Dalit Women Speak Out – The Writing Workshop

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The Dalit Women’s Conference was liberating on many levels, mostly because I got to meet some fab women. This is a small account of the writing workshop I conducted in some very questionable Hindi on 19 Dec 2017.

The first thing I notice is that all my ten students are older than me. The little Hindi that I know gives haath and I begin stammering. In the second row, there are three middle-aged women who each have the sternness of my high-school history teacher.

The two oldest women in the group – Jamnadevi (62) and Asha (56) sit in the first row. Every time they smile, the liquid in their eyes glimmers in an alert way.

I fumble with words the first few minutes. I forget if Likhna and Lekhan mean the same thing. I’m not sure if I should rely on the same examples I use in the English-speaking classroom.

But what great sense does talking about writing make in an English-speaking classroom that I should worry about it not making sense in a Hindi classroom?

Some are unconvinced when I say that born-talent is bullshit, that writing is practice. I begin to worry that I’m making no sense at this point because a woman from the second row says – ‘Lekin humko technique malum nahi hain na? Toh kaise likhe?’ But we don’t know the technique. How do we write?

I wonder if should mention Marquez here and feel somewhat hopeful.

I tell them how he taught himself to write through the stories his grandmother told him. How she once told him that every Sunday an electrician would come home to fix things and when he left, the house would be filled with butterflies.

But Marquez knew that if he were to write about butterflies coming out of a room – nobody would believe it. So he borrowed his grandmother’s stone face to tell stories. He also added that they will believe him if he said yellow butterflies. His funda was simple – you want to write? Begin with the stories that you know. Regardless of how crazy they may seem.

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The history teachers nod but are still suspicious. Jamnadevi and Asha are bowled over by the yellow butterflies and their smiles are the loudest.

Kisi ek kamre ke bare main likhiye jo aap kabhi bhool nahi payenge. Write about a room that you’ll never forget.

I wait quietly when they begin writing. I imagine what it must be like to touch the greying head tops of Jamnadevi and Asha. It could be hot, it could be cold.

 

When Asha begins to read, everybody looks at her– “Neele asmaan ke rang ki deeware thi us ghar main. Kone main ek bada kutiya rakha hua tha”

That house had sky-blue walls and in the corner of the house there was a big grinding stone.

When she says neele asmaan, the other women around her nod and she picks up.

When she is describing her mother’s hands and how she’d spend hours tracing them with her index finger, she breaks down.

–          Aur nahi pada jata. I cannot read more.

She takes the ends of her white dupatta, removes her glasses and dabs hers eyes with them.

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Jamnadevi who is sitting next to her doesn’t register any of this. She is almost smiling as she begins. She describes the only cot in her house on which, she says – her father taught her ganith (Math) and her mother combed her hair.

There was a small Ponds dabba near the window. We’d try as much as we could to make it last a year and then when it got over, granny would fill it with water so we could have Ponds scent. Even today the smell of Ponds reminds me of my grandmother very much.

I stood there beaming like a useless buffoon. All these women were better storytellers than I could ever hope to be. Every single person. I didn’t really have to do anything. Whether or not I did a good job, we had all agreed vehemently that we could not allow anybody else to tell our stories. Our stories are ours.

When Jamnadevi finished reading, she too breaks down.

The two girls sitting behind her tell me they don’t want to read their stories out because they don’t think it’s as good as Jamnadevi’s.

At this Jamnadevi giggles.

***

When I think about my experiences as a teacher in an English-speaking classroom, I think about how vulnerable knowing or not knowing a language can make one feel in relation to those that have language, power, and knowledge. I think about how I sometimes feel the need to hide my lack of good English. Then I think about all these women and wonder if I need to hide. They brought all their stories together to the classroom that day – Englishlessly. These were powerful stories rendered broken by unseen violence – the kind that is not easy to protest openly. And when they read out their stories, we didn’t know it then, but we were building our own histories with no help from anyone.

60-year-old Jamuna Devi is the Sarpanch of Gram Bamana in Madhya Pradesh. She rebelled against her family and managed to study till the 11th std. She wanted to do engineering but wasn’t allowed to – and so, out of vengeance, she made her lazy husband do engineering. Today, Jamuna Devi is fighting for the labourers who were displaced due to the Bhakra Dam project.
60-year-old Jamuna Devi is the Sarpanch of Gram Bamana in Madhya Pradesh. She rebelled against her family and managed to study till the 11th std. She wanted to do engineering but wasn’t allowed to – and so, out of vengeance, she made her lazy husband do engineering. Today, Jamuna Devi is fighting for the labourers who were displaced due to the Bhakra Dam project.

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What I learnt from reading The Murder Room by PD James

The Murder Room

It’s probably a bad idea to read a detective novel over three months. You forget who died, who had the most convenient alibi, and whose house was most unkempt. But if you’re reading PD James’ The Murder Room, it’s pardonable to stretch it for as long as you want.

The murder is just a background against which you discover characters whose lives and routines keep you more occupied and thrilled. This is what makes PD James incredible, that she is able to keep your interest in these things despite an equally compelling murder mystery.

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I have learnt more things about teaching from Adam Dalgliesh than I have from my own experience in the classroom. Today I’m as unprepared as I was on the first day of class. But I have come to realise that in the profession of teaching, it’s sometimes an ordeal to talk to students like adults.

My response to their various hostilities range from giving hostility back; to ignoring them completely; to confronting them to talk it all out. But neither of these is a fitting response.

In a room full of Murder suspects, Dalgliesh interrogates everybody with the sternness of a businessman and the aloofness of a lover caught daydreaming. This is possibly the best response to unwarranted attacks and general hostility. When the suspects are tired of the cross examining and the hundred odd restrictions on their movements, they begin attacking Dalgliesh – sometimes even personally.

Dalgliesh has a clear sense of his job. He doesn’t care about settling power matters with those who question it. He wants to solve the case – if that gets in the way of people’s fragile ego, he gives exactly two and half fucks and moves on with his life.

A recent discovery that has made me very uncomfortable is that as a teacher, I have taken too many liberties to feel offended at the drop of a hat. While sometimes, I reserve the right to take offence, I should probably learn to be aloof.

I have bad days. Trapped in files and piles of admin work, I have often lost my temper. I continue to envy colleagues who talk to students in a consistently reasonable, annoyingly patient way.

When I think back to all those times that I have lost my cool, I cringe. Because there is nothing not performative about anger. Both on the inside and outside.  Regardless of what it’s about and where it’s coming from. This doesn’t make it less genuine – even if performance is a lie. It just makes me wonder if it’s really all that necessary – ashte.

Adam Dalgliesh is calm. During his worst moments – he’s still calm. He’s never severe on himself.

When Adam and Kate go to interview the mother of some murdered woman – Kate is taken aback by the generous make-up on the mother’s face. For a moment, I was also judgy bitchita. I was all ‘Why are you putting make-up on face when cops are coming to talk about your daughter’s murder?

The stepfather doesn’t figure here because it’s clear from his mannerisms that he’s happy step-daughter’s dead.

Adam Dalgliesh, calm as iceberg on ocean says – ‘It’s her wish to grieve the way she wants to. Clearly her daughter’s death made her vulnerable. So if she wants to brace the day by doing something that makes her feel powerful – why shouldn’t she do it?

I couldn’t applaud because book was heavy so I made my feet applaud.

***

Tally Clutton is my wonder woman. She craves solitude more than anyone else I have ever known. And she craves it not because she likes herself, but because she loves London. She knows she’ll never be able to enjoy the city if she doesn’t see it and live it alone, day after day. She walks the streets of London with the calm desperation of a woman in love willing to surrender.

She wants nothing more than to spend her last few days swallowing the city in slow, deliberate gulps. Sigh. I want to live and die like Tally Clutton. But before that I want to read all the PD James I can get my hands on.

You can watch the BBC adaptation here. But it’s a little blah because it ain’t the Tally Clutton from the book 😦

Once upon a not so long ago

Image Credits: The TLS Blog
Featured Image Credits: The TLS Blog

If like me, you come from an adolescence that didn’t know it was happening while it was happening, if you weren’t aware of the joys that investing in oneself can bring — if you made the mistake of making one person central to your entire life, then you will hurry through the remainder of your youth with a biting madness.

Marquez’s life changed after reading the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It paralysed him first and then set him free. ‘I didn’t know you could lie in writing,’ he said.

Paris Review
Image Credits – Paris Review

A discovery that did the same for me was ‘I didn’t know I could live like this’

Live how you ask. Like you are alive after a long time of being dead. Like you don’t want to share your day with anybody because you guard the time you have like a lion guarding his cubs. Like any moment not spent doing the things you love (even if it is sleeping for 8 hours or staring at yellow curtains for 3 hours) makes you cringe. Like the thought of marriage makes you say no thanks, I’ll give you one kidney if you want. Pliss leave me alone.

When you spend your youth chasing fears and running away from them at the same time, there’s very little left to love yourself. You go to bed unhappy and wake up miserable. You will allow a beautiful thing like love to cripple you. You will invite self-pity and aren’t too far from depression.

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I spent last night poring over Amulya Shruti’s blog. Her writing is like carpentry. You can’t help but watch as she is at it – tugging, pulling, breaking, joining, cutting, welding and then when she’s done: the work stands itself up and grins at you. Almost as if the writing came out of her body. This confirms a long standing suspicion I have had of the connection between music and writing.

The practice of writing is not to make writing perfect but to train your body to become a sort of vessel for writing.

Here is a piece on Kishori Amonkar. Read it. Ila explains it better than I can.

Kishori Amonkar has always said about music: that she was not singing a raag, but that the raag was coming through her — where the music was more important than the musician.

India Samvad
Image Credits: India Samvad

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Before leaving to college yesterday, I listened to Paromita Vohra speak at IIHS on YouTube (Bless you) — been reeling from too much love since then – for everyone in general but myself, in particular. No one else has made loving oneself seem so attractive and desirable.

She speaks with a clarity that can arm you with a rare pleasure for work. I myself went to college with a spring in my bum.

She wonders what it must have been like for Lata Mangeshkar to go to work every day with the conviction of producing a perfect song. Apparently she drove directors mad because she wouldn’t let go until the song could not be made more perfect. What must it be like to have this kind of a relationship with work? Paromita asks. Then she says, “I like writing perfect columns. I’m not saying all my columns are great but they are definitely good”

With Paro Devi & her fans - Jan 2018
With Paro Devi & her fans – Jan 2018

I love women. I love it even more when they talk about their work and take pride in what they do. It’s the most glorious ache to spend hours agonizing over each word, sharpening each sentence until they become flesh- ripping canines.   

How to produce good writing though? How to make that glorious ache visible? How to begin? How to develop style? I was thankful to all the faces that asked these questions. 

Vohra said – ‘It’s important to know yourself and to know the kind of things you like to write. It’s the only thing that helps. You should be able to show your own political journey in your writing.’

Often she has said that she likens the act of writing columns to Bollywood film songs – there’s rasa, there’s oomph, there’s persuasion, there’s a question and then there’s some degree of attempt at solving this question.

This comparison never fails to make me happy. A large part of my childhood was spent listening to these songs, watching useless films and feeling guilty about not doing productive work. But then there are writers like these who seem to be rooting for all the pleasures of my childhood and saying — no no that was good, it’s what makes you write. Work is play, play is work.

For someone whose only occupation was to imagine her own death while brushing her teeth – and to weep while she rehearsed what others would say and feel at her funeral – a commitment to working towards something – no matter how bad she is at it – is a gift, a luxury.

"I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again - as I always am when I write" - Virginia Woolf Image Credits: The Telegraph
“I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again – as I always am when I write” – Virginia Woolf Image Credits: The Telegraph

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Featured Image Credits: The TLS Blog

Meta Diaries: Days Seven and Eight

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A new contest we’ve added this year (for other fests to grab, and announce it as the first time anyone in college has ever conducted it) is Pretext.

I’ll just say the word interpret and give you a picture of Hitler’s jingling anatomy and a Nazi symbol for heart. Do what you can in 5 minutes. So this happened on Day Seven and we saw some ten contestants staring at fellow team mates hungrily and blinking rarely.

Our first Panel at Meta was to commemorate 50 years of JAM (Just a Minute) Our panelists were alumni Darius Sunawala, Prof Cheriyan Alexander and students Izrael and Zahed.

Coming as I do with only a degree in Bollywood, I had for the longest time assumed that JAM is what little Anjali did in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – where she picked the word Maa and stumbled and stuttered until Paa came and rescued her.

I was wrong. JAM has been adapted and made raita-khichdi of by many. It was a delight to watch Darius speak of the good ol days. Prof Arul Mani had told us at JAM the other day that Nicholas Parsons based the rules of JAM on an incident from school. His professor caught him daydreaming and asked him to explain to the class what was being discussed without hesitation, repetition and deviation (!)
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CK Meena’s Lec Dem on women in journalism was proof that we need sessions like these every other week. Some five bois were rolling eyes at the mere mention of women.The eyes came out of sockets when she hadn’t even reached the fem of feminism.

Nevertheless, she told us about how women reporters back then were rare and if they did join, were given dog shows and cake shows and flower shows to cover. Maybe the bois should have rolled eyes at this.
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Day Eight began with a change in venues. But that has never bothered Meta.

Our event Nose Cut (are the creative peeps listening?) was quite the hit. After slight mind acrobatics, it was decided that Alok Nath, Rakhi Sawant, Tiger Shroff and Lola Kutty would be put together. Most of the participants chose Alok Nath and the one team that chose Lola Kutty won the audience over with his rendition of confused malluness and ever-falling pallu. At one point he said ‘female chetas’ and people howled.

Anchor What made me Dil-Khush yesterday because two BCA students came first.

The gulabi moment of the Young Adult Fiction panel was one Miss Sarah Rodriguez announcing quite coolly that “no writer writes for the entire world” and Prof Rincy Thomas declaring that “there should be an event at Meta where boys should be given a copy of The Princess Diaries” – that was our all-women – all -kickass – panel at Meta this year.

The highlight of the day was writer SR Ramakrishna talking about translating the late UR Ananthamurthy’s autobiography – Suragi. When he read out some excerpts, I couldn’t help but notice how much the voice was like the one in Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri (A word with you, world – also translated by SR Ramakrishna)

It was amusing to note that in three of the five excerpts he read, three people died — and all very casually. ‘He played cards and then he died’

Managed to get a signed copy. Cannot wait to read it.

Happy New Year to Me

Fab year so far. Got to meet two of my favourite writers.

In Jan, Paro Devi came to college and stayed in the guest house right above the department so every morning, I sat at my desk with a spring in my bum- singing Parodevi is breathing above my desk – now she must be sleeping – now she must be eating.

I got to meet her personally and thank her for all the love she sends through her writing. Here’s a happy picture.

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Blee.

And then Times Lit Fest happened. It’s kakka and I would have never gone. I went only because I was to be on an interview with Sujatha Gidla 🙂

I don’t want to say much here because I’m writing about meeting her. Let me just say that I have never met an author who was just as happy to meet a fan as the fan was to meet her.

You can watch the interview here

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In other news, Meta begins today. So I’ll see you after 400 years 🙂

Ants among Elephants

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Here is my piece on reading Sujatha Gidla’s memoir – Ants among Elephants. The book was read over two days and written over three.

Best week ever.

The most comforting thing about the book was learning that I have to hurry. There are many, many family stories waiting to be written. This was also extremely unsettling. All the men and women in my family who can tell me about us – our caste, its history, and its stories are in their 80s.

Ants among Elephants is a story about many such people who dared to lift their heads up and look at the sky. And I am grateful for this because these are stories that must be written and told and shared — again and again — not just because soon, we will have lost all those who lived in these stories but also because these stories are what allow us to save them from being frozen like statues in history and government offices.

Featured image Credit: Shirin Jaafari/PRI via https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-10/india-she-was-untouchable-new-york-city-she-became-author

Laugh like Sumitra

For as long as I can remember – I have always been a stalker, first, a writer second. Even when I am not writing, I am stalking. It isn’t worrisome because if stalking happens then can writing be far behind?

I have spent some spectacular nights on my phone jumping from website to blog to YouTube interviews of women writers I’m madly in love with. It’s usually the kind of night that spreads itself neatly on my bed till 4 in the morning – my body gently breaking from all the postures I have been trying, my eyes tired and watery, and my head brimming with inspiration.

So what am I trying to learn from them?

In the beginning it was mostly about learning how to say fuck off. Even now, I’m afraid, I’m still learning the same thing. But please understand that at various points in life, women need different degrees of being able to say fuck-off. The fuck-off that you imply at home for instance is a lot different from the fuck-off you want to scream outside. 

Beyond this is another freak show behaviour on my part. I’m obsessed with a strange desire to know everything about these women’s lives – who were their bullies in college? How did they fight back? How old were they when they first fell in love? When was the last time they cried? Do they use napkins or tampons or cups? Do they decide what to wear for work every day or do they just throw something on? How did they begin writing?

In the early 2000’s – the idea of a working woman in my family was radical. Her education, on the other hand was not radical because it was necessary to keep an engineer bride ready for a double-graduate groom. It was maybe more than necessary – it was meritorious.

Today, unmarried women in their late 20’s instinctively learn to show their middle-fingers at people who bug them about marriage and babies.

In the urban space therefore, even if I know many, many working women – it gives me a kind of high when they have work problems. My sister Bubbly’s work involves numerous conference calls when she is at home. Sometimes she sits with her laptop, her eyes scrunching at all manner of squiggly codes. I derive an odd pleasure from watching her work. One such busy morning, she was on a conference call when she was interrupted by a brother trying to wave at her. She shot him one killer look before going back to her call.

I love this. It’s incredible to see women being busy in a world that is just theirs. Kind of like a Bechdel pass. Bechdel fails are almost heartbreaking to watch- where female friendships are compromised because playing out to male fantasies or impressing men becomes more important. This is where Ferrante wins. In her world, there is neither any place for male fantasies nor for women who make everything about men.

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I’m wondering also, if things in my past could have been handled better – meaning- without losing calm and foresight. I’m not going to get into the details here because I have already written about it in several other posts. But just what is a decent response to bullies?

My friend says that being unavailable to attacks or the attackers is one way to go about it. You don’t give them space – either in your life or in your head. It’s the only response that merits many degrees of coolness in my opinion. The unavailability isn’t physical. Although that’s a good beginning. It’s mostly emotional, intellectual even. When you don’t talk about them or about yourself in relation to them and their attacks – you outgrow them, you take away power from them. They become small when you focus on something else – your work for instance.

Being unavailable doesn’t mean not caring. It’s this rock- star ability to make attackers cringe by laughing at them. Which means that you care but just not enough to satisfy them – you care, but only enough to laugh at them.

Say a co-worker has an opinion about you and your competence, and has said shitty things about you to people who are directly related to your work – like students maybe, or clients, or people you are in a business partnership with – what do you do then?

Do you call them out for being unprofessional? Do you do major drama? Or do you just ignore it?

Here is a thing I wish I had done – I wish I had laughed at them. I wish my body had filled itself with an untamable Dalit energy and I’d laughed in their faces. Gogu Shyamala’s Saayamma has this energy. So does Devi’s Dopdi. 

A short-story I once wrote has a woman named Sumitra leaping wildly, beating her chest and laughing at a man she hates very much. I don’t know where the energy to write Sumitra came from. It was based on an incident narrated to me. I gave her mad things to do because by then, somewhat of a mad woman was living inside me. 

I’d like to believe that all Dalit women are naturally equipped with a capacity to laugh menacingly. How? I don’t know but they just do. Someone once said that a good, strong laugh is one that shrinks cocks down. It is true. Nothing shrivels a cock and savarna pride more than the loud and ‘vulgar’ laugh of a Dalit woman.

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Heee Hawww!

Before I left to Goa, I was in a bit of a lull. I couldn’t write nor read. I was exhausted by the endless inspiration consumed from watching YouTube interviews of my favourite women. I needed newer, more productive ways of stalking them. So I tweeted to Carmen Maria Machado (haw) and asked her if she’d mind answering some questions about writing. She replied immediately – said she wouldn’t mind. After I recovered from jumping up and down 400 times, I sat down and messaged all the students I know who loved her writing. They sent in questions and I put them together and mailed it over to her.

And then I was quite kicked, I wrote about Ferrante, went to Goa and felt more powerful than I have in years, got back and felt like a queen. I forgot all about the mail sometime during the trip because it suddenly hit me that she’s getting married. But then yesterday, I saw that she had replied. My day immediately took off and I haven’t stopped smiling since 🙂

This is my favourite bit from the interview:

Do you sometimes find it hard to continue after you’ve heard something unpleasant about your writing? How do you deal with it?

I used to, but I don’t anymore. Eventually you learn to let that stuff roll off you. You just have to remember that you don’t–and you can’t–write for everyone. Some people won’t like your work, and that’s fine. Write for yourself.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

On Elena Ferrante

Finally, finally, finally. Sat down and wrote about reading Elena Ferrante. This is my first piece for The Open Dosa and I’m thrilled that it’s about Ferrante. My students and I were just dying to talk about her at Meta this year. The following picture is from the day of the panel.

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For Drishti, Ila, and Vismaya. With Louu.

This is my favourite picture from Meta. These girls and I have bonded over many other things – struggling with writing, reading, life, classes, clothes, and shoes. Now that we have Ferrante in common, these peeps will always be a part of me.

Read the piece here.

Telltale Tingles

I must slow down.  I’m afraid I am running very fast. When free time rolls around, I begin to compete with the time lost in my painfully absent youth. There is an embarrassed yet unashamed burning in my chest when I see younger women going at it with all the energy in the world. I think about their slender, unripe bodies and all the time they have ahead of them. These are the women that my 16 year old self wanted to be at 20, 21, 22.

I must slow down because I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. I caught hold of Marquez after Siddalingiah. Took weeks to finish Living to Tell the Tale and never got around to writing about it. I don’t know what to say. I have exhausted my enthusiasm for the man after dragging him to all my classes and inflicting him on all my students. There’s only so much I can say about him. That I know now why I read or write – it’s because it is only in these moments that I feel unapologetically alive.

For some time now I have been wondering if it’s a bad thing to show passions to other people – the joy of reading a beautiful line, the emptiness after watching a brilliant film, the glory in talking to an interesting person. Because people stop trusting us when we don’t struggle to like something. I find that as a teacher, it is far easier to confess hatred than it is to admit passions. I wonder if students are annoyed by teachers who fall in love with everything that they read. But then I have come to learn that I must not apologize for feeling alive. Atleast not publicly.

I couldn’t bear to fill the void that Marquez left, with my own sordid writing. So I ran to other books – To Alison Bechdel, to Philip Pullman and this morning I stopped with Ambai. After three short stories, I just had to stop because I had run out of places in my body to feel full. Reading Ambai makes my body swell and I become afraid of what I see when I read her. The three stories I read today were each about women and their growing passions and how they struggled and went on to keep these passions. The women in her stories are what the women in my family would have been, if only they had run after their stories.

A couple of days ago, I watched ‘The Hours’ and found it strange that in Woolf’s death, I found an excuse to remain alive. I wish I could explain what that means. Nabokov said, ‘A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle…’

I feel a tingle in the small of my neck when I read something nice, yes. And also in my stomach – where something of a warm pool begins to collect. And that’s why now I have to slow down.