Claudine à L’École ( Claudine at School) : Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

The young Colette with luscious long braids!

Anonymous was often a woman, noted Virginia Woolf in her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own. In some cases she wasn’t anonymous but let a man take credit for her talent. And in one instance, the man and woman happened to be married to each other. The man was Henry- Gauthier-Villars who was more popularly known by his nom de plume “Willy” and the woman, Sidonie- Gabrielle Colette, one of the most eminent early 20thcentury French writers whose accomplishments are manifold. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. She was also a grand officer of La Légion d’honneur, she was the first female member and eventually President of the prestigious Académie Goncourt and the first woman to receive a State funeral in France. However her most important contribution was that she was a trailblazer in the world of letters and in the world at large in issues of gender identity and sexuality.

Colette’s colorful and controversial life would be great material for a novel of its own and no wonder it provided plenty of fodder for a newly released eponymous biopic depicting her career during the Belle Époque and starring the enormously talented Dominic West as Willy and the stunning Keira Knightley who simply sizzles as Colette. Willy ,the bohemian libertine, springs a marriage proposal on the young and innocent Colette and whisks her away from her sleepy village in Burgundy to the Parisian world of scintillating salons and soirées. She is upset initially by his philandering lifestyle but gradually comes to terms with it and becomes a woman of the world herself engaging in lesbian liasons sometimes with the same woman her husband sleeps with. To say the couple led an unconventional married life would indeed be an understatement!

Willy is a mediocre writer who has a factory of ghostwriters who work for him but he realizes that he has a gifted one right at home whom he can enlist for free. He encourages Colette to write a novel about her school days and she comes up with the semi-autobiographical Claudine à l’École ( Claudine at School) recounting the delightful escapades of a 15 year old school girl and providing an insight into fin de siècle life in provincial France. The book, for a story about schoolgirls, contains a few shocking scenes  which can be explained by the fact that Colette wrote the book in her early twenties looking back on her school days through the lens of a slightly older woman. But here and there one can also detect Willy’s masculine influence in the writing especially in the salacious details.

The book published in 1900 under Willy’s name becomes a resounding success. Willy forces her to produce sequels going as far as locking her in her room so she can do nothing but write. Although she has the proverbial room of her own, of what use is it if you are someone’s literary slave writing in captivity?

Claudine becomes a household name and takes Paris by storm inspiring the fashion style of young women. Colette, in turn, on the urging of Willy, imitates her creation and cuts her hair and dresses like the theatrical adaptation of Claudine. Claudine becomes Colette and Colette becomes Claudine with art imitating life and life imitating art.  When novel after novel becomes a sensation, Colette argues for the right to be published under her own name and eventually separates from Willy. The movie apart from exploring the early career and marriage of Colette, depicts a woman who defies societal expectations and comes into her own be it in the form of her sexual awakening or finding her literary voice and independence.

First edition cover of Claudine à l’École with Willy credited as the author.

The movie made me nostalgic and I abandoned the book I was reading at the time to re-read the funny and delightful Claudine à l’École, a book I had read in my teens. I was enamored from the first line: “Je m’appelle Claudine, j’habite Montigny; j’y suis née en 1884; probablement je n’y mourrai pas.”(“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.).

Claudine is an intelligent, pretty and precocious 15 year old motherless girl who lives alone with her father in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. He is an indifferent parent who means well but is more interested in studying slugs than bothering with his growing girl. Her father has an extensive library at home and Claudine spends a lot of time reading. She also loves spending time in the woods immersed in nature, either alone or with her communion sister Clare. She is in the last year of school and hangs out with her friends Anaïs, Marie, Luce and the Joubert twins who don’t seem to share her intelligence or spirit. The girls are preparing for their board exams and looking forward to the end of the year school celebrations.

There is no dearth of words to describe our captivating Claudine -plucky, saucy, mischievous, mean, manipulative, bold, bossy, willful, outspoken, wicked, spunky, rebellious, over-confident are some of the adjectives to describe this spitfire of a gamine but yet she is adorable and you can overlook her flaws as she is comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t take herself or others too seriously. All the students and teachers think she is crazy. She talks to the teachers on an equal footing and at times is even disrespectful and impertinent. She gets away with her behavior as she is the star student who would bring prestige to their village school by doing well in the final exams.  There’s no doubt that her parents would have been called to school for her bullying in today’s environment. But one can’t help admiring how self-assured she is for her age when she peremptorily declares: “…on ne peut pas contenter tout le monde et soi-même. J’aime mieux me contenter d’abord… (… you can’t please everyone and yourself as well. I prefer to please myself first of all…’’).

I first read Claudine à l’École as a teenager and enjoyed the antics of the 15 year old just as I had enjoyed reading about other school series like Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and the Twins at St. Clare’s. I didn’t quite pay attention to the homoerotic subtext. Claudine has a crush on Aimée Lanthenay, the new assistant teacher who appears to reciprocate her feelings but the school  head mistress, Miss Sergent wants Aimée for herself and comes in the way of their budding relationship. Aimée drops Claudine like a hot brick and shifts her attention to her superior. Aimée’s sister Luce has a crush on Claudine but the latter tortures the poor lamb and only bribes her with candy or lets her copy from her exercise book to extract information from her. The foolish girl still dotes on her.  Oh, what a tangled web we weave!

Maybe I was naïve or I didn’t think too much of how often the girls “s’embrassent’  and dismissed their kisses as chaste kisses or perhaps I considered the school girl crushes as a natural part of growing up and adolescent development when it is not uncommon to idolize someone of the same gender older to you. Now re-reading it as an adult, the homoeroticism is very apparent. In fact the text is unapologetically Sapphic. The crushes the girls have for each other or for their teachers are treated as the most natural thing on earth and are innocently portrayed without judgement, guilt or shame. Today the book would be listed under LGBQT or feminist studies genres. It was written before the time when such labels were de rigueur and it is remarkable that there is no awkwardness or euphemistic language in describing the feelings the girls have for each other. No one has to stay in the closet. To me this is such a refreshing aspect of the story and so quintessentially and unrepentantly French unlike Forster’s Maurice across the pond published a few years later which was also a coming of age school story dealing with same sex love but one fraught with tension and anxiety.

However there is a disturbing scene in the book which would be considered highly inappropriate behavior in our times. The superintendent of the school district is a lascivious creep who constantly eyes the young women of the school. He has a soft spot for Claudine and forcibly tries to kiss her when she is alone with him in a room. She manages to thwart his advances but not before he has planted a little kiss near the corner of her mouth. Although she is upset with him, she regains her composure and can’t help being flattered that he finds her pretty. And they quietly move on with their lives.

Colette beautifully captures the confusion and awkwardness of girls at the threshold of womanhood.  On the one hand, they are typical schoolgirls who giggle, blush, make faces, spill ink pots, chew pencils and even taste snowballs. They play games and pinch and punch each other, have pillow fights, cheat during exams, attach ribbons on their dresses, try to get ‘curl clouds’ in their hair and flout the dress code when possible. On the other hand, they are budding women oozing with sensuality. They check out boys from their dorm windows and make sure they are being checked out in turn. They flirt with both boys and other girls and with adults. They put on coquettish airs and use their beauty to get what they want. There is a lot of sexual tension between the girls, between the teachers and between the teachers and the girls.

I can’t help  getting sentimental about Colette. I spent a lot of time in my teens and twenties devouring her books. Moreover the sensual lyricism in her descriptions of both nature and human nature has inspired my own style of writing. I also found the book endearingly amusing. Whether Claudine is describing teachers making out in front of the students, or the state of her beloved cat Fanchette in heat, or boys from the neighboring school examining their lingerie display during a needlework exhibition, or Miss Sergent’s humiliation at the hands of her mother, her cynical and wry quips made me chuckle on practically every page. Claudine à l’École, the first of the Claudine novels was a nostalgic read for me. And it has left me hungry for more. And now I move on to Claudine à Paris to continue delighting in the antics of this irreverent but charming teenager!






Autumn, My Muse, Autumn Musings…

“That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts….” – Ray Bradbury


Today on the blog I’d like to share some “autumn thoughts” along with poems I wrote with the season as my Muse. Photos taken by me of the beautiful New England landscape accompany each thought or poem.

A chill in the air.. a sigh among the winds.. a shiver down the pines and summer slips quietly into autumn. It’s that time of the year that evokes in us a wistful longing. It’s that time of the year when you stop to reflect no matter how rushed you are. It’s that time of the year when poetry courses through your veins and spills out of your pen effortlessly. For autumn is more than a season, it’s a state of mind.




One leaf can be my fall
One sorrow my downfall.


Dancing leaves
swaying to the breeze
shimmering in the light
before the final curtsy

There’s something so ethereal and magical about mirrored landscapes. It’s as if time itself has come to a standstill when you look at the still waters reflecting the kaleidoscope of colors in all their glory.  This is a tranquil spot in NH perfect for contemplation. I couldn’t help thinking of the myth of Narcissus when I saw the leaves reflect in the pool and knew that they would all fall off eventually. The fall is inevitable.


Just like Narcissus of the myths of yore
She gazed at her own reflection in awe
and slowly pined away.


autumn leaves floating
in rain puddles
a painter’s palette




Harvest moon up there
in a reddish orange hue
mimicking fall leaves

These autumn leaves that once adorned the skies in a tapestry of color are now falling gently and creating a beautiful carpet on the ground. It seems like the trees are lovely damsels, resplendent in their gold and scarlet dresses, only to be disrobed…a leaf at a time.


In the spring I trampled upon
the flowers you had strewn down my path
Summer rushed by me in a daze
and now at the bend of the road
through the trees shine
an autumnal ray of hope
Let’s meet then, my love
before the last leaf falls
and winter ends it all.

Here’s an old-fashioned rhyming poem I composed a few autumns ago:


Miss Maple is dressed in a fancy scarlet gown
Bedecked with bijoux, elegant belle of our town.
In glittering garnets, rubies of resplendence,
Citrine and yellow topaz that dazzle and daze.
Mr. Sunlight adds a glow to her countenance-
Setting the feverish, frantic forest ablaze.
Soon she will tire and cast off her finery,
Sinking slowly and softly into sweet slumber,
After a few moments of restless reverie-
Drifting into a dream of bejeweled splendor.
Only to be roused by spring for a new chance to preen
In fine jewels of peridot and emerald green.

Although autumn is associated with death, hope is on the horizon.  The leaves will fall off but you know that the cycle will continue. Hope springs eternal. As I sit at the computer typing, a heavenly aroma of apples and cinnamon emanates from the oven in the kitchen. Outside in the garden, a few flowers remain. The sedum has changed colors along with the trees and the bees are still buzzing around the asters. These are simple joys that I hope never to take for granted. And I make a promise to myself and my muse-  I’ll stop, I’ll savor and  I’ll reflect no matter how rushed I am.

What did you think about my musings and poems? What are your favorite things to do in the autumn? Let me know in your comments.

~ Jayshree ( Literary Gitane)






A Literary Pilgrimage To The Mount


Nestled in the picturesque Berkshires in a bucolic setting in the town of Lenox, MA is the Mount, the stately former home of Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and my favorite American author. Needless to say I was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to undergo a literary pilgrimage to this enchanting place which is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.


Wharton belonged to an exclusive circle of the wealthy elite of New York society and designed the Mount in MA as a retreat to escape the confining milieu of her social class. “The Mount”, she wrote, “was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations, which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing.” She lived here for just ten years but it was a period of unbridled creativity when she wrote novels as acclaimed as The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.


I ventured on my excursion on a rainy and dreary day. I was hoping for sunny weather to get good pictures of the property but in the end the rain turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it lent to the place the same wistful air that permeates her work.

The quarter mile road leading to the imposing mansion had contemporary art displays on each side. Some people may balk at the idea of such quirky displays on a Gilded Age property but they added a whimsical touch to the tour and, I thought, brought out the contrast between the past and the present in a rather unique and striking way.


One of the first things you notice on entering the house is that it is not ornate or stuffy with wallpaper and formal furnishings but represents a departure from the Victorian conventions of design. It is light and airy and quite different from the opulent Newport mansions of the era. I was surprised to learn that Wharton planned a lot of the design and the architectural elements of the home herself.  She co-authored a book with Ogden Codman, one of the architects of the house, entitled The Decoration of Houses and the Mount reflects her aesthetic sense of understated elegance through the features delineated in the book- simplicity, symmetry, balance and living in accord with nature.

Although the house was designed to be a tranquil haven, Wharton’s life in the Mount was far from peaceful. Her marriage to her husband Edward “Teddy” Wharton was strained. He suffered from depression, mood swings and angry outbursts which took a toll on her own health. Today his symptoms could be explained as bipolar disease and schizophrenia.  She was also trapped in a loveless marriage and she finally divorced him in 1913.

Wharton moved to France after her divorce and the manor was sold to private owners and eventually to a girls’ school and later to the Shakespeare & Co theater group which still puts up performances on the grounds. After a long period of disrepair, it is now being restored to its former glory. The renovation is a work in progress and is being done with scrupulous attention to detail. As most of the home contains reproductions of the original furnishings, you can wander around freely at your pace and even sit on the chairs and couches.

As soon as you step into the entry foyer of the three- storied home you are struck by the welcoming and informal atmosphere. The first floor has the entry foyer which resembles a grotto, a kitchen and a bookstore. On the second floor are a study, a library, a drawing room and a dining room surrounded by a wrap- around terrace with stunning views of manicured lawns, parterres, wetlands and woods.


The dining room has an informal look with no chandelier and a round table instead of a long rectangular one to facilitate conversation.


The library is the only place cordoned off as it houses her original collection of books.


The third floor has the sewing room, the bedrooms of guests including the one where Henry James used to sleep and Edith Wharton’s own boudoir, bathroom and bedroom. Her bedroom has facsimiles of drafts of her novels in her own handwriting with words and lines crossed out.




The tour was made more interesting by the personal anecdotes shared by the docent. Apparently Wharton wrote in bed every morning letting the pages fall to dry when she had finished and one of the servants would pick them up and send them to be typed. The docent also gave details about her infamous love affair with Morton Fullerton. They picked late-blooming witch hazel in the woods ( perhaps as a symbol of their late-blooming love) a sprig of which he sent her in a billet- doux and which marked the beginning of their adulterous relationship. Another interesting tidbit was the fact that the expression ‘Keeping up with the Joneses” was originally made in reference to the wealthy relatives on the maternal side of Wharton’s family.

After the tour of the house, I stepped outside to take the garden tour. As it was still raining, I was the only one on the tour and was able to have an in-depth conversation with the docent, who, much to my delight had read the same Wharton books as I had. To the left of the house is the symmetrical French garden with a profusion of colorful blooms. The garden has been recreated with the same flowers planted at the time of Wharton’s stay after researching her correspondence and conducting interviews with people who knew her. I have always thought of Edith Wharton as a kindred spirit for I share her love of the written word and of Romance Languages and an affinity for European culture along with an interest in gardening.  Imagine my joy then to discover this little detail that like me she preferred tall phlox in her garden beds to the short groundcover phlox!


To the right of the house is the walled Italian garden connected to the French one by a linden allée. The Italian garden was intended to be a place of serenity and therefore the color scheme is green and white with only the green leaves and white flowers of plants like climbing hydrangea and hostas. On one side of the garden is a pergola covered with Concord grape vines from where you can see a spectacular view of the Berkshire mountains.


Edith Wharton’s excessive wealth afforded her privileges not available to other women of the era but she carved her own reputation by dint of her talent. Not only was she a prolific writer who wrote more than forty books in forty years, she was also a humanitarian  and philanthropist who helped refugees in France during World War 1. I knew Edith Wharton the writer but I left the property knowing Edith Wharton the person. Her legacy lives on and is honored through artistic and literary programs and events on the grounds. There are jazz performances on Friday and Saturday nights and plays put up periodically by Shakespeare & Co.

As I was leaving the property, I tried to imagine how it would have been to be Edith Wharton and live in a bygone era. I could picture myself living on the Mount with an enviable coterie of servants, gardeners and footmen, riding on horseback, strolling in the gardens with the dogs and sipping cocktails on the terrace with distinguished guests like Henry James. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have even minded being one of the servants waiting on Edith Wharton for I would still have had access to the tranquil and beautiful property.

One of the rooms in the manor with exhibits about her life.

Although Edith Wharton led a life of luxury, she was far from happy which reminds us of the adage that money can’t buy happiness. Her novels convey the same sense of unfulfillment she experienced in her life. Her stories are about love and loss, lost chances in life and regret. I left the property in a rain- tinted haze feeling the weight of all the unresolved emotions of the author and all her fictional characters. I am glad it rained for in some strange way it enhanced my experience of Edith Wharton’s home, life and work and made it all the more poignant.








I am now the proud possessor of Virago’s 80thanniversary edition of Rebecca which has the most exquisite cover inspired by a scene in the novel where the second Mrs. de Winter comes across Rebecca’s azalea- scented handkerchief monogrammed with the letter ‘R’.  The handkerchief design along with the ‘R’ was first hand stitched and embroidered on fabric and then photographed for the cover which was embellished with gold foil to give the appearance of gold threads.

First published in August of 1938, Rebecca has never been out of print and has had numerous avatars on stage and on screen including the suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock 1940 film adaptation. Written in the first person from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, Rebecca is a gothic romance, an intriguing murder mystery or a psychological thriller depending upon the reader’s perspective. According to Daphne du Maurier, it is primarily a study of jealousy. And the handkerchief scene itself could owe its existence to personal moments in Du Maurier’s life when she came across correspondence by her husband’s ex-fiancée, Jan Ricardo who signed the ‘R’ in her letters with a flourish.

Whatever genre the novel might belong to, there is no denying that right from the very first sentence, “ Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”, the reader is hooked and transported to this quasi dream-like, quasi menacing space which mirrors the sentiments of the highly imaginative narrator and her world of fantasy. Every time I read Rebecca, I discover something new about it that I had overlooked earlier.

When I first read Rebecca as a teenager, I considered it to be a traditional romantic story in the vein of Cinderella. A timid and innocent young girl of modest means while working as a lady’s companion to the insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper, is swept off her feet on a trip to Monte Carlo by the much older and worldly widower, Maximillan de Winter, with this unexpected marriage proposal:

“Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.”
“Do you mean you want a secretary or something?”
“No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” 

After a whirlwind courtship, she is whisked off to Manderley, a stately estate on the Cornish Coast replete with gardens and servants and, alas, the presence of the dead first wife Rebecca who despite her absence still haunts the mansion and its inhabitants and eventually the thoughts of the young narrator herself, bringing out her doubts and insecurities. And just like the Cinderella story, there is an evil stepmother in the background in the form of Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper who makes her life hell for she is still exceedingly loyal to the memory of her former employer whom she adored. The kind-hearted narrator eventually surmounts the obstacles in her path and wins the affection of her Prince Charming and they live happily ever after or so I thought when I was a starry-eyed youngster.

In my mid to late twenties, I thought of Rebecca more as a coming of age story where the narrator has to learn to forge her own identity. Maxim turns out to be a morose and distant Heathcliffesque character. Besides, the shadow of the first wife hangs over their marriage and the new wife feels like an imposter in her own home. How could this socially awkward and shy girl compete with a dead woman who was the epitome of beauty and grace and whose virtues were extolled by everyone?

I could fight with the living but I could not fight the dead. If there was some woman in London that Maxim loved, someone he wrote to, visited, dined with, slept with, I could fight her. We would stand on common ground. I should not be afraid. Anger and jealousy were things that could be conquered. One day the woman would grow old or tired or different, and Maxim would not love her anymore. But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And she and I could not fight. She was too strong for me.hh

She can’t stand up to anyone including the servants despite being the mistress of the house and occupying a more superior position.  I felt bad for this unassertive girl who has to deal with the stern and intimidating Mrs. Danvers. The second Mrs. de Winter is probably the literary character I could most identify with at that stage in my life.  I have had to face quite a few forbidding Mrs. Danvers type people myself and I could relate to the plight of the insecure child- woman. I rooted for her and I wanted her to blossom into a more confident person and to make her place in the home and in the heart of her husband. She has such a weak sense of self that Du Maurier decided to keep her anonymous. This is an ingenious device to show that she pales in comparison to the charismatic Rebecca and that her identity is wrapped entirely into her husband’s name.

The narrator’s obsession with her predecessor grows and as we learn more about Rebecca, we discover that she was a manipulative woman of licentious behavior and a far cry from the perfect woman she was imagined to be. Interestingly, I didn’t pay too much attention to the murder mystery element of the story till I read it in my thirties. Was Rebecca’s death an accident, did she commit suicide or was she murdered?


Half way through the novel Maxim makes a stunning confession to his new wife. He is the one responsible for the murder of his ex-wife. One would think that she would be livid that he had committed a crime or even terrified that she is married to a murderer. Doesn’t she fear that she could be the next victim?  But the silly girl is relieved to hear that he had never loved Rebecca. It dawned on me that the character I had once felt sorry for has no integrity or backbone. Along with the narrator, I had probably condoned the murder too when I read the book in my youth as I probably wanted her to be happy and secure in her husband’s love. I completely forgot that aspect of the story when I read it again at a later date. It is interesting how Du Maurier makes the readers complicit in the murder. Alfred Hitchcock made the murder an accident as he didn’t want to shock the audience by portraying the hero as the anti-hero. Although the film was excellent in its own way, much of the chilling impact of the book was lost by altering this detail.

I read Rebecca again last year and I realized that it is far from the love story I imagined it to be in my youth. Maybe I’m jaded with age but the Maxim I once found handsome and thrilling is a moody and controlling bully who infantilizes his wife and treats her much like he treats his pet dog, Jasper. Why does the narrator make him get away with the murder instead of reporting him? Perhaps it is not love but the fact that a submissive woman ends up gaining control over her domineering husband as she is the only one who knows his damning secret! What an amazingly brilliant book! I am now reading Rebecca from a feminist angle as a story of identity, gender roles and power struggles within a traditional heterosexual marriage. But there are so many ways to read this fascinating story which taps into our most primal emotions of love, fear, jealousy and obsession. There have been Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian and queer interpretations of the book. One could argue that the book is essentially about repressed sexuality. Isn’t it telling that the one character who asserts her sexual freedom poses a threat to the conventional patriarchy and is unceremoniously murdered and dumped?


In the end Rebecca’s ghost has been driven out. Or so believes the narrator. But there is an interesting scene where she looks at her reflection only to see Rebecca peering back at her from the mirror. Maybe she unconsciously wishes to be Rebecca herself.  Rebecca appears to be the alter ego, the sexually alluring and exciting counterpart to the naive and inexperienced young woman. And even if Rebecca’s ghost has been exorcized for the narrator, it has not for the readers. We return again and again to the story and will never be free of its seductive grip.  Even Rebecca’s boat is prophetically named “ Je reviens” or I’ll return as Sarah Perry points out in the introduction to the new Virago edition. And let’s not forget that the narrator herself had once cried out in despair, “  Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca”.

The anniversary edition cover is a fitting tribute to an exemplary writer. Now excuse me so I can go make a pot of English Breakfast and re -read Rebecca for the umpteenth time in this new stunning edition! I wonder what new insights I will have as I continue reading this cherished book throughout my life.


Stay With Me – A Book That Stays With You

River side shrine and sacred grove of Osun, Fertility Goddess of the Yoruba people, Nigeria. Photo Credit- Wikipedia

Of late there has been an explosion of interest in the works of Nigerian writers and writers of the Nigerian diaspora. I have enjoyed reading Achebe, Okriu and Adiche to name a few but there are also many new writers rising in prominence and adding a vibrancy to the literary landscape.  I recently read a very interesting debut novel called Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo which was shortlisted for Britain’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.

Stay With Me is a story about Yejide and Akin, a seemingly happy couple who had met and fallen in love at University and live in Ilesa, in the Nigeria of the eighties. They are smart, educated and modern and have a promising future ahead of them except for one tiny problem that catapults into a gigantic one and has ramifications for the whole family. They have been married for four years and have still not been able to conceive a child which is an enormous issue in a society where a woman’s self-worth is entirely dependent on her ability to reproduce. Not surprisingly the assumption is made that Yejide is the one who has infertility issues.

When after years of marriage there is no sign of a child, her meddling mother- in law decides to take matters into her own hands and proposes a new bride for Akin very casually as it is something normal within their traditional polygamous culture. The young couple is horrified by the prospect as they are modern Nigerians who don’t believe in polygamy. But they live in a society where you defer to your parents and don’t question their authority.  Akin reluctantly agrees to take a second wife to please his mother. The reader is not entirely horrified by Atkin’s decision as we can understand the societal and familial pressures faced by him as well thanks to the clever technique of the author eliciting the reader’s sympathy towards him by alternating the narrative between the perspectives of the wife and the husband. Needless to say the second wife doesn’t conceive either.

To what lengths would you go in order to get pregnant when you know that the birth of a child is the only way to cement your position in the family? Yejide who once pooh-poohed superstitions and old wives’ tales starts imploring the various Gods, frequents herbalists and charlatans and consumes dubious looking teas and concoctions. She is so desperate that she climbs up a mountain fittingly named ‘Mountain of Jaw- Dropping Miracles’ inhabited by a certain Prophet Josiah and his coterie of bearded men known to bestow miracles and even breastfeeds a goat to their frenzied chants in order to get pregnant.

So eager is she to get pregnant that she actually believes that she is pregnant when she is not. There is a medical term for this extremely rare phenomenon. It is called pseudocyesis or a false pregnancy. Alarmingly, the woman exhibits symptoms of pregnancy like missed periods, morning sickness and even a growing belly without actually carrying a baby. It is a psychosomatic condition where the body is tricked into thinking it is pregnant. Akin who is at his wits’ end with the phantom pregnancy thinks of the most outrageous solution to get his wife pregnant- a solution that will prove costly to their marriage.

Akin’s strategy is successful and she eventually becomes pregnant but loses two children one after the other to sickle-cell anemia. What follows is a heartbreaking account of loss, grief and maternal love.  Yejide is with her son Sesan in the hospital:

His hand gripped mine with pain-induced strength that crushed my knuckles together. I welcomed the pain in my hand, aware that it was only a tip of what he was feeling. I hoped that by holding me, he could transfuse his agony into my body and be free from it.

She finds it difficult to bond with her daughter as she is afraid of losing her as well and wants to protect herself from hurt.  Her pain is so agonizingly depicted that I couldn’t hold back my tears while reading.

Atkin has his secrets and he has withheld an important piece of information from his wife that may be preventing the pregnancy. Yejide also deceives him in her own way. The web of deceit and dissimulation results in the slow disintegration of their marriage.  One wonders why she stays in the marriage and endures her condition for so long! Or why does any woman stay in a deceitful marriage? If you think about it, Atkin is the first person in her life who genuinely cares for her. She was made to feel guilty by her father for being the cause of her mother’s death during childbirth and she was not wanted or valued by her stepmothers. One particularly heartbreaking moment in the novel is when she describes how as a child she would latch on to the doors of her stepmothers’ bedrooms to listen to the stories they were telling their own children. She has known what it is like to be a motherless child and now she knows what it is like to be a childless mother.

I was quite baffled by Yejide’s  naivety and even wondered if she was feigning ignorance or was in denial. How can an educated woman who owns an independent business be this naïve? Of course we know that the book is set in the eighties and having grown up myself in a patriarchal culture in the eighties where girls were expected to be virgins till they were married, I can understand Yejide being somewhat clueless about sex. But the fact that she doesn’t quite know the biology behind reproduction seems a little far-fetched.  I wonder if she is a reliable narrator as there are inconsistencies in her story. There is a passage in the book where Yejide speaks of a pleasurable moment during lovemaking. So girl, are you faking it maybe in more ways than one?

There are passages in the novel delineating the political disorder in Nigeria during the eighties with the  various coups and military dictatorships and this political turmoil is supposed to mirror the inner condition of the protagonists. This is a weakness of the plot as the political events are not detailed and seem superfluously and hastily included in the story. At times the story with its implausibility and melodrama and the twists and turns reminds you of a Nollywood film. What I enjoyed however was the colorful depiction of the Yoruba community- Iya Bolu the hairdresser friend, Dotun the brother in law with a roving eye, the cruel fairy-tale like stepmothers and foolhardy burglars who announce in advance that they are stopping by.  I also reveled in the delightful proverbs and folktales inserted into the story and the description of births, funerals and other celebrations where pounded yams feature in every repast, big or small.

This novel about love, marriage, sex and fertility, infidelity, betrayal and forgiveness is a perfect book for a book club as I can see it generate a heated discussion. It explores themes that a lot of women all over the world can relate to- a rigid patriarchy, an authoritative matriarchy that perpetuates the patriarchy, the constraints of living within an extended family, the happiness and hardship of marriage, problems with sex, the pressure to bear children, the challenges of parenthood, the generation gap and the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. It certainly resonated with me deeply as a woman, as a wife and as a mother. I hope I have piqued your curiosity without revealing too much if you haven’t already read the novel. I can assure you that Stay With Me is a book that will stay with you.





Buried Treasure- The Lost Short Stories of Du Maurier



All famous writers have to start somewhere. I enjoy reading their early forays into the art of writing. They contain the raw material that shapes their future works as they skillfully hone their craft. It is no secret that I am an unabashed fan of Daphne du Maurier and reading an early collection of her ‘lost’ short stories was like stumbling upon buried treasure unearthed after decades of oblivion. Most of these stories were written very early in her career and were either published in obscure magazines and tabloids and subsequently out of print or had never been published. A bookseller in Cornwall discovered five of the stories including the titular The Doll in a 1937 collection marked as ‘The Editor Regrets.” They explore many of the emotions and themes that found their way into her later works.

The stories may seem dated to the modern reader but they depict universal truths transcending time. Many of these tales were written when du Maurier was still in her teens or early twenties and reveal an insight into human behavior and a maturity or even a precociousness far beyond her years. She is a great observer of humanity-of people with their quirks, whims, frailties, and foibles. She knows how to tap into the dark recesses of the mind and to lay bare all the base emotions like obsession, jealousy, sexual frustration and hypocrisy resorting to suspense, social satire or even comedy. She also has a predilection for the macabre. Often the stories send a shiver down the spine. They are horror stories but they portray a horror of a different kind- one that is more terrifying and longer- lasting- psychological horror.

The collection opens with my favorite story of the lot which was written when du Maurier was just nineteen years old. In East Wind, the serene life on a remote island cut away from the rest of humanity is disturbed when shipwrecked foreign sailors arrive introducing alcohol and their promiscuous habits with devastating consequences for some of the inhabitants. There is a sense of impending doom when ” … all the while the East Wind blew, tossing the grass, scattering the hot white sand, forcing its triumphant path through the white mist and the green waves like a demon let loose upon the island.”   And the simple village folk end up throwing all caution to the wind.

The Doll is a daring story ahead of its time with an almost pornographic twist. Letters washed ashore reveal the journal entries of a man who tries to figure out what went wrong between him and a young violinist named Rebecca. He was smitten by her but she repelled his advances as she had another object of affection. Could this strange, beautiful and independent young woman with her unusual sexual proclivity be not only the namesake but the precursor to the first Mrs. de Winter? It’s quite a risqué story for its time as it depicts a young woman in control of her own life and sexuality.

There are a series of bittersweet vignettes about young couples with irreconcilable differences and the disillusionment they face in love. In Nothing Hurts for Long, a woman who believes her relationship with her husband is perfect and is preparing for his return home after a long absence, lends a ear to her friend’s troubles but her friend’s troubles start mirroring her own. The reunion with her husband is not what she anticipated. And His Letters Grew Colder is a story written in epistolary form about how love dies a natural death as seen by the contents of letters which become gradually less romantic in tone when the thrill of the chase is over. A Difference in Temperament too explores the fragility of relationships.  If a man wants time to himself and a woman wants to share everything together, the relationship can only be doomed from the start.  Frustration is an amusing account of the thwarted attempts at romance of a newly married couple.  Week- End shows how you can fall out of love as suddenly as you fall in love.  The lines “She put away his colds hands from her, and gave herself to her own dreams, where he could have no entrance.” succinctly capture the overarching theme of many of the stories.

In Piccadilly, written in the form of a monologue,  a prostitute describes how she ended up in her profession. She resurfaces in Mazie where she dreams of the sea and a farmhouse but can her dreams come true given her lifestyle? The Tame Cat is an unsettling story about a naïve young girl with a jealous mother whose lover starts preying on her.  In Happy Valley, a woman dreams of a certain house that seems to be hers but that she has not seen.  Dream and reality and past and future coalesce in this atmospheric story which not only reminds me of du Maurier’s famous short story Don’t Look Now but also with the mention of Happy Valley presages Rebecca.

The last two stories in the collection are excellent character studies. Now to God the Father is about the good-looking and charismatic but hypocritical  Reverend James Hollaway who also features in another tale entitled Angels and Archangels in The Rendezvous and Other Short Stories. He professes to be a man of God but his virtuous sermons mask his vices. He is someone who abuses his position to further his own interests.The Limpet is a fascinating insight into a troubled personality- a girl who puts the blame on others believing that she is a nice person. The truth is that she is a manipulative, self-absorbed and passive-aggressive individual who destroys the lives of people around her including her parents, her aunt, her husband and her co-workers but desperately tries to convince the reader that she is a self-sacrificing martyr.

Du Maurier starts off each story beautifully with vivid descriptions and builds up the atmosphere. Most of the stories do not have fixed endings but are ambiguous. Life is not tidy either. All pieces don’t fit and much remains unresolved. The onus is on the readers to fill in the blanks and make the puzzle fit.  I found these lost stories captivating as they contain the embryonic elements seen in her future works and also provide early indications of her literary prowess. The common thread of cynicism that weaves the stories together is startling considering that she was so young when she wrote them.  And as with anything written by her, you find yourself reflecting on your own life and relationships.

Apparently Du Maurier’s adolescent diaries described as ‘dangerous, incisive, stupid’ are yet to be published. She placed a fifty year moratorium on their publication and insisted they only see the light of day in 2039.  I hope this piece of information is true and I hope I am still around then to read them.





Forbidden Stories From North Korea



The Accusation is a collection of seven stories and two poems written under the pseudonym ‘Bandi’ or firefly by a dissident writer still living in North Korea and set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim-Il Sung and Kim-Jong Il. The stories are a window into the secret world of the hereditary dictatorships of the Kim family characterized by propaganda, corruption, nepotism and bureaucratic ineptitude where the government controls every aspect of a citizen’s life. While there are many works published by writers who have defected to South Korea, this is presumably the first collection written by a writer still living in North Korea to cross the border. The author risked his or her life to make these harrowing stories see the light of day. The account of how the manuscript made it out from North Korea into South Korea is an interesting story in its own right and is included as an afterword.

The chilling and profoundly sad stories are fictional but based on the experiences of real people and they all share a common thread. They reveal the fear and despair of the citizens, who, living under the watchful eye of authority, have to be constantly on guard as anything can be construed as conspiracy against the state. Each and every story is about an accusation. A person could be banished to the countryside, forced into a life of hard labor or even executed for a slight infraction, real or perceived.

Record of a Defection reveals how you have to atone for the sins of your ancestors. A peasant was accused of being an anti-revolutionary and of sabotaging the Party’s agricultural collectivization project as he was not abreast with the latest technology of growing rice seedlings in greenhouses. Years later his entire family suffers the consequences of his actions. His young grandson cannot run for Class President at his school. One black mark against you which can be a trifling offence or even an absurd non-offence can taint not only you and your family but many future generations.

City of Specters– A two year old is frightened by the gigantic posters near Central Square of Karl Marx and Kin Il-Sung visible from his apartment window. He mistakes them for monsters. His mother tries to allay his fears by drawing the curtains but the neighborhood is expected to exhibit uniformity in appearance for the upcoming National Day parade and her action is viewed as an infraction. Although she is a privileged woman, she has to pay a heavy price for this misstep. It is a richly symbolic story. These specters of Communism haunt not just the little boy but all the citizens in all of the land.

Life of a Swift Steed– A decorated war veteran  had planted an elm tree in his youth as a symbol of the growth of a new socialist state. He had envisioned a life where everyone would live in a tile-roofed house, eat meat and rice and wear silks but the reality is that the people are living in poverty and there is a dearth of fuel in the freezing weather. The state wants to cut down his beloved elm which is interfering with a power line. The tree ends up being a symbol of his disillusionment as he comes to the painful realization that his medals mean nothing and that his entire life has been a sham.

So Near Yet so Far– Myeong-Chol, a hard-working miner wishes to visit his sick mother in the countryside but the state will not give him a permit to leave his province as there is a Class 1 celebration for the leader in his mother’s town and travel is forbidden to the district. After his application for a pass is denied three times, the man who has always been a stickler for rules, decides to make the journey illegally with the help of a friend. He gets tantalizingly close to seeing his mother as the title suggests but will he see the dying old woman and what will be his punishment for violating travel regulations?

Pandemonium– An old woman is traveling with her husband and granddaughter to visit her pregnant daughter but they end up being trapped in a crowded railway station. All traffic has come to a halt as the Great Leader Kim Il- Sung is about to visit the area. In desperation, she sets out on foot to visit her daughter and ends up getting a ride in the leader’s personal entourage and accidentally becomes part of a propaganda video. The government’s report of her happy laughter is in striking contrast to the pandemonium at the station where her husband and granddaughter suffered injuries.

On Stage– Even a month after the demise of the leader, authorities would monitor how many times people put flowers at his altar. The people risked venomous snakes and landslides to pick flowers to demonstrate their grief.  Grief was closely monitored and people became experts at faking it. An improvisational comic skit had once landed a young man in hot water. He was suspected of being brainwashed by South Korean anti-Communist freedom broadcasts and now, much to the ire of his father, he is in trouble again for having held the hand of the daughter of a political prisoner and for picking flowers in a state of intoxication. He explains to his father how living in North Korea is akin to being on stage.

The Red Mushroom– A man requests a journalist to clear his uncle’s name. He has become a scapegoat of the party when the bean paste factory where he works runs short of supply due to mistakes made higher up. Unfortunately, even sincere journalists have to toe the party line:

“Eventually, he decided that he had no other choice than to knuckle down, amend the article so that the praise was meted out as the Party demanded it be, and submit it to the newspaper, all the while heaping curses on the field of journalism which he had been unfortunate enough to enter….”

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deborah Smith who has translated these stories beautifully into English retaining the local color and turn of phrase. The writing is stark but yet imbued with poetry. Whether it is a description of a cuckoo ‘crying out as if it were choking on a clot of blood’ or of people assembled in the square like ‘blocks of tofu’ or of a person shedding ” a pitcher’s worth of tears from a cup of sadness”, the similes and metaphors startle and suit the melodramatic nature of the tales. Many of the stories are repetitive but the repetition only serves to reinforce the shared plight of all the citizens whose fates are determined by the accident of birth and hang precariously on a piece of paper in a bureaucratic office.

There are Orwelian overtones in the stories but sadly this is not a dystopian world. It is a scathing indictment of a dynastic totalitarian regime which hasn’t changed much since the time the stories were written. In The Red Mushroom, the last story of the collection, the municipal building which stands for the red European specter is compared to a poisonous mushroom, the root of all misfortune and suffering and the story ends with the protagonist’s heart crying out the collective silent yearning of the people: “Pull out that red mushroom, that poisonous mushroom. Uproot it from this land, from this world, forever!” 

The afterword to the stories reveals the interesting trajectory of the manuscript as it made its way to South Korea thanks to a relative of the author who enlists the help of a human rights activist. We learn that Bandi is a writer of the Chosun Writers’ League but other biographical details have been altered to protect his or her identity. Bandi who sees himself or herself as a firefly illuminating the darkness that engulfs North Korea includes, in lieu of acknowledgements, a poem imploring us to read his words. We owe it to the daring author to honor his request. Please read his book as an act of solidarity.