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Three female authors, three countries, one daunting factor of gender 

By Rajeev Tyagi
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My Brilliant Friend, a Novel by Elena Ferrante, Kim Ji-young: Born 1982, a Novel by Cho Nam-ju, and Milk Teeth, a Novel by Amrita Mahale,

My Brilliant Friend, a Novel by Elena Ferrante, Kim Ji-young: Born 1982, a Novel by Cho Nam-ju, and Milk Teeth, a Novel by Amrita Mahale, are the three novels I read in the month of August. I didn’t decide. All three of them were recommended to me, and I read them instantly and in succession. Three novels by three distinct female authors, set in three different worlds, and centred around female character(s).

Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 | South Korea

Kim Ji-young: Born 1982, tackled the issues of gender disparity, and female issues in society explicitly. The book was a very interesting blend of facts disguised under a semi-fictional narrative. In parts, it felt like a news article. ‘Kim Jiyoung is her own woman, Kim Jiyoung is every woman.’... are two of the many phrases on the blurb of the book. They describe that this might seem like a story about Kim Ji-young in South Korea, but the narration is more universal. Kim Ji-young’s shape-shifting identity metaphors the female’s invisibility in society, and her every woman. The book through her presents a narrative of everyday misogyny which hasn’t changed even in the 21st century.  It is very matter-of-fact writing and questions the institutionalised oppression towards the female gender.

“What do you want from us? The dumb girls are too dumb, the smart girls are too smart, and the average girls are too unexceptional?”

The book isn’t something which you don’t already know. But, it forces you to face reality. The words, the situations are blunt, brutal. 

While reading, I was going back to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, another exceptional book on the relationship between culture, feminism, and environment, from South Korea.  Cho Nam-ju, the author of Kim Ji-young: Born 1982, mentions The Vegetarian as an inspiration for her book.

My Brilliant Friend | Italy

Through Maggie Gyllenhaal's directed, Olivia Colman starrer, The Lost Daughter started my discovery of the anonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante. I was blown away by the movie. I wondered if the book was anywhere close to the movie. Then, this woman is an extraordinary writer. The Lost Daughter is a psychological drama of a woman’s guilt of choosing herself and not her motherly duties. I wanted to read the book. Coincidentally, my friend suggested that I should read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.

Cut to, I started reading My Brilliant Friend. The novel narrates the story of Elena Greco (Lenù), and her friend Raffaella Cerullo (Lila), when the latter has disappeared. Elena then remembers that Lila is capable of doing this as she had mentioned this numerous times. This was a competitive friendship. Elena always wanted to be (best)friends with Lila. Elena is telling her story, but it always overlaps with a quest to be better than Lila. Elena herself couldn’t disassociate her own childhood from Lila. Here, Lila is a lost kind. In a way, lost in her own spark of brilliance. Her silence, in parts, makes you uncomfortable. Her silence is daunting. Her words are sometimes lethal, sometimes fragile, and almost always full of emotions. 

The first-person narrative, through Elena, becomes a very intimate, and detailed account of her childhood. Somewhat like a journal, like scrambling thoughts. I couldn’t associate much with her childhood, but I broadly understood the narration.  Surely, it is to grow up as a female child. The complication and gaze of society is different, maybe much more severe.

“Life was like that, that's all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us. There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable.”

Milk Teeth | Mumbai, India

Lastly, India. Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale is the author’s love letter to the changing city of Mumbai-Bombay disguised as a love story between Ira-Kartik-Kaiz. Ira Kamat, a journalist, is at the centre of the narration. We explore the city through her, sometimes with her. The book is set in the 1980s when the city is changing. Maybe, that’s why ‘Milk Teeth’. The residents are trying to hold on to ‘Asha Nivas’, a dilapidated apartment building, against the brutal forces of modernism.

Ira expresses her undying love for the city, the childhood love that Karthik was/is, or the carefree love she had with Kaiz. The politics of the book reveal itself slowly,  and sometimes it is hard to pinpoint as well. There is the city, and then there is the different nature of the city too. The novel explores the city’s class, caste, religion, and even capitalistic behaviour. There is a certain lightness and ease in her writing and storytelling. Her writing and storytelling tools reminded me a lot of Elif Shafak.

“This city was our common ground, I want to tell Kaiz. Not simply its soil, nor its salt or tides, not lines on any map, nor buildings and streets. Something else entirely. An image, a dream, an idea that beguiled both of us: a magical place with chaos in its code, where our stories collided briefly. That romance with the city he carries with him wherever he goes. What it means to me, though, goes beyond what we had in common, it can’t be packed up and transported tidily. Mumbai for me is two people who moved from small coastal towns to this metropolis by the sea and made it their home. My home. And that is how the city is different for the two of us: for him both Mumbai and home were abstractions. Abstractions are at once more fragile and more hardy than reality.”

This is not Salman Rushdie’s Bombay or Jeet Thayil’s city, but this is very uniquely Amrita’s. There is depth, but not pretence of being anything more. I had always seen Bombay-Mumbai through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or Moor’s Last Sigh. I couldn’t help but draw connections.

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