Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Voices from the Other Side: SWF

Had this opportunity to attend the Monday evening session mysteriously called “The Other Voice - Writings from the Other Side” though by mistake I missed out on Aniruddha Bahal's talk on investigative journalism in India. I had somehow thought that Bahal's session will follow the Voices session but, no, I was wrong. Why do festival organisers do this? There should not be any simultaneous sessions at all! It makes our life tough guys.

The charming Deepika Shetty of CNA was again compering the panel discussion. The participants were an eclectic mix of writers: Suhayl Saadi from Scotland, Ouyang Yu from Australia, Laksmi Pamuntjak from Indonesia, Dr. Rudhramoorthy Cheran from Canada and Felix Cheong from Singapore. The panelists attempted to look at the issues of identity especially in the context of living and writing in an alien culture and sometimes in a second (alien) language.

Deepika had an interesting way of introducing the topic. She clarified that the session was not about the voices from the "other world" (horror of horrors!) but was about identities and how writers struggled to deal with them.

First, Felix recited some poems and enlivened the atmosphere with his performance. I loved his poem about the anguish of an abused wife. Terrific imagery!

Ouyang is an angry young man and he brought out the frustrations of a migrant life in his talk. His discussed some episodes of hostility faced by Asians in Australia. The Western people think that the only interesting book to have come out of this part of the world is the Wild Swans, he said! How funny! He read a poem on the future of the world, which was hilarious but biting.

Lakshmi read two of her poems but what I liked most was her introduction on the question of identity and of belonging to the other side--and who decides what? It was brilliant skeptical look at the issue of majorityism and minorityism. I wish I had recorded her intro.

Dr. Saadi, a medic turned novelist, read from his latest work, Psychoraag. He came across as a guy with deep knowledge and understanding of issues of racial stereotyping in the Western world. He has a powerful sense of words and he mixes languages beautifully. Even his novel has an interesting smattering of Urdu and Punjabi words redolent of lost languages and lost connections. "I am monolingual," he said. "English is my first language. But in a way, my using Urdu and Hindi and Punjabi words in my novel is an attempt to connect to the languages of my ancestors. I try but I fail and there's a struggle in that." "Probably people who know and use more languages are better at writing," he opined.

During a question answer session later on Dr. Saadi said that the publishers in UK were still trying to pigeonhole writers and their material in accordance with their skin color. He said that if he wrote stuff like Monica Ali he would be far more successful (his novels were not published by big publishers). He said that in fact agents and publishers in the West wanted him to write Monica Ali kind stuff. Depressing, isn't it?

I salute Dr. Saadi for speaking the truth. He also gave some tips on writing short stories that I am going to cherish and practice.

Dr. Cheran's work is mostly in Tamil and he shared with us a few of his poems. He talked about the struggle of straddling the two worlds of Tamil and English. His creative language, he said, was Tamil even though he was at home in English.

I enjoyed my interaction with Dr. Saadi after the session. Walking off, I saw Anirudhha Bahal talking with Bruce Sterling at the Kinukuniya Book Bar. Bahal is as tall as his fellow Tehelka-ite Tarun Tejpal but seems to have developed a paunch. Earlier in the evening, I had seen Sterling buy a copy of Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby. Clearly, Hui had a made an impact on the sci fi writer):

Enough for tonight. More later. Cheers!


Susan Abraham said...

Hi Zafar, I did like Brick Lane by Monica Ali; it was a breath of fresh air offering interesting arugments about Bangladeshi culture in London - painful issues on from an East End side that I took for granted and never thought twice about before. But I do now. I think Ali would have written what was close to her heart and as a young author, wrote her first novel so well. And I've met her in real life. She's soft, sweet, very simple, humble and engaging. And people are so easily drawn to her. Each author's journey is so reflective of that particular time of their life. Now engaged in writing my own book and tasting the thorn bleeds, I would know better than to ever compare my choice of genres and my choice of stories or even my writing life to another author's and to offer direct comparisions but instead to be respectful of each one's literary journey. And I am very thankful to every legitimate literary agent and publisher (no matter big or small) in the West who love our voices in the East and who are smart enough to make it happen for us.

Zafar Anjum said...

Hi Susan, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I guess Suhayl was not personally attacking Monica Ali; he was merely pointing out a syndrome. What he was saying was that despite being a second or third generation Scotsman, the publishers still expected him to write on the Pakis. What if he tried writing about the majority community? Would his work be accepted then? That was what he was rebelling against, that was what he was questioning.

Of course, Monica wrote what was close to her heart: the Bangladeshi culture in London was her material. That is nothing new. Indians write about the Indian diaspora or better still about the India they have left back home. Change the author and change the nationality and you get the pattern. Nothing wrong with this per se, but what if one tried what Suhayl was suggesting about? (The only exception being Vikram Seth's An Equal Music).

I have no doubt when you say (about Monica) that "She's soft, sweet, very simple, humble and engaging. And people are so easily drawn to her."

Also true is your observation that each other's journey is personal, but it still is interesting to see how each author undertakes that journey. There are many lessons in most of the journeys to learn from. And by looking at these journeys, it is possible for some people to see some patterns and draw some conclusions. Of course, writers and readers are free to disagree with those observations and conclusions.

And I am sure your words echo the sentiments of many writers published in the West when you say: "I am very thankful to every legitimate literary agent and publisher (no matter big or small) in the West who love our voices in the East and who are smart enough to make it happen for us."

Once again thanks for your comments.

Susan Abraham said...

My dear Zafar,
I disagree with almost every line you have said and could with respect to this, find a 100 things to ask you and to say in return. But I have decided to just let it go and to reserve my comments.
I have to move on.
I've got to concentrate on my own book and books to come. I have my plans and dreams and need all my energy to complete my own literary journey that was so violently & rudely stopped at some point for years. I don't have much time left. Take care and I'll reply your email tomorrow. Besides all considering, I'm glad you're having a jolly old time at the festival & you are, aren't you...

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Susan. I am sure yours will be a great journey. All the best!