When I arrived to England more than 4 months ago I only had two books with me, both of them in Spanish, and both of them intended to keep me company while travelling. But once I settled down I realised that my recent move was the perfect opportunity to request books to publishers that could not afford to send me their books all the way to Spain. So, seeing that everyone was showing off their new review copies of Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, I wrote to Atlantic Books for a review copy. I soon got a reply from Sophie Walker kindly informing me that they were not publishing that book in the UK, but they had many others that may be of interest to me. As I browsed their fantastic catalogue I found three books that I had to read: Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers, Nocturnal Animals by Austin Wright, and When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy. Sophie was amazing, and upon knowing of my recent move kindly offered to send me copies of the three books. I have to say that I did not feel home until I those threen novels reached me. So, thanks Sophie and Atlantic Books for being so awesome.
When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is Meena Kandasamy’s second novel, following the critically acclaimed The Gypsy Goddess (2014), and it has taken the UK by storm with is crude and realistic description of domestic violence. The unnamed narrator of the novel tells her story in first person as she marries an educated and socially respected man who hits her, rapes her, and causes her all kinds of pain, damage, and vexation behind closed doors. The power of this novel resides on its challenging of myths and prejudices about domestic violence by portraying the abuse in a young, educated, and successful couple in contemporary India. He is a university professor, a Communist who has a personal crusade against all the evils of this world, especially his wife. She is 26, an only child, and a writer. Together, they look like the perfect, liberal couple ready to take the world by storm, except that like all abusers, he makes sure his wife stays home under false pretences and excuses. The fact that he is a university professor allows him to justify his abuse with all kinds of postcolonial and postmodern theories that at the same time work as an education for his wife:
When I hear ‘your own good’ I am reduced to being a child again. I do not argue any more. I go silent.
The abuser’s arguments belong to that side of left-wing politics that refuse to acknowledge the patriarchy, and the subjection of women in contemporary society. Feminism is not a valid discourse, and feminists are portrayed as difficult women who are making up problems that get in the way of the real, left-wing (masculine) fight. As part of their strategy, these discourses look to ridicule women while erasing any role models, or artistic representations that may validate female lived experience. As part of this power play, the narrator explores Althusser’s strangling of this wife, and his consequent explanation of the act. Meanwhile, female authors and artists are constantly devalued by her husband, receiving the same treatment society and history has saved for them in the past centuries:
I see, it is no longer fashionable to be mad. Depression is the word, isn’t it? Three inches of cleavage, two books of poetry, plenty of sex and depression – that’s all it takes to make a woman a famous writer. Beginning from Sylvia Plath to Kmala Das, that is the only trajectory you have all followed.
Kandasamy is not shy in the portrayal of domestic violence, but she does not let her prose fall prey to voyeurism. Just as domestic violence victims systematically accept the escalation of abuse, so does the narrator and author, hence allowing for a masterful description of attacks like the following:
My hair is gathered up in a bunch in his hand now. He is lifting me by my hair alone. All the blood is rushing to my head, my thighs fight to feel the hard wood of the chair. I am in pain. He drags me from the table and into the bedroom.
What comes next is marital rape, a crime that until very recently had not been recognised as such in many states (Spain one of them). And afterwards come days and months of abuse, and the narrator’s mixed feelings about it. She knows that she is worth more than an abusive husband, she has the education to recognise what is happening to her. She is a feminist. She is an author. She is extremely clever. But that does not save her, or any woman, from becoming a domestic violence victim. Her family also knows, but they insist on her staying in a marriage that turned violent just one month after the wedding for fear of being judged. Kandasamy offers a magnificent portrayal of contemporary Indian society as a troublesome space, where traditions and new ways of seeing life are crashing, exactly the same way they are doing in the West, especially regarding gender issues:
Tradition never goes out of fashion. Remaining in public memory, it wears new clothes. In India, a bride is burnt every ninety minutes. The time it takes to fix a quick dinner. The time it takes to do the dishes. The time it takes to commute to work. This is the official statistic – the deaths the police do not even bother trying to hide in semantics. The real truth lies int he wailing that never ceases at the burns wards of hospitals.
We learn in the very first chapter of the book that the narrator’s story has a happy ending, at least as happy as expected in these circumstances. The novel is her take on events that seem to be fluid and plastic depending on the ideology of the narrator. Authorship, as she highlights, is something that should be taken very seriously. Domestic violence is not something that happens to uneducated, poor women. It is part of the patriarchy, it can happen to all and any of us. It can alienate us from society, even from our beloved ones. It is ignored, dismissed, hidden, covered, and even justified. It is terrorism potentially targeting half of humankind, making all women potential victims, no matter their age, nationality, race, religion, ethnic background, education, or body. It can happen to me. Or to you. And that is why When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife will be the most important book published in 2017.
The amazing Naomi Frisby from The Writes of Woman recently interviewed Kandasamy for her Youtube Channel. Enjoy!
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who lives in Chennai and London. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch and Ms. Militancy, and the critically acclaimed novel, The Gypsy Goddess. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics, and her academic interests include critical pedagogy and linguistic nationalism.
You can learn more about her here.
When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. You can vote for it here, by writing a review slightly over 100 words about TWO books, each by a different publishers, from the 150 The Guardian has selected.