The ‘I’ in Eve

(Written for The Hindu  on April 30, 2016)

Why should women artistes be apologetic about the use of the first person singular in prose and poetry?

At a recent literature fest, a young woman poet prefaced her reading with the breathless apology: “I still use the pronoun, ‘I’. But as I mature, I hope to write about less personal subjects.”

While her humility was disarming, her words brought back the whole vexed business of the first person singular. And that, of course, leads one inevitably to the question of gender. Try as one might to banish the notion, there is a tenacious belief that the word ‘I’ spells artistic adolescence — or worse, that it is the resort of neurotic women poets.

I remember a bunch of male litterateurs at a regional literary sammelan nodding sage approval when a woman writer invoked the pronoun, ‘they’. She was warmly congratulated for having graduated from the sophomoric ‘I’ to adult matters of social consequence. However, male writers employing the first person singular, I found, were apparently alluding to the collapse of western civilisation, the legacy of imperialism, or the loss of innocence in post-industrial South Asia. For a woman writer, there is no such grand possibility. The first person singular spells her life story in its narrowest possible sense: unselfconscious, navel-gazing autobiography.

Over the years, I have learnt to classify gender-related irritants in the cultural world into four kinds. The most obvious is straightforward strong-arming or browbeating. This is relatively easy to identify because it is blatant and unequivocal. When Tamil poet Kutti Revathi’s book, Mulaigal (Breasts), for instance, met with responses ranging from obscene calls to public exhortations to lynch women writers of her kind on Chennai’s Anna Salai, it was a pretty clear example of bullying by a patriarchal literary establishment.

But there are subtler irritants. Most women artistes bristle silently, never realising these peeves are actually shared. The most lethal silencing strategy is trivialisation. Here, the ploy is to damn with faint praise, to dismiss female art as charming but slight. A classic example is W.H. Auden’s staggeringly paternalistic preface to Adrienne Rich’s first book of poems where he observes that the poems are “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them”.

Which woman artist has not encountered such trivialisation in some guise? Particularly common are the voices that congratulate her on her appearance, rather than her work. The compliments are often pleasant enough, but when they follow a performance, exhibition or reading, the implications are clear and the subtext pure neon. At a recent event I attended, a female novelist was described as “a graceful writer”, while her male counterpart (considerably junior in terms of bibliography) was described as “eminent”. A woman artiste usually has to die before she qualifies for such an adjective! To this day, while even young Hindustani male musicians airily adopt prefix nouns like ‘ustad’ and ‘pundit’, women musicians still settle for banal adjectives such as “sweet”, “soulful” and (surely, the most dire of them all) “mellifluous”.

The third silencing strategy is more devious. The logic: you write about the particular, which means you write about “small themes”, therefore, you are “slight”; but (and here’s the double bind) if you wrote about “big themes”, you’d be “inauthentic”.

The first problematic premise is about big themes and little themes in poetry. At workshops, it takes me ages to convince practitioners that it’s treatment rather than theme — the how rather than the what — that decides a poem’s significance. British poet Vicki Feaver once told me of a male reader who dismissed her poem with the world-weary line, “Oh, not another menstruation poem!” Of course, no one would ever say, “Not another war poem” to a male poet. It didn’t matter that menstruation continues to happen to half the planet — and is far more pervasive than war. The theme was instantly regarded as evidence of the poem’s inconsequentiality.

But the problem goes deeper. If writing about menstruation makes one limited, writing on ostensibly “larger” subjects can often be dismissed as artistic dishonesty. When Gujarati poet Saroop Dhruv wrote of dams, for instance, she was instantly slammed as akhbaari or journalistic. When Arundhati Roy turned to matters other than fiction, she was likewise dubbed a “writer-activist” — like “a sofa-cum-bed”, as she put it. Basically, damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

The fourth and most common strategy is the prescriptive approach: blueprints for belonging, formulae for authenticity. Liberally doled out by cultural legislators both indigenous and global, this turns soon enough into a form of insidious policing.

The problem with prescriptions, I’ve realised, isn’t whether they are liberal or orthodox. The problem is readymade language. The problem is that the world resorts — particularly when challenged — to the language of the slogan and the billboard, scripture and manifesto. But to resist readymade language, we forget, is the whole point of poetry.

It is time, I believe, to bury deep into the soil of cultural oblivion a bunch of notions: that there are big themes and little themes in poetry; that Indian women’s writing follows some linear model from solipsism to social engagement; that the first person pronoun must be dropped when one graduates to artistic adulthood; that poetry must be versified journalism in order to be relevant; that women writers are incapable of using the personal as metaphor, camouflage, cipher, device, veil and code; that poetry, when one is postcolonial, South Asian and female, must underscore its politics and paraphrase its mysteries into a state of artistic anaemia.

We live in a world where the subjective is in an intensifying state of siege. When the local, the specific, the intimate, the unique are disparaged, all we’re left with is terrifyingly impersonal truths — totalising and jingoistic. This is when the first person singular can come to our rescue — as a tremendous archaeological implement, a tool of political and spiritual power, depth and illumination. It is time to reclaim it without apology.