Category Archives: Women Writers Reading Project 2021

Read 213 of 2021. Intimate City by Manjima Bhattacharjya

Intimate City by Manjima Bhattacharjya

Title: Intimate City
Author: Manjima Bhattacharjya Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN: 978-9390514311
Genre: Non-Fiction, Social Welfare, Feminist Writing
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

This is a book that should be read by everyone. It is not only about sexual choices and rights exercised by women, but also about how technology enables that or sometimes not. Intimate City is a fascinating read about the business of pleasure and how that is coupled with the autonomy of the body, in relation to how the Internet has redeveloped intimacies in the times we live.

Intimate City looks at feminism and its understanding in the space of sex work, choice, and agency, all of this playing out in the city of Mumbai. I think Mumbai and its nuances plays out beautifully as another character altogether in this very reflective and profound non-fiction narrative of how sexual commerce comes full circle (well, almost does).

Manjima through her incisive and very detailed writing also looks at patriarchy and the role it plays throughout in the lives of not only sex workers, but also bar dancers, massage boys, and escort girls as service providers. It was for me very interesting as a queer man to see sex politics play out in this industry – with reference to how sexual commerce is viewed by the world at large, about whether it can ever be seen as a “regular” job, and how it all operates offline vs. online.

Intimate City, for some may not be revealing or earth-shattering in a sense. We think we might know it all, till we read something like this, and that’s all it takes perhaps to demolish our preconceived notions about who is paying for sex, and who is getting paid. I repeat, it is definitely a book that is a must-read for all.

Read 212 of 2021. Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Title: Matrix
Author: Lauren Groff
Publisher: Hutchison Heinemann
ISBN: 978-1785151910
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I am not a fan of historical fiction at all. I mean sure I have liked some books over the years, but I do not dig the genre per se. So, I was initially quite hesitant to read Matrix. A book set in the 12th century wasn’t for me. Till I read a couple of reviews, and was intrigued by the plot as I read more and more. After finishing the book, it is now safe to say that I am a fan of the way Groff has written this piece of work. Of how even a book set in the 12th century could feel so relevant and timely.

Matrix is a novel that is not only bold (well, in a sense and more), but also displays great sensitivity when needed, is driven by characters that are unique and yet relatable, and more than anything it is a novel that isn’t preachy at all, given how easily it could have taken that road.

Like I said, the book is set in the 12th century and is about Marie – a poet, a free-thinker, someone who yearns for the love of her queen, and it is that very queen – Eleanor of Aquitaine who has her ejected from court, sent to be prioress at a remote royal abbey in England. From thereon, everything begins.

Matrix is a reimagining of Marie de France, no holds barred. Groff speaks less of her lais but when she does it is with great affection and joy. At the same time, her love for her long-time help Cecily and Queen Eleanor is devoted. I think those parts moved me the most. I could sense the longing Groff transfers to Marie, the yearning with which each thought is processed by the prioress – and how ultimately in all of this, she makes the abbey her home and is determined to resurrect its rundown status.

It took me about two chapters to get into the book, but when I did, I was hooked. Marie’s mother’s side of the family had me wanting to know more about them. The crusaders, the tales, the passing down of stories connected to a large extent with me. I loved the routine of the abbey. In fact, I found myself looking forward to those descriptions that Groff brings to fore with so much talent and nuance. I can only imagine the kind of research that must have happened in the writing of Matrix.

What I also enjoyed a lot was the absence of male characters, or when they appeared they took a back seat. The writing focuses on the women and rightly so. The sisterhood that is built from scratch had me cheering for them at the turn of every page. Every decision that Marie makes isn’t perfect. Groff lays out the flaws of characters that somehow makes them more endearing to the reader. Marie’s visions are beautifully explained through the prose. A feat if you ask me.

Matrix is a book about women who do not find a place anywhere in the world and how they come to live together in the abbey. The way Groff works with history – more to reimagine it is a splendid task. I loved how Marie offers herself to the Queen without any expectation (well, there is some at some points), bares her soul, and how she refuses to be trapped anywhere under any circumstances. It is all about things happening on her terms, which bring out the true warrior woman element.

Matrix is a medieval romance, it is political novel, it is a story of friendship, of sisterhoods even in disagreement, of a queer abbey, and of a spirit that is grand and not afraid to show it. You have to read Matrix to appreciate and feel the joy.

Read 211 of 2021. Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame by Erin Williams

Commute - An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame by Erin Williams

Title: Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame
Author: Erin Williams
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
ISBN: 978-1419736742
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

We go through life hiding all the shame, and not acknowledging our innermost thoughts, what we really think and what we would really want to do. Erin Williams not only bares her soul through her art, but in the process also helps others internalise the trauma and talk about it, well to some extent.

Commute is a book that is about so many things – it is about Williams’ daily commute to and from work, it is about her sexual encounters – past and present, about her past relationships (the guilt associated with some and the idea of them not working out), about men always taking space (whether on the train or in life), making women second-guess, gas-lighting, and asserting their right on women’s bodies.

Williams does this with a touch of humour but doesn’t ignore the intensity and seriousness of it all. Commuting is so local, global, and more than anything personal. Each individual’s journey is so unique, and we see that through Williams’ journey – regardless of the places, and what’s happening, we are constantly observing – what others read, what other commuters are doing, and in that we also tend to drift. What is it like travelling in a female body? I will never know. I can only learn and empathise and that’s what I did from this book.

Commute is mostly told through feedback, reminiscent of childhood and teenage years. Commute makes the male gaze visible in 300 pages or less. It is a graphic memoir that was needed to be told and a most essential addition to the list. Read it on the train, perhaps.  

Books and Authors mentioned in Commute

  • James Patterson
  • Anne Carson
  • Kierkegaard
  • Fear and Trembling
  • Eve Ensler
  • I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
  • Slant Six by Erin Belieu
  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  • Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • The Gift by Barbara Browning
  • Mary Roach
  • Natalie Shapero
  • After Claude by Iris Owens
  • Valleyspeak by Cait Weiss Orcutt
  • Clive Cussler
  • Anne Rice
  • Dostoevsky
  • Freud
  • Keats

Read 203 of 2021. Are You Enjoying? : Stories by Mira Sethi

Are You Enjoying?-Stories by Mira Sethi

Title: Are You Enjoying?: Stories
Author: Mira Sethi
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 978-1526643957
Genre: Short Stories, Contemporary Fiction Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

With the onset of the lockdown last year, my mother and I watched Pakistani serials. We were reeling under the influence of Dhoop Kinare watched years ago and thought that Pakistani serials would be made the same way – with nuance. We were mistaken to a large extent. They were just like the K serials of India, barring a few. The same old upholding of values, same old serials seeped in patriarchy, the same old stories of sacrifice and love.

Why do I speak of these serials? Because Mira Sethi’s collection of stories set in Pakistan are refreshingly different and real unlike these shows. Or maybe these shows are also real, each depicting their own universe of events, and the truths that reside in them.

Mira Sethi’s collection of six stories and a novella is not only extraordinary but also immensely detailed, with an eye for pointing out the quirks, eccentricities, and to a large extent satirical. These stories are the much-needed representation we needed of the country. Maybe some of them even made me think of Zoya Akhtar’s movies. They seemed to be set in the same milieu. The rich with their immense set of problems, insecurities, constantly finding ways to escape what is being served to them by life or by fate as a consequence of their deeds (maybe). Whether it is a man who is recovering from his divorce and falls in love with a neighbour in “Mini Apple” or a young actress who wants to make something of her life in “Breezy Blessings”, or even if it is the matriarch in “A Life of Its Own” (which is in two parts) – all of them are struggling with something or the other – their lives are no different than what you and I live. Sethi draws from people she knows, irrespective of whether rich or not. The stories matter and they speak for themselves.

My personal favourite was Mini Apple till I read “Tomboy” and fell in love with the story. The understanding between the friends Asha and Zarrar, as they get married and continue living, hiding their sexuality from society at large, spoke volumes to me as a gay man living in India. We think we have managed to break free, but have we really?

Mira’s stories constantly defy, they are thinly veiled in wit and humour, sometimes even to make a point, but mostly these stories reveal the human condition and the spaces we inhabit. These stories could be set anywhere in the world, but Mira’s Pakistan is the modern country we need to know of – its contradictions, the complexities, the night life, the lives that are not supposed to live to the fullest, and the constant battles of power and desire. It is the Pakistan that speaks volumes, if you read carefully between the lines.

On the surface these stories look simple but let them not fool you. They are anything but easy. They are an easy read for sure, but their impact lasts longer than you think it would. Sethi’s writing is brazen, feisty even, it is refreshing and more than what you have already heard of it. It is a collection that has rightfully earned every bit of praise. Read it.

Read 202 of 2021. Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro. Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro

Title: Elena Knows
Author: Claudia Piñeiro
Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle
Publisher: Charco Press
ISBN: 978-1999368432
Genre: Literary Fiction, Women in Translation
Pages: 173
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Elena, all of sixty-three years old, knows that her daughter did not die by hanging herself. She knows there is more to it and wants to find out what happened to Rita. Why do they claim that Rita hung herself in the church belfry? How could that have been possible since it was raining that night and Rita would’ve never gone out in the rain as she was petrified of lightning? Elena wants answers about her daughter’s death, and no one is willing to help her. She is determined to find the culprit. Even if it means she has to venture out and journey through the suburbs of the city, to call on a favour from a woman named Isabel, who she and her daughter met twenty years ago. Even if it means that she has to do this as she suffers from Parkinson’s – the disease that will not let go of her and will obstruct her search to some extent. What happens next is what the novel is all about.

Piñeiro is well-known as a “thriller” or “crime” writer in Argentina and even around the world. Elena Knows, according to me is a good start to get to know her writing and fall in love with it. I’m surprised that with almost four books translated in English, Piñeiro is still not that well-known. I hope that changes when more people read Elena Knows.

Elena Knows is so much – a detective novel, a woman dependent on her disease to make all basic decisions – that of walking, turning her neck, seeing someone, and even sometimes breathing. It is a lucid and most disturbing commentary on mother-daughter relationships, and what happens when the child becomes a caregiver. It is also about the role of the government when it comes to providing medical care to its citizens – the red tapism, the bureaucracy, and the narrow-mindedness of it all. The book is political. It is about the agency of women and who controls their bodies. Piñeiro doesn’t hesitate to show society the mirror and make them realize what they stand for or not.

The plot unfolds in a day with clearly marked sections – Morning, Midday, and Afternoon – the times that are governed by Elena’s medication schedule. If she misses this, she will not be able to function. She will not be in control of her body and has to follow the schedule. This is another important element of the book. Let me also add here that Elena is not a likeable protagonist. There are shades and layers to this character and that’s what makes her also so endearing to some extent. There is no maudlin expression of her coping with her disease. There are facts, there are emotions, and sometimes the two converge most beautifully in the book.

Elena knows is so much more and I am stunned at how Piñeiro managed to say so much in such a small book. At the same time, Frances Riddle’s translation is on-point and makes you wonder what it would sound like in Spanish. The sentences gleam and I often found myself underlining passages.

Elena Knows is a book about patriarchy, structures, narrative (italics for dialogues), time, gender, motherhood, illness, and law and what we do with it, as we move on – day to day, hoping for a better tomorrow.