In her 1925 essay ‘How Should One Read a Book’, Virginia Woolf advises, “to follow your own instinct, to use your own reasons, to come to your own conclusions.” To take this advice would make reading a little bit lonely, because when you’re bawling your eyes out at Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s love, a love you’ve wished would be reciprocated for the last couple of hundred pages, you need another reader’s shoulder, you need friendly eyes to say, “Yes. I know. I understand.”
The ten selected writers of Breaking the Bracket, a feminist writing program hosted by Quixote’s Cove, often shared these compassionate looks, along with some sighs, some laughter, and a lot of “You go girl!” while reading pieces by Adichie, Watkins, and many others. We read Adichie’s “The danger of a single story” because all the stories that we had read in our formative years were of a singular way of thinking, written by similar kinds of authors. They were incomplete stories, and in attempting to break the mold, it was important for us to expose ourselves to multitudes of stories. We read Watkins’ “On Pandering”, because our attempts to tell our own stories had oft times been taken as pandering to the society. We also learned from feminists closer to home, who helped us navigate the uncharted waters of feminism in the Nepali context. We met Dr. Amina Singh, a university professor and researcher, Ashmina Ranjit, a conceptual artist based in Kathmandu, and Sareena Rai, the lead singer for Rai ko Ris.
We chose these pieces and people with respect to the authors who have shaped our feminism, whose pieces have fed into our idea of what feminism is. We read them to feel understood, to bolster our own ideas, and ultimately, choose the stories we were going to tell.
All this we did over a couple of hours every weekend, all of us being working women, inside the quiet workshop space at Quixote Cove bookshop, or any other free space that could handle our intense, introspective conversations. We once ended up at the falcha in the middle of the Pimbahal pond, at the cozy terrace of Kaalo.101, an art gallery that welcomes all creatives, and empty restaurants around Kathmandu, but all roads eventually led back to Quixote’s Cove: this was where we convened as writers. There, our only problems were the boundless choices of what to read and what to write about. For a couple of hours, we were women beyond the reach of societal expectations. We were literary beings and no one, not even us ourselves, could contest that.
This is not to say that we were not literary beings in our daily lives. We all read, we all wrote but outside Quixote’s Cove, the title of ‘writer’ would follow the unnecessary prefix of aspiration. The outside world of literature was a male dominated space. But within our little group, the world of literature was ours to keep and do with it what we pleased. And we did just that.
We vented our frustrations regarding the books we were reading and gushed over the books we fell in love with. We followed our instincts, used our own reasons and came to our own conclusions, but then shared all these thoughts with each other because here were a group of people who understood the struggles of being a woman and being a writer: both of which left us with volumes of existential crises.
Looking back, I cannot tell what triggered these crises and what resolved them. There were times when womanly struggles mixed with the writerly ones and became this khichidi of frustrations that got us helplessly laughing for minutes on end. We were supposed to write feminism as we understood it – and our understandings of feminism weren’t all of a piece. There were so many things to choose from that for the longest time we could not choose at all. Some of us struggled with representation- we wanted to bring out and defend the culture that we grew up with at the center of our pieces, while others wanted to question it. Some of us wanted to start conversations around the double standards of gender, while others wanted to write love stories because feminism also means freedom to love whatever and whoever it is that we love.
Each topic, each idea felt better and at the same time worse than the last one. The only constant through our struggles was our sense of community that made every single thought and insecurity felt understood and empathized with. Through readings, residencies and discussions, we bled onto our papers and screens the stories of our choices.
Even though there was no real reason for it, we felt insecure about our first drafts. On the days our first drafts were to be discussed, our hearts clogged our throats and we croaked more than read out loud the pieces we’d started to hate, until the influx of compliments and feedback shifted the ownership of the piece from one single individual to the larger group. In a way, these stories were like puppies one adopts despite the surety of backlash from the family only to find the family loving it more than anything in the world.
But then in the second phase of the program, it was time to train the little beings. We were assigned mentors- badass Nepali women writers who have aced the arts, and for the first time in our lives (for most of us) we were being addressed and treated like writers. We spent long hours discussing our stories. Before we knew it, these stories existed beyond our minds and beyond that one room full of books at Quixote’s Cove. The characters we had written down were no longer extensions of ourselves but had lives, minds of their own. We were encouraged to think like our characters, walk like them, to follow their footsteps and justify the decisions they made. After all, every action in a story needs logic. We were shown the mistakes we were making and were constantly asked to be diligent, to find ways to become better writers than we were. After all, every character needs a character arc.
All the characters starring in our stories and the journeys they took became emblematic of our own growth. As we prepared to set wings to these parts of ourselves, the fictional women became a part of our identities. When my character, Namya, stopped being afraid of her tormentor, we cheered. When Nikita’s Aparna made a mistake, we empathized. When Rita’s Chhyama completely wrecked our hearts, we lent each other tissues and smiled because we understood.
Ritu Rajbanshi is a researcher at Quixote’s Cove and a writer. Her articles can be found on the Kathmandu Post.
Breaking the Bracket is an annual feminist writing program hosted by Quixote’s Cove for women and gender non-binary writers.