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Women with an Edge
|by Deepti Priya Mehrotra|
"Feminism is natural - because nobody wants to be a slave," declared Agneta Pleijel, a Swedish author who was recently in New Delhi to participate in a writer's dialogue on `Subverting the Norm: Sexuality, Writing & Power'.
Organized by publishing house Women Unlimited, on behalf of the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the Embassy of Sweden as part of the worldwide celebration of Norway's 100 years of independence, it was a dialogue between four writers writing in as many languages.
Pleijel was joined by Hindi writer Alka Saraogi, English writer Githa Hariharan (both from India) and Norwegian writer Merete Morken Andersen.
If any proof were needed that `women writers' do not represent a homogenous category, it was provided by this unique meeting. The four writers expressed widely varying views as they spoke of power and identity, relationships and love, feminism and the subversion of norms and stereotypes.
Saraogi said she'd like to forego "all the definitions given to us: by patriarchy and by feminists". She felt the category `woman writer' was belittling, with people expecting her to take up various women's causes - laying down another kind of prescriptive norm. Rather than write about injuries and victimization, Saraogi said she chose to dwell on "the larger context of human happiness".
Norwegian writer Andersen too had similar feelings. "It's 125 years since Dora walked out of her home (in Ibsen's `The Doll's House'). I feel I'm a writer - not a woman writer. I've had freedom and opportunities, without a struggle, since there have already been three generations of feminists in Norway," she said.
Hariharan said some people consider her work too `cerebral' - as if it's unnatural for a woman to be intelligent. She noted that it's important to appreciate the location of a writer: "Each person inhabits a cluster of identities and it's difficult to say which one is on the ascendant at any given time."
Hariharan's novels, including `Where Dreams Travel' and `In Times of Siege', have exposed the operations of power in families, society and the state. Yet she wryly noted the paradox inherent in "catching planes and participating in panel discussions in plush venues" on the one hand, and claiming to "subvert ex-colonialism" on the other.
Pleijel, who has been honored with the Ovralid Prize for her complete works, said about herself: "I feel I've already lived a couple of lives. I have all these phases of woman in my life - from puberty, to the power of being a young newspaper journalist, critic and editor. I left a job to find my own voice. I thought, `Why should I take part in this power game when it's something quite different (that) I want to do?"
Her novel `Dog Star' has recently been translated into Hindi and published by Vani Prakashan as `Kukur Nakshatra'. Its lyrical, vibrant prose is written from the viewpoint of an adolescent girl, the main protagonist. The book startles and shocks in its naked exposition of violence and brutal abuse at home, in school, in laboratories - a well-known and widely accepted fact of `normal' and `civilized' society.
The Swedish author agreed with Andersen about women's emancipation being long-standing in Scandinavia - but it's not always easy. She quoted Susanne Briggite, a Danish writer, as saying, 'My early life was not difficult because I lived like a man and that wasn't a big deal. Later I had to face the much more complicated situation of being a woman.' Briggite married and had children late in life, and she's the one who wrote: 'God save us from love!' Continued Pleijel, "A woman goes out of power. It's very complicated - to go back and discover the fruitfulness of woman."
Pleijel mused, "I really write for myself - but also I give voice to others so that they can recognize themselves." Her first novel was about her family - her Swedish grandfather and Indonesian grandmother who was different from anybody else in Sweden.... "Nobody knew what to make of her: in those days there were very few immigrants in Sweden." Her writing explores love and power - the power of her grandmother that was the power of bitterness, in shaping the family.
At the same time, Pleijel noted, "It's important not to idealize women. You have to be truthful. My mother was a weak person, bitter too. That's one reason I became a writer - to understand my mother - and to not become like her. We have to change - that's been my choice in my life. My mother was bitter, but she was a storytelling mother - and that gave me so much! It must be possible to take the good things from her and not allow the bitterness to come into my own life."
Saraogi's novels reveal a penetrating analysis of human character, steeped in cultural tones, shaped by particular histories. From a Marwari family (from Rajasthan) settled in Kolkata, she has written about the ethos she knows best. Her first novel `KaliKatha Via Bypass', published in 1998, brought her immediate recognition as a startlingly original voice.
Despite her explicit refutation of feminist consciousness, Saraogi noted that as a woman she is constantly surrounded by domesticity. It is welcome solitude to come out of the home. She said women in India grapple with the dilemma of whether to take up a career or be a housewife and mother. This is never an easy choice.
Andersen's novel `Oceans of Time' (English translation 2004, Maia Press) is about a couple who divorce, and meet after 16 years. The first part of the novel is from the perspective of the man, while the second is from the perspective of the woman, this device helping bring out different meanings of the same events. She noted, "As a writer, I am God - I can make people do what I want.... So I got Johan and Judith to meet after all those years." Through the unraveling of the plot there are implicit suggestions of what went wrong in the marriage. Each one discovers what the other had experienced, felt and thought.
Approximately 50 per cent of the marriages in urban Norway end in divorce. Refuting the suggestion that divorce rates are rising because women are saying `No', Andersen pointed out that, in her novel, it is the man who walked out.
Andersen said that since the 1990s she finds many men actually shifting their positions - becoming more `motherly'. In her novel, the man is softer and wins more sympathy from the reader. Many women have responded angrily to the book - implying that, "It's a taboo to show a woman who's not always a very good mother. Women don't want that taboo to be broken." So that is a different kind of stereotype her book broke!
The multi-layered dialogue between Pleijel, Saraogi, Hariharan and Andersen indicated plural viewpoints, often born out of widely divergent contexts. Their free-flowing conversation was honest, devoid of sterile banalities as each writer plumbed the depths of shared concerns.
All the same, it was with a twinge of disappointment that one left the hall - for the dialogue seemed to have just begun. There were insights hovering on the edge, left unspoken because the time allotted had run out.
From this edge onwards, it's each one's lonely journey.
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