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Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

Chapter 9

Critics, Crucibles, and a Literary Career

Inez Baranay and Her Indian Novel, Neem Dreams1

Alison Bartlett

When Inez Baranay’s seventh book, Neem Dreams, was released in September 2003, it met with wide critical acclaim in India, yet was barely noticed in Australia. Baranay had been publishing in Australia for almost 20 years, but this novel was published in India, indicating a shift in her publishing career. While Neem Dreams continues Baranay’s interest in issues of Third-World development and with Western tourism, travel and trade, I propose in this chapter that it also engages with Australian literary criticism, especially in postcolonial debates. Neem Dreams was released almost a decade after Baranay’s nonfiction text, Rascal Rain (1994), which met with fierce criticism. That decade was one in which Baranay addressed that criticism, contemporary theory and the academy. I argue, therefore, that Neem Dreams signals Baranay’s uneasy relationship with Australian writing, publishing and identity, as well as her changed attitude to the academy and contemporary theory. While the back cover blurb of Neem Dreams alerts us to the neem tree ‘acting as a kind of crucible for India’, I want to argue that, in many ways, postcolonial theory is the crucible for this book. In this chapter then, I offer a reading of Baranay’s literary career from 1994 to 2004 through its encounters with the academy, with Rascal Rain and Neem Dreams operating as bookends. Her substantial and productive career means that shifts in institutional and political discourses become evident in tracing the ways in which Baranay’s texts and career are read (and written). I am interested in the kinds of questions a career such as hers raises about the imbrication of theory and fiction and the circulation of authority among writers, critics and the academy.

Neem Dreams

Inez Baranay’s seventh book, Neem Dreams, was published in India by Rupa & Co. In many ways it is fitting that it was published in India, as the novel revolves around the lives of mainly four characters in India. Pandora is an Australian whose PhD was on women and development in the Third World. She is an ecofeminist and wants to write about a local women’s project that involves the collection of neem seeds. The project has been organised by Maneeksha, an Indian woman who was educated in the United States and returned to India to be married to Prashant. Prashant and his cousin run the local neem factory, producing skincare products which Jade, another Australian, wants to buy in bulk. She works for an upmarket store in SoHo named Orientalisme, which offers urban New Yorkers the commodities of the East. Jade is particularly attracted to the marketability of the raw brown paper wrapping of the neem soap. Andy is a gay English lawyer in India to cast his lover’s ashes into the Ganges and to find out more about neem as a potential answer to AIDS. The collision of these lives with the politics of globalisation, rural aid, trade agreements, corporate greed, packaging, traditional knowledge and ownership, and postcolonialism all spiral around the neem tree, ‘a kind of crucible’, as the back cover calls it, and a symbol of India. The narrative structure is sophisticated, repeating the same few days from different narrative points of view and covering continents as personal histories are filled in. Interspersed are seven chapters on the myths, remedies, folklore, business, politics and potential patents of the neem tree.

Following the book’s release, reviews from India were glowing. Almost all of them admire Baranay’s skill as a foreigner in capturing an authentic India. Eugenie Pinto’s review in Crossings claims that ‘Inez Baranay’s perception of India is truly amazing. She has put her finger on the pulse of the country—nothing has escaped her keen observation’ (Pinto 2003). Meenakshi Kumar in the Hindustan Times was slightly more hesitant at giving out accolades to a foreigner writing about India:

Like most foreigners who are bitten by the India bug, Australian writer Inez Baranay too, is in love with the country. But unlike most foreigners, it’s not the unwashed sadhus, bedecked elephants or snake charmers who fascinate her or form a part of her writing. Her latest book, Neem Dreams, steers clear of dishing out an exotic India (Kumar 2003).

Swati Pal, in another Indian newspaper, The Sunday Pioneer was similarly happy that the writer does not use India as an exotic backdrop’ (Pal 2003), while Padmini Devarajan, in The Hindu, raised the possibility that gender is another potential hurdle that Baranay overcomes: ‘Baranay has risen above her feminine voice and foreigner perspective to strike a neutral unbiased language as far as basic values and issues are concerned’ (Devarajan 2003). Pal made the claim that Baranay ‘uncannily conjures splashes of Indian reactions, attitudes or relationships with as much authenticity as she does the American, Australian and British ethos’ (Pal 2003). Publishing this novel initially in India was important to the reviewers, perhaps as evidence of Baranay’s commitment to the Indian literary establishment, authenticating her involvement in Indian cultural life, which the reviews applaud as getting it right. But it is also an aspect of representation that Baranay argues is rooted in shared class and cultural values. Outlining her immersion in Indian novels, newspapers, magazines, music, conversations, as well as her travels in India while preparing the manuscript, Baranay suggests that ‘the middle classes have a culture that overlaps several other categories of cultural identity such as nationality and ethnicity’ (Baranay 2004a). On this basis, she suggests that the educated middle-class Indian characters she writes are probably closer to her own cultural identity and sense of self than an Australian woman of a class and life experience different to her own. While this argument is crucial to Baranay’s critical position in representing India, it does not explain why this novel was barely noticed in Australia. Only one online review appeared on an Australian site (API Review of Books), written by an Indian reviewer two years after the novel’s publication (Prasad 2005). While Neem Dreams continued Baranay’s enduring interest in travel, tourism, and development, in other more complex ways it marked her active engagement with academic criticism and postcolonial theory.

Critics

Neem Dreams came almost a decade after the publication of Rascal Rain, Baranay’s first nonfiction book, which narrates her experience as an Australian Volunteer Abroad with a women’s development project in Papua New Guinea. In contrast to the strong reception given to her earlier fiction, Rascal Rain was not well received by reviewers, who focused on its cultural politics as if it were ‘a defence of imperialist projects and attitudes’ (Baranay 2003b:224). One critical article, in the North Queensland journal LiNQ, explored the shortcomings of the book in detail (Ash 1997:44–54). Interested in the discourses that operate to construct the tourist, the traveller and the aid worker, Susan Ash notes that Baranay ‘conspicuously demonstrates political and personal awareness. For example, she recognises the travel industry’s slogan “Papua New Guinea is for travellers not tourists”, as nothing but a “wise-ass distinction”‘ (Ash 1997:47). Ash then asks, ‘can [Baranay] avoid colonizing, exoticizing operations in language? The answer is emphatically no, but what does surprise is the degree and intensity to which she employs “staggeringly” … offensive images of local people’ (Ash 1997:47) and lists examples, including one description of a young boy as a ‘beautiful … fine-boned black-skinned just-out-of-childhood beauty’ (Baranay 1994:1). Ash critiques this by writing,

She calls him a ‘young god.’ (1) In other words, here we have the stock aestheticised, eroticised and sexualised body of the native. In fact, [Baranay] subjects everybody she meets to this penetrating inspection by the Western eye, selecting and filtering the visible for signs which, when translated into narrative, will enter a web of signification already familiar to the Western reader (Ash 1997:48).

In short, Ash concludes that ‘the resulting narrative invokes base, derogatory stereotypes’ (Ash 1997:49).

In the next issue of the journal LiNQ, Baranay wrote a reply to Susan Ash titled, ‘Theory Couldn’t Help Me’, rebutting many of the points Ash made and repositioning herself as a creative writer who does ‘know’ theory but does not find it helpful in her writing. In telling the story of her year in New Guinea, Baranay argues that Rascal Rain was,

a strenuous attempt to make sense of the experience, while looking at ideas of what is a story, woman, race, culture, postcolonialism, development/aid and so on, and whether so-called women’s development in third world countries—these terms I use in implicit multiple inverted commas—obligatory po-mo irony—is feminism or not or should it be or must it not be (Baranay 1998b:54)

In protesting her position as knowing subject rather than naïve writer, Baranay mobilises satire and allusion in her angry defence: ‘to scold about … the “Western eye” is ludicrous. What are writers supposed to do, put out our eyes? To not ever write anything about non-Western people?’ (Baranay 1998b:54–55).

Around this time I had more than a passing interest in Baranay, so I feel obliged to introduce myself as a character in this story of critics, crucibles and literary careers. This part of the story begins in 1992 when, as a beginning graduate student, I wrote to Baranay asking for an interview as part of my doctoral work which sought to position the writer as knowing subject, as theorist of her own work. Baranay was still living in New Guinea. We corresponded briefly. She was moving to Cairns in North Queensland where I had lived and asked advice on where to live. A couple of years later, we ended up living around the corner from each other as I finished writing my PhD and as Rascal Rain was published. The interview took place in March 1993, when Baranay was ‘trying to make sense of the chaotic experience of the year before’ (Baranay 2003b:226).

‘Send me some theory’ she asks, on women’s development, on postcolonialism, on the latest feminism. ‘I don’t have any truck with universities’, she tells me, nor did she have any contact with ‘us’ academics. She met some academics in Goroka, she tells me, but they were nice people. She isn’t joking. ‘I went to university [in the 60s] when the English school was extremely conservative. I was much more interested in the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll of that era. But I didn’t see that reflected anywhere in the way the classes were conducted or in what we were reading [or] how it was talked about’ (Bartlett 1998:220).

When I ask if she had come across any of the French feminists I was using, she says they were ‘just names to me, and they’ve been on my Must Read This One Day list, but haven’t fallen into my lap … I mean, where do you? You have to go to university don’t you, to come across that sort of thing?’ (Bartlett 1998:216). So I sent her some theory. I sent some Irigaray and some Cixous and a commentary by Elizabeth Grosz. I sent some Spivak and Chandra Mohanty’s ‘Under Western Eyes’ (1984), which seems to have become an enduring trope in Baranay’s institutional reception. This was the theory that ‘couldn’t help’, and maybe it indicates some of the limits of theory for articulating politics that have been lived rather than imagined. Baranay presents a compelling quandary for writers who are informed of theoretical debates of cultural representation. Writing in retrospect in 2003, Baranay suggested that the book’s reception was partially over-determined by the pressing social concerns of the time. It appeared, she reminds us, after the 1988 Australian Bicentenary, which officially celebrated 200 years of colonisation in Australia and provoked increased political and social movements to recognise the traumatic Indigenous history this involved. Ash’s critical article coincided with the publication of the Stolen Generations report Bringing Them Home (1997), which documented the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their parents in order to dilute Indigenous culture. Rascal Rain appeared, therefore, ‘in a period of increasing anxiety over Australia’s ongoing shame-making history, and many took pains to demonstrate their difference and distance from the increasingly evident racism inherent in the nation’s structures’ (Baranay 2003b:227). Baranay rues the fact that ‘the book’s serious treatment’ of women, race, culture, postcolonialism, development or aid and feminism was ‘generally neglected’ in its reception (Baranay 2003b:227).

I feel deeply implicated in the matrix of relations being played out here, which I now seek to construct as a narrative of a literary career reshaped by changing cultural formations. It is not coincidental that Susan Ash’s article was published in LiNQ when one of my doctoral supervisors was editor and that Baranay was given the opportunity to respond to Ash’s criticism. In the special issue of Meanjin on Papua New Guinea, in which Baranay’s ‘Fraught Territory’ (Baranay 2003b) was published, editor Drusilla Modjeska attributes Baranay’s dilemmas to the genre of memoir. But the cultural politics of representation are also infused in her latest fiction. If the neem tree is ‘a crucible for India’ (Baranay 2003a), then postcolonial criticism and Australian literary politics also function as crucibles for Neem Dreams.

Crucibles

Neem Dreams is conscious of its engagement with the fraught politics of postcolonial theory. In one scene, the materialistic Jade wants to talk clothes with Pandora, the highly ethical women’s development worker:

‘I secured a special little selection of salwaar kameez, these embroidered ones’, [she says] patting her own ample dimensions, ‘perfect for a New York summer’.

Pandora didn’t say anything. She had emphatically not ‘gone Indian’ in her own dress, in fact she never wore a dress … There was an appropriation issue she avoided by dressing as someone who is fine with the way she usually is (Baranay 2003a:186)

The novel touches on suttee, the practice of widow-burning, by having Pandora think ‘that it is too easy to condemn the practices of other cultures by imposing the standards of our own practices of honour’ (Baranay 2003a:205). Local politics and religious loyalties are conveyed as complex mechanisms, as representations of national identities that are understood to be multifaceted. As Meenaksha tells us, ‘She says there is not a single India and I say there is not a single West’ (Baranay 2003a:223).

The novel, therefore, is acutely aware of the cultural politics of representation. At one particular scene this becomes quite pointed as Pandora—the ethical one—polices herself. Pandora thinks of an Indian boy named Jolly as ‘sweet’:

Uh-oh, hang on a minute, she checks herself, am I allowed to think of Jolly as sweet? Sweet, that word meaning a gentle, attractive demeanour, you can’t call just anyone sweet, sinister meanings are attributed to adjectives applied to identifiable Others. Let’s decide, she decides again, that there are sweet people in all the locations of the world and that I mean the same thing by it wherever I am, though that’s not the end of it according to the professional perversities of certain pundits, critics keen to crow over forbidden perceptions, and whatever you might say about Others is forbidden. Never mind.

‘The tea’s really good’ she said (Baranay 2003a:56).

This does not need a ‘Dear Susan’ for the traces of literary criticism to be readable. In fact Baranay spells it out in the authoritative space of Meanjin, saying that ‘Writing this book was, in effect, an answer to, or defiance of, the objections made to my Rascal Rain and the foreseeable objections to the very project of writing a novel set in India with Indian characters’ (Baranay 2003b:225). Neem Dreams seems to offer a responsive example of a text affected by institutionally regulated reading formations, which David Carter (1997:x) argues can ‘govern how texts get to be written and get to be read’.

Literary careers

It is easy to read the decade of Baranay’s career from 1994 to 2004 as being driven by the need to defend her writing. But I do not want this to turn into a story of the lone writer accosted by academic critics and then spending years in her turret, or travelling the world, writing back to the academy. Instead, my interest is in the shifting cultural formations at work in shaping her writing, reputation and reception. David Carter elegantly articulates the ways in which literary institutions—of writing, of theory, of criticism and publication and reviewing—can ‘be discovered as textual or narrative effects which in turn will depend for their significance on the institutions governing what counts as literariness, as authorship, as appropriate reading, as a “serious” career in a specific literary system’ (Carter 1997:xi). Such cultural formations cannot be figured, Carter argues, in dichotomous terms like inside/outside, creative/critical, because they generate affects on each other—they form relationships.

Baranay’s construction as a writer in the public domain exemplifies this. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Baranay’s reputation could easily have been read, as I read it in my doctoral work, as pivoting on her position as a multicultural and a woman writer at a time when multiculturalism was still a federal directive and feminism a powerful social movement. Small presses actively published writers like Baranay. Even though Baranay has been dubious of being labelled in these ways, she benefited from their cultural currency, contributing to Sneja Gunew and Jan Mahyuddin’s Beyond the Echo: Multicultural Women’s Writing (1987) and to Sneja Gunew and Anna Couani’s Telling Ways: Australian Women’s Experimental Fiction (1988). Her biography on the Austlit Gateway emphasises her multicultural dimension, saying that she writes in English and that she has worked for the federal Department of Immigration, among other things.

Now, however, when positions like ‘multicultural’ or ‘woman’ writer are barely noticed in federal policy or publishing priorities, Baranay’s biography demands to be read quite differently. Her biographical details as she presents them on her website begin by positioning Baranay as only provisionally Australian:

I was born in Naples, Italy of Hungarian parents who emigrated to Australia when I was a baby. I was educated in the western suburbs of Sydney then moved to the inner city. I lived in Malaya with my parents as a teenager for two years, and began my adult travels with a trip to Bali in the late 1970s (Baranay 2012).

Note how her parents emigrated rather than immigrated, locating the subject elsewhere in relation to Australia. This gesture is repeated through listing other international locations for growing up and a continuing adult life of travel that ‘began’ in Bali. Her writing history is also decidedly charted through her travels, through her connections with and movement between other places:

The Edge of Bali (1992) marked the end of 40 years based in Sydney (including travels in South-East Asia, Europe, Morocco and India).I went to Papua New Guinea with Australian Volunteers Abroad in 1992 (the subject of Rascal Rain: a year in Papua New Guinea (1994)) … I lived in Far North Queensland for the next few years, in Cairns and then Torres Strait Islands. In 1997 Sheila Power was published. During this time I also spent time in the USA, mostly New York City, with a stay in 1995 at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, and I India, where I have been several times to study yoga. Other trips to India have included a period as writer-in-residence at the University of Madras (2001) and a Literature Residency granted by Asialink (2002). India is the setting for my novel, Neem Dreams (2003) and was first published there (Baranay 2012).

I read this biography as a claim to be much more than an Australian writer. There seems to be a distancing of the writerly self from Australian literature, and more of a positioning as global citizen. Indeed, in an interview for The Hindu in 2003, Baranay maintains that ‘nativity doesn’t define us … After World War II, [my parents] happened to land up in Australia with a random throw of the dice. Italy is now just a name to me and being an Australian is only a twist of fate … I became an Australian only by leaving the country’ (Baranay 2003c). If ‘multicultural’ and ‘woman’ writer are labels that are relics of the 1980s publishing and literary worlds, then Baranay seems to have adopted the markers of a newly cosmopolitan globalised economy to position her work and her career.

In this discourse, Baranay’s identity and career have been resignified in order to do the work of authorising, as Carter suggests happens continually in the drive to authorise authorship:

To write involves situating the text in a particular career trajectory the possibilities of which will be determined by the other texts and careers circulating in the relevant literary system … The writer’s own prior texts and careers will be part of what is at stake, part of the structuring context, in any new act of writing; and any new writing which is granted status within the career will work to re-order, to re-write, this prior history (Carter 1997:xii).

This sort of reworking of prior history is evident in granting status to Neem Dreams, for while multiculturalism and woman writer are displaced for a more cosmopolitan cultural currency, Baranay mobilises that history in new ways to shore up her engagement with the literary politics of postcolonialism. She argues in a 2004 critical article that while she is so obviously a ‘foreigner’ in India, it is not a new experience for her: ‘I grew up in an Australia where reffos like my family were foreigners, so a sense of foreignness, of parts of myself as essentially Other, had become part of my sense of myself’ (Baranay 2004a). Even as she writes this, however, there is still a willingness for shift-shaping again, as she claims ‘the writer goes on being shaped and changed by new texts and new characters, both other to and inextricable from, her sense of self’ (Baranay 2004a; also 2004b).

Such a rewriting, or rereading, of Baranay’s career, also tacitly suggests a displacement from Australian literary establishments. Indeed, this is evident in her relations with Australian publishers, who told Baranay that there was ‘no market’ for Neem Dreams (Baranay 2003b:228) and that the India and its characters in the book ‘were not recognisable to them’ (Baranay 2004a). She cannot persuade publishers to reprint her previous works, most of which are out of print (Baranay 2004d). In order to sustain the circulation of her writing, she has consciously taken control of her publishing and distribution. In 2004 she released Three Sydney Novels, which packages her previous books, Pagan (1990), Between Careers (1989) and Sheila Power (1997) in one cover and she has distributed Neem Dreams outside of India herself. This perhaps indicates much about the market-driven publishing industry, but also suggests a shift in the business of being a writer and an Australian writer in particular. Writers have for some time been obliged to market themselves as commodities—for writers’ festivals and for creative writing courses—and Baranay suggests that self-publication and self-marketing is the next step. But this step also suggests a more conscious control of a career, of rewriting prior texts and future career trajectories. This need not be judged in a cynical or a celebratory way, but seems an extension of narratives of globalised corporations and trade agreements, individual packaging and ownership issues—the very themes of Neem Dreams.

In addition, Baranay’s association with universities has been irrevocably changed since 1994. Not only has she been writer-in-residence and taught creative writing at universities, but she has also completed a PhD. Her second book of nonfiction, Sun Square Moon: Writings on Yoga and Writing (2005), includes material that began as part of her PhD. Baranay reviews, gives conference papers, and publishes monographs and academic papers, but still consciously positions herself as a creative writer for whom university is one of the fields in which she operates. But if Baranay’s literary career has been reshaped through her textual interactions with academia, is the opposite also evident? Does the interaction between creative writing and academic writing as it merges in the form of doctoral graduates disrupt the sedimented divisions between writers and theorists? If Baranay now has academic credentials, does it change how we read her work? Will she receive the serious treatment she imagined for Rascal Rain? Can a writer like Baranay be regarded as doing postcolonial work in the form of fiction? Can a writer’s ethics and aesthetics be considered as seriously as a critic’s? Somehow, I am not so optimistic about these possibilities, although I should be. These questions prod and stretch the institutional formations through which we read and write careers, including our own.

Works cited

Ash, Susan 1997, ‘Aid work, travel and representation: Inez Baranay’s Rascal rain and Alice Walker’s Warrior marks’, LiNQ 24(2).

Baranay, Inez 1989, Between careers, Collins Australia, Sydney.

— 1990, Pagan, Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, NSW.

— 1992, The edge of Bali, Angus & Robertson, Pymble, NSW.

— 1994, Rascal rain: a year in Papua New Guinea, Angus & Robertson, Pymble, NSW.

— 1997, Sheila power: an entertainment, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.

— 1998a, ‘Creativity: review’, TEXT 2(2), www.textjournal.com.au/oct98/baranay.htm, viewed 12.3.2012.

— 1998b, ‘Theory couldn’t help me’, LiNQ 25(1).

— 2003a, Neem dreams, Rupa & Co., Delhi.

— 2003b, ‘Fraught territory’, Meanjin 62.

— 2003c, ‘Speaking through her work’, [interview with] TA Hafeez, The Hindu: Literary Review, 2 November, www.hindu.com/thehindu/lr/2003/11/02/stories/2003110200110400.htm, viewed 12.3.2012.—2004a, ‘It’s the other who makes my portrait: writing self, character and the other’, TEXT 8(2).

— 2004b, ‘Multiculturalism, globalisation and worldliness: origin and destination of the text’, JASAL 3.

— 2004c, Three Sydney novels, The Three Sydney Novels Project, Sydney.

— 2004d, Personal communication, 2 February.

— 2005, Sun square moon: writings on yoga and writing, Sun Square Moon, Sydney.

— 2012, ‘Inez Baranay’, www.inezbaranay.com, viewed 12.3.2012.Bartlett, Alison 1998, Jamming the machinery: contemporary Australian women’s writing, Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Toowoomba.

Carter, David 1997, A career in writing: Judah Waten and the cultural politics of a literary career, Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Toowoomba.

Devarajan, Padmini 2003, ‘Unbiased perspective’, The Hindu: Literary Review, 2 November, www.hindu.com/lr/2003/11/02/stories/2003110200100400.htm, viewed 12.3.2012.

Gunew, Sneja and Jan Mahyuddin 1987, Beyond the echo: multicultural women’s writing, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.

Gunew, Sneja and Anna Couani 1988, Telling ways: Australian women’s experimental fiction, Australian Feminist Studies, Adelaide.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997, Bringing them home: report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, Sydney.

Kumar, Meenakshi 2003, ‘Writer from down under sells’ Hindustan Times 4 September.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, 1984, ‘Under Western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourses’, Boundary 2 12(3)/13(1).

Pal, Swati 2003, [Review of Neem dreams by Inez Baranay], The Sunday Pioneer 14 September.

Pinto, Eugenie 2003, ‘Indian dreams’, Crossings 8.3, http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/13231/20040203-0000/asc.uq.edu.au/crossings/8_3/indexa7f8.html?apply=dream, viewed 12.3.2012.

Prasad, Ch A Rajendra 2005, ‘Neem dreams by Inez Baranay’, API Review of Books June, www.api-network.com/main/index.php?apply=reviews&webpage=api_reviews&flexedit=&flex_password=&menu_label=&menuID=homely&menubox=&Review=5429, viewed 12.3.2012.

1   This chapter is a revised version of Chapter 1 of Australian Made: A Multicultural Reader, edited by Sonia Mycak and Amit Sarwal (Sydney University Press, Sydney, 2010), which was first published in Antipodes December 2007.

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

   by Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal