I recently returned from the Goa Arts and Literature Festival (GALF) in India. The festival was full of writers I knew and loved, and writers I didn’t know whose work I chanced upon. Here are just a few of the treasures from GALF 2016 that would have been hard to find in Australia.
I encountered the work of Abeer Y. Hoque for the first time at GALF when I bought her memoir Olive Witch (2016), and her collection of short stories The Lovers and the Leavers (2014). Olive Witch is the story of Hoque’s many journeys, between Nigeria, Bangladesh, and the USA, across the terrain of romance and love, while coming to a deeper understanding of her family. In the wake of a suicide attempt, she attempts the arduous reconstruction of the self.
I was particularly enlightened by Hoque’s lyrical weaving of the resonances between Nigeria and Bangladesh. ‘You did what we could not’ is a line offered by friends in Nsukka to Hoque’s family as a lament for Biafra and in admiration of Bangladesh’s successful – if bloody – secession from Pakistan. This haunting line is repeated at various points in the narrative, and serves as a ghostly reminder of what could have been for a country and, at a more intimate level, for Hoque as she hurtles through mental illness, towards the bleak end of life before she is yanked back to wholeness and joy. She says, ‘[w]hat I’m hoping for is a lesson that comes from the surface of things, poised in stop-gap motion, real in transition. I might be able to create something from the so-called skim, from the outside in.’ (p. 229)
Hoque takes many narratological risks, by condensing and expanding time, by layering poetry and prose together, by interweaving the intimate and lushly observed first-person memoir with the distance-inducing third person narration of a suicide attempt and its aftermath in clinical spaces. It is her engaging voice, the freshness of her prose, her ability to transcribe onto the page a broken woman’s embrace of tentative redemption that turns these risks into an immensely illuminating, moving, and satisfying reading experience.
A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind (2016), edited by Jerry Pinto is a collection of bruising, buoyant, accounts of many who have lived with a family member with a mental illness. Like many from Bombay, I have loved Pinto’s work, especially his award-winning Em and the Big Hoom, a semi-autobiographical account of living with a mother with bipolar disorder. In many ways, A Book of Light is Pinto’s embrace of his fellow travelers on the perilous journey chronicled in Em. In his introduction to the collection, Pinto tells us that during the course of doing readings from Em, he would often encounter others with ‘ [t]he same fears, the same psychiatric wards, the same scramble to secure the new pills, the same desperate wish, sometimes, to be rid of it all.’ (p. 8)
A Book of Light is a repository of stories that rarely get told in the grand narrative of contemporary India with its neoliberal economic might and its impatience with failure. The stories in this book complicate the binaries of mental order and disorder, of illness and health. They chronicle the many ways in which middle class families navigate society’s need to pathologise and denigrate a family member with a mental illness, while exploring the vulnerability and aching love they feel for the people they care for, or sometimes don’t care for.
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Arshia Sattar’s latest work, Ramayana for Children, gorgeously illustrated by Sonali Zohar. Besides co-founding Sangam House, one of India’s most prestigious writers’ residencies, Sattar is a renowned scholar of Sanskrit, and translated The Ramayana into English from the poet Valmiki ‘s Sanskrit version. I read the book aloud to my thirteen-year-old boys every night in the last few weeks. They found the convolutions of the gods and their ethically ambiguous behaviour quite incredulous. But ‘just one more page please, just one more page’ they implored every night until I read the last word, a testament to Sattar’s skillfully structured narrative and engaging use of language.
I had heard of Vivek Shanbhag but had never read his work. I bought his book Ghachar Ghochar (2016) translated by Srinath Perur from the original in Kannada. It’s a book written and translated by men from the first person point of view of a male narrator, yet it is a searing indictment of patriarchy and misogyny. So understated is the skewering, and so deceptively low-key is the argument (unfolding through clinically rendered details of domesticity, tightly plotted and knotted around six characters), that you think it’s a cool breeze blowing across your face, only to find, after the breeze has passed, that it has turned your skin to ash.
The story begins and ends in ‘Coffee House’, the narrator’s daily haunt, dimpled with wisdom from Vincent the waiter. These bookends hold a library of insight into families – the dark and light interiors of each character’s personality, the impact of the expansion and contraction of space upon the ongoing construction of family life, the anxieties about money that keep this particular family together, all of this courses through the narrative as if at low tide. As the narrator tells us, ‘[w]hat can I say – it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is inevitable.’ (p. 10)
GALF is a multi-scalar festival, where the intimate and the global weave themselves together like strands of literary DNA. This sort of atmosphere makes the carousel of the mind spin ever outwards towards a word-clouded sky. It also makes one want to read more books. Consequently, I bought more Indian books at GALF than I have time and space to discuss here. But hopefully, there will be another time.
Roanna Gonsalves is the author of The Permanent Resident, a collection of short fiction published by UWAP in November 2016. Her series of radio documentaries, On the tip of a billion tongues, commissioned and broadcast by Earshot, ABC RN, is an acerbic socio-political portrayal of contemporary India through its multilingual writers. She is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award, and is co-founder and co-editor of Southern Crossings. She has a PhD from the University of New South Wales, and is a highly experienced facilitator and teacher of creative writing workshops for all ages within communities as well as at university. For more information see roannagonsalves.com.au and @roannagonsalves