Suniti Namjoshi on her many writerly avatars and why it is important for her to make her readers think…
Look up Suniti Namjoshi on the Web and the first thing that strikes you is the label “feminist writer”. She's also a poet, a fabulist, a children's writer but all these seem to be subsumed by her Feminist Fables. And you wonder if she'll be a strident, in-your-face kind of person. But you're greeted by a slight woman with a shock of salt and pepper hair, who speaks thoughtfully with little asides, enjoying her little jokes as much as you do, who pauses to make sure you follow what she's saying… and it's no wonder you don't realise that time's flying. In Chennai recently to launch her third set of the Aditi series for children, Suniti Namjoshi took time to talk about fables and poetry; writing for adults and children, her work in general and her attitude to feminism. Excerpts:
On her different writerly avatars:
I started as a poet but everyone sees me as a fabulist. (Thoughtfully) I think poetry is what I identify most with. But poetry and fables are closely connected; both are concise, abbreviated and dependent on imagery. And both are subversive. Most people see only the subversion of literary stereotypes but there is the subversion of social stereotypes as well. A comment on the position of women in general can also refer to male domination of literary society. The advantage of being a fabulist is that people read different things into my writing.
On her writing:
My fables don't preach; they question. As do my children's books. Of course, there is a difference between writing for children and for adults. In the latter the satire is harsh, while it's gentler for children.
I try to provoke them into thinking. For instance, in Gardy in the City of Lions, I make fun of notions of privilege; while in Siril and The Spaceflower, it's our romantic tradition that's at the receiving end. It's not overt… just a gentle poke. In Monkeyji and the Word Eater, I'm trying to get children to think about words. We limit our thinking by the meaning we give to words. In Feminist Fables, there was the story, Nymph. Thrice she is chased by the god and she says yes. But the meaning is different each time; she is changed into a green laurel. The point is: words can mutate and take on new meanings. It's a simpler equivalent in … Word Eater.
I expect a certain level of understanding and experience from my adult readers. Obviously I can't do that with children but that doesn't mean I can write badly for that. It's a different way of communication, a different technique. (Then she laughs) With my children's books, I feel I've got better with each book. Now I want to rewrite the first Aditi book… not that anyone will notice but just for myself.
Writing for children:
My poems for children have not been published… they're just what I wrote for my niece. (Pauses) Ezra Pound (on whom her doctoral dissertation was based) talked about poetry's three effects: logopoeia (verbal impact), phanopoeia (visual imagery) and mellopoeia (rhythm or sound). My strengths are the first two; I would like my mellopoeia to be as strong but sound often comes best as prose in my case… (laughs) not a flattering estimate but true… This (she points to the Aditi books) is easier. But what I'd like to see is the top writers in Indian languages writing for children. And to have these come out as bilingual books: in English and an Indian language. We are extraordinarily rich in terms of our writing… we really should pass on that treasure to our children.
Being labelled a feminist writer:
I don't mind but what really grieves me is that the word feminist has become a bad word. I don't think the movement said anything wrong. See, the feminist analysis applies equally to any underprivileged group or to the less powerful. It only shows how the powerful work to keep status quo. Now, questioning that is important, necessary. If wanting a fairer, more decent society is being feminist, then I'm a feminist.
The Building Babel project:
It didn't work out the way I wanted; perhaps it was not pushed enough. In 1996, the Internet was still a new phenomenon and the way I saw it was: Cyberspace was a perfect analogue to human cultural space. Now I'm not interested in repeating the experiment.
I expect a certain level of understanding and experience from my adult readers.