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A new series explores how reading works by global women of color is generative.
Photograph: Steven Depolo
“I left a blank spot in my book of poetry, / When I created an image of your delicate waist.” So wrote Atiya Fyzee, a young Indian Muslim woman who had just seen the opera singer Clara Butt perform at Royal Albert Hall in the fall of 1906. “God knows how she can bind herself and sing in such a constricted state,” Fyzee wondered, concluding, “These people bear all kinds of tortures for the sake of appearance.” Fyzee’s is a clever critique, for in a few lines of quoted poetry and personal reflection, she accomplishes both a takedown of South Asian men and British women. The “remembered . . . line of poetry” serves in this context as a subtle, sly mockery of the adulatory poetry written by male poets of the subcontinent for women. The rhetorical question is a strident judgment of Western women’s capitulation to the binding and constricting superficialities of fashion. Fyzee’s double blow, delivered long ago, was directed both at the local Indian patriarchies that excluded women from the creation of art and poetry and white women’s mute acceptance of their own corseted subordination.
A century after Fyzee’s astute critique, it may still surprise many Western readers that a brown, colonized Muslim woman was living, studying, and writing bold work in England in the early twentieth century. At a time when female “others”—black, brown, and yellow—together constitute the largest block of the world’s population, their persistent invisibility to Westerners not only means they are overlooked in the present moment, but that they are consistently erased from the historical record.
Literature can be a primary engine of dialogue and empathy, but it—or rather, the reading public—is often complicit in the silencing of global women of color. Publishers, perpetually cash-strapped, make difficult choices about what to print on the basis of what they believe will sell. Western readers have consistently shown disinterest in embracing more than a handful of global women writers at a time. Moreover, Western readers tend to favor literature that offers few—or only the right kinds of—challenges to their views of the so-called third world. This contemporary situation only exacerbates the challenges that arise from a Western literary canon that, despite decades of feminist intervention, remains largely male and white.
Literature can be a primary engine of dialogue and empathy, yet it is often complicit in silencing women of color.
For readers who are women of color, this situation frames an existential crisis of finding ourselves negated in the very texts we often turn to for wisdom, comfort, pleasure, and escape. The genesis for this series, Reading Other Women, was neither a desire to amend or supplement the literary canon—a project which decades of only middling success points to as a dead-end. Rather my aim is to model a far more idiosyncratic way of reading as self-making, in which women of color can seek and find texts by other women that triangulate their own identities back to them. In these articles, I model how to do so with texts that have offered value to me but I do not make the canon’s dreary insistence that these texts will have the same effect for everyone. I am at pains to note that, for this very reason, these texts are not offered as representative of anything; they are not types, and were not selected to tick the boxes (one black woman, one queer woman, etc.) that most canon-expanded efforts inevitably fall into the trap of. Rather, I am simply reading them as themselves, and in so doing, I seek to model how texts canwork for and on reading women of color. The reader may then go seek her own key texts. The following are texts that I have found critical to my own self-fashioning as a lettered woman of color, but they may not be yours.
• • •
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion famously said. It is equally true that the stories we tell ourselves are shaped by the stories we have heard and read. In the world spatially beyond the West yet suffusedby the literature of the West, this has often led readers into a sense of imaginative dislocation, a disjunction between the stories read and the realities of the life lived.
I grew up in a Pakistan that valorized English, a contemporary casualty of colonialism’s linguistic conquest. As a consequence I read only British books and hence imbibed the childhood fantasies of a place that bore little relation to my surroundings: the dust and the palms, the lizards’ home. Because of this, as a young girl I wished every night that I lived in a cottage with a sloping roof. I had good reason: in nearly every book I had read, all things glorious (or grotesque) happened in and around such a dwelling. It was there that magic spells were cast and broken, dead princesses came back to life, little children were lured with candy, and elves were available as playmates. The elves held particular appeal, for what could be more comforting to a child than an entire breed of little beings. I looked hard, paid close attention, and was reliably, perpetually disappointed. The perplexed progeny of postcolonial confusions, I didn’t yet know that there could be different stories and so I hoped simply for a different reality.
I do not blame my parents for making us speak and dream in the tongues of past tormentors. Like millions of others, they believed that the ability of their children to participate in a global conversation—or, in less grandiose terms, to get a job—depended on our fluency in English. So we read stories in English, learned English nursery rhymes, and looked for English elves in dusty courtyards.
I did not see my first cottage with a sloped roof until I was eighteen. By then I had recalculated the distance between postcolonial realities and the literary imagination. My failure to find stories about little brown girls in the books of my childhood prefigured similar absences throughout my adult life. The stories of love and loss and marriage, of writing and working and persevering would inevitably center on the experiences of white men—and then belatedly (but thankfully) on those of white women. The rest of us would have to make alterations and accommodations, snip and cut and wear what fits poorly but must be worn anyway.
These omissions have serious outcomes. What begins as a lack of “relatability”—a reticence to encounter the “other” on her own terms—too often ends as a failure to recognize the other’s humanity at all. Those erased from the world’s literary narrative are, in a meaningful way, erased also from its heart. The varied levels of global responses to the recent onslaught of terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, Lahore, and Istanbul—copious grief for some, near silence for others—have illustrated this inequity in what the philosopher Judith Butler calls “grievability.” Thus the literary construction of humanity as mostly white and Western precedes the belief that humanity is mostly white and Western.
Reading Other Women is most fundamentally about combating this human erasure, although it is framed in explicitly feminist terms to center attention on how women of color are doubly erased, both halves of their identity rendering them largely unthinkable—or thought only in terms of what they are not. This project calls for a discarding of the “other” woman as foil, the drab relief for the shimmering successes of white women. It also means a rejection of what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has termed “the danger of the single story,” by which she means a popular, dominant stereotype about a people that leaves no room for complexity, diversity, or joy.
Reading Other Women will be a journey into complexity, into the lives and literary worlds of those who are challenging their own marginalization through the power of the story. I have spoken already about how this series is aimed at modeling a kind of self-constitution for women readers of color. But it is also my hope that Western and male readers will learn from the series how to read like other woman, to see the familiar in the unknown. The little brown girls then and now must do it from necessity. The Western reader must choose to do it. Perhaps together each will gain in self-knowledge as well as mutual understanding.
• • •
Victorian and Edwardian women were avid travelers, making their way—usually in the company of either husbands or male relatives—to the far reaches of the British Empire. They were also great diarists. As a consequence, their accounts of how they lived and what they saw are some of the greatest and most detailed records of British colonialism. They are also some of the least read. One of the most unique is the diary of Gertrude Bell (1868–1926). Bell, born to an aristocratic and wealthy industrialist family, studied history and languages at Cambridge and, through her travels, came to be an indispensible agent (and spy) of the British Empire in the Middle East. Published as A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, Bell’s diaries provide a window not simply into the workings of the colonial mindset—including its condescension—but also the pioneering spirit of a woman who was unusual for her exercise of British colonial authority, which was overwhelmingly allocated to men.
However, white women were not the only women traveling, writing, and making astute observations during the nineteenth century. Quite the contrary. Unfortunately, though, to the degree that nineteenth-century white women’s writings receive less attention than their due, the writings of women of color from the period are often all but unknown by the Western reading public. Perhaps none deserves more attention than Bell’s contemporary, Muslim Indian writer Atiya Fyzee (1877–1967).
What begins as a lack of relatability—a reticence to encounter the other on her own terms—often ends as a failure to recognize the other’s humanity at all.
Accounts penned by intrepid Indian women traveling alone to the West in the early 1900s are rare. Fyzee’s unusual ability to go abroad unaccompanied, like Bell’s, was facilitated by her family’s extremely high status. A member of the wealthy, influential, and cosmopolitan Tyabji clan of Mumbai, Fyzee was raised in a family that prized British education—enough to send her to London to attend teacher’s college. The travelogue that she wrote during her time abroad, Zamana-i-Tahsil (A Time of Education, written 1906–07; published in English as Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain), is notable for its razor wit. First serialized in the Urdu-language Indian women’s magazine Tehzeeb-e-Niswan (Civilization of Women, published 1898–1949 in Lahore), it is also remarkable for its care in bringing its readers the sights, smells, scenes, and conundrums of a world that they would likely never experience for themselves—and not just any world, but specifically the metropole of the colonizer. Fyzee reveals London, the heart of empire, as it appeared to its colonized subject.
• • •
Placed alongside Fyzee, who traveled for the purpose of education, Bell’s travels often appear taxonomic, even extractive: she began her journey largely with the goal of documenting antiquities, but came eventually to serve as Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner during World War I. This prestigious post ultimately gave her tremendous influence over how the colonies of the British Middle East were later partitioned into sovereign nations. To her credit, Bell was instrumental in preventing many Iraqi antiquities from being spirited out of the country to the British Museum, convincing colonial authorities to instead found the Iraq Museum in Baghdad (now the National Museum of Iraq) so that Iraqis could benefit from knowledge of their heritage. Nonetheless her diaries reveal the extent to which her interactions around antiquities exploited Iraqi workers and, more critically, monetized patrimony, debasing intellectual heritage into another kind of lucre, a resource found in the ground (not unlike oil) to be exploited by the colonizer. For example, in an entry from Baghdad on January 22, 1924, Bell writes of visiting a dig site: “When we reached the mound we found quantities of people digging and rounded them up. They all screamed and cried when they saw me.” Bell then proceeds to interrogate the frightened workers as to whether they have any antiques. When they don’t readily surrender them, she offers a bribe (baksheesh): “At that a change came over the scene and one after another fumbled in his breast and produced a cylinder or a seal which I bought for the museum for a few annas.”
When Fyzee writes about navigating the uses of money, the contrast is stark: unlike for Bell, Fyzee experiences money less as a resource to exploit than as a potential source of a social gaffe—or, worse, of being exploited as a single, foreign woman. In an entry dated Septemter 1906 she writes of the complications of being invited to eat at the Lyceum Club: “It is a trifle, but I am terrified— how does one go to these places except in a cab. . . . To become involved with these things is an undertaking and, if people send a carriage, it is a different kind of problem because one often has to give a big bakhshish.”
Throughout her diaries, Bell weaves between the conflicting impulse to understand the colonized and to capitalize on their presumed inferiority. Fyzee, as a colonial subject, actively pursues the education of the conqueror precisely to overcome and defy this presumption of inferiority, yet worries that in the process she may lose herself to its ways. Attuned more than Bell to power and contradiction, she assures her readers continually of her loyalty: “I have continued wearing my Indian clothes and do not intend to ever give them up. When I go out I cover my head, et cetera, with a gauze cloth. Everything is covered except the face. . . . And everyone appreciates the fact greatly that I have kept my ways in the English world and am setting a good example.”
What are differences in substance, however, can point to similarities in theme. The attention both women give to their adherence to the conventions of home reveal the risk of marginalization for choosing to identify too closely with the exotic and foreign terrain of their destinations.
A clear link between Bell and Fyzee is that both women defied convention in their romantic affairs. While traveling, Bell fell in love with a married man, Lt. Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie. The pair had several rendezvous and exchanged passionate letters but Doughty-Wylie would not leave his wife to wed Bell. In 1915 he was killed in the Battle of Gallipolli fighting Turkish troops. The devastated Bell never married, devoting all of her considerable drive and focus to her travels and work in Iraq.
Fyzee too fell in love with a married man while she was in London—and not just any married man, but Muhammad Iqbal, now considered the foremost poet of Pakistan, credited as the first intellectual to have envisioned Pakistan as a separate country. When he arrived in London, Iqbal had been married for two decades to Karim Bibi, the wife his father had chosen for him. The pair had several children but did not share an intellectual life. Iqbal and Fyzee shared a passionate Platonic relationship that played out in person as well as in years of exchanged letters. In one letter written soon after Iqbal left England, he wrote: “My Dear Miss Atiya: I am so totally grateful for the letter I have received. Today since morning my temperament has been uncommonly joyful. Therefore, if you perceive the sweetness of jocularity in this missive, consider it a compulsion.”
Despite his passion for Fyzee, Iqbal, like Doughty-Wylie, did not leave his wife. “As a human being I have a right to happiness,” he wrote to Fyzee, even as he rejected that possibility. Bell never wrote about Doughty-Wylie, but Fyzee did reflect on Iqbal. In 1947, ten years after his death, she pronounced his life “a cruel tragedy.” “In India,” she wrote, “an individual is obligated to bow before the wishes and obligations of his family. In view of this many men and women though endowed with extraordinary intellectual abilities have ruined their lives.” However, unlike Bell, Fyzee did not remain alone: in 1912, she married the artist Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, a match of both love and intellect.
The extent to which both Bell and Fyzee defied convention might tempt us to label them feminists. But it would be wrong to assume that a belief in the intrinsic injustice of gender roles inspired them both. For all her flouting of norms, Gertrude Bell was opposed to feminist notions of the equality of the sexes. She was not only a member of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League but served as secretary to its central committee. In her writings, she often remarked upon the vacuity of the diplomats’ and expats’ wives she encountered. Women, so far as Bell was concerned, could not be trusted with the vote. Perhaps her own highborn entitlements bolstered her confidence that she was an aberration from the generally deficient nature of her kind.
Fyzee was no doubt far more comfortable in her identity as an interlocutor for women. Not only was her diary written explicitly for a female audience, she undertook her London education in order to promote women’s education back home. In her repeated explications of how travel was possible and even fun for a lone Muslim woman, she seems to urge her readers to do the same: leave the familiar and embrace the unknown.
It is ultimately Fyzee’s critique of her own culture that is more radical in a way that Bell’s is not. Fyzee casts her critical eye on both her own and those she encounters abroad. Bell, while she travels far and amasses much more power than Fyzee, seems unquestioningly accepting of the dominant mores of her own creed and culture even if they imposed restrictions on women. Her opposition to women’s suffrage reveals that she thought of herself as a “special case,” a unique kind of woman not defined by the usual deficiencies of her kind, and hence deserving of special treatment, admission to the male domains of power. If Atiya Fyzee worried and wondered about Clara Butt’s tightly corseted performance as she watched the singer perform at Albert Hall, Gertrude Bell, watching during one of her sojourns at home, would likely not have noticed its impositions at all.
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