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August 23, 1999


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Women Writers of Indian Diaspora Create A Big Impact

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A P Kamath

Bapsi Sidhwa Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni clearly does not believe in the number game. She is not impressed by the fact that there are more Indian American writers than their male counterparts.

But what impresses her, says the best-selling debut novelist (Sister of My Heart) is that "there is an outburst, and all of a sudden there are many Indian American writers saying in loud print what we have been wanting to say for a long time".

In any big bookstore in a large American city, the number of titles by writers from the Indian diaspora makes a vivid impression. The writers include veterans Anita Desai, Bharti Mukherjee and Bapsi Sidhwa, who have been publishing for about two decades, and the ones who have been around for less than about five years -- Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Sister of My Heart), Anjana Appachana (Listening Now), Kiran Desai (Hullabaloo in....), Bharti Kirchner (Sharmila's Book), Sujata Massey (The Flower Master), and Indira Ganesan (Inheritance) and Shauna Singh Baldwin.

Jhumpa Lahiri whose collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies has received some of the best fiction reviews in recent months.

Few weeks ago she was named as one of the most promising under-40 American writers of the new millennium.

Lahiri and Banerjee's short stories are included in the 1999 anthology of best American stories to be published next month by Houghton Mifflin.

Add to the list the writers of the Indian diaspora - Shani Muthoo (Cereus Blooms at Night) from Trinindad and Marina Budhos (The Professor of Light) from Guyana.

Publishers, book-sellers and women writers acknowledge that one reason why women writers are doing better than their male counters in getting more books out is because women read more fiction than men.

"The book clubs are also led by women readers," says Divakaruni. "Naturally books by women find ready buyers there."

But do they read books with multicultural themes?

"We cannot ignore the crucial part played by the growing number of immigrants who read our books because they understand their own communities better since we write from a perspective that is not available to a writer who has lived in India or China for most part," says Divakaruni. "But a growing number of American women -- who are curious about the foreigners living in their middle -- want to read their stories too."

"We would be making a mistake," she hastens to caution, "that our readers are essentially women. Thousands of men read us too."

Echoing Divakaruni's thought, Marina Budhos adds that women writers of the diaspora "tell stories from a perspective that is seldom fully explored.

There is a kind of hunger for these stories," she says. Like some African American writers like Toni Morrison, some writers of the diaspora tell their own stories and those in the larger ethnic community in a starkly different way from that of an American writer.

Another powerful reason for the success of female writers: "For many writers the literary journey will take place outside his home," Budhos adds. "But for a female writer, typically the story takes place in the context of a family. And women readers love to pore over such books -- and see how these writers explore not only multiculturalism and cultural clashes but also such taboo subjects as incest."

It is not in sheer numbers that the women writers of Indian writers lead their male counterparts but they also excel in establishing connection with women's groups. Divakaruni has read for many women groups including Sakhi and Manavi, for instance.

"It is natural that we are more easily linked with South Asian women's groups, isn't it," asks Divakaruni, a founding member of Maitri in San Jose. "Many of us articulate in our books the deepest fear and trauma faced by women in India and here -- and show them emerge, at least in many cases, as stronger and self-reliant women. Some of our characters are good role models for women readers and women activists."

Living in North America has also had a beneficial effect on many women writers. "My mother wanted to be a writer but she could not do it because of family responsibilities," says Divakaruni, mother of two pre-teen boys.

"Had I lived in India, I would have been expected to get married, raise children and pursue a career -- if at all -- that was not very demanding. Of course, women writers have succeeded in India but the struggle there is far bigger than the one here."

Anjana Appachana, mother of a young daughter, feels the same way. Writing her bulky novel, Listening Now, she feels was comparatively easier because she had more room, more space for herself in America.

"Writing is not deemed legitimate work by anyone. They assume that it can be put aside for anything and everything -- for housework, for house guests, for cooking... Now tell me, how many people who work outside the house do you know who would take time off from their work to cook a meal or do groceries or laundry or look after house guests? None, right?

"That's because they work outside the house and because they have a regular income which apparently legitimizes their work," she complains, adding that a writer's life is comparatively comfortable in America than in India.

Bharti Kirchner "If you're a writer, however, your work is always considered dispensable, you're expected to put it aside for anyone and everyone, anything and everything. If you ever get money for it people are astonished! They think you're so lucky! Whereas what you earn is so rarely a living wage," she says.

"Not that one writes in order to earn money - you can't do that. Money, if at all you get it, is a bonus. But every writer's sweat and blood is there in her writing. It never comes easy."

It is not enough for women to have a room of their own to write, she adds." Unless you prioritize your writing, no one else will. A man can shut himself in his room and write or read or whatever, but not a woman."

Prioritizing also means making the best use of fellowships and grants that are offered by universities and philanthropic groups. Appachana won a $200,000 grant from the Endowment for the Arts four years ago.

Winning a grant for a woman writer, particularly an immigrant, has different consequences than for male writes, feels Shani Mootoo.

Women writers -- despite their numbers and sustained popularity -- have still to fight hard in the publishing world, she says. "So any help we get from universities and cultural societies are crucial to our writing."

Networking among themselves has also boosted the output by women writers, given the fact that women novelists are still the underdog. "The book publishing industry is still dominated by male executives, editors and booksellers, and women have not been getting their dues, and this is true for all women writers - those writing mainstream novels or ethnic books," says Carolyn G Hart, former president of Sisters in Crime.

"Even when a woman writer sells as many copies as a male writer, in most cases, she gets far less than male writers."

By sharing information, contacts, endorsing worthy books by writing blurbs, attending each others' readings, Divakaruni feels leads to "the idea of a writing community.

"Beginners can learn quite a bit from those of us who are two or three books ahead of them," she says. "They do not have to reinvent the whole wheel."

Jhumpa Lahiri, whose book carries hearty endorsements from Mukherjee and Divakaruni, readily acknowledges the importance of networking. When Divakaruni read from her book in New York a few months ago, Lahiri was among the 100 enthusiastic attendees.

"We look out for each other," she says. "We draw strength from each other."

A Writer Free To Write All Day

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