Chennai-born Meena Kandasamy is an award-winning novelist and poet, best known for her book When I Hit You. She started translating at the age of eighteen and has worked on speeches and writings by activist and politician Thol. Thirumavalavan, writer Salma, Tamil Eelam poets, and many more. Her work is an active resistance against gender- and caste-based violence, and she describes her writing process as taking things that “rattle her” and “smuggling them into English.” Much of her recent focus has been on dismantling Hindutva, the hard-line right-wing rule of the Bharatiya Janta Party in India.
Her work as an activist has made her no stranger to trolls and threats. In her latest book-length essay, The Orders Were to Rape You, she writes about growing up during the Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted from 1983 to 2009 and involved the violent persecution of Sri Lankan Tamils, including many state-supported anti-Tamil pogroms, the designation of Sinhala as the sole official language of the state, and the unreported rape, torture, and disappearance of Tamils. More specifically, Kandasamy remembers life in Tamil Nadu when the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) was still occupying Tamil Eelam, a proposed independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. It was during this time that she saw women from Tamil Eelam fighting back, “donning combat gear and taking up AK-47s” as part of the guerrilla independence movement known as the Liberation Tigers. Inspired by these women, Kandasamy participated in demonstrations to support the movement for Tamil Eelam, and started translating news reports and articles to give their struggle a wider readership.
The Orders Were to Rape You also documents Kandasamy’s experience, as an adult, meeting women fighters from the Liberation Tigers in the aftermath of the brutal war. The women she spoke to lived as refugees in Southeast Asian countries where the threat of war still lurked in their everyday lives. Kandasamy ends the book with her own translations of work by three female Tamil combatant poets. These poems also appeared in Guernica’s Female Fighters Series.
In this interview, conducted via email, Kandasamy discusses the stakes of translation, decolonization, and the process of writing a long-form first-person essay about women and their experience confronting war.
Suhasini Patni (SP): The Orders Were to Rape You was originally conceived as a documentary film. Why did you change your approach, and what was the process of converting the documentary scraps into a book? Did you have any struggles?
Meena Kandasamy (MK): At some point, I had to come to terms with the fact that this project wouldn’t become a documentary. Like all writers who cannot let go of their projects, I lived in denial for a long time—there was this feverish urge to make the world see and hear this story, and then there was something I wasn’t used to: the task of mobilizing a diverse group of people, mobilizing funding, and finding a producer/backer who could make sure that this material was communicated in the best way and reached the best audience. It is not that people were not ready—everyone was moved by the story—but they were also aware that just invoking the word “terrorism” would bury this work. Although the project was about female insurgents fighting for the liberation of their homeland and about the consequences they faced after the war, we knew how easily it could be termed illegal. Once a certain amount of money is invested, no one wants to take risks. By the end of 2013, the raw footage was all there. For four, five years, I kept chasing it, trying to see if I could make it materialize. In 2018, I decided that I had to write it down. This way it would be completely within my control; I was not going to be dependent on others. If there were consequences, I would face them single-handedly.
At first it was a process of unlearning. In trying to make a documentary, I was learning how to not think and work and perform like a writer. Film was a different medium, a different genre, a different beast altogether. I had to first learn the basics, and then the intricacies, of the medium of film. It is another language, another grammar—and one has to teach oneself to think differently, do differently.
And then, fortunately, or unfortunately, after a period of five years, I realized that the only way to get the story out was within the framework of nonfiction, the long-form narrative lyric essay—whatever you choose to call it. And this was unwieldy. This was a story that I had shot visually, a story that did not include me at all. When I began to write it down, it required that I tell the meta-story of how and why I came to be in the story. That self-awareness became an integral part of the project. I felt a little uncomfortable in the beginning, because all these years, I’ve never embraced the first-person essay. It always felt too individualistic, too self-absorbed. To transform that, to show how political events shape individual lives, to dissect the “I” mercilessly became imperative for me.
SP: In The Orders Were to Rape You, you talk about why you initially wanted to make this project a documentary: “I wanted my subjects to have autonomy, I wanted them to speak for themselves. I did not want their words coming out filtered through a writer’s pen.” How do you feel about this now that the book has been published?
MK: Yes, that was the initial aim, as I mentioned in the book. I tried to keep that aim intact even when I wrote it out as a book-length essay, hence the strange format—there’s no reported speech at all. Their interviews are transcribed almost breathlessly, without, as I said, the filter of the writer’s pen.
I am happy to have made that decision. It is not an approach that always works, but in this instance, because of the harrowing stories the interviewees share, it was only right that they hold the floor.
SP: As you mention in the book, this was not your first time translating Tamil Eelam poets. What was the process of translating them like when you were younger and had less experience with translation? Is the process any different now?
MK: When I translated the Tamil Eelam poets in 2009, after the genocide, I had already published more than six books of Tamil-to-English translations, including the works of Dravidian ideologue Periyar, the writings of Tamil leader Thol. Thirumavalavan, and the poetry and fables of Tamil Eelam poet Kasi Anandan. So I had been working for years already before I embarked on translating poets like Cheran Rudramoorthy and VIS Jayapalan. That said, when I translated Captain Vaanathi and Captain Kasthuri in 2019 for the purposes of my piece in Guernica, which was commissioned by Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan as part of the Female Fighters Series, I had been translating for seventeen years. I wish I could say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. I don’t want to lie. I’d say that on the contrary, having translated a lot means that one should still be very careful, not be lazy, not allow the pride of experience to get into one’s head. Every work is different, there is so much nuance where poetry is concerned, and everyone also needs their own individual signature style in the target language—they should not sound like you. It is a lot of work.
SP: What’s particularly interesting to me is that you also tell your own story alongside the Tamil Eelam struggle. It reminded me a little of Exquisite Cadavers, your earlier novel, where you choose to split the page in half—one side is the story and the other side is what’s going on in your head as you write it. But in that book, there was a sharp physical divide on the page. Here you intersperse your own thoughts and life with that of the poetry and documentation. Can you talk about how you find a balance with such a narrative?
MK: Thank you for bringing this up. In a lot of my works of fiction I am trying to break down the fourth wall. Exquisite Cadavers was a clever and challenging experiment to pull off, and I think it went rather well. In The Orders Were to Rape You, it was not just about narrative balance. Documenting what Tamil women (those related to the Tamil Tigers and Tigresses) faced in the Manik Farm camps in the aftermath of the 2009 genocide was urgent. It had to be done—none of these women have gotten any kind of justice, many of them are still struggling to get asylum abroad, and back in Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas are once more in power.1 That is one of the important strands of the book.
The other important strand is how the Tamil Tigresses defined themselves—and to address this question, I was looking at the poetry of Captain Vanathi and Captain Kasturi, who were outspokenly feminist, anti-imperialist, and extremely critical of oppression (whether it was class-based or in the name of tradition). How did I locate myself within the book, the story of the story, so to speak? Or rather, why was I telling their story? I grew up in a family that was extremely supportive of the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle—the kind of people who unfailingly attended protest marches, courted arrest, and followed the everyday news. This support for Tamil Eelam was very much a landscape for many of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. In the years of the worst repression in Sri Lanka, much of the organizing simply moved to Tamil Nadu. So it pervaded our imaginations and many aspects of our lives here.
In absolute contrast to this, the Indian government was consistently acting against the interests of the Eelam Tamils. As an Indian Tamil woman, it became even more important for me to stand up against what my so-called nation was doing to perpetuate the occupation and settler-colonialism in Tamil Eelam. India’s role in Tamil Eelam is a story written in blood: rapes and massacres during the IPKF, consistent involvement against Tamil interests, tacit support of Sri Lanka during the genocide, and now corporate profiteering and disaster capitalism. Although it appears to be my story, I’m only a prism; I’m only telling the story of what India was doing.
SP: I’m sure you find similarities between your own poems and the ones you’ve translated for this book. I certainly saw connections between your poems in Ms Militancy and Captain Kasturi’s poems. Does the awareness of these similarities affect your translation process at all?
MK: I think the similarities are a result of the subject matter. In fact, I wish I had been exposed to the poetry of the female Tigers, or any other guerrilla poets, earlier in my life. I wrote all of Ms Militancy when I was a fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. I was twenty-five; this was in 2009. Initially, I had wanted to write the novel that eventually became Gypsy Goddess, but once I was actually there I realized I just couldn’t do fiction. I couldn’t while away all this time that was paid for and so well-earned, and so I came up with a poetry project. A book of feminist poetry like Anne Sexton’s Transformations, like Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. So, although my political outlook was hugely affected by the genocide that had just concluded on the island of Sri Lanka (there are at least two or three poems in Ms Militancy that deal with this war), my poetic impulses were influenced by the confessional poets I was reading at that time, including Kamala Das.
The similarities you speak about—I think they arose partly because this is a shared political journey, partly because of the Tamil tradition Captain Kasturi and I share, and partly because my work, like hers, deals with what it means to be a woman who is forced to confront violence. In fact, when I first read Captain Kasturi’s poems, I was envious. She was not sitting there and wondering if some critic would dismiss her work as propaganda poetry—she couldn’t care less! She wasn’t worried that an exhortation for the workers’ and oppressed people’s revolution would not be considered lyrical enough. When you do not operate within the literary establishment, when you can be forthright about your politics on the page, when you are not held back by any fear, you can write songs of liberation—that is how her poetry feels.
SP: You mention that when a senior Tigress you were interviewing was dying of cancer, the people around her asked if you had links to any white documentary filmmaker, because whiteness is “an automatic stamp of neutrality, balance, sound political judgment.” Instead, you write that you wanted to tell the story on your terms, and the terms of the women whose story you’re telling. What is this process like? I’m thinking particularly about the chapbook you edited and co-translated for Tilted Axis, Desires Become Demons. That chapbook was a part of a “wider project of decolonization through and of translation, and in response to seeing women authors of color misread through a white feminist lens.” Do you see this book as an expansion of your project to reimagine the possibilities of intersectional feminism?
MK: White people often take it very personally if we even mention the phrase “white people.” But that kind of racial hegemony is undeniable, and stating it bears no malice against those who happen to be white. The built-in assumption that the white person is unbiased, neutral, fair; that a white person narrating a story carries more authority than a brown person who was actually involved as a witness telling the same story in the same language—these are not the opinions of white people alone. Such thoughts permeate each and every section of our society, and it becomes very important to counter them regardless of their source.
Tilted Axis is doing marvelous work. I’d work for them if they ever had a job opening because I love their vision of translation, of feminism, of women’s writing. It is revolutionary. In this chapbook Desires Become Demons, we take the word feminism and translate what it means to four activist women poets in Tamil Nadu. And it is amazing how differently they define feminism, how for so many of them, feminism is a project against caste oppression as well. And it is important to situate, translate, and narrate the feminisms outside of Europe and what they have done, what they are aiming to do. Tamil Nadu, for instance, had a social movement called the Self Respect Movement, and one of its most visionary leaders was Thanthai Periyar. And even in the 1920s and 1930s, they were already advocating for anti-caste marriages, nonreligious marriages, divorce, remarriage, equal education, and representation, including in the police forces, and, most of all, a women’s control over her own body, a woman’s choice to be free of the burden of motherhood and social reproduction if she so wished! These were progressive and far, far ahead of their time. These rich traditions are not copycats of European feminism—I think progressive European ideas no doubt influenced people, there was always the circulation of thought and ideas—but they also evolved very much in the Tamil context, and they went far beyond what was being articulated by the feminists who were from European colonial backgrounds.
How do we write about all of this? A full-frontal attack, like the one my friend and scholar Rafia Zakaria makes in Against White Feminism brilliantly and without pulling any punches? Something in-depth, thoughtful, and historical, as Francois Verges does in A Decolonial Feminism? Or something like Radicalizing Her, which scholar-activist Nimmi Gowrinathan wrote after spending more than a dozen years of her life interviewing and studying the female militants of our times—it’s a sharp and essential contribution to understanding women taking up arms as a reaction to state violence. These are phenomenal contributions, and I urge you to read them all.
My academic training would have told me to analyze and parse what was happening with the Tamil Tigresses, but my first instinct was to approach this as a storyteller, or rather, as someone who could facilitate the telling of their stories. In my mind, The Orders Were To Rape You is a book that does not spend its time rejecting the frameworks of white feminism, or rehashing much of European feminism’s suspicion toward national liberation struggles (which are in fact struggles necessitated because of colonialism) or the way white feminism seeks to portray all women who choose to join a guerrilla struggle as brainwashed cultists, or addressing some dainty white feminist argument about violence = bad, without situating it contextually. Abandoning this framework, refusing to anticipate and answer these questions, is liberatory in and of itself. I wanted to place on record the women’s stories in their own words. This was not just true of the Tamil Tigresses I got to interview, but also of the Tamil Tigresses who wrote poetry. They were very clear in what they were doing: linking the process of fighting for liberation to a struggle to smash patriarchy. It was important to bear witness to and chronicle their dreams, and their subsequent disillusionment. Just as the Tigers’ testimony in the book lays bare the nature of the Sinhala majoritarian state that used rape as a weapon of war during an ongoing genocide, the work of the Tigress-poets shows their political outlook. In that sense, to answer your question, yes—this book is a text that shows what an anti-imperialist feminism looks like, and the dangerous price (sexual violence, death) that women have had to pay in this struggle.
Meena Kandasamy (b. 1984) is an anti-caste activist, poet, novelist, and translator. Her writing aims to deconstruct trauma and violence while spotlighting the militant resistance against caste, gender, and ethnic oppressions. She explores this in her poetry and prose, most notably in her books of poems such as Touch (2006) and Ms Militancy (2010), as well as her three novels, The Gypsy Goddess (2014), When I Hit You (2017), and Exquisite Cadavers (2019). Her latest work is a collection of essays, The Orders Were to Rape You: Tamil Tigresses in the Eelam Struggle (2021). Her novels have been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize, and the Hindu Lit Prize.
She has been a fellow of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (2009), a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow at the University of Kent (2011), and is presently a fellow of the Berlin-based Junge Akademie (AdK).
Activism is at the heart of her literary work; she has translated several political texts from Tamil to English, and previously held an editorial role at The Dalit, an alternative magazine. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics. Her op-eds and essays have appeared in the White Review, Guernica, The Guardian, and the New York Times, among others.
1. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president of Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015. His brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is currently president, appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister in 2019. ↩