HAY YOUGAIZ

Friday, 6 July 2012 03:30 pm
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This is a brief interruption of my regularly scheduled silence to point out that my girl Kuzhali (in the sense that one says, my man Teju or my bro Jay Smooth; meaning Someone On The Internet you regard with much admiration and affection and are not actually chuddi-buddys with) who blogs at [blogspot.com profile] thirdworldghettovampire, is writing stories for reader prompts over at Mint.
Every month, Kuzhali Manickavel’s column will feature an original short story inspired by prompts submitted by readers. To submit a prompt (a word, phrase, quote or brief idea), mail Kuzhali at shortstories@livemint.com or tweet it using the hashtag #kuzhalistories.

I will also take this opportunity to point out to the phirangs amongst you that her collection of short stories is available as an ebook! (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Lulu) So everyone who pouted at me about my inability to review and rec books and all can consider this an unqualified rec.

Ok wait, by unqualified I don't mean her stories are perfect. What I mean is that there are so many moments in her stories that I love, that all the bits I don't get (and the parts where I want to shake the story and say 'where is the rest of it') don't matter. Her writing is completely off-the-wall weird and strange and like a chipkali which is actually not so bizarre despite being neon coloured because it catches flies and so is actually quite gharelu and ordinary. And her blogging persona is the sort I would draw hearts around except for how UnIndian and Not Done that is so instead one must demonstrate affection by forcefeeding her laddus or something.

::contemplates what kind of prompt I can get away with sending her::
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You know how sometimes you read something, expecting it might be a slight chore, and then your brain has to take a moment to catch up with your heart because you had not realised there was a hole in it that has just been filled by this thing you just read?

Yeah.

So desi sci-fi. I've read some, though not as much as I should for a representative sample, because of childhood disappointments when comparing Dilip Salvi to Isaac Asimov. I shunned a lot of desi writing in my early adulthood; resenting it for not meeting the standards my colonised palatte had set for it, not realising the jury was rigged.

I'm more forgiving now, and more eager to see a world that matches my own brown, Indian one, regardless if the craftsmanship is not as slick as what I was weaned on.

In that context, when I was pointed to Sultana's Dream, I was charmed by this feminist utopian sci fi novella written in English over 100 years ago by a Bengali woman called Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. The story seems a little naive (but then what utopia isn't?) and the feminism a little dated (but imagine how many boundaries her imagination would have had to break to reach to that point then?), but the joyous celebration of women and what they can do made it a fun read.

It's one of the perils of women's writings--their obscurity not only hides them from the mainstream male gaze, but also from their own literary descendents. People talk about Jules Verne and Tolkein as forefathers because they have been read since they were published--the lines of influence can be clearly traced. But women have often had to reinvent the literary wheel--each generation having to carve out its own space, and then, perhaps, having the resources to look back and discover; someone was saying similar things back then, too.

I don't know if [wordpress.com profile] vandanasingh or Manjula Padmanabhan or Priya Sarukkai Chabria have read Hossain's short story, as they have set about contructing their own versions of feminist Indian sci fi.

But today I read a story that was written by Rokeya Hossain's textual granddaughter.

It's fanfiction, set explicitly within the fannish context of a story written for someone's prompt, but there are plenty of other posts that have already established the ridiculousness of segregating 'fanfic' from 'profic' on the basis of genre, so I'm not going to get into that here. I do actually, hope that this story will be picked up by a print publisher and distributed to a wider, or at least different, audience than the online fannish one, because it deserves to be read on its own merits.

Fifty Years in the Virtuous City can be read on its own; like Neil Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan", there is enough heft in the world building to satisfy a reader who does not get the references that reward all the metatexuality. As a stand-alone, this reads as a quiet, poetic story of two women scientists and the challenges they face to build a world shaped in their image.

But read as a response to Hossain's original, this story coalesces into a deep pool of historiographical literary commentary.

The writer, you see, has lived the life Hossain could only imagine, and can therefore strengthen the warp and weft of her humourously fantastic world by weaving in the threads of hindsight and experience. Her approach to academia is painstakingly honest--the writer knows that women in power do not change the fundamental nature of politics and bureaucracy.
‘Can you imagine Suhela as an administrator?’, she asks Chaitali, who has come by her rooms that evening to find her still sorting through the intra-university mail.

‘Straight out of the Arthashastra,’ says Chaitali, who knew her in undergrad at Razia.

‘What do you bet that she has spies?’

‘Maybe I am one of them,’ says Chaitali, raising her eyebrows.

‘The fraudulent disciple! With a knife at your ankle. No, it doesn’t bear thinking of. But – no, really,’ says Amrita, scanning a paper in disbelief, ‘this is marked VERY URGENT, and it is to tell me that there’s a leak in the roof of Choudhury’s office. I wish people would use the system properly.’


Can you see why I'm so gleeful? It takes the nonchalance of a 21st century product of co-ed academia to joke about paperwork, but to make a reference to Chanakya requires a connection to a specific shared historical past.

Hossain herself was still struggling to find an audience. Although she wrote other stories in Bengali, this one was written in English, and in 1905, I suspect the readership of The Indian Ladies' Magazine was too select and Anglicised for the sort of integration of code-switching that this story does.

Hossain's imaginary world is called Ladyland; this story translates it (back) to Naaridesh, and gives it a geographical context that restores the geo-political tensions present in the past the story was written. Written today, the author knows that "the Republic is under constant threat from the Trucial States and the Ingrej", that during its formative years there will be rumor of invasion from Andhra Pradesh.

With a post-colonial pickaxe, this writer demolishes the self-effacement that had Hossain's protagonist defer to a Sister Sara and a deracialised, deculturalised Queen and Lady Principal. When the war happens--and it is ugly, because this writer's feminism knows the futility of flinching from the brutality of struggle and resistance--there is an invasion from the Ingrej Robert Jennings. This story celebrates the intersectionality of Hossain's identity as a Muslim, by building a world replete in the words and laws and customs that the author could not herself infuse her world with.

The first steps we take to place ourselves at par with our colonisers often imitate their flaws, and we write our own unassimilated selves out of those stories, having had no examples of how to include them. That's why I love this story so much--because a young desi author is restoring to a long dead woman the voice that it has taken a century of nationalism and anti-imperialism and subaltern studies and anti-communalism and, of course, feminism to find.

I know I sound all dry and academic, in this theory-based recommendation. I'm sorry. I love this story with an enthusiastic squeeful heart--I love it for its femmeslash. I love it for its older women, who are still loving and active. I love it for science. I love it for its humour. I love it for the meticulous poetry of its images.
Amrita herself should not like to be compared to a flower or a fruit, an animal or a bird, and she turns this problem over sometimes in her mind, what Barnali’s beauty is like: if she solves it, she can forget it, and go on to something else. This is how her mind works: turn the thing over, turn it over, pry, catch at its seam, pry, crack it apart, work the kernel out and pick up the next. After she decides that Barnali’s beauty is like an electric light in glass – the slenderness of the brightening and dimming filament, the clarity and fineness of its casing, the perfected minimalism – she ceases to be distracted, or attracted. Once categorised, the thing is safe.


I love it for passages like that.

(I should say that while I am 99.9% sure I know the friend who wrote this, it is possible that I am wrong, and that perhaps the writer is not even desi. In which case, I would heap even more accolades on the writer.)

(And for those who are fannishly inclined, [community profile] dark_agenda's Kaleidoscope Exchange has a wealth of enjoyable fanworks to offer.)

ETA (6/1/12): Soon after writing this rec, I learned that the author was not desi. I have made a follow-up post here that discusses a few of the repurcussions of that reveal. I still stand by the rec, though.
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1st February is the start of Black History Month in the United States. Last year was the first time I spent some significant time thinking about this, and reading a spectrum of commentary by Black Americans about this month, and the responses to it.

I've recently been reading about Asian and African alliances, as well as their hyphenated counterparts, and the challenges faced by coalition-builders. I'll try to write up some of what I've read about later, but for right now, I thought I'd acknowledge the personal debt I owe to Black American writers. I did not grow up exposed to them, and coming to the United States I had to train myself to seek them out, because the dominant White narrative still kept them invisible, and isolated. There are still vast gaps in my knowledge - a whole roll of honour of names whom I have yet to read.

But meanwhile - here are 27 books for 28 days. Each one contains enough beauty and thought to make it something I value having read. It's a mix of picture books and poetry and plays and academic texts and fiction; the only common thread is that I read each text, and liked it. And I wish to celebrate the authors, and the families and friends who supported them, and the communities that ensured their words (and pictures) would exist.

There is no 28th book yet. I will add one to the list by the end of the month. Because my list, like the act of remembering history, should be ongoing.

1. Brenda Dixon Gottschild - Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance (Academic non-fiction about dance.)

2. Jess Mowry - Babylon Boyz (YA fiction about teenagers in Oakland.)

3. Natasha Anastasia Tarpley - I Love My Hair! (Picture book, illustrated by E. B. Lewis, about a little black girl and her mother.)

4. Sharon M. Draper - Double Dutch (Middle-grade fiction about competitive jump-roping girls.)

5. Earl B. Lewis - This Little Light of Mine (Illustrator) (Picture book about a young boy and his family with the text and music of a Black Spiritual.)

6. Tanita S. Davis - Mare's War (YA historical fiction about two modern teenagers learning about their grandmother's youth as a WAC in World War II)

7. Robert Burleigh - Lookin' for Bird in the Big City (Picture book about an apocryphical story of a young Miles Davis looking for Charlie Parker in NYC.)

8. Walter Dean Myers - Shooter (YA contemporary fiction about a shooting in a suburban high school.)

9. Christopher Myers - Autobiography of my Dead Brother (Illustrator) (YA contemporary fiction written by Walter Dean Myers about teenage boys in Harlem, with illustrations and comic strips by Christopher.)

10. Bil Wright - When the Black Girl Sings (YA contemporary fiction about a young girl in a suburban high school.)

11. Sherri L. Smith - Flygirl (YA historical fiction about a World War II female pilot.)

12. Javaka Steptoe - Amiri & Odette (Illustrator) (Picture book about a poetic Harlem version of Swan Lake written by Walter Dean Myers.)

13. Suzan-Lori Parks - In the Blood (Play about a single mother with five children.)

14. bell hooks - Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Academic non-fiction about pedagogy and social justice.)

15. Audre Lorde - Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Non-fiction about feminism, race, revolution and sexuality.)

16. Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man (Literary fiction about a man in the 1950s.)

17. Tricia Rose - Black Noise: Rap music and black culture in contemporary America (Academic non-fiction about hip hop culture primarily in NYC.)

18. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) - Blues People: Negro Music in White America (Non-fiction about music, race and culture.)

19. Angela Davis - Blues legacies and Black feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (Academic non-fiction about music, lyrics, class and race.)

20. Alvin Ailey - Revelations (Autobiography of a modern dancer and choreographer.)

21. Dudley Randall - The Black Poets (Editor) (Anthology of poetry.)

22. Ntozake Shange - For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (Play in poetry about women in the 1970s in NYC.)

23. Lorraine Hansberry - A Raisin in the Sun (Play about a family in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood during the 1950s.)

24. Langston Hughes - The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Poetry written between the 1920s and the 1960s.)

25. Bill T. Jones - Dance! (with Susan Kuklin) (Picture book with photographs of the dancer and choreographer's body in motion.)

26. Jada Pinkett-Smith - Girls Hold Up This World (Picture book with photographs by Donyell Kennedy-McCullough, about girls and women.)

27. Lucille Clifton - Three Wishes (Picture book illustrated by Stephanie Douglas about two young friends.)

28.

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Deepa D.

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