Categories
Essay

A Book of One’s Own: The Story of Women’s Writing

                          

By Meenakshi Malhotra

Human beings have always told stories. However, in the course of history, the voices of many groups fell silent, their lives — and their stories-hidden from ‘his’ story. Before the story of women’s writing can be recounted, we have to look at the term itself.

 Why are we still using the term Women’s Writing? Do we use the term  mens’ writing?

Is the conceptual category of  women’s writing a description , a prescription  or a ghettoization?

When we say women’s writing, are we marking out women as a group whose gender identity needs to be  declared  in order to evaluate their writing? Or are we saying that the writing will lead us to a revelation of the gender identity of the writer?

Does it then, or can it then become a reductive activity, an “intellectual measuring of busts and hips”, as feminist and literary critic, Elaine Showalter, writes in one of her essays ?

Or are we making an allowance for them, much in the spirit we view any kind of affirmative action, as a sort of acknowledgement of past wrongs? And reparation of the kind we make towards historically marginalised or oppressed groups?

In a sense, women have always written, albeit in an environment where a large part of their work has been hidden from history, not acknowledged or documented. Another problem is that their writing and its evaluation has not only been framed by, but completely explained away in terms of the gender of the writer, leading to generalisations and gender stereotyping. This is a reductive and circular view where every detail in the text is sought to be explained with reference to the gender of the writer. So the statement that emerges is “she writes like this because she is a woman” or “only a woman can write this or this way” and that too not in a tone of approbation.  

 The  goalpost for the woman writer was set by male critics, often the self-appointed custodians  of  literary traditions where the gatekeepers were all men. In a sense women writers were being pushed towards adopting the honorary status of men, (the incidence of the male pseudonym) or to forget their femininity and become a frump. Another image was also that of the virago or the “hyena in petticoats”, a form of labelling to undermine strong, strident and opinionated women. Here I am  deviating from Showalter’s idea of the ‘feminine’ phase by suggesting that the woman writer of the 18th and 19 th century were actually challenged to forget their femininity.

 It was deemed inappropriate for women writers to write about sex and sexuality, as is evident from the discomfort and disquiet around Radhika Santwanam, described in the Introduction to Women Writing in India: 600 BC to Present (2009), edited by Susie Tharu and  K. Lalita. Interestingly this censorious attitude to women’s  writing was not a historical but a product of relatively recent ideas of gentility and appropriate womanhood enshrined and embedded in Victorian morality, which were appropriated by the newly-emerging middle classes who had received western education.

 Sumanta Banerjee in his The Parlour and the Streets (1989) traces the loss of a vivid colourful idiomatic oral language drawing from the popular culture of the streets. As this vigorous colloquial idiom was  deemed inappropriate and unfit for literary usage, it did not find any place in the new respectable national literatures in the regional languages that were emerging in the 19th century. So the ‘literary’ got marked off from the colloquial where the baby (women’s literature –oral and written) was literally thrown out along with the bathwater.

 Prior to the 19th century, in England , one reads not just Mary Wollstonecraft, but also Aphra Behn, and  other signposts to  alter an otherwise barren landscape of women’s writing. Here as we probably know already, the anxiety of  ‘influence’(pointed out by Harold Bloom) is replaced by the anxiety of authorship, where the woman writer is made to feel orphaned and alienated, a Jane come lately since  she  has no genealogy or tradition to which she belongs. Thus we see the attempts in many instances, where writers claim their mother’s heritage.

Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) is a case in point. While the figure of the mother is very important even for male writers, there is a special poignancy in which this relationship is signified in women’s writing. Thus there is Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography, Amar Jiban ( 1876, one of the first autobiographies in Bengali), Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1986) , all autobiographical texts where the mother’s death becomes a moment of unusual poignancy, helping shape the contours of the writing self.  

Another problematic issue is obviously the seemingly unified and homogeneous category of ‘women’, which is an imposed unity for a  heterogeneous and diverse cross-section of people. So when we refer to ‘women’s  writing’ as a category, we have to think whether we are being just or fair in  clubbing  such a diversity of voices under one rubric or template. What tends to happen is that a diversity of voices tend to get homogenised and flattened out and specific issues are lost or get submerged depending on power dynamics, on factors like access to vectors of power related to race, class, caste, socio-economic status and sexual orientation.

Some of these  issues  were flagged by women of colour or Afro-American feminists and also by ‘third world’ academicians. They felt that the unmarked category of women, while seemingly inclusive, actually excluded them in fundamental ways. They rejected the term ‘feminism’ and instead replaced it with their coinage, ‘womanism’. They also compared women’s  writing to a patchwork quilt, where ever bit is both an individual piece as well as part of a collective and bigger creation and endeavour.

Now what do we see in terms of the situation on the ground of or for the women writer? One is Virginia Woolf’s vignette in ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’( excerpted from A Room of One’s Own, 1929).  Nearer home, we have the narrative of how Rashsundari teaches herself to read and write. I would go so far as to say that one of the themes of women’s writing seems to be a thematising of women’s writing itself, their coming to voice, textuality and affiliation, about the pangs of growing up female and about the process of gendering across societies.

However, while these themes and issues maybe crucial to women’s writing , they may not always be framed as belonging to the category of the ‘literary’, according to the rules put in place  by its custodians. So even though a lot of novels by women circulated in the marketplace, they are missing in the archive.

 Therefore one obvious way of approaching women’s writing is to do so through the non-formal, the informal, the  non-canonical, through modes and forms which slip under the radar of the ‘literary’. Thus the memoir, the diary, letters autobiographies or hagiographies, the poetic fragment  are also aspects and forms that we need to take into account while discussing women’s writing.

There is a fair amount of material on women and the novel, how women were peculiarly suited to the exigencies of novel writing and consumption, and how they are more shadowy figures when it comes to poetry. If we see the poetry section in the  usual courses, we see a handful of poems (in a somewhat tokenistic way), many of them deeply personal, confessional and autobiographical. Some poets like De Souza seem to use irony quite a lot, for example in ‘Marriages are Made’. If we were to isolate stylistic features of women’s poetry as specifically gendered , relatively short verse forms, brevity, tightness of language and syntax, are all evident in women’s  poetry and  one of the most anthologised female poets, Sylvia Plath, eschews the elaborations of an intricate style and sticks to flat statement, staccato rhythms and colloquial tones. As Dickinson frames it, they “shut me up in prose/because they would have me still.” We can only speculate about the ‘they’ in these lines.

Women’s experience on the stage and as playwrights were also dictated by certain social norms. Women’s visibility on the stage and their occupying the public domain represented a kind of transgression, as is evident both in theatre journals and in the autobiographical writings of actresses like Binodini Dasi, known to generations of Bengali theatre goers as Nati Binodini.  The stage raises a question about the ‘proper’ legitimate domain of women, who were viewed as violating the boundaries of morality  and respectable and acceptable behaviour.

The story of women’s writing is still in the process of unfolding. From learning to read and write in secret, as showcased in Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography (since literacy in women, it was believed, was a sure precursor to widowhood) because of the taboo on women’s literacy, many women have emerged as powerful voices-and presences-both in the archive and in the marketplace. The hand that supposedly rocked the cradle can also hopefully rock the world, challenge the existing order of things and write a better world into being.     

   Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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Categories
Musings

Hope never dies; not even during the times of Corona

By Rituparna Mahapatra

This feels so dystopian. The world today. The television streaming clippings of people, suddenly thrown out of work and asked to leave, to go back to wherever; just leave. Isolation is the keyword, it seems. Lock yourself in your homes, if you don’t have a home somewhere; in a drain pipe, a hole, a box anywhere. Just leave they have been told. They have been let down by the cities of their dreams, the people they worked for, the world collectively. Can we do anything about it? Nothing! And we hang our heads in shame, in our living rooms.

Panic grips as I learn, in Italy the death toll has crossed ten thousand. I don’t want to know, but the WhatsApp forwards, don’t let me be. I have heard great leaders speak that they have everything under control, the fear on their faces, still visible. I don’t believe them. I look for the latest data on a live update on the virus, my finger going touching the names of the places, I had dreams of visiting.

I live in one of the most affluent cities in the world, we have been blessed with abundance. Food, water, electricity, shelter. our city is being sanitized I hear, and I feel protected. But then fear is not far behind, every time I get to know someone, who is not supposed to have stepped out of the home; is irresponsible.

The truth is, none of us is safe anymore, anywhere. Dubai, New Delhi, New York, Madrid, Rome, Paris; all of them vulnerable, and heartachingly weak in the face of this Pandemic. I try and think of something cheerful and look at a picture of our friends on my phone at the last house party.  So, we decide to meet online, the familiar faces smiling back to me from a computer screen. We laugh, chat and raise a toast. It feels like ‘almost normal’.  It will be a while till we get to hug them touch them, till then these smiling faces are good enough. I am thankful for them. This will be over soon. This surreal life that we are living in.

Our kids are attending school from their bedrooms, sometimes huddled in their beds; their identities shrunk to initials. Their beloved teachers are just faces attempting to cheer them up while teaching. They struggle to focus on solving that equation, while the pet dog lying at their feet is vying for attention. Dogs and cats are immune to the virus, I am told. You can hug them as much as you can. That for me seems to be the only silver lining.

I share pictures of my cooking with my friends, a beautiful watermelon and feta cheese salad, tossed with balsamic vinegar. I have stocked up well to cook exotic meals so that my family is not bored. I have planned our meals for days in advance, every meal promises to be a surprise, to bring a twinkle in the eye. While I bask and revel in my culinary and ‘disaster management skills’; a friend shares a picture of an old lady walking alone towards home thousands of miles away, since transport has been shut for the Pandemic. More pictures come in of people swarming, towards a place. A place that will be safe for them. Does such a place exist? What do these people know of social distancing? Social distancing is a privilege, for them.  I cringe, my stomach churns and I feel terribly uneasy. The privileges I have are the reason, I am devasted by them.

This — I am told is grief. Oh, is it?  If this is grief, then it’s good. I am relieved. My greatest fear was that one day I will be sanitized to all these happenings around me. The face of that old woman is going to haunt me. I feel guilty of being blessed with an abundance of food, of shelter, of feeling happy, after chatting with my friends. Since, when has this crept into our lives? Since when has ‘feeling happy’ become loaded with so much of heaviness and helplessness. This is becoming too much, these ramblings in my mind. These are calamities I can do nothing about. I still have to cook, sing, paint, write; do things that make me happy and keep me sane.

Suffering has always been there in this world; even before I was. Every time someone laughed, there has been at least one person somewhere in utter sadness. I grieve for all things lost, for everything that shouldn’t have happened. I have tremendous respect for the health workers, the cleaners, the researchers looking for an antidote. Each one of them, who have risked their lives for mine. And I am not going to just clap, I will do more, I promise.  While most of the things look grim; I have hope. Hope for humanity to bounce back. This is a time for great learning, at every moment. We will do our bit in our way when we are ready.

The world has shrunk, we all have come together. There is no superior nation, no superior power anymore. We all have been battered equally; we stand broken. And we will come out of it collectively, till then we have to hold on to each other. Cherish every happy occasion and shed a tear for every death, in every corner of the earth. Because that is the balance, the fulcrum on which this world will keep going. My family back home, are making bread at home to distribute to the stray dogs. They are making sure that the wages are paid to the employees. These small things; are hope personified. I am sure there are many like this amongst us. We just have to find ways. There is a way. There always is. I smile; this time without feeling guilty. I sigh and cup my face with my hands. Someone shrieks, “no don’t touch your face”. I dash towards the rest room, wash my hands, reach out for the sanitizer bottle, and say a prayer!

Rituparna Mahapatra, is writer based in Dubai. She taught English literature at Sambalpur University, Orissa and Delhi University. She worked briefly with Britannica India, and has contributed to many leading newspapers both regional and national. Currently she is editor-at-large UAE, of Kitaab.org; and teaches creative writing in English.

Categories
Editorial

Hello World!

Welcome to Borderless — a journal that hopes to role out an invitation to all those who are willing to venture into the vastness of wonders, ideas and creativity. It seeks out thoughts that can soar above borders not just like birds but also like clouds. Clouds waft without pausing at differences, join together and bring water to the parched lands across all terrains as do writers and readers who look beyond differences. The writing will be like raindrops that create a downpour of love, tolerance, kindness, wit and humour. With a little soupçon of such values, we hope to unite into a world that can override differences, hatred, angst, violence and COVID-19. 

In these pages, we welcome hope for a future that makes us happy; we welcome all writers of all ages to come and revel in words and ideas and we invite readers to come and read and give us comments and write to us about what they would like to read at editor@borderlessjournal.com.  They are also welcome to try their hands at writing. In a world forced to segregate for the sake of survival, this is a way to connect with ideas. 

We start the journal with some input from the team from the editorial board, constituting a few writers who are outstanding and eminent in their own areas. You can read about the team in ‘About Us’ and savour some of their work under the different subheads: essays, reviews, stories and poetry. 

Dustin Pickering, somewhat of a rebel poet, a Pushcart nominee and a brilliant essayist, columnist and publisher, has contributed a scholarly essay on ‘Poets as Warriors’ — I love the idea even though I differ with some of his surmises. Maybe a war of words can convince people eventually that war with weapons is not the best way to maintain peace. Meenakshi Malhotra, a specialist in gender studies, bring us an essay on whether solidarity between women is possible. What do you think?

Namrata, a writer who hides behind fuchsia curtains and spills out lovely reviews, has a tempting review on a book edited by Sarita Jenamani and Aftab Husian — Silences between the Notes. Curious? Read and find out.

Sarita Jenamani, the PEN Austria general secretary, herself has contributed poetry — like the tinkling of crystal chandeliers evoking an evening in Vienna where she lives. Sohana Manzoor, the literature page editor in Daily Star, Bangladesh, has contributed a story, the title of which brings a smile — ‘Parul and The Potato Prince’ — reminded me a little of an O’ Henry in a Bangladeshi setting! 

Nidhi Mishra, a successful publisher of children’s stories, rolled out a fabulous piece on corona that hovers between an essay and a slice of life. It is in a grey zone — and that is why there is a new name for it — Musings. In Musings, you will also find Debraj, a popular columnist and an associate professor in Delhi University, with an unusual piece — again hovering between multiple genres. That is partly also what we hope do in Borderless, we explore genres and non-genre based writing to create new trends. 

Read it all and tell us what you think.

I look forward to Borderless as ‘your’ journal — a site that hosts contributions and looks for readership from all of you! 

Thank you all for your goodwill and friendship. 

Welcome again to a world without borders!

Mitali Chakravarty