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Stories from a ‘patchwork world’

  • On the heels of Brexit, a women’s writers’ collective in the UK has published a bold new anthology
  • The book includes stories and poems that looks at cultural displacement and dislocation from several perspectives

Members of The Whole Kahani at the launch of the book in London.
Members of The Whole Kahani at the launch of the book in London. (Kashif Haque)

Earlier this year, 100-odd people gathered in the basement of Waterstones in Bloomsbury, London, to celebrate the launch of May We Borrow Your Country, the second anthology from members of The Whole Kahani (TWK), a collective of British novelists, poets and screenwriters of South Asian origin.

Published by Linen Press (the only independent women’s press in the UK), with a foreword by Preti Taneja, author of the critically acclaimed novel We That Are Young, this is a “contemporary collection of stories and poems that looks at dislocation and displacement with sympathy, tolerance and humour". The contributors include Reshma Ruia, Kavita A. Jindal (the co-founders of the collective), Mona Dash, Radhika Kapur, C.G. Menon, Shibani Lal, Deblina Chakrabarty and Nadia Kabir Barb, all of whom have an array of awards. Formed in 2011, TWK’s first anthology, Love Across A Broken Map (2016), set out to smash stereotypes about South Asian diasporic identities and experiences in Britain through 10 stories and a slightly different set of contributors.

May We Borrow Your Country features 23 pieces by eight contributors. “Reading it," Taneja writes in her foreword, “it becomes clear that the UK cannot, as a participant player in global cultural production, nor as a country in the grip of an insular, fraught, soul-searching moment into what our national story is, arrive at a complete understanding of ourselves until the voices of British women of colour are equally heard." This is a sentiment that resonates ever strongly as the hot mess that is Brexit unfolds.

Kapur’s story, The Metallic Mini-Skirt, is subversive, tackles the evil mother-in-law trope, and is suffused with fun, pop culture references; Barb’s story, Living With The Dead, is a meditation on death and burial rites in Islam and Christianity; Chakrabarty’s story, Small Fish, about politics and patriarchy, had everyone in splits, while Jindal’s poetry sequence, Civil Lines: One Man’s Chronicle Of Partition, asks, “In 1947, was everyone else insane or we?" The readings displayed the full range of the writing on offer—featuring fierce female characters and voices.

Some questions arise. Why the title May We Borrow Your Country—and that too without a question mark? “It expresses opposites," says Menon. “It is a question, a statement you could make about colonization, about immigration, about cultural appropriation, and also about cultural integration." For Barb, “it’s not just about immigrants, it’s not just about geographical’s also about emotional and spiritual and moral boundaries…it’s ultimately about belonging."

What do they gain from being a “self-organizing collective"? Kapur spoke of the solitariness that comes with writing—and how collectives can offer support during such times. Lal thinks of their work as a “patchwork world"—where they weave together their individual strengths. “It’s wonderful to feel that there are seven other writers taking part in my journey as a writer, and that I’m taking part in theirs."

What lies in the future? In the long term, Jindal hopes that TWK can set an example and those who want to set up similar initiatives in Birmingham, Cardiff or other British cities can look to them as a model. “In the very long term, I would love to see TWK thrive and be a space for bicultural and tricultural people to come to." Chakrabarty adds that their short-term plans are quite focused. “I see us experimenting with more forms of writing—workshopping more poetry, more flash fiction, maybe short plays—and marketing ourselves more as a collective now, with two books under our belt, and with a bit of an identity formed."

May We Borrow Your Country: By The Whole Kahani, Linen Press, 224 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,045.
May We Borrow Your Country: By The Whole Kahani, Linen Press, 224 pages, 1,045.

Jindal also spoke about the power of small publishers in changing the literary landscape in big ways: “They don’t care about what the market wants—they look at what they want and they make the market. They give you something you don’t know you want. I salute them." Taneja agreed that “the industry has a real problem" when it comes to rejecting work by writers of colour. “I had the very dubious honour of being among the handful of British Asian women writers who have won a literary prize in this country (the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2018). It is 2019 and it is not good enough," she adds.

The longlists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Man Booker International Prize, and the Rathbones Folio Prize were announced this month. While small presses saturate these lists, there are almost no South Asian writers on them. London’s indie press Jacaranda recently announced its #Twentyin20 initiative—to publish 20 black British writers in 2020, with the hope of “normalising" black writing in the UK. May We Borrow Your Country is a vital contribution to this conversation around the politics of publishing and prize culture, about who’s in and who’s out. Women’s writing, it says, especially by women of colour, matters—no questions asked.

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