Adopting a 'female glance'

Aug 17, 2018, 07:41 IST | Rosalyn D'mello

We rarely have had the opportunity of enjoying a work of art by other women because the means of dissemination have been so biased

Adopting a 'female glance'
We realised that for a long time we had both been done with reading books by men

Rosalyn D'melloSome weeks ago, when I was in Delhi, I'd made a plan with fellow writer, Janice Pariat, to view the second part of Vivan Sundaram's retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. The day was meant to conclude with drinks at Aurobindo Market so that we could go shopping before at Midlands, among the city's best independent bookstores. The owner, always super friendly and generous with debut or young authors, showed Janice a copy of her recent book, The Nine-Chambered Heart, to reassure her that he'd got it on the shelves.

As we were browsing, I was telling Janice about my recent introduction to Diane Athill, thanks to my designer friend, Rukminee Guha Thakurta who gifted me a copy of her Somewhere Towards the End for my birthday. We soon launched into a discussion on how we'd both been tripping on the memoir as a genre, and how so many female writers have been expanding the boundaries of the form, both linguistically and structurally. She mentioned she was currently falling in love with Deborah Levy, Joan Didion and Marguerite Duras. All the while we continued browsing.

I was hoping to stumble upon a copy of Ali Smith's Girl Meets Boy or anything by the late Ursula K Le Guin. Soon, we arrived at a moment of joint recognition that none of the books we had spoken about were to be found in the store. It was similar to that moment in Florence when it dawned on me that the history of Western art and its Renaissance moment, in particular, is an exclusively white, male history. It doesn't make you love the art less, but offers perspective nonetheless. Our love of Midlands wouldn't diminish, but it needed some alteration.

Can you imagine, I asked Janice, how wonderful it would be if they kept even a shelf whose contents could be determined by an alternating female writer? I knew already that my meeting with her that day and her Deborah Levy recommendation would have an impending impact on the future of my feminist vocabulary. But I realised that I am privileged to be so intimately acquainted with incredible women writers in India, and thus have access to their range of references. What have been, are, and will be the literary consequences of lack of exposure and access to female bodies of writing due to situations like these? As women, we rarely have had the opportunity of experiencing the pleasure of simply stumbling upon a transformational work of art by other women because the means of dissemination have been so consciously and subconsciously biased towards men.

Yesterday morning, as I had my ceremonious cup of coffee in front of the river, I stumbled upon (thank god for the Internet) an essay titled "Male Glance" by Lili Loofbourow. It resonated with me because it connected to a series of similar essays by women about the biases that detrimentally affect the production and distribution (thus possibility and visibility) of art by women, like Linda Nochlin's foundational, "Why There Have Been No Great Women Artists." It speaks of the inherent gender biases in our reading habits that govern why certain books by female writers get dismissed.

"The male glance is how comedies about women become chick flicks. It's how discussions of serious movies with female protagonists consign them to the unappealing stable of 'strong female characters.' It's how soap operas and reality television become synonymous with trash. It tricks us into pronouncing mothers intrinsically boring, and it quietly convinces us that female friendships come in two strains: conventional jealousy or the even less appealing non-plot of saccharine love. The third narrative possibility, frenemy-cum-friend, is an only slightly less shallow conversion myth. Who consumes these stories? Who could want to?" Loofbourow asks.

What Janice and I both shared in that moment in the bookstore was the realisation that for a long time we had both been done with reading books by men. Perhaps we had chosen to adopt a 'female glance' that was interested also in how our personal narratives related to more universal sub-plots, thus refuting being relegated to the marginal space of niche readership. My first book did borrow from a lot of male writing, but I think my second will be vastly more selective; because I am secretly not interested any more in writing for men or to appease men at all.

For too long have men been subscribing to and evangelising the cause of creation as an exclusively male enterprise. As women writers, we mustn't hesitate to reclaim our female lineages, we owe it to each other to de-condition our habits in order to really 'see' female art rather than merely acknowledge its existence by slotting it into a category and celebrate our 'perfect vision' for its ability to merely look.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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