Weekly Sexual/Textual Reader (Week Three)

 

As it turns out, recovering from flu is more exhausting than it seems — something about watery eyes, raging fevers and runny noses fits in here. Of course I won’t mention that here because I’m classy like that — so I’m posting this book review three weeks late. Apologies from an invalid lady on the delay! For the uninitiated, you can read Part One and Two here.

Dear Tumblr,

It shouldn’t surprise you too much when I say I can’t easily tolerate misogynist writers or their ‘critically’ acclaimed works — my pesky gendered brain raises its head at the most inopportune moments! — and I have flung many books on the wall the moment the narrative gets too dudely for me; when the ‘unsexed’ narrator played by the White Male Default Human insists on me achieving a series of mental orgasms because the dudely protagonist lifted a finger or sneezed, when women are devoured whole under the pretext of being ‘universal’, ‘progressive’ and when they’re written with the intensity of lightly buttered toast to shed Lady Insights On The Resident Douche are a few of my feuds with such writers and their works. In brief, this LadyBrain is fatally allergic to anything even remotely dudely. In such books, the Body is heavily inscribed with invisible meanings and norms that almost always further heteronormativity — patriarchy is so predictable! — here the body becomes a site of conquest, possession and most importantly, a sort of a Tabula Rasa, waiting to be inscribed upon. This Body is almost always feminine or made feminine, either by blatant submissiveness or misogyny, reserving the spot of the creator or sculptor for the Default Human or the occasional case of the Lady acting ‘tough’ (read: Dudely) and veritably focusing agency and action on the male-identified characters in the narrative.

This is mainly the reason I stray away from books that focus on the Body alone, it scares me how easily it can be consumed and made into an object, with a few well-placed phrases and words. I remember being moved to tears by just reading Toni Morrison’s description of Sethe’s scarred back in Beloved to the extent that whenever I see a knotted tree trunk, I can only think of her. Can you see People Of The Olde Interwebes why reading about the Body is often triggering and a stressful subject position for me to take? But somehow, Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Written On The Body’ came nowhere close to the trauma I expected. In fact, it has carved a permanent niche on my skin. Perhaps that bit about the Tabula Rasa is true after all!

Winterson’s ‘Written On The Body’ is many things: duplicitous, experimental, sentimental and often just plain genius. What disturbed me for quite a while was the way the text tackled the Body; here again body is presented as an empty canvas, waiting to be marked and written upon — see how the body is shown as having little to no agency as it waits to be filled with words and meanings? as the tittle too suggests. As a rule of thumb, this book was supposed to embody all that made me cringe, right? As it turns out, the real problem isn’t the agency-less body as much who inscribes it or how it is done. Salman Rushdie or Amitav Gosh may write about the Body in hyper-real terms, jumping from genres of fantastic realism to a situated anthropological realism, but inevitably the question of the Body is left open to be completed with the MaleGaze, that ultimately the Body is for taking, not negotiating. When I finished the book for the first time, I did consider that I may be biased to Winterson’s words simply because we share feminine identities; and it could be wholly true if I were to believe various MRA blogs telling me the Very Real And Serious Dangers of Misandry. But I digress. Besides, on close second reading, the blurring of these very roles of the Masculine and Feminine, of the Inscriber and the Inscribed, the Oppressor and the Oppressed makes this text a wonderful experiment of words and senses. This is not to assume, there is no re-writing or any overt passivity in the text, rather each action is open to alternatives, there is potential for the words to turn in and around on themselves. The narrator’s sex isn’t fixed, there is a constant rewriting of words, meanings, traditional expectations for the genre of romance and even masculinity itself. The narrator says, “Written on the Body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places, the pampliest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled away from prying eyes, never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book“.  The text itself breaks into dialogs, lists, announcements, biological facts; reminding me constantly how all genres break and make each other.

Here the Body not only becomes a space for re-writing, it is given space to re-write itself. More often than not, merely pointing at patriarchal conventions of writing and being aren’t enough, there has to be a re-allocation of the dominant and masculine narrative — possibly why I can only admire Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from a distance — and resist it,  than just weaving the narrative around it. This ReWritten text has to set up the Other as ‘normal’ to the struggling Self, without making the Self abnormal; it has to build and break walls without locking oneself in. And ‘Written On The Body’ both delights and disturbs in all of these tropes. The narrator calls hirself Adam, Don Juan, a boy scout, Mercutio, and “a private dick”; but also that she compares ‘herself’ with a convent virgin, Alice In Wonderland, and the girl in Rumpelstiltskin who is supposed to be able to spin straw into gold but can’t. S/he reads playboy and women’smagazines; pees standing up and sitting down. S/he draws hunting analogies and war analogies but also eats when depressed, grows flowers and buys them for ‘herself’. The narrator engages in physical violence with women and men, actions that can be interpreted as traditionally masculine. At the same time, the narrator plunges into emotions, almost in a trance or to a masochistic extent, notices details in furnishings and appearance, and is anarchy feminist. There is a strong image of castration when the narrator feels insecure though admits to wearing stockings to work. The narrator starts off as being an explorer of Louise’s body — conscious metaphors of Colonising the Body — and then reveals hir own subject status under her will. Winterson purposely juxtaposes coitus with ‘invasion’ and conquering. At one point, the narrator offers to come ‘inside’ of Louise’s body and battle her cancer cells and the stance zie takes is invasive. But then, carefully and slyly Winterson calls the narrator’s Body to turn on itself, turning the invasion on the Self, almost consensually does break into the old dance of making and re-writing. While some spaces engage in the violent impulse to delimit feminine space, there is always a re-negotiation of the very belief that this space under question was ‘feminine’ or not. The text may follow the patriarchal plot of ‘going after’ the ‘fallen angel’ till we realise at the very end that this ‘going after’ was all a monologue in the narrator’s head, and the ‘angel’ has already saved herself.

The Body becomes a dam, of experiences, meanings and ultimately of love. Winterson starts her novel with, “Why is the measure of love loss?” and I couldn’t help but ask, “Why is the measure of Body the space it occupies?”.

Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson is an experimental, post-modern novel; hovering on reclaiming lesbian space in heteronormative writing and yet manages to remain ambiguous about its boundaries of being queer.

Love,

Jaded16.

 

 

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Weekly Textual/Sexual Reader (Week Two)

Remember that part in our dynamic where I torture you weekly with inane book reviews and you understand, albeit patronisingly and let the inaneness pass? Sort of like the Flu or the Clap for LadyBrains? It’s that time of the week again.

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Dear Tumblr,

As you know, I’m a big fan of fissured spaces, the idea that a niche can be carved out in a place which is virtually airless makes me more happy than book sales. Or those tiny little owls. Which is probably why I find quite a few VictorianVulvas deeply fascinating, for what better age to discuss Repression Of The Female Variety? And then add the idea that within these repressed collective psyches, a few Ladies dug up pens — or fancyarse feathered quills — and wrote ambiguously about themselves and their lives. Or perhaps it’s the side-effect of my love affair with Colonial texts that started when I was 11. Or somehow I can’t stop looking for clues of my country’s colonisation in these texts. Whatever the reason may be (pick one according to your mood! And watch it change colour too!), I’m ShameLess when it comes to my adoration of these LadyVulvas.

So when I read Eliot’s Mill On The Floss again, I was surprised to see so many broken, occupied spaces; mainly because this book was never about spaces but mainly about little girls with a serious case of tumbling down memory lanes to my silly LadyBrain. To top that off, I’m somehow supposed to hate anything that comes from the Queen’s Land, because extremely thought-provoking counter-arguments like “DON’T YOU REMEMBER HOW BRUTALLY THEY COLONISED US? HOW DARE YOU FORGET THEY MADE US LEARN SUCKY ENGLISH?” are quite commonplace out here. Even the ever entertaining, “They introduced panties and now we can’t seem to go back” accusation doesn’t repulse me enough to fling the book across the wall or get struck all over with CountryLove; whichever is supposed to come first. In fact, year after year, I can’t help but falling in love with these ladies even more. Perhaps the ultimate sense of betrayal comes when even after I read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Homi Bhaba’s postcolonial analysis of the texts, where they pit the woman protagonist against the radicalised and nativised ‘other’, where they strengthened the sense of the Self by Objectifying the Third World Woman; I can’t seem to stop swooning over these books. And this week I discovered, it’s more a confused-fascinated-mesmerised daze that pulls me to the novel each year. This confusion stems from failing to slot the protagonist, Maggie as a Native or The Coloniser; in a rootedly Victorian novel, in a time when colonisation was a  household hobby. You can see People of the Olde Interwebes the number of tangled webs this novel makes in this LadyBrain, right?

Now don’t think I’m excusing colonisation or redeeming the Coloniser — I’d happily eat my own face before I do such a thing — but it fascinates me to no end that it’s within these words I see moments of doubt, chaos and guilt over possessing and defining people and even space. To such a point that Maggie so emphatically fails in reclaiming her position and literal space, let alone colonise it that she is dubbed as ‘Crazy Kate’ and later more painfully, “That dark-eyed girl there, in the corner”. Even in Jane Eyre, Jane is the center as well as the fringe of the narrative, ‘slipping in and out of consciousnesses and rooms’; she possesses control and then slips, repeatedly. For Maggie, continuously losing in the tug-of-war to become the possessor and agent, she ends up being an alien on her own land. A speck of dust in her own canvas. As a child Maggie loves the spaces of childhood — the kitchen, the fields — she simply cannot follow the domestic constraints and earns the titles of ‘devilish’ and ‘difficult’, ‘straight black-eyed wench’ (which is only so close to calling her a classy tart); the very titles I may or may not have gotten myself. Through out the book she is too loud, too ‘brown’, too uncouth, too wild-eyed, too unfeminine (she doesn’t do patchwork! Add appropriate shocked gasps here), too subversive as she fetishises her dolls in the attic; she is continuously regulated and excluded by the very people in her home she loves the most. When aunts and relatives come from far-off places, they inspect her along with the Mill’s furniture, find her too clever, she tries to reclaim her native space by running into her mother’s room and “seizing her front locks and cutting it across the middle of her forehead”, scatters those little dark locks all over the room to mark her space; even as the very space slips right under her feet. Ironically, women’s domain or the “domestic” is the one space she chokes in, but repeatedly tries to inhabit, only to find herself propelled outward; to take the anonymous fields rather than take the lane. It is even out in this undefined space she fragments, confronted by her inability to truly be or live in a space without being eaten up by its shadows, Maggie is constantly at war with spaces, with her own head and ultimately her innate inability to colonise. Rejected in the feminised domestic sphere, intimidated by the masculinised outdoors, she can only posses a transient position, on the road. At the climax of the novel, she is faced with an empty Mill, a blank canvas of sorts to imprint her own distinctive marks on it. And the moment she crumbles seeing the empty space around her (and by extension disintegrates the space itself), my heart lurches. As she is stripped, divided and essentially erased in and by the narrative do I fully gauge what it is to colonise someone or something. Try as she might, it is not in her to dictate anything, least of all the liminal space she is allowed to occupy, ultimately entwining herself to Phillip’s identity, as a slave and prisoner, unable to unpack herself or to escape his memory and gaze. Locked, frozen and still; she speaks.

While the rise of the Empire did help LadyVulvas to write more (less pesky dudes to hover over them, see?), even here there is a restraint or policing at work, that refuses them to be as adventurous as Conrad and label something as ‘The Heart Of Darkness’, as if there is a disconnect from the idea of defining boundaries and the act of drawing the lines; around the Self and the Other. There is resistance, acceptance and sometimes even complete submission to other people, yet Maggie will still cherish the space she held in the attic, of locked drawers, preserved items and small boxes, she lets herself become invisible, untamed while in shackles. For it is here, she allows herself to groan, cry and howl like a trapped bird, within disappearing walls that she choses to leave her mark. This very reliance on doubt is what makes this novel so appealing, especially to a direct descendant of a colonised country. It reminds me that not every one was as convinced about carving, silencing and castigating entire populations as it seemed to me.

As a child of 13, I remember distinctly not understanding why Maggie runs away from her mother as Mrs. Tulliver tries to comb and tame her wild hair. Today Maggie whispers and conspires with me to explain that even within submission there is rebellion, that not everyone has to be okay in the box they are fit into; there is always a cool basin of water to completely foil all predisposed tracks.

Love,

Jaded16.

George Eliot a.k.a Mary Ann Evans wrote The Mill On The Floss and try as she might to  speak like the Default Human i.e. a White Male, the woman inside slips through. Explain to me one more time how can I not love her?

[Cross-Posted]

Weekly Textual/Sexual Reader (Week 1)

Jaded16’s Note: So a few weeks ago I joined Tumblr on a whim. Alcohol may have been a part of the three second decision-making process. Or not. Anyway, on another equally fancyarse whim I promised myself I’d read one book a week. So readers of the Olde Interwebes I will torture you weekly with these inane book reviews. It comes with the territory of e-stalking someone. Heh.

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Dear Tumblr,

A year ago, in  one of the best classes I’ve ever taken (women’s studies) my professor introduced a book to us ‘The Inner Courtyard’, a collection of short stories by Indian women. She read out an excerpt wonderfully and I just knew that I had to read this book. Sort of like a strange need to again re-create the magic the excerpt had weaved around me. I remember finding this book and feeling so happy, looking and touching the cover; it seemed like an image I’d seen before somewhere but didn’t know just where. Now I remember my grandmother’s sari had a similar border, but there yet remains an ever illusive feeling, of possessing something and yet letting it slip out in wisps helplessly voluntarily compulsively, taking tiny slivers of myself with it.

With page one started my difficult — at best — relationship with the book. People are always surprised when they see me not completely swooning over the book, after all it’s written by Indian women right? So I should be able to automatically relate to it, as if some part of my cell formation as an IndianLady should tug me towards these stories. As if, these words should re-vertebrate within my soul (if I even have one that is) or perhaps within my being as a woman, I should see my past coming out alive from the flesh of the book. As if I were to react to the book like I was an ant, caught between the words and print, till I became so tiny, forgetting who I was and become a part of the grand narrative. As if this ‘Indianness’ that I supposedly am born with will help me understand this book as an extension of myself. I can’t simplistically say that none of these assumptions were true nor can I completely accept what I felt reading these voices.

These are hard stories about women I can see around me. Perhaps I’ve known a few of them, met one, been one, aspired to become another. Sometimes I saw glimpses of my grand mum, in some characters I found my sister. In many lines, breaks and pauses, I saw me. How do you deal with a book that mirrors your life, makes sure you are deeply affected and then shrouds itself under the convenient label of ‘fiction’? As if it is really that easy to disengage with history, with the past that stills runs fresh in my larger collective identity as a woman of a certain Hindu community, even as I try to deny its presence. There were too many instances in the book where I had to keep it down, when I’d read about another repressed character and see it wound a place directly near my uterus. I’d feel that low guttural punch no matter how many times, in how many tempos I’d read Ismat Chughtai’s Chauthi Ka Jaura wishing fruitlessly this time it would hurt less as the protagonist would lock herself in that tool shed while her mother soothed her bleeding fingers from the wedding dress she didn’t finish making.  Or  I’d try not to smile at Anjana Appachana’s Her Mother as she blends  stream-of-consciousness with the most abrupt pauses left mid-sentence. I wish I wasn’t moved as much by Vaidehi’s ‘madwoman’ Akku as she made up stories about her husband, dead child and dead self or I tried really hard to keep my distance from the fury unleashed my Mrinal Pande’s nameless protagonist as she raved against blatant sexism she witnessed as a child in Girls. The hardest moment was when I felt Vishwapriya L. Iyengar’s Library Girl slip under the veil. A claustrophobia so similar that it has become a part of my identity; precisely why I choked back tears when I read “Within the veil, a darkness seized Talat. It bandaged her mouth, her eyes and sealed her voice. She cried and screamed inside her black veil. But they did not hear and did not see“, shocked to see someone had peered somewhere inside and chiseled these words to perfection. I remember laughing out loud in the train reading Mahashveta Devi’s Draupadi as she subtly and beautifully recast history, this time giving her Draupadi a bare body albeit a proud one. It’s difficult to not fall in love with this book, exactly where the danger lies.

The moment you lose your cool, it slips under your skin leaving you with nothing but these voices right in your veins. As the title suggests, these voices are present in the Inner Courtyard of the house, inside that space that was made for women just so they could be contained within the confines of their home. The same happened to me; I was there in the courtyard, crying that my voice doesn’t leave the inner veranda of the house. At the same time, strangely relieved no one could see this bile pouring out. Just when I closed the book, that part of me in the courtyard sits there, waiting to unleash itself when I next open it. Ironically, the day after I finished reading the book I went to a wedding, pasting that fake smile, fitting into the heavy shoes of the ‘Indian’ woman who lost her voice a long time ago. And then I remembered the remaining five copies of the book on the shelf, fantastically wishing those five readers would join me in the inner courtyard later as we’d air our locked voices.

Love,

Jaded16

The Inner Courtyard is a collection of short stories written by Indian women, in English and in translation. There are more stories in the collection, though I talked about the few that I liked best. The anthology is edited by Lakshmi Holmstörm.


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