Ramblings about South Asian Women [in support of the South Asian Literature Festival]

I grew up in a suburb of London where if you weren’t Jewish you were Indian, if you classed yourself as ‘local’ there was always a trickle of outside influence – Jewish grandparents, Scottish parents, American cousins. As in many cities, ethnicity was the norm.

Sunday lunch at Gita’s* was a pretty typical way to spend the weekend. I acclimatised quickly to hot chapatis and finger-held food; her family smiled politely as I heartily made my way through mounds of food. I loved it.

I learnt a lot at Gita’s. As we grew up I noticed certain stresses in her life that I wasn’t exposed to in my family. In her early twenties there were endless potential suitors brought round to her house with eager parents, all hoping that they would fall in love and form the perfect traditional Indian family. There was so much pressure from the first generation Indian parents that their children would marry ‘suitable’ partners whilst achieving great heights in their careers as lawyers, doctors or accountants. On top of this was the expectation of looking perfect all the time and being a loyal daughter. Gita’s weekends were often full of engagements or niceties at a level of tradition that most Westerners don’t invest their time in.

Last year I attended a talk at the DSC South Asian Literature festival. Daisy Hasan read chapters from her novel and I was taken back to memories of Gita. Daisy alternated between the deep rooted traditions of family life and her life and the expectations of second, third and fourth generation Asian woman living in the Western world. I found it really interesting.

If that interests you too you’ll be pleased to hear that South Asian women will have a prominent role at this year’s festival. The whole thing kicks off on October 7th and there’s a huge array of events from films to exhibitions and film discussions, with speakers from all different walks taking part.

There’s been talk in previous years that women are rarely highly regarded in the arts. Bidisha claimed in the Guardian in April 2010 that ‘The establishment, patriarchy, the mainstream, whatever you want to call it, just doesn’t find women interesting. It makes sure that women are heavily outnumbered from the very beginning by offering us only a fraction of available opportunities, slots, placements, commissions, trips, panel places, star jobs, reviews’.

You’ll find that this year’s festival totally contradicts this. At last count of the 77 speakers involved, 36 are men and 41 are women. There’s a hugely visible increase the way that women (South Asian and others) are being represented here.

So, if you’d like learn more, why not check out some of the festival events. Below is a selection which might be of interest:

  • acclaimed author Moni Mohsin, who with Farahad Zama looks at how they weave serious cultural issues into their comical novels
  • novelists Kishwar Desai – who has just been long-listed for the $50,000 DSC Prize – and Dipika Rai discuss what makes the best strong women fictional characters
  • some cracking poetry and performance is celebrated in an event featuring five of the UK’s most dynamic South Asian women poets, including Sascha Akhtar, Eisha Karol and Sandeep Parma
  • the award-winning Indian reporter and author Sonia Faleiro launches Beautiful Thing, her eye-opening account of Bombay’s dance bar underworld
  • a dark and sensual performance by Seema Anand on the stories from the ‘Hamzanama’ – a collection of Persian tales dated from more than a millennia ago
  • an event that explores the taboos of homosexuality in South Asian literature – ‘Same-same: Sex, Love and other Queer-ies’, includes the brilliant writers Anjali Joseph and Paul Burston

If you do go to any events at the festival, and fancy writing up a review of your experience, do just drop us a line at BookMachine.

Check it out here: www.southasianlitfest.com/programme-2011
and on twitter @sthasianlitfest

*Gita – not her real name




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