When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair.

The longer I stretch the act of the happily married couple, the more I dodge his anger. It’s not a test of talent alone. My life depends upon it.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife tells the story of a marriage between a university professor and a young, unnamed woman.

There are not many things a woman can become when she is a housewife in a strange town that does not speak any of her mother-tongues. Not when her life revolves around her husband. Not when she has been trapped for two months in the space of three rooms and a veranda.

The husband expects her to be perfect. To look and dress as he believes a wife should dress. To keep house and ensure that too is perfect. We soon learn, as the narrator did, that meeting his standards is impossible.

Initially the wife’s perceived failure results in the husband inflicting harm upon himself; he lights matches, extinguishing them on his own skin until she agrees to close her Facebook account.

When I am forced to leave Facebook, my final message is not: Trouble in Second Week of Marriage: Husband-Moron Insistent I Stay Isolated. Mr Control Freak Blackmailed Me Into Deactivating Account. Writer At Risk! SOS!

Instead my swansong is serious and formal; I write about the intertwining double helix of projects and looming deadlines. I compose the picture of being a busy woman, and maintain the act to precise proportions. I write out the formulaic pretence of living the writer’s life. No one gets a clue of how precariously alone I feel.

What follows is the inevitable descent into violence against the narrator.

One of the things that’s interesting about When I Hit You is that it’s a middle class university lecturer perpetrating acts of violence against a middle class, educated, woman. Kandasamy pushes against the idea that domestic violence is confined to a particular class or stereotype.

She also – as she did in The Gypsy Goddess – brings politics into the discussion. The narrator’s class and political leanings become another area for the Communist husband to berate her about. Here Kandasamy opens up a long overdue discussion about the misogyny of the far left which is utterly relevant to current society.

However, as the subtitle of the novel makes clear, this isn’t purely the story of a marriage steeped in fear, it is the story of a young woman becoming a writer. This is made clear from the beginning of the book with two framing devices; the first is the writer’s mother who, five years on, has claimed the story for herself. The narrator objects:

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it is your own mother.

The second is when she reframes the story as though she is an actor playing the dutiful wife. While this could work to distance the reader, it actually provokes more empathy for the unnamed narrator; what is so bad that she has to pretend she is someone else to survive? As the novel progresses, however, it is the writing that the narrator does in secret that saves a part of herself.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a stunning piece of work. The writing is sharp, ratcheting the tension and horror at a steady pace until it is all-consuming. Kandasamy isn’t afraid to portray an intelligent woman being subjected to manipulation and violent acts. She isn’t afraid to question the portrayal of ‘upstanding’ men, the role of the political left and how a feminist can find herself in this situation. Kandasamy is an incredible talent and When I Hit You is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

I interviewed Meena Kandasamy about the novel; we discussed autofiction, politics and reframing women’s experiences.

You can buy When I Hit You from AmazonWaterstones, or support your local independent bookshop.

You can also buy The Gypsy Goddess from AmazonWaterstones, or support your local independent bookshop.
If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Atlantic Books for the review copy and to Kirsty Doole and Meena Kandasamy for the interview.

In the Media, January 2017

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Image by Abigail Grey Swartz

Where is there to start other than with articles about the new American regime?

On the Women’s March:

On Melania:

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On American society under Trump:

On Trump:

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Book Lists for All Humans #5

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It’s been a while…not because there haven’t been lists published that weren’t gender balanced, I’m sure there have been, more because while I’m not compiling In the Media, I’m not in my media Twitter feed and so I’m not seeing them. However, I was on the Guardian website this afternoon and they’d published a new ‘Top 10 books’ list. DBC Pierre deserves some sort of award for producing the whitest, most male list I’ve seen so far. Apparently, women/people of colour don’t write books that writers should read. Be told people, only white men know how to write.

Here’s my alternative list, please feel free to suggest your own additions/alternatives in the comments:

To create a setting that feels as though it really exists: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

To see complex characters, whose behaviour raises questions about morality, in action: Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

To write successfully from a child’s point-of-view: My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

To manage a complex structure based on a lunar cycle and as good as any box set: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

To change point-of-view in every chapter, including that of a dead body, and detail some of the atrocities of which humans are capable: Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

To incorporate your own life and letters into fiction/essay/critique: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

To bring a historical character to life: Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

To write a coming-of-age story in fragmented sentences: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

To write a metafictional account of a massacre: The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

To create an unreliable, first person narrator: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

 

Links are to my reviews.

In the Media, February 2016, part two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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On Friday, the death of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird was announced. Obituaries followed from Ed Pilkington and Matthew Teague in The Guardian; Eric Hamburger also in The Guardian; Casey N. Cep in The New Yorker, and The Irish Times, and appraisals of her work from Michiko Kakutani, ‘In Harper Lee’s Novels, a Loss of Innocence as Children and Again as Adults‘ in the New York Times; Sarah Churchwell, ‘Harper Lee: author battled to reconcile racial justice with a racially unjust society‘ and Elaine Showalter, ‘Harper Lee: an American novelist deserving of serious attention‘ both in The Guardian; Michelle Dean, ‘Did Go Set a Watchman spoil Harper Lee’s literary legacy?‘ in The Guardian; Katy Waldman, ‘What Is Harper Lee’s Legacy After Go Set a Watchman?‘ on Slate, and Alex Clark, ‘Why Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird endures to tell its tale of radical change‘ in The Observer

You might have heard that a fortnight ago Beyoncé released a new song ‘Formation’ which she went on to perform at the SuperBowl. Lots of people had lots to say about it. LaSha wrote, ‘Kendrick Lamar won’t face backlash like Beyoncé: Socially conscious art, sexual expression and the policing of black women’s politics‘, Priscilla Ward wrote, ‘White Beyoncé haters don’t get it: “Formation” isn’t “race-baiting” — but it is unapologetically about race‘ both on Salon; Banseka Kayembe wrote, ‘Beyonce Gets Political: Here’s Why it Matters‘ on the Huffington Post; Shantrelle Lewis wrote, ‘“Formation” Exploits New Orleans’ Trauma‘ on Slate; Nikita Richardson did ‘A Deep Dive into the Important, Unapologetic Blackness of Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’‘ on Hello Giggles; Suzanne Moore said, ‘Black Pride at the Super Bowl? Beyoncé embodies a new political moment‘ in The Guardian; The Pool asked, ‘Four women on what Beyoncé’s Formation means to them‘, and Anna Leszkiewicz said, ‘Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date‘ in the New Statesman.

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Last weekend was Valentine’s Day; there was plenty of writing around that too. Emma Dowling wrote, ‘Love’s Labour’s Cost: The Political Economy of Intimacy‘ on Verso Books; Eleanor Franzén wrote ‘V Daze‘ on Elle Thinks; Eileen Myles, ‘on the Excruciating Pain of Waiting for Love‘ and Heather Haverilesky, ‘What Romance Really Means After 10 Years of Marriage‘ on The Cut; Marie Phillips wrote, ‘What I learnt from a year of being in love‘ and Emer O’Toole shared, ‘The Rules, and how I fell in love‘ both on The Pool; Lauren Duca asked, ‘Is There Such a Thing As a Feminist Marriage Proposal?‘, Laura June revealed, ‘What I Thought Romance Meant, Age 12–Present‘ and Meaghan O’Connell told us, ‘Getting Married in One Week Was the Most Romantic Thing I Ever Did‘ all in The Cut; Emma Flowers wrote, ‘Finding, Nearly Losing and Finally Building Love Across Two Genders‘ on the Huffington Post; Heidi Julavits on ‘My High-School Boyfriend, the Con Artist‘ in The Cut; Tiffany Yannetta wrote, ‘Lights, Camera, Love‘ on the history of dating shows on Racked, and Alana Massey said, ‘Tinder Is the New Meet-Cute‘ in The Cut.

Congratulations to Ríona Judge McCormack who won the inaugural Galley Beggar Press short story competition with ‘Blackburn‘. And The Stella Prize announced its 12 book longlist for 2016.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

Books of the Year, Part One: Pre-2015 Publications

Like last year, I’ve read a lot of books so I’ve decided to split my books of the year post into two – those published pre-2015 and those published in 2015 (UK dates where applicable). The latter will appear tomorrow, in the meantime, here’s my pick of the former. Clicking on the book cover will take you to my review.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

Not just a book of the year, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set in the Nighted States sometime in the future and narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star. White people are dead of a disease called WAKS. Black people die of something called Posies at eighteen/nineteen. Ice Cream Star’s brother, Driver, is dying and she sets out to find a cure. Written in a futuristic version of AAVE, the novel considers race, religion, politics, class, war and love and has one of the best heroines ever. Newman also gives good interview, you can read my interview with her here.


Prayers for the Stolen
– Jennifer
Clement

Ladydi Garcia Martínez was dressed as a boy until she was eleven, as were all the girls in her village. This was to prevent drug traffickers kidnapping them. But Ladydi’s friend, Paula, was taken and – astonishingly – returned. Clement illustrates the way poor, brown skinned women in an exposed state in Mexico are treated by men. Fathers are feckless; brothers are dangerous. An unknown man entering the area is to be feared. Houses are peppered with bullet holes. Ladydi’s narration lifts this from being utterly bleak and Clement’s plot twists, often buried in a mid-paragraph sentence, are brilliant.

 

The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandesamy

The story of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. A small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years and any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, the local workers stand strong but their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed. This is also a book about how you might tell the story of a massacre and the problems you might incur. Intelligent, layered, funny metafiction blending facts and storytelling.

 

how to be both – Ali Smith 

how to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. George’s section is about life after the death of her mother; Francescho’s is about his youth and becoming an artist. Smith considers what art is and what’s its value, as well as how to be two things at once – alive and dead, watched and watcher, male and female. One of the joys of reading the novel is spotting the connections between the two sections.

 

Every Kiss a War – Leesa Cross-Smith

A collection about our battle with love: to find it, to keep it, to get over it once it’s gone. Teenagers deal with abortions, parental arguments and first loves:your heart beating like two quick tick-tocking clocks, like two fists with their muffled punching. Adults negotiate beginnings, endings and whether to stay or go: And staying in love is like trying to catch a light. To hold it in my hand. Even when it looks like I have it, I don’t. Ranging from flash fiction to interlinked stories, this is a confident, beautifully written collection.

 

 

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn 

The story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil and Aloysius Binewski created their own freaks, experimenting with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers. Competition is fierce between them. The sub-plot, set in the future tells of Olympia and her daughter, Miranda, pursued by heiress, Mary Lick, who pays for women to be operated on so they’re less attractive/less likely to be exploited by men. A cult classic.

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

My review of this was bumped to January 2016 due to #diversedecember but I love this book. Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lottringer, have dinner with Dick, a cultural critic and acquaintance of Sylvère’s.  Chris falls for Dick and begins writing letters to him. The love is largely unrequited but she explores her feelings for him through the letters. The second half of the book, in particular, becomes much more than that, it’s filled with critical essays on art and theorists and explores the role of women in culture and life. A book you need to read with a pencil in hand. Should be described as ‘a classic’, rather than ‘a feminist classic’.

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen 

Two novellas packaged together. In Quicksand Helga Crane searches for happiness. It’s always fleeting and she moves on until she finds herself trapped. Passing, the stronger of the two stories, focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Clare is passing as white to the extent that not even her racist husband knows she’s black. The tension comes from knowing she’s bound to be exposed but also the devastating consequences her reappearance has on Irene’s life too.

 

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

A counterfactual slave narrative in which black people rule the world and whites are slaves. Divided into three sections, the first and third focus on Omorenomwara/Doris Scagglethorpe and her attempt to escape Chief Kaga Konata Katamba (KKK) and return to her family. The middle of the novel is the chief’s story of his involvement in the slave trade. His pronouncements about the inferiority of the Caucasoinid are supported by anthropology, ideas of savagery and a mission to save souls. Very funny in a horrifying sense. The reversal highlights the ludicrousness of the slide trade as well as reminding us of the barbarity of it.

How to Be a Heroine – Samantha
Ellis 

On a visit to Top Withins, the house that inspired Wuthering Heights, Ellis has a revelation: My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane. It leads her to revisit heroines from her formative years and consider others she didn’t read at the time. Part-memoir, part-literary criticism, fearlessly feminist, this will add to your TBR books you want to read and books you want to revisit. Part of the joy of this book is the space Ellis leaves for you to discuss and argue with her. I didn’t always agree with her points (#TeamCathy) but I was always engaged.

 

 

Mân – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman)

Mãn is raised by her third mother after the first dies and the second retreats from the world. Maman takes her to a big city and passes on the things her mother has taught her. Maman finds Mãn a husband and moves to Montreal to live with him, helping to run his restaurant. As it becomes more and more successful, Mãn travels to Paris where the cookbook she’s co-written has also been a success. There she meets another restaurant owner and falls in love. Told in first person narrated vignettes, this is a beautifully written and emotionally engaging book.

The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

We told our stories to the court and to the commission. We testified on their terms. We were examined and cross-examined. In their words, we deposed. Since we saw with our eyes, we spoke about what we had seen. However, the Special Additional First-Class Magistrate was not very pleased with our versions.

Perhaps he wanted a single story: uniform, end to end to end. The ‘Once upon a time, there lived an old lady in a tiny village’ story. Sadly, we are not able to tell such a story. A story told in many voices is seen as unreliable.

The story that Kandasamy tells is that of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. Kivanmani is a small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years. Any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, landlords’ violence is enough to subdue it in other villages but not in Kilvanmani, where the local workers stand strong. But their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed.

The Gypsy Goddess isn’t just about the massacre though, it’s about how to tell the story of a massacre. Kandasamy discusses how to begin, during which she skewers literary critics:

A first-generation woman novelist evidently working in a second language from the third-world country, literary critics may pooh-pooh and pin me down with prize-orange tartness after reading such a tame line, and prepare to expect nothing more than a domestic drama-traumatic tale. Let them jest in peace.

imperialism:

It is common knowledge that no land would ever be found interesting until a white man arrived, befriended some locals, tried the regional cuisine, asked a lot of impertinent questions, took copious notes in his Moleskin notebook and then went back home and wrote something about it.

and predicts the questions critics will ask, my favourite of which are:

Why can’t you fucking follow chronology?

I can. If you observe carefully, you will not fail to note that everyone gets fucked in the due course of time.

Is there a single story?

No. Of course, I’ve consulted Chimamanda on this too.

The tone of the narrative is smart and spirited, challenging the reader whilst pointing out the issues with writing a book that blends fact and fiction, particularly one in which the facts are so horrifying. Kandasamy does the latter with aplomb, however. The narrative voice recedes as events in the village become more gruesome, allowing the key events of the massacre to be told without interference. This gives them a particular power, one which is heightened by the list of the dead.

Kandasamy confidently merges a number of styles and structures including her inner Nicki Minaj to relate how the season of protest begins, which I partly tell you so I can share my favourite paragraph of the book:

Carrying the tales of their cunts and their cuntrees and their cuntenants, women cross all hurdles, talk in circles, burst into tears, break into cheers, teach a few others, take new lovers, become earth mothers, question big brothers, breathe state secrets, fuck all etiquettes and turn themselves into the truth-or-dare pamphleteer who will interfere at the frontier. And in these rap-as-trap times, they perceive the dawn of the day and they start saying their permitted say.

The Gypsy Goddess considers the oppression of the poor by the rich, the role of women in village society and the writing of the book itself. It’s an intelligent, layered, often very funny read and – apart from this being metafiction written by a woman of colour (how very dare she?) – I’m baffled as to why prize juries weren’t all over it last year.

 

Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy.