Review: When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Artist by a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
(Atlantic Books, 2017)
In an interview with Wired India, Meena Kandasamy is asked why she chose marital violence as the topic for her novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. She responds:
“…pursuing an intellectual life, especially writing, is impossible to do when you are stuck in the middle of everyday abuse because you are battling for mere survival; and, secondly, no matter how much you run away from the experience of being female in order to inhabit other experiences, violence of this kind firmly pushes you in that distressing awareness that your life as an artist will continue to be dictated by your womanhood. So, in tracing the artistic journey of a woman writer, I chose to tell this story – of marital violence – that millions of women face and which breaks them down in countless ways.”
I had put off picking the book up for some time, a little hesitant to plunge into the grim subject matter announced upfront. Its humble, textured paper cover (which has been compared, in other reviews, to the simple garments the narrator wears at her husband’s bequest to shield herself from accusations of pride) flitted across my timeline often, as reader by reader discovered and recommended it. In reading it myself late in the year, and feeling the rough paper in my own hands, I had the same impulse to share, picking the book up and putting it down, turning to my phone to take a photograph of a particularly resonant paragraph, or to compose a tweet to show a part of it to friends. For me, this is often a sign a book will become a resource to me, that by expressing parts of it I feel close to it, and I will check back to see what it said on xyz subject.
When I Hit You is a book about the physical and psychological claustrophobia of domestic abuse, and it is set in a small town in coastal India, or rather the three rooms of the house the narrator rarely leaves. It details physical abuse which worsens over time, from fantastical threats of guerilla-inspired violence to eventual graphic rape, directed from a man who considers himself a revolutionary towards the new wife he met in a Facebook protest event page. Their relationship, at first, is based on a shared interest in radical politics, and finds its foothold in debates on Marxist, Maoist, and Leninist theory. Once in the domestic sphere, this interest turns swiftly hierarchical. It is used against the young wife, who remarks that her husband brings twelve angry men to bed with him: Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Said, Gramsci, Zizek, Fanon and Guevara. He is a poor lover, resentful of her involuntary cries, unable to grasp why she might make a sound even when she mines her knowledge of language theory to appeal to him on a scientific level. With delicious acidity, she attributes his stance on her pleasure to “Marx, Lenin, and Mao have not explicitly written this down, and the declassing classes do not address the sexual pleasure of comrades.” Soon, he takes steps to quash her connection to the outside world, and erode the connections which are essential to her career as a freelance writer. He argues her time online is an obsession, reducing her life to a series of weaknesses he must eradicate, with reasoning ranging from the politically dubious to the puritanical. He demands she deactivates Facebook. He insists upon her email password, and later deletes her emails as a “liberation.” His boot comes down. I, as reader, hate him. The decline of the marriage is swift, with increasing ferocity. We know, from the opening chapter, that she does leave. She is determined to tell her own story, and that is what follows. It is a text of courage and resilience. There are many moments where I want to reach right through the paper.
The narrator resists. Even in moments of surface strategic compliance, she never loses the tenacity which burns throughout the book and makes it feel alive as a Feminist text. For as much as this novel is about domestic violence, it is even more so about the woman artist who cannot be stopped in her desire and need to create, and her writing as a form of salvation in a world which is hostile to her. In defiance, she composes letters and deletes them before her husband arrives home to check the laptop. She controls the narrative by considering him as a character; if she were writing a play, the object he clutches would be an ideal prop to display both masculinity and vulnerability. She cannot, will not, stop, and is drawn to writing, even if her only avenue is to compose mentally, all the more he finds ways to minimise her intellectual freedom. Her writing finds a way, like water, and her spirit of survival depends upon it as a form of resistance.
On the day I read a paragraph where the husband disdains her lipstick, describing her as a petit bourgeois whore and making her wash it off, I have myself taken delivery of a bright blue lipstick. I feel close to the narrator in that moment. I feel her anger, and her fear. I wish I could share my lipstick with her, to replace the one thrown away under duress.
Kandaswamy is scathing on men purportedly on the left, or with radical tendencies, who have a bombastic profile but who are cruel and hypocritical in their engagement with women. I tweeted, “Would suggest any fellow Scottish feminists who are scunnered by left-leaning men who push women out of activism in a variety of small and big ways, from quietly undermining to downright hostile, might find parts of this a relevant and scathing read,” along with a photograph of a paragraph describing a tactic used to dehumanise her and excusing his treatment of her from the politics he preaches. By insisting this woman, with her feminism, is actually middle class, no matter what the reality of her upbringing and politics may be, he positions himself as the more authentic working class man, the revolutionary, and so justified in fighting her, with control or with fists. It is an intellectual and political self deception as much as it is an excuse for violence towards women. “I’m now the repressive apparatus of the state. He is the guerrilla warrior. This is his stubborn song. This is an unequal war.” I am struck by how resonant this is, all the way across the globe, of other political movements which find ways of justifying abuse within, and those who become excited by such aggression, mistaking it for true political engagement, clapping it on. To declare that feminism is middle class, or that coffee drinkers are bourgeois, is to consider them targets deserving of retribution. It is a tactic nonsensical and shallow but lapped up by sycophants of angry men, motivated more by hatred and personal grievances (often against women) than by a true desire for structural parity. These are politics which are red only in the face. The narrator describes how her husband despises her for being a woman who writes more than he hates political foes. It is the catalyst for his paranoia and insecurity. He beats her body to punish her for the independence she possesses in her intellectualism and artistic creativity. Not everyone is conned by him. She finds one brief unexpected ally. His cousin takes the opportunity to whisper to her on the phone that this man is a fraud. In the absence of any other support, it is a handle for her to grasp on her way up and out. Later, she touches upon the undermining of those who ask why she didn’t leave sooner.
Her resistance takes other small forms. When she wishes to avoid pregnancy, she prepares foods she recalls from the traded knowledge of her youth as being hostile to anything growing in the womb. Pineapple. Mango. Sesame. Family recipes, she claims. She runs through a catalogue of previous sexual encounters in her mind when her husband puts chewing gum in the door holes to stop any men from peering in.
Kandaswamy’s prose is imaginative and playful. When it is not describing, with precision, the ramping tension in moments of action, it plays with poetic forms and structures to tell the story through letters or phone calls. It is prose which suits the circumstances of a narrator who must escape down avenues in her mind. She is at pains towards the end of the book to make clear a necessary distance. “I am the woman who has tried to shield herself from the first person singular… I am the one deputed on her behalf… I am the woman sheltered within words.” The narration feels deeply intimate, allowing the reader into a mental cloister set within the second chamber of domestic gaol, while expounding upon universal themes. The vivacity of Kandasamy’s style is gripping. She describes this novel accurately as “at once intellectual and theoretical as well as personal and intimate,” taking inspiration from writers of fragmentary texts such as Maggie Nelson.
When I Hit You is a modern feminist book from a non-western perspective, and I’d recommend it to anyone who, like me, could be doing with reading more widely in their feminism. It elucidates attempts to wilfully and forceful erode a woman’s freedoms, and shines a light on the hypocrisy of political theory within domestic spaces. It is excellent on the subject of art as salvation, especially for woman writers, and those who face resistance to work they consider essential to their sense of self and purpose. Beneath the plain paper cover it is alive with hope, eroticism, an iron will and a love of art, to the very end.