The Whole Kahani, May We Borrow Your Country: An anthology of short stories and poems, Linen Press, 2019. ISBN: 9781999604660. £9.99.
This collection published by Linen Press, the only independent women’s press in the UK, presents voices that move a step towards this necessary broadening of the perspectives embodied in literature. It is a collection resounds with diversity of experience. The foreword by Preti Taneja places the voices of South East Asian women in their intellectual and creative context and addresses the stereotyping that pervades the presentation of their linguistic characteristics, relationships and ambition. Taneja suggests that ‘the UK cannot…arrive at a complete understanding of ourselves until the voices of British women of colour are equally heard.’
The expectations raised Taneja’s foreword of stories of many voices are realised in the following pages. It is an experience that is entertaining and revelatory. This collection wilfully defies genre categorisation, a cardinal sin for book promotion, but that is exactly the point here; the writers and their creations defy fitting into neat boxes.
The collection traverses continents and cultures, the old town and the new town, the sacrifices made for love and against love. The evocation of control in Where He Lives by Kavita A. Jindal has the reader on a knife edge. The exposition of the Sabina’s narrative is dexterously controlled. The morsels about her past and her decision echo the obsession with hunger and food and the taking in of material into the body becomes a metaphor of existential control. If the skill of constructing a short story can be tested anywhere it is in its final line, and Jindal has us right in the palm of her hand until the end.
The poignant chance meeting in a graveyard that ties two should together in unexpected ways in Living With The Dead by Nadia Kabir Barb is a meditation on escapism and opportunity. It’s tenderness is in sharp contrast to the metropolitan seduction of Sonny by CG Menon. Here the reader is tossed between London bars and the safety of home and witnesses the baffling erosion of self as Mohan suffocates in the hot air beneath a duvet smelling of mothballs.
Each of the pieces in May We Borrow Your Country deserves serious consideration and review; each writer has dreamed the dream of the night before and then delivered a spinning world that the reader is invited to share for a moment. The effect of reading the collection as a collection rather than as individual stories and poems is doubly enriching. The reader develops an awareness of transitioning between identities, between mother, daughter, son and mother-in-law, progressing through the stories with shifts in empathy and understanding. Embedded in a particular scenario in a particular place, things are turned on their head. Who is the loving wife? Who is the lost husband? The maturity of many of the characters and the authenticity of their domestic experience is refreshing, characters are neither perfect nor despicable, they are relatable. This is what moves this reader to sympathy.
The personal voices of the characters in May We Borrow Your Country are also part of the global political and economic system. There is displacement that is physical, sexual and cultural in these stories. There is also displacement that is deeper and more subtle – displacement of the soul from its dwelling place. It is the place between the breath described by Radhika Kapur in her memoir Inbetween and the place simply and elegantly evoked in the poem Mrs Basu Leaves Town by Reshma Ruia. A long journey has been undertaken in order to understand the meaning of home.
This is not a collection that should be bought to support the publisher or to increase the visibility of South East Asian women’s writing. This is a collection that should be read because it supports the reader; it leaves the reader richer and more able to see the whole story of their own lives and understand other’s experience.
You can buy May We Borrow Your Country: an anthology of short stories and poems here.
Gabrielle Barnby is a creative practitioner who delivers writing workshops and community learning sessions in Orkney. She writes short stories, poetry and full-length fiction, and her work has been included in numerous anthologies and magazines. She is the author of The House With The Lilac Shutters and other stories and The Oystercatcher Girl. More information can be found at gabriellebarnby.com or on Facebook and Twitter.