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10 Must Read Women Writers From The Middle East

The tradition of female writers from the Middle-East has been vastly growing in the twentieth century, with new generations of writers determined to give women a voice and represent issues regarding feminism, identity and class from a female perspective. From fiction to non-fiction writers, we profile ten fantastic female writers from the Middle-East. Layla Baalbaki

 

Widely acknowledged to be a pioneer in women’s writing in the Middle-East, Layla Baalbaki was one of the first writers to give women a voice in Arab literature, focusing primarily on female issues. Her 1958 novel I Live is a work far ahead of its time, revolving around a young Lebanese woman as she attempts to negotiate her place in the world; striving for political, social and financial independence. Sadly, Baalbaki’s honest exploration of women’s innermost emotions was met with controversy and hostility and she was charged with obscenity and immorality. Although eventually acquitted, Baalbaki wrote no works of fiction after 1964 and turned instead to journalism.

A noted Algerian feminist author, Assia Djebar is well known for examining the plight of Algerian women within a post-colonial context. Her works include the collection of short stories Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1980), inspired by Delacroix’s famous The Women of Algiers (1834). These respond to the Orientalist and patriarchal structures surrounding contemporary Algerian society and attempt to demonstrate the ongoing inequality which defines women’s lives. Djebar was elected to the Académie Française – a historic organization which seeks to uphold and protect French heritage and language – in 2005, the first Magreb writer to receive this honor.

Born and raised in Baghdad, where she studied journalism at university, Inaam Kachachi moved to Paris in 1979, where she has lived ever since. As well as regularly writing pieces for Arabic-language newspapers, Kachachi has published several novels which examine issues of displacement and homeland, as well as the brutal reality of Iraq today. Frustrated by the religious and didactic turn literature in Iraq has taken, Kachachi attempts to authentically portray complex characters in the Iraq which she experienced. Her most recent novel Tashari (2013) stretches back to the 1950s and explores the changing sociopolitical dynamic of the country through one family and their eventual dispersal across the globe. This novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

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‘The Macho Man Who Only Wanted to Screw Women Is Dead’ – at least in Israeli Fiction

A crisis of masculinity never before seen in Israeli literature

Something has happened to the male in Israeli literature in recent months. In light comedies, detective tales, as well as serious literature published here during the past year, we encounter male protagonists – portrayed by male authors – who are concerned with the personal and emotional, with relationships and home life.

They are consumed with thoughts about parenthood or love or both, with dreams of a great romance that will stand the test of time. They are seriously pondering monogamy, and thinking about the women in their lives whom they love but maybe don’t really know as well as they should. They’re thinking about their families, and themselves, over which they’re about to lose control, and hoping to get a grip on things before it’s too late. In short, about all the kinds of things that hitherto were traditionally the domain of women writers of Hebrew literature.
Thus, for example, in Yoav Shoten-Goshen’s debut novel, “Pa’am Ahat, Isha Ahat” (“One Woman, One Time”; Zmora-Bitan) published earlier this spring, we see the pleasant and familiar world of Ido, a well-established lawyer nearing 40, fall to pieces one evening when his wife Nurit confesses that she has cheated on him. Everything he thought was secure in his life is suddenly called into question. Overwhelmed with emotion and bursting with wounded feelings, he muses about revenge and about having a fling himself out of spite.
One is tempted to recommend that Ido consider having a good talk with Eitan, the 42-year-old cab driver and amateur sleuth who is the hero of Assaf Gavron’s latest novel, “Shemona Esreh Malkot” (“The Eighteen Strokes”; Aliyat Gag Books). Eitan, whom everyone calls “Croc,” is a divorced father of one.
Though busy trying to solve a historical mystery while snarfing peanuts and shawarma, he also spends quite a bit of time pondering matters of the heart. Has he missed out on his one true love? Will he ever experience a love that’s larger-than-life? His heart is filled with love for his young daughter, but the bedroom maneuvers he tries with the woman he genuinely desires culminate in a disappointing performance – for which he has only himself to blame.
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The Asian American Women Writers Who Are Going to Change the World

This past year of national chaos has often had me thinking, What if? What if, before this year, I’d spoken up more, given more, fought more? On the one hand, if I’d allocated the entirety of my waking hours toward canvassing for the side of political good, I still, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have prevented this year’s kakistocratic events. But if a thousand people like me had done more? Ten thousand?

What-if rue like this is mostly useless, but it can, at least, help lead to future action. Toward that end, I’ve felt heartened and inspired by the examples set forth by fellow writers — especially, at times, by politically outspoken Asian American women. It’s a demographic often expected to be relatively quiet, even docile; what’s more, we’re routinely labeled the so-called model minority, a hateful idea trying to press us into the service of white supremacy. It’s evil shit, and not-at-all-quiet exemplars abound, including Nayomi Munaweera, Celeste Ng, Vanessa Hua, Nicole Chung, Alice Sola Kim, Jarry Lee, Rachel Khong, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Aimee Phan, Vauhini Vara, Jenny Zhang, Karissa Chen, Mira Jacob, Kat Chow, Steph Cha, Kirstin Chen, Tracy O’Neill, Larissa Pham, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Suki Kim, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Sonya Larson, Shuchi Saraswat, Catherine Chung, Shanthi Sekaran, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Jia Tolentino, Hasanthika Sirisena, Nina McConigley, Krys Lee, Solmaz Sharif, Ru Freeman, Lisa Ko, Janice Lee, Katrina Dodson, Aja Gabel, Sonya Chung, Jade Chang, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, T. Kira Madden, and, and, and.

In this roundtable, I spoke with four such vocal women: V.V. Ganeshananthan, Porochista Khakpour, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Esmé Weijun Wang. They’re all versatile writers who frequently work across genres, splendid novelists who also write candid, powerful nonfiction, and who are brilliantly forthright about their political views. Here’s Ganeshananthan in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Margins about who gets to write what they don’t know, and her essay “The Politics of Grief” in Granta. Here’s Khakpour on writing as an Iranian American in Catapult, and her essay “How Can I Be a Refugee Twice?” in CNN. Nguyen wrote about being a refugee in Literary Hub, and, along with Karissa Chen and Celeste Ng, published a rap-battle response to Calvin Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” Finally, take a look at Wang in Buzzfeed about the “good” schizophrenic, and in The Believer about metaphors of mental illness.

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Book Review: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

By Kaamna Jain

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

The second most interesting thing about former High Court judge Mahesh Sharma’s peacock theory is that somehow being celibate makes the peacock a superior animal. The first thing of course is that it’s a completely unscientific fact which has been quoted while giving judgment in a criminal case. The judge needs to be reminded that he as well as the entire human race is a product of sexual reproduction. Then why celebrate and put organisms that reproduce asexually on a higher pedestal?

For years students of science have been taught that sexual reproduction is better than asexual reproduction for evolution because it creates genetic variety. This helps a species in adapting to constantly changing and challenging environment, even though sexual reproduction is more cumbersome and less efficient. That is the reason sexually reproducing species are at the highest rung of the ladder while single cell organisms which reproduce asexually are at the very bottom of the pyramid.

It is the taboo surrounding sex that sets the context for the book, “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows”, written by Singapore based author, Balli Kaur Jaswal. Published in early 2017 by Harper Collins, movie rights have already been sold to Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions, and Film4.

The title is an intriguing misnomer. Erotic stories? Sure, any time. But for Punjabi widows? In a patriarchal society, widows are deemed to be even lesser beings than women and somehow supposed to be asexual beings, bereft of desires and fancies once their better halves leave for their heavenly abode. The word “widow” conjures the image of a lady clad in white, engaged either in religious or household chores. That such a creature could have erotic stories to share or sexual fantasies, takes time to get used to. Once you get used to the idea, the surreptitious thrill of enjoying something forbidden also screams out loud from the title. I quickly ordered a copy online. Now I happened to be travelling and thanks to the title, was extremely uncomfortable about getting it delivered to a neighbour’s house for safekeeping. After that, I could not bring myself to say the name of the book when asked by an elderly uncle what I was reading currently.

The story is set in Southall and Enfield, London. The protagonist is a young British girl of Indian origin, Nikki, who is trying to figure out what she wants to do in life. Brought up in Enfield, which is a more British part of London, she gets tricked into an assignment to take writing class for Punjabi windows in a Gurudwara in Southall. She wants to “help the women” and believes that “everyone has stories to tell. It would be a rewarding experience to help Punjabi women to craft their stories”.

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This Side of Syria: Best Books to Understand the Syrian Experience

Americans have long prided themselves on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. Even considering the complexity of this notion, the idea itself remains a point of emphasis in our national identity. One of the most enduring symbols of the United States is a woman holding a torch aloft in a harbor beckoning travelers to safe refuge, our Statue of Liberty. And yet in times when we have perceived that our security is waning, we lash out at these very immigrants who, in times of relative safety, we claim as a point of national pride.

Now, in the midst of a staggering global refugee crisis, we are seeing the fabric of our nation’s identity being tested once again. The brutal civil war plaguing Syria has displaced millions, forcing Syrians to flee their war-torn home and seek solace from inhumane and terrifying conditions. The United States has often stood at the forefront of refugee resettlement, but under the cloak of fear, President Trump is pushing this country to once again close off its borders.

It is, unfortunately, easy to ignore this crisis, to forget that those fleeing are seeking refuge from cruel circumstance – and often death. Literature once again, though, proves to offer a powerful window of empathy – a reminder of the essential humanity in all of us. In times like these, empathy and understanding are paramount. To hopefully help gain a better understanding of Syria, its people, and its rich literary tradition, we’ve pulled together a number of books and novels by Syrian authors or simply about the Syrian experience.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Jaina Sanga

By Aminah Sheikh

J Sanga - photo

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

I was always fond of reading. When I was young, I read constantly, often finishing a novel in a day. But I never aspired to becoming a writer. In school I was fascinated by chemical equations and lab experiments, but was never encouraged to go into Chemistry. I studied English Literature in college and graduate school and worked as a professor for some years. I write because that is the only thing I know how to do.

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

Tourist Season (published by Speaking Tiger), a collection of two novellas is my most recent book. Having written a novel, Silk Fish Opium, and a book of short stories, Train to Bombay, I was eager to take on the challenge of the novella. It is a difficult and eccentric form, but offers immense possibilities. I was also attempting to focus on environmental issues, and this theme is embedded in both the novellas.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I try to write everyday, from about 8:00am until 2:00pm. I use a laptop computer for the manuscript, but outline scenes and take notes longhand on chits of paper. Whenever I get stuck while writing, I pace the floor. I end up pacing a great deal.

Who are your favorite authors?

That’s a difficult question. There are so many authors I admire for different reasons. But to name a few, I’d say John Banville, Ian McEwan, William Trevor, ItaloCalvino, Haruki Murakami, Gustave Flaubert, Magda Szabó, Ruth Ozeiki, Laleh Khadivi, Hillary Mantel, Michael Ondaatje, and J. M. Coetzee.

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Book Review: Adventure Stories of Great Writers

By Mitali Chakravarty

Adventure Stories of Great Writers

Title: Adventure Stories of Great Writers
Author: Dr Usha Bande
Publisher: Kitaab

Adventures Stories of Great Writers is a collection of episodes from the lives of well-known writers across the world through different periods in history. These vignettes from the biographies focus on adventures faced by twenty such persons transcending borders and nations. The different stories touch upon the lives of great writers like Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Knud Holmboe, Washinton Irving, Herman Melville and T.E. Lawrence ranging from a variety of countries including Denmark, India, America, England, to name a few. The stories are set on the rough seas around the world, including the Arctic Ocean, where Arthur Conan Doyle was thrown off his ship among frozen chunks of ice in the cold waters; in the deserts of Arabia and Africa where, T.E. Lawrence fought for the Arabs and which Knud Holmboe made into his own home; in India, where John Masters battles a deadly man hunting tiger; in apartheid ridden South Africa, where Gandhi learns never to give in to injustice… Transcending borders, religions and creed, the common thing that strings these stories together is perhaps best expressed by a quote from Rabindranath Tagore at the start of an episode from Gandhiji’s life:

“Power said to the world, ‘you are mine’.

The world kept it prisoner on her throne.

Love said to the world, ‘I am thine’.

The world gave it the freedom of her home.”

Most of the episodes reflect compassion, kindness and love for mankind. Some depict indomitable spirit, courage and boldness while some focus on the spirit of adventure and innovative solutions to get out of situations that seem impossible. Conviction in one’s beliefs, the energy and the determination to push through to achieve one’s objective and to make changes that were felt to be necessary are also highlighted by these vignettes. All these episodes go to show what has been summed up by a quotation from Swami Vivekananda at the start of a chapter on Sir Winston Churchill:

“The history of the world is the history of

a few men who had faith in themselves.”

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Life and Times of Literary Magazines

 Bangladesh’s English language literature over the years

Ironically, it was the 1947 Partition and the carving out of East Pakistan that had brought a measure of English to Bengali Muslims. Partition meant Hindus departed en masse for India, and in its place emerged, blinking and hesitant, a native Muslim elite. As the-then head of the English department of Dhaka University, Professor A G Stock, wrote in her memoir of those times, “severance from West Bengal… conscious of its differences with West Pakistan,” made East Pakistan “vividly conscious of its identity and of the need to find an outlet to explain itself.” One such outlet was an English literary journal called New Values (NV) brought out by K S Murshid – then “in his twenties” and later a hugely respected academic. NV, Stock wrote:

kept a high standard of writing; kept it, in matters literary and artistic, above the mutual admiration level which would have made it a ‘little magazine’… [tempering] its Bengali preoccupations with good articles from overseas and translations and critical discussions of modern writing from other Islamic countries.

This, historically, is where it began for us.

Other developments accelerated this encounter between English and Bengalis. Oxford University Press (OUP), based in Bombay and Calcutta during colonial times, now came to Pakistan. In a symbolically powerful move that ‘severed’ Calcutta’s control of East Bengal’s publication market, it opened a branch office in Dhaka. In 1958, strongman Ayub Khan came to power in Pakistan, and enacted new educational policies: English now was to be a compulsory subject in schools. OUP prepared the necessary English course books, and later also published university textbooks. It also published specifically for the East Pakistan market, and gave English translations a boost by bringing out works such as that of revered folk poet Jasimuddin – The Field of the Embroidered Quilt: A Tale of Two Pakistani Villages.

By the mid-1960s, the Dhaka office was humming. East Bengali Muslims were now doing things they had scarcely done before – run an administration, teach at colleges and universities, travel abroad, play cricket. And aspire to write in English – Syed Waliullah’s short stories appeared in Miscellany, the publication of Pakistan PEN, in the 1950s. Razia Amin, of Dhaka University, also wrote fiction in English. Academics wrote essays and literary criticism. Newspapers and magazines opened up their platform to poems and other writing.

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‘The Best Asian Short Stories, 2017’ from Kitaab

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

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

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

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


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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Chhimi Tenduf-La

 

Chhimi Tenduf-La Photo

By Aminah Sheikh

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

I can edit what I have already written but not what I have already said. So in a first draft of a story, I can say whatever I want in a way I can’t when I speak. This makes writing enormous fun. Also, with age I am getting worse at everything else I enjoy doing, such as sports and looking human. With writing, I imagine I will get better with time.

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

Loyal Stalkers is a collection of linked short stories. An author who read it told me that it was like a painting coming to life with each chapter filling in the colours of one other corner of that painting. With it I want to challenge assumptions about gender roles, sexuality, etc. With each story I think there is a message; for example, that the fear of shame can break up families and ruin futures. There is a lot in there about what is wrong with society, but my hope above all else is that people will find it compelling, moving and surprising.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I am terrified of a reader being bored so I try to get in and out of a story or scene as quickly and as smoothly as possible. I try to be punchy, sometimes almost rap-like. I try to create rhythm. I want to surprise and shock, make people laugh or cry. I try not to be overly descriptive because as a reader I like to fill in the blanks and imagine settings for myself. In some ways I write imagining my stories as a movie. I imagine the soundtrack and the dramatic pauses. Because of this I try my very best to make my dialogue as punchy and as natural as possible and in this regard I am influenced more by say, Tarantino, than any author.

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