& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 08, 2018

'When you write about the past, there’s plenty to invent and discover': Loren Edizel

Loren Edizel 
You have written three novels, one collection of short stories – all in about five-six years. How do you choose the stories that you want to tell, and how do you ensure an evenness of texture and tone in your work?

Actually, it’s been about a decade, I think. The Ghosts of Smyrna was published in Turkey, in Turkish translation, in 2008.  Adrift was published in Canada in 2011, Ghosts of Smyrna in its original English version 2013, the collection of stories in 2014 and Days of Moonlight in the spring of 2018. In between I wrote some short stories which are sitting in a file and will hopefully become part of another collection once I am done with the novel I am currently working on.

I don’t know to what extent I choose the stories, I believe perhaps they choose me, through some sort of unconscious process. A rudimentary form of the story appears, and this could be a character, an idea that doesn’t go away.  It sits there, a bit like indigestion, demanding attention. I take notes, do research, think about the character’s traits. With Days of Moonlight, I knew I wanted to tell a story that had to do with the population exchange between Turkey and Greece after the Lausanne Treaty in 1924, and about Cretan immigrants in Izmir, specifically. I find that part of the history of the Aegean region fascinating, and not much discussed.  I did some research on the epoch, the events. This coincided with a personal story.  My mother had been trying to reach her friend in Izmir by phone, for months, unsuccessfully. Then her phone got disconnected.  Mom got worried. She started asking around and finally got word that her friend had passed away months before.  I remember the day she found this out. We sat in her darkening room as the sun was setting, quietly, both of us feeling so sad. This lady had always lived alone, had never married. She had never told mom she was sick, when they spoke. It’s as if she wanted to leave this world without a fuss, the way she had lived in it.

I didn’t know much about her life at all. But it got me wondering how a single woman’s life would have been in those times, in Izmir. I knew I wanted it to feel intimate, deeply emotional, the story of a strong woman with a richly-textured secret life. It seemed that the best way to do that was to have her as the narrator, penning a journal, writing bits of an autobiography, letters and her account of her parents’ migration from Crete, whatever she remembered from the stories she was told as a child.  Once I felt I knew her and the other characters well enough to tell their stories and had a strong sense of the larger overarching story of her entire life, it all unravelled. The myth of the Minotaur, a Cretan and particularly, an Aegean story, was there from the beginning. It is a powerful myth, and held me captive as I imagined the story of Mehtap’s life.

Maybe the texture and tone tend to evolve with the characters. As I write, I want to see through their eyes, know what they like to wear, the music they listen to, movies they watch, their random thoughts as they sit on their balcony, annoying habits, all those details. I want to live in their world with them, become them.  I know I am in that universe, when I can describe it effortlessly. The songs, the view, the smells and sounds are there. I’m there.

Your latest novel, Days of Moonlight is a broad sweep encompassing several decades, and Ghost of Smyrna was a historical novel. Do you prefer historical genre rather than narrating stories of the present? A corollary to this question is whether immigrant authors prefer to write about their past than their present?
I don’t feel that I have a preference for the historical genre but maybe I unconsciously do, I don’t know.   I’ve wanted to write a futuristic story for a long time. I haven’t gotten around to it yet. My husband laughs and shakes his head at me, because as soon as I finish one novel, I announce to him that I have this idea for a futuristic type of story for my next one. Then I go and write something else. Maybe the time is not right for it yet.
In a way, when you write about the past, there’s plenty to invent and discover, and you have the clear framework of historical facts to guide you. I like to invent, go elsewhere, get out of myself, when I write. Writing about the past also requires some research, which I enjoy.  The Ghosts of Smyrna is about a city which burned down long before I was born. I reconstructed it in my mind, through research, photos, maps etc.  So, in a way, even though I was writing about a real place, there was an imaginary dimension to it.  
Days of Moonlight, as you say, sweeps numerous decades, starting in the 1920s and ending in 2010. It covers Mehtap’s entire life. The focus of her journals is the 60s and 70s in Turkey. Aside from research, I went deep into my childhood memories to bring up how things smelled and looked and felt to me; the look of the city, how people behaved.
To write a story that takes place in the present is possible as long as it’s something I can dig into, something that excites my imagination and somehow leads me to say whatever it is I want to say. The challenge with the present is that we are all immersed in it and there is no perspective. Unless I’m certain of my signposts, I fear the present could be a little tedious to write about because of that lack of distance. 
You were an immigrant in Turkey and you are an immigrant in Canada. Does the status of an outsider give you a better perspective, a more nuanced understanding of cultures and more because you can observe with detachment?
I was not an immigrant in Turkey. My ancestry in Izmir goes back four centuries. I was part of a very small cultural minority. My father was an artist who felt like an outsider all his life. To a certain extent I’ve always carried that outsider/insider feeling, I suppose. Migration is not the only requirement for feeling this way, although if you’ve never felt like an outsider in your life, you would, as soon as you migrated. There is no question. I came to Canada as a teenager, and that did change my life and my perspective. Opened it. Made me see things differently. I always wanted to feel like a citizen of the world and I think this move set me in that direction.
When I was a small child, maybe four years old, I was convinced I was dropped into my family by aliens from another planet. I would wrap myself in the curtains of the living room and wait for them to come and get me, or give me a sign, explain why I was here and for how long.  They never did, as you can imagine and I eventually got bored of waiting and had to accept I wasn’t going anywhere except to bed, for a nap. Plus, mom didn’t like me playing with the curtains. I still don’t know why I’m here.  But I am reconciled to the fact that I will always feel somehow outside of the larger context, looking in, sideways.  I don’t believe this is strictly my experience; as individuals we all have circumstances that lead us to feel somewhat on the outside. Being part of a group is a necessity for feeling safe and good. But our ties to the  group are defined by a few things only – we may suppress our differences for the safety or expediency of belonging. Often individuals are made to suppress their “otherness” by the state, by society, religion, ideologies etc.  I wanted to touch upon that in Days of Moonlight - the existential dissonance of feeling pressured to fit into acceptable molds.
How much of your life is reflected in your work?
Not much really. When I write, I want to be exploring, learning something new, discovering other possibilities than my own world and life. At the same time, I excavate whatever I can from my own life experience, thoughts and emotions to understand lives that are not mine. I think actors probably do something similar when they get into a character. They jump into the unknown using everything they’ve ever learned, felt or thought about as tools to find their way, I suppose.

Excerpt from Days of Moonlight- p 121
Neither Mehmet nor Maria ever returned to Crete for
a visit. They were afraid of travelling and remained profoundly suspicious of Greek and Turkish border officials. In the late fifties, when trips to Greece became possible for Turkish citizens, the couple categorically rejected the notion from fear that something would go awry between the countries during their visit
and prevent their return to Turkey. Disputes between the two neighbours always seemed one island away. They imagined being stuck in Crete with nothing but a suitcase, having no friends, no acquaintances to take care of them, strangers to their birthplace or adrift in the Mediterranean, unclaimed by either country. “Worse
than strangers,” Mehmet would insist, with that particular shade of bitterness that infects the memories of those who have suffered profound injustices in their youth. He never spoke of enemies; he seemed to have none. Although he knew himself to be Greek and Turkish, he could acknowledge neither fully in his mind and he felt like a mongrel that had been groomed to pass for an acceptable breed, thus living his days with an omnipresent sense of dread which, like a gas leak, permeated his universe, emanating a deep suspicion of ideas, governments, convictions, and neighbours. Obsessed by the thought of toeing the line at all times, Mehmet would become taciturn, self-effaced among friends.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 18

Mahrukh, outside Windsor station
2013 was another year when my circle of friends who were authors or in some way connected to the creative process expanded exponentially. I’d never had so many friends and acquaintances who were authors and poets and playwrights, or people who created art in other forms – theatre, dance, music and painting.

And to think that I’d lived for four-and-a-half-decades in Bombay and had been in Toronto only for five years. I guess the main reason for this sudden expansion of friends who were creative was because I had begun to focus on these things – going to readings, plays, discussions on creative processes. But I don’t want this memoir blog to become a “who I met and who I now know” sort of narrative; that’d be just plain tedious.

If anything, my life in Toronto was turning out to be – in many different ways – the sort of life that I’d always aspired – a mix of hard work, reading, writing, being with people I didn’t dislike, and generally spending time doing the things that I truly enjoyed.

Also, blogging helped me focus my thinking and channelize them into ideas. During this exercise of recollecting my decade in Toronto, I’ve been reading the blog posts that I wrote and without being immodest, I find (at least some of them) to be rather good – readable, with content that’d make anyone think.

While writing these posts, the process of thinking led me to thinkers of the 19th and early 20th century, when many of the ideas that have come to dominate our world today were being formed. Roman Rolland, Andre Gide, Swami Vivekananda, Lokmanya Tilak, Rabindranath Tagore. The issues that they debated with themselves and with others have helped shape our sensibilities today.

At that time (in 2013) the momentum of Narendra Modi-led BJP capturing power in 2014 Lok Sabha election had become a foregone conclusion. Important and contentious issues that went to the core of my belief were being hotly debated – among them were individual rights, religious freedom, the treatment of minorities (especially Muslims), the meaning of Indian nationhood, the Hindu religion, Hindutva, and other such matters.

2013 was the centenary of Tagore’s Nobel Prize for Gitanjali and 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. In many ways, both were globalists and yet deeply Indian (Hindu, perhaps?) in their sensibilities.

In one of my posts on Tilak and Vivekananda, I said, “Anyone familiar with 19th century social and political history of India will know of two very clear streams within the Hindu society – one which advocated that social reforms should be a priority, and the other section that resisted western-inspired and British-instituted reform measures. This section wasn't opposed to reforms.

“They wanted the reforms to be generated from within the Hindu society.  That the Hindu society didn't (and doesn't) have any self-regulatory mechanism to have initiated this process is evident from the severe opposition Nehru faced during the codification of the Hindu personal laws.

“Today, more than a century later, both Tilak and Vivekananda divide Indians, with both the secular and the communal elements claiming them as their ideals. History is reinterpreted by both the groups to justify these claims. It isn't such a bad thing because it is only through revisionism that we uncover new and concealed facts about the past.

“Of course, there are innumerable quotes that can be reproduced to portray both Tilak and Vivekananda as votaries of Hindu nationalism. A contributing factor – especially in Vivekananda’s case – is the whole scale usurpation of his ideology and thinking by the Hindutva brigade. In Tilak’s case, they don’t do so probably because of Tilak’s collaboration with Jinnah in 1916 for the Lucknow Pact.”

Similarly, the significance of individual freedom, a person’s right to dissent, was at the core of the debate between Rolland and Gide. “The ideologies that espoused class struggle became obsolete because they fell short of two fundamentals requirements of human life – freedom and development. The proponents of the ideologies claim that they remain relevant even today and protest that it was the practice of these ideals that subverted freedom and failed to deliver the promise of development.

Perhaps, they are not wrong. Individual freedom is at the heart of this debate and was at the basis of the differences between two eminent French writers Andre Gide (1869-1951) and Roman Rolland (1866-1944). Both supported communism – Gide briefly and Rolland during his lifetime. Rolland is known in India because of his association with Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, and because Swami Vivekananda’s interpretation of the Vedanta influenced him. Along with Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi, Rolland was a firm believer in non-violent non-cooperation.

Eventually, individualism triumphed over the collective in the war between communism and capitalism. Even if democracy and capitalism may have emerged as the only acceptable political and economic models in the present century, the struggle to redefine them continues. The gathering storm over the political and economic rights of the indigenous people is a good example of this struggle as is the Occupy Movement. 

Today, even the most diehard proponents of the capitalist way agree that there is a dire need to modify it to make it work justly. And the proponents of individualism are unable to explain the growing rise of individual violence.”

These debates continue to remain relevant in 2018 as Narendra Modi and Donald Trump continue to remain all-powerful and set upon winning the next election (in 2019 in India and 2020 in the US).

To read these posts, click here

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed invited me to see Inspirations 2013 at Toronto’s George Weston Recital hall to celebrate the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize for Literature.
In a message explaining the raison d’etre of Inspirations 2013, the creative team said, “With Inspirations, we celebrate those aspects of Tagore’s vision that are universal and utterly contemporary. The fundamental equality between all human beings, the need to resist all forms of injustice, and the infinite possibility of deepening our understanding of each other – these are some of his values. Tagore saw the arts as a powerful medium of social change. It enables us to reach new heights of creative self-expression where everyone can come together – irrespective of language, identity, race, nationality or religion.”

If you’re interested in reading about the program, click here: Inspiration 2013

Two of best books that I read in 2013 were Lisa Moore’s February, and Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom. Both are unforgettable. And I was fortunate to interact with two good poets who continue to do good work – Sheniz Janmohamed and Bano Zan.

On the last day of 2013, we went to Windsor from where Mahrukh and Che would go to Detroit to see the All-Star game on 1 January 2014 for which Che had bought tickets a year ago. We took the Via Rail train to Windsor. It was a momentous trip; were served breakfast, where for the first time, I saw the Baby Bell cheese and was clueless about what it was or how to open it. We reached Windsor on what was unarguably one of the coldest days of the year only to discover that we’d forgotten Che’s Indian passport that had the US visa back home.

So, I’d to take a bus back to Toronto, take the passport and take the morning train back to Windsor. Fortunately, we had a day to spare. But the trip to Detroit was nothing short of a disaster. Mahrukh, who didn’t have the ticket for the game, stood outside the stadium and nearly died of hypothermia. It was that cold. I spent the day in the hotel room writing for my performance review for a job that I’d lose the next year. The highlight of the year’s end was a sumptuous dinner we had at an Indian restaurant in Windsor. We welcomed 2014 on the banks of the Detroit River that divides Windsor and Detroit.  

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Man Tiger: Eki Kurniawan

Guest Post 
By Aleksandra Skiba

Aleksandra Skiba is a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin. 

An encounter with a tiger is fraught with potential danger, even if the striped predator appears only on the border of dream and reality. The ephemeral and elusive animal can also leave bloody traces as experienced by the characters in Indonesian author Eki Kurniawan’s book ManTiger.

Written in 2004, the novel is deeply saturated with emotions and secrets and reads like a crime story, but if it really has to be defined it can only be described as à rebours. This is because right at the beginning of the book Anwar Sadat's murder by Margio becomes a hot topic of conversation in the village. The news about Margio's deed, a friendly 20-year-old man in love, shocks a small society. 

The graphic depiction of the brutal murder is horrifying; it's this graphic depiction that makes Eki Kurniawan’s writing resemble the pulp fiction genre but that is a clever, deliberate poly. The Javanese writer mixes literary conventions, drawing inspiration from popular fiction, Mahabharata, oral storytelling or theatre wayang, jumping from cheap sensation to literal depiction, from lyricism to fantasies and dreams.

The narrative deserves particular attention because of the underlying universalism of the characters. There are four members of the family who like gods or heroes from myths or Javanian Shadow Theater, present their intentions by acts.  The dialogue is almost absent from the narrative, and if there is any interaction between the characters it happens mostly because of a strong sense of duty that brings these indoors enemies together and they increasingly resemble mythic characters.

Every member of the family creates their own world – with better or worse results – to find a way to channel negative emotions. Therefore, the need to express pain and anger presents itself as a mother’s deliberately abandoned garden or a symbolic white female tiger that personifies the son’s determination and uncontrolled explosion.

The tradition and local customs are, next to family relationship, also a strong barrier on the island. However, these problems touch mostly inequalities of village society. What is tolerated in a rich playboy can be deprecated in a poor woman; so Nuareni, the unhappy wife, can’t alter her fate and defy societal norms openly.

Although the Nuareni and Komar bin Syueb’s arranged marriage isn’t doomed to fail, it does because of the impossibility to their circumstances to behave less conventionally, the rigid social expectations and their growing poverty which doesn’t allow them to break walls of initial shyness and lack of confidence. 

This is when good intentions are abandoned and the violence starts to be a constant element of their life.

The inequality visible in the family and in the social relationships builds the readers’ attitude to characters and from the beginning evokes sympathy for the victims. The author enables the other side to fight against this opinion but the reasoning is weak and unconvincing. The principle of classical tragedy is preserved in this case too so the real evil stays evil without place, for explanations from popular psychology literature. 

Man Tiger is an acclaimed book and won the Financial Times and Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices awards and was nominated for The Man Booker International Prize in 2016 – a first for an Indonesian author. We can only hope that such recognition will lead to more translations of his work in English and Polish.

Aleksandra Skiba is a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin. She has contributed to this blog occasionally. Her earlier posts are:

Rediscovering a Poet
Goetel & Gandhi
To look for something and find another

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Alyque Padamsee

Alyque Padamsee was a celebrity, an important member of the South Bombay elite that rules India through an intricate network of connections controlling all spheres of human activity by rigid social hierarchies. This is old money that understands the power differential in the Indian society and wields power efficiently and imperceptibly.

Padamsee was able to rise about his social privileges and transform himself into a man of the masses. He was a legend in his lifetime; at one time called God by admirers and acolytes who were by and large agnostic, atheist or not particularly religious. While his contributions to the world of advertising are stuff of Indian advertising folklore, his contribution to the idea of India and India’s secular ethos are what I find endearing and substantive.

I didn’t know Alyque Padamsee personally. But I met him once in April 1998 for an interview for the Satellites over South Asia, project. It was an Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, project that explored the broadcasting revolution in South Asia. I was involved with unraveling the economic and commercial aspects of this revolution (my research paper was called The New Media Market) and talking to Padamsee was critical to understand how advertising industry influenced television content.

William Crawley, the co-coordinator of the project accompanied me to the interview, conducted at the Sea Lounge restaurant of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel (the original Taj). Both William and David Page, the other coordinator, were former BBC journalists.

One of the main aspects of our project was to understand the impact of advertising on television, and whether commercialization would also help sustain socially relevant broadcasting that reflected the Indian reality. A great example before us was Govind Nihalani’s tele serial Tamas, which was critically acclaimed and popular with the masses. 

William and I (and for that matter the entire team that worked on the project) were skeptical whether advertising would support good television rather than take the easy route of chasing popular programming.

Padamsee, of course, didn’t share our concern, and on several occasions, the conversation became heated. I reproduce below a brief extract of the interview just to give an idea of the testy exchange.

 Crawley: One percent of Indian population is a huge number in global terms, but it does not mean that their lifestyle as shown on television commercials is the lifestyle of common Indians.

Padamsee: No, I don’t mean this. The advertisement on television shows you variety. The farmer’s lifestyle, for instance. The tractor commercial, the fertilizer commercial. I have made tractor commercials for Escorts which show the changes taking place in the lifestyle and working methods of the farmers.

Crawley: It’s not a glamorized imagery?

Padamsee: It’s always glamorized when you are selling products. Glamourized yet but not untrue. The farmer’s field is better kept, the village is somewhat cleaner, doesn’t have so much cow dung lying around everywhere. In that sense it is glamorized. But his aspirations, more or less his lifestyle are reflected.

Crawley: The question is: has the advent of satellite television changes the way in which people watch television and the way in which it impacts the society and the way in which advertisers watch television?

Padamsee: I would say the biggest thing about television is the way in which it has changed people’s perception of what they can be. I have found that where ever TV is frequently watched, not only people’s lifestyles, but needs begin to change. You might say, ‘Aah, but that’s terrible, they are being urbanized’. But the whole world is being urbanized…it is marvelous that everything is getting urbanized. I am sure there are several bad points about urbanization, there is pollution and all sorts of things.

But in India, pollution is as much a village phenomenon as it is an urban phenomenon. You can smell it half a mile outside of any village. There is just no system. An Indian village, I am sorry to say, is one enormous slum. There are no latrines. People defecate in gutters. There is no drainage system. There is nothing, You just go to one of the 600,000 villages in India to know that.

Bhatt: This is precisely what I want to understand from you. Advertising has defined television as it is today. And yet, it doesn’t show anything that you are talking about.

Padamsee: What am I talking about?

Bhatt: A village in India is nothing but a glorified slum.
Padamsee: Obviously you can’t show that, advertising is there to sell goods.

Bhatt (interrupting): You are also known for social consciousness advertising. And that is something that one doesn’t see on television in the post-satellite revolution.

Padamsee: It’s there in the news reels. Advertising’s business is not to show ugly reality, it is to show beautiful dreams. That is the purpose of advertising throughout the world. People in Nike shoes commercials are always beautifully muscled. They are not shown as scrawny and straggly, which most people are.

Bhatt: But shouldn’t advertising be directed towards particular kind of programming also?

Padamsee: No, no.

Bhatt: It was possible for Govinf Nihalani to make a serial like Tamas before the satellite revolution began. Would it be possible for him or someone else to make a similar kind of serial today and show it on one of the major channels?

Padamsee: Oh yes, I think so. If you have got your sponsors right. Some companies have a certain outlook. Say the Tatas, for instance. Or I would even say people like BPL, who are quite serious about their image and would bring classical music to television or bring a heart surgery to India or would sponsor a medical conference. There are lots of advertisers who have what you might call a philanthropic outlook. But you can’t expect people who are in the business of selling goods to show farmers in ugly light.

Bhatt: Which is the ‘real’ light.

Padamsee: But still ugly. The farmer does not like it. I have made films for Hindustan Level before the advent of television. These were very realistic film but were rejected by the larger audience they were meant for. The criticism about advertising does not take into account what advertising is all about. Advertising is not documentation. Yes, we need documentary film makers and excellent ones as that, like perhaps Govind Nihalani.

Padamsee was aware of his celebrity status and took it rather seriously. It was mid-morning and the restaurant had a few regulars coming and going, all of them duly nodding at Padamsee in acknowledgement and on occasion briefly stopping by at our table to indulge in light banter.

Not once did Padamsee lose patience, and not once did he waver from his conviction that the purpose of advertising was to sell. It was a cracker of an interview, and although it was meant for the project, I couldn’t resist the temptation of getting it published. My friend Sambit Bal, at that time the editor of Gentlemen magazine published it in its entirety.