The Women Writers’ Fest in Delhi saw fearless and candid expressions of desire, intent and a refusal to flinch under the male gaze.
Perhaps it is a fairly valid question: Do women writers need a festival all to themselves? The pair behind the travelling Women Writers’ Fest – founder of the storytelling platform SheThePeople Shaili Chopra, and author and co-curator Kiran Manral – are used to being asked this over and over again. At the Delhi edition on March 10, as the auditorium at Instituto Cervantes in a quiet corner of the centre of the capital gradually filled up with writers, bloggers – some with children in tow – and curious students, Chopra spoke up: “Women are still a community waiting to be mainstreamed. The kind of writing women push boundaries with is because they are women…At this festival, you should know, you don’t have to be politically correct.”
Indeed, none of the speakers, or those in the audience, seemed pressed to censor themselves. In its second year, the festival appeared to have sharpened the questions it was throwing up, while adding Jaipur to the list of cities it travelled to. Whether it was chatter on writing erotic stories, finding the right spin for writing about parenting, or examining the role of women in the business of books, the day-long event – with a writing workshop by Kiranjeet Chaturvedi taking up the lunch hour – felt like the friendliest festival I have ever been to. Chopra later told me that the curators took care to include non-power voices. The absence of the male gaze – aside from the male cameramen – lent it a distinct lightness. I took notes furiously between the laughs and sorted them into five points that mattered:
What women write about when they write about love (or lust)
Is mush out, and dark, stormy love in? wondered a panel featuring a string of writers of romantic fiction including Manral and Vaishali Mathur, an editor at Penguin. Maybe… maybe not? “We have become more real about love,” said Mathur. “Love, sex and marriage are different and don’t have to come from one person,” author Shuchi Singh Kalra put it plainly, declaring love to be deceitful and complicated and confusing, while lust is, she said, honest and surely harder to fake.
Of course, writing about erotica isn’t trouble free for a woman. Author Bhaavna Arora said her manuscript of erotic fiction was burnt by her horrified parents. She had written about her aunt’s story, no less, and none other than her grandmother came to her rescue. Kalra’s grandmother, in fact, found the erotic portions of her book not “hot enough”.
The winning line came from Manral, who, when asked by the moderator Kanchana Banerjee whether happy endings were outdated, said: “There’s no ‘happily ever after’. There’s ‘happily right now’. ‘Happily ever after’ is a myth that has been fed to us. Let’s grab the right now, because you can never foresee the future…We are opening ourselves up to loving more than one person. We are in a state of flux as we are finding what works for each individual. There is more acceptance for being polyamorous,” she added.
What women mean when they say parenting is a cruel joke
“You might face the world with a mask on but children just rip it right off,” began child psychologist Shelja Sen on a candid note on a panel about motherhood as the definitive female experience in women’s writing. “Parenting is about understanding yourself better, especially your inadequacies…about what you are ashamed of,” she added. Which is why when writing about parenting, humour can diffuse the tension, as author Amee Misra discovered when she wrote a memoir about her first three years as a mother in Stop Licking My Arm. “Motherhood is the most ridiculous human experience,” she said, to much applause, “…I wonder how more people don’t find it funny.”
There is also a deep sense of shame attached to mixed feelings of motherhood, which drove writer and filmmaker Natasha Badhwar to closely guard her secret blog “My Daughter’s Mum” for a long time. “When the funny moments happened, I shared them on Facebook, the poetic moments went on Twitter, and I kept the conflicted feelings to my blog.” When her blog began to find an audience, Badhwar felt “exposed” but found her experience resonate with a wide variety of readers, even those who were not mothers.
Her popular pieces on parenting in a newspaper act as a way to unmask her fears, one column at a time. “You would think, what’s the big deal about my experience, yet, when you write it, and write it well, it gives people courage, and that courage comes back to me,” she said, talking about how the internet has enabled so many mothers to swap stories, becoming a virtual circle of support. Bloggers in the audience wanted to know: how best can you write your parenting memoir? “By saying it as it is, going beyond shame and addressing hate and hostility in our writing,” offered entrepreneur Nazia Erum, whose recent book Mothering a Muslim exposes bullying in schools on religious lines.
What women mean when they talk about (in)equality at the workplace
“Let’s cut the bullshit and talk about who really controls the money in the publishing business – it’s the men,” Arpita Das of Yoda Press refused to beat around the bush on a panel about whether there was indeed a gender gap in publishing. On the face of it, it would seem like the publishing industry is well-balanced, with many women holding high editorial positions. But not at the power centre.
“Our voices are respected,” insisted Amaryllis Press editor Rashmi Menon, while Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, who heads Copyrights and Translation at Vani Prakashan, shared her positive experience of working her way through the Hindi belt in smaller towns. More women in editorial roles has brought in diverse and distinct voices in our catalogues but things will not change adequately if more women do not occupy positions in the management, added Das. The only male representative on any panel through the day, Scholastic India’s Shantanu Duttagupta, said he believes things are more balanced in children’s publishing in India. “It isn’t about how many women there are in an organisation,” countered Das, speaking about the male gaze in publishing, “but what the experience of the women working there is.”
On another panel, talking about breaking through the “bro narratives” at work, journalist Namita Bhandare wondered why we were not outraged that 20 million women have dropped out of the workforce. Is the lack of safe public transport and a mindset that women have a expiry date and suffer a backbencher syndrome leading to more invisibility and unpaid work? In parallel, technology has made it easier for many women to work from home – but that does not really challenge the “bro narratives”, put in Chopra.
Many women also seem to find it a viable option to strike out as entrepreneurs. This helps them to be “in control of their narrative”, and not have to face the humiliation of not being promoted in organisations in the manner that men are. “There is social change but we need more enabling structures for women to be able to grab opportunities,” said banker and author Sonu Bhasin.
What happens when women write about women
Young writer-activist Gurmehar Kaur made everyone a little teary as she read out a sensitive excerpt from her debut book, Small Acts of Freedom. This panel on non-fiction narratives by women explored whether a woman writer lent dignity to a woman’s narrative. It is perhaps trickier when the story is autobiographical, Kaur found. “I had fights with my mother about writing on grieving, sorrow and the low points in our lives in the book. She said, ‘why are you making me look weak and talking about the pain I left behind?’” But the strength of such a narrative comes from mining your vulnerability and weakness to write about your experience truthfully, believes Kaur.
“Women have a different access point, which deconstructs the narrative that has been created by the state and the society,” observed Kota Neelima, speaking of her own experience writing the book Widows of Vidharbha. Women are telling more stories than before, especially in the last twelve months, said Chopra, and that itself is noteworthy in a world where we have “gendered mobocracy ready to attack”. What they require is a greater sense of confidence.
“It took me five years to think I had a compelling story to tell,” said journalist and author Sunetra Choudhury, who said she feels many men, on the other hand, would consider themselves experts on any subject fairly quickly. A heightened sense of empathy and the absence of a male gaze made women’s writings on other women more powerful.
What women really want…
…among other important things, is not to be attacked for whatever they want to say or do. Women’s voices are louder today, and an important panel highlighted the backlash seen online in the mass trolling that tries to shut down women’s voices with rape threats and abuse. There are organisations working to understand how trolling works and how it can be countered, said Anja Kovacs of Internet Democracy Project.
After journalist Karnika Kohli spoke about the kind of trolling she encountered – quite distinct from the sort her male editor faces – and how it affected her, a woman in the audience felt empowered to raise her hand and share her own experience for the first time publicly, of facing death threats for her tweet and feeling particularly intimidated by them as a single mother.