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The feminine gaze: An emotional journey

Divya Hemnani | Updated on: 5 February 2018, 12:15 IST

Memoir writing is a powerful medium to articulate private traumas and histories that have never been told, and cannot – or should not – be fictionalized. It is therefore arguably an apt form for women writers, often sidelined in favor of male voices and other normative narratives.

In an interactive session, 'Women Writing Memoirs', the audience saw esteemed writers and photographers Abeer Y Hoque, Alia Malek, Amy Tan, Juliet Nicolson and Keggie Carew, describe the process as being extremely emotional.

Amy Tan said men and women approach the process of writing memoirs differently. The content too is completely different. “The experiences are different. Certain things that happen to women don’t really happen to men. Like trauma. Which is true of my ancestors. Like my mother went through a lot, so did my grandmother. My grandmother killed herself, my mother was suicidal. None of the trauma came from the men in my family. So my story wouldn’t have been true if I was a man,” she said.

Abeer Hoque’s memoir 'Olive Witch' deals with mental illness among other themes. She said, 'I wrote a chapter set in a psychiatric ward and spliced it into different parts of the book. This embodied how mental illness was a profound if episodic presence in my life.

Amy Tan has used defense mechanisms, such as dark humor in hers. “I get my sense of irony from my mother. She was victimized, but the one thing she taught me is to never let people tell you who you are. But, of course, as you go through life, people look down upon you. I tried to find humor through that,” she said.

Juliet Nicolson’s book trails seven generations of daughters in her family. In the process, she observed the emergence of some behavior patterns. Her mother died of alcoholism, and during the discussion, Juliet revealed her own battle with alcoholism -- something she had never expected to do on a public platform.

She said, “I saw one pattern; that women in my family resorted to sex, drugs, and mainly alcohol when in fear or doubt. I saw my mother die of alcoholism and admitting to my own problem in my book was sort of a way to show her that I forgive her for being absent. 20 years ago today, I quit drinking,”.

Writing the truth in a memoir can be uncomfortable, especially if it involves other people. “It is a very big responsibility and I believe in respecting people,” Nicolson said. “So if I am writing a memoir that someone doesn’t want me to mention them in, I’ll leave them out.”

Amy Tan’s conflict is different. “Privacy that concerns me is mine. An uncle of mine had objected to my book and asked my mother why she was letting me write all this. My mother told him, ‘What I went through, no one knows. This way, the world will know.’ And then she told me, ‘Go, write it. Tell the world about it’.


First published: 31 January 2018, 15:00 IST