What women wrote

Annie Zaidi’s latest labour of love is an anthology that captures 2,000 years of women’s writing.

June 04, 2015 04:34 pm | Updated 04:34 pm IST

Annie Zaidi

Annie Zaidi

For over two years now, Annie Zaidi has been reading Indian women writers across genres for an anthology titled ‘Un Bound – 2000 years of Indian Women’s Writing’ (Aleph) edited by her.

Novelist, poet and journalist, Annie is known for her fluid and effortless writing.

Her previous books include ‘Known Turf’, ‘The Good Indian Girl’, ‘Love Stories # 1 to 14’ and ‘Gulab’. A lot of her writing is also about being a woman in India and she says it feels okay to be a woman writer in this country.

Excerpts from an interview:

Why are anthologies important? What is the role of the editor?

Anthologies are like a sack of mixed goods, usually with at least one uniting factor. You have to put your hand in and pull out one thing after another, and while you might have some vague expectations (based on what the uniting factor is), you can never be sure. For instance, in the Noir series (Mumbai Noir, Delhi Noir, Brooklyn Noir, etc), all the stories are about one city and its dark side. I read ‘Trinidad Noir’ and was surprised to see a funny story in it. It was dark but also droll, and unusual in its structural approach. There was another anthology ‘Body Maps’ published by Zubaan.

The uniting factor there was that these are stories by women and about the body. I’ve picked an extract from Yashodhara Mishra’s story, ‘A Matter of Choice’ (translated from Oriya), which is about the human need for physical touch that may or may not amount to love or even lust.

The role of the editor can be as different as each anthology is different.

First of all, an editor has to define for him/herself what the book is going to be about. Once the work of reading, sifting and collating begins, he/she must think about how to present distinct stories or poems to the reader as a whole, as if each chosen piece belongs with its neighbour. There must be both harmony and several shades of difference.

You cannot have a good anthology if all the pieces are too similar. Beyond that, the role of an editor is dictated by what the book aims to be. Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha's two-volume anthology of Indian women’s writing, for instance, was a landmark work. It included most women who could be established as the author of a particular text, at least to the extent that research and translations enabled the editors to do so up until the 1980s. Since that work already existed and because other collections of women’s writings have also been published with a specific focus (like Eunice de Souza’s anthology on Purdah), my role had to be different.

I wanted to keep it wide open, to be as inclusive as possible while also being selective from a literary viewpoint. I was not commissioning fresh work but choosing from what’s already out there. So I had to think not only about which particular writer to represent, but also which poem, what passage from which story should be included. I wanted readers to experience the whole spectrum of literature produced by women writers in India.

Don’t you find the term ‘women’s writing’ rather problematic and limiting?

Initially, I did grapple with that question. As a writer, I don't particularly like to be put in a box based on my gender. But I am also aware that my experiences as a woman feed into my writing. Also, I still remember how I felt when I first read the Susie Tharu-K.Lalitha anthology. I was just out of college and I didn't even know the names of most of the women writers included there. I was sort of swept off my feet through the knowledge that those books brought me.

Knowing that these women existed and were writing so boldly, about things that shook the political and social machinery of their times gave me courage.

How will ‘Unbound’ shatter stereotypes about Indian women’s writing?

You'll have to read the book to ascertain whether it is shattering stereotypes or not. But like I've mentioned in my introduction, there are stereotypes about what women’s writing is or is not. ‘Domestic’ is a big one. My attempt is to showcase the great diversity of theme in women's writing, and the great nuance with which each theme has been treated.

Tell us about the process of selection.

This anthology does not seek to document all literary contributions made by Indian women. I expected to include about 80 writers.

I have done my best to represent each era and region, but limited myself to existing translations or those forthcoming shortly. In some cases, it was not possible to firmly establish authorship. One of my basic rules was that I would focus on writers who have a significant body of literary work, and not just one memoir, for instance. This rule would apply at least for 20th century writers. There are exceptions from times when reading and writing were discouraged, if not forbidden, for women. So I have included the memoirs of Rassundari Devi and Ramabai Ranade. I considered the work of playwrights but did not include screenplays or narratives about the making of films.

Finally, I weighed in on the side of literary craft, genre-bending abilities. I looked for a distinctive voice, a new way of remarking upon the world. Krishna Sobti, Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Irawati Karve, Nayantara Sahgal, Volga, Suniti Namjoshi – they all have this quality. They all push the boundaries of content and form. Many writers of Indian origin live abroad. I didn’t want to address questions about citizenship.

So I decided to avoid diaspora writing. Mainly, I wanted to pick stories that deepen my engagement with my own country. But I gave all names (known or not so well known) a fair read.

Are there any regrets in the process?

Yes, I do regret not being able to get permission for some writers’ work.

A few names are Anita Desai, Mala Sen, Githa Hariharan, Ambai, Saniya and Gogu Shyamala.

Does your anthology also include non-canonical writers?

I would like to think so. For instance, there is Prabha Khaitan. Her memoir has been translated only in recent years. Maitreyi Pushpa is well known in the Hindi world, but not enough of her work has been translated into English. And there's Joya Mitra, whom I hadn’t heard of until I began work on this book. There are contemporary writers who have won major prizes and will perhaps become the canon for another generation. Then there’s Muddupalani whose work is centuries old and one of its kind, and yet, few young Indians would have heard of her.

This is your debut as an anthologist. How did you ensure objectivity in terms of eliminating personal biases while selecting the pieces?

Personal biases may creep in when you're thinking about close contemporaries. I decided not to include any writers who have only just begun to be published. Not only because of a bias fear but also because we have no way of knowing if a particular work has the power to stay relevant and sparkling when the newness fades. I wanted to look at texts that were at least 10 years old.

Did you encounter recurring themes, motifs in these writings and if yes, what were they? Are a lot of these pieces personal, autobiographical?

Freedom is a recurring motif, so is poverty. Women are often trapped within structures that confine them. The quest for independence - financial, sexual and social - is a theme that we see right across those 2,000 years. And yes, a lot of the works are personal.

How has this anthology helped the creative fiction writer in Annie Zaidi?

It has made her somewhat nervous, and much more humble. So much has already been written, and written rather well. All those ideas I had that I thought were remarkable and ‘new,’... well, now I know better. I have learnt a lot. First of all, I learnt that if you just tell the truth - about yourself, your environment - it will always be powerful. I learnt that we've got to keep trying new things with structure and form, and the way we deploy language and dialogue. Krishna Sobti's 'Ae Ladki', for instance, is something between a play and a novella. Kumudini wrote little episodes in the form of letters, taking a light hearted, contemporary look at our weighty myths. Suniti Namjoshi does the same thing but sometimes, she poses a more direct challenge. These are stories that build upon our collective consciousness. Manjula Padmanabhan wrote a series of dramatic monologues, 'Hidden Fires' after the riots in Bombay, and I found them to be powerful pieces of writing. I have learnt that you’ve just got to go ahead and write what’s in your heart, and not worry about shape or form or genre labels.

Woman power

On such attempts being labelled as feminist enterprise, Annie says, "I suppose I’d say that feminists are quite enterprising, aren't they? I've said it before and I'll say it a thousand times over: we've all got to become feminists if we're going to be a decent society."

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