#edbookfest: Meena Kandasamy & Helen McClory: “The whole spectrum of the female experience needs to be in fiction.”

Wells of loneliness | Indian poet, novelist, activist and author of The Gypsy Goddess Meena Kandasamy has won many plaudits for her writing. She’s joined the book festival with When I Hit You, a provocative examination of an abusive marriage. Joining her is Saltire First Book Award-winner Helen McClory, whose Flesh of the Peach describes an artist’s American road trip after her mother’s death. Explore the wilder shores of love and loss with these two rising stars of fiction, alongside chair Lee Randall.

“It’s constant victim-blaming.”
Both Meena and Helen’s books deal with women who don’t conform; they transform trouble to art. “I wanted to claim the story about being a victim of violence,” explains Meena. “It’s a widespread phenomenon in India.” When I Hit You is written years after the fact with the character reflecting, meaning that immediately they know the narrator survives. “As a writer this kind of divide of fiction and non-fiction doesn’t really exist. When I was in a bad marriage, I felt like I was in a novel. Reality becomes fiction, so the act of fiction becomes more real for you.”

In terms of violence, it’s widespread, but nobody talks about it India. Instead they question: what did you do wrong? What were you wearing? “It’s constant victim blaming.” Meena wanted to look at the women behind this – perceived as weak, subservient, a variety of traits – the reality is that it can happen to anyone, many complex people. To further give context to the culture that Meena’s book draws from, marital rape is still legal; it’s also legal to have sex with minor wives. “It’s not criminalised as they say ‘it will destroy family culture’. The wife is the property of the husband – how can it be rape?”

Being a feminist is also seen as a problem. As a feminist writer in India, you’re seen primarily through the feminist lens and “how it’s ruining you. Feminism is always the scapegoat – women  cannot be willfully bad as they’re seen as objects – it has to be brainwashing.”

“You can’t build a full picture of someone who doesn’t yet understand themselves.”
Helen’s Flesh of the Peach is intriguing first and foremost due to its form. There are 102 chapters, composed in flash fiction. Her debut collection was also flash, and the style evolved quite naturally. “In terms of a character as a fragmented person, going from moment to moment in shattered pieces, it works,” she explains. “They’re condensed, sharp little pieces but they build a picture, but never a full one. You can’t build a full picture of someone who doesn’t yet understand themselves.”

The journey undertaken in the book is one Helen experienced herself. Cheap travel across America down to New Mexico. “It was disgusting,” she laughs. “A horrible experience in terms of comfort. It shows all the wrong sides of the track – places of poverty, neglected areas. I had such a respect for people travelling in these difficult ways. Immigration is exceedingly hard thing to try do. You’re leaving behind something, and taking others with you. You have to assimilate.”

America claimed, at least until recently, that people were “welcome to bring their traditions.” Helen previously lived in America, and “this book came out of awe of reassembling yourself after a big culture shift.”

“We are living in a culture of violence.”
There seems to be a duty that women writers and characters need to make the reader feel comfortable, but in the case of Meena and Helen, they simply don’t and wouldn’t pander to those expectations. “There’s two different layers,” explains Meena. “The woman in general is demure, passive and interesting and the man can feel the reflected glory as she shrinks. And as a writer, she’s not seen as an individual. She has ambitions, she wants to be Sylvia Plath. We occupy this space time continuum where people have already demonised all female writers.”

“It can become insidious,” continues Helen. “People can invent the intent. They’ll ask you, “Did you know…?” There is creativity there! As a creative agent it seems tricky to get across…”

“Oh, I just accidentally wrote this!” laughs Meena.

They discuss the gaze of critique, that men are seen as the universal voice and judged on the work itself rather than the shadows of their identity being cast on the work, and the sexual ownership of both their characters. They cover both the victim and aggressor of violence, both of which are stories that need to be told. “The whole spectrum of the female experience needs to be in fiction,” notes Helen, with Meena adding, “We need to see how violence dehumanises us. It occupies everything, it can take over. We are living in a culture of violence.”

Meena and Helen’s books have a lot of fascinating parallels and you could rightly listen to the pair talk long into the night. Sadly, that wasn’t an option, but picking up their books and diving straight in is, so go do it.

More posts from Edinburgh Book Festival

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