One of the things that surprised me most about Denmark when I first came here, about 12 years ago, was the strict colour coding of gender dresses. Girls meant pink; boys meant blue. Having grown up in a small Indian town, with obvious gender imbalances, I had not, however, come across this kind of internalized stereotyping. But when I pointed out this, and similar matters, to Danes, they (with some exceptions) refused to see any significant gender inequality in their parts of the world or explained it away with reference to biological determinism.
It is in this context that a book such as Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism is essential reading—perhaps more so in the First World, where old colonial notions of biological determinism have been turned around and applied, very successfully and sometimes with blatant disregard to actual research, to the genders. This is nothing new. But it is also not, as Walter suggests in one of her weaker passages, as if such notions are not applied along racial/ethnic divides any more. In general, there has been a turn—subtle and greatly misleading at times—towards biological determinism since the 1980s. If this had been vindicated by facts and a solid body of research, it would have been fine. But it is not. What runs it is a selective ordering of research results and the dismissal of all criticism as “political correctness”.
Literary retreat: Bali is a new hub.
Walter is not out to dismiss biology. She simply attempts to make the debate match the scientific evidence. As she puts it, “there is no unchanging biological reality, free from history, just as there is no blank slate on which the finger of experience writes. Our genetic inheritance helps to determine how we filter and respond to experience, and our experience modifies how our genetic inheritance expresses itself.”
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Though written for a lay readership, this book is more complex than the above quotation suggests. Read it. Especially if you do not live in places such as Saudi Arabia, where you need to be blind (and not just deaf, as in places such as Denmark) to deny the existence of sexism.
Bonhomie in Bali
It is rare to attend a literature festival that does not remind one of a fish market: The stink of bloated egos and scaly ambitions barely hidden under the soft wrapping of readers who take much trouble to attend literary festivals. One wonders what such genuine readers feel when they see society types, ambitious agents or established writers zip from reading to cocktails-by-invitation-only with nothing more than a scribbled autograph to
The thing I liked about the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2010 in Bali was exactly this: It seemed driven by a genuine joy in literature and people and, hence, it enabled writers and readers to mix informally. Not all writers took advantage of this. Some writers one never saw anywhere except on a podium. But most writers, such as me, were delighted to be able to walk around and talk to people other than journalists, editors and agents. Our own William Dalrymple, for instance, or the witty Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, or the new sensation from Australia, Christos Tsiolkas (whose novel, The Slap, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2009), or the American genre writer, Kris Saknussemm, or the Turkish best-selling author, Hande Altayli, or the prize-winning Russian translator, Galina Lazareva, or the excellent poets, Bosnian Senadin Musabegovic and Maltese Adrian Grima, and so many others: They could be seen as often in the audience (or in a café) as on a podium.
It is this, I think, that makes Ubud one of those festivals writers and readers want to return to.
Tabish Khair is an Indian writer based in Denmark. His latest novel is The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org