Guest post by ANANNYA DASGUPTA
Scroll had recently featured the Foreword to a book, with the heading ‘What do allies write about when they write (poetry) about feminism?’ The descriptive tag read – Saikat Majumdar surveys a unique anthology in his Foreword to ‘Collegiality and Other Ballads’. What makes this anthology unique? Sometime in 2020, Shamayita Sen had circulated a call ‘seeking poems on feminist ideology’ from ‘non-women’. I remember thinking, surely the call will be revised; feminist allies must know that there is a problem with excluding women from a space meant to check the pulse of contemporary feminisms. Besides, who is non-woman enough to want to be a part of such a man-book? While the premise of the book was not revised, the category ‘non-woman’ has been. The title page of the anthology now reads: Collegiality and Other Ballads with a tag – feminist poetry by males and non-binary allies. The opening line of Majumdar’s Foreword adds to the uniqueness of this mostly male-only feminist anthology by attributing uniqueness to feminism itself: ‘Feminism is the name of a unique battle.’
Since contemporary global feminisms have long moved on from being sites of exceptional struggle, I am intrigued by Majumdar’s claim. what does he mean? Where is this ‘unique battle’ being fought? Who are the adversaries in it? Besides, when did it become unique for men to occupy women’s voices, choices and hard-won spaces by using token women to, in principle, exclude women? As I write, KK Shailaja has been excluded from the Kerala cabinet after a landslide voter mandate acknowledging the unique work she did as health minister in the ongoing pandemic.
The gender spectrum represented in the anthology is the following: forty-three poets who identify male (as told by their use of the pronoun he, and no indication of being trans- as per their bios) and only one poet who identifies with the pronoun they with indication of being non-binary. Between the poets, the publishers, the Foreword writer and the editor, there is only one woman – the editor. In this context, and the context of the world and the context of feminist scholarship and activism in it, how does Majumdar substantiate his claim that feminism is a unique battle that would justify feminism without women? He bears no direct evidence from any feminist scholarship. What follows instead is a stream-of-consciousness musing from which I piece together the answer to my questions. Right after the claim is a reference to ‘the momentous indictment of Derek Chauvin’, a white male police officer, who had stifled the life out of a black American man, George Floyd. Majumdar does not mention Darnella Frazier, the black American woman, who captured the crime in a video that the courts acknowledged as the instrumental piece of evidence that brought justice to Floyd. Frazier has since won the Pulitzer for her contribution to making a more equal and just world.
Having excluded the woman’s contribution, Majumdar forges ahead to declare a connection between women everywhere and the last few minutes of Floyd’s dying life: ‘In the last nine and a half minutes of his life, Floyd experienced violence whose many languages have not been a secret to women across India and throughout the world.’ First of all, women from India and all over the world are not a homogenous group and if the felt alliance with a marginalized black man is only at the point of his death, that does not bode too well for the women all over the world, does it?
In Majumdar’s next move, dead women are made metaphor. He invokes a poem by K Satchidanandan in the anthology that also appears as one of the epigraphs that precede the foreword in the book. Here is the poem:
She stripped herself bare
and scrawled with charcoal
all over her body: ‘non-negotiable.’
Then she poured petrol
from head to foot
and set herself afire.
Here is how Majumdar reads it: ‘violence against women, unforgettably metaphorised here in the poem by K Satchidanandan, for a great part, happens inside what people consider their safest space in the world. The home’. The poem does not mention where this violence is happening. Majumdar doesn’t say what the violence in the poem is a metaphor for. Is the poem recalling the unforgettable practices of sati? What is the violence done to women’s bodies while alive that makes the violent death of self-immolation non-negotiable and preferable? Who is in charge of the narrative which makes some indignities to the female body worse to live with than a glorified death by fire? We have all heard it said that rape is worse than death; who makes women feel this way? In this context, both poet and critic are men: ‘…you do the rest of the math’ as Majumdar likes to say. But assuming some women live past the exclusion by death, what happens in ‘The home’ before self-immolation becomes imminent?
Turns out that what happens in ‘The home’ is what makes the battle named feminism unique.
Bear with me as I parse this over two paragraphs. Let’s pay attention to this one sentence:
This is where the struggle of a woman, or someone minoritised by their sexual identity, becomes a unique one among the daily battles raged worldwide by people of oppressed racial, class, or caste backgrounds, even when different excluded identities merge to create many layers of unbelonging.’
This sentence uses the word ‘or’ not ‘and’ to introduce another subject category of personhood – someone sexually marginalised, to place next to the woman (not join in political alliance). Each then has a unique struggle in the space of the home. Neither the nature of the struggle, nor why it is unique is made clear in this sentence or later. The unique struggle is set up against every other battle being waged by everyone else in the world. It is of course incorrect that struggles of race, class and caste don’t appear in the domestic space. However, Majumdar has moved on to conflating those non-domestic battles to an unbelonging that is not home. I am left holding my breath, then what happens? And what happens to the one woman and the one sexually minoritized stuck at home? Is the home literal or metaphorical?
Fortunately, Majumdar does go directly to the question of inhabiting spaces and primal homes in what follows, though without any reference to any feminist or psychoanalytic scholarship to support this claim:
No human individual inhabits a world where they have not been, at least for a period, been in an intimate relationship with someone from different sex. Sleeping with the adversary never had a more primitive meaning—or sleeping inside the enemy, or sleeping with the enemy inside you—howsoever you want to name the male child inside the mother, or the mother with the male child inside her.
Woah! As I do a thread count of Dr Freud’s see-through slip, I get 1) A claim that all humans have been intimate with someone from a different sex. That can’t possibly be correct, can it? 2) A male foetus in the womb are a mother and son not just sleeping together, but sleeping together as primal enemies. 3) Majumdar leaves out the explanation for how female foetuses fare in this formulation. But no point bothering, she will be left out of the anthology too. However, clarity at last! The unique battle named feminism is fought in the womb (The home); the male foetus is the ab ovo adversary to its mother. A very unique battle indeed, and unless it was clearly named feminism, I would not have known it to be that at all.
Needless to say, the Foreword to the anthology continues this vein of lofty and confused pronouncements for its remaining length. Majumdar also proceeds to collegially draw out the shared feminist vision of all the males and one non-binary ally in the anthology, ‘…male poets here speak in voices that long to be feminine or bemoan the failure to be so’. He cites as example, Amit Shankar Saha’s poem, ‘The Outsider’: ‘I cannot write a feminist poem / for my mother is dead.’ True. If mothers along with all other women are just dead, what is even a feminist poem? Majumdar painstakingly creates a listicle of collegial connections with pretty much every poet in the anthology. But guess who gets excluded from the collegial bro-bonding? – the woman, the editor Shamayita Sen. Majumdar manages to write a Foreword to an anthology that makes no mention of the name of the editor or the editorial choices that make the anthology what it is. Another woman’s work goes without mention.
What is my point? When I first read the Foreword and wrote a version of the above response that a mainstream publication had agreed to publish, I had one point to make: to disagree with Majumdar’s claim about the feminism on the basis of his own evidence. This was in order to point out the irony of assuming a voice of authority to mansplain feminism by over-looking not just what feminist scholars and activists are actually saying about feminisms but by overlooking the fact that the book leaves women out. However, since theydeclined the piece, the points I want to make have increased to keep proportion with the increased number of ironies.
- When an anthology mostly full of well-published and well-known male poets is given a leg-up by another male Foreword writer, it matters little that the content of the poems and Foreword add up to very dubious claims about feminism. It is reviewed and excerpted very easily in mainstream media. However, when I – a woman, a feminist, an academic and a poet – write its review, it can only rely on a publication such as Feminism in India. My response to the Foreword too needs to rely on a feminist scholar’s intervention, and a venue that runs from big media. Feminist critique from women has little room in mainstream publications even as this anthology creates another male-only space to mainstream the views of men on feminism that excludes women.
- Male editors will easily school women scholars on the tone and method of their feminist critique forgetting that that itself is what lays bare the unequal power dynamics of gender in the world of writing and publishing. It is the same world that will publish a male writer’s erroneous take on feminism without question.
- Men will regress into fantasizing about the lives and work of women in their absence without any sense of reckoning and just as easily co-opt token women to uphold the same old power-dynamics under the guise of feminism.
- Feminism as a politics and practice of everyday living is ongoing and continuous work – intellectual, practical, emotional – no matter the gender of the feminist. It does not automatically follow from having a liberal outlook. This is made evident by Majumdar’s Foreword and much of the poetry in the anthology. Why this point needs making addresses the view that a male reviewer of the book in The Wire takes: ‘I would like to argue that any liberal male poet will be writing feminist poetry anyway when they address the subject of sexual politics. If not, what will they write? Masculinist poetry?’
If one were to grant that Collegiality and Other Ballads is a brave experiment on the part of a woman editor to see what men, left to their own devices and to each other’s company, do with the idea of feminism, then it is only right to also allow forms of critique not allowed to speak in publication spaces legitimised by ritual niceties. In some situations, such as this one, that itself may be the sincerest form of constructive feedback. Otherwise…
How does a feminist respond to a blithe Foreword such as this?
[Anannya Dasgupta is a poet, fiction writer and artist who lives in Chennai. She directs the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy at Krea University.]