By Maya Palit
The author and activist Meena Kandasamy’s new novel When I Hit You is being hailed as a scorching chronicle of one woman’s encounter with marital rape and abuse, much of which draws on her lived experience of a violent marriage.
In the book, the narrator describes how her husband ordered her to get off Facebook because it was narcissistic and exhibitionist, and took control of her email accounts. ‘I Singe the Body Electric’, a piece Kandasamy wrote for Outlook magazine five years ago, also spoke frankly about her neurotically possessive husband deleting 25,000 of her emails and responding to her correspondence “with the same liberty with which he used to select my clothes”.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book, however, is Kandasamy’s focus on how writing offered both a temporary coping mechanism and a more permanent escape from the traps of such a situation.
Often, she had to write covertly. Her book is interspersed with love letters she composed to former lovers and then swiftly deleted, and incidents about composing entire articles in her head and typing them onto her old Nokia phone.
We asked Kandasamy about what her marriage and the violation of her privacy did to her writing, and how she navigated the writing despite the fact that it threatened her husband.
There’s a point in your book where you mention having to hastily bang out and send off an Outlook article after secretly using your husband’s dongle. What was the experience of ‘writing under siege’ like for you, and how do you think it impacted your writing? How different did writing ‘in peace’ feel like in the aftermath?
Well I think it’s one of the things about life –the skills you pick up in various situations that stay with you. Skills you pick up as a teacher, for instance, like iteration. Or learning to crystallise everything in the lede paragraph as a journalist, which helps you even when you’re writing a Facebook post. It doesn’t have to be skills acquired from being an “abused traumatized wife”.
I think one of the ways in which this book was affected is that it is narrated with a strong sense of claustrophobia. So a thought is a self-contained thought, a unit on to itself. You take any fragment of it and it’s very stand-alone. The book reflects my state of being at that point – after I was out of that difficult situation I could work on long – like, really long – pieces of writing. Up to 20,000 word essays where the essay is one long unit, not fragmented.
Certainly, as you point out, there is an influence of the enormous stress of being or inhabiting that reality on the writing. But I haven’t written any fiction since: at the moment I’ve been doing a lot of reading and trying to take a stab at some non-fiction. I think at each point you have to become a different person to write a different book: you do change as a person between the writing of one book and another.
Your novel explores the censorship of an author’s voice in great detail. What do you think about the violation of your privacy as a writer, in retrospect?
There was this book that I was working on at the time, called Caste and the City of Nine Gates. My ex-husband used to go through all my stuff, so he would just use the Macbook and do a search for the word ‘lover’. Anything that came up, he would just delete. This book was written as a first-person account of how you grapple with visceral experiences of caste – it had references to the word ‘lover’, but it was fucking non-fiction, you know.
I still have this catalogue pinned to my desk and I always look at it and think “That’s the book I didn’t write. That’s the book I couldn’t write. That’s the book that went nowhere, because one moment of somebody’s indiscriminate activity just wipes away a part of your life and years of effort.” As writers we do write a lot that never gets published or sees the light of day – but we decide not to publish it because it’s not strong or powerful enough, or it’s not the right time. But we have complete control, it’s not somebody else. The main thing, though, is that what I experienced for four months was only a taste of what could have been a long-drawn suffocation of the writing process.
It’s not necessarily limited to a marriage either, this censorship of women. Right now I’m sitting in London, writing what I want, causing Twitter controversies. And everybody’s talking about gau rakshaks, and I wrote about eating beef. Somebody said “This woman has to be gang-raped”. Somebody was asking for my head, somebody was asking for an acid attack. At that point I was laughing because I found a part of it humorous, but today I’m not really sure whether the people saying this distinguished, in their minds, between the idea of a threat and carrying it out.
So I think a figure like a husband or a father (not mine, but in general) can suffocate you and prevent you from writing but it’s part of a larger misogynistic situation where people let you say certain things and censor other things. Can you really write anything today without worrying who is going to sue your ass, file a sedition charge against you? All of that takes a toll on narrative.
The protagonist in your novel describes writing as one of the things that keeps her going during situations of extreme duress. Was it similar for you? Were there points during the marriage where you gave up writing altogether?
For me writing lets you make sense of the world for yourself. Even when you’re totally powerless you feel that some element of you has some grasp over power. So you’re making sense, you’re making meaning, or just dealing with pain and coping. For me it’s definitely not about catharsis, it’s not medicinal or a therapeutic experience, but at the same time writing is a kind of defiance and a challenge. And sometimes when you don’t have a trusted social circle or a set of trusted friends, you fall back into bearing the burden of your experience. So I did keep writing, and I do keep writing.
Have you interacted with other women who have also engaged in art or writing in similar circumstances – with someone breathing down their necks and policing what they are creating?
I think it’s the same for lots of women, which is why I think a lot of women write poetry: they’re expressing themselves through abstractions or in a very subliminal way. For somebody like me it was easy to cross borders, climb out, speak out, go to another city and live another life. For a lot of people they’re too tied to families and backgrounds to do that.
I showed my book to another woman poet and she was telling me about her friend, a woman writer, who was thrown out of her marriage. Her husband’s mother said later “Oh, but she doesn’t even dry his towels after he takes a shower.” So while writers can be seen as radical powerful identities, writers are also often women who are sometimes trapped within very traditional marriages, where the roles of what a wife should do comes very close to what a slave should do.
If you think about women who have been through abuse, you very rarely hear it first-hand because behind them there is often a little industry making up and spreading stories. The motives could be jealousy, judgement, not liking somebody. Even for me, people would say things like “Well she’s going to New York with this guy, so how do we believe that there was trouble in the marriage?” Not that I wrote the book to silence these guys, but other people are constantly trying to tell your story for you, and this is particularly true for women in marriages.
There are layers and layers of how people destroy your intellect – you come up with something and people say “Ah! Is that all you have to say?” The death of a woman as a writer is something that takes place constantly and in ways besides censorship as well: for instance I used to interview people and somebody else would run it under their by-line and they were not even in the room.
Some women authors like [Tamil poet] Salma have talked about how men controlled what they wrote. She has written openly about how she had to hide her notebooks. But the controlling can operate on many levels – one way is monitoring, of course, but another way is by devaluing your work, another is not giving you credit, another is saying “You’re successful because you’re sleeping with somebody”. It’s not just a question of having a room of your own or economic independence. It’s having to deal with this idea of what a woman writer and her ambition means in the public eye, what they mean in the Tamil conscience.
The other day I was giving an interview and I heard myself saying “I’m trying to write, I’m trying to do, I’m trying to think,” even though I was thinking, and writing, and doing. I still have to say “trying” so I come across as a humble person. It’s not just me. I think a lot of women have to construct this cloak of abject humility because otherwise people are going to write you off as arrogant.