By Riziki Millanzi
A couple of years ago I did a semester abroad at the University of Kentucky and I was lucky enough to enrol in a Women’s Literature course that was taught by the fantastic Janet Eldred. In this class, we attempted to unroot why things such as disaster, tragedy or war were often (and still are today) regarded as something that women shouldn’t talk or write about. There is a notion ingrained in society, planted there by decades of patriarchy and sexism, that difficult subjects and experiences are too ‘messy’, ‘big’ or ‘emotional’ for even the consideration of women.
This is used as an excuse to exclude women from taking part in important conversations and to invalidate their views, experiences and beliefs. In Belonging, Uni Sinha writes about war, death and loss. By writing about subjects that are considered such ‘difficult things’, Sinha creates an opportunity for us all to emphasise with her character’s experiences and engage with the concerns and questions that they raise. If women can’t write about their own experiences and beliefs or the things that are important to them, what exactly should they write about?
“I knew what it was to see violent death; I knew what the inside of a man’s head looked like. I knew what it was to have one’s world come to an end.”
In Belonging, loss can be found throughout the novel, from the loss of her father back in India to her job as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in WWI Brighton. Lila’s story (like both her father’s and grandmother’s also) deals heavily with death, its aftermath and the effect that it has on those left behind. It is only recently that women have become more comfortable in writing about war and that society has started accepting women as writers of war narratives. Matt Gallagher suggests that “one of the major appeals of literature is to not only see different perspectives, worlds and experiences, but be immersed in and by them, too” and I think that we all can wholeheartedly agree. He goes on to argue that “war is a subject like any other, one that can be written about well if that delicate balance of force, care and knowledge is established.” Women need to write about war. War affects us too. War effects everyone involved! Belonging is the perfect example of a novel written by a woman about an important event that all should know about or at least learn from. Sinha gives us the opportunity to learn, experience, feel and mourn for the world that she creates as well as the one that did in fact exist.
“My hand is shaking so much that I can scarcely hold the pen. My darling Mina, if we do not meet again in this world I know we shall in the next, for we are part of each other and can never be separated.”
As well as offering an insight into the trauma of World War 1, both here in Sussex and the conflict abroad, it is through the letters of Cecily that Sinha explores the Siege of Cawnpore. The siege took place in June 1857 and was a part of the wider Indian Rebellion that took place that year. By describing the conditions and events in the lead up to Cecily’s death, Sinha throws the spotlight on a part of history that might not be so familiar to the reader. It is important that authors such as Sinha write about the things and events that they find significant or that wider society might have turned a blind eye to. Women writers can do what nobody else does or can. Sinha presents us with the reality of a time in history that has taken place; The experience of her characters are based and build on the emotions and turmoil that women really would have gone through in such circumstances. Sinha gives us a glimpse into a world we do not know, one different and scarier than our own. However, by combining this with the familiar sights, sounds and fragments of the calm average day or state of being that we have all come to know, she shows us the difficult things that we don’t see, hear or just don’t know about.
War creates a myriad of loss and disaster. In Belonging, we also witness Cecily’s loss of faith and Lila’s loss of hope. The way in which Sinha portrays and highlights their emotions gives us as the reader a way to connect with both her characters and their circumstances in a truthful and organic way. Books like Belonging are so important for they give us the opportunity to learn about and experience moments through time like this. It allows us to understand other people, their history and ultimately learn from it and grow. Women need to write about loss so we know what we too have to lose.
“My precious Mina, Your letters were waiting when we got here and it was so good to have news of everyone at home.”
I think that Sinha’s use of the letter form within Belonging is significant as it is through letter writing that women’s writing began to flourish within wider society and that leaves us a rich and extensive historical database today. Through letters, women have left us many important and insightful correspondences that offer up new viewpoints to important historical events as well as interpretations and concerns that we never knew had even existed. Letters are also known for being an important method of communication during times of disaster and war, and quite possibly the only one the further that you go back in time. It is through Cecily’s letters that the vibrant strands of Sinha’s narrative become interwoven and that we experience in detail the emotions, sights, sounds and trauma of the Siege of Cawnpore. We take on the role of Mina, and it is as if our own sister is telling us of her struggles, loss and despair.
“I still wake sometimes with that sick feeling, and for a moment I’m back there, wondering and waiting…”
Some things are difficult to write about and some things are difficult to read. But we live in a difficult, complicated world and not everything in life nor literature can always can be polite, straight-forward and easy to engage with. As women, we are often placed in a box and this box says that we’re fragile or need protecting from the more shocking or terrible things in life. Belonging shows us that we don’t need to be shielded like that. It is important that as women, and indeed as writers, that we address, acknowledge and embrace the ‘difficult’, so that we can then go learn and grow from it.
Hearing about the death and destruction of so many lives (both in Cawnpore or the battlefields of World War I) in the literary way that Sinha presents it to us shows us that women are no stranger to loss, war or disaster. So, to answer my earlier question, regarding what women should or shouldn’t write about, I’ll say this: Write and read about everything. The big and the small, the scary and the exciting, the real and the imaginary. Belonging is a novel which is honest, and that’s why it’s just so powerful and impactful. It doesn’t shy away from being what it needs to be; That’s why we need to read it and why books like it have to be written.