Destroying patriarchal norms is the kind of political activism I want to do in my books: KR Meera
In this interview with Firstpost, KR Meera discusses how she visualises chapters, the influence of her journalistic background on her work, breaking patriarchal norms, and how writing can require immense physical stamina too.
Rather than being labelled a 'woman writer', I wanted to be a writer who is a woman – there is huge difference, says KR Meera.
I think I am the kind of writer I am today only because of my journalistic background, she adds.
She speaks of how every story she tells has three levels – the story itself, a political message and a universal message.
On most panel discussions, the moderator usually leads the conversation with their questions, which the panelists take turns to answer and offer their opinions. Very rarely do panelists answer these questions and then throw in one of their own, to give the discussion a new shape and the audience some food for thought. This is precisely what KR Meera did during the panel discussion ‘How to Judge a Book’ at the recently concluded ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).
This journalist-turned-author has won the Kendra and Kerala Sahitya Akademi awards for her works in Malayalam. Her novel Aarachaar has sold around 150,000 copies and its translation, Hangwoman, was shortlisted for The DSC Prize. Her other works include The Poison of Love, The Gospel of Yudas, The Unseeing Idol of Light, Yellow Is the Colour of Longing and The Angel's Beauty Spots.
Meera’s books are known to be intense, and readers connect to the stories in them in numerous ways. She speaks of how every story she tells has three levels – the story itself, a political message and a universal message. Because of her (self-confessed) obsession with the readability of her writing, she ensures that even if her readers are not aware of the political and universal contexts, they will still be able to understand her works.
After her sessions at JLF, she discussed various aspects of her creative process in an interview with Firstpost: how she visualises chapters, the influence of her journalistic background on her work, breaking patriarchal norms, and how writing can require immense physical stamina too. Excerpts from the interview:
Your books portray the many struggles women face, such as suppression, condescension, and mental and physical abuse – struggles that often defy exact description. An yet, you are able to describe these. How?
In a way, that was deliberate. There were so many good writers around me, and I wanted to make my work stand out. I had to look for newer and better metaphors and expressions, and find out what others hadn’t written about so far. When my first stories were published in a periodical, a younger colleague said that he did not read stories by women because ‘they always start in the kitchen and end in the verandah.' This provoked me, and I thought I should write stories that have never been written before by women in Malayalam. At the time I never thought that my work would be translated.
After a while, I raised the bar of my performance. I decided to write stories that male writers of my time had not attempted.
Rather than being labelled a 'woman writer', I wanted to be a writer who is a woman – there is huge difference.
When you are writing against the patriarchy, you have to destroy the norms and forms of gender that have been thrust on us. That is the political activism that I want to engage in with my books.
Breaking into the patriarchal world of Malayalam literature must not have been easy. Has there been a change in the way women writers are perceived?
There has been a slow change. It started in the 1930s, but lost its momentum. There were several rebellious writers back then. By the 1960s though, we started pleasing readers – who were men – and creating characters and stories that they would be happy reading. Today, the general reading public understands that there are many stories that they may not be happy listening to, but which will nevertheless be told by writers.
There is one problem here: there is a huge gap between intellectually empowered women, and the relatively less or disempowered men. These men don’t know how to interact with such women. I am happy when so many men come up to me and tell me that my work has made them understand their gender privilege and the plight of less privileged people. As a result of such stories (and the credit is not entirely mine), conversations are happening and changes have begun to take place.
Do you think your grounding in journalism has held you back as a fiction writer, or helped you articulate better?
I think I am the kind of writer I am today only because of my journalistic background. At the linguistic level, it was the classes on creative writing and editing that helped me polish my language. My experiences as a journalist have also made me more sensitive to human life. I reported on the riots in Kannur in northern Kerala, which would have otherwise been unimaginable for a woman born and brought up in Southern Kerala, into a middle class family like mine. Because of such experiences, I have seen the extremes of peoples’ lives, understood them and become more sensitive.
Every language has its turns of phrase that often cannot be translated accurately. How do you work with your translators to maintain the original tone and feel?
It is not easy, but there is always the author’s instinct. I read the translation and if I feel that this is not what I want, I work with the translator to sort it out. Sometimes there may not be an equivalent or easier word, but I can understand when a word doesn’t serve a purpose. And yes, I prefer working with women translators. Unless you have suffered the penance of patriarchy and know what it is like, it is difficult to translate.
Considering the wealth of literature we have in Indian languages today, what role do good translations – especially into English – play?
As an author I am concerned about one benefit: getting more readers. It doesn’t matter how good the translation is, as long as the reader gets something beneficial out of it and is able to connect to it. If it brings a tear to the eye or strikes a chord in the heart, I am happy with the translation. That said, as writers, we always look forward to a better translation.
English translations have helped me connect to an audience I wouldn’t have otherwise. I really wish I was translated into more Indian languages.
A lot of your work has been serialised in Malayalam periodicals. How did this help your work to reach and be noticed by larger audiences?
There are pros and cons. Personally, I like serialising in a weekly because that will ensure that I will write the novel. The flip side is that when you read it as a whole book, you may feel the need for some editing. At that point, the book gets better with editing, but readers may not go back to it as a book.
How easy or difficult has it been to emotionally extricate yourself from one piece of work and move on to the next?
When I was writing Aarachaar, it took me several months to get out of depression. With my current book that is being serialised and another novel I am working on, every time I finish one chapter, it takes me around two days to recover. Either I am getting old or I am getting more emotional. I did not realise when I first started that writing demanded so much physical stamina. Only during Aarachaar did I realise this.
What do you do when you are not in author mode?
I have never taken a break from writing. I work even when I sleep. I am constantly thinking of making a better world.
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