Monthly Archives: June 2012

Poetry Parnassus at Southbank Centre, London

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Because artists live outside and among blurred borders, because artists make the world smaller, because artists are cultural cross-pollinators, I am delighted and honoured (first I was baffled, then I was honoured, and now I am delighted) to represent Malaysia, where I mostly grew up, at Southbank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus Festival, which is bringing together poets from all over the world.

Here is more about the festival. And here is an interview with me on my participation in the festival.

I am currently scheduled to read on June 29th between 4pm and 6.45pm at a free event called “This Is What The World Sounds Like” at Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom. The festival schedule is subject to change, but you can see what else is taking place here. If you’re able to catch it (maybe literally!), the Rain of Poems should be very cool to watch.

My book of poems, Witchcraft, is not available at the festival bookstore, so you can only purchase it from me directly. If you’re in London, I would love to see you at Poetry Parnassus. Please come, and tell your friends.

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Book Review: Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica

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We’ve come a long way since those anthologies from a dozen years ago, as groundbreaking as they were, consisting mostly of anonymous personal narratives of queer living and loving and very little creative writing of notable quality. That what we are seeing more and more of are stories that are not content to rest on the fact of their queerness alone reflects not only changing societal mores and a greater ease with that fact itself but also an attention to craft. While some of the pieces in Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica imply autobiographical inspiration, many are pseudonymous and most use the first-person narrator, every single one successfully makes the leap from being testimony to becoming fiction, allowing the reader in through an artistic aperture.

The term “queer”, though hotly contested, is an expansive one, the least descriptive and therefore most open of sexuality and gender identification categories, and this anthology certainly cuts across the spectrum, featuring everything from sex between two transmen in different stages of transitioning to sex between a gay man and his straight female friend.

These stories trade not in definitions but in desires, and offer a large array of them. Anirban Ghosh’s “Ark Erotica Endpapers”, which fill the inside covers of the collection, kick things off with a fantastic visual: the animals may have gone in two by two, but humans do it a little differently. Yes, there are pairings, like two mermaids coiled around each other (busty, though lacking in genitalia), but there also those content to watch, like a toothy chef with a hardly-subtle fish fetish, and a team of indeterminate dynamics. Midway through the book, Nilofar’s “Shadowboxer”, the only other visual offering, is powerful sequential art: a woman takes her own pleasure, her fat, blemished, oddly-tattooed body a locus of sensuality.

Compiled by Meenu and Shruti, first-name-only editors from an NGO background, a collection like this could be a self-conscious one, but self-consciousness and erotica hardly make a fiery marriage, and the anthology does well to avoid it. Its most political story works because the politics are not the point. Iravi’s “All In The Game” has a blindfolded participant being kissed and nuzzled by a succession of friends and made to guess who’s who. In guessing their identities, a mix not only of orientations and biological situations come up, but also ponderings on monogamy and other arrangements. There’s a twist in this story that is perfectly delivered, and drives home a message about bodies that pushes the inclusivity of this anthology past a new margin.

On the subject of bodies and back to the main premise of the anthology, there is much that titillates. Annie Dykstra’s women spy each other underwater and slip into a locker room shower together in “Pity That Blush”. D’Lo’s transman falls for the woman he has been assigned to board with on an exchange program and makes love to her – the verb deliberately chosen, for in contrast to the emotional cruelty of some of the casual sex stories this one is quite romantic. As for emotional cruelty and casual sex, Dykstra’s takes the lead, but L.R. Ellen’s “Conference Sex”, Nikhil Yadav’s “Upstairs, Downstairs” and Doabi’s “The Half Day” quickly follow – all are fun, but the last could have done without the rather forced recipe for rajma chawal. The biggest name in the collection, Devdutt Patnaik, spins a new myth about two young men who disguise themselves as newlyweds in order to collect a reward, only to have the gods take their artifice further than expected.  Michael Malik G. weaves a “meditation on [the] cock” of a gorgeous man on a houseboat in Kashmir, and Vinaya Nayak’s “Screwing With Excess” pokes a little fun at the adoring faghag – but ensures she is also pleasured.

There is an urgency to the best of these passages that illustrates quite perfectly the difference between beautiful writing about sex and sheer erotica. In the former, it is the way the phrase turns that matters. In the latter, if you’ll forgive my crudeness, it all comes down to whether or not the wrist turns away from turning the pages.

For proclivities that test the comfort zone a little, Satya’s “I Hate Wet Tissues” lightly brushes the subject of necrophilia, and Chicu’s “Soliloquy” attempts to both eroticize and find empowerment in the nasty experience of being molested on a bus. A couple of the stories fall short – Abeer Hoque’s “Jewel and the Boy” and Msbehave’s “Give Her A Shot” play with structures that suggest creativity but leave one stumped as to their purpose – but by and large, the book excites.

Close, Too Close is inclusive without losing sight of its purpose. It’s surprisingly well-written for a collection peppered with pseudonyms. It feels offbeat but not obscure. And most of all, when it’s hot, it’s very hot.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II (trans. Pritham Chakravarthy)

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There’s a certain brand of Tamil kitsch that has been in style, both regionally and nationally (and beyond, in some cases), for a couple of years now that is fundamentally antithetical to America’s hipster subculture. Both phenomena can be read, at first glance, as based on revival or reappropriation of the “authentic” – making the obscure or the lowbrow populist trendy. But hipsterism is self-conscious, reliant on posturing said to be “ironic”. The beauty of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II – a perfect example of contemporary Tam-kitsch – is that it contains no irony at all. It isn’t possible to enjoy these stories if there is a hesitation to enter their particular moralities or engage with their brassy sensibilities. Delightfully, however, they are so thrilling that it is very easy to.

The first volume in Blaft’s Tamil Pulp Fiction series carried seventeen pieces; while this one features only six, its stories are lengthier and by and large rewarding. The anthology kicks off on a spectacular note: Indra Soundar Rajan’s gripping novella “The Palace of Kottaipuram”. Originally serialized over 31 issues of Anantha Vikatan in 1990, this perfectly-paced mystery has all the elements of grandiose narrative. A royal lineage is thwarted by a curse dating to colonial times that avenges a raped tribal woman: all its male heirs die on or before their thirtieth birthdays, and its female ones do not survive infancy. The educated and urbane young prince Visu begins to believe in the curse after the death of his elder brother leaves him next in line, but his rational girlfriend Archana is not at all convinced that supernatural forces are at work…

The character of the intrepid female investigator is carried forward into “Highway 117”, the collection’s only major non-prose offering and its weakest link. Written by Pushpa Thangadorai and illustrated by Jeyaraj, its promising storyline – of Karate Kavitha, who pursues a temple-plunderer along a train route with her handsome sidekick Umesh – doesn’t translate well into the form. The illustrations are uninspiring, and seem mainly to serve the sequence in which the heroine, tied up in a chair with her blouse torn open to reveal her breasts, delivers a series of karate kicks to her assailant. Even this, unfortunately, isn’t done with particular panache. To this end, in terms of visual mediums, the lurid magazine and book covers – full of fanged creatures, sexy women and other titillations – and vintage advertisements which intersperse the stories are far more interesting and striking. The covers from the 1960s and 1970s are colourful, expressive and arguably even objects of a certain beauty – by contrast, the four covers featured from the 1990s seem markedly depleted in taste or attractiveness; no comment is offered on why, but one assumes they are representative of the aesthetic of that era.

Indumathi’s “Hold On A Minute, I’m In The Middle Of A Murder” suffers a little bit for its melodrama, but has enough bloodshed and black magic (“gained in the forests of Iran and Iraq”, no less) to entertain. The occupants and staff of a mental hospital come under the influence of spirit possession, vendettas beyond the grave, and a hodgepodge of faith systems that incorporate everything from Christian-Satanic binaries to Tantric rituals.

Two brilliant stories follow in this predominantly horror-based anthology: M.K. Narayanan’s “The Bungalow By The River” and Rajesh Kumar’s “Hello, Good Dead Morning!”. The first is a ghost story set in Malaysia, and successfully evokes, without literary pretensions, a milieu and society that might be lesser-known among local readers of Tamil pulp fiction, and is more convincing both in its gore and supernatural themes than Indumathi’s piece. Kumar’s police mystery set in Coimbatore, meanwhile, contains a twist which – although translator Pritham Chakravathy and editor Rakesh Khanna say might be familiar – is quite ingenious to those who do not regularly consume crime or mystery fiction.

Both these stories are racy by the standards of the eras they describe: in the first, an “adamant” young woman consents to staying overnight on holiday with her fiancé, in the second, a jeans-clad, moped-riding woman and her friends watch pornography together in the mid-80s. The latter story in particular is traditionally problematic when it comes to that old bugbear: the desirous female (and her inevitable punishment), but pulp is hardly the place to expect otherwise. For those overly concerned, however, the anthology’s final piece, Resakee’s “Sacrilege To Love”, offers some minor consolation: it has two alternative endings, one for “diehard romantics”, and the other for those who, disgusted by the chauvinism displayed by all its male leads, might root for an offbeat happily-never-after.

There are two ways to read pulp: you can read it incredulously, lamenting the cause of beautifully-turned prose and rolling your eyes at all the rolling heads. Or you can read it without any self-consciousness, giving in to all its gaudy, gory glory. There’s really only one good way to do it though, and that way, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II is an absolute treat.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Elle Fiction Award 2012

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Happy to share that my short story, “Greed and the Gandhi Quartet” has received an Elle Fiction Award 2012 from Elle (India).

The story has not yet been published, but the magazine featured a short genesis of each winner. Here’s a scan of the page that includes mine.