I really enjoyed my interview with Britain’s Best Independent Bookstore Five Leaves Bookshop (national and regional winner several years in a row) which premiered last night. I got to yak about life and sleep and children and buses and travel and opera and books with poet and publisher Pippa Hennessy. And about growing older and growing up…
“She’s had two books published by HarperCollins, written for international media and was even the regional head of a television channel at the age of 25. It’s fair to say that there are achievers in this world, and then there’s Shreya Sen-Handley. And if that impressive CV wasn’t enough, she’s now become the first Indian and South Asian woman to write a Western, international opera, called Migrations. We catch up with the multi-talented writer to find out more…” (please click on pic to read more)
The Best Independent British Bookstore of 2018 (and regional winner before and after), Five Leaves Bookshop, interviewed me this week as part of a new online series on British authors. It was a wonderful half-hour chatting and laughing with the amazing Pippa Hennessy who plays a pivotal role for literature in the region, spearheading the campaign that brought Nottingham its UNESCO City of Literature status. In the course of the interview, I was asked to read from my HarperCollins collection of modern tales of the unexpected, ‘Strange’, and judging by the broad smile on Pippa’s face, it went down well. Please do watch the interview when it premieres on September 29th, and all the other fabulous interviews that are already out. Here, in the meantime, is a picture of us with Henry Normal, the BAFTA winning creator of popular British sitcoms like ‘The Royle Family’ and ‘Alan Partridge’, Oscar-nominated film ‘Philomena’ starring Judi Dench, and more, on a panel discussing writing. Henry Normal is another of the authors interviewed in the Five Leaves series. Please click on the pic to know more.
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)
(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.”
“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!