One would think parity for women in literature has been achieved. After all, a good two-thirds of the recent top 15 fiction titles on the New York Times Bestsellers lists are by female writers (Jojo Moyes even takes two spots with Me Before You and After You). Conventional thought is also that women are more serious than men when it comes to reading. But statistics exposing gender imbalance in the critical literary world were found to be so dismal in 2013 that it prompted a grassroots movement on Twitter with the hashtag #readwomen2014 (where participants pledged to read or review books by women only for the entire year).
It doesn’t help that women’s literature isn’t clearly defined — it’s perceived to encompass anything from “the yearning of fairy princesses” and beyond, explains Manini Samarth, a senior lecturer in English and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University.
It was these imperatives that prompted the launch of the Asian Women Writers’ Festival (AWWF). Its first edition, held in Singapore earlier this year, brought together 10 authors, journalists and commentators across six South and Southeast Asian countries — Josephine Chia, Shamini Flint, Krishna Udayasankar and Jolene Tan from Singapore; Fa Abdul from Malaysia; Shobhaa De and Barkha Dutt from India; Noelle Q de Jesus of the Philippines; Sadaf Saaz from Bangladesh; and Reema Abbasi from Pakistan — to discuss their struggles of establishing themselves in a circle that bears a bias for men.
Flint, who’s behind the crime fiction series Inspector Singh Investigates, said during one AWWF panel discussion that she tries her best to avoid creating clichéd Asian women’s literature. “What I desperately didn’t want to write was yet another traditional novel about an oppressed woman,” she said. “Obviously, if you’re oppressed, then it’s easier to find your voice. But some of us who aren’t oppressed enough want to be heard too!”
We spoke to three writers at AWWF to find out their thoughts on their craft and what they would change for Asian or women writers.
Noelle Q de Jesus
To Noelle Q de Jesus, being a plumber is better than being a freelance writer: The former gets paid on the spot. “Writing is not the most lucrative of professions,” she says. “So if you’re a writer, you love it, you can’t stop doing it. If you’re a writer, it’s not for fame and fortune — certainly not for fortune.”
The love of writing and the need to express herself led the Filipino-American writer, who’s based in Singapore, to publish Blood Collected Stories, her first book of short fiction. Launched last November, it is the result of what she describes as “completion complex” — the inability to start writing a novel when she already had a book’s worth of short stories scattered among her personal archives.
Blood Collected Stories went on to win the 2016 Indie Book Awards (Short Stories). But some reviews of the book de Jesus chanced upon took her by surprise: The tome, with stories dealing with themes of relationships and identity, had been described as a feminist text. “‘It’s written by a woman, so let’s see if it’s a feminist text’ and [the reviewer] decided it was,” she says. “It gives you a take-off point right away, but is that necessarily the best way to read a book?”
It is sometimes women readers who reject women’s writing most strongly, the 48-year-old mother of two says. “There are certain expectations that come when you’re a clearly a woman writer from your name,” she explains. “When people read my book, there’s a tendency — and women tend to make it — ‘Oh that again, marriage or children.’”
De Jesus’s proposed solution? Telling “big stories”, such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible — not because small stories are not important or meaningful, she says: “But for too long we’ve typecast ourselves because that was the world we know — the kids, the parenting.”
“We shouldn’t box ourselves in.”
Her recommendation for improving the standing of women writers is to do away with dedicated women’s sections found in some bookstores. “Why can’t we be mixed up with everybody else?” she says. “It may make us easier to be found — and that’s good — but at the same time, what’s the underlying message of that?”
The Singaporean author of A Certain Exposure, which was named one of the best books of 2014 by The Straits Times, recalls being fascinated as a child by works from science fiction pioneer Robert Heinlein and being taken by the worlds and experiences explored in the books she read. But Jolene Tan started noticing around the age of 12 that the roles she admired best — adventurers, wanderers, tinkerers — were predominantly male and that women often held ancillary roles, such as a romantic object of pursuit.
“I already had a strong sense of disquiet as a pre-teen that the only roles for women in fiction seemed to be the wide-eyed virgin, maternal figure,” says Tan, who is also senior manager of programmes and communications at gender equality advocacy group Aware Singapore. Describing the launch of AWWF as a welcome development, she adds: “I’m glad there’s a focus particularly on women’s writing, because as in many other fields, you tend to assume the default or most credible kind of author is male.”
As an example, Tan discusses Korean-American writer Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us, a work of investigative journalism detailing her time spent undercover as a teacher at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. When marketed, the book was billed as an Eat, Pray, Love-style memoir instead. “There’s this sense that when men write about something it’s universal, public and in that way, meaningful. But when women write about something, it’s personal, emotional and domestic,” Tan says. “Not that those are unimportant, but there is a kind of pigeonholing.”
The 33-year-old mother of one places the onus of expanding the reach of books by women on publishers. “Our views of what we would consume are heavily shaped by what is made available and how,” she explains. “So I don’t think it’s at all credible to say [publishers are] just giving people what they want.”
On what she would change for women writers, Tan names the statistics of who gets reviewed and by whom. Figures published by women’s literary organisation Vida show an almost-equal number of men and women reviewers at the New York Times Book Review in 2015, yet men made up two-thirds of the authors reviewed. At the London Review of Books, women accounted for less than 30 percent of both reviewers and authors.
“There should be priority for people involved in the reviewing world to have more women reviewers and to review more women writers”, she says.
The Bangladeshi poet and author of Sari Reams is no stranger to literary festivals, having worked on bringing the British Hay Festival of Literature & Arts to Bangladesh in 2011; Hay Dhaka was renamed Dhaka Lit Fest last year. Saaz also acts as director of SKE Clothing in Bangladesh and is part of Naripokkho, a women’s activist organisation that works on grassroots activist projects — a recent one involved women who were raped during the 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence in a series of plays and monologues.
“Both poetry and activism come from something very deep within me,” she says of the motivation for her work. “It is kind of inextricable from me.”
Saaz, who is working on a novel next, doesn’t see herself as a woman writer: Being placed in distinct categories and getting published based on the way one looks or writes can be a disadvantage for any writer, as well as dangerous and unhelpful to women in particular, she says.
“There’s just that extra kind of weight on your shoulders and for South Asian or Asian women as well,” the 48-year-old explains. “Because of our histories and the things we have to face, on top of what male writers have to face.”
The hindrance that self-censorship creates is the biggest hurdle that Saaz hopes to remove for women writers. “‘What’s my husband going to say, what’s my mother-in-law going to say, what are my parents going to say? I might as well not write this,’” she says. “If you can’t be honest, then you just can’t be a writer and I think that could probably be the thing that holds us back the most.”