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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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Back and Forth with Kaveh Akbar

“Poetry is deeply democratic—it can exist in the mind alone, and it’s therefore infinitely potent as a political haven.” Kaveh Akbar

 

Thibault Raoult (TR): Such robust and odd images in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Shattered Pelvis.” Did these all originally belong to this poem? Might you have a daybook of images? Do images happen to you? Or do you seek them out? 

Kaveh Akbar (KA): Oh, I totally keep daybooks. (I like that word for them.) I’ve dozens of physical notebooks scattered around, as well hundreds and hundreds of digital pages between my phone and my laptop—phrases, misheard song lyrics, lines from other people’s poems, words, thoughts, riffs, etc. I delete them when they go into a poem to avoid reusing things, so that’s hundreds of pages of pristine unused material just waiting for the right poem. And I’m constantly adding.

I think there’s this magic thing that happens for poets—when we spend enough time in poetry, in our poems and the poems of others—where everything we experience in our day-to-day life enters our consciousness through the filter of its poetic utility. Every phrase and interaction acquires the charge of poetic potential. The cruel name your partner calls you mid-fight, the mistranslated item on a restaurant menu, the bizarre instructions a girl on the sidewalk whispers into her cell phone. All of it enters, first, as poem lumber.

TR: I see your poem “Portrait” nodding to Frank O’Hara and Catullus, among others. Which poets/authors inform your rhetorical modes and discourses?

KA: I love, differently, both of the poets you mention. O’Hara for many reasons, but chief among them his notion that a poem is a conversation between two persons, not two pages. That feels immensely useful to me and true to my experience of writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat around writing a mystifyingly flat poem that ballooned to life only when I realized to whom I was writing. And this is maybe dumb or juvenile or whatever, but I think I love Catullus most for the startle of his filth. I privilege surprise (a form of delight) above pretty much any other craft element in poetry, and what’s more surprising than an ancient Roman poet whose poems are full of bestiality insults and excrement?

To the second part of your question, one of the great breakthroughs of my poet life was discovering Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters, seeing how taking traditional punctuation out of her poems lent her this incredible control over momentum and inertia. … I’m still kind of in the throes of that, and all my first drafts are still unpunctuated. Sometimes I’ll add punctuation in later, but often I find it to be more distracting than useful.

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Clothes Make the Man: A Poem by Kamlesh Acharya

Clothes Make the Man – by Kamlesh Acharya

Kamlesh

Kamlesh Acharya is an MBA by qualification, a consultant by profession, a poet by ramification, a thinker through introspection and a seeker through meditation.

His debut poetry book titled ‘Kindle the Spirit’ was awarded ‘The Best English Poetry Book’ in Mumbai’s ‘Lit-o-Fest’ 2015. His poems have been selected as ‘Poem of the Month’ and as ‘Highly Commended’ at Destiny Poets UK quite a few times. His literary work has been published in Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul, Muse India, eFiction India, Bonobology, The Significant Anthology and other anthologies.

His short plays have won awards, nominations and critical acclaim and have been performed in Dubai, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Bare Bones, his latest theatrical offering is running successfully in Ahmedabad.


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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Ananda Devi

Ananda

By Aminah Sheikh

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

This is the kind of question, like “what do you write about”, that plunges me into a regular quandary because it’s as if I were being asked to summarize my life in one paragraph. I actually don’t know how I came to writing because I started as a child, almost as soon as I began to read and write, and it grew up with me. But I realized its importance when I was around 12 years old and started writing my first “novels”. I obtained my first literary prize at 15, published my first collection of short stories when I was 19 and never really looked back. I would say that I began to write because it was a way to break the silence – both mine and that of Mauritian society around me, which is one where things are left unsaid, where there is a kind of culture of stifling real feelings, and where, as in many other parts of the world, a large number of people are condemned to be unheard and at times invisible. My first novel, after my collections of short stories, was a first person narrative about a prostitute of Port-Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Written in the eighties, it broke a taboo in many ways, including the sexual violence being described and the sensuality of the writing. I’ve sometimes been described as a writer who writes for the voiceless. But this is a little too grand and emphatic for me. We are all voiceless in certain ways, and writing delves deep into our psyches, into fears and obsessions that fear to reveal themselves because they make us vulnerable.

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

The novel I have just completed and that will be published early next year was probably one I found most difficult to write because it broke away from my usual literary haunts. For instance, in all my novels, the place where the story is set is extremely important and plays a major part in the narrative. Whether it is Port-Louis, or Terre Rouge, in Mauritius, New Delhi or London, my characters tend to take on part of their meaning from their surroundings, which closely reflect their states of mind. This roots them in history – their own and the larger history of the place – in their being, in their becoming. In this last novel, however, I do not name the place; it could be any modern city, and there is hardly any description of the outer environment of the main character. This is because the story is told by a morbidly obese 16-year-old for whom, in a way, the “place” is her body. It is her prison and her shrine. She is captured by this inflationary process, trying to come to terms with it, with the fact that her mother left her with her father when she was still a baby, and her father, who adores her, also destroys her by constantly feeding her the most delicious food. He has also created the myth that the protagonist is obese because originally her mother was expecting twins, and that somehow, one was absorbed by the other. So the girl is both constantly shadowed by this invisible sister, and believes she has in a way devoured her inside the uterus. At the same time, it is a very contemporary novel because it talks about the constant “eye” of social media and the virtual world on all of us and on her especially, which turns her into a monster that is constantly being watched. The virtual world is the fourth dimension in which we now live, whether we like or not, and that has unleashed the most negative traits in people, mockery, aggression, hate, racism, behind the walls of anonymity. It all ends in an orgy of self-inflicted violence, the nihilism that is reflected in the many different sorts of violence surrounding us.

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A.K. Ramanujan: A Lonely Hero

The narrative around the pioneering Indian English poet and translator must rescue him from his image of a remote icon into a living inspiration.

Translation, by definition, always entails some loss of the original substance. All translations are sooner or later revealed as imperfect and eventually, even in the case of the most exemplary performances, come to be regarded as provisional.

—Susan Sontag, The World As India

AK. Ramanujan (or AKR), who taught at the University of Chicago for 30 years, has remained an iconic figure for the Indian literary community for a long time. After making his mark first as an Indian English poet in the mid 1960s, he won enduring fame in India and abroad for his pioneering translations of classical Tamil poetry, and later, of Bhakti poetry in Tamil and Kannada. During the latter half of his career, AKR worked on compiling and translating folk tales from across India in as many as 20 languages. As a scholar and intellectual, he also contributed essays throwing light on several important aspects of Indian culture related to our language systems and oral/written literary traditions. Though he did not spend much time on translating contemporary works, his translation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Kannada novel Samskara, first published in 1976, was a landmark achievement, catapulting the novel and its author to national and international fame. Along with a prodigious output in several genres, AKR also wrote poetry and fiction in Kannada throughout his life. After his untimely demise in 1993, AKR’s papers (poems, folk tales, essays) were collected and edited for publication in several volumes.

For his achievements, AKR was held in high esteem by his peers and contemporaries. To Indians, he had that extra sheen of a non-resident genius, working in fields not easily accessible to Indians of that period. He continues to be venerated here as a translator, scholar and thinker by succeeding generations of Anglophone Indians. It would seem, however, that in the current discourse on Ramanujan and his writings, he is always looked at in isolation, a venerable figure not related to his contemporaries or his successors in a substantive way.

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Poetry: The Prayer Poem by Drima Chakraborty

The Prayer Poem – by Drima Chakraborty

drima

Drima Chakraborty is a gender fluid Indian living in Singapore. They are currently studying English Literature at the National University of Singapore and think they must be horribly boring if work and play intermingles so frequently in the form of poetry for them. Nevertheless, they also like playing video games and political activism. They can be found under the handle “drimachuck” at most places, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to Tumblr.​​


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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Keki N Daruwala

 

keki

By Aminah Sheikh

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

I write to express myself, and there is a hell of a lot in me to express.

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

Am trying to say many things in my book. Firstly what a short story can do and achieve. The title story “Daniell comes to Judgement” is about how fate conspires to deal with a corporate honcho who is trying to exploit a brave girl. The second story about Garima is about a divorce, the wife returning to her mother’s house and after all the dejection, the garden getting watered and suddenly the fragrance from the buried bulbs revives her. And the passages at the end of the story simply have to turn lyrical — language always has to keep pace with the twists and turns of a story. And don’t forget the story “Bars”, based on my experience in the National Commission for Minorities – pastors being arrested for converting a corpse! Hey Prabhu, the Hindutva police under a Hindutva regime in MP can do anything.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Writing aesthetic. Koi aesthetic vesthetic nahin Madam. Jo dil mein aya likh diya.

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Women I Am: A Poem by Ranjini Rao

Women I Am

Ranjini RaoRanjini Rao is a writer from India and wears many hats: mom, teacher, head-hasher, bibliophile, travel-fanatic. She has had her poetry published in an anthology called Mosaic by Unisun Publications, and has had stories, columns and features out in various publications across the world. She co-authored two books, and many more are in the coming. She runs a food blog called Tadka Pasta with a partner.


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Translating Eli Eliahu’s Difficult Efficiency

“When you read an article or news brief, once you have read the words, they fall away and die, like carcasses on the roadside,” he has said. “But in poetry, the fourth line stands connected to the first, and all the words likewise stand connected to each other.”

“I like simple writing, straightforward and uncomplicated, and I try to write like that,” Eli Eliahu said, upon receiving Israel’s Matanel Prize in 2013. His work is characterized by this lack of pretension, and it lingers as much on the unsaid as it does on what is spoken aloud. In his poems, not is as present as what is; part of the challenge of translating his work is to catch the rhythm of the no, as it recurs in his poems, and convey it as seamlessly and easily as he is able to do in Modern Hebrew.

Eliahu grew up in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, but his roots are further east than Israel’s central coast, the narrow strip of land where he was born, went to university, and still resides. Eliahu is from an Iraqi Jewish family—his father was born in Baghdad—and the Mizrahi experience in Israel informs many of his poems. “Mizrahi” is a broad but important term in Israeli culture; literally translated as “Eastern,” it refers to Jews who immigrated to Israel mostly from Arab lands (and many Mizrahi families previously spoke Arabic as their primary language) but also includes Jews from Iran, India, Turkey, Central Asia, and other places. Israeli culture has traditionally been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, and a sense of second-class status became fundamental to Mizrahi identity. Eliahu told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “When you are a member of an Mizrahi family and you look at the peak of Hebrew poetry and see only people from Europe—who belong to another culture, who speak a little differently, who came from a different home from you—you feel a bit like you do at the cinema, seeing only blond people with blue eyes.”

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Call for submissions for an upcoming anthology in English of new and emerging poets

This is a call for submissions for an upcoming anthology in English of new and emerging poets (translations are welcome) to be published by Kitaab (Singapore).

The anthology, to be edited by Manik Sharma and Semeen Ali, contemplates India, 70 years since Independence, and in doing so seeks to construct a poetic map of the country. The map here refers to an idea distinctly different from the one we are used to, and feel divided by. The editors would like to clarify that this is not a symbolic, patriotic work. It merely places India in the hands of its third generation, more so as a quantity to enquire, than merely adapt to. We want to create a map, a map distinctly Indian (through smells, flavours, textures, colours etc. and not necessarily their geographies. Or, for example, identity may flow from – memories, objects, journeys, emotions, etc). No language, or culture, supersedes the other, even if majorities do. To the core of the idea here, the value of the author and his or her subject is equal.

We want to look at works that discover/re-imagine these tropes, poems that may tell us something we do not know, or something we do but consider too passé for poetry. Things that are quintessentially Indian, told through the personal or the social, through its people or the poems some of them, as part of this anthology may now write. Continue reading