An interview about why I write about women with Andrea Singh on Bibliophiles Cafe.
Shirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and short story writer. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Her critically acclaimed poetry collection Chant of a Million Women (self published 2017) is a Finalist in the 2018 Kindle Book Awards. It received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Readers’ Favorite Awards and was chosen as an “Official Selection” in the 2018 New Apple Summer eBook Awards for Excellence in Independent Publishing.
Rajapakse’s work appears in publications around the world including, Flash:The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Litro, Silver Birch, International Times, City Journal, Writers for Calais Refugees, The Write-In, Asian Signature, Moving Worlds, Citiesplus, Deep Water Literary Journal, Mascara Literary Review, Kitaab, Lakeview Journal, Cyclamens & Swords, New Ceylon Writing, Channels, Linnet’s Wings, Spark, Berfrois, Counterpunch, Earthen Lamp Journal, Asian Cha, Dove Tales, Buddhist Poetry Review, About Place Journal, Skylight 47, The Smoking Poet, New Verse News, The Occupy Poetry Project and in anthologies, Fireflies & Fairy Dust: A Fantasy Anthology (Eu-2 2018), Flash Fiction International (Norton 2015), Ballads (Dagda 2014), Short & Sweet (Perera Hussein 2014), Poems for Freedom (River Books 2013), Voices Israel Poetry Anthology 2012, Song of Sahel (Plum Tree 2012), Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, World Healing World Peace (Inner City Press 2012 & 2014) and Every Child Is Entitled to Innocence (Plum Tree 2012).
A: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to have a chat. You’ve won the Kindle Award for your poetry collection “Chant of a Million Women”, which was well deserved. Congratulations for the win! You’ve also published your book of short stories “I Exist. Therefore I Am”. Most of your writings are about the lives of women and the atrocities they are subjected to. What inspires you to venture into feminism and write such striking stories about the lives and struggles of women?
S: Hi Andrea, thanks for the felicitations for Chant of a Million Women and for having me over for a chat.
When I started writing the only objective was to write and highlight what I saw and experienced around me. The fact that a lot of that was about women is probably because I could empathize or at least try to see it their way. I didn’t make a conscious effort to highlight atrocities committed against women or girls. It just so happens there are a large number of such atrocities and writing about them became important. A major portion of writing for both Chant of a Million Women and I Exist. Therefore I Am was done several years ago.
Chant of a Million Women was an unplanned collection. It just happened. A couple of years back when I started separating the poems I had in an effort to create collections to publish, I realized there were many poems about women. I decided to use what I had and also write a few more. This resulted in poems that are not only time sensitive but also look at the role of women down the ages, from Draupadi, Sita, Suparnaka, Helen of Troy and even Marie Antoinette. Sadly not a lot has changed despite the centuries separating these women and modern women. We have evolved and supposedly made strides to the future, our building are bigger, our houses have more luxurious items, most women work and earn, we have women shattering barriers and getting rid of the glass ceilings in almost every sphere, our quality of life has improved, but have we really progressed? Are women’s lives better or is there more to be done? When we look around us we see that this progress is only in pockets; the vast majority of women still don’t have the basic rights to be who they are. Some are still owned by the men in their families and can’t make decisions about their lives. Most rarely get an education and can’t earn a living. Those who can earn are subject to harassment, low pay and have to work long hours. This is not restricted to women in the developing world. We see women in developed countries being subjected to harassment and they don’t even have the right to make decisions about their own bodies.
If the poems in Chant of a Million Women evolved naturally the stories in I Exist. Therefore I Am were put together with a definite view of creating a collection about women. It was inspired by what I read and heard about while living and travelling in India. Some of the things that happened to women were so shocking that there were times I wondered if what I was hearing about was really true. Every day some incident about abuse or the exploitation of women was reported in the news. I found it horrifying that society would look the other way as members of that same society would be subjected to such terrible things. What was even more shocking was that I was from a neighboring country and I had never experienced or know women subjected to this level of torment in Sri Lanka. I found that cultural and religious values were very different and caste and age old beliefs played a major role in shaping the way society treated women not just in the villages but in urban areas where people were considered to be more modern and progressive. Several women I spoke to seemed to accept this as inevitable. Although they didn’t like it there was nothing much they could do as these views about women were deeply ingrained in the psyche of society. I wanted to talk about these women who lived amongst us. I wanted to highlight their lives and show how different they are from others. I felt it was important to emphasize how wrong it is to treat them like this. I was looking at their lives from the outside and this was an advantage as I didn’t have to subscribe to their view of the world or be subject to the unseen rules that governed their lives. And it was quite traumatic knowing what they had to go through.
A: Do you think the #MeToo movement in India will improve the situation in rural India?
S: I hope it does because this is where it is needed the most. Rural women are under more strain than their counterparts in urban areas. They are subjected to social shamming and patriarchy and have little or no recourse to law. Women in rural areas are also far more vulnerable to sexual abuse. They are also less likely to get attention for their complaints, that is, if they even dare to do complain. Moreover, caste plays a significant role in the way women are treated as most backward and scheduled caste and tribes are helpless against men from the more dominant caste. We have heard so many sad incidents about how rural women, travelling in groups to collect firewood and water are subjected to harassment by not just men from upper castes but men from their own castes as well. Women working in unskilled labor in the construction industry and women migrant workers are also susceptible to abuse and exploitation. The sad situation is that they are the ones who need to voice their injustices but these are the very women who can’t do so as most are illiterate, don’t have the economic means to own a phone or have the ability to stand up for themselves in a community that expects them to act in a certain way. So how do they benefit and how do they demand justice?
The #MeToo movement in India is, for the moment, about urban society. Like the offshoot American #MeToo movement, the Indian #MeToo movement started in the entertainment industry and has since included media personnel and a whole lot of others. It has resulted in many well known personalities being accused of sexual harassment. But will this die out soon or will it find a way of addressing the issues faced by rural women as well? There are just as many incidents of rape and abuse of women in rural areas that go unreported mainly because the women are too scared to report them or they are threatened. After the infamous incident in Delhi where a young student was raped on a bus in 2012 there was a lot of outrage at the inability of society to safeguard the rights of women. Sadly there were many, including prominent lawmakers and even religious figures that placed the blame on women and the way they dressed or behaved. It’s sad to see such prominent and educated people using flimsy excuses as clothes or quoting from religious texts to claim women shouldn’t be educated or even going out to work. What responses do these religious figures and lawmakers have to give for women in rural communities who are forced to do hard labor to help supplement the income of their families? How do they see the atrocities committed against women play out in this scenario where they say women should stay at home yet force women out to earn because there is no other alternative?
While the #MeToo movement has helped to give women a voice and also resulted in educating them about workplace rights there is much more that needs to be done and making sure women in the rural and remote areas also benefit is the next step. It would also be a case study for replicating in other countries where rural women have no recourse to basic needs and information to help them.
A: Tell us about your experience of growing up in Sri Lanka.
S: I had an interesting childhood doing things most other kids also did back in the day. We didn’t have most of the stuff kids have today like phones, computers and video games. Yet despite this we had a lot of fun. There were more connections with each other than the kids of today. We read a lot and in fact I remember spending hours in libraries, searching for books and being disappointed when I couldn’t find the book I wanted. Now everything is there at the touch of a bu%on and if you want to read a book all you have to do is download it onto your kindle. But growing up was also tough. We lived under the threat of terrorism and everyday we’d hear about bombs exploding somewhere in the country. In a way we grew up differently, always cautious and always wondering if we’d be the next victim of a bomb blast. Living in the suburbs of the capital, Colombo it was more dangerous because the terrorists always targeted Colombo and although there was high security it was still unsafe and we had to be vigilant and careful. We lived like this not knowing if we would see our loved ones or friends the next day. It was hard but somehow we got through it. I think it changed our perspective about life and made us realize how transient everything is because all that we value can be lost in a ma%er of seconds.
It’s now safer than it was now that there is no longer the threat of terrorism. However there is a lot of violence against woman and gender stereotyping, although it isn’t as strong as in India. Women are subject to harassment be it at home, on the roads or at the workplace; rape happens in many places and women are still considered objects. Mindset and attitudes need to change. There is also a lot of harassment at institutes of higher education where ragging of fresher’s, both men and women, has resulted in deaths and even suicide by some who have not been able to cope with the kind of mental and physical torment by their own fellow students.
A: What do you think is the role of feminist writers in the present scenario?
S: Chant of a Million Women is about taking back the narrative and giving women their voice. The poems speak of different issues faced by women, the voices range from children to adults and women from across the world, from ancient times to the present. The poem Fault Lines is about juxtaposing the past and the present and trying to see what has changed. It is in two voices; a modern women and Sita, and the poem looks at the idea that was Sita and how she was portrayed. Was she really that person we read about in the Ramayana or someone completely different? Was she even asked if she preferred to leave her palace and all the luxuries to follow her husband into exile? Was that really her narrative that is mentioned in the epic, or someone else’s idea of her?
the story. Said he
Similarly in A Princess Wronged, I look at Suparnaka and how she was treated and portrayed. She was royalty but because she was on the wrong side, according to the scribes of the Ramayana, she was portrayed in a very humiliating and negative light. The poem is in her voice and questions the way Lakshman had her depicted in history.
“You had authority. You had the scribes
falling at your feet waiting to
lap up words
gushing out your lips.
You made sure they recorded your view.
They weren’t there. They didn’t see.
Never knew me.
Only heard your words much later.”
Lines of Control looks at patriarchy down the ages and how men have controlled women from Draupadi, Sita to Helen of Troy, Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc telling us who they were as seen through the eyes of patriarchy and all that it suppresses rather than seeing them for who they are. We are either goddesses or whores and if men can’t place us in those two little boxes then they portray us as mad or weak; insipid characters that are only good for laughs.
Goddess in Chains shows that we are still controlled even if we are the goddesses while On a Street in London depicts women donning the mantle of whore to please her clients. These are some of the ‘stories’ and I’ve only just touched the surface.
For centuries men have written our stories. They have assumed our feelings, desires and needs and have suppressed our strength and ambitions. They have portrayed us as weak, inferior beings that couldn’t do anything for themselves. As women writers or as feminist writers, call it whatever you want, we need to take back control of our narratives and tell it as it is rather than tell it laced with male perceptions.
As writers we need to look for the stories that are not always in the news because these are the stories that silently scream out to be told. As feminist writers we should go deeper and look for the stories that are hushed and pushed away because this is where injustice happens and we must try to find the stories that are not told, bring them out and show the world that here is injustice, do something. We have the power to make things better. As Journalists we can highlight injustice women face and create conversations around them, thereby creating more awareness about the problems. We can also help to call for laws to be brought to protect the lives of women as it was done after the Delhi rape incident. We can interview women from disadvantaged communities and try to call for changes in their lives.
As poets and fiction writers we rely on creating the stories based on other lives. We have more leeway to talk about injustice as we don’t have to quote anyone or stick to facts like our counterparts in journalism. We craft the stories based on what we see around us and this is also a powerful medium. While the media highlights factual stories that will be forgotten the moment the next sensational story comes along as fiction writers or poets our work stays in the public eye for longer. It doesn’t go out of style or is time bound like a news item. We can generate more awareness and continue to lobby for change for women by sharing our work over and over. In that sense we have more power and responsibility to share stories and talk about issues that women face.
A: In your latest book, I Exist. Therefore I Am, you focus on women in rural India. What was your approach towards research and developing story lines when writing this book?
S: Whether I write poetry or fiction I have to see the story unfold in my mind. There are many issues I want to write about and many incidents I’ve seen that I want to turn into stories, but things don’t work like that for me. I have to let the stories come to me rather than go looking for them. I’ve found through experience that it never works when I go looking for a story. For some reason the story turns out to be dull and boring. So now I don’t bother with trying to force myself to create something. I can’t tell myself, here’s a good idea, let me turn that into a story. It doesn’t work even though I may have a volume of literature to back that particular issue I want to highlight or sufficient research to support it. The story has to work itself out in my head. It’s like creating a little movie that runs with the incidents that I want to portray. I see the place my characters move in, feel the pebbles on the ground as I walk in their shoes or the clumps of grass sticking out, touch the clothes my characters wear and feel the designs on them. I see the color of their skin, their hair, taste and smell the food they eat and breathe the very air they do. I have to let this happen while I make subtle changes and add dialogue. Only when I’m quite satisfied that it works do I start to write it down.
I spent eight years in India. The first two years I was there for post graduate study and was based in Delhi. Several years later I moved to India for work and was based in Chandigarh. I was a travel junkie and would take off whenever I had time or there was a long holiday. I’ve been to almost every place in India. I wasn’t really interested in writing about India when I was there. I used to listen to stories people recounted, but didn’t bother to write about them. In fact my first stories that are based in India are about mundane incidents I came across and was curious about. It was only when I began living in Chandigarh that I became aware of the issues faced by women to a greater extent.
One of the things I found really traumatic was that every day the newspapers carried a story about the abuse of women; either due to dowry or some other incident and it was appalling to read about such incidents. There was one in particular that I read about the honor killing of a young girl who had displeased her family and married someone of her choice. When I expressed shock about this to an older woman I knew, I was even more startled by her response as she agreed with the family that this was right and the girl had insulted the family. I didn’t use this incident to create a story although I used many other examples to create my stories.
I carried the scenes for the stories in I Exist. Therefore I Am with me for a long time. I hadn’t planned on writing anything at the time, but whenever I heard something or read about something my mind would immediately start seeing the ‘story’ and I would think about this a lot. I started wondering what would have happened if the particular women facing the issue were from a different place, the circumstances were altered or they had changed their decisions. When I wrote Shweta’s Journey I concentrated a lot about the movement of Shweta’s arm as she washed clothes. This was a significant moment in Shweta’s life. She was an upper caste woman from an economically and socially higher place than a washer woman, yet here she was, this highly educated feminist who was reduced to a washer woman all because of a misguided belief in a man. I created a 3D image of a woman in my mind and made her into a washer woman, taking various characteristics of several washer women I had seen. I followed the arms of the character image I created, stopped to note how her muscles tensed as she lifted the weigh and noted how the water would drain off the clothes and fall back into the basin as the clothes were raised. Sometimes it takes a long time to get little incidents right to be believable.
Just as I see the stories play out in my mind I also see the places. When I wrote On Death Row, I had the image of the banks of Varanasi at the back of my mind. I remember walking here many times and as I began developing the story I walked back and forth along the bank of the river in my mind. It made it more real and easier for me to place my characters as the daily life along the river bank was present in vivid detail. But most of the time I try not to place the stories in a particular setting, unless place is crucial, like On Death Row, as I feel the stories are universal and giving them a particular location – village or town – takes away its universality.
A: At last, what is your advice to young writers trying to make it big in the world of literature?
S: Be a reader first. Read whatever interests you. Read for pleasure and also to learn how language is used. See how language can be shaped to suit the story you want to tell. Then start writing your stories. Remember that every writer is different. We all may write about similar issues but our voices are unique. Our experiences and where we come from make our writing diverse and exceptional. How I see a story is unlike how you or someone else sees it and we should take advantage of this. My advice to any writer wherever you are, is to be honest with your writing. Write about what you feel strongly about. If the story is taking place in another country, it’s ok if you haven’t been there or don’t have any experience. There is always research and all you have to do is get online and find out what you need to know to write our story.
Let me give an example. My story “This is Home” that was published in Litro in 2016 is about a Palestinian women who lives through an attack on her town. I have never been there, don’t know anyone from there, but when I read on the news about the bombings and about how people were losing lives and property and saw some images of bombed out building I felt I had to write about this from the perspective of a woman because we were seeing more men than women on the news and hearing about what happened from the men’s perspective. I wanted to see the story from a woman’s point of view. I wanted to know her life and what she was going through. I put myself in the shoes of someone, a woman who lived there, and tried to imagine what it must be like and how she must feel. I think empathy is important. Connecting with your characters is important. Creating the environment and the dialogue is crucial to getting the story right. The story we create is far longer and more diverse than the story we put down on paper; that’s merely a fraction of the whole piece. We have to build the lives of our characters and create their homes before attempting to make a story out of nothing. Some people say that we shouldn’t write about what we don’t know. But I disagree with that because if we only wrote about our own experiences we will not write much. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries, to experiment and experience with language, characters and place. It might not work in the beginning, but given time once you start feeling confident you will succeed.
Most importantly don’t write if your only objective is to sell millions of books, win awards or gain fame. Writing is a very solitary pursuit. Good writing will be rewarded and will be remembered long after you are gone. Strive to leave something significant for generations that follow, not lines on social media that will fade with the next big line. Use your strength as a writer, as a person. Learn about your subjects, feel what they feel and live their lives before you pour it all on paper. Writing is art, words are like dabs of paint on a canvas. Use them wisely.