“A sassy, engaging, provocative book”: Top newspaper reviews Memoirs of My Body

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(Click on picture for link to page or read it below)

“The Body Politik
Sen-Handley does not shrink from a rigorous and unsentimental assessment of her sexual forays and missteps
~by Jael Silliman

Memoirs of My Body; Author: Shreya Sen-Handley; Publisher: HarperCollins; Pages: 274

Young women living in India, or of Indian descent now living abroad, dealing frankly and explicitly with the politics of sexuality and desire in the public domain are finding an audience. They are direct and fearless about uncovering troubling societal notions that assert control over women’s bodies and attempt to curb women’s sexuality. For example, Ira Trivedi’s India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century (2014) examined the changing sexual mores of young Indians in non-Metro cities. She argued convincingly that the sexual revolution that has occurred in the last 20 years has fundamentally reshaped the ways in which young people think and deal with each other in relationships. She probed disturbing social attitudes towards prostitution, pornography and gay marriage, and underlined the incredible individual and social costs emanating from sexual repression.

This year’s Lipstick Under My Burkha by Alankrita Shrivastava is a bold and compelling film by a young woman that deals with the politics of desire, and the still too-high price women have to pay for breaking taboos about sexuality. The popularity of this sexually explicit movie indicates that a broad public is ready to engage with an honest treatment of sexuality from a woman’s point of view.

Shreya Sen-Handley, in Memoirs of My Body, goes a step further: it is her own body and sexuality that drives this provocative book forward. Her body is the touchstone for reflecting on the broader experience of sexuality and its conundrums. She demonstrates great confidence in moving from her own experience to speak of women more broadly today and through history. While some of her work is based on her life growing up in Kolkata and working in Delhi, Sen-Handley, now living in London, remarried and a mother of two, draws on her experiences abroad and on contemporary global events to ground her work.

The book opens when Sen-Handley is barely six, made to feel guilty when she is “caught” masturbating by her “horrified” mother. Her “pleasurable little world shattered into tiny shards of shame”. Sen-Handley questions why she was forced to carry this burden of shame, where nothing shameful had been done. “For years the whole experience of sex, especially my own sexual urges, would be tainted by this view that sex is filthy, bestial, and one of my many failings.”

The failure to deal honestly with masturbation, the labelling of women masturbating as a mental disorder that has existed since Ancient Greece, and the punishments historically meted out to children found masturbating, which included tying them to their beds and “clamping especially made metal appliances on their genitals”, provide insights on how far society has gone to curb women’s pursuit of sexual pleasure.

In a chronological sequence, always starting with her own wide-ranging sexual experiences and relationships, Sen-Handley does not shrink from a rigorous and unsentimental assessment of her sexual forays and missteps. For example, she describes her first experience of intercourse as uncomfortable and uninspiring, so different from the million love songs that had been spawned, where she was supposed to hear “celestial music”. Instead she heard “…the gritting of teeth (mine) and the revolting slab of flesh (his) against firm flesh (mine). Not what I had signed up for at all!”

Sen-Handley has a strong libido, her mind is sharp and her reading on the topic is wide. She takes the reader on her sexual journey where one can touch the humiliation of being dark and, therefore, unattractive in India, the searing impact of sexual harassment at the workplace, the mental and physical violence she faced in her first marriage and her subsequent plunge into dating in London. Here, her dusky body and curvaceous figure resulted in her being pursued, much to her delight, “by a line of suitors”, albeit many of them “frogs”. Sen-Handley unflinchingly discusses the sexual desires of her male suitors who include the Bitty Bobs, the men fixated on certain parts of women’s bodies, not the whole. She insists that these kinds of men who exist all over the world, have made “a fine art of objectification of women’s bodies”. The media, advertising, fashion and film all decide what unreal shape and size a woman’s face and body should be, which in turn fuel the weight-loss programmes, gyms, diet food and cosmetic surgeons who all promise to make women that perfect size and shape to be desirable. The “body-shame industry”, as she calls it, is worth $600 billion.

Sen-Handley’s writing is fresh and uncompromising. This sassy, engaging book is at once Sen-Handley’s story and a universal one. Men and women will find the book challenging and will have much to learn from it.”

‘Strange’ on a list of recommended books by women in 2019

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“With 2019 on the verge of its end, a decade is coming to a close. Whether the political upheavals, social initiatives or economic ups and downs, everything adds to what the decade meant for us. What better way to look at the year going by, than through the lens of literature? Since women writers flourished this year, churning out best-sellers and winning major literary prizes SheThePeople.TV reached out for recommendations for books written by women in 2019 through Facebook and Twitter.” Click on image for full list!

The fabulous SheThePeople asked me why I write

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“…Writing gives me joy like nothing other than my little family can. This year, I have been fortunate to have worked on two projects that have been a thrill – my book of short stories ‘Strange’ which is out now, and my opera for the Welsh National Opera which goes on tour in Britain in 2020. Both completely different, both challenging in their own way, and a complete delight to me, both in their fashioning and in the final product.

In the context of the opera, writing has also enabled me to score a first and pave the way for others after me. With the writing of this opera, I am reliably informed, I became the first and only South Asian woman writer to have written a libretto for a major international opera house, and the central characters in my opera will be the first modern Indian characters to grace the international operatic stage. Writing, therefore, has allowed me to strike a necessary blow for diversity and equal opportunities in the arts!

But writing is as much about the sheer joy of it. I have had so much fun writing the short stories in ‘Strange’, letting loose with my imagination, my arsenal of words, and mischievously twisted ideas, and then taking a chisel to them in the end to hone it to as near-perfection as I can, that I hope my enjoyment shines through these stories and warms the reader. Because that too is why I write – to share my pleasure in our weird and wonderful world.”

(Please click on pic to read the rest – another brief paragraph!)

“Shreya’s agility in traversing tortuous psychological terrains, never belabouring her point or being judgemental, held me in suspense till the very end of each tale. I was absorbed, engaged and disturbed by the stories”: Another great review for ‘Strange’ in a Calcutta magazine

 

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“Shreya Sen-Handley’s latest book, Strange Stories, a book of 13 short stories was launched in Kolkata a couple of months ago at Starmark. It follows her first book, Memoirs of My Body, released in 2017. Shreya is now engaged in opera writing in partnership with the Welsh National Opera that will tour the UK in 2020. Clearly, the writer, originally from Kolkata and now living in the UK is on a roll. Her ability to write in such diverse genres with such confidence and finesse is quite remarkable.

Memoirs of My Body was a bold book where Shreya spoke of her sexuality, the wanted and unwanted attention she received, with brutal honesty; Strange, while not autobiographical, is as bold in the range of often unsettling stories she tells with audacity. Shreya does not shrink from the seamier side of life and treats her often very dark characters with subtlety and sensitivity.

Each story, some set in India or among the Indian community in England, is pithy and in the short span of the telling takes the reader through many unexpected twists and turns in the plots that left me unsettled, not knowing where the tales would end…”

Please click on image for the rest of this original, astute review by author Jael Silliman!

A (nearly) full-page interview, on ‘Strange’ and more, in a Calcutta broadsheet! (notice how I’m rubbing shoulders with megastar Amitabh Bachchan?)

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Nottingham based Author, columnist and illustrator Shreya Sen-Handley got rave reviews for her first short story collection, ”Strange’, published by HarperCollins. That this book also managed to impress internationally acclaimed writer Ruskin Bond has further raised expectations. Shreya, who is writing a libretto for the Welsh National Opera, and a travelogue for HarperCollins, has got her platter full at this moment. In a freewheeling interview with Samay Paribartan,
she opens up on the relevance of short stories in this modern era, her latest projects, the waning habit of reading, master craftsmen who kindle the zeal to weave new engaging tales and her idea of observing people before giving them life through words. Excerpts…
Your book on short stories ‘Strange’ has been well-appreciated. Even, Ruskin Bond described it as ‘masterful’. Share the process of coming out with such a captivating collection.
I began writing short stories in 2013 or so, so quite late in my writing career. I’d been a TV and print journalist for around twenty years already at that point, working with the likes of MTV,CNBC, BBC, The Guardian, Times of India, The HIndu, The National Geographic, and more. But I had always enjoyed reading short stories and suddenly one day I wrote one, and found it immensely enjoyable. Readers really took to it too and it ended up being published in Australia and broadcast on their radio. This encouraged me to write some more and each one I wrote went on to be published, shortlisted for prizes, and so on, both in India and abroad. But even then I didn’t really think of a putting them together as a collection till HarperCollins and I started working together on my first book, a memoir through the prism of the female body, called Memoirs of My Body. They loved the stories I had already written and wanted me to write another dozen with all the flow, rhythm, invention, insight, and clever twists of the first few, and so ‘Strange’, my first collection of short stories was born. 
You’re going to tour big cities of Britain as part of writing a libretto for Welsh National Opera. What’re there on your bucket list?
I have written a libretto for the Welsh National Opera. I am told I am the first South Asian female to have done so and that is of course a huge honour and terribly exciting in terms of the road ahead for all of us as well. The Welsh National Opera is headed by Prince Charles and one of the major opera houses of the world so our opera will be staged at some of the grandest venues at some of the biggest cities in Britain, and eventually maybe even abroad. I can tell you it will be going to the hometown of the Beatles , Liverpool, the Welsh capital, Cardiff, the huge multicultural melting pot that is Birmingham, and more. So it is really for the National Opera to decide where it goes, but I would of course love for it to travel to India, especially Kolkata!
Tell us about the projects that are in your pipeline?
I have a third book coming out with HarperCollins, a book of travel stories, possibly called The Accidental Tourist, possibly out next year. I have had travel columns in the National Geographic and The Hindu and written many a travel story for other big publications as well, and it feels like the right time to write a longer one but with all the elements my readers have always enjoyed – the humour and whimsy and vivid descriptions that transport. I am also writing a novel which international publishers have shown an interest in already though it is at a very early stage. This is a psychological and medical thriller. It is rather intense and I am taking my time over it. I might also be editing an anthology in Britain, there is also a play in the pipeline, about the partition of India, also in Britain, and there may be another opera too! Plus all my other work including illustrations and the teaching of creative writing will, fingers crossed, also continue!
We often hear that the habit of reading is waning. Would you buy this belief; what’s your viewpoint?
Fewer people read books, this is true, because there are so many other distractions. But people still read and the children who do get into it, read more widely and seem to draw more from it than we ever did. So reading is thriving, if in pockets. And when life is so packed full of things to do as it is today, books need to cater to the changing needs of readers, not by “dumbing down”, nor does writing have to be any less beautiful or in-depth as a result. Which is where the short story comes in. They are perfect for the windows that we have nowadays to read something beautiful, engaging,surprising and thought-provoking. Short stories are such brilliant compact journeys just right for the modern world but they don’t haunt you any less when you finish – just like any other longer piece of good writing. And that’s another reason I wrote Strange, and why many more good short stories should come into being – it’s just what the modern reader needs!  
Being a celebrated published author how do you assess the medium of kindle edition of a book?
While i prefer the smell, feel and look of a “real book”, the Kindle has its uses, especially when commuting or traveling. It is a matter of personal preference and so I say, let both flourish, and reading will too, as a result.
Name the authors who continue to inspire you even now with their craft?
There are so many, far too many to mention. Right now I am revisiting a PG Wodehouse story alongside Philip Pullman’ latest book. I am also waiting eagerly for the next book in Hilary Mantel’s Booker winning Wolf Hall saga. I have recently developed a renewed respect for the old masters of the short story form – Roald Dahl, O Henry, Maupassant, and more – having followed in their footsteps recently. There are many more writers, both old and new, who continue to inspire me to try my hand at new and wonderful forms of writing. I have read more theatre recently, having accidentally become a playwright/librettist myself. I shall be taking home a ton of books from India too (as always), having just spoken at the very popular Times Lit Fest in Delhi, and discovered many titles I felt an urgent need to read immediately!
We go through different phases in our lifetime. How do you overcome stress, failures and other negativity?
I think it is love and wonder, which might sound crummy till you realise it is what keeps most of us going. All kinds of love- romantic, familial, platonic, or even the love you encounter for your art – it all helps me carry on in the face of obstacles. But so does the love that I invest in things because that gives you just as much purpose as the many types of received love that sustain us. And that sense of wonder that you must never lose as you grow; the need to discover and explore new things of all kinds- stories, art forms, places and people. All of these together gives my life direction and helps me overcome the obstacles in my way. And there have been many obstacles along the way, but equally there have been a hundred reasons to keep trying. 
Since you’re a well-known columnist, author and illustrator you also spend considerable amount of time in observing people. What are the things that catches your eye or keeps you hooked?
Oh that really is one of my favourite activities! Watching, listening (including earwigging as the English call it – essentially listening in on the conversations of others!) and then surmising, embellishing and inventing to create whole stories out of snatches of experience and fleeting encounters, that’s got to be one of the best things about being a creative person! That deductive and empathetic leap that we make, and must make, to connect to the world, absorb what it has to offer and then fashion art out of it, is what makes every day such a treasure trove of inspiration. And so much fun! I don’t know that I look for anything in particular because some of the best stories come from the most unlikely sources and when you’re least expecting it, though of course the eye or ear may be drawn to the unusual, but if you keep watching and listening, never discounting anything as potential source for a cracking story, inspiration will come to you! 
By Sarnavo Das, in Samay Paribartan

‘Strange’ on live British TV (again)

 

 

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‘Strange’ makes another appearance on British media. This time on popular local TV station Notts TV’s tea-time show Ey Up on November 12, where both my books, the recently released ‘Strange’ and the award-winning ‘Memoirs of My Body’ published in 2017, have received a very warm reception and lots of air time.

From the start to the 39th minute, with ‘Strange’ on from around the 32nd…https://nottstv.com/…/ey-up-notts-tuesday-12th-november/