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8 September 2022

Craft Episode 8: Meena Kandasamy

Welcome to Craft. Each month we bring you one international writer talking about one of their works for about thirty minutes. This month, award-winning novelist, poet, and translator, Meena Kandasamy offers insight into her translation of the book, Women Dreaming by Tamil author, Salma. Translation is often an extended and intimate practice, and in her account, Meena explains how her work on Women Dreaming grew alongside her own life, and the technical and cultural obstacles to bringing Tamil fiction into English. Our conversation took place in two late-night sessions that spanned multiple time zones, and it began and ended with a reading from Women Dreaming.
[In Tamil and English:] Sajida tried to remember the names she knew of the colourful flowers that were strewn along the road on the way back from school. Mullai, malli, December, kanakambaram, she hummed the names to herself as she sprinted home. Thinking that perhaps she could cheer her mother a little by presenting her with some flowers, she scooped up the ones that were not muddied. She knew that the smallest things could make her mother happy. If Aththa got her a new sari, she would be happy for a week. It was even enough just to tell her that the food she made was very tasty. Of the tricks that her father had mastered in the art of fooling her mother, this was perhaps the simplest. What could the time be? Could it be four o'clock? Sajida grew sad when she realised that Aththa would probably already be home. If he was at home, it was enough to only be a pair of ears. There would be no need for her eyes, her brain or her limbs to carry any sort of function on their own accord. What is the need for a girl to watch TV? Why not read the Quran? Why is a girl sleeping in the morning instead of reciting the fajr prayers? Why are you laughing? Should girls laugh as you do? Why do you run? Why do you play? Why can't you show some patience instead of all this anger? Mehar, look at your daughter, teach your daughter to have some respect for her elders. Teach her morals. Teach her to pray. These would be the only words that she would hear. How to escape from all of this? Seated on the toilet – a precious moment of respite and solitude – Sajida would search in vain for an answer. The only way out was to get married. Women Dreaming is about this closely knit group of women who are like mothers, daughter, sister, wife, whose lives are intertwined with each other. They are the only ones holding each other up. There’s Sajida, who is the daughter, her mother's Mehar, Mehar’s facing a divorce, she's also very jealous of her husband who is getting married to another woman. And there’s Parveen who’s left a violent marriage. And then there's the grand-aunt who's been blind from birth. All of these women have little dreams and they're really struggling for the smallest barest minimum, but something keeps them ahead, like the sense of survival, the sense of female bonding, and the sense that somehow they will be able to get some agency of their own, which they do, you know, as the novel progresses. And I also think it really opens up to a lot of female mindscapes. Of ways of looking at the world; on the other hand, it's also so close as though it's a universe of its own, and as if nothing happened outside of it. You don't hear about the news of politics. You don't hear about who is in power, who is not in power, anything like that. The only politics that's discussed is what happens in the village. For me, Salma represents a very Dravidian kind of politics. She represents the fact that women are in politics. She's an outspoken woman and she represents a lot of very progressive things. And she's fierce; and she knows how to face her critics. And for me, all of these are really important things. Politically, she stands for a certain kind of empowerment of women. I would not go so far as to call it a feminist novel, I don't think it is. But I would call it certainly a novel that centres itself on women, their lives, and their aspirations, and the fact that they really have struggled so much to find a foothold. So, I think it kind of resonates with my politics as well, because often women's lives are taken for granted. And I think we have to undo that kind of thinking. I was repeatedly asked to translate this book, and repeatedly I kept putting it off. Part of it is because, you know, I was working on some novel, something else, and then I was giving birth to a baby. And then at some point, I said yes, because Manasi Subramaniam, the editor at Penguin, was so insistent. She was like trying to really make this happen. And then Deborah Smith at Tilted Axis [Press], and Saba Ahmed, they both said, ‘Oh, we could get you grants, we'll find you the time, but you please make the time for this book’. And so I made the time for this book. I knew Salma's work from earlier on. And I also think, very interestingly, that I don't choose books, I choose much more the author, like, if I know what they're doing, and I like what they're doing, and I align with it politically, then I start just doing the work. Salma is the first time I've done a novel's translation. So, I've worked with poets and with poems, it's different, you know, it's hardly a page, so you can read it once and then do it. But with longer form works, I have mostly done political work. And with political works, there's no point reading once and doing it again, because this stuff is so similar. It's just the same stuff that you hear in public meetings; it's the same stuff that you hear in discourse with your friends; you know exactly where a person is coming from. My process of translation is also that when I start reading, I start translating; I don't read it first, and then translate, I just like to start my translation itself as my first active reading of the text. Everything I read, I translate. I read a paragraph, I translate it. I do sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. So that's how I do my political works. But I also did the same thing when I was doing work of fiction. And I think it's quite interesting, because I didn't know the end of the story at all. So, you know, as the women were living through this book, they had these hopes, they had these fears, they had these dreams, and they were wondering what's going to happen next. So, I was just really caught up in that. And sometimes I think it's good — because not knowing is in itself very good, you know? I literally was like, in a sense, in the dark, but also that not knowing helps in your translation…being just as natural as the end, because if you know the end, I think it could taint your translation? I don't know, this is what worked for me. And this is how I went about doing the translation. I was living in London at the time. And then I also think at some point of time I had to move to New York, and then back again to London. And all of this time, you know, I was pregnant, giving birth, whatever, taking care of a toddler. So, in the middle of all of this, Salma's book was like the backdrop to my life. Then I continued after I gave birth to the second child as well. So you know, I was with two little children, and unlike a lot of the time when I translate directly from the text into the computer, I was like actually writing out each sentence by hand. Because when you have a screen near a small child, they just really want to play with it all the time. And it's very distracting. So, in fact, every single page that I've written, I wrote it in these little notebooks, you know, like the sixteen, or forty pages long. And then I was really writing it by hand. For a lot of people there's this aura around being a writer that, ‘Oh I have a block. Oh I can’t write. I’m not finding the words, and this is not the right time. This is not the right place.’ But I think at some point you realise that if you don't have too many distractions around you, 80% of the job is just going there and sitting at your desk. And I think translation, in that sense, is even one step further to giving you that discipline, because not only do you have to sit there but you don't have to think about ideas because there is the work. And then you just basically have—you’re going to have to struggle with sentences, and struggle with words, struggle with the meaning, struggle with all of these other stylistic choices or you know, cultural things that you want to say, but, in a sense, it like really pushes you into being in such close contact with words, and you don't have the time to be so self-aware as to think, Oh, am I feeling like writing?, you don't get that space. And I think it really helps you to get that, sort of, real discipline. When I think of translating from the Tamil into English, I think it has to do with two sets of problems. I think one of them comes from the fact that they're really different languages. Tamil doesn't belong to the Indo-European family of languages: it's a Dravidian language; it's another language family. And this means the grammar is different; it means the aesthetics is different. And it means that everything from sentence construction to how descriptions happen, all of these are different. The other thing about Tamil is also that we have a 2000-year-old convention of how landscapes should be described, or how emotional feelings are transposed on certain climates, certain landscapes, and certain times of the day, this kind of thing. So, we carry all of that tradition with us. So, like, for instance, you look at the evening, that's the time you're supposed to miss your lover the most, that's the hour of the pining. That's the hour of waiting for the parted one. The night is the hour of the clandestine sexual encounter. And dawn is the time when lovers are separating, and therefore it's a very painful hour. And nobody says this, but it’s stayed in language for so long. And then there’s no way you can directly translate it, because even if you translate that on a word-by-word level, you're not able to translate the convention that surrounds Tamil. On the one hand, you can make this work really reach people, but on the other hand, how much are they able to access, or how much do they understand or learn about Tamil? For instance, in Tamil Nadu, you have cattle, right? So, people paint the party colours on the horns of the bulls to show their affiliation politically, which means that the bulls’ painted horns are one's political affiliation. So this is part of a cultural thing, you know, a cultural trait. So, these kinds of very colourful examples... With Salma, it was not the colloquialism that I was worried about as much as I was worried about the subtlety of capturing what she was trying to say. The other struggle was, I think, the pressure from the editors. So, when they sent this book to me, I said earlier, my editor she was like, you really have to do this book. But she also said to me, ,Meena, I want Salma's book to be like [your book] Gypsy Goddess, I want you to bring the same energy.’ I was actually not flattered that she said that because you may like what I write in my style, but I think that a translator has to be the person who lets the author shine, which means lets the author have their own style. And if I felt I was superior, then I would like to make her like me. But I don't feel that; I don't think like that. Salma should be Salma. If I'm translated into Tamil or Arabic, I should be myself. So that was where I put my foot down. Like, you have to retain her, you have to retain the way she writes her sentences, the way she writes her description. For instance, after the reviews came out, I saw in so many of these reviews that women are weeping all the time, or they're like: there's so much hopelessness. But the thing is that Salma narrates in real time. If she's writing fiction as experiment, I think she would play, but she's writing fiction as life. And then I can obviously go and take this to the chopping board and make a very different book out of it. And I was like, no, because the more you read it as the way she's written it, and the more you understand her story, like these women don't know the end, like if they know the end they would possibly be blessed. If all of us know how our lives would play out, we wouldn't spend so much time being anxious, or overthinking. But it's all of this anxiety, all of this weeping. All of this overthinking is just because we don't know what lies ahead. There's a strange dynamic between my life as a writer, novelist, poet, and my life as a translator, because I think it's one thing to look at the books that I've written and realise where I'm politically, it’s another thing to also look at the translations I have done and see how my choice of translation has been formative in shaping my political trajectory. I've always chosen works that speak to me of a particular political moment. So, for instance, when the genocide of Tamils happened in Sri Lanka, in 2009, I did this book called Waking Is Another Dream. So, these were poems by Tamil people who were remembering the genocide and trying to talk about what had happened to them. And then there's the translation of Periyār’s feminist work from the 1920s called Why Were Women Enslaved? So, this was another book I did. And it's very important because it kind of lays the groundwork for Tamil feminism, which has followed. And I think even Salma would look at herself as a Tamil feminist. And I often look at translation as a very political activity. It's one way in which you, you kind of take discourse that's happening in one particular context and push it outward, like you say, this is something that has to be discussed on a national level, on a pan-Indian level, why not even a global level? We don't only import ideas from the West or Europe. But we have to send out our ideas; we have to talk about what is troubling us. So that's, I think, the politics behind my translation. I would like to talk about Hasan a little bit. As much as this is a book about women, there's one central male character, and how his radicalism, his sort of conservativism, starts affecting each of their lives. He causes bitterness with his mother; he controls his wife, he abuses her; he controls his daughter, he plays with her life. And then he becomes a sort of preacher. And he, you know, makes all the women subscribe to orthodoxy. And there are many Muslim men who come to me and said, ‘Why do you translate Salma?’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ I was worried about the fact that I'm a non-Muslim, and they were worried about that. And they said, ‘No, no, we're not worried about you, you support us in general. But Salma is a Muslim who is Islamophobic.’ And their conception is that she criticises Islam so often as to open the doors for Islamophobic people to actually hijack her arguments against them. So, they said that this character of Hasan is somebody who is, you know, the typical version of the Muslim man from whom Muslim women need saving. Because that's also a very interesting stereotype which the West likes to believe: that Muslim women are enslaved, they are in need of saviours and these saviours are, of course, white people, right? And this is how geopolitics, all of this, is being played out. And Salma has said in an interview, that ‘I wouldn't want this book to come at such a time’, because when she was writing it, this kind of intolerance against Muslims didn't exist. And something like this, which is so critical [now] would actually feed the fire against them. And she said, I have decided that now's the time for me to stand by my community because it's facing assault. And this is not the time for me to be critical of what's going on. Like, the criticism has to be internal. So, Salma herself has an entire, you know, shift of perception, but all of which is dictated by the larger politics around what's happening to her. I remember vividly finishing this book, and the book doesn't end on a … I shouldn't do spoilers here! It's like, at some point, some of these dreams are being broken, right? I find for me, like letting go of some despair. But it also felt for me like that the book doesn't end where it ends. And I would like to imagine a different ending for it. I think the story has to write itself in your mind. The story ends at one point where her parents want her to do something. But the question is, it's so much in the reader's imagination. What if she decided to do something else? What are women capable of? [Reading, in English and Tamil:] Her mother's voice contained an inconsolable anxiety and panic. Saji could feel, for the first time, that someone else's actions could perhaps bring their own education to a sudden halt. She felt as if her insides were on fire, and equally, as if she was floating apart from her own body. Dulled, disassociated, instead of responding to her mother, she simply switched off her phone. [End of reading] I've been through many things in my life where you were expected to behave in one manner and then suddenly you find the courage to do the exact opposite, because that means you are who you are. And so, I read this book and I felt this absolute despair, because we watched this girl dream and dream and dream and dream. And then this is the point at which there is this possibility that the door can completely shut on it. And so, I felt that absolute dread, and then I finished the book and I thought, I have to think about the story and decided that I should live in my mind as somebody who rebelled against what was being forced on her. And yeah, in my version of the story somewhere, which is not in the novel, I think she's a free woman. I think she's a very educated woman. So, in my mind, she plots an escape.
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri magazine and Queen Mary University of London, with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music is by Joshua Winiberg. Our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji. Emma Barnaby does our production, editing, and sound design and the interviews and the introduction were done by me, Malachi McIntosh. See you next month.
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