Monday, 3 July 2017

Portrait of a Writer as a Young Wife

I read about 'When I Hit You' by Meena Kandasmy, and rather wished I hadn't. It was very hard to read. I was angry the entire time I was reading it. It is the story of an abusive marriage, about how one person breaks down and annihilates another. It is different from other description of abusive relationships because it is based on politics. Or rather the abuse is hidden behind politics. The young woman is enamoured by the radical political ferocity of an older man, and after their marriage he uses politics as a means to criticise and undermine her, to justify what he demands of her. The book is her internal monologue, telling us what he does and what he says, and what she thinks, why she reacts as she does. Her isolation is begun by moving them to a place where she does not speak the local language, and then exacerbated by incrementally removing her links to the outside world. She endures, the societal pressures on her to maintain appearances adding to the burden of her husband's behaviour. You watch him try to crush her, but can see her resistance and the thinking that allows her to imagine the future. In some ways the story also serves to highlight the prison that such a marriage would be for women who have no education or resources to draw on. 

The review I read gave the impression that the story is autobiographical, but it is listed on her website as a novel. Her wiki page does not mention a marriage, but another article I read about her work mentioned a legal battle with her ex-spouse, so it is unclear how much of this tale is related to her own experience, but it feels very visceral. The style has the effect of being very intimate and immediate, as if the reader is a fly on the wall. This, from early on in the marriage, when there is still an element of discussion between them:

"He accuses me of carrying my part into our present , and this treason is evidence enough that there is no hope or space for the future to flourish. At this point I am not listening to him. I have no intention of responding. I am thinking of being at a point in the future when I would be writing about this moment, about this fight, about the stinging slaps that mark my cheeks and only stop when I have deleted what I have written, about how I am forced into arguing about freedom of expression with the man I have married, about the man I have married with whom it has finally come to this, to this argument about the freedom of expression. And I am thinking of how I am someday going to be writing all this out and I am conscious that I am thinking about this and not about the moment, and I know that I have already escaped the present and that gives me hope, I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again, and I know that because I am going to be writing about this, I know that this is going to end." (p.87-8)

Over a very short space of time the situation deteriorates, but she withdraws inside her head, which continues to be a safe place to be. I found her resilience the saving grace against his unremitting physical and psychological aggression. The way the narrator talks about language makes me think that Meena's poetry will certainly be worth reading too.

"The coarseness of my husband's insults makes me cringe. I'm ashamed that language allows a man to insult a woman in an infinite number of ways. Every image conjured up is repellent. Every part of my body is a word spat out in disgust. My cunt, sequestered and quarantined, is nothing but a spittoon for his insults.
Once, this language was something else for me. It was a secret place of pleasure. It was my face in the water, the sudden comfort of far-away laughter, the smell of woodsmoke clinging to my hair, the eager arrival of my breasts - it was all mine to explore. Like a lover's body, there were things about my language that I thought only I knew.
I remember mining my language for words from the deepest, most forgotten seams, words that people no longer wrap around their tongues, words that stay mouldering in lexicons and old works of literature that nobody bothers to read anymore. I found the word for a flirtatious girl who chatters too much, the word for the first meeting of the eyes of two people who will eventually fall in love, the word for an intoxicating drink that induces dance. Keep in mind that this is a language where the word for obstinacy is also the word for intercourse." (p.171)

Meena Kandasmy is a writer and activist who uses her talents to battle on many fronts, certainly someone to look out for both politically and literarily. 
p.s. Interesting review of one of her poems here on the Los Angeles Review

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