What defines creative writing? Worldview and craftsmanship, not gender

This question has been bothering me for years. Why do we Indians feel compelled to separate women’s and men’s literary writing to the point of holding separate sessions or seminars on ‘women’s writing’? Essentially, when we say a woman’s writing, all we mean is that it wasn’t written by a man. What matters in defining fiction is its content, worldview, and craft, not the gender of the writer.

As for me, I can shamelessly say that I am a woman by birth and a writer by choice. Writing is my profession or my choice of life or karma.

Members of all genders, male, female and trans, write not collectively but as individuals. Why must we group together the writings of members of a particular sex and discuss them separately, as if they were producing fiction as a collective!

Do those who believe in the separation of women’s writing think that all women write the same way? On the same theme or in the same style or profession with the same aesthetic sensitivity and vision of the world? Do they have the same political beliefs or the same understanding of the human psyche or humanism?

In other words, is Krishna Sobti’s creative work similar to that of Manika Mohini? is there no difference between the writing of Mridula Garg and that of Suryabala; between that of Mrinal Pandey and Chitra Mudgal or between the work of Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Bani Basu? The question is not who is the best but if they can be stamped under the same label? Of course, they are all women. But Krishna Sobti’s handwriting is Krishna Sobti’s handwriting, not a woman’s! The same goes for Suryabala, Bani Basu, Chitra Mudgal or Mrinal Pandey. There can be similarities between two or more writers, but this is equally true for male, female, and transgender writers.

Each creative work is the creation of an individual. An individual is certainly a small entity, but in creative writing, it is an independent entity. Each individual has innumerable life experiences, some of which he spontaneously retains in his memory. Little by little, they are colored by his imagination and his utopian or dystopian inclinations. Then, in a moment of passionate sensitivity or a trance-like mental state, she begins to weave her feelings and thoughts into words.

The gender, mother tongue, religion or caste of the writer is irrelevant. What matters is his vision of the world and his ability to transcend his personal experiences to make it universal. Photo: Unsplash

By doing this, she leaves a lot of things unsaid. In fact, what is not said constitutes the core of the narrative; story, novel, poem or drama. When readers fill in those blanks, it ends up becoming a creative work rather than a description of an event.

The gender, mother tongue, religion or caste of the writer is irrelevant. What matters is his vision of the world and his ability to transcend his personal experiences to make it universal.

While there may be some mutually exclusive experiences bequeathed by nature to men and women, their life experiences are not entirely different. An oft-cited difference has become emblematic; that a woman can give birth, a man cannot. Either a woman has menstruation, a man does not, a corollary in fact of childbirth.

There is another exclusive experience, rarely mentioned in the literature of Indian languages. Talking about it is considered obscene by literary experts, but it makes a substantial difference in our lives. The exclusive reality is that when a man feels sexually aroused, it results in a physically visible erection of the genitals. This is not the case with a sexually aroused woman. In fact, a woman can fake an orgasm very well! Thus, in a sensual-sexual relationship, she has the upper hand.

This generates a feeling of inferiority in men which could be one of the reasons pushing them to resort to violence in the sexual act, or even to rape. Again, a man can rape in the sense of vaginal penetration, while a woman cannot. But there are other ways and means by which sexual assault, degradation or violence can and are practiced by men and women on subordinates or people deemed inferior.

There are, however, a large number of experiences that our Culture has made exclusive through traditions, rituals, prejudices or simple repetition. The woman usually gets the short end of the stick in all of them. A disturbing cultural difference is that if a woman falls ill, the men in the family do not feel the need to care for her. Nor does society expect it.

Women therefore look for sisters or sisters-in-law or, failing that, neighbors to take care of them.

When a man or child falls ill, the burden of providing for him falls on women. Even a ten-year-old girl is roped. It’s not in a woman’s nature to play Florence Nightingale; she is forced into this role by cultural dictate. If women didn’t take responsibility, men would simply die! Certainly, to a certain extent, this cultural dictate has become part of the nature of the woman because after childbirth, she naturally takes care of the child, even breastfeeds it. Another thing a woman can do that a man can’t!

This cultural diktat works in all strata of society: rich, middle class, poor or destitute. The finest literary description of this anomaly is found in the famous story, Kafanwritten not by a woman but by a man, Premchand, the dean of Hindi literature. Kafan depicts this cultural proclivity in its cruelest form. When ordinary men remain indifferent to the serious illnesses of the woman of the family, is it not logical that they become indifferent to her death in childbirth in a state of misery or destitution? Dalit critics oppose the story because they believe Premchand portrayed two Dalit men as cruel and inhumane. In fact, it is not linked to caste but to sex!

It is not necessary that all women have similar experiences and even when they share an experience, it is not imperative that they receive it and perceive it or express it in their writings in the same way. In writing, we transcend the actual experience to become one with our character. Each writer uses a different theme, craft, and language to delineate it.

Flaubert had rightly said: “Language is a cracked kettle on which one plays tunes to make the bears dance and to want to melt the stars themselves with pity!”

There is an inherent failure in creative writing in that we are forced to use the same words used everywhere else, from the slaughterhouse to the kitchen and the library; from making love to singing lullabies.

We use commonly used words but try to phrase them as if they had never been spoken before. We know that is not true. Everything has been said before; everything has been written before. We’re just rewriting, but it feels new because it’s imbued with our own worldview, craftsmanship, and conjunction of words.

To conclude, a writer is a combination of many things, mind, sensibility and memory with a finicky prescience of things to come. But above all, she is alone. Fifty people can build a fresco collectively but not write a novel or a story.

This business of segregating sessions on women writers only happens in India. Many countries have invited me to speak in their universities and cultural forums, but never on women’s writing. Topics ranged from asceticism and hedonism in literature to tradition and modernity or who are you writing for. Nobody dared to suggest that as a woman of the “second” sex, I could only talk about other women of the “second” sex, who had the nerve to write!

Please let this be the last time you separate writing from women; at least the last time you ask me to talk about it.

Mridula Garg is a Hindi writer and Sahitya Akademi award winner.

This is a statement the author made during a session on “women’s writing” at Sahitya Akademi’s International Lit Fest in Shimla on June 18, 2022, on the occasion of the “Amrit Mahotsava” of Independence.