Everything is fine: Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig

Tolstoy’s famous adage about unhappy families might well apply to dysfunctional families, but as Ulrike Almut Sandig demonstrates in her starkly disarming debut novel, a harsh sameness can run through seemingly dissimilar families with equally tragic consequences. Sandig, a poet and writer born in Saxony in 1979, famously began her writing career as guerilla poet, posting poems on lampposts and handing them out on flyers. She has published four volumes of poetry and two collections of short stories and engaged in collaborative projects with composers, musicians and visual artists. Her poetry is at once politically charged and playful, as evidenced in her collection released in English translation in 2020, I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other, which examines such subjects as the fate of migrants, the nature of modern warfare and the rise of nationalism through the revisiting of themes drawn from European folklore, in particular the tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unvarnished form provide ideal instruments to explore the barbarity of human nature. One could say that with Monsters Like Us, she is fashioning an elaborate, contemporary fairy tale that revolves around one of the most brutal realities haunting too many families. And like the original Brothers Grimm, the darkness runs deep.

So, off the top, let it be known that this is a story about families and it is a story about childhood sexual abuse. There is humour, there is affection and there is horror. The family as a microcosm of the world at its best and its worst, reimagined through a narrative that simmers with poetic intensity and suppressed rage.

Monsters Like Us is a coming of age story set in a rural village in East Germany during the final years of Communist rule. Ruth, like Sandig herself, is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a chemist’s assistant. She has an older brother called Fly, a reference to his love of being in the air whenever and however possible, and their lives revolve around their father’s profession, which, given the political context, makes him a bit of a reactionary. But their home contains a degree of tension, a feature not unknown in other homes in the community where a certain measure of negative physical interaction commonly marked the relationships of spouses, and parents and children. Ruth narrates the opening and closing sections of the novel, addressing a Voitto—a future lover, it turns out—with a matter-of-fact tone that increasingly appears to mask her emotion. Early on she describes overhearing a confrontation between her parents that ends with a slap:

That is the first slap in the story, Voitto. No idea whether it was Mother or Pap who delivered it and whether it was Pap or Mother on the receiving end. But after a few times round this haematoma of the sun, I can tell you this for one: it all starts with believing a slap can be the natural conclusion to a conversation. Fly and I turned over onto our sides and rolled in under our duvets. Then Fly turned off the light.

Soldiers on maneuvers were a frequent sight in the area due to the fact that barracks were located nearby. One day a new boy appears in Ruth’s kindergarten class, tall with white blond hair and a face that wrinkles when he smiles. Viktor’s father was a non-commissioned officer in the barracks of the People’s Army of the Republic, located next to the Soviet barracks, and his family had moved into a newly developed part of town. This all set him apart, earning a frequent “that Russian boy” epithet. Although he was not Russian, his mother spoke Ukrainian to him at home, a background she endeavoured to hide. Ruth is drawn to this strange new boy and they soon become fast friends. Unknown to one another at the time, it will turn out that they each harbour terrible secrets: Ruth’s maternal grandfather touches her inappropriately every chance he gets, a behaviour she does not understand but fuels a fascination with and fear of vampires; Viktor’s brother-in-law, his half-sister’s husband, enters his room whenever they visit or are invited to babysit, and forces him to engage in sex acts.

Neither family suspects a thing—after all, are these not trusted people in the children’s lives? And the children themselves? “If you don’t talk about it, then it hasn’t really happened,” Ruth says. “That’s right, isn’t it, Voitto? That’s how we learned it.” As the years pass, Ruth seeks to find escape in music. Naturally gifted she spends hours with her violin. It allows her to forget everything. She is aware that her playing seems to have an emotional affect on anyone else listening, even if she feels nothing. And that is fine. Viktor pours his energy into his body, building his muscles, protecting himself with a veneer of power, while at school he works his way into the local gang of tough kids, a group that will become small scale neo-Nazi styled punks as they get older.

The second half of Monsters Like Us, takes an unexpected turn. Unable to find work in the now united Germany and eager to put distance between himself and both his extended family and his rough riding friends, Viktor heads west to France where he has applied for a position as an au pair, feminizing his name on the application to aid his ability to secure an placement. As he gets off the train at the station in a town near Marseilles:

These were the last few metres during which the boy felt completely himself. That didn’t occur to him particularly at the time. But by the time he had left the platform, he was just another exhausted passenger arriving. Later he would be a salaud de Nazi. The stubborn boy with the inadequate vocabulary, the East German colossus in combat boots, Germanic giant-child, a case, a traumatized hobgoblin and other things besides. For his parents, he would simply be our successful son travelling abroad.

For the wealthy family in the expensive villa, he is an unwelcome surprise. But as he is the sixth au pair to be with the family, they have little leverage with the agency and have to give him at least a week or two. He will stay for months, gradually improving his French, preparing complicated recipes, ironing their laundry and walking the children to and from school. It is a most unlikely outcome. Yet behind the fancy façade, a very damaged family drama is playing out, one that daughter Maud is too young to understand, and Madame is either too naïve or too proud to acknowledge. Viktor recognizes his own agony magnified in the son, Lionel, who refuses to meet his eyes for the boy’s circumstances are an order of magnitude more terrifying than his own troubled history. As he keeps telling himself “everything is fine” he knows that it is not.

It may be hard to imagine, given this very rough outline, but this is a brave novel charged with a brutal beauty. The underlying subject matter is exceptionally difficult, but is dealt with with great care—openly as needed, but more often alluded to indirectly, echoing that unspoken awareness no one wants to address. The effect is all the more powerful for it allows the tension build within the reader. Where Ruth suppresses her pain, channelling her energy into her music, quiet, sensitive Viktor is potentially a ticking timebomb. Sandig’s lyric prose, captured brilliantly by translator Karen Leeder who has translated two volumes of her poetry, is tight and spare, directed into carefully crafted scenes that often end on an open note. Her narrative sensibility is well played. Ruth’s first person account, directed to an otherwise unknown adult contemporary captures a child’s spirit through a more mature perspective. Viktor’s time in France is a third person narration, from his perspective, with the regular insertion of Maud’s child’s eye observations and commentary. Although young, she is perhaps the most sensible member of her family, but one can only worry about the ultimate fate awaiting both of the unfortunate children of the wealthy Madame and Monsieur.

As her poetry clearly shows, Sandig does not resist shining a light on the darkness in our world. With Monsters Like Us she turns over another stone that many try to ignore, and shows that it would be easy to point to a troubled state that is falling apart to explain a level of domestic discontent and even violence, but this is far more than a fairy tale set in a crumbling landscape, it is a horror story that can just as easily unfold in the most ostensibly desirable settings of wealth and privilege. And if the “monsters” of the title refers, as it does, to those who have been hurt by time or circumstance, the true monsters too often go unnoticed and unpunished. This vital book is one of the most intense and moving works I have encountered in a long time.

Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

 

Reading Women in Translation: Looking back over the past twelve months

For myself at least, as Women in Translation Month rolls around each August, there is, along with the intention to focus all or part of my reading to this project, a curiosity to look back and see just how many female authors in translation I’ve read since the previous year’s edition. I’ve just gone through my archives and am pleasantly surprised to find twenty titles, the majority read in 2022. Within this number are several authors I’ve read and loved before and a number of new favourites that have inspired me to seek out more of their work.

First among these is Lebanese-French writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, whose The Last Days of Mandelstam (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan) so thrilled me with its precision and economy that I bought another of her novellas and a collection of poetry, Alphabet of Sand (translated by Marilyn Hacker). I’ve just learned that another of her Russian poet inspired novels, Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga, will be released by Seagull Books this fall. I can’t wait!

 

The advent of the war in Ukraine instantly drew my attention to a tiny book I had received from isolarii books. The name Yevgenia Belorusets became suddenly and tragically familiar as her daily diary entries from Kiev were published online. I read that small volume, Modern Animals (translated by Bela Shayevich), drawn from interviews with people she met in the Donbas region and as soon as it became available I bought and read her story collection Lucky Breaks (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky). Although both of these books reflect the impact of war in the east of the country, they could not be read without the context of the full scale invasion underway and still ongoing in her homeland.

Another author I encountered for the first time that inspired me to read more of her work was Czech writer Daniela Hodrová whose monumental City of Torment (translated by Elena Sokol and others) is likely the most profoundly challenging work I’ve read in along time. Upon finishing this trilogy I turned to her Prague, I See A City… (translated by David Short and reviewed with the above) which I happened to have buried on my kindle. A perfect, possibly even necessary, companion.

My personal Norwegian project introduced me to Hanne Örstavik, whom I had always meant to read. I loved her slow moving introspective novel, The Pastor (translated by Martin Aitken) and have since bought, but not read, her acclaimed novella, Love. However, lined up to read this month, I have her forthcoming release in translation, Ti Amo, a much more recent work based on her experience caring for her husband as he was dying of cancer. The only other female author I brought into this project was Ingvild H. Rishøi whose collection Winter Stories (translated by Diane Oatley) was a pure delight. I have been making note of other female Norwegian writers to fill in this imbalance in the future.

The past year also brought new work by two of my favourite poets: a book of prose pieces by Italian poet Franca Mancinelli, The Butterfly Cemetery (translated by John Taylor), and the conclusion to Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s epic experimental trilogy, My Jewel Box (translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen). In May I had the honour of speaking with Olsen and Jensen over Zoom for a special event—it was a fantastic opportunity I won’t soon forget. I also became acquainted with a new-to-me Austrian poet, Maja Haderlap, through her excellent collection distant transit (translated by Tess Lewis) and have since added her novel Angel of Oblivion to my shelves.

Among the many other wonderful women in translation I read over the past year, Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker winning Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell) needs no introduction—it is an exuberant, intelligent and wildly entertaining read. On an entirely different note, Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of Colette’s classic Cheri and the End of Cheri completely surprised me. I had no idea what a sharp and observant writer she was, in fact I didn’t know much about her at all and I discovered that she was quite the exceptional woman. Changing direction again, In the Eye of the Wild, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s account of her terrifying encounter with a bear in a remote region of Siberia (translated by Sophie R. Lewis) approaches the experience in an unexpected manner that I really appreciated.

Keeping with nonfiction for a moment, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Sarah Booker), a collection of essays about contemporary Mexico, was a difficult, necessary read. Annmarie Schwarzenbach’s account of her overland journey to Afghanistan with Ella Maillart in 1939, All the Roads Are Open (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) was another book I had long wanted to read that did not disappoint but which carries much more weight given the more recent history of that region. Finally, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi (translated from Tamil dictation by Nandini Murali) offers vital insight into the lives of hijra and trans women and trans men in India from a widely respected activist. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book to an international audience later this year.

Rounding out the year, were three fine novels. First, I after owning it for years, I finally read Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell) and was very impressed. Last, but by no means least, I read two new releases from Istros Books who have an excellent selection of women writers in their catalogue. Special Needs by Lada Vukić (translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić) captures the slightly magical voice of child narrator with an undisclosed disability in a remarkably effective way, while Canzone di Guerra by the inimitable Daša Drndić (translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth) offers a fictionalized account of her years in Canada as a young single mother that was most enlightening for this Canadian reader.

I have, at this point, seven books selected for this year’s Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) and we’ll see how I manage—and now I also have a goal to exceed for the eleven months before August 2023! I would, by the way, recommend any of the titles listed above if you are looking for something to read this month.

A storyteller from Gujarat arrives: The Shehnai Virtuoso by Dhumketu

The short story is that which, like a flash of lightning, pierces right through while establishing a viewpoint; without any other machinations, simply gestures with a finger to awaken dormant emotions; creates an entirely new imaginary world around the reader. The novel says whatever it wants. The short story, by rousing the imagination and emotions, only alludes to or provides a spark of what it wants to say. That is why the writer of the short story needs a reader who is impressionable, emotional, swift and intelligent; to such a reader, he will be forever in debt.

– Dhumketu, Introduction to his collection, Tankha I

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the South Asian literature that commands the most immediate attention outside the sub-continent is that which is written in English—even within India, English-language authors occupy a considerable amount of shelf space. Yet, the Indian Constitution recognizes 22 official languages and there are hundreds of other spoken languages and dialects, including English. So one might imagine that we are only able to access the tip of a rich literary iceberg. However, with the recent International Booker win for Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi), the first ever Hindi winner, a heightened awareness of the riches of translated and yet-to-be translated literature from across South Asia is spreading near and far.

How fortuitous then, that in this increasingly welcoming environment, a magical Guajarati storyteller has arrived on North American shores to share a broad selection of his well-loved tales with a wider contemporary audience, a journey made possible by an attentive and gifted translator. Writing under the pen name Dhumketu, Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892 1965) was one of the most prominent and prolific Gujarati writers of the first half of the twentieth century. He produced work across a broad range of genres, but was especially notable as a master of the short-story, publishing twenty-four volumes during his lifetime. When one enters this newly-released collection, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, it is best to prepare to settle in and be carried away—it is difficult to resist the temptation to “read just one more…”

In her helpful Introduction, translator Jenny Bhatt traces the evolution of the Gujarati short story and the influence of European, Russian and American literature on the form. However, Dhumketu (whose chosen name means “comet”) distinguished himself from his contemporaries in a number of important ways. Firstly, he invited the reader into the inner worlds of his characters through skillful use of plot, theme, action, setting and dialogue. A second critical feature was his “focus on people from all walks of life—rural to royal, young to old.” He also set many stories among the poor and lower classes and castes, characters often either overlooked or caricatured by other writers. Finally, his stories often depict strong-willed, independent women and sensitive men, granting them varied roles and circumstances within his work in a manner that was progressive for his time and, as a result, relevant for ours.

The Shehnai Virtuoso gathers twenty-six stories that span Dhumketu’s career, opening with his best-known work, “The Post Office”—the melancholy tale of a man who waits in vain for a letter from his daughter. This piece sets the tone for a varied collection that touches on a wide range of deeply human themes. Although the majority of the tales are set in rural Gujarat, a few are set elsewhere, like Darjeeling, Karnataka, and an ancient kingdom in what is now Bihar.

Throughout, Dhumketu demonstrates an uncanny ability to pull a reader right into a story with little fuss, a skill that seems to become even tighter and more focused over the course of his career, and thus over the course of this volume. And even though there are definitely some themes that recur, the perspective, approach and atmosphere shifts from story to story, keeping his tales fresh and engaging. Nonetheless, he knows the innate value of timeless themes—jealousy, greed, heartbreak, loss—exploring them through the adventures of devious, manipulative personalities, ill-fated lovers, tragic heroes and quiet, isolated souls who express themselves most fully through music.

Not openly active in the political struggle for Independence that marked his time, Dhumketu did not shy away from allowing his characters, narrators and plots illustrate and express important ideas of freedom and matters of social injustice, recognizing perhaps that literature provides room for more complex and nuanced presentations to emerge, even in short form. The play of power and status, born of wealth, class and caste, is an intrinsic element of many of his stories—the vulnerability of the simple soul and the tragedy of the combination of beauty and poverty held a particular appeal—but he resists proselytizing. Rather, wonderfully wise and pertinent observations are regularly woven into his narratives that he trusts his readers to understand.

Another striking quality that emerges in some of the most powerful tales in this collection is Dhumketu’s capacity for an exceptional evocation of the depths of sorrow and loss.  The title story, for example, is one of several tales featuring gifted, yet mentally damaged musicians who suffer a loss that impacts and colours their ability to play and the soul wrenching effect of the notes their instruments produce. “The Shehnai Virtuoso” is a simple account of traveller who happens to stop in an unremarkable village on what happens to be a most fortuitous night—the death anniversary of the son of a talented shehnai (an oboe-like instrument constructed of reed and wood or metal) player, the only time when the devastated father picks up his instrument. No one in the village misses this annual moonlit performance. Our cynical narrator expects little when suddenly:

Through the air, such despairing, lamenting harmonies emanated from the sad tunes of the shehnai player that just single note of his falling on the ear felt like a language only the soul understands! As if today, having the opportunity to hear that language, the soul had rendered the entire body and all the senses and had overtaken the mind.

Oh to be present on that forested night! But for my money, one of the most moving stories from this rich and varied collection, is “The Prisoner of Andaman.” This is the tale of a man who returns to his native village after serving twenty years in prison for murder. Visaji, eager to see his home and friends again is met by the harsh realization that he has been forgotten, only his crime remains to distinguish him. The love that is “brimming over in his own heart” after so many years of penance and exile, is met with hostile indifference. Dhumketu portrays his growing anguish so acutely—“it felt as if his legs had broken. His heart was wounded”—that it is impossible not to share his pain, no matter his past.

In selecting the stories that comprise this collection, translator Bhatt wanted to showcase the range of Dhumketu’s work and encourage an appreciation of his chronological progression as a writer, so she chose one story from each of his published collections, plus two. As such she has created an excellent and entertaining introduction to this important Gujarati author—not an easy task over a longer volume like this. Her keen translation incorporates common expressions  and terms, explained in footnotes and a brief glossary only if necessary, thus preserving the flavour of the culture and the communities of Dhumketu’s fictional world.

The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu is translated by Jenny Bhatt and published by Deep Vellum. An earlier edit of this collection was published in India in 2020 as Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu (Harper Perennial).

What are we going to do now? The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths

Four was a good number.
So now we’re three. What difference does it make?
We knew where we were, then.
And now we don’t?

It’s an unusual premise. Three Roman soldiers, charged to guard the tomb of a “local rebel,” have awoken from their unintentional slumber to find one of their number missing and the heavy stone rolled away from the mouth of the cave where the body had been laid. Panicked, they try to assess their situation. How had they allowed themselves to fall asleep on the job? Where has their fellow guard gone? And how are they going to find a way out of this predicament without even fully understanding what is at stake?

Their debate in its own right might offer material for a light comedy of errors, but our three guardians simultaneously exist, sound asleep, in individual portraits painted by sixteenth-century German master Bernhard Strigel and currently housed in Munich. Meanwhile, in the present day, an anxious lecturer is afraid that his pending presentation about these paintings, and their relationship to a fourth portrait, now in the UK, that somehow became separated from them, is falling apart at the seams. As he and a friend review his arguments about the artistic and theological questions raised by the images—included as four full colour plates—the subjects of the paintings try to imagine a way to get themselves out of an awkward situation, as uninformed bit players at a profound moment in Christian history. As the text weaves its way back and forth between these two conversations, further questions about history, truth and faith arise in clever, unexpected ways.

And it all works like a charm.

The Tomb Guardians, the latest novel from the prolific music critic, writer and librettist, Paul Griffiths, is inventive, witty and wise. This short novel, so simple in its conception and yet so extraordinary in its execution, should be read, on its own, in one or two sessions, rather than slipped in among other reads. It is not difficult, but is best met without distraction so as to appreciate the full effect of the two interlaced dialogues that drive this singular text.

The lecturer works his way through his presentation, responding to his friend’s interruptions and encouragements, beginning with the artist’s depiction of ordinary sleeping figures—unique in his oeuvre and the art of his time—and moving on to consider the possible inspiration to illustrate guardians at all. Most widely known official accounts beyond the Gospel of Matthew make no mention of any watch being set. At the same time, the soldiers, their conversation set apart in italics, have very little understanding of the circumstances that led to this assignment. They try to sort out what they do know and craft potential explanations, from the mundane to the supernatural, to offer their superiors should they be discovered in dereliction of duty or decide to report to their camp. Not surprisingly, consensus is hard to come by:

Whoa, can we please discuss this a bit?

“As to the –”

Yes, we should be very careful what we say here.

“As to the soldiers sent to stand guard, Matthew indicates that they didn’t just drift off but were shocked into sleep by the appearance of the angel.”

We can’t just say we fell asleep. Anyone would say we should’ve been taking it in turns. Anyone would say that.

“Now how does Strigel deal with this? Observe this fellow here, seated on the ground, resting his head on his left palm, while his right arm dangles.”

Did we try taking it in turns? Did any of us suggest that?
Wait.

“Look at him with his half-open mouth.”

We have to be very careful here, even in what we say just to each other, because you say something, and somebody else’ll remember it, and then little by little it becomes the truth, you know, it becomes the story, it becomes what we all of us remember, even if it never happened that way at all.

As the novel proceeds, the guardians’ musings range wider while the lecturer’s concerns begin to focus more on the likely intention behind the paintings’ commission, how they fit into the shifting religious politics of the Reformation and how one portrait came to be separated. The quoted passages from his presentation are framed within the comments and inquiries of his friend. Against the academic tone of his developing thesis, the guardians’ debate offers a critical and entertaining counterpoint. Speaking in anything but Biblical tones, they are as delightfully anachronistic as their Renaissance dress and weaponry. Together this dual-strand narrative forms a work that richly rewards return visits.

The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths is published by Henningham Family Press.

The poet who learned to fly: The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli

In the years when written words were indecipherable signs, entrusted to a world that I couldn’t even reach on tiptoes, a book would be opened only for its illustrations or because my father’s voice was passing through it, over completely unknown roads, although his index finger seemed to trace them out, leaving short trails in which black letters, like objects in a magical night, came to life, silently spelling out in unison the same story which, open and ready to shift and change its pictures, my father was holding on his chest. It was his voice that brought the stories to us as we three were half-lying in the big bed where my little brother was staying up late, with his tiny ears that would soon close, containing a trail of sound and sense in the warm silence.

– from “The Enchantment of Death: Briar Rose”

If the first books read to us as children opened a world of strange symbols, hypnotic rhythms, and elliptical meanings, translations from foreign languages similarly open a doorway to landscapes and experiences at once distant and familiar. They introduce us to the images and words of writers we might not hear otherwise. Their stories. Their ideas. Their poetry.

The work of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli was first formally made available to English-speaking audiences through a small dual language collection of enigmatic, fragmentary prose poems, The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor and published in 2018. These brief pieces which first appear to explore the vagaries of transit, packing, leaving, travel, soon begin to slide toward the examination of an existential space between internal and external reality—seeking form in that wordless, restless terrain of perception and experience. It was, and remains, a book that speaks to so much of my own sense of groundlessness. A collection containing Mancinelli’s two earlier volumes of poetry, At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007-2019), followed a year later. Once again her work is presented in a dual language format. Like her prose poems, her verses tend to be brief, spare, with an openness and space framing  unanswerable questions of identity, self and the insufficience of our connections with other beings.

Her newly released collection, The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose (2008 – 2021), stands as an illuminating counterpoint and companion to Mancinelli’s poetic work. Her most important stories, personal essays and writings about the poetic spirit are gathered here, including several pieces which have not yet appeared in print in Italian, presented, as before in both languages, and completed with a comprehensive assessment of her work written by Taylor, her long-time translator. For someone who has read her poetry, this collection offers further insight into the creative heart and soul of the poet herself—and that is not to imply that she gives herself away, for Mancinelli is a poet who manages to address the intimate and the universal, by speaking from the essential boundaries of experience—because, in her prose, one can begin to feel how her poetic sensibilities were born and nurtured and share in her vision of where poetry comes from.

Of course, it is not necessary to be previously acquainted with her poetry to appreciate the stories and essays contained in The Butterfly Cemetery (although it may well inspire a reader to seek them out), because this work offers its own rich rewards. If Mancinelli’s poems tend to be very open and spare, in her prose there is a profound lyric intensity. Her writing breathes, deeply and slowly, as her images, ideas and reflections rise, disappear and surface again. The book opens with stories and essays that strike a personal note, evoking memories of childhood and early adulthood, some sentimental, some gently fictionalized, and others tinged with aching and longing. In many of these early pieces, one encounters a sensitive, wistful dreamer, as in the title story about a young child fascinated by butterflies who does not realize her desire to touch their wings will kill them, or the exquisitely simple “How the Fire Loves,” a fable of a little girl who escapes to the comfort of the fireplace after supper:

She had curled up alone on the sofa. The television was turned off, and she was watching the fire in the fireplace, shivering as if it were cold. The fire cannot be caressed by anyone. It is always a little distant from the others, in its own space, alongside newspapers and pieces of wood; they will be in its arms, until they become ashes. This is how the fire loves.

The second section moves further away from the childhood home and the confused pain of first love, to explore the self in relation to natural landscapes and urban environments. Mancinelli wanders, on foot, by ferry and by train, observing and meditating on the landscape and communities that have formed and influenced her. There is a branching out and a cycling back to the people and places of her homeland—the hills, fields, and the waters that have cradled her family for generations. The tension between the desire to leave, the pull to return and the attempt to delineate the fragile borders of a personal geography are recurring themes. One senses that the weight of existence in a land with such a long historical, artistic and intellectual legacy both grounds and troubles the questions of identity and belonging that emerge from the shadows cast by her words. She is ever aware, in her prose as in her poetry, of the importance of darkness as a fundamental source of growth and understanding.

And that brings us to the third and final section of The Butterfly Cemetery. Here, Mancinelli the writer turns her focus to the nature of her own personal, creative relationship with words, and, more specifically, with the existential origins of poetic expression. She writes about the absolute urgency with which she first turned to writing, beginning in adolescence, as a means of “speaking” that which she could not find a way to voice, isolated and alone on the edge of her circle of friends. Feeling she was yielding her words to others, she reclaimed them with her pen:

I wrote within myself, on my body so deeply that ever since, I have taken the road on which I now walk. If had brought that sentence to my mouth, today I would be another person. The part of my life that I have spent up to now would have been different. This is why for me, everything continues to be staked on words. With words I have an unsettled account. (“Yielding Words”)

She speaks about the process of writing poetry with honesty, from the tentative beginnings to the frustrated failures—the lines that will never take flight—in “A Line is a Lap and Other Notes on Poetry” and talks about being mistaken for a traffic policewoman as she stands on a street taking notes in the notebook she always has close at hand. But it is the vital connection to poetry as a “practice of daily salvation” that comes through in the most powerful of these essays. Mancinelli is attuned the essential quality of poetic language, tracing its existence to the moment before it comes into being. In the wonderful piece “Poetry, Mother Tongue” she suggest that writing is the act of trying to translate what is already written within us, of looking into the empty space between “the unknown and nothingness”:

I believe that poetry is a voice that passes through us. For this reason I always begin with a lowercase letter when I write. I’m not beginning anything. I’ve only caught something that I stammer into this broken language, which crumbles and breaks in silence.

Before the words there is a rhythm: a cadence that suddenly reaches us, in silence through a hollow space that we carry inside us.

There is a strong sense in Mancinelli’s view of poetics that writing itself is a dangerous act, one that calls us to face the dark and the difficult, one that takes us into our own “darkroom,” that place where we are most vulnerable. “Writing,” she tells us, “is a soul surgery that calls for a steady hand, and a deep place to which uncertainty and tremor can be convoked. It is an act of internal self-surgery.” And yet in the writing, there is a possibility of decentring and being set free. Poetry (and prose) that arises from within, although grounded in direct experience and observation, allows for space and a measure of abstractedness to guide writer, and reader, from the individual toward the universal.

But, to return, once more, to the ability of translation to open doors to those who lack the fluency to read a writer’s work in its original language, John Taylor’s collaboration with Franca Mancinelli, has brought one of the most compelling voices in contemporary Italian poetry to a wider audience. Unexpectedly that has also come to have a special resonance for me. Shortly after I read and reviewed The Little Book of Passage, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with the poet in Kolkata when a visit I made happened to overlap with her poetry residency in the city. Her English far outpaced my non-existent Italian and although I felt no lack in our conversations, all of the subsequent interviews, poetry and prose that has become available in English has only deepened my appreciation and affection for her sensitivity and vision. Translation truly expands the world as we know it.

The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.

At the threshold: City of Torment (and Prague, I See a City…) by Daniela Hodrová

Founded, according to legend, with the prophetic proclamation of the mythical Princess Libuše, Prague rose from a hilltop settlement to become the political and economic hub of Central Europe. Forged in stone, blood and bone over a thousand years it is a place dense with history, a city that cannot escape itself, often depicted as a labyrinthine maze of magic, madness and despair. City of Torment, a loose trilogy by Czech author and theorist Daniela Hodrová, falls into the literary tradition of writers like Karel Hynek Mácha, Gustav Meyrink and Franz Kafka in its portrayal of the city as a distorted space within which the individual can become lost or disoriented. Her Prague is a layered, cyclical place in which spatial and temporal dimensions shift, trapping its living and the ghostly inhabitants in a grand circle game, one that plays out again and again in a number of distinctive settings or “stages” throughout the city centre. As such, the narrative that runs through the course of the three novels that comprise City of TormentIn Both Kinds, Puppets and Theta—is fragmented, kaleidoscopic and cumulative, peopled by characters that defy boundaries between life and death, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

There is no succinct way to provide an outline of City of Torment as a cohesive work of fiction; it is akin to an organic, evolving entity that gradually takes on a life that even seems to confound its own author by the time we reach the third part. It was not conceived as a trilogy. Hodrová began the first novel, In Both Kinds, in December 1977 and finished it the following year, but, like the two novels that would follow, it could not be published until after the fall of the Communist government. This work, narrated by an omniscient third person narrator that occasionally takes on the direct voice of a character or an object, is centred around an apartment block across from the famed Olšany Cemetery, and those who reside in or pass through in the building and the graveyard. It opens near the end of the Second World War, as young Alice Davidovich throws herself from the window of the building’s fifth floor flat to avoid being taken away to the gas chambers, thus making a direct transit from the building to the cemetery. Alice, who will spend much of her after-life repeating a fruitless rush to meet her beloved Pavel, is the central female protagonist in this first book, and provides a critical yet curious continuity linking the women at the heart of each of the following texts.

A wide cast of eccentric characters populate the pages of In Both Kinds. The living, the dead (recently and long dead), and the few who have found themselves charmed (or cursed) with the ability to negotiate a space in between the two states, exist alongside one another. Souls trapped inside inanimate objects, or transformed into birds interact on both sides (with both kinds) and, naturally, many characters will make the passage from the world of the living to the community of the dead over the course of the novel. Their personalities and the events or activities marking their lived existences follow them to their graves. Clothing and objects—a sweater, a coat, a mother of pearl button, a Persian lamb muff—become talismans, symbols (but of what?). And woven into all of this are historical personages and events that appear or are referenced, exaggerated or confined by the mythology that has grown around them over time. It is a strange and wonderful ensemble piece, but hanging over it all is a disquieting sense of directionlessness.

This sensation becomes more pronounced in the second novel, Puppets (Living Pictures), composed between 1981 and 1983. Composed of one hundred and twenty-six “living pictures” or vignettes, this novel focuses closely on Sophie Souslik, a seamstress at the Realm of Puppets, and her parents and grandparents. Prague with its warren of streets and public squares forms a wider backdrop against which the action—much of it imagined, remembered and echoed—is staged. And staged is the appropriate word, Prague has become a city of marionettes. But something darker lurks here. Specific spaces and objects, like the courtyard with its rug beating rack or Sophie’s father’s office with its heavy black furniture and spinning chair, hold special powers and seem to become portals to painful personal and historical pasts, hidden or forgotten. There is a significant and welcome crossover of characters from In Both Kinds as well as new characters that sometimes act as alternate versions of previous actors. For example, Sophie is sometimes mistaken, at least briefly, for Alice Davidovich, and she also has a boyfriend named Pavel. Identities are frequently confused, experiences are repeated merging the familiar with the strange, and characters increasingly begin to change—humans metamorphize into insects and birds, while statues and household objects fall in love with people and long for release from their solid states. Still, an atmosphere of detachment colours the text.

With the third and final novel, Theta, composed between December 1987 and January 1990, the project that will become City of Torment begins to take form (the books will ultimately be published individually before being gathered together into a single volume). It opens with a variation on the first lines of Dante’s Inferno. Prague is now clearly depicted as its own special version of hell, a city of torment. The title, Theta, has a double meaning—it’s association with death, Thanatos, and its use, θ, as a proofreader’s symbol for “delete”—and as soon becomes apparent, “this novel” now exists an entity within itself. Here, the solitary, curious female protagonist, Alice and Sophie’s heir/doppelgänger, is Eliška Beránková (Lamb). But, not only is she less satisfied to stay within the confines of the text, Daniela Hodrová continually allows the boundary between herself and her creation to blur, even disappear. In a full metafictional turn, the author enters her own novel, and, at one point, Eliška steps out and tries to become a living being. Fiction and fact clash. Some new characters that initially appear to be entirely the product of the text grow more transparent. Others openly straddle the line between fact and fiction. For example, Hodorva introduces her real life husband, trying and failing to keep to the fictional name she assigns him. She grants Eliška imitations of her own life, consciously negotiating her two identities as the manuscript on her desk grows. Through her alter ego, Hodrová, the author, merges with the central figure who is descending into the city of torment in search of her own past.

If this all sounds like an overload—and these are densely packed works—Hodrová writes with a style that constantly refers back on itself, without being repetitive, so the reader does not lose track of who is who. Her narrative second guesses itself constantly (questioning meaning in parentheses) implying that nothing is certain, nothing is written in stone. There is, however, much more going on beneath the surface—historical, literary and place references that would likely be less of a mystery to those familiar with Prague—but for a visitor stumbling into her City of Torment with less background, the Appendix that closes out the work might not quite suffice. So I turned to Hodrová’s Prague, I See A City…, written after the completion of the trilogy, first as an alternative guidebook, but then released as a kind prologue/companion piece to her major work. A short, engaging, magical exploration of her hometown, this book is a perfect follow-up read, not only because it will fill in some of the biographic, geographic and historical details behind the novel, but because, written in 1990, in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution it looks forward, however cynically, to new possibility, with hope of shedding the weight that had oppressed the previous decades.

As noted earlier, the first two novels of City of Torment are characterized by a certain flattened affect and sense of detachment. Composed during the restrictive Normalization period under the Communist government of the 1970s and 1980s, Hodrová was writing without knowing if, or when, it might be possible to release her fiction. It must have felt akin to writing into a void in a world where the dead seemed more alive than the living. The final novel was composed at the end of this period, a time of turmoil, and, when the government fell she stopped writing it, not knowing how a dynamic text informed by a city (or a city formed by a text) might now be altered. In Prague, I See a City… she says of this time:

A revolution of words, an almost fairground battle of words really did take place last year, though its tumult now reaches us only dimly. The city is once more slipping back into its sleep, its unconsciousness, its oblivion.

In those November days, something fundamental happened to the life of this city, to my life. I finished writing Theta at the very moment the battle broke out, for at that moment the city ceased, at least briefly, to be a city of torment.

Far from a conventional travel guide, Prague, I See a City… serves as an immediate refocusing of Prague after the fall of Communist Czechoslovakia and as an introduction to Hodrová’s world-view. As she wanders her city, as if in a dream, the boundaries between the real and the imagined blur. The city she sees is perhaps on the cusp of a new beginning, but the weight of the past, historical and literary will not pass lightly. She reflects on her own childhood, comments on the novels of her trilogy, and visits museums, St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle and other sites, evoking the lives of long dead kings and more recent political environments along the way. Published before the recent complete translation of the trilogy, this book could easily be read first, and for its own merits alone, but it is just as effective (if not more so) read as an extended (and exceptionally entertaining) epilogue that offers a fuller understanding of both Hodrová’s literary vision and her idiosyncratic relationship with Prague.

In Both Kinds is a revised translation by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (an earlier English translation by Tatiana Firkusny and Véronique Firkusny was published in 2015 as Kingdom of Souls). Puppets is translated by Elena Sokol and Véronique Firkusny, and Theta is translated by Elena Sokol. Prague, I See a City… is translated by David Short.

Daniela Hodrová’s City of Torment, Prague, I See a City… and Kingdom of Souls are all published by Jantar Publishing.

 

 

 

And Usman keeps singing: Another Gulmohar Tree by Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein is a gifted storyteller. His clean, spare, emotionally sensitive tales explore, with just the right amount of detail, journeys, experiences and relationships that cross borders and cultures. His prose leaves his reader space to breathe in, room to recognize the sense of displacement, disorientation and disappointment his characters often encounter. This is especially true of Another Gulmohar Tree, a moving parable of love and marriage.

This novella begins, rather unexpectedly, with a series of short, fragmented fables. In one tale young man sits in the shade of a gulmohar tree to eat the midday meal his aunt has packed—stale bread and rancid buttermilk—which he shares with a strange talking frog. Tired after eating, he falls asleep, only to awake beside a pile of gold coins. In another, a farmer’s daughter is married to a crocodile king, soon her parents and a brother join her in his river kingdom. Much later, the providence of these tales will be made clear, but in the meantime, the narrative shifts to London in 1950. Here, a Pakistani man, a journalist on a year’s secondment, meets a British woman who is working as an illustrator. They are drawn to one another and begin to spend time together, Lydia showing Usman the sights of the city and keeping him company on his days off. Both are divorced after brief, unhappy marriages, both are lonely and ungrounded, but despite Lydia’s hopes, their friendship remains just that. Usman is forty-one, eleven years older than she is, London’s bleak winters and endless summer days bring him down and, in these early years following Partition, he feels an obligation to return to the newly independent country he has determined to make his own. Yet an uncertainty haunts him. In Lydia’s company he is at peace, but:

at work, or waiting at the bus stop to Oxford Circus or walking home from Marylebone Station, alone in the vanilla evenings that refused to shade into night, with his mind fixed on his return to Karachi, he’d ask himself questions to which he had no answer. What awaited him in the seaside city he had chosen as his home, he, a man who had no home because he’d lost his birthplace long ago and never learnt to belong anywhere else, what would he do with his life in that open city teeming with strangers like himself?

Two years after his return to Pakistan, Lydia follows on her own initiative, holding on to a few faint hints in Usman’s letters. She has prepared—even to the point of learning to speak  Urdu—intent on winning his love, which she already had won even if he hadn’t acknowledged it. They marry and set up home in a growing suburb of Karachi. Over the coming years she settles into the community with remarkable ease and good cheer, turning their humble little house into a home as they welcome three children into their family. Lydia who now prefers to be called Rokeya, fully embraces life in her adopted country while maintaining an ability to connect with other foreign-born (or foreign-focused) women when she wishes to. Over time, her husband begins to question himself, his career, his life.  He had once been a promising writer, but his dreams have faltered. He resents others who have found success (even plagiarizing his work to do so), and envies his wife who is devoted to their children, yet expanding her own creative and professional pursuits. Ten years into marriage, silence and unease starts to work its way into their relationship. Will Usman be able to see the beauty he has become blind to as bitterness and malaise has set in?

The outline of this tale is simple, but as ever, Aamer Hussein excels in the depiction of the attractions, affections and tensions that draw people together or threaten to push them apart. With Another Gulmohar Tree, he employs careful observation combined with literary restraint to create an unusual, intelligent, slyly romantic story, short enough to read in a day. And sometimes that is just perfect in itself.

Another Gulmohar Tree by Aamer Hussein is published by Telegram.

Pride Reading—Three: Love and Reparation by Danish Sheikh

My first two Pride reads for June 2022 were works by trans women, from India and the US respectively. My third read returns my attention to the Subcontinent, and dramatizes the impact of two important legal milestones impacting the Indian LGBT community over the past few decades. Part of Seagull Books’ Pride List, Love and Reparation: A Theatrical Response to the Section 377 Litigation in India is playwright and activist lawyer Danish Sheikh’s professional and personal reckoning with the effort to overturn Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the colonial era prohibition against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” which had long been used to target members of the LGBT community, and the strange emotions that can arise when a lengthy battle is finally won. If that sounds like dry subject matter for theatre it is anything but. Sheikh deftly weaves material drawn from court transcripts and witness affidavits, with his own experiences and those of others to create a multi-voiced, engaging response to a life-altering legal decision.

It was, of course, not an easy road to decriminalization. Love and Reparation gathers two plays into one volume, a pairing that reads as both complimentary and necessary. Section 377 was first overturned in 2009, following a long, ultimately successful challenge of its constitutionality, in Delhi High Court, by the NAZ Foundation, an NGO. This welcome release would prove to be short lived; a week later an astrologer filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. In 2012, the final arguments in the case were heard over a six-week period. The first play, Contempt, draws on the court proceedings to creatively stage the legal arguments and affidavits that were presented to the judges. It is grounded in reality, as the playwright puts it, but is allowed to wander into passionate and poetic musings as witnesses share their experiences. The play ends with the judges’ fateful decision. In December 2013, the Delhi High Court ruling was reversed and same sex activity was once again criminalized.

A series of petitions challenging the validity of the judgement followed and after much delay, a five-judge bench was finally assembled to hear the matter in 2018. In September of that year, the earlier ruling was overturned, effectually decriminalizing queer sexual relations, in privacy, between consenting adults. The second play Pride, dramatizes the state the community finds itself in once the battle is over—both joy and uncertainty arise once the unifying bonds of the battle are no longer holding people together or framing their engagements with one another. The what now? moment. As Sheikh says:

Pride was my attempt to come to terms with—what? This time around, the object of my dissent was less clear. All I knew was that I had to write my way through this tangle.

Or, perhaps, to wrought this tangle into shape.

The drama revolves around sessions between a gay man and his therapist. He is trying to figure out why love seems so elusive to him. A character chorus of voices spread through the audience, speak to the legal case and the post-ruling experiences and presence of LGBT persons in Indian society.

For each play the setting and stage directions are simple and clear. That makes them easy to read and imagine in performance. By incorporating a blend of history, legal argument, personal accounts, and literary references, Sheikh has created drama that is both moving and at times surprisingly funny. In Contempt, the judges unwittingly supply the humour, pushing the lawyer to the point of absurdity at times and taking a little too much interest in the exact nature of unnatural carnal knowledge. The playwright admits he didn’t need to alter their words as found in the transcripts. The dramatized witness statements from a gay man, two lesbians and a transgender woman bring to life the reality of forced psychiatric interventions, innocent love affairs and brutal treatment from the police.

Pride demonstrates that legalization is not the end. There are, of course, more battles to wage to level the playing field for LGBT people, but there is also an uncertainty about how to live and love in a decriminalized landscape. How to repair all the years of existence up against the fear of being arrested simply for loving, for being yourself. The dynamic between the older female therapist and the young gay man whose conversations form the core of the play is very effective, and gives the drama it immediate emotional energy. As A. recounts his multiple failed attempts to find someone to love, T. challenges his conclusions.

A.  How does it work? How can it just come and go without warning? How is this not the most terrifying thing in the world, how can I wake up one morning and realize I’m out of love with this man who is otherwise perfect for me? How could Socrates wake up one morning and realize he’s out of love with me?

T.  Maybe he wasn’t perfect for you?

A.  Maybe

T.  And you know you weren’t perfect for Socrates.

A.  Possibly

T.  And then there’s the other thing.

A.  That I’m terrible at this stuff?

T.  That nobody is actually perfect for anybody else. It’s never not work. Sometimes you choose to do the work. Sometimes you decide it isn’t worth the work. You can’t choose how you feel, you can’t choose when it comes and goes. But that other part—that you can choose.

Their sessions are broken up by interludes during which the chorus of voices/characters speak to the legal fight against Section 377, the ways their lives have or have not changed since it was ruled unconstitutional, and, as needed, taking on a role within the therapy sections.

As an non-Indian LGBT person, I was not aware of the exact status of queer people in the country until more recently, but the final decision on Section 377 did come down following my first visit to the country, so it was of great interest to me. No matter what concerns face LGBT folk in the west, especially with the increasing pressure of more extreme right-wing conservative political influence, we are still accustomed to much more freedom and access to resources than our brothers, sisters and peers in many countries. The interesting thing for me in this book, particularly with Pride, is the examination of the degree to which achieving a measure of freedom can lead to a confusion or loss of meaning. It occurs at the level of the “community” leading to splintering and divisions, but it also happens in a deeply private way. Given my own personal journey, I have always held that I feel no shame but cannot embrace the concept of Pride. Without disclosing the protagonist’s revelation, I will say that this play has really caused me to question my conviction.

I feel this pair of plays holds much to appeal to readers interested in contemporary drama, legal debate, social justice and the evolution of LGBT rights, in India and beyond. The playwright clearly frames his motivation and inspiration for the writing of these plays in his introduction, while a timeline and an extensive resource list round out the supporting material. But most critically, at the heart of both plays are very important recognizable, sometimes disturbing, human stories that deserve to be heard.

Love and Reparation: A Theatrical Response to the Section 377 Litigation in India by Danish Sheikh is published by Seagull Books as part of their Pride List series.

Pride Reading—Two: This Body I Wore by Diana Goetsch

The second trans-themed nonfiction book I chose to read this month is, in contrast to my first (My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi), a literary memoir, but the transgender journey it details differs from the one that is commonly told because the details of the author’s actual transition are minimal and confined to the closing chapters. It is, rather, the story of one woman’s fifty-year-long odyssey to finally come to acknowledge what she had sensed from a very early age—that despite being born male, she was, and always had been female. So why did it take so long to acknowledge the truth? This Body I Wore is Diana Goetsch’s answer to that question, an eloquent chronicle of life that conspired to cloud the reality haunting her relationships and filling her closets for so long.

Goetsch’s account opens with her early unsuccessful attempts to form romantic or sexual relationships and her first forays out into the culture inhabited by cross-dressers. She is in 1980s New York City. The push-pull of her attraction to women and women’s clothing is exciting and confusing. She graduates college, lands a teaching position at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School and soon finds herself juggling secrets, while trying to build friendships and find a girlfriend.  By her early thirties she seems to be dropping all or most of the balls. That leads her back into her past to begin to trace the roots of her predicament.

The childhood described in This Body I Wore is one marked by little affection and an unhealthy measure of abuse. The youngest of two boys, Diana—or rather Doug (and briefly I am using male pronouns, this book spans decades of evolving and context specific usage)—is told by his mother that he was an “accident,” that is, unintended and unwanted. He grows up on Long Island, an athletic, sports-minded young man who seems to become increasingly and inexplicably unpopular. Although he is determined to keep his secret fascination with girl’s shoes and dresses and feminine undergarments to himself, it’s almost as if others sense a difference. Friends fall away. Doug cannot understand why; by the end of high school, unable to secure a college placement he feels left behind. I wonder how many trans people have experienced similar sensations of being out of step? I know I did.

The bulk of this memoir follows Diana’s efforts to build relationships with a series of women, most of whom she comes out to as a cross-dresser and with whom she explores social outings as female, but again and again her own male body becomes a barrier to full sexual expression. A trail of broken hearts and extended periods of loneliness carry her into middle age. Professionally, she spends a number of years teaching in a youth correctional facility, begins writing and publishing poetry, and tries to build a career as a writing teacher. Meanwhile, she increasingly dedicates her weary spirit to Buddhism, attending retreats and developing her practice to a point where she finally finds a way into her deepest self. Throughout the course of more than two decades she moves in and out a female identity that can be outfitted and carefully applied, then washed away and returned to the drawer. The decision to move forward is liberating, and increasingly magic as it gradually becomes her normal, everyday existence.

I enjoyed this book very much, it is a poetic and finely crafted tale. I will confess that I was reluctant to take it on. I have an uncomfortable reaction to memoirs, especially those with recreated dialogue and the inclusion of the stories that belong in equal part to those who come in and out of the story. Goetsch handles this well, with respect, but I did at times wonder about the women whose lives were exposed along the way. However, my greater concern was, as I mentioned in my previous Pride post, a general anxiety about trans stories, fiction or nonfiction, which I can never entertain as an impartial reader. As a transitioned man it’s impossible not to read myself into and against the stories of others and very often I find it an alienating and depressing adventure. Yet, This Body I Wore was a pleasant surprise.

Trans women and trans men typically have rather different trajectories, in both the coming to a decision to transition and in the treatment available. At least twenty or more years ago, the accepted norm for a “transsexual” man was a childhood as a tomboy, attraction to women, and commonly, for lack of any other place to seek an understanding of oneself, questioning sexuality or living as a lesbian. By contrast, my early reaction to the feeling that there was “a boy inside me” was not a desire to be male but the fear that my body carried signs of my wrongness, something I hoped I could learn to overcome. Although I could not believe it, I was pretty and reasonably feminine, not athletic or a tomboy or attracted to girls, but the gender insecurity was deep and increased as I grew older. I married and eventually had children, pushing to the back any careers or opportunities that I feared might reveal the truth about me. In the absence of any notion that trans men existed or what testosterone could accomplish, it would take thirty-eight years and an incredible emotional and mental toll before I knew I was not alone. Within two years of realizing the male feeling I’d fought against was me I was starting to transition. But my extended confusion, the searching for clues, the fear of revealing or even exploring what was happening, mirrors in a way the cross-dresser to trans woman scenario much more closely than the tomboy to butch to trans man route. In truth of course, transgender people are as diverse as any other people with unique social, cultural and emotional journeys to finally come home, but it is not uncommon for us to wonder, and debate, what it means to be “trans enough”.

It also struck me after finishing this book how flat Goetsch’s depiction of Doug seemed through the mid-section—the long adult years of exile. When Diana finally comes out to herself an entirely fresh energy enters the narrative, her excitement and growing confidence is palpable. Not surprising when I reflected on my own early years post transition. Once I was passing consistently and had established a new career and identity, I was forced to live stealth in my professional life so as to be able to keep a job and support my children—that is, I came out only to disappear into a closet. Still, the daily validation as a man and the thrill of no longer having to try to feel female, cast an unreal light on the past. It’s as if that life belonged to someone else as it drifted into the distance. No matter how lyrical the language, how vulnerable the account, I sensed a similar estrangement permeating the text. It makes sense and at the same time it’s refreshing because transgender memoirs can sometimes be combative and defensive. Goetsch avoids a tendency to overwrite her former existence; I imagine her maturity and her Buddhist grounding are at play. Transitioning later in life brings up such a sense of lost time, a mourning for what might have been, and that comes up here too, but briefly and with empathy and grace. In my own experience, transition is an ongoing adjustment and reframing for oneself in relation to a life lived across time and gender lines that leads to an understanding that those years “before” are not lost but a fundamental part of the person we become that a compatible sex/gender history could never afford.

This Body I Wore by Diana Goetsch is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Pride Reading 2022 – One: My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi

I have touched on the question of Pride before here on roughghosts. Each year as June comes around I face the increasing onslaught of rainbow enthusiasm with trepidation. It brings up a lot of complicated emotions for me as someone who technically falls within the LGBTQ spectrum but has never managed to find a home within that space. I am not ashamed of who I am, but I feel no thrill of connection with the notion of Pride and have some very painful memories of the rejection and intolerance I’ve encountered from within that “community.” However, every June I promise myself that I will face my anxieties head on with some sort of nod to the season, and, since my city does not celebrate Pride until late August, it’s more of an abstract goal. I don’t have to be out there, so to speak. I can read my way through.

This year I decided to read three books, two from India, one from the US. Two of these books are trans-specific, one of the Indian titles and the American work, both nonfiction. I don’t think I’ve read any trans-related nonfiction for at least twenty years, since the time when I myself was exploring transition and beginning my own journey. The works I have on my shelves and the common language and perspectives typically held within the transgender male support networks that saw me through the early years tend to be, to a new, vocal generation, offensively outdated. Distance and experience shape each trans person but, unfortunately, true diversity is not always applauded within groups of marginalized people who tend to be just as capable as any other group of fracturing along lines of race, class, sex, sexuality and gender, and insisting that those who are not like them do not belong. Trans people seem to be centre stage right now, inspiring plenty of negative and positive reactions in the process, but my own feelings about all of this, more than twenty years post-transition, are conflicted. I will just say that I am glad I came out and transitioned before the advent of social media.

The first book on my list is one I’ve been curious about for years, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi, a trans woman and activist from India. Published in 2016, this book is a follow up to her popular memoir, The Truth About Me (2010). She does include an overview of her own basic life experiences: growing up longing to be a girl, running away from home to join a hijra community, her family’s often violent reaction, her eagerness to have surgery—castration for which she was awake—the dynamics within hijra society and the necessity to engage in begging and sex work for lack of other options. The world she describes is one which provides support but is also strictly hierarchical and sometimes cruel. It is an honest account, nothing is idealized, but she expresses pride in herself as woman and has tirelessly advocated for hijra and other transgender communities.

Revathi’s account of her work within not-for-profit agencies dedicated to supporting sexual and gender minorities, is quite telling. Initially she was welcomed to help expand their mandate, but it was often a fraught relationship in which, as a non-English speaking trans woman, she still battled the stigmas faced by hijras and other gender different persons. As her advocacy opened up to include the concerns of lower caste, dalit and adivasi (tribal) populations, the persistence of class biases even within organizations devoted to marginal groups ran deep. She spent a decade working with an agency in Bengaluru, an experience which offered a dignified, if less lucrative alternative to sex work, and taught her how to effectively advocate for trans people,  fight for their (and her own) basic rights—ID cards, passports—provide crisis support and legal resources, speak to international audiences, and much more. However, in the end it became clear she would never gain real respect from her co-workers. As she says:

We say that we work for the non-English speaking working class, for sexual and gender minorities. But I realized that as a director you are respected only if you are upper class and English speaking.

After leaving the agency, Revathi was again faced with the question of making a living without returning to the only avenues typically available to hijra. She decided to write a book. Sharing her story brought her attention and increased opportunities to speak for transgender people. Her memoir, originally published in her native Tamil, has subsequently been translated into English and a number of other Indian languages. Although a current of financial insecurity, family conflict and the tragic loss of friends and “chosen family” members runs through her life, I found her enthusiasm and heartaches to be endlessly moving. She seems to be forward looking, ever seeking to improve her own life and that of her community even when it has meant resisting the norms of traditional hijra culture. At the same time she alludes to moments of devastating despair along the way. Although my own experiences were not complicated by the extremes of class inequality and poverty faced by so many trans people in India, it was not and has not been easy. Discrimination, loss and isolation are very real for many of us. But what really excited me about this book is the extensive coverage of trans men who not only tend to be less visible, but lack the type of support network available to hijra who in turn frequently look at them with distrust, refusing to accept them as men. Revathi admits that she also had to overcome her own initial skepticism about the validity of the female to male experience—no surprise, I’m aware that many people, even trans women, still do not know we exist.

Included in My Life in Trans Activism are five profiles of trans men, transcribed from interviews the author collected, and two autobiographical pieces. I recognized these stories, but within the Indian context poverty, social class and the severe expectations and limitations placed on girls and women, especially in villages and small towns, vastly increase the challenges faced. The two personal essays were of particular interest to me, especially “Emperor Penguins” by Gee Imaan Semmalar who was involved in the theatre at the time of publication of this book but is now (I just had to search) a PhD candidate at the University of Kent. His account is striking because his mother, like mine, was supportive and his top surgery botched. Similarly, a long, lonely search for other trans men, a difficult decision to transition, then saving and searching for surgeons within a nascent resource network were challenges familiar to me, but this passage spoke clearly to concerns that never go away:

Health care (or the lack of it) is one glaring example of how trans people across caste along with the millions of poor dalits, Muslims, and adivasis of this subcontinent are denied basic rights. And so, every time a speeding ambulance goes past me on the streets, I relive my worst nightmare—of being in an accident and taken to a hospital on time, unconscious, with nobody to ‘explain’ why my body looks the way it does.

Health care where I live, even in an emergency, has been remarkably safe and respectful, but over the past few years I began to travel. I’ve made several trips to India where I am keenly aware of the relative security looking like a man affords me on streets where I sometimes see few women alone. But the thought of an accident or illness that would send me to hospital with a body that would instantly betray me is unsettling. I do have friends in the country who are aware of my status but I don’t think any realize what a predicament I could find myself in.

My Life in Trans Activism has an accessible, colloquial quality. Revathi was unable to physically write the book due to back problems, so she told her story in Tamil to Nandini Murali who translated it into English. Both women describe their working relationship as a special friendship and as such the narrative retains a natural conversational feel. What comes through repeatedly is Revathi’s passion and vision. She has observed divisions arise among members of the trans community within organizational settings, a not uncommon phenomenon within the wider LGBTQ community as well, but she continually speaks to unity that respects diversity, among trans people:

I believe that we are who we are. Being a transgender is all about who you are deep inside, not how you appear on the outside. Whether we call ourselves male to female trans persons, female to male trans persons, gender queer, we have to negotiate our transitions and our place in the world and struggle against oppression.

This is then, in many senses, a manifesto, one that ends with hope for a better world in which differences no longer tear people apart. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that may yet be a long way off.

My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi, as told to Nandini Murali, is published by Zubaan. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book in the fall of 2022. I imagine it may be updated as some of the legal circumstances impacting sexual and gender minorities in India have changed in the past few years. If so I will be curious to know her response to the current state of affairs.