Multicultural Voices of Women

ALTHOUGH each of these volumes is a collection of writing by Asian or African women - filling a need for more ``multicultural,'' non-Western literature by women in classrooms, libraries, and readers' hands - the scope and the editorial concept as to what constitutes an anthology is quite different in each case.

Indian women have their say

With its two-tome, 1,180-page heft and 2,600-year time frame (600 B.C. to the present), the monumental ``Women Writing in India'' is a ground-breaking and visionary work. It was assembled in India over several years with a small army of researchers, translators, and contributing editors and from a dozen regional languages. The editors have overcome the neglect and obscurity created by centuries of male bias against women's writing, the deterioration and scattering of handwritten manuscripts, and the difficulties of translating archaic dialects.

Presenting 140 texts never before available together, this anthology reveals the diverse contours of a veritable subcontinent of women's voices. Without simplifying the complexity and heterogeneity of India's history and culture, the editors make the literature of India's women - and the lives from which that literature emerges - accessible and vibrant to non-Indians. Painstaking research and passionate commitment inform the illuminating introductions to each period, literary movement, and author; sensitive translators have rendered regional-language contributions in lively, natural English; and pages of bibliography give suggestions for additional reading.

Despite its size and sweep, this anthology never weighs heavily, except perhaps in parts of the introduction. General readers could bypass the lengthy critique of Eurocentric Western feminist literary criticism, and go on to what the Indian women writers have to say for themselves, about themselves, their society, their region, and their century. These are sure to become classic texts in the study of South Asian cultural history, literature by women, and women's studies.

Insights into Iranian life

``A Walnut Sapling on Masih's Grave and Other Stories by Iranian Women,'' edited and in large part translated by Persian literature scholar John Green and Near Eastern specialist Farzin Yazdanfar, is a handsome paperback. The editors intend no literary canon, but simply a collection of readable and interesting stories written between 1945 and 1989 by Iranian women - some prominent authors, others prominent women with few literary pretensions.

The volume has all the features of careful scholarship - a foreword by eminent Arab women's literature critic Evelyne Accad; a glossary of Iranian terms; a note on transliteration systems (one by pronunciation, one the Library of Congress standard for Farsi); a selected bibliography of original Farsi-language works - all of which should appeal to the academically inclined.

Their universal concerns - romance, infidelity, family crises, societal roles - especially those incumbent upon women in a male-dominated, gender-segregated Islamic culture - should give these stories broad appeal. But the first few selections seem obscure and inward in their cultural references, and their stream-of-consciousness style might be evocative in Farsi but does not translate well.

Readers might lose interest before reaching such powerful stories as ``Haj Barekallah,'' about the disastrous consequences of a just-married adolescent girl's expression of admiration for a handsome Shiite actor; or ``The Starling Spring,'' a modern reenactment of an ancient rural myth from the point of view of a sympathetic male character troubled by his attraction to a spirited young married woman. Written by Iranians for Iranians, the stories allow non-Iranian readers to glimpse the rich, poetic Persian spirit trapped within the rigid social constraints all Iranians, especially women, endure.

New African literature

In part because it is pan-African - a generous but not overwhelmingly large selection of short fiction, novel, and memoir excerpts written since the late 1960s - ``The Heinemann Book of African Women's Writing,'' an edition compiled by world literature scholar Charlotte H. Bruner, is more diverse than the Iranian collection.

This book is a follow-up to the 1983 anthology ``Unwinding Threads,'' also edited by Bruner back when African women's writing was a mere smattering of isolated voices, each neglected in a continent dominated by patriarchal cultures. Attesting to how far African women have come in only 10 years, this new collection presents writers who have emerged since the earlier volume. These writers have published since political independence, increased contacts with postcolonial Western culture, technological ``modernization,'' and the beginnings of indigenous feminist movements.

Their voices reflect a rapidly changing Africa - in which traditional tribal customs and values are being reexamined and redefined, rural life is receding under the onslaught of urban influences, and relationships between men and women, blacks and whites, and ethnic and religious communities are altering in unforeseen ways.

Most of these writers have lived transitional lives. Most have begun in traditional family settings in one of Africa's diverse cultures, speaking their community's language - Arabic, Hausa, Igbo, Swahili, Luo, Portuguese, or Urdu. But almost all received Western-style schooling, and most have gone for higher education abroad, doing research and work in the West or India.

In fact, most of these stories are written in English, or translated from French or Portuguese. These writers' awareness of a Western readership for their work is reflected in plots, characters, and cultural references presented in a manner accessible to non-African readers; yet our sense of encountering African reality is not at all diluted. The cultural translation is accomplished by the writers themselves.

The stories are by women who have interacted with cultures outside of Africa, and who know how to illuminate the reality of their own particular African nation. The introductory essays on the four geographical regions and the biographical notes on each author provide interesting background information and help put the stories into context.

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