When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

I began seeing reviews about When I Hit You, Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife late in 2017,  most were stunned by this novel, obviously by the subject, a woman writing about the experience of domestic violence and abuse, herself a victim of it within marriage; but also the analysis of her response to what was happening. This was a highly educated, intelligent and articulate young woman writing. It nudged preconceived ideas about victims of domestic abuse.

The reviews made me wish to read it, but the subject prevented me from picking it up sooner.  And then it made the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. I relented.

While it genuinely deserves to be on the list for its literary uniqueness and merit, it’s also relevant given we are in an era where the silencing, harassment and abuse of women is reaching a tipping point, in the West at least. The author now lives in London, however this story takes place in contemporary India, where she grew up.

The statistics on domestic violence in India are appalling, violence by husbands against wives is widespread, nearly two in five* (37 %) married women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their husband, and while the statistics vary according to the number of years of education men or women have acquired, 12%  of married women with 12 or more years of education have experienced spousal violence, compared with 21 percent of married women whose husbands have 12 or more years of education.

This is one aspect that surprises some Western readers, that highly educated women, married to highly educated men (the husband in this book is a university professor) while less likely to suffer, are not immune. No one is.

The title is a reference to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man his debut novel about a young man growing up, (essentially, his alter-ego). In the same way we see the character of this novel traverse the early months of a new marriage, as a young wife.

Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy has created an artwork, carefully sculpted, observed and understood from different angles, a work that endures over four months, like acts in a play, before the master stroke, a line she drew, that when her husband crossed, would signal to her the moment to leave. It is written by an unnamed narrator in a first person voice that moves from reflective to urgent, from a place of detached distance to a disturbing sense of present danger.

The novel begins in the period after she has escaped her marriage, in recounting the things her mother says to people, it is five years since her daughter left the marriage and the story has mutated and transformed into something the mother can more easily digest as she narrates.

So, when she begins to talk about the time that I ran away from my marriage because I was being routinely beaten and it had become unbearable and untenable for me to keep playing the good Indian wife, she does not talk about the monster who was my husband, she does not talk about the violence, she does not even talk about the actual chain of events that led to my running away. That is not the kind of story you will be getting out of my mother, because my mother is a teacher, and a teacher knows that there is no reason to state the obvious. As a teacher, she also knows that to state the obvious is , in fact, a sure sign of stupidity.

When she tells the story of my escape, she talks of my feet.

The way the story begins, hearing her mother’s voice with hindsight, introduces the subject with a dose of irony. It is a lead up to the author introducing herself as the writer that she is, and sharing the lessons she has acquired through this writing project.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it is your own mother.

She continues with narrating the story, and seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The husband, a Marxist who considered himself a revolutionary, a comrade, using communist intellectual ideas and his activities to elevate his self aggrandisement, detests the idea of his wife’s being a writer, an attitude that pushes her to want to antagonise him. The more he wishes to silence her, the stronger is her will to write, to imagine, to create, to express herself.

Being a writer is now a matter of self-respect. It is the job title that I give myself…

But it’s not just about antagonizing him. There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband’s mind. A self-centredness about writing that doesn’t fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one-word job description: defiance. I’ve never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.

Given how prevalent it is, it is a brave and courageous feat for the author to have penned this work and for it to be recognised and appreciated in this way, deservedly so. In an interview with The Wire, (linked below) Meena Kandasamy said:

“I will write in the same way in which I lived through all of this: carrying myself with enormous, infinite grace.”

It is an incredible work of creativity, working through the post-trauma of domestic violence.

Meena Kandasamy has taken charge of her story, she retells it in exactly the form(s) that she desires, and I am sure she will move on and create more great works of art, in literary form.

This is not a work to shy away from, especially not now, in these times where women are being supported when they choose to express these narratives, in order to move on from the trauma, because no one wants these stories to define their lives or to be who they are. Healing might come slowly, but I hope it does indeed come, that people like Meena Kandasamy can share their version of resilience and acts of moving forward and on, for the sake of themselves and others like them, albeit never forgetting.

I finish with one more of the many quotes I highlighted from reading:

I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.

I have put myself in a dangerous situation with this marriage, but even in this complicated position, I’m finding plot points. This is the occupational hazard of being a writer-wife.

Further Reading:

Interview: Meena Kandasamy on Writing About Marital Violence

* Statistics on Domestic Violence in India

Buy a copy of this book via Book Depository

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28 thoughts on “When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

  1. I was interested by this title too so thanks for sharing your thoughts. I haven’t read many of the books on the list and while I am not rushing to pick up books that deal with domestic abuse, this one sounds intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is intriguing, I was also interested in the comments made by Vishy, who had read a lot of Indian literature, which cover many subjects, but certain topics are rarely if ever covered, he cites other examples of omissions, however I share an extract from his review where it relates to this particular subject:

      Where are the novels which depict the actual state of the Indian marriage? There are novels and stories on these themes in many Indian languages – I have read some of them and they are great. There are American and British and French and German and Spanish and Japanese novels on many of these themes. But they are rare and nonexistent in English novels written by Indian writers. I have always wondered why Indian writers in English refused to explore these rich, complex themes, why they were running away from it. It was like the elephant in the room. And along comes Meena Kandasamy and breaks all past stereotypes and shackles and lights the fire in the room and it depicts the scene in all its blazing glory. It is so bright that it hurts our eyes. For that, I am thankful.

      Vishy’s review linked here: When I Hit You

      Liked by 1 person

    • I probably wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been highlighted by the Women’s Prize and I’m certainly glad I have done so now. I do think it’s a book that does bring an important message and should be supported. I hope it might even inspire others to get out of the terrible situation they find themselves in.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m glad I was given the prompt to pick it up, it’s also an act of solidarity perhaps, to acknowledge this young woman’s experience, having been so isolated by her experience, and witnessed how her removal from social circles was so easily accepted by friends and acquaintances, her book is both a lament and a call to us to lookout more for each other, not to make assumptions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Claire for your excellent review. The words on the cover caught my eye this past week. I will definitely add this book to my next to read. I suppose domestic abuse is universal, a very sad statement… I also find it prevalent in the US… crossing socioeconomic boundaries, this said, I admire women who have the courage to share their personal experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s very sad to think how widespread it is and how ill-equipped we are to deal with it, both when it happens and in it’s prevention, in what we teach our youth or neglect to cultivate in them to reduce the chances of this happening. I look forward to your thoughts on it Sylvie.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like an important must-read book. I think the Women’s Prize for Fiction list this year seems particularly strong – perhaps one of the few years where I try to read the whole lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s quite a challenge Liz, good luck with the attempt to read them all. I think this is certainly one that will provoke a lot of discussion among readers and judges, I’ll be interested to see if it makes the shortlist, it should I think, it’s merit goes beyond writing and storytelling, it shines a light on a dark part of societal behaviour that’s needed addressing for a very long time, when you look at the statistics (on domestic violence in India) and read that “more than half of women (54 %) and men (51 %) agree that it is justifiable for a husband to beat his wife under some circumstances”, it suggests that we all are complicit in some way and that re-education is necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • well don’t hold me to it lol! I am a big fan of Brené Brown’s work on shame, in which she emphasises how the dark elements of our life cannot survive having a light shone on them through talking about and sharing our stories – this is one way to get past difficult emotions and experiences. I think we are seeing this with the #metoo and related campaigns. Similarly, the promotion of literature which dares to engage with the most difficult aspects of our cultures can only be a good thing.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally agree with you, Claire. I think that the power of this book relies on two things: The first one is that being a “leftie” does not make you a feminist or even immune to being an abuser, and the second one is that domestic violence can happen to any woman. A degree, a great job, or a great pay does not protect you. I don’t know if this is perceived different in the rest of Europe, but in Spain there is still this idea that only lower-class women suffer domestic violence, and though it is true that they are more likely to suffer it, we are all potential victims as sad (or dramatic) as it may sound.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for that Margaret, I understand the instinct to not wish to dwell, which is also why I wanted to share some of the actual writing, to give a flavour of the book inside, which relates as much to the byline as anything else.

      Like

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