Monday, 6 June 2011

The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam

I have reviewed Tahmima Anam's second novel, here, for The Observer. The paper did a clear and excellent edit on the piece. However, I have posted the uncut version below, because it features a couple of quotes from the book. I thought readers contemplating buying this excellent novel might like to hear some snippets of Anam's voice, rather than just my critical interpretation.

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam (Canongate, £16.99 hb)

Independence has cruel consequences, which are brought into sharp focus by this award-winning Bangladeshi author’s second novel, following the success of her debut A Golden Age. That book introduced us to Rehana, a headstrong widow entering the turmoil of Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. The Good Muslim is set in the aftermath of this war but is a complete and impressive work in itself. It renders a devastating account of Rehana’s two children, Maya and Sohail, uneasily negotiating life in a new nation haunted both by the past and by chilling presentiments of the future.

This haunting is felt most keenly by Maya, a doctor returning home after some years away. Anam’s language and Maya’s memories glint with unflinching, unconsoled realism: “She remembered the sight of dead men with their hands tied behind their backs, their faces lapped with blood, and she remembered every day she had worked in the camps, scooping bullets out of men with nothing but a spoon and a hunter’s knife.”

Maya and Sohail and their relatives have all been radicalised in their own ways, invaded and transformed by questions of culture, society and nationality. Anam’s intelligent style is perfectly suited to the dissection of this new Bangladesh as a country of hypocrisies and strange metamorphoses. The greatest shock for progressive Maya is encountering her beloved brother, who has sunk his horror at his own involvement in the war into the comforts of extreme religious conservatism. As the novel progresses, both characters become more entrenched and their final clash of principles is shattering yet inevitable.

Maya’s medical knowledge, her worldliness and her independence as a woman give her a shockingly clear view of the injustices around her. Although Maya herself is a strong counterpoint to the gendered abuse which is one of the themes of the book, Anam is too realistic to make her a blazing, all-saving heroine. One of Maya’s most tormenting realisations is that there are some perpetrators, both during the war and after it, who abuse not only with impunity but with the full support of society. There are the war rapes, the forced pregnancies, the abortions of ‘war babies’ that Maya has performed and the rejection of raped women by their communities. These stories are familiar from countless newspaper reports but no less powerful for that.

I am making The Good Muslim sound heavy. It isn’t. Its clarity, alacrity and expert structure of brief, vivid scenes give Maya and Sohail room to breathe. Maya is immediately impressive but Anam’s acuity cuts deepest in her treatment of Sohail. In this young man machismo, pain and denial mix to create a tragic archetype. His fervour is a crutch for his trauma, his certainty built on shaky foundations, as reflected in their childhood home: “Here, grey streaks across its back, where the drainpipe had leaked; there, the slow sinking of its foundations, as if the house were being returned to the earth; and above, the collection of shacks that made up the first floor, built [by Sohail] out of a mixture of brick and tin and jute, making it appear as though an entire village had fallen from the sky and landed on the rooftop.”

Eventually this flimsy, self-constructed identity must crash down. The reader mourns for the young, innocent Maya and Sohail, but it is too late. The Good Muslim is about a national victory that does not feel like a victory, a liberation that is a damnation for many of its characters, who are conscience-stricken, victimised or struggling for certainty.

Anam is one of a generation of international writers with a subcontinental heritage, whose themes are politicised and universal. They include Sarita Mandanna, Anjali Jospeh, Kiran Desai, Kamila Shamsie, Thrity Umrigar and Tishani Doshi and, given the subject matter and the strong presence of post-Diaspora writing in English, the reader knows pretty much what to expect when approaching The Good Muslim.

The novel does not confound expectations but its intelligence and insight place it in the highest league. It uses a specific history to identify issues which are pertinent in places and times far beyond post-Independence Bangladesh and it is this pertinence which makes The Good Muslim not just an interesting novel but an important one.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Literary women, literary prizes. Not often to be found in the same room.

A shorter version of this feature was printed in the Guardian yesterday, on Friday 3rd June, but due to a glitch hasn't been put up on the web site yet. Following requests for links from women colleagues within the publishing industry I have put it up here.

This year’s Dolman travel writing book prize has longlisted 8 men and 2 women. The previous year the shortlist was 6 men and 1 woman. The Walter Scott prize for historical fiction has shortlisted 5 men and 1 woman this year. There were double that number of women on the shortlist last year: 2. One of them, Hilary Mantel, won. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has returned a shortlist of 5 men and 1 woman every single year for the last five years. In 2006 it went totally mad and had 2 women and 4 men! Since 2001, the IMPAC prize has had 11 men winners and 0 women. The Samuel Johnson prize has a 2011 longlist of 15 books by men, 1 co-authored by a mixed pair and 2 books by women. In the previous 12 years it has had shortlists of 5 men and just 1 woman 7 times. In 2009 it was 6 men and no women. It has been 4 men and 2 women three times. In 2003 they had their year of insanity: 3 men, 3 women. The Ondaatje Prize has honoured 7 men and 1 woman. The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic literature has been awarded to 10 men and 1 woman. The David Cohen prize has honoured 7 men, 2 women and one joint win. Its 1993 winner was V S Naipaul, who this week at Hay expressed his derision for women writers, who are “unequal” to him, writing “tosh” with our “narrow view of the world.”
Despite our toshy narrowness women are everywhere in the book world and even on the bestseller lists. We are the overwhelming majority of book buyers, book readers, book editors, agents, PRs, event attendees, festival-goers, champions of literature, literature teachers, writers and book club members. We read the comically major majority, in a really major way, of all fiction. We support the entire industry from within and without. We are everywhere except in the nicest place: the prestige podium, that zone of acclaim furnished with prizes, honours, respect, speaking invitations, special commissions, credit, mentions, recommendations and a place in the canon.
It’s rank misogyny, sure, but it’s mainly misogyny’s simpering complement, its geisha: man-worshipping. A man does a shit in a potty and it is called a work of genius; a woman produces a work of genius and it's treated like a shit in a potty. Many of the juries for the above prizes are laudably mixed, yet somehow all the perks are given to the men, often by women who are just the most astounding, patriarchy-propping, desperate, grovelling little manworshippers. The committee for World Book Night 2011 had a majority of women, who chose just 8 books out of 25 by women. Know what wasn't on their list? Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, On Beauty, White Teeth, Brick Lane, Small Island, Hotel World, Possession, The Children's Book, Beyond Black, The Cast Iron Shore, Hearts and Minds, The Poisonwood Bible, any Harry Potter or Jacqueline Wilson, The God of Small Things, any Doris Lessing, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, any Rose Tremain, Susan Hill... The longlist of ignored genius women is truly endless - and many of  the perpetrators were women. It's a chilling reversal because when the initial surveys for WBN (focusing on lending libraries and readers' habits) were done, women authors - Jane Austen and Harper Lee - topped two of the three surveys.

It's strange because when men themselves are called upon to give their Top Tens, their mentions, their to-read must-haves, their shortlists, their ranks of genius and tips for the top - and again, typically, the media calls upon them 10 times more often than it calls upon women - they give the power and opportunities to other men, not women. Elle magazine asked literary liar James Frey to give his top 8 favourite reads: he mentioned 8 men and 0 women. Vogue asked Peter Carey to give his top 7 novels about servants and masters when his last novel came out: 7 men, 0 women. Both these men, knowing that these magazines have a virtually all-female readership, used this woman-given moment promote their own books and to help as many other men as they possibly could, to make their position absolutely clear. If they disdained the world of women they should have refused to feature in these magazines. Instead, they took the perk and then threw the magazines' support straight back in women's faces.
Read the Guardian's literary Top Ten [war novels/love scenes/car chases/favourite writers] series, count, get the sick bag ready and see that that the hundreds of men invited to give their lists keep the numbers of women at 3 out of 10 or less, as in this latest example, with shocking consistency, across hundreds of entries and dozens of criteria. They have made it clear that they neither read nor rate women's work. This would not matter at all - I am certainly not going to force a man do to something he hates - were it not for the fact that the feeling is not mutual. Women worship male writers. But when I have attended major book events, like seeing Arundhati Roy, Doris Lessing, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, Nicole Krauss, Jackie Kaye, Lionel Shriver and many others read, the audience has been 99% women. In events with male authors the audience has still been 50-60% women. This support does not go both ways. Men stay away from women writers in their droves; when asked to explain themselves, they come out with open insults which demonstrate - thank you - their ignorance and derision with astounding transparency. There are, of course, some exceptions, and thank heavens I am friends with them. But across 20 years of experience in this area I have been shocked by the sheer level of ignoring, insulting and casual belittling of women's work that goes on at all levels of the culture, excepting the publishing industry itself, which I truly believe is non-sexist.
Those readers unconnected with the industry might argue, reasonably, that more books by men than women are brought out, that the media covers a fair and representative selection of what's out there and that prizes reflect this neutral imbalance in numbers. This is not the case. The great upside of the digital and information revolution is that publishers' catalogues can now be accessed on line, each of which shows just how many fascinating books are written by women at all levels, in all genres, in non-fiction and fiction, with many different approaches, voices and interests. The books come out and they are ignored, the men are celebrated and elevated and the few women featured (the female to male media ratio should be 2:8 or 3:7, maximum) are talked down.
Every study into reading habits has show that women will faithfully buy, read and support books by both sexes while men 'tend to' (this is the phrase which is always used when people report this little hate-fact) read books only by men. Swallow that for a second, ladies-in-denial: they have such incredible disdain and loathing for us that they will not even touch a book by us. Meanwhile the ladies are busy helping the chaps as much as their slavish little souls can stand. I suppose, if you're a female masochist, being ignored by the artist men your life is dedicated to helping is a prize in itself, though not a very prestigious one.
Thank God for the Orange Prize. And here’s a curtsey for the gents who’re filled with incoherent anger at the sight of us females who are involved with it. It's something to do with the notion of us all together that makes them boil with absolute rage, so that when they open their mouths, just any amount of jeering misogyny, hatred, ignorance and anger comes out. They say there should be a prize just for men, as though all of society is not one big prize for men, lovingly polished by millions of submissive women. Look at the statistics above, which seem to imply that across all the years, across all the genres, across all the criteria, across all the countries and cultures, the languages and the markets, women are just 0%-10% as good as men, who are geniuses. A woman bringing out a book, any book, about anything, can expect not to be reviewed in papers or magazines, not to be covered on the radio or TV, not to be invited to read or speak, not to win any prizes, not to be recommended or mentioned in subsequent years, not to have her career aided by prestigious teaching appointments, not to be absorbed into the canon, not to be studied at school, college or university and not to have any kind of legacy at all. It is a classic model: the women do all the work, the women even write the bestsellers which fund the whole industry, the women buy the tickets, organise the events, produce the programmes, they give underpaid or unacknowledged time, effort, labour, dedication and money... these things are taken from them...and every single one of the meaningful rewards and cultural credit goes to men, now, posthumously and for all eternity.
I think that an all-male book prize is actually a great idea and will happily support it. But there’s one rule: the angry men administering the prize cannot then exploit women's replaceable, overworked, underpaid, unacknowledged labour. That means the cleaners, caterers, PRs, producers, assistants, administrators, interns, front-of-house, organisers and researchers cannot be women. It means your partners will not do the childcare while you have your meetings. Let's see how far you get.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Swimmer, a film by Orange longlisted author Roma Tearne

The Swimmer: the true story is a chamber piece shot entirely on an iPhone. The film grows out of the Suffolk sky, landscape, the fragile coastline, and the birds that migrate to the marshes every year. But the starting point for this mock documentary is the work of Sri Lankan novelist, Roma Tearne. Her fourth novel, The Swimmer, long listed for this year’s Orange Prize, deals with the barely reported anguish perpetrated by the civil war in her country, together with the subsequent plight of those fleeing as refugees. Roma Tearne is writing a blog about the filming process which you can read here.
The film includes brutal footage from that conflict and then goes on to explore the boundary between fact and fiction. It is not, however, an adaptation of the novel; instead it complements the book by developing its own self-contained narrative. The action is played out by a tiny cast of local untrained actors, and accompanied with a soundtrack created by composer and sonic artist Paul Whitty. For this he has employed sounds recorded along Suffolk coast integrated into a score by Franz Shubert and Ceremonial music from Sri Lanka.

The catalogue includes texts by the artists, Professor John Tollach from the University of NSW, Agnes Kohlmeyer and the sponsors: Adnams of Suffolk, Andrea Hill of Suffolk County Council and Jane Basham CEO of Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality.

The Swimmer: the true story will be shown at this year’s Venice Biennale at the Palazzo Zenobio from June 3rd. Thereafter it will be screened at the DSC South Asian Festival in London in October and at the Delhi Festival, India in 2012. For more details click here.