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Published on: 02/1/09 5:51 PM

Book review: Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers: Rethinking  Subjectivity by Radha Chakravarty

 Feminist voices

 An in-depth account of how six women writers view women vis-a-vis the world.

There had to come a time when our post- colonial, post-Modern, post-feminist sisters would actually ask, “What is feminism?” That time, sadly, may be now. After the glorious age of Millett, Steinem, Friedan, Wolf and Co., the Movement continues to live, even thrive, but in such a low-key manner as to be self-effacing. Feminism has become a niche activity.

To that end, this book has come in good time. It examines the work of six major writers, women all, goes across countries and cultures, takes a fresh look at their concept of feminism, positing it squarely in our times. The writers are heavyweight word-wielders if not exactly vigilantes of feminism: Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Anita Desai, Mahasweta Devi, Margaret Atwood and Buchi Emecheta.

The book takes as its pivot Judith Butler’s pertinent query: “How can it be, that the subject, taken to be the condition for and instrument of agency, is at the same time, the effect of subordination as the deprivation of agency?” The aim is to envisage a future where women’s empowerment automatically leads to emancipatory changes in the larger social structures.

These novelists, as mentioned before, are not flag-bearers of the Movement but their stories are fully inclusive of the political dimensions of literature and its consequences. The strategic importance of thinking back through our foremothers, as indeed of the rich tradition of story- telling, is given full play here. Taking off on Simone de Beauvoir’s statement that “One is not born but rather, becomes a woman,” gender and genre are carefully parsed.

Female self empowerment is seen as a means to a larger end, the progress of society in general. So while gender is not an isolated issue, it is the primary mode of oppression suffered by women even as it is the source of their potential emancipation.

Doris Lessing’s early work, critics have said, anticipated the second wave of the Movement. There is less of challenge, more of integration, an inter-subjectivity among her women characters. This is what Lessing has to say about the male and female voice in literature: “A woman sees certain things very differently from the way a man does yet there are male writers who maintain they can plumb the depths of a woman’s soul. But the reverse is difficult. A woman can never completely get inside a man’s consciousness…”

Anita Desai, now, inhabits a cultural space that precludes the assumption of any set of social codes. She challenges the constructs of womanhood in dominant discourses through the voices of the women in her novels even as she has gone on record to say she has no interest in “a mass of women marching under the banner of feminism.” Gender is not the sole determinant in the lives of her women characters yet it casts a long shadow.

Buchi Emecheta replaces orature with writing but no less effect. As an expat writer from post- colonial Nigeria, she has her issues with feminists. “They are concerned with issues that are related to themselves,” she states, “..they think that by focusing on exotic issues in the Third World, they have internationalised their feminism.” Emecheta attempts to create post-colonial female characters and tells of their struggles both external and internal, in moving prose.

Margaret Atwood, while deeply suspicious of formulaic generalisations, delves deep into the silences that mark the traditional concept of woman.

As with Desai, gender for Atwood remains but one of many intersecting concerns. Atwood’s women characters toy with the idea of resistance, collective and individual. Women are not always idealised as unfortunate victims of callous male domination.

Toni Morrison emphasises the need for a collective, emancipatory vision. “As a black and a woman,” she says, “I have had access to emotions and perceptions that were unavailable to people who were neither.” For her, gender is a significant form of discrimination as well as a potential source of collective agency. She is arguably one of the best chroniclers of female subjectivity as a site for multiple forces.

Mahasweta Devi’s clear-eyed gaze uncovers the politics of gender. She has talked of an “anger, luminous and burning as the sun, directed against the system” and this is what she brings to her stories. She eschews myth for the essential truth, chronicles the political awakening of women both from the severely deprived class as well as the relatively better off. Her biting irony revolves around the commodification of motherhood; what we get then, is not easy to digest but the unvarnished truth, for all that.

In India, the mother concept, Prithvi, Lakshmi, Shakti and Kali, has always influenced the nation through the ages. “She is meek, docile, trusting, faithful and forgiving” according to Desai. The composite image is one of victim, mother, nurturer, submissive entity, creative and destructive being. Both Desai and Mahasweta Devi take on the concept and show how this stereotype can be challenged, tweaked even, if not completely repudiated or altered.

Radha Chakravarty is a Reader at the Department of English at Gargi College in New Delhi, as well as a writer, editor and publisher. She has done a more than competent job with this analysis. Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers: Rethinking Subjectivity is not the stuff of your regular everyday reading but is a valuable addition to the documentation on feminism.

Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers: Rethinking Subjectivity; Radha Chakravarty, Routledge, Price not given.

This ran in THE HINDU`S LITERARY REVIEW of 1 Feb 2009.

Feminism and Contemporary Women Writersfeminist voicesRadha Chakravarty

Sheila Kumar • February 1, 2009

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