MAY 6, 2020
THE UK PAPERBACK cover of Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You shouts out with a chorus of one-word reviews: “Scorching” (The Observer), “Searing” (The Financial Times), “Explosive” (the Guardian) and “Shattering” (The Daily Telegraph). My experience of reading it was that I often realized I had been tensing my legs, clenching my teeth, needing to take long, deep, calming breaths — or indeed, to remember to breathe at all.
The novel’s unnamed female protagonist meets a Marxist academic and, after a whirlwind romance, marries him. The story chronicles their four-month marriage, and how she got out of it alive. They move cities for his job, where she is far from her family and friends, has no job of her own, and does not speak the language. So far, so common. But, with its distance from the safety networks of home, family, friends, and colleagues, the new setup hides greater violence. The devices by which she can stay in touch with the outside world are used as weapons to beat her into submission, sometimes literally: her laptop charger leaves red welts, or her email server is wiped, her Facebook account deleted, her calls monitored. Her husband opens, reads, and replies to her messages, signing off with both of their names. It is an emotional and psychological Gleichschaltung which leaves its victim trapped, and their sense of self erased.
It is a tragic cliché that tales of domestic abuse, told by the women who survive, are always dogged by the question “Why didn’t she just leave?”, which reveals the extent of ignorance on the issue (as well as how widespread it is: in the United States, four women are killed by an intimate partner every day. In the words of comedian Katherine Ryan, “Men are like […] gun[s]. You are statistically most likely to be killed by the one in your house”). “We can often mistake a woman trying to extricate herself for a victim choosing to stay,” writes Rosamund Urwin in The Sunday Times (reviewing Rachel Louise Snyder’s No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us). Leaving an abusive partner, like any escape, requires meticulous planning. It can take months. In what may be a curveball comparison, it is a best summed up by the therapist in Big Little Lies gravely instructing Celeste, caught in an abusive marriage, to “[g]et a separate bank account. Get an apartment. Stock the refrigerator.” But Celeste is rich. For so many others, it is not the same. In either case, these are big maneuvers, and hard to effect if your every move is being watched.
Kandasamy effectively combines her harrowing account with sharp left hooks of humor. “And cut!” she exclaims, imagining her life as a film: “I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing at the role of dutiful wife.” “For a movie that will never be made and never hit the screen,” the protagonist tells us, “I have already prepared the publicity material”:
TWELVE ANGRY MEN (IN BED)
This movie shows a young, bohemian writer being recruited by her desperate husband to campaign in favour of a Communist Revolution. He unwittingly believes that sex involves more than bodily fluids, and convinced that he is injecting ideology into his crazy wife, he brings eleven angry men to bed each night, inadvertently jeopardising his own position as the object of her desire.
Sometimes terrific, sometimes tedious, the company of Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Edward Said, Gramsci, Žižek, Fanon and the quintessential Che Guevara proves to be a bad influence. Quickly realising that the more she changes, the more things stay the same, the writer begins to essay the mock role of an intellectual in a bid to save her marriage. Faking orgasmic delight in discussing the orthodoxy of the Second International, or dismissing the postmodern idea of deconstruction, she coasts along with aplomb. As a spoof, combining pretentious intellectual orgies and humdrum domesticity, this bawdy bedside romp features twelve angry men and one bewitching writer who is busy plotting her escape from their ideological clutches.
Showcasing fearless acting and dialogue that is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, this comic avalanche is guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser.
The effect of such disquisitions is to reveal abusive homes as the absurdist performance sets they are: where everyday objects drift loose from their original uses (becoming the means to harm) or bear ineffectual witness; where the players know their parts are a matter of life or death. As Kandasamy writes in her later novel Exquisite Cadavers, “[a]shtrays are tight-lipped traitors. They remain smug, clumsily carrying the charred remains of late afternoons with the indifference of embedded journalists”:
The whiteboard in the kitchen is hungover Hemingway: adjective-free, pruned and purposeful, displaying the timing of Spanish lessons, errands for an elderly parent, grocery shopping lists, bills to be paid — they hide botched suicide attempts, emotional breakdowns.
And then, just like that, we’re back to the throwing of insults, which actually made me flinch (in bed, on the couch, in cafés, on the subway). The husband thinks feminism a bourgeois affectation, telling his wife that “[o]rdering chow mein is the closest your c*nt has ever gotten to Maoism.” Part of the power of When I Hit You are these stunning changes in tone. After all the horror, she does leave with her life, and is able to salvage her sensuality with it. The book ends with her alone, wearing lipstick purely for her own pleasure. Femininity is a steely thing.
But the story doesn’t end there. Upon publication, When I Hit You was received in some quarters as a memoir, due to Kandasamy having written about her experience of an abusive marriage for Outlook magazine. Waterstones (the UK’s Barnes and Noble) blurbs it as a “memoirist novel”; the Financial Times called it “memoiristic.” A Polish publisher wanted to buy the rights and repackage it as nonfiction. In her life, when she went to the police with a nine-page complaint, the officer kindly joked that she’d written a novel. With readers, its content was valorized over its form (all too frequently, the fate of women and people of color); in life, she was told she was telling tales. “The artist in me was defining an experience for an audience,” Kandasamy writes in the preface to Exquisite Cadavers.
“By describing it, offhandedly and repeatedly as a memoir, some reviewers were side-stepping the entire artistic edifice on which the work stood,” and thereby, her status as artist and writer itself. Both novels speak to frustration with Kandasamy’s erasure as a writer: first, in her marriage, where she was rendered a domestic drudge; second, in the literary marketplace, where that same erasure was used to exclude her from serious literary critique. “The reception reinforced my perception that, to a Western audience, writers like me are interesting,” she writes, because:
– we are from a place where horrible things happen, or,
– horrible things have happened to us, or,
– a combination of the above
No one discusses process with us.
No one discusses our work in the framework of the novel as an evolving form.
No one treats us as writers, only as diarists who survived.
Exquisite Cadavers was therefore summoned forth to stand as a pendent piece to its predecessor. It is a story “as removed from my own as possible,” concerning the married Maya (who is British) and Karim (a Tunisian film student), living in “Generic London. Gentrified.” They are tracked, however, by the voice of a narrator-creator, printed in a separate column in the margins and in smaller font (like the voice of its author in the literary marketplace — a woman and a person of color — it is literally marginal and belittled). Both in tone and as a device, this recalls Nicola Barker’s wry avatar in I Am Sovereign, whose previous novel, H(a)ppy, “destroyed the novel (as a form) for The Author.” (One character threatens to “withdraw from the enterprise altogether if The Author deigned to encroach, unduly, upon his ‘interior life’.”) Kandasamy’s questioning of the novel as form is more existential than Barker’s: “Why don’t I write India I chide myself; catalogue the horrors visited on her women” (and innumerable other dispossessed). “Self-flagellation becomes a default mode of feeling,” she writes of her process, “I’m Marxist, my concerns and my solidarity align with the oppressed and the exploited. And yet, creating art under capitalism, I sit here, playing with form, with format, with fonts. All of my frivolous, fanciful play is the class struggle taking a make-up break.” As the political events of the past few years unfold around her, in her countries of India and Britain, she concedes: “I feel conflicted about keeping Maya and Karim in the safe cocoon of domesticity.”
As in When I Hit You, a cinematic, Bergerian self-regard permeates the text. “To watch Maya watch a movie is to watch her watch herself watch the movie,” Karim observes; when they quarrel, she channels an “unbalanced femme fatale.” Her “most potent weapon” is “the gin-and-tonic-fueled ugly cry.” Meanwhile the narrator-creator, from her margin, tells us about various things: widespread femicide in India, how she met her husband. The detention of prominent activists opposed to Hindu nationalism, a microaggression in a chain coffee shop:
I’m at Costa in Leytonstone.
Waiting for my partner.
Breastfeeding my baby.
A white woman comes in, sits at the table next to mine and, after staring at me for a good five minutes, asks me: “Is that your baby?”
At university, Kandasamy makes Karim a parable of people of color’s reception at the hands of the culture-making establishment. The panel’s enthusiasm for his tongue-in-cheek dissertation proposal on the camel as cultural trope is only matched by his dismay when he realizes they don’t grasp it’s a joke — “Sadly, satire and sarcasm, mocking and lampooning are all preserves of equals — someone like him will always be taken only at face-value.” He suggests going to his hometown, which has a high ISIS recruitment rate, for a documentary. He is told that the panel’s hands are tied, they must adhere to Prevent (anti-terrorism) guidelines and look out for signs of radicalization — this, surely, is one. “In the eyes of the academy,” Kandasamy writes,
not belonging to the white universal limits the worlds to which a Karim can bear credible witness. To be an Arab means to be chained to a pre-tailored word-cloud that goes little beyond desert storms and terrorists, oil and bombs, camels and bedouins. […] If he could step inside their minds to play a cartographer, he would encounter the signposted landmarks for Tunisia: Sea. Hijabi. Glory. Couscous. […] To stay political is a preoccupation of the privileged. An immigrant can be sad, hopeless, embittered, lost or angry — never articulate.
He does not want to make “the Arabian movie they want out of him: self-disembowelment as authenticity.” He has left his home country, and the good fight with it, to make movies. There is guilt in this. Short of giving him the narrow Orientalist vision that they have of him, he is at a creative deadlock. The exquisite cadavers of the title are the ideas left unfleshed, languishing in a drawer.
Meanwhile, it is revealed halfway through the novel that Maya “is of mixed-race background herself.” She has been made that way, the margins tell us. “But I let a lot of ambiguity stay. Maya knows her exact ethnic composition, she has possibly told Karim too, and that’s all that matters.” “I give Maya everyday concerns,” the margin voice continues, “I make her relatable to the British readers”:
I steal a little of every Englishwoman I see to build this composite. Amy Sarah Claire Naomi Gill Lucy Allison and god yes Kate. […] To break the narrative heteronormativity of this text, and to capture a suddenly emergent Europhilia among Remainers, I let her quote Barthes.
With narratorial asides such as these, Kandasamy is needling us gleefully, making the margins a space of defiance, and the repossession of authorial prerogative. She is showing us the sleight of hand in slow motion, and grinning from ear to ear as she does so. Sometimes the delight stumbles, as when she worries that she should be writing in service of her activism against Hindu nationalism. “I take refuge in fiction, in forging a Maya and a Karim, in telling their story to you, in keeping you entertained,” she writes. But Kandasamy is smarter than that. She doesn’t need to stop at plummy statements on the value of art in urgent times. Exquisite Cadavers is a backflipping rebuke to the nexus of culture- and capital-making which would seek to backhandedly praise her bravery over her craft, and thereby keep her pushed to the sidelines. It is a joy.