Book Review – Shaping the world: women writers on themselves

shaping-the-world-400x400-imadw6zjxmpv6fz2My review was published in the Deccan Herald recently. Please find the review below:

Shaping the world: women writers on themselves
Edited by Manju Kapur
Hay House
2014, pp 272
Rs. 399

SHE VOICES HERSELF“Reading novels seems to me such a normal activity, while writing them is an odd thing to do,”wrote Susan Sontag, the American writer-activist. That was when reading fiction was common.

Today, it is the fashion to bemoan the decline of reading habit. On the other hand, writers generate the kind of interest they never did in the past. In the age of lit fests and glitzy book launches, writers are forced to shed the cloak of invisibility and present themselves to the naked eye, to answer a bombardment of questions: Why do you write? How do you write? How did you begin? Where do your ideas originate? How much of it is autobiographical?

If the writer happens to be a woman, there are further queries — making it clear that while writing is no longer an odd thing to do, a woman writer remains an oddity. Do you struggle with the label of being a woman writer? Does it affect the choice of material and themes you write on? Was it difficult finding a publisher? How on earth did you get the time? These are among the FAQs that writers bravely attempt to answer. They are also the raison d’etre for Shaping the world: Women writers on themselves.

Edited by Manju Kapur — a novelist known for the sharp, restrained, often ironic portraits of the north Indian middle class — the book is presented in the form of very personal accounts by acclaimed contemporary writers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Twenty-three different voices, ‘detailing their writerly selves,’ in tones ranging from chatty and frank to reflective and poetic, could become confusing, but here they are harmonised, partly due to the fact that as writers in English they have commonalities.

‘When we took up our pens, whose example was there before us? Whose voice did we have echoing in our ears that would validate ours? We had the English literature we grew up with, the British school and adventure stories we consumed, with descriptions, personal appearances, names, food and places that were totally foreign to our context,’ says Kapur. While Blyton and Christie are mentioned as childhood influences, George Orwell’s Why I write and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own have been frequently quoted. Apparently, if you want to be a writer, you must read the first essay; if you are a woman who wants to be a writer, you must also read the second.

What, besides love for reading, fuels the impulse to write? ‘I like the malleability of words, how I can play with them like a child,’ says Janice Pariat, who, like Anita Nair, Anuradha Marwah and Tishani Doshi, was an early starter, keeping notebooks and secret diaries. ‘Storytellers are forever sifting for the word,’ says Shinie Antony, who, besides writing skills, displayed a fine business sense by playing scribe to classmates who wanted to petition God, complete an essay, draft a love letter — all for a fee. Others — Shashi Deshpande, Bapsi Sidhwa, Kavery Nambisan, Jaishree Mishra, Mishi Saran, Susan Visvanathan — were bitten by the bug after they had lived a little more, travelled, acquired degrees, a job, a husband, a child or two.

‘The reasons a writer feels compelled to create an imaginary world can spring from many sources,’ writes Meira Chand, ‘but to me all reasons appear to be rooted in the need of individuals to examine issues of relevancy to their lives.’ For her debut novel, Jaishree Mishra drew from a well of painful personal memories; Janice Pariat’s collection of short stories was inspired by the magical words and images of the Khasi folklore of her childhood. Social observation, on the other hand, was the source for Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupé and Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin’s The Diary of a Social Butterfly.

Though several of these writers have also trained and worked as journalists, copy writers and academics, writing fiction has not been a career so much as a calling. ‘Writing = joy + gratitude,’ says Sri Lankan Ru Freeman. ‘For when I write I know who I am,’ says Nair.
Each of these essays is special for its shape, tone and flavour. Brimming with details about where they write (the dining table is a favourite), when they write (pre-dawn hours, usually); helpful advice such as the importance of establishing a routine or Namita Devidayal’s ‘When you write you are better off not thinking about the audience, or whether it is going to sell, or whether it will be liked by your mother,’ the book — notable for the candour, commitment and generosity of its contributors — is a worthwhile read for readers, writers, wannabe writers and those who are curious about women who spend their time inventing fantasies

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