Dialogue January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3
Problems of Women Writers
To begin on a personal note, as a woman writer (poet) I found that working at a full-time job, caught up in the struggle for survival and living in make do arrangements at a working women’s hostel, I was slowly getting bogged down by the sheer futility of life. I longed to get away, to have a real life. And then like baptismal waters, a review of my book of poems brought poetry back into my life and I was ready to set out on my voyage of discovery.
A meeting with a woman writer made me confront the past and come to terms with the break in my life. Having had to start all over again after a traumatic separation, I deliberately avoided writing about the unhappy parts of my life. Then one day, someone introduced me to Judith Kroll who showed me some of her poems dealing with divorce and I was suddenly able to confront the grief, the emotions I had hidden for so many years. I quote a few lines from her poem Divorce, etc.
‘And upstairs near the window where sunlight gilds a child’s collection of shells
Perfection of spirals
Whoever wonders what their lives like, the lives of such creatures that lived inside such beauty ?’
In this sensitive description of the empty children’s rooms, the pain of separation is brought out. After this, I was able to start writing again with the same vigour and enthusiasm I had had when I was a student.
Living abroad is slightly insulated from the flux of life around one. There is more time to think and to write. In India, one is caught up in so many criss-crossing streams, so that sometimes poetry takes a back seat. Yet, intimately felt experiences and events, even traumas and heartbreaks form vital ingredients in the crucible of poetry. And these are an enriching part of life in one’s country.
If one has to list the problems of women writers, the list is endless. To begin with, the paucity of jobs for creative writers in most Indian universities. Most fledgling creative writers have to go into soul-deadening jobs like advertising, public relations and journalism, etc. This is compounded by the inflexibility of jobs. And of course, there is the omnipresent office politics, the constant rat-race. Moreover, there is a lack of grants for creative writers as opposed to developed countries where both publishers and arts organizations support writers by giving money. Finally, there is the politics of writer’s patronage groups, viz. poetry of the back-slapping variety, proper circuits where you get noticed.
For the single woman writer as opposed to the single male writer, there is the problem of too many pointing fingers. Disconcerted parents, family pressure. As Viginia Woolf said that a woman writer needs a ‘room of her own’ to survive. Recently, critics Susan Gilbert and Gubar have written of the Victorian woman writer as the ‘madwoman in the attic’. Jane Austen used to write on scraps of paper to hide her writing from the family. Elizabeth Barett was resued from an autocratic father by Robert Browning. The Bronte sisters published their novels under the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell. Sylvia Plath was haunted by her troubled relationship with her father.
Coming from a patriarchal culture, writing is always an act of personal faith, an assertion of individuality for the woman writer. And this always raises hackles, because the artist is perceived as subverting social conventions.
Many women poets I have known have complained about these problems. My friend, Sagari Chhabra, in her book The Professional Woman’s Dreams talks about how she feels discriminated, isolated –
But I am no new woman
In this brave new world
Only a human, craving, seeking
Begging on bended knees
Tapping on panes
Going quite insane for love
The inner revolution.
The Canadian poet, Susan Musgrave, talked of having a very traditional father who felt that women were supposed to spend all their time ‘carving the roast,’ as it were. Kath Anderson, my friend, who had to give up active creative writing to bring up her two daughters mentioned in her letter to me: ‘All those years have been incredibly intense and inward and breathless like one long underwater swim in a deep blue sea.’ Other similar experiences, though not unpleasant, may also be impediments to creativity These may include all aspects of raising and caring for the family, which may leave little time for personal writing.
Avenues for publication for women writers have received a boost by the establishment of women’s presses. Women leaders have helped women writers in publishing their books. One is caught between the ‘feminist’ and feminine’ groups. People can’t accept you as an artiste—either you have to frequent the beauty parlours and boutiques or join the group who changes ‘mankind’ to ‘humankind’ because it displays gender bias.
Then there is the media revolution which has consigned books to the back shelf. ‘Who reads poetry anymore? We watch MTV.’ The list of obstacles is endless.
All these outer impediments to creativity exist and influence a writer’s oeuvre but still art is created under very adverse circumstances—poetry in a garret, novel after personal disaster. There is something indestructible about the urge of the muses, the voice of Saraswati—it is heard with the still heart, senses turned within—like the water diviner intent upon his work—painstaking, slowly and after a long desperation the Y stick jumps—as the sources well up.
There is still a lot of place for poetry in people’s lives which are so devoid of beauty and wonder. Creativity is almost spiritual, it springs from within as in Adi Shankara’s Nirvana Shataka
‘I am not my eyes, ears, touch or smell
Neither sky nor earth nor fire nor water…
I am the consciousness of the Supreme Bliss Within.’