Soniah Kamal

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'Islam is not Pakistan's religion; Marriage is'

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye 2008, Hello 2009

last night was new year's in Pakistan.
Tonight is new year's in the U.S.
Every day is a New Year some where.
So hello somewhere new year, and somewhere good bye.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Interview with Literary Agent Debarati Sengupta

Debarati Sengupta is a junior literary agent with Serendipity Literary Agency. She is looking for fiction and non-fiction dealing with multicultural themes with an international and universal appeal. She also has a keen interest in young adult and twenty-something themes in both fiction and non fiction categories
(as of 2012 Debarati is no longer a lit. agent)

Soniah: How long have you been an agent?
Debarati:About one and a half years now.

Soniah: How did you get started?
Debarati:I have always, always wanted to be in the book-publishing business (and I don’t think I will ever get tired of this!) I started my career in the publishing industry as an editor in India. After moving to USA post marriage, I realized that if I wanted to be a part of the publishing industry here, I’d have to be in New York. I convinced my husband to move to New York from Florida, while I enrolled myself in a course in publishing at NYU. At the same time, I started interning at Serendipity Literary Agency, and soon, under the excellent leadership and infectious enthusiasm of Regina Brooks - our lead agent-- I started acquiring and developing projects. In India, literary agents are still a rare breed, but here, I realized that agents have, in many ways, actually taken over the role that editors used to play. At the same time, being an agent gives me a certain amount of independence in terms of the project that I choose to work on. I think being a part of a literary agency also gives me an excellent overview of the entire industry – the creative as well as the business side, because I get to deal with all the major houses and editors, and work on a wide range of books. I work on books that I enjoy the most, and at the same time am able to be involved with a book project throughout all its stages – from when it is just an idea, to when it appears in a publisher’s sales catalog, to when it sits on the shelves of a bookstore - waiting to be picked up by the next reader.

Soniah:What are the most important things an author might look for in an agent?
Debarati:First off, authors can try to educate themselves on the whole process of publishing – and not just from discussion boards, blogs and the web in general, but from more reliable sources like the Publishers Marketplace, Publishers Weekly Magazine, the bestseller lists and various publishing house websites. Once an author has a basic idea about the kind of market she is writing for as well as the competitive books and the recent trends in the market, she should find out agents who specialize in those kinds of books. It always helps to check out thoroughly:
• Whether the agent has a wide network, • The agent’s website, • The agent’s sales, • Agent attendance at various writing workshops, conferences, seminars etc. • If the agent is a member of AAR (Association of Author Representatives).
Different agents have different working styles as far as their editorial, marketing, and publicity inputs are concerned. So research what suits you best based on your needs. Finding the perfect agent is quite like finding the perfect life partner – you would be taking the plunge holding your agent’s hands and once you take the plunge there should be no looking back and no thinking twice, so make sure you have complete faith in your agent.

Soniah:What types of work do you represent and are you most interested in?
Debarati:At Serendipity, we love to work on a balanced mix of non-fiction and both literary and commercial fiction. We also have a long list of very successful books for young adults and children. Genres that interest us most are politics, psychology and self-help, pop culture, health, science, women's issues, parenting, cooking, design and crafts, alternative spirituality, business. I am always very drawn to fresh, unique voices, with edgy and interesting story structures and to writing that moves me. I am very eager to work with international writers, on multicultural themes and am always interested in new and emerging writers. And oh, I also want to do a perfectly taut thriller, or a Dan Brownesque book set in South Asia, you know, a heady mix of history and adventure.

Soniah:You must obviously love to read-- can you take us through a typical day at work?
Debarati:Fortunately, if you are an agent, no day is like a ‘typical’ day, every day is a roller coaster ride and everything is very time sensitive. And because reading and working on books is more like a passion rather than a vocation, ‘work’ tends to spill over into all my waking hours. So I like to read manuscripts or the latest bestsellers on the train to and from work. Book ideas are always on my mind, so I may be developing book concepts while watching TV or surfing the Net, or even while catching up with a friend on the phone. And believe it or not, sometimes even in my dreams! Otherwise, in the office, I read query letters, proposals and manuscripts, develop projects at various stages, negotiate contracts, brainstorm publicity ideas, and set up appointments with editors. Then there’s the breakfast, lunch and after work drinks I have with editors so that I can establish a rapport and find out their literary likes and dislikes. And of course there are times when we breathe deep and nurse our wounds after reading a nice (and sometimes not so nice) rejection letter. And sometimes in the office we just plain chitchat! About books of course 

Soniah:What would a dream client be like? A nightmare client?
Debarati:I would like to think that there really isn't anything like a ‘nightmare’ client, or a ‘dream’ client for that matter. When we take on an author, we would like him or her to get a feeling that he or she is very special for us, and would get our personal commitment and support throughout the harrowing process of getting published and even after that, as if he or she is our only client. We tend not to take on authors with similar book ideas, so in that sense each author’s work is a unique element in our portfolio. However, it always makes working with a client much easier if he or she is able to trust us completely and believe in our mission of a long-term development and lasting relationship. Yes, it’s quite like having a ‘relationship’ – each one needs to be equally committed and trusting.And we love it every time an author is enthusiastic about learning, especially when it comes to the business aspect of getting published. In fact, we take in only those authors as clients who take up writing as a career, rather than a hobby. Who would, for example, maybe invest in a personal website or work on a you tube video or a blog and network to promote himself/herself as an author. This is for the very simple reason – any agent, editor, publisher would be more confident about investing their money, time and effort on a writer who is serious about the business of writing.Authors who don’t respect the process and call us every day about the progress of the book, or authors who allow emotions to get in the way of the business can really be difficult. Also authors who don’t understand the power of the Internet can inadvertently sabotage their image by being too tell-all in public spaces, i.e. blogs, websites, and discussion boards.

Soniah:How might an author sabotage their image?
Debarati:I feel blogs and the Internet in general is a great place to network, to get your talent out there and to bond with other authors, organization, to generate an audience - to sum up, a very efficient and important tool. The only reason an author perhaps may be somewhat careful while communicating on the net is because the internet is a very public space, and as with all ther public spaces, it always helps to be cautious about what you say and how you present your opinion. Of course, all of us have seen how a careless comment can generate prejudiced public opinion against you. We also have known authors who have quoted our communication with them, through emails or over the phone, word by word, on blogs and discussion boards, and we feel quite uncomfortable with that.Here are some pointers on how to use blogs and online tools:- While blogging use more conversational tone, and end with open ended questions which can lead to fruitful discussions and encourage readrs to question and comment. - Add links to every keyword and link to each other's blogs, and in a creative way so that more people can know about your to-be-published book (but give out your book idea only after you get a deal)- Try to prove your interest/ expertise/ passion for the subject you are writing about. That will give an editor/agent/publishers reading your blog the feeling that the subject will generate wide interest- If you have a book already out, offer to give away/ sell at discount/signed-personalized copy of the book from the blog - Add as many images/ videos etc possible - readers generally have short attention span and cannot read long posts at a stretch. Keep paragraphs short- If you have accounts/ profiles in any other social networking site (myspace, facebook, linkedIn), add your information to your blog, and add your regular readers to your network

Soniah:Is being an agent everything you expected? If you will share-- so far what has been your highest high and lowest low?
Debarati:Being an agent gives me the satisfaction of being a part of the creative as well as business aspect of the publishing process. I get to choose to work on only what I believe in, which is amazing. And believing in the project completely allows me the opportunity to help an author develop a story and provide editorial suggestions. I also get to help editors push the sales of a book or plan events and even tie in the author with organizations to help promote the work. I also get to negotiate the contract on behalf of the author so that he/she gets maximum revenue. Also, I try to sell the book to overseas agents or sell rights of books from foreign countries to publishers in USA. Working on each project is a unique experience, and I learn a lot from each project. It’s a joy when you see a proposal on which you have worked hard being sold, and again, it’s somewhat heartbreaking when you cannot make others believe in a project as much as you do. Also, at times you strongly feel a book should be out there because the words in it have something magical about them, but then it’s disappointing when other marketing dynamics prevent it from happening.

Soniah:What is your process for taking on a book? -- Or is every case different?
Debarati:In case of fiction, we like to see a query letter, a synopsis, a few sample chapters and the author’s background. If the idea seems to be interesting, we ask for the entire manuscript. In case of non-fiction, we ask for a proposal which will have the publishing rationale of the book, a description of the project, the author’s background, the target audience, marketing ideas and what we call the author’s ‘platform’ – which summarizes why the author is the best person to write the book, what he/she can offer along with a great manuscript that will make the book sell. The platform is important for non-fiction especially because thousands of aspiring writers are trying to get a book published. So we have to be convinced that the author has made a strong case for why the publisher should invest in her idea, and what would give her an edge over the other authors. Once we love the book idea and feel confident, we then make a commitment. This commitment is solidified by signing of an agreement for representation. Thereafter, we are the client’s champion, come what may.

Soniah:In the U.S. there seems to be a strong market for non-fiction set in South Asia. Would you agree the same is true for fiction given the popularity of authors such as Lahiri and Hosseini? Or is the U.S. market interested only as long as fiction, and even memoirs, address the quintessential topics of arranged marriages, immigrant angst, or the 'terrorist' angle?
Debarati:Now that the world is becoming increasingly smaller and South Asian countries are more often in the news, thanks to the booming economy or the political episodes, South Asia is definitely in the front pages. Also, one cannot deny fact that there has been a steady growth in the number of authors from South Asia whose works are internationally successful. So I definitely think there is a greater interest in South Asian books written in English or those dealing with South Asian themes. But then, it is difficult to say with 100% conviction that books, especially fiction, that deal with themes that are quintessentially South Asian and that are completely alien to US readers here would really work, unless the book has been written keeping in mind an international readership.If we think about it – would a reader in South Asia or belonging to any other culture be able to connect easily to books that are quintessentially American? We are all, to some extent, prejudiced about ideas and cultural experiences that we have trouble relating to. But again, publishers are always ready to publish books which they feel would have a universal appeal, if it is a great story which readers will be able to relate to. It depends on the author how s/he presents his/her ideas, experiences and unique perspective keeping the international readership in mind. After all, readers look forward to a good story, does not matter where the story is set. And if it were not for books, how would our horizons broaden?

Soniah:It seems that, in recent years, there are more short story collections available and that they're doing well...What are your views? Is this just a trend?
Debarati:Honestly, again and again we have realized that it is very difficult to work on short stories, unless they come from an author who is established, or they are a part of an anthology, which deals with a theme that will generate immense interest. We do not work on short stories or poetry for adults – they are just too difficult to sell and don’t generate great revenue.

Soniah:What advice would you give anyone who wants to be an agent?
Debarati:First, you have to love books – not just reading but the whole process of making a book happen, of visualizing an idea or concept as printed words between covers. You have to be curious about everything, have a sense of wonder and the ability to connect with people easily. You’ll have to learn the language of various departments in the publishing house, i.e. editorial, marketing, legal, production and sales. Not only the language but also the temperament of a business that is chock full of characters. You’ll need to know how to think on your feet, and enjoy the two year lifecycle that books typically enjoy. I’m always motivated by the passion for making that one good book happen, for discovering and molding that one talent, for making a product that is completely unique. Agents often see themselves as project managers. They will have authors who are at different stages of the process, so you need to know how to multitask, how to be organized, and how to develop a strategic plan. But please don’t feel intimidated – this is actually a very exciting business, and you get to be the very first reader of a book! And of course, if you are lucky enough to have an excellent mentor like Regina, the whole process would become twice as exciting and enjoyable.

Soniah:What do you think is the best approach an author can use to break ties with an agent?
Debarati:Nothing works better than being honest. You should assess the reasons for breaking with the agent very carefully. Prepare a list of pros and cons, and be sure to go over it with your agent. Often times you’ll find that once you communicate your dissatisfaction the two of you can come to an amicable departure. But you may also find that you hadn’t really shared your expectations and once you do, the agent can make adjustments. If all else fails, as in any relationship, it’s always best not to let it drag out too long. You’ll be wasting both your time and the agent’s.

Soniah:If there was only one piece of advice you could give an author, what would it be?
Debarati:I believe every story in the world has been told, what matters is how you tell the story. All you authors, I have realized again and again, are extraordinary people, you are gifted, you make the ordinary around us magical, and you can make us readers see what we cannot see otherwise. So when you have a story to tell, a book to write, see that you do enough groundwork to make sure that yours will not get lost in the crowd. And brace yourself for a long process – but enjoy every step of it.

Soniah:What would be a dream submission?
Debarati:A great story told in a way that is completely fresh and that touches me forever.

Soniah:Any parting words?
Debarati:I’m aggressively looking for fiction dealing with multicultural themes and have an international and universal appeal. I have a special interest in young adult and twenty-something themes in both fiction and nonfiction categories. I like books that are quirky and fresh, can also really dig into a juicy thriller or conspiracy theory book. But I am always ready to take a look at a good book idea, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have a good platform and a good concept.

Soniah:What is the best way to submit to you/Serendipity?
Debarati:Through the website: Or via email at debarati@serendipitylit.comWe prefer electronic submission – it’s faster, and we save trees that way.

Happy Writing.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Malcolm Gldwell on Ben Fountain, Jonathan Safron Foer, Cezanne, Picasso: late bloomers versus prodigies. And Women Who Bring Home the Bacon.

What's the point of pointing out that some kids walk before thier first birthday and some kids walk much later if you're not going to discuss what this means to the psyches of the parents and child? Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity? Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, does not really answer his own subtitle when writing about creative late bloomers versus prodigies for The New Yorker. Late bloomers --writers like Ben Fountain or painters like Cezanne-- require years of practise and lots of research but prodigies-- writers like Jonathan Safron Foer and painters like Picasso-- just, well, spit it out. Says Jonathan Foer about research and rehearsals 'I couldn't do that.'

'Foer began to talk about the other way of writing books, where you
painstakingly honed your craft, over years and years. “I couldn’t do that,” he
said. He seemed puzzled by it. It was clear that he had no understanding of how
being an experimental innovator would work. “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re
trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an

I'd have liked to know what he doesn't get? After all, it shouldn't take a prodigy to understand that some creators might need research and practise over many many drafts. Gladwell also raphsodizes about Mrs. Ben Fountain being Mr. Ben Fountain's 'patron' i.e. the person paying the bills. Gladwell writes and rightly so:

'Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also—to borrow a term from long ago—his
patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far
more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported
by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan
Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their
career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer
offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to
Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a
plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you
through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true
level. This is what is so instructive about any biography of Cézanne. Accounts
of his life start out being about Cézanne, and then quickly turn into the story
of Cézanne’s circle....Cezanne didn't just have help. He had a dream team in his corner.'

Sharon is Ben's dream team. She 'worked' and brought home the bacon while Ben stayed home, wrote in the mornings and, when the kids returned form school, made lunch etc... Many female writers have been living this lifestyle for ages with their husbands their 'patrons'. What Ben did is a traditionally womanly thing to do i.e. be creative or do something for yourself between child rearing and housekeeping. Imagine someone bursting into applause because 'he worked while she stayed home, wrote in the mornings and, when the kids came back from school, she made lunch etc..' This is the humdrum fact of the lives of many women who work from home...or aren't the predominant bill payer. While Gladwell waxes on about Sharon's willingness and perhaps ability to allow Ben to stay home while she earn the chappati, Gladwell fails to make much of how deeply Sharon must have believed in Ben's talent to begin with. Did she read his work? How did she know it would work out? Did she figure let him 'play' in the morning, as long as the fridge is stocked by the time I get back home and, if something concrete evolves out of the morning play, why then, all the better for it my dear... What exactly made Sharon Ben's dream team and how much did that, finances aside, help Ben emotionally? But apparently, according to Gladwell, Sharon's sacrifice of a dual income family is driving an Accord rather than a BMW as someone in her profession deserves to.
I would have liked Gladwell to explore whether there is a difference in the satisfaction levels of prodigies versus late bloomers once they get published or find their work on a wall? Is Foer's supposed instant success really the same as Fountain's belaboured one just because the end result is the same? Would you rather be rich and famous (or just famous or just rich) at twenty or at fifty? Let me ask it this way: would you, a prodigy, trade places with a late bloomer or would a late bloomer not trade places with a prodigy?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Have A Dream, President Obama

Congratulations President Barack Hussein Obama. And Vice-President Joe Biden.

I have a dream that the damage that has been wrought in this country and other countries will be overturned in the next four years to a great extent. You are black. You are white. Your father is from Kenya. Your mother is from Kansas. You have seen Muslim. You have seen Christian.

They called you terrorist because once you crossed streets with a domestic terrorist. They called you socialist because you care about all and not just a few. They called you Muslim as if this is a four letter word.

And we the people saw through this bullshit.

Politicians say so much to get into office, make so many promises... but let me not be cynical. Not now, not yet, I hope not at all in this case. I hope, with the audacity of hope, I dream with the audacity of dreams that, in this Obama Presidency some all of these dreams for the US, and for the world, come true.


Hope being a big word, I really hope this does mean change and not just gloss...But Obama's win also DOES not mean that rascism is over only that we've come a looog way baby...and there's still ways to go, and yes we can. I'm really looking forward to who makes up his adminstration and how they handle foreign policy-- Guantanamo, Abu Graib and torture as merely indepth questioning...

* My son's name is Buraaq and he's asleep right now but he's going to be delirious with joy come morning that his namesake is indeed going to be the President. Buraaq is only 7 1/2, and through out this campaign he's loved being called "President Barack/Buraaq"-- Hey- what's in a spelling- Buraaq says.

** From Grant Park, Chicago, IL to Kenya. How amazing to see the Kenyans in Kenya celebrating from Obama's Dad's village where his paternal grandmother is still alive. Because for them Obama is one of them too!!!!! In fact Kenya declares a national holiday

"They also stress that they know he is an American, rather than a Kenyan,
but even so there is still hope that the change he has promised will encompass
Africa, with trade policy and tariffs cited as a particular concern."

That's what many world-wide are hoping-- yes, he's America's President, but also that he's a Son of the World.

And finally Senator McCain embraces unity in his gracious concession speech

"I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just
congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest
effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge
our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a
dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better
country than we inherited. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.
And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than
that." read rest here

Monday, October 20, 2008

Two Exchanges, and Letterman and McCain, and Colin Powell Endorses Obama

On NBC's Meet the Press Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for President but just as --even more-- importantly he set forth and endorsed a view that was, it seemed, sadly, sorely, despicably missing from American politics. And all the nonsense is not now okay just because one Colin Powell has good solid common sense to speak up against bigotry but it's a start and how nice if Obama had come out and said, that is if he believes so, the same thing "So What if I Were a Muslim? Why should being a Muslim imply my also being a (fill in the blank)..." Obama is an African-American, but he is also half-white, his mother was white and she and her parents raised him. Obama is a Christian, but his deceased father was Muslim. Sure, you may not lurve the places you come from but you sure understand them because you come from them. And though accidents of birth should not make us special they do make us different especially when all we've seen so far is White Man for Presidents. Not that this means of course that African Americans and Brown People or Yellow or Red or Green do or should automatically stand in solidarity. In fact they should automatically do nothing at all.

I teared up when I heard both the below exchanges-- at the Sense with relief and at the Nonsense with incredulity and anger.


Woman at McCain rally:
"I can't trust Obama. I have read about him, and he's not he's not he's a uh he's an Arab".
McCain :
"No Maam No. He's a decent family man citizen."
Yeah Arabs are just....Arabs are just.... (fill in the blanks) but certainly not decent. family. man. citizen.

Of course I was argued with that since Arabs are so rascist themselves therefore.... To that I say two wrongs do not make a right. That's like when people inform me that 'if America has problems would you want to live to Saudi Arabia or Iran?' I'm always baffled by this logic. So my house may be dirty but since it's not as dirty as (fill in the blanks) the dirt is ok.

Not okay says Colin Powell on Meet the Press.

"I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as 'Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well the correct answer is 'He is not a Muslim, he's a Christian, he's always been a Christian.' But the really right answer is 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' The answer is 'No. That's not America.' Is there something wrong with some 7-year old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo-essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in you can see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he can go serve his country and he gave his life."

Letterman's exchange with McCain is also stellar for hammering Mr. McCain with tough questions"Assigned to demonize the opponent, Palin works the campaign trail as a politician with mud in her hands and a gift for slinging it. Palling around with GOP dirty tricksters, she slanders McCain's opponent, a sitting U.S. senator, as a fellow-traveler of "terrorists who would target their own country." Her "terrorists" is a lone and long-since reformed William Ayers, who, when Barack Obama was a youngster growing up abroad, helped found a radical anti-Vietnam war group blamed for several domestic bombings in the '60s.

Pressed about Palin's exaggerations of Obama's relationship with Ayers - both men deny they've ever been pals - Sen. McCain supported her. However, when Letterman linked the Arizona senator to his friend and fundraiser - and convicted Watergate burglar and domestic terrorist G. Gordon Liddy - McCain recoiled. After the break, he admitted: "I know Gordon Liddy. He paid his debt, he went to prison. ... I'm not in any way embarrassed to know Gordon Liddy." Liddy, who plotted to kill newspaper columnist Jack Anderson and firebomb the Brookings Institution, hosted a 1998 fundraiser for McCain's re-election. On Liddy's radio show in 2007, the senator spoke proudly of the ex-con's "adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great."

It's not likely that we'll hear Sarah Palin preaching that McCain also is "palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."
read rest here

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Adiga's White Tiger Wins 2008 Booker Prize

Anita Desai's novels were being published in India in the 60's, 70's and 80's, she says in her opinion piece in Outlook India, to no fanfare at all. Instead, rather than get excited about Indian writers writing in English, Indian readers continued reading Austen and Hardy and Wodehouse. It took major literary prizes awarded by the West, as well as big advances, for Indian readers to develop an interest and Indian-English writing (a trend which continues: it took Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger being long and short listed for the Booker Prize for it beginning to sell in India). Since then times have changed in many instances but this change comes with its own set of drawbacks. Were Adiga not short listed for the Booker and did not begin to recoup the big advance Harper Collins India gave it, would it be tough for his second novel to sell as is the case for authors whose first novels do not sell their advance out in the U.S.? Though the Indian publishing houses, still in their nascent stages in many rosy respects, may yet give their authors a second and third chance that U.S. publishers, with their look-to-the-bottom-line-only, no longer do. Will it follow that midlist American authors, finding it hard to get published in the U.S., increasingly turn to India for book deals and readers? How easy might it be for an 'American-Southern writer' to get a book deal in the Indian market? Will the book have to follow a 'Steel Magnolia'/Ya-Ya Sisterhood/Sweet Potato Queen stereotype'? Might it then be the Indian readers turn to 'exoticize' the U.S.: give us mint juleps and iced teas, give us family sagas where all the women stick together till death do they part, give us long shots of magnolias and big hair? After all 'exotification'-- be it mangos or veils or arranged marriages-- is still a challenge that South Asian writers, indeed writers from many cultures, still face-- though perhaps not as pervasively as before-- when trying to be published in the U.S.

Sales should increase even more: The White Tiger is awarded the 2008 Booker prize.

In The Guardian:
Jonathan Ruppin, of the book shop Foyles, said: "This is a refreshingly
unromanticised portrait of India, showing that a vast gulf between rich and poor
is not an exclusively western phenomenon. It's a very exciting winner for
bookshops as it's so commercial." read rest here

There will of course be many who will say The White Tiger won just because the 'West' wants to tarnish the image of India Shining. I found The White Tiger an enjoyable, fast paced read which offered a very real picture of inner India-- indeed inner any country where the rich are very rich and the poor really really poor with not many chances of upward mobility. Also the main character Balram's voice is fun:

from The White Tiger

It is an ancient and veneratedcustom of people in my country to start a
story by praying to a Higher Power. I guess, Your Excellency, that I too
should start off by kissing some god's arse. Which god's arse, though? There
are so many choices. See the Muslims have one god. The Christians have three
gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods.

And of course in the day and age of 600 page novels it is delightful to come across a short novel. However that said as delightful as brevity can be a short novel is kept short because the author chooses to tell the story from one character's point of view rather than through multiple characters. The White Tiger could have been a much deeper novel had Adiga chosen to tell the story through other characters' perspectives as well as delving deeper into how they have become who they are in the course of this novel, but this is a choice each author makes and the reader can only vote whether the author's choices have whetted their appetite fully: a not too long novel and one point of view versus a much longer read with many characters telling the story at the same time?
In the case of The White Tiger, says a Booker judge:

As Booker judges, though, we are playing the numbers game with other
peoples' art, not our own, and although we are doing our best to avoid it, with
the pressure mounting it is hard not to feel that size matters. At a judges' meeting this week, as books were mentioned round the table, it was often with a guilty ps, ‘...and it's short' or ‘... but it is rather long.' read rest here

Monday, October 6, 2008

More Alike Than Not: Jews and Muslims and Modesty

A friend's husband was complaining the other day about the way some women were dressing to Sunday Services at Church here in Georgia, USA. Tarts, he called the women in tight skirts and, according to him, too much cleavage, whores who don't know how to respect our Lord. It's not a club, he said, it's a Church. This man could neither beat nor stone nor cast out these women, I suppose he'll have to live with grumbling to his heart's content, because the law would not allow him to get away with beating, stoning or casting anyone out. I suppose we're all guilty, men and women, of a little moral policing, now and then, even if only in our hearts, but the beginnings of taking it too far could very well be the grumble here and there becoming louder and louder and angrier and angrier until it joins forces with like hearts and minds. Israeli moral police have joined those in Iran and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. And like the Taliban and their edicts against chess playing and kite flying and song hearing, it's not just women in Orthodox parts of Israel who are being monitored but also MP4 players.

In August, a Jerusalem man was placed under house arrest on suspicion he
set fire to a store in a haredi district of the city that sold MP4 players.
"It started about six months ago. They would come into the store, about 15
of them at a time, screaming, 'This store burns souls!' and they would throw
merchandise on the floor and threaten customers," said 31-year-old Aaron Gold, a
haredi worker at the Space electronic store. One Friday night, just before the Sabbath was about to begin, "they smashed a window, doused the place with
gasoline and lit a match," Gold said. Now, a big sign behind the counter
says, "All products sold in this store are under rabbinical supervision. By
order of the rabbis, no MP4s are sold here."
...Zealots there have thrown rocks and spat at women, and set fire to trash
bins to protest impiety. Walls of the neighborhood are plastered with signs
exhorting women to dress modestly spelled out as closed-necked,
long-sleeved blouses and long skirts...The state, catering to religious
sensitivities, subsidizes gender-segregated bus routes that service religious
neighborhoods. Ragen and several other women challenged the practice in Israel's
Supreme Court after an Orthodox Canadian woman in her 50s told police she was
kicked, slapped, pushed to the floor and spat upon by men for refusing to move
to the back oAnother Beit Shemesh girl, who asked to be identified only as
Esther, said zealots threw rocks, cursed and spat at a friend for wearing a red
blouse _ taboo because the color attracts attention.
read rest here

What I'd like to know is whether men can wear red shirts and skirts?

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Tribute to Copy Editor Helene Pleasants

Sometimes people touch us, teach us in ways that stay with us always. Finding a teacher, a mentor, a guide, someone willing to take their time to lead you through a labyrinth you might take forever to get out of, if at all, is to seriously luck out. What My Editor Taught Me is a lovely piece written by a writer about one such copy editor.

'Helene had no literary theories — she had literary values. She valued clarity and transparency. She had nothing against style, if it didn’t distract from the material. Her blue pencil struck at redundancy, at confusion, at authorial vanity, at the wrong and the false word, at the unearned conclusion. She loved good writing, therefore she loved the reader: good writing did not cause the reader to stumble over meaning. By the time Helene was finished with me seven years later, I knew how to read a sentence and how to fix one. I knew what a sentence was supposed to do. I began to write my own sentences; needless to say, the responsibility for them is my own.'
read rest of NYTBR here

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Islamabad Marriott. 2004. 2007. 2008.

If you've been to Islamabad chances are you've been to the Marriott, at the very least you've passed it. In the nineties I stayed there during my SATs only offered in Islamabad during the time. The room I got was not to my satisfaction and I remember writing a letter of complaint which I handed to receptionists who tried hard not to giggle over the girl with the English accent who'd actually written a damn letter of complaint.
'Madam,' said one with a straight face, "I will personally see it gets to the party responsible for assigning rooms without views'.
More recently I'd been there for weddings and dinners. Marriott with its off-white arches and marble floors symbolized, for all those who need to spend a night away from home, home away from home like any hotel. In 2004 Marriott saw an explosion that killed seven, however Pakistan says that explosion was the result of a short circuit while the US says it was an explosive. In 2007 a security guard died after trying to stop a bomber. And, now, Ramadan 2008, another explosion, this time a truck with supposedly a tonne of explosives slamming into it and killing, at last count, sixty. Obviously for the killers there is no difference between Muslims and Non-Muslims. They are equal opportunity killers. What do the killers want? To be able to aggressively recruit if the US invades in order to restore 'stability'? I chose the above pic with the injured victim because often, in the US at least, such footage is always sanitized. And it shouldn't be. Buildings can be rebuilt; lives lost and traumatized cannot.
A day into the bombing I have not seen coverage on any of the US news channels-- perhaps there was a blip, but I missed it. The channels are too busy with Obama and Palin nama.Why isn't there a US news channel which caters to world news? Oh- of course, we the US, is the world. Why are Americans so okay about being so uninformed? Not knowing what's going on earth is not a great strength but a weakness-- albeit one that can be easily remedied.

I helped Maqsood, a driver, who was lying injured in his Corolla parked outside the hotel. Blood was pouring from his head but he requested to make a phone call. I gave him my mobile phone. He called someone and said that “I am Maqsood. I am badly injured in the bomb blast, I don’t think I will come back to Sargodha alive on this Eid. Please take care of my daughter Mariam, please don’t inform my mother what happened to me because she will die, I cannot speak more, Goodbye.” Maqsood was shifted to an ambulance in a very precarious condition.
A journalist colleague, watching the immense human suffering, was getting mad. He was abusing the terrorists, saying: the “Americans are killing us in the tribal areas, these Taliban are killing us in Islamabad; they will not go to paradise they will go to hell.”
I don’t have words to express the pain and agony of the women and children who were injured in the hotel. One woman, holding her little daughter, was not ready to leave the Nadia Coffee Shop where the body of her husband was lying on a table. The little girl was crying, “Papa I am sorry, I forced you to come to this hotel, I am sorry Papa, please wake up Papa.”
read the rest of Hamid Mir's report here

Ambulances rushed to the area, picking their way through the charred carcasses of vehicles that had been in the street outside. Windows in buildings hundreds of yards away were shattered. Tropical fish from the tanks inside lay among the torn furnishings in the entrance area.
Mohammed Ali, an emergency service official, said that after an initial chaotic search to find survivors, rescue teams had only been able to make two brief forays into the hotel. He said they had found neither bodies nor survivors and had to retreat quickly.
"The fire has eaten the entire building," he said.
read rest here

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Reviews of my short story Runaway Truck Ramp

By Khademul Islam in The Daily Star
Traditional concepts of personal freedom, social roles, the divide between public and private spheres are implicitly worked out anew, where these by now familiar themes of women's writing are given fresh life by the expressive, strange and rare eloquence of fiction writing. One spectacular example of the latter is Soniah Kamal's 'Runaway Truck Ramp', whose alert, acrid and very funny short story probes diametrically opposed notions of freedom and 'maleness' through the sheer physicality of a one-night stand between an American woman and a Pakistani man: “Essence said I could walk into a room, take a survey, hone in, chat up, take the boy and dispose of him afterwards like well-chewed gum, we the women of the millennium, and that's what I did: Take Charge. That's the type I fell under in a Marie Claire quiz. No mooning around and pining for a guy for me, and so here was Sully, I found him attractive, and so why not, except I just couldn't do my routine--pull him over, fondle him or just say, 'Wanna fuck?'”
read review here

By Talib Qizilbash in Newsline
Soniah Kamal’s ‘Runaway Truck Ramp’ is a standout story for openly tackling the quintessential Pakistani taboo subject: sex. Her approach is both clever and candid. It’s candid for the relaxed manner in which she delivers the details of a fling that quickly turns ugly for a young woman because of her partner’s double standards and his view that she is just “practice.” The cleverness lies in how Kamal explores inbred and distasteful attitudes towards sex, for her heroine is not a young Pakistani woman, but a white American who hooks up with a charming Pakistani man.
read review here

By Rasheeda Bhagat in The Hindu
A STRIKING aspect of And the World Changed, by 24 Pakistani women writers, is the candour, honesty and ease with which some of the writers handle the issue of sex and sexuality in contrast to the hypocrisy, awkwardness and double standards that engulf such issues in the entire Indian sub-continent. Whether it is Qaisra Shahraz's "A Pair of Jeans" or Soniah Kamal's "Runaway Truck Ramp", the readers are taken through the various shades through which our societies and cultures deal with skin and sex. The latter candidly describes the brief but stormy physical relationship between Sulaiman (Sully), a Pakistani student in the United States and Michelle, an American, who criss-cross across the country in a car, and, while doing so, grapple with two very different cultural reactions to oral sex.
read review here

Friday, May 2, 2008

Miss Austen Regrets. What?

"Jane Austen was described by her contemporary, writer Mary Russell Mitford, as the "prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly ever"
rest here.
In Jane's case the bimbo has brains. Unless the brothers were writing the novels and did not want to be known as the authors of husband hunting drawing room dramas :) Miss Austen Regrets is a film based on the letters Jane wrote to her sister and niece. The film takes us through the romantic ups and downs of Jane's life until her death. I was braced for a corny movie but ended up enjoying it a lot--a smart and plausible script with excellent acting. I especially liked the scenes between Jane and her mother where the mother berates Jane for ruining them by not marrying and Jane reacts as only a caring yet hard headed daughter will: a stoic silence laced with guilt. Of course we don't know if these scenes really occurred but chances are something akin to them must have for which mother won't mutter away if her aging daughter lets a good prospect go even today not to mention especially in that day and age. I wish there had been more scenes between mother and daughter and who knows maybe someone will write a novel or pen script about the two! I wonder, would Austen be blogging today? What would her blog look like, or her facebook and my space page-- pink and grey, yellow and white, would it have stars on it or stripes, or a cat, many cats or a dog, or black boots and henna, and which song would she download first? Would we even like Jane if she was flitting around today as the prettiest silliest most affected butterfly ever: remind you of anyone? Would Austen be writing what she wrote then now or would it be baby versus career and how to juggle the two if she couldn't afford oodles of domestic help? Certainly if she was born in Pakistan she'd still be writing about women for whom marriage is the only career expected of them... though if Jane was Pakistani you can bet her mother would have made sure she married sooner or later because the typical Pakistani mother (imagine Mrs. Bennet on acid) is an expert at guilt tripping her daughters into getting married...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

What if the hand holding the reins is not firm?

“The coursers of time, lashed by invisible spirits hurry on the light little car of our Destiny: and all we can do is to sit in self-possession to hold the reins with a firm hand, guide the horses and the wheels now to the left, now to the right, avoid a stone here and a precipice there. Whither it is hurrying who can tell! And who indeed can remember the point from where it started.-- Goethe”

Friday, April 18, 2008

A photograph I wish I'd never seen.

© Jean-Marc Bouju/The Associated Press
An Iraqi man comforts his son at a holding pen for POWs in Najaf, Iraq, March 31, 2003. -- World Press Photo of the Year

There is a picture of a man behind barbed in an orange jump suit his face covered by a hoodie holding a little child. Even though I can no longer locate the photo, it is one I wish I'd never seen. But I did see it. It still haunts me. And even today I feel selfish for wishing I'd never seen it-- I felt so ashamed of myself wishing I'd been spared the pain of mere empathy when this father and son, when other parents and children live/or die through this. What was that little boy thinking and feeling? What is that little boy feeling and thinking today? And the father who can only touch his son? Shit world that allows for such circumstances. Someone once informed me the father and son are lucky because at least they got to meet each other and this proves that the captors are humane.
Really? I said. Is that so? Its a topsy turvy world, isn't it, so kcuf u.

"Bouju says the child in the photo caught his attention because it was wailing and screaming. A soldier walked into the holding pen and cut the father's handcuffs so he could comfort the child.
"I have a four-year-old girl and I missed her a lot and I thought she'd be screaming too," Bouju says. "It touched me."
Shortly after the picture was taken, another unit came and took the prisoners away, including the young boy. Bouju was not able to get the name of the father or the son or determine what, if anything, they had done wrong.
rest here"

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Are God and Allah the same Being?

I’ve grown up interchanging God and Allah and no Muslim I know has ever pointed out that God-Allah is not the same entity, in fact so ‘normal’ has the interchange become that it has not occurred to me that others might ‘hear’ differently. The other day, however, after making one of my cheekier comments regarding Almighty-God, a friend turned to me with angry eyes.
“How come,” she said, “you always speak of God but never of your Allah in this way?”
I sputtered. Then explained that semantically Allah and God were equivalent.
“Are you,” she did not look any happier, “absolutely sure?”
Well, I’m very happy to draw my friend’s attention to an article by author Rabih Alameddine
“The word for God matters quite a bit more than what lands on one’s table for dinner at night. We never say the French pray to Dieu, or Mexicans pray to Dios. Having Allah be different from God implies that Muslims pray to a special deity. It classifies Muslims as the Other. Separating Allah from God, we only see a vengeful, alarming deity, one responsible for those frightful fatwas and ghastly jihads — rarely the compassionate God. The opening line of every chapter in the Koran is “Bi Ism Allah, Al Rahman, Al Rahim“: In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful. In the name of Allah. One and the same.”
rest here
Alameddine's fiction:
The Hakawati
I, the Divine A Novel in First Chapters
Koolaids: The Art of War
The Perv: Stories

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Oscar Wao wins the Pulitzer.

I am thrilled Junot Diaz's novel 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' has won the 2008 Pulitzer for fiction. My mini rave from a while back!

On writing Wao:
'It took me 11 years to struggle through one dumb book, and every day you just want to give up. But you don't find out you're an artist because you do something really well. You find out you're an artist because when you fail you have something within you—strength or belief or just craziness—that picks you back up again. Most of the artists I know will never, fortunately for them, have to face an 11-year hole. Fighting your way out of an 11-year hole is a lot tougher than it might seem.' read rest here

congratulations to the two other fiction finalists, Denis Johnson for Tree of Smoke and Lore Segal for Shakespeare's Kitchen

Monday, April 7, 2008

Literary Auction for Dunbar Village Aid

All rape and assault are horrendous but reading the details of this particular gang rape and battering of a 12 year old boy and his mother is absolutely sickening, the stuff nightmares are made of. The mother and her son require monetary help and writer Tayari Jones has organized an e-bay auction of short story and novel critiques as well as other goodies with all proceeds going to mother and son. You can also send donations directly.

God Revisited

David Plotz knew religion in ‘bits and pieces’ –he knew a bit of this, he remembered a piece of that, the rest he picked up along the way. Then one day in adulthood he attends a Bar Mitzvah and picks up the Good Book and opens it and reads it and what he reads startles him enough to read more and record what he comes away reading. This record makes for a hysterical series called Blogging the Bible. Here’s an example:
“Moses leads the Israelites into the wilderness—Day 1 of their 40-year trek. They immediately complain that they’re thirsty and the only available water is bitter. We’re a grumbling people, aren’t we? Freedom after 430 years of captivity, and nothing to do but grouse. The Israelites had crabbed to Moses when Pharaoh made them gather their own straw. When the Egyptian army pursued them to the Sea of Reeds, they had griped to Moses that they would rather have stayed in Egypt as slaves than die by the sea. Now they’re fussing that they’re thirsty. God gives Moses a piece of wood that cleans up the water—the world’s first Brita filter. “
read rest of post on PTH

Aasem Bakshi brings to my attention Ziauddin Sardar Blogging the Quran for The Guardian. And Robert Spencer is also Blogging the Quran for HotAir. Reading these interpretations side by side should be fun (even if they're not written in Plotz's satirical fashion which made BTB such a delightful read). For instance the first verse in the Quran is The Opening (Al-Fatiha) and Spencer is preoccupied with whom the verse's last two lines refer to and illustrate his exploration of the Quran is in order to understand it within a '9/11 how-could-they' context:

'The final two verses of the Fatiha asks Allah: “Show us the straight path, the path of those whom Thou hast favoured; not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.” The traditional Islamic understanding of this is that the “straight path” is Islam — cf. Islamic apologist John Esposito’s book Islam: The Straight Path. The path of those who have earned Allah’s anger are the Jews, and those who have gone astray are the Christians.'

Sardar's exploration is more nuanced and detailed and, interesting enough, he neither spends much time on the final two lines nor is there any mention of Jews or Christians. Rather Sardar concentrates on what is referred to, in The Opening, as the straight path, 'sirat-ul-mustakeen', and Medaliane Bunting-- her role is to ask Sardar questions a non-Muslim might have about the text--brings up interesting contrasts and comparisons with the Bible.

'Common to both Christianity and Islam is the image of the path, and the spiritual life as a journey. These are very important ideas in Christianity and I wondered whether you can explain more on how this image is used in Islam...The implication is that it's hard to follow the Christian path and the gate is narrow, but the Qur'an seems to be using the image differently; can you explain? Finally, can you expand on what stops human beings following the path? In Christianity, the explanation is that fallen human nature makes it hard for us to find and follow the narrow path. Does Islam have a belief about the Fall and original sin? What explanation is there in Islam for why all human beings aren't jogging happily along the Straight Path?'

I have always believed the straight path means means being the best human being you can possibly be regardless of whether you pray five times a day or not. The one saying of Prophet Muhammed which has always been of great comfort to me is that 'actions will be judged by intentions' i.e. God can see the hypocrite beneath the pious on the prayer mat.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Cook for your family three time a day, daily plus snacks?

I met a man who asked me if I cooked? No, at least not very often. But what does the family eat. Out, I said. He looked decidedly discomfited to be stuck in a car with a woman who did not look sufficiently guilty for not being connected more closely to her stove. I did feel guilty though, a little bit, as if some dirty part of me was out and about. This man, he'll be okay if his wife wants to work outside the house, that's her choice, but it's his choice that she cooks dinner too, daily because, he tells me in all earnestness, that's her duty, her first duty. At least, he grins, I'm honest about what I want? When I was his age I was honest but I didn't know what I wanted or how to disconnect my wants from what my parents wanted for me. And the girls that did know wanted really rich guys to marry them, that's all. Back then I'd given them the same look I gave the man today who asked me if I cooked. But between then and now there is a difference in emotions behind those siamese looks.

Friday, March 28, 2008

India versus America: diversity in the political sphere

Myth or fact: in America opportunity is equal and color, gender and religion no cause for a brouhaha? Here's a refreshing op-ed in The Hindu by Vidya Subrahmaniam about the biases in the Melting Pot's media circus, as well as why India trumps the US.

'The point is: Why should a Muslim connection be treated as an offense? Mr. Obama’s supporters ought to have been proud of his middle name, holding that up as a symbol of American multiculturalism. Instead, they have cringed at the thought that he could be mistaken for a Muslim. Perhaps this is the truth of a country that is still grappling with race, continues to be squeamish about gender and goes ballistic at the mention of Islam.' read rest here

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Review of Indian Movie 'Jab We Met'

‘Jab We Met’ (2007) is a prime example of an Indian movie meshing traditional and modern India in its characters but coming off confused. Poor little rich boy Aditya (played perfectly by Shahid Kapoor) and madcap Geet (Kareena Kapoor) meet on a train, the singular motif in the movie and, as such, one which hinges on all the usual cliches: life equals train tracks, decisions equal getting on or off trains and, most banal, because Geet keeps missing her trains she and Aditya are thrown together on a journey which will eventually lead to their…but let me not spoil the hackneyed ending. Kareena plays quite well the scatterbrained, chatterbox if slightly irritating Geet, a girl so full of life her words bubble over, her laugh is a nervous titter, and she sees good in everything and everyone even a stranger yelling at her to shut up, which is what Aditya does the first time he and Geet meet. Soon, however, Geet realizes that there are some lemons even she cannot make lemonade out of, and suddenly Geet goes from bubbly to morose, an emotional condition which is tritely symbolized by her dress. A bubbly Geet wears short sleeve shirts and tight jeans (in fact her old world grandfather wonders aloud that if Geet can dress like this at home then in Mumbai she’s probably roaming around naked), while a depressed Geet appears in shalwars and long sleeved shapeless kurtas draped with dupattas, her hair tied back and her gaze always turned down. So a happy girl dresses Western (Indian-modern?) and an unhappy girl dresses Eastern (Indian-traditional)?

read rest here

archived under 'shame' because the inclusion of the rape repartee is shameful

Monday, March 17, 2008

little mo

i don't like to write about my children, was my due date. march 17th.
she will never forget you (who you would have been with her, with us, within this world). she will never forget the sharp-soft features of your small small face. the second it took for you to birth into her hands. the dread of what had happened coupled-overcome by the love she felt. never forget everything you and she went through even as she hopes she never goes through it again. your mother loved you...loves you. she will miss you, and the other two, who never came home either, but live in her heart. every day. death is negative space-- here, and everywhere and yet nowhere.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

What Diaz does is writing; what the rest do is waste ink and paper.

(o.k. not all the rest)

A novel about a fat boy looking to get un-virgined. Read this novel. today. sad, un-sad, real, un-real. with an energy writhing off the damn page. in an english that is english!

here's an excerpt
and here's Diaz answering questions
and here's Diaz and Danticat in conversation

Friday, February 29, 2008

Election 2008 Results - Pakistan returns to that elusive democratic learning curve*

In a Q & A with the Financial Times (February 8th, 2008) concerning the upcoming elections in Pakistan, novelist Tariq Ali stipulates “Very few people in Pakistan believe that the elections will be fair. The interim government is packed with Musharraf cronies, the Election Commission likewise. The only question is whether the results will be cleverly or crudely rigged.
From all reports neither a clever nor crude rigging has proven to be the case. Good for Musharraf that he ‘allowed’ the people their say, and very good for us the people that International watchdogs closely monitored the proceedings. In fact, over all the elections were conducted peacefully with no discernible rigging and the results speak as much: the opposition parties won the majority of seats, this despite the President’s rather ominous prediction that his party was going to win… (What was his motive behind this? If the voting was not to be rigged, why give statements casting blemish on ‘free and fair’? Or was he simply full of faith that indeed the people, the Qaum, they love him?)
Well, whatever the President’s state of mind, the state of the country seems on the mend thanks to the people who turned out to vote. And double thanks to the voters in the northern areas for the defeat of the Taliban-types though one must keep in mind that the Taliban type parties boycotted the elections in protest of the Lal Masjid incident, and so were not available to be voted in. Also boycotting the election was Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaaf party in protest of the ousting of the Supreme Court Justices. Had these parties been standing, would the election results be the same? Might there have even been higher voter turn out? Out of 80 million registered voters in the country only around 35 % showed up. Why? A general apathy after the President’s predictions? A frustration with the same old political parties standing anew? A fear of random bombings and mayhem?
Uplifting election results withstanding, the threat of random violence (state or non-state instigated) remains, and the public is dubious regarding political parties—both PPP and PML-N— whose past performances in office have been far from laudatory. Well, at least Pakistanis can’t be accused of completely forgetting past conduct. Let us then remind ourselves of the years 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999 when either the late Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif were unceremoniously dismissed from power. In all cases, far from an uproar most Pakistanis then were rather complacent if not outright pleased. Well, here we are, 2008, and the same parties are in the majority again and this time the army, savior-in-general, is also in the doghouse. Not that the army should ever be the solution to end a democratically elected government no matter how botched a job they’re doing. As Pakistan has witnessed in the recent past, a dictator, no matter how benevolent, is at the end of the day a dictator.
Fact remains that Musharraf has maneuvered himself to be President elect for the next five years. Recently Nawaz Sharif ‘vowed to impeach Mr. Musharraf if he (Nawaz) had the combined support of two thirds of the parliament’. After yesterday’s results as we await the full picture of the coalition to emerge, it is necessary to remember that there is a time for political punches and there is a time for handshakes and that now is the time for handshakes no matter how half hearted. Hopefully the opposition parties are not so keen to wrought ‘justice’ that they forget their first duty is not to address personal grievances but rather to do what is best for Pakistan today, and tomorrow when things have settled down and the PPP and PML-N recall that not only do they have issues with Musharraf but that they were not always best of friends amongst themselves.
Only time will tell whether Pakistan will fall into fusion or into further friction…Here’s to hoping that, one day, we learn—rich, poor, young, old— to vote for party policies rather than personalities. For now, regardless of the caliber of the personalities/parties voted in, the cause for celebration is a return to democratic process and thereby a return to a nation’s democratic learning curve, for only in voting again and again and again will we one day get it right, or as close to right as is possible anywhere. In the meantime, let’s also hope no one gets injured from the celebratory fireworks going off in every street and every corner of Pakistan.

*originally posted on Pak Tea House

Monday, February 25, 2008

Books into Film at the 2008 Oscars, and Pride and Prejudice

When I was a little girl I always read my Anne of Green Gables and Donna Parker and St. Claires and dreamed them into film. When I was a little older, my tween excitement knew no bounds upon finding the Famous Five and Timmy the dog striding across a field on TV. Of course as I got older and older it no longer sufficed to see a book character in living color a la Disneyland 'loooook there's Winnie the Pooh', rather I hoped the film version would prove as enjoyable as the book if not, in its own way, more satisfactory. Some novels and films turn out to be masterpieces in their own right i.e. no matter how many makes and remakes of Pride and Prejudice are churned out, not one has yet been able to capture the nuances of the novel and yet the lovely 1995 A&E/BBC adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth holds its own (and Mr. Collin's is played to perfection). And yet without novel, without novelist, there would be no Elizabeth and Darcy, no Mr. Collins and Lydia, no film after film after film adaptation. The 2008 Oscars are in many respects the books to movies Oscars with three* of the five best film nominees based on novels and yet, as David Ulin writes in the LA times, there was no mention of the novelists, as usual.

"...if these kinds of movies have anything to tell us, it's that interiority can sometimes play itself out on screen. Is this an indication that Hollywood has finally become more sympathetic toward writers, that we might move beyond a century of misunderstanding and disdain? Not very likely, the settlement of the WGA strike notwithstanding." read rest here

*Atonement by Ian McEwan
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
There Will be Blood by Upton Sinclair
the other two nominees were Juno and Michael Clayton

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Sacred Place: a novel by Daniel Black

Daniel Black's excellent novel 'The Sacred Place' is based on the 1955 racial murder of fourteen year old Emmett Till. Here's a quote from Black's novel:

"How arrogant it is, Jeremiah thought, for people to expect a Black man to remain humble when he's contantly being downtrodden. He would have to be Jesus to manage that kind of nonviolent forgiveness, and even then Jeremiah wasn't sure he admired such meekness. In the end, it always meant being trampled upon in the service of some higher principle in which, obviously, only the oppressed believe. Righteousness had not borne the fruit Jeremiah's ancestors promised it would, and, for the time being he simply wanted to win. Just once. He wanted the thrill of victory, the recognition by his enemies that he had beaten them, and the life of of children to prove it. Others had warned that God's wrath would visit itself upon him if he exacted justice on his own terms, so, trying not to anger an all powerful God, Jeremiah had surrendered to a non-confrontational mode of resistance until the day Cecil and the Cuthbert boys tried to take his grandson away. After then, Jeremiah determined that God would have to so whatever God was going to do because apparently his people had never considered that righteousness and whipping white folks' asses might be one and the same."

There is also a lovely monologue in the novel about what a relief it is to take off a damn bra at the end of a long day, or any time of the day.

Monday, February 4, 2008

On novels that take a long time getting written

John Dalton took eight years to write his novel Heaven Lake. On this winding way he was asked the one question sure to induce a sinking heart: DONE YET? I guess he was asked enough times for him to write this poignant essay, 'Done Yet? Struggling with the Novel'. So many sentiments in this essay touched me but the line that settled deep:
"There is a popular and entirely false belief that every talented person who follows a dream eventually meets with success."
rest of John's essay here
My father grew me up with the conviction that every hard working person, sooner or later, will meet with just fruits. In my experience this is far from the truth too. John's story ends happily; I want to know what happens to the hearts of the 'talented and determined people (who) fail all the time'.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

'Visa Blues'

No matter where an immigrant makes their home they have a country of origin, a country they believe 'their's' whether they return or not. Hafiza Nilofar Khan believed the same of Bangladesh. Only did Bangladesh believe it too? Yet another twist in the story of 'where am I, who am I, why am I.'

Nilofar writes:
When I had a civil marriage in St. Helens, Oregon in the year 1998 with a Caucasian American, my father was alarmed since he believed that a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man without first converting him into Islam. In my gender ignorance about Islamic rules, I tried to pacify my distressed father by arguing that people who are “ehlekitab”, meaning, believers in the book (Torah, Bible or Koran) may marry each other without having to convert. When my father retorted that only Muslim men are allowed to marry a non-Muslim woman, and not vice versa, I did not grasp the full significance of the convention, and took it for my own religiously inclined father's desire to have a Muslim son-in-law. This August, when I was allowed to leave Dhaka only after paying eighty thousand taka to the Passport and Immigration office in fees and fine, and going through endless stress on account of having a foreigner for a husband, and a daughter, did I realise the actual import of my father's premonitions. If my father were alive today, he might have said, “I forewarned you"
read the rest here

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

'The Liar's Diary' by Patry Francis

In my blog-jog this morning I found blog entries for Patry Francis at both Tess Gerritsen's blog (Tess is a fine thriller writer and her blog is amazingly forthright about writerly issues) and Gayle Brandeis' blog (I initially found Gayle's work because I'm a huge fan of Barbara Kingsolver (most specially the novel 'The Poisonwood Bible') and Gayle's novel The Book of Dead Birds won a Bellwether , a literary prize for novels in support of social change founded by Kingsolver. Turns out they are part of a blog drive (so far 300 + blogs) to blog about Patry's novel 'The Liar's Diary' while she recovers from cancer surgery. So I followed links to Patry's blog and discovered a warm, wise, funny voice. Here's the entry where Patry is told her novel is sold. And entries like this one conjure up the word 'grace'. And here is an excerpt from 'The Liar's Diary', a story about a murder and a woman riven between loyalty to family or friend.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

'Atonement'- the film

It's tough for novels with complex structures to translate well onto film; Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' is no exception. The film is beyond insipid when compared to the rich novel which I loved for its dexterous structure and surprise 'writer's writer's' ending, and especially the kids performing protagonist Briony's old play-- a fitting symbol for the circularity of life, and creativity. Consequently I went to watch the film eagerly awaiting a rendition of this scene and, instead, got Vanessa Redgrave giving a monologue i.e. not just cop out, but also complete murder of the novel. Had I not read the novel and been so full of expectation, I would still have been disappointed despite the fine cinematography and acting and costumes etc...I went to watch it with a friend who has not read the novel and she had the same issues with it as did I--a slow middle, a dragging war scene, times twists that were poorly (if at all) captured on celluloid...
Am a bit perplexed over Atonement's Oscar nomination in the best film category.

Loving or Hating Arundhati Roy?

*Saba Bhaumik's opinion piece in Outlook India once again attempts to explain why Indians may not be madly in love with Arundhati Roy while the West supposedly is but Bhaumik doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said a million times: Indian males are envious coz Roy is smart, the women are confused by her outspokeness and, while Roy's hair styles challenge beauty norms, her sense of style sets dressing trends. Ye Gods, cries the plaited, sari wearing, stay at home Indian woman according to Bhaumik, how does Roy do it. Bhaumik should get off the looks wagon--traditional or modern-- and go straight for the brains-- Roy's politics. I do think Bhaumik has a point about Roy's controversial politics and how her views have made her a household name in many worlds but it would have been stronger to have cited reasons other than

the Sunday Times carried a full-page article that somewhat absurdly equated Roy with Victoria Beckham, both described as "role models for young British women". Ridiculous as the comparison between a sexy footballer-wife-pop-star and a serious novelist-essayist may be, it does reveal that Roy has been an icon in the West for some years now.
Roy's greatest crime of course is that of perceived anti-nationalism i.e. not yelling, pompoms aloft, 'East or West, India is the best.' How popular would Roy be if she was American-- or lived in America-- and did not say 'East or West, America is the best and always right'? Or in any country where she was to go against the status quo? Roy's 'style, articulation and high profile causes' may get her attention in the West but is she really an icon? Do women and men look to her for courage to stand up for the depressing issues of the day be it how 'really' poor people are going to fend for themselves, or whether a particular 'terrorist' ('freedom fighter'?) is guilty or framed? Recently Arundhati was on the US radio show Democracy Now saying that, when she talks to journalists from the West, all they want to hear is how absolutely great things in India are and how the great is getting greater by the day. If she goes against that she's suddenly not the most popular guest around. I must add that it hardly escapes notice how journalist after journalist never fail to mention how petite and pretty she is and of course what state her hair is in. If she was obese and plain looking and had ratty hair how much attention would anyone give to what she has to say? Or would her words have more weight, no pun intended? As for Bhaumik's supposition that 'most of us still think of Roy as a Booker Prize winning author of a novel we have never read', I'm assuming she means that Indians have not read it and, with that assumption, I'd like to know which Indians she's talking about because, if there's one novel I would think they'd actually have read, it would be The God of Small Things. This is certainly true in Pakistan where Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children' and Naipal's 'A House for Mr. Biswas' may grace many an English reader's bookshelf but it is Roy's lone ranger that has actually been read.

*entry originally posted in Jan 2007 in my once-upon-a-time blog, drunkonink

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Translator by Leila Aboulela

Leila Aboulela’s novel The Translator is a refreshing read about a Muslim woman neither struggling to live life according to the mini skirt or battling against an arranged marriage, but rather falling in love with a non-Muslim, and how she reconciles with that. In fact, Samaar, Aboulela’s protagonist, is a widow who has left her young son in Sudan with her mother in law while she herself comes to Scotland. Another writer might have mined this parent/child dichotomy and explored what sort of a woman-mother can leave her child, and is she a good mother, or mother at all etc...etc...; thank God Aboulela does not go that way. Instead, the reader is forced to contend with a woman who sees herself not as a mother first, but rather as a Muslim, a Muslim woman who has a life other than her son, and who makes no apologies for it. Moreover, when Sammar does meet her son, there are no weary scenes of the ‘you abandoned me, and I’m damaged, and now will need therapy for the rest of my life.' Instead he's grown up happily with his grandmother and cousins and extended family and loves his mother well enough. Refreshing. As is Samaar who lives by her religion so much so that although she can fall in love with Rae, a non-Muslim, her conscience allows her to go no further; yet further Samaar does go, and Aboulela handles this part of the narrative with great emotional dexterity. I also very much enjoyed the quiet flow of the prose, the descriptions of Scotland, the small minded comedy around a communal phone, and the everyday details of translating for a Middle East scholar. I did, however, think the ending a bit hurried, and Rae’s eventual decision not explored to the depths required to make it seem natural. Also, sometimes, Samaar comes across as a bit too desperate to get married/settle down/not be alone for the rest of her life. For all that The Translator is a good read, and a soothing read, a wonderful alternative to all the conflicted immigrant, East-West confusion novels.

read a review in Al-Ahram.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Reviews of my short story 'The Breast'

My short story 'The Breast' is included in this anthology published by Harper Collins, India. This mini-review is from Women's Writing.

Neither Night nor Day
Thirteen stories by women writers from Pakistan
Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil
Harper Collins
Rs 250

Soniah Kamal raises the bar with the book's sixth story, The Breast, a riveting tale about a woman whose breast is about to be cut off for a crime she's committed: nursing a stranger's baby after her own baby girl was lost to infanticide. From hereon the collection vastly improves. Sorayya Khan artfully immortalizes the cruelties of Partition in Five Queen's Street, in which an adolescent girl is frozen with fear as she watches the kidnap of her Hindu neighbor by an angry Muslim mob. Bina Shah's heart-wrenching 'The Wedding of Sundri', a story set in pastoral Pakistan that culminates in the honor killing of a 12-year-old bride, leaves readers gasping for breath. Although offering an unadulterated glimpse of present-day Pakistan, the second half of this book ends up showing Indian readers that they still have much in common with their neighbors to the north.

In Dawn Pakistan.
REVIEW: Her side of the story
Reviewed by Akbar S. Ahmed

.... Next up is Soniah Kamal's The Breast. Kamal is a very talented writer, one who reaches the heights of creativity in this allegory. Her protagonist faces the wrath of the cruel tribunal that rules her land, and they literally want their pound of flesh. Or seven, as she explains — her breast is to be cut off, for the ultimate crime of suckling another’s child after her own, a girl, was taken away to be buried. Smart, captivating and well-written, this short parable is certainly one of the best stories in this grouping, and the twist at the end just makes it more gripping. read review


In the Tribune India.
review by Priyanka Singh

Then there is The Breast by Soniah Kamal which talks of the misery, the whole gamut of tortuous feelings a mother, a woman can possibly undergo in a matter of a few hours.

It depicts the deadness of a mother when she is told that her baby girl has to be put away. That her little one was asleep when they laid her down. That she continued to sleep even when the first shovel of grit fell on her face sandwiched between tiny fists ... "bold in her crying silence".

It talks of a tribunal that is merciless and pronounces that a breast has to be butchered only because a mother wanted to satisfy her maternal instinct to feel tiny lips drawing nourishment from her, no matter if it wasn’t her own baby.

Truly, a story that wrenches the heart and leaves it aching with sorrow because for someone it may not be a story alone, but a dark fear that has to be endured.

read review here