Tuesday 29 May 2012


'... my book is so much cheaper than LSD, and nearly twice as legal' - says the author. 

Like an early Delany - The Einstein Intersection or The Jewels Of Aptor, or even like Crowley's debut novel, The Deep, this book is an enigma. There's something going on, but like Mr. Jones I don't know what it is. 

No, actually, I do. It's magic. Magic with words, magic with meanings. A Zen/Buddhist parable about a woman on a quest through a maze, the meaning of the parable is that there aren't always easily reducible meanings, quests don't always have objects and doors always have keys, even when they don't. 

Is that clear enough? Probably not. Anyway, this was just the right book for me to read right now and I'm glad I finally found it.


3/5. This is Temsula Ao's second short story collection; I still haven't read the first ('These Hills Called Home'). Ao lives and teaches in Shilong, in the North-East of India, a part of the country that faces problems of endemic neglect by the centre and ongoing conflicts between the Army and Maoist rebels. It is also, from what I've gleaned from pictures and accounts by friends from those parts, a beautiful land of green hills and fertile valleys.

Ao's stories take us into the heart of this conflict-torn land, telling us the stories of characters such as the old woman who saves her husband, the village headman, from both the rebels and the army by her quick thinking. Then there's a woman who used to be in a relationship with a charismatic young man who leaves her to join the rebels, only to wind up assassinated by his own comrades, leaving her an uneasy legacy in the form of painful memories, uncertain associations and a mysterious floppy disk.

Not all the stories draw on insurgency and counter-insurgency for their context. There's a powerful story which weaves the lives of a woman, her daughter and granddaughter into a brilliant harmony expounding the traumas, sorrows and joys of women's lives. My favourite story tells us of a formidable hunter who is frequently stirred with misgivings about hunting, leading to a climactic encounter with a possibly supernatural wild boar.

Ao loves and values stories and people; these stories touch upon the dilemmas, sacrifices, defeats and victories of ordinary people, but gives them an epic, universal resonance

Then why the 3-star rating? Simply because the stories fall short in the areas of language and plot. Ao spends too much time telling rather than showing; the story of a young boy who emerges as something of a trickster figure could have had great zest and vitality if penned by someone like Bohumil Hrabal; here, it falls a little flat because of the deadpan, declamatory narrative. Another story, 'The Letter' seems like an uneasy hybrid between dry reportage and fiction; the ending, a fairly obvious twist, loses the impact that a willingness to probe deeper below the surface and to plunge further into the world of the story could have given it. Too many characters are left hollow, if not altogether unnamed and all too often we are told of the emotional upheavals they face rather than simply shown the signs of this upheaval. There are messy mixed metaphors: 'from the moment he joined their ranks he had to walk a tight-rope in the multi-headed ideological minefield within'.

And yet, there are passages of great vividness, like this depiction of the wordless rapport of a hunting party: 'Imchanok was fully awake; he sensed the weariness in his companions and let them doze for a few precious moments before nudging the nearest one awake with a gentle kick to his side. As the chain of similar kicks went around, everyone sat up and tried to adjust his vision in the eerie darkness that seemed to have swallowed up the lush green jungle. They waited, each lost in his own thoughts. Then came the time in the dying night when you think that the day is breaking but cannot see anything except darkness even though the daybreak is so clear in your mind. This sensation came first to Imchanok and he silently shifted his body-weight from left to right. The one next to him caught his movement and did the same; then the next and the next until every single man held his position as if freshly energized by this slightest of movements.'

Then there's this powerful passage describing childbirth: 'The growl she emits is like nothing these women, who have participated in many deliveries, have ever heard, and as the last hiss leaves her throat, one of them shouts,'I see the head, one more push,baby, just once more'. Martha hears her and with an ultimate effort gives another push and the baby slithers out of her exhausted body. The baby's wet and slimy contours as it surges through the passage produces such a sensuous effect on Martha that she will always remember it as more sublime than the transient ecstasies of sex'.

But there isn't enough that reaches this pitch; too much is bogged down in the baggage of late-Victorian phrasing with all its distancing and formality that too many Indian writers in English struggle to shake off. Ao tells stories that deserve to live in the hearts of all her readers; but she needs a better editor, needs something that will hone her pen into a scalpel.

Thursday 24 May 2012

it takes two

to doom

Caine Prize Shortlist 3: Love On Trial by Stanley Kenani

This is going to be very easy and very difficult.

Stanley Kenani's story is a worthy effort on an important issue: the persecution faced by homosexuals. He tells us of the criminalisation of a gay man whose sexuality is found out by a village busybody. The man decided to be honest and 'come out'. He is faced with derision, contempt, some grudging respect when he responds with clarity and dignity, and finally he is imprisoned. In an attempt to punish his country for its anti-homosexality laws, the outside world cuts off ties and stops sending aid. This effects the whole nation, from the whistleblower who spotted the homosexuals in action, and who suffers from AIDS and is dependent on medication sent by aid groups, to the prison guards who target their gay prisoner as the cause of the increased poverty hitting their nation and them.

But it's all told in such a flat style; it's all told, not shown. It's stacked up so heavily to boost a given message, the characters never come to life and there's just one too many attempts to paint him in a positive life, positing a daughter of a top politician who loves him and offers to rescue him if he publicly acknowledges her as his romantic choice. Just one too many telling details, told in too distanced and passive a manner.

I am not saying this is a bad story; if anything, this is an ethically engaged and even true story in some sense deeper than fact. I hate to weigh down so heavily on a story that contains such a worthy message. But it's not a very effective story, not a very skilled piece of literature. I'm not sure its inclusion on this list was a good choice. I don't think it can do much good for the perception of the Caine Prize as a reward that focusses on literary merit rather than anything else.

Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott

Monday 21 May 2012

My wife and I rescue, shelter and find homes for lost, stray or abandoned cats and kittens. We keep getting calls from people who want to offload cats on us; less from people who want to help us. But we need help. Before you ask why we do not help homeless children or any other group you would care to mention, may I just say that we each need to choose our own battles and if you feel strongly for a cause, please take it up yourself instead of telling me what I should be doing with my limited capacity for doing good. I care about a lot of things but I can't do everything. Anyway, if you are interested in helping or know someone who might be, I am crossposting a list of ways to help from my cat adoption blog: 

We're miles away from being able to set up a dedicated cat shelter or register as an NGO. We've been taking on increasing numbers of cats (and dogs - we look after 15 street dogs in addition to our mutts at home), helping co-ordinate rescues with the medical help of various vets and at times the CUPA clinic and shelter. But CUPA itself is overloaded and we try not to add to their burden of sheltered animals.

We need help. If you would like to help out and make a difference to a cat or kitten's life here are some ways how:

  • The biggest way you can help is to adopt a cat. Better still two: they will be companions for each other. Cats aren't exactly low-maintenance but in many ways they are actually easier to look after than dogs and we will be happy to give you all the tips and tricks you'll need as a cat owner. 
  • Don't 'give up' your cat. It's not a bad habit. Landlords, relatives, neighbours and spouses would find it hard to get you to give up a child, why is it so easy for them to make you abandon your cat. In both cases, you have taken on the responsibility for another life. Please make sure you have truly exhausted all options before you give up that responsibility and pass it on to us. 
  • We welcome contributions of food. Kinds of food we need are: 
    • Commercial cat food for kittens and cats. Acceptable brands: Royal Canin, Whiskas and Butch/Ginger Tom. We've had mixed results with other brands
    • Recovery/special care food for post-operative or sick cats. Examples: Royal Canin Recovery, Dr. Hill's Prescription Diets
    • Milk formula for kittens: Lactol or Royal Canin First Food
    • Occasional supplies of fish are always relished by the moggies. You can come over and treat our cats on your birthday/anniversary/other special day, if you want!
  • Hygiene supplies: Old newspapers, cat litter, even cleaning detergent
  • Grooming, medical and other supplies: Tick/flea/mite medication, dewormers, vitamin supplements, baskets, brushes, cages
  • Time: Volunteer your time! You can help out with vet runs, looking after newborn kittens, sick or injured cats, even with cleaning cat trays if you are willing
  • Fostering: Sometimes cats or kittens need a temporary home while we look for a permanent new home for them. 
  • Rescues: We get calls about cats in urgent need of rescue all over the city. If we can build a network of friends it will help in responding rapidly to these emergencies. 
  • You can passively adopt one of our permanent cats, paying for its upkeep at our house.
  • Money is useful but as we are not a registered NGO all we can do is explain what we will spend it on and give you receipts if you want. 
If any of this sounds good to you do contact us. We'd prefer it if initial contact is via a message here - but do leave valid contact details, too many people don't. Or you can email jayaprakash (at) gmail.com and claireyasmine (at) gmail.com. 

Sunday 20 May 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist 2: Urban Zoning by Billy Kahora

I sometimes wonder whether some of the Tragic Africa narratives get overrated just because they present a familiar story told from a familiar angle.  I'm always surprised at how willing my NRI (non-resident Indian) relatives are to gush over the latest piece of NRI literature or cinema, no matter how cliched and worthless it might be, just because 'I could really relate to it'. Yes, well. Right. I can see how that works but. Literature isn't just an echo chamber. In the turd-laden tide of English novels with awkward titles like 'I too had a love story', 'You were my crush!', 'An IIT love story' and so forth that's currently washing across Indian bookstores in the wake of Satan Bhagat (oops hyperbole alert) there may well lurk passages that jibe with some of my own experiences. Does that make them good books, leave alone the somewhat loaded L-word I've been using unexaminedly in this post? Not necessarily.

But I'm rambling. Or maybe not. Part of what I understand from Evaristo's kinda-manifesto and other commentary is that literature from the African continent needs to be seen and practiced on more levels than just documents of the troubles faced in those regions. To veer away from the more facile 'time we move on' aspects of Evaristo's rhetoric, I think it is perfectly valid for me to expect to be able to pick up this story here, Billy Kahora's 'Urban Zoning', and read it and feel it speak to me, story to reader, without doing a tonne of homework in advance. That's how I read 'The Master And Margharita', 'The Magic Mountain' and 'East Of Eden', all novels written within contexts quite alien to me (Soviet Russia, pre-world wars Europe and depression-era USA respectively). Maybe I have more practice in this sort of thing because I often read stories in places that are more comprehensively alien to me, like Kadath, Bas-Lag, Lyonesse, Viriconium, Dhalgren and Middle Earth.

So. 'Urban Zoning' starts out by plunging us into the boozy cruising of one Kandle, a young man who retreats from the vicissitudes of life into the Zone: a three-day drinking binge that he has refined to a fine art. Kahora describes the Zone and Kandle's world of pleasure-seeking young urbanites so well that I started feeling a little sozzled just reading. There's a brilliant little bit of literary synesthesia that also lets us know about the framework within which his latest binge is being undertaken:

A philosopher of the Kenyan calendar, Kandle associated all months of the year with different colors and hues in his head. August he saw as bright yellow, a time when the year had turned a corner; responsibilities would be left behind or pushed to the next January, a white month. March was purple-blue. December was red. The yellow haze of August would be better if he was to be fired from his job at Eagle Bank that evening.

Like many people with such epic drinking habits, Kandle is wounded. There's mention of childhood sexual trauma. Previous forms of escape - sport and sex - have proved less than optimum. Now, Kandle breezes through life like a sort of chameleon, working just long enough to get the money to head back into the zone and baffling his employers, staid, conservative men who see themselves as logical successors to departed colonial masters and are in fact tainted by corruption - accused or real. Kandle finds it easy to fool these self-important, devious naifs, turning on the charm at will, squeezing out the waterworks on command. He's a trickster, the sort of beating-the-system raver a lot of young men would love to be. When it all is over, after a virtuoso performance where he dissipates the ire of a managerial tribunal looking into his absenteeism and then, speaking to a manager whose own  career is under something of a cloud, he tacitly admits that he has no intention of returning to his banking job. The story ends with the manager and Kandle laughing - a laughter that comes from the knowledge of a quiet desperation that is not English but Kenyan.

This story is a more or less complete success in many ways. It is written well - vivid, absorbing and with some inventive passages. It is entertaining but not inane, deep but not ponderous.  It is both specific and universal, but in case I seem to be advocating that a writer from Kenya should write by way of shedding his own unique experiences and all that context I spoke about in the beginning, what I'd really like to get at is that your context can only ever truly be your own. Mann may have though he was diagnosing an entire civilisation, and many of his readers (including me) have thought this as well before delving a little deeper and concluding that he has done so, if at all, through the lens of his unique sensibility with its unique advantages and drawbacks. On a forum I frequent, we recently discussed Elliott's contention that poetry needs to move towards universal truths, magisterial summings-up, and how this can hinder the writing and reading of poetry. Beckett is probably closer to the truth, or its impossibility, although both have contributed equally to the store of fine things to read. Well, Beckett a bit more but that's because he wrote so much more and of so much more consistent a quality. But getting back to this story and all the half-backed thoughts I have around it, I admire Kahora for writing a story that doesn't back away from his context - but takes it on in a personal, honest,subjective way. He writes from his own urban position of relative privilege instead of giving us another trawl through hellholes that we would do better to turn to reportage to learn about. And even from a purely functional (and not at all irrelevant) perspective of asking how well this story puts me in the picture, makes a part of Kenyan come alive here in my Bangalore living-room, Kahora scores high points. I can relate to Kandle; I know people like his partying buddies; I've worked for addled assholes like his bank managers. It's like the gunfire in the background of another brilliant story by Kahora, The Gorilla's Apprentice: it's not just stage-dressing. The fact that it can be just a background element - until it no longer is - to an already powerful and gripping narrative brings home the enormity of that violence in a way that a more strident, obvious narrative couldn't. Besides, Kahora hasn't lived that story; instead, he tells you the stories that he can understand from within instead of forcing out the story that he thinks 'we' 'they' - someone - expects.

I loved Rotimi Babatunde's story because of its elements of satire and fable; pure imagination in the service of a serious subtext. I love this story because of how lived-in it feels, how it draws me into Kandle's boozy, swaggering, tormented life and for the story's smart, conscientious engagement with perspective and context.

Here are all the other posts about this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
City of Lions
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In

Thursday 17 May 2012

You should date Lin

Date a girl with a scarab beetle for a head. Date a girl who makes art from the secretions from her scarab beetle head. Date a girl who basically makes art from the shit excreted by her scarab beetle head. Date a girl who's only human from the neck down. She'll make love to you like a girl, kiss you like an insect. You won't know if your dreams of her are nightmares. Date a girl with a scarab beetle for a head. Save your city with her and a man with wings and a bird's head. Date a girl from the wrong side of New Crobuzon. Date a girl with a scarab beetle for a head.

Monday 14 May 2012


SPOILER ALERT: This review has genital warts in it. Spoilers, too.

The title promises more than the story delivers, possibly more than Willingham is capable of delivering. I found his Fables series dismally undermined by soap operatic gestures and an inability to deliver anything other than standard long-format commercial storytelling tropisms you can see in any number of long-running comic strips and television serials, decked out in Gaimanesque garb. Which is to say, hand-me-down Alan Moore hand-me-downs.

This could have been a great tale; Thessaly is a great character, one of the most powerful magic wielders in the Vertigoverse, richly deserving of a story in which she is actually the protagonist and driving force. Remember Thess was the only gal smart enough to ditch that serial mangler of lady friends, Morpheus. She was so smart even Gaiman, inordinately infatuated with his love-em-and-leave-em-to-fates-worse-than-big-sister-Death mopey Lothario of the dreamways, had to chalk her down as the one that got away.

But here...gah. There's this ghost, Fetch (encountered in Taller Tales too) who's both an amalgam of all the people Thess has killed and a smarmy he-ghost who wants to hook up with Thess and have adventures. Thess is having none of it. So Fetch brokers a totally brainless deal, gets Thess and himself into immense danger and finally has to sacrifice himself to undo his own mess. Well that's a great tale of Fetch, spectral asshole, but what's it got to do with Thess? Willingham too scared to make her the main player in her own title?

Sure there are some great scenes where Thess goes off visiting other realms to try and find a way to defeat looming nemesis, but they're just window dressing. Stripped to its essentials this could have been a story about a couple of high school kids, she won't give him time of day so he tries to impress her by palling up with some cool kids. Turns out the cool kids are gangsters and they're coming to mess with the object of the dork's unwanted attention. Dork mans up, faces off the heavies at great personal cost. Oh come on Willingham. Thess is worth much, more than this. Fie on you. May you be plagued with genital warts for this travesty.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Caine Prize 2012 Shortlist 1: Bombay's Republic by Rotimi Babatunde

Rotimi Babatunde is a Nigerian author and playwright. His fiction has won prizes before and his plays have been staged in London as well as broadcast by the BBC.

Chinua Achebe seems to be a writer whose repute and style loom large over the literature of the African continent, in much the same way as Rushdie's does in India. To make things tougher on Babatunde, he is a Nigerian, like Achebe. So what does he do with that potential burden of history and expectation? His answer to this question, in this story, is mature, relevant and free of fanfare or deference. During the course of the story, when Babatunde's protagonist, Colour Sergeant Bombay, kills a white Bombardier who has become dangerously deranged, he thinks back to the plight of Okonkwo, a man who killed one of the white rulers' constables and hung himself rather than give his imperial rulers the chance to execute him. Okonkwo is referred to as a real man, someone whose story will later become famous when it is told 'in a book called Things Fall Apart'. That novel is of course the archetypal fictional depiction of Africa and a part of the critique around the Caine Prize has been that it forces writers to work in Achebe's tradition and propagate a particular way of writing African literature. A writer in this position might feel compelled to toe the line or he might feel compelled to commit a symbolic act of patricide, slay the literature-father in a bid to announce his own autonomy. I think what Babatunde does here is to take a third path, one that shows that he is confident in his own voice, confident enough to touch on that iconic work without being overwhelmed by the need to either genuflect or play iconoclast. Colour Sergeant Bombay is thrown into the conflict between colonial masters and slaves, between races at a point history that is nearly the other end of the colonising process from Okonkwo; referring to the older story shows us how much has changed, and also how little. I think it's a valid and perfectly placed reference.

The story itself uses a lesser-known aspect of world history as its pivot. The British drafted soldiers from their many colonies into participating in World War 2; I know that Indian soldiers fought in far-away theatres of war in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Gurkha Regiments participated in the liberation of Italy. Similarly, troops from Nigeria were drafted to serve in Asian campaigns. We don't really see these things in the unending spew of World War 2 movies flowing out of the Western film industry; the accepted narrative seems to be that, with the exception of the Japanese adversary, this was a war fought between rival gangs of caucasians while the rest of the world stared in breathless fascination. While this is not exactly forgotten history, I doubt whether a lot of people outside the countries these soldiers were drafted from, or indeed within them, are really aware of it.

Babatunde tells a story of one of these soldiers, a man who has grown up in a highly stable colonial environment and is taken aback by the pragmatic egalitarianism forced upon black and white soldiers in combat situations. He is not especially ambitious - army life suits him because, at first, it demands little initiative. But the war is an eye-opener for him. Asians believe that Africans have tails - an idea he finds absurd rather than offensive. His Japanese opponents have been given to believe that the African troops are savages who will eat them. On the other hand, he finds that he is as good a fighter as any white man, even better than a couple of officers who crack up - one in a combat situation, and another whom Bombay has to kill. Most of all, he learns that people make up stories about each other all the time, that people believe in all sorts of strange things and that there are many more roles you can play than the obvious.

Back home, Bombay takes on his exotic monicker to reflect the fact that he has been to far-off Asia He regales the village children with exaggerated tales of the things he has seen in that other dark continent. But the genie is out of the bottle; he can no longer return to being a humble subject of the British Empire. In a brilliant satiric twist, he usurps a dilapidated prison - itself a symbol both of colonial authority and its gradual decline - and declares himself an autonomous state. He comes out with a story so absurd that it winds up defeating all challenges. The authorities try to force him to pay taxes, but are pungently repelled. The government decides to ignore him, lest he lend momentum to the emerging independence struggle. Bombay becomes an enclave to himself and something of a celebrity as regimes rise and fall around him and he congratulates each new incumbent, a benign but formidable eccentric who  takes his place amongst the ranks of heads of state.

Babatunde's story has a light touch that does not undermine its subject matter. In many ways, satire and farce can be most effective ways to deal with harsh truths; this story reminded me a little of the best story I have ever read about the India-Pakistan Partition, Toba Tek Singh by Sadat Hasan Manto. Like Manto, Babtunde is irreverent and witty, but a similar sense of the stakes underlying his story informs Babatunde's story.

I found Babatunde's style interesting and familiar, perhaps due to the shared colonial past. Like a lot of Indian writers I've read, the Nigerian Babatunde has a flair for a slightly archaic, mannered vocabulary - there's an echo of Victorian diction every so often. And there are also slightly awkward passages where the rhythms are syncopated in a manner just a beat or two off standard English.This is not to suggest that Babatunde is a bad writer - although he does tend to 'tell' rather than 'show' a little too often, a strange trait in someone who also writes plays -  but to point out that his use of the language has its own idiosyncrasies.

While researching this piece, I read another short story by the author, Auto Da Fe, a powerful tale of schoolyard conflict between a village boy and his city-bred counterparts. Babatunde seems to be a writer who can take powerful themes of identity, independence and conflicts between cultures - African and British, urban and rural - and tell them through memorable, moving narratives in which characterisation is foregrounded.

I think 'Bombay's Republic' is a very good story. It takes only a little longer to read than, and contains telling details and ideas beyond the scope of, this brief essay. I don't know how it addresses the call for diversity that is associated with this year's Prize, but it tells a story that relies on satirical and humorous techniques rather than just mimetic reporting to make its points. It also focuses  on the individual, rejecting narrow colonial and postcolonial politics to emphasise the autonomy that a single human being whose perspectives have been broadened can aspire to, even if few do so as literally as the unforgettable Colour Sergeant Bombay. Nationality helps shape us; but it does not have to be the only thing that defines us. In his own way, Bombay is a reminder that we can reject the narrow narratives imposed on us, whether by literary tradition or history.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Whispers Of A Dying Flame now on sale

' With the destruction of our world, we are given the opportunity to recreate it afresh, or build a world that never was but should have been, or a world beyond what we have ever previously imagined. Or instead, we can choose to forever shun the concept of society, with its inevitable corruptions. In an end of the world scenario, we are put to the test as unfettered individuals. Tested as the last representatives of what we were...or the emissaries of what we might become.'

In his introduction to Whispers Of A Dying Flame, Jeffrey Thomas sums up the appeal of the post-apocalyptic genre in these words. And the stories in the collection offer a variety of end-of-the-world scenarios as well as a variety of responses and consequences. There are many stories of personal courage in a world that has reverted to chaotic savagery, stories of individuals and their choices, of victories and failures, of menaces ranging from the human to the supernatural. Stories of dark magics and dark science, stories in which hope is lost or found, stories that hinge on decisive individual action and stories that are decided by vast forces beyond any one individual's control.

With an international (USA, UK, the Philippines, Japan, the Netherlands, South Africa, India) roster of writers and a variety of implied genres from heroic fantasy to magic realism, this is hopefully an anthology with enough variety of ideas and treatments to satisfy even the most jaded genre fan. It may even have a story that will connect with the benighted literary-fiction-only purist.

Here's an excerpt from my own contribution, a story called 'Apocalypso For One':

'It is a dark, dark night in the middle of the day. It is a dark, cold night and the streetlights are palpably overwhelmed and shamefaced in the face of the sheer darkness that rains from above.
It is a dark, snowy night, flakes of snow floating down to earth, illuminated briefly in the glow of the futile, discouraged lights.

It is dark and snowy here, in a place that has seen no snow since the last ice age; this cannot be the nuclear winter, not yet, not while the missiles are still flying through the air and in any cases their payloads are more esoteric, capable of triggering consequences that we can barely understand, let alone predict. This must be something else, something primal that has been triggered by this apocalyptic climate. This must be the Fimbulwinter.

In the Fimbulwinter a young man walks back home from his girlfriend’s house. He is dressed for the weather, but he is shivering. Tears trail down his cheeks, his eyes are red. He passes confused, frantic people, like moths hovering in the dispirited light given out by the dejected lights. They brush up against him, reaching out for contact, asking him to share their fears, their prayers, their tears, anything. He does not hear them, does not see them. His eyes are red, his thoughts are whirling. He is walking home, walking a long path down endless streets of enervated lamps casting their feeble glow on distraught mobs.'

Now doesn't that sound jolly? You know it  does. For more of this, and other things, hop on over here and stump up the measly 3.99 pounds it'll take to download the anthology.

Saturday 5 May 2012

'What is interesting about serial killers and the cultural enthrallment with them is not how aberrant their psychology is, but how banal and pedestrian their hatred of women is. ' This is disturbingly true, and you should read this essay.

It also reminds me of something I've noticed reading my share of serial killer case studies (consumed along with Norwegian death metal and horror movies, natch). Serial killers imagine they are enacting a role of immense power, but the reality of what they do is sordid and stupid: it's rotting flesh in the sewage, it's ID cards and bloodstained clothes hidden under the mattress, it's a head rotting in the garage, it's the vicious extinction of another life in an ultimately doomed attempt to lend meaning and grandeur to your own. It's trying to be a god by behaving like the devil, to use a religious metaphor. I realise this is a little tangential to the post I've linked to above, but I just wanted to articulate this thought for what it was worth.
Since I'm going to take part in an extended discussion on this year's Caine Prize nominees across various blogs, I'm also going to link to everyone else's posts. Most of them have much bigger brains than me, so that can't hurt.

Here's Aaron Bady's post which sparked this project. He has been following the Prize for a while and you can find links to his commentary on past prize winners and actually just lots of other good, relevant links in this post.

Mathew Cheney, whose brains are so big that they threaten to upset the earth's axis has also written on this Prize before and both links to his past commentary and offers his reaction to Bernadine Evaristo here.

I don't know the name of this blogger, but a lot of things he said really resonated with me. Particularly this:

Lastly (for now), there’s the more abstract question of how the Caine Prize frames the works that it recognizes. The Prize bills itself as an award for the best writing in English by Africans. As such it promotes the idea that literature in Africa is essentially a competition among individuals to produce work of superior quality. So then what of Ngugi wa Thiong’o's assertion that literature is the expression of a community’s collective identity? Or Achebe’s belief that a writer must be a teacher? What about the half-century of scholarly work about African literature that emphasizes its roots in oral (i.e. communal) traditions and missionary education?
Let me be clear: the Caine Prize is a worthy institution. It makes African writing present to a potentially global public in a way that no African institution can match. However we readers should be acutely aware of how it promotes, not just individual authors, but a framework of literary individuality. And we need to be aware that this approach stands in painful contrast to some of the most hopeful and utopian thinking about what African literature could be.
 Finally, I'd like to make two things clear: I am fascinated by the debates over the nature and future of African literature being unearthed here because it is a fascinating topic in itself, but also because I feel that it resonates with similar debates over literature in India, where I live and try to write.

Also, I love short stories, and that may well be the primary reason I've decided to jump in and certainly my primary vector for commenting on individual stories will be as stories, as short works of literature. I'll write a lot about language, plot, characterisation and setting. And as an amateur critic, my posts may seem callow and superficial. But I hope I'll learn something along the way. 

Friday 4 May 2012

Thoughts on the Caine Prize

Aaron Bady is going to blog the Caine Prize 2012 shortlist on his excellent blog, zunguzungu. Wikipedia tells me that 'The Caine Prize for African Writing is an annual literary award for the best original short story by an African writer, whether in Africa or elsewhere, published in the English language'. Unlike half the world and her nephew, I happen to like short fiction a great deal. Furthermore, I haven't really read a lot of fiction from Africa - Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was one of the texts I studied in college (I liked it a lot) and a couple years back I read a novel by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie which didn't impress me much. Despite some searing passages set in the Biafra conflict, it felt like it was populated with too many characters, riven with too many soap operatic gestures, to sustain the power its subject matter deserved. I've also read novels by JM Coetzee, Andre Brink and Etienne Leroux.

Anyway. The Caine Prize is now in its 12th year. Perhaps to respond to criticism of the prize as lumping all African literature together and encouraging writers to pander to a simplified, West-friendly vision of Africa, Bernadine Evaristo, chairman of the judging committee, has said: 'I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?'

I thought about this for a while, and something struck me. It's as if there is an unwritten subtext here that we've had enough stories of the Tragic Continent. But is that fair? If there is tragedy, if a writer is sensitive to it and wants to chronicle it in her stories, should she be stopped just because she's African and 'we' have heard enough stories of that sort from there? Can we ever 'move on' from the truth, especially in the arena of fiction, which often has a firmer finger on the pulse of reality than reportage and history? I am sure Evaristo means well, but I can't help but find aspects of her declaration hard to swallow. As an (unknown, for the most part and probably deservedly so) Indian writer, I feel this paradoxical push-me pull-you, where I don't want to be limited to the twin tropes of exoticism and squalor that seem to dominate Indian writing in English, but if I am to reflect my own experience accurately, how do I 'move on' from the reality that the odours of slums and the aromas of incense both actually happen to be things I have extensive experience of? 

I've sometimes solved the problem of being true to myself without churning out the same old thing again by couching my stories as fables in some never-never land; one of my most recent stories is set in an unspecified urban setting. Like the ambiguously phrased love songs of REM, with gender-revealing pronouns carefully elided, this story is written so that it could be set in nearly any city. I wrote it with my city in mind, but then I put in details and left out details and created a setting that you could imagine as belonging to any nation you cared to situate it in.

Is that a cheat? If so, so is any fantastic fiction. (Of which, a little more a little later.)

More often, though, I set my stories in my city, Bangalore, explicitly or implicitly. And I've at least touched on the recurring themes that hover around this city - the rate of its progress and its human, aesthetic and environmental cost. I've written about slums, about poverty-stricken farmers, about the urban poor, about middle class crisis of identity. I've worked these themes into stories that have generous lashings of the fantastic and uncanny (I hope), but the recurring themes that are suggested by my life as an Indian living in India have not been evaded. I don't think it's time to move on from them, or that I need to.

Does that make my stories more of the same? Am I contributing to a stereotyped image of India as a nation of vast contrasts where immense poverty and dis-empowerment are the majority reality, obscured by the self-congratulatory rhetoric of a small bubble of privileged people on top? What if that image only became a stereotype because it happens to be true? At the very least, what if I happen to think it's true? Do I remain honest to my own vision of my country, my city, my own life as a boy in a bubble, that bubble of privilege, or do I 'move on'? I've perhaps done neither, not directly. I've found or am finding my own idiom, combining the Ligottian tale of cosmic emptiness with a sensibility shaped and sharpened on my native turf. And that brings me to another quote from Evaristo's post, one that perhaps better expresses what she was getting at, and what I think is a great wake-up call to writers in India too: 'For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit? To be as diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations. Imagine if the idea of ‘European Literature’ only evoked novels about the holocaust, communist gulags and twentieth century dictatorships. I’m looking forward to the time when the concept of ‘African literature’ also cannot be defined; when it equates to infinite possibilities and, as with Europe, there are thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader. '

A couple more thoughts on this passage and then I'm done. Remaining 'more than a passing fad on the world stage' can never be the motive behind a vital, genuine literature. I would stand by any writer who rejects Evaristo's kinda-manifesto on the ground of this phrasing and the 'look to Europe' rhetoric that mars much of this essentially sound declaration. But just as important, a vital, genuine literature needs the diversity Evaristo evokes. One of the best novels I've read about 'the holocaust' is Jane Yolen's 'Briar Rose' which is at least partly framed in the terms of the fairy tale source material Yolen draws on so often. Two of the most enduring fictional statements about 'communist gulags and twentieth century dictatorships' are Orwell's fable, 'Animal Farm' and his dystopian fantasy '1984'. Literature should be diverse - not to 'move on' from enduring topics but to find ways to add more topics to their number and to find diverse, illuminating ways to approach those topics.

Right, I'm done for now. I've already started reading the stories in the shortlist and maybe I'll put up a post about one of them later today, and then on each subsequent Friday as suggested by Aaron.

Thursday 3 May 2012

The Unwritten 1: Tommy Taylor and the bogus identity by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

 It's been a good long while since I tried a new title from Vertigo. Fables was a massive disappointment. A dazzlingly simple, high-concept idea anyone could have had deserves a complex, layered treatment that everyone can only wish they'd thought of. Instead we get a less than fabulous soap opera and hackneyed The Two Towers-style building-to-the-big-fight plotlines. Y The Last Man was another potentially excellent title marred by an excessive reliance on violence as a plot engine, reducing its post-masculine world to an array of warring feminine stereotypes. The fact that the artist only seemed aware of two body types - Barbie and Ken - didn't help.

The Unwritten, at heart, is built from the same theme Gaiman, for one, keeps returning to - that the stories we tell shape us and our world. So what happens when you find out that what you are is a story? That seems to be the revelation Tommy Taylor is headed for - unless there's some vast narrative feint at play. He is the son of a writer who created a series of Harry Potter-esque fantasy novels starring a boy wizard called Tommy Taylor. Taylor's father vanished mysteriously after turning in the penultimate volume of the series. The series is an immense success, but Taylor senior's estate is tied up, so Tommy makes money touring the genre convention circuit, doing signings and public appearances as the original inspiration for the fictional Tommy Taylor. You sense that this fame is something of an albatross around his neck, a legacy from his father that he doesn't care much for but can do little to shake off, just like his extensive knowledge of the real-world corollaries to famous fictions - the places they  were written in, the places they were inspired by. Then, a series of revelations that seem to be mysteriously engineered by his own agent suggest that Tommy Taylor might be a fraud. Things get stranger as Tommy Taylor is abducted by a vampiric villain from his father's novels, rescued by a mysterious girl and elevated to a messiah by a section of fandom. He flees to his father's Swiss home - Villa Diodato, in the first stroke of genius in this so far fairly humdrum, if amusing enough narrative. Better still,Carey doesn't go straight for the Frankenstein bit but also dwells on the fact that John Milton dwelt here too. if Tommy Taylor is a boy from a story, then Milton's Lucifer and Frakenstein's monster are his siblings or uncles. There's a gathering of horror writers which makes for a comment on 'genre conventions' (oh did I use that phrase again) that, to my mind, at least equals Joe Hill's rather overrated short story 'Best New Horror'. All this more than makes up for Tommy Taylor who is a bit like the typical Gaiman 'hero': a void at the heart of the narrative, too bland to be truly memorable.

But the real kicker, the bit elevated my rating from 'rather nice' to 'jolly good' if not quite 'transcendentally scrumpy' was the last chapter which ditches Tommy & Co. entirely to follow the career of Rudyard Kipling and the role played in it by a shadowy organisation that identifies powerful storyteller and drafts them in to help shape the world to their own pattern via stories that define an age, as Kipling's works helped shore up and strengthen the colonial spirit. This is a truly brilliant episode, sensitive to the many aspects of Kipling's work - the immense power and appeal of his prose and verse, his deep idealism and its contrast to the truth of what the British Empire was about, and even his interest in fables and just-so stories as time passed. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde have walk-on roles that are true to their characters, despite one unfortunate bit of camp dialogue between Wilde and Bosie. This story is more than just a what-if - on some level it is literary appreciation and critique as well, in the way it contextualises Kipling's work both factually and within the fictional universe of The Unwritten.

Not an unmixed triumph then, but filled with enough  of the good stuff to merit reading more.