Irecently moved house and in the reshuffle of spaces, a large bookcase ended up in my sitting room. I have a fair amount of books, having spent my academic life reading literature and my career writing, and it occurred to me that for the first time, in the absence of a study where they were all previously cloistered, my books were now on partial display. Suddenly, shelving became a curation. Guests would invariably loiter in front of my shelves, the same as I do when I encounter a bookcase, head tilted forty-five degrees to examine spines. An array of books showing people who you are. I must confess this was irksome. I shelve my books according to my own systems, none of which have ever involved taking a public gaze into consideration; I couldn’t escape the niggle of annoyance at having to be seen as someone who reads Philip Roth. So I made one curatorial choice: I put all my women on the Public Shelves. No offense to Mr. Roth, but one has evolved from the jungle of Man Writer Supremacy in a most happy way. One spent one’s college years immersed in Many Male Writers—from Nabokov to Faulkner and yes, even Roth. It seemed natural to do so, and one didn’t consider it critically for too long. I once had a very happy semester reading D.H Lawrence back to front for a highly specific literature course. At a particular age, perhaps, and from a particular background— growing up in Lahore in the nineties one had scant access to books, let alone further discourse about the merits of reading male writers versus female ones. As a voracious reader of every and anything, one was just happy to have a book to read. It wasn’t until later, with graduate studies and further critical reading and thinking that one began to consider why on earth this was, and continues to be: that men’s writing is considered Literature. Only Literature makes it to syllabi on writing and literature degrees, and when one is deciding how to educate oneself it is often Literature one turns to. The ‘classics’, the canon— any self-respecting literary person must have read their Russians, their Dickens, their Shakespeare. Think of any literary canon and the first names that will come to mind will be men’s. This is simply a fact, further complicated by post-colonial subjectivity and a further demarcation between literatures in different languages, but that is a tangent for another column.

There is, of course, history at hand here. Women weren’t allowed to write; if they did, publishers wouldn’t publish their writing. Pseudonyms and stolen ideas abound in literary history; scores of intelligent wives and sisters doing the typing (and often the writing) for their menfolk, who got the credit, the money and the prestige for it. It is a story common across cultures, and also one that has grown stale. The feminist movement brought with it freedoms that included an improvement in the stigmas around women being present in public spaces, and being writers was one of those occupations. Women’s writing has made steady progress—if not strides, then definite, sure steps towards the creation of a feminine écriture that carries its own weight and preoccupations, and certainly a philosophical mode of inquiry around it too. The term itself comes from French philosopher and writer Hélène Cixous, from a seminal essay called “Sorties”. In an introduction to it, Katarzyna Marciniak writes about how Cixous is well aware that language in itself cannot be destroyed and made anew, but écriture féminine is “an act that female writers need to perform in order to claim their own discursive space”, thereby “relocating the fixed meaning in the realm of the symbolic order”. Simply put, Cixous is writing about women’s writing being a specific site of action where the creative and the political converge: how women, in the act of writing, create a very particular space for themselves that is completely unlike the one men do, when they write. Cixous pointing out that there is a divergence between women’s writing and men’s writing is one extremely important observation to make, because they are not the same. And in their difference, women’s writing is the kind that is often dismissed as not serious enough, not deep enough and simply not weighty enough to be given much importance in the canon, or amidst the classics of the time. While the times have changed, they haven’t changed so much as to have overcome this perception, and Cixous’ ideas about écriture féminine encourages us to think about why this is so.

In a 2018 piece for FT, Nilanjana Roy writes about how men tend to read, and recommend books by other men four times as much. This means women’s representation for literary prizes and publication is still hamstrung; quite notably in 2015 our own Kamila Shamsie stirred the pot by suggesting publishing houses have a Year of Publishing Women, to give them the professional visibility they still need. The New York Times’ bestseller lists have been dominated by men for decades, with women only just beginning to catch up — in spite of women reading more than men. Roy also quotes a paper co-authored by David Bamman, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, that observed that women tend to write more about women too — “in books written by men, women occupy on average only a quarter to a third of the character-space. In books written by women, the division is much closer to equal”. This is interesting when we think about écriture féminine in its most accessible form: the book written by a woman, for women. In a writing environment that is still male-dominated, women’s writing still occupies a space of it’s own that is both galling—why should a woman’s work be differentiated at all?—and full of potential: a female space, held.

I like to call this a literary zenana: a deliberately chosen space of otherness that is not predicated on exclusion, but a celebration of women’s narratives and the particularities of women’s writing that concern themselves with issues and ideas that are not typically masculine ones: war, conflict, explosions. The zenana filters these concerns down to a human level, where a novel about Greek gods becomes a poignant story of devotion and friendship (Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles); Partition politics and violence the backdrop to the bildungsroman story of Aaliya (Khadija Mastur’s Aangan) or grappling with life in the aftermath of a world war (Mrs. Dalloway). Freelance editor and literary consultant, formerly of Bloomsbury Publishing, Faiza S. Khan spoke to me about how “in recent years, we've seen a great many books by women published to great acclaim, winning prizes, getting yards of media coverage and shifting hundreds of thousands of copies. I am not certain these mean that a great structural shift has occurred. It's almost as if women's writing is welcome if it's about Great Big Issues - racism, terrorism, assault. The quiet, clever, funny, sad, closely observed books, such as ones by Elizabeth Taylor for example, are still considered too “domestic”." This domestic space is the heart of the zenana, and is the site of écriture féminine—but not quite considered Literature, unless women write about Serious Things. And somehow, the way many women write the world doesn’t meet this strange standard.

Some writing is admittedly never meant to be serious, and is not meant to be taken as such. But what does it say about the way women’s writing is perceived that the slightest whiff of humour, romance or wit sends it straight into ‘chick lit’ territory? Why is ‘chick lit’ in itself seen as a guilty pleasure, as opposed to clever, closely-observed novels, as many are? It’s an awfully singular way to see writing—that only dark and serious topics can be taken seriously. Surely one can tackle great issues and heartache and struggle in more ways than one? I survey my bookshelves, where Dorothy Parker is cheek by jowl with Jeanette Winterson; Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur keeps company with plays by Yasmina Reza; Gilbert and Gubar sit next to Erica Jong, next to Elena Ferrante. No doubt we are all coming from years of reading ‘classics’ and Important Books — everything has its space, and moments in creative and intellectual time. But here’s a new canon, ever-growing, a space of stories written by women, read by women, each one creating another room in the zenana courtyard, speaking to each other across translation and time.

Mina Malik is a writer and poet based in Lahore. She is the co-founder of The Peepul Press and prose editor at The Aleph Review.

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