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When I Hit You or a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife Hardcover – 26 May 2017
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About the Author
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch and Ms Militancy, and the critically acclaimed novel 'the Gypsy Goddess'.
From the Publisher
Q & A with Meena Kandasamy
Q1. In the book, the protagonist has a peculiar relationship with her mother. It is curious that when referring to her daughter’s marital situation to people, she describes in terms of a bunch of physical ailments, or abnormalities. Why is this?
A1. Meena Kandasamy: Well, in this book, this mother is a feisty character who likes to be at the center of the conversation and who wants to take on the role of a strong woman who helped her abused daughter cope. She is also someone who generally goes around telling people what they should do with their physical ailments, which perhaps is a tendency. It’s very interesting as a plot device because it is a way of talking and (at once), a way of not talking about the abuse, a way of referring to it but not making it the primary concern that it needs to be. So, the story becomes a story about head-lice and cracked feet in the mother’s narrative the violence itself is subsumed. And perhaps, the violence is so brutal and so painful that for the mother, who wants to talk about the abuse, but cannot find the courage to put it into words, talking about the periphery is still a way of discussing it.
In general though, I think this is a character trait that is all around us. For a lot of people talking about sexual violence is taboo. For some, talking about money is taboo. Sometimes I notice that I’m stressed all day wondering where I’m going to find the money to pay next month’s rent but that’s something I will not talk about, my upbringing is partly to blame for it, so my stress sublimates and spreads into every other aspect of life so I complain about how I have not made the time to visit a friend, or over-analyze a random incident, or something totally unconnected.
Q2. While narrating her story, the author often refers to herself but also her setting in the third person (even though the story is written in first person), there is a certain coolness and detachment in her telling, as if she is relaying someone else’s experiences and not her own. Did you do this consciously?
A2. Meena Kandasamy: As someone who has experienced the very violence she is writing about it was as much gut instinct as much as it was authorial choice. As a writer, I knew that I had to skillfully bring out this detachment on the one hand, it is a method of coping and survival, it is like applying local anesthesia so that you can watch what is going on to your hand or leg without having to feel the pain; and on the other hand, it is awesome as a writing strategy because it allows you to inhabit the space within a character and the space outside, like slipping inside a role, or something.
Q3. You never use any proper nouns in the book. Till the very end we don’t know any names that matter. Why is that?
A3. Meena Kandasamy: I could have called her Anjali, Bharathi, Chellamma - anything from a Tamil dictionary - but that would have tied her down into being one person. The aim was to tell everywoman’s story - because as much as the incidents are specific, as much as the sequence of events are specific - the experience of domestic violence is something of a universal thing in our country, and even abroad. I wanted any female reader to fit herself into the story - to own it. I wanted any male reader to imagine a woman he has known into the character. In writing violence - whether it is on a grand scale like genocide or war, or in the claustrophobic environment of a marriage - what happens to one is what happens to many - it is shared trauma. We don’t need any names.
Q4. A lot of the suffering that the protagonist is living through is expressed in the form of inner dialogue, as if she is narrating her story out loud in her head, while simultaneously relaying her commentary on it. Was this a deliberate choice?
A4. Meena Kandasamy: Yes - purely in terms of framing the narrative, it was essential to capture and portray the constrictive, isolating and overburdened backdrop that forms the site of a violent marriage. Sometimes, the only heart-felt conversation you have all day is with yourself - that is a story that abused wives can relate to and understand. On a deeper level, and what was a very personal agenda - was to show that women are not some horses or bulls that men can whip as they please and demand they do this or that (even that sort of thing is animal cruelty, by the way). Women are brilliant, amazing, unsurpassed intellectual beings - and when they are being hit, the violence is not just some momentary pain on their bodies, but it is something that not only evokes screams and shouts, but it also triggers thought, commentary, questions, unending spiral of reflection and above all theory.
To me, theory is not something outside of us, to be understood in classrooms. Theory is in our bones, in our blood - it is how we make sense of the world around us. Subjected to violence and rape, we, as women, are constantly trying to perceive, understand and go to the root of why this happens. This thought-process that surrounds the violence is not a disjoint thing, it coexists with the violence - and it is central to the woman’s resilience and defiance.
Q5. The novel reads like a biography, was this intentional? If one did not know that this was clearly fiction, it could very well pass off as a true account…like your own story.
A5. Meena Kandasamy: In a sense - it is based on my own experience. I was briefly married, from September 2011 to January 2012, where I experienced these horrors firsthand. In the months that followed, I spent all my energy trying to blank out all memory of what happened because it was essential to move forward. Some of the things that happened to me, I would never speak about it, share it, tell anyone - those things will die with me. Fiction is not real life you know - many strange things, unspeakable things are thrown in our face in everyday life, we accept it stoically and move on. In fiction, we demand coherence. We demand structured, staged reality - not the chaos of our everyday. To render the ugly, blood-splattered, hair-grabbing hysterical memory of a failed, violent marriage into the realm of a story that reads as if it were a true account - that’s what I tried to do.
Q6. You describe communism as regressive and detrimental to the feminist cause. You disparage it time and again. Do you think this is the case?
A6. Meena Kandasamy: No, that is a misreading, a misunderstanding. I will identify as a leftist/socialist/communist myself without flinching for even a nanosecond. The aim was never to disparage communism - which I think is progressive and fundamental to the feminist cause. The aim, instead, was to show that even such a powerful, emancipatory, revolutionary ideology - in the hands of a wife-beating misogynist - can be twisted, mansplained and used to subjugate, control and abuse women. It is like the devil quoting the scriptures - a man can pull something out of Lenin and make that sound as if Communism disapproves of this or that, when that is clearly not the case. We have an idea that wife-beaters are some traditional men who are very religious, who are very backward thinking, who do not have any education, who are alcoholics - and in reducing them to these stereotypes - we think that domestic violence is a problem that only affects some people, not at all. I wanted to present its mirror image. To show that an abuser can talk very politically correct things, that he can have a revolutionary exterior, he can be very well educated and under all these layers of sophistication - he can be a rapist and a wife-beater and a thorough misogynist.
Q7. It is interesting that you choose a thought crime (through her writing, and her letters to her imaginary lovers) as the protagonist’s act of rebellion, why?
A7. Meena Kandasamy: We have all been through some abuse of some sort at some point in our lives, and if there is one takeaway that we have from that kind of experience: never, ever let your defiance die.
Q8. What’s next for you as a writer?
A8. Meena Kandasamy: I am trying to think (at this stage, it is just thinking) about a novel that’s partly set here in London and partly in the South Asian subcontinent, and of course, women are at the heart of it. It requires research, so I’m just planning it out at this stage. It could possibly be a good five years before it is out. In the meanwhile, I’m working on some non-fiction that I had researched but never structured into a book. To keep the storyteller’s innocence and sense of wonderment alive, it is imperative to stare life right in the face.
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'When I Hit You' is a story told in the first person. The unnamed woman narrator talks about how she fell in love with a professor and married him. She is a writer, is widely read, has a deep and wide intellect, and has leftist leanings. He seems to have similar thoughts to hers in many things. But after they get married, things unravel slowly. He undermines her in every way, takes away her freedom slowly, first in small ways, by inflicting violence on himself and emotionally blackmailing her and then in big ways. Then he starts beating her when she defies him and violently rapes her. Will our nameless heroine get out of this bleak, violent situation before it gets too late? You should read the book to find out.
What do I think about the book? First, I love the subtitle of the book - 'a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife'. Totally love the nod to James Joyce here. Second, there is a beautiful quote at the beginning of every chapter. Each of them is beautiful, powerful, thought-provoking and made me contemplate a lot. I loved that too. What about the story? It is dark, bleak and hard to read. Our heart despairs for the nameless heroine as she sinks more and more into the dark place, the black hole, that is her marriage. We want her to come out of it, to escape, to run away, to leave this devil's house, but the devil aka her husband breaks her down in every way and at the end of every day our heroine has sunk more into the dark pit. But, inspite of the dark, bleak emotional landscape, the prose is beautiful. It flows like a serene river taking us on a beautiful ride, showing us sights and smells and sounds which are beautiful, wonderful, delightful. Meena Kandasamy is clearly an intellectual heavyweight, but she wears her intellect lightly on her sleeve. She takes the reader by their hand, shows them the landscape, explaining things like our favourite teacher or our mother would - about the relationship between men and women, about the depth and inadequacy of language, about the infinite varieties of love, about the relationship between parents and children, about communism and capitalism and the grey areas in between, how we get used to and normalize violence within our family, about how one would go to any lengths to save a marriage, about silence and speech and how sometimes silence is louder than speech, about the rare words which describe beautiful things which are unique to a particular language and culture - Meena Kandasamy talks about these and other fascinating themes, topics, questions. Sometimes she gently takes us deeper into a topic and it happens so quietly that we don't even realize it till we notice that we are in the middle of the intellectual ocean, swimming, and thinking complex thoughts. The prose is elegant but also tight - there are no rambling passages, no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. It is brilliant.
This book made made me think of all the women who have suffered in marriage, most of them silently, many of them withstanding emotional violence, some of them physical and sexual violence. Women like my mom, like Nora from 'The Doll's House' and countless others that I knew or read about. This book might open some old wounds if one has seen or experienced something similar. It is not for the faint-hearted.
I have read Indian writing / literature in English since I was a kid. I have seen writers write for an international audience, hoping to impress British and American readers and literary prize judges. Then I have seen writers write books on contemporary themes which capture the imagination of the young, modern, urban Indian, like the campus novel or the office romance. I have also seen writers interpret mythology in contemporary ways and make it engaging for the young audience. But I have always wondered - where are the novels that talk about people like me? Or a woman like my mom or some of my friends? Where are the novels which talk about the conflict between parents and children? Where are the novels which talk about how constitutional freedom is nonexistent in the family? Where are the novels which talk about how religious rituals and tradition rule supreme in modern families? Where are the novels which talk about how utilitarian courses of study are winning over the arts and how we all are complicit in it? Where are the novels which talk about the conflict between science and religion that every Indian faces and how religion and tradition almost always win? Where are the novels which depict the actual state of the Indian marriage? There are novels and stories on these themes in many Indian languages - I have read some of them and they are great. There are American and British and French and German and Spanish and Japanese novels on many of these themes. But they are rare and nonexistent in English novels written by Indian writers. I have always wondered why Indian writers in English refused to explore these rich, complex themes, why they were running away from it. It was like the elephant in the room. And along comes Meena Kandasamy and breaks all past stereotypes and shackles and lights the fire in the room and it depicts the scene in all its blazing glory. It is so bright that it hurts our eyes. For that, I am thankful.
I loved 'When I Hit You'. Or 'a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife', if you like that title more. It is one of my favourite books of the year and I think one of the most important books I have read. This book heralds a new, powerful, brilliant voice in Indian literary fiction, the likes of which we have never seen, and I hope and pray that Meena Kandasamy has many more novels left in the tank. I can't wait to find out what she comes up with next.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband's mind. A self-centeredness about writing that doesn't fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one-word job description : defiance. I've never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.
I write letters to lovers I have never seen, or heard, to lovers who do not exist, to lovers I invent on a lonely morning. Open a file, write a paragraph or a page, erase before lunch. The sheer pleasure of being able to write something that my husband can never access. The revenge in writing the word lover, again and again and again. The knowledge that I can do it, that I can get away with doing it. The defiance, the spite. The eagerness to rub salt on his wounded pride, to reclaim my space, my right to write.
I think what you know in a language shows who you are in relation to that language. Not an instance of language shaping your worldview, but its obtuse inverse, where your worldview shapes what parts of the language you pick up. Not just : your language makes you, your language holds you prisoner to a particular way of looking at the world. But also : who you are determines what language you inhabit, the prison-house of your existence permits you only to access and wield some parts of a language.
Hope - as the cliché goes - is the last thing to disappear. I sometimes wish it had abandoned me first, with no farewell note or goodbye hug, and forced me to act.
Have you read this book? What do you think about it?
When l Hit You
Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.
The book begins and ends in frenzy. As it should. The first few outlines of the story is narrated by the parents of the narrator, a young, badgered wife who has just managed to escape her tormentor.
The father says --- look at her feet, they are the feet of a slave, not my daughter, no never. The nails are blackened, the sole is twenty five times darker than what it used to be, they're torn, crushed. Crushed, yes.
The mother says --- look at the army of lice in her hair, an army, no less. She tries every trick in the trade to clean and clear the lice army, and it takes days, months. Her daughter has become empty, hollow. All this in a matter of four months.
Like everyone else before me and everyone else after me, l ask --- why didn't you escape. As soon as l ask, l realise the folly of my question. Why ask a question that has no answer, will never have an answer. Didn't you take it for years, and you didn't even try to escape.
The last three or four chapters, coming as an afterword, again goes into the frenzy of that great escape, as if the narrator cannot believe that she has actually escaped the horror.
Read this book, my dear friends, to know what it is, to be abused, to be made so weak, that escape seems impossible, and yet, that's the only way.
She addresses compelling questions in her lyrical style of writing that is poetic and draws you into it’s prose. The incidents she describes play havoc with your mind, and they are not even a fraction of what the victim would have experienced.
At no point in the book is the narrator, or her abuser, identified by name. The author has acknowledged that the story draws from her personal experience but she has also fictionalized it. By not giving the protagonist a name, it is no more the story of one person. Instead, it becomes a universal story – one that women anywhere in the world can relate to.
While the book is written in first person, the narrator often uses a third person setting as a way to detach herself from the emotional experience. She chronicles her abuser’s control on her life and career by limiting her access to social media and email. She describes how he has robbed her identity by answering her emails without her knowledge.
When I Hit You is seething with rage. It is painful and devastating. It is also powerful, courageous and inspiring. It is a lesson. Of the signs that should be identified. Of hope. Of strength. Of being the woman not the world wants you to be, but what you want to become.
It is a lesson to not let your loyalty become slavery. Any relationship, when becomes overbearing, needs to be terminated. One always needs to remember that one can always get out.
And when you have gotten out, then, as Rumi said: “You have escaped the cage. Your wings are stretched out. Now fly.”
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Most recent customer reviews
A good read.