‘Lifescapes — Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu’: Giving voice to silences

A host of women Tamil writers on life and work, and how they make themselves heard

June 22, 2019 04:53 pm | Updated 04:53 pm IST

“A woman writes with the consciousness of her body. All the cultural markers are written over her body. How does history and time touch her body, how does the woman write this body? How does she make her body, a space?” (Ambai, ‘Udalennum Veli’ 2017:11).

Seventeen women writers from the gamut of the Tamil literary world have narrated their experiences of how they create a bodyspace in this volume edited by two sensitive, creative writers and critical thinkers based in Chennai. The title takes its cue from the idea of tinai , which in classical Sangam poetics linked the geo-space and mental state of being. Of course, they have questioned the binary nature of tinai classification. Therefore, the landscape, the interior and exterior location and the mindscapes, of these writers are shared with us in an unassuming fashion.

Select works of the writers are included in English translation along with their interviews as samples. The personal and intimate tone of the editors and writers is one of the most engaging aspects of this collection. It is not only the established voices that find space in the collection, even though there is a fair number of them, including the likes of Bama, Kutti Revathi, Malathi Maithri, Salma, Sukirtharani, senior poets like R. Meenakshi and Vatsala, novelist and social activist P. Sivakami and academics like Thamizhachi and Perundevi.

The collection also finds space for works by poets from diverse backgrounds such as Ilampirai, Kavin Malar, Brindha, Manushi Bharathi, Thi. Parameswari, Sakthi Arulanandam and Sakthi Jothi. All of the poets, except a few emerged during the 1990s, when a wave of women poets in Tamil Nadu reclaimed their body politic through their work.

No single definition

Ilampirai talks of how there is no single definition of ‘woman’ we can ascribe to. Kavin Malar in her poem titled ‘Mugavari Arraval’ explicates how a woman has to be “address-less” even when she is in solidarity with the Left, and progressive groups that are predominantly male-centred and patriarchal. Manushi expresses her displeasure against the formation of cliques among literary people.

Perundevi insists on “listening to the silences and the interstitial gaps between silence and speech.”

The most inspiring is the narrative of Sakthi Arulanandam on ‘Fixing Machines and Writing Poetry’. Her working-class context, respect for the dignity of labour combined with her passion for painting, poetry and the world of ideas is enthralling and comes out in her contribution to the collection.

Vatsala, in her interview, is movingly honest in talking about how she found solace in writing when life events threw her off balance. These are just some examples of the nature of works that can be found in this collection. It is difficult to summarise the book and that I think is its strength. This collection is a rich resource for anyone exploring women’s writing as both feminine ecriture and feminist consciousness.

Varied discourse

Since the methodology followed in the interviews allowed certain flexibility and flow, the discourse in these interviews are quite varied, each with its own timbre. Also, these interviews are not just a record of the lives of these writers. These are documents of their writing selves as women and writers. In the Tamil literary context, we still have either benevolent ghettoisation of women writers as a category or strident attacks on them, accusing them of being lesser than the worst of the male authors for some reason best known to those pointing fingers.

It would have further strengthened this collection if the editors had taken into account the sources available in Tamil on women’s writing as well. R. Mithila’s study on women’s writing from 1900 to 1950, for example, traces the modern era ushering in newer modes of expression, fuelled by the freedom movement, reform movements and the stormy self-respect movement. The introduction unfortunately is rather glaring in its omissions and sweeping generalisations. It is important for bilingual mediators to attribute production of knowledge in regional languages the space it deserves. Anglophone criticism cannot remain our benchmark.

Women’s World and Asmita undertook the project of exploring women’s writing and censorship, way back in 2001. They had published Speaking in Tongues , The Guarded Tongue , Storylines and Just Between Us by 2003. As someone who had been a participant in that project from Tamil Nadu, I am aware of the mapping of this terrain. I am glad that Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited, who spearheaded that project has kept that passion alive to revisit Contemporary Tamil Women Writers by bringing out this volume.

Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu ; Edited by K. Srilata, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, Women Unlimited, ₹375.

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