Why do we bother to write?

by Roanna Gonsalves


Photo by Aman Ravi


A few days ago, the National Human Rights Commission in India noted the suspicious deaths, over the course of a decade, of 500 indigenous (tribal) girls in government-run Ashram schools in the state of Maharashtra, India. In Australia we heard that a white supremacist was stockpiling weapons with the intention of carrying out a mass shooting in a shopping centre on the Central Coast of New South Wales. On the 26th of January, Invasion Day / Survival Day / Australia Day 2017, a group of concerned citizens issued statements condemning the physical and psychic violence perpetrated by the police upon Ms Dhu, a 22 year old indigenous woman who was ill, just before she died in police custody in 2014. She was jailed for the crime of holding unpaid fines amounting to a total of $3622. All of this happened before Trump’s chilling ban on the immigration of people from seven Muslim countries, before a terrorist killed six and injured many more in a Quebec mosque, and while the glaciers have been melting our futures away


In the face of such urgent issues that are felt most tragically by those with the least privilege, and that touch us all to a greater or lesser extent, the act of writing fiction can seem frivolous, self-indulgent, irresponsible at worst, a hobby at best. Since the publication of my book, The Permanent Resident (UWAP 2016), I’ve been thrilled and humbled by the generosity and warmth with which it has been received. Yet I’ve felt uneasy about all the years I spent developing my writing practice, and writing this book, time which could / should have been spent on more useful endeavours or at least working in a day job that would provide financial stability for my family, like a good migrant. I know from talking with other writers in India and Australia, that this is something that many grapple with. Why do we bother to write?


We can’t live off writing fiction alone. Literature, the work that writers do, is enmeshed within emotional, social, political, religious, economic, legal, scientific, and philosophical activities, the stuff of life itself. Yet most writers are unable to earn a living from writing fiction, as I discussed in a post for Southerly called ‘The double lives of writers’. As the 8th century Chinese poet Wang Fan-chih notes,

Economic capital, usually earned outside of the labour of writing fiction, sustains writers. But the time spent earning it eats away at the time meant for literature, for developing one’s writing practice.


Then, it takes us a long time to own the title of ‘writer’. Although many of us think of ourselves as writers from a very early age, there is often reluctance to feel comfortable calling oneself “a writer”. It feels grand, often too grand, says our inner critic. After all, the issues of who is allowed to publish the figments of their imagination, who is allowed to breathe life into a nation’s imaginings, who is allowed to be called a writer, are often gendered and then bound by the systemic straps of class, caste, and ethnic privilege. As the poem ‘My students’ by Eunice de Souza goes,

The decision to name oneself a writer is tentatively taken, usually only when we feel our work is legitimized by the prestige of publication or the conferral of a literary prize. Often, this is because the act of calling oneself a writer in public is also shackled with the idea of labour being valid only if you can earn money or recognition from it.


Why, under such circumstances, do I bother writing, I ask myself time and time again. Then I remember the long tradition of women writing for millennia in the face of the critical issues of their times, viscerally felt, burning on higher stakes. Here are some beacons in our shared literary history that stand out for me because of the way they have responded to the urgent issues of their own milieux, not through ascetic or defeatist withdrawal from creative practice, but through a creative practice that locks horns, bumps heads, jumps fences, erases borders and engages with the writer’s public and private worlds.


There is the corpus, only a fraction of which has survived, of the women poets creating work over two millennia ago, whose names we don’t know, yet whose words sparkle defiantly in the Gathasaptasati, as I wrote in another post for the Southerly blog, Tracing body-and-bloodlines.


There is the poet Akkamahadevi, writing in the Kannada language in the 12th century in India, who says,


Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha tell us that, according to legend, Akkamahadevi wandered naked across Karnataka in India, shunning human lovers , defiant against men who molest her and misunderstand her quest, in search of her divine lover, composing poetry to him. For Akkamahadevi, the quest for the divine is not to be undertaken through ascetic withdrawal, but through grappling with “the fullness of life’s pleasures”. They note, “her work embodies a radical illegitimacy as she struggles in her poetry to go beyond much of virasaiva poetry to include the struggles of her body, struggles against the pettiness of roles she is forced into as a woman, struggles against a man who is also a prince and a Jain, and against the social expectations that restrain her.”


There is Krupabai Satthianadhan who wrote Kamala: the Story of a Hindu Child-Wife (1894), considered the first novel in the English language written by an Indian woman. For Satthianandhan’s protagonist, the seclusion of a room of one’s own is the corner of her mother-in-law’s room that is darkest. It is not a space that is essential to the process of creation but an oppressive space [i]. Writing against prescriptive patriarchal and imperialist spatial frameworks and stereotypes, Satthianandhan creates a nuanced understanding of space – domestic space, public gender-segregated space, wild space, in which women live and work.


There are the contemporary Tamil poets Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi, and Sukirtharani. Their work shares a concern with a woman’s relationship with her body as it intersects with class, caste and religion, the politics of sexuality. In 2004, they attracted the ire of a group of men and women in Tamil Nadu because their work was supposedly obscene and immodest. These women, writing at a time of resurgent Tamil chauvinism, were threatened and vilified in public in 21st century urban India. As the eminent writer and translator Lakshmi Holmstrom notes in her Introduction to Wild Girls Wicked Words (Sangam House & Kalachuvadu Publications, 2012), “The poets received abusive letters from individuals as well as literary organisations. The media had a field day. A popular song writer for films gave a much publicised interview to a literary journal condemning women writers in general. This was followed by another film-song writer, Snehithan, who appeared on television declaring that these women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive.” One of the poets threatened with such violence, Kutti Revathi, was in trouble not least because of her poem “Breasts” which begins with the following lines:


The entire poem can be heard in one of the programs in my four-part radio documentary series On the tip of a billion tongues (ABC, Earshot, 2015).


The work and life choices of all these women across millennia suggest that they bothered writing not from the presumptuous and sometimes offensive speaking position of giving “the marginalised” a voice, nor just out of believing that art is defiance or resistance. Their work seems to suggest that somehow the act of artistic creation is a record of the creation of the creator and the created as she contends with the world, a becoming of a self that is entwined with yet different from the money-self, the mother-self, and all the other selves that may be economically rationalised. The act of artistic creation is a release, like laughter, for the giver and often for the receiver. The act of artistic creation is irrational, outside of the world of rows and columns that can be made to neatly add up. It is the breath of human longing and fulfillment, shaped by each artist’s hand, word, voice, offering slow and rich release into spaces too big to be contained by the measureable world, offering respite, offering enchantment, offering empathy, and yes, even a little bit of illumination in these dark times.


That is why the act of writing is worth the bother.



[1]   See Ellen Brinks (2008) “Gendered Spaces in Kamala: The Story of a Hindu Child-Wife”, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 30.2, 147-165: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08905490802212433


Roanna Gonsalves is the author of The Permanent Resident a collection of short fiction published by UWAP in November 2016. Her series of radio documentaries entitled On the tip of a billion tongues, was commissioned and first broadcast by Earshot, ABC RN in November and December 2015. It is an acerbic socio-political portrayal of contemporary India through its multilingual writers. She received the Prime Minister’s Endeavour Award 2013, and is co-founder co-editor of Southern Crossings. She has a PhD from the University of New South Wales. For more information see roannagonsalves.com.au