This book is part of my effort this year to read author from a diverse range of backgrounds, and to read more female writers. Meena Kandasamy is from India, and is a female, so this book fell into both categories, because I haven’t read much books from Indian authors before.
I feel compelled to add a warning to this review: this book contains a lot of graphic descriptions of domestic abuse and rape, which might make you re-consider whether you would want to read the book or not. I read the story without knowing how graphic some scenes would be, and was taken aback by some of them. I will refrain from using graphic descriptions in this review though, so you can read this.
‘When I hit you’ is the story about a woman and her abusive marriage. This story of her marriage is intertwined with one about her previous big love before she married and her aspirations to be a writer. Through those stories the book narrates how she got into the marriage, what the abuse did to her psychologically, and how she managed to get out of it and continue her life. Each chapter is about a different part of her life. The parts about her past with her former lover are used, among things, to describe how her previous life with her lover and their sexual exploits are used against her by her husband to break her. Also, her old lover makes her ponder the meaning of love and sex, when comparing his actions and lovemaking to that of her husband. Neither was perfect, but you can almost image the protagonist thinking: how did I end up with a husband like this?’ The chapters about her aspirations to be a writer are partly used to show how she copes with the present situation. She does that by pretending to write the story about the abuse, instead of living it, placing herself out of the situation. However, her husband doesn’t like her writing, and she is forced to write more and more in secret and in her mind only. Her love for writing is only one thing her husband takes from her though. Slowly, everything that she holds dear is twisted by him by making it into something bad, something a good wife should not concern herself with.
The main character has no name in this story, and is only referred to as ‘she’. This is deliberately done by Meena Kandasamy, because in this way the story of ‘she’ becomes the story of every woman. Or to speak in Kandasamy’s own words: “a woman at whom society cannot spit or throw stones, because this me is a she who is made up only of words on a page, and the lines she speaks are those that everyone hears in their own voice”. In this way, the protagonist of this book becomes some kind of universal sufferer, which could be every one of us, and not the story of one woman who was unlucky. This is a very powerful method to make clear that it is not only ‘weak’ persons, who fall into abusive relationships, but that it could happen to anyone. Another reason for the choice of a more abstract character becomes clear at the ending of the book. Once the main person is back home with her parents, and starts to talk about the abuse, she gets a lot of inquiries ‘why she did not get out of it quicker’, ‘why did you let this happen to you’, ‘I thought you were a feminist’, and questions like that. Kandasamy has experienced an abusive marriage herself, but one can understand she would rather write about it in a less-direct personal way to move the focus to the topic of abusive, and not on her personal experiences.
The writing style of this book is very emotional. Sometimes maybe overly so, however that is also a personal preference. I come from a cold country where everybody understands each other by the way a silence feels, so prose sounds dramatic to me quickly. But everyone experiences emotions in a different way, so the tone of a book is hard to judge. Beside the emotional tone, the style of the writing is very poetic. Reading, it feels like something between poetry and prose, looking at the lay-out and the sentences she uses. She tells the story in little fragments, leaving it to the reader to piece the story together, like poetry often does. The language used is also very beautiful at times, full of contradictions and other clever writing tricks. For example, in one sentence she uses ‘living day’ and ‘funeral pyre’ in the same paragraph, beautifully showing the contradictions of her life between having the live-force to want to live and the depression from living in an abusive marriage.
‘Funeral pyre’ also shows the Indian context of this book. Kandasamy is Indian, and active as a feminist, both things are apparent when reading this book. The ‘she’ of the book is also Indian and a feminist, often she is even accused of ‘ultra-feminism’ by her husband and other men. In the book the ‘she’ reflects on Indian society and the role of women in that. She feels pressure from her mother to just be the ‘good obedient’ wife, and to wait until her husband calms down. Also she is afraid what her husband might do, if she isn’t a good wife. She thinks about the burning of wives, as she talks about what happens to woman who ‘do not behave’ (funeral pyre). Of course, I do not know to which extent this book shows the reality of women in India, but at any rate it is good that books are written about strong woman, who end up in an abusive relationship. It is not a cheerful book to read, but it is something that does happen, and can happen in many different contexts, so it is good to be aware of it.
The ‘she’ in her book screams for love, but her voice is silenced by her husband and society. Eventually she realizes she is the only one who can save herself, and, thank God, she eventually does. The book ends with a powerful reflection on the meaning of one’s body, being a woman and fighting your way out of whatever oppressive situation you happen to be living in. I cannot adequately explain the power of the ending, so I’ll end this with a quote from it instead: “I am the woman with wings, the woman who can fly and fuck at will. I have smuggled this woman out of the oppressive landscape of small-town India. I need to smuggle her out of her history, out of the do’s and don’ts for good Indian Girls”. And this does not only go for Indian girls, but for everyone!
Feminism award for telling the story of a strong woman who manages to save herself
Meena Kandasamy, when I hit you: or, a portrait of the writer as a young wife (London, 2017)
Bella G. Bear