September Reading List on the Representation and Portrayal of Women in Literature
Curated by Professor Neluka Silva, who is a Senior Professor in English and was Head of the Department of English and Director of Studies at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Colombo, and immediate past President of the Oxford Society of Sri Lanka. Professor Neluka’s bio can be found after the reading list.
Women have occupied the centre stage in literary works throughout history. Despite their strong presence, women’s writing and their concerns have not merited critical attention until relatively recently. In the essay, The History and Importance of Women’s Literature, Adrienne Rivera argues that “The onus of women’s literature, then, is to categorise and create an area of study for a group of people marginalised by history and to explore through their writing their lives as they were while occupying such a unique sociopolitical space within their culture”.
The aim here is to identify some seminal works written by women which foreground the lives they lead, the circumstances which marginalise them and the strategies they have adopted to overcome their unique challenges. By showcasing their perspectives, literary narratives and cultural production strive to offer an alternative discourse to patriarchy.
Mapping the trajectory of Women’s writing
In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Women was a pioneering work, regarded as “one of the trailblazing works of feminism”. “Wollstonecraft’s work was unique in suggesting that the betterment of women’s status be effected through such political change as the radical reform of national educational systems. Such change, she concluded, would benefit all society”. Hence, many women were empowered not only to strive to publish their works but also to develop a critical vocabulary underpinning women in literature.
Other early trailblazers include Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot and poets such as Elizabeth Barret Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. According to the critic Elaine Showalter, the “nineteenth century was the Age of the Female Novelist”. Her work is crucial in contextualising the development of women’s writing (Showalter, Elaine. “The Female Tradition.” In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing, pp. 3–36. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1977). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/womens-literature-19th-century-overviews
Since then integral to the heightened focus in women’s writing is Virginia Woolf and her famous words: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” (A Room of One’s Own: 1929). As the emergence of the feminist movement in the West and demands for women’s rights gathered momentum, there was a recognition that “a special female self-awareness emerges through literature in every period.”
Seminal literary works and cultural production focusing on women:
A substantial corpus of writing from a variety of genres pivoting on women’s issues has been accepted as canonical works. Elaine Showalter points out that:
The interest in establishing a more reliable critical vocabulary and a more accurate and systematic literary history for women writers is part of a larger interdisciplinary effort by psychologists, sociologists, social historians, and art historians to reconstruct the political, social, and cultural experience of women.
Some of the short stories and novels that interweave themes accentuating women’s experiences provide an understanding that “The differences between traditional female preoccupations and roles and male ones make a difference in female writing” (Spacks 1976: 7).
Short stories are a great way to begin to understand how women are relegated to the margins in society. Some of the short stories listed employ innovative forms to demonstrate the impact of marginalization on women.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has become a classic. It is an autobiographical account, which is powerfully fictionalized in the first person. The claustrophobic depiction of a young mother’s gradual emotional and intellectual degradation, following the birth of her child, is narrated in the form of a secret diary. The diagnosis: a “temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency” is made by her physician husband. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952
“Story of an Hour” (1894) is by Kate Chopin, who published her stories in some of the best known magazines in the United States, such as Vogue, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Young People, the Youth’s Companion, and the Century. The title of this story alludes to the time elapsed between when the protagonist, Louise Mallard, learns about the death of her husband, Brently Mallard, and then discovers that he is alive. https://www.wlwv.k12.or.us/cms/lib8/OR01001812/Centricity/Domain/1309/Kate%20Chopin%20Story%20Texts.pdf
“Bliss” (1918) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), which put her on the literary map for revolutionizing the modern English short story form. Bliss is situated during a dinner party and centres around Bertha Young, a happy yet somewhat naïve young wife. https://www.katherinemansfieldsociety.org/assets/KM-Stories/BLISS1918.pdf
“Everyday Use” (1973) — Alice Walker is one of her early, well-known stories, published in the collection In Love and Trouble.
“The Midnight Zone” (2016) by Lauren Groff, is a story about motherhood, survival and imagination. The tension is powerfully maintained. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/23/the-midnight-zone-by-lauren-groff
The novels below have been critically hailed for their powerful evocations of womanhood. They reveal the imperative need to carve out a space for women to articulate the ways in which agency is divested from them and mechanisms for the avowal of their unique identities:
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) — Jean Rhys
Color Purple (1982) — Alice Walker
The Handmaiden’s Tale (1985)– Margaret Atwood
Beloved (1987) — Toni Morrison
Oranges are not the only Fruit — Jeanette Winterson
Educated (2018)– Tara Westover
Girl, Woman, Other (2019) — Bernadine Evaristo
Good Girls Revolt, 2015–2016
Alias Grace (2017) [on Netflix]
Derry Girls (2017) [on Netflix]
Unbelievable (2019) [on Netflix]
The Queen’s Gambit (2020) [on Netflix]
Firefly Lane (2021) [on Netflix]
The Chair (2021) [On Netflix]
Women in literary works from South Asia
“South Asian women’s writing of the last two centuries has explored issues of identity and belonging in predominantly male literary traditions. In this context, poetry, short stories, novels, and autobiographies by South Asian women have offered new formulations of traditional definitions of gender, work, and family that have accompanied the Indian Independence Movement and the Partition of India and Pakistan”. https://www.routledge.com/New-Feminisms-in-South-Asian-Social-Media-Film-and-Literature-Disrupting/Jha-Kurian/p/book/9780367878412
Since the 1980’s women writers in South Asia have gained international recognition for their sensitive portrayals of women and broadening representation. Anita Desai, Shashi Despande and the poet, Kamla Das are among the pioneers, who were responsible for placing women’s writing from India in the international arena. Their pathbreaking works, embodying a gamut of female emotions, enabled the rupture of limited stereotypical roles that were previously aligned with female protagonists.
Arundathie Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things (1997), which won the Booker Prize, marked the possibility of transgressing boundaries and led to the rise of writers like Kamila Shamsie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Monica Ali and, as Bharucha notes: “suddenly the South Asian literary scene was buzzing with women authors”.
Since then, other voices from South Asia gained prominence. The influence of social media has also contributed to the rise of younger female writers. Amrita Mahale, author of the critically acclaimed Milk Teeth observes: “There is an increased appetite for new voices, new perspectives, and that has meant that women writers and translated works have got more attention. One can’t ignore social media here, especially the rising popularity of book bloggers and literary influencers”.
Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have also produced writers, playwrights and poets whose work is informed by concerns faced by women in contemporary life and how they navigate the exigencies of conflict, natural disasters and socio-economic constraints.
Novels and short stories dominate the South Asian literary scene.
Anita Desai is possibly the earliest Indian novelist whose work was considering pathbreaking. The oppression of Indian women underscores her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963). She also wrote Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975) and Fire on the Mountain (1977). Clear Light of Day (1980), regarded as her most successful work, is praised for its highly evocative portrait of two sisters caught in the lassitude of Indian life, narrated through an assured tone.
Shashi Deshpande is an award winning Indian novelist best known for her book That Long Silence (1990).
Difficult Daughters (1998) by Manju Kapur
The Inheritance of Loss (2006) by Kiran Desai
Jumpa Lahiri’s work — The Interpreter of Maladies (short stories) (1999), and her novels The Namesake (2003) and The Lowland (2013) has ensured her literary status. In 2006, Mira Nair directed The Namesake. The Lowland was nominated for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction.
Mahasweta Devi is a writer and activist. Her most famous translations from Bengali are Mother of 1084 (1974) and Breast Stories (1997) which depict the phenomenon of extreme gender oppression of underprivileged women. https://www.seagullbooks.org/breast-stories/
Tehmina Durrani is a Pakistani author. My Feudal Lord (1991) charts a housewife’s journey into the world of activism and maps how she grapples with championing equal rights and women’s empowerment.
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani activist gained global attention when she survived an assassination attempt at age 15. Her autobiographical work is I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) with Christina Lamb. https://eg4.nic.in/jnv/DFILES/EBOOKS/IR/IamMalala.pdf
Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows (2009), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into over 20 languages. She grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.
There are a few women writers from Bangladesh. Tasleema Nasreen gained notoriety with her novel Lajja (Shame -1993). Other writers are Monica Ali, whose first novel, Brick Lane (2003) charts the vicissitudes of a Bangladeshi woman living in the UK. Tahmima Aman’s A Golden Age (2007) and follow-up novel, The Good Muslim, (2011) have also won international awards.
There are many Sri Lankan works of fiction by women
Ameena Hussein’s novel Moon in the Water (2013) and short stories, Fifteen (1999) and Zillij (2003) are widely popular.
Other writers include:
Naomi Munaweera — Island of a Thousand Mirrors (2012) and What Lies Between Us (2016).
Neluka Silva — Our Neighbours and Other Stories (2008), The Iron Fence (2012), My Elephant Secret and Other Stories (2019).
Yasmin Gooneratne is known both for her poetry and prose. Her novels are A Change of Skies (1991) and The Sweet and Simple Kind (2006).
Chandani Lokuge — If the Moon Smiled (2000) and Softly, As I Leave You (2011) https://www.pererahussein.com › books › novels › softl…
Other notable fiction by women writers include V. V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage (2008); “Stories” (2016) by Charulatha Abeysekara Thewarathanthri (Sarasavi Publishers); and Kanya D’Almeida, who won the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her short story I Cleaned The. https://granta.com/i-cleaned-the/
Poetry — South Asian women
Among the Indian women poets Kamala Das and Eunice de Souza have produced outstanding work.
Kamla Das wrote poetry in English and Malayalam. Her collections included Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), and The Old Playhouse, and Other Poems (1973).
Eunice De Souza’s collections of poetry include Fix (1979), Women in Dutch Painting (1988), Ways of Belonging. (1990), Selected and New Poems. (1994), A Necklace Of Skulls. (2009) and Learn from the Almond Leaf (Poetrywala, 2016). Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology. (OUP, 2001) ISBN 978–0–19–565847–7
Sri Lanka has many women poets who have rendered visible the predicament of women.
In 1971 Anne Ranasinghe’s published her first poem collection, And the Sun That Sucks The Earth to Dry. Some of Ranasinghe’s well known poems include July 1983, Plead Mercy (1974), A Long Hot Day and At What Dark Point (1970). Her other works include Mascot and Symbol (1997), Desire and other Stories (1994), You Ask Me Why I Write Poems (1994), Not Even Shadows (1991), Against Eternity and Darkness (1985).
Jean Arasanayagam, Gratiean Prize winner, was a prolific writer. She produced several collections of poetry and short stories. Her most famous collection is Apocalyse ’83 (1984) https://www.noolaham.net/project/62/6131/6131.pdf. Her other works are: Kindura (1973), Poems of Season Beginning and a Season Over (1977), The Cry of the Kite (1984), A Colonial Inheritance and Other Poems (1985), Out of Our Prisons We Emerge (1987), Trial by Terror (1987), Reddened Waters Flow Clear (1991) and Shooting the Floricans (1993).
Vivimarie Vanderpooten’s first anthology is Nothing Prepares You (2007). Her second collection of poems, Stitch Your Eyelids Shut (2010) addresses issues that include feminism and the aftermath of the civil war.
Ramya Jirasinghe’s first book of poetry was There’s an Island in the Bone (2012).
Other poets from South Asia
Ahmad, Rukshan (Ed). We Sinful Women: Contemporary Feminist Urdu Poetry (1991).
Fahmida Riaz (1946–2018) was a poet, writer, feminist, and human rights activist. Her poetry was translated into English in Four Walls and a Black Veil and The Body Torn
Films and Television
Charulatha (1964) — Satyajith Ray
Parama (1985) — Aparna Sen
Devdas (2002) — Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Mississippi Masala (1991) — Mira Nair
Bend it like Beckham (2002) — Gurinder Chadha
Anita and Me (2002) — book and screenplay by Meera Syal
Fire (1996) and Water (2005)- Deepa Mehta
Bombay Begums (2021) — [on Netflix]
A Suitable Girl (2017) — [on Netflix]
A Suitable Boy — [on Netflix]
Sumithra Peiris is the first Sri Lankan woman film director, known as the “Poetess of Sinhala Cinema”. Her most famous films which underpin a woman’s consciousness are Gehenu Lamai (1978), Ganga Addara (1980), Maya (1984), Loku Duwa (1996) and Vaishnavee (2018).
These are some works from a rapidly widening canvass. Configurations of women in literature and cultural production encapsulate specific classed, racial and political contours and reveal ways in which women’s roles are framed within them. Engaging with these works offer emboldening opportunities for change. This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully, it provides some resources for women to explore this area in greater depth and understand the implications of confronting everyday situations.
Butalia, Urvashi and Ritu Menon, eds. (1993). In Other Words: New Writing by Indian Women. London: Woman’s Press. Search in Google Scholar
Davison, Carol M. “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 33, №1, 2004, pp. 47–75. Taylor and Francis, DOI: 10.1080/00497870490267197.
Desai, Jigna (2002). “Homo on the Range: Mobile and Global Sexualities.” Social Text, Vol. 20 no. 4, pp. 65–89.
Kuortti, Joel (2002). Indian Women’s Writing in English: A Bibliography. Jaipur et al.: Rawat Publications. Search in Google Scholar
Silva, Neluka. (2004). The Gendered Nation: Contemporary Writing from South Asia. London and Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Tharu, Susie and K. Lalita, eds. (1993). Women Writing in India: 600 B.C to the Present. Volume 1: 600 B.C to the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Feminist Press, 1991. Volume 2: The Twentieth Century. New York: Feminist Press.
Treichler, Paula A. (1984). “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in The Yellow Wallpaper.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 3, №1/2, pp. 61–77. Jstor, http://www.jstor.org/stable/463825.
Wolter, Jurgen. (2009). “’The Yellow Wall-Paper’: The Ambivalence of Changing Discourses.” Amerikastudien/American Studies, vol. 54, no. 2, pp. 195–210. Jstor, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41158426
The Curator: Professor Neluka Silva
Neluka is Senior Professor in English and was Head of the Department of English (2001–2004, 2006–2012) and Director of Studies at the Faculty of Arts (2014–2015) at the University of Colombo and immediate past President of the Oxford Society of Sri Lanka. She was educated at the Universities of Colombo, Leeds, Oxford and Cambridge. She was a Research Fellow at the Institute for Health Policy, Sri Lanka (2005–2015)
Her teaching and research are in the areas of Postcolonial Literature, Modern Drama, Cultural Studies, South Asian Literature, Applied Linguistics and Bilingualism.
Among her academic publications are The Gendered Nation: Contemporary Writing from South Asia (Sage 2004).
Her novel The Iron Fence (2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize and was longlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Prize 2012 and the Dublin IMPAC prize 2012. In addition, Our Neighbours and other stories (2009 — short Stories) is published by Vijitha Yapa Publications. “Our Neighbours” was one of the 20 stories placed in the Highly Commended Winner category in the 2008 Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Her other creative works are: The Rolled Back Beach (2008 — short stories co-authored with Simon Harris) and My Elephant Secret and Other Stories (2019 — short stories for children).
She was an invited author and moderator at the Galle Literary Festivals and conducted Writing Workshops for the GLF Children’s Programmes. She conducted workshops for young adults at the American Centre’s Writers’ Lab programme. Following her Creative Writing Workshops for children, her young authors published Eagle Eyes and Other Stories in 2018.