Barnita Bagchi is a transnational feminist of South Asian origin. Creative literature from different cultures which breaks gender boundaries and barriers inspires her work as a professor in the Department of Modern Languages at Utrecht University.
Sharp, talented, thinking-out-of-the-box women have written speculative fiction, utopian and dystopian narratives, and narratives of ‘possible worlds’ that make us rethink gendered roles and rules. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain created the country of Ladyland in 1905, described in her novella Sultana’s Dream. Here, the driving force behind the utopian feminist country of Ladyland and its success is women’s education.
In particular, Rokeya emphasises women’s scientific cultivation, and condemns male militarism. In her inverted world, the men, mostly brawn, remain confined to the mardana and perform the quotidian chores, while the women, mostly brain, govern the country wisely and well, headed by a queen who is aided by the Lady-Principals of the two women’s universities. The women devise schemes that allow water to be drawn directly from clouds, while another allows solar heat to be collected, stored, and concentrated. In women-ruled Ladyland, aerial travel is the mode of transport, land is cultivated through electrically-driven motors, and the weather is controlled. Ladyland embodies the triumph of the virtuous, enquiring, scientific, educated, and welfarist woman. Gender roles are cleverly recrafted; rules are rewritten.
Vandana Singh is another South Asian writer whose clever, ethical, speculative fiction bending gender rules and roles I much admire. Born and brought up in New Delhi, Singh teaches and researches physics, lives in Boston, and writes science fiction and fantasy. Her most acclaimed books to date are two children’s novels, Younguncle Comes to Town (2005), and Younguncle in the Himalayas (2005). Both were first published in India, under the imprint of the feminist publisher Zubaan. Younguncle is a zany man who enchants his three nephews and nieces. Landlords, patriarchal males, corporate corruption: these are some of the targets in the stories, each of which is steeped in humour and irreverence. That men can make superb feminists is well borne out by Younguncle. This world, even if it feels like a quirky parallel universe, is situated in contemporary India, and as in Rokeya’s writing, there is a determined sense that feisty individuals can exercise agency in trying to turn things round in combatting forces such as patriarchy. One of the texts which I find most enriching to teach in my courses is Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando: A Biography (1928). Written as a love-tribute to her bisexual friend Vita Sackville-West, the text allows us to see Woolf’s stellar place in Queer poetics. Humour, high-spiritedness, and irreverence co-habit in a mock-biography in which Orlando, first man and then woman, romps through British history, while remaining devoted to her own high-spiritedness, to love, and to creating literature.
That both ‘high’ and ‘popular’ literature are capable of creating memorable, possible worlds that speak to feminists should be a given today. The Hunger Games Trilogy of books that began appearing in 2008 has interested me greatly (I am less impressed by the films), and in Katniss Everdeen, who takes the place of her younger sister Prim to battle it out to death in the spectacle of the ‘Hunger Games’, a lot of young adults have found a powerful figure of hope. The Mockingjay that Katniss becomes is, I think, an important icon for feminists to study.
Literature de-familiarises when it is effective. Medieval female writers in South Asia and Europe, ranging from Mahadevi Akka, to Meerabai, to Christine de Pizan, and to Julian of Norwich have taught me that the pre-modern world had many writers who tested the boundaries of what can be linguistically expressed and of where we stand in a world which has so often felt unjustly rules-and-roles-bound. These mystics, such as Mahadevi Akka, who walked naked as manifesto of her asceticism, and who wrote poetry about this, remind us that the creative representation of a world with rules and roles different to hegemonic patriarchy have appeared across temporalities and cultures. Meanwhile, grim, powerful feminist dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) or Manjula Padmanabhan’s Escape (2008) are compelling. What forks and branches in the road might humanity take? What abyss might loom? What nightmare might we get trapped in, in which we are straitjacketed into regimented rules and roles? Or are we already living it? When speculative feminist fiction is most effective, it makes the reader take a de-familliarising look at the here-and-now—and if a cold shiver runs down one’s spine before one regroups, marshalling sharpness and imagination, then we are already some way towards making a head start in changing the hegemonic patriarchal game.