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In the age of litfests, this model of intimate literary exchange is a vastly different experience

Since 2008, the Almost Island Dialogues have offered a literary gathering that offers what expansive literary festivals cannot – intimacy and a meaningful exchange of ideas through the lens of literature. At this year’s conclave in New Delhi (December 15-17), they will celebrate a decade of the Dialogues, with writers like the Chinese poet Bei Dao, the Arabic poet Mohammed Bennis, the Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec, and, from India, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Allan Sealy, and Joy Goswami. Almost Island also publishes an online literary magazine as well as a small number of books. Sharmistha Mohanty, founder-editor of Almost Island, spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that keeping the Dialogues small and intimate is important to you. What would you say intimacy achieves in the literary space?
It is very difficult to have any meaningful discussion in a setting where there are hundreds of people and writers must speak as part of a panel for ten minutes on a very deep subject. This is what the big litfests have done.

Unlike a literary festival, which concentrates on a product, be it a book or a reading or a performance, Almost Island is concerned with process, with how things are learnt, explored, created, and created again. It is concerned with the unravelling of things, in a stretched time, in being within the labour of literature, and not in the end product of its presentation. Literature is not a performing art and it requires a certain degree of quietness and closeness for things to unfold, for writers to speak genuinely and slowly about their work and their lives. Intimacy and small gatherings allow that. I have seen it work repeatedly at our Dialogues. In our India-China dialogues our Chinese writer friends spoke with candour about everything – a father who commits suicide because he is pursued by the Party, how and why some of them were exiled – because trust could be established in the closeness of our meetings.

The great Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai spoke to us for over three hours about his life in Communist Hungary and how his novels emerged from his life in that context. He spoke about his work with the community in a small town and how the government retaliated by burning his library of thousands of books, a library he has never been able to rebuild. What he gave us was not a talk or a lecture – he was speaking to all of us who were there as if one to one. It was a very moving experience for all of us there.

The Dialogues complete a decade this year. How would you say they have evolved over the last ten years?
I would say that there has been a kind of lateral growth, a fullness that has been achieved with these meetings. Not a linear evolution. The fullness is in the wide register of voices we’ve had, in poetry and prose, and from many different parts of the world. What connects them is that they enlarge – through the innovativeness of their work – the spaces of prose and poetry. The wide register is rigorous and not merely there for the sake of diversity.

That said, I have been thinking of new ways to have these meetings. There may be other ways that I haven’t discovered yet. Ten years is a good watershed and I intend to give some time to thinking about that in the next year.

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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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From Perumal Murugan’s The Goat Thief to Tamil Pulp Fiction, a Look at Recent Notable Translations

Ambai’s A Night With A Black Spider, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, is a new collection from Speaking Tiger featuring short stories translated from Tamil. The stories range from the mythological to the real, and present an intimate look at the author’s many worlds.

Blaft Publications which has previously brought out two volumes of Tamil Pulp Fiction translated to English and deservedly has a cult following, is out with the third volume, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Volume 3. Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte’s The Blaft Book of Mizo Myths, from the Chennai-based Blaft Publications, which was out last year, is also a fantastic book that brings stories from the misty mountains of Mizoram to the English language. The thin volume of six stories seems a right introduction to folk stories rich with beasts and beauties from the northeastern state.

The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan, translated by N Kalyan Raman, is recently out from Juggernaut. Perumal Murugan is an important voice in contemporary India throwing light on the Tamil society in the Kongu region. This is his second book since being resurrected from his literary suicide. One that he was forced into by mobs that sought to stifle his voice.

The prolific Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please, Mumbai Stories is all set for release later this month from HarperPerennial. Kaikini is one of Kannada’s most important contemporary voices. The collection has been translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. Kaikini’s stories are set in contemporary India while his style is classic.

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Passion by Sneha Subramanian Kanta

Sneha Subramanian – Passion

Sneha

 

An awardee of the prestigious GREAT scholarship, Sneha Subramanian Kanta has a second postgraduate degree in literature from England. Her poem ‘At Dusk with the Gods’ won the Alfaaz (Kalaage) prize. She is the founding editor of Parentheses Journal, a literary initiative that straddles hybrid identities across coasts and climes. Her work is forthcoming in VIATOR project, Cold Creek Review, figroot press and elsewhere.


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Book Excerpt: Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi by Ghazala Jamil

Muslim Localities in Delhi

Re-Imagining Political Contestation and Death (pp 116-120)

Political assembly and protest are also performances of citizenship status and claims. While enactment of violence by protesting publics with non-Muslim identity markers are considered routine and normalised, an assembly of protesting Muslims is potentially just another site of their fatal targeting. Another important example that effectively illustrates the preceding analysis is the case of the ‘Sealing Drive’ in Delhi in 2006.

The importance of this instance in the recent history of Delhi unveils complex dynamics of the political economy of built environments, the material logic of segregation, contestations, and negotiations of elite circuits with the unorganized sector in claiming their vision of the city, and biopolitics of the state.

The case exemplifies a tussle between big capital and elite networks represented by RWAs on the one hand, and traders and small manufacturers on the other. Elite RWAs insisted in getting this case filed at the High Court of Delhi that their sense of security, peace of mind, tranquillity, and aesthetic sensibilities were being off ended by business establishments within residential areas (Ghertner 2011; Bhuwania 2016). An appeal for preventing mixed land use was in line with the vision of the Delhi Master Plan, and on the agenda of previous Delhi state governments headed by the BJP and the Congress. The judge presiding over the case, Justice Sabharwal showing keen interest in the case passed a verdict which effectively read as a mass eviction notice to lakhs of establishments which were ‘illegal’ (Mehra 2012).

Allegations of misconduct on the part of Justice Sabharwal came to light later, illuminating the nexus between big capital and the judiciary (Roy 2007, Mid-day 2006). Justice Sabharwal’s son owned a real estate firm that gained substantially from an instance of demolitions as a result of the implementation of the court order by civic bodies.

The traders in Delhi have mainly been Punjabi Hindu–Sikh but many small traders and small manufacturers belong to various diverse social backgrounds too. Diya Mehra (2012) points out that the movement run by the traders’ association employed Partition rhetoric profusely. While on the other hand, they used the daily wage workers associated with their businesses to pitch up the protest against a judicial order which was anti-poor, anti-worker, and anti-unorganized sector.

During protracted protests, in which the traders associations were reluctant to go to the Supreme Court because it could have also given a judgement adversarial to their interest, the traders’ associations continuously negotiated with the state and Central Governments, the municipal corporation, as well as the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Violence and rioting was also used strategically as a final device of pressurizing the state and elite networks. There were many incidents of rioting and damage to public property such as state transport buses. Eventually the government informed the court of its inability to implement the order as it would give rise to a law and order situation.

Ovais Sultan Khan, a participant of this study gave me an account of the occurrences that led to the shooting. This foretold law and order problem took place when the police opened fire at a protesting crowd in Seelampur on September 20, 2006.

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Interview with Suchart Sawasdsri

Veteran editor Suchart Sawasdsri made a name for himself as a literary talent spotter on whose desk the manuscripts of many of Thailand’s acclaimed contemporary writers have landed. Over his nearly fifty-year career as editor of various literary magazines as well as a journal of social and political commentary, he has come to be regarded as an encyclopedia of Thai literature. Most notably, from 1978 to 2010 (with a couple of hiatuses, dividing the magazine’s run into three eras), he edited the legendary short-story quarterly Chorkaraket (Screwpine Garland). For a budding writer to make it into the magazine, and in particular to win its prize, was considered the ultimate stamp of approval. Suchart has been part of the Thai literati since the sixties, the period that led up to two key events in modern Thai history known as the October 14, 1973 Event and October 6, 1976 Event (the first marking the student-led uprising that took down the military dictatorship and the second signifying the massacre of protestors after which the country returned to military rule), which still loom large over the imagination of Thai writers who are now the old guard. In those days, the artist as political activist was the paradigm for Thai writers, and that legacy still has some hold on Thai writing today. While Suchart himself has always leaned left, as an editor he always sought to give writers carte blanche. He has long been a proponent of “art for the sake of art” in a field where “art for the sake of life” has dominated. Now in his seventies, Suchart has been honored as a national artist of Thailand and remains active in the art and literary world (he is a writer in his own right, and also paints and makes experimental short films, some of which can be viewed here). In response to Thailand’s most recent military coup in 2014, Suchart revived Chorkaraket for a special issue.

We spent hours chatting about the development of Thai prose, its evolution through the years, and the close relationship between literature and politics in Thailand. Ever the demanding editor, Suchart is no shrinking violet when it comes to critiquing the literature to which he has dedicated his life.

The following is an edited and translated version of our conversation.

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): You had mentioned the one-hundredth anniversary of the Thai novel. Can you talk about the first one?

Suchart Sawasdsri (SS): In times past, Thai literature was poetry. It was fiction but written in verse. Prose narrative, with explanation and dialogue, started at the end of the reign of King Rama III, going into the reign of King Rama IV. Looking at primary documents, what I think we can call the first short stories came out in Darunowat magazine in 1874, about a hundred and forty years ago. That was when we saw writing in a form that partly showed influence from abroad, from the West. Later, what is said to be the first Thai novel was a novel that mimics—doesn’t quite mimic, but bears a resemblance to—a work called Kwam Payabat, which was Mae Won’s translation of Marie Corelli’s Vendetta. That was translated in 1900, so that’s about a hundred and twenty years old. The first Thai novel was something like a parody of that, but it had a Thai sense. It was called Kwam Mai Payabat (No Vendetta) by the author who wrote under the pen name Nai Samran, better known as Kru Liam or Liam Wintupramanakul. That was 1915 according to the documents, so that’s about a hundred years ago. It’s so young. But if you go back to the first short stories, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” (“The Conversation between Jit and Jai”) and “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” (“Four Men Fishing”), they actually had characteristics of critical realism. For example, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” talked about Jit and Jai critiquing monks, critiquing people in the royal court, corruption. “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” wasn’t quite fantasy but I’d call it magic realism. It’s about four men with different personalities and different special abilities—one has ears that stick out, one has a pointy bottom, one has a lot of mucus in the nose, and one has three hands—and they go out fishing. It’s a local parable of our own. Prose in Thailand had a good beginning—it had elements of social critique. It had elements of magic.

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Modernisation and its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

I often ask myself and others: why has so little Thai literature been translated? We are a country of around sixty-seven million people, and Thai is the twenty-fifth most spoken native language in the world; the numbers should suggest a better outcome. Have we been written off abroad as a good-time country of pad Thai, Phuket, and, troublingly, prostitution, a land where, as Thais like to say, we have fish in the water and rice in the fields, and therefore our people are viewed as not having suffered enough for deep meditation? Then I thought: instead of merely contemplating the question, why not start chipping away at it? When Words without Borders suggested a Thai issue, I was delighted, shaking in my boots as I pondered which authors and pieces to pick among the many I would love to showcase.

The writers back home offered backup. I pounded the pavement and made cold calls to reach authors, many of whom have become friends, and they generously shared their reading recommendations. Especially because Thai literature has been so rarely translated, theirs, I sense, is a Thailand that shows its vulnerable side, not the Thailand that has its best foot forward like in the guidebooks. In these pages, you will find expressions of the disquiet of living in contemporary Thailand, a Southeast Asian nation where the rate of modernization seems only to accelerate.

Thailand is an axe-shaped country with the “blade” flanked by Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The “handle” separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and touches Malaysia at its southernmost tip. The nation very recently lost the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX), the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty, which moved the country’s capital to Bangkok in 1782. Contemporary Thailand has known nothing but King Bhumibol as its head, and during his seventy years on the throne he was an imposing ballast for the country. Yet, the kingdom has not been without political turbulence: since its transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has seen a dozen coups (plus a number of attempted ones) and is currently under military rule, this time since 2014.

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The Non-Western Books that every Student should Read

Leading authors pick international classics that should be on student’s bookshelves, but are often neglected by universities.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

I teach it to my first years and return to the book through their degree. It is the perfect introduction to complex ideas: oppressive socio-economic political structures, forms of resistance and defiance, and the point at which violence becomes justifiable. Students always find the book challenging, disturbing and thought provoking. And that is exactly what university syllabi ought to be!
(Sunny Singh, lecturer at London Metropolitan University and author of Hotel Arcadia)

Malgudi Omnibus by R K Narayan

Every literature student should have space on her shelf for the complete works of R K Narayan. Or at least for a Malgudi omnibus, the fictional town in which he set many of his novels, including Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Although Narayan has had Western champions, including Graham Greene and John Updike, his work is perhaps failing to find a younger readership. I teach on the creative writing MA and MFA courses at the University of Surrey, and will be playing my own small part in trying to keep his legacy alive on campus. What we can learn from Narayan ranges from his mastery of setting (Malgudi teems with life), his gently devastating comic technique, to his ability to tackle large issues (such as India’s sterilisation programme) with a light but keenly incisive touch.
(Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize)

Flowers in the Mirror by Li Ruzhen

This Chinese novel from 1827 is a fantasy classic of the Qing Dynasty period, full of sophisticated philosophy, tense quest plot-lines and one of the most wonderful explorations of feminism I have ever read. Li Ruzhen picks up gender roles, caresses them, dresses them and then fully subverts them, creating a realistic, resilient, revolutionary yet humorous setting for the action of much of the novel in the “Country of Women”.
(Sabrina Mahfouz, playwright, poet and screenwriter)

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Anita Desai: My Literary Apprenticeship with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Alipur Road was a wide avenue lined with enormous banyan trees, and my mother and I would go for walks along it – to Maiden’s Hotel, which had a small library, or further on to the Quidsia Gardens. And, across the road, I’d see a young woman pushing a pram with a baby seated in it and a little girl dancing alongside it. She was a married woman clearly, and I a student at the University of Delhi, but glancing across the road at her, I felt an instinctive relation to her. Why?

She was revealed to be a young woman of European descent – German and Polish – who was married to an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and lived in rooms in a sprawling bungalow just off Alipur Road. When her mother, a German Jewish woman from London, visited her, Ruth searched for someone she could talk to. I think it might have been Dr Charles Fabri, the Hungarian Indologist who lived in the neighbourhood, who suggested she might meet my German mother, who had also come to India on marrying an Indian, 30 years before, in the 1920s.

A coffee party – a kaffeklatsch – was arranged so the two could indulge in their shared language in this foreign setting. I can’t imagine how or why, but Ruth decided to follow their meeting, after her mother had returned to England, with many others, on a different level – that of daughters. With extraordinary kindness and generosity she would have me over to their house, one filled with books, the books she had brought with her from England where she had been a student at the University of London when she had met Jhab. Perhaps it touched her that I was so excited about being among her books, talking to her about books. After that whenever I came away with an armful of books on loan, with her talk still in my ears, I felt elated, a visitor to another world, the writers’ world I had only imagined and now proved real. I would go home to scribble at my desk with a new, unaccustomed sense of the validity of such an occupation.

One day she placed in my hands a copy of To Whom She Will, her first novel that had been published in faraway England, an unimaginable distance from Alipur Road, Old Delhi. Holding it, I felt I had touched something barely considered possible – that the scribbling one did in one’s hidden corner of the world could be printed, published and read in the world beyond.

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Why a 19th Century American Slave Memoir is Becoming a Bestseller in Japan’s Bookstores

No one imagined that the Japanese translation of the book, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs (1861), would become a long-selling hit in Japan when it was first published in 2013. It is the life story of a slave girl in the United States in the 1800s, and not something one would expect to strike interest in Japan, which while struggling with its own issues of race, has a 98% ethnically Japanese population.

And the woman who would push for the book to be translated and published in Japanese, Yuki Horikoshi, had no background in literature or translation, and at first found it difficult to find a willing publisher. “I didn’t meet the profile for what an author should be and it was hard to explain why this book was so compelling.”

The book is now on its eighth edition in hardback and was published in paperback this summer. In its first month in paperback, it sold 25,000 copies, a remarkable feat for a book of its genre. It’s what in Japan is called “a quiet bestseller.”

The book that fascinated Horikoshi has been compared to The Diary Of Anne Frank. It is considered a remarkable work in how it sheds light on the female experience of slavery, including the never-ending threat of sexual exploitation. It was thought to be a work of fiction but many believe the authenticity was definitively established in 1981.

Horikoshi remembers when she first read the book. It was the summer of 2011, the same year that Japan experienced the Great Eastern earthquake which resulted in nearly 16,000 deaths and a nuclear meltdown. Horikoshi, who works for a large consulting firm, was riding the bullet train on a business trip, looking for something inspirational to read. On her iPhone she downloaded a copy of the book, began reading, and was enthralled.

“I had gone to school in the United States and yet I had never heard of this book, nor really understood slavery. It was an eye-opening experience.”

In the protagonist’s resolution to fight against inequality and make herself a place in the world, Horikoshi saw inspiration for young Japanese people, especially women.

Japan is currently ranked 114 out of 144 countries in gender equality; women here face an uphill battle establishing themselves in the business world or in politics. The Japan Timesin a 2016 editorial, lamented how that even 30 years after laws mandating equal employment opportunities for men and women were introduced, women still struggle to get a fair shake in corporate Japan.

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