Some of us have wings: a conversation with illustrious flash fictionista Kuzhali Manickavel

Everybody knows who Yara Sofia is in Puerto Rico. And if you don’t, then sorry darling, this is not your world.

–One of Kuzhali Manickavel’s favorite quotes from Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Season 3.

For the past few months I’ve been up to my earlobes in Blaft Publications. Last week (?) I posted an interview with Rakesh Khanna, editor of Blaft’s Tamil Pulp Fiction series, and Pritham K. Chakravarthy, translator of same. Next week my Blaft extravaganza review will appear in Bookslut. For now, content yourself with this interview with flash fiction author and scintillating blogger Kuzhali Manickavel, author of the story collection Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Besides buying her book, which you should do before reading this interview, you should sample some of her very short stories linked from her website (there’s a whole menu along the right side of the page).

Lapata: In a recent blog post on Indian writing in English, you title a section: “Do not have a name like Kuzhali Manickavel.” You offer alternative names for other IWE writers (Vikram Seth=>Seth Victor, etc.), but not for yourself. I was thinking Carly McKnieval might be good, what do you think?

KM: I’m actually not qualified to be an Indian Writer in English (people have told me this so it must be true) but I feel like that shouldn’t stop me from writing blog posts telling other people what to do, especially when it comes to authenticity for Indian writers in English. Having said that, I’m not sure if Carly McKnieval is the name I’d go with. Carly’s fine but I have some reservations about ‘McKnieval’ because it sorta looks Jewish and Scottish at the same time, which might be confusing for people and may also force me to lie. Because if people were to ask me ‘So are you Jewish or Scottish?’ then I would have to say ‘Yes’. And then if they say ‘Oh, I had no idea there were Jewish people in Scottish…Land.’ I would have to say ‘Oh my God, Scottish Land is like the most Jewish place ever!’

Actually, I don’t mind lying like that because writer authenticity is really important to me and I feel like you need to be prepared to lie and change your name for it and stuff like that.
Continue reading “Some of us have wings: a conversation with illustrious flash fictionista Kuzhali Manickavel”

Days of Anger

أيام الغضب Jan 25th. Jan 28th.

It isn’t a domino effect.1 What happened in Tunisia, isn’t what is happening in Egypt and what is happening in Yemen and what is happening in Lebanon and what will happen in Oman. The internet or twitter or facebook is not behind this.2 Neither is al-Jazeera.3 Each of these states have their very particular histories, very particular teleologies which are more decisive – whether politically or symbolically – than anything in the social media netscape bullcrap. Yes, there are striking similarities: the dis-enfrachised populations, the dictators or prime-ministers propped up by Europe or America (those chaste defenders of freedom everywhere), the young and the connected. Yes, no one wants this to happen – America and Europe would rather eat crow than actually admit to a democratic program in Middle East or Africa (teh Mooslims!) and there are powerful and entrenched forces within these states who will not tolerate any challenge to their hegemony.

What we see is life itself. These are the millions who have been denied participation in their own lives. Millions who have suffered the oppressive, fanatic violence of a state propped up by vested interests. They were always visible, they were always trying to tell their story, trying to eek out an existence of dignity and honor. How long can that quiet struggle last? How many have to give up before one stands and says, I will not go silently.

These are the days of anger – and they will be noted. Some, who are far away, can do more than bear witness. We can raise our voices in support.

update: A nuanced take on Egypt underlining my point about local context is Paul Amar, Why Mubarak is out.

  1. The “narrative” likes to see everything connected in the Middle East or Africa, with helpless masses, force fed some conspiracy theory or some mishmash of presumed victimhood are always pawns waiting to tumble. Hence, you cannot have true democracy in the M.E. because the pawns might elect terrorists! To assert a homogeny in these protest is to continue to give credence to such ahistorical, apolitical and biased twaddle. I refuse to play. []
  2. If credit must be given to technology than give to the lowly mobile phone with the capacity to record video, and send SMS and MMS. []
  3. I love how everything is a “narrative” to the NYT now []

A Big Leg of Mutton, or: How to Consume and Translate Tamil Pulp Fiction

My review of a whole raft of Blaft publications comes out in the February issue of Bookslut. In the meantime, I’ll be posting some interviews with prominent Blaft personages. Here is the first: an interview with Rakesh Khanna, co-founder and editor of Blaft, and Pritham K. Chakravarthy, translator for The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, volumes I and II, and the experimental novel Zero Degree, by Charu Nivedita. Khanna, who grew up in Berkeley and later moved to Chennai, has a day job as an editor of an online math website and has worked on math textbooks for middle school and high school students. Chakravarthy is a performance artist, author and assistant professor of dramaturgy and film history at the Ramanaidu Film Institute, Hyderabad.

While I was reading both volumes of Tamil pulp fiction, I invented a fantasy about how the project came about. It went like this: Pritham and Rakesh are a couple. They met in Berkeley and shared a taste for camp and pop culture. On a trip to India, Pritham picked up a bunch of pulp fiction novels on a whim at a train station. As they traveled about she would read them and laugh hysterically. Rakesh, who did not know Tamil, would ask her to translate the good parts. Thus was born the dream. They moved to Chennai, leaving behind bright futures in Silicon Valley, and started Blaft. After reading a number of interviews and articles online, I now know that this is not true. I know that Rakesh moved to Chennai, didn’t know what these books were all about and wanted to know more. He somehow found Pritham to translate them and the rest is history. My fantasy destroyed, I asked them the following questions:
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The opening of Interpolation: the Safeway at Oracle and Ina:

Absolutely, that was my turf. Less than a mile from the four or five houses and apartments where we took turns living. We did our shopping there. Not that you could tell this from a photograph; you would have to distinguish it from eighty other such parking lots in Tucson, using the configuration of that particular Safeway against that particular Walgreens against that particular Schlotzsky’s Deli, and you only notice such configurations if you grew up there, and had to make them part of your map. The mountains will always give you the compass points, but one Safeway is like another, and at least once a week you end up a block or two awry in some grid direction from where you thought you were. That’s one thing about Tucson

Paul. I highly recommend you read the whole, entire thing.

Dominance Without Toleration III: Guns & Roses

The Assassin in Roses
The killer has been garlanded. Facebook fan pages, twitter clouds of praises. For his victim, Salmaan Taseer there are small candle-light vigils and columns bemoaning him for “going too far”. How far did he go? He visited a woman who is “accused” of blasphemy and he called the law which enables such prosecutions a “kala qanoon” (black law), meaning it was an oppressive law (implemented via coercion).

For days on end, before Taseer’s assassination, TV talk shows and dailies had heightened the stakes – it wasn’t one case of blasphemy, it wasn’t just a law on the books, it was Namoos-i Risalat (the Sanctity of the Prophethood). In everyday parlance, this – and its corollary Tauheen-i Risalat (Blaspheming the Prophet) – have emerged as transgressions so extreme that even the accusation is enough to justify dis-mantling the edifice of a juridical or civil society. In practice, Tauheen-i Risalat has been a touch-stone of Islamist parties since the 1950s and, over the years, has entered the everyday lives of hundreds of millions of Muslims as an unpardonable, unmentionable offense. The Friday sermon will invoke it and it will insist that there is only the penalty of death and it will intone that there is only the possibility of self-annihilation to “protect” the Prophet.

Blasphemy is, and has been since Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a reliable apprentice to the Islamist parties. It is non-sectarian (when it comes to the Prophet), it is ahistorical, it is anti-authoritarian and anti-statist.

By non-sectarian, I mean that a Blasphemy demonstration or a Blasphemy accusation allows the Islamist party to mobilize universally. Whether by buying busloads for the demonstration or imposing arbitrary shut-downs on merchants, the Islamist party can cast the widest possible net.

By ahistorical, I mean that Blasphemy operates strictly within the purview of the modern nation-state. There is very little, and I mean that, invocation of historical precedent or understanding of either the law or the accusation. Most Islamists will be shocked perhaps to learn that at one point or another such stalwarts of the Islamist canon such as Abu Hanifa, Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Taymiyyah or al-Ghazzali were all accused of apostasy and blasphemy in their lifetimes. The ignorance of such history is an advantage, since it allows the Islamist discourse to keep the issue posited as a strict binary and outside the scope of any “discussion”. There is also the lack of religious historical precedent – wherein the penalty of death is considered sacrosanct but it does not exist at all in the Qur’an and is only randomly asserted in the Hadi’th corpus.

Anti-State Islamism
By anti-authoritarian and anti-statist, I mean that these public demonstrations, shut-downs, and vigilante acts of violence are meant specifically for the local state – insofar as it is capable of communication – or the local market. That these Islamist parties have an agenda against the state – though they be nurtured by the same state is incidental – ought not be a surprise. Even when coddled, as the Jama’at-i Islami was during the Zia regime, the Islamist parties maintain a strict anti-authoritarian and anti-state rhetoric – because authority ought only to come from the power invested in them (as religious and political elite) by devout believers and the state ought only be “Islamic” (the definition being up for debate). Blasphemy is a perfect storm because it seemingly handicaps the capacity of the civil regime to intervene (are you against the Prophet!?) while loosening restraints on civil violence through absolution (to kill in the name of the Prophet is divine).

Ironies abound. The Prophetic tradition steeped in “I am not divine” speaks against any credulous case of Blasphemy. Yet, here we have the promoters of divinity squaring themselves in defense of someone who specifically denied himself such a status.

Many, including myself, are disheartened by the assassination of Salmaan Taseer. He had emerged, specifically through Twitter, as somewhat of a laissez-faire secularist. I want to stress this “Twitter” angle. Given the lack of a civil society where dialogue and discourse can transcend class boundaries, Taseer found a way to circumvent “drawing room politics” where men and women gathered on uncomfortable and ostentatious furniture to discuss “the people”. I am quite willing to bet that his strident defense of secularist, pluralist policies emerged because of the feedback loop that Twitter provided. As a subscriber to his feed for a while, I witnessed numerous exchanges with reporters, authors, business-owners, students where he asserted, and was pushed back on, not only government policy but a liberal world-view which needed defense or it needed affirmation. He was abandoned by his own party and largely by the provincial government after his defense of Asiya Bibi. The Zardari regime found it best to not challenge the Islamist parties and their reticence only exacerbated the loneliness of the Taseer and Sherry Rahman position – that the Blasphemy Laws were targeting religious minorities.

Is the death of Salmaan Taseer, the death of liberal thought in Pakistan? There is no denying that the rosy days of the Lawyers Movement are long gone – buried by repeated suicide bombings, minority killings, assassinations, and a revitalized Right in Pakistan. The Af-Pak theater with its un-ending political and military debacle has created a quick-sand in Pakistan where both the materials of war and the rhetoric of war dominate civic life. Everyone is in danger, at all times.

They have guns and they have the roses. We have nothing except the hope that civil state will find a reason to defend its own citizenry, if only out of self-preservation instincts.

Discovered: Lapata

Ralph Luker, at Cliopatria, announces the Annual Cliopatria Awards in the History blogosphere. Guess who won a 2010!

Best Writer: Lapata @ Chapati Mystery

Lapata’s essays are not so much written as they are assembled, careful collages of visuals, text, and quotations always cunningly integrated into architectural unities. Her style always serves her subject: in pieces like “The Reluctant Feudalist,” the contrapuntal conversation she stages between writers and readers, past and present, catches so much more of what is ambiguous or fragmentary about her subject that a more didactic or polemic style would ever allow. In “The Stay-at-Home Man,” her narrative pursuit of the elusive and mystifying Naiyer Masud is just as appropriately elusive as the author himself. It is the mark of a superb writer that calling her a south-Asian historian, literary critic, visual artist, or narrative non-fiction writer doesn’t seem to quite catch the totality. It’s the particular way she combines all at once — with never a comma or full-stop out of place, never a tiresome clause — that makes her writing shine.

We are so very, very proud.

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