Kannada Writers attending a women’s literary conference here say the government should frame policies to encourage women

Is the lettered world insulated from the proverbial glass ceiling? This was the underlying thread running through the many discussions on literary form, structure and style at the two-day seventh conference held by the Lekhakiyara Sangha, held here over the weekend.

Indeed, the literary world is still quite the old boys’ club, said writers, who lamented the fact that in the absence of any policies or government vision to encourage women’s writers, the number of women in the field is on the decline. "Many states have formed policies in this regard, where they either give subsidies to publishers on books by women’s writers or offer other incentives to those who publish works by women writers," says Vasundhara Bhupathi, a doctor and president of the Sangha. Women writers are also very poorly represented among those from the literary world nominated to the Legislative Council, she points out.

Even in government libraries, she said, that often one finds that women writers — those who are lesser known — are relegated to the back shelves. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, maintains Ms. Bhupathi. Unless young women read women authors and get exposed to the wide range of creative pursuits women are now engaged in, how they will be inspired, she asks. "It is not about promoting a woman author’s work at the cost of a man’s. It is about giving more exposure, and therefore getting more women on board."

Kannada writer Shantha Nagaraj says that awards, academies and sections of publishing continues to be an old boys’ club. "The gender bias may not be obvious, but women writers often lose out because they are not part of a closed male-dominated circle, and being on the fringes they are not part of the intense lobbying that goes on. The larger issue is that processes like selection of awards, nomination to committees or literary bodies and so on, though led by the State, are hardly democratic. Women tend to lose out because of that," she says. This lack of transparency extends to processes such as procurements to state libraries. "Many woman are self publishing but in the absence of a clear process, and because lobbies work behind the doors, a lot of these books go unnoticed." She says that even in academies and their committees, women are largely under-represented.

On the first day, addressing an audience full of women writers, celebrated Kannada author Sarah Abubakar struck a nerve when she spoke about the under-representation of minorities and dalits in Kannada literature. Among these, she noted, women from these groups were largely missing in the narrative, a fact that she hoped young women writers would take note of while writing on socially-relevant issues.

Sabiha Bhumi Gowda, a Kannada professor at Mangalore University agrees. "There are very few Dalit writers among us. Those that have been writing have really had a profound impact on literature and society." She mentions writer Du Saraswathi, whose works she says have had a profound impact on our understanding of caste and society. But despite this, she points out, no publisher has taken the initiative of putting her seminal works together. She believes that organised writers’ groups can play a significant role in changing this. "Apart from that, we also need to encourage women to write about the world they live in and the social issues that play out around them; because when they do so there is a great degree of nuance and detail they are able to bring to the table."

Write ‘softer’

Radha Murthy, a young writer who has published a few poems in regional magazines, says the gender divide does exist and manifests itself in subtler ways. She recounts the experience of her friend, a trained psychologist, being asked to attempt ‘softer themes’ rather than take on hard subjects, when she submitted a book proposal on psychology. There are also others social factors at play, she emphasises. "Apart from battling these biases, women also find it tough to manage to find time outside of their careers and families. Those who have a supportive ecosystem at home are able to achieve more."

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