Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul speaks in New Delhi, India in 2005. The famed writer recently told The Guardian he did not think that any woman writer could be his literary match.
Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul speaks in New Delhi, India in 2005. The famed writer recently told The Guardian he did not think that any woman writer could be his literary match. Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of five award-winning books, including the forthcoming novel Birds of Paradise.
Dear V.S. Naipaul:
You recently remarked, "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."
I was sad to read this, to realize that you're apparently unable to think beyond schoolyard rankings and peevish comparisons, that you're incapable of recognizing grace and power from unexpected and unfamiliar places, such as a woman's experience.
But what worries me more is your comment that that women write with "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world," because, "inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too."
Your use of the word "master," is chilling. My father's family is from a part of the world that has been colonized and conquered many times over. For many Jordanians, education and literacy has come in the form of British schools and the English language: but can anyone claim that the colonized subject is the master of his or her own home?
My Palestinian grandmother, who was most decidedly the master of her house, amassed a great library: She collected books, some written in Arabic, many in English. But she told me that one of the best authors she knew of was a poet, a Bedouin woman named Hanan.
Hanan recited her poetry: she didn't know how to read and write, but she knew how to observe, detail and describe her experience. She knew how to feel deeply and then how to convey those feelings so they kindled within the minds of the listeners.
Perhaps, Naipaul, that is what you mean when you said women write with "sentimentality." Though it seems to me that this kind of sentiment would not be such a terrible thing.
To me, the Bedu are masters of their houses because they don't live in houses. Hanan slept in the fields with her animals and lived at the edge of a campfire. And I hope you'll forgive me for this terribly sentimental image, but before they began to give up their Nomadic life, the Bedouins, male or female, could not be contained, dispossessed or colonized: they were, truly, the masters of their own experience.
Diana Abu-Jaber teaches at Portland State University.
But Hanan's poetry is not written anywhere, so I can't offer it to you for your evaluation.
Still, I would hope that someone like yourself, a Trinidadian of Indian descent, from a nation intimately familiar with colonization, would recognize the master's old tricks of suppressing and denigrating those whose voices and perspectives might challenge the ruling order.
But it is the ruler's imperative to keep himself in power, to diminish and erase the voices of his subjects. History is, of course, written by the winners.
But I won't invoke terms like self-loathing or selective blindness or arrogance. In the end, of course, I don't really expect to convince you of anything: obviously I couldn't, I'm only a woman.