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Sushumna Kannan believes that we in India need to evolve our own brand of feminism (and modernity) in keeping with our past as well as the present challenges we face.
Women’s Web is a collection of very diverse voices, of Indian women (and a few men too), from around the globe. Every month, we feature 3 of our community members here, authors who have made a difference.
In August 2017, one of our Authors of the Month is Sushumna Kannan. A researcher with a keen interest in feminism in practice, Sushumna strives to balance her knowledge and insights from research with her love of telling a good story. Her latest post on H4 visa holders and their psychological state of being, was absolutely loved by readers.
Authors are often asked this question, but everyone has their own reasons, very personal to them. So, why do you write?
I write when I absolutely have to; I don’t think of myself as a writer. I am primarily an academic. I write in order to share my research results. This kind of writing is often very bland although there are people who make it as interesting, rich and layered as a piece of fiction could be. The research that goes before my academic writing is often so satiating that much self-motivation is needed to put it out in front of others. For me, ideas are easy, writing is hard. I occasionally write non-academic pieces because I am driven by a certain issue or feel the need to share an opinion or educate.
At its heart, writing is about persuasion and writing effectively has rules that cut across genres of writing. Whether I write my research out or non-academic pieces, I feel an enormous high when writing because it is how I am changing the world, even if one small bit each time. The aim is almost always to create a balanced perspective and exercise the questioning mind to the fullest. I am an accidental and unhappy writer. There is not a piece of writing I have done that I feel completely okay with. Oftentimes, I read my writing from a few years ago and experience great shock. Such bad writing, I think. But I have a sweet guy in my life who always assures me it means I have grown since. So then I relax and sigh and sigh.
What do you enjoy reading? Does any of it help your writing?
I love reading fiction. And it does help my writing. But when it informs my research writing, I end up writing in inverse sentences. Then my editors scream at me and I have to rework like crazy until the writing begins to appear coherent. I read a lot of research in my fields (feminism, religion, history and literature) too and with as much love as I have for fiction. Being in this zone helps me write out my research better. But when I am the research zone and write opinion pieces or features, the writing is unbearably bland. It has taken me years to figure out how to balance my love for fiction and serious research. I need to steer clear of one when I am working on the other. I still mix these styles and flounder at times.
Every once in a while, I need to read some fiction to relax and take a deep breath. Fiction somehow doesn’t feel like work. Then, I can go back to my research with renewed zest. But too much fiction makes me dull and bored. Spacing out fiction reading is a must.
Often, I need to read a book and completely engross myself in it in order to write anything at all. Otherwise, words don’t flow. Writing is an extremely hard thing to do, in general and the training we receive for it in our school and college system is quite pathetic.
When it comes to writing on/for/about women, what questions and issues drive you the most?
I am perturbed by how women are expected to live in subservience. It upsets me that there are women around me who can’t think of an alternative to this way of life and are shocked by the way I live. In reality, I think streedharma was worked out as a gender-neutral path to moksha. It was adopted largely by women for a number of practical reasons, not because they couldn’t do anything else. Over time, I think we have forgotten the point of it all and expect women to take all kinds of nonsense with a smile. The daughter and the daughter-in-law need to suspend their intelligence to survive! If someone doesn’t want pursue moksha through the route of servility to the family, it should be fine. That is when those who truly pursue it can be respected as well. Spirituality or any other noble aim cannot be imposed on anybody. The lack of equality in marriage needs to be absolutely debated if we aim to be a decent society. I can never fully understand how women came to possess a mere 8% of all property held all over the world. Half the earth, please?
Eve-teasing is the most insane aspect of Indian society and it sucks too much energy to even think whether to react or not or how. The worst part of this is when parents ask their daughters, “What did you do?” instead of trying to protect them in as many ways as possible. It is as if we deserve to be groped and spat at. I am moved by how strong Indian women are and how many hardships they take on an everyday basis.
I have a degree of discomfort with gender feminism and advocate for different kinds of feminism, especially sexual difference feminism. This is what drives much of my academic writing. I think sexual difference feminism and other forms of feminism might be better suited for the Indian context ensuring lesser resistance towards the women’s movement. I am uncomfortable with left and right wing feminism equally. So I try to address ways of bridging a gap between these by invoking issues of culture and their grey areas. I do this by analysing women’s writing, studying ancient and medieval texts and their stances on women and clarifying the nature of stances women held in pre-colonial times. I am weary of feminism that merely advocates human rights; cultures are far more complicated. Since the human rights and related concepts did not emerge from India, it is important to note how else we go about our lives. Our modernity is unique to us and we need to spend way more time talking about relationships, equity and the past. I believe that until we figure out the history of this geographical space called India better, we will be confused and lost. I do not believe that we must, as feminists, restrict ourselves to analysing only the effects of patriarchy; it origins must bother us too. Who knows what we might discover when we set out in search of origins. A number of practices that appear patriarchal may not be that at all. And so, we might develop strategies to deal with them in the present in such a way that they cease to harm women’s freedom and allow for a genuine array of lifestyle choices.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why/Why not?
Yes, I am a feminist. I thoroughly enjoy a good debate with patriarchal people; it is deeply satisfying. However, every once in a while, there are tragic consequences, like the loss of important relationships. In an increasingly alienating world, stupid but loving people are important, at times. Especially, when love is such a quickly-vanishing emotion and frail thing these days.
Simplistic forms of feminism around me kill the joy of being one. I think too much time has been spent in the women’s movement over strategies, appearances, posing, creating solidarity camps and making statements. A more substantive approach that subjects itself to rigorous methodological standards is the need of the hour. The enmity that results when one does not agree with another’s intellectual position is so childish. I have seen this kind of thing happen with big intellectuals and it is depressing. Too much time has been spent feeling outraged and critiquing right-wing politics in feminist writing. I believe that both the right and the left wing movements are championing the cause of a better India. They differ in the how but their intentions appear genuine. Much can be accomplished if we honoured the intentions of each camp. Equally, we must strive to produce knowledge of the past in such a way that we neither glorify nor condemn. Most of all, we need to recognize that we are prone to anachronisms; judging the past from the standards of the present just does not help. A better history bridges the gap between left and right wing thought and enables a better politics, feminist or otherwise.
Name 3 other writers or bloggers on Women’s Web whose writing you enjoy reading.
I enjoy reading Dilnavaz Bamboat and writing by women that share personal experiences, whether about live-in relationships, falling in love and out, marriage, the mother-in-law, the mother, desire, motherhood, and, winning over the patriarchy.