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2017 in Books

As 2018 waits tantalizingly at the threshold, we look back on a year in which dissent and speaking up became necessary to survive, when books alone stepped up to the challenge, helped keep our sanity or question it. As we look ahead, there is a kind of willfulness in taking stock, a ritual with solemnity inherent to the idea. In a year when so much has been written, published and read, it is difficult to gather only a few names. Here is a list of 10 books (fiction) that we have read and loved and a quiet acknowledgment of those that space omits.

The Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil
Jeet Thayil’s book is rich in characters and stories. Homage to the world of art and literature, it is a startling book of incandescent prose, a masterpiece in the Roberto Bolaño mould. Narrated in a variety of voices and styles, The Chocolate Saints promises to become part of literature’s most memorable.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
Roy’s second novel in two decades was a much anticipated book – the anticipation started, perhaps, from the day she won the Booker in 1997. It brings together many of the ideas that inform her non-fiction, speaking up with passion and compassion for ‘minorities’ across the socio-political-economic spectrum, making it a book of the times, for the times.

Leila – Prayag Akbar
Described as ‘dystopic’ by some reviewers, Leila is about a mother’s search for her daughter. Whether dystopic or not – the author certainly rejects categorizing – the novel uses the fantastical to probe urgent issues related to the urban spaces and the society we create and which we inhabit.

The Small Town Sea – Anees Salim
Small towns come to life in Anees Salim’s books; sorrow is a lasting trace and satire a way to deal with the sorrow. The Small Town Sea is about a son’s bereavement, the challenge he faces in being uprooted from the big city to a nondescript town and the unsettling aftermath of his father’s death.

Mrs C Remembers – Himanjali Sankar
The family is often a place of dys-function, of intense politics couched in familial love. Himanjali Sankar’s book relates the family with subtle story-telling, incisive observation and compassion. The first-person narration of Mrs C and her daughter Sohini heightens the sense of unease regarding credibility and layers the narrative of this Bengali family within which the mother’s mind slowly disintegrates and the daughter’s comes into its own.

Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories (ed., Monideepa Sahu; series editor, Zafar Anjum)
Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories explores the idea of what it is to be an Asian. The anthology combines fresh voices, emerging writers and established names from Asia – Jordan and Syria to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand, Japan and Korea. The stories transcend social and political divisions within which they arise, drawing readers into the lives and places they explore while simultaneously raising uneasy questions and probing ambiguities. Crafted with love, they continue to resonate after the last page.

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Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories

By Mitali Chakravarty

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Title: The Best Asian Short Stories
Editor: Monideepa Sahu
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab

The Best Asian Short Stories is one of the finest compilations of short stories I have read in a long time. The short stories cover a diaspora of Asian cultures, histories, societies in transit, shifting borders and values. They embrace an array of emotions that are universal and touch the heart of the reader. Established authors (Shashi Deshpande, Poile Sengupta, Farah Ghuznavi, Park Chan Soon, to name a few) and newcomers (N.Thierry, Wah Phing Lim, etc.) rub shoulders with stories that nudge one another, creating a wide range of reading experiences.

In this one book, I have travelled from the backstairs of Singapore’s government subsidized flats to Malaysian ports, to Phillipino slums, to Mao’s China, to Korea’s madly competitive society, to the lonely world of an Old Japanese, to a Syrian refugee’s boat, to the shifting borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the rebellion against restrictions in the conservative Middle East, to Canada, America and England. These stories have grasped values that leave the reader absolutely spellbound.

Universal truths are stated by the characters that come to life with a few strokes of the creator’s skilled pen. When a dying man discovers, ‘I’m neither Indian nor Bangladeshi. I’m human’, the character reaches out beyond the pages of the book and brings home that politics and nationalism draw borders where none exist for the poor man. In another story, around the eve of Indian independence, a little girl is ‘bewildered’ when she fails to find her homeland, Sindh, on the map of the new country and says, ‘It’s gone’. One is startled by the pathos that these two words can create and compelled to question why Indians mutely accepted the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. When in Canada, a middle aged Sindhi befriends a Hindi speaking Chinese, he contends, ‘I knew that we immigrants, Sindhi, Indian or Chinese, needed to look after each other’. This is an eternal truth faced by universal globetrotters traipsing through countries. The whole world becomes their home.

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Writing Matters: In Conversation with Aamer Hussein

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?

Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.

SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?

AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught.  I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat.  Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too.  Urdu is a retreat.

SDA:   In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?

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A Journey to the Heart of Human Conflict: Three Screenplays and their Stories

The juxtaposing of prose and screenplay provides an absorbing ringside view of a maestro at work

MT is a one-man literary movement in the Malayalam language. The hundreds of thousands of gossamer words this 84-year-old literary phenomenon of Kerala has written since his teens is like a complex filter through which you can gaze at the Malayali and her contemporary predicament as she grapples to make sense of the persistence of the feudal past within the seductive embrace of the present.

Over the past six decades, MT taught the Malayali to look squarely in face of the multiple waves of Time she rides on and hear the plaintive sounds when they collide.

Eight major novels, 18 volumes of short stories, nine books of essays, 55 film scripts — and still going strong. You have to be a person of leisure to fully engage with the delights of this prodigious output. Of course, there would be many a Keralite of my generation who simply grew up with their literary consciousness drenched in the ink from his pen.

Giving offence

Predictably, the secondary literature around him — of reviews, interviews, critical analysis, academic and media overviews and translations — is almost of an industrial scale. It’s an avalanche. Whenever one has to write on MT, one is gripped by a sense of stunned paralysis — what more can one say on someone about whom everything significant has been already said.

But little of it captures his protean skill — the deft, surgical manner in which he dissects the middle-class Nair family to clinically expose its fears, anxieties, joys, arrogance, false pride, contradictions and its fatal nostalgia for its decadent past. He is like some in-house Balzac of the Nair community and every description of that caste, in his stories, perceptively foretells its conflicted future.

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Mumtaz Ahmad’s riveting selection of ‘Afsanay’ serve to enrich Urdu Literature

Mumtaz Ahmad Sheikh has a passion to serve the literary community the world as far as Urdu literature is concerned. He has ventured to capture selected Afsana (short story) writings from 1901 to 2017 in his quarterly magazine, ‘Lowh’ (June – December 2017) as a gift from Old Ravians (old students of Government College, Lahore) to the present students of Urdu literature. Starting with traditional Hamd-o-Naat and Salaam sessions, he gives the selected stories for six eras; first era from Akhtar Aureenvi to Niaz Fatehpuri, second era from Ahmad Ali to Rasheed Jahan, third era from Akhtar Ansari Dehelvi to Mumtaz Mufti, fourth era from Agha Babar to Hajira Masroor, fifth era from Agha Gul to Younis Javed and the sixth from Asif Farkhi to Nuzhat Abbasi. It was Mumtaz Sheikh’s dream since forty years to start a literary magazine, and the closure of Naqoosh, Auraq, Funoon and Symbol encouraged him to start this venture – an effort he has carried out selflessly.

Selecting the short stories in alphabetical order, he has only picked those of six eras of the twentieth century to-date. He does not include critical appraisals or criticism to avoid any uncalled for debate among the rival groups prevalent in literary factions (Page 16). The pattern of writing short stories, themes, and change in techniques are some of the areas that can be appreciated in his present selection. Mumtaz had to undergo a lot of trouble especially when it came to collecting short stories of the pre-independence era (before 1947). This reviewer had no option but to take a sample from each era and see the changes in themes, writing styles etc. if any.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Daren Shiau

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Kitaab Daren Shiau Pix

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

I liked reading when I was child, and I enjoyed studying literature in secondary school – it opened a door for me. In my teens, my best childhood friend and I both decided to pursue an audacious wish of publishing a novel before we were 21. It seemed impossible at that time, but Johann actually did it with Peculiar Chris which went into print while we were in National Service, and has become somewhat of a cult classic (I am very proud of him). I took much longer, and only managed it by receiving a commendation award of the Singapore Literature Prize, which in the 90s was a competition for unpublished fiction. It’s funny because Cyril Wong says Heartland reads like a Peculiar Chris for straight people. That was 1998. I wasn’t able to write prose following Heartland for a while soon after, for some reason, so I turned to poetry. In 2000, I put out a poetry collection, Peninsular, thanks in large part to Ethos Books, which had faith in someone unschooled in that genre. In 2007, I published a microfiction collection, Velouria, which has a deliberately sparse and minimal style, and was probably a reaction to how much I had become unconsciously associated with the verisimilitude of Heartland.

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

I’ve been working on two books, one short fiction and the other poetry, for the last ten years – I need to do better at writing less slowly <laughs>. The current title of the poetry collection is We Remember Killing Tigers, which is the last line of the poem ‘We Must Be Lions’ in Peninsular.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Music is a big part of my writing. For Velouria, which has a deliberately pared-down style, Richie Hawtin and Kings of Convenience were often playing in the background while I was writing it. Almost half the story titles in Velouria are names of songs. My earlier work was heavily influenced by the aesthetic of bands such as Cocteau Twins, Joy Division and The Smiths.

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Submissions open for The Best Asian Speculative Fiction anthology!

Kitaab is seeking high quality short stories for The Best Asian Speculative Fiction anthology to be published next year. We take a liberal approach towards defining the speculative and will look beyond popular categories of science-fiction, fantasy and horror though these are very much welcome. Our anthology editor is looking forward to reading a variety of stories which could include dystopian, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, weird, utopian, alternate history, superhero and any permutations and combinations of these. But first and foremost your story should be engaging with attention to characterisation and plot.

Give us stellar tales that slip past the quotidian and the mundane, transporting your reader to the edges of the possible and realms further still. Whisk us away to Murakamiesque wonderlands or Huxleian cacotopias; indulge us with the outré, the outlandish, the uncanny. We are looking here for a whiff of the Asimovian imagination, a taste of Lovecraftian weird, a dash of Atwoodesque futures. Take us on journeys through chinks of space-time, fling us into situations of climate change horror. No fan fiction please. Give us mind-blowing originals.

The best three stories (decided by the editor) will get cash prizes or Amazon vouchers (worth $50 each)! All selected contributors will each receive 2 complimentary copies of the final publication. 

If you are interested to delve a little deeper into speculative fiction, here is an article by Annie Neugebauer.

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction anthology will be edited by Rajat Chaudhuri on behalf of Kitaab, Singapore. Rajat is the author of three works of fiction – Hotel CalcuttaAmber Dusk and a collection of stories in Bengali titled Calculus. He has been a Charles Wallace Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Chichester, United Kingdom, a Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Scotland, a Korean Arts Council-InKo Fellow resident at Toji Cultural Centre, South Korea and a Sangam House India resident writer. This year, he was a judge for the short story segment of Asian English Olympics organised by BINUS university, Indonesia.

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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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Short Story: The White Envelope

By Juanita Kakoty

Sameera baji rushed down the narrow steep stairs of the building, her sandals going ‘clap clap’ with every step she descended, ignoring the pain in her knees that morning when every other day she cried out curses for the anonymous builder who planted these, what she called, ‘high rise stairs.’

She tore down the stairs of the scraggy yellow building calling out to her friend who lived in a small plot of land right across. Ameena baji! Ameena baji! Did you hear?

Ameena baji came out of the two-room humble dwelling into the courtyard and looked up. Thank God her husband had not succumbed to the lucrative temptation of selling their little plot of land to builders who have built stiff ugly buildings all over Shaheen Bagh such that if one wanted to stare at the sky, only a strip of it would peer through the mesh of buildings, or one would have to climb up to a terrace. But from Ameena baji’s house, one had the luxury to stare at a good patch of the sky from the ground – a rectangular piece of blue that soared above the pale yellow and grey buildings towering over her little plot of land.

There she saw Sameera baji at one corner of the second floor landing, leaning against the intricately carved black railing and looking down excitedly. The tenants living on that floor had tied a thick yellow synthetic rope above the railing from which hung a purple bed sheet with huge red and white flowers merging with each other, still moist. Sameera baji was so excited that she did not even push the bed sheet to the side. She stood there looking down at Ameena baji’s courtyard, the moist bed sheet clinging to her back.

What? Ameena baji cried out.

Did you get the white envelope? Sameera baji asked with a strange gleam in her eyes.

***

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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.’