Asian Books Blog interview on the lure of the strange, surreal, and macabre

2020-06-23 (3)

EC: What draws you to the strange, the surreal, the ominous and the macabre?

SSH: ‘Strange’ ideas come to me quite naturally, I suppose, because I’m neuro-atypical. To think within the constraints of convention or ‘normality’ is a stretch because my brain is wired differently. But I also feel that the mainstream that seeks to exclude those they perceive as ‘different’ is secretly not that well-adjusted or ‘normal’ themselves. That all of us have quirks and angularities that we deny, or are unaware of. I sympathise with both the overt misfits and the secret ones. I have empathy for those who find that life, and their own nature, and the lack of understanding from the world around them, have derailed their plans of leading a contented, conventional life. A ‘normal’ life. But as we acknowledge differences more and more, whether in sexuality or culture, or anything else, perhaps we see that there is no such thing as ‘normal’. My imagination teems with those on the margins for reasons of genetics, ostracization, illness, economics, and more, and in my work they find a home.

(Please click on pic for rest of the interview)

Asked to provide a lockdown reading list, I said…

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“Author Shreya Sen Handley is known to be a strong emerging voice for women. She penned the award winning book ‘Memoirs of My Body. Her recently released book is ‘Strange’, a collection of twisted short stories, which the legendary Ruskin Bond has described as “masterful”. She is also now the only Indian woman writer to have written an international opera. It is a Welsh National Opera production which will be staged at six of the biggest theatres in the UK….”

(Please click on pic for full article on me and my lockdown reading ~a lot of it with my kids, at the moment)

‘Strange:Stories’ is diverse, riveting and really enjoyable~ BBC Radio

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Please click on pic to listen to legendary BBC Radio host John Holmes discuss my new HarperCollins book of “unsettling” short stories, our new, multicultural Welsh National opera extravaganza that goes on tour in Britain this year, THAT Colin Firth lake scene in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, and the sorry state of the world, from 1:11:20 to 1:56:34!

On the cover of a magazine!

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“Greta Garbo, and Monroe
Dietrich and DiMaggio
Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean
On the cover of a magazine”

Always fun to find yourself on the cover of a magazine, especially under the headline ‘Strange and Beautiful’. Since model/actor Milind Soman is next to me, I can safely assume I’m strange and he’s beautiful!

Fabulous review of ‘Strange’ in top newspaper~”A most reluctant narrator and an accomplished illusionist, Shreya Sen-Handley shows only what she wants you to see.”

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“It is hard to articulate an emotional response towards Strange, Shreya Sen-Handley’s collection of short stories. The collection oscillates between sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, mental health, surrealism and dystopia. The closest one gets is an eerie head tilt, the kind that you see a dark-coloured cat do when it seems to be staring right through your soul.

What Handley has perfected is the art of deliberate obfuscation to throw the reader off. She creates an ether-like environment by revealing minimal detail. A most reluctant narrator and an accomplished illusionist, she shows only what she wants you to see. Halfway through the collection, the reader starts fearing what she holds in her other hand, the one she hides behind her back. Thematic parallels can be drawn to Black Mirror and Love, Death and Robots. Similar to these shows her stories begin from a point, in reality, a surrounding that is relatable and then it is her prose that lifts her universe just a few inches above the ground until it floats above our own, shimmering and within it a constant, sinister reflection of our own. In Handley’s worlds, the reader is a sleepwalking tourist completely at her mercy, walking with only a hazy image in front of them…..

Another tool that Handley employs rather well is the penultimate twist. It is a fine balancing act she pulls off ensuring the penultimate twist is devastating enough to appear to be the final one and yet the final twist still builds up. In a short story structure where pacing is key achieving this requires special mention. In Lean On Me, a wheelchair dependent man enters into a relationship with his healthcare worker and moves into her home. Erratic behavior on his part soon leads to a discovery of many other potential lovers being cultivated online and his exit from her home. What he leaves behind is shockingly poetic. Handley also has a few zingers by way of opening lines peppered through this collection including my favorite, “Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba walk into a bar…” Often she uses unconventional words and structure to hammer home the strangeness of the collection which has a wonderful effect, such as the word ‘un-undressed.’

Shreya Sen-Handley’s Strange is a lovely little eccentric collection that merits a place on any bookshelf. One would call it a success simply by how badly one wants to invite the author to tea point at various passages and demand more details. Such as what was on the chit that was passed to Arnie. Each story is so well interlinked so finely constructed that the reader tends to go back and forth to ensure there is no tiny detail that has escaped the first read. Handley’s is a refreshing voice in the scares department and one hopes it will only get louder and creepier. If you are into the ‘chills’ this is not to be missed.”(click on picture for full review)

“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.”