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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.

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Book Review: The Librarian by Kavitha Rao

By Mitali Chakravarty

The Librarian
Title: The Librarian
Author: Kavitha Rao
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte Ltd
Price: ₹ 299/-

 

 

The Librarian by Kavitha Rao is a novel that strolls through the old corridors of a library in Bombay, meanders through the lanes of London and returns to the dystopian world of the terrorist bomb blast that ripped Mumbai in 2008. Kavitha Rao has created a suspense-filled, layered story of a young girl’s passions, of the annihilation caused by uncontrolled obsessions and has unravelled the mystery behind the disappearance of Mrs. Sen, the assistant librarian. It has facts, romance, history, glamour, murder, robbery and gore, somewhat like a Dan Brown.

The protagonist, Vidya Patel, journeys through her childhood, guided in her passion for books by the intrepid librarian, Shekhar Raghavan. The library is also home to rare manuscripts; it reflects in microcosm a world in which Shekhar is the presiding deity. He supports Vidya when she rebels against her parents’ conservative Gujarati outlook and moves to a hostel for working women, trying to live life as she wants.

In London on a three-month scholarship, Vidya walks through the lanes of the city, visits the places frequented by authors and fictional characters, including 221b Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes, and the grave of the famed English writer, George Eliot with its inscription of Mary Ann Cross. However, there is a discrepancy of a decade between the dates of George Eliot’s life span in the book and the ones inscribed on her grave. I wonder why… however, it is a minor detail in a story that spans larger societal concerns, where passions are unacceptable to ‘normal’ people and, left uncontrolled, can lead to fanaticism.

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Something’s Wrong in the Garden: the Uncanny and the Art of Writing by Marjorie Sandor

Editor’s Note: Frontiers for writing.

Marjorie Sandor, writing for Mastersreview, explores the ‘uncanny’ and what writers can do with it.

I’m eight years old, and my parents have gone out for the evening, leaving my older brothers in charge. This explains why I’m parked in front of the television set, watching a movie well beyond my tender years: The Innocents, based on Henry James’ unsettling ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.

A good twenty minutes into the film, the governess is in the garden, all in white and snipping white roses, still aglow with her good fortune in landing this gig at a big country house. The camera comes to rest near her voluminous skirts, on a small garden-statue nestled in the shrubs. It’s a cherub, but it looks deformed somehow, and there’s something hideous about its smile. That’s when, from out of its mouth, there issues a plump black bug. The bug dangles briefly on the cherub’s lip, waves its little legs, and drops out of sight.

A weird, sickish feeling wells up in my chest, both awful and exciting. It’s that insect, coming out of what appeared to be solid plaster. I don’t have words for the way I feel.

There is a word. I just don’t know it yet.

Uncanny. Look it up in a standard collegiate dictionary, and you’ll get a brief, unhelpful definition.

Seemingly supernatural. Mysterious. [orig. Sc & N. Engl.].

But the slippage has already begun. Seemingly.

Scholars have traced the word back as far as 1593, and found it wobbling from infancy. In fact, the Scots/Gaelic word from which it emerges, canny, meant not only what you’d think—“safe” and “cozy” and “prudent”—but also “sly of humor,” and “having supernatural knowledge.” You might go to “a canny man” to have a spell cast on an enemy, or to have one reversed. So you might say that from early-on, “canny” secretly contained the seed of its own “un.” A shadow-word just waiting to emerge.

Maybe it’s that wobble in the parent-word that invites uncertainty into stories of the uncanny. James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, a story of “general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain,” is the pinnacle of a century of great ghost stories in which homely spaces—country houses, city apartments, private gardens and cozy libraries—become sites for the suppressed—and disowned—past to return. Consider the tales of the late 18th century Scottish writer James Hogg. His Country Dreams and Apparitions are set in country villages and croft-houses, and are full of the homely dialect of his time and place. Ghost stories, yes, but with hanging endings, a sense of unfinished business both in language and action. They speak to crimes we’ve buried. To the human compulsion to confess—or bear witness.

Around the same time, in Germany, the künstmarchen, or art fairy tale, is coming into being. E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, Heinrich von Kleist and others are writing long tales in which something extraordinary happens in a familiar world. The locales are usually urban—the coffee houses and market squares of university towns and cities—and rich with recognizable place-names, known figures, and scrupulous attention to domestic detail. Then something strange happens to the protagonist. Something seemingly supernatural. From that moment forward, his perception—and ours—is fundamentally, violently, shattered. The experience of seeing differently isolates him from his oh-so-rational friends. Neither he nor the reader can fully resolve whether he has imagined all of it, or it’s simply that no one else is “aware.”

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The Literary Oligarchy is Killing Writing

With the staggering rise of wealth inequality and the increasing concentration of ideas and access to an audience in the hands of a few, largely elite writers, it’s the voices on the margins that need to be heard.

Years ago, when I was first trying to make a name for myself as a writer, a prominent Indian novelist and one whom I admired told me I was being a fool to ever think my fiction – influenced by the American and European modernists I grew up reading – would ever be accepted by the mostly white boy club of the terminally hip who ruled New York City publishing – the trustafarian rich kids who defined cool, and by extension, who got published, who got reviewed and who got attention.

He told me to start wearing a turban and pen a gritty but ultimately celebratory novel about Sikhs in California, where I grew up – be the native informant for the bored white US searching for a new ethnicity to discover, consume, go all gaga over and ultimately discard. That way, he said, lay my surest path to even the slimmest foothold in the literary world.

I ignored his advice and told him so. What he described sounded like self-cannibalisation to me. For me, the whole point of writing – great writing at least – was that at its heart it promoted a fundamental freedom of the mind to engage the world in whatever way one chooses. Soon after, the prominent writer made a point of “dropping” me. I suspect he decided my poor judgment proved I was never going to be famous enough for him to waste his energy cultivating while my insufficient sycophancy was in no way going to compensate.

At the time, I had written two novels. One was about an enormously fat satellite television magnate who gets eaten by a huge fish; the second about a wild girl found in the mountains of an imaginary Asian country. While the former suffered from many usual first novel failures, the latter, I believed, and still do, genuinely succeeded.

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LGBT Writing in West Asia: How writers are using the pen to fight stigma and oppression

Many Armenian, Persian and Kurdish artists and activists address homosexuality and gender issues through their work.

On May 28, 2013, a small group of environmentalists gathered at Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the removal of trees. The police’s brutal response sparked the indignation of the city’s residents and soon, Gezi Park was flooded with ordinary citizens and activists. They voiced a number of grievances, chief among them the government’s refusal to engage with citizens about urban planning. The protests lasted for weeks and the makeshift camp erected in the Park featured a dizzying array of groups: ecologists, Armenians, Kurds, Zazas, Alevis, Communists, syndicalists, anti-capitalist Muslims and LGBT rights organisations.

The diversity of identities on display brought into the open the complex and sometimes confusing imbrications composing individuals’ self-identification in contemporary Turkey. Since the 1980s, sexual identities have played an increasing role in this construction, and over the last decade the stories and struggles of Turkish sexual minorities have been featured in a number of different media

To be certain, homosexuality, lesbianism, transgenderism and cross-dressing are far from new concepts to Turkish culture. Same-sex intercourse has been legal in Turkey (and the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor state) since 1858; 110 years before the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. The topic of gay and lesbian relations in Ottoman society and its imagining among Orientalist writers is particularly popular among Western scholars.

While Turkish authors do treat similar subjects within their works, contemporary issues of social, political and economic equality, as well as the battle against discrimination, are more likely to be explored within Turkish academic publishing. Scholars Cüneyt Çakırlar and Serkan Delice, have been particularly active in their writings, whether in collections of contemporary Turkish studies on gender, queer identity and politics or in their participation in the Queer Düş’ün series by *SEL Yayıncılık, which seeks to bring English-language Queer writing into Turkish. Other writers, too, address difficult issues, whether theoretical or practical. Evidence of such comes to us from works such as Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet: Türkiye’de Beden, Sağlık ve Cinsellik (Neoliberalism and Intimacy: Body, Health and Gender in Turkey), where we find Cenk Özbay’s study of neoliberal sociology and the case of rent boys, as well as Yener Bayramoğlu’s look at heterosexism and homosexuality within contemporary advertising.

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The Subversive New Generation of Asian American Writers

Real talk between writers Jenny Zhang, Tanwi Nandini Islam, and Karan Mahajan on race, writing, parents, sex, and the ongoing creation of the Asian American canon.

 

Asian American writers occupy a weirdly marginal space in American letters: a few successes, like Jhumpa Lahiri or Amy Tan, go mainstream, but otherwise these are authors you read if you are interested in the “Asian American experience”; they haven’t achieved the universality, say, of Jewish American writing. Asian American writers are in a position analogous to that of Asian Americans themselves: salubrious but maybe inessential.

A new generation is challenging that. In 2008, Wesley Yang published an essay inn+1 about the Virginia Tech mass shooter; fierce, analytical, and dangerously confessional, it had a testy Naipaulian energy. Other nonfiction writers have come up concurrently or followed suit: Jay Caspian Kang, Hua Hsu, even provocateurs like Eddie Huang and Amy Chua. In fiction, Hanya Yanagihara, Ed Park, Jenny Zhang, Tao Lin, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Alice Sola Kim, Alexander Chee, and Tony Tulathimutte are renovating an ossified genre with outrageous and sometimes hypersexual scenarios. (Kang is a correspondent for VICE on HBO; Huang is the host of the VICELAND show Huang’s WorldLinIslamPark, and Tulathimutte are all occasional contributors to this website.) Zhang and Islam also exemplify a style of online confessional essay-writing that draws blood—and thousands of politicized readers.

To talk about all this, I Google-hanged with Zhang and Islam. They were in Williamsburg, and I was in Bangalore. Zhang, the author of the acclaimed poetry collections Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and HAGS, had just sold her first collection of stories to Random House (she’s a friend of mine from college). Islam’s debut novel, Bright Lines, was about to be the inaugural pick for the NYC Mayor’s Book Club. This being an Asian American story, parents were never far from the picture: Islam’s Bangladeshi American family weaved in and out of the background. “My mom keeps wanting to take a selfie with me,” she wrote at one point. The three of us talked about families, politics, and the cringes that come when your story is workshopped by a room of white writers.

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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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Book Review: Immoderate Men by Shikhandin

By Fehmida Zakeer

Immoderate-Men book image

Title: Immoderate Men
Author: Shikhandin
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Pages: 200

 

As the title indicates, the eleven stories in the collection Immoderate Men focuses on the unrestrained response of the main characters as they encounter seemingly small quirks of fate that go on to have great implications in their lives. The author who has used a pseudonym, Shikhandin, has made it a point to include stories about men from different classes of society as well as from different age groups making each story unique in its perspective. Though the point of view is that of the male gender, the narratives do not actually delve into the psyche of men as such; rather, the portrayal revolves around how the principal characters respond to the attitudes and events in the lives of the women around them.

‘Salted Pinkies’ is, however, different. It focuses on the efforts of a young man who resorts to an extreme step to escape from a society that is not ready to accept a different language of sexuality. Some stories trace the calibration of marital relationships, the strength of the bond between husband and wife. In the first story, we see a couple preparing for a banquet for their son-in-law, making all efforts to ensure a sumptuous spread with all the right foods. But when the ingredient for their star dish disappears from the garden, the excellent chemistry between the couple helps them to deal with the different problems that come up. However, another story on the same theme, ‘Black Prince’, paints a picture of domestic discontent that drives the husband to develop an unusual passion — that of growing roses in his garden which helps him in a strange way to confront the disturbance lurking beneath the surface of his life.

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The Restless Brilliance of Hassan Blasim by Bhaswati Ghosh

Bhaswati Ghosh

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim came to me rather unremarkably. In the dead of Canada’s fierce winter in January 2017, I had a sudden desire to read and cook from conflict zones around the world. I say sudden, but given the blood-stained cloud that hangs over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and much of the Arab world and parts of Africa, this couldn’t have been all that abrupt a thirst. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Blasim’s debut short story collection, was one of the first books I borrowed from the library for my quest.

I didn’t make much of the simple black cover of The Corpse Exhibition, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Nothing — not its blackness or even a statutory warning on the cover (had there been one) — could have prepared me for what lay inside. Such was the emotive force of Blasim’s words that despite the macabre scenarios they pressed between themselves, I kept turning the book’s pages with hypnotic urgency.

The sharpness of Blasim’s storytelling knife stabbed me with the very first story in the collection, titled The Corpse Exhibition. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the leader of an organization involved with curating corpse exhibitions, speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of the displays — the boss cites as a prime example the naked corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child, placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound on their bodies — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

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Celeste Ng: By the Book

“I try to read omnivorously, because I never know what’s going to spark a new idea. Often the things that I least expect to seize my imagination end up being the most productive.”

The author of, most recently, “Little Fires Everywhere,” often returns to “The Count of Monte Cristo”: “Right now, I see it as an exploration of the complexities of good and evil and how easily one shifts into the other.”

What influences your decisions about which books to read? Word of mouth, reviews, a trusted friend?

Friends. Taste is idiosyncratic, so I don’t love everything people recommend me, and I don’t love everything my friends love. But if a friend adores a book or thinks I will, there’s always something in there that’s interesting and worth thinking about and discussing.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I was reading about life in the Soviet Union, looking for information about samizdat for novel research, and learned that people shared banned music by cutting old X-ray film into circles and making records out of them. They called them “ribs” or “bones.” I’m fascinated by the ways people under repressive regimes still manage to share information — and joy.

What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?

I read with my 6-year-old son every night, and frankly, with the state of the world, it’s a relief to turn to children’s literature. We’ve been enjoying some classics like “The BFG” and some new books like Abby Hanlon’s “Dory Fantasmagory” and Shannon and Dean Hale’s “The Princess in Black” series, which make both of us laugh. And picture books — especially really thoughtful, beautiful ones like Aaron Becker’s “Journey” trilogy, Carson Ellis’s “Du Iz Tak?” and everything by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen — are a balm for the soul. They give me hope for the next generation.

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