Tishani Doshi, whose new book Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods highlights protests in a post-Harvey Weinstein age, on why sexism prevails in art, and a poem called Padmavati
Your work celebrates women “coming out of the woods” to protest harassment. It appeared as the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. What got you interested in this?
When Jyoti Singh was raped on that bus in Delhi in December 2012, I felt there was a radical shift in the way we talked about gender violence in India. Violence hasn’t abated since, but post-Weinstein, there’s been a realisation that even the most powerful can fall. It’s rare that a poem’s gestation period matches the current mood. Sadly, this theme isn’t going away anytime soon.
A poem in the book says women’s art must be “worth this much at least”. Is there sexism in literature?
Those words are by Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, criticising him for using personal details about his ex-wife in his poetry (for which he received a Pulitzer). Bishop was implying that art should aim higher; she herself scarcely used the word “I” in her poems. It proves the point — when men write about their inner lives, they’re praised for speaking about the world at large. When women do it, they’re just chunnering on about themselves. Yes, sexism is prevalent in the literary world. Men get far more space in papers and journals than women. More women review men than the other way around. More women buy books by men than the other way around. Every review and interview about this book, for instance, has been conducted by a woman.
Explain this sexism.
Historically, women entered the literary world later. We’ve taken time to find rooms of our own and had to deal with the pram in the hallway business. Take two writers, for instance, Anne Tyler and Jonathan Franzen. Both write about families within America. One is considered sweeping and large, while the other has been consistently writing brilliant books but is hardly as well-known. We assume greatness from men. We assume intimacy from women. Both are false assumptions. If I open a paper or magazine, I see more space given to men. This sexism has to do with power — decisions about who gets what coverage is largely in the hands of men. There has to be a conscious effort to redress this balance. It won’t redress itself.
You also write about Chennai/ Madras. How has it shaped your poetry?
My poetry has been shaped by being in Madras and not being in Madras. It’s the eternal conundrum. Being home, being away from home. Both are necessary states. Like the area between these states — longing, elsewhere, the return. I’m interested in how geography affects poets: Heaney’s bogs, Walcott’s sea, Bishop’s Brazil or Neruda’s roots. What landscape does to affect our desires, bodies and memories. I’ve never lived in any other place in India. Chennai is the prism through which I see the country. It’s how I see myself.
Is being a poet lonelier than being a writer of prose?
Writing a novel is like entering a dark, never-ending tunnel only to experience occasional gusts of fresh air. It impinges far more on your social life, time and energies. And it involves huge amounts of uncertainty. Poetry is concerned only with the poem being written at that moment, so there’s a lightness to it, and a freedom, because it doesn’t demand narrative continuity. Loneliness is by the by for all writers.
How do you view Padmavati, once a poem, now a political storm?
It’s interesting how terrified people are of the imagination. As a poet, I’m not interested in truth with a capital T. I am more interested in emotion, which lingers, unlike facts. I understand the need for historical accuracy but when the woman herself existed in multiple versions, why not allow another interpretation?