Since early October, when the volcano of #MeToo stories erupted over social and news media in India, what has emerged as a common theme is the overbearing entitlement of the men who have been accused and a historical lack of serious consequences. Still only over a month old, it remains to be seen if this wave of stories will shift the needle with gender politics in our deeply patriarchal culture. But the magnitude, complexity and insidiousness of the problem needs deep and considered engagement.
In India’s literary circles, from which some prominent writers have also been accused of sexual harassment, crucial questions are emerging. How should we view the literary works of these men? How can we improve gender parity in literature so that women writers have just as much intellectual and creative authority? How can we ensure inclusivity and intersectionality in our literature so that the complexities and ambiguities of gendered power are better portrayed and understood?
Art versus the artist
The thorny question of whether we should separate an artist from their art is an old one, with different schools of criticism approaching it in varied ways. The main tenet of New Criticism is that the art is separate – “autonomous” as TS Eliot famously declared – from the artist’s life and times and even what they might have intended. We take it as we find it.
The Postmodernist school, with credit to Roland Barthes, maintains that once a writer has completed a work, they are “dead.” It is then the reader who rewrites the text newly with each reading.
Finally, the most recent school of thought, New Historicism, suggests that every text has its own socio-cultural and political history. There are specific contexts around the time it was created and the times it is received by each wave of readers. We cannot separate a text from its author’s biography because it is part of the contextual history.
Whichever of these approaches we might be comfortable taking as readers, reviewers, or publishing gatekeepers, the question remains: when we appreciate a book, are we also endorsing the writer’s ethics and morality?
Perhaps, rather than distancing ourselves completely from the works of problematic writers, it is worth revisiting them in the current context to understand what they say now about art, creativity, our culture, and, yes, the writers. Engaging with such texts for critical purposes does not make us complicit in the immorality of their creators unless the works require us to accept and empathise with immoral world-views and characters. But it can enrich our understanding and appreciation of literature and its ever-shifting place in our lives and cultures.
Most of the books published in India in 2018 were likely several years in the making and, therefore, well underway before the #MeToo wave began even in the US and registered in the global public consciousness. It isn’t possible to retrospect on the movement’s influence on Indian literature just yet. But this year’s award longlists, shortlists, and winners give us a more here-and-now sense of how juries are influenced by #MeToo globally and #MeTooIndia particularly.
In general, politics, religion and caste have continued to be prominent literary themes, including in translated literature.
Gendered power differentials within or across communities are certainly highlighted, as in Sujatha Gidla’s memoir, Ants Among Elephants, which won the 2018 Shakti First Book Prize. While the primary focus is on Gidla’s Dalit upbringing and the caste-based oppressions encountered by educated Dalits like herself in India, of all the books awarded this year, it comes closest to examining how issues like gender, caste, class, and religion intersect. Certainly, we need more such – both in fiction and nonfiction.
Benyamin’s 2018 JCB Prize-winning Jasmine Days, translated by Shahnaz Habib, centres on the religion-based and immigration-based politics of the Arab Spring. While this is an important, under-explored literary subject, the other themes of gender inequality and generational conflict of tradition-versus-modernity are presented more as undeniable realities than anything else. Unfortunately, the young Pakistani female protagonist suffers from some of the usual biases and flaws that older male writers are prone to when writing across both age and gender.
Much of femininity, especially in patriarchal cultures, is unspoken – e.g. our conditioned approaches to our own bodies and emotions; our very ways of moving through the world. Even women writers are still working to find the best ways to articulate it. Rightly then, many male writers – including acclaimed ones such as Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth and Haruki Murakami – have been critiqued for their flawed depictions of female characters.
Of the ten books on the 2018 Crossword Fiction (including translations) shortlist, eight are by male writers. It is fair to say that none of them dive into uncharted waters with gender politics or inequality. Of the two by women writers, only KR Meera’s book, The Unseeing Idol of Light, addresses feminist issues. Though, as is usual for Meera, her women are almost always seen through the lens of their relationships with men.
The Atta Galatta Prize gave two awards in the fiction category this year. Jayant Kaikini won for No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. Kaikini’s stories vary widely in their themes and, of course, sociological observations based on class, gender, caste and religion abound here too. But this book is unmistakably about the city and everything it represents culturally, politically, and geographically. Baburao Bagul won for When I Hid My Caste, translated by Jerry Pinto. This story collection is about caste, as the title indicates. More specifically, it explores how caste-related brutality systemically creates both victims and oppressors.
The Tata Literature Live Awards for fiction both went to women writers. Anuradha Roy won the fiction book of the year for All the Lives We Never Lived and Shubhangi Swarup won for Latitudes of Longing. While both novels cover wide arcs of history with many characters and themes, both also feature male protagonists. Naturally, issues of masculinity are more deeply explored than those of femininity. One might argue that we need literary works that examine the male psyche too. But, given our track record for books that are either mostly written by men or featuring mostly men, it would have been more welcome to see two women writers winning awards for books focusing on complex women, an omission that Western literary awards have been faulted for as well..
Looking at how a year of #MeToo in the US has affected the literary world, journalist Katy Waldman wrote in The New Yorker in October about the age-old problem of gender representation in terms of who gets published, reviewed, awarded and read.
In India, unlike the US, accurate statistics are not readily available for the publishing industry. However, Amazon India’s new book releases page often shows an ongoing and significant male author bias. This skew is more pronounced in some genres but, overall, male-centric points of view and narratives continue to have more validity and visibility than those of and by women. Many of the challenges of being a woman writer that Shashi Deshpande described in her recent book are still much in evidence today.
Even this year, longlists and shortlists of certain big awards are dominated by male writers. With commercial fiction, women writers may well be greater in number but they still don’t lead the bestselling charts as Twinkle Khanna recently pointed out.
Waldman mentions that there has been a counter of sorts in western literature for some time now: more feminist retellings of ancient myths. In India, we’ve seen a range of such feminist revisionism with mythology: Pratibha Ray, Chitra Banerji Divakaruni, Devdutt Pattanaik, Kavita Kané, Utkarsh Patel, Saiswaroopa Iyer, Volga and Amish Tripathi to name a few. While these feminist mythical retellings may have increased some awareness of gender politics in our ancient epics and present-day culture, they have not been catalysts for change.
For the gender scales to balance, the entire publishing ecosystem in India needs to make changes. A lot can be done:
- Literary agents and commissioning editors could look carefully at their lists and ascertain whether they are sufficiently acknowledging the intellectual and creative authority of women writers on varied, non-traditional topics and themes.
- Reviewers could examine whether they’re spotlighting enough women writers and, more importantly, for the right reasons: plot and prose; substance and style. Is their analysis of a book enlarging the conversation around it in a more inclusive and nuanced manner – beyond binary issues of men versus women to larger intersecting complex systemic issues?
- To enable reviewers to accomplish the above, news editors may want to try avoiding reviewers’ conflicts of interest and get smarter about book-and-reviewer pairings.
- Literary festival organisers might want to look beyond subject matter experts for panel moderators. A more well-rounded reader could steer insightful, revelatory discussions around relevant gender-related themes that intersect with the ideas explored in the writers’ works.
- As readers, we should always be examining our reading tastes and challenging our own biases because we are all by-products of a collective mindset. Our literary consciousness has been shaped, to some extent or other, by deeply-rooted patriarchal, conservative viewpoints and there will always be some blind spots. Questioning text and context, reading around a book, and exploring what others have written about it – all these can help us develop more informed opinions.
An intersectional approach
Some questions remain. Are these literary works effectively showing how the many vectors of discriminatory forces – class, caste, religion, capitalism, ethnocentrism, colourism, sexuality, age, nationality, able-bodiedness – intersect with gendered power and create more contextual complexity and ambiguity in each story? Are they helping to redefine freedom, strength, heroism, and power in ways that are entirely different from the traditional male-centric definitions?
Identity-based oppression is always bound to a large and entrenched network of socio-political machinery. There are various nexuses of systemic discrimination that enable men in their oppression of women. Simply portraying a woman’s agency and subversiveness through the primary lens of her dependence on men will not achieve much. Taking the usual depictions of male privilege, entitlement, rage, backlash and violence and transposing them onto women (as Bollywood almost always does) will actually do more harm.
As writer Nicola Barker recently pointed out in an essay by Sam Leith: “...we are trying to understand and engage with ideas, emotions and a world that aren’t straightforward or coherent or manageable. Sometimes the form or style of a book needs to mirror the complexity of life.” Leith goes on to add that the best works are “allied to a greater attention to the form and to the sentence-by-sentence language itself.” So, let us go beyond the much-lauded “simple narrative” preferences of some of our reviewers and readers. We need language that will stop us dead in our tracks; singe our brain cells as we mull over the sentences; spark flames within our hearts.
Agents and publishers have already begun commissioning #MeTooIndia accounts and studies. Let’s hope writers give us books unlike any before; books that lead to action versus saturation. Because that is the need of the moment and, indeed, the movement.