The road from South Kolkata to Sherwood Forest – by way of Manilla, Delhi and Sheffield – has been one of triumph and turbulence for Shreya Sen-Handley. Having now lived in Notts for the best part of twelve years, she has found a unique way to talk about the things we don’t talk about. In her new book, Memoirs of My Body, Sen-Handley shines a light on the unspoken and off-limits, questioning our unwritten expectations and exploring the damage they are doing.
It is humour anyone can identify with but it’s also very, very me.
– Shreya Sen-Handley
With the book’s publication imminent the author is bracing herself for an expected backlash as it’s likely to prove controversial for political and religious reasons. Sen-Handley is undeterred: “I’m a woman speaking up about issues, in a manner that some will consider unseemly,” she says, unafraid to take aim at the oppressors.
She understands that Nottingham writers have never been shy of controversy, and notes that we are “at a time when banning and burning books are all the rage again.” Still, she sees the role of a writer as being to inform people of what is happening and claims: “I am an equal opportunity ‘disser’; if someone or something deserves criticism for how they treat those less privileged than themselves, then I don’t hold back.”
Memoirs of My Body emerged from a blog that appeared on CNN India before moving to The Times of India. With the articles regularly attracting 25,000 readers, on a par with many celebrity columns, Harper Collins took notice and contacted the columnist, asking her to pitch a book proposal. She did and they loved it. That idea was an original one: for a work of auto-fiction (not autobiography) told through the prism of Sen-Handley’s body parts and bodily processes. These are used as a framework to explore wider issues on which her thoughts and experiences are shared, all done in a brutally honest way that sees her re-enter past darkness with a lightness of touch.
Sen-Handley’s revealing blog column had resulted in many of her readers writing back and opening up. “Women all over the world feel muzzled and they took inspiration from what I was doing and began relating their own stories,” she explains, finding her readers feedback to be incredibly rewarding, especially as many of the women were expressing their feelings on these issues for the first time.
The experiences discussed in Memoirs of My Body may be personal ones but there is universality to them. They render empathy and understanding, and readers may not think of their body parts in quite the same way again. Instead, they may begin to question how they think and challenge the status quo, something Shreya does with a wry humour. In the author’s words: “It is humour anyone can identify with but it’s also very, very me.”
Much of the fun comes as the author points out life’s absurdities but the book also shows the damage attitudes can wreak; attitudes that infect, making life much more difficult than it could or should be. Weight to her arguments is added through an accompaniment of facts and studies.
Opening with masturbation – fitting for a book rife with self-discovery – Sen-Handley finds the roots of our self-loathing and sexual hang-ups as she moves through life’s many rites of passage in a book that has been described as being very, very rude. Perhaps the book’s best description comes from the author herself who calls it, “a feminist book with a strong funny bone.” She elaborates: “It is my own brand of feminism which is inclusive. I don’t believe there is only one way to be, even as a feminist. Nor is it at odds with what liberal, open-minded men all over the world acknowledge.”
Through menstruation, marriage, miscarriage and motherhood – and that’s just the Ms – the personal experiences are explicitly told in a way that may open eyes and mouths. As for Sen-Handley’s lady bits? Well, yes they are described, even given pet names, but this book’s not an anatomical guide, instead it speaks of how women’s body parts can be owned, consumed and shamed. She tells me it’s like a butcher deciding some pieces of meat are important whilst binning the others. It all makes for a stark warning of the patriarchal forces at work.
Indian culture is celebrated and criticised. Sen-Handley doesn’t believe in God, or adhere to the religious practices of any religion, but she makes no secret of her enjoyment in many of the cultural aspects of Hinduism, saying: “For a great many Hindus, it’s not about God at all. It is a way of life. A friend called me a ‘festival tart’,” she adds, “It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas or Hanukkah.”
In both India and Britain she has noticed some worrying developments, with bigotry seemingly on the rise. “We are frightened of anything that’s different, some of us more and some of us less so, based on our awareness. So tolerance is a sliding scale. For some a mere matter of pigmentation may be enough to make them feel threatened and distrustful.”
Despite this trend reaching Nottingham, Sen-Handley remains a proud Nottinghamian having lived here for the best part of twelve years. Her home in Sherwood Forest even has a connection with her favourite Romantic poet. She explains: “There is an old manor behind our house which dates back to Norman times. The Byrons tried to buy it at some point and may even have fought a duel over it.”
Sen-Handley he has certainly taken our county to her heart and played a vital role in our successful bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. As a bid ambassador, she connected people, communities and countries in a role that gave our bid a national and international platform. She was also one of the first people to learn of our accolade after NottsTV called her for her reaction to the news.
Achieving the official status is no mean feat and, as yet, no Indian city has been successful but Sen-Handley has hopes that Kolkata will join the recognised cities, making efforts in that direction. She argues: “India, and Kolkata, has such a wealth of literary history. There is so much happening as well in the contemporary literary scene and in publishing.”
Sen-Handley wears many hats. A professional illustrator (each chapter in Memoirs of My Body opens with one of her illustrations) she has also found a love of teaching. “Writing is equal parts ecstasy and anguish,” she says, calling it a visceral need, whether it’s the process itself or the reactions to it, but “maybe that’s why teaching’s easier to love.”
Education is close to Sen-Handley’s heart. She hails from a line of well-educated women, one that’s set to continue now that she’s a mother herself. Motherhood is providing the chance to release her children from many of the anxieties and hang ups she faced when growing up. These are problems that are prevalent in society but she argues it need not be so. Through her writing she is making a compelling case for releasing people from shame and worry, using discussion and preaching tolerance. It’s sad that that such sense will create controversy but some of Sen-Handley’s advice will undoubtedly knock a few nests. Whatever criticism people throw her way they can’t accuse her of not practising what she preaches.
There are times during the reading of Memoirs of My Body that I felt ashamed of my fellow man. Sen-Handley’s experiences of ingrained racism, sexism and abuse are difficult to read but we are never more than a flick away from her sense of fun and mischief. In using the physical to explain the societal, the writer paints a picture that’s as truthful as it is concerning. I urge you to read it. It might even change you.
A former television producer and broadcast journalist, for the likes of CNBC and MTV, Shreya Sen-Handley has built an illustrious writing career, working for The Guardian, The National Geographic and Times of India. In addition to a media career in both Britain and Indian she has seen her short fiction published on three continents.
Shreya Sen-Handley is working with Five Leaves to make a limited number of paperbacks available for the book’s Nottingham launch on Wednesday, August 30th at 7pm. The book is part of HarperCollins’ list celebrating their 200th birthday. It will be quite a celebration as it’s Sen-Handley’s birthday and the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence. There’ll be cake and refreshments.
Please let Five Leaves know if you are attending via firstname.lastname@example.org