Tag Archives: Reading Women

Read 107 of 2022. After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz

After Sappho

Title: After Sappho
Author: Selby Wynn Schwartz
Publisher: Galley Beggar Press
ISBN: 978-1913111243
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

After Sappho is a song that must be heard by all. It is a paean that generations of people must pay attention to. Of the struggles, the triumphs, the failures, & then of winning and the struggle to keep all of it sustained – Schwartz takes us through fragments of the lives of historical women, transporting us across time – from 1880s Italy to 1920s Paris and London. There are so many women we meet along the way, many kindred souls, many whose loves and lives we relate with, their broken dreams, hearts full of love, aspirations, yearning for independence, to be seen, to transform to Sappho.
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As a queer person, this book spoke like no other title on the Longlist. With every reread my heart has been fuller, my mind freer, and my thoughts wilder. After Sappho is about women reading books in trees, of Virginia Woolf falling in love with Vita Sackville-West, it is about liberation, need to express oneself, about how Henrik Ibsen took a woman’s story and made it his, about men who do that on a daily basis, about spaces that are waiting to be reclaimed by women, about stories that end in the year 1928 in the book, but are still going on and on and on, encompassing the lives and loves of women.
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The prose is not only compelling but gloriously touching. After Sappho is a story of collective voices, of individual laments, of voices that will not be subdued, of voices that have been told to shut up constantly, and of voices that belong to bodies that do, think, and act as they please. Schwartz writes with humour, writes about pain, what it is to be a woman (something which I will never know, though I am constantly torn about who I am and what is my identity), she writes about everyone who is on the periphery of society. She speaks of the past, merging it with the present, predicting the future. It is about learnings – what we understand from our ancestors, women who go back and forth to learn, to understand themselves, the world at large where they are concerned.

After Sappho is a testimony to those on the margins, the outsiders; to those women who don’t fit in and don’t want to. It is about anyone who has fought, and continues to do so. As a gay man I found myself in its pages. I was another Sappho, too.

Read 65 of 2022. In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition by Aanchal Malhotra

9789354898914

Title: In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition
Author: Aanchal Malhotra
Publisher: HarperCollins India
ISBN: 9789354899140
Genre: Nonfiction, Partition Literature Pages: 756
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I love Partition Literature – it tells me about my ancestors and their way of life, which I didn’t bother asking about when they were alive. Partition Literature is more than just novels or oral history. It goes beyond grief, loss, and belonging. I love Partition Literature because I was always so safe knowing who I was, not fearing about displacement, not knowing any better, till I did.

My grandparents – both maternal and paternal – migrated to India in July 1947, right towards the end, from Pakistan. I was all of eight years old when my paternal grandmother died and I wasn’t born when my paternal grandfather died. My parents don’t remember much about the Partition either. My mother never asked her parents about it. Neither did my aunts and uncles on both sides. That says a lot about trauma and grief, about what we remember and what we forget, and what we do not want to know about.

In the last couple of years, I have read Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation at least three times to make sense of where I come from – at least some of it. I believe art saves you, and it does, and it has, whenever I have turned to it. It is painful to read about the Partition but in a way it is also very cathartic. As a third-generation resident of independent India – who has only heard about the Partition in snatches of stray conversations – trying to make sense of pain and loss, reading about the events can be a means of providing closure, even if in the smallest of ways.

Aanchal Malhotra’s In the Language of Remembering is a book for me, for people who belong to my generation or after, for anyone who wants to understand the Partition from where we are now. It is a book about remembering – of conversations Malhotra had over the years with generations of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. She speaks to them about identity, about the relevance of the Partition today, whether we wish to talk about the Partition, and the need to preserve the painful past.

While growing up I used to think of the Partition as an event in my grandparents’ lives. It was cut off from my existence. I didn’t realise till much later that I too am a product of the painful past in one sense or the other – of two people whose parents had memories, who could never forget what they endured, about how they crossed the border, and how long it took them to build a new life.

In the Language of Remembering has been published at a time when the country is in the grips of a destructive chaos – when relationships have taken a back seat and religion is at the fore, when Muslims are being othered, and people are being categorised as “minority” and “majority”. The book has been published at a time when we need it the most – to understand where we have come from and how far we have come, and what it will take to be truly secular.

I never understood what the Partition meant to me, and how it perhaps even impacted me till I read about it. It all began with Kamleshwar’s Partitions in the year 2000, and after twenty-two years and having read about some forty-and-odd books on the subject, I feel we still don’t have enough Partition Literature. We constantly need to look and relook at it, to understand ourselves better, and perhaps generate some more empathy within us – to be kinder to each other and ourselves. I admit, it isn’t as simple as that. Sadly, we have a long way to go since maps and borders continue to be an integral part of our existence, whether we like it or not.

In the Language of Remembering makes us aware of what we carry within ourselves. Malhotra’s book is about regrets, losses, hopes, about what we gained, and what we were separated from. It is about the choices one made, about family, about generations, and how some incidents are not passed over, not told as stories, not revisited because of how painful they are and the need to talk about them – both in order to look ahead and constantly keep looking back so as not to lose a part of ourselves.

Read 64 of 2022. The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara

The Immortal King Rao

Title: The Immortal King Rao
Author: Vauhini Vara
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393541755
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When I started reading this book, I didn’t know where it would go at all. In fact, even when I was mid-way, I didn’t have a clue about the progression of the plot. There is so much going on in this close to 400-pages book of love, family, climate change, death, of how memories function, and magic as well somewhere down the line. I was also kind of shaken by the way the Internet is reimagined in a sense – of how it will take over the world, and the role the corporations would play in this.

The Immortal King Rao breaks genres. Yes, it does seem literary on the surface, but it also goes beyond that – it is speculative fiction, historical fiction, dystopian even, and not for a minute does Vauhini Vara make you stop turning the pages.

There were times I was reminded of Moustache by S. Hareesh while reading the book. Then, I was reminded of Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar, given the lyricism of the prose. There is also only one way to read this book and that is to give in.

The story begins in the India of the 1950s. A young man is born into a Dalit family of coconut farmers in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh. He is named King Rao (I love the irony about this, which is also seen in other instances throughout the book). He studies in Seattle and rises up the ladder in the Silicon Valley to become a famous CEO of a tech-company, aptly titled Coconut Corporation. This is where of course the author’s skill of being a technological journalist shows, in the way that she makes you believe it all. In all of this, we meet Athena – the very talented daughter of King Rao who is trying very hard to escape him after being implanted with his memories (the idea to make him immortal – hence the title) is extremely fascinating. She is raised by him on a remote island after her parents’ divorce. This aspect of a single-parent and that too a father unfolds itself very cleverly later on in the book.

The core of this novel perhaps is not technology as it seems at first glance. There is an almighty algorithm as well that will run everything, and humans aren’t needed to apply in the company but after all it is humanity and the need to be keep it all together that will run the planet.

Vauhini’s writing appears to be simple but it is so layered and dense (all in a good way) at almost every page. It is reflective of the past, of how we are living now, and takes into account the entirety of the future or perhaps what is coming for mankind.

As Athena grapples with her father’s memories and what they stand for, forever jostling between his reality and hers, I could see traces of Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy, where a world unfolds slowly but takes the reader to this completely believable alternative reality where technology and capitalism have replaced human emotions as we know it.

Fathers and Daughters have always been depicted in literature so very often with a lot of emotion at play. Vara tends to not do that, which is quite refreshing. The relationship between King and Athena is very Shakespearean (had to be) – reminding the reader mainly of King Lear and the Tempest.  The constant back and forth of wanting to be loved by her father and constantly seeking his validation makes Athena also seem weak but that is not the case. She is her own person and yet seeks the anchor in her father.

There is the Dalit narrative that is told through flashback – painful memories that come to fore – told by Athena as she spends time in a jail cell. The revolution, subjugation, and the collective consciousness through one man is repeatedly communicated and done so in a satirical and sardonic manner.

Not once does Vara lose the believability factor when it comes to her characters or even the fantastical plot for that matter. I would also like to mention the role of wit and humour in this book that Vara employs to the fullest. The oddness of certain situations – of dreams merging with reality, of Rao’s internal musings through Athena’s recollections (well, not really hers) could only have been managed by a writer who sees and recognises the absurdity within.

There are three distinctive timelines in the book only for them to merge seamlessly, not seeming separate at all. Vara forces us (well in that sense, almost) to look at the world that we want to look away from. The world full of its eccentricities, absurdities, the greedy world, about Shareholders, and how it all comes together with one Dalit family’s lives and histories. It is almost fascinating, but also heartbreaking to read those portions – just to understand that the technique of magic realism is employed to make the reading of Dalit lives bearable.

In all of this, there is also a lot of beauty and grace in the novel that cannot be missed. It is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live and continue living, no matter what. The resilience of Athena, King Rao, and even King Rao’s wife Margie is what makes the reader grow to love them despite their inherent flaws and warts for all to see.

The Immortal King Rao is no less than an epic tale of human relationships. Of a daughter getting to know her father in death more than when he was alive. Of how relationships are so estranged not only between lovers but also parents and children, who cannot see eye-to-eye. It is about the future and yet looking into the past at all times, realising that one cannot work without the other, almost to the point of it being inside your head. The book is about moments that pass us by and in the grander scheme of things, while may not seem much, they do account for something.

Read 43 of 2022. Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough

Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough

Title: Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays Author: Lauren Hough
Publisher: Coronet, Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 9781529382525
Genre: Essays, Memoir, LGBTQIA
Pages: 314
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I was most curious about this book, well, because of the title, and who wouldn’t be right? I mean we have all been there, when it comes to leaving and being left, in whatever form and manner. And rightly so this collection of essays from Hough’s life and observations, brought me to tears, a couple of essays in.

This book is about so many things – about growing up in a cult, about coming of age, about realising you are lesbian and in the military, about being ousted from service because of your identity, about being taught to please men sexually in the cult since you were twelve years old, and struggling with insomnia, PTSD, and mental health issues.

Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing is a brutal collection of essays. At times it is real, cringe, heartbreaking even, defining so many points in Hough’s life and in relation to the world, it is funny, making all meaning from the trauma and suffering, and above all relatable.

I found so many pieces that I could emotionally connect with – the time she is gaslighted by her superiors at work, or her first time encountering a gaybourhood (though I found that comfort with friends), and a lot also about hope really.

Hough’s writing is as real as it gets. The reader is not spared the details. There are no solutions, neither Hough asks for them. She tells about her life the way it was, and the way it is. You just cannot turn away from it.

Read 42 of 2022. Aurelia, Aurélia: A Memoir by Kathryn Davis

Aurelia, Aurélia - A Memoir by Kathryn Davis

Title: Aurelia, Aurélia: A Memoir 
Author: Kathryn Davis 
Publisher: Graywolf Press 
ISBN: 9781644450789
Genre: Memoirs 
Pages: 108 
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 4/5 

Aurelia, Aurélia is a memoir that is sporadic, all over the place, doesn’t make sense sometimes, but so rewarding from the first page. It is also quite random, but the writing charms you, beguiles you, and makes you stay. I haven’t read much by Davis. I think only one book in the past, Duplex which I immensely enjoyed, so I definitely had to read this one.

This book is a memoir – about the death of Davis’s beloved husband, Eric. It is about grief, its contradictions, shuffles between time – from when Davis was sixteen to present-day to recent past to the reader’s some present-day making sense of all the profundity packed into such a short book, one hundred and eight pages long.

This memoir just like her novel is wonderfully strange, turning grief into a universal emotion from a personal one, and to then talk about her cultural preoccupations and interests – from Hans Christian Andersen to the movie, The Seventh Seal, to Beethoven’s Bagatelles, and Virginia Woolf’s, To the Lighthouse.

Aurelia, Aurélia was read slowly by me, and I think that is the way to read it. I might even get back to it again before the year ends, just to also make sense of some of the writing. I loved the last chapter of the book the most – the part when Davis explains the book’s title, and how it all ties in with the core of the book.

Aurelia, Aurélia is a book about memories- disjointed ones, about a couple and their life together, about being alone (though not so explicitly), and haunting, inviting you to make sense of the limitless connections, and the knotty and most complex way of grief.