Gender and Poetry in Tamil
The new generation of Tamil women poets writing today – whether naturalist, realist, feminist or modernist – have better access to publishing (whether little magazines, middle magazines or the small press) and get noticed in the popular media like the TV and film. This is quite unlike the situation that prevails for the young male poets writing today. Critics too are sympathetic towards women poets. These factors seem to have encouraged the new boom in women’s poetry in Tamil. I used the word ‘boom’ because their poetic quality is yet to be critically assessed. Any anthologist of women’s poetry would be surprised at the number of women writing poetry in Tamil today. Right at the moment there are more than 35 women poets at work.
But this situation would have been unimaginable in the 70s and 80s. Thirisadai was the first woman to publish her collection (Paniyal Patta Paththu Marangal) way back in 1972. During a poetry meet organized in the early 80s the women poets available were R.Meenatchi and Krishangini and Suganthi Subramanian. Later came poets like Latha Ramakrishnan and Perundevi. R.Meenatchi and Krishangini collected their poems in book form in the late 80s.
Only by the end of 90s, with the advent of middle magazines more women started writing and publishing poems. Unlike the little magazine printed in news print and monochrome wrapper the middle magazines have more pages of good quality paper with multi-colour wrapper. Editors did not know what to do with so much space. While most of the magazines fill 90% of their space with articles on politics, sociology, theatre, cinema etc the rest is left for literature. Only in that small corner poets and short story writers have to cram in. Today almost all the editors promote women poets. One even gets the suspicion whether the middle magazines also use poetry as ‘fillers’ as the commercial magazines do. Because the quality of poetry published in a little magazine and middle magazine can never be the same.
Calling all the women writers as feminists will be too sweeping. But controversy still rages about their classification. Poets like Latha Ramakrishnan and Perundevi do not prefer to associate themselves with the ‘womanist’ group. They prefer to be called writers rather than women poets. Latha Ramakrishnan would want to be judged along with the accomplishments of other male poets. She made open statements about her stand in magazine columns. Perundevi says that “if at all one chooses to identify oneself with a womanist group it should be a strategic choice made in her fight against patriarchy, for all the cultural institutions are patriarchal or phalocentric.”
The women-only group (Malathy Maithry, Kutty Revathi, Sugirtha Rani, Salma) at times sound anti-male in their attitudes and manifestos. A few of them are engaged in polemics with rival camps of women writers, pontificating and engaging in one-up-(wo)manship. Reading through the middle magazines like Theera Nadhi, Puthia Parvai, Kalachchuvadu, Uyirmmai etc, one can see how destructive these controversies can prove to the creativity of a woman writer or femisnist.
The next problem area is their exploration of the ‘body.’ Many female poets seem to be obsessed with their new found freedom vis-à-vis their sexuality. But the female poet’s explorations of sexuality have been wrongly called as ‘body language.’ The term used in discussions and polemics and that is still being used is a misnomer. One female poet (Kutti Revathi) went to the extent of naming her book of poems as ‘Breasts.’ The title had functioned more like a shock tactic. Ironically this idée fix is more aligned with the male psyche than the female. This observation has been missed by many – both practicing feminist writers and critics.
Moreover their overt expression about their sexuality often stops with the naming of body parts. But there is nothing poetic in a woman’s catalogue although catalogues can become poetry. The romanticizing of the body and recording the general routines associated with the women’s world do not qualify as poetry unless transformed by the poetic ‘word’ and vision. Moreover the experience of writing the pain and writing about the pain are not the same.
Their poems deal more with their inconveniences than with the pain of being a woman in a male-centred society. The other female poets whose poems provoked controversy are Sugirtha Rani, Salma and Malathy Maithry. What the Australian poet Les Murray said in an interview about women writers suits the Tamil situation aptly:
“. . .Right now feminism seems to have absorbed a lot of their energy and I think women are writing less well because feminism is there to absorb the energy that otherwise would have gone into literature.”
Not all of them are obsessed with the body. Kani Mozhi, Ilampirai, Thenmozhi Dass, Azhagu Nila, Uma Maheswari, and Brindha are exceptions. Sathya writes poems in a mode that a reader cannot identify the gender of the writer. She is obviously more involved with the psyche than the body. Sathya has her own feminist themes but never takes a fighting stand. The psyche and the body merge in the poems of Peundevi and Latha Ramakrishnan. ‘Being romantic is nothing to be apologetic about’ – this is what a poet like Sathara Malathy would say.
Poets like Renganayaki, Thilaka Bama, Vaigai Selvi and Madhumitha do not bother whether they are members of any group at all. They seem to belong to the category that fulfills ‘traditional female functions in a traditional way.’ Labels are created for convenience of classification and may become redundant when the phenomenon that created them becomes obsolete.
While the woman poet has a compulsion to feminize her perceptions she has the additional responsibility of ‘humanizing her femininity.’ Virginia Wolf pointed out the ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ obstacles to women writers. Ms. Wolf said that “She [woman writer] still has many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome.” What the woman writers and the feminist poets lack is a sense of history – both of feminist history of last hundred years and modern poetry of India and Europe.
Lastly I would like to end this note quoting a short passage from an interview of Latin American Woman novelist Luisa Valenzuela:
Interviewer: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
VALENZUELA: I think of myself as somebody who is a born feminist but doesn’t like any isms. I don’t want to be obliged to anything. I hate labels. But ever since I was a little girl, I fought my way as a woman; I saw the oppression too clearly. I think of myself as a casualty of that war and I bear my wounds with pride, though I avoid banner waving.1
1. Latin American Writers at Work, The Paris Review, Ed. George Plimpton, Modern Library, 2003, p.310.