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Listen to her

It began as a whim, a resolution for the new year, a year now already passed. At least, it seemed like a whim, sitting there by the campfire in the Kalakad mountains, with friends, under the star-sequinned night sky quilted with cloud. The rainforests were silent but for the creak and click of insect and frog; only the cataract over the nearby cliff continued its unceasing conversation with the rocks. Among friends announcing new year resolutions—more out of amusement than determination—I outed mine, as sparks crackled in the fire. I’ll read only books written by women in 2019, I said. Fifty books written by fifty women.

It was a strange resolution, like nothing I’d made before. And on its surface it carried the obvious problem: a quest for good literature, writing, and writers made sense, but why women writers? Why reduce women to an adjective? Writers are writers, aren’t they?

I’d always read writers without bias to gender—or so I thought—on my many book-reading binges since 2011. My stats on Goodreads, where I keep track of what I read, recorded that I’d read 100 books in 2011, 57 in 2012, 101 books in 2013, 40 in 2014, 37 in 2015, 50 in 2016, and 25 each in 2017 and 2018. I’d picked books up from independent bookstores, chain stores, used book stores, pavement sellers, online e-book retailers, public and university libraries, airport and train station bookshops, and my friends’s bookshelves, across at least half a dozen countries that I’d traveled to since 2011. I’d scanned the covers, browsed reviews online and in print, asked friends for recommendations, simply picked books out of curiosity or boredom, or on occasion found a book more or less by serendipity. And I read widely—ridiculously, distressingly widely according to some friends—more gourmand than gourmet in my reading as one put it. Excluding some technical books I read as part of my work as a wildlife scientist, I read literary fiction, graphic novels, sci-fi, poetry, detective stories and murder mysteries, creative nonfiction, classics, westerns, popular science, spy thrillers, philosophy, nature writing, erotica, and comic books. From the Bhagavad Gita and the Therigatha to Anaïs Nin and Lucky Luke, from Gustave Flaubert to Shubhangi Swarup, from John Grisham to John Steinbeck, from Mahasweta Devi to Maya Angelou, from deluded Dawkins to marvellous Matthiessen. Almost anything except Chetan Bhagat.

Four hundred and forty six books over eight years: an eclectic but unblemished and unbiased record so far, I thought. Why bias my reading now towards women?

And then, one day, I decided to check. I skimmed the list of 446 books I’d read since 2011 and my apparently unbiased reading streak revealed itself to be something very different. It was obvious even at a glance. If I had only taken a few moments to reflect, which I’d not done all these years, I’d have noticed this earlier. I sat down and counted. To be sure. Of the 446 books (including 2 books that had been co-authored by a woman and a man), only 79 were written by women. Just 17.7%—or less than one in five books!

I began to look at all bookshelves with a new eye. Two wooden bookshelves at home held 333 books, of which only 68 (20%, or one in five) were by women. As did bookshelves in some of my friends’s houses—one friend’s bedside bookshelf stacked 71 books, only 8 by women. Airport bookshops, city bookstores, pavement sellers—more often than not, they all featured more male authors. Take a look at your own books—it is likely the disparity exists in your shelves, too.

It was true for Indian writing as well, and moreover, seemed unrelated to how good the writers were—at least, how much I enjoyed their writing. Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Pattanaik dwarfed the immeasurably better Arundhati Roy and Shobhaa De and Janaki Lenin. In one airport bookstore, atop a heap of apparently lesser volumes, Shashi Tharoor‘s books sat flamboyantly, rather like the prolific, sometimes prolix, writer-politician himself, while the equally prolific writer and novelist Shashi Deshpande‘s memoir graced a corner that only someone determined to find her would discover. I understood better now why Deshpande had titled her book Listen to Me. I resolved then to not just read women writers, but only buy books written by women this year. I bought a copy of Listen to Me before I left the store.

Clearly there was something askew here—an unconscious bias or a bias I’d refused to discern or admit to myself. A bias that may not just be mine, but one compounded by how publishing, promotions, and book reviewing works to the advantage of men. One analysis of the New York Times Best Sellers List for novels showed a bias towards male authors from the 1950s through the 1990s, reaching near parity only in the first decade of the 21st century. (This is despite gender disparities within genres: best-selling spy novels are more often written by men, best-selling romance more often by women, for instance, while literary works are more evenly matched.) The VIDA Count, by the Women in Literary Arts organisation, tracks publication bias and parity in leading literary publications and, barring a few publications, reveals widespread gender disparity. Their 2018 VIDA Count reports:

Meanwhile, at 4 years in a row, the Feckless Five are back, with fewer than 40% of women writers in their publication totals: Times Literary Supplement (38.5%), The Nation (36.9%), The Threepenny Review (36.6%), London Review of Books (33.7%), and The Atlantic (33.6%).

The New York Review of Books, once again, had the worst numbers of all 40 publications at a measly 27.1%, which is, sadly, the highest percentage of women they’ve published since the beginning of the VIDA Count [in 2010]…

VIDA COUNT, 2018

The 2018 VIDA Count also showed that less than 40% of the books reviewed (only 26% in the case of NYRB) were books written by women. The work of authors who identify as non-binary genders is barely gaining ground, too. And besides gender there is also the issue of race, which remains another factor of exclusion and discrimination. Of course, the reasons that drive these trends may be many, complex, and more nuanced than a simple male bias. As Kamila Shamsie wrote in 2015, commenting on a literary ‘manel‘ discussion where four men discussed ‘The crisis of American fiction’:

I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc. The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex.

One needs to examine the proportions of books in review in relation to the corresponding proportions of books by male and female authors published. One study reports that, in Australia, two-thirds of the books were written by women, but two-thirds of the books that get reviewed were those of male authors—an entrenched bias evident over nearly three decades between 1985 and 2013. But at least one editor has argued that more books by men are reviewed because some leading publishing houses publish men more often than women. Shamsie also notes how publishers submitting books for literary prizes do so with “a strong tilt towards books by men”.

Still, it begs the question why more men are published, when there are clearly so many women writers out there. An equal or larger proportion of women graduate with Masters of Fine Arts degrees in writing in the US. Paradoxically, women dominate in senior positions in the publishing industry in India. In the US, too, book publishing is mostly white and mostly female.

Other factors, too, could be at work that relegate women writers to the background and devalue their work: how women writers are written about in the media, how books by women are priced less than similar books by male writers, how manuscripts written under a male pseudonym are more likely to be considered by a publisher, and how women are paid less than male writers. Shashi Deshpande in Listen to Me writes how she was described as a ‘grandmother’, how people often commented on her looks and the dresses she wore, how male editors who did not bother to read her work advised her to submit her work to women’s magazines, how some famous male writers denigrated and wrote and spoke dismissively of women writers.

It all adds up. A reader browsing a bookshelf or making what seems to be an informed purchasing choice has likely already been swayed towards male authors. Any personal bias, conscious or unconscious—more likely towards male authors given our social milieu—only accentuates the skew.

In May 2019, my own book was published by Oxford University Press: The Wild Heart of India, a collection of essays on nature and conservation. The book slipped out into the world and I watched as it found its own place among the thousands that appeared on the shelves. I did no promotions or events, as authors apparently are expected to do these days, but for a single book reading event at the wonderful independent bookstore, children’s library, and cafe, Champaca, in Bangalore, and a joint session on trees at the Bangalore Literature Festival in November with writer and scientist, Harini Nagendra, and the artist, Nirupa Rao.

The publishers of my book had sent it out to a number of outlets for review and a couple of the reviews raised a pertinent point. Of the 60 essays in my book, I had written 10 with Divya Mudappa, a wildlife biologist and my partner, but nearly all the essays owed something to her as well. As I wrote in the Preface to the book:

Most of the essays emerged from journeys and field experiences with Divya… Journeying with Divya has always been an enriching experience of witnessing, photographing, and forming the impressions, images, and ideas that finally found expression in these words. I co-authored 10 essays (or their earlier versions) with her, but most of the others, too, are from our time in the field together: out of a memorable encounter, an extended conversation, a close observation, a shared silence.

Two reviewers made the point that her name deserved to have been on the cover, too. I was glad that the reviewers, both men, pointed that out—clearly, there are many people out there sensitive to this. There is sometimes a thin line between a considered decision and the perpetuation of a latent bias. Applied to my own work, it struck me that I may not even be the best person to realise or understand on which side of that line I myself stand.

As the weeks passed, I did little more than share links or send emails to friends about my book’s existence. But I could not avoid an egoistic urge to check every bookstore I visited whether they had my book on their shelves. Except at Champaca and a stall at the Lit Fest, none of the dozen or so bookstores I visited in 2019 stocked my book. Save one. And there, I was in for a surprise, a pleasant, yet short-lived surprise.

My book at the Starmark Bookstore, Royapettah, Chennai

In December 2019, there, on the top rack of the Wildlife/Gardening shelf in Starmark bookstore, Chennai, stood my book flanked by works of two authors I greatly admire. Julian Hoffman‘s Irreplaceable, one of the most beautifully-written books on nature and conservation of recent times, stood on one side. One book away on the other side was a recent anthology of essays by the late M. Krishnan, probably India’s most well-known nature writer.

Books by women writers were there, too: Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember on the Chennai floods and Harini Nagendra’s Cities and Canopies. But then, I stepped back a bit and took in the whole shelf.

The shelf that tilts to one side.

Leaving aside the encyclopedia volumes and a couple of misplaced books, there were 43 books. Of these, an astonishing 37 books were by men, and only 6 books were by women (of these, 3 had a male coauthor). Several authors were white men, of course, including the long-dead Jim Corbett, a shikari famed for his tiger and leopard shooting exploits.

This was in a large bookstore in Chennai. The city I was born in. A city that considers itself one of the biggest in India, with a cultured citizenry and a vast population of readers.

Krupa Ge’s book on the Chennai floods was a saving grace. So was the presence of a few copies of Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli’s lovely Cities and Canopies and the single copy of Meera Subramanian’s excellent Elemental India. But where were the other women writers who have been writing as much if not more on wildlife, nature, and the environment than men? Janaki Lenin’s My Husband and Other Animals (2 volumes), Sunita Narain’s Conflicts of Interest, Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding, Swati Thiyagarajan’s Born Wild, Ghazala Shahabuddin’s Conservation at the Crossroads, Mridula Ramesh’s The Climate Solution, and Prerna Singh Bindra’s The Vanishing? To name just a few. Sure, there are other books by men that should have been there on that shelf as well, but some or all of these books by women should have found place, too.

There was not a single book by a woman author from outside India. Why Peter Wohlleben’s pulp nonfiction, but no Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction? I was thrilled to see Julian Hoffman’s book and bought a copy, but it would have been equally wonderful to see and buy a book like Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing. And isn’t it time we grew out of Jim Corbett and read better natural history writing?

I looked again at my own book on that shelf. I turned and walked away.

I had begun 2019 with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, quickly followed by Nayanjot Lahiri’s Time Pieces, Mary Oliver’s Upstream, and the Therigatha in translation. The latter, a collection of verses in Pali by ordained Buddhist women or therīs is considered among the most ancient examples of women’s writing in the world, some from as early as the 6th Century BCE. I tried to mix fiction and nonfiction with poetry and classics. I read books old and new. From Austen’s 1813 classic, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1949) and Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love (1954) to books published just this year: Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding, Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest, and Ali Smith’s astonishing Spring. (Okay, I must admit I cheated with that last one. I began reading it on New Year’s eve and although I could hardly put it down any free moment I had, I could finish it only after 2020 had arrived.)

Through 2019, I’d tried to read whenever I could, but travel and work kept me from reading. By December 31, it was clear I was not going to meet my target of 50 books. I’d read only 42 books. Not a bad number that, in literature: 42. Still, thanks to the anthology Well Read Black Girl by Glory Edim, I managed to read, in total, the work of 63 women. And many extraordinary writers.

Looking back on 2019, I found no cause to regret my ‘whim’ of reading women. In fiction, I will remember it as the year I first read Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2018.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

A delightful book that had me both chuckling and reflecting seriously on how we as humans relate to animals. This book is many things: murder mystery, Cannery-Row-esque story set in rural Poland, a biting critique of hunting and Christian ideas of human dominion over nature, a commentary on the similarities between astrology and sociobiology, and a tale of one woman’s determination. How Tokarczuk manages to pull all that off, while keeping you turning the pages for more, is something of a wonder. I can see why she is considered one of Poland’s “most celebrated and beloved authors.”

Then there was Joan Didion, who wrote powerfully of life and society rendered bleak and chaotic by loss and disruption. Her graphic description of her protagonist undergoing an abortion in a shady clinic and the character’s ensuing tailspin down the freeways of America is like nothing I’ve read before.

Play It as It Lays

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

An unflinching look at social and mental breakdown in pared-down prose by a writer I’m sure I’m going to be reading more. If a book can take you down a path, or send you tearing down a freeway, into the desert, into nothingness, into nothing, into knowing how much it matters when nothing matters, then maybe this is that book.

I read the wonderful poetry of Mary Oliver and Anne Carson and Kathleen Jamie, adding them all to my list of favourite authors without a moment’s hesitation. I read nonfiction that I’d happily recommend to anyone with an interest in today’s world: history (Time Pieces, Nayanjot Lahiri), archaeology (Devika Cariapa), memoir (Listen to Me by Shashi Deshpande, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald). On environmental science and politics and for good nature writing, here are two books well worth your time.

Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement

Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement by Sunita Narain

A clear, hard-nosed, and incisive look into environmental issues and battles fought. This is a book anyone concerned with the environment in India or more broadly in relation to the developing world must read. Sunita Narain’s is one of the most informed and compelling voices in the world and the work she and her organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment, have managed to do, against immense pressures and push-back, is remarkable. This books tells all in that same compelling voice, sharing her experiences that are eye-opening, sobering, and inspiring at once.

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee

Part memoir, part quest for self, family, and nature in Taiwan, this is a gentle book with a gentle narrative voice that carries the reader along on a very personal journey. I like it for its simplicity and clarity, and its evocation of Taiwan and her family that is both personal and yet placed neatly within the great sprawl of the island’s history and geography.

Of course there were places where the writing sagged or books in which I felt I would have liked something more, something different, a different perspective of women by women. But, then why not perspectives of men by women or of anything, for that matter, by women? Anyhow, I am no critic, and worse, I’m a published male author, and how male authors see women often just doesn’t cut it. So I won’t even try. What I can attest is how much I enjoyed reading what I read.

It was not just books on themes that one might ascribe, not without the stain of bias, to women: family, women’s lives, sexual abuse and rape, mother-child relationships, love. These themes, and they are great literary and social themes, were certainly present in powerful, compelling, provocative stories told with a rare empathy by powerful and tender narrators. But the writing often rocketed out of these pigeonholes and soared into the skies. You could place some of these books on a family-themed shelf, but to do full justice, it is the shelf that would have to expand enormously to fully capture the range in these books: the idea of home, belonging, and caring for a differently-abled sister in Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, the contemporary life of women in India in Ladies Coupé by Anita Nair, the sexual abuse of a girl child in a fake godman’s ashram in Anuradha Roy’s searing book Sleeping on Jupiter, the fabric of a family shredded by the brutal rape of the mother in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, the love and lust and longing in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love, and Ismat Chughtai’s The Heart Breaks Free and The Wild One.

Other books brought to the fore thought provoking and powerful stories—fiction and fact, fake news and real—of racism and white supremacy, power dynamics, gender discrimination, our current crises of climate and immigration, of democracy losing to demagoguery, of life under slavery and colonialism. The works of Mary Beard (Women and Power), Sunita Narain (Conflicts of Interest), Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Ali Smith (Spring), Wilma Stockenström (The Expedition to the Baobab Tree), Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), and several women writers of colour in Well Read Black Girl, are just a tiny sample of that spectrum of work by some of the best writers who are both of our times and timeless.

If, having read this far has sparked your interest in reading (more) women writers in 2020, you could mosey over to Reading Women and take their 2020 reading challenge.

Take the 2020 Reading Women challenge

Or if you’d like a peek at what I read in 2019 and check out some of those books, here they are.

Books of 2019

Whether you take the challenge or pick women to read from my bookshelf or any other shelf, chances are you will have a wonderful year of reading ahead. And when a woman’s voice lingers in your mind as you turn the last page of her book, you may find that it has been worth your while to listen to her.

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