I across the boundaries: a feminist approach to the study of three American and three Indian (Marathi) autobiographies written by women

Tags: autobiography, Virginia Foster Durr, literary world, Smriti Chitre, chapter deals, Pearl S. Butjk, Laxmibai Tilak, Women's Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, sociological study, Foster Durr, socialist feminist, the Magic Circle, Pearl S. Buck, Durga Khote, Indian society, women's writing, cross-cultural examination, feminist theories, boundaries, Critical interest, Kamal Padhye, feminist literary criticism, Indian women, historical place, feminist standpoint, Marian Anderson
Content: ABSTRACT Although the autobiography has been in existence for long; ^^ ^^ only in the twentieth century that this unique literary discourse has flo^shed. critical interest in this genre started even later, only in the late 19?^^Theory and criticism of women's autobiography is even more rece*^*'~^^®*y ^ decade old. Thus a lot needs to be done in thisfieldand it is as yef ^^^^^ ^^ unexplored territory. The study of autobiography has been sought to be confined within several boundaries- boundaries of class, culture, nationality, gend^^ ^^^ ^^^^ genre. But the very nature of autobiography has ensured that it es^^P^^ *^^ confining criteria chalked out for it by the "masters". The focus of this study will be a look at autobiographies at^^^s the cultural i.e. the East-West boundary. Since the approach towards i^^ examination is feminist, and the autobiographies come from difFer^*^^ economic and social groups, it is also a look across the social and topological boundary. Three American and three Marathi autobiographies wri^^ ^y women have been selected for a closer examination. This kind of ^ crosscultural examination, involving American and Marathi autobiograP"*®^ ^ ^ using the feminist literary approach, has not been attempted before- ^^^ "^^® the individual autobiographies been examined in such det^ befor^- ^^^ thesis thus hopes to break new ground in the area of autobiography"^^^^®^-
Each of the six books selected for this thesis is discussed in a separate chapter. By including the Introduction and the Conclusion the thesis is thus divided into eight chapters. The first chapter is the Introduction which discusses the late entry of Autobiography into the literary canon. The autobiography as a genre and its slippery nature, its frequent escape from a confining categorisation and the various attempts by critics, all male, to restrict the boundaries of Autobiography is discussed. The four models of difference that theories of women's writing presently make use of are given in detail, viz. biological, linguistic, psychoanalytic and cuhural criticism. The Introduction also makes clear the fact that since there is not one but several feminist theories, this thesis will not adhere to a particular feministframeworkbut will borrow from all the relevant feminist theories. Just as the boundaries of feminist literary criticism are ever-changing and defying restriction, the boundaries of autobiographical writing are also straining against fixity. The relevance of doing a cross-cultural examination of women's autobiography is elaborated. The Introduction stresses that in the process of making interpretive statements about foreign cultures, dichotomising and restructuring are inevitable. Studying other cultures and learning about their experiences teaches us that the "other" (in my case the "Westerner") is not so removed from "us" after ail. The Introduction throws up some important questions that need to be examined : What are some of the similarities and differences / u between the three Marathi autobiographies chosen for analysis? Has the form ffi)
of the autobiography changed over the years? Are the three Marathi autobiographies different in any way from the three American autobiographies? In wliat way are the three American autobiographies similar to and different from each other? Are there major differences acj-oss the East-West divide? The Introduction also gives in brief the summary of each chapter which is to follow. The second chapter deals with Pearl S. Buck's My Several Worldc- A Personal Record. What is apparent in this autobiography is Pearl S. Butjk's H constant attempt to dissociate herselffromher identity as a "woman" ancj to portray herself as a "world citizen" i.e. in a genderless, neutral role of th^ "Scholar-Gypsy". Pearl S. Buck's rather chequered personal life was led on Aerown terras; She hibes tAis reariessness in My Sfeverai' ^bnbV ana* gi'ves us an autobiography that is evasive, tangential and deliberately impersonal. Pearl S. Buck, by her very success in the literary world, had challenged the male hegemony. In addition, she was not considered even a "proper" American. She wrote novels about an alien culture and had an Eastern sensibility. These two factors contributed to her remaining an "outsider" in the literary world of America. Her defensiveness, which is apparent in My Several Worlds prevented herfromwriting an open,frankautobiography with an assertive, strong "I" at the centre. My Several Worlds defies the 'WJtion of the autobiography as a confessional ideal and represents the evasiveness of women autobiographers of an earlier era, especially wom^n who were spectacularly successful in their fields. On;
The third chapter deals with Marian Anderson's autobiography My Lord. What a Morning. Marian Anderson has become famous in history as thefirstBlack to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Her autobiography would have us believe however that this is not the way she would like to be remembered. She reiterates in My Lord. What a Morning that she was a reluctant "s5anbol". Her fidelity lies with her music,.not with any causes. She too, like Pearl S. Buck, wishes to transcend the Self and be known only through the excellence of her music. She seeks no concessions on account of her colour or her gender. What is noteworthy about this autobiography is the fact that Marian Anderson describes herself almost entirely on the basis of her music and her public persona. Marian Anderson identified entirely with the phallocentric status quo. With great effort and by keeping a low profile on racial matters Marian Anderson had moved to the centre of the musical establishment &om the margins. She wishes to dissociate herself from this or that cause and the politically correct, conciliatory and non-combative tone of her autobiography reflects this attitude. In this respect, it is not a feminist text at all. The fourth chapter analyses Virginia Foster Durr's Outside the Magic Circle. This book is differentfi-omall the other autobiographies because this is the only one that is a transcriptionfromoral interviews conducted with Virginia Foster Durr as part of the Oral History Programme (SOHP) at the University of North Carolina. The institutionalising of a woman's life story indicates the growing influence and importance of the female signature. It Civ;
also indicates the multiplicity of narrative strategies adopted especially by women autobiographers. A study of such an autobiography pushes the frontiers of autobiographical research even further. Outside the Magic Circle is writtenfroma position that is self-confessedly feminist. Virginia Foster Durr was, what can be called a "socialist feminist". She regarded the Women's Movement and the Civil Rights Movement as interlinked and she was in the forefront of both these movements. Virginia Foster Durr describes everything in terms of her public life. This may be partly because this was a sociological study carried out as part of afiindedprogramme and partly because in the case of Vu-ginia Foster Durr herself the Private and the Public had long become enmeshed. The fifth chapter analyses the famous Marathi autobiography by Laxmibai Tilak- Smriti Chitre. Ironically, this well-known autobiography was undertaken by Laxmibai Tilak not as her own story but as a kind of biography of her husband. Midway, Laxmibai Tilak also decided to fit it in the Puritan confessional mould. But Smriti Chitre defies all such categorisation and becomesfinallya tale of one woman's search for autonomy. Smriti Chitre can be said to belong to the "feminine" phase of autobiographical women's writing in Marathi in which the female "subculture" is secret,ritualised,characterised by intemalisation and selfcensorship. Smriti Chitre conforms, outwardly at least, to the patriarchal framework given by the "masters". However, a closer reading of the text proves that Laxmibai Tilak was an instinctive feminist, unaware though she <.v>
may have been of the term. Smriti Chitre is replete with instances of shared sisterhood and acts of courage by women. This single piece of literary work moved Laxmibai Tilakfromthe margins of the Marathi literary fraternity right into the centre. Its chronicling of the life of an average Maharashtrian woman at the begirming of this century isfrankbut laced with humour and this has ensured for Smriti Chitre a permanent place in the canon. An analysis of Mee-Durga Khote comprises the next chapter. Durga Khote brought respectability to the profession of acting while herself keeping her image blemish-free. By the standards ofthattime{1930s)shehad certainly stepped outside the magic circle. She was an exception by all counts-- a woman celebrity in an age when success was the prerogative of men. How did a woman, independently famous and wealthy, and not parasitically so because of her father or her husband, handle success in the pre-feminism era? Her autobiography reveals the answer. Durga Khote was a child of her times. In her autobiography she chronicles not the rewards of j successfiil professional life but rather its hidden costs on the personal front. The strict distinction that Durga Khote made between her public and private lives is reflected textually in the form of her autobiography. She clearly places her sense of self in her identity as a daughter and mother. Unlike Marian Anderson, who concentrates only on her professional life in her autobiography, Durga Khote in her autobiography portrays herself as a "good" Indian woman who prioritises her family over everything else, especially her professional success. Lv»>
The next chapter discusses Bandh-Anubandh. In a closely argued Introduction, the author explains why she has undertaken to write her autobiography and the feminist standpoint that she has chosen through a bold and defiant examination of her own Intimate Relationships. Kamal Padhye scrutinises the close, almost claustrophobic kinship ties in the Indian society that can become oppressive and place major obstacles in the search for an individual identity and autonomy. Fully conscious of the sanctity in the Indian society of the very ties she speaks against, Kamal Padhye has written a text that is close to being subversive in articulating literally the feminist slogan of "The Personal is Political". The last chapter is the conclusion that states that the basiC Difference \ i^ in the autobiographies of the three American and three Indian women arose due to cultural variety, and the historical place of the autobiography in their specific cultures. The three American Women tend to use the autobiography more as a social document while the three Indian women use the autobiography as a literature of the Self. There is also a change in the handling of the autobiographical genre over the years. We see in the autobiographies of Kamal Padhye and Virginia Foster Durr an intermingling of the private and public selves. They also show a greater willingness to experiment with the standard framework of the autobiographical genre. However, such evolutionist conclusions should not blind us to the uniqu* historical specificity and narrative strategies used variously by the six women. Hopefully, this study will throw more light on the variety of Qvil)
women's voices that had hitherto been marginalised or excludedfromthe canon. At the threshold of the Twentieth Century we confront a world which is becoming a big Global Village but also a village where each group is becoming more aware of its own special quality, its unique feature. A study of women's autobiography that spans the Twentieth Century and straddles the globe will make us more aware of therichliterary inheritance left to us by our mothers. (vi|!;

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