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BOOK REVIEW

Herstory, illustrated

Published : Jan 12, 2023 10:15 IST

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Herstory, illustrated

An anthology of rich visual narratives of feminist activism from around the world.

Five years ago, trying to put together the syllabus for a new course on feminist writing from the neocolonial world that I was introducing at New York University Gallatin, I struggled to find enough representative material to capture the global diversity of voices. When I first came across this book, I felt that it was a singular treasure—something which would be read in classrooms around the world because of the conversations it would spark and the solidarity that it would facilitate.

Movements and Moments: Indigenous Feminisms in the Global South
Edited by Sonja Eismann, Maya, Ingo Schöningh
Zubaan (2022)
Pages: 352
Price:Rs.1,200

Movements and Moments is a collection of 10 comics from around the world that tries to address “the lack of archives for feminist endeavours”. The project came about as a result of an open call in 2020 for “comics about feminism, with a special focus of linking the fight for gender justice to the fight for the preservation of our planet”.

The result is an anthology that anchors voices from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, India, Nepal, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador.

My favourite story in this collection is the one set in the Philippines, titled “Let the River Flow Free”, illustrated and narrated by Gantala Press and Nina Martinez. This story of the indigenous activist Betty Belan of Kalinga, arrested by the military for her opposition to a dam project, carries the silent undercurrents of a political pamphlet.

What was most captivating for me was the incredible, unforgettable colour scheme: brick-red for the people organising protests in the past; olive green for the military pressed into action against them; turquoise for the land and sometimes the river; salmon pink for memory, martyrs, and the act of remembering; and the last constant, ochre of the earth, for speech bubbles that chronicle the history of a people speaking in a desperate bid to save their land.

In the course of the text, the narrator says, “Land is sacred, land is beloved”, offsetting the ways in which the corporate state only looks at land as something transactional, and the lives of people who live on that land as collateral in the name of national development.

This comic is a beautiful place to start reading this book. We see how women use nudity and cursing as resistance: women undress in front of their oppressors, scaring them. We see the arresting image of the mothers and elder women undressing in front of the rampaging military, displaying their tattooed bodies and the men turning away, fearing bad luck. We remember the protests of the women who undressed in the Niger Delta against oil companies, the women of Manipur against the AFSPA, and as the comic reminds us, the Bontoc women in the 1975 anti-mining protests.

At another point in this comic, a community organiser says: “If we do not fight and the dams push through, we die anyway. If we fight, we die honourably.” Faced with certain death, people are made to choose the mode of their own self-annihilation every day: the structural genocide of the corporate state or military extermination while undertaking the essential task of resistance.

In the Philippines, the people are forced to move towards guerrilla warfare eventually: “We learned to use the gun since it was being used against us.” There is intense beauty in this clear-eyed understanding of why militancy is sometimes inevitable. This is rare in today’s pro-market context, where it has become normative to degenerate into the liberal credo of exalting non-violence at all costs. Here, we are shown that people resort to armed struggle only as a last resort when all other means have failed.

Indigenous LGBTQIA+ activism

Many stories in this book on indigenous feminism centre around environmental activism. Brazil, one of the most dangerous places on the planet for environmental activists , also holds the record for being the country with the most numbers of LGBTQIA+ being killed each year.

A panel from Brazilian visual artist Taís Koshino’s graphic narrative “For the right to exist”. 
A panel from Brazilian visual artist Taís Koshino’s graphic narrative “For the right to exist”. 

Taís Koshino’s graphic narrative “For the right to exist: Indigenous LGBTQIA+ activism in Brazil” traces the story of three young Brazilians, and their journeys of politics, selfhood, resistance, and collective building. Looking at heteronormativity as a colonial imposition, these young people struggle with the near-impossibility of knowing how the 300+ indigenous ethnicities in Brazil dealt with the many-splendoured fluidity of gender before the arrival of the colonisers.

A much more immediate, intimate problem is the perils of coming out as an indigenous person. When colonialism made its first inroads, it criminalised sodomy, making it punishable by death, and also frowned upon same-sex relationships. Colonialism first eroded the flexibility of the cultural universe of indigenous people through its rigid social mores and Christian values. Centuries later, when the white liberal imagination became accepting of LGBTQIA+ people, it made indigenous elders look at gayness as a white import. Here we follow young activists as they seek acceptance from their own communities and initiate communion with the spirit world of their ancestors.

Coming to the India story, what strikes one at first glance is the psychedelic rainbow colour palette—sharp lines, symmetric geometric shapes, an overarching presence of grids, bars, and crisscrossing lines. Their rigidity transmits a silent reminder: every society comes with set rules. It simultaneously sends out the subliminal message: hey you, come here, smash these strictures/ structures.

A manifesto of celebration

This narrative traces the story of Chandri of the Aravani art project as she describes her first visit to San Francisco. This is a manifesto of celebration, where “good memories cover many of the deepest of pains”. The pursuit of happiness and self-care are seen as vital: “Loving myself with all of them is a revolution/revolution starts from within.” The mood and texture of this transwoman’s story is different from the many others in this anthology; it is a narrative to counter popular narratives. Reading “Times Will Pass” elicits happiness and admiration in place of sympathy and outrage.

At the end of the book, we encounter the story of Shanti in Nepal. It is a story of grit and resistance—a woman who suffers feudal exploitation by landlords; is pulled out of school into an early marriage; witnesses violence as a child, as a wife, as a mother; and then enmeshed through this process is the empowerment narrative: a woman who writes her angst, a woman who moves to the big city, a woman who equips herself and others economically, and learns the law in order to strengthen her many struggles.

It is a beautiful counterpoint to many other stories in the anthology which rely heavily on the collective. Here, we see that just as the collective affects the individual, an individual too has a profound impact on those around them, and sometimes, it is individuals who catalyse and galvanise the existence of a collective.

In Bandana Tulachan’s hands, Shanti’s story transforms into a beautiful, muted narrative. The reader gets the impression that the storyteller is holding back far more than she shares (in many ways channelling the protagonist). Her subdued anger is poured out only in helpless writing, not in loud words or retaliation.

Many other stories in this collection stood out for me, but I cannot do justice to them in the space of a review. In Greta di Girolamo and Consuelo Terra’s story of Millaray Huichalaf as the protectress of the sacred river, we are asked to revisit our own conceptions about indigenous spirituality. For me, this was another important departure point, to probe the modes of transmission that make us feminists.

Each one of us charts a unique course towards becoming feminists. I came into feminism through a series of influences: the Periyarist Dravidian movement which, in turn, was heavily influenced by European rational thought; English literature in all its forms from Virginia Woolf to Kamala Das. Because we have been conditioned by a feminism that has these influences, how do we also open the space for a feminism that respects ancestral knowledge and traditions without discarding everything as a superstition? These are thought-provoking questions that confront us in the form of this book.

“This anthology of graphic narratives deserves its space on the bookshelf of every young activist because it speaks to our times. Struggles against militarisation and corporatisation are not trapped in the amber of someone’s memories—they are happening in the here and now. ”

There is a tendency to read books as though they are relics, as archives, as documentation. This anthology of graphic narratives deserves its space on the bookshelf of every young activist because it speaks to our times. Struggles against militarisation and corporatisation are not trapped in the amber of someone’s memories—they are happening in the here and now. It is the struggle of the Adivasi people of Chhattisgarh against the military camp in Silger; it is the struggle to save the forests of Hasdeo against the coal-mining projects; it is the struggle of the fisherpeople in Vizhinjam against Adani.

What these narratives drive home is not merely the rich feminist histories that we have to acquaint ourselves with, but also the urgency with which all of us have to join, or at least extend our solidarity to, the indigenous people’s struggles against their displacement. Forced removal, depeopling a place, is the first step towards the disappearance of a body of knowledge, of a way of life, and sometimes a sustainable and democratic mode of existence.

With a brilliantly produced book such as this one, Zubaan proves herself once again as a pioneering feminist publishing house.

Meena Kandasamy is a feminist poet and writer. Her latest published work is The Book of Desire , a translation of the love poetry of Thirukkural.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 27, 2023.)

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