Bookkake in India: Nabaneeta Dev Sen

As you know, I’m currently in India on a trip for publishers organised by The British Council. We’ve spent the last few days at the Jaipur Literary Festival – an absolutely wonderful experience, about which I’ll write some more later. For now, while internet time is short, I just want to share one writer who I’ve been introduced to, and was fortunate enough to meet.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen is a Bengali poet and writer whose work has, for decades, dealt with the most complicated issues in Indian life: the role of the intellectual, the cultural divides of language and the caste system, child labour, women’s rights, sex, homosexuality and transgenderism, AIDS, immigration and exile. At the same time, her tales of single motherhood, and independent womanhood, are widely read for their warmth, humour and humanity. Her poetry has been written in Bengali, her prose mostly in English, and translated into many languages.

At Jaipur, I heard her speak, together with her daughter, the writer Antara Dev Sen, where she talked about her writing, particularly her writing about AIDS and homosexuality, which, she said, she undertook because “writing about homosexuality is a way of challenging the system.” Almost all of her writing has been undertaken in a similar spirit, whether it’s her family tales, which challenge the Indian ideal of the male-led household, her travel journals, championing women’s independence, or her retellings of epics from the Mahabarata from a decidedly female perspective. “When you write from a woman’s point of view,” she says, “you use a different gaze, which changes the meaning of what you are writing about.”

I was privileged enough to meet her later in the festival, and was treated to a warm and generous retelling of some of the friendships that led to many of her books, of personal experiences that drove her to focus on the many issues her work covers. I’m going to spend the rest of the trip looking out as much of her work as I can find.


my exile is over, mother,
no more living in the jungle for me
come, mother, underneath this matted beard
feel the familiar cheeks of your child
open up your breasts, mother, and watch how
the seven streams of milk
gush towards my parched tongue

look at these feet, mother, the tiny feet
where your golden bells had jingled
look at this arm
upon which you had tied your talisman
when I was born
now look at this chest where you had planted
the sapling of a heart
in a soft green stretch of sun
in the hidden mesh of this dark jungle,
has grown a hungry tree…
with toothy leaves and sharp claws
and fierce flowers
it chews on other hearts
a fine flesh-eater

my time in the jungle is over, mother,
now the jungle lives in me.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen (b.1938). The above photo and poem are taken from her website. More at Wikipedia.

Posted January 26, 2009 | Comments (1).

To the Indus and Beyond

I’m off to India for a couple of weeks as I’ve been shortlisted for the British Council’s UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2009 – in part for my work on Bookkake.

While I hope to find much of interest to Bookkake readers there – like these beautiful carvings from the Khajuraho temple complex which I saw last time I was in India, in 2000 – I probably won’t be able to blog often, if at all, so please bear with me until normal service resumes, some time after the 4th of February. There may also be slight delays in the delivery of books ordered direct from the site, but these will be kept to a minimum.

If any Bookkake readers have suggestions for any books, locations or people I should seek out while I’m there, I’d love to hear them. I’ll be at the Jaipur Literary Festival and the Kholkata Book Fair, as well as meeting people from Zubaan Books, Osian’s, the IPDA, HarperCollins India, and a bunch of others. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Images of Khajuraho by pasug, micbaun, and pomeso, used under Creative Commons.

Posted January 16, 2009 | Comments (2).

Under Dirty Covers: William Haggard’s ‘Slow Burner’

Found this the other day. Isn’t it great? No idea what it’s like (although it sounds good). Dirty green Penguins from the 70s are always good. I’m not sure Penguin would put nipples on the cover these days.

Posted January 15, 2009 | Comments Off on Under Dirty Covers: William Haggard’s ‘Slow Burner’.

A Sarsen Amongst Dirt: Experimental Type & Design

I just had to post this excellent little presentation from Alan Trotter, copywriter at Penguin. As you know, we love excellent book design, and we’re particularly interested in experimental book design. Tom Phillips’ A Humument, featured in the following, is one of our all-time favourite books – do check it out.

A couple of other examples of this kind of thing we like, are the bookish experimentations of B.S. Johnson, whose second novel Alberto Angelo contains both stream-of-conciousness marginalia, and cut-through pages enabling the reader to see ahead – possibly the most radical act I know in experimental books.

Johnson also had his novel The Unfortunates published, bound only as chapters, in a box: only the first and final chapters are specified, the rest are to be shuffled by the reader. This week we came across a new and similar experiment; Ben Greenman’s Correspondences, a collection of epistolary short fictions published, yes, in a rather lovely box:

There’s a very complimentary review over at TO Chicago, elaborating on the way this strange format, including letterpress and accordian-folded pages, supports rather than distracts from the work.

Anyone else got any favourite examples? Keep sending us your book design tips as well, as we’ll be doing regular round-ups.

Posted January 14, 2009 | Comments (1).

The Ricin Poet

Over in Seattle, there’s been some recent unpleasantness with anonymous, threatening letters sent to eleven gay bars in the city:

Ricin Threat Letter

A similar letter was also to The Stranger, Seattle’s independent newspaper, where Dan Savage posted it to The Slog, guessing that the letters were probably written by a gay man.

But the story gets stranger: a commenter then pointed out that several lines of the letter were taken pretty much verbatim from poet Mark Doty‘s A Display of Mackerel:

They don’t care they’re dead
and nearly frozen,

just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were living:

So we have the moving words of a T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, National Book Award-winning, openly gay poet being used in a letter threatening to poison gay bar-goers. It’s a twisted situation.

Doty has responded, with sadness, on his own blog:

It’s hard for me to describe how horrified I feel by this. On the literal level, my poem describes looking at a group of mackerel on ice in a fish market, and contemplating both their beauty and their apparent absence of individuation. The poem was written in 1994, in the awful latter days of the AIDS crisis here, when there was no hope in sight and the losses just went on and on… now here are my lines twisted to a new context, and what was intended to suggest consolation is instead bent to an occasion for creating fear.

Luckily the first busy weekend has passed without incident – with a bar crawl in solidarity with the businesses in question – and there’s hope it’s just a malicious hoax.

But do any Bookkake readers know of other occasions when poetry has been used in anger like this – either by the poet, or, as in this case, by a plagiarist?

There’s Britain’s own ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ Samina Malik of course, imprisoned and later freed for such doggerel as ‘How To Behead’:

“It’s not messy or as hard as some may think, It’s all about the flow of the wrist… You’ll feel the knife hit the wind and food pipe, But Don’t Stop, Continue with all your might.”

Much has been made of the poetry of Yeats and Pearse, too, in the conflict in Northern Ireland, and there’s been an anthology of poetry by the detainees of Guantanamo Bay – more despairing than angry, however. I don’t doubt there are plenty more examples.

Posted January 13, 2009 | Comments Off on The Ricin Poet.

“i like my body when it is with your” by e. e. cummings

Hello Monday! A whole five days until we can embarrass ourselves again. Oh, well, cheer up. Here’s Monday’s Dirty Poem. It’s really rather sweet.

i like my body when it is with your

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh … And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

e. e. cummings (1894—1962)

If you’ve got a suggestion for Monday’s dirty poem, don’t hesitate to get in touch

Posted January 12, 2009 | Comments Off on “i like my body when it is with your” by e. e. cummings.

The Little Red Schoolbook

“Nearly all the changes in which you’re allowed to participate are in things which aren’t very important. The real and difficult changes are those which give more and more people power to decide more and more things for themselves”

For those who don’t know Speechification, it’s an excellent little blog for fans of speech radio, podcasting the best bits of the UK’s Radio 4, and occasional things from the rest of the world. I’m one of the contributors, and I’ve just posted a 30 minute documentary that Bookkake readers will probably enjoy.

The Little Red Schoolbook, translated from the Dutch Danish and published in 1971, advised children about sex, drugs and how to assert their rights at school. It was subsequently banned in the UK as an obscene publication, but continued to be distributed by radical groups, becoming something of a cause celebre in the process. Wikipedia has more references on the history of the book – and you can pick up a copy on Abe, should you so desire. There’s also another good resource on the history of this fascinating little book here. Enjoy!

Posted January 9, 2009 | Comments (5).

The Porn Bailout

How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large fortune.” So we at Bookkake may not be financial geniuses, but there’s definitely money in filth. Next month’s Atlantic contains an interview with Francis Koenig, founder and CEO of AdultVest, the adult-entertainment industry’s first hedge fund. The Atlantic suggests that “the U.S. porn industry (which generated roughly $12 billion in 2007) is some­what buffered from today’s credit crunch” – although it still has problems to face in the form of falling video sales and the increase of User-Generated Porn on sites like Porno- and XTube – what used to be called Readers’ Wives.

Meanwhile, Larry Flynt (of Hustler), and the execrable Joe Francis (Girls Gone Wild) are making a bid for all that bailout money sloshing around:

“With all this economic misery and people losing all that money, sex is the farthest thing from their mind,” Flynt says. “It’s time for Congress to rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America.”

Flynt and Francis are on their way to Washington to ask Congress for a $5 billion bailout, apparently on the basis of a very bad pun (not that we can talk).

We prefer Koenig’s analysis of the situation:

“The industry’s not going anywhere,” Koenig says. “You’ve got 6 billion people on the planet,” he laughs, “and they’re all horny.”

Posted January 8, 2009 | Comments Off on The Porn Bailout.

London Unexpurgated

London UnexpurgatedI have a number of weaknesses. Some of them, in no particular order are: dirty books (obviously), old London guidebooks (of which I have many) and the New English Library.

The old NEL was a wonderful thing. The current incarnation is an indifferent imprint of Hodder & Staughton, but in the 50s and 60s they published all kids of weird and wonderful (and dirty) things, hitting a high point in the 70s with a whole raft of hack writing – notably Richard Allen’s Skinhead and Mick Norman’s Hells Angels series, which are well worth seeking out.

I particularly like the fact they weren’t afraid of producing their own books – ‘Mick Norman’ was a pseudonym of Laurence James, an editor at NEL who churned out tonnes of this stuff. They were also utterly mercenary, which brings us to this: London Unexpurgated, by Petronius. LibraryThing attributes ‘Petronius’ to Paul Tabori, author of a range of likely-sounding titles such as The Torture Machine and A pictorial history of love, but even the old NEL editors aren’t sure any more.

No matter. Petronius proves an excellent guide to London, 1969, in a book aimed at Yanks (he’s also credited with New York Unexpurgated), but containing plenty of gems for the amateur historian of the London underworld, as well as some rather lovely illustrations, like this one, fronting the chapter on The London Whore:

The London Whore

Petronius takes the visitor to London (or the inquisitive local) on a tour of London’s best pick-up spots, including exhibitions, ice rinks and the pub (which get their own chapter); the best places to peep (outside the youth hostel by Holland Park is a top contender); into the the heart of the Hippie subculture, characterised by Happenings, Pentangle, and pot; and around the late night coffee houses and steak joints inhabited by nightbirds. It is occasionally serious, too, discussing the enlightened British attitude to registered drug addicts (which, “like all well-meaning, general control schemes, does not really work”), and contrasting Paris, which has within recent memory “driven the girls from maisons beloved by Maupassant and Toulouse-Lautrec into the street” under the Marthe Richard laws, with London’s banning of street prostitution, forcing girls into hidden, vulnerable bedsits and leading to the proliferation of coy notices in shop windows:

Young Model
Artistic Sessions
English and Swedish lessons
Young Lady Good at Figures seeks Position

And so on. It’s also occasionally very rude indeed, advising those in search of nymphettes (“The older I get the younger I like ’em”—The Duke of Wellington) to join the fan clubs of Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and, ahem, Liberace, in the hopes that they may “deflect their passion from their idol to yourself”. The disclaimer reads “We would not like to be accused of encouraging statutory
rape – we are only giving the facts.”

Petronius is also not coy about delving into the world of “The Consenting Adult”, aka homosexuals, advising males so interested to seek out The Albany Trust – but leaving lesbians to find “their clubs and associations, their regular meeting places and rites” on their own.

Like most NEL titles, there is far more titillation than filth here, and far less information than could be found in a standard guidebook of the day, but couched in a whispering, adult tone that was still welcomed in contrast to the still straight-laced mainstream it subverted. Encouraging the young to explore, and the old to help them, Petronius is a wonderful guide, whose only real injunction is to look beneath the surface, and say:


Anyone else got any dirty guidebook recommendations we should be checking out? Let us know.

Posted January 7, 2009 | Comments Off on London Unexpurgated.

Ginsberg and Kissinger, in a tree

Recently released transcripts of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s telephone conversations reveal a marvellous potential happening: beat poet, legend and personal hero Allen Ginsberg, and Kissinger, naked together on the telly, discussing world peace:

K: I have been meeting with many members representing peace groups but what I find is that they have always then rushed right out and given the contents of the meeting to the press. But I like to do this, not just for the enlightment of the people I talk to but to at least give me a feel of what concerned people think. I would be prepared to meet in principle on a private basis.

G: That’s true but it is a question of personal delicacy. In dealing with human conscienceness, it is difficult to set limits.

K: You can’t set limits to human conscienceness but —

G: We can try to come to some kind of understanding.

K: You can set limits to what you say publicly.

G: It would be even more funny to do it on television.

K: What?

G: It would be even more useful if we could do it naked on television.

Sadly, the 1971 suggestion never came to pass, although Ginsberg continued to mediate between Kissinger and the leaders of the “May Day” anti-war demonstrations in Washington – and encourage the leaders of the free world to start meditating.

The full transcripts are available from George Washington University. Thanks to PageOneQ for the tip.

Photo detail from Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Poets, 1963, by Richard Avedon.

Posted January 6, 2009 | Comments Off on Ginsberg and Kissinger, in a tree.

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