Friday, July 11, 2014

Angels and rooms, flying chairs and dressing tables - an anthology about women writers

An excerpt from Mishi Saran’s essay “Split in half, six ways”, one of my favourite pieces in the new anthology Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves:
I had this strange notion that when they ask you to write about writing, it’s all over, because they are not asking for a poem, or a novel.

They are saying, “Tell us what you do all day long.”

There is no good, clean answer for this, since the backstage of writing is a cluttered, blood-spattered arena, overrun with escaped ghosts, dented friendships, the stink of lost battles and a tenuous sense of self.

Besides, it’s not what I do all day, it’s what I am, and what I am is split in half, six ways.

First, there’s me, walking, looking, chatting, eating, sleeping, cooking, living in Shanghai.

Then there’s the dwarf clamped to my shoulder – a mini-me – hissing into my ear: “You could use that.” Very few moments in my day are purely, fully, simply lived, because each one must be dissected for its potential to feed the blank page.

Edited by Manju Kapur and featuring 23 writers from the subcontinent – all published novelists, many of them poets and non-fiction writers too – baring their souls, analysing their relationship with their craft, this is a valuable collection for anyone trying to understand the nuts and bolts of writing (whether from a safe distance, with no intention of treading these waters themselves, or as an aspiring writer). But some of it also works if you’re simply in the mood for a good horror story. “Writing is a narcissistic and powerful and self-absorbed God; it will take all we can offer and leave dead, dry shells behind,” writes Lavanya Sankaran. “Having written is a powerful fulfillment, but the act of writing is not a nice thing to experience,” says Meira Chand, who also offers an account of the simultaneous terror and exhilaration of waking up at 2 in the morning with new words crowding one’s head, and the knowledge that two hundred labored pages must be discarded in order to facilitate a fresh beginning.

“When the novel is done I feel I have come out of a long sleep,” says Shashi Deshpande, “The world looks different: I see things I had missed for months; I see colours which had somehow seeped out of my vision until then.” Bina Shah believes writing is like walking a tightrope – “the minute you stop what you’re doing to look down, you start to wobble and sway.” And here is Saran again: “The successful (read ‘sane’) writer must navigate two worlds. She must hop around the hubbub and arc lights of quotidian life, then pull apart those red velvet curtains – carefully, for it turns out they are edged with hard wire – a and she must dive into the darkness of ropes and pulleys. She must go from one land to another without too much flesh torn in transit.”

Some of this – and the many other passages in this book about the agonies and ecstasies of writing – can sound self-important and precious, but any writer who has experienced these things will understand. (I have, and I quickly lose patience with anyone who says this kind of talk is just a way of needlessly romanticising the creative process.) And though the details of the authors’ life experiences are naturally very different, each essay makes it clear that whatever the difficulties, these writers wouldn’t have it any other way: they need to do what they are doing. (“Nervously I count how many more years I might live,” writes Kapur in her own piece, as she contemplates the possibility of not being able to write again, “How will I fill them?”)

Included here are accounts of early influences and inspirations, and anyone who grew up in the subcontinent, reading in English from a young age, will find much to relate to: for instance, both Janice Pariat and Moni Mohsin mention the effect Enid Blyton’s Famous Five had on their early reading and writing lives, despite the unfamiliarity of such things as potted meat sandwiches and galoshes, or such exclamations as “Golly!” Consequently, these pieces are also about gradual shifts in perspective and self-knowledge, about negotiating cultural identity and discovering new interests. So Namita Devidayal writes of believing in flying chairs that could transport a bored child to a magical new world, or expecting to find “little foreign elves” in the garden – but also how, years later, journalism grounded her, taught her to be respectful towards the seemingly mundane, to discover magical possibilities as a writer in everyday things. And Anita Nair relates her initial struggles to find the right voice (given that she was writing in English but telling stories set in suburban and rural India) and on the puzzlement of her first book Ladies Coupe being labelled a feminist novel when Nair herself had no such conscious ambitions for it – she was simply writing, as honestly as she could, a book of stories about women.

Of course, women writers are confronted by labels – beginning with “woman writer” – to a greater degree than men are. (Some have to deal with labels twice over: what does it mean to be a “north-eastern writer”, Pariat wonders.) And in a relatively conservative society, there are other challenges. No wonder the ghost of Virginia Woolf makes repeated appearances through this collection, with many writers alluding to her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” – about the financial independence and the emotional and physical space a woman needs in order to write – or her sharp dismissal of the idealised “angel in the house”. But George Orwell’s “Why I Write” is referenced a few times too, which is a reminder that many of the discussion points in this book are gender-neutral ones. More than one writer underplays the distinction between “male and female literature”. “I think in some sense writers lose their sexuality when they walk into the world of words,” says Nair. “Once I sit at my table to write, I am just a writer; nothing else remains,” says Deshpande. And Sankaran amusingly incorporates this blurring of sexual identity into the form of her own piece; discussing the importance of taking a break, she says, “I need to spend some time with my eyes crossed and my tongue hanging out, scratching my balls and picking nits out of my beard”. Yes, you think – writing can do that to you!

Or, you can simply continue toggling between your many selves. During a session at a literature festival a few years ago, a (male) moderator asked the women panelists a flip, patronising question about how it felt to spend one’s time at a writing table instead of at a dressing table. The session was problematic in conception anyway - its raison d’être being the bringing together of “three female writers” even though their work didn’t have much in common - and the moderator’s question implied a clear line between the writing life and the things a woman is “supposed” to do, or expected to be interested in; that one thing excluded the other. Yet here is Amruta Patil, in her illustrated essay, divulging that even if she has a full day of working ahead, involving no human contact, she dresses up immaculately each morning, “earrings coordinated, every detail in place”. The image with this text is of a woman in a summery dress sitting at a table, a kettle of tea in the foreground, a reminder that being a female writer – or any writer – doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of one’s other identities; that you don’t have to be the stereotype of the unshaven (or unwaxed) slob, completely lost to the world.

Many women writers don’t have that option anyway, often having to juggle their work with domestic obligations – but real or figurative rooms can always be sought out. Saran describes leaving her home for her writing sanctuary each morning, against the objections of her little daughter - I pick her up and rub her nose with my nose and say, “Baby girl, I’m a writer. It appears that I’m happier when I’m writing, I’m even a better mum when I write” - and Jaishree Mishra feels guilty about completely forgotting about her child – arriving home by the school bus – thanks to an intense writing session that spanned many hours, but also admits that “All maternal and domestic concerns fell right away, inconsequential, trivial even in the face of this, my new love.” In any case, children don’t have to be made of flesh and blood: Patil describes her text and image as “monozygotic twins, born of one egg, identical of DNA, but quite apart. They run holding hands. One leads, the other gamely tries to catch up. Sometimes one steps back to allow the other centre-stage.”

Other epiphanies include Anjum Hasan finding unexpected resonance in the work and life of Pablo Neruda (“this is still part of me: an image of Neruda eating sour plums alone in a tree, thinking of a book, nestling within the experience of me on a bed, reading about Neruda eating sour plums…”) and Mohsin learning that it is possible to be deeply affected by a book like Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, but to eventually find one’s own voice in a satirical newspaper column titled “Diary of a Social Butterfly” (“The Butterfly freed me as a writer … I had always thought that if I ever wrote it would be ‘serious stuff’, and yet my most convincing fictional creation has been this ditzy airhead. But over time I have come to realize that funny is not necessarily non-serious.”)

Some of the essays here ruminate on process and rituals, on time, place, mood: Ameena Hussein recalls working not in hallowed silence but while playing music by Guns ’n Roses and Depeche Mode. Kapur’s piece is a firsthand account of the frustrating, dead-end-ridden process by which a novel may slowly find its final (or almost-final) shape – how ideas coalesce, how an incident or perspective works its way from the middle of a story to the beginning. Others look at the big picture, at the arc of English-language publishing in the subcontinent: Anuradha Marwah posits that until the late 90s, women novelists were mainly overshadowed by “Rushdiesque writing – grandiose and phallic”, and that even the space created for women’s voices “is hijacked by the market that prioritises glamour and femininity over the writers’ activist impulse against patriarchy”, while Deshpande expresses the non-activist view that a novel has no space for ideology – “that to bring an ideology into a novel, that to use a novel to send out a message, is to destroy the novel”. And Tishani Doshi points out that even a dark, self-absorbed, seemingly pessimistic poem is a gift, “an act of reclamation. It is saying, Even though I was born out of a howl in the dark I am offering you a song.”
All of which means that though such a book can seem circumscribed (a bunch of writers navel-gazing?), there is enough variety here in the insights, in the experiences, and in the writing itself, to make it more than worthwhile. Some pieces – Saran’s, Pariat’s, Hasan’s among them – are carefully constructed, with the rigour of a good literary essay, while others are chattier, more informal, like a free-flowing compilation of thoughts or a linear description of a writing career, but they are all candid and revealing in different ways. The one minor lack I felt (it is covered to an extent by Mohsin’s thoughts on her flighty Lahore socialite) was that of a piece by a popular, commercial writer who operates outside the ambit of “respectability”, working in such genres as the derisively named Chick Lit. In the current publishing scenario, such labels can be equally limiting (and again seem to attach themselves to women writers more than men) and the obstacles just as many, even if we sometimes convince ourselves that popular writing doesn’t require similar levels of effort or introspection.

[Also see: Ann Patchett on killing her butterfly. And an old conversation with Anita Desai, which touches on some of the issues facing a woman writer in India]


  1. Could identify with most of the emotions shared....being a woman...being a writer....and little more

  2. I'm usually a silent reader of your excellent blog posts. On reading this one, however, I felt like expressing my thanks at reviewing and bringing to me attention this book. I think I would love to read it since I relate to so much of it as a (woman) writer from the snippets you have shared. Thank you! :)

    1. thanks! hope you like the book. It's always a bit tricky to write about such an anthology since there's so much to write about...