Writing Women Back Into Existence

“Where are all the men?”

It’s the most common question I hear from readers of my new novel, A People’s History of Heaven, and it’s not an unreasonable one. Of the few male characters that inhabit Heaven, the fictional Bangalore slum where my book takes place, only three are named. Yet, every time I hear it, I am taken by surprise. 

The truth is, when I wrote the book while I was consumed by the exact opposite question. Where, I wondered, are all the women?

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According to a study published by the Indian government in 2018, India’s population is missing about 63 million women. The reasons for this statistical gender imbalance probably include sex selective abortion, which is illegal in India, but still happens; the systematic denial of nutrition and care to female babies; and female infanticide. The report also estimates that India is home to about 21 million unwanted girls, or girls whose families see them as burdens, and who are therefore vulnerable to malnutrition, exploitative working conditions and human trafficking.

The problem of missing girls and women isn’t confined to India alone. In China, there were 70 million more men in the population in 2018 than women. In Pakistan, the sex ratio in 2011 was 111 men for every 100 women. And in 2016, according to a recent study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, over 5,000 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing or murdered in the United States alone.

The disappearance of over 130 million women from the planet doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is enabled by an apathy so severe that two of the largest countries in the world have accepted the disappearance of hundreds of millions of their citizens as part of life, rather than a grave human rights crisis. 

The culture of noticing missing men and ignoring missing women is shaped by our media. The stories we consume shape our perceptions of reality. Based on what we see, hear and read, consciously or unconsciously, we develop a picture of what our world ought to look like. The world that we are currently taught to recognize is one where women—and, especially, poor women of color—are so inessential that if they disappear, we don’t even notice.

Recently published novels set in Indian slums rarely include substantive female characters. In books like The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, Slum Dog Millionaire by Vikas Swarup, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid and Serious Men by Manu Joseph, the women are, at best, supporting characters—serving as mostly as love interests, sex workers or older female relatives. Many are so inconsequential that they aren’t even named. 

The authors of the aforementioned books are all men, so perhaps they can be forgiven for telling male-centric stories. Still, I wonder how many of them have been asked: “Where are all the women?” In a world where we have been conditioned to noticing men’s absences, and to taking women’s absences for granted, I’m guessing very few.  

I’m a South Asian woman, and my gender is at least partly why I am interested in telling stories about women—stories that are true to my experience and upbringing, featuring women and girls that I rarely see on the page. The lack of fully developed, central female characters in Indian fiction, and in fiction in general, is a direct result of the barriers women of color face in publishing.

The 2017 VIDA count, the most recent on record, indicates that of the U.S. publications surveyed, only seven had given more than 10 percent of their bylines to Asian American women. The publication with the highest number of articles by Asian American women was The New York Review of Books; the 17 works they published by Asian American women represented only 7.6 percent of the total articles they put out this year. For Black women, the statistics were similar. For Middle Eastern and North African writers, they were worse. 

When we solely consume male stories told by male artists, we become accustomed to women’s invisibility—both as characters and as authors of their own worlds. It’s another reason why we notice when men are missing. When women are missing, we consider it normal.

My book has no men because I am trying to tell a story about why women matter—regardless of whether or not there are men in their lives. I know how easy it is erase something, or someone, that the world has been trained to believe never existed in the first place. I refuse to be erased. 

Each time women write about ourselves, or our communities, or anything that matters to us, we are doing more than just writing ourselves into the world. We are also insisting on our visibility, our humanity and our right to exist—on the page and on the planet.

About

Mathangi Subramanian is an award winning writer, author and educator. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Quartz, The Hindu, The Wire, The Indian Express, Skipping Stones, Thinkling and the Seal Press anthology Click! When We Knew We Were Feminists, among others, and she has received a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholarship, a Jacob Javits Fellowship and an Office of Policy and Research Fellowship from Columbia Teachers College, where she completed her doctorate in communications and education in 2010. In 2016, she won the South Asia Book Award for her novel <em?Dear Mrs. Naidu. Her latest book, A People’s History of Heaven was published in March 2019 by Algonquin Books.