This Women’s Day, Bangalore’s women authors talk to Harshini Vakkalanka and Preeti Zachariah about their favourite literary heroines — the women who inspired them, often to write
Hermione Granger to Annabeth Chase, Katniss Everdeen and Daenerys Targaryen may be the stars in today’s bestsellers, but names like Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) or Emma , Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind) or Flaubert’s Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary) have endured over the years for their sheer strength of character.
Literature has always brought forth admirable women— some for their beauty, some for their wit, some for their strength, some for the lessons they taught through their mistakes. But most of all, they are remembered for being who they were, and their writers, become as much heroes of their stories, remaining in the hearts of their readers.
Three female literary characters who inspired me were – Elizabeth Darcy from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice; Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With the wind and O’lan from The Good Earth. All of these three characters were strong, resourceful women and in many ways ended up being my role models. They were not extraordinary women in any sense. But they coped as well as they could and rose about everything destiny sent their way. Naturally, in them, I saw the women I would like write about: Women who deserved to be written about.
I have always attracted to strong, independent, female characters who were honest with themselves and the worlds they inhabited. While growing up, I loved Nancy Drew, Heidi, Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, and Margaret from Are You there God, It's Me Margaret. As an adult, it was more complex characters such as Celie and Shug from The Color Purple, Hanna, the nurse, from The English Patient, Janie Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God among others.
I like all these characters because of their strength and ingenuity in tackling problems that come their way. Literature often mirrors real life and these characters show us ways in which to handle different situations. They offer both solace and inspiration. I think an amalgamation of all these characters feed into my writing. One wants to add to this beautiful portrayal of feminine strength, empathy and intelligence, by creating female characters that aren't necessarily perfect, but that have depth and purpose.
Emma Graham from Hotel Paradise, by Martha Grimes is one of my favourite characters. She is a 13-year-old inquisitive girl who wants to investigate the death of a young girl forty years ago in her town. Emma's refusal to let her circumstances rule her life and her tenacity is something that I really admired.
In fact, I instantly wanted to write about a character like her which got me started with Kite Strings, my first novel. The main protagonist in Kite Strings is Mehnaz, who like Emma is also 13 when the novel begins.
Mine is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. My character Sophie Das in my novel Neti Neti is somewhat obsessed with her too! Emma Bovary is a touchstone for Sophie. She wants to model herself on Emma – someone who follows her heart, is a romantic. But she also realises that Emma is self-deluding and self-destructive. I love what Carlos Fuentes says about how Madame Bovary is the daughter of Don Quixote. Like him she believes what she reads and she goes out into the world to apply the precepts of literature and falls flat on her face!
I've been an admirer of Jane Austen since I was a young girl. I think she's a writer who very casually, almost playfully, broke from the traditions. Earlier novels had the sweet good heroine, or there were the Gothic romances. Jane Austen wrote about real people. She was amazingly observant, knew people inside out and was a wonderfully witty. Imagine a girl of 21, writing about a marriage like she did in Pride and Prejudice. And the first chapter of Sense and Sensibility is sheer genius. I think at least three of her novels are perfect — Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion.
Griet of Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier is almost a member of the family, with my daughters and me reading it at least twice a year. The circumstances that turn her into a maid, interactions with the master of the house and why she pierces her ear are all poignant. Then there are Sue and Maud from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith who fall for each other through such adventures. And Marguerite Duras’ autobiographical voice in The Lover is exceptional.