Escaping the male gaze
The following piece was written mere weeks after 'Typically Tanya' was released in 2018. I can't say that my doubts have been allayed. Even so, Tanya continues to send mixed signals to readers. Divisive yet strong, she is here to stay.
Can a male writer climb into a woman’s skin and walk around in it without being crippled by the male gaze? As the author of a novel that is written entirely from a woman’s perspective, I find it difficult to evade this question. What’s more, this question often manifests itself in the form of doubts.
A few months after I delivered the final manuscript of the novel to my publisher, I was told, quite emphatically, by an acquaintance that I was ‘fetishizing’ the struggle of women by choosing to write about them. Her cutting remark stung me, raising in its wake a new set of concerns.
Some weeks later, writer Whitney Reynolds challenged her female Twitter followers to describe themselves as male authors would. The results of this experiment were a scathing indictment of how men fail to portray female characters in an authentic manner. If this social media exercise is anything to go by, male writers who crawl into a woman’s skin fail to capture the nuances of womanhood because they don’t look beyond superficial considerations. Many of them seem to forget the power of empathy and ultimately produce testosterone-fuelled narratives that do little more than ‘mansplain’.
When I began writing the first draft of the novel that eventually became ‘Typically Tanya’, my biggest challenge was to keep my testosterones at bay. My protagonist was a 20-something female journalist in Karachi. Fiercely intelligent, carefree and snide, Tanya Shaukat didn’t enter my ‘male imagination’ as the symbol of perfection and unbridled desire. Instead, the character waltzed into my mind with a complaint: ‘I can’t trust these Careem chauffeurs’.
This happened in September 2016. It was 9:30pm and my shift at the newspaper I used to work for was about to end. Although I was exhausted after a long day of vetting stories about street crimes in Peshawar and a drama-choked provincial assembly session, I opened a Word file and typed out Tanya’s words. Over the next few weeks, I used that sentence to cultivate her story. But something was amiss: the story was narrate entirely from her perspective - or, at least, what I thought was her perspective. I didn’t know if Tanya’s voice represented young women journalists in the city. Her savage humour, candour and carefree demeanour made me doubt whether she was an authentic character or a just another caricature.
Fuelled by doubts, I tried another tactic. I shelved the idea of a first-person narrative and opted for a third-person omniscient narrator. The purpose was to remain objective and avoid misrepresenting my protagonist. However, there is a difference between writing from a woman’s perspective and writing about women. The former requires rare insight into a character’s motivations while the latter is a mechanical exercise that doesn’t always result in a candid portrayal of women.
The omniscient narrator did more damage to Tanya’s story. While Tanya was witty, quirky and bitchy, my narrator was a recalcitrant bore. At times, he (yes, I gave the narrator a gender) was like a voyeur who observed Tanya’s every move with the persistence of a stalker. While he didn’t draw attention to her ‘heaving bosom’ or dare to check out her behind, he made Tanya seem unimaginative. I knew that I couldn’t trust his judgment. After all, this novel was about Tanya. If I killed her voice, it would be equivalent to subjecting the book to an unwanted abortion. So, I went back to the first-person narrative.
But I was still uncertain as to whether Tanya was anything like the young women who I’d met in the newsroom. While I knew that Tanya’s character was an amalgam of some of the women I’d worked with, I didn’t want to solely rely on my own observations. I decided to talk to some of the women journalists I knew about Tanya’s quirks, humour and antics to gauge their response. When I told them that the novel was about her small battles in the newsroom and romantic escapades, they were ecstatic. When I told them that she belonged to a privileged world, and had bold opinions about people and politics, they were skeptical, but encouraging. When I told them that she could be snarky and a bit crass, they fell silent, visibly afraid that I would use them as my muse.
In the nine months that it took me to write the first draft, these reactions were the compass that directed me as to how far I could go to make Tanya come across as realistic. Months later, when my book reached my first readers – a team of editors who didn’t know me – they thought a woman had sent them a manuscript. I could ask for no greater compliment.
As the book makes its journey into the world, I still wonder if I’ve gone miserably wrong with Tanya. Empathy and an eye for detail can only take a writer so far. The subliminal blunders are what trouble me the most. What if I’ve filtered my own ‘male angst’ into this character? What if I have, inadvertently, ‘fetishized’ the struggle of women? I often wonder if I’d doubt my instincts to such an extent while writing about a man.