A blue donkey, a lesbian cow, a saint who meets Grendel and his mother, a one-eyed monkey, an oyster child — they all tell their arresting stories, along with the more usual suspects — the hare and the turtle, the princess and the pea, the mouse and the lion, the Beast, Bluebeard, Daphne, Circe and many more. But if some of the characters are familiar, they do not behave as prescribed. And some refuse to make sense, insist on absurdity.
The Fabulous Feminist takes one of the original meanings of ‘fabulous’ as, according to the OED, someone who is fond of fabling, or of listening to fables, but also plays upon the more familiar meaning of astonishing, or incredible. It is this playfulness that characterises Suniti Namjoshi’s work, but it is play informed by a sharp and thoughtful insight.
Many people may be more familiar with feminist reworking of fable from writers such as Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and Michele Roberts, but Namjoshi has in fact been publishing since 1981: fiction, poetry, fantasy and children’s books. Her work draws on the Indian tradition, on ancient Greek and Roman myth, western fairy tale and fable, as well as writers such as Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare and Mary Shelley, and always a large dash of original invention; it is radical, wise, humorous and compassionate.
The Fabulous Feminist is a reader, providing excerpts from Namjoshi’s books of fiction and poetry, giving a taste of each one. The advantage of this style of reader is that it gives a sense of the range of Namjoshi’s work, and most especially, that her introduction to each section outlines her interests, placing the work in terms of her developing corpus and her evolving ideas. This works well for the shorter stand-alone pieces, but it can be frustrating, and sometimes confusing, to read only a chapter or two from a larger, narrative work. But of course, the invitation is there to seek out the books and read them. In responding to a book like this, it is possible only to give an idea of the range of themes and styles of some of the stories and poems.
Feminist Fables, Namjoshi’s first work, is probably the most easily recognised for its reworking of familiar fables, such as those of Aesop — stories told to portray moral truths. The structured quality of the fable means that it can be inverted, reorganised and deconstructed, its familiarity exploited to create a new meaning. Fables, Namjoshi writes, ‘question what happens to anyone when there’s an imbalance of power’ (2), so that they lend themselves readily to her feminist enterprise, but also to the ‘disparities of power’ she sees in the West (where she now lives) and in her homeland of India. In many of her fables, she uses the literary tradition, western and eastern, ancient and modern, to ‘expose what is absurd and unacceptable’. (3)
Namjoshi resists simple binaries, such as us and them, male and female, good and evil, right and wrong, that are so familiar in western literature. By playing with the structures of the stories, and refusing to simply retell the ‘opposite’ version (where, for example, the girl as victim becomes the girl as hero), Namjoshi resists reiterating the original structures of story. Instead, she digs around, ‘complicates’ the situation. This idea is evident in ‘The Female Swan’, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the ugly duckling.
Namjoshi tells of a female duckling who studies everything there is to know about swans, but when she is made an Honorary Swan, conflict breaks out among the ducks: some are delighted at such progress; others resist the attempt at equality, and yet others feel the duck has betrayed them. They turn for advice to Andersen, who suggests that it is time to move beyond the binary of duck or swan: they are now questioning ‘the nature of ducks and the value of swans’ and thus ‘learning to fashion [their] own fables’. (9)
This is one of the fables with a more explicit lesson. In others, such as ‘The Princess’, the absurdity of the ending also brings a smile of recognition. Based on the princess and the pea story, it tells how the specialness of the princess, expressed in her extreme sensitivity, leads to her becoming allergic to everything, to her seclusion from the ugly and the unwell, and finally to the townsfolk being forced to spin finer and finer fabrics for her delicate skin, until at last, she simply catches a cold and dies. So much for royalty and sensitivity; life is to be lived.
Namjoshi says that she often begins her fables with an image, and one of the most intriguing of these is the blue donkey, inspired by Marc Chagall’s painting. In ‘The Blue Donkey’ (from Blue Donkey Fables), the donkey’s differences disturb the townsfolk, some arguing that the donkey’s colour is ‘inartistic’ and should be pure white, others claiming its blueness is ‘a matter of culpable willfulness rather than genetic mischance’ (89), demanding that it change to a nondescript grey. The donkey’s response is simple: ‘Look again’. (90) And so, while the arguments continue, some look again and eventually get used to the blueness. The resonances to issues of sexuality, race and gender are unmistakable, but beyond all this is the attractiveness of the donkey itself, in its own particular being. This points to the ways in which Namjoshi’s radicalism is not simply one of overturning structures, or of arguing for the recognition of women but, in the best practice of feminism, investigates, rethinks and revalues.
The blue donkey appears again in The Mothers of May Diip, a book exploring the possible social structures of differing gender relationships. The excerpt provided (from Part II) tells of women from a matriarchy visiting a male society, and the gradual discovery that while the matriarchal society leaves boy babies under what they call the Tree of Death, the male society finds its male babies under the same tree, the Tree of Life. After this intriguing moment of shocked recognition, the conversation turns to considering the ways in which male and female might, theoretically, live together; talking only of ideas, naïve of any experience of that kind of society, the force of logic leads the men and women to the conclusion that such a society would result in either war or enslavement of the women, the child bearers. These are intriguing ideas, but the chapters selected are an unfortunate editorial choice. Perhaps the earlier chapters of the book establish the characters and their context, we cannot tell, but in this excerpt character and narrative are dominated by the force of theory and idea, and makes for hard reading; into this dense conversation, the blue donkey is a welcome and gentle presence.
One of the most moving sections of the book is the selection from The Bedside Book of Nightmares which Namjoshi describes as a ‘a painful book to write’, exploring ‘the things I could not laugh about’. (41) It contains poems of rejection, confused identity, shame and loss, the pain of creatureliness and the longing to be loved. For example, the last lines of ‘Biped’:
But I am that dog.
It was I who howled,
I who was hurt.
I felt the pain.
And it is I
Who despised myself. (46)
In these poems, the pain is visceral, scorching.
Given the wide range of ideas and forms in Namjoshi’s writing, Building Babel seems to be the next inevitable step. She says:
I had realized that I could take cultural building blocks and make new constructions out of them that were neither sexist nor misogynistic. Using the cultural tradition for their own purposes is something all writers do … but for a writer whose cultural identity is non-mainstream, the renewal has to be fairly radical. (167)
The building blocks (she uses Richard Dawkins’ term ‘meme’) are archetypes, myths, images that will not be fixed into a tower of Babel, but tend to mutate and change with time. Cyberspace, she claims, is the ideal place to allow this cultural process to continue, linking the hearts and minds of people. The last chapter of Building Babel is currently available on the Spinifex website, with the opportunity for others to contribute: ‘Out of the shards of my own stories and poems, make your own poems. That is the process.’ (168)
Finally, among all the wit and challenge and play, it is important to point out that there are poems of stillness and careful craft. Some of these are in the last section ‘New Work’ yet to be published as a separate book. But one of my favourites from Flesh and Paper is ‘All the Words’, where Alice’s Wonderland points to something much greater than itself:
All the words have leaped into the air like the cards
in Alice, like birds flying, forming, re-
forming, swerving and rising, and each word
says it is love.
All the little words say
they are love, the space in between, the link
and logic of love. And I can make no headway
in this heady grammar, and suddenly
and here, you are, I am, and we love.
The Fabulous Feminist: A Suniti Namjoshi Reader
Spinifex Press 2012
257 pages, $24.95
Robyn Cadwallader is an editor and writer who lives in the country outside Canberra. She has published poems, prize-winning short stories and reviews, a poetry collection, i painted unafraid and a non-fiction book based on her PhD thesis about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages.