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/ Politics." 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 background." 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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