Pic courtesy: Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW, Berlin)
SHORT THIRD-PERSON BIO
Meena Kandasamy (b. 1984) is an anti-caste activist, poet, novelist and translator. Her writing aims to deconstruct trauma and violence, while spotlighting the militant resistance against caste, gender, and ethnic oppressions. She explores this in her poetry and prose, most notably in her books of poems such as Touch (2006) and Ms. Militancy (2010), as well as her three novels, The Gypsy Goddess (2014), When I Hit You (2017), and Exquisite Cadavers (2019). Her latest work is a collection of essays, The Orders Were to Rape You: Tamil Tigresses in the Eelam Struggle (2021). Her novels have been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Hindu Lit Prize.
She has been a fellow of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program (2009), a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow at the University of Kent (2011) and is presently a fellow of the Berlin-based Junge Akademie (AdK).
Activism is at the heart of her literary work; she has translated several political texts from Tamil to English, and previously held an editorial role at The Dalit, an alternative magazine. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics. Her op-eds and essays have appeared in The White Review, Guernica, The Guardian and The New York Times, among other places.
Meena Kandasamy (real name இளவேனில் Iḷavēṉil) was born in 1984 in Chennai. Her maternal grandparents were lower-caste Shudras who fell in love against social norms and left the country for Ethiopia where her mother, Vasantha, was born. They subsequently returned to India. Her father, Kandasamy, born in the nomadic tribe of Andi Pandaram in a tiny village in the Pudukottai District, was the first in his family, and village, to finish school, college, and university. He went on to receive a PhD in Tamil literature. He came from a landless family, and was himself of mixed-caste heritage. His father, Karuppiah was a witch-doctor, and the hereditary professions were fortune-telling and begging. Even today, the words Andi and Pandaram continue to be slur words in Tamil and Malayalam that denote ‘beggars’.
Meena's father grew up in an orphanage after his father abandoned the family. Her parents’ marriage in 1981 was considered anti-caste (jaathi maruppu thirumanam). Her mother worked at IIT Madras for three decades as a faculty of mathematics, a period during which she led a legal battle for the implementation of the reservation policy and for her work to be recognised by a hostile Brahmin academia. Her father taught Tamil for a time at the Madras University. Their involvement in the anti-caste struggle led Meena to work alongside Dalit movements and it influences all her work.
In her late teens (2002) she was the editor of The Dalit, a bimonthly “that provided a platform to record atrocities, condemn oppressive hierarchies and document the forgotten heritage.” Subsequently, she translated the essays and speeches of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi founder-leader Thol.Thirumavalavan into English: Talisman: Extreme Emotions of Dalit Liberation (2003) and Uproot Hindutva: The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers (2004). In 2007, she translated Dravidian ideologue Periyar's feminist tract Penn Yaen Adimai Aanaal? (Why Were Women Enslaved?) and co-wrote the first English biography of Kerala's iconic Dalit leader Ayyankali.
Her debut collection of poems, Touch (2006) was themed around caste and untouchability, and her second collection, Ms Militancy (2010) was an explosive, feminist retelling/reclaiming of Tamil and Hindu myths.
Her critically acclaimed first (anti)novel, The Gypsy Goddess, (2014) smudged the line between powerful fiction and fearsome critique in narrating the 1968 massacre of forty-four landless untouchable men, women and children striking for higher wages in the village of Kilvenmani, Tanjore, Tamil Nadu. Her second novel, a work of auto-fiction, When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife (2017) drew upon her own experience within an abusive marriage, to lift the veil on the silence that surrounds domestic violence and marital rape in modern India. It was selected as book of the year by The Guardian, The Observer, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times; and was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2018, among others. Her third novel, Exquisite Cadavers, a work of experimental fiction was published in November 2019, and like her other novels was longlisted for the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize.
She received a PEN Translates award for her translation of Salma's Manamiyangal (Women, Dreaming; Titled Axis Press, Penguin-Randomhouse India, 2020). In 2019-2020, she was able to expand and explore her non-fiction writing through an Arts Council, Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP) grant. This support enabled her to write two long-form essays exploring female militancy in the LTTE/ Eelam Tamil liberation struggle (The Orders Were to Rape You (The White Review) and The Poetry of Female Fighters (Guernica)). This culminated in her latest book.
She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics from Anna University, Chennai (2010). Her work has appeared in eighteen languages. She lives in southern India with her children and her partner. She is represented by David Godwin Literary Associates.
International Writing Program, University of Iowa (USA), Aug-Dec 2009
UGC Visiting Fellow, School of Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi), March 2010
British Council- Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow, University of Kent (UK), Jan - April 2011
Visiting Fellow, University of Newcastle (UK), May 2011
UGC Visiting Fellow, School of English, University of Hyderabad (India), March 2012
Writer-in-Residence, International Writers' Workshop, Hong Kong Baptist University, Oct 2012
Institute of Advanced Studies, Visiting Fellow, University of Warwick (UK), May 2015
Writer-in-Residence, Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, May 2016
NYU Gallatin Global Faculty in Residence, New York University, Fall 2018
Hope Street Writer-in-Residence, The White Review, & University of Liverpool (UK), May 2018
City of Stories Writer-in-Residence, Spread the Word & Assoc. of London Chief Librarians, 2018