Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Cast me out if you will" by Lalithambika Antherjanam

In the jungle of Indian writers you may have never heard the name of Lalithambika Antherjanam (1905-1985), in spite of the fact that she was a highly regarded writer in her native Kerala. This is perhaps because she used to write in Malayalam, the local Dravidian language, and as far as I know this is her only book translated into English, or at least the only one that is easy to find. It collects some of her short stories and some interesting memoir pieces.
An antherjan in a recent movie adaptation of Lalithambika's novel "Agnisakshi". 
Lalithambika Antherjanam was born into the Namboodiri brahmin caste in what was then the state of Travancore. She came from a particularly constrictive society: women from her community were kept in seclusion inside the women's quarters of the house, called antahpuram, where they had to go with the upper parts of their body naked. In the rare occasions when they left the house, they had to screen their faces with palm-leaf umbrellas and cover themselves entirely with a piece of unbleached cloth. Antherjanams, the way namboodiri women are called, had to follow strict rules for everything: they could not receive an education and they could only marry the eldest son of a namboodiri household. For the slightest transgression of the rules, antherjanams were trialed and cast out of society.
Lalithambika had the luck to have an illuminated father, who gave her an education. However, when she threw away her palm-leaf umbrella and went to a meeting of feminist activists she was cast out, together with her husband. She began her career as a writer, in spite of the disapproval of everyone. Her stories are all about women: women who committed sins and ended their life in poverty or repentance, young widows whose lives have been shattered by the untimely death of their husbands, mothers who have lost their sons in a war or for the strict rules of their community, and even a prostitute and a yogini. Whether social workers like Bhanumati Amma in "Come back", or strong mothers in the isolation of a farway city like Meena Mami in "The Boon", or again disillusioned wives turned prostitues in what is in my opnion one of the best pieces of the book, "The Goddess of Revenge", the women in Lalithambika Antherjanam's book are hard to forget. If you like Mahasweta Devi's stories about women and tribal people, about injustices and unspeakable horrors, then you would probably like Lalithanbika's work. She was inspired by the work of Tagore, especially by his novel "The Home and the World". As a result, her stories are impregnated with activism, to the point that some of them are more an exposure of some unbearable wrongs in the namboodiri society than a pleasure to read for the way they are written. However, I am only reading this in translation, and I might never know how the stories were like in the original form. The book is interesting also from an anthropological point of view, to understand the customs of this small community, resistant to the changes that nationalism was bringing throughout the country.

"Cast me out if you will. Stories and Memoir" by Lalithambika Antherjanam 
Translated and edited by Krishnankutty, with a foreword by Meena Alexander
Published by The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1997, pp.188

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Timira" di Wu Ming 2 e Antar Mohamed

Una delle realtà più innovative e interessanti del panorama letterario italiano sono certamente i Wu Ming (di cui avevo parlato anche qui).  Forse unici nel loro genere, i Wu Ming sono un collettivo di scrittori con idee del tutto particolari: non pubblicano con i loro nomi veri ma con lo pseudonimo di Wu Ming, che in cinese può significare "senza nome" o "cinque nomi", distribuiscono le loro opere anche gratuitamente in e-book, e non si fanno problemi a mescolare nei loro libri finzione e reportage storico, e ad incorporarvi documenti o personaggi realmente esistiti.
Timira. Romanzo Meticcio, come dice il titolo stesso è un ibrido. Nato da una serie di interviste con Isabella Marincola, la Timira del titolo, si è poi sviluppato come un romanzo, scritto con la collaborazione di Mohamed, il figlio di Isabella, ma vuole anche essere un libro di memorie, e non da ultimo un libro sulla memoria culturale. Ambientato tra Roma e la Somalia, narra la storia, verissima ed incredibile, di una donna italo-somala, nata dalla relazione extraconiugale di un sottufficiale italiano in quella che un tempo era una colonia italiana con la sua boyessa, termine che deriva dalla femminilizzazione di boy e che indicava all'epoca una donna di servizio, da utilizzare anche biecamente come amante. Tra le pagine troviamo documenti, carte d'identità e foto d'epoca, come nel più classico dei memoir. Solo che tra le memorie s'inserisce la narrazione degli autori che riempiono i buchi lasciati dalle parole di Isabella, morta improvvisamente prima della fine della stesura del libro. Sorella di un partigiano nero ucciso dalle parti di Biella, nel libro vediamo Isabella recitare in Riso Amaro di Dino Risi pur non avendo la carnagione tipica della mondina, fare la modella per numerosi artisti, subire il razzismo strisciante di un'Italia in cui la mentalità del colonialismo fascista non sembra essere scomparsa e, dopo numerosi amori e peripezie, andare a vivere a Mogadiscio, terra della madre. Rimpatriata in Italia all'inizio della guerra civile somala, Isabella si scontra con la burocrazia italiana, che inizialmente le nega lo status di rifugiata. Con un caratteraccio e una faccia tosta invidiabile, la nostra Isabella scrocca cene a destra e a manca, frega i soldi ad un uomo che non le garba abbastanza e fa passare una vita d'inferno a tutti. Tuttavia finiamo per volerle bene, a questa capocciona che alza un po' troppo spesso il gomito e che risponde per le belle a tutti, anche a Siad Barre.
Un libro insolito, scritto cercando di rendere la parlata di una donna che nella vita ne ha viste di tutti i colori, e che con gli anni è diventata cinica e ruvida, ma al punto giusto e con garbo. Un libro affascinante, che parla di una cultura - quella somala - che raramente entra nelle pagine della letteratura italiana. Una storia che meriterebbe di essere approfondita oltre le sue 525 scorrevolissime pagine: la storia del fratello Giorgio morto per far risorgere un paese che molti non volevano neanche credere potesse essere il suo, la vita che scorre in una città coloniale, Mogadiscio, che non è ancora quella martoriata da vent'anni di guerra civile di cui leggiamo nei reportage giornalistici. Ma soprattutto il racconto di una vita straordinaria, passata in bilico costante tra coppe di champagne e calze rattoppate alla buona.

Timira. Romanzo Meticcio di Wu Ming 2 e Antar Mohamed
Edito da Einaudi, 2012
pp. 525, € 20,00

Back to blogging!

I am sorry I haven't written for months, but I have been very busy with my studies and almost everything I have been reading was connected to it. I even had to write reports on some of the books I read for university, so I did not bother to write a second review for the blog.
I do miss blogging though, and receiving some feedback abut the things I read. I MUST get back to writing, and I hope that I will be more constant in the future. I also miss reading whatever comes in my hands and reaching the enormous amount (for me) of fifty books per year. This year I am reading a lot of essays and poetry, because as you may know my doctoral thesis will be on three Indian women poets.
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
This was the saddest and sweetest novella I have ever read. I think it's nice to say how I came across this book. As you may know, I spent some months in London doing research at the British Library. On my way back from lunch break I saw a book on the pavement in front of the entrance, and I picked it up. I looked around to see if it belonged to someone. I imagined a tourist with a big backpack on his way to King's Cross station, just around the corner. The book had a price tag in Canadian dollars, so the owner must have come from across the ocean. I sat on the marble bench in the library backyard, with the book next to me, in case someone claimed it. I waited 20 minutes, drinking a coffee in the meantime, but nobody came. That's how the book came in my possession.
John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a classic of American literature. This said, I was reluctant in resuming Steinbeck, after I found The Grapes of Wrath not to my taste. Not that it was badly written (mind that I read that about thirteen years ago), but it was terribly depressing, and I could not connect with his characters, who lived in the Depression era in the United States, and had to travel for thousands of kilometres just to find a few days' work on a farm.
Of Mice and Men is set roughly in the same period and its characters are equally desperate for any kind of unskilled job. George and his simple-minded friend Lennie travel from one farm to the other. They keeping losing their job because Lennie often finds himself in trouble. What I found touching in the story of George and Lennie is the friendship between the two men: they look after each other, and in this way they try not to feel too lonely. Without a family, and constantly travelling, they live a meagre life. They dream of buying a place of their own, and this is what keeps them going. In the backdrop, you read about the poverty of America in those years, something not often talked about in fiction I think, and the racial divide that is strangling the country. It's a sad and hopeless America what John Steinbeck writes about. I must warn you that Steinbeck is not a writer for everyone: his writing is so down to earth that it reminds me of Hemingway, at least in this work. There is no complacency in his style, and this means no esthetic "ribbons". As you know, I am not a big fan of Hemingway. I understand his point (and Steinbeck's) but I don't find much pleasure in reading that kind of literature. I appreciated this book, Lennie is a sweet character and the metaphors at the end of the book are heart-breaking (I can't go on here without a spoiler!), but I am not going to dive into Steinbeck's opera omnia any time soon.