Janice Pariat: Women Need The Space To Tell Their Own Stories

"Women shouldn’t be pinned down to one single identity, no matter what it is, we should be allowed to thrive in abundance and multiplicity," tells Janice Pariat

Ragini Daliya
Feb 21, 2023 12:58 IST
Janice Pariat interview
Lyrical (quite literally), might probably be the best way to describe Janice Pariat’s books. Her latest 'Everything the Light Touches' focuses on four people whose paths do not crisscross, but whose stories are tangled together like roots, through the ways in which they encounter the natural world around them.

In contemporary times, Shai, a young woman, goes to her hometown Meghalaya and explores her roots. In British India, a woman botanist wants to prove herself in a system that favours men. In 1786, legendary German playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe travels through Italy, realising the shortfalls of the scientific processes while in 1732, botanist Carl Linnaeus journeys through the Lapland region.

The blurb for the book aptly describes the discourse of the book and its findings: "At the heart of the book lies a tussle between different ways of seeing - those that fix and categorize, and those that free and unify."

Pariat opened on the genesis of her book in SheThePeopleTV's latest edition of Women Writers Fest. She disclosed her research for the book, how she infused themes of nature and homecoming, and much more. In an interview later, Pariat spoke more on the importance of the female gaze, the urgency to dismantle patriarchy and why all female writers must travel.


Janice Pariat interview

Pariat, who was born in Assam and grew up in Shillong, Meghalaya, is a remarkable writer and poet. I came across her writings when I was gifted her book The Nine-Chambered Heart (2017) by a very dear friend. The book is divided into nine—interlinked yet distinct—parts, all focusing on the same female protagonist. The novel instead provides fragmented narratives from the perspectives of different characters, who are mostly male. All the narrators have been in love with the main character at varying points in her life. They speak so delicately of her and attempt to highlight different personality traits while talking about the relationship they share with her. It was a difficult read for I was reading it while going through a tough breakup. I wondered if I would ever be perceived like this protagonist. This emphatic yet sensual female gaze drove the book and its character.

When I asked Pariat what she thought of the female gaze in male-authored stories, she smirked almost trying to remember the last book she liked by a male author who wrote female characters with empathy.


"The writing that happens between any two imbalanced, hierarchical power dynamics is always complicated. So for instance men writing women, or white people writing black characters, it is so important to always interrogate and incorporate the subject positions. It is paramount to be aware of and acknowledge them. Who are they and what stories are you telling? These become very important questions for there are so many historical imbalances and bias-ness especially when it comes to women. I am glad these conversations are happening to begin with but I think it becomes even more important that we are writing our own stories. Women's writing is finding commonplace amongst male-authored writings. One of the recent books that come to mind is Names of the Women by Jeet Thayil where he retells stories of women characters from the Bible and he's literally giving voice to those women. There are attempts like these that are very noble and one must acknowledge and encourage them but I would imagine it is, of course, important to focus on giving women the space, the access and the ability to tell their own stories."

Pariat firmly believes women must come forth together to dismantle patriarchy, however, it often comes at a cost. Social media and the internet don't really bode well when it comes to openness and thoughts.

"Social media and the Internet are such complicated spaces and for me, the worst of it was during the anti-CAA protests. There were particularly some inflammable conversations that were happening online and offline. Some tweets were also heralded at me and sadly many many women were recipients of this negativity. They were named, shamed and blamed. It is kind of a terrifying, terribly humiliating, vulnerable space to be in, so I have been off Twitter since 2019. I don’t know if that’s the best way to deal with this but it was important for me and my mental health. I drew a line, a boundary and I promised to uphold it. On the other hand, Instagram has been such a different kind of space, for example, it is more community-driven and in many ways, it echoes your energy. I just find it a more supportive space."


There's a certain ease when Pariat talks about her books, her characters and their journey. She speaks about the rigorous research she did for her book and how after a certain point, she could have full-blown conversations and arguments with them. When asked if it was possible for a character to stay with her long after the book was published. She nodded with a loud yes.

"Lovely! But my answer would vary on a day-to-day basis. Some days I am drawn to Shai because she and I share a great similarity of place and journeying, she is from where I am, and hence there seems to be an obvious and parallel connection. But some days I am drawn to Evie and her spirit of adventure. And her desire to see the world and wake up in a new place every day. She too wants to explore and not be shackled by the expectations of a deeply patriarchal society. Or to be married and settled, I am drawn to her in many ways.

Somedays, I also think a lot about someone like Goethe, who was a German playwright but he was also an incredible scientist and botanist which is something that most people could not fathom because they thought, 'how can you be a poet and scientist?' That idea of categorising - 'oh, you can be only one thing and not another,' I think, is a very deep act of cruelty. So I am deeply drawn to him because he puts his foot down and says why can’t I be both?"


"We shouldn’t be pinned down to one single identity, no matter what it is, we should be allowed to thrive in abundance and multiplicity, we encompass so many worlds, and that is the true act of freedom and empowerment."

Like her characters, Pariat strongly urges young women writers to step out and explore the world, to gain perspectives. She concludes, "To travel is to go out, but it's also to go in. To travel is to discover the world, but also discover oneself and, of course, we are in privileged positions to say this because, obviously, it is not accessible to everybody. But whatever little we can do, we must put ourselves at the grassroots, at the level of the earth and confront unfamiliarity, confront newness. This also constantly requires a shift of perspectives within ourselves and how we deal with this tells more about ourselves. So, I think it is so important to be in the world, to understand who you are within. And honestly, how do you write if you don’t live?"

Suggested Reading: Everything The Light Touches: Janice Pariat’s Journey Of Discovering Her Roots

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