Some books have the potential to change the way the world thinks and functions; Meena Kandasamy’s stunning second novel When I Hit You (Atlantic Books £12.99) is one such book. It’s a courageous, uncompromising and unforgettable account of a violent marriage in which a husband’s attempts to gain complete control over his wife become ever more extreme and horrifying. It’s also a very moving celebration of the unconquerable power of words. Joe Melia caught up with the author ahead of her appearance at Bristol Festival of Ideas.
As well as the extremely shocking physical abuse, the unnamed narrator in When I Hit You endures other horrors – her silencing, loss of identity and complete isolation. What effect did writing such unrelenting abuse and trauma have on you?
I don’t know, and I guess, if I am lucky enough, I will never have to find out. You come to a certain point in your life where you just decide, “Hell, I have shed enough tears, I’m not going to go through more pain and more self-inflicted hurt.” I think, by a crazy combination of circumstances, I arrived at that particular moment quite early. The other thing is—writing is a painfully slow, painfully difficult process for me—I grapple with language, I want to get the words right and the sounds right and the people right and structure right—so I spend my time looking outward, looking at the writing, at the labour involved, and rarely do I look inward. The work is going to speak for itself, I’m not going to be the one doing any talk—that’s my principle.
That is also where I realize that doing interviews are more stressful and draining on my emotional resources than doing art, which in my case is writing poetry/fiction. Because, revisiting trauma for the purpose of art pays you manifold—there’s a definite high of creating something beautiful out of horrible experiences. Revisiting trauma for the sake of an interview, or a panel discussion—it’s great in terms of making noise about an issue that is close to you, but artistically, it does do anything. There’s no alchemy, there’s no struggle, there is no work of art at the end of it.
The narrator says that “As long as a woman cannot speak, as long as those to whom she speaks do not listen, the violence is unending.” What needs to happen to ensure victims of domestic violence feel they can speak and be heard?
We have trivialized violence against women to such a shameful level—that men get away with murdering their wives, girlfriends, former lovers. And yet, the narrative finds a way of blaming the women (she should not have dated him, she should not have enraged him, she should not have married him, she should have left him long ago, and so on). Women in abusive relationships are constantly, easily threatened with death (among other things)—and we do not care as a society, we look away, we laugh at it as if it were an exaggeration, as if it were an improbability. I still remember the first time I was trying to formally lodge a complaint and I was waiting in the Police Commissioner’s office in Chennai and there was this enormous queue of people and finally my chance came, and I went to this very high-ranking official there and told him, “You need to help me. He has said he would kill me. I need help! I need to feel safe!” and the response from him was this really quick smile and a raised eyebrow. And then he looked at me, made the gesture of zipping up the mouth and said, “Freedom of expression!” Meaning, my husband had the freedom of expression to say that he could kill me. This is where we are, on the ground level. I know that things are perhaps a tad better here than in India, but at least two women are being killed every week by partners/ex-partners here, so I feel women must be protected.
Your poem, Nailed, begins “Men are afraid of any woman who makes poetry…” Do you see writing as a political act, particularly for women?
Yes. I think it is also context-dependent. Women are writing not only because writing is emancipatory, powerful, radical, revolutionary—but also because I personally believe that political spaces and public office and guerrilla movements and mass organizations (from where some sort of change, agitation, overthrow, rabble-rousing, resistance is possible) often tend to impede rather than facilitate women’s participation.
The narrator in When I Hit You says “What propels me forward is my restless urge to tell a story”. Does this same “restless urge” drive your writing?
No. If I had any kind of restless urge around me, I would be prolific, I’m not. I spend all my time saying no to 800-word articles that someone or the other wants me to write—and I feel, no, I can handle that in a Twitter thread, I’m not going to attempt an essay about it. From having academics as parents, to also being quite a bit of a self-critical individual, I think that I have a tendency to lose interest very, very quickly. So, I never take up a project unless it’s something which not only interests me tomorrow, but something with which I can live for the next four, five years. Choosing a writing project is very close to choosing a partner—s/he/it must be interesting, enchanting, and irresistible in your eyes day after day.
In an interview about your debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess (Atlantic Books £8.99), in 2014 you said “I really did not want to write what was safe or comfortable.” Now that you’ve written two novels that are neither safe nor comfortable does that want remain as strong?
You’ve said in the past that you trust poetry more than prose when you are writing, is that still the case?
At the moment of answering this interview, I still think that poetry is far more raw and straight and capable of immediate detonation. For fiction to be similarly explosive, you learn how to execute subtlety. So, in a sense, poetry earns its truth moment from telling the truth, as it is—and fiction does the same by doing this sly dance around it, touching it tangentially, allowing it to build up through suggestion and subconscious association.
In The Gypsy Goddess the following exchange occurs: “Can every story be told?” “Yes”. If you ran a publishing company what stories and which writers would you publish?
I’m too much of a thug artist to run a publishing company in my thirties. I need to mellow down, age a little bit, develop an ability to handle numbers and overcome my shyness about discussing money. I’m new to Britain, have spent only about a couple of years here and became formally resident only about a year ago. But I’m horrified by the dismal way in which writers of colour are absent—both from being published, and from being reviewed/discussed/promoted—and if I had the time, that would be something I would try to redress.
Novelist, poet, translator and activist Meena Kandasamy will be discussing her latest novel, When I Hit You, and her other work at Waterstones Bristol Galleries on Wednesday June 14 at 7pm. Tickets are available here at £6/£4 concessions.