The Asian-American Female Pioneer: Journeying towards Changing Gender Roles
Madhubanti Bhattacharyya (University of East Anglia) [BIO]
Women have traditionally been the keepers of hearth and home, the epitome of the domesticity for which men went out to earn, went to wage war, and to which they came back after all their strife with the external world. They never changed. They were immobile too: except as chattels transported along with the male. The issue of women's voluntary, independent migration is thus a vexed one, bringing up all the issues of violation of space demarcations, role reversals and so on. These women became somehow even more threatening when they kept trying to set out on the Asian woman's version of an American pioneer, traditionally male journey, garnering a new set of identities along the way, which are always defined in terms of, and sometimes in opposition to the identities that were before, and were shed in order to achieve this sort of emancipation. Having this different background to fall back on is both liberating and frustrating: it both provides the 'difference' whilst precluding complete effacement.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s writing (in the novels Vine of Desire, Sister of My Heart, Mistress of Spices and Queen of Dreams) charts this kind of process or journeying: whether it be through literal journeying from place to place or continent to continent, or a leap of the imagination through a complete shift in lifestyle and perspective. Yet, if fiction is ‘honest’ about the lives it charts, and by that I don’t mean literal realism, but a capturing of the essence of the lives depicted, Bharati Mukherjee’s writing (in the novels Desirable Daughters and Jasmine) shows the reader perhaps that those who flee the furthest actually have travelled the least. The same parameters and the male gaze still bound the women: only, they now have the critical apparatus of thought to realise their limitations and boundaries and chafe against them. Women who seek real independence are reminded to be ‘thankful’ for the ‘liberal’ husbands and lifestyles they have access to. They still perform the same subjugated, circumscribed, sometimes essentially decorative roles: but the subjugation is now more subtle. Perhaps not all that much has changed.
Yet the very fact that these books are being written, and more importantly, published and read is perhaps an indicator of the times. However, the very process of achieving publication means some kind of pandering to public ‘taste’: which in the crudest of terms could be called playing along to the perpetuation of stereotypes. And this is where the ethical dilemma of the female writer writing about other women whose fictional trajectories bear a resemblance to actual journeys and struggles comes in. Ought she range alongside these women, or distance herself from them, a choice of being representative, or an exception? And what does the choice to write about ‘them’ or ‘us’ say about the actual changes wrought by transnational migration?