The exiled author’s explosive second novel When I Hit You – based on her own abusive marriage – was shortlisted for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the inaugural Jhalak prize for BAME writing. But is it a novel or a memoir? And does it matter?
‘two months into the marriage he cajoles me into parting with my passwords’
This summer’s heatwave is at its peak as I make my way to Meena Kandasamy’s house in East London. Trees droop and the grass is scorched and crisp; the air quivers above baked pavements; even the pigeons seem subdued. The door to her modern two-up-two-down is wide open when I arrive, and she’s leaning against it, engrossed by the latest photo of her toddler son on her phone. He’s been whisked off by partner Cedric to a parched park nearby, to give us space to talk.
As soon as she sees me Kandasamy is solicitous. Am I thirsty? Would I like to eat now? She whisks around the small space – barefoot and elfin in a paisley kamise and black leggings – arranging dishes of rice, chickpeas, cauliflower, yoghurt: a feast of subtly spiced veggies. ‘Do you want a fork or spoon?’ she asks, adding, ‘I’m using my fingers’.
One reason I’ve been looking forward to this meal is because I’ve conflated Kandasamy the author with the unnamed protagonist of her second novel When I Hit You, which was shortlisted for the Woman’s Fiction Prize and Jhalak Prize. In a futile attempt to placate her paranoid and bullying husband, the narrator of the novel spends hours alone in the house, keeping everything spotless and preparing delicious elaborate meals.
The book is a fictionalised account of Kandasamy’s own abusive marriage to a left-wing academic and activist. The marriage lasted less than six months but the experience shocked her deeply. How could a fiery independent feminist like herself, a confident intellectual and performance poet with a doctorate in sociolinguistics – how could such a woman be reduced to obsessively cleaning an already pristine floor and dreading her husband’s key in the door?
She wrestled with this question throughout the nightmare months of the marriage and by the time it was over, she’d decided to write about it. Her first attempt was an essay – ‘I singe the body electric’ – published in the Indian magazine Outlook. It chronicles a familiar pattern of coercive control dressed up as devotion (‘two months into the marriage, he cajoles me into parting with my passwords’); of escalating violence interspersed with remorse (‘I colour-code the domestic violence, fresh red welts on my skin, the black hue of blood clots, the fading violet of healed bruises’).
As a first-hand account by a well-known poet and activist, the essay caused a sensation. But for Kandasamy it barely scratched the surface of what she wanted to say about the experience. The unnamed wife in the novel is writing a novel – or ‘trying to’ write, as she describes it to her husband, to avert the otherwise inevitable shower of comments belittling her literary ambitions. Kandasamy, too, was writing a novel during the marriage – an early draft of The Gypsy Goddess, a fictionalised chronicle of the true-life massacre in 1968 of 44 rice-paddy-workers and their families who dared to strike for increased pay.
Writing and activism have always been linked in Kandasamy’s mind. At the age of 12 she was reading law books and writing briefs for the radical lawyers defending her mother’s sex discrimination case. ‘My father couldn’t do it because he was a Tamil speaker, but all of my schooling had been in English,’ she tells me.
‘The case lasted 18 years and had a huge effect on me – I was meeting political people, reading political books.’ She spent hours in the lawyers’ offices, where ‘they had feminist books by Susan Brownmiller and Kate Millet in the waiting room’. Her father encouraged her to read too. ‘He gave me Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Verse, a tiny book with Bible-thin paper and said, “This is wonderful, you have to read it”.’
When she started writing creatively, poetry was her genre of choice – because ‘it’s far more direct and visceral than prose’. Aware that she was in much demand in India as a performer at political rallies, I open Ms Militancy expecting something declamatory and agit prop. But though the poems – written on an international writers’ residency at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the US – are as imbued as her novels with angry energy, they are no less erudite and complex.
These days she has all-but abandoned poetry, because ‘prose pays better’. And it’s clear that money is a worry. The rent is cheap ‘because there’s no heating’, but though Cedric works 40-hour weeks for a political organisation, he’s only paid for 12 of those hours. So the little family will be decamping to the US in December for a visiting lecturer stint that they hope will pay the bills for at least six months.
Back in India the same money would last far longer, but though Kandasamy does visit occasionally, moving back is out of the question for a writer whose incendiary Twitter feed has over 90,000 followers. ‘I’m more useful in India than I am here. But everyone is more useful alive than dead,’ she says simply. ‘Four of my friends are in jail, framed for trying to kill [Prime Minister] Modi,’ she explains. ‘And Gauri Lankesh was murdered last September.’ Lankesh was a journalist known for campaigning for women’s rights and criticising right-wing Hindu extremism. ‘She considered me a daughter and wrote a review of When I Hit You – it was the last book she read.’
Though Kandasamy’s parents were keen for her to go to university, she was wary. ‘I have a Tamil name, and my mother had this reputation, so I knew the Brahmin academic culture would discriminate against me.’ Instead, at the age of 17, she joined an NGO working with Dalit people. ‘Dalit’ means ‘broken, scattered’ and is the preferred term for people previously referred to as ‘untouchables’. She began translating Dalit writing into English and edited The Dalit, a magazine funded by overseas aid – ‘I had good writing and editing skills’ – but fiery young Meena wasn’t cut out for NGO work. ‘You had to have meetings before doing anything.’
By then she’d been persuaded that ‘I had to have a degree or people wouldn’t respect me,’ so she signed on for a distance-learning BA and MA in English Literature, followed by a taught PhD in Sociolinguistics. Her PhD research was on language and identity, a subject close to her heart as a Tamil speaker who’d been taught in English at school. ‘Speaking English is a mark of class in India as well as a perceived route to prosperity,’ she says. But it’s a double-edged sword that separates highly educated people from their roots.
She refers to her own use of language as ‘Taminglish’ – ‘Tamil in spirit, English on the tongue’ – and tries to reflect that hybrid in her writing. Tamil is more concrete than English, she explains. ‘There is no word for “grey”; we say “ash” instead, which is typical of how the language is embedded in the everyday.’ It creates a de facto poetry, in which simile and metaphor are an integral part of people’s speech.
Another feature of ‘Taminglish’ is its use of rhetoric, which Kandasamy describes as ‘challenging and teasing the reader, like a seduction’. This can take the form of direct address, authorial asides, explanations, arguments and more. Ms Militancy begins with a two-page prose prologue that harangues the reader about their squeamishness; The Gypsy Goddess has an even longer preamble – a six-page found text by a self-confessed ‘terror-stricken landowner’ requesting the Chief Minister of Madras to ‘liberate Nagapattinam from the clutches of Communists’; followed by a 26-page ‘Notes on storytelling’ section. ‘That section really annoyed some people,’ she says with a grin. ‘They said, “Why doesn’t she just get on with the story?” But it’s the Tamil way of being playful and inviting.’
When she uses the word ‘Tamil’ she’s talking about people from her home state of Tamil Nadu on the southernmost tip of India, a state comprising 70 per cent low-caste and no-caste people, steeped in socialist politics, just a boat-ride away from war-torn Sri Lanka. ‘The Tamil Tigers were heroes when I was a child,’ she tells me. ‘I grew up knowing about sacrifice and taking up arms. By the time the war ended in 2009, 10,000 people were confirmed dead. I’ve met some of the ex-fighters – one third of the Tamil Tigers were women. They were used as cannon fodder, subject to sexual violence, then later stigmatised and isolated. That’s what my next novel will be about.’
‘I am writing in English in the voices of unlettered people, who can’t even look into a landlord’s eye for fear of defiling him’
Her novels are neither reportage nor memoir, nor are they entirely fiction. So what genre are they? As far as Kandasamy is concerned, because they are based closely on actual events but involve distortion and imagination, that makes them ‘novel’ in the strictest sense of the word. ‘Fiction doesn’t have to be completely imagined,’ she explains. ‘For me fiction is simply narration.’ But she adds, ‘It’s important that what I am writing about really happened.’
She doesn’t like the term ‘narrative non-fiction’ applied to her novels because ‘they are not about me “going on a journey” and “finding myself”’. She prefers the term ‘autofiction’ to describe When I Hit You, citing the French author Marguerite Duras and the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård as influences who used their personal experiences as the basis for much of their fiction.
How does autofiction differ from memoir? ‘Memoir names people and tells the absolute truth,’ she explains. ‘It can be sociological and judgmental, because you are speaking for yourself. With fiction there’s no judgment. The author can disagree with the characters and invent things.’ So although the young wife in the novel is similar to Kandasamy, she says ‘“abused woman” is not my identity. There is more to my life than this story. The “woman writer” is also a subject matter.’ So we see the protagonist both being abused and analysing her abuse, cooking and debating politics. ‘We are reflective people; we discuss things at a sophisticated level. I wanted to counteract the cliché of the woman writer as a sad suicide or sex object.’
It was as this writer that she began researching The Gypsy Goddess. Her research spanned the 60 years, from the 1920s through to the aftermath of the massacre in 1968, painstakingly recreating a timeline of events from published material supplemented by her own interviews with survivors. ‘I spoke to some amazing old women,’ she recalls. ‘Those people are largely ignored in fiction because they are not sexualisable, so I decided to write about one old woman who held the village together after the massacre and helped people deal with their PTSD.’
That old woman’s voice is one of many in the book, including that of the child who narrates the fire itself, and the persona of the author herself as she grapples with the issues involved in relating the events. ‘I am the outsider in this story,’ she says, acutely aware of the dangers of cultural appropriation. ‘I am writing in English in the voices of unlettered people, who can’t even look into a landlord’s eye for fear of defiling him’. But she rejects the idea that she is ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’. On the contrary, she is the one who has profited from the relationship. ‘I was inspired by those people,’ she says. This is why she based so much of the book on interviews and found material. But she is robust in defending her right to write it. ‘If we can’t write beyond our experience, all we’ll have is a series of memoirs.’
The Gypsy Goddess went on to be to be acclaimed as ‘powerful’ and ‘bold’ by the Guardian, ‘dazzling, maddening’ by the Times. ‘It throws down a gauntlet to conservative literary and political sensibilities,’ said the Independent.
It was a grueling book to write, however, and took many years – years that straddled her abusive marriage and gave her a sense of perspective. ‘I asked myself, “is being beaten by this guy worse than the experience of people whose relatives have been burnt to death?”’
100 ways to write a book: The Kandasamy Method
Because you must live with each of them for four years, your books must inspire as much passion in you as a love affair. This means they must have a political as well as a dramatic purpose.
Write very slowly; 100 words a day is sufficient.
Draft a section in longhand, type it up and print it out. Then annotate the printout, type it up and print out again. Repeat this process eight times before progressing to the next section. You will gradually amass a mosaic of intensely-worked fragments.
Your ‘mosaic’ method developed originally as an adaptation to a hectic schedule of political activism, academic lectures, journalism commissions and poetry performances. Nowadays it fits in to your son’s sleeping patterns and childcare rota.
Your novels are based on true stories, so their structure is largely dictated by history. You just have to decide where to start and end the story.
As a native Tamil speaker, you enjoy challenging your reader. This means that you are not constrained by the conventions of English-language fiction and include verbatim police reports, interviews, political theorising, epistolary fantasies, poetry, profanity, invective and authorial comment in your novels.
When your total word count reaches 120,000, it’s time to put the book together, ideally in a hotel room paid for by an overseas university.
Group your fragments into narrative topics: old woman’s voice, autopsy reports, letters to fantasy lovers, patriarchy discussion – and print each out on differently coloured paper.
Lay the printouts on the floor and arrange them into a sequence, discarding 50 per cent of the painstakingly redrafted texts you have written.
Edit your remaining 60,000 words into a coherent manuscript and send it to your editor, who will discard a further 20,000 words and suggest additions and revisions to bring it back up to 60,000 words.
This interview originally appeared in Issue 79 of Mslexia (Summer, 2018).