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Ayelet Gundar-Goshen recommends the best of Contemporary Israeli Fiction

Do you think Israel’s fiction must engage with her politics?

I think Israel is a very political country. We are in the middle of a huge conflict zone and we have two thousand years of history of very difficult politics. I don’t think it is possible to write anything in Israel without referring to politics, and if you were to decide to write something without referring to politics, then that in itself is a political decision. I don’t mean to say that fiction has to limit itself only to the current conflict. Writing is a political act, but it’s much wider than everyday politics: it’s a political act because it deals with morals, with people, with power and knowledge.

It goes without saying that the political situation is immensely complex. Have you found that Israeli fiction engages with all sides of the debate?

Most of the writers I know are left-wing, while the majority of people in Israel vote for the right-wing Netanyahu. So there is a gap here between literature and the political map.

Where does that gap come from?

I think literature is a humanistic act. While writing a novel, you have to put yourself into the shoes of ‘the other’. Once you try to write from a different perspective, you cannot remain blind to the needs of other people or other nations.

So writing literature is fundamentally a left-wing activity?

I’m not saying that all writers are left-wing, but I do think there is something humanistic about the very idea that human life is important enough for us to sit down and write about it for pages and pages. Of course there are fascist novels in the history of literature, but I think there’s something in writing fiction that forces you to look where you don’t usually look – otherwise it would make bad literature. Maybe that’s why, if you write about the conflict, you can’t just say: ok we’re right and that’s it, you have to start asking questions. I see myself as an Israeli patriot—I believe Israel has every right to exist—but I can’t ignore Palestinian rights as well.

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“The tragedy of going back”: Jhumpa Lahiri on her work as a translator

In 2012, having published four books and won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome. There, she experienced what she described as “a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.” A set of preconceptions had hardened around her writing, and in Italy, Lahiri hoped to jettison these in pursuit of a new vulnerability. She looked to the Italian language to reinvent herself on the page, restoring the joy and freedom in her work.

One consequence of this immersion was In Other Words, Lahiri’s memoir about language, and her first book written in Italian. (An English translation by Ann Goldstein appeared in 2015.) Just as important, in their way, were her first efforts at translation—a pair of novels, Ties and Trick, by her friend Domenico Starnone, the author of more than a dozen books and a winner of Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize. Ties, published last year, tells the story of a marriage in extremis and dissects a lifetime of accrued routine, deception, and petty resentment. When it came to light that Starnone is married to the writer who goes by Elena Ferrante, critics returned to Ties, suddenly eager to read it as a counterpart to Ferrante’s own Days of Abandonment.

Trick, Lahiri’s second Starnone translation, out in March, is another vivisection of family life, a novel as lean and unflinching as its predecessor. An elderly illustrator, Daniele, visits his childhood apartment, now his daughter’s home, to babysit his four-year-old grandson. The boy’s frenetic energy fills Daniele with foreboding, forcing him to reckon with his past and his senescence—to accept that his creative powers are waning and his body is failing him.

In a pair of phone conversations—one last year, after Ties came out, and one more recently, following the publication of Trick—I talked to Lahiri about the raw power behind Starnone’s work; about her approach to translation and her love of the Italian language; and about balconies, which are scary. 

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to Ties, and what made you decide to translate it?

LAHIRI

Well, I read it when it was first published in 2014. I was living in Rome, and I knew Domenico already.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Sudeep Chakravarti

By Shikhandin

Sudeep by Ushinor Majumdar Colour

Photo Courtesy: Ushinor Majumdar

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction – Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014, and most recently, The Bengalis. He has written two novels (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings) and his essays and short fiction have appeared in collections in India and overseas; like his books, these have been translated into several languages.
He is among India’s leading independent commentators on matters of conflict and conflict resolution, democracy and development, political economy, and the convergence of business and human rights. An extensively published columnist at Mint and elsewhere, he has over three decades of experience in media, and has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career, and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media.
An avid scuba diver, Sudeep’s key interest away from writing and travelling remains marine conservation. He lives in Goa and in the Velliangiri Hills, Tamil Nadu.

Shikhandin: In the acknowledgements page of The Bengalis, you have touched upon how the book came about. Could you let us know a bit more here?

Sudeep Chakravarti: I have for long wanted to write a book on the social and political aspects of Greater Bengal — by that I mean West Bengal and East Bengal, now Bangladesh — with a personalized touch. My personal history is rooted in both Bengals, as it were, and such an approach lends a great degree of reality and immediacy to seemingly dry history. I had even proposed it to a major publisher, but I put it on ice for a couple of years on account of a few issues with that particular publisher. I subsequently brought the project to David Davidar of Aleph. The Bengalis assumed a more rounded avatar after my discussion with David, whose idea was a fuller portrait of the Bengalis, almost a biography.

I was keen to translate research, interviews, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling. I apply that approach to all my books, fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. The difference with The Bengalis is that I am occasionally involved in the story as a participant. But I was determined to maintain a distance, and address thorny issues of history and ethnicity alongside all that is justly celebrated about the Bengalis. It’s not so much about a different eye as a necessary eye: The Bengalis is not a brochure, it’s an attempt at a portrait of a people painted with what I hope is honesty, honour, some horror and a lot of humour. David liked that approach right from the first draft. A second draft and a couple of proofs later, we were done. He and Aleph’s managing editor, Aienla Ozukum, really got into The Bengalis.

Then there is the cover, a work of great care and aesthetics by Aleph’s art director, Bena Sareen (who also designed the cover of my book Red Sun when she was at Penguin). The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: a hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting. The image by Plabon Das works wonderfully. As to the content, the book of course attempts to deal comprehensively with all this and much, much more.

There was a process to the selection of this image. We were very concerned that the image should not crudely reflect a stereotype, or alienate a vast number of Bengalis. There were other images in the initial design line-up; for instance, a beautiful image of a rickshaw puller in front of a grand North Kolkata mansion. I felt that was too ‘guidebook’ or ‘coffee-table’, like a couple of other options. In any case we didn’t want something to be too Kolkata, as it were, as if other places in what I like to call Banglasphere don’t exist.
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About feminist presses in South Asia

In November last year, the shortlist for the DSC literature prize was announced at LSE. Ritu Menon, co-founder of Kali for Women, and one of the judges of the prize, spoke to Rebecca Bowers about the decline of the feminist press in the West, and the challenges facing women in publishing today.   

RB: As chairwoman of the judging panel for the DSC literature prize, what in your view makes an award-winning publication? What are the ‘secret ingredients’?

RM: I think as part of the jury and speaking on behalf of the jury I think what we were looking for and I think what we have found is exceptional literary quality, confidence and maturity in the writing, skill, good craft, and very compelling stories. I think if you can get that combination then you have very commendable writing, so that’s what I think we have found in the shortlist and as to the winner well that will be decided later.

RB: Although female authors are now rightfully coming to the forefront of the literary world, what challenges would you say that they still face today?

RM: I wish that I could say they are coming to the forefront but I’m not sure that they are. They are being published a little more. A little more. They are somewhat better represented as far as reviews go, as far as reception in the market goes, and I suppose as far as a certain degree of visibility is concerned but I think if one were to look at their representation in awards, they’re still woefully slim. So I’m not sure that they are in the forefront. They are definitely present but there is a way to go. The very fact that we speak of women writers when we don’t speak of men writers, it makes them other than the norm.

RB: That’s very true.  In fact, with that in mind, what do you believe can be done to make literature more inclusive not only in terms of authorship but also in terms of readership as well?  

RM: Well you see, I think there are several aspects to this. There is a literary establishment worldwide which is male dominated – I think the power hierarchy is pretty clear.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Namita Gokhale

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Namita Gokhale

Pic credit: Srishti Jha

Namita Gokhale is an Indian writer, publisher and festival director. She is the author of sixteen books including nine works of fiction. Her debut novel, Paro: Dreams of Passion was first published in 1984, and has remained a cult classic. The Himalayan trilogy includes the recent Things to Leave Behind, considered her most ambitious novel yet. She has worked extensively on Indian myth and also written two books for young readers. 

Gokhale is a co-founder and co-director of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, considered the largest free literary festival in the world, as well as of Mountain Echoes, the annual Bhutan Literature Festival. She is also a director of Yatra Books, a publishing house specialised in translation. 

Sucharita Dutta-Asane: Welcome to Kitaab, Namita. Congratulations on winning the Asam Sahitya Sabha’s first Centenary National Award for Literature.

This is an important recognition for your literary efforts, both as a writer and for helping create a ‘literary environment in the country’. For many people, your name is synonymous first with the Jaipur Litfest. Have you ever felt that your identity as a writer gets subsumed, in any way, by your identity as the driving force behind Jaipur Litfest?

Namita Gokhale: I was delighted to receive the Asam Sahitya Sabha’s first Centenary National Award for Literature. I’m a backstage, back seat sort of person and it’s an honour to be recognised and awarded by the oldest, and one of the most respected literary organisations in India. It’s true that people tend to see me as one of the founder-directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival, rather than in my independent identity as a writer. This is sometimes frustrating, but at the same time it’s been a privilege and immensely rewarding in creative terms to be working with such a transformational literary platform as the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. And I haven’t really invested in building a persona or pushing my books as I feel my writing will find its way in the world on its own terms.

Sucharita: What is the meeting ground today, as compared to maybe ten years ago, between Indian language publishing and writing in English in India? Is it still fragile or finding shape at last?

Namita: English too is one of the twenty two Indian languages – and I feel the legacy of our multi-vocal Indian literatures is finding synergy through translations and becoming more accessible through the many festivals and platforms that have become so popular across the country.

Sucharita: How much have literary festivals and writers’ meets helped in creating this meeting ground?

Namita: One of the most wonderful things about all the book festivals and writers meets is that a literary community has been established across India and South Asia – and that Indian and South Asian writers interact with each other and also with writers from across the world at such events. The Jaipur litfest has had an important part to play in this, as have all the other wonderful festivals.

Sucharita: Paro: Dreams of Passion is a book that you seem to have enjoyed writing.  Was writing Priya equally enjoyable or did Paro’s ghost sit too heavily on your mind?

Namita: Paro: Dreams of Passion was my debut novel, and yes I had great fun writing it! I also enjoyed working on its sequel Priya, but the craft of a credible sequel is more demanding, and Paro’s larger than life character was just a ghost and a memory, so I missed her in moving the narrative along. I just love the new Double Bill Paro/Priya edition where one can read the two novels in sequence – with evocative flip covers.

Sucharita: What brought you back to Paro and its sequel after two decades?

Namita: It was a ‘what if’ sort of question – I was looking at the India of the seventies and eighties and attempting to transpose some of the characters and situations to a quarter century later.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Dr Mohammad A. Quayum

By Shikhandin

Dr Quayum

Dr Mohammad A. Quayum is the author, editor and translator of 32 books in the areas of American literature, Asian Literature and Postcolonial literatures. He is also the author of more than sixty articles in distinguished peer-reviewed journals. His research interests range from 19th and 20th century American literature to contemporary Asian literature, with special focus on Indian literature, Bengali literature and Malaysian-Singaporean literature.

He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Asiatic: An International Journal of Asian Literatures, Cultures and Englishes (indexed in Web of Science and Scopus) and is on the advisory board of several leading journals including Journal of Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, UK; ISI indexed), Transnational Literature (Australia; ERA indexed), Interdisciplinary Literary Studies (USA; WoS indexed), Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies (USA), Literature Today (India), The Apollonian: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (India), and The Rupkatha Journal of the Interdisciplinary Studies of the Humanities (India; Scopus indexed).

Dr Quayum is dean of the Kulliyyah (Faculty) of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and an Honorary Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia.

 

Shikhandin: Most of us only know of you as Dr M.A. Quayum the academic and mentor. Tell us a bit about your early life, and what drew you to pursue literature.

Dr M.A. Quayum: I was born in a small town called Gopalganj, in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was before Bangladesh was formed and was still known as East Pakistan. I grew up in this small, near-idyllic town and got my early education in the only Government school for boys there, S.M. Model Primary and High School. When I was eleven, my father sent me to a public residential school several hundred kilometres away, known as Jhenidah Cadet College. This marked a turning point in my life. It was an English medium school and the fees were very high. My father could hardly afford the fees and yet he sent me there, mainly to secure a good future for me. A second reason was that my father, who was a lawyer in Gopalganj, had a great admiration for English language and literature. Probably he thought that sending me there would also give me a good grounding in the language. I don’t know how and where he picked up his love for English, because my grandfather was a religious teacher at a primary school in our village who had little interaction with the language. My father was, however, educated at the Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in Calcutta (Kolkata), and perhaps it was there that he developed his great love for both English language and literature. You would be surprised to know that my father could recite several poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Browning from memory. He would take enormous pride in reciting Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in particular. Maybe I was infected by his love in childhood and therefore developed a natural penchant for literature from an early age, reading all kinds of books, in both Bengali and English. My father would often buy me books and take me to the local library and encourage me to participate in various literary activities such as essay writing and poetry recitation competitions. I remember participating in an essay writing competition on the life of the Prophet when I was seven or eight years old, and then being invited to read my essay at a local mosque. I also remember my father giving me a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of short stories, Galpagucchha, for my eleventh birthday, and I recollect reading almost all of it in a great rush. My recent attempt to translate some of Rabindranath’s short stories into English, which was first published as Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories by Macmillan India in 2011 and then as Rabindranath Tagore: The Ruined Nest and Other Stories by Silverfish Books Malaysia in 2014, was a means to share that childhood excitement and discovery: firstly with my daughter who, being born and brought up in Australia, has in a way lost touch with the language and the culture; secondly, with my students and friends in Malaysia and elsewhere, who have great curiosity about and admiration for Tagore but cannot read his work in the original because of the language barrier.

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‘We should encourage multiple voices’: Interview with Janice Pariat

A free-wheeling conversation with author Janice Pariat, who was in the city recently, on translation, writing and reading.

I rush into the Rajasthani Sangh on DB Road in a tearing hurry because I’m late for my meeting with Janice Pariat. But the author puts me at ease as I stammer out my apologies. She’s been enjoying herself, she says, listening to the speakers at the two-day literature festival ahead of the Vishnupuram award.

We start with the reason she’s in the city: for the release of the Tamil translation of her book of short stories, Boats on Land. She’s “completely and utterly thrilled” but was “part of the process only in as much as I put Ramkumar in touch with Penguin Random House for the rights.”

Interestingly, each story in the book is being translated by a different person. “If we’re talking about translation as a multiplicity of texts, this is taking it to a whole new level,” she smiles happily.

She believes that there should be more translations from English into regional languages. “If we’re talking about idea of stories existing in many forms, of there being multiple storytellers, then translation is the way to go.” To her, translation is a deep engagement with the text that results in something totally new and the translated book should recognised as such.

“Many of us are so limited linguistically that we can access a text only in one language,” she laments and, in a glancing reference to what is going on across the country, adds, “We should be encouraging multiplicities, multiple voices, and knocking down borders of all sorts.”

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay, editors of Veils, Halos & Shackles

By Shikhandin

16th December 2017 came and went. With barely a murmured remembrance. That’s five whole years since Nirbhaya, the name this brave girl, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was hailed by, the one who fought her attackers and then fought to survive in hospital. Ultimately she could not overcome her grievous injuries. So what happened? Why are we still not enraged? Have we slipped into our usual drugged sleep of forgetfulness?

Sometimes protest becomes still. We lose heart and start to despair. I like to believe that it is during times of stillness that protest gathers steam. During that still period, we need poetry. The poetry of protest. That is why I dare to visualise Veils Halos & Shackles in the hands of not just random or selective readers but anyone who wishes to become more conscious across societies, across the world. Even those who are not diehard fans of poetry; yes, even them. I visualise this book as reading material in classrooms, and not just for literature or liberal arts students. It is no longer enough to be outraged by newspaper and television reports. Poetry must outrage us. Oppression fears poetry. The winds of change feed on poetry. Hence the need for Veils Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, published by Kasva Press, 2016.

Here we get behind the scenes regarding the making of this volume and also try to get an understanding of what the editors – Smita Sahay and Charles Fishman – experienced.

Shikhandin: Tell us about the beginning, that little seedling from which this book grew, apart from the accounts of the horrific crimes that sowed the original seed. And why the name/inspiration behind it – Veils, Halos & Shackles?

Charles Fishman: Thank you for this opening question, Shikhandin, and for the others that follow. I’m delighted that Smita has agreed to respond to your questions, whenever possible; wrestling with complex issues effectively and persuasively is one of her many gifts as a poet and thinker.

Smita Sahay: Charles and I were in conversation about his last book of poetry, In the Path of Lightning, and I found sanity in his justice-demanding yet hope-and-love-filled verses in the days after Jyoti Singh Pandey was assaulted and later passed away. There was no way to come to terms with what had happened and I was mute within my fury and grief. The violence with which Jyoti’s life had been snuffed out had left Charles, thousands of miles away from India, as horrified. As we tried to find comfort in each other’s emails, our intent to give artistic expression to this fury led us to conceptualise Veils, Halos & Shackles. We first contemplated co-writing a book, but then we were convinced that there were multiple voices that needed to be united and decided to go ahead with an Indo-American anthology. This initial version of the anthology grew organically into the international volume of Veils, Halos & Shackles that eventually came out, and this expansion is proof that sexual violence is more universal than we admit, that survivors are caged unspeakably within their own suffering and that uniting in the face of sexual violence is possibly the only way to fight it.

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Finding Eastern and Western selves through Eastern and Western stories

Gish Jen investigates the effect of Western cultural influence on storytelling and identity.

…….

Namrata Poddar: In exploring cultural assumptions and differences, your book aptly reminds the reader that the East and the West aren’t mutually exclusive binaries, or for that matter, strict geographical concepts. And yet, it repeatedly reminds the reader how differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of the self do dominate our understanding of creative practices. Can you reiterate your understanding of East–West perceptions toward the self? What do you think are some of the factors engendering this cultural gap?

Gish Jen: This is an enormous simplification but in a nutshell, people in Western industrialized societies, especially the U.S., tend to imagine ourselves as avocados: We imagine ourselves as having a big pit at our center, to which we must above all be true. What’s more, we are preoccupied with the features of those avocado pits, and the ways in which they are unique. In other parts of the world — and, I should say, many parts of the U.S. — people are also unique, courageous and capable of independent action. They have just as much integrity and just as much creativity. But if you ask them why they just undertook what they undertook or made what they made, they will not say because they did it to be true to their avocado pits. Rather, they will say they did what they did out of duty or obligation — because they wanted to repay someone for something, or because their religious beliefs demanded it of them, or because they saw themselves as a part of a great artistic tradition. This might entail self-expression, but it will not be self-expression for self-expression’s sake. That is, the reason will not be their avocado pit.

The factors contributing to this difference? There are way too many to list. But to give you an idea, they range from the realities of rice farming to the experience of immigration to the American frontier to the invention of the horse collar.

NP: As a creative writer, I’m particularly intrigued by the ways in which your book shifts the reader’s understanding of storytelling in different parts of the world. What do you perceive as some of the key differences between Eastern and Western literary storytelling?

GJ: Oh, how I hate to generalize(!) — aware as I am that, truly, every writer is sui generis. But in a general kind of way, post-19th century Western literature has tended to focus on the avocado pit — on the exploration of a single character, whose interior — visible or not — is given great consideration. This character’s idiosyncrasy is more important than his or her representativeness; the character must, above all, not have what MFA programs call a “generic” quality. And the structure of the story further reinforces the idea that nothing counts more than the avocado pit, as the pit ultimately generates the plot events.

In earlier Western literature, as well as much non-Western literature, characters are more often “types,” and often cope with, rather than drive, events. Of course, they, too, have inner lives. But the uniqueness of those lives is less important; and the overall emphasis is often on a group or network of characters, even on capturing an entire world.

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Writing matters: In conversation with Indira Chandrasekhar

 

By Shikhandin

Indira Chandrashekhar

Indira Chandrasekhar is a scientist, a fiction writer and the founder and principal editor of the short fiction magazine Out of Print. She also curates an annual short story contest along with DNA, called the DNA-OoP Short Story Prize. Indira has a Ph.D in Biophysics. She worked in scientific institutions in India, the US and Switzerland, before turning into a full time writer and editor. She co-edited the short story anthology, Pangea in 2012, Thames River Press, along with British author and Editor Rebecca Lloyd. Indira’s stories have appeared in Eclectica, Nether, Cosmonauts Avenue, Far Enough East, The Little Magazine, Guftugu and others.

Polymorphism, her first story collection, presents nineteen tightly wrapped and elegantly told stories in genres ranging from science fiction to slip stream to literary, often blurring the boundaries. The visual cues and the lingering effect created by her stories are at times disconcerting, even disturbing, and always memorable. As the blurb on the back cover says, ‘…Textured by the author’s scientific research on biological molecules and deeply informed by family stories, the collection explores humanity’s driving obsessions of life, fertility and relationships with tender, surreal expression.’

In an email interview Indira Chandrasekhar shares her writing journey and her views on the short story form with Shikhandin for Kitaab.

Shikhandin: First the obvious question, when did it all start, the writing, i.e.?

Indira: Writing fiction – as an adult – is significantly linked to place, to relocation and to realignment. I was working as a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich when I returned to India to live in Mumbai, a city I did not really know. It was as if settling into, rediscovering, restoring my identity in the context of the place that was home, and yet wasn’t, unleashed a need to find creative expression outside the more fundamental cultural framework of science. I started drawing again, and writing. The writing took precedence – as if the story asserted itself and wanted to find an outlet.

Shikhandin: You have a Ph.D in Biophysics, and you write stories. Is it like straddling two boats? Share your unique experience with us.

Indira: Thank you for that question. In some ways, yes, it could be seen as if I straddle two ways of interpreting the world. The one, structured, logical and fact-based. The other surreal, fantastical and fictional. And yet, ultimately, I see both ways as related to making sense of existence, be it through the interactions of minute molecular entities that influence how the biological, the mamallian, the human system functions, or through the complex relationships between individuals that impact the way we think about ourselves, live our lives and construct our societies.

Shikhandin: Tell us about your magazine Out of Print. Why this name in particular? How did this journey begin?

Indira: Out of Print emerged as a consequence of trying to place my own writing in literary magazines and journals. At the time, this is around 2010, there were few literary journals in India and South Asia available to writers of short fiction. Some wonderful people supported the idea and we managed to get started. We decided to create an online journal and yet truly pay tribute to the – I am struggling for the phrase: classical, traditional, standard, 20th Century – perhaps a better way of putting it is, the ever-evolving literary traditions we have used to understand and constantly tell stories. In other words, because we were emerging from the familiar print form, I called the magazine Out of Print.

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