Interview with Annie Zaidi

ANNIE ZAIDI IS a journalist and creative writer based in Mumbai. Since the publication of her first book – a collection of essays called Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales (Tranquebar, 2010) – she has published short stories, poetry and two novellas. She has also written several play scripts that have been performed on stage, and a handful of short films that you can watch on YouTube. Zaidi is a keen observer of her own society, and her writing is guided by a strong sense of social justice: she has written about problems associated with India’s democratic process, its bureaucracy and infrastructure, and its cultural and caste prejudices. She is particularly interested in the unique hurdles faced by women. In her essay ‘Embodying Venus’, Zaidi creates a vivid picture of women and girls living and growing up in India today, where there is an entrenched culture of policing women that includes the ‘fetishisation and terrorisation’ of their bodies. ’Embodying Venus’ raises pertinent questions about what it means for women to be empowered and unashamed of their bodies.

I know that you grew up with literature in the home. Your grandfather was a famous Urdu writer, scholar of Indian literature and freedom fighter for India’s independence in the 1930s; your mother, a schoolteacher and principal, has also written poetry. At college in Rajasthan, you were already writing poetry and drama skits, which you followed with a degree and career in journalism. What has writing meant to your family? How did your family’s appreciation of liberal arts and values affect your own practice of writing?

ANNIE ZAIDI: My mother wrote a little as a young girl, in school I think, and a couple of early poems appeared in a newspaper. But she did not write much after college. She did make a couple of children’s educational books later, and when I say ‘make’, I mean that she painted them. There was no easy access to Photoshop or copyright-free images in those days. Publishers would commission artists to work on illustrated books for a tiny sum of money.

Writing in the family began with my grandfather. He was writing by the time he was ten. It was respected, of course, as any literary or scholarly enterprise is respected anywhere in the world. But poetry brought no money, so those who wished to write had to work twice as hard. I was very well aware of that. My grandfather was an Urdu scholar and poet but he also worked for the government in various roles. Grandpa used to wake up at 4 am, and wrote until it was time for him to get ready to go to office. Then he returned in the evening and, after a quick cup of tea, wrote until it was time for dinner. He probably slept less than he needed to, and must have been far more stressed than he let on. I never heard him snap or shout at anyone, though he did complain about us kids going into his study and taking away his pens and papers.

The family had been landed and educated for a few generations before. Even the women of my grandfather’s generation could read and write Urdu. They read novels or poetry when they had the time and leisure to enjoy books. Television came much later and was despised as an inferior art form. My grandfather never openly said so (I never heard him criticise anything in harsh words) but I sensed that he looked down upon cinema as well. He only watched the news on TV.

Painting was respected, of course. My mother was quite interested in visual art and was encouraged. Grandpa also took his kids out to classical dance performances and to theatre acts whenever he could afford it.

But my own environment was not really culturally rich. At least, not in the sense that I think you meant in your question. However, my childhood (and my mother’s childhood) did shape my cultural choices. My brother and I grew up in a remote township in Rajasthan. There was no cinema hall, no theatre, no dance shows, no art exhibitions. We took a few trips to ancient historical monuments, and that may have been the best aesthetic exposure we got. Until I was eight, we did not have a television at home, and 24-hour TV programming did not arrive until I was well into my teens. The only song or dance shows I knew were tacky imitations of Hindi film music and choreography, and even that was once a year.

In that sense, I was actually a generation behind my mother since the only ‘liberal arts’ culture I had was books. My mother did not stint on books though. She bought as many as she could for us, and borrowed from the school library. Birthday gifts were books. Travel gifts were books or comics. If I complained of boredom (which was often), it was understood that I was demanding books. I borrowed books from friends and their parents. I read what I could lay my hands on, but mostly fiction or drama. It ranged from Dickens to Enid Blyton, from The Hardy Boys to Thomas Hardy and through to Tolstoy and Shakespeare. This shaped me, of course. Before I was a writer, I was an eternally hungry reader. I didn’t really have any writing ambition as such. I just think that being so involved with the written word, being almost dependent on it, had made me into a particular kind of girl.

In school, the only cultural experience we had had access to was what we could create for ourselves. This too was useful, of course. But it was not necessarily what you’d call a liberal arts education.

Writing was appreciated by the family, so I found little opposition to it. I found a degree of approval. But it was still cautious approval, at first. As a career, well, it is still not much of a career, so I don’t know what my family thinks of it. Honestly, I try to avoid talking about it with them. If there’s disapproval in their heads, I don’t want to hear it.

Could you expand on that? In what way do you and your family consider writing unacceptable as a career?

Mainly, I suppose, that it doesn’t pay well or steadily. Creative pursuits (unless one had court or royal patronage) have always been risky at a livelihood level. And it is somewhat unfair on a family that must bear the burden of artistic failure, or even artistic incubation. Not all families can afford it.

Your writing is often engaged in moral observation and critique. Your first English-language play, Name, Place, Animal, Thing, for example, portrayed the relationship between a middle-class Indian family and their house help, suggesting a contradiction between their ideals and practices towards social inequality. Your practice appears to be buoyed by a journalist’s optimism in the power of writing to effect social change. How do you understand your purpose as a news reporter and as a literary author, respectively? What is gained (and what is lost) by using an objective or subjective voice in delivering social critique?

I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘moral. I know what you’re getting at, but moral is a fairly loaded word and I have ambiguous feelings towards it. I do observe, of course. If things seem unjust or unethical or just insane, I tend to critique. I’d like to think that I start out with just dispassionate observation.

With reference to the play script you mentioned, I don’t need to ‘suggest’ any contradiction between stated ideals and practice. The contradiction is evident and in your face and anybody who thinks even a tiny bit is deeply, shamefully aware of it. We see it in most middle-class homes. It is just that my awareness of the degree of injustice involved is sharpened by my journalism. For instance, I have met little kids who were employed in upper middle-class homes and were tortured by their employers. This is so far beyond questions of ‘ideals’ that I wasn’t driven to address the issue in drama or fiction. I could only put it out there as journalism and people could respond to it as an ugly truth. There were policy issues and legal aspects of child labour to consider.

But when it comes to everyday events, a more subtle kind of injustice unfolds, and you begin to notice the hypocrisy all around. That’s when you feel the need for fiction. Another play, Jaal, is set in a village. It’s trying to talk about problems of displacement, access to natural resources and violent protest against industrial ventures. It is fiction, yet it is also directly inspired by the different events unfolding in my country at this point of its history. The different news clippings were separated by time and location but were linked in their themes. I could establish that link in a non-fiction space too. In fact, many other writers are already doing that. But I wanted to show how a chain of events was unfolding in a more direct, emotional way, so I needed to turn to a fictional drama. I wasn’t setting out to critique as much as to just tell these stories in a way that made them real and palpable to audiences.

When you were discussing the persecution of feminist authors in India in an earlier interview, you said that ‘the degree of hostility a woman writer faces is usually in inverse proportion to the extent of women’s personal and social freedoms’. Can you explain what you meant by that?

What I was trying to say is that when women do not have much freedom in their personal lives, or if their social choices are limited, this usually corresponds with them not expressing themselves too openly. They can’t! Lack of freedom tends to be pervasive. If you don’t have the right to divorce or to a family inheritance, for instance, you cannot easily write about your marriage from hell. If you did, it would take a great deal of courage.

When you don’t express yourself freely and loudly, there is not much public hostility to contend with. There were women who wrote about how women/wives ought to behave, how to win approval, and so on. They didn’t face much hostility as far as I know. Women start to assert their independence, to reach out for new freedoms, building upon the freedoms their mothers have won, that’s also when they start to push the boundaries of self-expression. They start telling the truth as they see it. This enrages the establishment, both male and female. There is hostility when people are afraid of something actually changing.

I must add here that I don’t think that all female authors face hostility, or that the ones who do are always the most radical. There are male authors who face hostility too, often for truth-telling, just writing things that frighten the current established power structure. Writers in general and in vastly different political contexts are targeted for similar reasons. You have to look at who is censored and who is attacked, and then figure out why – who is feeling threatened by what?

Let’s talk about ‘the power cameras wield over women’s bodies’. You see India participating in a pop culture that spews ‘near-naked’ images of women – on billboards, in newspapers, online. You point out that this has made the sight of female nudity less sensational, but it has not removed the stigma; in fact, digital photography and the internet have broadened the context in which women may be viewed, exploited, shamed. You conclude, ‘it is wise to remember this’. What did you mean by that? What advice would you give to women – and men – in navigating or redirecting the power of the camera?

What we’re witnessing is quite interesting. Especially because, with mobile phone technology changing so quickly, cameras are everywhere. It can be a powerful tool for change. There are citizen journalists, for instance, and local activists who can use the camera to fix problems. However, when it comes to women’s bodies, cameras are also used to shame women, to control or silence them. This happens now in contexts where they aren’t aware of any cameras. What used to happen when cameras were bigger and not so powerful was that a woman would probably notice it if it was somewhere near her. Today, we hear of women being filmed by ex-lovers or rapists, about cameras in trial rooms or rest rooms. We’ve already got wearable cameras now. It is impossible to control technology. The solution lies in firstly combating the notion of bodily shame, and secondly in making consent a core value. People need to start to respect other people’s rights to their own bodies, not only in a physical, sexual sense but also in the way we use digital images and media.

You provide an interesting discussion of stripping as a form of political protest: ‘…for a topless or nude protest to succeed, there must be an overarching social assumption that this event is a social aberration, a rare step taken by women who’ve been pushed to the wall’. You evoke a striking contrast between the harrowed faces of elderly protestors bearing their bodies in India and Africa, and the Ukrainian Femen protestors, ‘young skinny white women showing their breasts’, who pose ‘smiling, flowers in their hair’. We commonly think about the struggle for female empowerment as if its aims and method are transparent and homogeneous. How different are the struggles for gender equality between different parts of the world?

Yes, the struggles of women may be similar in their objectives, but that does not mean that the same methods will succeed everywhere. Just as an example, if you are forced to wear a scarf, not wearing a scarf is an act of defiance. But if you are on a nudist beach, and stripping in protest against something, I don’t know if that would work.

I haven’t been to Ukraine and I don’t know enough about the culture to comment on whether or not Femen’s tactics work at a local level, but they seemed to have shifted base out of the country and from an international perspective, their approach seems very limited. The main criticism, even from other feminists, is that the group is non-representational. Women come in all ages, shapes, sizes, colours. If the battle is for freedom and respect and disrupting the status quo and so on, the group would be more effective if led by a range of bodies of different ages and shapes.

The question of when female nudity is appropriate has become a central point of debate between ‘third-wave’ and ‘second-wave’ strands of feminism. Representing a third-wave perspective, for example, twenty-two year old American pop diva Miley Cyrus has in recent years become the object of criticism from second-wave feminists due to her highly sexualised self-exposure in front of young, female fans. American feminists from an older generation have warned Cyrus that she is being naive in disregarding the way her self-exposure feeds into a culture of sexual violence and denigration. What is your position on women showing themselves in the way that Cyrus and many other female celebrities do? Is there an argument to be made for women maintaining a sense of modesty as a form of self-reverence, and not only as a form of self-preservation?

I don’t know much about Miley Cyrus’s work. I have seen a few photos in the papers but not heard her songs or watched her performances, so am loath to comment specifically. But in general, I think feminists who are critical are not necessarily pushing for ‘modesty’. They’re probably despairing of the general objectification of women and are disappointed that women with wealth and influence are not doing their bit to push towards equality.

I don’t have any set views on sexualised acts, particularly if they’re intended for the stage or the screen. Context is everything. If you’re going to represent how denigration works, you may have to show it that way. But a lot depends on how things are done. Is a story being told? Is it the story of an individual or a generation or a frozen moment in our collective culture?

There is great power in showing yourself in an explicit way. That is the point I make in the essay too. But are the celebrities really doing that? Just being present – skin and flesh, wrinkles and scars and hairy legs and all? If they had the courage to do that, I might consider that to be an act of reverence towards all humanity. However, it is really hard to believe that showing a female body is a consciously empowered act if you’re going to submit to waxing, and putting on pointy high heels that destroy your spine. That’s my view anyway.

I do not suggest at all that women must censor their self-expression through clothes. Wear whatever you want and do it for no reason other than that it brings you joy, or because you want to experiment with your looks. But I wish that we’d all pause to think about what we’re expressing, and what kinds of freedoms our clothes represent. Any choice is fine as long as it is a choice. We have to question our own choices if they are based on fears that have been fed to us by others.

At the end of your essay you quote very movingly from the Indian poet Kutti Revathi. For you, she represents a strand of Indian women’s writing that challenges patriarchal oppression by making explicit reference to women’s bodies; in this way the author defies her ‘shame’. In an earlier interview you said that women ‘confront a higher risk of incurring the displeasure of various social groups when they write their own truths and honest opinions of what women’s lives are like’. You yourself have been described by Indian newspapers as ‘a breath of fresh air in a country where even the educated bourgeoisie hold prescriptive attitudes towards the role of women in relationships and society’. Are you anticipating an offensive response to the publication of this essay? How have men and women responded differently to your writing?

Well, I cannot speak for the author. So I cannot say for sure that the poet was defying her shame. I can say that I live in an environment where we are shamed for having bodies and the body is heavily censored. The poet was simply expressing herself, but this is liberating for me, the reader. Many women have written to me saying they love it too.

Male readers…it varies. A lot of them enjoyed Gulab (HarperCollins, 2014), which is in the fantasy/supernatural space. Men who read Love Stories # 1 to 14 (HarperCollins, 2012) liked it. In fact, some wrote to say that they identify with the stories; many of those stories were written from a male character’s perspective. Many men enjoyed Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. That’s non-fiction, not too personal, so lots of men write back if they like it. If they like my poems, they tend to be quiet about it. I’m okay with that, actually. As long as they do read poetry, there is hope.

A couple of times, men reacted badly – usually online, when I’ve raised questions of access to certain physical spaces or professions, and what we can do to set the balance right.

I am not anticipating an offensive response to the essay. Most men will empathise and perhaps share their own stories, as did one male friend to whom I was describing some of the material that I put into this memoir-essay. What I think may happen is that men will say that they too grew up with shame of a similar kind, or perhaps only slightly different. That it is not just women who must endure similar feelings and struggles. And that is fine. I am only too willing to hear their stories.

That is an interesting idea. You note several times in your essay that men in India are permitted to wear very little clothing in public. In what way do you see men suffering a similar ‘shame’? Do you see signs of men already beginning to tell their stories?

Well, the essay I have written for Griffith Review does mention little boys as well as little girls in the beginning. I am guessing that men, especially in their childhoods, have suffered shame too. Shame does not operate in simple or direct ways. Men may not be castigated or punished or threatened for wearing less but that does not immunise them from bodily shame, nor does it protect them from humiliation or torture that involves nudity. I have not yet read much by Indian men talking about physical shame, but I have read some prison memoirs by men and those are as frightening as they are revealing.

You reflect that attending an all-girls college enabled a comparatively non-gendered experience, granting you and your peers unique ‘freedom to just be humans’. What does it mean to be ‘just be human’? How important is it to you that women and men maintain a sense of difference, while simultaneously recognising that we are all equally ‘human’?

To just be is hard to define. Perhaps that question is best answered if we consider all the things that girls are not supposed to do. Or the things they can do, if only they would. Like driving a truck, or a tractor in a field.

Girls in a college where no boys are allowed were free to not conform to stereotypes. You could wear baggy shorts and t-shirts rather than tight ones, especially for sports. You could choreograph a dance focusing on interpretations of words, symmetry, balance and group formation rather than on seductive postures. It was possible to focus solely on intellectual, physical and even political achievement (we had elections).

Gender identity is mainly a social construct. Hospitals begin it these days – blue and pink blankets – and it goes on to ‘boys don’t cry’, and on to white lacy gowns/red and gold embroidered sarees for brides and black suits for grooms, and it ends with make-up in your coffin. To that extent, I think it is important to try and resist gendered identities. Nature gives us bodies with minor differences. The rest is questionable and we ought to keep questioning.

There is a post in The Ladies Finger questioning the recent announcement by a women’s college in India (Bangalore’s Mount Carmel College) that they will soon be enrolling boys. The author echoes your esteem for the women’s college in its providing a special space for girls to develop, uninhibited by gender prejudice. A former teacher has said: ‘It’s sad that that kind of safe space for women won’t be there anymore. But at the same time it’s good that they’re taking on boys.’ Why do you think they have invited boys to enrol now? Do you see a trend towards making single-sex colleges ‘co-ed’, perhaps because that is perceived to be more progressive? Do you feel any inclination to protest this attitude, given your experience of women’s college?

The college is not taking in men en masse. It probably has practical reasons for taking in male students at the post-graduate level. Perhaps the infrastructure exists and the college can offer quality education to more students than the current numbers, so why not? Maybe the management feels that the students being in separate buildings or classrooms will not change the overall environment that much. I don’t think there is a trend as such. I don’t feel a need to protest the change either. My feelings about gender segregation are quite mixed. I don’t like segregation as a rule. Much depends on what kind of college a girl goes to, and what she does there. Young people are subject to direct and indirect pressures about who they should become, and the rules are very different for girls. From how they should sit to how they should talk. After all, it was in fairly recent decades that women were not allowed to run marathons, and that riding bicycles was discouraged. Given this, being in an all-women’s space can be liberating, provided those who run the college are not enforcing stereotypes. I was lucky in that I went to a college where they encouraged a wide range of physical and cultural activity along with academics. Not all schools and colleges are run like that.

One of the things I enjoyed most about your essay is your successful weaving together of personal experience and critical exposition. You also demonstrate this in your collections of essays and short stories: Known Turf and The Good Indian Girl (Zubaan Books, 2011). The novelist JM Coetzee famously said that ‘all autobiography is storytelling, and all writing is autobiography’. As someone who writes across many genres, what do you make of this idea? What do personal memory and authorial presence mean to you?

Most of my fiction is not personal. There is a significant difference, at least in my view, between memoir and fiction that is based on real life. What Coetzee may have referred to is the latter. I don’t think all writing is ‘autobiography’. But we write of what we see in the world and how it impacts us, or what we think it means. There are endless possibilities for a story rooted in reality; that does not make it ‘autobiography’. If we apply that yardstick, then differences of fiction and non-fiction would collapse. In fact, our systems of justice would collapse, since it is based on the idea of ‘truth’ and ‘factual event’ and ‘witnesses’.

Since I work in multiple genres, I like to draw a line (foremost in my own head) between what is fiction and what isn’t. When we did The Good Indian Girl, my co-author and I decided to separate fiction from a direct authorial voice by using a different format and italics. Any piece of writing comes filtered through an individual lens. That’s what an authorial presence means to me. But I am also aware that it is important to set boundaries to this individual voice and lens when one is trying to do something in the non-fiction space. Memoir is perhaps the only exception.

Most recently, you edited a book of Indian women’s literary history called Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing (Aleph, May 2015). In your introduction to that anthology you stated that ‘We [Indian women] cannot know what to do next unless we know what we have already done, or what was done to us.’ History has a role to play in effecting social change. How important has historical research been for your own perspective and work about Indian women? Are you revising histories that you were taught at school?

I think history really matters. Anything we are – that we think we are, that we argue we are or ought to be – is rooted in history. It applies as much to nations, to religions, to political movements as to women, clothing and literature. It is integral to almost anything you write. Characters have history. Places have history. Movements have history. For instance, growing up, I didn’t know about the suffragettes or about women’s role in fighting for labour rights in industrialised societies. I had read mainly Indian history, with a little bit of world history tossed in (the World Wars, and a little about ancient civilisations). Feminism was a vague word and it was not held up as a good thing. It was only after I began to read further in college and especially after I had access to the internet that I began to understand the word, its history, what I owe to feminists and gender activists, my own sense of self and whatever few rights I possessed. It wasn’t until then that I saw the need to keep pressing forward in order to move closer to our ideals of equality and freedom. Reading hundreds of different books for Unbound, the anthology of Indian women’s writing, I also learnt about what the lives of Indian women were like and what role they played in our shared history. As an example, take the extract from Nivedita Menon’s Seeing like a Feminist (Penguin, 2012) that touches on the fluidity of gender and physical abilities. It is extremely relevant to all of us because we continue to have damaging conversations about what jobs are suitable for women’s bodies, and many women labourers are still paid less on the grounds that they are not able to do as much physical work as men. If we do not know the ways in which ideas have been challenged in the past, we do not know that they can, in fact, be challenged. I do think that knowing what has already taken place, even if it was in a different time or place than the one we find ourselves in, gives us a sort of power.

Like many Indian writers of your generation, you have chosen to express yourself in English, rather than in Hindi or another regional Indian language. In February 2013, you explained to Indian media that your motivation for using English was not to attract international publishers or readership; that you write emphatically for an Indian audience. However, as a writer with a substantial online presence and a growing international publishing record, your work does have a growing global reach. What are your expectations for how your reflections on contemporary India will be received by people who are outside of that society, looking in? What reactions have you already had from an international audience?

Many of us in India are bilingual. English is not a second language but either the first or a twin mother tongue. In my family, for instance, we have spoken Hindustani and English since we were toddlers. We fight with each other in both languages! Added to that, almost all my reading was in English. So the decision to write in English was not a conscious one. I do write in Hindi, usually scripts. Whatever comes naturally. English is not just an international language. In diverse countries like India, it is also a way of reaching out to Indians within India. More than the international community, I would like my work to be translated into other Indian languages.

I have not had many reactions from international readers. My book Known Turf was translated into Italian and I believe it had decent reviews but since I don’t know the language, I cannot read or respond to any comments. I have no specific expectations of international readers. I only hope that they do not make the mistake of assuming that I speak for all of India. I cannot. Nobody can, and those who claim to…well, they shouldn’t. Any nation will hold many cultures and sub-cultures and multiple realities simultaneously. I offer as much of it as I can understand and experience.

In an interview about your book of short stories, Love Stories #1 to 14, you said that you think ‘love’ is trivialised and undervalued in Indian society, whereas it should be defended as a ‘basic right’. You saw this as a contradiction in a country that ‘prides itself on freedom and democracy’, telling us that ‘so often we surrender the freedom to love’. Can you elaborate upon what you meant by this? In what way do you see ‘love’ reflecting democratic values?

Democracy – the way we understand it in our times, at least – implies that every individual citizen counts in his/her own right. Each vote matters. Your parents do not vote for you. And you are not required to vote for people of your own community. You are free to choose. In the same way, love is essentially a democratic value. It must be free to choose, and that choice can only be exercised by individuals. Sadly, we hear too many stories of people not being able to decide whom to love and marry, and often their freedom is taken away through violent means. If this is not a betrayal of the democratic pact, what is?

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