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Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan


Writer's block

  • It's taken several hundred years for Indian women to be able to raise their voices and join in the conversation—so many years, in fact, that automatically dismissing the woman writer is almost second nature for most male writers.

In the particular profession I am in—the Writing Of Books—it seems that there's only so much room on the bench, and each new person coming in has a chance at pushing you off it. Readers, we are told, are fickle, and so if you don't dangle your new and shiny thing (pardon the phallic metaphor, but since mostly only the men are taken seriously, I need to dangle everything I can) in the face of the public, almost relentlessly, your book is consigned to back shelves, forgotten by everyone but you. And your mother.

It's hard to be not jealous of other women's successes, therefore. When every success they have feels like a loss for you. Attention turned to that woman over this one. After all, we are told, the public has limited mind space for women as it is, they don't want to see us all, the entire kit, bang and caboodle of us. They want to see our representative, who will go to literary festivals and make up for having no women on most of the panels, by being the Token. The readers—vast, anonymous—want to meet the Token, but they don't want to meet all of us clamouring and clawing at the curtain from the other side. A surfeit of women would be too much for them to take.

Recently, I began to think about my jealousy. When one Indian woman writer gets better reviews than I do. When another snags a hefty advance for her next book. Even the smallest of cuts—when one gets lauded all over Facebook for a bit of writing she's done, and you suddenly feel like everyone's been invited to the party except you. I used to seethe silently, a big black cloud of bad mood hovered over my head, I vowed to never read their books, never until someone acknowledged my genius. For, wasn't I also there? Wasn't I, too, in the same space? You tend to think of your failures a lot more than your successes, and I wasn't a count-your-blessings kind of girl. I ignored all the literary festivals I had been invited to and focussed on the ones I hadn't. If someone had brought up these other women's books in front of me, likely I would have made a dismissive face. Jealousy is an ugly thing, especially when it makes you as bad as all the people you normally deride for being anti-feminist.

Then, a couple of years ago, my thoughts underwent a sea change. I think a New Literary Darling had just been launched, and she was the Token Woman for that year. I was coming off the less-than-great reception to my third book, one I had worked extremely hard on, and one that was more or less ignored. I set my jaw, teeth clenched, eyes prepared to roll, when I read that New Literary Darling had been reviewed in a fancy foreign paper. The trigger clicked on my jealousy gun, but for the first time, I had run out of ammo. Instead, an alien thought entered my mind. “Isn't it nice,” piped up my brain, “That this person is paving the way for Indian women writers to be recognised in the West as real writers, not just providers of exotica?” I was still a little envious, sure, I wasn't a saint, but from that moment on, I began to consider my sisters in the craft a little differently.

It's taken so long for all of us to get to this space, so long for the bench to actually fill up, that we can't be resentful of those who want to join us. It's actually great news if you think about it, and by putting silly professional jealousy into the mix, we are doing a great disservice to the feminist movement as a whole. It's taken several hundred years for Indian women to be able to raise their voices and join in the conversation—so many years, in fact, that automatically dismissing the woman writer is almost second nature for most male writers. (Salman Rushdie dismissing Jane Austen, America's darling Jonathan Franzen dismissing women writers in general and bestselling author Jennifer Weiner, in particular.) Just go to any of India's thousand literary festivals and you will see the Hallowed Older Male Author looking amused and uninterested in anything the women authors have produced.

It's even a thing that I have noticed with men who write non-fiction vs women who do. The men are likely to flaunt their research in a big, obvious showy way. “Research Penis” syndrome as it were. The women usually shrug one shoulder in a self-deprecatory way, saying shyly, “Oh, it's only non-fiction.”

Perhaps you are not a writer, but I can bet at whatever your chosen profession is, there are very few women at the top, and those women are all duking it out, not with the men, as you would expect, but with the other women. When instead, we should be propping each other up, changing the concept of this planet as a “man's world” and making the playing field more level.

One thing you can do—and one thing I have started doing is reading more books by women. I would suggest Indian women, but that's just because that's the country we are in, and I find it interesting to read different perspectives about the same place. But read more women. It's even a trending hashtag with a Twitter handle of its own (#Readwomen). And let's please get some more benches. It's getting crowded in this party.

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