Home >Lounge >Features >Meena Kandasamy: ‘Part of writing is to open up wounds’
Meena Kandasamy
Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy: ‘Part of writing is to open up wounds’

  • Meena Kandasamy's experimental new novel evolved from misreadings of her earlier work, 'When I Hit You'
  • 'Exquisite Cadavers' is structurally inventive and challenges contemporary politics of reading and writing

Meena Kandasamy’s previous novel, When I Hit You, was (mis)read as a memoir. Her latest—a response to those reactions—embarks on an experiment inspired by the Surrealist game of “exquisite cadavers", where each player chooses to take a narrative forward their own way. As Kandasamy says in the preface, she wrote a novel based on a story far removed from her own, documenting, referencing and footnoting all along.

The end product is a 100-page novella—in parts palimpsest-like, polemical, and provocative. In the peripheries sit reflections from the author’s real life—from the weather to the writing process to world politics. On the page, the story of a fictional couple, Karim and Maya, and their lives in London, takes centre stage. Does one read this main narrative first, or the one on the margins? What stays within the lines, what seeps through? The structure is reminiscent of J.M. Coetzee’s astonishing novel Diary Of A Bad Year.

Exquisite Cadavers is wildly inventive and inimitable. When I Hit You was read the wrong way, and yet, there’s no right way of reading her new novel, says Kandasamy. She is here to play—with ways of writing, storytelling, curating, and, indeed, reading. In her “literary hall of mirrors"—where she has fun with the fictional and the real—all bets are off and anything can happen.

Lounge met Kandasamy in London, where she lives with her family. Edited excerpts from an interview:

When did you decide to write ‘Exquisite Cadavers’?

If you spend two-three years writing a 200-page book, you obviously know whether it’s an essay or a poem or a memoir or a novel. And for people to then tell you what you have written.... It’s a huge insult to your intelligence. They were reducing what I call a work of fiction, of auto-fiction, autobiographical fiction. In a single stroke, people take away from the idea that there is a certain artistic process through which something is rendered into a story somebody can read and empathize with, irrespective. But there’s also the integrity and credibility of fiction: Within fiction, we only believe things as long as they follow what we think is a true universe.

I thought I had to write something in which I am going to capture what’s inspiring me and store it away and say how this experience gets distilled into fiction, into a novel. So instead of, say, a first-person narrative, it’s going to be third-person, about two different people. And you can fill in the blanks. A lot of my work is in that sense meta-fictional.

Was it simmering for so long that you felt compelled to write it?

No, I don’t think other people can compel me in that way. I would be outright lying if I said that I was not happy with the reception of When I Hit You, but there is also the idea that you need to move beyond being consumed. There’s a space given to an artist, and there’s a space given to a survivor, or what they call a survivor—which is a problematic word for me—or the space given to a victim of violence. People are very happy to push you into this little envelope of victimology.

I am very aware that I am claiming my right to access this artistic space and that I am a victim of violence. But it doesn’t mean I am going to erase the fact that I am an artist just to suit easy narratives. When I choose to write my story, especially in the framework of a novel, there’s a certain way it should be read.

Did I feel compelled? So, no…does one have to react to people? Not necessarily in the same way as much as you can play with people. There’s something else one has to aspire to as well, which is, who gets to be an equal? Or who gets to be the white man’s equivalent in this country? Or what do white men get to do that we don’t? Or, in India, what does a Brahmin man get to do? They get to invent, be trailblazers and pathfinders. All of this is vested, invested within these people because of the privilege they hold in society. You think you own the right to change things, break things? If I want to be your equal, I am going to play, and I am going to mess with form. Coming from an Indian context of a caste-based system to a context of insidious, implicit, patronizing racism—there are parallels. My approach has been the same towards both.

Can you comment on auto-fiction as a genre, and how it may be gendered?

It’s a question that at least to me, goes beyond only the literary world. On the one hand, women are seen as responding only to what is domestic, what is personal—and yes, I want to take up on that, obviously, and say that’s another question altogether (“What’s autofiction?" “What’s memoir?" “What’s the line that divides the two?). But for me the other question is, why is women’s writing regarded in this way, which is also a social structural problem, the problem of how much access we are given to public space. How much access are we given to intellectual space? How much commentary are women making on what’s happening in the political world?

If there was a level playing field, then obviously there would be an equal number of political works, political fiction from women as from men. Even if you write a very political work, and then a man writes a very political work at the same time, his narrative will be the grand narrative, it will be the narrative of the commentary on a country, or a culture, and it would speak to contemporary issues, whereas your narrative will be one woman’s experience.

You have to speak for yourself; stay in your lane. You cannot claim what is called “universality". You don’t get the same leverage to organize, or of representing a far greater body of people than yourself—which is, again, how I think we are restricted access back into the political space. Because if you speak for many people, and you are seen as speaking for many people—whether it’s literature or outside of literature—you are going to get this whole audience… but as long as people reduce you to this one personality, then you are only standing for yourself. Everything you are saying gets reduced to this mirror of your personal life.

You play with the page in a literal way. Can you talk about how you wrote it, physically?

That question is actually written into the book itself. No one treats us as writers, no one discusses process with us. We are seen as diarists who survived.

Here I am collecting what I find inspiring—a search list, what’s happening in India, the Bhima Koregaon case, what’s happening to my friends, how the circle is closing tighter…and you are in a spot where you are one step away from being called an urban Naxal. So, obviously, you react to this political reality. In the beginning, the projected life of the couple would be just a line. I got to 10-15 pages and these people had to move, these people had to occupy that space, and these people had to be left alone. So the space with which I was working shrunk. These people started taking over—and that’s where the fictional aspect of the story came from. I could watch this story evolve into something. I wrote this book in InDesign, not Word. You are doing the intellectual work of imagining, but going down to the bare bones of what’s happening on the page, with the margins, with the gutter space…this opens you up to possibilities.

The margins contain lists, repetition, economical prose. You are teasing the reader, saying, I could be writing about this but I am not, or I am not going to. There’s a conscious choice here, beyond just editing or self-censoring.

With the question of economical prose, a lot of it stems, for me, from two reasons: English is my second language, so I really think and rethink what I am saying. The other is that I come from being a poet. If there’s one thing that can kill a poem, it’s additional things that don’t belong to it. I look at this as a novel, but written with the same element of control that a poet brings to the page…. There was an auto-edit going on and it had to be tightly controlled.

Yet there’s referencing, footnoting, detail: Brexit, prime minister Narendra Modi, sexual violence, your writing process, the political.

There’s a really controlled detonation going on here. If you had to bring down a building, hurl a bomb at it, how does the structure implode on itself? If you have to write about what’s happening with Hindutva,what’s happening with Brexit, what’s happening with women, then you really have to choose these nerve centres. It’s going to be hurtful when you write about this, about yourself in a certain space, but part of writing is to open up these wounds—to lacerate or just bleed.

Exquisite Cadavers is available from 23 December. Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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