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

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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)

“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.”

Spectre: An excerpt from my unfinished new novel

 

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(Image from net)

As the train pulled out into the countryside north of Nottingham, rolling and frost-topped on that winter’s morning, I finished sending messages to the three adults who might wonder about me in the course of the day, and fell asleep. I knew I had an hour in hand, with crooked-spired Chesterfield and a clutch of mining villages to cross, an alarm set on my phone just in case, and no wish to think of anything at all till I got there. The train chugged through landscape I enjoyed even in the harshest weather, because harsh seemed to suit the miniature towns we passed, some of them decimated by plague or war in the past, with that lingering drama heightened by the chill. But the unsettling motion of the train, the early morning murkiness, and the whiplash of rain against the windows meant that I was soon dreaming troubling dreams ~

I walked up to the little house I had lived in for years with my former husband. It was the same in every way but that the already disproportionately large attic looked larger still, and the smaller lower floor was positively mincing. It loomed over me now, seemingly salivating where the upper windows dripped rain. When the door opened, I thought it must be my husband, but the figure hung back in the shadows till the moon came out (how was it so late? I had started for Sheffield at the crack of dawn). But when he finally stepped into the light, I saw that he was no longer a man but half-wolf, slavering and sniffing with its gaze fixed on me. I tried to run only to find my feet cemented to the garden path. Had a slick crawled over as I watched with my heart in my mouth? I screamed but no sound emerged. And then as he leaned into me, his face coming closer and closer to my own, I could see the red of his pupils, and smell his feral breath. Till I woke with a start to realise it was the conductor’s face hovering over my own. He had a concerned look on his face and a wagging beard, as he politely informed me that my time had come. Or perhaps he said that about my destination.

Was it the whiff of scruffy beard that had occasioned the unpleasant dream or the trepidation with which I approached this visit? Too late now to turn around, I thought, as I gathered my things and still feeling woozy, even frazzled, disembarked. Nothing really changes, I was able to smile to myself as I worked my way through the pigeons and pedestrians to grand Sheffield Library near which I meant to catch my tram. It loomed imposingly behind the sheets of rain. Still the place of calm I recalled but there was no time for that today. The world around me would quieten down, I knew, as I pushed to the suburbs and people and places thinned, but the turmoil inside would only increase as I neared my destination. As I walked on, the rainswept stone looked as grey, and the concrete blocks of the seventies as unwelcoming as I remembered them. Steam rose from the streets to wrap round the rushing pedestrians, all in a hurry to get somewhere, climbing farther to cling to the tram lines stretching overhead, like snow cleaves to cobwebs.

If that looked a cold embrace, the welcome I might get may be poorer still. I steeled myself for it as I found a window seat for my ride. Not that I wanted a warm welcome, like a homecoming bride ~ god forbid. All that had been left behind a long time ago. But the possibility of nastiness, or violence which it might well descend into (hadn’t it so often before?) made me anxious. And before I knew it I had unconsciously shredded the tram ticket in my hands and had one more worry – that I would be thrown off the tram for ticketless travel! Wouldn’t it be the perfect excuse to go back home then, to the warmth of my family? I could do that anyway, couldn’t I? I didn’t need to ride back into the past and revive it first, I entreated, perhaps just myself, as I watched the pebbled-dashed houses of the suburbs, winter-bare trees, and far fewer people, glide past my tram window.

Could any good possibly come of my mission? Of course not, a cheerful voice piped up behind me. Startled and then pleased, I craned around to smile a thanks. But she wasn’t talking to me at all. Her companion in a Tartan coat that leaped out of the grey of that Sheffield dawn, nodded an affirmation. Of course not, they said to each other, one must never rush into anything. Imagine, exclaimed the Scotch-brite lady, if you bought a garish dress that was all wrong for you! Exactly, agreed the woman who had spoken first, one must approach life and its trappings with caution. That’s what I should do, I muttered, go back now while I still could. But the tram lurched to a stop, reminding me with a sharp tug to my stomach, that was no longer possible. The past was here, rearing up, and with it I would have to engage.

My reluctant steps however only allowed me as far as the café halfway up the hill, and there I found myself rehearsing at last the lines I would say to my ex, even those which I hoped he’d say back to me. “But you see what you’ve done to me?” “Not just the injuries you inflicted then, but now, so many years later?” And finally, “Why did you do it when you claimed to love me?” And in the best–case scenario playing out in my head, he would acknowledge my pain, “I am sorry. I should never have done it. It was inhuman behaviour. Let me set it right, now.” But even in my head, this rose-tinted cloud would pop within seconds, leaving behind the certainty that what would really happen, the real best-case scenario, would be the door slamming in my face.

Would it still be the blue door with luminous stained glass that we had bought together with such hope (or at least, I had hoped), the one we taped over when he’d sent his fist flying through it, I stopped to wonder? Then, I rolled a softer line of questioning around in my head, “Could we talk about those years? Something has happened and I need to know about the times you…” but how does one even say that, about the things he’d done to me, without sounding angry and strident, and well, violent because violent things have violent sounds, don’t they?

Didn’t we talk about violent words that sound violent just the other day, Steph? I found myself typing, as I waited for my coffee to cool a little. “Yes,” Steph got back lightning quick. “How letting loose verbally invariably led to physical aggression? Yes, yes, we did. Reliving it was hard but I’m glad we did it together”. The memory of this exchange, of dark matters though it was, made me smile. But I must have more than smiled. I must have made a sound that carried enough for the waitress to be suddenly watching with pursed lips. Or did I just look wrong? I was wearing the same dark coat as everyone else and the same chunky boots, but of course my round, brown, beaming face and jet hair would stand out in this neighbourhood, it always had.