Sunday, September 2, 2018

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley's "Elusive Lives"

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley is Reader in International History in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Elusive Lives: Gender, Autobiography, and the Self in Muslim South Asia, and reported the following:
Elusive Lives is a book about gender, autobiography and the self in Muslim South Asia. A consciously feminist project, it focuses on women who refused to respect cultural taboos against women speaking out and instead told their life stories in the form of written autobiography. Because I am a historian, the sources are highly varied in temporal terms – dating from the sixteenth century to the present in order to give a sense of how autobiography as a literary genre has evolved over time. They also cover a broad geographical area, including present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Women’s voices and stories are thus recovered in a wide range of South Asian languages, including Urdu, English, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and Malayalam.

Page 99 outlines the structure and question for Chapter 3 on ‘The Autobiographical Map’:
This chapter… is divided into three main sections, each of which addresses autobiography’s geography in a different way. In the first, I map authors in regional, local, and religious terms in order to understand how specific locations may have stimulated autobiographical production… The second section then turns to autobiography’s linguistic geography for what it reveals about changing readerships and forms of expression… Readerships are addressed again in the third section, but with a more particular aim of identifying how real and imagined audiences shaped the way in which a life was written… I conclude by considering the model of performance as a theoretical frame.
It is revealing of the book as a whole in that, like each of the five chapters, it asks a simple question of women’s autobiographical writing in Muslim South Asia – in this case, where? Other chapters consider, in turn, what, who, how, and why – with when, the eternal question of the historian, woven throughout.

The quotation above points to how I interpret geography – the where – broadly. How does an author’s physical location, religious affiliation, linguistic choice, and (un)intended readership affect why and how South Asian Muslim women write their lives?

In terms of motivation – the why – I come to two main conclusions. First off, I suggest that the reformist and princely locations that acted as hubs for women’s autobiographical expression reveal autobiography’s important links to sharif redefinition – in other words, the reworking of elite status among Indian Muslims after 1857. An explicit link is thus uncovered between women, reformism, and autobiography in Muslim South Asia.

Secondly, I point to how the socioeconomic, cultural and historical characteristics of different localities enabled women’s autobiography to flourish in certain Muslim locations in the modern era – for example, Bangladesh over Pakistan, Bombay over Lahore, or even one Delhi neighbourhood over an another.

In terms of construction – the how – I employ performative models to show how specific audiences shaped how South Asian Muslim women crafted their autobiographical outputs in terms of content, tone and language at different historical moments: from the colonial to the postcolonial, the reformist to the nationalist, the regional to the global.
Learn more about Elusive Lives at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue