The Whole Kahani Writers’ Collective provides support to writers of South Asian descent living in the UK. The Collective has just published its third anthology of short stories, Tongues and Bellies. Here, the Collective’s co-founder, Reshma Ruia, talks about The Whole Kahani and its publishing programme.
A writer’s life is solitary. We sit at our desks and churn our imagination to create words that will one day see the light of day. Yet, while solitude is essential to creativity, it is often accompanied by self-doubt and anxiety. The Whole Kahani Writers’ Collective aims to address this by providing a supportive, nurturing environment for British South Asian writers to hone their craft, exchange ideas and work collaboratively to produce work that showcases their individual talent. The group’s name means The Complete Story, and reflects the idea that fiction is not the exclusive preserve of a privileged few and must reflect the voices of those who have historically been marginalised. The title was inspired by the Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s assertion that, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
The co-founders of the group, Reshma Ruia and Kavita Jindal wanted to provide a creative perspective that straddles cultures and boundaries. The group’s aim is to give a new voice to British Asian fiction and increase the visibility of South Asian writers in Britain. The Collective typically meets once a month in London to workshop members’ work and identify mutually beneficial opportunities. Our members come from a range of different backgrounds – we have poets, novelists, short story writers and screenwriters. The Whole Kahani enables members to not only exchange ideas with fellow writers but also learn from them, since each brings their individual writing style and unique perspective. The fact that we workshop each other’s stories, helps us in having the discipline to write and submit with a deadline in mind.
The group has produced three critically acclaimed anthologies to date; each examines a different facet of the diasporic life. Independent regional publishers have published all three, Dahlia Publishing and Linen Press, both of whom recognise the importance of championing regional, diverse voices. The Collective was shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards in 2019 – the UK-based Saboteur Awards showcase literature outside the mainstream.
Preti Taneja, acclaimed author of We That Are Young, outlined the mission statement of the Collective, in her foreword to the second anthology, May We Borrow Your Country (2019). Taneja argues that in mainstream Western media, women from minority communities are generally portrayed in two-dimension. South Asian women are represented as being “docile, servile, perfect daughters, sisters, brides and mothers: sensual not sexual, good for nothing but to be handmaids to patriarchy by making sons.” This is, Taneja writes, a myth, perpetuated by a dominant culture (in both the East and the West) which uses such narratives to reinforce the status quo. The Whole Kahani’s writing presents alternative perspectives and atypical characters, as well as highlighting the female authors and poets who create them.
The Whole Kahani’s first anthology, Love across a Broken Map (2016), set out to smash stereotypes about South Asian diasporic identities and experiences in Britain through 10 stories. Love across a Broken Map, as the title suggests, is a collection of stories where, for one reason or another, love fails, or fragments or misses its target. Each writer brought their own particular interpretation of love – the illusions and delusions that inform it.
May We Borrow Your Country was commended for its exploration of identity and belonging. A contemporary collection of stories and poems that looks at dislocation and displacement with sympathy, tolerance and humour. It is peopled by courageous, poignant, eccentric individuals who cross borders, accommodate to new cultures and try to establish an identity in a new place. In the process, they encounter different versions of themselves, like reflections in a room of trick mirrors. The title encapsulates different meanings, ranging from colonisation to immigration, from cultural appropriation to cultural integration.
Tongues and Bellies was put together remotely during the pandemic and the writers were given freedom to explore as they wished how food can mean more than sustenance. These stories play with lies and truth. Chameleon-like characters clutch at worlds that remain just out of reach. An old recipe, a robot, a key – these are clues to the people they once were or hope to be. Appetite and eating are often central in this collection as characters remember childhood meals, a mother’s cooking, meals with lovers and meals that turn out not as expected. Their appetite for food, as for life, is by turns bitter and sweet but never predictable. Awais Khan, author of No Honour, has described the collection as ‘Rich, incisive and at times magical’.