21 Under 40 and ‘Women Like Us’

I recently covered the release of 21 Under 40, an anthology of twenty-one short stories by women under forty, for Mid-Day. Edited by Anita Roy and published by feminist publishing house Zubaan, the anthology features some interesting new voices including Tishani Doshi. The event was organized by Toto Funds the Arts, a Bangalore-based organization that encourages and supports young writers and artists. Four of the writers featured in the anthology – Anjum Hasan, Adithi Rao, Meena Kandasamy and Ruchika Chanana – were present and read excerpts from their stories.

The reading was followed by a discussion with the authors. The discussion itself was rather stilted; nobody in the audience seemed interested in asking questions and the writers seemed singularly unsure about their ability to say anything meaningful. I was particularly disturbed by something else – a sense that at least three of the writers felt feminism and feminist concerns were outdated, unnecessary and even slightly unseemly. Anita Roy raised the question of how this generation of writers is different from their predecessors such as Mahasweta Devi and Attia Hosain. Anjum Hasan was quick to point out that women in an earlier time were more concerned with defining the social role of women and that today’s women are reinventing women’s writing because they do not have these concerns.

A little puzzled by this, I asked Anita how many of the 200 odd submissions that she had received from women writers reflected feminist concerns. I was merely curious and hoping for an accurate reflection from someone who undoubtedly reads a lot of new writing. I was taken aback by the antipathy to the word ‘feminist’; it was insidious but unmistakable. At first, she avoided my question. Then Anjum said something about the need for women to “speak out” having significantly lessened and Ruchika Chanana nonchalantly informed us that “women in my economic position and social background” don’t really face “those problems” so her writing does not reflect them. Adithi Rao didn’t know what feminist writing was exactly and asked to be enlightened by Anita, who finally gave a garbled speech on how women’s writing (which according to her is synonymous with feminist writing) cannot be defined or analyzed and how the brave new generation of writers is breaking out of such stereotypical classifications such as feminism and creating something new. The political is no longer the personal and the political is clearly no longer art. Sounds grand.

Except that it isn’t really. I find it disturbing that the representative of a feminist publishing house is not clear about what feminism means, not to the world at large but even just to them. That she gets defensive about the word ‘feminist’. That three other writers with her believe that “women like us” don’t have “such problems” therefore, women like us don’t have to write about them. I find it especially disturbing because it reflects a trend that is common among urban educated women from upper middle class families in India. Feminism is passe. Feminism is uncool. And mostly, it is Somebody Else’s Problem.

I do not have a specific argument with women writing about things that have no political stances or that do not deal with social / gender issues at all but to deny the need for any writing of this sort, seems narrow and fallacious to me. We have come a long way since the time of writers like Mahasweta Devi, Attia Hosain and others who spoke out so eloquently and powerfully about everything ranging from women’s role in society to our power over our own bodies. But the last battles have hardly been won. It is unfortunate that women (particularly writers) feel that their tiny little universe is representative of the cosmos and some illusion of happiness here is enough. In a country where sexual harassment is laughably acceptable, female infanticide rampant, and rape a rather common incident, this narrow, self-centered world view scares me.

I suppose I have some old-fashioned and hopelessly idealistic notion that writers must give a true picture not just of themselves but of their milieu; that they must give voice not just to their own thoughts but also to those of others who cannot do so themselves; that they must transcend ordinary life and average living to point out what people will otherwise not see, hear or say. That’s why I am disappointed when women, especially the “new generation of writers”, so consciously and deliberately turn away from social concerns in their writing because they are simply not relevant for “women like us”.

Finally, I do have a problem with all women’s writing being equated with feminist writing. I am sorry but I just do not buy the essentialist viewpoint. Feminism is a very specific belief system and movement (with many shades and aspects), one that stands up for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. To me, writing that reflects these beliefs and this movement is feminist writing. Labeling all women’s writing as feminist writing is not only misrepresentative but it also trivializes the work of millions of women who are actually writing for this cause.

Feminism is not a casual label. It is not just a form of activism but also a way of life – one that can be difficult, painful and overwhelming. It affects the choices you make and the things you forgo. It defines your attitudes to sex, marriage, relationships, your body, freedom, the streets, earning and money, love, other people, prostitutes, pornography, gay rights, hermaphrodites, cooking, cleaning, shopping, shoes, botox, beauty, the things you read, use and buy, the things you reject and the things you give your life to. Sometimes, it loses you friends. You can choose to disassociate yourself from it but for heaven’s sake, do not mislabel it, misrepresent it, or shrug it off as unnecessary. Just step into the streets, the halli, the real city out there. And you’ll know exactly why it is not.

Advertisements

15 Comments

Filed under Bangalore, Books, Gender

15 responses to “21 Under 40 and ‘Women Like Us’

  1. OrangeJammies

    You have let the words flow so beautifully in a way I never could and crafted a piece I wholeheartedly agree with.
    My own humble effort was this:

    http://blog.360.yahoo.com/blog-BmCXjDM1cqqQhCE4lJwzfw–?cq=1&p=225

  2. Falstaff

    “I find it disturbing that the representative of a feminist publishing house is not clear about what feminism means, not to the world at large but even just to them.”

    Exactly. The key point, I think, is Zubaan being a feminist publishing house. If you run a press that only publishes work by women writers, it’s presumably because you believe that they are somehow disadvantaged and need a forum to ‘speak out’. If the writers Zubaan represents don’t face gender prejudices, one wonders why they need a press to themselves.

    Have you seen a collection called ‘And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women’ edited by Muneeza Shamsie btw? Good stuff.

  3. Anonymous

    Hi,

    This is Anjum, one of the contributors to “21 Under 40” and one of the people you quote. It was good to read your posting. You engaged with the event in a way few people there seemed to be doing and I wish we could have got a more animated “live” discussion going. There is a taken-for-grantedness about some of these categories. We bandy them about without a critical enough sense of what we’re doing.

    I would like to say though, that I do not think feminism is passé and I’m sorry if anything I said that evening can be understood to mean that. It’s quite possible that I didn’t put things across clearly. I was talking about feminist literature, actually, not feminism as an ideology and the two are separate things, even if related. I was talking about Indian women writers and not women in general. More to the point, I was comparing an older Zubaan anthology called “Inner Line” with “21 Under 40”. The differences between these 2 books is amazing. In just a generation, women writers in India seem to have moved from talking – primarily – about the ascribed social roles of women and the ways in which those roles are negotiated, to writing with a much more individualistic, urban, even anonymous sensibility. This is a huge cultural change.

    What I also said is that in the first antho. and with the first kind of writing there was the feeling that a lot of these women writers are not “speaking out” (like you say) but “speaking on behalf of” women. This too has changed in “21 Under 40” – that sense of sisterhood is not really there. I’m not saying and didn’t say any of this is a good or a bad thing – but it’s happening and it can’t be ignored. I think Inner Line is as relevant today as 21 Under 40. I didn’t agree with reviews of Inner Line that said these kinds of stories are boring because these concerns are old-fashioned. They’re not. We just need to look around us to know that. Besides, it’s not just about feminist concerns – it’s about how these concerns are represented in literature.

    Now I’m sure that Anita could have put together a more “feminist” anthology from the 200 pieces she got – that is, an anthology whose stories reflected classical feminist concerns. But in her view, the most interesting stories were those that moved out of this space. That says something, doesn’t it?

    So the second point I was trying to make is that, and I think these were the exact words I used, “there is nothing self-evident about the category ‘women’s writing'”. I think the category can be invented anew with every time we use it, if we’re thinking of what we’re doing. Like I said, I think with this anthology Anita is asking – can we still hold on to women’s writing as a meaningful category and yet show how it need not always be about typical feminist concerns?

    So you’re right – writing done by women does not, simply for that reason, become feminist writing. That would be meaningless. But ‘women’s writing’ as a category does not simply mean writing done by women, either. One only has to think of women writers to know this. I can’t think of Zadie Smith as a woman’s writer but I can think of Mahasweta Devi as one. But there’s also the danger of ‘women’s writing’ being used as a limiting category, so one has to watch out for that too!

    Anyway, thanks again for your very useful observations.

  4. N

    OJ: Read you piece and loved it.

    falstaff: Agree with you. I don’t understand the purpose of giving women’s writing special privileges unless it is for the reason that they speak about women’s concerns.

    Anjum: Thank you for your long and very detailed explanation. Yes, it is quite possible that there was some miscommunication as the forum was not one which allowed lengthy interaction. Speakers on a public dais do have to live with the fact that what they say may be construed in different ways and this is part of the responsibility of being a communicator. Also, I was referring not just your comments but the overall sense that your comments along with some of those made by the others added up to. Ultimately, this is what any member of the audience would have taken back with them.

    However, having read through your comment, I do have some observations. So here goes…

    Firstly:

    “The differences between these 2 books is amazing. In just a generation, women writers in India seem to have moved from talking – primarily – about the ascribed social roles of women and the ways in which those roles are negotiated, to writing with a much more individualistic, urban, even anonymous sensibility. This is a huge cultural change.”

    Yes, this change is amazing. However, it is not one that I personally appreciate for reasons that I have stated in my post. That is, of course, my prerogative as a reader as it is yours as a writer, to write about whatever you want.

    Secondly:
    “What I also said is that in the first antho. and with the first kind of writing there was the feeling that a lot of these women writers are not “speaking out” (like you say) but “speaking on behalf of” women. This too has changed in “21 Under 40” – that sense of sisterhood is not really there. I’m not saying and didn’t say any of this is a good or a bad thing – but it’s happening and it can’t be ignored.”

    I clearly got the sense that you (some of you) think that this is a good thing. There was, if not a self-congratulatory air, at least enough nonchalance expressed by some of you to indicate that you do not feel any particular regret that this is so. My post is a reaction to that indifference (perceived or otherwise) because I do happen to feel regret.

    Thirdly:
    “I think with this anthology Anita is asking – can we still hold on to women’s writing as a meaningful category and yet show how it need not always be about typical feminist concerns?”

    Personally, like I said in my post, I do not believe in the essentialist view. I do not see any particular value of stories by women UNLESS they do reflect the concerns of women. Otherwise, I would rather read a mixed bag of good stories regardless of who they were written by. IF they do reflect women’s concerns and issues (as many of the stories in the anthology do), then why shy away from calling them ‘feminist writing’? Perhaps, because feminism is being viewed in a very narrow sense and it is this that needs to be addressed. Or perhaps, because women are afraid to be associated with the term?

    And what are “typical feminist concerns” anyway? A movement as old and as multi-faceted as feminism has at different points had concerns with everything ranging from suffrage to harassment, sexuality, auto-eroticism, lesbianism, marriage, the body and beyond. There is no such thing as “typical feminist concerns”. This is what I mean by misrepresentation. And I find this misrepresentation by omission ( even if not deliberate) grossly irresponsible when women, writers and a feminist publishing house is involved.

    In sum, I feel that Anita Roy should have been able to pull the threads together and say something a little more coherent and little less cagey at the end.

  5. Falstaff

    N: Actually, I wouldn’t go quite so far. If one believes that women writers are systematically discriminated against because of their gender – if it’s somehow harder for a woman to get her work published, even if it’s not about feminist issues, that would be a good reason to run a press that exclusively publishes women. (Admittedly, you’d think that women discriminated against in such a way would want to write about gender issues; at the very least, you would expect them to be conscious of those issues)

    I’m just not sure that’s true here. If you’re going to create a protected environment, you should be clear on what you’re protecting yourself from, and why.

  6. Nilanjana

    Interesting post, and you raise several issues–including the central one of how this generation of women sees and defines feminism.

    But I’m puzzled by some of your points. I’m not in Bangalore, and perhaps Anita said different things there, but at the Delhi launch, she didn’t seem “defensive” about feminism at all–she was far more interested, in fact, in how feminism had changed and affected women. I should disclose here that I know Anita personally, but this isn’t about rushing to her defence–she’s perfectly capable of that. It’s about correcting the impression that someone who heads a feminist publishing house doesn’t understand feminism; at the Delhi launch, it seemed very clear that she did understand the concept and was interested in how it’s evolving.

    Several of the writers at the Delhi launch expressed similar opinions to the ones you’ve cited–but again, it seemed clear that they were comparing themselves and their concerns to that of a previous generation of writers. Some said bluntly that they didn’t share the same concerns; some embraced the feminist label; one woman put it beautifully when she said that she saw herself as a writer first, but as a writer who “saw the world from inside the prism of a woman’s mind”.

    I liked the fact that the women present felt free to claim many different spaces. 21 Under 40 isn’t a collection of explicitly feminist writing, but if you look at the stories, despite the freedom the writers allow themselves, many feminist concerns do come up. Some stories explore sexuality, one looks at women’s bodies, ageing and young, a few are told in the voices of men–including one that explores the sexual and more than slightly threatening fantasy of a male auto driver. One story looks at our ideas of “largeness” via a lesbian relationship; one has a more traditional set of marital relationships at its heart; a few look at different kinds of abuse and hate; a few celebrate new possibilities of freedom, new identities.

    Falstaff, I’d just want to say that a feminist press isn’t ONLY for women who face gender prejudices–it’s also about looking at gender in different ways, and looking at women’s voices in a collective. What does 21 Under 40 tell me about today’s women, privileged or oppressed as they might individually be? I think it’s an unsettling collection because it also exposes our hidden ideas of how a woman should write, what themes and subjects she should tackle, and asks us to look again at what we expect from “women’s writing” in general. To ask that women look only at feminism is just as much of a trap as asking them, as you rightly do, not to ignore feminism.

  7. Falstaff

    nilanjana: Just to be clear – I’m not saying for a minute that women’s writing should be about feminism. On the contrary, I’d hope it wasn’t. I’m just not clear what the purpose of Zubaan is. Why couldn’t the women showcased in this collection have been published by a mainstream press? How is getting their writing out there more difficult for them than it is for men of similar age and experience? And if it isn’t then why do they deserve the privilege of having a press dedicated to them?

    It’s possible that views of the world from “the prism of woman’s mind” (whatever THAT means) are less well received by publishers in general, in which case I see why Zubaan is necessary. I’m just not convinced that that’s true. I’ve seen no evidence that women have a harder time getting published in India. Certainly, young writers have a hard time, but that’s not a function of gender as far as I can tell.

    From my perspective, all I see is blatant protectionism, which I’m opposed to because I think artifically reducing competition leads to poorer quality. Preferential treatment needs to be justified by evidence of real inequality, and I don’t see that here.

    You speak about “our hidden ideas about how women should write, what themes and issues they should tackle”, etc. What exactly are these ideas and who holds them? I can’t think of any expectations I have from ‘women’s writing’. It’s not, in my mind, a meaningful category at all – what do Gordimer, Morisson, Atwood, Murdoch, Lessing, Woolf, Winterson, Smith, McCullers, Didion (to name just a few women writers I admire) have in common? Nothing, as far as I can tell. The only people who seem to believe that women’s writing is a meaningful category are the publishers of Zubaan, since they choose to dedicate a press to it. It’s the contradiction between only publishing women and trying to show that ‘women’s writing’ isn’t a meaningful category that I find puzzling.

  8. Falstaff

    (N: Sorry to be spamming your comment space)

    nilanjana: Thinking about it, I suspect part of this is semantic. There’s a distinction, to me, between ‘women’s writing’ as writing that deals with gender roles and stereotypes in society; and ‘women’s writing’ as writing by women.

    I think the former is a coherent category, joined by a common theme, and one that I’m personally interested in as a reader. I think the latter is meaningless because the diversity within the category is as great as that outside it.

    Which is why I would understand it if someone chose to focus a book or a press on the former (and my impression was that was the point of Zubaan), but I don’t understand why anyone would want to run a press based on the latter.

  9. N

    Nilanjana: Thank you for your comments and let me clarify some of those that puzzled you.

    “perhaps Anita said different things there, but at the Delhi launch, she didn’t seem “defensive” about feminism at all–she was far more interested, in fact, in how feminism had changed and affected women.”

    Perhaps, she came across differently here. Perhaps, it was noisier, busier, more crowded, or she had less time. Perhaps, I misunderstood what she said or did not pick up on what she didn’t. Any number of factors can shape perception. Unfortunately, public speakers have to often live with the perceptions they create. If, as you say, she is not defensive at all, it is most reassuring.

    “It’s about correcting the impression that someone who heads a feminist publishing house doesn’t understand feminism; at the Delhi launch, it seemed very clear that she did understand the concept and was interested in how it’s evolving.”

    At the Bangalore launch, she rambled, gave the essentialist viewpoint (which as I have said I do not believe in) and well, that’s about all I remember.

    “it seemed clear that they were comparing themselves and their concerns to that of a previous generation of writers. Some said bluntly that they didn’t share the same concerns; some embraced the feminist label; one woman put it beautifully when she said that she saw herself as a writer first, but as a writer who “saw the world from inside the prism of a woman’s mind”.”

    Well, that’s uplifting. In Bangalore, unfortunately, one woman said “we don’t really have problems” and another asked “how is feminism looked at here because in the american university where I studied, it is looked at badly”. Neither statement sounds beautiful to me.

    “21 Under 40 isn’t a collection of explicitly feminist writing, but if you look at the stories, despite the freedom the writers allow themselves, many feminist concerns do come up. Some stories explore sexuality, one looks at women’s bodies, ageing and young, a few are told in the voices of men–including one that explores the sexual and more than slightly threatening fantasy of a male auto driver. One story looks at our ideas of “largeness” via a lesbian relationship; one has a more traditional set of marital relationships at its heart; a few look at different kinds of abuse and hate; a few celebrate new possibilities of freedom, new identities.”

    I have read the stories and yes, a lot of feminist concerns do come up. I am not clear about what you mean by “explicit feminist concerns” and as I have mentioned in my response to Anjum’s comments, I am uncomfortable with such terminology.

    “To ask that women look only at feminism is just as much of a trap as asking them, as you rightly do, not to ignore feminism.”

    If I came across like that, I am sorry. What I am saying is while I do not have an issue with women (anybody) not including social concerns in their writing, a conscious rejection of such concerns is puzzling. What I am perhaps also saying is that between art and activism, I would choose a middle path. So while they do not have to write “only” about feminist concerns, I wish they wouldn’t leave them out altogether. But of course, it is a free world and they can write what they want. Just like I can think what I want about that decision.

  10. N

    falstaff: No issues. One comment though…

    You said:

    “Thinking about it, I suspect part of this is semantic. There’s a distinction, to me, between ‘women’s writing’ as writing that deals with gender roles and stereotypes in society; and ‘women’s writing’ as writing by women.”

    Uh…this is what I mean by feminist writing – writing that deals with gender stereotypes. I am not saying that it has to be The Second Sex, or The Beauty Myth. Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood are also considered feminist writers.

    “I think the former is a coherent category, joined by a common theme, and one that I’m personally interested in as a reader. I think the latter is meaningless because the diversity within the category is as great as that outside it.”

    When I say I don’t believe in the essentialist viewpoint, this is exactly what I mean. What the hell is the “prism of a woman’s mind”? As if there can be a single prism like that – any more than the prism of a “man’s mind”.

  11. Falstaff

    N: Yes, I know. I was pretty sure you were on the same page, which is why I was using women’s writing and feminist writing interchangably in my original comment. But nilanjana in her comment seems to use women’s writing in the sense of writing by women, not as writing about gender issues. Hence the clarification.

    I just want to be clear that I don’t think that women should or do write only about feminist issues; on the contrary, I’d say some of the finest women writers I can think of are those who manage to step beyond gender themes in their work (and I would include Atwood and Morisson in that list – their work IS feminist, but it’s so much more). I just don’t know why such work needs a publishing exclusively to itself.

  12. Nisha Susan

    Hi,

    I am one of the contributers to this anthology and have been following the debate with great interest.

    In talking about fine women writers ‘stepping beyond’ gender themes, we confuse two aspirations: literature as it ought to be and the world as it ought to be

    Would getting ‘beyond’ gender issues make women writers better writers? This is not readily apparent. To me, it seems to be the equivalent of saying that Alexander Solzhenitsyn would have been a better writer if he had not been a prisoner in the gulag. Different writers react to challenges in their lives and society differently.

    Perhaps some people would find it desirable that writers are liberated of such shackles as the issues that are central to feminism. It would certainly be nicer if not just writers but women, men and all the people in the spectrum in between did not have to deal with injustice and cruelty and sometimes, plain bloody-mindedness. It would be wonderful, in fact. I think feminism is one of many attempts by the human race to rid itself of its own ills and cast a stern eye at its tendency to be less than perfectly ethical. I don’t think of feminism and feminist attitudes as something to “overcome”, as if it were some sort of teething trouble.

    Zubaan’s list of titles reflects the values and beliefs of the group that runs it. They seem to publish themes that are central to, or illuminate feminist issues as, I make haste to say, they define it (because not even the handful of contributors on this page are going to agree on what is feminist except in the broadest sense). Having said this, it is not clear to me why we should be railing on for so long when we could be reading something. After all, the world is full of publishers who choose to publish what interests them. We don’t call Penguin or Harper Collins ‘protectionist’ for publishing only in English and not Chinese (*promptly getting a mail from angry Penguin China office*) nor do we criticise Roli for publishing coffee-table books (which are too diverse to be an interesting category)

    The murkiest part of the debate is, therefore, the pressure upon Zubaan to prove that women writers “need a press of their own” and, additionally, to prove that Zubaan itself has sincerity of purpose in calling itself a feminist press.

    Women (in the interests of getting on with it, let me clarify: some women, in some places) experience injustice, cruelty and bloody mindedness and choose to write about it. Some others sing or paint. Some go on with the business of living whilst thinking about it. Some others do not experience injustice at all. Some are feminist and some, not. One could argue that women writers (as a subset of the category ‘women’ who allegedly experience the issues central to feminism) are discriminated against and hence need protection. I do think they are discriminated against but someone, to prove me wrong, will only produce a list of women writers who have ever been published, and we will be sitting here all week.

    What seemed to be emerging in this discussion was a feeling that for women writers to deserve an exclusive press, they (as individuals) need to be obviously disadvantaged or must write about issues overtly dealing with gender prejudice. (BTW, even a casual look at Zubaan’s catalogue will show that their books fulfil one or both of these conditions.) Indeed, as the author of this blog, who has carefully read the anthology points out, the anthology reveals feminist themes and, therefore, satisfies at least one of these two criteria.

    Therefore, the further condition seems to be that the participants in a feminist publishing initiative, editors and authors, should be perfectly conscious of furthering the feminist agenda and must also articulate this agenda clearly and with no discrepancies between them. At all times. We would all like authors to be more articulate but…*sigh* some of them just write well.

  13. Anonymous

    i completely agree with you. there is some kind of knee-jerk hostility towards feminism which many women seem all too eager to reinforce. no wonder kali and zubaan parted ways.

  14. Tahir

    First of all, a very nice post — straight to the point, which is always good. Second of all, hilarious comments, primarily the ones by that clown Falstaff (a pompous oaf of a blogger who can’t spell very well) and Nilanjana (who has taken it upon herself to educate everyone about literature after ignoring the fact that she comes from Delhi and gets her ‘literary’ ideas from the Arts and Letters Daily). Good fun 🙂 Bring on the other illiterate jokers discussing feminism 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s