Tag Archives: femininity

Another Country (2012) – Anjali JOSEPH

Moving away from China, and indeed, all of East Asia, I’m continuing my journey down the Man Asian Literary Prize. Anjali Joseph is from Bombay, though went to university in England. Unsurprisingly, then, her fiction deals with the migrant experience in England, exploring the ways in which identity is created by those around you, and by those who raised you.

Leela doesn’t know what to do with her life. Stuck teaching English in Paris, she sleeps with men, but doesn’t feel the need to go anything further. Finding her life in Paris unfulfilling, she returns to England, where she went to university, to see if she can reconnect with her friends, but there is nothing there for her. She decides to move to Bombay, where her parents live, to see if she can reconnect with her homeland. But  nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Why do we write fiction? To tell a rollicking good story? To tell people about history? Do we do it to explore the human condition? It’s probably a combination of all of these things—and more—but if Joseph is trying to tap in to any of these, she seems wildly off the mark. Certainly this is not what I would term an action-packed novel. Almost nothing of any consequence happens. And it’s not an historical novel, so we’re not looking at the ways in which history mirrors the present. So we’re left with the human condition.

If this is an exploration of the human condition, then it’s a damning indictment of young people today. Though her friends seem to be nice enough people, with stable jobs and stable relationships, Leela finds herself outside the mainstream, because she cannot deal with settling down in either a job or a relationship.

But this isn’t an angry novel. Joseph isn’t aggrieved at her fellow Gen Y kids—or if she is, she doesn’t show it in her writing. Leela is not portrayed as a figure to be pitied or one that should enrage us. Just like Leela, the writing seems apathetic. Joseph is concerned with the minutiae of Leela’s daily life, down to the conversations with her friends about what kind of drink they should get from the bar. We don’t get grand, sweeping statements, and though that’s not what I necessarily look for in a novel, some hints as to what the whole point is would have been nice.

In many ways, the three sections of the novel are informed by the three men Leela finds herself involved with: Simon in Paris; Richard, in London; and Vikram, in Bombay. Each one gets closer and closer to a real relationship, but each time, Leela pulls back at the last minute, unable to commit to any man, or indeed, any other person. She has trouble communicating with anyone in Paris, seems isolated and distant from her friends in England, and spends much of her time in Bombay ill.

Her relationship with Simon starts as something spontaneous and exciting, but all too soon, Leela finds herself wondering and stressing about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in a relationship that has never been defined. Certainly, a modern problem if ever there was one, and a situation that could easily be mined for dramatic fodder. But Joseph pulls back,

An unspecified time jump brings us to London, where Leela has taken up with a man named Richard, though at the beginning, Simon still seems to be in the picture. Richard, unlike Simon, seems to want a serious relationship, though Leela remains unconvinced, to the point where she breaks up with him late one night, unable to explain what it is that went wrong. Needless to say, Richard isn’t impressed with this, and though he tries to fix what is wrong, ultimately, she cannot explicate what it is that she doesn’t like.

We move time and space again, this time finding Leela in Bombay, doing some secretarial work for a small Indian company. In spite of living in an all-female dorm (once again finding herself unable to communicate with the people she lives with), she finds Vikram, and strikes up a relationship with him. It seems to be going well—Leela is introduced to his over-protective, horribly wealthy mother, who doesn’t seem to like Leela at all. In fact, it gets to the stage where they are engaged, but in the end, Leela breaks it off.

Despite her physical movement, Leela remains restless and isolated. In Paris, this can be attributed to her inability to speak French. She cannot talk to people on the street, leaving her with few friends and acquaintances she can call on in times of need. In London, she has been away long enough for her friends to have moved on from her, not in an unkind way, but enough time has passed that they simply find each other to be strangers. Questions of racial identity are brought up—something that we have certainly come to expect from authors that move around the globe like Joseph has done—and while any other author might explore the ways in which race disconnects us in the modern world, this doesn’t seem to be a factor in Leela’s listlessness. It’s decidedly odd. Like so many members of Gen Y, Leela’s formative years have been shaped by movement, and Joseph seems to be suggesting that it is this, not race, class or gender, that has created a generation of people who are more disconnected from one another than ever before. On a personal note, I would politely disagree with this sentiment.

Another Country is not a difficult book to read, but it’s also not really very interesting. I can deal with a book that has no plot, but to then not have much character development either? Leela doesn’t feel any different at the end as she did at the beginning. She hasn’t learned to work at a relationship, she hasn’t come to any great discovery about a modern global identity, she (if we’re going to go all retro about the role of women in fiction) hasn’t even met someone to settle down with. It doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything about how to live in the modern world, no matter where she finds herself.

It’s all deeply unsatisfying, really.

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Northern Girls (2004) – SHENG Keyi

Continuing my reading of the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist, I find myself in China. I’m intrigued by this novel, not least because it is printed by Penguin China, the first Asian branch of the publishing powerhouse now known as Penguin Random House. Designed to promote Chinese literature, and literature about China, I think I’m right in saying this is the first translation they’ve commissioned.

Xiaohong and Sijiang are ‘northern girls’ (beimei; 北妹), girls from the country who have come to Shenzhen to look for work and money. Xiaohong has been caught sleeping with her sister’s fiancée, and to escape the family shame, she has dragged Sijiang with her to the big smoke to find their fortunes. But it is not easy being a country girl in a big city, and as Xiaohong and Sijiang are about to discover, friends are hard to find.

There is a brutality, a grittiness, to Sheng’s writing that shines through Shelly Bryant’s translation. I don’t know if this is just because we are in southern China, far away from the cultural centre that is Beijing, but the characters in Northern Girls are just that little less couth, that little more grating, than one might expect from the capital. Most of the main characters, not just Xiaohong and Sijiang, are working-class, rough and ready, an attribute that is made only more clear when they encounter characters with higher social standing.

The huge cultural differences in China are a barrier for Xiaohong and Sijiang in their move to Shenzhen. Though Mandarin is the official language of China, and spoken in Beijing and surrounding areas, in the provinces, particularly the rural ones, dialects are spoken that are not intelligible to one another. So when the two girls move to Shenzhen, they must learn to speak both standard Mandarin, and some Cantonese, spoken in the southern provinces where they now live. It’s a reminder of not just the metro-rural divide of China, but of the deeply diverse cultural divide in a country that houses one-seventh of the world’s population.

Sheng does seem deeply concerned with breasts. Indeed, time and time again, the size and heft of Xiaohong’s breasts are mentioned by the narrator, and by the other people she encounters. But this is not a creepy, Murakami-style fetishisation of breasts. Sheng uses them as a symbol of femininity in her work. Breasts are arguably the most feminine of body parts, and the link between the state of one’s breasts and how one is viewed by society is one Sheng makes clear in her work. In the beginning, then, Xiaohong’s breasts are what get her into trouble—men lust after them, and being young, she is happy to go along with it. In the final chapters, though, her breasts begin to grow, heavier and heavier. They weigh her down, and have become a burden. Being a woman in modern China is not something that is easy; it is a burden that must be carried around at all times.

Certainly by Western standards, this book would probably be termed feminist. Sheng is deeply concerned with how modernity in China affects women, young women in particular, and the ways in which they are used by men in positions of power—and indeed, men not in positions of power—simply as objects for sexual pleasure. So few of the men encountered by Xiaohong seem to be decent human beings. Without fail, each one of them ogles her ample bosom. And at first, she seems happy to go along with this, and beds many men. But as she matures, she does this less and less, learning to reject the advances of the men who try to get with her.

Sheng is keen to bring women’s issues to the foreground. Xiaohong finds herself working in a women and children’s hospital, in the PR department, of all places. This allows Sheng to subtly, but clearly deliberately, bring the issue of reproductive rights in China to the forefront of her novel. By the end, Xiaohong has had two abortions, from sexual encounters she did not initiate. Several other minor female characters have also had abortions, either because they have been raped, or because they are not allowed to have children, or because they have slept with someone they shouldn’t have. It becomes almost second-nature to just go and have an abortion when you have discovered you are pregnant and know you cannot keep the baby. And the point is repeatedly made—this is something only women have to decide and endure. Many of the men that have fathered these children never know about it. It is something they will never have to think about or be reminded of in the future. This is women’s business.

This all comes to a head when, one night, Sijiang is mistaken for another woman, and is forcibly sterilised by the government. Think about that sentence. Forcibly sterilised by the government. It’s an horrific concept, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was out of some post-apocalyptic future. But this really happens. It’s a harrowing scene, and Sheng tells it with a grace that belies the rest of the novel, perhaps proving her skill as a writer. And so Sijiang decides to return home. She has been eaten up and spat out by this huge city and cannot take it any longer. Xiaohong decides to remain, but the last sentence, in which she disappears into the crowd, just another anonymous face, highlights the journey she is taking – away from individuality, and towards an uncertain future.

I know this all makes Northern Girls sound terribly dull and intense, but it isn’t. Certainly at the beginning, Xiaohong’s refusal to take any crap from anyone, whether they be her family or people she’s just met on the street, is not only funny, but a refreshing change from so many simpering female protagonists we’ve all read in so many novels. She is a brilliant creation, acting not just as a symbol of an entire generation of girls coming to the big city to find work and riches, but as a human being I think we’d all like to meet.

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Rebirth (2010) – Jahnavi BARUA

This is my last review for the Man Asian Literary Prize Shadow Jury – I know I said I’d review The Colonel, but I gave up halfway through, and have no desire to power my way through the rest of it, particularly since I now don’t have to. But yes, Rebirth. This has been comically difficult to source, since it’s not published outside of India, and Penguin India were less than forthcoming about helping us out. But here it is!

Kaberi is pregnant. Over nine months, she tells us of her life before and during this experience. She tells of her childhood friend Joya, always so headstrong and enthusiastic. She tells of her family, still living in the country, far away from her new life in Bangalore. She tells of her new friends, willing to help her out, but so caught up in their own affairs they often don’t notice when she doesn’t ask. And she tells of her husband, the father of her child, the man she was forced to marry. The man who hits her.

The role of women in the land of fiction has lately become something of a hotly contested debate in Australia, for those playing overseas. And I think a lot of it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of this suggestion of “women’s fiction” – that there are some books written for women, as though men have no interest in books about women, and what it means to be a woman.

Which is, you know, complete bullshit. It makes about as much sense as saying women don’t read novels written by men, because they don’t want to read about what men think. But the stigma remains. We celebrate so many male authors for their insight into what it means to be a man, what masculinity means, and how one fits into or is forced outside of these ideals. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes – all of these authors have been (rightly) celebrated for their portrayal of masculinity in the twentieth century. But there does seem to be something of a dearth of female writers that are celebrated for their exploration of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be “feminine.” And that is why Rebirth interested me in so many ways, and why I enjoyed reading it.

This is a “woman’s book,” in the sense that it deals with something no man can ever understand, no matter how much we try – being pregnant. Carrying a child within you for nine months, and how that affects your own values, morality and world view – this is something I am never going to experience, even if I really want to. So from that perspective, yes, this is an important and revelatory novel. I’m pleased, too, that there’s a sense of universality here – though there are touches of Indian culture, particularly the arranged marriage situation, having children is not an exclusively Indian past-time. Neither is domestic violence, and bad marriages.

On the downside, I don’t think Barua gives it the kind of punch I personally look for in my reading. Perhaps because I tend to find passive protagonists frustrating in their inability to escape the shackles that bind them, so too I found Kaberi something of a wet blanket. This is (mostly) made up by the end, as she finds a way to live without her husband. I was particularly pleased that Barua didn’t take the easy route, and have disbelieving parents and friends on the domestic violence front. It was a pleasant change to see Kaberi’s friends and family believe her, and take steps to help her.

Ironically, perhaps, considering her violent marriage, there is a sense of calmness and serenity in Kaberi’s world view. Her language is never strong, never sharp, rarely angry. It would be easy to say this is a feminine way of writing, but I don’t think that’s quite the case here. Rebirth is a deeply introspective novel – it is a perfect example of how to best use the first person voice. Just as Kaberi herself is cool, calm and collected, so too are her thoughts, and therefore, language. There is, of course, another layer to this interior monologue in the truest sense of the word – she is narrating not to us, but to the unborn child within her. Perhaps this, too, connects to the language choice – one is not likely to yell or scream at a newborn.

Rebirth is not perfect by any means. The supporting cast is almost uniformly more interesting than the narrator, and it feels too short and slight to have any kind of major impact. But it’s a solid debut, and marks Barua out as an author who is willing to tackle issues that are not fully explored in what might be described as mainstream literature.

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