Unlearning and Rediscovering Literature
By Anoushka Zaveri
I am a ferocious collector of quotes. Stumbling upon this seemingly inconspicuous post on Instagram made my hoarder-brain dance with joy, but as I scanned wise words from the most prominent painters of our time, I had an epiphany: what did the women artists say?
Only one of 17 panels features the words of a woman artist — the irreverent multimedia artist, Yayoi Kusama. Afraid that the ratio of the contents of my prized bookshelf was just as disproportionate as this post, I began surveying my old school grammar textbooks, the multiple ICSE-prescribed Shakspeare plays, the critical theory collections from college, my tattered copy of Eliot’s Wasteland, and my most detested — Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Everything I had been taught — right from my fifth grade Wren & Martin to Derrida and Foucault — was produced by men.
Appalled by the paltry number of women writers I could name, besides the customary Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, I made a commitment to consciously and almost obsessively reading only women writers for a year. In 2018, editor Alice Fishburn conducted a similar experiment by setting it up as a competition with her brother: “for every woman he read, he got a point. For every living author he read, he got a point. An alive woman won him two points while a dead man took two away.”
Encouraged by Fishburn’s experiment, I walked into my year of reading women as a hopeful, self-assured young woman of 22. A literature game with a points system, something to stroke my competitive ego? Hell yes, sign me up. I’ll do anything to win, even compete with myself. As pandemic life swallowed me whole, I grew greedy for points and recorded my observations.
January to March: Worshipping Western Women
In his infamous Minute on Education of 1835, British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay declared outright that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. My education bears testament to the fact that we inherited the idea of the “intrinsic superiority of Western Literature” and infused it into our own educational and literary culture-making Shakespeare and Wordsworth compulsory for high schoolers, and studying Eurocentric literary theory in university.
As a result, I internalised the notion that novels begin and end in this canonised collection of white male narratives. I consider the classics worth my time. I organise my reading life to make space for them and wait for the world to stand still so that I can visit a relic of world literature. I am trained to appreciate its value.
For the longest time, the difference between reading a male author and a female author was the essential difference between a hardcover and a paperback. The former: the sort of book so widely read that it needed to be bound and strengthened for preservation. The latter: the kind of book made to be pressed and pushed into backpacks on the go, something that exists to wear out, something that doesn’t need preservation. I thought that a couple of paperbacks read between two hardcovers will suffice, and I will live up to my self-image of being a diligent literature nerd, a global, well-read person, a winner in this little game.
In January 2020, thanks to my years of conditioning that led me to believe that European novels are “essential reading”, I reached first for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and then Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Don’t get me wrong; I admire these women for their immense body of work and the generations they have influenced, but I wish I had picked something closer to home, perhaps Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf or Anita Desai’s brilliant In Custody, both remarkable contributions to world literature.
It already took a bit of unlearning for me to consciously pick women authors, but ensuring that I read Indian women’s writing would take a sharper, more discerning eye. I began to dig through a wealth of reading lists curated according to ethnicity and region, pointing me towards women’s writing on pleasure, on rest, on art. I would never have found these titles unless I had inserted the specific keywords: women, writing, books. Perhaps you don’t find them unless you’re actively looking. They won’t seek me out from window displays or Amazon or codified curricula. I will have to seek them.
April, May, June: Getting Around to Non-Fiction
By journeying through classics, I was finally able to unknot my obsession with them: canonised texts were great for appearances. In university, name-dropping Milton or William Faulkner earned me more brownie points from professors and peers than mentioning Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar or Ambai. Because, to talk about Sowvendra, you must provide context — who she is, why she writes, why more people should read her.
As a student, I steered clear of books that needed context; I wanted desperately to participate in the larger literary conversation, and the canon was my golden ticket. If I had enough brownie points, if I got hooked on brownie points — amassing more and more of them — I’d be one with the 1% that reads these texts. So I trained my mind to look for books that I could cash in for points. Turns out I was playing Fishburn’s game long before I knew it.
I read only European literary fiction and could finally call myself a connoisseur of high LitErAtuRe. It became difficult for me to pick women writers, especially Indian women’s work in translation because there was no readily available, visible discourse for me to buy into. I needed to do some deep cleaning in my brain, Mary Kondo-style.
To escape what I might confront about myself in the drawers and cabinets of my brain, I decided to reach for some light, non-fiction reading and found myself amidst such gems as Freny Manekshaw’s Behold, I Shine, Taran Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and, of course, Arundhati Roy’s incisive My Seditious Heart.
Women writing about women was, in a word, refreshing. Engaging with these works became a creative exercise instead of an analytical one; I was no longer negotiating with the author’s voice or justifying their claims. As opposed to the overly academic, forced satire I had suffered in some men’s non-fiction, the women writers’ relationships with their subjects seemed beautiful and free-flowing.
I wasn’t questioning their position, their methods, or their authenticity; I trusted them. Most importantly, I don’t think I would have traversed through the turbulent Kashmir of the 1990s or post-war Kabul if I had not contained my reading, for a while, to women writers.
July, August, September: New Leads
I began July by reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s dark but cheeky My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I could relate to the unnamed protagonist — a disillusioned young woman who wants to hibernate forever. A few more fiction reads later, a breakthrough! I was moving out of my genre of comfort, into previously unexplored territory: science fiction!
I am unendingly apologetic for despising classmates who read The Martian or anything by Stephen King. In my weak defence, my understanding of the genre rested on a handful of books such as H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I mean, what was science fiction if not these books?
I felt ugly and ashamed that it had taken a global health crisis and a Goodreads list to introduce me to the formidable Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler who paved the way for women in science fiction. Butler’s Parable of the Sower builds you a dense, post-apocalyptic world, the kind that you need to escape the pandemic’s tragedies, but also makes important comments on climate change, religion and freedom. I wish, sorely, that I had read her earlier in life.
I also veered into fantasy fiction through Madeline Miller’s Circe and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. However, I ended this immensely rewarding period of reading by crawling back into my comfort zone, with Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea — a classic in itself.
Mid-year, I had somehow managed to incorporate in my reading three non-fiction books I could count as Indian writing in English. On the fiction front, however, I was still wrestling with the scoreboard. For the moment, I rested in the comfort that I had rediscovered an entire genre of literature through its powerful women forerunners.
October, November, Christmas: Faulty Finish Lines
My philosophy for this experiment was simple: read as many women writers as I can, steal the points, and move on. Far from simple, it turned out to be an exercise in appreciation and control. Not only did I discover the diversity within a narrowed category but also learned to resist the allure of over-celebrated, prize-winning books and appreciate narratives that were excluded by award-conferring authorities.
As a next step, I began to scout for women who had revolutionised Indian writing in English. I made some obvious choices: Krishna Sobti’s The Music of Solitude and Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire. I also read Mahasweta Devi’s fiery short stories and Shanta Gokhale’s documenting of Mumbai’s vibrant 70s theatre culture in The Scenes We Made. My most immersive experience was Annie Zaidi’s Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing.
Around this time, I decided that categories were good. They helped me channel my reading and make a deliberate, systematic approach towards diversifying my consumption. Perhaps if we are immersed in a category for a little while, it will become our dominant way of reading, of seeing. It should not have to be a game; there should be no points. But if going the Fishburn way helps us unlearn our reading habits and come closer to literature, then why not?
For me, categorising was liberating, but it was also nothing new. I had been reading one category — male writers — for a long time; I just didn’t know it. Maybe this year I will only read works in translation or books that have Queer protagonists. I could spend a few months on short stories from the Northeast. Or better still, I could dedicate a whole year to poetry. There is no finish line, but I think I’m on my way to somewhere different, somewhere diverse.
Anoushka is an emerging writer from Mumbai. She graduated at the top of her class from FLAME University with a B.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies, and has been immersed in reading, writing, arts, culture, and storytelling ever since. She is now pursuing a Masters in English Literature. Anoushka began her writing career with Conde Nast Traveler India and The Culture Trip, both leading publications in the travel and lifestyle space, and worked in arts management with the booming youth theatre movement Thespo. Now, she is focused on studying reader-response theory and Indian writing in English, and writing fiction that resonates with the urban Indian reader.