Reading Women, Writing Women


Lucy Beresford, Rukhsana Ahmad, Vayu Naidu and Marion Molteno in conversation

By Sneha Khaund

Official JLF at Southbank Blogger


The session began with readings to give the audience a flavour of the very diverse writing styles of the panel. Rukhsana Ahmad read an extract from Voices of the Crossing,describing it as a work of “creative history” that explored her experience as an immigrant coming from Pakistan to England. Ahmad observed that although “Asia is enormous and amorphous,”as an immigrant, her Asian identity felt more definitive. She described the empowering process of negotiating a new identity for herself in England, and the license it had given her “to be different.” Like the immigrant experience itself, she explained how her writing process had also been affected, since she now writes in English rather than Urdu. For Rukhsana, the transformation has been hugely productive,opening out her “narrow” perspective, but she conceded that it had come at the cost of her feeling “a right to belong”.

Vayu Naidu dedicated her reading to the recently deceased translator Lakshmi Holstrom, and expanded on the theme of transformation by describing stories and oral traditions she had grown up with, which had subverted the dominant patriarchal ideology. She read from Sita’s Ascent,her alternative history of Ramayana,and Subaltern Saris,both of which challenge traditional male-centric narratives,by reconstructing stories from a female point of view.

Lucy Beresford’s read from Invisible Threads, a thriller set in India. Beresford gave us a glimpse into the treacherous world of the sex trade in Delhi and the web of exploitation that many women are trapped in there. The theme of gender specific hardships was carried forward by Marion Molteno’s reading from Uncertain Lives, which deals with the lives of international Aid workers. Molteno described how her writing had been influenced by her work in activism, from anti-apartheid in South Africa, to children’s rights organisations in India and around the world. The panel discussed the importance of intersectional factors like class in understanding gender and agreed that gender justice is a concern not just in South Asia but all over the world, including the West.

The panel examined the unique power of stories in gender histories. Both Beresford and Naidu discussed how stories contain subversive potential. Beresford observed that the importance of stories lay in their ability to “create a narrative,” making them effective tools of self-assertion and transformation. Ahmad stated that there is no essence of women’s writing, because every woman is different. There can be huge transformative power in women’s stories without compromising the diversity of women’s experience.

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