The power of the word

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

FOR three days last week, forty or so women writers from five South Asian countries along with four others from America, Russia and Peru interacted with one another in a colloquium to discuss what the organisers termed the power of the word.

Hosted by the Indian chapter of the Women’s World International in New Delhi, the meeting was designed to take up the problems women writers encounter in the course of their work. Why the need for such a moot? Jeelani Bano, the Urdu fiction writer from Hyderabad, India, posed the rhetorical question, “Why do we not ever hear of a men’s conference to discuss an issue pertaining to men only?”

Obviously because this is a man’s world and any problem that is discussed by men is seen in the wider perspective of men and women. If there is an issue that is rooted in gender relationships it inevitably has negative implications for women. Hence the need for a conference that revolved round issues such as writing in the time of siege, closing spaces in open markets, exclusionary practices and the guarded tongue in the context of women writers.

Admittedly, many of the constraints discussed at the colloquium have existed since times immemorial and for male writers as well. But for them the rigours of censorship and self-censorship, exclusion and the checks traditionally exercised by the powers-that-be are attributed primarily to factors such as political controls, economic pressures, sociocultural marginalisation, caste and class discrimination, and racial prejudice. But never gender.

The idea of bringing together these women of diverse backgrounds was, as Ritu Menon, a founder member of the Indian chapter of Women’s World and publisher of Women Unlimited, said, to foster women’s freedom of speech, of mobility and of association.

Listening to the South Asian women writers — many of them narrated their poignant experiences of victimisation — one became acutely conscious of two issues that were forcefully driven home at the colloquium. First, every woman writer faces distinct problems at the individual level that are quite unique in themselves. Secondly, on the collective plane they share commonalities that can be taken up when they join hands to exchange ideas, experiences and views and thus gain strength. This is something all women professionals should be doing to reinforce their skills, confidence and self-esteem.

These issues were at times subsumed — as they traditionally are in discourses of a specific nature — in the broader question of publishing and marketing of books which are equally relevant for male and female writers. But given the conventional subordination of women in our patriarchal societies, women are doubly affected as they are victims of gender bias as well. This is a battle intellectuals — men and women — should fight together. It is time men recognised the fact that when women writers complain of being misinterpreted, trivialised and silenced, men in the writing profession are adversely affected as well. For freedom of speech and expression cannot be split on the basis of gender.

What should worry us in Pakistan is the state of the publishing industry which has not grown as it should have had more attention been paid to its development. A low literacy rate, the absence of a culture of reading for pleasure, the lack of a strong library network and minimal promotion of academic and literary writing have worked against the publishing trade. Now that globalisation and the emergence of giant publishing houses to reach to a bigger audience as a part of multimedia networks have become the normal phenomenon, the small publisher is being marginalised.

In the West, where marketing is the forte of the big publishers, the book retail chains are now taking control. The power of the retailer is immense and it virtually decides the fate of a given book. It also determines the categories of books to be presented to the reader. That in turn is now giving a direction to the publishing industry.

In this scenario, English has emerged as the language that sells by virtue of being the international language of communication. But this by no means guarantees publication and a market for our own writers who write in English, as Pakistan’s own English-language writer, Kamila Shamsie, pointed out at the colloquium. The whole business of writing has been so commercialised and reduced to being the victim of the tyranny of the marketplace that it has not been an easy sailing for our writers. What happens to writers writing in Urdu and in the regional languages? Their only chance of competing in the larger market is by getting their work translated. Small wonder translation as a genre enjoys today an importance that is beyond imagination. The New Delhi colloquium took up this issue and it was generally felt that without translations many works of excellence would be lost to the world.

What is more worrying is that the predominance of English in the educated classes, both in India and Pakistan, will virtually kill the literatures of the indigenous languages. After some time there will be no one left to write in these languages — for that matter to even read what is written in them. It can well be asked if their own people will read their works in translation? But will the translations be deemed worthy of publication at all? If those who acquire higher education in English lose touch with their own languages, will these literatures perish?

Although the New Delhi colloquium claimed to be a moot dealing with women writers and their problems, many of these gender-neutral issues came up for women writers only. All one can say is that it is time for writers who feel under siege to attend to these issues, especially the language question. Language will, in the final analysis, determine not only the literature we produce but also the quantum and quality of publication.