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        Volume 11 |Issue 36| September 14, 2012 |


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Book Review

Revelations of the Silent

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Anthologies are often received with mixed feelings by readers. Usually it is with a good dose of skepticism especially when the writers are relatively new in the craft. Many anthologies also do not follow any particular theme, which may work if all or most of the writers are of the same standard. But those that do have thematic undercurrents are usually better reads because of the meticulous selection process. The underlying thread that ties up Lady Fest – a collection of winning stories from the Oxford Gender Equality Festival 2010 is the complex and often painful, emotional journeys that women go through irrespective of their race, nationality or social status. That may be a boring generalisation of this collection which is actually an intriguing probe into the psychological rollercoasters that women go through at various stages in their lives.

The stories written by published writers, some of them award winning, are diverse and unique reflecting the different cultural backgrounds that the writers come from. But the language is consistently bold, often relentless and the tone in most of the stories is brooding. What is delightful about some of these stories is the dry humour that gives the reading a sense of believability and makes them entertaining.

Lady Fest
Winning Stories from the Oxford Gender Equality Festival 2010
Judged by Bidisha
Published by Dead Ink Publications

Poker Face by Angela Jackson stands out for its brilliant portrayal of the subtle dismissive attitude towards aging people by even their loved ones. It is about the constant silent struggle within to retain one's dignity despite the realities of physical limitations that come with aging. An aging mother whose mobility has been severely limited is taken care of by her daughter who believes she is doing everything she can for her mother. She dutifully does all the household chores and attends to her mother's physical needs but in the process she completely disregards her mother as a grown up and treats her like an infant. The story with humour, shows the silently resentful mother regaining her mental strength by an act of defiance against the control imposed on her 'for her own good'. Jackson, whose debut novel 'The Emergence of Judy Taylor' will come out in 2013, is recognised as an emerging writer and teaches psychology and education.

From the other side of the globe is 'Getting There' by Farah Ghuznavi, the first runner up in the competition, a poignant account of a young Bangladeshi woman who flees the hurts of the past from a stifling family environment thanks to her talent and determination, only to be forced to be faced with a strange twist of fate. Despite her father's constant disapproval and discouraging attitude towards Laila's obvious artistic talent, she manages to free herself and pursue a successful architectural career. She has distanced herself from the family she thinks does not understand her but a horrible accident makes it impossible to ignore her blood ties. The story, written from the young woman's point of view, explores her insecurities and takes her on a path that is both terrifying and emotionally rewarding. The language is lucid, the choice of words evocative and vivid: 'A sense of irritation prickled along her tightly stretched nerves –as if irreverent fingers were teasing a set of piano keys, every now and then hitting a grinding note of disharmony…' The plot progresses quite rapidly and the ending leaves the reader wanting to know what will happen to these out-of-the-ordinary characters who must find a way to survive despite the odds looming over them. Ghuznavi, a Bangladeshi born writer and a columnist for the Star, has been published in many anthologies – mostly internationally and is currently editing a fiction anthology for the Indian publisher Zubaan.

A Touch of Male by Cherish Shirley, the winner of the competition, is a lighthearted jab at the petty jealousies and competitiveness of women working in the same profession and the incorrigible need for male attention. With tongue in cheek humour, Shirley realistically recreates the milieu at a beauty salon, the subtle hierarchies, the informal bickering and the funny consequences of fighting for the attentions of an unexpected male visitor. Shirley, who has written several short stories and plays for stage and screen has recently had her short film 'Motherland' screened at an independent cinema.

The anthology, edited by Bidisha and published by Dead Ink Publications also delves into disturbing psychological themes. Dreamcatchers by Aimee Cliff seems to allude to domestic violence and the damaging effects of it on a child who has witnessed it. The Game by Laura O' Brien traces the stages a woman goes through during and after estrangement with a partner and how she tries to cope with the reality of loneliness. Similar in theme is Repeat by Kathleen Keown – a young woman realises the futility of her relationship with a selfish, emotionally challenged man and the pattern of conflict and resignation that many women confine themselves to. Even Songs of the Sea by Rosalind Newman, though written like a haunting ballad and heavily relying on magical realism, hints at the tragic results of love that stifles the soul.

Savage Lands by Sarvat Hasin gives a rare glimpse into the politics of foreign policy, the unrecognised casualties of war imposed by foreign powers – the loss of a loved one, the loss of emotional stability, conscience and sometimes even sanity. A young Pakistani woman journalist from the upper echelons of society struggles with multiple conflicts and tries hard to put up a veneer of normalcy in an abnormal, brutal, sexist world.

Perhaps the most complex and rather difficult to grasp is Kate Pocklington's story We Amount that reads like a complicated, disturbing dream with tangents that shoot out of nowhere but apparently have a reason for being there. It is longer than the other stories and sometimes seems to unnecessarily mystify situations, so much so that one is wondering, despite a few readings of the story, whether the writer is speaking of a revolution gone awry, the afterthoughts of a psychotic character or the fantastical imagination of some sort of narcotic trip.

What is important about this anthology is not that it holds so many feminist voices but the fact that each story has come up with an element of surprise and freshness that is often absent in other anthologies. The quality of writing is also fairly consistent, which is certainly a welcome factor for all short story lovers.

Ladyfest can be purchased from all Amazon websites worldwide (in Kindle format) as well as SmashWords (in all formats, including PDF for regular PCs and Macs) for around five dollars. Both websites mentioned here also offer a free sample from the book, which includes the full text of the story 'Poker Face' and part of Farah Ghuznavi's story "Getting There". Additional reviews and judge's comments on the winning stories can also be read at:





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