My final post on the Women’s Prize longlist! I’ll put up my dream shortlist on Friday, ahead of the actual announcement on Monday April 23rd. Meanwhile, here are two books that hover between fact and fiction, dealing creatively with (auto)biographical material.
Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You is based on her own experiences of a violent and abusive marriage in southern India. She marries a university lecturer who loves to tell exaggerated stories of his insurgent past, who memorises Marx and Lenin and chastises her for not living up to his revolutionary ideals. He hates her feminism, seeing it as a bourgeois indulgence, and states that any discussion of sexuality, or of women’s bodies, is totally irrelevant to the communist struggle. Soon, he is exerting classic techniques of emotional and physical control: first separating his wife from the outside world by rationing her internet time and finally deleting her emails; refusing to let her go outside by herself; physically abusing her with various household objects; and accusing her of having any number of imaginary lovers. When I Hit You is, at least partly, about resistance, and how the narrator survives before she finally manages to leave her husband, first by typing and deleting words on her laptop during the day, and then, when her laptop is taken from her, by rehearsing narratives in her head. The book jumps between these different narratives, between different ways of telling her story, and the variety of voices that she uses to rephrase her own words.
This allows Kandasamy both to demonstrate incredible versatility as a writer and to skewer the patriarchal, masculine norms that have led to her sustained abuse. The opening section is ironically funny as the narrator describes her mother’s reaction to the state that her abuse left her hair in (short and lice-infested): ‘With each progressive retelling… the lice multiplied, becoming settlements and then townships and then cities and then nations. In my mother’s version of the story, these lice caused traffic disturbances on my hair, they took evening walks on my slender neck… they recruited an enormous number of overenthusiastic child soldiers and then they engaged in out-and-out war with my mother.’ A later section is polemic: ‘In India, a bride is burnt every ninety minutes… Stuck here alone, I count the passage of hours by the number of brides who have been burnt to death… I do not want my kitchen to become my funeral pyre.’ Later still, the narrator takes control of the narrative by mentally writing scenes in her head and analysing her husband’s character, finally goading him into open threats: ‘His verbal threat to kill is enough. It’s what I came for. He is scripting the ending that I wanted for us. I generously allow him this authorship.’ When I Hit You, then, becomes more than just a hard-hitting book about a violent marriage but a meditation on self-fashioning, and how we can interrupt and puncture the stories that others tell about us.
Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma deals not with her own story but with the histories of her grandparents – Naw Chit Khin, a Karen working as a nanny in Rangoon and Saw Benson, a Jewish immigrant to Burma from Calcutta – and her mother, Louisa Benson Craig, who became a Karen insurgent leader in Burma before emigrating to the US. The novel starts with Louisa’s victory in the Miss Burma beauty pageant of 1956, but the next two thirds focus on Khin and Benny, as they meet in Rangoon, have children and become separated during the Japanese occupation of Burma in the Second World War, and during the turbulent period that follows the Burmese declaration of independence from Britain in 1948. As Louisa grows older, the narrative shifts into her point of view, as she leaves for university in America and returns to join the Karen Liberation Army. As this suggests, Miss Burma highlights a significant time in Burmese history that many Western readers (such as me) will know little about, especially the ethnic tension between the ruling Burmans and groups like the Karens, who have fought for an independent Karen state since the mid twentieth century. In this, it brings something genuinely new to the table, especially in highlighting the perspectives of individuals such as Benny and Khin, who embody multiple identities – Khin as a Christian Karen (the majority of Karens are Buddhist) married to a white man, and Benny as a Jew who feels utterly removed from his roots, having known nothing but South India and Burma.
Unfortunately, I felt that this strong material was not really showcased by the novel’s awkward structure and pedestrian, wordy writing. Miss Burma makes a number of strange storytelling choices. The prologue highlights Louisa as the protagonist, but we then spend most of the novel with her parents, making me feel as if we were simply waiting until she returned to the stage. Novels that cover such long time spans – Miss Burma is set between 1926 and 1965 – always have to make difficult decisions about when to compress and when to expand time, and I wasn’t sure that Craig made the right ones. The novel drags in the middle as Khin and Benny hide out in the jungle, yet when Louisa takes over the narration, it suddenly rattles through a large number of events that seemed to demand much more attention, such as student insurgency and Louisa’s own ascension to nominal political power as the representative of Burmese ‘unity’. This has knock-on effects for characterisation. The opening chapters effectively bring Benny to life, but Khin felt shallowly written and repetitive, while Louisa, in contrast, is a bit of a cipher, because we’re never given time to get properly inside her head. I wondered if this arose from the difficulty of writing about somebody so close to you; Louisa, of course, is Craig’s mother. In this interesting interview, Craig notes that:
I spent two years interviewing my mother in preparation to write the novel. This was some time before she died. On the one hand, she was supportive of the project and went along with my line of questioning. Yet her answers clung to surfaces. She could tell me of events, but when the subject turned to what those events had done to her internally, she spoke sparingly and with difficulty.
While Craig says that she tried to fill in the gaps, it’s perhaps unsurprising that gaps still remain.