Well known for her frankness, Dr. Sarojini Sahoo is a prime figure and trendsetter of feminism in contemporary Oriya literature. For her feminism is not a gender problem or any confrontational attack on male hegemony. She accepts feminism as a total entity of femalehood, which is completely separate from the man's world. She writes with a greater consciousness of women bodies, which would create a more honest and appropriate style of openness, fragmentation and non-linearity. Her fictions always project a feminine sensibility from puberty to menopause. The feminine feelings like restrictions in the adolescence, the pregnancy, the fear factors like being raped or being condemned by society and the concept of a bad girl etc always have the thematic exposure in her novels and short stories. More details on her are available in her profile.
Here Jaydeep Sarangi engages her in a conversation.
Jaydeep Sarangi : Good Morning! How do you feel about being interviewed by critics?
Sarojini Sahoo : Good morning Jaydeep. Thanks that you have chosen me for interview. For me, being interviewed is a very common. I have been facing interviewers from the beginning of my career and now I have hundreds of such interviews. So, I am not feeling 'awkward' or uncomfortable being interviewed by you.
J.S. How did you come to writing?
S.S: I started my writing from my teen age. Actually, I was in love with Jagadish who later became a trendsetter in Oriya literature and also was my husband. He inspired me to write and initially he was my mentor in literature. It is another fact that later, I diverged myself from his school of thought.
J.S: Which is your first text?
S.S: It is a short story in Oriya, titled Abashesh o Abashosh, a story on a Marxian concept and was published in the literary supplement of a daily magazine The Prajatantra in 1971. Those days, literary supplement of that leading daily was quite significant for readers and writers. I was a high school girl at that time.
J.S. Are you a bilingual writer? Do you think bilingualism is a 'virtue?'
S.S: Language can never be a virtue. We need language to express ourselves. I can't express anything creative in another language besides my own mother tongue. But I feel comfortable to express my critical appraisals in English.
There are few writers/poets like Manoj Das and Jayanta Mohapatra who can write in both Oriya and English. I don't find anything wrong in their expression. It is a question of one's own choice and skill. They are, I feel, sincere in their writing and language never is a barrier for either of them.
J.S: How are your works, marked by feminist iconoclasm, received by men?
S.S: It is the critics who mark my writings feminist. If you ask me, I would say they are rather 'humanist.' My writings are always appreciated by male readers as well as female readers. One thing I have noted, a large majority of my readers are male but it is not essential for a man to be feminist to appreciate my writing. However, he should not be a misogynist.
J.S: What are your major literary influences?
S.S: When a writer writes, he/she never keeps a literary theory in mind. The writer writes to express himself/herself. Literary theory comes later. The critics find or create a literary theory in that writing. In my early days, I was influenced by existentialism. Rather you can say the influence of Jagadish is what made me 'existentialist.' It is sort of amusing that I was a follower of Jagadish before my marriage to him and after our marriage; I found he did not have much influence on my writing. I think this is a very common and a fact.
Now I don't know what literary theory I am using. I don't want to categorise for my writings. I am writing on the lives of my surroundings; the experiences I have had in my lifetime; my nostalgic feelings; my emotions; my sentimental involvements; and particularly, my ideas on people, society, states, laws and others. Do these ideas bear any literary theory? I don't know. I don't want to know because in writing a creative work, I don't want to see myself as a critic.
J.S: Why do you write?
S.S: To express myself. I am not a good speaker. I feel myself very introverted and uncomfortable when communicating in a verbal medium. I can write and I find fiction as the most suitable mode to express my feelings.
J.S: What are the major themes of your novels?
S.S: This is interesting that the themes of my novels always differ from one another. I have never written two novel on the same theme. It is also amazing to know that all my novels are not feminist and in some of my novels, you find many gender-neutral themes.
In my next novel (to be published in October, 2009), you find the protagonist will be a male and the female characters will have minor roles in the novel.
Actually, to be a feminist, if I am a feminist at all, and to be a writer are two different jobs. You can identify a writer as a feminist or as a misogynist, but these are not sufficient to make any one a writer. A misogynist like James Joyce may be a good writer. But I always prefer to paint the voice of my soul in my novels and as I am a female, my writings always bear a feminine voice.
J.S: Do you prefer writing in your mother tongue or in English?
S.S: I have told you earlier that I feel free to write my creative works in Oriya and my critical appraisals in English.
J.S: Who are other contemporary women writers from Orissa writing in their native language?
S.S: There are currently thousands of women writers in the field. Some of them are writing well. But naming them is not possible because if inadvertently I skip any one's name, she may feel hurt or insulted. So it is wise to skip naming. But the writings of women in Oriya are stronger than that of their male counterparts.
J.S: Are there any autobiographical references in your works?
S.S: I myself am present in all the characters of my novels. You know, writing is a very complicated process. Unless a writer has entered into a character, he/she could not write about that character. The writer has to live inside the character and has to see the other from his side. So, in a sense, you can feel my presence, my feelings, and my experiences in my writings but on the other hand, they are never mine; they couldn't be mine.
J.S: Did you read Taslima Nasrin and Kamala Das? How do you rate them?
S.S: Taslima seems to be more of a conventional feminist to me and she has a similar mindset of the Western Second Wave feminists. She is more anti-heterosexual in her beliefs.
But Kamala Das is unique in her feminine ideas. Actually, I feel Kamala Das did not belong to any school of feminists. What her soul needed was love. Despite her lesbian experiences, she was for heterosexual love and I don't find such hatred in her feelings for heterosexual relationships as in Taslima's works.
They write what they feel is right. If anyone has any differences with them, nobody bars him to write of his own. But to make it a point of controversy and I think, to make the administration to punish the writer, is a most wild and uncivilised democratic process. Who I am to rate them? Let the readers judge.
I think if Taslima were born in India, she would not have to face such controversies. For me, I find Kamala's feelings closer than those of Taslima. But it is my very, very personal and individual opinion and you shouldn't generalise it.
J.S: Do you have any target audience in mind when you write?
S.S: No. I write for my muse and while writing, I continue talking with myself. Writing for me is a monologue and there is no place for a second or third person. Only when I go for submission do I think about the readers.
J.S: You baffle us with your frank and candid expression of truth of woman space…How do you look at it?
S.S: I have told you earlier that you could hear the feminine voice as all the writings come from the core of my heart as the voice of my soul. And also I have told you that writing for me is a monologue and it is talking with myself. Is there any restriction, limitation, or shame to unlock anyone in front of one's own self? While I write, I remain in a virtual alienation and that makes me to open a woman's heart more truthfully.
J.S.: Do you consider your text as 'body?'
S.S: Body? This question may be approached from different angles. Frankly speaking, talking about sex always does not explore bodily needs. What do you say about 'hunger?' Is it not associated with bodily needs as well? And suppression of sex? It is also a 'bodily affair.'
'Body' has wider meanings, but some critics make it related to sex only. Do those who imply restrictions on food for female mass are not related to bodily affairs? In our society, the 'female body' is always separated from that of the male. There are restrictions and limitations for 'female bodies.' Their food habits, their clothing, their movements are always separated from those of men. The discrimination is that society does not imply any restrictions or regulations on male bodies and all restrictions are meant for female bodies only. Are not these all bodily affairs? Moreover, I am not for any vulgarity or obscenity. You never find any vulgar descriptions in my writings. What I am for is a 'women's body; women's right' proclamation.
J.S: You edit at Indian Age. How do find your job as an editor?
S.S: I have a minor role at Indian Age as an editor. I have to edit the stuffs related to literature only. I also use to write a regular special column there.
J.S: Are you satisfied with criticism on Indian writing in English? Who do you consider the so-called major critics?
S.S: I am not seriously aware of any criticism or of any critics. Though some of our critics' views appear to me more conventional and Western-centric than having an Indic orientation. I don't think I am wise to make comments on this.
J.S: Do you read literary theory? Do you consider that the Eurocentric model can describe Indian writing in English suitably?
S.S: As a teacher of graduate students, I have to read and teach literary theories. These are only a technical format to fit a text into a critical framework. As for creativity, it remains far behind the writer's real motto. Yes, these theories are brought from the West but frankly speaking, modern Indian literature is more a product of colonial impact.
The beginning of short stories; the starting of free verse in poems; the first attempt of novel writings in Indian languages -- all are the product of English education and are influenced by Eurocentric literature. The traditional Indian literary theories of Kavyas are outdated from our literature. I think, there is also no need of returning back to our past. You can't rotate the wheel of time in a negative direction. When Eurocentric formats of literature are acceptable, how can you bar the Eurocentric literary theories?
J.S: How do you read Universal Male Sexual Sadism?
S.S: Sexual sadism is not only related to BDSM activities. In Indian society, it prevails in every aspect. It is related to control a woman's body. In cases of selecting the method of family planning, tubectomy is preferred to vasectomy though the later is less complicated. Even now chastity belt is used in some parts of Rajasthan.
You must have seen the widows at the pilgrimage places, wearing white 'dhoti', trimming their long hairs and depending on one-time vegetarian meals. The only sin they have committed is that their husbands have died and the society thinks they are due to sins committed in previous birth. If any one becomes a widower, it has not been considered his sin, but in the case of a female, the ethical values alter. Can't you say this is a type of sadism related to woman's body?
There are many faces of male sexual sadism. It does not always have to be linked with physical attacks. It may be of a socio-psycho-economic and political nature. Let us consider different types of sadism.
Racism is one which is related to social sadism. A young Indian boy is against racism of Europe but when he goes to choose his bride, he looks for the white-skinned girl. Do you think that is any different from racism? A black-skinned boy also needs a fair-skinned bride. Here, racism has a masculine nature. I have been constantly describing this sexual sadism in my blogs.
J.S: Do you consider male / female as a biological divide?
S.S: Yes, I think so. I differ to Simon de Beauvoir in her 'Other' theory where she tells us that 'one is not born but rather, becomes a woman'. I think a woman is born as a woman. There are inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women. And we affirm and celebrate these differences as wonderful and complementary. These differences do not evidence the superiority of one sex over the other but rather, serve to show that each sex is complemented and made stronger by the presence of the other. As a different unit, similar to man, the female mass has their right for equity.
J.S: Do you consider yourself a radical feminist?
S.S: First of all do you think am I a feminist? I am never against marriage and motherhood as the Western feminists of second wave projected themselves. I am neither pleading for a patriarchal or a matriarchal society. I am never for replacing the matriarchal society with patriarchal one. What I want is a gender-neutral society. I am for a woman's existence with all her 'feminine-fragrance' as a different 'genus' or 'species' with her complete 'generosity.'
J.S: What is the future of confessional writings in India?
S.S: Your question sounds very conventional. What do you mean by saying 'confessional writing?' Is it a semi-biographical novel? If we read a novel, somewhere you may notice the presence of writer's thoughts and experiences. I have told you that writing is a very complicated process and the involvement of a writer's self within the characters is an invisible paradigm for the readers. Hence, it is categorized semi-autobiographical and is not a virtual topic.
J.S: Like Nilangshu, may I ask you, is not this candid and frank portrayal of female body anti-woman?
S.S: Anti-heterosexual ideas were developed in feminism under the banner of the anti-pornography movement. It is believed that sex always remains as the center of a feminist explanation of women's oppression and these ideas lead the feminists to go far away from heterosexual relationships.
In around seventies, we found that most of the feminists either were lesbians or were unmarried because of their anti-heterosexual feelings. But later in eighties, the "Feminist Sex Wars" started a controversy among feminists whether by supporting anti sex ideas, feminists are going to support the tools of oppression of women used by patriarchal society or not.
I think there are two rights women lack. One is a financial right and another is a bodily right. For the right of a woman over her own body, sexual freedom is an essential component. Financial empowerment is not the only achievement. There must be right over own body for a female.
J.S: You are a known blogger for your ideas in feminism and have gained worldwide fame. Your blogs are SENSE & SENSUALITY, FEMININE-FRAGRANCE and INDIA>. How do you use modern technology to the maximum?
S.S: I don't know more about the technical specifics, I only know how to write and post the blogging. Once my husband added some widgets to my blog. That's all. But I feel lucky whenever I post a new blogging the readers appreciate it with their comments.
I got overwhelmed when Linda Lowen, an editor at the women's guide About.com, a web portal of the New York Times, asked me for an interview. Later, my blogs were linked with Ron Sillimon's blog, 'The Sketch Book,' and in 'Writers in the Sky' and similar Western websites. I haven't asked for any of this to happen!
J.S: Any immediate wish?
S.S: To write a masterpiece.
J.S:Thank you very much for sharing your views .
S.S: My pleasure!