Meena Kandasamy is a writer, translator, activist and feminist who challenges comfortable notions of Western feminism, capitalism, and imperialism in her work. We talked to her per email about translating Tamil writers, nationalism and feminism, and the false dichotomy of a political and a private sphere.
You’ve recently edited and translated Desires Become Demons, a chapbook of poetry by Tamil women poets into English, and you’re also translating at least one novel (that I know of) from Tamil to English. Obviously I’ve been thinking about whose voices are heard, globally, and how translation turns into activism in that context. How do the Tamil poets you translate challenge you – and how do they contribute to, and challenge, notions of feminism held in the West?
I came into translation about 15 years ago, because there is a gatekeeping of voices-not only internationally, but even within the Indian context. This gatekeeping is along the lines of inequalities: caste and class and gender and race. So, the Anglophone Indians would read/ discuss/debate issues that were being written about in the English media, and then on the streets of Tamil Nadu, there would be another discourse. As a Tamil woman, it was quite schizophrenic — and I sort of did my early books of translations, of the Dalit leader Thirumavalavan to fill what I felt was a huge void in what was being consumed in English. This concern about putting voices out there – who are not amplified or picked up easily within the Anglophone discourse – has been a motivation behind my choice of projects.
The four women poets who appear in Desires Become Demons, Malathi Maithri, Salma, Sukirtharani and Kutti Revathi, are crucial, radical voices. Their work cannot be contained within their poetry alone, they are also active politically in articulating the rights of women and oppressed people. Their poetry is incandescent in its construction, and explosive in its purpose. They are writing within and against a society that is seemingly progressive, a society that covers-up its male hegemony in various guises. Their feminism attacks the caste system, say, in the poems of Sukirtharani. Their feminism clamours loudly for female desire and the negotiations women have to make for gaining a little autonomy in the poems of Salma. Malathi Maithiri and Kutti Revathi both tear apart the charade of Indian nationalism, they are sharp in their criticism of imperialism and war. As a feminist writer myself, I often encounter the average Westerner who assumes that all of us are in need of rescuing – and I think such a book, such a project, turns that trope on its head. In so many ways, it is poetry that says, ‘Listen. Learn.’
It is not just saying, ‘women are equal to men’ – it goes beyond that to say, ‘Look, the caste system is rotten’, ‘Look, language is unequally constructed’, and asks difficult questions. An interview is too short a space to unpack how feminism in the Tamil context would wary from the Western, neoliberal definition of feminism. I hope I’ve answered at least a part of your question.
In your foreword to Desires Become Demons, you point out that Western feminism sees nationalism and feminism as ‘inherently opposed concepts’. I wonder if you could say a bit more about that. I guess I see the struggle for self-rule as separate from nationalism, if that makes sense, but I do also realise that as someone from Austria, my understanding of nationalism is exclusively negative.
Because Western feminism is actually capitalist, imperialist feminism. Imperialism and capitalism are not going to be happy to probe their role in the creation of what are modern-day nation states. They are not going to acknowledge the sinister effects of colonialism. When linguistically, culturally disparate people are grouped together for the purpose of colonial administration, do they constitute a nation? India, Sri Lanka—these are all nations that were products of the British empire. Obviously people will revolt against this, and they would seek their own autonomy, respect for their language, the right to read and live and speak their language. I’m not an Indian nationalist—to borrow from Lenin, I see India as a prison house of nationalities. Kashmir is today the most occupied place on the planet. Tamil Eelam has been militarised in unimaginable ways. If Kashmiri people, if the people of Tamil Eelam demand the right to be recognised as a nation – I see it important to support that struggle. This nationalism of the oppressed, yearning to break free, is different from the fraud-nationalism of corporate capitalism and religious jingoism.
You’ve referred to yourself as a a Marxist feminist in a previous email. In some ways, When I Hit You is a brilliant deconstruction of male (faux-) Marxism. Could you elaborate on what it means to you to be a Marxist feminist? I wonder how your Marxism is shaping your feminism and vice versa.
In a world that is not so label-dependent, it would be fine to just say writer, and get on with it. But there’s an urgent need to say feminist, if only to channel the rage I feel at how women are treated in society (and by extension, within literature too). But feminist as a label has been most glibly, successfully and criminally hijacked by capitalism (the new feminists are Sheryl Sandberg and Ivanka Trump and Theresa May), so you need to qualify that with exactly specifying what sort of feminist you are, and I think Marxist-Feminist just about captures it. I think that the creation of an equal, just society is impossible under capitalism, which is why we need to learn from the mistakes of the past and imagine other ways of living. I think understanding caste, class, race inequalities is fundamental to any understanding of women’s struggle. All the same, even to the point of annoyance, it is important to reiterate the fundamental need to address women’s questions within a Marxist framework (and other liberatory, emancipatory, or radical movements) because you blink, and then you are in the kitchen making tea for the male comrades. And men on the left would conveniently label you a petit-bourgeois feminist just so that their own authority does not get challenged.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that brilliant article in Another Gaze on the Making of the Millennial Woman – especially about whose voices get heard (privileged, white, see above), but also about how, as young women, we’re essentially asked to prioritise the personal, to prioritise ‘feelings’ in our art in order to conform to expectations. But I’m also very wary of falling into the trap of: ‘When a man writes about something, it’s about everyone. When a woman writes about something, it’s just for women.’ Where do you see the balance in all this? How do we avoid withdrawing into a sphere of making merely inward-looking art, while at the same time not conceding that ‘male’ art is somehow more worthy?
Thank you for your opinion on that piece, and for sharing it with me and the readers of this blog. It is enlightening to me, just to realise how difference works. I have to honestly say that coming from very different contexts, our experience indeed varies. I do not ever remember prioritising the personal, or being asked to do so when I started writing. I started as a translator (so the personal was hidden), I wrote political essays (the personal was hidden), and I edited a magazine (the personal was hidden). I tried to articulate myself through poetry (which I yearned to keep secret and personal, alas!). When I had to write a novel, I chose a political /historical theme because that was most urgent and pressing, and also because I dreaded that if I wrote a love story or a romance or something it would be seen as kitchen-drama, you know! I think a lot of young women from similar backgrounds could do the same – merely to resist being boxed in, and to be taken seriously. But then, life intervenes, and rudely awakens you and makes you realise that irrespective of how emancipated / empowered you are, the fact that you are a woman could be used against you, violently even, and then, my second novel happened. So, here I was, first writing about a massacre in 1968 where scores of Dalit agricultural workers and their families were killed for striking for higher wages, and then, in a moment I was pushed from this bloody battleground to write about what happened in my bedroom. I do not think male art is worthy, neither do I (any longer) think that the political is something separate from the domestic. I think it is a dangerous, false dichotomy.
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who was born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms. Militancy (2010), and the critically acclaimed novel, Gypsy Goddess (2014) and When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017). Exquisite Cadavers is forthcoming in November 2019. She edited and translated the poetry chapbook Desires Become Demons (Tilted Axis Press, 2019). Meena holds a PhD in sociolinguistics and lives in East London.
Interview by Theodora Danek.