GENDER AND PERSPECTIVE
Self in the works of Jean Arasanayagam
The struggle of man to define himself, to know himself, is the story of literature virtually from the beginning of civilization. This statement is applicable to man and woman both and does not make any distinction between them while defining the role of literature in terms of the individual identity. Women however, have to work harder in their search for self. The quest for identity not only make their writing essentially feminine but also contemporary because it exposes the underlying existential problems of our time.
Women writers do not form a separate group or movement in literature but men and women, as Kate Millett observes, in many respects represent separate cultures1. Instead of extending male conventions, women writers have cut loose from male hegemony and seek another more authentic and personal voice. In this endeavour, they link themselves inextricably to their cultural environment which forms a collective experience, binding women writers to each other across time and space. The work of Denise Levertov, Nikki Giovanni and Jean Arasanaygam derives mostly from masculine tradition, yet the flashes of vibrant strength emerge directly from their feminine experiences. Sylvia Plath represents a movement away from traditional attitudes towards a neurotic poetry. The poetry of Kamala Das, like that of Judith Wright, Erica Jong, and Anne Sexton drawing heavily from personal life, shows an involvement in intimate feminine experience. In the poetry and fiction of Jean Arasanayagm the seemingly trivial incidents and traditionally female vocabulary expose the identity of women in a ritualistic power- structured society and evaluates the complex value system of society. Thus her work places the personal experiences of the author at the center and tries to assess the destiny of women in culture presenting the interlocked realities of both the female personality and culture without distorting either the inner or outer realities of life. This gives her work its significance and uniqueness.
Jean Arasanayagam is an extremely respected and amazingly prolific Sri Lankan writer with several collections of poetry, novels, and short stories, to her credit. By birth she is a Dutch belonging to a Burgher family. She embraced Tamil culture after her marriage with Thiagarajah Arasanayagam.The complexity of her situation drives her psyche to a tormented state of rootlessness, which characterizes much of her work. The verse of cotemporary women writers does not conveniently fall into the patterns of a specific thesis. Broadly speaking however, their work deals with the question of self identity in accordance with their social and cultural milieu. White women writers have to fight with their womanly problems, the black women writers have to fight with the most abysmal evil in the world and the third world women writers tell in “mournful melodies” their traumatic experiences in a power-structured society. In the poetry of Jean Arasanayagam the white women’s search for identity continues, the anger of black psyche very much a part of it, the struggle of Asians for freedom from the clutches of social evils, a part of her own life. As she says about her writings, she responds to the problems of “women’s identity in all situations generated by the social and political climate they live in.”
A collection of thirty -nine poems-WOMEN, ALL WOMEN3 and a novel THE FAMISHED WATERFALL4 can be studied as an exploration into the feminine psyche and the author’s ceaseless search for an identity. Coming out at the fin de siècle WOMEN, ALL WOMEN of Jean Arasnayagam is her emotionally complex and structurally sophisticated corpus. Going through the sensitive account of women is like wandering into a picture gallery. Women from different cultural backgrounds – some with striking features, some faceless—stare at us and suddenly all of them come down shattering their photo-frames and stand before us in flesh and refuse to exit even long after the book is closed. The calmly pathetic poetic rendering of women’s heart hides a volcano of frozen emotions and any sensitive heart can feel the warmth of burning lava spread over the pages.
Free from the perplexing ideological questions of philosophy, religion and politics, these poems are woven from the various strands of the vast gamut of personal experiences that Jean Arasanayagam has lived with. In some poems her childhood memories fall like “unthreaded pearls”. In nostalgic vein she reminisces the “vanished generations of her mother, grandmothers, the surrogate mothers and with them the family traditions, celebratory Christmas cake of twenty-five eggs, Chinese crackers, bonbons, her dress of organdy and taffeta. Densely rich in local colour PUBERTY RITES traces the continuity of rituals with a motherly love and shapes—
Legends and myths from the platter
Of milk rice to feed dreams to each other.
She feels pride for her hybrid blood. But there is also a sense of guilt of an unknown sin committed by her ancestors and pain for being always an outsider in her own family and her own county. She is the inheritor of the cultural treasures of three traditions. Her present does not spring naturally from her past. Both merge in a corroded culture and the wound of being an outsider remains raw—“All my treasures Lost”. In the process of self-searching she realizes that this tension is not the outcome of the difference between past and present but between her “selves” that pop-up from within. A great number of poems are addressed to her mother-in –law. Her one self identifies with her mother-in-law. Radiant in her past glory but now only reflecting “Medusa like”, her face in the empty mirrors of her family’s eyes she has been reduced to an archetypal woman. This conflict between her various selves opens up a kaleidoscopic display of feminine feelings and defines the subtle nuances in woman –woman relationship. By filling the silent gaps in her tale with clamour of her own tormenting questions, the poet inextricably intertwines her own portrait with that of her mother-in-law. Similarly the poems on her sister-in –law bringing out the fire of life and ashes of death are structured as an autobiography- in- progress.
The poet is a traveler “preparing all the time for journeys”. In the course of “ancient footpaths” or in the “endless vistas” of other climes, this “migrant bird”, as she calls herself, brings forth narratives of unknown women. She shares the travelers’ tales with Ingrid Squirrel and the magical secrets of primroses with Suniti Namjoshi, she is haunted by the ghosts of dead wives of a Man, makes an attempt to catch the “vanishing echo” growing fainter and fainter of a drowned girl Sunethra Wicremesinghe, she is moved by the poverty of Emeline Nona and helplessness of her daughter Beatrice, the resolute firmness of a striptease dancer and the depressing loneliness of Mrs.L. These and many “a woman /Whose name I do not remember”, are the unforgettable portraits of women pulsating with life all around us and present the kaleidoscopic patterns of shifting emotions but they all sing in one voice “We have lost our identity”.
Ancient are the cave memories of women;
In each life the pattern shifts, that’s all
(Woman Dreaming, p 58)
The turbulent present emerges in the portrait of a new, modern woman Vanati who puts away the “silks, vermillion starred with gold”, and makes gun her new love. Shedding all the meekness she steps on the “puranic battlefield” meant for men. But the detailed list of the womanly trivia suggests the strangulation of natural womanly desires which is a powerful manifestation of her silent pain.
The best poems of the collection, however are the ones in which the poet is immersed in the act of self discovery. Her cry at being led out of the “primal garden of innocence” of youth and now feeling the “bitter juice” “dripping from the wounded mouth” is the cry of any woman. But the poet is not any woman. She has discovered within her “all kinds of mixed genes” and wonders if the re-reading of the epics would give a fresh interpretation and transformation to her “worn out” and “time-battered” self? Suffering and betrayal have not shaken her persona. She knows fully well
Of me, there’s still a perpetual
Flame burning that some pure
Vestal virgin lit, which never really
Her wounded self endangered by the encroaching dread of existential problems does not tie the poet with a state of paralyzed perplexity as is the case with Sylvia Plath who at certain moments experiences a genuine terror of being alive. Sylvia Plath represents western consciousness that feels drowned in the quick sand of emptiness. The author still has enough vitality left to face the larger truths of life. Her self struggling with the icy winds of longing, hatred and alienation is only the tip of the iceberg: the larger chunk merges itself with the sea of suffering humanity. Her voice emanating from her personal life becomes the mouthpiece amplifying the muffled sound of her own people “those wrenched and malformed roots” of an identity, “bearing history’s unforged signature”. She is one of them, has slept displaced on floors of refugee camps with them. It is a shattering experience to watch a woman
Searching for her daughter’s
Lover, among the dead, two hundred males
Young, old, turning face after face
To the light.
(Woman/Third world Poet, p127)
To history she is anonymous. But to the poet she is a reality, she is Medea, she is Antigone. Jean Arasanayagam feels that only divinely inspired like Plato can create an ideal republic. An “ordinary human” like her can only create a world of suffering and pain of real human beings who in their arduous journey of life try to reach some point “if fate allows, of destiny”.
WOMEN, ALL WOMEN is a saga of that eternal pain and suffering which is the common lot of women all over the world in all times handed over from mothers to the daughters. Suffering changes its modes but it goes nonetheless to the heart. The poet feels trapped:
What alms have I? What pity?
I who peered into the bloodbath sculptures
Of our times pursued by the Erinyes,
Create my own Tryptich
Share all beginnings.
(At the Tate, p 51)
This collection of poems gives a peep into the raw depths of “the limitless universe” of a woman’s psyche.
In the times when the literary world is abuzz with the theories of Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Claude Levi –Strauss, Jean Arasanayagam with her novel THE FAMISHED WATERFALL takes us to the backwaters of the silent suffering of women. The novel throws an insight into the experiences of migrant workers who went to the Middle East in search of that pot of gold and suffered and survived far from their families and the accustomed milieu of home.
THE FAMISHED WATERFALL is the tale of a woman in quest of her identity. Instead of getting strangulated and exploited, phoenix like she rises from the ashes and marches on. Her pain is ancient but now the purpose of her life clear, her gait sure and her bruised heart strong. No longer her steps falter, no longer her heart quivers. This is a new avatar of modern women. Longing for self-definition exposes the underlying existential problems of our times. It is two edged in the case of women. They have to fight the outer and the inner war simultaneously. The present novel is a salute to the undying spirit of this new woman. It is this aspect of the novel that makes it contemporary and adds value to it.
The protagonist of the novel is one such woman who refuses to yield to her unfavorable circumstances. Leaving her soul and her heart with her three children, the mother in her leaves the comfort and security of her village and home she proceeds for Kuwait for the future of her children. She is forced to take this extreme step because there was no escape for her until “I had stepped out into the world and embarked on journeys to unknown destinations”. It is no one journey but several journeys in several directions with ‘I’ at the center. This centrifugal spin of ‘I’ causes intense pain but paradoxically also strengthens her determination and resolves her doubt “Would I resist, oppose or accept and submit to what was imposed on me?” Economic empowerment dissolves the bitterness of her experience with her husband who had betrayed her and the fear for the well-being of her children changes into a strange feeling of pride “I was ambitious for them. I felt a sense of pride that I could do what my neglectful husband had failed to do.” This is not womanly vanity, but a sense of sublime satisfaction for being able to do one’s duty and for being able to answer the call of raison d’etre.
She knows well the dangers and pitfalls that might await her in a new country. Leaving the safety of the four walls of home and coming out into the scorching heat of the open world is a mighty step for any woman. When the war broke out she suffered in that hellish inferno in Kuwait, “from the bubbling cauldrons of burning oil ringed around” her life. She survived because she drew her nourishment from the images of her home, where her roots were implanted. Throughout her stay in a foreign country she “grasped, fumbled, retraced her steps” always searching for the landscape she had left behind. The memory of the waterfall that had gushed her body once “making it feel as fresh and moist as the ferns that were touched by its spray” was always kept alive by her in these unfamiliar and unfriendly surroundings. She had carried the image of that waterfall wherever she went. Even when there were times of great drought she dreamed that the source of that spring would never run dry. She was satisfied when a trickle flowed down her dry rock face and she felt blessed when it cascaded down drenching her being. It was life force for her, rejuvenating her dying spirit. With her going away she had lost that waterfall but with her new earned confidence in herself she hopes she would search it out again. By the end of the novel she has learnt “… to measure her footsteps. Not to rush headlong into crisis. If I kept my balance even on the edge of the precipice and not lean too far, I would survive.”
This is the story of a new, confident woman who is determined to make for herself a new path, opening up to new ways, marching ahead to set new goals with the spirit of old Ulysses “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. But — and this but is the seamy side of THE FAMISHED WATERFALL– it lacks the larger outlook of the ancient Ulysses. The story revolves around the personal ring and never comes out of the personal confines to broaden the sympathies. The result is the pain it creates verges on sentimentality. There is none of the complexity of the choices “to do or not to do”. In nutshell the book lacks the punch. The tour de force of Jean Arasanayagam’s narrative art lies where she makes her personal experiences pass through the prism of Sri Lanka’s crisis and her small self melts to become one with the gigantic shadows wriggling in violence, or where she makes herself the mirror to reflect the pain of bereaved humanity. The present book throws only a flash of that genius here and there. It is felt when she describes the war with Kuwait: “Fear. Fear. Gunshot. Sounds of powerful bombs blasting.” Her characteristic haunting voice coming out of the modern wasteland is heard again at one place: “I saw the armoured trucks built for desert warfare crawling like huge prehistoric animals and the flames sweeping over the ocean of fire. Out there, there were men, men, men. Whom were they fighting? Could they see the faces of their enemies?” It is this voice that makes her writing contemporary and meaningful in this world rocked by brutal and unnecessary violence. One only wishes there was a little more of this in THE FAMISHED WATERFALL.
To place the self at the center and weave out magical stories of rare charm is a matter of no small significance. To make the self a mirror to reflect the pain of bereaved humanity is to reach the highest wrung of achievement. Jean Arasanayagam’s voice is the haunting voice coming out from the modern waste land. The hot burning magma of her feelings flows through the pages of her works. The art of narration here achieves its perfection.
- OUT OF THE PRISON WE EMERGE is the title of Jean Arasanayagm’s collection of poems, 1987
- Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969)
- Jean Arasayanagam, The Famished Waterfall (S.Godage &Sons, Colombo10: 2004)
- Jean Arasanayagan, Women, All Women (Writers Workshop: India,1999)