Tuesday, November 02, 2004

FEMINALIEN

A young M.Phil student has made my work the subject of her dissertation. We corresponded by e-mail earlier this year and met a couple of times. Last month, she was kind enough to send me a CD containing the dissertation. I can't tell you its title or her name yet but will hope to, some time in January next year. For the purposes of this post, I'll refer to her as "M.Phil.". And yes, it's all been rather fun.

She's focused specifically on two stories from "Hot Death, Cold Soup" -- the title story and Stains -- and on "Getting There". It was particularly satisfying for me to see a close reading of GT. At the time I wrote the book, I had hoped it would be picked up for its comments about feminism and the protagonist(i.e., myself)'s difficulties in relation to the movement at least as much for its description of my ill-fated trip to Holland.

Alas, with reviewers like Anita Roy dismissing it as "chick lit"(though I think she meant it as a compliment), there wasn't much chance of that -- it got its scattering of chuckles and raspberries, before being forgotten. I felt suitably put in my place. My editor did try to warn me that the book would do better if positioned as a "novel", but I couldn't stomach that idea. The whole point of writing the book (for me) was to produce a sort of confessional, even though it's a very mild one as confessionals go. No way I was going to pass it off as fiction!

So it reached the market looking neither like a novel nor a panties-off memory-download. I hated the cover (a cheap rip-off of an Air France ad) and felt that the publisher (Picador UK) had lost confidence in the book, which in turn meant that I lost confidence in it myself. I wished -- and STILL wish -- they had agreed with me, that one of my drawings on the cover would have made all the sense in the world. *sigh* The book wouldn't have done any better on the market, but at least it would have looked stylish or, next best, weird.

Given this history, it is certainly VERY gratifying that someone has bothered to give the book serious consideration. M.Phil's point of entry is feminism, an ideology that she subscribes to and has made the focus of her work. My initial response to her, when she wrote to say she was going to be looking at my work through feminist spectacles was that I don't call myself a feminist any more, which may make it rather difficult for her to proceed. But she persevered. The result, I think, is quite interesting.

I continue to maintain that I'm not a feminist while M.Phil. believes, regardless of what I say about myself, that my work is surely irrigated very liberally by streams of feminist thought. And yes, I would agree, it is. Does this mean I can never cease to be a feminist? Or are we allowed to switch off our ideological orientation in mid-life? And if we do, does that mean we are doomed to drift, rudderless, through the rest of our lives? Or that we cannot be trusted to maintain any set of deeply cherished truths? Or is it possible to find other, equally great or greater, truths in mid-life (and beyond)?

I don't know.

Between the ages of 17 and 30, I would have definitely described myself as a feminist, even though I was starting to fall off (as described in GT) the platform in my mid-twenties. By my mid-thirties I was uncomfortable being included in feminist forums, but was still okay being connected with Kali for Women, the publisher who brought out "Hot Death ..". By that time, in 1996, I was 43 and had confessed to Urvashi (Butalia, co-founder, with Ritu Menon, of KfW) that I no longer called myself a feminist. She said it was all right, she didn't mind(though I think Ritu may have). I felt guilty: I was and still am very grateful to Kali for publishing my stories and I continue to think that the printing of Hot Death was easily my most pleasurable publishing moment. Nevertheless, even at the time it came out, I think it may have been more honest to say that I was actually uncomfortable being FEMALE, not just a feminist.

This is a statement that I make with boring frequency even though I know I'm never taken very seriously. It's an irritating statement, because it's like someone saying she wants to run away from her own shadow. It can't be done -- and that being the case, it makes much better sense to enjoy what there is, than to be forever trying to run away from it. I know this. Still and all ... I run.

It's not that I'm interested in becoming or being some other sex(once upon a time there were two sexes, then three, then some time in the eighties it was reported that there were seven recognized sexes -- sexualities, perhaps is the better term -- but now, news just in from the front suggests there are at least thirteen. And growing). All regardless -- and perhaps because I am routinely asked to participate in feminist programs or co-opted for inclusion as a woman-artist or woman-writer (I turn down most invitations of this sort) -- I find myself butting my head against the familiar old walls, finding the familiar old bumps and bruises.

Speaking to M.Phil and reading her dissertation brought all the territory up once more. Once more the lurking, whisper-in-the-gut guilt -- there's a sense in which being a lapsed feminist is like breaking a sacred trust -- like saying "I don't believe in fairies!" out loud, and immediately flashing mental video of Tinkerbell, fluttering in distress ...

I believe that feminism is an ideology which works very well -- is perhaps crucially important -- for young women. Given the tough options life offers them, it becomes really useful to have something gender-specific to hang onto, to believe in and to build confidence. It's later on that it becomes harder to believe seriously in the idea that men and women are on a par or that there's justice and fair-play in the world.

Those of us (women) who have relatively pleasant and stress-free lives, when we look around -- how is it possible to ignore the wretchedness of other women's lives? How is it possible to sever the link between their female condition and their fate? I mean: is it possible to maintain the view that men and women "can" live as equals when we can see that equality between the sexes is by no means the norm anywhere in the animal kingdom, including amongst our species?

I have for a long time toyed with the notion that the problem (i.e., MY problem) with feminism lies in the defining label -- that is, the word "feminism" is what bothers me. It suggests that it's specific to women, whereas perhaps -- and this is only a trial-idea -- a better term would be one that suggests a grand general freeing up of humans from the trap of their birth-condition so that they can achieve whatever is the maximum of their potential. Or at any rate, just be happy.

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