Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 6, 1995

Third World Women Writers Display Talent, Spark Controversy

By Lisa Mastny

     What do you do when you have growing collections of Third
World literature written by women who may be well-known in their
own countries but are virtually unheard of abroad?  
     For Susanna Pathak, Resource Services librarian for English,
German and comparative literatures at the Milton S. Eisenhower
Library, the answer is simple.
     "Put them on display," she said. "Exhibit the writings and
make them prominent in the cases."  
     Which is exactly what she did.  Together with Elizabeth
Kirk, Resource Services librarian for Romance languages and
literatures, Pathak spent the last year and a half  preparing for
the exhibit "Women Writers of the Third World: Body/Text/
     Currently on display through April 30 on M-Level, the
exhibit highlights the library's growing collection of works by
contemporary women writers from Southeast Asia, the Middle East,
Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
     "We thought the Third World would be an area people would
like to know about," Kirk said.  "In the U.S., we tend to be more
isolated from world authors because we already have such a rich
literature of our own.  What many people don't realize is that
these writers have the same richness and variety of experience
that we do, if not more."  
      The women represented in the exhibit come from diverse
personal backgrounds, with many holding professional degrees in
such fields as law, journalism and medicine, in addition to being
prominent authors. Several of them have left their native
countries to work elsewhere, including Lebanese writer Evelyne
Accad, who currently teaches Francophone and African Studies at
the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Also on exhibit
is the work of Flora Nwapa, the first African woman to have
written a book in English. 
      "It is easy for the world, especially the First World, to
assume that the Third World wouldn't have the same level of
intellectual achievement, but this is just not true," Kirk said.
"These women writers read a great deal, are self-consciously
literary and are often more aware than those of our own
     Reflecting the focus of the exhibit--body, text and
politics--the literature on display covers a wide variety of
primarily feminist themes, such as the role of religion in
contemporary sexual practices and the political oppression of
women in a rigid society.  The numerous excerpts from narratives,
conversations and poetry were carefully selected to represent the
authentic voices of the writers.
     "We wanted to present something really distilled, that
illustrates what the writer wants to say and that reveals
information about the writer as a person," Kirk said.
     The excerpts not only express the emotions and voices of the
authors, but they also help to explain why so many of these women
have become controversial figures both in their own countries and
around the world.  For several years, Argentinean author Luisa
Valenzuela has been in voluntary exile in New York after
publishing extremely erotic works openly critical of both
Christianity and political repression in her homeland. 
     Taslima Nasrin, one of several Southeast Asian authors
represented in the exhibit, is also currently in exile, in
Sweden, after her 1993 novella, Lajja, a fictionalized account of
the persecution of the Hindu minority, sparked riots and elicited
a government ban in her native Bangladesh.
     "Most of these authors do speak to something strong," Pathak
said. "The exhibit was not designed merely to give a travelogue
or portrait of a country, but it's also not intended to be
provocative and upsetting. We don't want to offend people, or
endorse or decry any views. We just want to provide information
and most importantly acquaint people with things they may not be
aware of."
     Many of the women represented face political and economic
instability in their own countries, in addition to the personal
oppression they may encounter as women breaking traditional
cultural norms.  In many cases, it is remarkable that they are
writing, or even getting published, at all.
     "Some of these writers come from extremely oppressive
societies," Kirk said. "There may be a problem with distribution,
but the fact that the works still get published shows more
tolerance than we might expect by listening to the news. But you
have to remember that these women are not the people you see on
the evening news."
     Included in the exhibit are not only the texts, brief
biographies and photographs of the authors, but also handcrafted
women's shawls from several of the countries represented.  
     "A woman's body is an integral part of her life, so we felt
that the presence of women's clothing would evoke both a visual
interest and a deeper female presence," Kirk said.  "The empty
clothing is also suggestive of the authors themselves, as real
people and not just symbols or texts."
     Among the clothing on display are an African kanga and an
Indian chuni, a garment draped around the shoulders for modesty
despite its alluring colors and texture.
     "The shawls really represent some of the ironies of these
cultures," Pathak said. "The cloth is intended to be used as a
veil to hide a woman's body and sexuality, but it often tends to
be highly provocative because it accentuates the female figure. 
It is suggestive for the very fact that it conceals."
     Pathak hopes that the exhibit will illustrate to library
browsers the real depth and diversity of literature available at
the Eisenhower Library, as well as provide access to foreign
materials that may be difficult to find elsewhere.
     "The library is not a museum," Kirk said.  "We don't want
the books to stay on the shelves. We want them to be discovered,
used, read by people. Even if they don't agree with what they
find, we want people to think and be sensitive to the writers and
to the societies from which they come."
     While many university libraries do not carry extensive
collections of foreign materials, the Eisenhower Library makes a
conscious effort to obtain support for its growing collections of
both historical and contemporary works, which are widely used by
faculty and students.
     "It is fortunate that the university values the library as
much as it does," Kirk said.  "We are the heart of the
university, the one place everyone comes to do work. They depend
upon us for the provision of materials."

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