Monday, August 17, 2020

WITMonth Day 17 | A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai | Review

 It's an odd thing to retroactively compare a book to another that you read later, and yet this is what happened to me with Ambai's A Kitchen in the Corner of the House (tr. from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström). Not long after reading this collection of short stories, I read the multi-author collection Spark of Light: Short Stories by Women Writers of Odisha. In essence, there is very little that connects these two books other than the fact that they are both short story collections by Indian women writers, except of course we need to remember that Tamil and Odia are two completely different languages representing completely different parts of India (which, you know, is huge), they don't even belong to the same language family. Perhaps I would have had the same feeling had I read a short story collection from China or Senegal or Haiti as well. Either way, reading Spark of Light seemed to cement some of my struggles with A Kitchen in the Corner of the House. And I did ultimately struggle with this one quite a bit, even as I recognized a lot of good in it as well.

I'll start with the positives: I loved some of the stories in this collection. I loved the cool writing style. I loved many of the journey stories. I loved how Ambai centered her stories around women's experiences in many different ways. There are some fiercely feminist stories in this collection, as well as stories that reflect changing cultures and societies. As one of the back-cover blurbs note, Ambai does a brilliant job of conveying women's anger in the face of injustice. There's a lot to appreciate here.

The problems begin when judging the book as a whole. First, like many collections, A Kitchen in the Corner of the House doesn't find a very good balance between stories sounding individual enough to stand out and stories flowing together. Short story collections are so often frustrating for this reason, with stories either sounding too similar or too apart. At first, I thought that Kitchen... did a pretty decent job of this balance, but the stories and characters began to blur as I got deeper into the book. This was one of the early points of contrast I found with Spark of Light; that collection is comprised of short stories by different authors and their individual voices carried the book admirably. Kitchen... started to lose me around halfway through, with stories that felt narratively repetitive (if not actually on a plot level). 

The next problem was another retroactive contrast with Spark of Light: the story topics themselves. There are several parallels in terms of stories conveying women's domestic/personal struggles in both collections, but Ambai's oddly seemed less consequential. Ambai's stories are often experimental or slightly shifted in terms of their narrative frame, which leads some to end abruptly or never quite reach their point. I can understand the literary value behind this, but it ends up creating a collection that's much less satisfying than it could be. Many of the stories hover around certain themes without fully landing on them, and this too led me to feel like Kitchen... was somewhat incomplete. The clean lines and conclusions of Spark of Light - which also includes some more experimental stories, yes? - felt like a sharp contrast.

But the biggest problem I had with Kitchen... was ultimately in its lack of context. I have long argued and will continue to argue that readers do not need to be spoonfed when it comes to books from cultures or backgrounds that are different from their own. Moreover, who's to decide whether something is new or unfamiliar to a certain reader, right? I may be unfamiliar with Indian literary traditions, history, religion, or myths, but that doesn't mean that every reader is. Except... except that in translation, the point is often that a book is being brought across different cultures where the reader can't be expected to understand everything. 

And so A Kitchen in the Corner of the House has basically no context beyond the literal text. There is no introduction, there is no afterword, there are no translator notes, there are no footnotes, and even the author biography is not exactly extensive. For a book that includes so many regional, linguistic, and cultural references, this felt like a huge oversight. I tried to supplement what I could through Wikipedia, but this felt like a classic example where a well-written introduction regarding Ambai's writing style, feminism, and academic approach would have hugely benefited the book as a whole. Even just a brief afterword may have tied the collection together a bit better, giving some degree of context to the stories. Worst of all, rather than wanting to read/learn more, I felt like Kitchen... existed in some sort of isolated dimension that didn't invite greater interest. Something critical was missing. 

I came away from the book feeling a little baffled and unhappy. As I already noted, some of the stories were great - memorable, strong writing, powerful in their perspective - but others seemed to float in and out of my consciousness. I ended up skimming quite a few that just weren't doing it for me. And no matter how much I wanted to understand the collection, I felt like I wasn't fully able to, and that kept me from fully appreciating it too. Is it possible that other, more clever readers will understand A Kitchen in the Corner of the House without any sort of extensive introduction or spoonfeeding? Sure, it's possible. But it still feels like a missed opportunity and something that should be an option for the book, even as an external supplement. It still feels like the book - as a whole - just wasn't complete in a lot of ways, not in its context, not in its flow between stories, and not in its own overarching message. I ultimately liked A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, I can rank it as a decently good read and recommend it to some readers. But it's not an easy recommendation. And even with the positives, I find myself somewhat disappointed.

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