A battered, heroic sister

Illustration: P. Manivannan  

In her moving foreword to Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth: A Novel, American novelist, Alice Walker said: “It is hard to imagine a more battered, resilient, heroic sister than this woman.” When she visited in Beijing, she laid a flower at the memorial to Smedley created by the Chinese. Agnes Smedley’s tryst with India was far more significant than her encounter with China; yet, this chapter of her life has not received the attention it deserves. There is no better source than her novel Daughter of Earth. The life of the novel’s protagonist Marie Rogers, as critic Paul Lauter correctly states, closely parallels that of Agnes Smedley.

Born on February 23, 1892, in a working class background, Agnes’ family faced great hardship in the mining town of Trinidad in Colorado. Poverty and patriarchy were a deadly mix. Speaking of the celebratory tone of his father after the birth of a son, the narrator of Daughter of Earth expresses deep disappointment about the misogynistic attitude of society.

Agnes’ father deserted the family when she was barely 14, and she was forced to work as a domestic help. Undeterred by adversity, she passed the teachers’ examinations and began working as a teacher in Terico, New Mexico. Her mother Sara died at the early age of 38, as Agnes wrote, “of no particular disease but from great weariness, loneliness of spirit and suffering and hunger.”

Smedley joined the Tempe College in September 1911 and quickly established her reputation as an activist. She married Ernest Brundin in 1912 and shifted to a Teachers’ College in San Diego. She joined radicals like Emma Goldman and became a member of the Socialist party. Other events followed: divorce from her husband in 1917, advocacy of birth control under the leadership of Margret Sanger and imprisonment under the Espionage Act for supporting the Indian freedom struggle against British Rule. She wrote for New York Call and Birth Control Review.

The defining moment in Smedley’s life was when she formally joined the Indian nationalist movement in 1918. Friend to several revolutionaries like Sailen Ghosh, M.N. Roy, and Taraknath Das, she showed a commitment to India that few westerners matched. After her release from prison, she moved to Berlin. She married Virendranath Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu’s brother, and carried out assignments for free India. In Berlin, she taught and set up a birth control clinic and published her first novel Daughter of Earth.

In her letter to Florence Lennon dated June 4, 1923, Smedley wrote about her troubled relationship with Chattopadhyay: “I’ve married an artist, revolutionary in a dozen different ways, a man of truly fine frenzy, nervous as a cat, always moving, never at rest, indefatigable energy a hundred fold more than what I have, a thin man with much hair, a tongue like a razor and brain like hell on fire. What a couple!”

Smedley parted company with Chattopadhyay and moved to Shanghai in 1928. A friend of Richard Sorge, the Soviet spy who was caught and executed by the Japanese in 1944, she worked for the Allied Forces during World War II, and was instrumental in ensuring American support to the Chinese Communists to prevent the Japanese from advancing in the Pacific.

After the war, Agnes moved back to the U.S., lived in a Writers’ Colony in New York, wrote several books and became an advocate of China in the West. Kept under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for alleged Communist sympathies, she left the U.S. for England where she passed away in 1950.

The parallel between her life and that of Marie Rogers in Daughter of Earth are remarkably close. The novel builds on the classic genre of the woman’s search for vocation, and yet radically breaks away by asking questions that were absolutely taboo in the context of her times.

Daughter of Earth is notably out of line with the women’s novels of the 1930s in the U.S. While her counterparts concentrated on education as a primary means of escape from unhappy marriages, Smedley’s narrative, in Paula Rabinawitz’s words, remains an ‘anti-domestic novel’ where class, family dynamics, female sexuality, and motherhood become central. Indeed, the novel is radically post-feminist in approach.

Agnes Smedley lived as she wrote. Her novel remains a classic tour de force drawing attention to a life of extraordinary achievement and novelistic creation. India-centric, and yet international in approach, hers is a story, iconic by any standard.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 10:54:35 PM |

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