|Caption: (L-R) Geetanjali Shree, A Mangai, Ameena Hussein, Bama|
What do women writers talk about? If the South Asian Women Writers’ Colloquium held in New Delhi recently is anything to go by, the answer is: everything. The subjects discussed at the 21-23 February meet included revolution and relationships, politics and pain, gender and genocide, markets and mothers, caste and creativity, language and loneliness, form and family, success and struggle, poverty and privilege, roots and rootless-ness.
The colloquium brought together over 40 writers of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, as well as journalism and academic writing, in at least 13 languages, from five countries of the region and farther afield. The hybrid event, dubbed “The Power of the Word,” addressed concerns about literature and society, globalisation and culture, censorship and human rights. Its main aim was to explore the diverse forms of censorship faced by writers in general, and women writers in particular.
Discussions at the colloquium, organised by Women’s World India, moved between the intellectual and the emotional, as writers addressed both the personal and the political. The dialogue revolved around four intersecting themes. The first, ‘Writing in a time of siege’, raised questions about writers’ responsibility towards society, especially in times of conflict, war, displacement and dislocation. The second, ‘Closing spaces in an open market’, enabled participants to scrutinise the so-called openness of the apparently globalised literary market. In a third session, titled ‘Exclusionary practices’, writers examined the impact of caste, class, sexuality, ethnicity and other markers of difference – in addition to gender – on literary acceptability. The final session, ‘The guarded tongue’, highlighted the role of family, community and other affiliations in the determination of literary content.
Perhaps expectedly, religion-based identity emerged as a major issue, cutting across countries and faiths. Referring to the peculiar situation of the Muslim woman writer today, Karachi-born Kamila Shamsie highlighted the increasingly widespread “hijab or mini-skirt” syndrome, under which she herself becomes representative of something in vogue even as the context in which she is viewed is shrunk. “In the West people want to talk to me exclusively about Islam and terrorism – anything else is seen as less important … I am expected to deal with ‘Muslim issues’ whether or not I want to,” she said. Ameena Hussein of Sri Lanka, on the other hand, pointed to the “cloud of self-censorship” hanging over her as a member of a community under siege.
Ahmedabad-based Saroop Dhruv and Esther David discussed the painful experience of living and writing in a segregated city and a polarised society. Dhruv, who recalled the official and unofficial censorship, as well as the literary and social boycott, that she has suffered in her home state, Gujarat, says she now plans to write in Hindi rather than in Gujarati, so that she can be read outside the state. David, a Jew whose ancestral home sits on the tense border between a Muslim-dominated area and an aggressively Hindu neighbourhood, recently reluctantly moved to a less troubled part of the city; she now wonders whether she will be able to write in her new, alien environment.
Kannada writer Vaidehi, whose large family always comprised the world in which she wrote, has also not been able to insulate herself from the communal tension seeping into her corner of Karnataka. “For two years I have not written a line,” she confessed. “Of course, every writer has to take a break once in a while. But that is not the real reason why I have become dumb … The seeds of the events in Gujarat seem to be everywhere, in everybody. I have reached a turning point in my writing. I will guard my tongue for a while, and un-guard it when I find the idiom to express myself about the world I see around me.”
Then, of course, there was Taslima Nasrin, who has lived in exile for more than 12 years, after a non-bailable arrest warrant was issued against her for advocating a gender-just, uniform civil code in her native Bangladesh. That development was famously preceded by the fatwa against her, and the banning of her book Lajja – the first in a series of official bans that have ensured that her books are unavailable in her home country and that at least one cannot be sold in West Bengal, where she now lives on temporary visas that have to be periodically renewed. Lionised by the Hindu right as long as she criticised conservative Islamic practices, Nasrin is now out of favour with them for having begun to oppose Hindutva.
A key concern flagged by several participants was the cultural impact of globalisation and, especially, the rise of English as a world language – the language of power. Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen observed that English is increasingly overpowering the identity of Indian literature, which is often reduced, especially in international circles, to works in English by a few writers based in the country and many more from the diaspora (See Himal December 2006, “The inheritance of stereotype”).
Acknowledging that the urban, educated, middle-class readership is indeed shifting to English, Telugu writer Volga emphasised the large potential audience for regional-language writing among the newly educated. This group is currently not being catered to, she said, because the public library system is dying from neglect, and few booksellers operate in rural areas. Referring to the many innovative methods used by private companies to sell consumer products in the rural market, Volga suggested that writers and publishers also have to evolve imaginative strategies to make literature in local languages accessible to emerging groups of readers.
A contentious debate on language was sparked off by Tamil writer Bama’s assertion about her use of the Dalit dialect, which conservative readers and critics often view as “bawdy, too earthy, unsuitable and unworthy” for use in literature. When some writers suggested that a glossary was necessary to make such writing comprehensible to readers familiar with the more standard literary version of their respective languages, US feminist writer Gloria Steinem pointed out that several translators of Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple have used the language of similarly disadvantaged communities in their own countries to retain the flavour of the original.
Several writers identified as serious problems the influence of marketing considerations on publishing decisions, and the impact of the impersonal, centralised selection of books by corporate bookstores. Interestingly, even those who have benefited from the ‘opening up’ of the global market for writing from the region see the downside of their present currency. Kamila Shamsie, whose books have been published in 15 countries and translated into 12 languages, recently learned that another writer had been turned down by a leading UK-based publisher on the grounds that the firm already had two non-British Muslim writers. “I was one of those two writers,” she said. “First I felt embarrassed and guilty, and then I was furious … Such segmentation of the marketplace creates divisions among writers.”
While Malayalam writer Anitha Thampi suggested that “women’s writing, like Dalit writing, has become a much-wanted commodity in the literary market,” Bengali writer Mandakranta Sen suggested that this “open market believes in controlled liberation.” Sen spoke from her experience of having been welcomed and lauded as long as she produced “sweet and spicy dishes and served them hot”, and having lost her self-proclaimed patrons as she grew into a creative writer with both “consciousness and conscience”. According to her, “Women, who have always been treated by patriarchy as commodities, are now being sold in a smarter package, more colourful and attractive, complete with a manufacturer’s seal and an expiry date.”
Geetanjali Shree, who writes in Hindi, proposed that what is currently taking place is really a maramari – a battle for spaces. “If the market seeks to direct and influence me,” she argued, “I too seek to shape the market. I play my own games to turn the market around to suit me, to open shop for my own product; and I feel happy to be in the curio shop for rare items rather than in the more popular, simple, easy-appeal stores.”
Writing under siege
Writers have also been involved in more physical battlegrounds. Speaking about the role played by writers during Nepal’s People’s Movement of April 2007, Manjushree Thapa pointed out that it is always difficult to write in the middle of a revolution: “Every word is politicised and every loyalty is questioned. For writers … the challenge is to overcome the impediments to speaking out. For it is not the speaking that harms, but the silence.”
In present-day Sri Lanka, however, speaking out can be lethal. Sunethra Rajakarunanayake described posters that openly stated, “Marxist Tigers, Media Tigers and NGO Tigers should be killed” – as a warning to those who dared to see the ongoing ethnic conflict from a Tamil perspective. According to fellow Sri Lankan Anoma Rajakaruna, the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act makes the message even clearer: “If you don’t guard your tongue, we cannot guarantee your security.”
An important leitmotif throughout the interactions was the role of the family in determining what women write and do not write, or at least what they publish and do not publish. For several writers, censorship began at home while they were still children and adolescents, as they penned romantic stories or maintained secret diaries. While some have managed to break free of those old binds, others admitted that they were still struggling to find a balance between expressing themselves candidly and not causing hurt to those around them. Still others – such as Neeman Sobhan, a Bangladeshi writer based in Rome – have consciously decided to remain, for now, “a scribbler of poems with folded wings, a writer of silences, and of books unwritten”.
According to fellow Bangladeshi Shabnam Nadiya, “It is the mom-looking-over-the shoulder syndrome that I find most insidious.” While a formal ban can cause despair and frustration, she said, at least it is overt and identifiable. “But what about the other thing, the silencing that has so little formal expression but is bone-deep?”
In the end, each writer finds her own path. “I write only under siege,” said Feryal Ali Gauhar of Pakistan. “It is only possible for me to write from deep anguish.” But according to her compatriot Fahmida Riaz, who lived in self-imposed exile for years in India to avoid cases against her as the editor and publisher of a socio-political magazine, “My way of giving myself some support as a writer is to organise and get more women to write … we don’t always fail and flounder – sometimes we succeed.”
~ Ammu Joseph is an independent journalist and media-watcher based in Bangalore. She is the co-author of Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues, with Kalpana Sharma.