews, the innate authority and arrogance of the world’s largest empire and the author’s mounting frustration as the confrontation unfolded in its earliest days. Storrs was in Palestine at the time of the Balfour Declaration and in the early Mandate years. Perhaps his most memorable line, as resentment and tensions mounted, was how “two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue, while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.”

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We Are All Refugees: A Conversation With Mohsin Hamid

Earlier this year, Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, appeared, an ode to a future in which migration is as ordinary as going to school or falling in love. The book, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, revolves around the movements of Nadia and Saeed, a young couple from an unnamed country, escaping war. Hamid does not shy away from the realities of conflict, but he also does not dwell on its tragedies.

As they make their way in strange surroundings, untethered from the very things that first created their identities—family, place, nation—Nadia and Saeed experience transformations both subtle and radical. Who are we, Hamid asks repeatedly throughout the book, and what kind of world are we willing to create?

I spoke with Hamid before his appearance at Berlin’s International Literature Festival in early September 2017, where he addressed a packed auditorium. The event occurred shortly before Germany’s national elections, where fear around migration drove the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to win 12.6 percent of the vote, gaining a projected 94 seats in parliament. People in the capital, at least, were eager to hear Hamid’s non-apocalyptic vision of the future.

But it’s not easy to be an optimist about the future of migration. People trying to move through northern Africa to Europe are ensnared in detention centers in Libya. During Myanmar’s latest ethnic-cleansing campaign, its army planted land mines along the Bangladeshi border. Donald Trump’s new travel ban, announced in late September, would permanently bar citizens of eight countries from entering the United States. Thousands of people are trapped at the edges of countries and at the limits of our compassion.

Defiantly, Hamid posits that the human capacity to survive is stronger than most of us know. At its core, Exit West is about the universality of human experience, and the many migrations we undergo in a lifetime.

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