Shreya Sen Handley on ‘Memoirs of My Body’ and the imperfect art of remembering
Witty, no holds barred, thought provoking, unputdownable — these are just some of the adjectives that can be used to describe Shreya Sen Handley’s Memoirs of My Body.
What began as a blog for a media group, garnering 25,000 readers per post, soon turned into a full-fledged book, stemming from the “need for open discourse on topics that don’t get discussed enough”.
The UK-based writer explains, “My conviction was that if I started talking with humour and warmth, I might open some minds and eyes, tap into a sense of empathy and solidarity, and get others talking too.”
In these excerpts from an interview, Shreya talks about the need for humour, the imperfect art of remembering and her thoughts on the feminist movement today.
By writing the memoir in a humorous vein, do you feel that it added to the points you were trying to make? In showing the absurdities of society as it were, do you feel humour itself provides a fertile ground for social commentary?
Humour is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. When a subject is serious, and you want to convince those who do not think like you, then it is essential, I do believe, to approach it with as much humour and joy as possible. Precisely because it is not actually funny and it is not remotely a matter for celebration. Quite the opposite. But why should anyone listen, if you hit them over the head with it? If I thunder from the pulpit, the only people I convince are those who already flock to that way of thinking.
But if I really want to get the message out, because that’s the only way in which it can touch enough people and make a difference, then I have to leaven it with humour and tolerance and empathy. So, yes, humour was a deliberate tool I used in this book to sugarcoat the social commentary, which by its very nature is a matter of some gravity, thus allowing it to actually sink in where it might ordinarily have been shrugged off. But also, it is who I am. The only way I know how to deal with life is with humour. I need it to cope with loss and pain as much as I use it to make my children listen. Life would be unbearable without it, and I am not just talking of my own.
How has the very process of remembering shaped your narrative? What were some of the obstacles you faced while writing about the body as both a site of abuse and trauma as well as a signifier of much more?
Remembering is a very imperfect art. It also gets in the way of artistry. I wanted, even while making a point, to tell a good, engaging, relatable story. And therefore, emotional truth was more important than hard facts, except of course when it came to statistics or historical evidence. So the book presented me with the challenge of telling a good story, in as inventive a way as possible, while sticking to the truth in the areas that mattered.
When it came to the autobiographical elements of my story, I have called it “auto-fiction” because I believe the very act of remembering brings you closer to the essence of the story, the emotional truth, and away from the “facts”. Memories are transmuted by time anyway and the act of putting it down on paper changes them some more till what you have is the essence, the core, of a story. In dredging up the story of my first marriage, for example, I brought a good bit of that trauma back into my life and my book, but not necessarily all the detail. I gave you the emotional truth at the heart of it. And I hope that is what you get through the book – a lot of heart but hopefully not more detail than required. The story of a life can be as long or short as you want to make it. I have tried to keep it crisp and snappy.
With regard to obstacles, when you write about distress, you do bring a lot of it back and I felt it keenly while writing this book – the emotional as well as the physical pain. Another thing that made me uncomfortable was how much of myself I had to put out there to make this story work. I have gone to explicit detail to tell my story, not because I’m an exhibitionist, nor because it comes naturally to me, but because I believed the book required it. If the book’s mission was to make women comfortable with their bodily experiences, then I needed to demonstrate that I was too. It would generate empathy I felt and also give them that little bit of courage to do the same. So, it wasn’t easy, nor has it been easy to deal with the censure that has come in its wake, but I pushed myself to do it because it felt necessary.
Do you feel that in a post-Harvey Weinstein world, women are becoming more vocal when it comes to matters of sexual exploitation and abuse?
I believe that the world was heading that way anyway, especially women. Towards greater openness when it comes to the abuse we endure and the difficulties we experience. Of a sexual nature and otherwise. But I also worry that the moment will pass and it will turn out to be just that – a moment. Even as it is, it does not extend to enough women, because of the nature of social media which has been the vehicle for much of it. I seriously, seriously hope it doesn’t end here, as flavour of the month for a small group of elite women.
But the progress with women’s rights have ever been that – one step forward and two steps back. Mostly because there is the whole force of history and vested interests ranged against it. Despite that however, we must not give up. If we all stick at it, and back each other up, and that includes genuinely liberal men, progress will happen and always has.
What's your take on the feminist movement today?
My feminism is a very inclusive one. I don’t believe a woman is any less a feminist because she is in love with a man, or is a mother, or various other things that don’t fit someone else’s idea of what a feminist is. These tags and yardsticks that have been devised by a small group of women are proscriptive and divisive. Perhaps they have always been there. But my point is that if a woman believes she should have equal rights (and of course, she should!) and works towards it in a range of ways, then she is a feminist, and no-one should tell her different. That they do, is in opposition to the principles of feminism and equality for all. And I think this happens too often and is a problem for this movement.
Perhaps it is a problem for any movement that attempts to keep people out. Having said that, we do see a bizarre hijacking of feminism by cosmetic companies, popular culture, and the like, which try to make out that “girl power” can have to do with what brand of lipstick you wear, or what pop bands you like, or something equally vapid and as far away from real girl power as possible. Like everything else, there is a balance to be struck between elitism and intelligent democracy, and in finding that, feminism will find its feet.
What are you working on next?
There are two very exciting projects that I am working on. One of them is my next book, a collection of “unsettling” short stories, that will be published by a well-known publisher in early 2019. And the other one is a milestone opera that I am writing with an award-winning team for a British national institution headed by Prince Charles. Our opera will tour the UK in 2020. Much to look forward to!
HarperCollins India, `350.