I would start this small piece with some questions that were integrated into my literary journey. The first question I encountered came from elders – who, when I showed them my work, asked “Who wrote it for you?” This was a very negative question to face at an early age, a question that indicated that others wrote up pieces for young children; it also implied that writing for others was almost acceptably conventional, and that it could be suggested without injuring the pride of a beaming young child. The second question came from novelist Rabeya Khatun, my amma
’s cousin. I was a teenager sitting in her room (ironically, full of dolls and dolls’ houses), facing her calm beauty, when she asked me, “Why write? Oh don’t! As a woman, wouldn’t you find any better profession than this? It has adverse effects.” The question came with an answer this time. The third one came from the editor of a web-magazine, to whom I had submitted a story. The pivotal part of the story detailed a secret abortion, and the editor smilingly asked me, “Did you have an abortion? It’s quite obvious that you know.” (The question came with an answer again.) The fourth and fifth question, and so on, were mostly about who my partner was, who I lived with etc. Inevitably they came whenever I went to collect my contributor fees from offices. Now, questions are like dead onion skins, they come away quite easily. The stinging object is inside with a solidity of mass in it, and there is an eye-watering capacity in the stings. But I chose not to be affected, in the way that sometimes one chooses to remain unaffected. It becomes easier when luminous tears and laughter follow you like passing clouds, when you are treading a journey like no other – transported to a dreamland and brought back to reality again.
Yes, I have been ostracized in Manu Samhita, I have been called the “decorative sex" by Wilde, and still I won’t seek the refuge of my biological entity. Still, I am too proud to let go of my uniqueness in the universe, and the art I make is sovereign.
Being a woman and being a writer, people expect me to have a different understanding of the world and a different way of dealing with the duality. To me, it does not suggest a duality, it is a part of the multitude – the synergy that one contains without pondering twice. People expect to hear a voice different from men and people don’t expect to hear a voice different from men, which is the adverse effect of writing as a female writer. Then again, I myself am too proud and too autonomous to consider these as expectations. I expect to surpass myself (and other writers) irrespective of their mere biological entity. I expect to be judged for the quality of the writing I produce, irrespective of any identity I may have possessed, and continue to possess – no matter how akin it makes me to the sex that was killed, mutilated and burnt alive as widows, witches and philosophers. Yes, I have been ostracized in Manu Samhita, I have been called the “decorative sex" by Wilde, and still I won’t seek the refuge of my biological entity. Still, I am too proud to let go of my uniqueness in the universe, and the art I make is sovereign.
There was a tendency of boxing women’s writing as “voice of a woman” in the patriarchal world of Bengali literature. I am deliberately writing “was,” as I believe and hope that they do not exist anymore. We had designated pages as if it were a bus ride where we were allocated seats, and men chivalrously offered us seats.
We were expected to talk about socio-cultural problems we faced in self-inflicting pity in our literature; we were expected to show some sort of flair for making art in those pages, which admittedly might go in vain, as we were ultimately mere objects of sexual gratification and domesticity. Those pages reaffirmed what society recommended, whereas the state did not offer seats or quotas in public exams for us, and nor were we granted a differentiated syllabus for any specialized skills. So, why would there be subsidized pages exclusively for women’s writing and intellectual exercises? Why would female writers have a clan to dress up regularly, have regular potluck parties of mashed vegetables (in rude and amusing shapes), and face the pack of male writers? It clearly shows a subconscious sense of defeat, and it shows a suspicion toward the opposite sex that they will fail to recognize a woman if she represents a singular identity. It shows that the solitary entity of a writer is not sufficient to endow a woman with confidence, that women need to congregate in “murmurations” to let others know that they are there. Isn’t an artist’s journey supposed to be a self-contained one?
Am I missing the fact that I am talking about a prevailingly male-dominant society where men are immensely patronizing and condescending? Do I not notice how easily and unfairly men can turn into literary cults while employing more or less the same effort in writing as women when the latter can’t? Am I losing the link between the practice and the society wherein it is practiced? Maybe I am. Maybe I stubbornly believe in the complex progression of a society that recognizes power when it sees it. Maybe I choose to believe that people – when treated with dignity – becomes respectful. Maybe, deep down inside, I feel the power of writing is iridescent; it shines through.
It is not easy to surpass the complexity of choosing both – the bliss of domestic life and the wondrous journey of a writer. Tracy Emin once said, “I would have been either 100% mother or 100% artist. There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men.” It is a hard choice for women as they are emotionally torn between the two, Emin said. A woman who works in the office will run to be with family while a woman in the studio will dread to leave her art. Well, at the moment, I choose to call myself and my proud compatriots ambidextrous, and bask in the glory of being so.
Shagufta Sharmeen Tania was an architect and designer before she became a writer. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in the Bengali-speaking areas of both Bangladesh and India. She is the author of two novels and two short story collections, and her work has appeared in Wasafiri and the Asia Literary Review. Currently, she is writing a historical novel set during the failed Bengal Partition of 1905.