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Tag Archives: women's writing

Narratives about Mental Illness, Family and Unreturned Affection

Reviewing common themes in three novels and memoirs that explore mental illness in women: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.


Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness begins in a racy love hotel. It takes less than two pages to realise that this manga only looks racy. Instead, we follow Nagata as she narrates the journey of coming to terms with her mental illnesses and her attempts to recover from them. Nagata’s autobiographical manga is illustrated in a beautiful two-tone palette that manages to make the main character (Nagata) charming. The story, however, is not about her charm.

The manga is an account of Nagata’s decision to move on from her yearning to please her family (more on this below) by doing something for herself and trying to awaken her sex drive. Nagata is very frank. She doesn’t hesitate to graphically depict the violence that comes with suffering from a mental illness. She doesn’t hesitate to draw naked bodies that are scarred. She doesn’t hesitate to bring attention to these scars. But what’s interesting is how she doesn’t hesitate to speak of her family either. One would assume that writing or drawing, in a memoir, about family who is likely to read what you’ve written would make you not write about them. But Nagata’s family’s presence is essential to her story. And not because they’re immensely supportive.

Nagata identifies her drive to be a good daughter as one of the reasons for her not putting herself first. She strives to be everything that her parents want her to be. She wants to get a job and pay bills and prove she’s a worthy daughter. For the longest time, she lets herself believe that being this ideal daughter is what she wants, slowly coming to terms with the fact that this ideal is at the root of her mental illness.

Another reason she identifies for her illness is her need for physical affection. Specifically, from her mother, or someone who feels like a mother, or someone who would make her feel like she’s being mothered. It’s the lack of fulfilment of this need from her own mother, who perhaps doesn’t understand or think of physical affection in the same way, that leads Nagata to search for and consequently discover that she’s not alone in this longing.

In this context, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? immediately comes to mind: it’s another autobiographical, illustrated, queer story that explores the extended effect of not receiving attention and affection from the mother. Both Bechdel’s full-length graphic books, also memoirs, deal with the relationships she shared with her parents (the first being Fun Home,  about her father). The similarity of themes explored in Bechdel’s work and in my Lesbian Experience with Loneliness goes to show that, indeed, Nagata is not alone.

Oftentimes, Nagata’s craving for affection manifests itself in ways that are exasperating for the reader to witness. She clings to her mother’s calves, sits herself in the space her mother leaves in the back of a chair, has a fascination with her mother’s breasts, and even on occasion chases after her — all while her mother remains resolutely indifferent.

This need for physical affection and touch is also brought to attention in Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Sue Trinder’s first few days away from her (adoptive) mother, Mrs. Sucksby, all discuss how she’d like to be in her arms, falling asleep in bed, smelling her, or some such. And while Fingersmith is fiction, this attachment to the closest mother figure is again a reminder of Nagata not being alone in wanting to be physically close to her mother. Sue’s relationship with her mother, however, is very different from Nagata’s. While Nagata’s mother doesn’t appear to be fond of her daughter’s clinginess, Mrs. Sucksby actively seeks physical affection with Sue, going so far as to continue to share a bed with her grown-up daughter. In this novel, Sue’s character does not follow the same trajectory as Nagata’s or even Bechdel’s, but has an altogether different relationship with mental illness.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness takes on the attachment that Nagata feels with her mother, dissects it frankly, speaking even of a sort of innocent sexual interest. Nagata is unflinching in her observations about herself and those dear to her. This honesty only makes it easier to help Nagata come to an important realisation through the community she finds via her writing: the knowledge that she is not alone.


Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Boston: Mariner, 2013.

Nagata, Kabi. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Translated by Jocelyne Allen.Los Angeles: Seven Seas Entertainment, 2017.

Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. London: Virago Press, 2002.

E-ESSAYS FROM ZUBAAN | 16 OCTOBER, WOMEN'S WRITING/LITERATURE

Our e-Essays project is now LIVE!

Previously-released essays are available here, and each month a new essay is available for free with any other purchase. To be added to the mailing list, subscribe here! 

Our previous sets of e-Essays focused on Indian women's movementssexual violencedomestic space and kinshipreligion and conflictstate crimes and impunitytraumahealth, violence against womenand nation.

The essays in this set study women’s writing in historical context, and the ways in which it fashions discourse. Authors Meenakshi Moon and Urmila Pawar focus on Dalit women’s voices in the rich literary tradition of the mid-twentieth century; while Uma Chakravarti looks specifically at writing about widowhood, both personal and critical; and Tilottoma Misra’s work showcases Assamese women, detailing the subjective experience of violence through poetry and prose. Together the pieces offer an alternative understanding of how notions of ‘literature’ come to be, through specificities of theme, language, politics and law.

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 1. 'ON WIDOWHOOD: THE CRITIQUE OF CULTURAL PRACTICES IN WOMEN'S WRITING' by UMA CHAKRAVARTI, from REWRITING HISTORY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PANDITA RAMABAI (1998)

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This essay examines women’s writing in the 19th century on the oppression of widows, focusing on voices that writer Uma Chakravarti believes have been invisibilized over the years. Stating that the history of social reforms and widowhood has been predominantly understood from a knowledge-based male perspective, Chakravarti proposes balancing the discourse with several female perspectives based on experiencing widowhood first-hand.

The essay is divided into three parts: the first focuses on women’s works on widowhood, examining the writing of Sushila Devi, Tarabai Shinde and Rakhmabai. The second section looks at widows from Poona Widows’ Home writing about their own experiences, and the third at writers like Pandita Ramabai and Parvati Athavale who were actively involved in providing support to other widows. From scathing criticism to personal experiences, the works criticize the then existing male-dominant Reformist movement, which focused only on widow remarriage, and outline the problems faced by widows, such as deprivation of basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, and the enforcement of unpaid and unacknowledged labour. 54 pp. Read more.

₹70.00

Dr. Uma Chakravarti is a feminist historian who taught at Miranda House, Delhi University. She writes on Buddhism, early Indian history, the 19th century and on contemporary issues.

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2. 'ENLIGHTENMENT THROUGH LITERATURE' by MEENAKSHI MOON, URMILA PAWAR, WANDANA SONALKAR (TRANS.), from WE ALSO MADE HISTORY: WOMEN IN THE AMBEDKARITE MOVEMENT (1989)

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This essay is a historical overview of Dalit literature, focusing on the contribution of women writers. The authors Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon show how the Dalit movement gained momentum with the rise of Dalit centric newspapers and literary societies, which gave a voice to the Dalit people. Led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, this literary movement was strengthened through talks, discussions, analysis of folk songs, and by spreading literacy and encouraging research. By the 1960s, Dalit writers had created a huge collection of short stories, poems, novels, autobiographies and analytical pieces.

The authors focus on the gradual increase of female voices and perspectives in Dalit writing – on topics ranging from religious customs like funerary rites, birth control, to mixed marriages. Appreciating these works for their literary merits as well as social significance, the authors suggest that they helped people understand and appreciate their own history, and facilitated the spread of radical ideas of identity and self-worth. 12 pp. Read more.

Meenakshi Moon was a close associate of B. R. Ambedkar. Her essays, research papers, articles study the daily religious practices and marital rules of Dalit communities, the practice of ritual prostitution, women’s issues and the Dalit movement.

Urmila Pawar received an MA from the University of Bombay and worked in the Maharashatra department of labour welfare. A former actor of radical Marathi theatre, she writes non-fiction and short stories informed by her self-definition as a Dalit, Buddhist and a feminist.

Wandana Sonalkar (translator) teaches economics at Dr. Babasaheb Marathwada University, Aurangabad. She is a founding member of Aalochana Centre for Documentation and Research on Women.

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3. 'WOMEN WRITING IN TIMES OF VIOLENCE' by TILOTTOMA MISRA from THE PERIPHERAL CENTRE: VOICES FROM INDIA'S NORTHEAST (2010)

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This essay uncovers how the writings of women have emerged as forms of protest in Assam, a region torn by political violence and prolonged militancy. For Tilottoma Misra, these voices are doing more than simply responding to a need to represent the marginalised; they are attempting to depict the trauma that the women experience in their lives. In discussing the power of the narrative, Misra lays out those aspects of traumatic events that a literary discourse can grasp more expansively than a strictly historical narrative.

Written by women during times of conflict, these stories and poems help explore nuances of the ways in which one's psyche is affected by the conflict. With a population facing discoveries of mass graves and an increasing breakdown of basic civic amenities, Misra poses urgent questions as to the role of the writer in such difficult times. 25 pp. Read more.

50.00

Tilottoma Misra is an academic and author. She formerly taught English Literature at Indaprastha College, New Delhi and Dibrugarh University, Assam. She was awarded the Ishan Puraskar by the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad for her novel Swarnalata. Currently, she is writing on literature and society of eastern India and is engaged in a research project on customary law and women’s rights in Northeast India.

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FREE IN OCTOBER, WITH THE PURCHASE OF ANY OTHER ESSAY:

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'INDIA AS HOME' by GEETANJALI SINGH CHANDA from INDIAN WOMEN IN THE HOUSE OF FICTION (2008)

Geetanjali Singh Chanda explores, in this essay, the idea of the nation and its representation as a house or home in postcolonial Indian English literature. The author identifies that this literature has a dual parentage that manifests in its narratives, where characters with fragmented identities negotiate to make India their home.

Chanda explores this depiction of ‘Indianness’ through three prominent literary works: Nayantara Sahgal’s Rich Like Us (1983), Meena Alexander’s Nampally Road (1991), and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). She focuses on the treatment of history within these narratives, and the struggle of characters to reconcile their personal or national history with the post-colonial present. This is done by connecting the events in the text to a significant historical event – like the Indian Independence in 1947, or the Emergency of 1975. 37 pp. Read more.

Dr. Geetanjali Singh Chanda is a senior lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Programme at Yale University, USA. She has taught courses on globalization, autobiographies, family, cultural identity, popular culture, international feminisms and postcolonial India since 2001.

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A note on pricing, frequency and format:

The e-Essays project is a new initiative from Zubaan, undertaken to make our near-fifteen years of feminist research more accessible to our readers and community. New essays are released in sets each month, curated to a theme; subscribers receive each curated set in their inbox. The essays range from just a few pages to 100-page chapters, and we've therefore created three pricing tiers: 50, 70 and 95 rupees. Responses to our test survey in March indicated that a majority of readers would be willing to pay up to Rs. 100, so we've kept even the longest essay under that amount. The vast majority of our readers also included PDFs in their preference of format, and we have accordingly standardised all our essays in PDF files.

If you're interested to see what's coming next, make sure you've joined our mailing list, and keep your eye out for the next mailer/blog post. Happy Reading!

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