Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


The Strange Geographies of Reading: A review of Wench

One quarter of the way through my year of reverse-migration, I’m learning fascinating lessons about myself through my own reading habits.

I have been actively chasing the dream of living in the Motherland for the past 10 years, and subconsciously, perhaps ever since I was born as an Indian American in Dayton, Ohio. From my elementary school days of ethnic denial to getting all Roots in college, to the deep longing of adulthood—the desire to come back to India and try and understand this complex place by living and breathing it in for an entire year.

My quest has always been closely connected to books and my own art. I’ve read a majority of South Asian American and South Asian Diaspora writing. Whenever I come to India, I build a collection of books by Indian writers that are only published here. My first published short story was set in India. My first few months of writing in India were pulled very much by what surrounds me: the crumbling glory of Kolkata, the crows in the Neem Tree outside my window, my grandmother’s legacy of escape and love and rebirth in the tumultuous 1940s.

But three months in, my reading habits suddenly took a direct and surprising turn back to my (actual) homeland.

At the end of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I had that icky reader feeling of dissatisfaction that was paired with a general travel malaise, perhaps even a tinge of homesickness. You know, that moment where all the books you have with you seem utterly unreadable. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly where the feeling was coming from—I just knew I needed something else.

I surfed the NY Times Books section for something I thought might be interesting and I saw a large ad for Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. This book had caught my attention on a review list for Fiction Writers Review last Fall, but my transitory state prevented me from reviewing it. Suddenly, I felt like it was EXACTLY the book I needed at the moment and I had to read it right then. (This led to a some two-hour procedure of trying to get the file from my computer onto my iPhone Kindle app since I didn’t have my Kindle with me or wireless internet. Sometimes my reader-self can be like a teeth-grinding junkie, and my Kindle the best drug-dealer I’ve ever had.)

I was caught up in Wench immediately. Here I was, in my apartment in Kolkata, falling deeply into a book set 150 years ago in Xenia, Ohio some 15 miles away from the place I was born.

Most of the dramatic action of Wench happens at Tawawa House, an Ohio resort where Southern plantation owners would vacation with their slave concubines. The book closely follows one of these women, Lizzie, whose master Drayle has taught her to read, and favored their two children by allowing them to live in his own house. At Tawawa House, Lizzie strikes a friendship with several women from other plantations, including the fiery Mawu from Louisana—whose entrée into Lizzie’s second summer in Ohio creates an epic change in the way Lizzie views her own place in the world.

In choosing to tell the story from Lizzie’s point of view, Perkins-Valdez pulls you into this character’s traitorous position of survival. It reminded me a little of Laura Esquivel’s Malinche, about the Hernan Cortes’ translator Malinalli, which was much better in concept than actual execution. Whereas Esquivel focuses more on anthropological descriptions, Perkins-Valdez doesn’t shy away from Lizzie’s emotions and her sexual relations with Drayle. Though, I think one of the most difficult aspects of writing a novel like this is the fine line of writing about the sexuality in a way that doesn’t soften and romanticize it, and sometimes I wanted to cut my teeth on some of the brutality that Lizzie was experiencing, but I think Perkins-Valdez was tricking us into seeing the world through Lizzie’s half-closed eyes.

Because of the close third person storytelling, we are forced to be close to Lizzie, even when—in the first section of the book—I found myself balking at her choices and trust in her Master/lover.  Early in the novel when Mawu asks Lizzie: “You think you love him?” about her master, Lizzie thinks:

Lizzie felt the “course” rise in her throat, but stopped herself as she registered Mawu’s disapproving tone. She felt if she answered no, she would be betraying Drayle. If she answered yer, she would be betraying something else.

Lizzie’s confusion is hard to take, and at first I found myself wondering why Perkins-Valdez didn’t choose Mawu as her heroine. Especially when Lizzie suddenly betrays Mawu and tells Drayle of her friend’s plot to escape the resort, since they are on free land.

But Lizzie understood [Drayle’s] anger even if she hadn’t expected it. She forgave him for it. He loved her, and he was afraid she would leave him, too. That was what made him so upset. Her leaving. His beloved Lizzie. The mother of his children.

It wasn’t until Section Two, when Perkins-Valdez gives you the backstory of Drayle’s seduction of Lizzie starting at the age of 13, that suddenly the truth of Lizzie’s position becomes more clear in the novel’s narrative. The conceit of the novel exists in the ability to write about slavery from the POV of someone struggling to survive inside this insidious structure. At the end of the day, I think it was a challenging and brave choice to make the story arc Lizzie’s realization about her own status, instead of telling a story about escape to freedom.

There was so much in this book that was familiar, like the hot Ohio summer landscape full of grassy forests and streams. The four slave women even take a trip to downtown Dayton late in the book. Tawawa House was real, and is now the setting for WilberForce University, one of the oldest black universities in the United States and a part of the community I grew up in. It was fascinating to read this book while I am in India, and discover a moment of wonder about the history of Southwestern Ohio. But I realized that the familiarity and interest went beyond my connection to Ohio as my birthplace. The familiarity also had to do with my understanding of American history, and my interest in the legacies of class, race and gender issues that began with slavery. Reading Wench made me think a lot about the complexity of the African American community and its origins. It made me think about skin color politics in America, which I am so much more familiar with than those here in India. There was something comforting about this level of awareness, where in India my brain is constantly back-logging questions and grasping at a history that I am less familiar with. I’ve written here before about how being truly comfortable in a new community comes from more than just being able to communicate–it is about shared idiom and pop-culture references, but it is also about a shared understanding of history.

Wench is a fascinating book and a wonderful debut novel, though I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it with the same amount of gusto if I had read it in another time and space. Somehow, as a reading experience, it helped remind me about who I was–an immigrant in America whose life is shaped as much by slave politics in the 1850s as it was by the rumblings of the independence movement that was happening in India at the same time.

The whole experience made me dwell on the idea of geography and reading novels, especially in this year of travel. Usually, before I travel to a new place, I want to read a novel set there. This summer before going to Prague, I was re-reading bits of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being–thinking of Tomas and his lovers as I walked around the cobblestone streets. Before coming to India, I wanted Robin to read The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, which I had read the following year.  When I landed in Delhi, every Honda City car was driven by that novel’s narrator. But the geography of reading novels can work in reverse as well. When leaving San Francisco, I was reading Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus and missing San Francisco just like the novel’s protagonist.

I’m excited to continue to track my geographic reading patterns and am curious about those of other people: Do you read about the places you are? The places you are going? Places you have never been? Places you have left? Or does geography have nothing to do with your reading habits? I recently met a world famous whistler, who is traveling in India for several months, and decided to tackle Proust since she has free time.

Since reconnecting with my American-ness while reading Wench, I’ve read several novels based in the US, and am now excited to go somewhere new–perhaps even back to India. Actually, the next book on my list is Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie, which begins in Nagasaki just before the dropping of a nuclear bomb. This choice is inspired by seeing Shamsie (a Pakistani writer) in Jaipur, and the recent natural disaster rocking Japan. Let’s see where it takes me.


What Junot Diaz Said …

As I mentioned in my last post, Junot Diaz was the darling of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Having been a huge fan, student, and proselytizer of his for the past 10 years, even since studying with him at VONA, it felt akin to the first time I saw people really grooving out to hip hop in India–meaning there was some kind of cultural translation that happened when Junot spoke about America that I somehow can’t convey. Anyway, Junot said a lot of important things about the practice of writing, the struggle of being an artist, communities of color in America and more, so I thought I’d geek out and share some of his words with you.

When pushed to talk about how his experience was extraordinary when taking into account his background, i.e., being from a disadvantaged community of color, Junot said:

Well, of course, but we’re talking about collectives, we’re talking about large groups of people. Look, the way the United States society is organized, you don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that the United States is not interested in the success of communities, it is interested in the success of individuals, it is interested in the success of individuals – and that’s what matters most. For me, I’m different, I’m interested in the success of communities. Don’t come to me and tell me, ‘Well,  shit is great because we elected a black president.’ I’m interested in what is happening at the African American community level. We might have elected a super special individual, but we don’t do much for communities. So, I think any of us who come out of communities who have exceptional luck or exceptional success, it speaks very little about the individual and speaks more to society who like to select a winner and codemn everybody else to some messed up crap. And I think sure, we work for it, we work really hard, blah blah blah, but when I was growing up there were plenty of kids who were far smarter than me, plenty of kids far harder working than me, but there wasn’t room. There is one space in the row boat and because your mom didn’t get sick that year or because the cops didn’t pick you up or because you didn’t get sick, or because some other craziness didn’t happen to you, you were the person who scrambled onto the boat at that time. And sure, you can give yourself a lot of credit for scrambling onto the boat, or you can say: ‘Yo, it’s kind of fucked up that there is only one seat up in here.’ ”

Junot, on failure:

“Anyone who works as an artist, there will be a moment when you will be deeply tried, where you will be challenged to your core self. I always say this and I will repeat it to the end of time, You don’t discover you are a good artist because you are awesome …. You discover you are a good artist when everything goes wrong and it keeps going wrong, and you hang in there. And you hang in there, because you are driven by two things, your love of the form – I mean, how would you suffer years of “failure” other than you love the form? I love literature, … but also the knowledge of what we do as artists is the ultimate faith-based initiative. You are already assuming anything that you write, and anything that you do as an artist, will somewhere in the future will encounter someone that will need it. You are putting your hand out into the darkness, with the faith and the hope, that another hand will come back. You are already lost in the deserts of hope, you might as well hang in there. The nature of what we do is about believing beyond all possibility. I’ve come through through to the other side, and I can safely tell you, the only thing that matters that when you’re utterly lost in the desert as an artist, is that you keep going. That’s when you discover you’re strengths as an artist. To touch your strength as an artist is far more useful to an artist than success. That strength, that resilience you encounter in the desert is the one that will keep you alive as an artist forever. Success is something else. I’m not sure success breeds strength, but I certainly know reslience does. Keeping that faith alive when there is nothing to show that you should have it –that’s fundamental. And if you can develop that while you’re out there being lost – you’re good to go. You will do what we need you to do as an artist.”

When asked if he identifies as a Dominican writer or a “universal” writer, Junot said:

“This is an extension of that other debate …. There is the larger debate: the umbrella of the national question, we are always looking for ways to parse human beings out into ‘are you in or are you out,’ and we even do it to ourselves, we’ll be like: ‘That guy’s not Dominican enough, and that person is….’ The extension of that is: If one declares themselves a Dominican writer, that immediately excludes you from being just a writer.  That it’s a false choice between the two. That one must chose between the deracinated writer class that has never existed–that you can be a writer with no class, no race, just wedded to your art, which is nonsense, because you are writing in a language that most of the planet can’t read – no matter what language you are writing it in. So, you’re not just a universal writer, you’re always going be tied to language in a way. I don’t think there is anything wrong with both specificity and universality in a way. So, anytime people ask me to choose if I’m a Dominican writer or a larger universal writer, I say that’s nonsense. Why can’t I be those two things, and another five million things and leave two empty spaces in case I come up with any other shit to fill in?”

Junot, on the failure of realism to be able to capture the horror of slavery:

“I like to read in various genres, science fiction, fantasy and horror. Realism isn’t the primary modality, in some ways their fantastic metaphorical lenses are attempting to describe what I would call “extreme realism”. For example, realism as a tactic is very poor at describing what it means to have been enslaved for 500 years. What does it mean to have been the product of a work-breeding experiment for 500 years? Now, to capture, realism is great, there is probably someone out there who could possibly capture it, but I have not read realistic novels that approach the nightmare of the chattel slavery of the New World, that extreme reality of what it means to have been bred for generation after generation and the people who were “weak” were worked to death and the people who were “strong” survived to create another generation of slaves. I find that horror far more aptly approached in science fiction and fantasy novels than I’ve ever seen it approached in realistic novels.”


Glam Lit: Eight questions from the Jaipur Literature Festival

[This piece was originally posted on HMTL Giant.]

The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, held January 21-25 at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, India, is the biggest literature festival in the Asia Pacific region and supposedly the biggest free literature festival in the world. I spent the festival investigating the new culture of literary glamour that has arrived in the subcontinent.

i. Do glamour and literature make good bedfellows, or should they stop hooking up?

Jaipur is a city on the edge of desert. It is a few-hour or half-day drive from New Delhi (depending on who you’re asking), which is India’s publishing and intellectual capital. I’ve never been to The Hamptons, but Jaipur feels like it could be an equivalent, except the white linen and Bentleys are exchanged for multicolored, mirror-work ethnic wear and camel carts. It is also the bastion of very old money, meaning the town is populated with the offspring of an 11th century clan of feudal rulers known as the Rajputs, who built hundreds of opulent palaces, most of which have been turned into tourist attractions or guest houses.

Hearing writers speak under grandly decorated tents at a Rajput mansion built in the 1860s gives all of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s events (even a panel named “The Return of Philosophy”) an inherently glamorous feel. Glamour is defined as “the quality of fascinating, alluring, or attracting, especially by a combination of charm and good looks,” and it is the preposition that makes me suspicious when it comes to the literary scene. But maybe, just two months in to a year of living in India, I’m just not used to it. Because in my experience, book events in America are held in convention center rooms under florescent lights, or in the children’s section of a bookstore set with uncomfortable folding chairs, or in the usual stronghold of American literary glamour: the grimy bar.

The Indian English book market is supposedly outdoing America’s nine times over, which would seem a veritable reason for massive celebration. Maybe this is also why corporations such as infrastructure company DSC Limited bankrolls the event, along with sponsors like Merrill Lynch, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs and Shell, among others, but along with the fancy parties and voluptuous meals for writers—they also kept the daily events free for the masses, which included large groups of school children dressed in shabby blazers.

At a panel entitled “Migritude”, a term coined by Oakland-based poet Shailja Patel and having to do with migrants with attitude, Guyanese-born British writer and actor Pauline Melville opened by drawing the connection between forced migration and some of the more nefarious sponsors.

“This festival is for writers, people who are genuinely interested in the human condition, but behind us are the logos—staring at everybody—of the most pernicious organizations in contemporary finance,” Melville said. “Even as I speak, I’m half expecting to get a bullet in the back.”

ii. Is there anything more glamorous than controversy?

In the weeks leading up to the festival, Open Magazine (kind of a cross between Newsweek and writer Hartosh Singh Bal penned a piece that pointed out India’s continued deference to British literary arbitrators, the foremost of whom is Jaipur Literary Festival co-director William Dalrymple—who in terms of basic attire (polo shirts, khakis and sneakers) was entirely non-glam by Indian standards for the entire festival. Dalrymple shot back an angry response calling Bal racist, which earned another knocking for throwing around the weighty word. (I had a sneaking suspicion that Open Magazine, whose banner flew outside the gates of the festival inviting their readers in, was in cahoots with Dalrymple to strum up media, but my idea was shot down by a foreign correspondent at the NY Times who obviously has no sense of the glamour of conspiracy theories.)

iii. Is glamour bad for the aspiring writer who needs to learn to fail?

Junot Diaz, who Indians found incredibly glamorous, spoke at length about how the need for approval was the young writer’s worst enemy—a subject he has been adamant about since winning the Pulitzer.

“All of us are trying to do what the Latin teaches us the root of author is, which is to augment. Author: augmentus. You’re trying to add something, no matter how slight. …. Artists, by their nature, we’re kinda pain-in-the-asses. If you’re an artist because you want more friends, you’re like an evil artist. For real, you’re like a bad Jedi…. The good artist, of course, is not looking to make friends. In general, the good artist is going to do something that will discomfit. The very nature of the new is that you are going to make less friends than you would if you were just trying to gain approval. Because we have a society that so encourages everyone to seek approval, there isn’t much space for people to form an artistic personality because we spend our entire lives in a society that tells us: ‘Do the monkey dance, so we can clap for you.’ So many of my young artists that I work with, they are wonderfully talented, but they are so desperate for approval that they are never going to produce anything of worth that we need, not because I am the final judge, but because we know we need less applause and more conversation.”

Of course, this was met with wild applause.

iii. Who’s more glamorous: a Booker Prize winner, Nobel Laureate, a chick-lit writer, an elder statesmen, or a Bollywood lyricist?

Kiran Desai, winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Inheritance of Loss, was described as a “giggle head” by the Indian newspaper, Daily News and Analysis. That might have canceled out her glam factor—in the Indian media—if she weren’t in a relationship with Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, who spent much of his public appearances at the festival scolding audience members for their run-on questions and panel moderators for not fully understanding the importance of writing not in English. Sometimes grumpy can equal glamorous, I guess.

Other Nobel Laureate J.M. Cooetzee refused to engage with the massive Indian crowds through conversation and instead read a 45-minute story, “The Old Woman and the Cats” about a famous writer who has retired to a village in Spain whose son comes to visit from America. Over the course of the visit, the mother and son have a days-long conversation about her adoption of the feral cats in the village and why exactly she has taken in the village flasher. There was a horrifying description of the flasher’s teeth, which the son imagines the man has not brushed in years. I found Coetzee’s quiet, steady voice and blue-button down shirt completely unglamorous, in a good way.

India’s own Chick Lit ingenue Ira Trivedi, who described herself as an “author-turned-model” when marketing her best-selling 2006 novel What Would You Do to Save the World: Confessions of a Would Have Been Beauty Queen?, launched a new book about Wall Street internships and moderated a discussion with Candace Bushnell, one of the only major American women writers present. During their well-researched conversation, Trivedi asked Bushnell, 52, if she ever planned to have children. Even more glamorous than these beautiful women, was the festival’s sense of literary populism.

Opening guest of honor Dr. Karan Singh, elder statesman and bibliophile, put materialism in its place by saying: “In all my life, I haven’t bought cars, I haven’t bought jewelry, but I have bought books, … [if you come to my library], you’ll find 25,000 books that I have collected over the course of my lifetime.” In a rousing speech in Hindi and then translated to English, he reminded the audience that India has creative writing in 25 different languages. The glamorous block-printed gift-bags for festival delegates had copies of his anthology A Treasury of Indian Wisdom.

But Bollywood screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar won the glamour contest, because at the end of the day, it’s quite tough to compete with the biggest film industry in the world. When a tent with capacity for some 300 people was up to 600 with rumors of a stampede outside, I decided he was just too glamorous for me and escaped out a hole in the back.

iv. Does a glamorous, well-endowed prize matter?

One day I was sitting in on a conversation about how authors who sell books in India make no money from the sales—the average price of a book here seems to be 300 RS or $6, cheaper than the cheapest e-book in America. The theory was posited that the only way to really make money from selling books was to sell books in the UK or America. But how many people really make money from selling books?

Some of the glamour of the festival, especially the brand-new DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for $50,000, seemed to have been hatched to overturn that idea. Unlike the Pulitzer and the Booker, this prize doesn’t seem to have geographic specifications, only subject matter matters: “Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme.”

Bollywood-crossover star Kabir Bedi—you may recognize him as evil Bond henchman Gobinda from Octopussy, or his various stints as a regal Arab on various American soap operas—awarded the premier prize to first-time novelist HM Naqvi for Homeboy, which I assigned Nawaaz Ahmed to review in Hyphen last year.

Naqvi was sporting the very glamorous shaved head, unbuttoned shirt look of several male writers at the festival. Get a sense of his glamour in this video of him playing ping pong in boots and a wife-beater.

v. Is there anything that confirms glamour like a drunken fist fight?

During one of the festival’s nightly parties, poet, novelist and journalist CP Surendran, who looks very misanthropic in his Times of India column photo, mistakenly asked a man whose religion considers “smoking injurious to the soul” for a light—this lead to some violence. My favorite report of this incident was in novelist and comic book writer Samit Basu’s twitter feed: “Top #jlf moment. Watching Tarun Tejpal and Sanjoy Roy rescuing CP Surendran from angry punchy Sikh dude.” Like any glamorous high school party when someone from the uninvited crowd starts the fight, the fight has been used to talk about what’s wrong with “those people.” Obviously, the puncher is not familiar with the chorus of Sheila E’s anthem “The Glamorous Life”: “Without love, it ain’t much, it ain’t much.”

vi. Have discussions about displacement and diasporic writing lost their glamour?

There was a great deal of consternation about whose “Imaginary Homelands” might have actually been “Two Nation, Two Narratives”, which came from somewhere “Out of West.” (All event titles.)

The glamorously casual Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie pooh-poohed the question of displacement and diaspora, since even when she lived in Karachi, her writing was talked about as “showing the anxiety of displacement.”

“But far more interesting to me, was that as a child I lived in Karachi my whole life, and I was obsessed with reading novels and all the novels I read were in English and none of them were set in Karachi,” she said. “So that imagined world, which I spent just as much time in as the surroundings around me, was shaped by what I was reading. And my childhood novels were all set in a fantasy world, it was all time machines and dog heaven—and it took awhile to figure out what it was to write a novel in the English language about Karachi.”

Actually, I thought the most fascinating moment of diasporic writing came from Malyasian Australian rapper Omar Bin Musa who was part of the musical line-up one evening, and not just because I had never heard an Australian rapper before. Musa, from the rural town of Queanbeyan, spit lyrics about identity and politics over decently produced beats. But it was when he performed a song that was most definitely influenced by the Pitbull Miami hip hop sound with the chorus: “Pura vida mami” that I felt like I had witnessed something especially glamorous. I’m hoping Dalrymple will invite Jay-Z to talk about Decoded next year.

vii. Is it glamorous to put American writing down?

British writer Martin Amis, who is apparently moving to America, seemed especially intent in proving to Junot Diaz, Richard Ford and Jay McInerney that “The Crisis in American Fiction” was basically that “the senior generation of writers” have all died recently—meaning John Updike, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. The complete lack of women writers in the discussion and any mention of women writers (until Richard Ford quoted Eudora Welty sometime around minute 20) gave the conversation a feeling like it was at some writer fraternity where American writers have to be hazed by the grumpy Amis in order to later drink jungle juice out of a garbage can.

But Ford and McInerney did their best to defend the diversity of American fiction, while Diaz spoke about how maybe the issue wasn’t the novel’s fault but “the structural shifts in the society that have made contemplative life and the ability for you to sit and read a novel for two or three hours everyday threatened and almost impossible.”

Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and it’s success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel, …. There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humoldt’s gift, nothing happens at all.”

Ford, who I found most glamorous with his elegant Mississippi accent and white hair, may have put it best when he said: “When I break the threshold of inanition to perform something on the page, that’s where the crisis actually exists, not somewhere up above my head.”

viii. Are there things to learn when not being glamorous?

You know what’s not glamorous at all? Getting food poisoning on the last day of the book festival, and having to skip hearing Vikram Seth and Irvine Welsh and even the uber-glam party held at the Amber Fort replete with camels and dancing and drunk author antics. Instead, I spent the day in the bed of my well-appointed artist residency-esque inn on the outskirts of Jaipur, listening to doves and watching the paper kites sway where they have been captured by the trees. But there is a certain glamour in the way the cook and her daughter retreat to the balcony outside your room at noon to oil each other’s hair.

Perhaps it is an un-glamorous space like this that one needs to analyze the literati—the bird’s eye view as it were. I mean, the danger of the glamour is that it overshadows the very unglamorous space of the writer’s desk, or it masquerades as a consolation for the quiet time one must put in. I don’t write for the smart people with moneyed connections who put glamorous parties together, but for a reader somewhere who will connect with my work, right? As an aspiring writer myself, does a decadent party like Jaipur inspire me or spin my head in the wrong direction? Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe the hundreds of school children who hob-knobbed with the world’s literary stars came away wanting to be a writer, and maybe more importantly, wanting to be readers in a country where that is exciting, alluring and attractive.

One of my final views from the car on the way to the airport were polo players on the Jaipur Polo Fields and the sun setting on the Amber Fort in the distance. It was one of the most glamorous sights I’ve seen in my life.


Notes from the Apeejay Kolkata Lit Fest

I attended the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival this past weekend–a bit of a warm-up to Jaipur. I have to say it wasn’t quite like any literature festival I’ve ever attended, well maybe the closest thing to it was the Aspen Literature Festival that I attended a few years ago. When I went, the theme was South Asia and my aunt hooked up Premasoul, a band Robin plays with, to provide the music. I got to meet Salman Rushdie and heard some drunk older ladies talking about whether Rushdie was sexy or not. This year the theme is the Middle East. Similar to Aspen, the Apeejay Festival appears to be organized and run by a coterie of rich ladies that brought a surprising element of glam to book events–Apeejay is one of those mega-families that runs a billion industries and runs the fancy Park Hotel. Of course, my idea of a literature festival comes from Litquake, which is exciting and fancy in it’s own San Francisco way, but that mostly means standing room in crowded bars. And my last experience in Kolkata, as I recently detailed, was a reading in a small room with a tea break and a gift of Bengali sweets—already a great step up from readings in SF. So, imagine my surprise when I went to see Shailja Patel—a San Francisco writing community friend and contributor to Indivisible with an amazing new book called Migritude—kick off the festival on a panel on migration at the shiny Rabindranath Tagore Center. Then later that evening, an event on Pakistani writing at The Park featured a Sufi singer—as well as an amazing (free!) dinner buffet with extensive dessert and free drinks. Robin showed up in a sweatshirt and jeans and we seemed totally under-dressed around the older ladies in their fancy saris and jewels. I think the average age for the event was around 55! How fascinating. The crowd seemed decidedly younger for a panel on the City as Muse on Saturday night—and it was a full house for a panel on Indian film back at the ICCR on Sunday. I thought I’d share some choice quotes and ideas from the panels I attended.

Migrations, Connections and Identities: Performance, political history, and migrant journeys

Professor Saugatha Bose, director of the South Asia Institute at Harvard University and the author—most recently—of A Hundred Horizons: the Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Harvard University Press: 2006), traced Tagore’s “global oceanic voyage” during World War I through Southeast Asia then to Japan and then onto the West Coast of North America, then again in 1927 when he traveled to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and then finally to the Middle East, where he connected with the writing of Hafiz and shared a meal in a Bedouin tent in Iraq. Bose pointed out some of Tagore’s famous works that came from this period, including a poem and a song. This very-distinguished historian gave a soul-stirring rendition of one of Tagore’s songs in the middle of his presentation. I wonder if he always does this or if it was a special moment for Kolkata? Totally charming.

• “There is an openly fascist climate against immigrants in Italy. The textile trade of Florence is entirely supplied by labor from China, yet these people are completely invisible in Italian culture—nobody has any mental image of Chinese people in Italy, or North Africans in Italy, yet they are there. The ways in which these people are made invisible but their labor is presented as the best of Italy—Italy design. The parallel lines of this visibility and invisibility is really the nexus of where my work comes from. {Our jobs as artists and poets] is to show the underside of the tapestry.” — Shailja Patel on her own poetic connectivity of migrant communities.

An Evening in Karachi: Pakistani Writers in Conversation

• This was definitely the most inspiring and informative session for me as a fiction writer—I really enjoyed both Shehryar Fazli’s work and Nighat Gandhi’s as well. Fahzli’s book Invitation is described on the back as “Karachi Noir” and I’ve been interested in South Asian noir for quite some time now. The passages he read were tinged with an edge of danger and forbidding and I am especially interested in journey towards complicity that the main character, a Pakistani returnee from Paris in the tumultuous 1970s, will go through. Gandhi’s short stories cut right to the bone of personal relations, and, again, I’m really excited to read the stories in the collection Ghalib at Dusk, which span across three cities: Karachi, Allahabad and Ahmedabad.

• Gandhi, who is a trained psychologist, is also writing a non-fiction book about love and sexuality in the lives of Muslim women, which sounds fantastic. Westland publisher Renuka Chatterjee insisted on setting up the questions in a way that hailed Fazli’s work as political and Gandhi’s work as a-political. But Gandhi gave a great answer.

Chatterjee: I know that you’ve said you steer clear of overtly political writing, but there is politics of gender here, politics of class – can you talk a little about your concerns as a writer?

Gandhi: I think my primary concern as a writer is to be a good writer, and to write from the heart, and if in the process of that writing, something transformative happens, then it happens. Very often, it happens for me, if it happens for the reader, then I consider myself fortunate…. To be pigeonholed into one identity, really does the disservice to the writer. I consider myself a feminist writer, I am a muslim, I am a Buddhist, I am a woman, I am a mother—all of these aspects do come into my writing. Whether any writing is political or not, maybe overtly the story [I read from], is not, but we are talking about migration, displacement, being a refugee, are those not political statements. And we are talking about love, which infuses all those identites and dislocations that we are being faced with.

• Later, Gandhi also spoke about how in her experience Pakistan is a rich, complex place that can’t be described just in terms of fundamentalism:

“No matter how many shrines the Taliban bomb, the plurality of Pakistan is not going to die. It’s about time we looked at the wonderful traditions that are alive [in Pakistan]. As a writer, I’m doing that. I’m not concerned with what the fundamentalists are doing. I’m wondering why the media is concerned with only what they are saying and not looking into these wonderful living traditions. Why is it that we only talk about beards and veiled women when it comes to Islam. It is also up to us, what we chose to focus on.” – Nighat Gandhi

City As Muse

There was a crowded panel discussing the role of the city in literature and arts, with some exciting people on it.

Manishankar Mukherjee, one of Kolkata’s most beloved writers, opened the panel with a charming grab-bag of literary tidbits about the city, saying: “We still call Calcutta the literary capitol of India. I don’t know why but we do…. Kolkata pampers the poet. Who does not know that every 2nd Bengali living in this city is a poet? That is statistically based.”

Zak O’yeah, a scandanavian mystery and travel writer, pointed out that there needs to be more literary tourism in India–and I couldn’t agree more. I mean, there’s so much to see besides the Tagore stuff — it would make an interesting book. (Hmmmm…)

Nandita Palchoudhuri asked: “What makes an artist chose a specific city? Is it familiarity or something else?” This was a pointed question for me at this moment since Kolkata has been figuring as a major muse to both Robin and I.

• Moderator Bachi Karkaria talked about Rajarhat or NewTown — a futuristic new Northern section/suburb of Kolkata — becoming the center of the city in a few years, which most people would consider horrifying. This made me wonder when arts will start coming out of that space, the suburban, futuristic space, like it has in America, especially with novels like The Ice Storm and movies like American Beauty.

Our Films … Their Films: Indian cinema then and now

• Over all this discussion was kindof a downer. The main thrust of the discussion was that the Golden Age of cinema in India is gone and now it is all based on raising money and marketing.

• Director Suman Mukhopadhyay said: “Today what is called “independent cinema” is not actually independent, it is part of a huge market… Altogether the money and the market and the media is dictating what kind of film you’re going to make. And if you are not following the “rules” as a filmmaker, then you are marginalized, and that marginalization means there is no system to get people to see your films.” But as Mukhopadhyay was talking, all I could think about was my friend Q and how his latest film GANDU has created something of a revolution in Indian media and internationally, and he and his team refuse to follow any of the rules and are using new technologies to their limits. He should have been on this panel.

Nasreen Munni Kabir said some great things about the way Bollywood films are received internationally, and how the perceived popularity abroad isn’t quite what everyone thinks it is:

“What intrigues [Western audiences] the most is the popularity of the stars and and the massive audience for Hindi films. It is the audience that interests them, more than the films. It is the number of people who love the movie stars, rather than sitting through a Sharuk Khan film or a Salman Khan film. It is the repuation … once I said to a friend of mine that Indian films have a wider audience now and he said, do you mean a “whiter” audience. I think that is the key question, in Africa, in the Middle East and much of the developing world, Indian films have been loved since the 50s, but I am very embarrassed to say that most Indian producers and Indian journalists never to any stories about Tunisian fans but they will do something about Polish fans.” – Kabir

Samit Basu was the most charming and up-beat person on the panel and the one I was most excited to see, especially since this was a Literature festival. Basu is the author of several books, along with a comic book writer, and now a script writer. I just finished his first book The Simoquin Prophecies (which was totally amazing, especially to read a sci fi/fantasy book where the characters aren’t only white and/or western–but I’ll do a longer review later) and he kind of represented the new ideas and the future of film making.

“A few months after my first book was published Chetan Bhagat published his first novel, which was the equivalent of the first big Bollywood blockbuster of Indians writing in English. In England it is said that each person believes he or she has a book within himself or herself, this was not the case in India at all, but now we’ve come to a situation in the world of publishing, where people don’t feel like they need to be educated in literature, A, which I wasn’t either, but they don’t feel like they need to be readers either or even have a working knowledge of English to write a book. We’ve reached the point where anyone can write a book … Making films is far more complicated. But in the future the technology will help you get it out there …. Your friends will fund the project, the camera will do most of the work and the internet will distribute it for you.” – Samit Basu

Now to quote the great poet Jay-Z: “I’m on to the next one, on to the next …”