Meet the author-poet-activist who won this year’s Hermann Kesten Prize

Updated on Oct 01, 2022 12:35 AM IST

Meena Kandasamy has won this year’s Hermann Kesten Prize for defending free speech and the rights of the marginalised. It takes courage to sustain a conscience, she says. It’s often left her broke. Nonetheless, she persists

Meena Kandasamy wrote her first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, in 2014. It is based on a 1968 incident in which 44 low caste labourers and their families in a Tamil village were locked in a hut and burned alive for striking for better pay and conditions. (Varun Vasudevan / HT Photo) PREMIUM
Meena Kandasamy wrote her first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, in 2014. It is based on a 1968 incident in which 44 low caste labourers and their families in a Tamil village were locked in a hut and burned alive for striking for better pay and conditions. (Varun Vasudevan / HT Photo)
ByChintan Girish Modi

Meena Kandasamy, 37, is an author, poet and anti-caste activist whose writing is as personal as it is political. For over 15 years, she has explored themes of caste, gender, violence and marginalisation across four collections of poetry, three novels and two biographical accounts, including one that details a brief marriage where Kandasamy battled domestic violence.

“Writing, for me, is life. It is a lot of complex things but it is not a career. That word is now tainted with so many capitalist and LinkedIn overtones,” she says.

Earlier this month, Kandasamy was awarded this year’s Hermann Kesten Prize, handed out by PEN Centre Germany to writers judged to be defenders of free speech and the rights of the marginalised.

“I see the prize as amplification,” says Kandasamy, speaking from Puducherry, where she lives with her partner and two young children. “I feel that someone has planted a microphone in my hand, so all that is left to do for me is to shout from the rooftops.” Excerpts from an interview.

Your writing is sustained by a deep engagement with the world. Does it get exhausting or dispiriting?

Writing, for me, would get very tiring, very boring, very lifeless and life-draining if it was about being solitary, wrapped in a bubble. How can anyone be tired with a deep engagement with the world? It is life-sustaining, life-affirming. I was in Silger in Chhattisgarh this summer, and I saw how villages that have no running water, no electricity, no toilets, no pucca homes, are standing up against the might of some of the world’s largest corporations. I do not discount the importance of solitude, but I’m put off by the neoliberal, individualist nature of terms such as self-care and me-time. I take solace in sleep; I always wake up a happier person.

Does the Hermann Kesten Prize, then, act as a kind of affirmation?

I feel grateful and energetic. I feel that someone has planted a microphone in my hand, so all that is left to do for me is to shout from the rooftops. I see this prize as amplification — larger platforms, greater noise, a bigger set of people appalled by what is happening and demanding change. The real vindication will come when political prisoners walk free. That day will come.

Is that a reflection of how you see the role of the storyteller in our times?

A writer has to shatter the silence and complicity that sustain disinformation, and have the courage to call out the naked emperor figureheads who deny the climate crisis, sow the seeds of religious hatred, pave the way for fascism. Every aspect of fascism involves a degree of elaborate storytelling – a mythic past, the suppression of speech and the distortion of language, the inherent anti-intellectualism and absence of reasoned debate. Jason Stanley (professor of philosophy at Yale, and author of the 2018 book How Fascism Works) has a fantastic 10-point list. A writer with a conscience fights against this, and tells the stories that will unravel and dismantle fascist propaganda.

What are the most difficult aspects of earning a living as you do?

You’re broke more often than you are bold enough to admit. You don’t know where your next paycheck will come from. Thinking about pensions, old age, social security, savings — these give you the jitters because these are abstractions in your life; they do not exist.

You’ve worked with publishing houses in India and in the UK. How different have your experiences been?

In the UK, I’ve never worked with a commercial publisher. Atlantic have done all my novels; Tilted Axis and Galley Beggar have done my translations. Independent presses are what nurture and sustain me, and allow for this voice to exist and thrive. I do not have the same privilege in India. I’ve had every book published by a different publishing house… HarperCollins, Juggernaut, Penguin Random House. You adapt, you learn.

The single most important person I will single out in Indian publishing is S Anand. He knew me as a 17-year-old, read the first drafts of my earliest poems, and when he started a publishing house Navayana, it was so incredibly brave of him to publish a book like Ms Militancy (2010). This was before anything in the UK happened. This was before I had an agent. For someone to have that bedrock of faith in me felt incredible. He is the editor to whom I will take my strongest, most controversial work.

Independent publishers are doing the heavy lifting, and in that respect the UK and the Indian publishing industries are far more similar than one might assume.

What’s on your bucket list, as an activist, writer, translator and parent?

This is such a beautiful, thoughtful question and I honestly don’t know where to begin. I do not believe in a bucket list for activism; you go where the struggle takes place, and often the pull that it exerts is so strong that you are drawn towards it and before you even realise you’re headed there.

As a writer, I want to write for the screen at some point. I haven’t done it yet, but you only live once, so I’d like to give it a shot. As a translator, I am invested now in creating more literary translators.

As a parent, I don’t have a grand list, I take each day as it comes. I spend a lot of time with the kids, but am often wracked with guilt that I’m not doing enough, so my wish is for that feeling to go away.

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