The brutal gang rape of a young woman in India in late December hit humanity like a tsunami in the world of human rights. Media around the world has been following the case and headlines keep coming on a daily basis updating on the status of the accused arrested and charged with rape and murder. One of the many women writers who wrote about the causes underlying such heinous crimes against women in India is Sweta Srivastava Vikram who asked the question Who to Blame in an article published in early January. An Indian woman writer living in New York and traveling widely as an author and speaker, her new book No Ocean Here (Modern History Press) has just been published as a book of poetry that gives voice to the need for preventing violence against women with an emphasis on the condition of women in underdeveloped and developing countries. Here we will learn from Sweta Srivastava Vikram her thoughts on the topic.
Ernest: Sweta, it’s a pleasure to have you for a chat about your new book No Ocean Here. Please tell our readers a little about the book.
Sweta: Thanks, Ernest! No Ocean Here, my first book-length collection of poems, bears moving accounts of women and girls in certain developing and under-developed countries. The stories, either based on personal interviews or inspired by true stories, are presented in the form of 43 poems. The title of the book, which is also the title of the first poem in the collection, holds two equally important meanings. First, it portrays a bold and defiant voice, on behalf of women, saying that they share these stories without any saline water in their eyes. It also means that there is no place that’ll drink up stories (listen) of these women.
Ernest: I am curious to learn why a poetry book; why not narrative non-fiction?
Sweta: In my humble opinion, narrative non-fiction might have made the topic covered in this book a lot more didactic and visceral. Poetry allows for the reader to make a connection while maintaining a distance, if they want to. Also, poetry allows the survivors a certain level of anonymity.
Ernest: So the situation of women of what countries or regions are represented in your verse?
Sweta: The book raises concern and chronicles the socio-cultural conditions of women in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Most of the regions covered are still under the rule of patriarchy, or have different standards for their women as compared to their men.
Ernest: Your recent article about the gang rape victim in India and the situation of women there raises grave concerns over the silence of victims and/or her family that follows cases of sexual assault. How empowered is an average Indian woman in the 21st century, particularly the less literate, rural Indian woman?
Sweta: Unfortunately, not very. We often forget that education doesn’t always lead to empowerment. It might tell us about choices available but doesn’t mean the woman is “allowed” to embrace those choices. And I am referring to the educated, middle-class in urban areas. For women in rural parts of India, even the basic needs aren’t even available. Ideologies have to change at grassroots levels, where women aren’t viewed as objects to be owned, for big changes to happen. It’s not just about targeting women’s rights; communities and families need to work towards creating an integrated approach that impacts society as a whole.
Ernest: Do your poems give voice to the sufferers of domestic violence in the third world?
Sweta: As I mentioned earlier, No Ocean Here gives voice to stories of violence against women in certain parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The book includes but isn’t limited to domestic violence. It addresses prostitution of widowhood, breast ironing, honor killing, marital rape, and female infanticide, amongst other issues. Violence is both emotional and physical and often times, the former is tougher to detect because it leaves no physical marks.
Ernest: India is a country with a very large population and accordingly one would assume women make a significant proportion of the workforce. Do they suffer abuse or discrimination frequently at the workplace?
Sweta: My opinions don’t represent what every Indian woman, or a part of the Indian workforce goes through because neither do I live or work in India nor am I the authority on this topic. But research, both primary and secondary, leads me to believe that discrimination does exist. And despite the rise in sexual assault and violence against women, the laws aren’t necessarily in favor of the victims. In some parts of India, it seems victims are punished, not the perpetrators.
Ernest: Do you consider your book as a good read for only female audiences?
Sweta: No Ocean Here gives voice to all that needs to be heard. Any human being, who considers himself or herself a voice for human rights, women’s rights, and is against any kind of violence against women, would understand the importance of this book. I wouldn’t add any gender labels to the readership; I can only wish and hope that the book urges readers, both men and women, to empathize and help.
Ernest: What are the similarities between this poetry book and your novel?
Sweta: My first novel, Perfectly Untraditional, set in mostly India and New York City, is a tale about friendships, identity, and relationships in today’s modern day and age. It’s also a happy immigrant story. The book has strong female characters and does focus on the challenges associated with acceptance of homosexuality within the context of India and Iran.
The similarity between the two books would be the focus on the social issue aspect and how it impacts women. That is because I attempt to bring social change through my words. The differences between the two are many. Perfectly Untraditional is fictional while No Ocean Here is a poetry collection based on true events.
Ernest: What do you think is the first step that need be taken toward the emancipation of women in the third world?
Sweta: It would be inappropriate for me to give a blanket statement under the guise of solution for the ongoing problem and challenges women in certain developing and under-developing countries face. They are old, layered, and far too many. But, both as a woman and a human rights activist, I believe that attitudes have to change on many levels. We need to have zero tolerance for violence against women. Society will eventually cease if women aren’t respected and offered an equal place.
The deeper issue is why some men, not all, feel the need to control women physically and so violently. Efforts need to be made to understand the male psyche that believes that women are objects to be owned. My other question: can we solely keep calling men criminals and let womenfolk walk away without any onus? Every victim and perpetrator is someone’s child, the wrong teachings and learning’s begin at home.
Ernest: Sweta, thank you so much for yet another nice round of conversation here. Please tell us whether readers can get updates about the book and other work of yours at your site.
Sweta: Always a pleasure talking to you, Ernest! My website, www.swetavikram.com, carries updates on my work and upcoming events. There is also my author page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta and Twitter: @ssvik where folks can stay updated on my latest work.