I have some short prose, “Sandalwood Moon”, in Rose Red Review. Even though I am taking a long hiatus from writing anything new, this piece matters to me especially because it contains the genesis concept of the manuscript of stories (The High Priestess Never Marries) I hope to finish when I get back to work. See if you can spot it here.
The new Global Youth Cultures issue of Wasafiri carries a short story and a poem. The story, “In Asterisks, For Action”, is from some years ago, and precedes the themes and narratives of the manuscript I’m finishing (finishing? hmm) now, The High Priestess Never Marries. The poem is called “Chennai – II”. You can find out how to get the magazine here.
I’m delighted to share that my short story, “Nine Postcards From The Pondicherry Border“, which appeared in the inaugural issue of Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This is my second Pushcart nomination: a poem, “I Will Come Bearing Mangoes” was nominated by Rougarou last year.
One would think the novella would find more favour in these times of abbreviated attention spans. Less demanding than the novel and meatier than the short story, it is the Goldilocks “just right” of texts. Susan Visvanathan’s “Nelycinda”, at just under a hundred pages, is a stunning novella. Told in twenty short chapters, it makes superb use of the neglected form, with a perfect balance of generosity and restraint. It should have been published as a stand-alone book; instead, Nelycinda & Other Stories becomes just that: one superlative piece of writing in a volume made unnecessarily plump with extras.
The title story is set just 300 years after the birth of Christianity, in a time when the southwest of India was a collision, or a collusion, of Roman, African, Chera, Chinese and other influences. Visvanathan writes about Kerala before it was Kerala with remarkable skill, painting a picture that is as vivid with texture and humanity as it is shorn of pretentiousness. At the centre of the novella is Susa, the wife of a wealthy trader who is frequently, and then seemingly permanently, travelling. At once ambitious and intimate, “Nelycinda” is both historical fiction and the story of one woman’s choices, circumstances and agency.
Not all the remaining stories in this collection are fillers, but the two that immediately succeed “Nelycinda” particularly pale in comparison. In “An Incomplete Travel Diary”, the second longest in the book, a former abused maid and her rich, impotent husband travel to India to adopt a child. In “Shopping in Paris”, both father and son in a family of Martiniquais musicians are obligated to choose between staying at home or travelling for work or love. Neither story compels in language or in mood, nor are their characters well-etched. It’s not progressive to suggest that an author mine a single landscape repeatedly, yet there is such a marked difference when Visvanathan writes about Kerala that it’s difficult not to wonder about her limitations.
A few stories are unmemorable, as when Visvanathan turns her gaze to Malayalis in the Middle East in “Gulf Baby” and “Further Away From Paradise, Returning Home”, or “Allapuzha”, which begins and continues as a short factual essay before suddenly diverting into a fictional introduction. There’s a pointlessness and an absence of grace in their lines, as though the evidently gifted author herself was ambivalent about them.
Still, the book is not without rewards. A trio of linked stories – “Correspondences”, “Pepper Vines Trail My Hair” and “Sludge Without Sun – are catalysed by the beautiful centre piece, in which a woman prophesied to die young maintains only a delicate and bittersweet attachment to the world. The first story comes long before the second, so that we arrive at the connection with delight. The collection ends on a strong note – “Odd Morning”, in which a Malayali American theatre actress leaves a train mid-journey, discomfited by its male passengers, and stays for weeks in a remote village.
Visvanathan is a curiously underrated author, despite her prolific output (Nelycinda & Other Stories is her fifth book of fiction; she is also the author of seven non-fiction works). In the best of her work, there is a lyricism and suppleness in the writing, tethered by deep reflections on history, gender and religion, and a distinction of style that deserves a larger audience. This collection of disparate pieces suffers only from bad curation. This doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the title story or the few persuasive ones. The demoted novella could have had better company, or none at all, but it is still a gem – albeit among a less sparkling assembly.
An edited version appeared in DNA.
My short story “Greed and the Gandhi Quartet”, which received a 2012 Elle Fiction Award, has been published in the August issue of ELLE India. Some of the line/section breaks have been edited for space, but I was impressed that my, erm, strong language was retained! The magazine is on stands all over India this month.
On the cover of Fish in a Dwindling Lake is this image: two women, their backs turned, look out onto a body of water. They must, we intuit, be silent. We know this because we know that in the presence of that which moves us, words only come later. This is the same poignance that this collection of eleven stories imbues.
For nearly four decades, Ambai’s writings have stirred her original Tamil readership with their forthright engagement with gender, particularly womanhood. In this, her third collection in English, translated by Lakshmi Holmström, her protagonists are held together by the reiteration of a single notion – “journey”.
Most are aged or aging but remain travellers: pilgrims, commuters, chaperones, vacationers, passengers. As with all voyages, it is encounters with strangers that teach them both about themselves and the world. In “Journey 5” two women holiday in Pondicherry with the intent of drinking wine, and find themselves partaking of a feast in the home of elderly strangers in a de facto relationship. In “Journey 7”, an unsuspecting Nani-Mausi at a train station finds herself escorting a runaway for whom leaving her husband may or may not be a kind of theatrical ritual.
Although others are set in places including Mumbai and Imphal, the most memorable stories evoke a deeply Tamil milieu, both in descriptive ambience and identifiable morality codes. One returns again and again to the stunning opening piece, “Journey 4”, in which a pregnant woman tells a stranger a shocking family secret, standing by the Kanyakumari shore. In, “One Thousand Words, A Life”, pregnant women again are its central characters: the tribulations of giving birth in a village during WWII leads into the heartbreak that “history is made up of so many silences”. In “The Calf That Frolicked In The Hall”, the collection’s third outstanding piece, the literary culture of Tamil Nadu in the ‘70s, when the anger of young men was considered glamorous, is both nostalgized and taken to task.
But the compassion of the author’s voice extends to men, particularly in “Kailasam”, in which thwarted male desire is treated with a complexity that only a feminism that has been steeped in actual human engagement, not just political rhetoric, would allow. Similarly in “Journey 9”, in which a gigolo is subject to brutality by a group of female clients, and washes his wounds in the home of a kindly woman who once declined his services.
The motif of water – still and flowing – emerges often, and evinces a series of nuanced tellings of what it means to inhabit a body that ultimately will return to the elements. A man falls or drowns himself in a well, another in a lake, a woman imagines carrying the tides home in a pot to her beloved, another has a refrigerator that forms mysterious shivalingam ice stalagmites.
Ambai’s work carries such power because it is neither sterile nor sensationalist, both things that writing that takes the body as an axis has the danger of becoming. In Fish in a Dwindling Lake there is a profundity and subtlety that could easily be attributed to age, but more importantly and less facetiously, to empathy. Like the young woman in the indelible “Journey 4”, like the nondescript women on the book’s cover, we simply watch for a long time, too stirred to speak.
An edited version appeared in The Hindustan Times.
I was holding off on posting this, because there’s another element to being published on Safety Pin Review (i.e. the backs of people’s shirts) but there’s been some delay on that.
Meanwhile, here‘s an itty-bitty story, “Wishing on Stars”, read at intervals throughout this rather cool selection of music on WECI 91.5FM recently.
In the title of her introduction to Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka, editor Ameena Hussein references the Isurumuniya Lovers, a 6th century stone carving portraying a woman sitting on the lap of a man, her hand raised in a gesture that could be read as one of refusal, demureness or even blessing. The couple is not locked in embrace, gazing at or holding one another in any recognizably participatory erotic act. Instead, their faces are turned forward – the observer gets a better view of them than they do each other. Although left unexplored in the introduction, their posture serves as a perfect presentation of the question, “What is erotica?” The eye of the beholder, the eye of each beholder, differs.
The twelve stories in this slim collection, the first English-language publication of its kind from Sri Lanka, won’t necessarily appeal to a diverse range of beholders, but together they achieve a narrative coherence that for an anthology comprised mostly of debut and pseudonymous authors is surprisingly successful.
The majority of these stories are lightweight, not enough to get the pulse really racing, but pleasant tidbits nonetheless. The book opens with Sam Perera’s “The Proposal”, which – while guilty of containing an unfortunate reference to a male organ being slurped “like a string of spaghetti” and the almost unforgivable howler, “as the tip of my iceberg touches her volcano” – is striking in its sheer urbaneness. Colombo could be any city at all, not necessarily the capital of a nation recovering from war with itself. This is a smart move for erotica, which often operates at the remove of fantasy, and the rest of the collection retains this convivial note. When we encounter “the war that’s waged in our heads as our bodies seek peace” in Natalie Soysa’s “Bi-Cycle” later on, it rings as a line not of sobering but of understated acknowledgment.
But the Sri Lanka of tourists? Twice, yes. Of the two stories set in hotels, the sexier one is “Room 1617” by Marti, one of no less than four lesbian-themed pieces in the book. By contrast, only Tariq Solomon’s “Bookworm” explores male homosexual desire. Some diversity in this regard would have been refreshing, more so because “Bookworm” (like Nazeeya Faarooq’s “No” and Sam Perera’s “Hot Date”) muddles the lines of consent somewhat. While transgression is undoubtedly titillating, nothing challenges stereotypes and social constraints quite like a sense of agency.
The book’s two most outstanding stories come from the editor and Shehan Karunatilaka of Chinaman fame. In Ameena Hussein’s “Undercover”, a married and robed Muslim woman finds her sexual frustrations assuaged by the anonymous hands of a man who sits beside her at the cinema. Day after day, she returns to be pleasured, and gradually learns how to take control of the fulfillment of her desires. Shehan Karunatilaka’s “Veysee” offers, through a protagonist who may be closer to the book’s core audience than any of the others (a horny, heterosexual male), a story that is complex in what it says about human need and human greed. While it has been suggested that literary erotica (as opposed to visual erotica) caters largely to female readers, there is something more earnestly convincingly about Karunatilaka’s story than the others that offers a contradictory position. Speckled through the book are other pieces memorable for the right reasons: for an author born in the 1940’s, Tariq Solomon’s “Bus Stop”, when it eventually gets down to the actual sex, has a frankness that laughs at our rebellions as compared to generations past, and Marini Fernando’s “The Lava Lamp” contains an elegant but not overwrought visual of mango leaves in silhouette in a space of lovemaking.
Blue is reprinted in India a year after its original Sri Lankan publication by Perera Hussein Publishing House. Its first edition had been supplemented by black and white photography in lieu of story dividers – a gratuity which was dropped in this market. Not having seen these images, it is difficult to venture as to whether this was a wise idea, but wiser still would have been the categorical omission of all five poems included in the collection. One is at a loss for words when trying to understand their presence in this book. A more perfect summary cannot be found anywhere other than in the poems themselves; to quote from the lines of Layla’s “Sex in the Hood”: “Poetry and originality? / Zilch! / What the fuck were you thinking?”
Hussein’s assertion that Blue is “a milestone in Sri Lankan writing in English” is not to be dismissed on the basis of whether or not these stories work on the level of arousal (which is ultimately an entirely subjective understanding). More interestingly, this collection was culled from only thirty-five submissions. If the dozen stories that made the cut from so small a pool are of this standard – and it must be noted that aside from Karunatilaka and Hussein herself, all of the writers in this book are new voices – then there is much to look forward to in the literature yet to come from the island.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.
I think every story that finds its way into the world has at least four arrivals. Its arrival in the author’s mind/heart/vision. Its arrival on the page or screen, in completed form. Its arrival — and this can take a long time, as it did for this story — in a publication. And then its arrival in the mind/heart/vision of the reader. “Nine Postcards From The Pondicherry Border” took a long time to find its home in the world, but I am glad that it is with the wonderful new Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination.
I’ve waited a year to be able to share this with you. In Pratilipi, the first new excerpt from Constellation of Scars, my novel in progress, to be published since 2007.
The first anniversary issue of Out of Print carries my short story, “The High Priestess Never Marries“.