May. 17th, 2011

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In a voice mellifluous as a gentle shower of honey, without faltering, without throwing in filler words, very gracefully, the goose made a highly learned presentation. […] She also demonstrated her proficiency in poetry, dramaturgy, poetics, music, and erotic science.

The goose Sucimukhi was taught by Saraswati, Goddess of Learning and Speech, and given the title “Mother of Similes and Hyperbole.” In this gorgeous, witty, sensual fifteenth-century novel from south India, she helps resolve a war in Heaven by match-making between Pradyumna, Krishna’s son, and Prabhavati, the daughter of a demon king.

If you skim the genealogies at the very beginning, you don’t need to already have a background in Indian traditional tales and religion to appreciate this short novel, which can be enjoyed on many levels: as a love story told in luscious, Song of Solomon-like metaphors; as a love story punctuated by metafictional commentary and sly parodies of the overblown conventions of love stories; as myth; as a small taste of a literary culture that I suspect many of you haven’t encountered before. (I mean fifteenth century Telegu literature, not Indian literature in general.)

Unlike a lot of literature which was clearly hot at the time but not to modern readers’ erotic tastes… this is still hot. At least, I thought so. There are many more explicit passages, but I was particularly taken with this one, in which Prabhavati’s girlfriend helps her arrange her hair for her first meeting with her beloved, and breaks into spontaneous poetry:

If you let your hair down, you look beautiful.
When you let it hang halfway, you look beautiful, too.
If it gets tangled, you’re beautiful in a different way.
If you comb it down, even more so.
You can braid it, roll it into a bun, or better still
tie it into a knot on the side.
You’re beautiful with that hair every which way.

It’s long, black, and so thick
you can’t hold it in one hand.
No matter how you wear it,
you’ll trap your husband with your hair.

Translated and with extensive historical notes by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman.

The Demon's Daughter: A Love Story from South India (S U N Y Series in Hindu Studies)
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Anita Heiss has set up a top 100 Australian Indigenous books. I'd read 12 of her favourite 99 books - she left the last one blank so people can add their own favourites.

See here:

That means there's all the more for me to discover, a veritable treasure trove.

I had intended to work through the list in order but, alas, number one is *Benang* which, judging from the first few pages, I reject as the worst kind of self consciously literary fiction. Number two (Vivienne Cleven's *Bitin' Back*) and number three (John Muk Muk Burke's *Bridge of Triangles*) are not in my local library system.... which brings me to Anita Heiss' fourth choice - Terri Janke's *Butterfly Song* (2005).

It's a young adult novel about an insecure, recent Law school graduate who goes to Cairns with her mother, rediscovers her Thursday Islander roots and saves a family heirloom. Janke uses the interesting technique of leaping about in time, showing the narrator's first experiences at university, her childhood memories, her mother's life and her grandmother's.

However, I would suggest that Janke uses this technique rather clumsily. The plot hinges on the recovery of a butterfly carved in pearl shell, held by a white family but claimed as a family momento by an Islander family. Janke shows that it absolutely belongs to the Indigenous family and was stolen from them. It's all rather black and white (pardon the pun) when most disputes about the appropriation of Indigenous culture, artifacts, knowledge or land are a lot more... well disputed. Especially as the conclusion is a court scene in which the white owner listens, agrees and hands over the expensive item. It's a very neat ending, but not one that seems in tune with human nature.

Perhaps I find this frustrating because it is a YA novel and Janke needs to wrap things up by the end. Still, it's not what I'd call a subtle novel.


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