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Subverting the Chinese immigrant story

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

The first time my parents read my fiction, my mother had just one comment about the short story, which featured a server at a Chinatown restaurant: “Chinese can be more than waitresses.”

On a visit home, in my early thirties, I’d given them a copy of the literary magazine that had published my story. I’d recently quit my newspaper reporting job, taken the leap into an M.F.A. program, and for the first time, I was showing them the result of my labors. Of all the reactions I might have anticipated—pride or excitement or maybe boredom or disappointment—I hadn’t foreseen that one. My mother seemed to feel that I should portray Chinese Americans only as model minorities, highly educated engineers and doctors who live the American Dream.

She didn’t know that for a time, I’d stopped writing about Chinese Americans at all. For a year or two in college, I had convinced myself that if I wanted to be considered a real author, all my characters had to be white—as if those were the only worthy stories to be told. After all, that’s what I’d grown up with and what I’d studied in school.

Even though we didn’t share the same race or place, I’d recognized myself in feisty aspiring writers in children’s literature: Jo March in Little Women, Laura Ingalls of the Little House series, and the titular Anne of Green Gables. As a girl, I also read and reread Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings—published the year I was born—about the Chinese immigrant son of a master kite maker in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early twentieth century. But I didn’t identify with the main character, even though we were both of Chinese descent; he was a boy, and he spoke often of demons, which my scientist mother and engineer father never mentioned. 

I was still in middle school when Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. I don’t remember exactly when or how I got a copy, but I cherished the interlocking stories about mothers and their daughters, their secrets and their struggles, in China and the San Francisco Bay Area. I related to the push and pull of homelands adopted and ancestral, and the unspoken expectations that passed between parents and their children. Our parents had given up their language and culture and family to make a life here. We, their children, owed them a debt we felt we could never repay.

Read more at the Paris Review link here

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Sometimes the stories we want to hear the least are the ones we need to hear the most

(By Mini Krishnan. From The Hindu. Link to the complete article given below)

Knocked sideways at every exploratory step into the dizzying field of Indian languages, publishers repeatedly come face-to-face with an inconvenient question, given the politics of translated literature: are we merely reinforcing the hegemony of an elite society by transmitting their stories from class to clan to generation, so that it might continue its existence unopposed?

Last week, a collection of stories from the early 20th century reached me. The sentiments and predicaments of that time seemed so remote from today’s concerns that it was difficult to see how any of them might find an audience, except among students of sociology or culture studies.

Yet, if they were not published we would be depriving ourselves of a slice of our own history. Likewise, when a publisher receives an 80,000 word script which describes five centuries of the social history of a particular region, he knows it deserves to be published, but he also knows it will take a year to sell 300 copies.

Knock, knock?

The not-so-hidden problem is the shift in preferences. The alienation the new-gen reader experiences when presented with matters that were important just 30 years ago, never mind 100, has made a chunk of writers appear outdated and uninteresting, their writing overblown.

Should our works of fiction show and tell how to be different in an indifferent world, or should they hold a mirror to societies transitioning from democracies to authoritarianism? Isn’t terrorism more trendy than the lives of nomads, joint families and fishing communities?

Read more at The Hindu link here


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V.S. Naipaul, a writer of many contradictions and obvious greatness

(From the New York Times. Link to the complete article given below)

V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate who died at 85 on Saturday, had so many gifts as a writer — suppleness, wit, an unsparing eye for detail — that he could seemingly do whatever he wanted. What he did want, it became apparent, was to rarely please anyone but himself. The world’s readers flocked to his many novels and books of reportage for “his fastidious scorn,” as the critic Clive James wrote, “not for his large heart.” In his obvious greatness, in the hard truths he dealt, Naipaul attracted and repelled.

He was a walking sack of contradictions, in some ways the archetypal writer of the shifting and migratory 20th century. His life was a series of journeys between old world and new. He was a cool and sometimes snappish mediator between continents. Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth, Naipaul attended Oxford and lived in London, where he came to wear elegant suits and move in elite social circles. “When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I’m not just using a metaphor,” he said. “I’m speaking literally.”

His breakthrough book, after three comic works set in the Caribbean, was “A House for Mr. Biswas” (1961), a masterpiece composed when Naipaul was 29. It has lost none of its sweep and sly humor. It’s about a character, based on Naipaul’s father, who begins his life as a sign painter in Trinidad and Tobago and improbably rises to become a journalist. The first sign he paints reads, in words the industrious Naipaul seemed to take to heart: “IDLERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER.”

The richest and most eminently re-readable books of Naipaul’s fiction after “A House for Mr. Biswas” include “In a Free State,” an intimate suite of stories concerned with colonialism and the vagaries of power. Set in Egypt, America, Africa and England, it won the Booker Prize in 1971. “Guerrillas” was called “probably the best novel of 1975” by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. It is Naipaul’s most propulsive book. Set in an unnamed Caribbean country where the air is thick with postcolonial British dominion, it offers a complex portrait of the manners and motives of third world revolutionaries. It is an uncanny meditation on displacement. You never quite know where the novel is heading. Its author would later say, “Plot is for those who already know the world; narrative is for those who want to discover it.” His last great novel, set in postcolonial Central Africa, may have been “A Bend in the River” (1979).

Read more at the New York Times link here


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The truth about literary translations

(From The Hindu)

After the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when the king of Persia sent his interpreter with a message to the Greeks asking for earth and water as a sign of their submission, Themistocles had the visitor put to death for presuming to announce the barbarian message in Greek. A thousand years later in 1536, William Tyndale was strangled and burned because his English translation of The Bible displeased Henry VIII. Ten years later, Étienne Dolet, an advocate of the Bible-for-all, was burned at the stake because his French translations carried a few words that were not in the Church-endorsed Latin version.

Compared to these terminal terrors, literary translation today is not difficult at all. Because, really, you can do what you like and more often than not get away with it. It isn’t, for instance, like scientific or technical or medical translations where a mistake might cause serious damage to an experiment or a building or a life.

Linguistic choices

While there is little or no money in literary translation, there could be some glory if you listen to your publisher. The more people there are in the chain of desks leading to the printer, the safer you are because every cliché-slayer will work on your writing before passing you on to the next and the next.

Read more at this link


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Why Rupi Kaur and her peers are the most popular poets in the world

John Ashbery’s death in September gave my world a lurch, as the 90-year-old eminent American experimentalist was my favorite living poet. But the compensation was to discover how many others felt the same way. The appreciations became a rare public conversation about poemsrather than about Poetry, and what it is or isn’t (as in last year’s exhausting brouhaha over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize) or whether it’s “dead,” or corrupted by elitist obscurism, or replaced by popular music, or secretly thriving. On social media, people posted their favorite Ashbery poems and passages, like this one from 1977’s “The Other Tradition,” which might seem to refer to those cyclical debates: “They all came, some wore sentiments / Emblazoned on T-shirts, proclaiming the lateness / Of the hour … ”

It was sweet while it lasted. But now the T-shirts have come a-blazing again, because the 25-year-old Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has published her second book, “The Sun and Her Flowers.” Kaur is the kind of poet who prompts heated polemics, pro and con, from people you never otherwise hear mention poetry, because among other things she is young, female, from a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant family, relatively uncredentialed and insanely successful. Her first collection, “Milk and Honey,” has sold two and a half million copies internationally since it was published in 2014. “The Sun and Her Flowers” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list in October, and has remained near the top ever since.

These are airport novel numbers, not poetry ones. Ashbery’s publishers were delighted if any of his books sold north of 10,000 copies, which generally happened only if he’d won the Pulitzer or National Book Award that year. But Kaur established herself not in poetry journals but on platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram (where she has 1.8 million followers, and posts glamorous shots of herself). And she’s only the biggest of several popular “Instapoets” who have graduated from being retweeted by Kardashians to publishing books, including Tyler Knott Gregson, Lang Leav, Amanda Lovelace and the pseudonymous Atticus.

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The Reading Life with Parul Sehgal, Book Critic at the New York Times

On Privacy, Profile Writing, and Avoiding the First Person
Interview: Durga Chew-Bose

In Sehgal’s “First Words” columns for the Times Magazine, on topics like privilege and its devalued import, or cultural appropriation, or the rhetoric surrounding the use of ‘survivor’ in place of ‘victim,’ or in 2015, the frequency of ‘flawless,’ Sehgal recasts today’s usage (or erosion) of faddish language, recontexualizing occurrence in favor of meaning, ideological precedent, and perspectives that are rarely centered. There’s nothing showy about her criticism. Sehgal finds the thread and invites her reader to see not just as she sees, but to marvel at how she’s arranged her discoveries just so.

Sehgal is so precise and alive to, it seems, the pursuits and even strange tendencies authors of varied spheres might share—that lettered chromosomal-ness—that even the most popular-reviewed ‘it’ book, reads like an exclusive. An interception. Of Arundhati Roy’s two-decade-later return to fiction, with her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sehgal wrote this past summer in The Atlantic: “You will encounter no victims in this book; the smallest characters are endowed with some spit […] From the fine-grained affection that stirs [Roy’s] imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.” Her interrogation of Roy’s novel is a perfect instance of Sehgal positioning literary criticism beyond a work’s achievements or shortcomings, and locating its value not only within a literary tradition, but beyond. How art and criticism provide dynamic ways for understanding instead of limiting how to be a person in this world. And more urgently, how to pay attention.

ON GROWING UP

I was born outside of D.C. We moved a lot—every three years. I lived in Delhi, Manila, Budapest when I was little. I think I thought we were on the run, because it was always so abrupt. I remember my mother found me in the library of my school in Manila when I was nine, and she was like, “Okay, we need to go home early and pack.” And I was like, “Where now?” And she said India. It was a life of jump cuts.

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Tigers, snakes and monkey-brains: How to write about India if you’re a tourist

Once you are actually in India, get yourself a blog. Write about real India, meaning, the dirt-lined streets and that smell, writes Sayantani Dasgupta: Daily O

1. Prepare for your trip by watching Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. Pay special attention to two scenes in particular, first, where Amrish Puri offers human sacrifices and the other, when Indian kings and dignitaries work through a feast of baby snakes, beetles, and chilled monkey brains.

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2. If one evening, your yoga class ends early or you are feeling extra adventurous, go home and watch Slumdog Millionaire. Be warned, though: its Indian protagonist won’t sound anything like the people you will actually meet in India.

3. Eat at Indian restaurants. Learn how to make paneer, lassi, and curry at home. Pat yourself on the back for your global awareness when you perfect the pronunciation of naan.

4. Practice how to say “namaste”, “haan”, and “theek hai”, the only three words/phrases you will ever need.

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