A House for Ms. Biswas

Each time I hope that the gender gap in literature might be narrowing, each time I envision Women Doing Literary Things’s peaceful organic end, along comes a Naipaul with idiotic remarks on the supposed inferiority of women’s writing. This is why we need forums where women writers support each other, communities which encourage work dealing with domestic, the ordinary, and the so-called banal (and zombies and apocalypses too, of course). One such space is She Writes, an online group of women writers. With over 15,000 members from 30 countries, it’s great place to hang out with kindred literary women, and I’m delighted to announce that WDLT essays are now a weekly (Wednesday) feature on She Writes! Please do check the site and the feature out.

Fittingly, this week’s WDLT essay deals with the deeper implication of Naipaul’s remarks. Writer Tina Biswas, in her essay titled A House for Ms. Biswas, confesses that Naipaul was the writer who inspired her to write. How did he get this business of women’s writing so wrong?

“When growing up, I would choose male authors over female ones, because of some misguided perception that men wrote about more serious matters (I’m now not sure what exactly constitutes a serious matter), and even if they were not writing about serious matters, they were at least writing about silly matters in a serious way.

This sort of bias can only come from a deeply prejudiced society. The kind of society where men are chefs but women are cooks. Where men are just men but women are wives and mothers and daughters and sisters. So when Naipaul accuses women of having a “narrow view of the world”, he means that they have a domestic view of the world, and from his chauvinistic standpoint, this domestic view is petty and banal and uninteresting and can only ever be inferior to the grandly political. But for such an insightful writer, he therefore completely fails to comprehend the relevance and importance of the domestic and how even his own life story has been shaped by not only the great sweep of history but also the small but equally powerful brush-brush-brush of the interior life. So when women choose to write about personal relationships and men think that is not important or interesting, that is their failing and their inability to value that which is closest to home.”

Please click here to read the rest of the essay.

11 thoughts on “A House for Ms. Biswas

  1. Naipaul is known to speak against everybody who is not him. In fact he finds his origins inferior to England. So why not women? In his latest book, which has been – absurdly – been claimed a masterpiece, he describes how he came to Ghana and almost everybody eat cat. I guess this got the world talking and laughing. Some of us spoke up – I personally wrote a poem titled A Curve in the Tell, Direct Response to Naipaul’s Masque of Africa – but our voices weren’t strong enough. Today it is against women.

    I find the piece I read of the essay interesting. But what I also find intriguing is how, these essayist, in counteracting what Naipaul said, generalises it to encompass maledom. “The kind of society where men are chefs but women are cooks. Where men are just men but women are wives and mothers and daughters and sisters. ” Statements like these, perhaps a hyperbole, still gets my nerves ticking. Are men not fathers, brothers, sons and cousins? To me it would be oversimplifying to make such blunt allegations. All anger should be directed towards Naipaul. Haven’t we seen women at the helm of affairs in the world today? At least Liberia has a female president. I don’t think Naipaul is the spokesman for Maledom. The world isn’t about men vs women. It’s about people.

    As for Naipaul, I guess perhaps he doesn’t appreciate the ying-yang philosophy. He definitely has his failings but let’s not generalise the issue.

  2. I suppose I should have read something by Naipaul but I have avoided him because of an article he wrote years ago in The Guardian. It annoyed me so much that I can’t even remember what it was about, I’ve blocked it out!

  3. As to who is better will always be a matter of debate. Not that it matters entirely unless it furthers an exploration that enhances understanding of the writing mind (in the gender context or otherwise) driving the content, and the possible reasons influencing it.

    Ideally I’d prefer, and hope that is the case eventually, for a diversity of literature in terms of style and content emerging from men and women writers, and that it might be possible to appreciate each for what they bring to the table. The experiences, the nature of experiences driving the content is likely to be different. It’s good that that is the case.

    If one considers that approach to life, living, and ability/inability to connect to the world they travel in as in the manner and scope, and the nature of the connect with the people and places, and of things that interest and excite imagination and purpose of journeys, and of priorities with regard to home and away are the absolute same between the two genders then it could said that they both are not just alike, but the same in every respect. I wish that were the case, unfortunately it isn’t.

    And that’ll reflect in the writings assuming that some, if not much, of the writing is derived, at least in a general sense, from all the above ‘interfaces’ that will determine the experience that shapes the writing as well as the contours of the scope of the writing.

    I see this difference in the travel genre. The experiences and the manner they came about are markedly different between books penned by men and women. To be fair it’d be impossible unfair to expect the average woman travel writer willing to risk themselves on travels in the manner that some men travel writers will to source travel material.

    This might be true of writing related to war and other similar extreme situations, as in the case of some war correspondents. One writer who comes to mind, a war correspondent whom 1978 memoir I read in school, is Edward Behr. The original title of his memoirs as a war correspondent was graphic, and so were the experiences even though I thought he gave it an irreverence that I suspect was to lighten it for the readers. The title was changed later to make it less graphis. There’re many others.

    On the average, I like the style and the general approach of both genders, and the so also the marked difference (generally the case) in the nature, approach, and to an extent, the content of the writing.

    • I agree that diversity is inevitable and desirable, but i think the issue here is that sort of writing is systemically privileged over the other. As you say, it’d be ideal if the views brought to the table were given equal weight (despite and because of any differences).
      Re: your point about the travel writing genre, yes, it is riskier for women in a general sense. OTOH, women may have access to the inner spheres of a society that men could not breach. When I interviewed Camilla Gibb, for e.g., she mentioned how her outsiderness gave her entry to circles/information that men could never achieve.

  4. My World Lit class did a study of Nobel winners and Naipaul was one of the authors we studied. His prose is faultless, superb something every writer would aspire to. But as a person his self-loathing, his eternal search for his identity colours all his thoughts, a subject he revisits in many of his novels. A sad, miserable man, a bully, who has achieved so much but still has not found peace with himself.

  5. Thanks for the link to that article, the excerpt is fantastic. So true that women are often in our culture and society considered as the lesser in whatever it is that we do. I really can’t recommend enough Joanna Russ’ ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’ which really laid out a lot of the ways in which women authors are dismissed and how our experiences are not considered worthy.

  6. Clearly, anyone who thinks that the domestic world is anything less than “grandly political” has not been paying attention to his own domestic world.

  7. In reponse to Nana Fredua-Agyeman’s comment about the world not being about men versus women, but about people, in an ideal world, of course. But it’s not at all an oversimplification to state that men and women are still treated differently and hold different positions in society – positions which are entirely gender related. For example:
    * 70 per cent of the world’s poorest people are women
    *despite doing more than two thirds of the world’s work, women only receive ten per cent of the world’s income
    *women own less than one per cent of the world’s property
    And then we have Naipaul just casually shaking some salt on this gaping wound. Now, that’s what gets my ‘nerves ticking’!
    Of course, the best literature is itself about specifics not generalities, but it’s really quite important to undertand the political and sociological context in which literature is written and the circumstances of those it’s written by. Throwing “I don’t think Naipaul is the spokesman for Maledom” out there is childish. Of course he’s not. But a little further investigation reveals what kind of world we live in – and it’s the kind of world which absolutely is divided on gender lines, and where men, simply by virtue of being men, still call the shots. Lastly, Freda-Agyeman seems delighted by the fact that in the whole of Africa (53 countries) there is only 1 female president (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia). Wow – 1 out of 53. You might expect around 50% female, but we have under 2%. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we!
    Tina Biswas

  8. @ Leela: Sounds like a great class! His prose is quite remarkable, isn’t it? All the more reason to get mad!
    @ Amy: I’ll look for the book, sounds just like my thing!
    @ Diana: Thank you!
    @ 2kop: To quote Holden Caulfield “If there’s one word I hate, it’s grand.” 🙂

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