Books, discoveries, feminist writing

Books are creatures that have perfected the art of contradiction. They bring the world to me, while simultaneously helping me shut out the world. During times of emotional turmoil, they allow me to find an escape. They whisper to me to get lost in them, they ask me to inhale and absorb, to savour and relish. They demand I pay attention. They make me aware of how much there is left to know, they help me form opinions, and encourage me to change preconceived notions.

Sometimes, they make me a bit jealous.

Recently, I read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, a deceptively simple coming-of-age book. It is a first person narrative about a young Hispanic girl growing up in one of Chicago’s poorest neighbourhoods. But hidden behind an easy to read structure is the voice it gives to people of colour. It paints for us pictures of the casual violence that is an inseparable part of their lives, the poverty and discrimination they keep trying to escape.

I spent a day wishing I could write like that – a book that reveals a different facet on multiple readings, depending on what the reader is seeking at that point in time.

A long time ago, I read a story by Ambai, titled In a Forest, a Deer. I was charmed by a magical quality that seemed to pervade this story, and its insistence on keeping women in the foreground. Last week, I finally started on her collection of short stories called Fish in a Dwindling Lake (translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström). The blurb calls the author feminist par excellence, and I agree. She writes about women in unexpectedly intimate and sensitive ways, and passages which could be vulgar in the words of a lesser writer instead become revelatory. She writes confidently about the body, the feminine form that is subject to much policing and control – the body that is a integral to who I am as a woman, and that is also my prison.

I spent another day wishing I could write like that. But then I realised my craft and what I aspire my craft to be are places separated by a chasm. I like to think I’m building a bridge with practice. I may get there someday.

Ambai’s stories got me thinking about the female body, something I have always found fascinating. The female form is art, with its landscape that reminds me of hills and valleys, of rivulets rushing to empty their water, of fire, of grace and power. It almost feels like there is nothing to be curious about a male body, which by contrast, reminds me of plains, ordinary and unexceptional.

But I wonder if this female body, in all its glory, isn’t also a curse. It is burdened with being the keeper of culture and the placeholder for propriety. It is scrutinized and criticized. I decide I will not be that person, but this isn’t easy to achieve. I default to the perspectives handed to me by years of social conditioning.

Someday I too shall be a feminist par excellence. Until then, I am a work in progress.


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18 thoughts on “Books, discoveries, feminist writing

  1. The quality of what you write about and also how you write about it has always been improving and it isn’t even that the initial posts weren’t worth the readers while.

    I have been noticing that it is the books you choose to read ( and write about ) that make a difference in what you think and how you express it. As Ram was pointing out elsewhere, you choose well.

    🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Means a lot coming from you, because I know you’ve been reading since the beginning.
      I don’t write about all the books I read..sometimes I don’t feel any emotion strongly enough, or sometimes I feel too much and I’m not able express it satisfactorily.
      Maybe one of these days you’ll feel like you read a really good book – let me know if I had a small part to play in that! 🙂

      Like

  2. I love your first paragraph and the way you describe books. I have The House on Mango Street on a list of books that I want to read. I read an excerpt from it with my students, and it is always one of my favorite lessons.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gosh, books make me jealous too. I’m glad I’m not alone. I get so intimidated after reading something excellent that I can barely type two sentences. I agree with others, the first paragraph is lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read so much that I fall into the same trap of comparing a lot. It’s great seeing that I’m not alone in that. Haha You have such a great mastery of language and words, and I’m in awe of your writer’s voice. It’s always so elegant.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A few months ago, I attended a workshop on writing by Ambai. She’s as bold in person as her writing. I remember an uncle, a few rows in front of me, getting particularly uncomfortable when she began talking on writing about the female body. He was casting glances at his teenage daughter who sat next to his wife. Perhaps he was having second thoughts on bringing her to the workshop. After a point, he got out on a phone call but Ambai went on.

    She said what distinguishes a writer from the rest is “pragnyai” – being aware of what’s happening around oneself. Sometimes you may not be aware at the moment when something happens but when you recollect it, when you relive it, you’ll then begin to notice details, aspects that you didn’t notice before. She said many of her stories were written in such retrospect.

    She spoke of an argument she had with her editor. Her book’s blurb said something like “These are stories from a woman’s perspective of the world” and she shot back at the editor, “Why don’t you write such a blurb for male authors? That they’re a man’s perspective of the world? Why is this line appearing only in blurbs of books by female authors?” She spoke of how women must toughen themselves against such jibes to be a writer. She went on to say, “Men can never write what a woman truly feels. It’s up to women to do it themselves!”. Upon which one of my female friends said to me in a hushed voice, “Heard that? Now get out.” I did stay till the end of the workshop though.

    These 2 short stories of Ambai are my favourites. Not sure about their English names!
    http://azhiyasudargal.blogspot.sg/2011/05/blog-post.html
    http://azhiyasudargal.blogspot.sg/2010/05/blog-post_17.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I’m so excited just reading your comment, I feel like I was there.
      The stories are:
      1. Kitchen in the corner of the house
      2. Fall, my mother
      I haven’t read both, but I recognize the first, it is widely regarded as an iconic short story. I shall read both.
      I once read an article that spoke about how women’s writing is often casually dismissed as women’s writing, like it can’t be anything more than someone complaining about the pain of menstruation. And why shouldn’t it be precisely about that? Who will write about it if women don’t? Existential angst is always considered the domain of men, and Ambai analyses this in one of her stories as well (The calf that frolicked in the hall).
      Thank you for taking the time to write this comment. 🙂

      Like

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