Review: The Fabulous Feminist (Suniti Namjoshi)

Last year I was asked to write a review of a forthcoming collection of the works of Suniti Namjoshi for the Australian Women’s Book Review, which was published online earlier this year. I’ve had a busy first week at uni, so I thought it would make a good filler post until I write up some newer stuff.

The Fabulous Feminist

Suniti Namjoshi, Spinifex Press, Melbourne 2012.

It is not often that a book falls into my hands that calls itself – consciously and unashamedly – a feminist book. Even from its title, The Fabulous Feminist is clear in its philosophy, and takes the reader on a journey through Namjoshi’s own experiences with feminism, as told through fables, poetry and several longer works of fiction.

As a reader in Namjoshi’s body of work, The Fabulous Feminist throws together a range of different books and collections. There is certainly a sense of thematic unity to the collection, largely through the author’s exploration of morality and immorality, and her almost ubiquitous use of allegory and animals as characters. While the form of the book lends itself well to collecting Namjoshi’s fables and poetry, it does less justice to her longer works, the extracts of which are intellectually interesting, but emotionally unfulfilling.

A significant part of The Fabulous Feminist is made up of fables, a form which Namjoshi is particularly drawn to. The first set, simply entitled Feminist Fables, represents the author’s own strategies for negotiating a confusing patriarchal world as a new feminist. ‘If something didn’t make sense, I wrote a fable about it’ (1), she writes in the introduction to this section, and indeed, many of feminism’s primary concerns can be spotted in each text. The fables are short and simple, often only a few paragraphs long, and have a strong ethical sensibility that, in my own experience, often characterises short fiction. Namjoshi consciously plays with this didacticism, sometimes concluding by challenging the idea that there is a moral to be found at all. At the end of Summer Days, for instance, she speaks to the reader directly: ‘and the moral of the story? There isn’t one. It is an immoral tale’ (245). At other times, however, there is a very clear message to the short fables, especially the earlier collections, where the development of Namjoshi’s own thoughts and feelings about feminism can be traced over time.

In most pieces, it is easy to see the stories of gender essentialism, discrimination and sexual violence that lie behind the rather straightforward wording. In one fable, a duck is awarded honorary swan status after working very hard to study the ways of swans, but is soon scorned for aspiring to be what it isn’t; for bowing to the demands of the swans who lord over the other ducks. In another, a mongoose spares the life of a snake who professes its love for her, but kills it when it decides it will force its love on her. That fable concludes with a warning that not all snakes end up as victims. While some fables made me laugh out loud with their simple, but clever conclusions, I found myself wondering at several points in the book whether the messages were too basic, the morals too stripped down. Individually, each fable works well, but I am unsure of whether, when read collectively, they don’t lack a touch of subtlety that would have made the book more engaging overall. At the same time, I found it worrying that I seemed to think a text was being too overtly feminist, for I do not believe that literature can ever be completely divorced from politics.

I found a similar problem while reading the extracts from Namjoshi’s longer works, such as The Mothers of Maya Diip and The Conversations of Cow. The chapters included in this reader effectively present the intellectual crux of each novel, and are soundly contextualised in the author’s introduction to each text. I found The Mothers of Maya Diip particularly interesting, as it plays with the theme of semi-fantastical, all-female universes, and asks similar questions to other feminist novels such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and parts of Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. The three chapters are intellectually fascinating, but unfortunately little attention is paid to characterisation, and as a result even the primary characters read like archetypes with little individuality, as genders and roles rather than people. This is a concern throughout the whole anthology, particularly in the shorter pieces featuring animal characters, who often seem to be only partially anthropomorphised.

There are, of course, exceptions to this trend. The Suniti character in The Conversations of Cow, who largely embodies Namjoshi herself, is one of the most fleshed out characters, and faces many of the same problems and questions that I face myself as a young woman negotiating feminism on a daily basis. Another is Namjoshi’s portrait of a family servant in India, vividly brought to life by intensely personal memories and imaginings in Goja: An Autoiographical Myth. Likewise, many of poems included in this reader evoke personalities from literature or mythology and give them voices and feelings of their own, far beyond the personalities granted to them by existing cultural traditions.

In fact, a real strength of The Fabulous Feminist as a whole is its constant engagement with mythology, folklore and other works of literature, be they Hindu or Christian, Indian or European. Within the pages of this reader I found re-imaginings of figures and responses to authors from every era and culture, from Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Swift to Shakespeare’s Prospero and (a female!) Caliban, from Snow White to Medusa and Circe. As an aspiring classicist with a particular interest in femininity in the ancient world, the poems subverting traditional myths such are especially clever and satisfying. Namjoshi’s Medusa, for instance, is not the victim of glory-seeking Perseus as the myth suggests:

‘The waves roared as waves will,

till at last the hidden hero burned

to be seen by her whom he had come to kill.

‘Look! Medusa! I am Perseus!’ he cried,

thus gaining recognition before he died’ (110).

There are certainly many other influences on Namjoshi’s writing that lend it a distinct style, such as the open emphasis on lesbian identities and relationships, the mingling of Indian and Western cultural traditions, and the feeling of existing only on the periphery. Many of the stories and poems embody the struggles that Namjoshi describes as arising from her conflicting Hindu background and Christian education. I found this aspect of The Fabulous Feminist particularly rich and engaging, especially because the didactic forms and semi-fantastical, moral themes complemented each other so effectively.

Read as a collection, the similarity of stories and characters and the relatively simple, unembellished prose can become a little grating, and I felt that my engagement waned the more I read in one sitting. The Fabulous Feminist is a book best read bit by bit, by opening to a random page, perusing a few fables or poems at a time and pondering their meaning throughout the day. Nonetheless, it is always joyfully refreshing to find a book that stands to its own feminism, without judgement, and without having to qualify itself.

* The version I’m posting here is my original version, not the edited version that appears on the AWBR website. The edited version actually contained some changes I wasn’t happy with, including one which totally reversed the point I was making. (Perhaps it was considered too presumptuous. I don’t know.) Compare, if you wish.

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