Poet and curator of recently held Bengaluru Poetry Festival, Maitreyee B writes about how the tag of respectability for women writers is still in many ways clearly associated with what a woman writes rather than how she writes it.
It was the late nineties, another usual day in the university threatened to pass off just as uneventful as the others. I was seated with a couple of friends in the canteen when a senior from our department slipped in a small book on my lap. The cover had the picture of a young, pretty looking woman with windblown hair. Inscribed on top of the photograph were the words, My Story followed by Kamala Das below the photograph. Thanking her as she left, I placed the book on the table, only to be greeted by amused glances exchanged between my friends.
Apparently my introduction to Kamala Das had been rather limited and I had read only her normal poems. I soon discovered that in small cities such as Guwahati, normal was a metaphor that was meant to highlight the lack of sexuality. I remember finishing the rather autobiographical book within a day, charmed at that juncture by what I thought was the author’s ability to be frank with her readers. Literature in college and university days still confined us to the English classics and Indian English writing especially by women with a strong feminine voice was extremely limited. I was to read much more from Das later, who seemed to have acquired the rather dubious distinction of being a writer who wrote on her sexuality rather openly. I had wondered then as I do now, whether Kamala Das would have been looked at differently had she not written about her sexuality and related emotions. With time one realises that the tag of respectability for women writers is still in many ways clearly associated with what a woman writes, rather than how she writes it. And that tag, whether one likes it or not needs to be earned, sometimes at the cost of what comes naturally to some.This, if one is to exist and transcend into a space where they are taken more seriously by readers, and writers like Naipaul who declared that‘no living or dead female author could be his equal because they are bogged down by their limited, sentimental sense of the world.’
The amused smiles and the covert glances exchanged between the gate keepers of creative writing, have of course as much history as the act of writing itself. The stereotypes about women who write about their sexual experiences continue till date.Many such women are either ignored or mocked by either the pundits of literature or such readers who want to prescribe a certain ‘lens’ to what women write. The history of literature is replete with examples of writers like Jane Austen, Emily Bronte or Ann Radcliffe, who had to either hide their identities as women or assume pen names that allowed them to write freely on subjects that were considered less appropriate for women. It must be understood, that this trend has as much to do with the moral consequences of such writing as it does with the publicity and financial benefits that such writing generates.
Interestingly nothing seems to have changed through the ages. Society seems stuck with a particular image for those writers who prefer to write on matters related to sex or intimate desires. For many this transcends to dangerous potential, since in their mind earning a living out of such writing is often at par with licentious behaviour itself. Kamala Das’s family has often rued the fact that her openness about sexuality seems to have blanketed her reputation as a writer while also bringing about adverse affects on her near and dear ones.
Feminist arguments in recent years have reiterated the fact that woman have just as much authority as men when it comes to showing pleasure through their writing (without making it vulgar). An argument that has perhaps helped the cause of writer’s such as Anais Nin in firmly establishing themselves as writers of wonderful ‘erotica’. As a genre erotica has found takers not only amongst readers but been well promoted through the best of publishing houses too. Like Nin, there are many women who want to express their desire, through their writing and it is their way of asserting their feminine identity on matters sexual. This often leads to the opening up a Pandora’s Box of mysteries related to woman’s sexuality, which is essentially different from a man’s way of expressing himself.But in spite of a certain acceptability for erotica, the categorisations for language prescribed for and attributed to women still retain some terminologies essentially thought of as female. So while male voices are thought of, or often termed as clinical, a woman writing erotica is often slotted with a lyrical voice that helps guarantee such writing with a certain aesthetic. Bloggers and other writers who delve in erotica, or writing that has explicit sexual tones still believe that world over, writing on sex remains a shadow-subject and pursuing or even advocating a sexual path outside that of monogamy can lead to strong reactions.
And considering the limitations that women writers and their readers have experienced throughout history, one isn’t really surprised to find that restriction in itself has become one of the most enduring topics that English writing about the lives of women writers, has produced. It may be important to note here, that one reason why there is so little serious academic critique on erotica is because more often than not, serious academic criticism generally believes that women who deal in erotica are either not serious about their literary outings or that they might have produced such works during their spare time, or as a filler for other and more ‘serious’ work.And that, the popularity of such literature is more often than not derived from the subject matter itself rather than any aesthetic value that could be ascribed to it.
I recollect Virginia Woolf who had written, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Woolf’s words have stood the test of time, in spite of the changing language of literature and new genres added, to her mention of fiction. One can only hope that when it comes to a matter of women writing explicitly about themselves, or their desires good art will transcend genders.