Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Out of Print Author Series: Annie Zaidi Edits a Volume of Women's Writing

We are so pleased and excited that the compilation, Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing that surely bears editor, Ann Zaidi’s singular approach and fine perspective will be released in a few weeks. Out of Print has pre-ordered its copy of this important volume and looks forward to it.

We asked Annie some questions about the choices she made when putting the works together, and she kindly arranged with her publishers, Aleph, to share an excerpt from the Introduction. But what is even more thrilling, and I believe, important is, she told us why she chose to use an extract from Salma’s On the Edge that first appeared in translation (translated by N Kalyan Raman) in Out of Print. Her insights into the story are remarkable, and we are so pleased to share them here with you.

Although the excerpt from the Introduction sets a context for her views on Salma’s piece, we will begin with why she chose to use the work by Salma.

Note on Salma’s story On The Edge, from which I picked a short extract for the anthology:
As a student who was scribbling (mostly bad) poetry in longhand in single-lined notebooks, I was aware that writing – especially in India, especially writing poetry or literary fiction – was not seen as a real job. Even very well known writers had day jobs. Some were teachers; some worked in banks; some were bureaucrats. This was true of both men and women contemporary writers. Very few of them are what you’d call career writers.

Salma was particularly interesting to me because she didn’t just have a day job, she was an elected representative of the people. This meant that she was doing two uncertain, possibly unremunerative jobs, and both held the potential for internal conflict. A writer must speak her own truth and that of her people. A politician rarely dares to speak the truth for fear of alienating her people.

I had read her poems (some of them are available in translation in Wild Girls, Wicked Words, edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström, Sangam House-Kalachuvadu Press co-publication, 2012). I was aware that she was part of a brave generation of Tamil poetesses who were being threatened for writing honestly about feminine experiences and feelings. I had also read her novel The Hour Past Midnight, liked it, and had almost decided to include an extract from that. But I happened to talk to Indira Chandrasekhar and told her about this anthology project. Over a cup of coffee, I asked her about the women writers she has really liked whose work I ought to read. She mentioned that there was a brilliant short story by Salma (translated by N Kalyan Raman) that Out of Print has published.

I looked it up. I read it. Immediately, I loved it. Or rather, I loved it both immediately and lingeringly. The story gathers up the threads of multiple aches in a household and weaves them into a long braid of empathy, intimate detail and gentle humour. It was one of the rare stories I’ve read about OCD in India, and it was especially interesting to me since our collective culture has historically made a fetish of purity-pollution norms, while simultaneously ignoring public hygiene particularly in urban areas. But the story is also about the vulnerability of women who have no property and no man to protect them, and how this powerlessness manifests in the form of obsessive traits or psychological breakdowns. It is also about the ways in which the simplest joys are taken away from us – men or women – in the name of morality. One of my favourite passages from the story describes a scene in which the protagonists are all riding in a car, and one of the characters wants to listen to a romantic song, but is afraid of being judged for it, and ultimately, is prevented from listening to it.

This particular story is full of pathos and yet, it appears to have been written with a light hand. I read it again after a year of reading several other authors before I decided to approach the writer and translator for permission to publish an extract for the anthology.

An extract from the introduction to Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing:
Editing this anthology has also been a personal journey. Some books felt like a personal tryst with truth, philosophy and cultural identity. Some were bottled-up forebodings, full of cruel prescience. Others infected me with a grey groping in the midst of bewildering change. Often, I would tweet a few lines as soon as I had read them. I couldn't wait to share with the world a tiny fraction of what I had right now!

I am hoping to convey to you, dear reader, a portion of the joy, the rage, the comfort, the kinship that I have found. It was only after reading all these women writers that I was convinced of the need for this anthology, even though other anthologies already existed. The most significant one is an intensive two-volume set edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. This set included as many women writers as could be established as authors. Other anthologies have appeared with an emphasis on language, genre, 'new' voices; voices from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, 'saint' poets, and so on.

This anthology does not seek to document all literary contributions by all Indian women. There are thousands of women writers and it is beyond the scope of a single volume to include all. I expected to include between eighty and ninety writers. I have done my best to represent each era and region but limited myself to existing translations or those forthcoming shortly.

Apart from the problem of not being able to include all writers, in some cases, it was all but impossible to firmly establish authorship. The Rig Veda refers to female rishis like Ghosa, Lopamudra, and Apala, but scholars do not seem to agree that they authored hymns or verses. I have heard of women like Bavri Saheb, Sheikh Rangrejin and Taj who are believed to have written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but could not find books featuring their original work. It would take several lifetimes to rescue all the texts that have disappeared from print or have never been translated.

We do have access to verses in Prakrit, translated beautifully by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in The Absent Traveller, which resonate powerfully thousands of years later. But while they are written in a feminine voice, and may have been written by women, there is no way to establish individual authorship and therefore I have not included them here. Matters are further complicated by the fact there is a definite tradition of men writing in the first person, from a female perspective. For the same reason, I chose not to include folk literature where it is not clear who the author is.

In trying to decide what to include, I also examined the question of ‘Indianness’. Historically, India (Hindustan or Bharat) was an entity that shifted as kingdoms were won or lost, but it was contained mainly within the subcontinent. So, of course I have considered all writers who belong to the current map of India. Partition in 1947 complicates matters but I settled the issue by including writers who were writing extensively and getting published before Partition, like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. If they were born before 1947 but most of their writing was published in independent Pakistan or Bangladesh, I have left them out.

Many ‘Indian’ writers not only live abroad but were born, bred and educated in other nations. I cannot settle prickly questions about cultural versus national identity but I decided to go with some basic rules: I would not privilege Indian writing in English over other languages, especially where good translations are available; I would look for our spiritual, cultural, mythological and political history; I would pick narratives set within India as far as possible. I have avoided diaspora writing, particularly if it is set in other nations.

Genres represented include poetry, drama, novels, short fiction and non-fiction. I tried to focus on writers whose body of work was not restricted to speeches, letters or newspaper columns. I also avoided diary extracts. I very reluctantly excluded the memoirs of Binodini Dasi, Hamsa Wadkar, Protima Bedi—I would urge readers to read those remarkable works. I grappled with the notion of ‘writer’ for a long while and eventually decided that, at least for the twentieth century, I ought to focus on writers who created a body of work and not only one memoir. The exceptions are texts that capture a slice of women’s history at times when reading and writing was strongly discouraged, if not forbidden, like Rassundari Devi’s and Ramabai Ranade’s memoirs.

I read and considered the work of women playwrights where it was available in English translation but did not include screenplays and narratives about the making of films. I do believe that film scripts may well be a literary genre of the future. But I also believe that we must learn to read screenplays without reference to, without access to, the audio-visual production they lead to. We should be able to judge them on purely literary grounds, and that time has not yet come. We can, and do, read scripts written for the stage, regardless of the productions they resulted in.

Wherever decisions were difficult, I have weighed in on the side of literary craft and genre-bending abilities. Another deciding factor was the possession of a distinctive voice, a definite way of observing the world and remarking upon it. This is what unites writers as disparate as Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Irawati Karve, Nayantara Sahgal, Volga and Suniti Namjoshi. They have all pushed the boundaries of content and form while offering a fresh feminist perspective.

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