Welcome to my first TinyLetter: Chigozie Obioma book review edition

What to say? This is just one more social media experiment that has to be tried. And since I am returning to writing and book reviewing, what better medium to add some of my thoughts that don’t make the published review.

I hadn’t heard of Nigerian-born author Chigozie Obioma before I was assigned to review his debut novel, The Fishermen. I just know that Toronto Star had already listed as one to watch for this publishing season. Soon I found out that the New York Times reviewer Fiammetta Rocco had an grander idea.

In his exploration of the mysterious and the murderous, of the terrors that can take hold of the human mind, of the colors of life in Africa, with its vibrant fabrics and its trees laden with fruit, and most of all in his ability to create dramatic tension in this most human of African stories, ­Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to ­Chinua Achebe.

Poor guy. Imagine being a new Canadian writer to be crowned as the next Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies in their very first novel!

I don’t usually read other people’s reviews before I start mine, but since hers came out earlier shouting Achebe, it felt like the elephant in this reviewer’s room. Of course, it is too early to say he is the new Achebe despite their common Nigerian backgrounds, not when writers such as Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are his contemporaries.

The Guardian took a different approach by having another Nigerian poet and author, Helon Habila, write about The Fishermen. He describes it as a “heartbreaking elegy to Nigeria’s promise.” His attempt to place Obioma is a bit more ambitious:

Like most classic African novels in the Achebe-Ngugi tradition, The Fishermen mixes the traditional English novel form with the oral storytelling tradition, dramatising the conflict between the traditional and the modern. But The Fishermen is also grounded in the Aristotelian concept of tragedy, which mostly goes: a good and noble-minded man shows hubris and is brought down by the gods for it.

This blurb alludes to another challenge I faced while writing the review. I didn’t want to highlight the importance of an African “oral story-telling tradition.” It felt too easy a way describe a style that was so definitely “written.” Obioma has an MFA from the US while “the West” still has oral tradition such as campfire ghost stories. We just have forgotten to classify our versions. That’s why I felt like it was a rather cliched way to describe a novel. And cliches irk me.Well, bet you didn’t expect this to be a review of reviews! Sometimes I feel this should be part a general discussion in the arts, the way we have learned to read and comment on films. Anyways, it’s a tiny thought. Perfect for my first TinyLetter.

See you soon and share with this with folks who you think may be interested! The next one will be on my upcoming review of Amitav Ghosh‘s Flood of Fire, the last book in the Ibis Trilogy. And I hope to hear from you. And visit https://tinyletter.com/PialiRoy to subscribe! You will get these blog posts first.

Twitter: @pialiroy

Today’s Parent Debate: Would you pierce your baby’s ears?

Today’s Parent (Aug 2012)
Featuring Aparita Bhandari and Piali Roy



“I want a earring?” As my two-year-old daughter Mallika’s vocabulary increases, I have to steel myself against constant questions and demands for “More ice cream?” or “Wear party shoes?” – all articulated with a wide-eyed look, quick nod of the head and her pipsqueak voice. This particular one, however, made me melt.

If I’d had my way, her ears would have been pierced already. In the South Asian tradition, girls start very young, with simple designs – plain gold studs or, my favourite, baalis (little hoops sometimes attached with tiny bells). It’s part of our culture of adornment, along with bangles, anklets and bindis – all topped off with a dot of kohl to ward off the evil eye.

None of the parents I know, irrespective of their cultural background, have questioned me on this topic. And we often discuss gender issues. It’s only come up when I notice other daughters’ pierced ears and ask their mothers when they got it done. In fact, the only real debate I have had is with my husband, who is also South Asian. He calls it “torture” and “forcing your decision on her.” The discussion always ends with his logic: When Mallika is older and asks for it, she can get it done.

I have a hazy memory of getting my ears pierced in a New Delhi market. I was slightly older than Mallika. My nani (grandma), mausi (maternal aunt) and mum were crowded in a small jeweller’s shop. Anticipating the pain, I bribed a sympathy gift, a bottle of nail polish, out of them, and clutched it tightly as the jeweller pushed a sharpened wire through my earlobes. I wailed, but was soon showing off my gold baalis.

Over the years, I have rummaged through my mother’s jewellery box, trying out her collection of earrings. Now, Mallika tugs my ears to examine mine. Then there’s that refrain again – “Mallika earring?”

When she was nine months old, I visited India to introduce Mallika to my family. One of my aunts pressed a small jewellery box in my hands. A pair of glinting gold baalissat nestled inside. I carefully tucked them away, with all the traditional Indian clothes I have bought, waiting for Mallika to grow up a little.

I think it’s time to take them out now.



Did I ever think about piercing my baby daughter’s ears? Sure, especially whenever I saw a little girl with gold studs looking, well, cute. But I’ve decided my daughter will have to wait until she’s the same age as I was – 11 – to make that pilgrimage to the mall. That’s what I call tradition – if I did it as a kid, that’s the way it is done. My mother’s ears were pierced in Calcutta when she was about six months old, but with me, she waited. And let me tell you, Canadian-born me wasn’t going to be more “traditional” or more Indian than she was.

In truth, when my daughter was little, I was too afraid to have her ears pierced. I did worry about the pain from the ear-piercing gun, but that wasn’t what actually held me back. What I really feared, like my mother, was a baby obsessed with staring in the mirror to look at these shiny little things attached to her ears, pulling and pulling, then getting the ear holes infected and oozing – or worse, tearing them out.

But my other fear was even more serious. Was ear piercing merely the first step into creating my own baby fashionista, a girl who values looks over brains? Would I be encouraging her vanity and stuck with a five-year-old screaming to try on seven different “looks” every morning? As a mother who avoided buying anything pink, I had no intention of forcing her into gender roles.

My daughter is nine now and so far she’s had a balanced approach to her appearance – there haven’t been tantrums yet. She likes sparkly clothes, wears her hair long but forgets to keep it brushed. In other words, she’s a very regular kid.

I’m still glad I waited. Maybe I was the one who couldn’t have coped with a high-maintenance, appearance-focused child, but I love that she is more consumed by Harry Potter than shopping.

However, when my daughter is ready, I will take her to get her ears pierced. She has a lot of old Indian earrings to inherit from my mother and me. Of course, she had better wear them. She will look so cute. No pressure.

The Orphan Review

Leaving India

I’m sure this is happening to many, many freelance writers these days.  As print pages shrink, stories that are not killed are becoming orphans, lucky to land online.  My final review for the Toronto Star’s Desi Life, Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents has survived the cancellation of the magazine and is now on the Web.    

Here’s an excerpt:

If there is a genre that gets little respect, it is the story of the second generation revisiting the motherland, trying to understand what compelled their parents to leave in the first place. San Francisco-based journalist, poet and activist Minal Hajratwala takes this convention and turns it on its head by telling the story of the modern global family in Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents.

Wendy Doniger and The Hindus, Part 467 and counting

If there is one North American academic who gets  the Hindu right all riled up, it is Sanskrit authority Wendy Doniger.  I too have been on the wrong side of the Hindutva gang (a shorthand they despise), particularly in the early days of the South Asian Journalists’ Association list-serv, when I spent many a long night e-debating over the significance of demolished temples. 

I wonder where I will stand with them now that my review of Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History is posted on the Globe & Mail website.  Here is an excerpt from the review:

Many Hindus live in a sort of religious hyper-vigilance, like post-traumatic stress disorder survivors, waiting for the next attack. The trauma was the British colonial experience, where their religion was seen as merely a grotesque series of idols. Abolitionist William Wilberforce was not alone in thinking Hinduism “mean, licentious and cruel.” Like Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana who must prove her purity to her husband Rama many times, Hinduism is constantly under trial.

It is to this maelstrom that Doniger brings her skeptic’s eye, more interested in what can be teased out of stories than revelation as a fact. She is careful to state frequently that readers who are expecting a thorough understanding of Hinduism as a living faith should look elsewhere. Her agenda, she explains, is different: “It’s not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, the [Bhagavad] Gita.”

The Globe and Mail review is the first in Canada, following Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times and Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (a very short excerpt from The Hindus is also on the WaPo site as well as blog posting by Doniger, ‘The Battle over Hindu History’).  

Arthur Dewdney has, in turn, reviewed Mishra and Dirda on the SAJA Forum (he criticizes Mishra for writing a ‘hodgepodge’ of a three graf intro; I disagree, his intro with its E.M Forster reference is meant to entice NYT readers to not skip over his review).  Another worthwhile discussion took place on Chapati Mystery, which was surprisingly followed up by a response from Doniger herself.

However, I think the really interesting reviews are yet to come when the book is released in India.

More reviews:  Tunku Varadarajan in The Wall Street Journal, Sandip Roy in The San Francisco Chronicle.

The Literary 140-character miniverse and beyond

So there I was, whining about shrinking word counts for book reviews when I finally decided to be a twit.  Silly me, I had assume tweeting was only for the cell phone people, forever txting, always on-the-go.

Why would I have to tweet if I sat at my computer all day and had already mastered the Facebook status update?

Well, I can proudly declare that I am one of the sheep who has recently joined twitter – if US Senators can tweet during a Presidentail Address, then really, the band wagon left a long time ago.  (Psst, there are no rules in Web 3.0, mixed metaphors are encouraged.)

There is a certain freedom in 140 characters, which is thankfully longer than a newspaper headline, (now that I think about it, no one uses *which* in twitterland).  It’s like a writing warm-up exercise except that you can waste away hours reading other people’s homework. 

Unfortunately for me, this post shows an indecent reverence for old-school writing with nary a hyperlink, a brachiasaurus let loose in a post-Battlestar Galactica finale.

To correct this, I will refer to the Philip Moscovitch Globe and Mail story about twitterature.  (Of course, this link will only work for umpteen days, then the story will disappear behind the Globe firewall – so I really need to link to a blogger according to protocol.)  While PM writes about two people, I chose to highlight one.  The Canadian one who is not only mentioned first, he also happens to be Bengali like me.  (Got a problem with that?  Then leave a comment, but no  bile please.  I believe comments should be bile-free.)

Arjun Basu may be Canada’s most prolific author.

Since November, the Montreal-based writer has produced some 500 short stories. But this is short fiction with a twist: Follow @arjunbasu on Twitter and you’ll be reading lots and lots of very short stories — all exactly 140 characters long.

“It started as a lark and relatively quickly became something I was mildly obsessed with,” says Basu, the editorial director for custom publisher Spafax and author of last year’s short story collection Squishy.

Arjun Basu calls his tweeted stories – Twisters.  A few examples from @ArjunBasu must follow:

When he’d had too many drinks he’d reminisce about his youth and belt out Karma Chameleon before getting thrown out of some hipster dive bar

When the guests had gone, he surveyed the room. He felt panic, then resignation. There was nothing he could do to save her precious flowers.

We all know a book of tweets is in the works, if not Basu’s then someone else’s. 

And for every book hopefully, but not always, comes a review.  What better place to mention a story from the National Post’s book blog Afterword:

Erin Balser is the founder of Books in 140, the popular Twitter feed in which a book is reviewed in 140 characters. By day, she works in the marketing department of the University of Toronto Press. The 24-year-old East Coast transplant exchanged e-mails with the Post‘s Mark Medley about the difficulties of short reviews, the site’s popularity, and the future of publishing.

The Afterword: Where did the idea for Books in 140 come from?

Erin Balser: I wanted to use social media — Facebook, my blog, Twitter, etc — as a space to better participate in the book community and validate the
ridiculous amounts of reading I do, but I couldn’t think of an original angle to approach them from. I had started to use Twitter as a means of networking and connecting professionally when it came to me — Twitter could give me the originality I was looking for while participating in the always-growing online literature community.

The circle of reading is complete.   


The book reviewer’s dilemma

The greatest frustration a book reviewer has these days is word count.  Reviews are becoming shorter as are the book sections of newspapers and magazines.  I’ve written reviews that run 1000, 500, 350 and 300 words.  In other words, I often reduce a 90,000 word book into a column of type.

So who am I to complain when my copy gets truncated and I lose a paragraph out of a tightly argued review because of space restrications?  My review of historian Ayesha Jalal’s Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia in Desi Life fell prey to that predicament. 

Now I may miss the following lines,

What makes this book fascinating is Jalal’s ability to show how the ideas around jihad were continually shifting.  An early reformer like Shah Waliullah may have inspired a jihad against the Sikhs in 1826, but half a century later, the founder of Aligarh University, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, was more interested in an educational jihad for his co-religionists than armed insurrection against the British. 

 But obviously someone else thought it unnecessary.  Maybe they were right, but I’d like to think the opposite.

Recap: Covering Difficult Stories panel

SAJA Toronto has published a recap of the last week’s panel, Covering Difficult Stories about Minorities.  More than 50 people attended the event!

SAJA Toronto invited senior journalists from the city’s diverse newsrooms to share their views on writing stories that often dealt with ethnic minorities, and aired dirty laundry.

Freelance writer Mary Rogan spoke about choosing words carefully for her Toronto Life cover story on the murder of Aqsa Parvez, and the process of writing the story without having access to its main characters.

National Post senior reporter Stewart Bell spoke about reporting the facts while covering his beat – national security.

OMNI News – South Asian Edition anchor Angie Seth elaborated on how the community news show strives to achieve balance, while also fulfilling demands of reflecting Canada.

Midweek Toronto publisher Yudhvir Jaswal shared his views on the community’s responsibility to accept stories that are deemed ‘negative,’ rather than clamouring for more ‘positive’ stories.

CBC Radio producer Naheed Mustafa addressed issues such as the lack of diversity in the newsroom, leading some journalists of ethnic heritage to become de-facto experts on an ethnic/religious community.