Contemporary Diasporic South Asian Women's Fiction

Author:   Ruvani Ranasinha
Publisher:   Palgrave Macmillan
Reviewer:   Dr. Urvashi Kaushal, Assistant Professor, NIT, Surat
Designation:   Assistant Professor, NIT, Surat

Contemporary Diasporic South Asian Women's Fiction: Gender, Narration and Globalisation by Ruvani Ranasinha, Palgrave Macmillan 2016, ISBN 978-1-137-40305-6

Ruvani Ranasinha's fourth book "Contemporary Diasporic South Asian Women's Fiction: Gender, Narration and Globalisation" published by Palgrave Macmillan is an addition to her oeuvre on South Asian Writers, except that, with this book she moves away from the South Asian writers in Britain to a broader area of contemporary South Asian women novelists and their post-colonial fiction. An extensively well researched book, inclusive of allusions, from a plethora of texts, forms the introduction along with all that has been written about the South Asian women, and diaspora writers. This book marks the shift in the trends in diasporic writing and deconstructs many a prejudice that mars the open reading of the contemporary diasporic writing. Whether it is the image of early diaspora writers or the prominent male writers, who steal the limelight, this book is a welcome change as it does not toe the line. Rather it creates its own niche by throwing light on few contemporary diasporic women novelists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. It is a comprehensive analysis of the work of "this new constellation" of diasporic women fiction writers since the late 1990s. It comparatively analyses the work of Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tahmima Anam, Monica Ali, Kamila Shamsie, and a few other writers from a feminist perspective. While talking about the scope of the book Ranasinha remarks that this book will prove how "the chosen writers decentre rather than re-inscribe the centrality of the West in their collective critiques of first- world models of feminism and emphasis on different varieties of feminism."(7) The writer repeatedly questions the critics like Lau and Mendes for their opinion that South Asian Writers write from the periphery. Each chapter through its compelling analysis proves the "national and cultural contexts" which stations these writers in the centre and not the periphery. The writer argues again and again that these new diaspora women writers do not write under the influence of the colonisers or the critically acclaimed contemporary male writers. She emphasises that "the new constellation of diasporic South Asian anglophone women fiction writers" have broken the hegemony of the male writers. Furthermore, she argues that these writers are not "re-orientalists" as Lau and Mendes calls most of the South Asian writers and are not there to bask in the glory of "orientalism" but are there creating their own niche by their narration. These writers have integrated complex global issues in their works like globalisation, migration, post colonial feminism, cosmopolitanism, war, violence, religion and geographic space.

Beginning with the history of formation of South Asian diaspora community the book traces the milestones set by South Asian Anglophone women writers. With clear sections and subsections in the introduction, the first chapter intermingles key post colonial concepts with literary allusions from the works of the writers in question, and their predecessors. The multiplicity of culture is analysed with each chapter discussing important post colonial angle and followed by subsequent departures from the familiar conventional interpretations. It argues that similarity of social, political and economic conditions in their respective homeland, which is often mistaken as India by the West, brings these writers on a common platform and also gives them their distinct identities.

Tracing Arundhati Roy’s contribution, the book argues that Roy’s success inspired many writers from the subcontinent and analyses the work of Monica Ali and Kiran Desai for many issues like migration, diaspora in the light of globalisation and labour. Apart from thematic analyses the book also compares the narrative techniques and realism in their works. In some instances it agrees and disagrees to the critics and presents its point strongly by highlighting the merit of these new writers.

The section on “War, Violence and Women” examines the writing of Anglophone Bangladesh writers like, Tahmima Anam and Sorayya Khan whose writing captures the Bangladesh liberation war followed by the subsequent creation of a new nation. It studies the forces of religion, gender, politics that became instrumental in leaving scarred memories of dislocation, homelessness in the diasporic writers' minds. While reinvestigating history, the section seeks answers to the condition of women and family during war and struggle for independence. Analysisng Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age and Sorayya Khan's Noor, that narrate stories, littered with historical references, the writer tries to rationalise the eschewed history and violence against women, meanwhile comparing Anam's narratives of Bangladesh's violent birth with Khan's, the writer observes, "Khan is less interested than Anam in exploring the politicial causes of the 1971 war but instead focuses on the legacy of violenec" (104). Along with Anam's and Khan's narratives, Sri Lankan resident and diaspora writers like Ameena Hussein, Roma Tearne, J. Arasanayagam are also included in the study to examine gendered abuse, female abduction or disappearance during Sri Lankan civil war. The analysis points that these writers "foreground intermingled South Asian histories in terms of both reconciliation and conflict", and "the gender related violence in South Asian nation building." In this comprehensive study of contemporary writers, the book draws many allusions and reference from the renowned writers like Roy and Rushdie. However, the impact of their writings on this new generation of diaspora writers is an expected area of study, but the repeated comparison and arguments like Anam's or Khan's portrayal of war's "brutal effects more powerfully than Rushdie's lyrical coda on 1971 war towards the end of his novel Midnight's Children"; or "Anam and Khan fuse narrative of nations and family organically" (95) therefore their work in some aspects outshine canonised works, appears unconvincing and far-fetched.

For discussing the matrix of Gender and Islam, the book incorporates Kamila Shamsie's Broken Verses and Burnt Shadows, A God in Every Stone; Tahmima Anam's The Golden Age and its sequel The Good Muslim, along with Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Ameena Hussien's The Moon in the Water. Their common concerns and "responses to faith and politicised, gendered, global Muslim identities" (131) are categorically examined by tracing the collapse of secularism in Pakistan and Bangladesh. It astutely brings out how globalisation and westernisation have defined or redefined the Muslim women's identity. Hence these writers "reconfigure gendered notions of Islam" (171) and stress the need for "an alternative framework to consider Muslim women beyond the totalising conceptual categories of both 'Islam' and 'feminism' " (171). The writer strongly negotiates these writings as secular feminist writings in context of the nexus between Euro-American secularism and representations of Muslims and gender in their writings.

Interestingly, Ranasinha devotes an entire chapter to the celebrated writer Jhumpa Lahiri, and analyses each of her work critically. The chapter systematically progresses by first taking into account the regular comparison made by the critics, of Lahiri's work with that of Bharati Mukherjee. However, the book argues that "Lahiri registers a vital shift from the perspective of archetypal migrant tales to migrancy as a more universal, multifaceted experience"(176). It further answers the allegation on Lahiri "having a limited focus on Indian culture"(178) and her writing "does not represent authentic India", further the "commodification of her fiction"(181) for the American benefit, which is just a narrow representation of immigrant experience. The writer argues that Lahiri's growth as a writer shows her inclusion of class and gender privileges along with the complexities of immigration. The chapter consistently argues that Lahiri's narratives, "convey how constructions of gender and national identities are being refigured within contemporary transnational contexts of immigration and globalisation"(184). In her bid to call for re- assessment of Lahiri's work, the writer successfully argues against some critical remarks and complicates some. While the chapter mostly focuses on the intergenerational migratory dynamics away from the homeland the end brings in "return 'home' with new found transnational perspectives" as analysed in Kamila Shamsie's Kartography and Uzma Khan's Trespassing (227).

To analyse the pertinent topic of “Post Colonial Cities” the chapter explores the recreation Calcutta, Karachi, Peshwar and Dhaka along with other cities, in these post colonial texts. It analyses the dynamics of the post colonial cities as spaces where tradition and modernity are negotiated.  The essay discusses the shift in the perception of the cities as presented in the colonial times and as presented by this new generation of writers. It argues that writers like Tagore, Gandhi and Narayan saw ambivalence signified by the decline of traditional culture as well as modernity. Once again under the overbearing influence of Rushdie's depiction the new age diaspora writers are examined for their representation of urban spaces along with the diaspora urban memories. The book enlists that in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, Calcutta is analysed as a post colonial city with a number of marginalised voices. Calcutta comes alive with its colonial past and post colonial planning and Marxist sway. Kamila Shamsie's narratives create Karachi as a platform for feminist solidarity against the national Islamic rules imposed in 1980s. It is often described for its "unpredictable nature" and ethnic violence while the historic city of Peshawar's "depiction of colonial terror, violence and chaos on blood stained streets"(256) hints its "multilayered but neglected history"(254). Similarly, the essay states that Dhaka in Tahmima Anam's writings often presents the emotion or the turmoil in the life of the protagonist.

Thus, the essay argues that "All can be compared transhistorically as events that reconfigure a gendered experience of urban space."(235) The post colonial cities are places where identities constantly change, how migration disrupts traditional understandings of the geography of the cities. The essay also rejects the remark of the western critics who disapprovingly defined these cities for their, "overpopulation". In contrast these novelists "defy generalisation by probing the long histories, urban specificities and physical and cultural topographies"(238). The chapter ends with an important observation that none of these writers strengthen the duality of local and global rather they present a tension between them based on urban imaginaries.

Ruvani Ranasinha in her after word of this comprehensive book on the new age diaspora writers acknowledges the limited perspective with which the diaspora writers write, especially when they narrate stories of the homeland. She concludes by saying the resident women writers   have explored the issues of class, caste, nationalism and gender oppression with greater understanding, thus limiting the scope of criticism of her study.

Hence this book by Ranasinha, encompasses almost all the angles that needs to be investigated in the contemporary diaspora literature based on the subcontinent. In one book, she brings in the history, geography, language, gender, readership, text and context of the South Asian Diaspora and the effects of globalisation and migration on their literature. The key concepts like South Asia, Diaspora, post national, post colonial- cosmopolitanism, post colonial-feminism and globalisation are not taken for their face value; rather they are deconstructed, explicated and re-defined to convey the ideas with clarity and context. Thus, this is a compelling book, with informative comparative analyses that will be of immense use to students and scholars with interest in post colonial consideration of literature.

By Dr. Urvashi Kaushal, Assistant Professor,

NIT, Surat, [email protected]

[email protected]

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