On Cunning

Hayun Jung taught me that fiction is the art of the perspective. What makes a story itself is its vantage point with its particular limitations and freedoms. A story about a woman who throws herself in front of a train is journalism. A story about a woman who leaves her husband is gossip. A story about a woman whom the narrator is close (and far) enough to chart every change of heart and shade of thought, that’s Anna Karenina.

*

What is cunning? It’s not book-smarts. Like Matilda’s mother, I’d thought I’d chosen looks instead of books. But somehow, I ended up with three bachelor’s degrees and a master’s. My own home institution rejected me from their PhD program, their gentle way of telling me to please get a life.

So I went on to translate books. I’m translating another book right now, in fact. But it took me a very long time before I wrote a book myself, or at least a book an agent wanted to take on. Before that, all throughout my teens, twenties, and most of my thirties, I wrote books. I started many and finished five of them. They failed. My book-smarts failed me.

Cunning is, surely, street-smarts. I am not, in any kind of way, street-smart. My husband marvels at my inability to retain any information on streets or locations. I would say, “Oh look, there’s a new Starbucks on this street!” and he would reply, “You’ve said that at least three times now.”

One time in LA, I had to get something out of the trunk of a car my friend had just street-parked. As soon as I did, he started the engine to re-park the car.

“Why? Are we on a no-parking curb?” (Look at me being all street-smart!)

“Naw, someone on the street might have seen we have stuff in the trunk and might try to steal your luggage.” (Oh.)

Street-smarts. I marveled at it. The ability to think like a criminal. And how do criminals think? They can slip into the minds of their victims to see what they see, hear what they hear, think what they think. They think with cunning.

And that’s what cunning is. The ability to slip into another perspective.

*

Joyce could’ve had an academic career. He famously opted for cunning (and silence and exile) instead. I might’ve kept reapplying for my PhD and embarrassed Seoul National University into letting me enter. But would a fifth university degree have taught me cunning?

Academia is a hierarchical power structure where students learn to write, talk, and act like the people in power (professors). The perspective you are taught to slip into is that of power, and your individuality as a successful scholar depends on how well you can incorporate your marginality into the pre-existing structure of academia. This is cunning in a way, but in a very particular way, and not everyone is going to be satisfied with it. It’s what that cliché really means, about reading being the only thing that teaches writers how to write. Reading helps you think like a criminal. Academia helps you think like the police.

So much for reductive metaphors, but do take away the takeaway. Fiction depends on where you stand within (and without) the story. Good fiction could be within the character or beyond, intradiegetic or extradiegetic, close or far, it could be hiding anywhere in the topography of the story. Cunning is the ability to find it.

*

I wonder if you’ve read that Ted Hughes poem about the thought-fox. I said it was a poem, but sometimes, I think it’s fiction. It’s a narrative that starts out from a writer’s perspective and slips into a very close third-person (third-fox?) perspective before slipping back into first-person and the thought-fox ending up on the page, both the literal page in front of the reader and the hypothetical one Ted Hughes’s speaker is writing on. It’s Ted Hughes being cunning as a fox.

But why did Ted Hughes think like a writer thinking like a fox, instead of just thinking like a fox? Because the perspective of the former yields a much more interesting story than the latter.

There’s more to this poem, however.

Last year, I was asked by Litro to write an article on queer Korean literature. It had been such a long time since I was asked to write instead of translating that I hemmed and hawed for ages before whipping something up and sending it in. I thought no more of it until I received the physical magazine in the mail, which was when something caught my eye.

My name was on the cover. Sandwiched between Bae Suah’s and Yi Sang’s, both writers I’d admired for decades.

It took a moment to sink in. Why is my name on the cover? I was so sure of my identity as a translator—where disappearing from the page is a virtue, although that’s changing fast—that I had to be reminded that I’d written something, not translated it, and here I was, “Anton Hur” the writer, not “Anton Hur” the translator. Bae Suah, Anton Hur, Yi Sang. Bae Suah, Anton Hur, Yi Sang.

I was used to literary cunning. I’ve had to pretend I was Kyung-Sook Shin, Kang Keyong-ae, Hwang Sok-yong, Jeon Sam-hye—any of the many writers I translate (my colleague So J. Lee describes me not as “cunning” but “promiscuous”). It was funny that I didn’t know how to pretend to be Anton Hur, the writer. He had been kept in the dark for so long that I couldn’t recognize him in the daytime with his clothes on.

In the end, it’s the writer in “The Thought Fox” who’s the real point of the poem, not the fox. Not Ted Hughes, the man physically writing the poem. Ted Hughes did not write the poem to describe a fox, or even to describe a writer thinking like a fox. He wrote it to describe a writer thinking like a writer.

Maybe that’s the ultimate use of cunning for a writer. To slip into your writer-you, your thought-fox, your other voice. To imagine yourself as a writer.




The Stages of the Writing Process

Picture Credits: Dariusz Sankowski

I once read an Ann Patchett quote where she compared the act of writing to taking a beautiful butterfly and killing it, rendering it flat on a page with a large pin until it’s a husk of the shimmering butterfly it was before. That image has stayed with me, and I think I understand what she means. The act of writing is a physical one. Writing is a type of alchemy, of taking an idea and translating it to words on a page.  

Writing begins foremost with an idea, do you have a compelling story to tell? I think the most important aspect of a story is how compelling it is. As literary agents, we look for narrative, we look for stories that are powerful, that are memorable, that want to be read. There are of course, exceptions, but I think that even very literary work that focuses on language, has at its heart, a compelling idea.

The Idea and the narrative engine

For a writer, the idea stage must be the most exciting part. This planning stage can take months, some writers like to begin with a kernel of idea while others like to expand the story before they begin.

Here are some questions to consider with your story idea. What is your story about? What is the narrative heart? What are the emotional stakes? Does it have conflict? There are many books on storytelling, but my favourite is probably STORY by Robert McKee. It breaks down the elements of compelling storytelling. A mistake we often see from first time writers, is a lack of narrative momentum or a lack of stakes.  

Some novels are voice driven, others are character driven, I would argue that a novel will always need multi-dimensional characters. Characters that live and breathe off the page, whose motivations and actions are logical and ring true. However, the common point of a voice-driven narrative or a character-driven narrative is that there is that drive. A narrative needs an engine.

Writing your narrative

Then there is the “killing of the butterfly” where you as a writer take your idea and write the story. It can be tempting to keep your novel idea to yourself, to keep dreaming it, thinking it, because if you don’t write your story, then you never have to see how imperfect it can be. But this transformation is a necessary one to writing a novel. An idea that gestates for years won’t necessarily become better, it needs to make that transition.

With the actual writing process, there are different schools of thought. There are some writers who believe in an outline, planning out the structure of their novel scene by scene, while others believe in an organic flow of ideas to see where the story takes them. Some writers write their first draft in a frenzy and then edit afterwards, while others edit as they go along.

I don’t think there’s a magical equation to this. The most important thing is just to write. Whether it’s longhand or on a computer, you just have to write. Write the words on the page. However, I think for beginners, it’s always best to write chronologically, because that ensures that the narrative builds naturally to momentous scenes.

Post the first draft, using the “scissors” of revision

After you’ve finished a first draft, it will be very tempting to want to send it off to an agent straight away. Resist this temptation. There are many reasons why, but the primary one is that your first draft is not strong enough. No one’s first draft is. A first draft is for a writer’s eyes only or for your trusted first readers. I would argue that the revision process is just as important, if not more important than writing the first draft.

I would always say to give your first draft some space to breathe. Put it away for awhile, maybe a week, maybe a month, put the book away and forget about it, and then return to it with a critical eye. With the benefit of time, you’ll be able to notice the things in your story that aren’t working. Perhaps it’s the language or the pacing of the opening chapters, or maybe you have an extra viewpoint that’s not necessary. View your first draft with a critical, unsparing eye, and don’t be afraid to make dramatic changes. Truman Capote said, “I believe in the scissors more than the pencil.”

This is the attitude to take with revision. Think of the manuscript as still in the sculpture phase, nothing has been set in stone, it’s still malleable.

There are many writers who talk about throwing out their first draft and beginning again, and others who talk about extensive surgery on their manuscript, from changing the perspective to cutting out the second half. Writing is a marathon, it’s a process, and it takes time.

After you’ve revised your manuscript a number of times, and have shared it with a trusted reader, it is time for the querying process. Querying requires you to think of your manuscript as a businessman would. What are its strengths? What is the pitch? You are going to be pitching your book to agents. Remember that agents don’t necessarily expect a perfect manuscript, so you don’t have to invest in an editor or editorial guidance.

Querying literary agents

Literary agents are the first professionals who take part in the writing process. It’s best to put as much space between the first draft and an agent as you can. As agents, we are inundated with manuscripts (it’s a privilege), but it means that we’re not able to give feedback. You shouldn’t look to an agent for feedback, most likely you’ll receive silence or a form rejection.

Rejection happens to everyone; every writer has a rejection story. The most important thing is to improve, to keep going, and to learn from rejection. Rejection is never personal and remember, it is an opportunity to learn.

But don’t let these thoughts enter your mind in the idea process. There’s no need to think about agents or the publishing industry or publishing trends when you’re creating your novel. When you still have that butterfly of an idea in your mind, there you are the creator, you are in control of the story.

Catherine Cho’s next article on Writer’s Block




Translating India, Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 – tour dates

Litro’s newest collection of original writing launches at the Jaipur festival this Friday. Litro World Series: Translating India , which Litro is currently crowdfunding to support, draws from a pot of languages, stirred in with English. Translating India is Litro’s newest body of captivating stories from the subcontinent, shrugging off Salman Rushdie’s assertion that Indian writers in English are proving more interesting.* And sidestepping Amit Chaudhuri’s riposte as to whether this could possibly be true.**

Translating India is so language neutral as to include a photo story. LA-based celebrity photographer Dani Brubaker briefly turns her back on Leonardo Di Caprio, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Ciara. Travelling to Jodhpur, India, she draws us intimately into lives there, for a shoot exclusive to Litro. Author and politician Shashi Tharoor introduces the issue, and will be bringing the work to the world’s largest literary festival in Jaipur this Friday 25 January, which also attracts the likes of  Tom Stoppard and Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding. The issue’s tour then continues on to Kerala’s first Festival of Letters on 2, 3 and 4 February.

It’s a heady, welcome counterpoint to London’s frigid winter

Litro’s editor and publisher Eric Akoto says, “Translating India offers writing that began in English or was translated from Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Tamil or Hindi.

“Litro’s insouciant approach to language, in search of work that is simply great, is reflected in our publication of early Irvine Welsh, Benjamin Zephaniah and Kate Tempest, among many others including joint Man Booker international prize-winners Hang Kang and Deborah Smith.

“Translating India is drawn from a pot of languages unintelligible to one another, mixed in with the unifying second language of former colonialists, the influence of which seems unworthy, given it was a minority’s native language, who came and went in a few hundred years. That’s the blink of an eye in a literary history over 2,000 years old, whose Panchatantra fables, for example, inspired Aesop.

“Here, English has been appropriated in fresh new Indian ways, along with acting as the simple workaday instrument of translation, all of which presents a heady, welcome counterpoint to London’s frigid winter.”

In this issue, the mangoes, banyans, jasmine, heat and jostling envelop us, in a world far removed from northern detachment. Private anxieties and cruel exploitations are exposed in a country undergoing rapid change, where privacy is as coveted as it is challenged.

“Mangoes, banyans, jasmine, heat and jostling envelop us”

Anita Goveas presents us with language and cultural dilemmas in Fragments as a drunk Bollywood co-star confuses his English with, “Make sure that lipstick is kissproof.”

A cloying PR asks, “Oh, is that Hindi? It’s one of my languages but you speak so fast here. My Tamil is better.”
“It’s Marathi. I said, I think you’ve got lipstick on your teeth.”


Where the starlet, “sees her chance and squeezes between a sunshine-yellow rickshaw and a man waving at his cow that’s decided to sit in the middle of the road… the traffic patiently waiting for the cow to make up its mind.”

And where, at the beach in Mumbai, she contemplates a crowd gathering around a dancing monkey, “It moves slowly and deliberately, in contrast to its bright red fez, gold waistcoat and the bangra music coming from a radio held by a tall, scrawny man.”

In Sabotage, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay considers the impact of mafia-killings over valuable land, equally regretting the intrusion on domestic culture of her apartment complex’s modernity, “Even the smoke from an incense stick sets off the fire alarm in the lobby…”

She speaks to her temporary neighbor, from another part of India, in broken English, ruing also the intrusion of cameras watching her always in her own apartment, installed by her husband.

In Solapur, by Benyamin, a protagonist, lower caste couple, “had to wait for the bus under the tree on which bats were practising sleeping yoga.”

They have been told, “When I see the common people like you stepping into the new age, the dream of digital India seems not too far.” But the mobile phone proves to be a new sickening instrument of abuse by upper castes.

Ominously, KR Meera writes, in The Moles of the Angel, “Outside, the desolate day wrapped the transparent wedding gown of the rain – stained with Angela’s blood – around itself.”

Susmita Bhattacharya’s widow in The Taste of Onion on his Tongue has “nowhere to go…”

“…I wait by the window, and watch other people. Especially him. His window is opposite mine. Just a sliver of street separates both our worlds.”

Farzana in Manisha Kulshreshtha’s story, The Abode of Seasons Remain Vacant, is contemplating suicide… “The earlier distraught sky was calm and poised after the heavy downpour.

“Hi, Farzana!” Rita called out from the neighbouring balcony. “You are glowing today in this pink kurta. Any plans?”

Vivek Shanbhag’s Nirvana explores the problem of identity in a population of one billion, as two businessmen spend the evening together, believing wrongly that each is someone they know.

Paul Zacharia’s memoire Sinning in Mysore explains, “We understood no word of the Hindi lyrics but we needed to know nothing. We only needed to hear.”

And further on the subject of language, “I was just learning to speak English, though on the writing of it I had some claims. I slowly realised that literature was not only about reading yourself into an ecstasy, that it had a premeditated form, purpose and plan, that it was possible to create literature if you tried.”

With Litro, the word, originating in whatever language, might be expected to win out, as Perumal Murugan’s Byepass Road sends his character Kumaresan into a quandary about the morality of his earnings: “Should he drop it in a beggar’s bowl?… Should he send it to an orphanage?… It was best that he dropped it off in a temple hundi. But he did not quite believe in God. At least not that much. After thinking about it for a long time, he decided at last to use the money to buy a book that he had long wanted.”

There is of course no simple summary for the complex beauty of Indian stories, possibly best presented here in the final words of Manasi’s The Rite of Passage, “It’s humanly impossible to tie up all the loose ends, I told myself, and took unflappable comfort in the irrefutable justification of that argument. After all, we are only human!”

Translating India tour dates 2018

25th – 29th January, Jaipur Literature Festival

The opening dancers break the morning silence at the Jaipur Lit Fest #zeejlf #jlf #jaipur

A post shared by Brad Bernard (@mywanderlist) on

Independent Magazine Roundtable Friday 26 January, 11:15am – 12:15pm, Jaipur Book Mark

Independent magazines are pioneering enterprises founded on conviction. They reach out and venture where more established publishers do not and form a valuable component in promoting avant garde or marginalised writings. A session devoted to the value of these important ‘independent’ publications and the diversity of approaches they nurture, with Sam Cooney, Vivek Shanbhag, Sunandan Roy Chowdhury, Shireen Quadri, Eric Akoto, D P Agrawal, in conversation with Subhro Bandopadhyay

Litro World Series: India: The Power of Fiction Across Borders and of Translation Saturday 27 January, 1:40pm – 2:20pm, at Char Bagh

Tishani Doshi, Vivek Shanbagh, Shashi Tharoor and Suki Kim in conversation with Litro’s editor Eric Akoto

Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters 2nd – 4th February In Kerala, which brings together over 100 international and Indian writers, speakers and performers at the Kanakakkunnu Palace.

Thursday 22 to Sunday 25 March, London – The Litro Live! World Series: Translating India Festival

*In The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947- 1997, which Salman Rushdie edited with Elizabeth West in 1997, Rushdie made the now-notorious comment that “prose writing—both fiction and non-fiction—created in this period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a more interesting body of work than most of what has been produced in the sixteen ‘official languages’ of India, and the so-called ‘vernacular’ languages, during the same time: and indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books”.

**Rushdie’s comment raised a great many hackles at the time, and the controversy has not entirely abated two decades later. In a sharp riposte, Amit Chaudhuri, editing The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (2001), asked a blunt question: “Can it be true that Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful of writers who write in English, who live in England or America and whom one might have met at a party?”




The Art of Black Humour

Can a novel about a stand-up comedian not be funny? Can a novel that devotes pages and pages to a comedian’s onstage act make you cry? This is not a riddle about novelists or comedians. It’s a question you’ll be asking if you pick up a copy of Israeli writer David Grossman’s Man Booker-winning novel, A Horse Walks Into a Bar. The comedy here is dead serious. Grossman uses it with panache to explore a range of themes including the relationship between art and pain, the dynamics of dysfunctional families, and the tragedy of failed states in the modern world.

Humour – black or otherwise – is a powerful tool in a writer’s kit. Use it wisely in your fiction and you are guaranteed to get the reader’s undivided attention. It can make the reader laugh, it can make the reader weep. Love it or hate it, readers will feel compelled to keep turning the pages till they get to the end.

Mohammad Hanif’s crackling first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a perfect example. Hanif mines the potential of black humour and makes the best possible use of it here. Laced with generous and lethal doses of black humour, the plot gallops ahead to expose corrupt, dictatorial politicians and a hopelessly flawed system. This fictional story revolving around the death/assassination of former Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq packs a punch thanks to Hanif’s mastery of the dark art of humour. The dialogue is seeped in acerbic black comedic brine; the situations that crop up as the narrative unravels are so darkly comic that readers are left with no choice but to laugh till they cry.

The venerable Philip Roth decided to take a stab at black humour in his novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth relies on the power of black humour in this book to explore the modern American male’s sexual neurosis. The hero’s monologue about sex, guilt, and other discontents in Portnoy’s Complaint is black humour at its best.

British writer Martin Amis came up with a winner of a black comedy with his novel, Money. The story of a morally bankrupt Hollywood director who tries to make a film with a cast that disagrees on everything – with him, and with each other – is a hilarious read. As one reviewer eloquently put it, “Money has all the hallmarks of what makes a great Amis novel: unlikeable characters, strong attention to everyday speech, and dialogue and humour so bleak you laugh out of fear of crying.”

Amanda Fillipaci’s novels employ black humour – with skill and style – to surprise and shock and raise uncomfortable questions. Her first novel, Nude Men, and her later ones, Vapor and Love Creeps are spiced with black humour. Fillipaci chooses to write about subversive themes and her fictional take on them are funny and incisive. Her trademark black humour is more than equipped to amuse and draw readers into the heart of her stories.

All of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction can be safely labelled black comedies. Dahl also wrote fiction for adults, which shares the same darkly comic streak. Nasty children, mean adults, an impossibly difficult world – Dahl threw them all into the mix and went on to whip up an addictive cocktail for millions of readers.

Many a critic has called Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 the best American novel of the 20th century. The story of a WWII pilot who tries to get out of bombing missions by pleading insanity is a brilliant study in black humour. Catch-22 is a clause that stipulates that a mad pilot can be grounded, but if he sees the danger in bombing missions and requests to be grounded then he cannot be crazy after all. Heller uses black humour as a vehicle to showcase the horror of war and its insanity in this modern classic.

American writer Kurt Vonnegut is synonymous with black humour. A WWII veteran, Vonnegut used social satire to paint a picture of a post-war world for readers. His razor- sharp prose questions accepted beliefs about war, absolute truth, guilt and innocence, and the existence of a divine power.

Black humour is a many splendored thing. Writers have put it to good use over time and the tradition is alive and kicking in a world that is starting to make less and less sense to many of us. It seems a fitting time to declare that there is nothing out there as potent as black comedy to capture the absurdity of life in our time.




Facts and Fiction

I recently ran into a fiction writer who had spent a couple of months in Zimbabwe. She had travelled from San Francisco to Zimbabwe to get her facts straight before starting work on her new novel. Even if she had found tons of reference material in libraries and archives, she considered it essential to pack her bags and go to Zimbabwe and experience the place firsthand. I congratulated her on her dedication. She thanked me with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. I was taken aback. Had I offended her in some way? It turned out that she was not reacting badly to my praise. She was worried about all the research she had done so far: tomes of printed material she had waded through, facts she had collected and cataloged, chats she had had with locals, formal interviews she had conducted with government officials. “If there is such a thing as too much research, I think I am guilty of it,” she said. “Now I am worried that the deadweight of facts will crush my fiction.”

She is right; research can be a double-edged sword. Too little of it and you are left with sketchy facts and errors that weaken your plot’s credibility. Irate readers will write into you to ask why you didn’t spend enough time checking your facts and doing thorough background research before you sat down at your desk and started punching the keys. If your story is set in an 18th-century monastery in Europe or a far-flung tribal settlement in 20th century Egypt, it is important to get the geographical and cultural details about these settings right when you weave the strands of your plot together. These details are essential because they give your fictional world credibility. Once you’ve shared the critical facts with readers, you can spin any yarn you want and take your readers along with you on a flight of fantasy.

How much “fact finding” is too much though? Research can be a tricky rabbit hole to wander into. Once you make your way down it, there is the danger of you losing track of time and hoarding material that you may never use in your novel or story. The trick is to know when to stop. Don’t limit yourself to a couple of Google searches, but don’t go overboard and spend months and months of precious time on digging up factual information. Strike a sensible balance. Do targeted research so you are not bogged down by information overload. You know the demands of your story, so you are the best judge of how much background information it needs to evolve.

Weaving together the factual details you have gathered into your fictional narrative is an art that can be learnt only with practice. You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot and slow down the pace of your narrative with tracts of research. It’s all very well to have gathered pages and pages of information about agrarian life in Russia, but they have no place in your narrative if they are getting in the way of the story and making impossible demands on your readers’ attention spans. Stick to the essentials and throw the rest of your research overboard. It is best to practise the Buddist tenet of detachment when it comes to your research material.

Some writers have mastered the art of making the best use of their research material in their fiction. Indian writer Amitav Ghosh comes to mind. Ghosh’s novels (Flood of Fire, River of Smoke, Sea of Poppies, The Glass Palace) are richly researched, and he seamlessly weaves in the information he collects into his fiction. Research adds an extra dimension and depth to the stories he tells, but it never sticks out or gets in the way of the stories he tells. Two-time Booker-winner Hilary Mantel is another fine example. Mantel’s historical fiction (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies) is seeped in detail. Historical facts serve the narrative well and Mantel “draws the drama out of real life” to entertain and edify her readers with consummate skill.

There is no law to lay down on how much research you can do in preparation for your novel or story. The only guiding principle you need to follow is to remember to keep the big picture in mind and use the facts you gather to add depth to the story you intend to tell. Gather as many facts as you see fit. Just don’t let them get in the way of your story.




Writing Across Cultures

At a reading from my collection of short stories last month at a bookstore in Taos, New Mexico, I found myself doing a great deal of explaining at the start. Not that I had decided to appoint myself explainer-in-chief that sunny Saturday afternoon. My reasons were well intentioned. The stories in the collection are set in Delhi, India’s bustling capital city and my audience was mainly made up of New Mexico residents. Because I was keen on setting the stories in context for the audience before reading out from the book, I spent a good 15 minutes on the introduction. I began by sharing a list of figures with the audience so that they would get an idea about the city’s population and imposing size. I also broke down the numbers for them in terms of the income gap between the one percent and the rest of Delhi’s residents. Many stories in the collection explore the stark contrast between the privileged and those living in extreme poverty in contemporary India. I was convinced that the audience, armed with figures, would relate to the stories at a more meaningful level when I got around to reading to them. Forewarned is forearmed, right?

I also took pains to explain the meaning of a handful of Hindi words that make an appearance in the stories in the collection. Foreign language words can be infuriating when you are a part of the audience at a book reading. Unfamiliar sounds leave you stranded. They beg you to interrupt the author and hit the pause button so you can whip out your phone from your pocket and reach out to Google translate for help. Some of the Hindi words in my book were easy enough to explain to the attentive audience; others, loaded as they were with cultural connotations, were harder to translate accurately. The term “saheb” for instance turned out to be a tough one. This word crops up in a story that revolves around a nanny who works for an American couple in Delhi. The young woman addresses her employer as “saheb.” Loosely translated the term means “master.” But the word “master” is a loaded one and I stepped around it gingerly.

All this explaining at the start of the reading made me acutely aware of the challenges involved in writing across cultures. Every writer dreams of reaching out to readers across cultures. We write in the hope that stories seeped in universal human emotions – love, hate, anger, joy, sadness – will cut across barriers and resonate with people everywhere. Readers don’t need handouts from writers about the tangled web relationships weave or the mysterious workings of the human heart before they start turning the pages. A story is a story, no matter which culture it is set in. As long as a work of fiction is well written and engaging, it has the power to draw readers deep into its heart.

No argument there. But it is also true that a certain degree of familiarity with a culture on the reader’s part can help her/him to understand the nuances of a story better. A reader who has a grasp of Japanese history and culture will probably appreciate the symbolism of a story set in Japan more easily than someone who draws a complete blank when it comes to the country’s history and traditions. The connotations of a line of dialogue or a gesture that may escape the latter will not be lost on the former. So does this mean that we writers have little hope of being understood by readers from cultures that are not our own? Should we be tearing out our hair and despairing over the culture divide? Should we tie ourselves into knots trying to explain the nuances of a culture to those who are not familiar with it?

Despair is not a viable option for the writing life. Neither is a surfeit of explanation. It is best to remind ourselves that the writer’s job is to tell the stories that are crying out to be told and to tell them in the best possible way. Forget the culture divide and its discontents. Resist the temptation to offer a barrage of explanations to readers. Write, rewrite, and polish every sentence till it shines. Give characters breathing room. Allow them to evolve at every turn. Stories populated with flesh and blood characters who speak in authentic voices are powerful entities. They are capable of making giant leaps to transcend physical and geographical barriers and reaching out to readers.




Close to Nature

Anyone who visits New Mexico is bound to marvel at nature’s grandeur. The rugged desert landscape, the magnificent Sangre de Cristo mountains (southern Rockies), the Rio de Grande winding its way past flat mesas and steep rocks, brilliant blue skies, stunning sunsets, snow-capped peaks, powdery white ski slopes – nature lays out a movable feast here. Every time I take a walk on the winding streets of Taos, a small town in northern New Mexico, nature’s splendour is on display and it takes my breath away. The mountains watch over the town like majestic sentinels. Sunshine filters in through the tall cottonwoods and turns the landscape into a perfect impressionistic painting at certain times of the day. Sunrise and sunset are magic hours. The sky is a riot of colours. The moon bathes the mesa in milky light.

As a writer, I feel lucky to be spending time here so I can admire nature in all its glory. The natural environment is intrinsically connected to creativity. Writers, artists, photographers, and musicians will all swear to this. Individual preferences among artists may vary. Some writers prefer a walk on the beach to an uphill hike; others may find inspiration while roughing it out in the desert under the sun. A sunrise or a smoldering sunset can trigger an avalanche of ideas. Nature’s rhythms ignite the writer’s imagination in many wondrous ways.

Meadows and softly flowing streams, fields, and flowers, rivers in spate, rainfall, snowfall, starry skies, moonlit nights – poets and prose writers are both susceptible to their charms. Whether you are a romantic poet who pens odes to nightingales and larks, or a post-modern writer of gritty, dystopian fiction, the natural environment exerts a magnetic pull on you. The natural world shapes your work no matter what kind/genre of writing you do. In this sense, all writers are nature writers. The connection between humans and nature and the interaction (or its lack) between humans and nature is a fascinating subject. Most writers devote a lot of time and energy in observing this dynamic and paint interesting portraits of it in prose and verse.

How exactly does proximity to nature hone the creative spirit? In his journal, Walden, the famous 19th-century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau advises readers to be always alert to the natural world and to remember to “look at what is to be seen” in nature. Very few of us may be able to get away from our day jobs and the demands of daily life for two years to go live in the woods like Thoreau did. But we can easily follow Thoreau’s advice about observing nature with the attention it deserves. Being alert to nature’s wonders gives us the opportunity to sharpen our observation skills. Nature is a great teacher. It has the power to help us shed the habit of looking at things with unseeing eyes or giving them a careless glance and rushing ahead to get on with our lives.

Thoreau famously wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” He built a cabin in the woods and lived a spartan life there in order to gain a better understanding of himself (and the world around him) through introspection. Introspection is an essential part of every writer’s toolkit. Spend an hour marveling at a sunset or watching a blizzard transform a landscape into an ice sculpture. Sit under a tree’s green canopy and watch the sun come up over a mountain range. Listen to the wind brush past the trees. The moments you devote to immersing yourself in nature may turn out to be the best writing prompts you have ever received.

In order to write well, in order to create stories or poetry or music or art, the artist must make an effort to live consciously. Finding the time to get away from manic urban spaces to renew our bond with nature and gratefully imbibe all the lessons it has to offer is an essential part of the creative process. Whether we spend two days or two weeks in a year doing this, whether we take refuge in a wooded cabin located miles away from civilisation or take a walk at a crowded beach, we stand to gain so much from reaching out to the natural world.




A Place Called Taos | The rich & tumultuous history of Taos New Mexico

 When a writing residency brought me to Taos, New Mexico, I got here with a somewhat hazy mental picture of the place. It was not as if gathering details about Taos before I hopped on a flight from Delhi was a challenge. Guide books, the all-knowing Internet, dozens of newspaper and magazine articles – who can complain about a lack of sources in the information age? There are no Shangri-Las left for us travellers to discover. Every place on earth has been mapped, photographed (possibly photoshopped), and with a click of a button, we can command them to spill their secrets before us. Even so, I was in no danger of suffering from information overload. Since I had a hectic work schedule and deadlines breathing down my neck practically till I got to the airport to catch my flight, I landed at Taos relatively unprepared. I only had a few basic facts at hand.

For instance, I knew that New Mexico has a population of about two million and Taos, a small town north of Santa Fe, the state capital, is home to less than 10,000 people. What a contrast! Delhi – the second most populous city on the planet, home to about 18 million, and Taos with its four-figure population count… Worlds apart.

Taos has a rich and tumultuous history. Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the land, as well as Hispanic and Anglo settlers have all made their distinct contributions to the landscape. New Mexico proudly calls itself a tri-cultural state where people from all three cultures try their best to understand and respect differences. Even if there are occasional moments of discord, people here should be given credit for making an effort to live in harmony.

For a small town, Taos boasts of a staggering number of art galleries. The plaza at the heart of the town is lined with galleries showcasing the works of artists from the American south-west as well as international artists. It’s hard not to bump into an artist or a poet or a novelist when you walk down the streets of Taos. There are many sources to inspire the creative spirit here – the stark desert landscape, the ancient pueblo dwellings that the Indians continue to inhabit, the towering Sangre de Cristo mountains; the dramatic contours of desert and mountain and snow-laden ski slopes, the light that filters in through the branches of the tall piñons to magically transform the landscape, the brilliant technicolor sunsets, the moon rising over the vast expanse of the Taos mesa like a perfectly rounded sculpture. Taos can make a painter or a poet out of anyone. It is not easy to resist the spell it weaves.

The list of artists and writers who have drawn inspiration from Taos is a long one. British writer DH Lawrence first visited the town in 1922 at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan, east coast socialite and art patron who had married a pueblo Indian and made Taos her home. Lawrence bowled over by New Mexico, wrote that it was here that “a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the old world gave way to the new.” Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived in Taos for about two years. The DH Lawrence ranch is now a popular tourist attraction and writers from around the world visit it to draw inspiration. Lawrence’s spirit also haunts Hotel La Fonda (the oldest hotel in Taos) where his “forbidden art collection” is on display. These paintings were banned in London when they were first exhibited there in 1929. Scotland Yard found them obscene and threatened to destroy them. A worried Lawrence decided to cart them off to Taos to save them from the clutches of Victorian prudery. London’s loss, Taos’s gain!
Writers Willa Cather, Mary Austin, Frank Waters, Aldous Huxley; trailblazing modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe; photographers, painters and sculptors Ansel Adams, Nocolai Fechin, Agnes Martin, Ernest Knee, Paul Strand…Taos has hosted and inspired many a luminary over the years.

Mercifully the tradition continues and the creative spirit is alive and well here today. Though neighbouring Santa Fe has a bigger and more commercially viable art market, Taos still attracts a large number of artists who gather here to write and paint and compose and to marvel at nature’s magnificence. In a manic and increasingly chaotic world, it is not every day that you find a wellspring of creativity so bountiful and welcoming. Once you have found it, you go ahead and count your blessings, surrender to the magic, and listen to the muses sing.




Celebrate the Unexpected

 Is there an unwritten rule that says that fictional characters, especially if they are female, must be likeable? How exactly is this likeability quotient measured? I see no challenge in writing about women made of sugar and spice and all things nice. Writing stories centered around them would be as boring a task as having to read them. Bored readers, bored writers – the world has little room for both.

Women who defy conventional definitions of “likeability” have a certain unforgettable quality. In literature as in life, they are far more memorable than their bland counterparts. They raise provocative questions, bulldoze their way through obstacles in tough times, and make significant contributions to a world that often underestimates the power of their intellect.
In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Margaret Cavendish is referred to as “a vision of loneliness and riot,” “a giant cucumber spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden.” Cavendish was considered too ambitious, too loud, and too transgressive to be a rose in the garden in her day largely because she insisted that she should be taken seriously as a writer and natural philosopher. Incidentally, she was the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London and remained the last for the following 200 years.

Consider Alma Whittaker, the central character of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things. Whittaker, a (fictional) pioneering botanist, succeeds at arriving at a theory of life ahead of the venerable Charles Darwin. Because she is a woman scientist trapped in the 19th century, Whittaker’s scholarship and her seminal contributions to science are in danger of being overlooked. With courage, grace, and resilience, she fights a hard battle to earn the respect she deserves and challenges the many restrictions imposed on women in her time. Gilbert skillfully traces the trajectory of Whittaker’s life to pay tribute to women professionals who navigate their way through a gendered world. Had Gilbert’s novel been set in the 21st century and the heroine been a politician running for president, she would no doubt have been dubbed a “nasty woman” by her political rivals!

In Jesmyn’s Ward’s 2011 National Book Award winning novel, Salvage the Bones, fourteen- year-old Esch is all the more memorable because she breaks the mold of the teenage female heroine. Esch is a moody soul; she is no ray of sunshine and the world is definitely not her oyster. Her love life is nothing short of a catastrophe. Her insights on love and life are acerbic. In a surprising and often amusing departure from popular literary convention, Esch has a tendency to quote classical literature when things get particularly ugly. Despite her turbulent emotional state, her disillusionment in love, and her distrust of happy endings, Esch rises to the challenge when Hurricane Katrina ravages her hometown and places her family in danger. Her strength manages to carry them through the crisis.

In the collection, Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout weaves together 13 stories set in small town Maine to paint a vivid picture of a community that struggles to come to terms with a changing world. Olive Kitteridge, the central character of the interlinked stories, is a retired schoolteacher. She is an unlikely heroine. Strict, withdrawn, often abrasive – she is not an easy person to be around. As the stories unravel at a measured pace, the complexity of Kitteridge’s character grows more fascinating. She is as much a mystery as the riddles that she tries to solve while the familiar rhythms of her hometown are shattered by the march of progress.

Who can forget the brilliant, troubled Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s psychological thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Outcast, avenger, detective, hacker – Lisbeth plays many roles. Despite the abuse and gruesome violence she suffers, Lisbeth soldiers on without slipping into the bog of self pity and apathy.

Set in a dystopian future, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games leaves it to the feisty Katniss Everdeen to save her homeland of Panem from the clutches of a totalitarian dictatorship. At the outset, Katniss volunteers to take on a daunting battle to protect her sister from harm. As the battle grows more intense, she realizes that everything is of value is at stake and she has no choice but to keep up the good fight.

Many colorful and feisty heroines have found their rightful place in literature over the years. Here’s to hoping many more will follow and continue to enrich our lives.




Stories of Flight

 The word “refugee,” believed to be of French origin, was first used in the modern context to refer to the Protestant Huguenots who had to run away from their country to escape religious persecution by the French king, Louis XIV. Refugees and their stories have featured in literature from time immemorial. They are cast in heroic roles in the Bible and the Koran. The gospels advise us to make them feel at home when they arrive at our doorstep, exhausted by long and arduous journeys. In Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid, Aeneas the Trojan sails across the Mediterranean in search of refuge and manages to find it in Italy. This refugee then went on to found the dynasty that built the Roman empire.

A number of books, written either by refugees or about them, line the fiction and non-fiction shelves of bookstores today. The British newspaper, The Guardian, has appointed a “migration correspondent” exclusively to interview refugees in different parts of the world and share their stories with readers. It is not easy to write about being a refugee or to trace the trajectories of lives uprooted by war or religious persecution. Writers who try to make sense of this complex, sensitive, and emotionally fraught subject take on a challenging task. There are many dangers to be wary of including oversimplification, exoticisation of the “other,” and the urge to give into sentimentality that reduces all refugees to faceless victims. Tough as it is, many writers feel compelled to explore the subject. This is hardly surprising since we live in a fractured world where millions of people are being forced to flee from their homes due to external aggression or civil war.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, about 4.3 million Syrians are refugees and a further 7.6 million have been displaced. Estimates say there are 3.1 million displaced people in Iraq today. “We are revisiting one of the most catastrophic features of the end of Ottoman rule, namely the murder and migration of whole groups of people,” says well known journalist Patrick Cockburn, author of The Age of Jihad. Violent, brutal civil wars rage in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Civilians caught in the crossfire undertake desperate journeys – by boat, by air, by foot, by any means available – in search of safety.

In her 2016 Giller Prize winning novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Canadian writer Madeleine Thien paints a searing portrait of lives destroyed by the civil war in China. Thien’s novel traces seven decades of Chinese history to tell the stories of people who are forced to be refugees in their own land. The novel’s sprawling cast of characters includes a family of musicians who are sent to a labor camp at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Exiled from the music they hold dear, their lives lose all meaning. Their stories are interwoven with that of a young woman who escapes to Vancouver after the Chinese government’s crackdown on the student protestors at Tiananmen Square. Whether they live in the distant past or in an uncertain present, the characters in Do Not Say We Have Nothing struggle to find refuge in a cruel and chaotic world torn apart by repressive, violent regimes.

In his powerful and often shocking novel, The Other Hand, Chris Cleave depicts the life of a Nigerian teenager held at an immigration detention centre in the UK. The trauma of displacement is relentless, and its psychological impact unfathomable. The Other Hand tries to grapple with the many layered complexities of forced migration and uncovers the horrific wounds it leaves on the psyche of those affected. Tasneem Jamal’s Where the Air is Sweet, Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, Kim Thuy’s Ru, Philippe Claudel’s Monsieur Linh and His Child, Dave Eggers’s What is the What, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (an engrossing graphic novel about a young girl growing up in Iran under a regressive, fundamentalist regime), Jeremy Harding’s The Uninvited (a detailed history of migration in and to Europe in the late 90s and the asylum systems available to refugees at the time of the Balkan wars), and Goodbye Sarajevo (a memoir by Atka Reid and Hana Schofield about their experience of life during the war in the Balkans and their fight for survival), all explore the refugee experience with sensitivity from various perspectives. They tell the stories of lives disrupted and rebuilt, loves lost and remembered, and struggles that demand the impossible of people scattered across the globe.




Flash of Inspiration: The Player by Louis Gallo

Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr
Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr

Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘The Player’ by Louis Gallo a dark and complex story with many psychological layers.

A short story can grab your attention for any number of reasons. The lyricism of the language, the vividness of the setting, the voice of the character.

Sometimes though, it is the subject matter itself which gives you a jolt – a little shockwave of excitement or unease that keeps you reading.

In the case of ‘The Player’ I fell for the intense wiring of the language, lined up against stunningly naked portraits.

When I first read this piece I immediately felt alert, tense, curious, invited to reread, to guess, to be bounced about like a pinball on a fast glittery ride.

The story is hard-hitting, painful, we are all caught up in this game. It’s a story I don’t think I could tire of rereading. Each time the raw ending opens a nerve. The questions are intentionally playful – it’s hard to approach a writer in a way that might show readers the grit behind a great flash piece, how does one nail it? I was curious about ‘The Player’ so I felt I had to ask.

 

 Interview With Louis Gallo

Cat Who was the reader you had in mind for this story?

Louis I had a general audience in mind, no particular gender, race, creed or whatever.

Cat What were you doing when your best ever idea came to you?

Louis Generally, my ideas come to me in a flash when I least expect them to, often when I am having what I think of as writer’s block. Sometimes a single word or memory image triggers the story or poem. I was remembering playing the old wooden pinball machines and smashing that idea into a tale of woe told to me by a woman.

Cat Are your ideas generated/borrowed/stolen?

Louis Not sure what this means, my ideas are self-generated. T.S. Eliot said great poets steal, they don’t borrow. I am definitely influenced by the work of others, but I hope against hope I haven’t stolen or borrowed.

Cat What do you do with an unconvincing piece of work? Rework/recycle/reject?

Louis I usually try to re-work. If the piece is hopeless, I trash it. I have a giant boxful of trashed pieces . . . so, in the end, I suppose they are not trashed after all. Just waiting.

Cat Who do you admire in spades?

Louis I have no idea what this question means. Is this a rock group, a band, a deck of cards?

Cat Urban or rural? Domestic or exotic? Language or plot? First, second or third person?

Louis I am urban, born and raised in New Orleans. But setting of “The Player” is meant as a smaller, say, college town. I go for language first, plot last. Usually I work in first person but often third as well, sometimes second. I believe all work is autobiographical. Therefore, first person comes naturally.

Cat What’s the best or worst rejection you’ve ever received?

Louis Well, I have had many exceptional rejections. The worst was an editor who snapped, “Poetry is serious business.” That was long ago, but it still burns. I have also received glowing praises for varied works that were rejected for one reason or another.

Cat What are your cardinal rules for writing flash fiction? How often do you bend them yourself?

Louis To finish it at ONE sitting. This is crucial for tone, character, for everything. Then go back and copy-edit after a week or two. Not sure what you mean by “blend.”




A Reader in Mind

 Who do you write for? If I asked this question out loud in a room full of writers, the answers that would come my way are guaranteed to be wildly different. “I write for no one but myself,” some would say. “I know my readers inside out. Every word I write, I write keeping them in mind,” others would pipe up. “My imaginary reader is perched on my shoulder when I write,” someone else would confess. “She/he asks me a lot of questions. My work is shaped by my imaginary reader’s criticism and praise, both of which are showered on me in generous doses.”

Betty Hafner, author of the memoir, Not Exactly Love, confesses that one of her imaginary readers is a constant quibbler who fires questions at her and forces her to take a critical look at the drafts she has written. “She is a New Yorker, I suspect,” Hafner says half-jokingly. “Maybe she is on the faculty of some MFA program. ‘What’s that cliché doing in there?’ she’d ask. Then say, ‘you have twice as many words as you need in that paragraph. You better redo that scene if you want to be taken seriously.”
Jokes apart, the imaginary reader does have tremendous power over the writer. The comments that phantom whispers in a writer’s ears are never taken lightly. “In the big picture, I write for an audience of people I’ve never met” says Lionel Shriver, one of my favorite contemporary writers. “By the final draft I’m looking for anything in the prose that’s prospectively boring to strangers.” Shriver offers a helpful pointer to fellow writers here. Since we are keen on sharing our stories with an audience (whoever they happen to be), it is a wise move to steer clear of things that could end up boring them. This is not to say that writing fiction is all about pandering to your audience’s tastes.
There is no denying the fact that most writers essentially write for themselves – and this is no crime. Books are written with the hope that there is a readership for them. But this doesn’t mean that writers cannot be fiercely protective about their right to tell the stories they feel compelled to tell. “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…,” Harper Lee once said. “It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demons, but of his divine discontent.” You express your doubts or clarify your worldview or try to make sense of the human condition through your writing, you question accepted truths, smash taboos, expose lies or shine the spotlight on facts that the world conspires to hide. Writing is an act of perpetual discovery. Even if it may not offer us all the answers, it gives us absolute freedom to raise questions and explore the unknown.
“I started writing novels in an attempt to make sense of the city of Edinburgh, using a detective as my protagonist,” says Scottish writer Ian Rankin. “Each book hopefully adds another piece to the jigsaw….asking questions about the nation’s politics, economy, psyche, and history…and perhaps pointing towards a possible future.”
A good book helps both the writer and the reader get under the skin of life.
Whether it is a detective story or a family saga or a war novel, a powerful, well-told story leaves an indelible impact on their creators and their audience.
The transformative power of fiction can be a tough ideal to live up to. It is hard enough for a writer to meet her/his daily word count without worrying about creating life-changing works of art every minute of the day. George Orwell confessed that when he sat down to write a novel, he did not aspire to create a work of art. His initial concern was only to “get a hearing.” He chose to be a writer because he had something to say and he hoped that people would pay attention to his voice. He didn’t try to impress them win them over by offering false comfort or struggle to tailor his stories to suit their tastes. His plan of action was straightforward: respect the readers’ intelligence, draw their attention to facts, work hard to present them with the best work he could possibly create. And the rest is literary history…

Whether you pound away at the keys with an imaginary reader in mind or not, the stories you write will eventually find their way in the world. For every book, there is a reader out there.




From Page to Screen

 Over the past few weeks, being bombarded (via magazines, newspapers, online/ offline platforms) with promos for The Girl on the Train – the movie adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel – got me thinking about the tricky leap the printed word makes to the silver screen. Not all works of fiction become motion pictures. Nor do they aspire to do so. But those that get to have a movie avatar can’t avoid strict scrutiny because everyone has an opinion on their favourite book’s celluloid version. Readers are not easy to please. When they wear a film critic’s hat, they tend to become more exacting.

How many times have you heard someone complaining about a director butchering their favourite novel or short story? Some common refrains: “The director didn’t really get the book.” “The novel is fantastic but the film was mediocre at best.” “Why mess with perfection? They should have left the story alone.”

We often tend to forget that the printed book and the silver screen make different demands on their creators. Cinema, essentially being a visual medium, places a premium on images. Often a single image is expected to pull off the work of a page full of words. Of course, writers too follow the “show, don’t tell” maxim in their work. But the page allows more room for description and many a paragraph can be devoted to describing a particular setting or a character’s state of mind. If the description blends seamlessly into the story, nobody would complain. If an interior monologue takes up several pages, readers wouldn’t protest as long as it is well written and holds their attention.

To hold the viewer’s attention while translating the nuances of a book to the screen is an uphill task. The script has to be faithful to the original but not blindly so. The trick is to take the existing material and shape it to suit the cinematic medium without losing out on nuance and complexity. Often, the transition ends in disaster. But when it’s done right, it’s a joy to watch your favourite book come alive onscreen.

In no particular order, here are a few of my favourite book-to-film avatars:

Gone With the Wind: Margaret Mitchell’s novel paints a riveting portrait of lives upturned by the American civil war. The book, beloved to millions, made a superb transition to the screen. Directed by Victor Fleming, the film (1939) recreates the drama, romance, and emotional upheaval that Mitchell’s readers savour when they turned the pages. Thanks to a talented cast, the characters come alive onscreen, playing out their individual battles while a country goes to war with itself.

The Quiet American: Bristling with subtext and weighed down by brooding philosophical inquiry, a Graham Greene novel is not the easiest material to film. Luckily, Phillip Noyce proved himself equal to the challenge. Directed by Noyce, The Quiet American (2002) dissects the inherent self-interest that guides America’s foreign policy as expertly as it explores the map of the human heart and the anatomy of desire. The film never once makes the mistake of watering down the novel’s complexity or offers simplistic explanations for life’s eternal mysteries.

The English Patient: The film (1996), directed by Anthony Minghella, is a brilliant cinematic version of Michael Ondaatje’s novel. Staying true to the novel’s tone, the film explores the inner lives of the characters with a gentle, delicate touch. The doomed love story at the heart of the narrative, set against the backdrop of WWII, plays out onscreen like a beautiful sonata. The camera skilfully captures the starkness of the desert landscape and the violent churnings of war. Nothing is lost in translation here. Watching the film is as rewarding and intense an experience as reading the novel.

The Shipping News: Annie Proulx shone the spotlight on New Foundland in her bestselling novel, The Shipping News. The story of a broken man who returns to his home town in search of refuge struck a chord in readers across the world – even if many of them would confess having trouble locating New Foundland on the map. The film of the same name (2001), directed by Lasse Hollstrom, captures the bleakness and beauty of the landscape with as much finesse as the novel, giving it a pivotal role in the grand scheme of the narrative. Hollstrom’s non-intrusive directorial style lets the camera trace the trajectory of the characters’ lives without resorting to emotional voyeurism. As in the novel, grief and heartbreak and trauma remain integral to the story, but the darkness is tempered by a merciful absence of sensationalism.




Double Edged Words

 My memory is a journal and words are carving their meanings into my mental cortex.

 

My hands pause above the keyboard, fingers perched like soldiers awaiting orders. A subject, an image, a word. . .What’s the word I’m looking for? I pause for a creative command that never comes. Words are fickle like that – fickle, yet furious in their effect. So, I push away my laptop, close my eyes, and open my mental journal. Pages fly, flip, and falter. I see sixth-grade handwriting scrawled in a blue diary with ponies on the cover. I read. I remember.

Rubber slammed against slick gym floors, my green shorts hanging below my knees. I was 11 years old, a Marine brat fresh off the plane to North Carolina, and peering at the basketball hoop through glasses with metal dragonflies glued on the sides. But I was winning. My shot slid through the net, bumping Lexi’s out of the way. Swish. Another point for me in our game of HORSE. And then I said it. “Ho.” Now, I know its definition in the Oxford Dictionary: “a woman who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse, usually for money.” I didn’t back then. I only knew of the garden hoe, or the jolly laughs of Santa Claus.

So I grinned wide, pushed my glasses up on my nose and yelled, “Ho!” at Lexi.

What?” she said.

“You missed two.” I stared down at my sneakers. “That’s H-O?”

The lower half of her face cracked, teeth flashing an eerie grin. Suddenly, she had a story to spread around Tucker Creek Middle School: goody-two-shoes-Casey had cursed her out in class. In the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, King Solomon wrote about the power of words. According to him, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). I felt like dying that day as I trudged through four more classes, each filled with whispers and stares.

One unbelieving boy I didn’t know even walked up and asked, “Did you really call Lexi that?”

I nodded – I couldn’t lie, could I? – but couldn’t force out the words to explain. Until, after escaping the school bus, I tackled Mom on the sidewalk near our house.

“I don’t know what I said!” Her blue sweater muffled my words. “I was just playing basketball…”

Mom told me about my bad word as we lay on my parent’s queen-size bed. My thoughts – How stupid could I be? Why hadn’t anyone ever told me? What’s better, being intentionally mean or a naïve fool? – whirled like the ceiling fan.

 

Years later, I still flinch at the memory. So, I close that journal and mentally open another. Mickey Mouse smiles on the notebook’s engraved leather cover; the entry has “October 2014” scrawled in the top corner. I remember another bed, this time a twin. We were sprawled over the pillows, the credits of Inception scrolling up the TV screen. The lights were dim, dorm room quiet. Nick talked first.

“Don’t take offense, but your roommate and I made a bet a few weeks back. How much do you weigh?”

I grinned. Since losing fifteen pounds from celiac disease complications, I’d become as used to answering that question as following a gluten free diet. “Ninety-ish?”

A short laugh, quiet voice. “I’m two of you.” He laughed again. “Give me a second. I’m processing.”

I burrowed my head deeper into the pillow, trying to shape my lips into words previously left unsaid. “I don’t mind it. I like it…the difference.” Pause. “You make me feel safe.”

Nick’s arm snaked underneath my back, hand tracing circles on my side. “Good. You should feel comfortable. You should feel safe. And you should feel beautiful.”

An awkward smile coated my lips. Beautiful. A simple stringing of morphemes and Latin roots that somehow meant so much more. The New Yorker’s 2014 article, “Word Magic,” offers a more modern perspective on the power of words. While little empirical data supports the Whorfianism theory – that people’s language controls their worldview – more people are accepting a milder version: language impacts thought. Would Nick have found me beautiful if the word “beautiful” didn’t exist? Would I have smiled as widely if he had said “pulchritudinous” or “bonita” or some other synonym that didn’t roll off the tongue? I didn’t know; I still don’t. What I do know? A word must have a hint of magic when, however many times Nick says it, it always makes me smile.

 

One more journal flies open in my mind – a folded up scrap of printer paper with “San Diego Christian Writer’s Conference: November 2014” typed on top. Ink from notes on Phillip Yancey’s speech has bled through from the back of the paper. Standing behind the podium, the best-selling Christian author looked like a Popsicle stick with a dust bunny for hair. His white dress shirt and black pants hung off his frame. “Writing is one of the thinnest forms of communication,” he said. “It’s just a page. It’s flat. Two dimensional.”

I ran my hand along the length of my paper, tracing dried ink. It was true – my notes were nothing more than tree corpses decorated with chemical blood. Yet, a particular curse word could transform me into a naïve, sweaty sixth-grader. Reading “beautiful” could make me hear Nick’s voice. Indeed, Yancey’s very career illustrates the dichotomy of words. He wrote books translated into 35 languages, but speaks about them all over the world; he makes a living off of crafting words, but also by discounting them.

Forty-five minutes later, Phillip Yancey lifted his head up from his notes. “Words have a certain power and a certain weakness,” he said. I couldn’t help but nod, carving the words into my paper, underlined in black ink. I close the journals, open my eyes and place my fingers back on my laptop keyboard. That’s it! I think. That’s the word: sword. “Writers call the pen their ‘sword,’” I type. “Maybe words should be feared for their double-edged nature instead.”




Don DeLillo: In Conversation

Royal Festival Hall. The soft murmur of voices. People shuffling towards seats. We await the arrival of Don DeLillo. Some clutching hardback copies of his latest novel Zero K. Others proudly holding copies of Underworld, perhaps his most celebrated. Displayed prominently on the stools set-up in the bar area, and by the entrances.

My own relationship to DeLillo’s oeuvre could easily be described as haphazard. The first novel of his that I read was the poorly received Cosmopolis. Captivated by its disconnected dialogue and futurist atmosphere, it was unlike anything I had encountered before. Austere, and yet cinematic, thoughtful, but not ponderous, it somehow integrated seamlessly into my wider cultural taste. Reflecting, even complementing, interests in music, art, and film. I have always thought these things are somehow subconsciously cultivated. That maybe an element of fate is at play. Because how can we become so enamoured by a certain style, or voice. How can we feel and respond so intensely to one writer over another?

To read reviews of DeLillo releases post-Underworld is to find a mixed bag of apathetic bemusement, and half-hearted praise though. Quite often in fact DeLillo features seem to be marked by a yearning, almost pleading array of references to earlier, influential novels, like White Noise, Libra, and Mao II. While many go so far as to begrudge the stripped down, sparser approach, of what is commonly described as DeLillo’s ‘Late style’, or ‘period’.

‘Late styles’, at least by definition, are usually used in reference to a time toward the end of a writer’s career whereby the newer works seem to exist outside, even in contradiction to, those that came before it. In the case of DeLillo I’m not sure the tag should be so readily applied. Certainly his novels have become progressively minimal in style, and in their brevity. The themes though, of the nature and narrative of terrorism, of the effects of mass media and consumerism, of society’s desensitisation to violence, have remained throughout his career. The later novels have also retained that same feeling of misplacement DeLillo coils around his reader, while moving them through a sort of hyper, mystical, realism.

Another common critique of this so-called ‘Late period’ has been of DeLillo’s apparent abandonment of recognised plot structures and devices. With 2010’s Point Omega, and the earlier, much criticised, The Body Artist, often cited as examples. I’m not convinced this is necessarily a bad thing though, and it’s nothing new in regards to DeLillo’s previous work. Even as far back as 1975’s surreal rock and roll satire, Great Jones Street, there is a distinct playfulness with the accepted parameters of plot and narrative time. Indeed it could be argued that Great Jones Street is more modernist collage than fully realised novel. And to my mind it is far less approachable than the vastly underrated, Point Omega or The Body Artist.

What the example of DeLillo leads me to consider then, is whether it is the writer’s job to stick to, and for want of a better word, craft, the sort of novels that suits the needs of a modern reader. Or if instead the onus is on the reader to work with whatever vision is set out by the writer.

I have always been of the opinion that a level of collaboration must exist between writer and reader. Because to read a novel or short story is to buy into the conceit that a writer, that the world of literature, proposes. In what is increasingly regarded as a narrowing market then, I wonder if the sway within this relationship is beginning to work against the creative instincts, the freedom of expression, of the writer. Restricting newer ones especially to those very boundaries and parameters more established writers are finding so constrictive.

Not so long ago a colleague described my writing as anti-literature. I wasn’t sure how to take this at the time, and despite my best efforts it seemed to gnaw away at me. I’ve always known there is something about my writing that doesn’t quite fit in the more traditional landscape of fiction, but rather than persevere, rather than perfect something of my own, I stopped sharing my work altogether. For months I tried to change my style into one I thought publishers and agents might be looking for. Of course this only made matters worse.

Now the lights in the hall are turned low. An excitable silence descends. A woman takes to the stage. I feel my partners hand on mine. A smile is shared briefly between us. Then there’s a burst of loud applause that shatters the moment and a slow moving DeLillo makes his way to the small stand. He places some papers out in front of him. The word fragile springs to mind, but feels unfair, disrespectful. I wonder if this might be the literary equivalent of seeing your favourite singer struggling to hit the notes that once come naturally. This fear is laid to rest by DeLillo’s crisp New York tone. Introducing, then rhythmically working through, the opening passage to Zero K.

***

When the reading is over DeLillo participates in a Q&A session with the writer and critic who introduced him. She draws parallels between his latest novel and his 80s classic, White Noise. Specifically to each novels preoccupation with death, and the lengths humanity goes to in its attempts to defy it. DeLillo is both coy and engaging in his response. Witty and intelligent without seeming pretentious. He rejects the idea of any deliberate links between Zero K and the previous work he seems reluctant to name. He insists that each work presents itself to him of its own accord. That each work dictates its own length, and style, and must be followed through until the end.

What I find so inspiring about DeLillo is that even after all his success he still strives to take his writing into places other writers are less willing to go. For so long a cult writer he has not wavered, and has instead continued to follow his own path. Rejecting the easier route of churning out Underworld or White Noise the sequel, he remains a writer continually looking forward, not back. Knowing that his work once finished, once out there, is no longer his. To be owned by the reader.

Perhaps what is most refreshing though, particularly for a writer of his stature, is his reiterated belief that literature is still, and will continue to remain, relevant, and important, in a rapidly changing world. It’s something I admit that I am guilty of forgetting, and at times too willing to dispute. But here I am sat in the presence of this near eighty year old man. A former park attendant from the Bronx. He has travelled however many miles across the Atlantic. Come to an outdated brutalist building along the Thames. To talk about books, about art, and science.
To talk about life.




Announcing the Litro and IGGY Young Writers’ Prize 2016/17

The time has come to announce our annual creative writing competition open to all 13 – 18 year olds all over the world! The theme this year is MEMORY and we’ve got a £1,000 cash prize for the winner.

Submit your short story on the theme of Memory for a chance to win £1,000 and see your story published at IGGY.net and in Litro Magazine.

Theme: Memory

Competition opens: 3rd October 2016
Closing date: 20th January 2017

What does Memory mean to you? Need some inspiration? Each week we’ll be sharing information with you to explore the theme of Memory, and help you brainstorm your ideas. Get started now and join in the debate on Memory online at IGGY!

For further information and to submit your story, go to www.IGGY.net/writingprize

Tell everyone! You can also download the Writing Prize Poster to share details about the competition with your friends.

Good Luck!




The Purpose of Fiction

 A few weeks ago I got a chance to address a class of creative writing students at a college in Delhi. The session was interactive and animated. The aspiring writers in the room were full of questions. One of the many interesting questions they raised was about the purpose of fiction. Why write fiction? Why create a world of your imaginings and invite readers to step into it? A student referred to the work of Munshi Premchand, a well-known Indian writer, in particular. Describing Premchand’s fiction as an attempt to share a vision of a more just and humane world with readers, she wondered whether all writers are motivated by this impulse when they tell stories.

I didn’t have a simple answer to hand out to her because there are as many reasons for writing as there are writers. Many writers do believe that a better world is possible. This hope is reflected in the stories we tell. Ultimately fiction, as David Foster Wallace said, “is about what it is to be a human being.”

Scientific research has proven that reading fiction makes us more empathetic. Psychologists at the New School for Social Research, New York say that reading literary fiction literally makes us better people. It improves our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. This equips us to negotiate complex social relationships in the real world with greater skill. In this context, the writer essentially helps us connect to our own humanity. When fiction writers bare the inner lives of their characters it makes us reflect on our frailties and flaws. The quirks of these invented characters make us smile. Their troubles become ours. We share their laughter and their tears and walk with them as they muddle along in their search for beauty or truth or meaning. This is the magic of fiction. In the end, a good novel or story gives us a better understanding of ourselves by drawing us into the lives of characters that have sprung from the writer’s imagination.

Fiction is essential to the survival of the human race because it helps us to slip into “the other’s” skin. It builds tolerance because it gives us an opportunity to see the world from different perspectives. It is a shining beacon of hope in an increasingly intolerant world.

Fiction also has the power to instill a sense of wonder in us. Stories can take us to magical places. They jolt us awake when we slip into the rut of the mundane. They liberate us by giving free rein to our imagination. This is not to discount fiction as an escape hatch from reality. The history of literature is lined with works of fiction that explore themes as significant and varied as racism, gender politics, war, modernization, technology, and its impact on human lives. Toni Morrison’s novels portray the horrors of slavery and racism with unflinching clarity. As Morrison says, her fiction “suggests what the problems are, what the conflicts are,” not necessarily as a means of solving them but as a means of recording and reflecting them. Michael Ondaatje’s haunting, lyrical novel, The English Patient, explores the chaos of war and the dangerous dimensions of nationalism and dreams of a world without borders. In A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a dark, biting juggernaut of a first novel, Mohammed Hanif deconstructs the death of a Pakistani dictator, giving us a ringside view of politics and global power struggles.

All themes are grist for the fiction writer’s mill – love and loss, adultery and marriage, politics, history, the lives of kings and queens and commoners, the making of a terrorist, the bloodthirsty strategies of warmongers, the struggles of peaceniks in an imploding world. All of these – and more – are thrown into the mix in order to ask the questions that need asking. Stories illuminate the dark corners of our world, broaden our understanding and to stretch our horizons, unlock the floodgates and makes us laugh and cry and run wild, inspire us to pause and reflect, to wonder, to explore, to dare to wander across paths not taken.

Fiction is not a repository of answers to our problems. The fiction writer is not a messiah who was born to heal the world or a magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat to keep the audience entertained. You simply set out to tell a good story and hope that it speaks to people no matter who they are or where they live.




Banning Books

Things_That_Can_and_Cannot_be_Said-825I recently picked up a copy of Things That Can and Cannot Be Said – a series of essays and conversations in which Booker-prize winning author Arundhati Roy and John Cusack, actor and filmmaker, talk about their meeting with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Moscow. Roy and Cusack touch upon many topics including the meaning of nationalism, the nature of war and empire, the culture of surveillance in modern times, and the barriers that prevent the free movement of people in an allegedly globalized world. The book, an engaging and essential read, got me thinking. Who lays down the law about that which can and cannot be said in public? Who decides what a writer can speak/write about?

The practice of raising objections against a book’s contents is as old as time. Calling for an official ban on the book and effectively placing a gag order on the writer follows suit. An exhibit organized by the American Library of Congress titled, “Books that Shaped America,” is an eye-opener. Of the books featured in the exhibit, a disproportionately large number have been banned or challenged since they were written. These are books most of us love and have read (and keep re-reading). We would definitely cart them off with us if we were to be marooned on desert islands. The list is long so I’ll pick a few.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, MA in 1885 and berated as “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Complaints have been filed over the years against Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Beloved, blaming the novel’s sexual content, depiction of violence, and references to bestiality. The Salinger classic, The Catcher in the Rye, has been banished from school libraries more than once on charges of being “negative,” “blasphemous,” “obscene” and “filthy.”
Ernest Hemingway’s tragic tale of war, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was deemed non-mailable by the US Post Office in 1940, the year the book was published. Needless to say, the Post Office was playing censor when it made the decision. In the 70s, eight Turkish booksellers were rounded up and tried for spreading anti-state propaganda. Their crime – publishing and distributing Hemingway’s novel.

Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) – have all invited charges of “conflicting with community values” and “obscenity” since the date of publication. The fact that these charges continue to surface proves that despite the passage of time, very little has changed when it comes to misusing literature as a tool for moral posturing.

Books – and writers across the world – have suffered much hardship at the hands of religious zealots. The most publicized instance is the ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the fatwa issued against him by the Ayotollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989. The novel was banned in several countries. India was the first to ban it in 1988. Curiously enough, 27 years later, a former minister in the Indian government admitted at a public forum that the ban had been a “mistake.” Rushdie took to social media to respond. “This admission took just 27 years,” he tweeted. “How many more before the ‘mistake’ is corrected?”

In 2010, a conservative right-wing Hindu group in India launched a legal battle against scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, “The Hindus: an Alternate History.” The group pounced on Doniger and accused her of insulting Hinduism by describing the sexual desires of mythological figures in her book. Doniger expressed concern about the worsening political climate in India and the curbs on free speech. In the end, her publisher caved in and agreed to pulp existing copies of the book and to bar it from India to keep the peace.

A few months ago, Perumal Murugan, a well-known Tamil writer from southern India was forced to file an apology and to withdraw his book, One Part Woman, from stores because a far-right Hindu group found it “obscene.” Death threats were issued to the writer and his family. Mobs burnt copies of his book in public. A frustrated Murugan decided to stop writing and declared that “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.” It took a landmark judgment by Justice SK Kaul of the Madras High Court to resurrect Murugan. The judge refused to ban Murugan’s book and requested him to get back to what he does best: write. Justice Kaul’s advice to rabble rousers: “If you don’t like a book, throw it away.”




Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

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Do you know when to say ‘when’?

Emma Cline’s gorgeous debut novel <em>The Girls</em> leaves readers wondering just how far they’re willing—or able—to go to be noticed. Narrator Evie Boyd is accused of being in a cult just a dozen pages into the story, but by the book’s end, the line between dying for attention and murder is blurred. We’re left wondering how susceptible we had been to persuasive devotion at fourteen.

The story of a summer spent with a Charles Manson-esque commune opens with a grown up, seemingly well-adjusted Evie recounting the warm months of 1969. Evie is a meek teenager living quietly among her dull best friend and recently-divorced mother in farm country, California, when she first sees the girls. The small group of older teens are magnetic; they laugh without reserve and draw all eyes in the park. Their long unkempt hair, worn clothes, and reputation for dumpster diving earn scorn around town, but Evie’s not put off. She gladly accepts a ride to their ranch when her bike malfunctions days after first sighting the group.

The girls of the ranch—unlike Evie’s trying-too-hard mother and blundering only friend—are mystical creatures. Nothing goes unnoticed by Cline’s young narrator, and she’s allured by the way “they held hands without any self-consciousness and dropped words like ‘harmony’ and ‘love’ and ‘eternity.’” The girls, in turn, braid Evie’s hair and let her tag along and she’s smitten. Her rose-colored view of these new, free-spirited friends even extends to their run down ranch. The decaying property and hungry communal children do nothing to interfere with the simplicity and humility Evie is sure is on display.

One girl in particular, captures Evie’s imagination and attention: “There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around [Suzanne],” middle-aged Evie remembers, reflecting on her first sighting of the group. In fact, Evie’s attraction to the odd, musty life at the ranch is via Suzanne, not the girls’ shared boyfriend-slash-ringleader, the magnetic and persuasive rockstar-wannabe Russell. Russell’s attention and sexual education leave Evie high off being noticed, but her young infatuation is singularly focused on Suzanne.

Years later, Evie would reflect on Suzanne’s distance the first day at the ranch: “Suzanne saw the weakness in me, lit up and obvious: she knew what happened to weak girls.” Evie’s not weak, though. She’s like any other teen girl: wildly insecure and waiting to discover her power. What’s more, she clearly hates weakness and spends her pre-ranch days pitying her mother and best friend’s lurid, desperate attempts at dating.

The older Evie scenes are an abrupt break from the dreamy poetry of her flashbacks, but they serve to tantalize us with clues about the ranch’s unseemly end. Throughout The Girls, a murder story’s unveiled, and while it’s clear Suzanne and the other acolytes are carrying out Russell’s vengeful bidding, we don’t know how—if at all—involved Evie was in the slayings. ByThe Girls’ end, we’re left with a full picture of what happened that night, but some questions, too: Would I have joined? Could I have left? How far could I go?

There’s noticeably no one moment when Evie joins Russell’s cohort. There’s no induction, no ritual, no blood oaths that call for her to steal money out of her mother’s wallet, or break into her neighbors’ homes for fun. Evie’s held only by her desire to be close to Suzanne, and with this, shatters an initial impression that she must have been kidnapped or tricked into joining a cult. Her immersion into a group of people willing and able to kill seems inconceivable at the novel’s start; by the end, we’re left wondering if our own teen selves could have resisted a pretty girl smiling at us, either.




Less Happiness Makes Great Literature?

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If the saddest songs are the sweetest, are the saddest stories the hardest to forget? Novels with happy endings may have their charms but I have always felt that they lack the raw emotional power of their bleak counterparts. Grief, while hard to bear in life, often makes better fodder for fiction than happiness. Would A Farewell To Arms mean so much to us if everyone got to live happily ever after? Would Atonement haunt us the way it does if all was forgiven in the end? Would we respond to The Hours with such intensity if it were not for its haunting melancholic strain?

I am not arguing that misery for misery’s sake is a hallmark of great literature. But a book that captures the raw ache of human experience has immense power to connect with readers and to transform them in a fundamental way. A quote from a well-known literary critic sums it up. Referring to Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction, Gabriele Annan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “After one puts down his novels, insights go on plopping into one’s mind like drops from a tap that is supposed to be turned off.”
Here, dear reader, is a list of some my favorite “sad books” (in no particular order). If you haven’t read them yet, I suggest you pick up your copies pronto. They will break your heart but I guarantee you will be all the wiser for it.

When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro

Christopher Banks’ penchant for detective work in When We Were Orphans springs from an unsolved mystery that continues to haunt him – the disappearance of his parents when he was a boy living in Shanghai. Ishiguro’s canvas is wide. The story, moving between China and Britain, resonates with the political troubles and global power struggles of the times. Banks’ mission to make sense of his own self by putting together the clues he painstakingly gathers is a metaphor for a universal search. Banks is a wounded man and he longs to glue the broken pieces of his life back together. The novel traces his quest for healing with subtlety and incredible emotional intelligence.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

Reading Didion’s real-life account of her marriage and her bond with her ailing daughter is an intense experience. Didion never hits a false note or slips into syrupy sentimentality even if she is writing about an extremely personal subject. Her insights on familial bonding and her description of the emotional toll her husband’s death takes on her is vivid, honest, and extremely moving. Love, death, illness, loss, grief, mourning, healing – Didion’s prose captures their nuances with endearing vulnerability.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

The tragedies that stalk Tess in this classic highlight the flaws of repressive Victorian society where women were subjected to a different set of moral values than men and judged very harshly for their perceived transgressions. Anyone with a beating heart will shed a tear for Tess. Her list of troubles is long and her suffering, endless. Hardy paints a relentlessly bleak picture of her life to make his readers take a closer look at a skewed social setup and its inherent prejudices.

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

Darkness lurks in all of Greene’s novels like a ghost. In The End of the Affair, Greene explores the frailty of the human heart and the tenuous connection between humanity and divinity. Maurice Bendrix’s adulterous affair with Sarah Miles plays out against the backdrop of wartime London. The anguish he feels when Sarah breaks off their relationship and the anger that grips him when he realizes that god is the “third man” responsible for their breakup are captured poignantly in the novel. Greene raises critical questions about love and longing, the nature of desire, and the eternal conflict between the carnal and the spiritual, and compels readers to ponder about the answers.

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road is as much the story of a young, suburban American couple in the 50’s as it is a searing account of the failure of the American dream. Frank and April Wheeler seemingly have it all – financial security, a pretty house in the suburbs, a perfect family. Yates’ prose peels off the layers with a rare mix of clinical precision and compassion, exposing the reality behind the gilded exterior. As well-kept pretences crumble and Frank and April hurtle towards catastrophe, the family becomes a stand-in for a nation in crisis.