On television, on books

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a guest on Book’Em TV, a Canadian TV show about books and reading, and the episode where I feature was shot on Monday. It was a lot easier than I expected, but I suspect I giggled feebly on camera while drool slopped down my chin. Ah, well. The show, which debuts this September, features a host, a panel of three readers, and a different guest in each episode. In essence, the three panelists, who each picked a favorite book, had to entice viewers to vote for their novel as the show’s read of choice. Their chosen titles were The Alchemist, The Beach, and Northanger Abbey, and it was great fun watching the three fight it out. The show host, Dr. Mary Ashun, really held it all together with her enthusiasm and down-to-earth approach–she made it seem as though a bunch of nice, book-obsessed folks got together to talk about their favorite thing. But, like, on TV. This is all way more difficult to achieve than it sounds.

The guest for the first episode was Terry Fallis, whose debut novel The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor and also won Canada Reads 2011, which is a big big deal, sort of an Oprah Book Club but with a sedate, publicly funded Canadian flavor. His episode was shot the same day, so I squeezed hands with him and then procured his signature on my copy of TBLP.  I’ll do a full-length review of the book soon, but a quick heads-up if you haven’t read it yet–it’s a funny, mordant, but surprisingly tender story about an academic-turned-politician. Sometimes CanLit can seem deadly dull, all earnest angst and winter depression, but this novel makes its points through humor and satire, and it’s ultimately a shout-out to idealism. Huzzah! An intelligent feel-good novel! When was the last time…? I want to mention here that TBLP was repeatedly rejected by publishers, and that Fallis went the self-publishing route. Now he has a nice deal with McClelland, so a slush-pile rejectionista somewhere has probably changed jobs, and is now Rob Ford’s advisor. Fallis was really funny and smart, so I hope you catch him on the show. Meanwhile, stalk him on the internets here.

It was then my turn, and I talked about reviewing and blogging and proclaimed on television that I don’t own an e-reader because I like to smell books. And then it was over, and we all (minus Fallis) went out for pizza. And here is a picture; the long hair in the pink coral shirt on the extreme right is moi.

And a shout-out to all the lovely people on the show and behind the scenes, who were stratospherically NICE and very smart; someone set them to work on the debt ceiling already. And not to belabor the very obvious diversity thing, but holy crap, we participants came from four continents. Lots of different people all talking happily about books, followed by pizza. Do you have a better vision for Utopia?

Trajectories of belonging

“My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything…” Zetta Elliott on her choice to live in America, rather than in Canada (where she was born).

“I am an immigrant. I was born in Canada, which means that I grew up “resisting Americanization;” in school I was taught to embrace the “tossed salad” metaphor rather than the “melting pot”—Canada was presented as a multicultural “mosaic,” a nation where all kinds of differences were not only celebrated but protected. Canadians often define themselves in opposition to Americans; they pride themselves on being quiet, polite, and progressive—the antithesis of their loud, boorish, bigoted neighbors. I learned at an early age to look down my nose at the United States; it’s something of a national pastime and a legacy of Canada’s colonial past. Of course, it didn’t help that my father used to slip across the border whenever life in “the Great White North” became unbearable. He would eventually return, bearing wondrous gifts (like a black Barbie doll) and for months we’d have to listen to him rhapsodizing about the US. As an adolescent, I disdained the United States yet still elected to study American History in high school, perhaps as a way of connecting with my father. I could not deny that the US had a certain allure—all the pop stars and television shows I admired were American—but I also understood that a fascination with “that country” could and would disrupt my life.

Although he came to Canada from the Caribbean as a teenager, my father spoke without an accent and felt perfectly at ease around whites. I never wondered why. Indeed, I grew up thinking of my father as a “generic” black man with no fixed ethnicity, and I was myself a young adult before I understood how the United States had shaped his identity—and mine. When my father arrived in Toronto at age 15, his stepmother indicated that he was not welcome in her home. Desperate to keep the peace, my grandfather tried to enlist my father in the army, but when that scheme failed, my great-aunt instead enrolled my father in a Christian high school—in Allentown, PA. Her conservative church handled everything; my father was sent to the United States where he finished high school and then entered Eastern Pilgrim Bible College. He was one of only two black male students on campus and in the spirit of Christian fellowship, was strictly forbidden from dating the white co-eds.

My father returned to Canada after graduation and married my mother—the white daughter of a United Church minister. Despite being groomed for the ministry, my father chose to teach rather than preach. He ran for public office—and lost. He tried to add a Black Heritage component to the Toronto public school curriculum—and failed. He had an affair with a black woman he once knew back in Allentown—and my mother divorced him. My father grew out his Afro and became something of a black militant. But there wasn’t much tolerance for militancy in Toronto in 1980. Within a few years, my father settled down, started a new family, and learned to accept the status quo. Or so I thought.

The year before I graduated from high school, my father disappeared. We all knew he’d gone to the United States again and we all assumed he’d eventually return. We were wrong. I started college in Quebec and received a letter from my father telling me he was now remarried and living in Brooklyn, NY. Not yet certified to teach there, he drove a gypsy cab along the bus route and would occasionally send me three or four crumpled dollar bills. When I graduated from college, my father invited me to spend the summer with him in Brooklyn and before long I moved all my belongings across the border. His stated goal was to have all four of his children living in the United States. But my father died of cancer in 2004, and I am the only one of my siblings who chose to pursue my own “American Dream.”

I begin with this summary of my father’s life because I see evidence in his narrative of the many forces that operate upon the immigrant generally and upon the black immigrant to (North) America specifically—forces which shaped my own life story and my young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight. My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything, despite the pressure he once felt in the 1960s to lose his Caribbean accent, keep to his side of the color line, and not join the Civil Rights Movement. Though my father cautioned me against a life as a writer (and wished I had chosen a practical profession like law rather than academia), it is as a storyteller and scholar that I have learned to detect, embrace—and mount my own resistance against—the processes of Americanization.”

This is an excerpt from Zetta’s paper “The Bottom of the Pot: Blackness and Be/longing in A Wish After Midnight. Read the rest of the post on Zetta’s blog here.

She Writes Blogger Ball

This weekend marks the She Writes blogger meet-and-greet, and this post is by way of saying hello. I’m a freelance writer, and my work has appeared in everything from The Smithsonian Magazine to Bookslut to The Missouri Review to rabble.ca. My forthcoming pieces include an article on feminist YA literature (no, WSJ, not all YA is filled with “depravity”) for a Canadian magazine.   I also curate Women Doing Literary Things, an essay series featuring bookish women writing on the topic of gender and literature. I now host WDLT as a weekly feature on She Writes as well.

This blog features book reviews and commentary on literary happenings. My primarily interest is fiction (with an emphasis on feminism and race-related issues), but I read almost Everything. Kind folk would call my blog eclectic; most would say it lacks focus. Please wander around and leave your comments!

Welcome to the SheWrites Blogger Ball!Click on the bookshelf to check out the other participants in the ball.

Best of 2009 list excludes women writers

Publishers Weekly, that venerable (and some say dated) institution, has compiled its best books of 2009 list, and the top ten authors are all men. Interesting, given that the Booker and the Pulitzer (fiction) prizes both went to women this year. 

The list has resulted in predictably divided responses, with one camp arguing that perhaps no women-authored books were worthy of inclusion this year (justice is blind!), and the other asserting that this lineup is but the latest manifestation of the (often unconscious) gender bias in the literary world (you suck, PW).

Register your approval/howl of outrage at the WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts) website.  You can also add your picks to their list of favorite books by women in 2009.   

Here’s the PW list in full: 

PW Top 10

Cheever: A Life

Blake Bailey (Knopf)

Bailey, who was given access to the journals Cheever kept throughout his life, shines a new light on Cheever’s literary output, making possible a fresh reappraisal of his achievement. In addition, Bailey offers up juicy, appalling, hilarious and moving anecdotes with verve, sensitivity and perfect timing.

Await Your Reply

Dan Chaon (Ballantine)

Chaon was a National Book Award finalist for Among the Missing, and this gripping account of colliding fates, the shifty nature of identity in today’s wired world and the limits of family is easily as good, if not better. It’s a literary page-turner, a cunningly plotted and utterly unputdownable novel.

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

Neil Sheehan (Random House)

The development of the ICBM as a key part of the cold war arsenal wasn’t inevitable. In a splendidly reported and narrated account, Sheehan credits Air Force Gen. Bernard Schriever with the foresight and shrewdness to triumph over powerful Pentagon opponents and develop the crucial and terrifying weapon.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Daniyal Mueenuddin (Norton)

An NBA finalist (we found him first), Mueenuddin delivers Pakistan through the stories of its people: yearning, struggling, plotting, in a heartbreaking story collection that is specific and universal all at the same time.

Big Machine

Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)

LaValle’s brilliant second novel is unlike anything else out there: Ricky Rice, an ex-junkie African-American bus station porter, gets sucked into the bizarre machinations of a rural Vermont cult dedicated to studying “The Voice.” The narrator is blisteringly funny in chronicling his bizarre quest, providing both a blazing story and an astute commentary on race.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Richard Holmes (Pantheon)

In a thrilling narrative of scientific discovery and the spirit of an age, Holmes illustrates how the great scientists of Britain’s romantic era gripped the imaginations of their contemporaries and forever changed our understanding of the universe and our place within it.

Stitches

David Small (Norton)

A graphic novel to bring us all back to comics, Small’s account of his terrifying childhood is amazing. The drawings of his parents and the small suffering boy who doesn’t quite understand until much, much later will pull you along panel by panel and tear your heart out.

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Matthew B. Crawford (Penguin Press)

Philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Crawford makes a brilliant case for the intellectual satisfactions of working with one’s hands—and why white-collar work is the assembly line of the new millennium. Crawford is catholic in his tastes (references range from Aristophanes to Dilbert), unsentimental and irresistible as he extols the virtues of “knowing how to do one thing really well.”

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Geoff Dyer (Pantheon)

Dyer creates an aging hipster grinding it out as a freelance journalist who pursues the girl instead of the story: covering the Biennale. Then, depending on your point of view, he either loses or finds himself when he’s sent to Varanasi. Dyer has many books to recommend him, but all you need is angst-ridden Jeff: funny, frank and utterly charming, and if you haven’t walked in his shoes, you’ll wish you had.

Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

David Grann (Doubleday)

In this classic adventure tale, New Yorker writer Grann—who gets winded climbing the stairs of his New York City walkup—follows in the footsteps of early–20th-century Amazon jungle explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared along with his son on a 1925 expedition. Grann expertly and energetically weaves the story of Fawcett’s explorations with that of his own.

And for further reading, here’s a link to a NYT article about gender bias in the (American) theater world.

February Flowers by Fan Wu

Seventeen-year-old Chen Ming is a studious, violin-playing first-year student at a university in Guangzhou, fresh off a farm into the big city. Miao Yan is worldly and cynical, an at-ease flaunter of boyfriends, and the oldest undergraduate at the university at twenty-four. An unlikely friendship is struck when the two cross paths.

Ming, whose world has hitherto been defined by the classes she attends and the books she reads, is fascinated by Yan’s insouciant familiarity with all things forbidden (which  in Ming’s case include smoking, drinking alcohol, and dating). In turn, Ming’s intellect, her ability to find contentment in her books, and her stable family background are the stuff of envy for Yan. The two girls are soon drawn into a fervent, consuming relationship, engendered at least in part by the hothouse intimacy that closed institutions often foster. (Ming, sharing a room with three other girls in an all-female dorm, with an eleven o’clock curfew and a warden to monitor incoming phone calls, compares her life to existence in an army barrack.)

California-based Fan Wu’s debut novel February Flowers would seem, at the first glance, to conform to every cliche concerning First Novels. There’s the coming-of-age theme, the first-person narrative (Ming’s), the protagonist whose background mirrors the author’s, the confessional tone etc. etc. But the coincidences are superficial; this novel soon reveals itself as a fresh, original work that strikes a fine balance between intimacy and restraint — and shatters several stereotypes along the way.

As narrated by the adult Ming, her younger self was more than a little in love with Yan. But the seventeen-year-old is too innocent to realize what her feelings might mean. Sex education is all but unknown in the China of the early nineties (the period when the novel is set.) One of Ming’s roommates, for instance, believes frequent masturbation leads to an early death. Upon seeing a picture in a porn magazine of two naked women kissing, another roommate decrees that homosexuals “have a mental illness” and guesses the women are American. Forced to admit (from the photographic evidence before her eyes) that the women are indeed Asian, the roommate decides the women must be Japanese, for the Chinese newspapers have informed her that “only capitalist countries have homosexuals.” Little wonder Ming is confused and nervous about her friendship with Yan.

Too often, in first novels, the author seems to have decided to tell all he has to say, or perish in the attempt. Wu, however, chronicles the evolution of the girls’ relationship with a delicate hand; the reader is subtly made aware of Ming’s gradual awakening (sexual and otherwise), and can only guess, even as Ming does, if there’s a lesbian undertone to the relationship between the girls. The characters’ sexual preferences, however, are but one facet of their multi-dimensional relationship. The author’s control of her subject matter is impressive, capturing perfectly the claustrophobia and obsessive passion that youthful friendships can assume without ever rendering Ming’s concerns as self-absorption.

February Flowers does have a few hiccups, the most glaring being a rushed ending that’s very much at odds with the measured pace of the rest of the tale. But the book’s flaws are easily ignored in the face of its many pleasures, including a vivid, insightful picture of the complications and contradictions of China in the nineties. The novel’s ultimate appeal, however, lies in the universality of its themes — the pain and pleasure of growing up, and the discovery of sex and the accompanying wonder and fear; few will not recall their own adolescent pangs while reading these pages.  

****

This review originally appeared in the Asian Review  of Books a while ago. I’m also entering this one for  Color Online’s Color Me Brown Challenge. Color Online is a great blog that  focuses on women writers of color. They have reviews, quizzes and prizes  and  much more…do check them out.

The art of war: Pat Barker’s Life Class

Buy now from Amazon!Whether it’s about Iwo Jima or orcs and elves, writing on war depresses and bores me. Perhaps my brain lacks the plumbing that’d enable me comprehend, let alone appreciate, details of military manoeuvres? All I know: I finished Cold Mountain in twenty minutes.

Pat Barker’s Life Class, while not quite overhauling my prejudices, has given me much pause. The blurb tells us that the book features a triangle consisting of three art students’ “intriguing” love for each other. The real triangle, however, is the odd geometry created by the intersection of art, medicine and war.

Barker writes about the First World War on an intensely personal level; you’d think she’d been floundering in a mucky trench ducking enemy fire even as she recorded the moment on her Handycam. Since there is no omniscient narrator reciting historical details that rightfully belong in a Wikipedia entry, I wasn’t tempted to skip a single paragraph, not even the one about severed limbs and gas gangrene smells. It helps that Barker’s prose never deviates from the scrupulously elegant. It’s as though this author wields an emery board instead of a pen—there isn’t a single rough edge to be found in her writing. Really.

Life Class opens with a superb scene at the Slade School of Art in 1914. Barker introduces the real-life figure of Henry Tonks, the surgeon and professor of anatomy who taught students how to draw the human body. The writing is vivid and exciting, bringing alive the steamy room with its coal stove and plumes of smoke, the scathing, brilliant teacher and his tremulous students. Among those students are Neville, a wealthy Londoner, Elinor, daughter of a prosperous doctor, and Paul, a working-class youth from Yorkshire, whose grandmother’s legacy has enabled his education. The class tensions steam off the page even as Paul and Neville compete in a discreet, playing-fields-of-Eton way for the beautiful Elinor’s attentions.

Should art transcend daily life, question it, or objectively record it? An old question, but one that takes on an urgent significance during wartime, and Barker’s characters embody the different dimensions art assumes at moments of crisis. Paul joins the Belgian Red Cross as an orderly and is pitchforked into the thick of the things at Ypres. Elinor, however, remains at the Slade. Believing that the proper subject for art is the things she chooses to love, she resolutely draws landscapes and attends parties as part of the Bloomsbury crowd. Neville, however, travels to the war-front with the express intent of painting battle scenes, and his art is a huge success in London.

Barker explores the role of art during war-time with precision and depth—her sweep includes the propaganda British posters that show women raped, and their breasts being hacked off by enemy soldiers. As one of the characters remarks “…it’s difficult to persuade young men to lay down their lives to preserve the balance of power in Europe. Some other cause had to be found… Pretty young girls with their blouses ripped off did the trick nicely.”

Apart from a brief mention, however, Barker does not revisit the character of Tonks in the story—an unfortunate omission, for Tonks is probably the most interesting figure in the book. The author does inform us in the afterword that the professor went back to medicine during the war, drawing portraits of facially mutilated patients to aid in reconstructive surgery, but those scant facts hardly do justice to his story.

And what of the ballad of Paul and Elinor and Neville? That brings me to my chief grouse with the book. The love triangle breaks down rather perfunctorily into “two twigs being swept along on a fast current”; the third twig has long deteriorated into mush. This ending felt so abrupt and unsatisfactory that I checked whether my review copy was missing a couple of pages (nix). I was left wondering if Barker plans a sequel, in which case all is well with my literary world. But if there’s no sequel—well then, Barker, you’ve made me swear off war novels forever.

 (This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.)

Then Again by Elyse Friedman

Seldom, I believe, has a writer been as poorly served by her book covers as Elyse Friedman. Waking Beauty, a darkly thoughtful exploration of the unfair advantage beauty bestows upon the (unworthy) recipient, had a pink-and-white-and-blonde-and-sparkly cover, thus dooming chick-lit fans to chagrin even as readers of literary fiction averted their eyes.

Then Again, with a smart, punchy title that can be interpreted in at least two different ways in the context of the  plot, written with a precision that would make a watchmaker glow, features a split image of a pallid, glowering girl on its cover. Everything about it–the girl’s faintly repellent gaze, the gimmicky shot , the shiny stiff paper of the cover– begs that the book be tossed aside. Which I would have undoubtedly done had I not LOVED Waking Beauty.

Tom Robbins once famously said, “It’s never to late to have a happy childhood”.  What if someone took that to heart–a someone with the wealth and connections of a successful Hollywood screenwriter–and decided to relive his childhood for an entire weekend, literally? The reluctant participants in the scheme include the screenwriter’s sisters Michelle (the novel’s narrator), and Marla.  The trio’s parents are dead (natch), but Joel the screenwriter has arranged for a faux mom and faux dad. The Toronto house the siblings grew up in twenty years ago is recreated down to the avocado green carpet and the struggling tree out front.

What a setup. And Friedman has the prose skills and the sheer balls to carry it off.  The narrator’s voice alternates between syrupy sentimentality and hard-edged observation, and this pairing works beautifully with the theme of revisited adolesence. The novel’s pacing is impeccable, skittering between past and present till the two fuse in an explosive climax. The delight of such a book lies as much in the big idea as in the tiny details; I was reminded on more than one occasion of the film Goodbye Lenin . I leave you with this image from the novel. “…Canadian movies, publicly funded and carefully crafted–like chilled white pie crusts, pinched and perfect…”  I’m going to tear off the miserable front cover of Then Again and replace it with a gilded portrait of Friedman.

This review-ish piece is my contribution to John’s Read a Canadian Book Month challenge.

Can we please move past the accent, idioms and the head shake?

India newbie Jil Wheeler dives joyfully into stereotypes about the country in the article  It’s like this, only  in The Morning News. The mention of tandoori chicken and Kingfisher beer in the opening sentence set off my cliche alert.    

It’s the end of a long night eating tandoori chicken and drinking Kingfisher beer  in Mumbai with visiting friends. Traffic has slowed to a few cars here and there, and we flag down a cab. The stereo is pounding Bollywood disco, but the driver turns down the volume to ask where to. “Turner Road,” I reply, or, more accurately rendered, ““Tournah Rrrr-ooad” with several up-and-down vocal inflections.

On Indian English:

The English spoken in Mumbai is, to my ears, nothing short of fantastic. It is a loopy, sing-song spaghetti mess with odd accents, quick flicks of the tongue, and excessive nasalization. Veg becomes wedge, Jil becomes gel, and films, flims.
The words themselves are enamoring. Indian English is stuck in a time warp—the problem is no one can figure out exactly which decade, or what century. A casual business email from a local colleague concludes, “The details will be intimated presently. Please do the needful. Most respectfully yours.” Wikipedia claims overly formal language is a holdover from the East India Company, but I think that’s a bit generous, even though certainly the language has more in common with letters my grandfather wrote than texts I send my friends. If “updation,” “prepone,” and “felicitate” aren’t already in your office vocabulary, they really should be.

On Indian mannerisms:

Oh yes, the Indian head bobble. Did I forget the bobble? Telling a cab driver “Tournah Rrrr-ooad” will get you nowhere unless you also insert the appropriate head waggle and/or bobble. The head bobble speaks volumes, but that is a Bombay discussion for another day.

 

It wasn’t a WTF moment, but the article left me somewhat disturbed. I don’t, for a nanosecond, think Jil Wheeler is channeling Katherine Mayo. But I do wish a journalist paid to visit India to record her impressions would move beyond the obvious.  The subject matter is new and comment-worthy to Wheeler, but (if I might presume to speak on behalf of a country) most Indians feel this kind of writing has been done to death over the past decades, if not centuries. We didn’t like it then, and we don’t like it now; please move on, Wheeler. 

Something else I’m grappling with: Wheeler’s piece seems to presuppose the existence of an absolute standard of correctness for accent and speech against which other patterns fall short. But such an “absolute standard” is, in reality, a construct of the writer’s particular circumstances. In other words, the writer finds the subject funny mostly because it is unfamiliar. Surely the mere fact of being an outsider ought not privilege the writer to such an extent?  In sum: I wish my beloved Morning News had an old India hand vet Wheeler’s writing before featuring it on their front page.

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Plagiarism and The New York Times

Note: This post has been updated.

Maureen Dowd, a well-known columnist for The New York Times, has been accused of plagiarism. As reported by The Huffington Post, a line in Dowd’s Sunday (May 16th) column for  The New York Times was very similar to a line from the blog TPM (http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/) 

Dowd: More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

TPM: More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The plagiarism came to light on the 17th of May.  According to The Huffington Post article, Dowd immediately emailed them admitting that the line

“was lifted from Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall’s blog last Thursday.

Dowd claims that she never read his blog last week but was told the line by a friend of hers. In a follow-up email, she forwarded her desire to apologize to Marshall, writing that had she known, she would have gladly credited Marshall.

Dowd notes that the Times is fixing her column online to give proper credit to Marshall and that a correction will run tomorrow.”

May 18th saw the New York Times issue the following correction:

Correction: May 18, 2009
Maureen Dowd’s column on Sunday, about torture, failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall’s blog at Talking Points Memo.

Ever since a writer from India Today  (one of India’s premier news magazines) plagiarized one of my blog posts, I’ve been deeply interested in news about this topic. The most notable features of this episode, in my opinion:  

1.  The response from Dowd was immediate, as was the correction from The Times. 

2.  This episode has generated much discussion in the blogosphere and in traditional media.  John McQuaid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (I know, so is Dowd) asks in his column on the Post if Dowd committed a firing offense by her actions. Plagiarism is (rightly) being considered a grave matter by the writing community.

And as for my dealings with India Today: it is over a month since I wrote to them regarding their employee’s plagiarism of my work and I am yet to receive a response. What a contrast.

(My original post about India Today and my blog is at https://niranjana.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/indias-number-one-magazine-copied-my-work/  )

Update: Here are some links to coverage of Dowd’s alleged plagiarism, on Time magazine, on The Guardian, and on the blog Plagiarism Today

 

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“India’s Number One Magazine” copied my work.

India Today, which describes itself as “India’s Number One magazine”, has plagiarized this blogger’s work.

In April 2007, I posted a piece titled “Mills and Boon: An Indian Romance”. The post, which chronicled my teenage fascination–and subsequent disenchantment–with Mills and Boon romance novels, was also featured on the Indian blog aggregator site DesiPundit, which has over 20000 feed subscribers.

India Today, according to the company website,  “is the most widely read publication in India—a position it has held for over a decade—with a circulation of 1.1 million every week and a readership of more than 15 million.” Ms. Damayanti Datta, Deputy Editor of India Today, writes a blog “Personal Choice” for the publication. Her post “Grow up, Mills and Boon”, published Nov. 2008, is clearly plagiarized from my post.

The full text of my blog post can be found here, while the India Today article is  here.  Here is a paragraph-by-paragraph comparison.

Brown Paper:
Having shipped more than 3 billion books since 1949, Harlequin continues to write its own remarkable publishing story.

3 billion. And I bet a billion of them found their way to India; I personally devoured several hundred thousand in my mid-teens. I had favorite Mills and Boon authors (Betty Neels, anyone? Catherine George?) And favorite jacket colors (turquoise).  And at the local lending library, I’d read the plot summaries carefully before making my selection.

India Today:
Over 300 crore books have been exported across the world since 1949. 300 crore Mills & Boon romance. If even one-third of that 300 crore reached India, I have been a breathless reader of hundreds in my youthful past. My favourite writers were Anne Mather, Betty Neels, Penny Jordan. And my favourite cover colour was blue. I clearly remember those frenzied hunting hours spent every month amidst the termite-laden lending libraries of Free School Street of my city, Calcutta.

 

BP: Most embarrassing: I never remarked that the heroines were always in subordinate positions to their male counterparts– nurses to the he-doctors, secretaries to the businessmen and so on. And that interracial romance was noticeably absent; the tall dark handsome men were all Spanish or Italian.  The women were usually younger, usually virgins, and always so grateful to have been chosen for love by these rich successful men. (Disclaimer: I gave up reading these books when I left my teens; perhaps the books have changed over the past decade or two to include more than straight, white-on-white, doormat-meets-matador romance. )

IT: I am ashamed to admit that as an M&B reader I was never stirred by any feminist sensibilities. I never noticed how the heroines were always less ‘successful’ than the heroes—if the hero was a doctor, the heroine would be a nurse; hero businessman, heroine secretary, etc. I never asked why the heroines—simple, sweet, pure and always a virgin—were always way younger to the heroes. Or why at the end of the story, the M&B ladies were so full of gratitude to life for managing to be the love interest of the super-rich, super-successful, super-handsome men (I must point out: I have not been in touch with Mills and Boon ever since I moved on to my 20s; the doormat-heroines and larger-than-life heroes may have changed their love-talk now).

 

BP: Back in eighties/early nineties India, every girl I knew read (or had read) Mills and Boon romances.  They were especially sought-after during boring college lectures–the books were small enough and bendy enough to slip comfortably into Samuelson’s Macroeconomics text, or P.L.Soni’s magnum opus on Inorganic Chemistry.

IT:All the girls I knew back in the ’80s and ’90s—in school, in the neighbourhood—read (or flipped through relevant pages of) those Mills and Boon romances. We would narrate stories to each other, lend and share books, and fall asleep clutching an M&B. Not just that, those handy volumes were our best friend at all those sleep-inducing, yawn-invoking classes, slipping neatly inside a Resnick & Halliday physics tome or an A.L. Basham’s Wonder That Was India and enveloping us in a warm glow.

 

BP: I wonder why these books were so bloody popular. Perhaps the insanely competitive Indian academic scene, where doing well in the Class 12 board exams was a matter of life and death, led us to cherish the guaranteed happy ending the books offered? Perhaps it’s because there was no formal sex ed. class in our school curriculum, and we sought enlightenment wherever we could find it? The Mills and Boon books I read were pretty tame though; sex was described, if at all, in cagey and coy terms–”and then the room rocked and tilted, and she was borne aloft on a shower of golden sparks till she knew no more”–pshaw!

IT:Why were M&Bs that popular with us? Perhaps, those winning tales of wholesome love brought joy to lives juiced dry with the pressures and competitions of Board exams? Perhaps, without any meaningful lesson on sex and sexuality in school, we got a whiff of adult life from those? Not that, one could learn much about adult goings-on from the M&Bs that we read. Man-woman relation was always clothed in high-sounding metaphors: “then the room swam around her, and she soared on the wings of a sudden burst of golden light” etc.

BP: I think there’s more to the phenomenon than comfort or curiosity about sex, though. Many of us Indian readers had our love-lives mapped out for us early-on by family; a comfortable arranged marriage was both inevitable and desirable in the eyes of most.  A Mills and Boon  was perhaps the closest many would get to love-at-first-sight, lust-conquerors-all territory.  The latter wasn’t something everyone necessarily wanted, but certainly something that everyone wanted to know more about. And the books were unrealistic, yes, but no more than the average Hindi film…

IT: Were we interested just in sex? For most girls my generation, love-life was neatly mapped out since childhood. An arranged marriage with a boy chosen by one’s parents, a happy home, children, cars were all that we were destined for, and probably couldn’t think beyond. Perhaps, M&B gave us the first inkling of a life beyond arrangements where one could fall in love at first sight and step into a dream life of made-for-each-other ecstasy? Not that we all dreamt of falling in love. But we all wanted to know what it means to fall in love, how does it feel, how different is it from those arranged marriages? Sometimes, of course, we found the M&B route to romance absurd. So what? So are Hindi films…

I have a Creative Commons License on my blog that explicitly disallows sharing of my content without attribution or derivative works based on my content. Ms. Datta works for a respected publishing house and knows all about copyright; in fact, she emailed me back in April 2008 to ask for permission to use one of my articles which appeared in The Smithsonian Magazine. I wrote back explaining that copyright reasons prevented the same, and I never heard back from her. I learnt about the suspicious similarities between our two posts from another blogger last week.

I am upset. But I am upset not just for myself, but on behalf of bloggers everywhere. Why is our creative content and our copyright not accorded the same respect given to a piece in a print publication? Ms. Datta obeyed the law of copyright when it came to my article in The Smithsonian Magazine, but apparently felt few qualms about plagiarizing my blog post.

I have written to the editor of India Today, Mr. Prabhu Chawla, informing him about this incident. I will update this post if/when I hear from him.

UPDATE:  As of Oct. 18, 2010, I haven’t heard a word back from India Today. Following the outcry over their editor-in-chief’s plagiarism of an article from Slate, I wrote this post about the culture of plagiarism at this magazine.  India Today showed its customary good sense and posted a weak-kneed apology for the Slate incident as a comment on my blog while continuing to ignore my complaint.  I hence emailed India Today yet again on Oct. 14. Here’s the text of my email:

Hello, India Today Group Corporate Communication People,

Your unmitigated gall in posting an explanation for your plagiarism of the Slate story ON MY BLOG, while ignoring your plagiarism from this VERY BLOG leaves me amazed.  So Grady Hendrix deserves an apology because he’s from Slate, and I don’t because I’m an independent blogger? You couldn’t have demonstrated your stunning lack of principles better than with this incident. I never received a reply, let alone an apology, to my complaint made eighteen months ago, though you were quick to disable comments on the article on your site. And yet, you’ve reacted remarkably fast to the outcry about the Slate article.

Do the right thing and have your deputy editor apologize already. And no, you can’t blame jet-lag for this one.

Niranjana


No, I’m not holding my breath.