Tag Archives: reviews

Book Review: Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia

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There is only one problem with “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda”, the exquisite introductory story of Aamer Hussein’s collection on dislocation, travel and binding ties. In snippets of monologue rendered with the subtle elegance of watercolours, a Pakistani man in Andalucía revisits the thought of an erstwhile beloved, seeing their ghost in every glass and fragrance. The perfect pitch, devoid of overt sentimentality, of his lingering ache sets the bar for the rest of Insomnia high – too high.

That precision never again quite surfaces in the book. Although several of the remaining pieces in this slim collection of seven stories have their own pleasing qualities, nothing as memorable or as stirring occurs again. The story that immediately follows “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda” suffers especially. The sophomoric romance of “Crane Girl”, about a student in London who falls for a moody Japanese girl, dulls in comparison to the richness of the preceding piece. But this is also because the adolescent voice is not the author’s strong point, as “The Lark”, about a student Nawabzada from Karachi (exoticised in Britain as “the Black Prince”) who is about to set sail back to an undivided India, confirms. There is something under-developed about Hussein’s younger characters, and it is not because they themselves have yet to mature. Throughout the book, all of his protagonists come from a certain elite cosmopolitan background, but where his adults are skillfully rendered in their accumulated worldliness, jadedness and emotional complexities, their younger versions come across as shallow, their motivations uninteresting.

Nowhere is this clearer than when “Crane Girl”’s protagonist, Murad, makes a reappearance in the eponymous story, now a globetrotting intellectual, that character niche at which Hussein is most skilled in his rendering. In this instance, as with all his melancholy adult artists and scholars, the story is executed with charm and believability. When the adult Murad, speaking to an Indonesian poetess in Italy, summons the memory of trespassing a peach orchard at age twenty, it’s hard to believe that this is the same character who had proved so facile in “Crane Girl”.

Writers are frequent protagonists in this collection, most notably in the excellent “The Angelic Disposition”, in which the subversive author S.S. Farouqi grieves the loss of a contemporary, whose friendship had sustained her spirits and her work. This is the book’s other standout tale – it is scaffolded by its historical context of Partition and military censorship yet avoids becoming overwhelmed by it. Similarly in “Hibiscus Days”, in which a translator contemplates his deceased friend, colleague and rival, and the time a small group of Pakistani academics shared in the 1980’s, commuting between continents together and apart. The world of Hussein’s strongest characters is a finely-etched one: dynamic with journeys, conversations and layered emotion. Besides these three stories, “The Book of Maryam”, about a feminist poet – another friend of Murad’s – reading poorly-received political work to an audience in the West, is an almost sly interlude, almost a statement on Hussein’s own mellow touch. It is not the strident characters who remain with us as we leave the book.

Insomnia is, at its best, a wistful meditation on what it means to be of a certain class of global citizens – of a diaspora that may well find the term itself outdated – and it stands out at a time when the postcolonial hangover still hasn’t quite retired its hold on the subcontinent’s literary output. Its more successful characters, by and large, are past that. It is not cultural angst that plagues them, but something more timeless and delicate, profoundly intimate yet recognizably universal.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

NXG on Mozhiudal

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There’s a nice write-up in NXG, The Hindu today about last weekend’s queer poetry reading. You can read it here.

I like how the writer begins the article by noting how the reading seemed to be a safe space – the same thought occurred to me while I was there, and in the days since I have also pondered over whether to write about it too. It was more than just the fact that I know the organizers and the Pride movement in Chennai well — the vast majority of the audience were new faces. Still, there was a good underlying energy, a welcoming one, that I rarely sense at readings here.

Perhaps I should explain my context. Somewhere early in my publishing career, I got stuck with the tag of being a writer of “erotic” poetry, a label I view with discomfort. Now, I have nothing against erotica. I love it. I have nothing against sex either. What I do have a problem with is reductionism. Erotica by its nature is intended to titillate. My work, by and large, isn’t. Anyone with a little sensitivity who looks over my body of supposedly erotic work should see neuroses, longing, loss. If they see  a horny woman poking at her keyboard with sticky fingers, that’s their own oversight. A woman can be horny, complicated, desireless, wounded, surrendering, conquering in different lights.  So can a man. If you choose only to see her in one light, then you’re missing out on a whole lot.

What this has come to mean is that I have become defensive (as you may have gathered from the paragraph above, even). In India, or at least in Chennai, I limit what I share at readings. Look, I don’t mean to come off like a snob, but we’re an awfully perverted bunch, don’t you think? So, so as to avoid various unpleasantries, I limit what I share. It frustrates me. I like to have fun at readings. I like to feel free, to play with the audience, to laugh. I like, above all, to be honest.

In this sense, Mozhiudal was one of the safest spaces I’ve read at in Chennai. To me, the very notion of a queer reading is based on the acceptance that sexuality is complex and varied, and is vital to our experience of the world – exactly the sort of basis that removes all need for apologies and excuses. Remember this: sexuality as opposed to sex alone. I opened with what I think of as my lightest piece,  and without question the most beloved among my fans, “Poem”, and moved on to more risque work, pieces like “Possession” and “Holding The Man”. Reading the last one in particular, I was struck by how its motifs of arrest and secrecy were, perhaps, rather reminiscent of the queer experience, even though the people in my poem are a heterosexual couple. And also my explicitly queer work – “Hibiscus”, “Linea Negra” – and then looping back to my other much-misconstrued crowd-pleaser, “How To Eat A Wolf”. Not once did I feel like I had gone too far, or become too vulnerable. The last poem I shared, in two voices with Aniruddhan Vasudevan, was my translation of Subramanya Bharati’s “Suttum Vizhi”. How was this a queer work, or a sexual one? Maybe because Bharati would certainly have been no homophobe; in death he certainly has lent his voice to the Pride movement. Maybe because from the tongue and pen of another woman, my transcreated lines – “woman precious as the eye, my love fills me with turbulence” – turn vaguely subversive. Or maybe because this is what it comes down to in the end — love, loss and longing. The human heart. The body and its blood.

It’s Still The Witching Hour

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I had such fun being live on air with Chennai Live 104.8FM’s Jane Jeyakumar this afternoon that I wished I’d announced it earlier! Hope some of you caught me there. Here are a few more media snippets on me/the book. Rumjhum Biswas talks about the launch, Vaibhav Vats writes an article based on an interview he did last month, and Verve magazine runs a feature in their March issue – with a never before published poem.

After The Chennai Launch

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I woke up the morning after the launch with some badass blues. Readings normally leave me feeling exhilarated, but I was so sad that morning that it was over. Good readings are rare in Chennai. Very rare. That I stressed out over it, instead of just savouring it, left me regretful.

That being said, it went well. I think about 50 people came. If I didn’t say hi to a familiar face and give you a hug, I apologise. There were just so many people and so much to do and the press to speak to immediately before and after.

Speaking of press — big thanks to Niladri Bose of Hello FM, who ran a pre-recorded interview with me on his weekend shows. And to Sonali of Chennai FM, who recorded something just before the launch. Also to Ponnu Elizabeth Mathew of The New Indian Express for putting me on the cover of Monday’s Expresso. And to Shonali Muthalaly of The Hindu for this article in Metroplus. As tends to happen in print journalism, there are discrepancies — for instance I have never lived in Canada and do not consider myself a Sri Lankan refugee as to do so is to undermine the plight of people far less privileged than me (I’m assuming these two things were gleaned from an extremely literal reading of a certain poem in my book), and I’d probably said witches were persecuted, not castrated (!). I know that The Times of India ran an interview in three of its neighbourhood supplements but haven’t seen it yet. I’m also interviewed in this month’s Verve magazine, which is on the stands now.

But none of those made me quite as happy as Orange Jammies’ post here.

I’m deeply grateful to Ranvir and Devika of the Prakriti Foundation. I’ve known them for years professionally but only recently have gotten to know them on a more personal level. Both of them are inspirations to me in their own ways.

I’m also especially grateful to Salma, Vivek Narayanan, Tishani Doshi and Rumjhum Biswas, who all came to the launch. The support of other poets is so important.

And if anybody cares what I wore, I wore a ridiculous copper sulphate blue dress. :)

Metroplus Chennai On The Sangam House Reading

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The Hindu has a write-up today on Sangam House’s recent event in Chennai. It’s a good article, but I wish my name was spelt correctly. Read it here.

Witchcraft Is A Pick Of The Year!

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The Straits Times, Singapore, asked several people what their favourite book from 2008 was. Ng Yi-Sheng, whom I hugely admire as a poet and performer, picked Witchcraft. Here’s what he said…

(The italics are mine — that’s a line that will sit under my tongue all day as I savour it slowly, grateful  for once that I had not thought of it myself, for then it could not be said about my book)

Ng Yi-Sheng, 28, writer and winner of this year’s Singapore Literature Prize for his debut poetry collection, Last Boy

“I hardly ever read books as soon as they come out, but my favourite among the few I did read was Sharanya Manivannan’s poetry collection, Witchcraft.
Manivannan is a poet and performer, born and living in India but raised in Malaysia, where she was involved in a lot of activism against the government’s destruction of Hindu temples.
Witchcraft is her first poetry collection. She and I bonded at the last Singapore Writers Festival, so she left me a copy at indie bookstore BooksActually where it’s also currently available ($25 without GST).
The book is sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife. Manivannan manages to be deeply grounded in her Tamil heritage while also subtly digesting global iconography from the Chinese, Balinese and Mexicans.
Her voice sounds modern and ancient at the same time, supremely confident as it speaks of desire, the body and language.”