Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
Sukrita Paul Kumar and Malashri Lal (eds)

Speaking for Myself:
An Anthology of Asian Women's Writing

New Delhi: Penguin Books India and India International Centre,
2009, ISBN: 9780143065333, xviii + 557 pp.
Price: Rs. 650

reviewed by Rajesh Kumar Sharma

  1. In the age of instant authoring, Speaking for Myself comes as a pleasant surprise. The way the book was put together—realised—makes in itself an interesting story of adventure and struggle. The story is nevertheless told with scholarly reserve by the editors Sukrita Paul Kumar and Malashri Lal. But for their extraordinary commitment and perseverance, the project would have been abandoned soon after it was begun. Locating, selecting, ordering and editing the contents of a work of such vast scope surely demanded the kind of resources that only the finest and sturdiest explorers possess. The editors, and their anonymous 'bright research assistants' as Kapila Vatsyayan describes them in her 'Foreword,' have earned the gratitude of all readers interested in contemporary literatures, women's studies and Asian cultures. No less important than the literary contents of the anthology are the lessons they share with the readers in respect of the prevailing state of availability of scholarly resources in the hitherto uncharted field of Asian women's writing. Their experiences reflect on the structural inequalities obtaining in the global literary and critical space in our time. They render painfully obvious the unremarked obviousness of Western domination of the production of knowledge and culture in the Asian part of the world. As they point out in the 'Introduction,' not only do works from the West rule the shelves of libraries and bookstores in Asian countries, more resources on Asia are available in the Western libraries than in the libraries of Asia.
  2. The greatest merit of the editors' pioneering work inheres, arguably, in its reconfiguring of the contemporary women's writing space in terms of Asia. This is accomplished in such a way as to allow the Asian diversity uninhibited play even as the lineaments of a pan-Asian sensibility emerge in unmistakable yet muted tones. In this sense it is a properly contemporary book, having structurally assimilated the most significant theoretical debates in literary and cultural theory in recent years.
  3. It is indeed rare to see such diversity of literary texts from so many languages rendered by different translators in a single volume. While, consequently, it would not be appropriate to comment on the quality of particular translations, something can be said on the nature of translation itself as it comes out here. One can see English exploding with strange new possibilities under the touch of other languages: a certain foreignising and regenerating influence is distinctly at work that would warm the hearts of Goethe and Foucault. And one can discern the harmonies of language itself (Walter Benjamin's 'pure language') in the space carved out by translation between the unknown translated and the known (yet estranged and estranging) language. The result is that even as literary mysteries (of the imaginary and the symbolic) are sensed, the rich materiality of languages (as forms of the real) too asserts itself: of course, the two are essentially inseparable.
  4. Of course, the title and the subtitle of the anthology too are only essentially inseparable: they actually constitute distinct, though related, entities. Speaking for Myself: An Anthology of Asian Women's Writing. There is a movement from 'speaking' to 'writing' and from the singular subject to the plural object. Actually, it is not so much a movement from one point to another as it is the journeying across a continuum that is indicated and the inscription of one in the other, subverting some of the constitutive presuppositions of the now obsolescent phallogocentric discourse. Honestly, I was fascinated and intrigued by Puja Ahuja's cover design: the vermillion red of 'for' nearly merging in the darker red of the Amrita Shergill painting in the background. The gentle flickering of 'for' between 'speaking' and 'myself,' appearing and disappearing between the two like a gossamer bridge seems to enact the im/possibility of the ground of the speaking subject itself. Indeed the three women in the painting (remarkably, of varying skin shades) are silent yet overflowing—almost overcome, almost overcast—with speech.
  5. The dedication of the book, to Sarojini Naidu, sets the predominant tone of the anthology. As the editors also note in the 'Introduction,' what connects the diverse writings here is their defiance of the stereotypes of Asian women, 'upheld generally by the rest of the world as passive, impoverished or anaemic.' There is no claim that the anthology is 'representative' of Asian women's contemporary writing; the only claim, stated with refreshing candour, is that it serves a certain purpose, 'sometimes overtly and at times, subtly,' which is the interrogation of the stereotypes.
  6. The anthology, comprising xviii + 557 pages, covers women's writing from 34 countries of Asia, organised by the editors into five regions. There are 74 texts in all, both stories and poems included. Short biographical notes on contributors further enrich the work.
  7. The quality of selections is consistently high. Personally, I expected to be disappointed here and there on account of the sheer number of texts; but I was not. In fact, there is a plenty of writing of a very high order, particularly from Palestine, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Tibet, Afghanistan, China, India, Azerbaijan, Thailand and Singapore. Heng Siok Tian's 'Journal Week' (Singapore), a poem in seven parts, offers a feast of existentially charged images before making this rebellious proclamation:

      I decide:
      not to live
      in a fairy-tale castle
      awaiting rescue,
      witness the unsung tragedies of
      heroines, maids, beaten wives,
      see myself in my sisters
      equally born
      of sinful apples.

    Qian Xi Teng's 'Medusa: Stone Poems' (also from Singapore) quietly takes the sheen off male heroism: 'A lot of heroes/creep here with over-polished shields.' Mona Sa'udi's fifth 'Untitled Poem' (Jordan) simultaneously warns and counsels in the finest traditions of philosophy, poetics and feminist politics:

      Women of the world
      Take over my dream
      Plant it in your womb:
      As you leave darkness behind
      Beware of becoming
      The captives of daybreak
      Dwell in the page and erupt from the stone
      As on Earth, so let it be.

    Contemporary history—violent, bloody, poignant—is the inescapable other peering through the palimpsest of poetry from Asia's war-torn regions. The following is from the Palestinian Hanan Mikha'il 'Ashrawi's 'From The Diary of an Almost-Four-Year-Old':

      I hear a nine-month-old
      has also lost an eye,
      I wonder if my soldier
      shot her too—a soldier
      looking for little girls who
      look him in the eye—
      I'm old enough, almost four,
      I've seen enough of life,
      but she's just a baby
      who didn't know any better.

  8. There are labyrinthine folds of irony and ingenuousness set back to back, through which the unspeakable horror of war is disclosed. Elsewhere, in the Vietnamese writer Ly Lan's story 'The Ghost,' the narrator registers the anguish of war as a witness:

      If war just means fighting, then I know nothing about it, even though I was born and grew up during the war. But if war means women's sorrow, misfortune, helplessness…these things were absorbed directly into my bloodstream when I was in my mother's womb.

    History appears in other guises in other texts. In the Russian Maria Arbatova's 'I am Called a Woman,' the Soviet political and economic experiment is diagnosed and exposed for its bureaucratic inhumanity. Once again, however, it is the narrator's sense of self-worth that provides the framing point of view. 'The Purification of Sita,' a story by the Indonesian writer Leila S. Chudori, rewrites the epic myth of Sita's ordeal. The cause of the protagonist's suffering lies not in her fidelity being put on trial (as in Valmiki's epic) but in her fiancé complacently taking her fidelity for granted while he himself, being a man, has succumbed to temptations of the flesh as a matter of course. The woman's anguish is deepened, not relieved, by the fact that she has actually been faithful to the man all those four long years when she has been away from him. Moreover, he is not yet her husband but only a fiancé.
  9. The Azerbaijani writer Afagh Masud's 'Sparrows' recreates a home falling apart and seen through the terrified and bewildered eyes of a little daughter. What wrenches her parents apart is never really spelled out, as the point of view firmly remains the innocent little girl's. Violence broods over the story, yet it never enters its diegetic frame except in an inexplicable, nearly ritual act when the girl kills a sparrow. Another excellent story is 'Zarrinkolah' by Shahrnush Parsipur, an Iranian writer. It is a story bordering on the fabulous and the mythical. The twenty-six-year-old prostitute Zarrinkolah begins to see all men as if they are headless, until one day a young girl advises her to 'pray and make a vow.' This unfreezes the rivers of sorrow and innocence in her and emancipates her into a spiritual quest.
  10. The Afghanistani writer Zohra Saed weaves pure magic with her short texts that blend poetry and story. 'What the Scar Revealed…' reads like pages from a poet's diary and reminds you of Rimbaud's intense world: 'While the night is threaded in gold, the lost city in her navel unwinds itself from swirls of skin and slips over this new city like a fog.' The companion piece 'Voices: Archive of Spines' paints an informal family get-together in bright, elusive images that create other-worldly luminosity out of the ordinary. But the great stakes are revealed only in the last line: 'I taste the past from which we have escaped with our lives.' History is never far away, always lying in ambush to pounce on you with undiminished ferocity.
  11. As a fruit of the Asia Project of the India International Centre, New Delhi, the anthology is a valuable contribution to the dialogue of cultures and civilisations. And it eminently succeeds in realising its larger objective of a meaningful reflection on the question of 'whether there is a specific entity called "Asian civilization and culture".'


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