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The moon is beautiful tonight: On East Asian narratives

1.
Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.

“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”

That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.

Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?

It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.

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How do we judge translations?

Look to the whole, the translator asked.

The line comes from Helen Lowe-Porter’s correspondence, and can be read as an early plea (from a letter to her publisher Alfred A. Knopf, dated 11 November 1943) against the kind of translation review which proceeds by finding and scrutinizing the apparent lapse, the moments of inattention, the local mistake or infelicity—which might always be of the order of a conscious decision on the translator’s part—and making these stand in for the quality of the full translation.

Michelle Woods discusses this very common form of translation-evaluation in the section titled “Gotcha!” of her account of Kafka’s English-language translators and translations. The expression comes from the translator Mark Harman, whose 1998 translation of Kafka’s The Castle was widely reviewed and discussed. In this kind of review, as Woods writes, “reviewers often hone in on perceived ‘mistakes’ in order to justify their own taste preferences and to present their own legitimacy as experts in judging a translation. Rarely glimpsed is a consideration of the translator, or where translation fits into their career and their background. . . and what the nature of their contribution should be.”

Looking to the whole is a call to consider the way the thing is working and reading altogether, the way its many parts work in relation to one another, and the larger ways in which the translation relates to the circumstances and motivations for making it (a call that, as Woods points out, Lawrence Venuti makes repeatedly throughout his work).

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Poetry: Letters and Things by Shivani Gupta

Letters and Things by Shivani Gupta

Shivani Gupta

 

Shivani Gupta works as a Design Researcher at Studio 5B, Mumbai. She is a trained performance artist, with a background in dance, theatre and spoken-word poetry. She is passionate about working with people and dedicated to understanding and predicting what motivates human behaviour.


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Writing to Reconcile: A personal journey

Last fall, in Toronto, I went to see a play that was written by one of the writers in this anthology, Sindhuri Nandakumar. The play was called A Crease in my Sari and told the story of a young Sri Lankan Tamil woman, born and raised in Canada who found herself in a relationship with a Sinhalese man, whom she had met in the coffee shop. The young woman, Maheshwari, had been purposely raised by her mother in a western suburb of Toronto, away from other Tamils who generally live in the eastern suburbs. So, apart from one Tamil friend, she had no real contact with her community and heritage. Now, however, finding herself falling in love with this Sinhalese man, Chanaka, she also found herself confronted with the realities of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Chanaka, with all the naïve optimism that majority communities can afford to have, believed that love conquers all and that their ethnic difference was no barrier. This was partly his charm for her.

But the history of the country both young people had left was insistent, and it would not allow either of them to ignore it. It was the winter of 2009 and the war in Sri Lanka was in its last phase. Soon, Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto were protesting against the Sri Lankan government, most famously carrying out a sit-down in the middle of a Toronto expressway. Maheshwari discovered that Chanaka’s father was in the army, and that Chanaka believed this was a just war, a humanitarian effort with zero casualties. As the play progressed, Maheshwari grew increasingly politicised and, in the end, their relationship was unable to bear the weight of history.

After the show as I walked to the train, I was lost in thought remembering my own thoughts and feelings during those months in 2009; remembering how I didn’t want to join the Tamil protesters because they were protesting under the Tiger flag, but how I also couldn’t join the counter-protest by the Sinhalese in Toronto, as they had taken up the zero casualties-humanitarian approach, which I found ridiculous.

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A crash course in diversifying your bookshelf

Is your reading list looking a little monochrome? We’ve compiled 15 books to help you broaden your horizons

In the past year, I’ve made a conscious and intentional effort to read in an inclusive and representative way. For me this means reading perspectives that differ from mine, about experiences that are new to me, and learning from people who have lived in ways that offer precious teachings. It also means reading nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Consuming the news and nonfiction about important but heavy topics can be emotionally draining; whereas poetry and comics can uplift us when we feel weltshmerz or despair.

This is why I’ve put together a list of books by writers, poets, and artists from a range of backgrounds. When read in the order presented, it creates a narrative arc of its own. The list builds from a slow crescendo of more accessible books to heavy-hitters that draw on academic and historical research, finishing with a few books that unearth the kinds of futures we want to create.

These titles will humble you and fill you with wonder. But most important, they will hopefully also inspire you to create your own stories in ways that are most representative of your experiences.

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Long and short of writing: Kitaab at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet

Short fiction writers Suzanne Kamata, Wan Phing and Monideepa Sahu were joined by author-publisher Zafar Anjum as they spoke about their love for writing.

Both authors explained why they write about what they do. “Most of my work is meant to be parts of novels that I was working on but that I abandoned. I tend to put everything that I’m preoccupied with into my fiction. I put my Japanese mother-in-law into my story, as well as my intrigue as to why Marilyn Monroe spent her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio in Japan,” Kamata told the audience at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, co-organised by Victoria Memorial Hall in association with The Telegraph.

Kamata’s approach to her her work is to “write scenes, then go for a walk to put them all together, to come back to them a week or month later”. Wan Phing called her works “pretty organic”, adding: “I’m quite an intuitive writer”.

The panel had some tips to share on becoming published, with Wan Phing admitting that “getting published is the best assurance for sure, but it can be quite hard”.

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Rickshaw puller from Kolkata steals show at 11th Jaipur Literature Festival

At the end of the journey, the passenger asked Byapari if he would be interested in writing his story, giving him a piece of paper with her name and address. The name on that piece of paper was Mahasweta Devi.

A word changed the life of Manoranjan Byapari. A rickshaw-puller in the chaotic streets of Kolkata, Byapari one day asked a passenger the meaning of the Bengali word jijibisha. He thought the sari-clad passenger, who hailed his rickshaw near a college, must be a professor. “It means ‘the will to live’,” said the bemused passenger, beginning a conversation in the carriage. “Where did you get the word from?” the passenger asked. “From a book,” the rickshaw-puller replied, prompting the passenger to know how far he had studied. Byapari didn’t hide the fact that he hadn’t gone to school and was self-taught. At the end of the journey, the passenger asked Byapari if he would be interested in writing his story, giving him a piece of paper with her name and address. The name on that piece of paper was Mahasweta Devi. “I was shocked to learn that my passenger was one of the most famous writers in Kolkata,” recounts Byapari about the incident nearly four decades ago that changed his life. Adding to the quirk of fate on that day was a book of Devi, a collection of short stories titled Agnigarbha, which was kept under the seat of the rickshaw. “She was happy that I was reading her book,” says Byapari, who spent the next few weeks struggling to write his story. He finally wrote 20 pages and handed them over to Devi. Byapari’s story appeared in early 1981 in Bartika, a Bengali magazine published by Devi. It was titled I Drive a Rickshaw. On January 25, the opening day of this year’s ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival, Byapari’s journey, from being a rickshaw-puller to a writer, added great freshness to the event’s fabled narrative. Now an author of nine novels and several short stories, Byapari talked to a packed audience at the gilded Durbar Hall venue of the festival about his autobiographical novel, Itibritte Chandal Jiban, now available in English as Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit. “It’s not literature,” Byapari told his audience. “It’s truth.” Author Namita Gokhale, one of the directors of the festival responsible for selecting Indian writers for the event, describes Byapari’s life as an ‘incredible’ story. “It’s incredible how he met Mahasweta Devi while pulling a rickshaw in Kolkata,” Gokhale says. Born in Barisal district of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1950, Byapari lived in a refugee camp in West Bengal as a young boy after his parents decided to migrate to India three years later. He worked in dhabas, washed plates and became a revolutionary, something that landed him in jail. It was in a prison in Kolkata where he learned to read, which would prove to be a life-changing decision.

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On a wing and a prayer: Tamil Dalit writer Bama on 25 years of Karukku

December 2017 marked 25 years of the publication of Karukku, the first autobiography in Tamil by a Dalit. Do you remember the person you were when you wrote it?
When I wrote Karukku, I was completely broken. After seven years of being in a convent as a nun, I had quit. I found that I had lost everything — a job as a teacher, a house, enough to eat and drink. I had lost my confidence, I shrank from meeting people. In that state, I began to think of my childhood, and the things that I had lost. A friend advised me to write, and I did. I wasn’t thinking of writing a book at all.
Looking back, in these 25 years, I have grown tremendously, I have become so free…25 years of Karukku has also meant learning to live alone, as a single woman. I ended Karukku by saying that I was a bird with broken wings. Now, as I have said before, I am a falcon, flying high in the sky.

You wrote in a Tamil that was different from the literary language of the time. What was the reaction?
In Tamil literary circles, they questioned me a lot about the language. They said, ‘She is an educated lady. Why has she written in dialect? Why do her characters speak in abusive, filthy language?’ That made me furious. Because who are they to judge my language? The Brahminical language is used everywhere — they accept it. They are proud to speak in their language. Then why not I then? My language and that of my people is beautiful to me. So I deliberately used it in all my novels after that.

How do you conceive of Dalit feminism?
I have talked more about Dalit feminism in my novels, Sangati, and Manushi, which is the second part of Karukku in some sense. I have written five-six stories about feminism. There is one story, called ‘Konnu Tai’. It was a very controversial story, even women did not like it. It was about a woman, a mother of four children, who leaves her drunkard husband and goes to her mother’s place. She also leaves behind an infant, who she was breastfeeding. Everybody condemned her. But she was stubborn. She said, ‘Let him know what it is to have a child. They are his children too.’ Her mother says, ‘If your husband remarries, your life is finished.’ She says, ‘No my life starts then’. She takes off her thali, sells it and starts a shop on the street. One famous male writer wrote a letter to me. ‘As a woman writer, you should have feeling for a mother. You should have ended the story like this: At night, she thought of her youngest child and wept.’ (laughs)
I have written stories about how men abandon their wives only to remarry, about a woman who, after a hard day’s work, would pretend that she has been possessed by a goddess so that the husband would stop bothering her for sex. In these very small ways, I have expressed the feelings of women in general, not just Dalit women.

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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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The top 10 Queer and Feminist books of 2017

10. Spinning by Tillie Walden

This graphic memoir from On A Sunbeam’s Tillie Walden deals with young queer love (and first kisses, competitive figure skating, and being a teen girl. In a Drawn-to-Comics-curated interview with Ngozi Ukazu, Walden says:

“[E]very coming-out story is so unique that I think it’s really important that we share with each other what ours was. And readers have related in really fascinating ways. You know what one of my most common questions at school visits is? ‘How do you come out?’ Kids actually ask me this, in front of their peers and teachers. It’s unbelievable to me, it’s so brave. And I’ve realized that because I talk about this hard moment in my life and I’m showing them that I made it through it, they suddenly feel like they can approach this topic with me. It’s mind blowing. Really.”

9. To My Trans Sisters edited by Charlie Craggs

This collection of letters from nearly 100 trans women, including Juno Dawson, Isis King, Rhiannon Styles, Laura Jane Grace and Juliet Jacques, is meant to advise and empower women at the beginning of transition. In an interview at Dazed with Kuchenga Shenje, who was also a contributor, Craggs says:

“Most people just don’t know trans people in their day to day life. I didn’t know any trans people when I transitioned. I only met my first trans person when I was like a year or two in. You feel quite alone and you don’t have anyone to ask those questions. You can’t ask your mum or your cis friends because they just don’t know the answers. So, I wanted to create that source of information and inspiration. I call this book an anthology of trans excellence. The girls and the women that I literally clung on to. I researched them and clung on to their stories in early transition, I just didn’t know any other trans people so I read every Wikipedia page. I read every autobiography. I watched every film. I watched every documentary. I watched all the YouTube videos. It’s like a place where I’ve collected all those amazing women to tell the next generation: ‘Yeah, these are the women who you need to know about.”

8. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby

In her second essay collection, Meaty author Samantha Irby explores The Bachelorette, poop, lesbian porn, family, bodies and more. In an interview atHazlitt with Scaachi Koul, Irby says about her art:

“[M]y approach is always to make my essays poop length. For a couple reasons: one, it’s just practical. I understand that between Instagramming cute dinners and bleeding the planet’s resources dry, people don’t have a lot of time to devote to sitting down with whatever musings I have about my butthole, but everybody poops and most people like to keep a book handy for the toilet, and six or seven pages is just enough time to be entertained while getting your business done without worrying about your butt falling asleep. Same goes for a subway commute or keeping it on your bedside table—I know I’ve got a handful of pages in me before I pass out on top of the book, creasing it into oblivion, and I assume other people are like that, too?”

7. Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed interrogates the idea of the feminist origin story as a result of rites of passage, and instead argues for feminism as an ongoing action.

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