The House and the Kitchen Table

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So V.S. Naipaul thinks no woman writer is his equal. Boring. Why waste column inches – let alone energy – on outrage? I take Naipaul’s statement about as seriously as one should take any statement by a cranky old egotist known for his bad moods, long sulks and antiquated bigotries – it might make for an awkward dinner party, but if you’re there at all, you can spend it plotting what to include when you deliver his eulogy. His former editor (and most recent object of his derision) Diana Athill has gone on record to say she used to remind herself in moments of strife, “at least you’re not married to him”. We, thankfully, don’t have to entertain the invidious Sir Vidia in person at all.

So there’s really nothing remotely rewarding about taking apart Naipaul’s arrogance. There is, however, one other thing that the eminent curmudgeon said about this matter that’s of some interest. Somewhere in his diatribe about sentimentality and “tosh” in writing by women (which you are no doubt already familiar with), Naipaul is also quoted as having said: “”And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

Now that is an almost empathic statement. Too bad about the context.

In their own way, Naipaul’s words echo a different response to the question of women and fiction. When it was put to Virginia Woolf in 1929, Woolf went on to write the canonical essay “A Room of One’s Own”, which posited that financial autonomy as well as actual physical space are imperative to the writing process. She argued that it is necessary, in short, for a woman to be able to literally lock herself into her work and lock the world out in order to produce it at all.

Decades later, the African-American womanist Alice Walker challenged and expanded what she believed was Woolf’s privileged point of view: she wrote (in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”) that before a woman could own a room with a key, she first had to own herself – a prerogative literally denied to slaves and others of disenfranchised backgrounds.

So when Naipaul speaks of a woman not being “a complete master”, he actually wanders into feminist vocabulary, an interesting if unwitting step in an otherwise unexcitingly misogynist contention. It is, in effect, a concession: the acknowledgment that one’s experience of the world is limited by gender, and that gender roles in turn continue to be asymmetrically demarcated. Naipaul is correct in saying that the perspectives of women writers are influenced by their lack of dominion in various spheres of life. He is inexorably wrong, however, to dismiss these perspectives as any less important than his own or those of any other male writer.

The most elementary rule of writing is that one must write what one knows about. Good writing, even fiction, comes from an empirical place. So if the narratives produced by women writers reflect, as Naipaul says, a “narrow view of the world”, then the more pertinent question is – do they reflect that world truly? Do they speak for it? Are they authentic?

So if we are to assume that most women, in some regard, live without autonomy, then we must also allow that those who write have done so in a variety of less than ideal compromises: in secret, under pseudonyms, at the kitchen table, between feeding times, in custody, against regimes domestic and otherwise, without intention or access to publish. They have done so, more often than not, not from the comfort of a private office, but in the liminal spaces and snatches of time afforded by lives that do not, generally, afford much space or time, or respect.

If their writing is coloured by the fact that they are mothers, wives, daughters, wage-earners, dependents, care-takers, then by that same token Naipaul’s is surely also coloured by the fact that he is a racist, masochist, elitist, sexist misanthrope. But the circumstances out of which these women – or anyone, regardless of gender, who is disadvantaged in any way – write out of do not diminish their work any more than Naipaul’s infamous abuses in his personal life and corrosive statements do his own literary output. To write in spite of possessing a “small” life is an act of agency. Naipaul, whose own father took to writing as a means of escaping poverty, should certainly know this.

The work of the writer is to bear witness – but this is not as grandiose a trope as it sounds. To bear witness to life is to bear witness to its kitchen tables, its bedrooms, its little heartbreaks, its disappointments, its pettiness, its fleeting fulfillments and – yes – its sentimentalities. If the fiction produced by women writers does all these things, then I would say they are doing something correct. A narrow but clear view of the world is far preferable to something sprawling, sweeping, but ultimately in denial of the world itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

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9 responses »

  1. Mmmmm…beautiful…all 18 inches of it!! (**Quickly puts away retractable orange tape measure lest a family member suddenly wake up, wander in and wonder what the heck I’m doing during these wee hours, tape measure stretched across the width of my laptop screen!**)

  2. This piece is tosh. I only read it because Sharanya is hot.

    There is nothing remotely sexist about that.

  3. Hi, came following a mail link by a friend.

    So V.S. Naipaul thinks no woman writer is his equal. Boring. Why waste column inches – let alone energy – on outrage? I take Naipaul’s statement about as seriously as one should take any statement by a cranky old egotist known for his bad moods, long sulks and antiquated bigotries…

    If you did really, truly had taken for statement for what you say, you would have stopped right there. What this is weird dynamic where you discredit the person, just pick one segment of what he had said and then find the incredible need to consistently abuse him throughout the article , well not only him but also his dead father. You just left out his mother I suppose, because she is a woman?

    THIS is the narrow view of the world, the tosh and the sentimentality. Why do I feel cranky old egotist might not be wrong at all?

    Have a good day

    Sunil

  4. Sunil – Sharanya dismisses Naipaul’s sentiments as arrogant and bigoted. But there is one statement of his that she believes deserves a response in a larger social context, and she chose to write about that. What in this view do you find objectionable?

  5. Hello Barath,

    I have no reason to respond to you, but I will make an exception this one time and not anytime in the future, should you continue this anonymous, or presumably ghost exchange?

    I don’t find anything there objectionable at all. Objection arises if there is a valid view which necessitates a counter argument. I am saying the view lacks consistency , as you say there is one statement of his that she believes deserves a response Why? Didn’t she say….. I take Naipaul’s statement about as seriously as one should take any statement by a cranky old egotist known for his bad moods, long sulks and antiquated bigotries… ?

    You are ignoring what you don’t like and choosing to respond ( it’s hardly a response to be frank, more like emotional unloading) what you want to respond. And simultaneously avering that you take the person who made those statements to be by a cranky old egotist known for his bad moods, long sulks and antiquated bigotries .

    It hardly an argument in the true sense of the word, because, essentially, you are reinforcing your own views to yourself. It hardly an argument in the true sense of the word . As said before, both shallow and narrow.

    Bye now

    Sunil

  6. Sunil –

    “I have no reason to respond to you, but I will make an exception this one time and not anytime in the future, should you continue this anonymous, or presumably ghost exchange?”

    I am usually polite in all my communications, and I see no reason why my previous comment should have been construed as rude. But if it did come off as rude, I assure you it was completely unintentional. I see that you have a blog yourself, and I hardly need tell you that most exchanges in the comments section are indeed anonymous. So that “anonymous exchange” bit defeats me!

    Far be it from me to deconstruct someone else’s writing (I’ve never been good at that!), but here’s my two cents: She doesn’t criticize the “tosh” statement which has caused a furor – she ignores it. Which is why she claims she doesn’t want to waste column lengths on that. The opening paragraph says “…Naipaul’s statement” (singular). Her focus is on one other statement of his that has largely been ignored, but according to her, deserves a response.

    I am sure Sharanya would be able to give you a much better answer.

    Have a good day!

    Barath.

  7. “Naipaul is correct in saying that the perspectives of women writers are influenced by their lack of dominion in various spheres of life. He is inexorably wrong, however, to dismiss these perspectives as any less important than his own or those of any other male writer.” Bravo!!

    Very good piece! Thank you!

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