Champa Bilwakesh is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Andover Townsman, INDIA New England and Sawnet.
Her February 1, 2004 article in India New England spoke of South Asian women writers having a “formula” for publishing books that often receive critical acclaim. I am curious to know if women have muses too?
Today’s South Asian women writers fill bookstore shelves
By Champa Bilwakesh
Lalithambika Antherjanam, the fearless and prolific Malayalam writer who lived from 1909 to 1985, was once asked why Indian women have figured so poorly as writers.
It was not, she said, because “women have no talent, but because it is considered a great sin for women to speak their mind. … A woman’s reputation is a matter of life and death for the whole extended family. Under the circumstances, no woman will be courageous enough to hurl herself into literature.”
Today, her sentiment has been turned on its head. South Asian women have arrived like storm troopers into the diasporic English literary scene. Titles by South Asian women dominate shelf space at bookstores in a way South Asian men’s never did.
These writers can thank their foremothers, who decades ago began risking their reputations to tell their stories. They told them in Marathi and in Punjabi, in Tamil and in Kannada, in Bengali and in all their various mother tongues.
All this telling indeed came with a price for some. In 1941 Ismat Chugtai’s Urdu-language “Lihaaf” dealt with lesbian desire and earned her a trial on an obscenity charge.
While Chugtai won her case, Taslima Nasrin has paid dearly for writing her story. Reminiscent of the banning of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses,” the West Bengal government has banned and seized all copies of the exiled writer’s book “Dwikhandita.” The autobiography details her physical relationships with several noted writers, some of whom accused her of lying.
Kamala Markandeya, who migrated to the United Kingdom in 1948, became perhaps the pioneer among South Asian women writers to use English as her medium.
While her very first novel “Nectar in the Sieve” (1954) was about the struggles of Indian peasants, her last book, “The Nowhere Man” (1972), could be the original diasporic novel of Indian immigrants struggling with perennial racism in the country they have adopted.
Since then there has followed a steady stream of women who tell story after story in English. Anita Desai, born in India to a German mother and Indian father, wrote of India from the angle of an observer as well as the object, much like the way many South Asian diasporic writers are writing today.
Writing about the malady in the strangely negotiated relationships of immigrants in America won Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” a Pulitzer Prize.
Others tell of journeys back to the land of their mothers that reveal mine-filled emotional landscapes, such as Indira Ganesan’s “The Journey.” Reaching farther back into women’s history has driven Indu Sundaresan to write about Nur Jahan in “The Twentieth Wife.”
When Arundati Roy bagged the Booker for “The God of Small Things,” the first Indian woman writer to do so, she garnered not only a splash on Time magazine but also a glam-shot in People.
Last year, when Monica Ali was short-listed for the same award for “Brick Lane,” it was newsworthy but not because of her gender and national origin.
But what is the surprise at this prolific outpouring? There is, after all, a rich source to mine: a storehouse of pain and resentment against the forces that controlled and continue to control Indian women’s lives – tradition, culture, men, and marriage.
Nothing works in fiction better than good old masala grinding. Add this to the fact that women read more than men do in America and we have a formula that makes cash registers ring.
In addition to this perennial source that drives South Asian women’s writing, there is also this fact that women are better equipped with the tools to write fiction.
More women than men choose a liberal arts education. While not a guarantee of excellence in writing, such programs not only provide a broad-based knowledge of human history to draw from, but also the space and time to write.
The men, bless their hearts, opt for the gods of Wall Street and Technology, where the obsession to play with words is replaced by the fetish to play with numbers.
While there are splendid exceptions, such as Akhil Sharma who made his mark on Wall Street as well as in literature with “An Obedient Father,” the plethora of books filling shelves at Barnes & Noble authored by South Asian women is disproving Lalithambika yet again.