Early in March this year, writer and documentary filmmaker Geeta Ilangovan arrived at a school in Kallakurichi, hoping to address students from eight Tribal Welfare Schools in and around Kalvarayan Hills as part of an ongoing camp focussing on eradicating child marriage.
She was initially shuttled around to different parts of the campus by volunteers from Aware NGO conducting the event. “I was not sure when I would get to address the students,” she says. When she was finally brought to the school playground, she noticed heads bobbing on the corridor. “I waved a hello in their direction. That is when I saw the dupattas raining,” she says.
Students from the schools who enjoyed reading a collection of essays from her Tamil book Dupatta Podunga Tozhi, (Wear dupatta, sister) thought that the most fitting way to greet the author was by flinging their dupattas in the air. A video of this event went viral on social media, eliciting discourse around body politics but was also perceived as a symbol of liberation.
Despite the chatter, heads of the publishing house Her Stories behind Dupatta Podunga Tozhi are keen to ensure that more voices of women are heard through the written word. What began as a Facebook page in 2020, now has 27 titles to its credit. They are just getting started.
Her Stories is a ‘pandemic baby’. The organisation founded in 2020 by Nivedita Louis, JM Vallidasan and Sahaana, came into being because they wanted to create a space for women to add to interesting conversations often gate-kept by men online. In a short period they had over 5,000 followers.
Nivedita says that in addition to discussions and wars on the ‘comments’ section of the page, they also began a weekly meeting called Her Stories conversation and spoke about topics like menstruation, queerness, remarriage, the POCSO act, sex work and even Korean dramas.
This is when the founders observed abundant talent of putting pen to paper among Tamil women, both in India and abroad.
Nivedita and Vallidasan, who are both writers themselves, thought it was about time to start a website and not restrict their voices to Facebook alone. Herstories.xyz began publishing posts by authors with no real previous experience with publishing while also gaining support from well-known Tamil authors like Sharmila Seyyid who wrote for the website.
“We began commissioning people with the slightest writing spark to put out a post for us. The website helped us contact women who could write on varied topics. Take for instance, Narayani Subramanian who wrote about female sexuality in the animal kingdom or Shanti Shanmugam who chronicled her life in Dubai in a hilarious way,” says Nivedita. Readership for the website steadily grew. The focus was on non-fiction.
“We began commissioning people with the slightest writing spark to put out a post for us. The website helped us contact women who could write on varied topics. Take for instance, Shanti Shanmugam who chronicled her life in Dubai in a hilarious way,” says Nivedita. Readership for the website steadily grew. The focus was on non-fiction.
Vallidasan says that this was particularly heartening. Having worked in the Tamil magazine industry for years, conventional media often put stops on what women could read. “We were told that women only liked to read soft subjects or poetry and were not interested in conversations about the world. We tried changing that,” he says.
Writings for the website were largely pro-bono. To give back to the authors, Her Stories transformed into a publishing house, putting out six books as their initial release of which books like Dupatta Podunga Tozhi, Vilangugalum Palinamum by Narayani Subramanian and Devadhaigal Sooniyakarigal Pengal by Marudhan remain best-sellers. The publication’s key strength is its their ability to write in an informal tongue, helping them reach the youth.
In March, the organisation released 21 more books to add to their collection, focussing on single-parenting, travel, law, women excelling in various fields and feminism for men. Her Stories has already finished its first showcase of titles at the Chennai Book Fair in 2023. They hope that they get patronage in the future too. They are soon set to publish English translations of select titles as well. Vallidasan says that they are keen on expanding their social media presence and create video content too.
Despite the serious nature of the books published by Her Stories, Nivedita insists on finding humour. Their logo, drenched in rainbow colours with a woman at the tip of a pen nib, hopes to show the various shades of women, including the silly.