Women Writing Violence
The Novel and Radical Feminist Imaginaries: Shreerekha Subramanian;
Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area,
Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 750.

In Women Writing Violence, Shreerekha Subramanian provides an intense and close reading of a few literary texts which are indisputably feminist novels. In these she sets out to make a case for defining women and their experience of violence and loss as one that makes them members of an invisible but definitely existing community. This community of women is ranged against the fact of the patriarchal influence of the nation-state caught often in various transitional stages of the shift towards the making of a post-colonial society and a fraught, tentative modernity. With this aim in mind the case for the viewing of women’s stories of loss, refuge and repair is persuasively made with the texts examined against a matrix of sociology, women’s studies, feminism, and cultural theory and less as literature.

In the introduction the author does well to separate the divergent ways in which the meaning of “communal” is received in the West and in South Asia. In the former it is taken to mean a sharing and supporting of each other within a group. In the latter, it is in the contemporary discourse on democracy, taken to denote a racist or non-secular attitude. Examining the idea of shared communities in feminist novels it is apparent that there is a pattern in the things that happen to women. The more intriguing and sometimes disquieting patterns are those that emerge from the distinctive ways that they respond to the brutal crises that visit them. The larger ideas of the dispossessed and their voices offering resistance and thereby making for an alternate community are examined.

Failure of community

The decision to cite Recitatif, the only short story by Toni Morrison, in the introduction is an inspired one. The story follows two girls, Roberta and Twyla who meet in an orphanage as 8 year-olds and again after seven or eight years. We are never told of their race and are expected to understand the ambiguities of their narrative destiny cleared of racial codes. Subramanian points out that the two “wrestle with communication, and in effect community” and goes on to describe the novel as “a partial atonement for the failure of community”. Later the themes of a sundered even blighted community are replayed in Morrison’s novel Paradise. Here, an embattled breakaway group of women refugees hopeful of establishing a community on the outskirts of a new town is annihilated by a group of African American men who consider even their marginal presence a threat to their new identity as free men. The irony of those seeking freedom punishing others like themselves is searing. Interspersed into the narrative and its embedded interiority are motifs taken from the African American belief systems of loss, death and exile. Subramanian locates the marginalised women and their specific failure to become a community when she quotes radical feminist Rajeswari Sunder Rajan who refers to “the general unease between the state, communities and the female self”.

The novels identified make for grim, even bleak reading. Morrison’s Paradise reminds us that even the deeply humanist notion of community comes wired with the awareness of otherness and is used to exclude and marginalise. Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones follows Amabelle Desir’s survival of the massacre of Haitians in 1937 upon the orders of Rafael Trujillo the Dominican president of 30 years.

In her reading of the South Asian novels read in Hindi which include Pakistani writer Tahmina Durrani’s Kufr, Mridula Garg’s Kathgulab and Mahasweta Devi’s Hazaar Charasi Ki Ma, Amita Pritam’s Pinjar and Mohandas Nemishrai’s Aaj Bazaar Band Hai, there is a fleeting respite from the incessant cross references and invocation of cultural theories that have characterised the previous chapters and the approach briefly becomes more descriptive and intimate. The descriptions of everyday trauma visited upon the lives of ordinary lives of women as well as the accounts of kidnapped women like Poroo in Pritam’s rich and textured novel Pinjar have a refreshing immediacy and freedom. For the most part though, the book comes packed with the kind of turgid theorising and political reading that governs most academic departments in universities. If the book was intended for a wider readership and not just the academic seminar a more modulated reading and response to the texts as literature was required. The book is full of too many sentences such as this: “women novelists creatively resist the law of the father by contradicting and eliding the symbolic order. To quote Cixous, they steal languages...”

Stimulating as some of these insights are their weight can wear down even the most resolute reader.

(Devina Dutt is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on arts and culture)

More In: Reviews | Books | Arts | Chennai