Woman, uninterrupted

An excellent collection of essays about being a woman writer.

Published - August 02, 2014 04:57 pm IST



In her wonderful essay in this new anthology, Mishi Saran writes of one of the perils and exhilarations of being a writer: “The dwarf clamped to my shoulder — a mini-me — hissing into my ear, ‘You could use that.’ Very few moments in my day are purely, fully, simply lived, because each one must be dissected for its potential to feed the blank page.”

Edited by Manju Kapur and featuring 23 novelists from the subcontinent — baring their souls, analysing their relationship with their craft — Shaping the World is a valuable collection for anyone trying to understand the nuts and bolts of writing. But as the excerpt above suggests, some of it also works as a good horror story. “Writing is a narcissistic and powerful and self-absorbed God; it will take all we can offer and leave dead, dry shells behind,” says Lavanya Sankaran. Meira Chand describes waking up at two in the morning with new words crowding one’s head, and the knowledge that 200 laboured-upon pages must be discarded to enable a fresh beginning. “When the novel is done, I feel I have come out of a long sleep,” says Shashi Deshpande. “The world looks different: I see things I had missed for months.” Bina Shah believes writing is like walking a tightrope; “The minute you stop what you’re doing to look down, you start to wobble and sway.”

Some of this can sound precious or self-important, but any writer who has experienced these things will understand. Though these essays vary in content and form — and the details of the authors’ life experiences are naturally very different — each writer makes it clear that she needs to do what she is doing. “Nervously, I count how many more years I might live,” writes Kapur in her own piece, as she contemplates the possibility of not being able to write again. “How will I fill them?”

Included here are accounts of early influences and inspirations, and anyone who grew up in the subcontinent, reading in English from a young age, will find much to relate to: for instance, both Janice Pariat and Moni Mohsin mention the effect Enid Blyton’s Famous Five had on their early reading and writing lives, despite the unfamiliarity of such things as potted meat sandwiches and galoshes, or such exclamations as “Golly!” Consequently, these pieces are also about gradual shifts in perspective and self-knowledge, about negotiating one’s cultural identity and interests. So Namita Devidayal writes of how journalism grounded her, taught her to be respectful towards the seemingly mundane, to discover magical possibilities in everyday things. And Anita Nair relates her initial struggles to find the right voice (given that she was writing in English but telling stories set in suburban and rural India) and on the puzzlement of her first book Ladies Coupe being labelled a feminist novel when Nair herself had no such conscious ambitions for it.

It’s a fact that women writers are confronted by labels — beginning with “woman writer” — to a greater degree than men are. And in a relatively conservative society, there are other challenges. No wonder the ghost of Virginia Woolf makes repeated appearances through this collection, with many writers alluding to her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own”, about the financial independence and the emotional and physical space a woman needs in order to write. But George Orwell’s “Why I Write” is referenced a few times too, which is a reminder that many of the points made in this book are gender-neutral ones.

Some of the essays here ruminate on process, on the rituals of writing, time, place, mood. Others look at the big picture, at the arc of English-language publishing in the subcontinent: Anuradha Marwah posits that until the late 1990s, women novelists were mainly overshadowed by “Rushdiesque writing — grandiose and phallic”, and that even the space created for women’s voices “is hijacked by the market that prioritises glamour and femininity over the writers’ activist impulse against patriarchy”. And there are many epiphanies: Anjum Hasan finds unexpected resonance in the work and life of Pablo Neruda and Mohsin learns it is possible to be deeply affected by a book like Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas , but to eventually find one’s own voice in a satirical newspaper column titled “Diary of a Social Butterfly”.

A book like this can, by its very nature, seem circumscribed, but there is enough variety in the insights, in the personal experiences, and in the writing itself, to make it more than worthwhile. Some pieces — Saran’s, Pariat’s, Hasan’s among them — are carefully constructed, with the rigour of a good literary essay, while others are chattier, more informal, but in different ways they are all candid and revealing. The one minor lack I felt was that of a piece by a popular, commercial writer who operates outside the ambit of “respectable” writing, working in such genres as the derisively named Chic Lit. Such labels can be equally limiting and the obstacles just as many, even if we sometimes convince ourselves that popular writing doesn’t require much effort or introspection.

Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves; Ed. Manju Kapur, Hay House India, Rs.399.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.