Girl power: Five women speakers tell us what to expect at the Bangalore Literature Festival
In light of recent happenings, the 6th edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival, with the theme Speak
Up, Speak Out, couldn’t come at a better time. With women around the world sharing their harrowing experiences with their very own Harvey Weinsteins through the #metoo campaign, and the murder of noted journalist Gauri Lankesh for making her opinions heard, it’s only fitting that a festival designed to be a safe space for expression should fix on a theme that resonates with the global outrage against the abuse of women. “We have quite a few women-centric sessions this year, like Women In Mythology, Women In Contemporary Literature, Women Traveling Alone and the Sanitisation of Women in Indian History,” shares BLF founder, Shinie Antony, adding, “The two-day event starts off with the session, Remembering Gauri Lankesh.” Also this year, the festival has a host of speakers, who will be making their BLF debut, such as former Bollywood star-turned-writer Twinkle Khanna, slam poet and spoken word artiste, Jessy James LaFleur, cricketers, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, columnist, novelist and JNU lecturer, Makarand Paranjape, and Hannelore Vogt, director of Cologne Public Library. Keeping the pressing issue of the suppression of women’s voices in mind, we chat with some of the female
speakers on their work, their expectations and more.
October 28 & 29. At Hotel Lalit Ashok, Kumara Krupa High Grounds.
Jessy James LaFleur, Berlin
Slam poet, Spoken Word artiste
In the context of your work, how relevant is the theme Speak Up, Speak Out?
It’s very relevant and I am honoured that I was invited to this year’s edition to represent Spoken Word and Slam Poetry. It has become more important than ever to speak up and share one’s views on today’s politics and global issues. We live in an age when human beings are still hurt, killed and punished for having different views, sharing opinions, being homosexual, female, or different in colour. We have to denounce inequality, inequity and racism and we can do this by using our words wisely and publicly. Spoken Word makes it easy to get people to listen, because to speak up means to voice criticism, which can lead to change.
In what ways does Spoken Word fit into literature?
Spoken Word exists since humanity exists. Before stories and experiences were written down, they were shared vocally. So Spoken Word is, to me, the essence of literature. Before we write something onto paper, we think about it in our minds. Literature is written art and Spoken Word is the art of bringing literature to life by using gesture and the sound of our voice.
What are the techniques you use in the art form?
Gesture, body and (most importantly) the voice are essential parts of Spoken Word. You can’t simply ‘read’ a poem, you have to ‘perform’ it. Not in a theatrical way (even though I use acting) but in the most authentic way possible. That’s when people really connect to your words. Spoken Word poems are usually between 3-5 minutes long and you can’t read them again or hit the replay button. When you enter the stage as a spoken word artiste, you have that small amount of time to capture the audience’s attention. That’s why Spoken Word poems are so vibrant and heartfelt.
What is your novel, Confessions of a Paper Plane, about?
I left home when I was 16 years old. I abandoned school to travel the world and got involved in hip-hop projects, Spoken Word and engaged in youth and street work in over 25 different countries. The book is a very personal work and it highlights my nomadic life and the questions: “Shall I leave or shall I stay? What’s out there for me?!” Human beings descend from nomads. Without moving around, the world wouldn’t have been populated the way it is now. It’s going to be a biographical novel and I can already reveal that I adapted and rewrote the story for the theatre and the play will probably hit the stage in Spring/Summer 2018.
Tell us about your experience working in prisons.
Working in prisons is incredibly tense, beautiful and emotional. I call the prisoners ‘my boys’, because to them, I’m like a big sister. The magic of Spoken Word is incredible to watch when I host workshops in general and especially in prisons. Guards and therapists often come up to me and say, “We didn’t expect this from them!” This is exactly what the project is about: (Re-)discovering your real potential, using the heart and not the mind to create meaningful pieces of poetry and short stories.
How has the library space changed over the years?
The nature of learning in libraries has changed. It is not only learning out of books and individual learning, it is also collaboration and learning in groups. Therefore, we need silent areas, but also areas where people can talk and exchange their knowledge. The library is a so-called third space: a space between home and work. It must have a comfortable atmosphere and ideally a small café. In Cologne Public Library, creative and practical physical solutions to accommodate activities and events have been implemented. Following the philosophy and approach of “small is beautiful”, various areas have been repurposed to multiple and alternative uses. Flexibility is key.
Hannelore Vogt, Cologne
Director, Cologne Public Library
What would you say is the future of physical libraries?
The library as a place is more important than ever. The library of the future has to fulfill the following roles — as a space for inspiration, learning, meeting and performance. During recent years, libraries have become active spaces for experience and inspiration and local meeting points. The new paradigm is that libraries are moving from “collection” to “creation and connection.” There are activities focusing on creativity of many kinds with varying themes, topics and interests. We see community members more interested in creating content or goods, not just “consuming” them. To stay relevant, libraries are exploring new ways to attract new (or engage existing) users and meet community needs, including the development of new programs, partnerships, services, and service-delivery methods for their communities.
What are the features a good library must possess?
Willingness to adapt to the changing needs of their communities — socially and technologically. They have to be open for everybody. Our motto is: explore, create, share.
Give us a sneak peek of your session at the Lit Fest?
I talk about the idea of the library as a makerspace, which does not only mean a physical space. It’s more an idea for the whole work of the library which means creation and collaboration. I will show products from the 3D-printer, events based on virtual reality, a video of a little humanoid robot meant for libraries and talk about digital storytelling and a new kind of reading event.
Ira Mukhoty, New Delhi
Your thoughts on this year’s theme, Speak Up, Speak Out.
I was quite amazed to discover the theme of this year’s Bangalore Lit Fest because of the resonance with the work I am trying to do. In Heroines, I was keen to re-discover the lost voices of women role models, who have been silenced in so many ways, to hear their textured narrative to get them to ‘speak out’, in a way, in their vibrant voices for the readers in the 21st century looking for strong Indian icons. For me, studying the voices of Indian women, it is crucial to have the women of today speak up and speak out at every available opportunity, because a woman’s voice, her anger and her narrative, have real power.
Tell us about your latest book, Great Mughals.
One of the women I studied in Heroines was Jahanara, daughter of Shah Jahan. I was taken aback to discover how powerful and ambitious she had been. I decided to look deeper into her story, and her rivalry with her sister, Roshanara. This research led me further and I discovered other Mughal women who had led extraordinary lives, quite different from the classic ‘harem life’ we imagine for them. So my new book is an exploration of the times of the Great Mughals, through the lens of the women of the era.
Why did you choose to tell the untold stories of women in history?
When my daughters were growing up, I wanted them to have Indian icons to replace the ubiquitous Western ones, but I found that many of the characters depicted in popular culture in India were one-dimensional, bland and homogenous. They all were the same — upper caste, upper class, fair and demure, and I felt that it would be interesting to rediscover their original stories. I found that these women were both more vulnerable, and more heroic, than they were portrayed as being, and therefore more human and easier to relate to. And so, I took up the challenge of looking more closely at this genre.
What can one expect from you at the festival?
One of the themes I will be exploring is the sanitation of women in Indian history— the various ways in which historical women are transformed into goddesses and thus are paradoxically made less dangerous and less powerful as role models for women. I will also be talking about why I prefer to tell my daughters about Draupadi, rather than Sita!
Lu Jingjie, Nanjing,
Lecturer, Nanjing Normal University
Tell us about your research on racial and gender transgressions in contemporary Asian American literature and Asian American queer writings.
When I was doing my Ph.D., I was very interested in the term, transgression. Based on the definitions and interpretations given by Bataille, Foucault, and Bakhtin, I understand that transgression is an on-going, open-ended dialogue with the limits, which should function as the marks of differences rather than antagonism or separation. The limit in the process of transgressing is a borderland for exploration, reflection, and critique. Transgression is also a mode of resistance that resists the binaries through the reversal and hybridization of the binary opposites so as to challenge and overthrow the authorized hierarchy. Then, I draw on the conception of transgression and make a study of racial and gender transgressions in contemporary Asian American writers. In my later dissertation, I discuss how contemporary Asian American writers use the transgressive writing strategies including linguistic
transgressions, bodily transgressions and generic transgressions in their respective works.
What is the topic you’re going to be talking about at the Lit Fest?
I will be joining the panel session on the topic, “Literary Fiction—An Endangered Species?” I may not be that pessimistic about the future of literary fiction. Compared with the popularity of “bestsellers”, literary fiction seems to suffer a decline in publication and in sales. However, as a reader, I observe in recent years how the publishing houses, libraries, bookstores, major literary journals, academia, schools and even the government in China make great efforts in raising awareness of the importance of reading literary works and promoting works of literary fiction.
Tell us about the literary scene in China.
I come from Nanjing, a modern metropolis with a long history and brilliant cultural heritage. It used to be the capital of six dynasties in the history of China. From the past until the present, Nanjing has been home to many contemporary award-winning writers such as Su Tong, Ye Zhaoyan, Huang Peijia, and Bi Feiyu. We also have China’s most beautiful bookshop, Librairie Avant-Garde. I love this shop not merely for its ambiance but for the books handpicked by its owner and his employees, all with great taste in literature. Often I meet many visitors from abroad browsing its shelves. Unfortunately, there are very few books translated into English. I think what needs to change is that more great literary works written by Chinese writers must be translated into English, which will allow international readers to read the beauty of Chinese literature.
Kavita Kane, Pune
Your thoughts on the theme Speak Up, Speak Out?
I think all my characters, and not just my women protagonists are exactly doing that - speaking up and speaking out! Thee is an angst in each one of them that ends to well out in words. Uruvi in Karna’s Wife speaks out on not just the tragic futility of the Kurukshetra war but the social battle of birth versus worth, Urmila in Sita’s Sister speaks out on the dharma, the duties a man has to have for the women - his mother, his wife, his sister, his daughter. Menaka in Menaka’s Choice questions her dubious role of a seductress and her right to choose her man and motherhood while in Lanka’s Princess, Surpanakha speaks up for herself and speaks out against Ram as well as Ravan. My next is on Satyavati, to be out this December, and she too has a lot to say, she does speak up, she does speak out.
What would say is the future of books and literature?
Very bright. From my reader’s response, I can well say reading is definitely not dead! When I was a teenager, there was a certain snobbishness and condescension associated with Indian authors and writing in Indian English. But today, check out how popular Indian fiction and non-fiction are. That is a huge change, is it not? And good books through time will become literature.
What can one expect from you at the Lit Fest?
I will be speaking on women in mythology and it is as diverse a subject as the epics themselves! We know more of Draupadi and Sita but each woman in our mythology is a strong woman, given her situation and circumstance. Be it Satyavati, Gandhari, Mandodari, Tara, Radha, Rukmini , Kaikeyi, Shabri, Ahalya, Ganga or Saraswati - name any and however small the character, she is a woman of convictions, learning and living a life with honest earnestness and all the dignity she can muster. And yes, they do speak up and speak out in their own irrepressible manner and measure!