Here’s a look at some important works of fiction penned by women authors which place women at the centerstage of action. Young or old, white or colored, these women characters, hailing from different strata of society, made powerful choices in their lives including in the matter of sexuality. The writers from across the world were all born before India’s Independence but the tales that they wove, set mostly in the last millennium, are equally relevant today.
Virginia Woolf was a major British novelist of the last century who employed the stream of consciousness narrative technique wherein every scene tracks the momentary thoughts of a character. Her 1925 work Mrs. Dalloway is the story of a London nurse Clarissa Dalloway who is preparing to host a party in the evening. By setting the plot in one day, Woolf gives us an insight into the daily lives of women. Though the title is an affirmation of the protagonist’s identity as someone’s wife, the story recognizes women as deep, complex beings. The woman in Mrs. Dalloway soars above her money and social status. Her creativity springs from her zest for life and her clear view on her relationships.
Mrs. Dalloway is the most feminine of Woolf’s works. Woolf who suffered from depression, drowned herself aged 59 in the River Ouse, her overcoat pockets filled with stones. Her life story, juxtaposed with the story of Mrs. Dalloway became the subject of a movie by Stephen Daldry called The Hours starring Nicole Kidman in an Oscar-winning role and Meryl Streep.
Malayalam writer Lalithambika Antharjanam wrote mostly short stories but her lone novel Agnisakshi (Fire, My Witness) earned her literary immortality. The novel which fetched its writer the first-ever Vayalar Award, Kerala’s topmost literary prize, was originally serialized in Mathrubhumi magazine before appearing in book form in 1976.
The Namboodiri community which was at the apex of Kerala's traditional social hierarchy was depraved with their men going for multiple marriages and the women subjected to highly secluded lives, shut off from the outside world was a societal reality of those times. Antharjanam took up the pen to revolt against it. One of her stories is about Tathri who underwent the dreaded Smarthavicharam or trial by male elders when a woman gets pregnant when still unmarried.
At the core of Agnisakshi is Thethikutty, a Namboodiri woman who is drawn into the struggle for social and political emancipation but cannot easily escape the shackles of tradition binding her. The novelist explores choice, detachment, renunciation, love and devotion through three main characters. Shyamaprasad made a movie of it in 1999.
Ismat Chughtai was a prominent Urdu writer of short stories from Uttar Pradesh whose association with the Progressive Writers Movement greatly influenced her writing. Chughtai often ignored allegations of blasphemy about her work. She was a screenwriter for some early Hindi films. M.S. Sathyu’s film on Partition, Garam Hawa is based on her story.
Ismat’s most famous short story Lihaaf (The Quilt) was potent enough to drag her into a court trial for alleged obscenity. Set in Aligarh, it is the story of an affair that a begum who is married to an indifferent nawab has with her masseuse. Mentioning sex, let alone same-sex love, was a taboo in those days and all hell broke loose post the story was published.
Lihaaf was later hailed for its portrayal of a neglected wife’s life in a feudal society and came to be widely anthologized. Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire drew inspiration from it. Nandita Das who acted in it, recently directed Manto, a film on the Pakistani poet Saadat Hasan Manto who was a great friend of Chughtai.
When British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing received the Nobel Prize in 2007, she was the oldest to receive it at 88. The Swedish Academy called her ‘an epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny’.
She campaigned against nuclear arms, opposed apartheid and held communist views for long. Although critics hailed her classic novel The Golden Notebook as a feminist work, she thought the label oversimplified the man-woman interaction. The novel is about a writer called Anna who suffers a mental breakdown. It is a metaphor for the fragmentation of society. Anna records her life in four notebooks named black, red, yellow and blue and tries to tie them together in a fifth one, a golden notebook. This is her attempt to overcome her madness. The book belongs to the realm of post-modern, ‘inner space fiction.’
Hindi writer Krishna Sobti who died earlier this year came from Gujarat-Punjab, now in Pakistan. Sobti started writing poetry and moved on to fiction. Two years ago, she was decorated with the Jnanpith Award. The novel Zindaginama fetched her the Sahitya Akademi award in 1980. She distanced herself from the establishment by declining Padma awards.
Mitro Marjani (To Hell with You, Mitro) published in 1966 is her most acclaimed work. The novel tells the story of Mitro, short for Sumitravanti, who is married in a close-knit family of existential values and mannerisms. She is the moderate daughter-in-law. The story is taken forward through her dialogue with her in-laws and sisters. Sobti tells in flowing language the journey of a simple family, a journey of a woman, who is too loud for her culture, who is too outspoken and frank and upfront for a woman.
Toni Morrison who was a Professor at Princeton University is the only African-American woman and the last American to win the Nobel Prize (in 1993). While growing up in Ohio her parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through narrating traditional folktales and ghost stories.
The Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved is her masterpiece. Slavery is at the heart of the story set in Cincinnati not long after the Civil War. Beloved is a ghost in the story, of a girl who was murdered by her mother, a former slave called Sethe. Sethe suffers rape and escapes to an alien land and lives with another daughter Denver. She believes her two sons fled from being haunted by Beloved in their house for years. The book’s feminism lies in the fact that Sethe is a strong female, albeit a slave. The pangs of motherhood and loss are leitmotifs throughout the book. Jonathan Demme adapted it to screen with Oprah Winfrey in the lead in 1998.
Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, a novel belonging to the genre of ‘speculative fiction’. It is a dystopian first-person narrative of a woman called Offred. In this era of declining birth rates due to increasing infertility caused by environmental pollution and radiation, Offred (of Fred) is a handmaid, one among those with healthy reproductive systems forcibly assigned to produce children for the ruling class of men. Women are also classified socially and follow a strict dress code, ranked highest to lowest. Atwood's novel is a satirical take on the social, political, and religious trends of the ‘80s USA. She ponders on following these cavalier attitudes about women to their logical end. As the plot unfolds in the US and the only hope for escape is shown as Canada, critics read that the US is a repressive regime and Canada is the mistreated handmaid. It was made into a popular TV series. Atwood is bringing out a sequel to the novel called The Testaments later this year.
Chilean novelist Isabelle Allende is the best known Latin American woman writer. Her father was the cousin of Salvador Allende, the Chilean President who was ousted in a military coup by the dictator Pinochet in 1973.
Starting off as a journalist, Isabelle switched to fiction writing at the persuasion of poet Pablo Neruda whom she interviewed. Her 1982 debut novel, the Spanish language ‘La Casa de los Espíritus’ (The House of The Spirits) was originally a letter to her ailing grandfather. The story details the life of the Trueba family, spanning four generations, and traces the post-colonial social and political unrest of Chile.
The book is written from a woman’s point of view, although the villainous male protagonist takes on the narrator role at times. The women’s role in the family is made clear via the characters of Nivea, Clara and Blanca. There is the constant tussle of subtle feminism versus blatant sexism in the book which employs the technique of magic realism made famous by Marquez. Women in the book work their way up in life and redefine their roles in society.
Erica Jong is an American novelist and poet known for her 1973 novel Fear of Flying. The book became controversial for its attitude towards female sexuality that was prominent in the second wave feminism. The story in first person narrative talks of erotic poet Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing who goes on a trip to Vienna with her second husband and indulges her sexual fantasies with another man. She is struggling to find her place in the world of academia and feminist scholarship.
The novel became a best-seller, resonating with women who felt stuck in unfulfilled marriages. Fantasy and desire were acknowledged as not wholly condemnable in females. Jong said she was attempting a book that bought out the romantic, intellectual and sexual aspects of women together in one place. What Isadora looked for was how to be a whole human being, in both body and mind.
Novelist, short story writer and former Malayalam Professor, Sarah Joseph is also a frontline feminist, social activist and founder of Manushi, an organization for women. Alaahayude Penmakkal, Mattathi and Othappu constitute her acclaimed trilogy.
Sara’s works champion the voice of the oppressed classes whose living conditions are hardly acknowledged by society. They are often displaced from their places of stay and deprived of livelihoods, all in the name of development. Alaahayude Penmakkal (Daughters of God) which won the Vayalar Award and Central and State Sahitya Akademi awards is a 1999 novel about marginalized groups. It is narrated from the perspective of 8-year-old Annie, living in Kokkanchira, shown as an undesirable place. It is a dumping ground for carcasses before Annie and her family moved in there and hence inhabited by society’s lowest classes shunned by the high class. The city needs their services even as their existential rights are denied. The novel dwells on the displacement faced by such people. Anna describes it through her child’s perspective.