Read the Resistance, January 2018: One Part Woman
For this month of Read the Resistance, an online book club that highlights written works of and about resistance, we asked Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians, to recommend a book that exemplifies resistance to her. Her pick? One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan. Join McConigley for a discussion about the book on January 31, moderated by Megha Majumdar.
“Perumal Murugan is a Tamil writer who lives in South India,” said McConigley. “I first encountered his work when I lived in Chennai, India. I was working at Tara Books, a small independent publishing house, and they published a few of his works. Murugan writes in Tamil, and only a handful of his books have been translated. Murugan writes about people who are on the margins, who are disenfranchised, and he has written widely about caste. Madhorubhagan, or One Part Woman, was written in 2010, but not translated into English till 2013.
“Soon after its publication, the book was banned. The book follows a childless couple desperate for a baby. As a last attempt, they consider going to a chariot festival at the Hindu temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god, where for one night, it is said that consensual sex between any man and woman is allowed. The book examines caste and societal expectations, while going into the more interior landscape of a couple’s marriage. Soon after the English edition came out, various caste groups complained that One Part Woman insulted a Hindu deity, the temple, and women in general. They called for the book to be not only banned, but destroyed. There were burnings of the book, and Murugan retreated from public life, vowing to never write again. I chose this book as censorship is abhorrent, and Murugan tackles issues in Indian society that few authors touch. I admire his writing not only for the storytelling, but for the risks he is willing to take.”
Read Nina McConigley’s essay on One Part Woman, written for PEN America’s 2015 Banned Books Week feature »
About Nina McConigley
Nina McConigley is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians, which was the winner of the 2014 PEN Open Book Award and winner of a High Plains Book Award. It also was on the longlist for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was born in Singapore and grew up in Wyoming. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where she was an Inprint Brown Foundation Fellow. She also holds an MA in English from the University of Wyoming and a BA in Literature from Saint Olaf College. She is the winner of a Barthelme Memorial Fellowship in Nonfiction and served as the Nonfiction Editor of Gulf Coast: a Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. Her play, Owen Wister Considered, was one of five plays produced in 2005 for the Edward Albee New Playwrights Festival, in which Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright Lanford Wilson was the producer. She has been awarded a work-study scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2005–2009, and received a full fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center. She was granted a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Fiction at the 2010 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. In 2011, she was a Scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and in 2014 was a Fiction fellow.
About Perumal Murugan
Perumal Murugan is a well-known contemporary Tamil writer and poet. He has written six novels, four collections of short stories, and four anthologies of poetry. Three of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Award in 2005; Current Show; and, most recently, One Part Woman. He has received awards from the Tamil Nadu government as well as from Katha Books.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Hi, Nina.
NINA MCCONIGLEY: Hi!
MAJUMDAR: Welcome, everyone, to the January 2018 edition of Read the Resistance. Read the Resistance is an online book club—that you probably know if you’re here—that highlights written works of and about resistance. My name is Megha Majumdar. I am associate editor at Catapult where I work on books and our magazine, Catapult.co. And joining me this month is Nina McConigley. She is the author of the 2014 PEN Open Book Award-winning work, Cowboys and East Indians. She has also worked with us at Catapult on a PEN anthology of debut fiction, which I will let her speak more about.
I do want to say that we’re going to discuss Perumal Murugan’s novel One Part Woman, which Nina recommends. Nina, do you want to speak a little bit about yourself and your writing?
MCCONIGLEY: Yeah, so, and I think this speaks to why I became really interested in Murugan’s writing, my mom is from Chennai, and I grew up in a Tamil-speaking home in Wyoming. My father is not Indian, but growing up we had a lot of extended family around. . . . But I never really had read any works, especially translated works by Tamil writers.
Then in 2007, I moved to India. I moved to Chennai, and I began working at Tara Books, which is sort of an artist-collective publisher that comes out of Chennai. And that was the first time I ever encountered Murugan’s work. Tara had translated two of his books: Seasons of the Palm and Current Show, and so I first encountered his work there. This was before One Part Woman was written.
. . .
MAJUMDAR: Do you want to tell us a little bit about what made you turn back to [One Part Woman] this year?
MCCONIGLEY: I went to India in 2015 in January to do the Hindu Lit for Life Festival, and when I was there it was right around the time his book One Part Woman had been banned. And there was a lot of uproar at that time. I went to visit my bosses at Tara, and they, my past bosses, had told me that Murugan had become very frightened and that he had stopped writing and that he was not going to write anymore because of the uproar and the banning and burning of his books. And I just thought that was crazy because clearly this is such a beautiful book, and I just couldn’t understand some of the uproar over it.
. . .
MAJUMDAR: I read your essay on this topic. [Your bosses] told you how the author was persecuted for his work and decided that he had to give up writing in order to continue to live, right?
MCCONIGLEY: Yeah, people were threatening him at his home. This is a man that I think has lived a pretty under-the-radar sort of simple life, and all of a sudden he was being harassed left and right.
. . .
MAJUMDAR: Sorry, Nina, and everyone. Thank you so much for bearing with the problems. . . . Shall we go ahead and jump into talking about the book? I’m sure that’s what people are excited about here. So, Nina, did you want to talk a little bit about Kali and Ponna’s story? I’m really glad that I have a chance to read about them, and I have a lot of thoughts, but I’ll let you jump in with something that’s most exciting and interesting for you right now.
MCCONIGLEY: I think the first thing is I really appreciate the way [Murugan] looks at caste, and beyond caste he has this couple that’s in a marriage that actually they’re very in love and happy with each other, but how childlessness and not having a child is such a stigma in that society and how you’re considered incomplete if you don’t have children, and I think that to me is a really interesting notion because again their marriage is very good besides the lack of children.
MAJUMDAR: Right, and there’s something so playful and joyous in their marriage, and this is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about throughout my reading of this book, is that there’s just something really radical about the idea of being happy with each other and being playful and desiring each other. And I love how the book locates resistance in that place of joy and humor, even with the uncle, Nallayyan, who is, you know, who always has jokes about the state of being childless and how they ought to just ignore the words of the villagers. So there’s a lot of humor and play and joy, and through that there’s resistance.
MCCONIGLEY: Yeah, and again I think it’s very easy—I teach Indian Lit here at the University of Wyoming, and I think people sometimes have a stereotype about marriage, Indian marriage in particular, and about arranged marriage and how that works, and I just really like that he writes against that idea that their marriage . . . yeah, it is playful; they love each other very much.
MAJUMDAR: Yeah, and then that sense kind of radical joy extends to the religious festival that we read about in the book as well, right?
MAJUMDAR: So this notion that there is a god who is half man, half woman, and in whose worship people can attain a kind of freedom and be with whoever they want.
MCCONIGLEY: It’s funny. I was teaching some Greek. I teach a classics class here, and parts of this book reminded me a little bit of reading sort of ancient Greek literature in terms of that sort of drawing upon this god . . . just this sort of folklore tradition that I think Murugan draws from.
MAJUMDAR: Tell me more about that connection between Murugan’s work and Greek literature that you explored in your class.
MCCONIGLEY: Well I think that, you know, anytime you have a temple [laughs] and people going—it’s funny because I read The Cay last year, last semester, and when you read that there is an inhibition that sort of goes down when you’re celebrating certain events, and I really like that Murugan. I know he studied folklore, along with his Tamil studies, and you see that influence in his work very much. I think you have to look to the past to understand your future, and I think, obviously that past can be constraining when it’s involving caste and religion, but in that way he sort of breaks out from that, and I really appreciate that in his work.
MAJUMDAR: Yeah, it’s very interesting because in a way it really challenges the way in which we think about religion, as a place of strictures and rules, and what this book is doing is saying, “Look at this religious festival, look at this god who is challenging that.”
MCCONIGLEY: Mhm. But people didn’t like that [laughs]. I mean, I think that’s where he got in trouble. I think a lot of people who have strong faith in a different way, and I would say Murugan has a very strong faith, they did not like him writing like that. They really protested that he talked about something that was an ancient ritual that has happened for a long time, but they did not like him bringing it to light.
MAJUMDAR: Right. Is this, I’m curious, is this a festival that you know about through your family and your heritage?
MCCONIGLEY: No, I had never heard of it until I read the book. Had you heard of it?
. . .
MAJUMDAR: Sorry, Nina, I was just going to ask about gender here. I think that is of course a huge part of the public discourse right now, and the idea of having a god who does not have to be either a man or a woman but can be aspects of both and be worshipped in that form is really radical. It’s a kind of freedom that is strangely, as we see in this book, not available to that god’s human worshipers, you know? The man and the woman have to do their very rigidly defined roles. The woman has to be a mother. Kali and Ponna face so much ridicule for not conforming to those roles.
MCCONIGLEY: They do, and I think a lot of that is tied to that, not just that caste, but for the Gounders, certainly having a lack of a male heir, or having childlessness, it’s interesting to me that Kali doesn’t want to get a second wife in this book because he’s nervous that he will be found out, that he’s the problem, not Ponna.
MAJUMDAR: Right, and what is really beautiful in this is that even though it takes on so many issues—it tackles caste and religion, gender—but at the same time it really gives Kali and Ponna so much interiority. They are not just people wrapped around the issues; they are real, they have their own thoughts and doubts and joys and desires, and that’s something that’s really beautiful, and I feel like we can place something radical in that as well, in that very stubborn humanity of theirs.
MCCONIGLEY: Yeah. I’m curious, then, how you think of the end of the book because it sort of ends on a note that—I don’t know, you’re not sure what’s going to happen with them.
MAJUMDAR: The end is crushing.
MCCONIGLEY: I know! [laughs]
MAJUMDAR: It is so crushing because you see these two people performing little acts of resistance throughout, in their joy, and then in the end they give in to this massive doubt, and it is because of the system that they’re in, and it’s because of the society that they’re in, which, you know, even their great humanity and their great love for each other can’t really stand up to. That’s how I read it. How did you read it?
MCCONIGLEY: I read it the same way, and I don’t want to read it that way. I want to think that that culture, and the society we’re living in, doesn’t put those pressures on us, and we have the freedom to do what we think, but it doesn’t seem like that. I don’t know, it doesn’t seem very optimistic by the end of that. And honestly, seeing what happened to Murugan after the book was published, I see why he thought that way.
MAJUMDAR: Yeah. Well going from that rather unsettling note to thinking about kind of the world outside the book, I was wondering how might we think about Kali and Ponna’s story as it intersects with our reality today, because in a way, isn’t it about them trying to preserve a way of life that they believe in, that brings them joy even if it goes against what everyone around suggests?
MCCONIGLEY: Yeah, and I think that’s what we all try to do, ultimately, is to live the life we want to live without society’s pressure. I’m not totally sure on this, but I think the book is set in the 1930s, and the only reason I think that is because the prohibition in it, though it doesn’t really have a time or place. And I really think in some ways we haven’t, again, we have not gone forward that much, even if 70 years past where the book is set. That’s what makes the book so relevant today. And the pressures that women face in the book have not changed in India. I don’t think they have changed in some ways, the expectation that you get married and have a child.
MAJUMDAR: Right, and I also thought that it was placed in the ’30s or early ’40s because it’s set in a time where British rule still exists in India, and you have that really interesting story where a grandfather acquired a parcel of land by basically tricking the British administrator in a contest where he had to throw the piece of stone on the other side of a lake, and he basically dropped the stone and pretended that he had thrown it. That was also a signal, I think, of the kind of intelligence that people had to show, the kind of determination and persistence that people needed to have to do anything in that place.
MCCONIGLEY: Yeah, and again I think, obviously the British don’t rule anymore, but still there’s that sort of ingenuity and that sort of breaking, so that’s really interesting.
MAJUMDAR: Yeah, and of course we are in a time where there are great social pressures to think one way about outsiders and immigrants, of people of nonconforming genders, and I feel like, if we really think about the book, there are so many intersections into how we think today.
MCCONIGLEY: Absolutely. In that way I’m so glad the book is getting a wider audience. I know Grove Atlantic is publishing—the book has not been published in the U.S., but Grove Atlantic is publishing it in October in the U.S., and I’m so glad it will have an audience that it hasn’t had, because I do think this book absolutely speaks to so many contemporary pressures, and also, you know, it’s really reflective of some of the politics that’s going on in India right now. Censorship has happened in India in the past; it’s not just now, but the fact that this book had to go to court for Murugan to feel comfortable to start writing again is, to me, something that no artist should be facing.
MAJUMDAR: Right, and there is a really strong environment of censorship, especially when a work of art comments on religion in India, right?
MCCONIGLEY: Yeah, Arundhati Roy had it, Salman Rushdie had it; Rajiv Gandhi’s government banned The Satanic Verses. M.F. Husain, the painter, his work also went through lawsuits and litigation, so it’s not just [Murugan], and it’s not just this current government, but it’s certainly been something that’s happened in India for a while on and off.
MAJUMDAR: Yeah, that’s right. I wanted to point out that the book that I’ve been reading from is the Indian edition.
MCCONIGLEY: Same [laughs].
MAJUMDAR: And thank you, Nina, for pointing out that Grove is reissuing this here in the U.S. this fall. I’m excited to see how this book will get taken up in American reviews and discussions.
MCCONIGLEY: I hope a lot. All [Murugan’s] books are stunning. Current Show, which is also not available here in the U.S., is just such a weird, interesting novel, and, you know, I would teach it in MFA programs, just the structure is so interesting in how he uses sort of cinematic frames to mirror his fiction. I really think he’s really groundbreaking. It makes me a little sad that certain writers, because they don’t write in English, just don’t get a wider audience, and I’m so glad he is getting a wider audience.
MAJUMDAR: Yeah, and thank you for bringing up his other books. I’ll admit that this is the only Perumal Murugan book that I’ve read thanks to your introduction. Did you want to place this book and the challenges around it in the context of his other work?
MCCONIGLEY: I think he writes what he knows. I think his father ran a concession stand in a cinema, and that’s why he wrote Current Show. It made me frustrated when this book was being criticized, when One Part Woman was being criticized, because this is a caste and this is a group that he knows. He’s in it. This is not him writing as an outsider; this is something that he’s very familiar with, and I think he does write what he knows, and he writes about this very small sort of pocket of Tamil Nadu, which he knows incredibly well. In that way I am completely immersed in the world that he has created for me as a reader. I’m there. My mom is from Tamil Nadu, but I don’t know the area he’s from, but it’s incredibly well depicted.
MAJUMDAR: I have never been to Tamil Nadu. I grew up in Kolkata, which is far in the east India. But this book has something so vivid and beautiful about the ordinary lives of people. You know, the people sneaking away to have a drink in the afternoon, or cook something in a hidden cave to get away from people. So this idea of preserving an interior space, preserving a private space for oneself, even an inner life, which is difficult, it’s really interesting.
MCCONIGLEY: Yeah, especially because—I mean this probably is based on my own experience of being in India and being with my family—it can be hard to carve out a private space [laughs] because there’s a lot going on and families are very intertwined. As we see, the pressure on them to have a child. I think if they were left to their own, they probably would be okay with not having a child.
MAJUMDAR: Right. And that’s where the character of Nallayyan, the uncle, comes in, right? He’s probably one of my favorite characters in the book for constantly telling Kali and Ponna to enjoy other people’s children and not worry about it too much. What did you think of that character?
MCCONIGLEY: I thank God for him, you know? Thank God. I found some of the most poignant parts of the book when Ponna was holding another person’s child. I understand that pressure of wanting to have a baby, and it’s very very hard because, I live in the U.S. and I get asked a million times, and I can’t imagine what it would be like in India. And of course when it’s tied to caste and other things, to have an heir becomes very fraught. Thank God for the uncle.
MAJUMDAR: You just made me think of one of the hardest scenes in the book, which was when Ponna is on the way to the festival, and she’s holding another one’s child, and the child poops in the diaper [laughs], and she is disgusted by it, and the other people judge her for it, right? Because as a woman who is of childbearing age, she’s supposed to have this intuitive expertise and ease, which she does not in fact have.
MCCONIGLEY: No, and I sympathize with that. I sympathize with her. That’s why I guess I find the end of the book so hard in some ways because I feel like they could have the childlessness but still, if they’re okay as a couple, I feel like they’re okay. And it’s kind of crushing to think they may not make it as a couple.
MAJUMDAR: Absolutely. This outside pressure completely destroys the really joyful, happy relationship that they have. I wanted to give you the chance to talk about anything else in the book that you wanted to discuss.
MCCONIGLEY: There’s so much [laughs]. I have all these notes here. There’s so much I could talk about. One thing that was surprising to me when I read Murugan for the first time is that his prose is incredibly simple. Maybe deceptively simple. You read it, and it’s a very easy read. When I had heard about the book before it came out, I don’t know what I thought it was going to be. But you’re instantly drawn into their story, and it’s very simple. [Murugan] does use lyrical and sort of symbolic language. I think the tree opening and closing the book, and the way the branches sort of extend out—I love the way he uses that. Honestly, his style of writing, I love it. It really appeals to me as a reader.
MAJUMDAR: It is a beautiful book. I’m glad you brought up the tree and the deceptive simplicity of the writing. It’s such a complex book, but the narrative is so inviting and accessible. It’s a really unique book.
MCCONIGLEY: I know. And half the people who wanted to ban it, I don’t even think they read it [laughs].
MAJUMDAR: So as we’re winding down, maybe we can speak a little bit about how this book might be informing your work. What are you working on now?
MCCONIGLEY: I’m finishing a novel right now. Well, actually I have a draft done. My short stories, most of them are set in Wyoming, and it’s been a little scary for me to write a novel that partially is set in India because I worry about getting it right. I think writers like Murugan, they inspire you to just tell your story, and it’s the story you know, and it’s writing about my family, which I certainly do know about. And again I think being a writer right now in this world, I think your writing often is an act of resistance, and for me my art is definitely my activism. Certainly living in Wyoming where it’s kind of hard to be super politically active. I’m kind of isolated. But I definitely think of my art as my activism.
MAJUMDAR: That’s a great and powerful note on which we can close. Thank you so much, Nina, for joining me. And thank you everyone for bearing with our technical difficulties. I’m so excited to read One Part Woman once more this fall when it comes out. And before I go, I will remind you all to join PEN America next month, which is almost upon us, for a conversation with Rion Amilcar Scott, who recommends Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. Thank you so much.
MCCONIGLEY: Thank you.