“Narrative as Provocation” by Rita Banerjee – Los Angeles Review of Books


In this week’s edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rita Banerjee reviews Douglas Piccinnini’s Story Book: A Novella.  She writes:

DOUGLAS PICCINNINI’S Story Book: A Novella suspends and electrifies narration mid-creation. Story Book explores narratives of self-imposed amnesia, bloody encounters at home and on the road, Oedipal rage, suburban cocoons and the anxiety of marriage, male sexuality and therapy sessions gone awry, Catholic school and homosociality, confrontations with love, death, and surveillance, and of course, the purported cure-all of worst-case scenario guides. The “novella” is composed of a series of short stories which all begin with the title, “Chapter 1.” Each Chapter 1, laced with metatextuality, develops its own existential confusions before arriving at a moment of implosion or interruption.

Story Book is thus about a modern man, a modern artist, and a modern thinker disabled by language. The ghosts of Gertrude Stein, A. R. Ammons, and Samuel Beckett haunt Piccinnini’s prose as each chapter performs its role as self-confrontation or self-interview. Piccinnini’s power as a writer emerges when his disabled speaker learns how to articulate himself, and how to use the very language that hinders his understanding of himself, in order to climb out of existential dilemmas and tailspins…

Another “CStory-Bookhapter 1” begins with the simple provocation: “What did I love?” In this chapter, the speaker sits alone at his computer trying to decipher the meaning of his relationships with women and his odd infatuation with words. He ponders the difficulty of writing an address, a story in which the perspectives of the “you” and “I” combine and trade places. He considers how easily days of productivity disappear as the writer attempts to get a sense of urgency on paper. He writes, “I feel the quotation of an afternoon, emptied — empty before me,” and then reveals:

This is the third time I’ve lived with a woman.

I’ve been in love before. I’ve been loved. I’ve also wanted to have sex with the same person over and over again but that is not love, I think.

Sex can be love. But love and sex are different, obviously. Is it obvious? Sometimes you’ll want to have sex with someone you don’t know and never want to know. You’ll find yourself destroying a complete stranger in some compromising position. It would seem to be some biological failure, love and how we live.

This is the first time I’ve been married. I love my wife. I read recently, “Love is a condition of understanding.” I’m quoting from memory. It sounds like something you might read anywhere.

A nagging sense of quotation, of living a life built on quotation marks haunts the novella. The speakers of his stories are troubled by the thought that their very human existence and their desires for creative expression have already been written and have found a home in someone else’s prose. The fear of living a life already recorded and already performed by literary archetypes creates a start-and-stop motion in Piccinnini’s prose.

Read the rest of the review on the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Queen Mob’s Tea House features Rita Banerjee’s new fiction, “Darling Marie”

“This corner of Valencia seemed gray and abandoned but in the middle of all this nothingness, Marie could imagine that door, in another time, opening up into a dimly lit cigar-centered room, covered by umbrella lamps and French boudoir wallpaper.  The windows next to the entrance would be opaque and flickering…There was gunpowder and the unknown behind it, and in her hand, she held the black-lacquered fan and its secrets…”

The current issue of Queen Mob’s Tea House features Rita Banerjee’s neo-noir story, “Darling Marie.”

Rita Banerjee received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.  Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of BooksElectric Literature, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP WC&C Quarterly, Riot Grrrl Magazine, Objet d’Art, and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass in Portland, Oregon.  Her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night (Finishing Line Press) received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book of 2011-2012 at the Los Angeles Book Festival, and her novella, A Night with Kali (Spider Road Press), is forthcoming in 2016.  Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, she is currently working on a novel, a book on translation and modernisms, and a book of lyric essays.

Queen Mob’s Tea House features Rita Banerjee’s Poem, “Birds on Blue”

QueenMobs-RitaBanerjee“Is it not sweet to think that, if only you have patience,
all that has ever been will come back to you?” —Isak Dinesen

The current issue of Queen Mob’s Tea House features Rita Banerjee’s jazzy atomic-age poem, “Birds on Blue.”

Rita Banerjee received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.  Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of BooksElectric Literature, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP WC&C Quarterly, Riot Grrrl Magazine, Objet d’Art, and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass in Portland, Oregon.  Her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night (Finishing Line Press) received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book of 2011-2012 at the Los Angeles Book Festival, and her novella, A Night with Kali (Spider Road Press), is forthcoming in 2016.  Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, she is currently working on a novel, a book on translation and modernisms, and a book of lyric essays.

“Amrita Pritam: Sexual Politics and Publishing in Mid-20th Century India” – VIDA: Women in Literary Arts Exclusive


Rita Banerjee’s article, “Amrita Pritam: Sexual Politics and Publishing in mid-20th Century India” is now live as a VIDA Exclusive on VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.  In the article, Banerjee translates Pritam’s poem, “Night” from Hindi into English, and writes:

Writing from a minority perspective as an American, it’s often hard to find creative and intellectual predecessors who are writing from your culture of origin but who aren’t necessarily writing in English or just trying to be celebrities in the global Anglophone literary marketplace.  For South Asian writers, for women in the literary arts, and for writers who are looking to challenge the patriarchal hegemony of Anglo-American literature, Amrita Pritam is a must-know writer.  In the 1940s, she came to prominence as a political and feminist writer in India, first in Punjabi literature, then in Hindi and Urdu translation, and finally internationally.  By the 1950s, like Simone de Beauvoir and Bretty Friedan in the West, Pritam was challenging patriarchal values at home, redefining gender roles and narratives assigned to women, and openly challenging heteronormative sexual politics.  In doing so, she ushered in a new wave of feminist literature in mid-20th century India even as she faced criticism for her work from her male counterparts and from within the Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, and South Asian publishing industries at large.

That was our tryst, yours and mine.
We slept on a bed of stones,
and our eyes, lips and finger tips,
became the words of your body and mine,
they then a made translation of this first book.

The Rig Veda was compiled much later.

– Amrita Pritam, “First Book”

In Pritam’s poetry, one is not born, but rather becomes a woman.  Her unflinching gaze at sex, her exploration of emotional and psychological nakedness, and a sense of self-irony and self-knowledge underwrite several of her poems.  In her poem, “First Book,” quoted above, Pritam explores how the very act of physical, sexual love, unbound by the mores of society, collapses the distances between the sacred and the profane.  And in her poem, “Amrita Pritam,” the poet takes a hard look at the mythos of her own public identity and the narratives of victimization ascribed to it.  She writes: “Pain: / I inhaled it, / quietly like a cigarette. // Song: / I flicked off / like ash / from the cigarette.” (Singh 29).

Read the full article on VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

“Calcutta, Marwaris, and the World of Hindi Letters” – Dissertation Reviews

india-marwari-merchants-kolkata-antique-print-1878In January 2016, Rita Banerjee’s review of The Bazaar and the Bari: Calcutta, Marwaris, and the World of Hindi Letters, a dissertation by Rahul Bjørn Parson, was published in Dissertation Reviews.  Banerjee writes,  “The premise of Rahul Bjørn’s Parson’s dissertation, The Bazaar and the Bari: Calcultta, Marwaris, and the World of Hindi Letters, is an intriguing one. In the dissertation, Parson examines the history and reception of Hindi literary texts, particularly those produced about Marwaris and by Marwari writers from the 19th to early 21st centuries in Kolkata. In the latter half of his dissertation, Parson calls attention to the rise of Marwari women writers, and their role in shaping representations of their community, which had been historically, linguistically, and socially marginalized within the cultural metropole of Kolkata.

In the introduction, Parson makes a distinction between the Bengali concept of ‘baṛi’ or home and the Marwari notion of ‘deś’ or homeland. He notes that often in traditional Marwari households, the bazaar or market was part and parcel of the Marwari home, or baṛi. But neither the marketplace nor the home gave a fully accurate representation of the modern Marwari, whose identity and imagination was closely linked to a separation from the homeland, or deś. Moreover, Parson argues, the Marwaris, who were a merchant community from Rajasthan, ‘attracted a fair amount of resentment. The insular nature of their networks and the community contributed to the stigma of clannishness that was computed with a host of other stereotypes that attend to moneylenders’ (5). He notes that texts such as the Hindi journal Chānd capitalized on stereotypes of the Marwari community in order to push concepts of gender, education, and capitalist reform. Parson also notes how narratives of victimhood and social marginalization were automatically attributed to Marwari women until Marwari female writers such as Prabha Kethan, Alka Saraogi, and Madhu reclaimed their own authorial voice in texts such as Pīlī Āndhī, Kalikathā: Via Bypass, and Khule Gagan ke Lāl Sitāre in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. In order to interrogate these stereotypes of the Marwari community within the Bengali-dominated cultural milieu of Kolkata and within the rising world of Hindi letters at the fin-de-siècle, Parson emphasizes the roles that Marwaris, a heterogeneous community, played in the economies of colonial and late capitalism as well as in the development of Hindi language newspapers, presses, libraries, and authors in Kolkata…”  

Read the full review here.

Der Spiegel features Rita Banerjee’s “War is Beautiful: An Interview with David Shields”

DerSpiegelOver the holidays, Germany’s Der Spiegel and Perlentaucher: Das Kulturmagazin featured Rita Banerjee’s piece from Electric Literature: “War is Beautiful: An Interview with David Shields.”  On Shields’s new book and Banerjee’s interview, Der Spiegel wrote:

“Etwas skeptisch liest Tim Parks im Blog der NYRB den neuen Essay von David Shields “War Is Beautiful”, der die New York Times anklagt, mit ihren Kriegsfotos den Krieg zu ästhetisieren. Ganz von der Hand weisen kann Parks das nicht: “Es ist beim Durchblättern dieser Fotos kaum zu leugnen, dass sie ihre Gegenstände mit voller Absicht ästhetisieren – und auf den Betrachter somit anästhesierend wirken. Das sind Glamour-Bilder, gemacht, bewundert zu werden und keine Dokumentarbilder, die der Gewalt und dem Horror Unmittelbarkeit geben… Kurz: Wir sind weit entfernt von den nüchternen Schwarzweißbildern, die den Vietnamkrieg in der selben Zeitung illustrierten.” Parks Gegeneinwand liegt in einer Frage: “Ist es uns überhaupt möglich, dieser Verwandlung der Bestie in eine Schönheit zu entkommen?” Rita Banerjee hat schon im November bei electricliterature ein Interview mit Shields zu dem Buch geführt.”

The text can be translated as:

“In the NYRB Blog, Tim Parks somewhat skeptically reads the new essay by David Shields, War is Beautiful in which [Shields] accuses the New York Times of aestheticizing war with their war-photos.  Parks cannot totally dismiss [Shields’s claim]: “When leafing through these photos, one can scarcely deny that they [NYT] with full intention aestheticize their materials and in doing so, anesthetize the viewer.  These are Glamour-photos, made to be admired and are not Documentary-photos that give immediacy to horror and violence… In short, we are far from the sobering black and white photos of the Vietnam War, which were depicted in the same newspaper.”  Parks’s counter-argument lies in the question: “In this transformation of the beast into beauty, is it possible for us to escape at all?”  Rita Banerjee already conducted an interview with Shields about [his] book via Electric Literature in November.”

Read more about Der Spiegel‘s culture and media reviews here.

Electric Literature – “War is Beautiful: An Interview with David Shields”

WarisBeautifulEarlier this month, I sat down with David Shields to interview him about his new book, War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict (powerHouse Books 2015). During our conversation, Shields spoke about the New York Times’s use of sanitized, sensually inviting front-page photography to glamorize the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; these photos—in Shields’s view—desensitize readers to the cruelty and violence of these wars.

David Shields is the author of international bestsellers and critically acclaimed books, including The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Knopf 2008), Black Planet (Three Rivers Press 2009), and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf 2010), which argued for the obliteration of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, the overturning of laws regarding appropriation, and the creation of new forms for a new century. Over the past several years, Shields’s work has become increasingly political.

Rita Banerjee:  The images of war in the book are very provocative. For example, in the Nature section, in the photo where you’re looking at a beautiful field of flowers and then you see the helmet of a soldier, it’s shocking. It grabs you. And even in the “Paintings” section, many of the images are so aesthetically inviting.

David Shields:  They look like Abstract Expressionist paintings. They might as well have been painted by Rothko or Pollock.

RB:  Reading War is Beautiful, you realize how cleaned up American media is. It’s weirdly Puritan, weirdly sanitized.

DS:  It’s quite striking how this process happened over the last couple of decades. First of all, the rise of digital culture so that a picture could be sent instantaneously from the battlefield to the Times. Second of all, the advent of color photography on page A1 (starting in October 1997).

In the book’s afterword, Dave Hickey points out how serious and great war photography was from Mathew Brady in the Civil War all the way through Robert Capa during World War II and, say, Tim Page in Vietnam. And basically what happened during World War II was the rise of something he calls the “swipe photograph”—the quick photograph that conveys a quick, blurry image; for example, Capa, with his famous picture of a fallen Spanish soldier during the Spanish Civil War. And then what Hickey argues is that with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, people like Diebenkorn, Rothko, Pollock, Gerhard Richter, the swipe image became a huge part of Abstract Expressionism. And now war photographs are not based on what the war photographer is actually seeing in war. Rather, he or she is trying to reproduce Abstract Expressionist tropes—swipe-image gorgeousness.

All of these pictures from the New York Times are remarkably hollow and bloodless, composed, and abstract. All of these photographs have come, to a staggering degree, from art history.  These pictures are beautiful but dead.

RB:  I was really struck by your commentary in the beginning of War Is Beautiful. You raise the point, Is the Times complicit in selling a certain kind of narrative to the United States? That is, the Times promotes its institutional power as a protector or curator of a death-dealing democracy. Who is responsible for it? We all are. We are all inscribed in that death-dealing democracy.

Maybe that’s why we’re so accepting of capitalism as well. We don’t see the devastation. If people are dying of chemical poisoning in an Apple factory in China, how much do we care? The same with Iraq or Afghanistan. As Americans, we’re so used to the idea of distance. When the political world is distant from us, not only are we desensitized and numb to it but it’s almost as if we’re watching cinema or playing in a video game; there’s even a certain aspect of pleasure in a weird way. We have power and yet we’re at such a great distance from what’s going on and what’s going down.

DS:  I try to make this emphatically clear via the book’s opening epigraph from Edmund Burke: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience. The cause of this I shall endeavour to investigate further.” Capitalism, distance, aesthetic pleasure, drone voyeurism are all part of one complicated cocktail. You’ve summarized it very well; it’s clearly capital that’s driving all this. We take pleasure in the privileged distance that capitalism buys.

Read the rest of the interview on Electric Literature.

The Monarch Review features Rita Banerjee’s poems “Please Listen and Do Not Return” and “Storyteller”

MonarchReviewThe current issue of The Monarch Review, Seattle’s literary and arts magazine, features two new poems by Rita Banerjee, “Please Listen and Do Not Return” and “Storyteller.”  The poems are inspired by Nick Carraway, Tom Joad, and Gloria Rich, respectively.

Rita Banerjee is a writer, and received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and her has been featured in VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Riot Grrrl Magazine, Poets for Living Waters, The Fiction Project, Jaggery, The Crab Creek Review, The Dudley Review, Objet d’Art, Vox Populi, Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, Chrysanthemum, and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass in Portland, Oregon. Her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night, received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book at the 2011-2012 Los Angeles Book Festival. She is Executive Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop.

Rita Banerjee’s Mis/Translation Poems featured in Quail Bell Magazine

EderleziRita Banerjee’s poems “Romani Folk Poem,” “Kaddish,” and “A Hymn to Beauty” were just released in Quail Bell Magazine.  These poems, which were written during the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s Yoga & Writing Retreat at the Château de Verderonne in Pircardy, France, are mis/translations of famous literary texts, songs, and spoken word performances.  A Mis/translation is a creative writing invention exercise in which a poem is performed aloud in a “foreign” language that none of the participants can speak. The participants then provide a “mis/translation” of the performed poem based entirely on the feel and sound of the words. Check out the CWW’s Writing & Yoga Retreats in Paris, France and Granada, Spain this summer. The application deadline for both retreats in May 25, 2015. You may also enjoy the CWW interview with Quail Bell Magazine.