Gender Troubles When Gender Travels: Locating the Discursive Identities in Shivya Nath’s ‘The Shooting Star’
By Puja Chakraborty
Travel narratives, in general, start with an outward journey which eventually ends in an intrapersonal dialogism, reflecting a world within for further excavation. The epistemological modal of travel writings lies mainly in the trope of ‘discovery’, which predominantly entails topographical discoveries and self/other binaries. However, the early history of travel literature is exceptionally a visceral record of male travellers with sporadic traces of women travellers of little or of no major reference. Needless to say, the cult position of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) can never be equated with any other travel narratives of that period penned by a female author. Such discrimination unmistakably points to the ‘gendered’ imprint of this genre, followed by a critical question: why does gender matter for women as mobile subjects? In search of an answer, this paper purports to analyse the overlapping structure of gender, journey and identity with a focused discussion of Shivya Nath’s The Shooting Star: A Girl, Her Backpack and the World (2018). The idea of ‘trouble’ both as verb and noun is suggested in the title of the paper; the first anticipates the obstacles to any female itinerant, while the latter questions the veracity of patriarchal notions, regarding the mobility of women. Therefore, the primary objective of the study is to critically negotiate the position of female travellers and their oft-neglected agency to represent an alternative view of the world, transcending the spatio-temporal construction which provides a discursive definition of this utterly flexible generic form.
Kristi Siegel in Gender, Genre and Identity in Women’s Travel Writing (2004) suggests that for many travellers, a sense of identity and place can be achieved only by finding connections between their new surroundings and their memories of home. Nath’s travelogue resonates the same tone. Exploration of the world to refurbish her inner self becomes a biological catalyst to her. She recounts, “But I do remember this unmistakable feeling, as I lay on that rooftop, as I lay under the million stars, that my life was about to change. I can’t explain it. It was like a calling.” Nath’s primal motif is to relocate her identity as a young woman, going against the societal decorum, embarking on solo trips to foreign lands so that she can free herself from patriarchal incarceration. But the process has never been easy; the obstacles she faces, her moral dilemmas, the tremendous familial pressure which she discourages bravely – combining all, this becomes an index to gauge the regressive society where an unescorted female traveller is a perpetual subject of deep-rooted patriarchal stereotypes, suspicion, worry, pity and even lustful sights. The world of a woman is constantly shaped and reshaped by the phallocentric power structure. Women are supposed to lean on the tendril of the male supremacy in order to construct their subjectivity. In lieu of such parasitical existence, Nath firmly decides to take the leash of her life in her own hand. She asserts:
The desire of travelling solo had perhaps sprung out of the inherent frustration of growing up as a sheltered girl in India. One who couldn’t even take control of her own life. One who always needed a man to protect her. One who, even after becoming financially independent, needed to rely on others to make her own decisions. (785)
By departing herself from the expectancies of conventional domesticity, of a comfortable ‘settled job’, of affirming to the normative forms of feminine roles, the writer ensconces a powerful feminist stance. Her choice of a ‘different’ way of life gives her the agency as a female traveller to express her myriad impressions within a specific context that involuntarily ‘renews and re-genders’ the genre of travel writing.
While discussing the nineteenth and twentieth-century women travel writers, Sara Mills in Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (1991) asks some important questions that investigate how feminists read women’s travel narratives. She points out that there are some attempts to project the early female travellers as the precursors of feminist ideologies as some of them have redefined the assumptions of the ‘feminine way of travel’. She opines:
Because of our concern as feminists to trace a female tradition of writing, we might find that our readings of women’s travel writing emphasise the shared elements within the text by women in order to foreground their difference to man’s writing. (Mills 28)
A ‘symptomatic reading’ of The Shooting Star entails some ‘shared elements’ that make this novel irrevocably self-reflexive. Every time the author visits a new place, she inadvertently plunges into a much complex realm of nostalgia to trace how much she has remodified her ways of perceiving the world around, merging both time and place. Tim Youngs in The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing (2013), writes, “The travelling first-person narrator not only looks at those who inhabit the places through which he or she passes, but views them in ways that throw light on his or her own anxieties and desires and of the home culture.” Travelling not only allows her to experience new exotic locations but also gives her some philosophical perspectives on life and its most innate existential crisis. She ruminates:
That when it first dawned on me that most of us have developed a strange approach towards life. We tend to make big changes only when tragedy strikes. We tend to look for alternative paths only when we feel we’ve hit rock-bottom. We tend to ask existential questions about happiness only when we are at our most miserable. (Nath 350)
Carol Lazzaro-Weis in From Margins to Mainstream: Feminism and Fictional Modes in Italian Women’s Writings 1968-1990 (1996) suggests that a “theory of experience allows a woman to contemplate how she places herself or is placed in social reality,” and what constitutes that can be perceived as subjects. This idea is very crucial in terms of (self) revelation vis-à-vis transformation. Her encounter with a group of young nuns, who enter the world of asceticism more out of poverty than sheer spiritual cause, de-glorifies the myth of rigorous austerity. But at the same time, it dawns on her that to transcend the materially determined borders of existence, one needs to unclutter oneself from too much of worldly belongingness. Though travel entices constant mobility in the outer world, it is perhaps those tiny moments of intermission that ignites the inner self to traverse through the ontological stagnation towards newer forms of teleological reflection.
The paucity of the female agency in travel narratives foregrounds a critical point pertaining to the gender issue. Women, in general, as mobile subjects are placed in a subservient position considering their physical and mental resilience in comparison to men. Here, Kristi Siegel applies an interesting term, the ‘rhetoric of peril’ to underscore the biased understanding of women’s medical condition, especially those who dare to drift from their prescribed ‘domestic’ path. Siegel elucidates the post-enlightenment discoveries in medical science that demarcate the female body from the male one, marking reproduction as a pathological condition rather than a natural one (62). She aptly remarks:
… the “rhetoric of peril” embedded in medical language dating from the eighteenth century explained how women’s bodily process, once considered normal, were now viewed as innately pathological. Menstruation, ovulation, pregnancy and menopause all served to weaken women’s clearly inferior bodies… Medically and morally, a woman needed to stay “on the path”… A good woman, who obeyed her doctor, would have an easy labor, deliver a healthy baby, and would, of course, stay at home (63).
Interestingly, even in the twenty-first century, the imbricated concepts of health, sexual morality and safety, exponentially shun away the possibilities of a woman to take travelling as a hobby, let alone profession. The same dilemma is confronted by Nath, when she decides to leave her ‘stable’ cubicled job and becomes a digital nomad. The idea of unescorted (especially by man) travel for a woman has always been a mystery to almost everyone who has found the author strolling by a beach on a romantic sunset or lying under a starry sky. In fact, she expresses this bewilderment in a tongue-in-cheek manner, “If I had a dime for each time someone asked me what it was to travel alone, as a woman, or called me brave for travelling far and wide, as a woman, I’d be a millionaire.” For many a time, she asserts that the world is not too menacing for women to bury their desire for exploration, that the patriarchal notion of vulnerability associated with the female body is nothing but a well-constructed myth. But having said that, she also advises taking proper cognition of any imminent threat, to carry a weapon for self-defence at all time. Eventually, it is impossible to rescind any degree of danger that travel can present for a woman.
The discourse of female travellers as ‘gendered self’, furthermore, entices certain queries: do women’s travel accounts essentially differ from those written by men, or, in what way the gender matrix affects the function of ‘gazing around’ the world? One such assumption could be centred on an ecocritical understanding of the travelogues. The discursive image of the colonial male explorers has largely been sexualised as a man, bending on the virgin land, penetrating it in order to own it. The natural world is portrayed as a feminine subject that can be ‘explored’ (Bassentt, 231). Significantly, the women travellers present a subversive account of this sexual narrative. Their putative ground puts more concern on the ecological balance, rather than exploiting it. In contemporary times, when travelling by its own merit causes environmental pollution, wastage, and exhaustion of natural resources, thus contributing straight to the evil caldron of global warming, Nath consciously as well as cautiously promotes sustainable tourism, which collaborates environment and economy, inasmuch to reduce the carbon footprint. Her slow mode of exploration opts for viable choices that empower the economically weaker section of the community, often volunteering in their traditional way of living. Kylie Crane in the essay Ecocriticism and Travel (2019) stresses, “Bringing ecocriticism to travel writing entails caution towards gestures of displacing the perceiving subject, and emphasises the ways in which the environment is co-constitutive in identity.” Nath’s varied impressions of animal cruelty to bolster the food business changes her way of perceiving the world. She construes veganism, though expensive but worth the prodigality, as an eco-friendly medium of sustenance. Her empathetic vision of tourism sets a new goal for the new-age travel enthusiasts while engaging in more organic components of the environmental co-existence process.
The unique prolificacy of solo female travel writings is embedded with broader reflections on social, personal and political changes, as the journeys they embark on are both inner and outer journeys, aiming towards greater self-awareness, gained through experiences. Therefore, the quest for self-expression, while formulating the identity, becomes a common factor in women’s travelogues. Given the accountability of selfhood and identity formation, the contemporary theorisation on gender and its societal value have occupied a major position. The postmodern conception of gender role is equally versatile and deconstructive. According to Judith Butler, the concept of gender is essentially “a performative repetition of acts” associated with male and female. She presses on that it is our “behaviour” that assigns us the role of masculinity or femininity rather than our biological determinant because the body “becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised and consolidated through time.” Needless to say, the much-anticipated constraints imposed by society on women in the name of gender and its biased “performativity” can be rightfully questioned, as it is posed in Nath’s unabashed self-assertion. Through her ‘palimpsestic’ rendition, she crosses new thresholds, thereby engaging dialectically in the formulation of an alternative canon of travel writing.
Among the various underlying meanings, engrafted in the warnings and fear of women’s being mobile subjects, is the fear of them being “on the loose.” Their mobility is essentially a question of morality, pivotally regulated by the dominant social, cultural and political paradigms. The fairy-tale impersonification of women as innocent and fragile, as enforced by a patriarchal social order, impels them to seek a saviour who would save their sanctity if they encounter any danger. But Shivya Nath’s compelling narrative opens up newer vistas for women; it simultaneously encourages them to be self-sufficient while setting foot on the road, to take a step away from the ‘prescribed’ path, to be the “Little Red Riding Hood” who would not be afraid of the cunning wolf or wait for the knight to save her, but would confidently choose her own way because, as the proverb goes: “no way is wrong or right, it is the journey that makes thing bright.”
Basu Chaudhuri, Sanchari .(2020) Flânerie in female solo travel: an analysis of blogposts from Shivya Nath’s the Shooting Star, Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities. (Vol. 12, No 3)
Butler, Judith. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge.
Crane, Kylie. (2019) Ecocriticism and Travel, Cambridge University Press.
Lazzaro-Weis, Carol. (1996) From Margins to Mainstream: Feminism and Fictional Modes in Italian Women’s Writings 1968-1990, University of Pennsylvania Press.
Mills, Sara. (1991) Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism, Routledge.
Nath, Shivya. (2018) The Shooting Star: A Girl, Her Backpack and the World, Penguin Books, Kindle Edition.
Siegel, Kristi. (2004) Gender, Genre and Identity in Women’s Travel Writing, Peter Lang, US.
Young, Tim. (2013) The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing, Cambridge University Press.
Puja Chakraborty currently works as a state-aided college teacher at Malda Women’s College, West Bengal, India. Her areas of interest include Gender studies, Postcolonial studies, contemporary Indian Writing in English and Diasporic literature.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.