Defeated Despair

A few weeks ago Caravan published After the Last Sky, my first paid publication in almost three years. I wrote it for Caravan because I’m a completist, and I wanted to close a circle that opened three years ago with Darkness Visible.

After the Last Sky was written just as I was transitioning from one of the darkest periods of my life into the sort of smack-dab happiness that is impossible to channel into language. It’s odd how that happens, this chiaroscuro of emotion, but without that joy, or the pain that came before, this would have been a very different essay and perhaps a feebler one. This was an essay written, as John Berger once said in “Undefeated Despair” from a familiarity with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words. It is an essay about ruin.

Here is a simpler formulation: I wrote an essay about women who learned to live without love even as I was falling in love. If that makes me a hypocrite, all I can say is it makes an excellent change from an earnest despair. But there is despair in that essay, of course there is, it’s all over the place. Despair with prescriptive, idealized feminisms; despair with structures that exalt and oppress women; despair with explanations that remain trapped in clichés, despair with myself, with the smallness and uselessness of my words in the face of totalizing narratives. Perhaps, then, all that my tiny satisfaction offered me was a way out of defeat, and with that I must move on. And so I will.

Francesca Woodman, "Self-Portrait"
Francesca Woodman, “Self-Portrait”

There was one memoir—Sabita Goswami’s Along the Red River—that was edited out of the essay, for good and noble reasons, such as ensuring that everyone who read the essay didn’t sink under the weight of her defeat. Goswami was born in 1942 (the same year as Prabha Khaitan) in Assam, and her memoir begins by describing a courtship as intense (and as spooky-surreal) as Khaitan’s, but one that, unlike Khaitan’s, rapidly led to marriage.

Goswami’s husband was a mercurial man with a large and bickering family, and he couldn’t keep a job. She soon realized she would have to support her two daughters and began working, first as a teacher and then as a journalist. She flourished professionally, being both a skilled reporter and a subtle analyst, and Red River is interesting reading for anyone interested in the politics of the region, especially during the Assam Agitations of the ‘80s. She lived, however, in the threatening shadow of her husband, who slowly devolved into an alcoholic. He grew resentful her success, and undermined her constantly, at one point selling all her books and papers. It was, moreover, an exhausting life: she raised her daughters, ran a household, travelled across the north-east for the BBC, and wrote columns for several newspapers.

Sabita Goswami’s memoir is the longest of the six and the most tedious. It unfolds chronologically, but it has no shape—like the river in the title, it meanders along. Even the (many many) chapters about politics, by far the strongest, have been stale for twenty years.  Her life, however difficult, is the least gripping because it is, ironically, the most familiar. She was a harassed working mother with a difficult husband she never managed to leave. We all know this woman; she was our teacher, our neighbor, our aunt, our mother.  It’s this very ordinariness, however, that makes her story so important. Unlike the other memoirists (except Anis Kidwai) she did everything right, everything that she was expected to do. She committed no major transgressions against the social order. She made one hasty decision—to get married—and paid for it all her life. Her pain can’t be explained. Unfortunately, while Goswami describes her life, she provides no insight into it, and all we are left with is an incoherent anger about the injustice of it all. We recognize her, but we don’t understand her, and, afraid of the suffering we see reflected in her, we walk away.

In that walking away lies the deepest failure of subcontinental feminisms. We failed Sabita Goswami when we couldn’t provide her the ability or the resources to tell her story without reducing herself into a banal and pathetic figure. We failed her when we didn’t convince her that her biggest problem wasn’t her husband, ghastly as he was, but our collective lack of imagination. Sabita Goswami is a brilliant and hardworking woman. It’s our indifference that made her a victim.


Without Goswami, it becomes easier to read the essay as a triumphalist narrative, to say that it is, as the sub-head claims, an essay about survival. Sabita Goswami survived too, of course, but in the way that Berger’s Palestine survives: stubbornly,  indomitably, hopelessly. Can you construct a feminism without hope? I don’t know, but I intend to try. Or perhaps I mean to say, can you construct a feminism beyond hope? It’s a question I began asking with half-formed, half-assed, and very naive essay The Swift and the Sardonic (so long ago now!) and one I expect I will continue to ask for years to come. This, then, is GhostBogey, ChaosBogey’s dour sister. Welcome to the family.

One response to “Defeated Despair”

  1. Can you construct a feminism without hope? Or, rather, a feminism beyond hope?:
    But you can’t, not the least because modern feminism (in practice and in discourse) is completely, irrevocably American in nature. To tear out the America from contemporary feminism would destroy its soul, and maybe that is necessary. And remaking a feminism without her naiveté, her earnestness, her sense of isolation, her sense of utter purpose and purity, so very tangible and measurable and reportable and *innocent*, remaking a feminism that is supported with pride in individualism and a firm belief in the physical as indulgence and transgression (second wave), and therefore the constant leaking of her focus on the physical, the immediate, the now (third wave and subsequent) — would, in a perfect world, also be a feminism that no longer needs hope.
    But we’re yet people, and creatures of our time and context. And a person that no longer needs hope is dead, or in despair so deep that their soul is in need of rescue. And modern feminism is too vital and engaged and interesting, red lipstick and high heels and Tinder and Jezebel and same-sex marriage and the end of lesbian bars in New York, that she may not understand the hope that is so intimately pawing at her, firmly in residence in her core.
    As to your other essay, where you ask about the missing dark “romantic” comedy (“the kind that elevates desolation through levity”) I suspect Mad Men would feature very strongly somewhere there? It’s too nihilistic to have been written for or from a woman in a functioning relationship(s) – we, modern women, sadly can’t help our happiness – hence the Draper, but he’s a trojan horse into a kind of feminism that offers so much change and so little hope.
    (apologies for the confused words – NY subway+smartphone in issues)

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