Meena Kandaswamy: A pen mightier than persecution

Hermann Kesten award recipient Meena Kandasamy talks about public persecution, and building voices for socio-political issues.
Author Meena Kandasamy.
Author Meena Kandasamy.

Call me names if it comforts you. I no longer care. The scarlet letter is my monogram. I sew it on everything I wear, I tattoo it into permanence”

These striking lines of resistance make up the preface of anti-caste, feminist writer Meena Kandasamy’s book Ms Militancy. They’re bold and refuse to apologise, like the rest of her corpus shedding light on gender and caste subjugation. In some ways, they also embody the poet, who was recently awarded the Hermann Kesten Award by the German PEN Centre, an accolade for those who stand up for the rights of persecuted authors and journalists. Meena spoke to Sahana Iyer of CE, sharing her thoughts on the literary world in this political climate, cultivating a generation that speaks against injustice, and more.

You have mentioned to publications that this award came to you out of the blue.

I didn’t know I was running for the award. You can’t nominate yourself. I was just called and told that I had been considered and that I had won. I was not aware so the whole thing was a surprise and I didn’t know what the award was. I was a bit disoriented.

You are no stranger to persecution and criticism for your works about caste and gender subjugation.

A lot of dissent is clamped down upon. There is fear of litigation or some kind of censorship. There is also self-censorship; people don’t want to get into trouble. The most extreme form of censorship is the assassination of writers. Everything is a part of a spectrum, and somewhere on the spectrum is also litigation, arrests and political incarceration, trolling and character assassination. In a way, (what you say) is subject to something on the spectrum. I’m speaking for a lot of writers. (They wonder:) Is it worth it? What is the cost? Will I have to give up my life? We see that everyday — even as all this is happening — people are speaking out. The younger generation is quite vocal. You’re doing this despite knowing the consequences because you cannot afford to be silent because then there is nothing challenging the dominating narrative.

What works of yours stand out to you in hindsight?

I’m not at that age yet. But in terms of my poetry, Ms Militancy was a definitive collection. It came out 12 years ago and was really feminist. I have watched over the years as it gets on university syllabi and young women come up to me and say they read it there. That it would become a cult feminist text is something I had no clue would happen, and so soon. When I Hit You also resonated with a lot of people, especially the way it deals with both domestic violence and marital rape. But my choice would be Gypsy Goddess as it addresses the question of land, landlessness, feudalism, oppression, caste, and communism. But I can’t pick favourites, it’s like asking a mother to pick a favourite child.

Cornelia Zetzche, the vice president of German PEN Centre described you as “a fearless fighter for democracy and human rights”.

I’m a voice cultivated by the previous generation of writers. I see all of this taking place in absolute continuity. Scholar Anand Teltumbde (who is in jail for the Bhima Koregaon case) would ask me to write essays in my late teens and early 20s. Then there were writers like Gauri Lankesh who I never met but would text me on Facebook. And Arundhati Roy is very encouraging every time I meet her. It’s from them that you learn how to be fierce and stand your ground. You also learn how to give space to the next generation, how to hear their voices and support (them). In that sense, if I am able to say these things today and stand up, it’s also because it is very personal. Rao was like a hero, we read him growing up. The same thing happened with Gauri Lankesh, we were reading her work and then she got assassinated. It’s happening to someone you happen to know. It’s deeply personal, as much as it is political.

As someone who writes about caste and gender (among much else) and the intersection between the two, could you share your thoughts on intersectionality and its portrayal in Indian literature?

We don’t have to get into jargon or say “Oh, I need to be intersectional”. I believe that if you go on the field and see what is happening, with an open mind, you see these things for yourself. You see how being at the bottom of the caste hierarchy leads women to face greater oppression. During caste oppression, women suffer in more ways than men. Sometimes, I believe as a writer you can get a lot of theoretical grounding, can do a lot of research and have understanding. But as a reporter or storyteller, you have to go on the field. It will give you everything you will ever need to know. For me, I don’t think that I am going to superimpose my ideas and reflect them in what I write. And it is not just the intersectionality of caste. The war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, and when you visit, you realise that women suffered far more than men did. And women from poorer backgrounds suffered more. The landless, widows, and women who were heads of families suffered more. So obviously, women as a category is not a homogenous one. Feminists don’t claim it’s homogenous and if they do, they’re really wrong. I think that as much as it’s important to understand it and articulate it on an academic platform, these are life lessons.

In a review of your book The Orders Were to Rape You, Feminism in India wrote: “Her own account of vulnerability while filming the women negates the idea that the perusal of truth — the quest men have monopolized for centuries — is an objective one.” What is your view on objectivity in addressing socio-political issues?

I think I have to sometimes dispense with objectivity. If you are a woman — whether cis or trans — covering sexual violence, then of course you are outraged. You’re outraged because it is happening to so many people. I think it is important to channel this outrage, whether you are a repor ter, wr i ter, poet , or spokesperson. I sometimes think that objectivity is glorified. How could you be neutral when there is violence, when someone is oppressed? You have to choose a side and I always do but you can’t just choose sides because of affiliation. You have to do so based on where justice is and what the issues are.

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