Journalist, novelist, short-story writer and playright, Annie Zaidi is the editor of the most ambitious anthology of women’s writing in India. Unbound not only covers a wide range in time, genre and themes, it also does all this in a single volume. Excerpts from an interview.

What led you to edit Unbound?
Aleph approached me with the idea for an anthology of women’s writing. It was intended to be more selective than merely representative. It was up to me to decide how I’d limit my choices – whether the selection would be based mainly on literary merit, or if it would include a measure of historical, geographical and linguistic representation. I decided to do a bit of both.

Do you think that women writers still struggle in the country to get their voices heard? How different is it when women write in regional languages vis-à-vis writing in English?
I think it’s got a lot easier, not just for women but also for men to write and be published. Some of it has to do with the expansion in the publishing sector. There are more publishers and a more literate population.

However, I do think that women are often held up to different standards in a patriarchal society. This is true not only of women writers, but all women. So they do confront a higher risk of incurring the displeasure of various social groups when they write their own truths and honest opinions of what women’s lives are like. I cannot speak on behalf of women who write in other Indian languages, but the degree of hostility a woman writer faces is usually in inverse proportion to the extent of women’s personal and social freedoms.

Unbound breaks many moulds. But severaal of its stories are also rooted deep in traditions and stereotypes. How difficult was it to deal with this dichotomy and what did it to do for you as an editor?
When any writer writes about the world in which she finds herself, or about her own experience, she must also contend with the “norm”. This norm, or a set of rules about what is expected of us, gives rise to stereotypes as well as tradition. A lot of great literature is created when people begin to struggle against the norm, or find themselves trapped by it. Or, when they begin to dig deeper into the historic truths that lie under the surface falsehood of a stereotype.

I found this to be true for the work of women writers from India as well. The best or most striking or most significant work was created when women began to ask questions, and wrote things that went against tradition. To that extent, you can say that it is rooted in tradition.

Did you have any regrets about leaving out stories or pieces?
I really like Anita Desai’s In Custody and wanted an extract from it, as well as Mala Sen’s Death by Fire, which ought to be republished in India. It’s such an important book about issues, still relevant decades later. I also wanted something by Gogu Shyamala, whose voice is a strong one and I do hope to see more of her work translated in the future.

Did you find yourself having to balance the importance of issues against literary uniqueness when picking your pieces? Whether it was a conflict or not, how did you apply these parameters?
There was not much of a conflict. I was not looking to include any piece of writing that did not appeal to me as precisely that: a piece of writing. As a reader, I wanted to feel involved, first and foremost. Then I began to consider its themes, how it illustrates some aspect of the lives of Indians, whether it raises new questions and so on. I was, however, open to all genres. I chose to include non-fiction as well, which widens the scope of how women address a wide swathe of issues in their writing. The only conscious balancing act was that I sought to include women from all eras and states at least to the extent that good English translations were available.

What did you learn in the process of putting this anthology together? Did your thinking or position on things change in any way?
I've learnt enough to fill a book! Each book that I've picked extracts from (and many others read for research) taught me something new about a different part of the country, a new culture and the troubles of people (both men and women) at a particular moment in history. It has given me a new lens with which to look at India, especially women's history. It has also taught me the significance of writing not only as self-expression but also as a form of unsilencing, as a tool of engagement with our past and future.

Irawati Karve's essays in Yuganta do all of the above. Reading the memoir of the ruler of Bhopal, Sultan Shahjahan Begum, and Gulbadan Begum, author of Humayun-nama (not represented in the anthology) taught me how important it is for women to not just do all kinds of work but to be seen to be doing all kinds of work, including power play and governance.

My political outlook has acquired a few more shades of nuance. For instance, reading the memoirs of Manikuntala Sen and Joya Mitra alongside the work of Mahasweta Devi, Bani Basu and Alka Saraogi brought new insights into Bengal's history, left-wing parties, the Naxal movement, women's participation, economic distress and structures of oppression. Reading Chandrakanta, Padma Sachdev, Lal Ded helped me understand Kashmiri history better. Reading Bama, Baby Kamble, Gogu Shyamala, Urmila Pawar introduced me to Dalit women's history. Lalithambika Antharjanam, Devaki Nilayamgode, Kamala Das and other Malayalam writers helped me understand a little better how matriarchy and misogyny could co-exist in modern Kerala.

Besides, Nivedita Menon's essays on gender, which I'd read even before I began to research this book, were in any case life-changing. So much of our beliefs about who we are – as humans, not just Indians – are linked to our beliefs about gender. There is so much misinformation or suppressed information in our culture, and this cripples us. To read greater, or more nuanced, truths about gender is to be set free of the handicaps society places upon us.

As you yourself have asked, do women writers have to be boxed? Having completed the anthology, what's your answer to this question?
They don't have to be boxed. But they do have to be read. Primarily, of course, their work needs to be approached like the work of men – with curiosity. But they also need to be read as women. What does the average Indian citizen (man or woman) think about our great spiritual tradition, for instance? Do we understand the great rebellion in Lal Ded and Mira Bai's verses? Do we recall the practical difficulties of women's quest for spiritual independence, and do we recognize in those verses the same injustices that continue in contemporary society? How do we build bridges of comprehension unless we are willing to look at women's work as a way of understanding women, their fears and compulsions, their lives?

Having read through and put together women's writings from such a long period of India's history, do you see dominant themes irrespective of the age?
A quest for personal freedom is definitely a major theme. Descriptions of women's work (a lot of it being very hard physical labour in hostile environments) and their economic dependence is another.

As a woman and a writer yourself, do you feel yourself part of the canon of 'women writers'?
I am a woman, there's no escaping that. I'm not part of any canon though.

As an editor, do you have a position on feminism?
I wish everything could be feminist, in the sense that feminism seeks equality between the genders. If every aspect of our lives – from equal wages to urban design to policing – could be changed keeping the principles of equality and justice in mind, the world would be a decent place, no?

Who are your favourite women writers? I know it must be tough to answer this one.
I’m not going to name authors included in this book because each one is significant for different reasons. In any case, most of the literature I grew up reading was either British or American or translations from other languages like Russian. Among them were many women writers I read and admired like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Margaret Atwood.