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Writing Our Bodies: Embodiment, Voice, and Literature by Sayantani DasGupta

April 13, 2011

Sayantani DasGupta is a writer, physician, mother and academic. Originally trained in pediatrics and public health, she now teaches  in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University as well as the Graduate Program in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College.  She is the co-author of The Demon Slayers and Other Folktales (Interlink, 1995), the author of a memoir, Her Own Medicine: A Woman’s Journey from Student to Doctor (Ballantine, 1999), and the co-editor of an award-winning collection of women’s illness narratives, Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies (KSUP, 2007). She is currently working on a middle grade novel based on Indian folktales, and a YA novel re-imagining some stories from the Indian epic The Mahabharata.

Sayantani was featured a few years ago on the cover of Ms. Magazine with her mother–a ‘feminist mother daughter team’ that is still going strong. Visit her website at www.sayantanidasgupta.com, and her blog at http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com

“What is the connection between voice and the body?

As a daughter of Indian immigrants to the U.S., it was novels, essays, plays and poems – the ‘literary things’ of this blog’s title – which introduced me to myself. I remember reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones for the first time and thinking, “This is what it is to be a young brown girl in America. This is what it is to be me.” Marshall’s words were not my exact experience, to be sure, but they gave me a space, a recognition, a permission to be.

From Rabindranath Tagore to Sharon Olds, from Alice Walker to Salman Rushdie – authors of various personal, political and national bodies all taught me to better understand my own. Like looking in a mirror – or use an image from Rushdie – like peering into a stream of stories, the voices of these writers taught me how to live within my own skin. They introduced me to my own face.

In my academic work – teaching illness and disability memoirs, thinking about the connections between narration, health, and social justice – I often make the connection between voice and body for my students. In particular, I am interested in the political act of speaking from, about and through marginalized bodies. Ill bodies, disabled bodies, female bodies, immigrant bodies, bodies of color, working bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies – we are all told to be quiet, and in so doing, uphold the tyranny of the ‘normal’ and ‘normative’. In speaking, writing, and telling, we light the
first spark of our activism. “We are here, we have stories,” we cry. And in that cry we politicize – drawing connections between our stories and those of others, making alliances between our bodies and those around us.

In the words of writer Nancy Mairs, who writes autobiographically about having multiple sclerosis and using a wheelchair,

Paradoxically, losing one sort of nerve has given me another. No one is going to take my breath away. No one is going to leave me speechless. To be silent is to comply with the standard of feminine grace. But my crippled body already violates all notions of feminine grace. What more have I got to lose? … No body, no voice, no voice, no body. That’s what I know in my bones. (Nancy Mairs “Carnal Acts”)

In writing and publishing about her life, Mairs describes drawing others to her; getting phone calls and letters which declare “Me too! Me too!” Says she,

It’s as though the part I thought was a solo has turned out to be a chorus. But none of us was singing loud enough for the others to hear. (Mairs)

When I co-edited a collection of women’s illness narratives called Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies, my aim was to hear this ‘chorus’ of women’s voices telling tales of embodiment. In witnessing these voices, I hoped that readers would be inspired to action and advocacy.

As a writer of memoir and creative nonfiction, I often write about my own embodied experiences of medical training and motherhood. Not just that, I write from and through that embodied experience. As a nursing mother, I long ago perfected the art of typing while nursing – if I sat just so on my bed with my left elbow curling around the baby’s head – I could reach the laptop keyboard with both hands, and clickety-clack away while my infant fed. My words and images competed for time with my babies – but they were all beloved, all of my body – both my flesh-and-blood children and their demanding, insisting-to-be-heard literary siblings.

More recently, I have turned to writing children’s fiction inspired by Indian folktales and mythologies. Pulling back on my medical and academic career to write is a choice not only of fancy, but of necessity. I can write from home, where my now school-age children still need me to be. Like every other working mother, I balance an endless series of part-time professions which, when added together, end up being far greater than one.

But the necessity to write is not solely from the outside, either. It is an embodied necessity, one I feel in my gut – in my bones. I write to remember those stories told to me by grandmothers long gone – whispered like magical mantras under the mosquito net where I would sleep on my vacations to India. I write these fantastical tales of demons and warriors, princesses and ghosts, to remember my foremothers, to introduce my children to their own ancient streams of stories, and ultimately, to narrate (and re-narrate) myself into being.

‘Women Doing Literary Things’ is no less than a radical act. To write. To speak. To Collectivize.

Let the parts we thoughts were solos give rise to a swelling chorus.”

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6 Comments
  1. What a wonderful post and I agree completely – the process of normalising is one that seeks to destroy all voices and perspectives that fail to fit the ongoing cultural narrative. Which makes those marginal positions all the more important to be heard, because those voices remind us just how painful and oppressive it is not to have permission to be exactly where we are, who we are, with the needs we have. I think motherhood is one of the worst places for fixed and normative narratives – feminism has never quite managed to loosen the knots of the story that make us domestic angels, family goddesses. That sort of position is just as mythical as any of the warriors, princesses and ghosts that you might summon for children’s stories. We need something more adult and more flexible.

    • Many thanks “litove” – I agree – motherhood was in fact demonized in many ways by 2nd wave Western “me feminism” … reclaiming a feminist mothers’ space (why only a room? a house, a city, a nation of our own for goodness sake!:) is, for me, so critical!

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