Women of their word: Ritu Menon on trends and developments in South Asian literature
Some time in the early-1990s, I met a literary editor at one of London’s foremost literary imprints, and asked him about the unexpected number of novelists from South Asia being published in England.
Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Michael Ondaatje, Hanif Kureshi, Romesh Gunasekera, Kiran Nagarkar, Pico Iyer, Aamer Hussein… Gita Mehta.
His response was unexpected — “Nothing interesting in English coming out of England”. But what was more interesting for me was the absence of South Asian women in that galaxy.
A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since then — or rather, a lot of ink has been spilt, a great deal of it by women!
The trickle that began with Shashi Deshpande, Anita Desai, Bapsi Sidhwa, Meena Alexander, Bharati Mukherjee, and others became a flood after the 1997/98 publication of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things.
Kamila Shamsie, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tahmina Anam, Moni Mohsin, Radhika Jha, Uzma Aslam Khan, Anuradha Roy, Sabyn Jhaveri-Jilani, Sara Suleri, Jean Arasanayagam, Yasmin Gooneratne, Anjali Joseph, Sunetra Gupta… and these are only tip of the English-language iceberg.
A whole sea of women writing in the dozens of regional languages across the subcontinent, is lapping at the shores, waiting to be read via translation.
Are more women writing now than ever before, or is it simply that more are being published? A bit of both, I’d say.
There’s a new generation of talented, confident, cosmopolitan, media-savvy young women who are finding their voice, and there’s a growing interest in listening to what they have to say.
They are dispelling stereotypes, avoiding exoticism, telling it like it is — and finding an audience not only at home, but in the world. They are quite at home in the world.
When literary prizes begin to acknowledge South Asia as a literary site, you know that publishing will follow suit.
Of the many awards now being presented in India, only the DSC Prize is focused on South Asia’s literary production —albeit only fiction — both in original English and in translation.
The prize makes an important point by recognising the whole region, choosing to internationalise its award and offer winners the visibility that this affords.
But it’s not just the writers whose names will become familiar to readers outside, a whole subcontinent and its culture and society are on offer.
The countries that comprise the region are a literary cornucopia for any writer, with a rich diversity of languages, ethnicities, religions, customs and practices to draw upon and render imaginatively.
This deep vein is being tapped in the most interesting writing being published today, not only in South Asia, but on South Asia, in other parts of the world. (Of the 2019 entries submitted to DSC, 27% of the authors are not South Asian citizens, and 30% of the publishers are based outside the region.)
Of the 90 works of fiction submitted, 47% are by women, and of the debut novelists, 41% are women. These would be remarkable figures, anywhere, but they are especially significant for us.
One of the first tentative conclusions one can draw from this is that more women writers are finding their primary readers among other women, and that this spurs their writing in unexpected ways.
Take the relatively recent urban phenomenon of book reading groups across the region — all are initiated by women, run by them, and populated by them, too.
The books they read as a group are, more often than not, written by women, and likely to be circulated among other women — friends or family — who are not members of the reading group.
Another recent phenomenon is literary awards for fiction, of which there are now several, including for translation. This is an important and welcome addition, for in a region with, literally, dozens of languages, good translations are a vital resource.
All the literary prizes in India recognise translations — and translators — but, as far as I’m aware, only the DSC considers writing from all nine countries in South Asia.
Its initiative in this respect is exemplary, for it is not only inclusive in its literary intervention, it is making an important literary point.
Ritu Menon is a co-founder of Kali for Women, and has been active in women’s movements for 25 years.