The Art of Letters: Works by Zarina Hashmi and Sophie Calle

Writing and Illustration by Selin Genc.


Unfurling on sand-coloured Japanese Kozo paper are swift strokes of handwritten Urdu script. The clear and homey penmanship is not a calligraphic masterpiece, but something more precious: fragments of an intimate correspondence. Opaque black ink —outlining a building plan, a city map, an abstract grid— frames and obscures the words. In Letters from Home (2004), Zarina Hashmi transcribes letters from her sister onto printing plates, to overlay them with woodblock and metal-cut topographic prints of her own design. For those who are versed in the language, the eight sheets reveal family events. They bring news, from one sister in Pakistan, to another in America. They report the selling of a property, announce the death of a relative, and celebrate a marriage. As well as this, they convey more mundane, daily realities; a parallel life taking place at a home away from home. Shortly after Hashmi left India with her husband in 1958, her family was forced to migrate to the newly emergent borders of Pakistan. Both sisters were in diaspora and in exile in their own turn. Memories of their shared childhood home were now the only landmark, however spectral, for their common life. How does one relate to ‘back home’ when things have radically changed in the place of ‘origin’? I am reminded of the poet Khalil Gibran’s words: ‘Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast,’ he writes, ‘It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye.’ By overlaying her sister’s letters with cartographic images and architectural plans, Hashmi gently encloses, as if by eyelids, the written word and grounds her own belongingness beside her sister, the apple of her eye. We each are unstable particles, shifting, reshuffling, and transforming; and so are the places and people we depart from. It might be a tempestuous political situation or an unforeseen familial event that transforms the whole topography of a place that we thought was immutable to change. ‘Once India became independent and the country was divided,’ remarks Hashmi, ‘a certain culture was over.’ Subtle, quotidian dynamics also cause metastasis— as life goes on, entropy takes hold. Letters from Home are written from a home and a country that Hashmi has not lived in; nonetheless, in her sister, and through their continuing correspondence, Hashmi feels emotionally rooted, without having to be physically anchored. Her sister is her home, and the letters are one of the channels through which they cultivate a shared space. In the unstable environments and circumstances we live amidst, a sense of situatedness can emerge out of how we attend to one another. Sometimes, this common world can be coded in our unique handwriting, the etched paper becoming a collaborative space and a place of communion.

Zarina Hasmi, Letters from Home, 2004. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hashmi-letters-from-home-p80181

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I first started exchanging letters with my friend M., inspired by a suggestion in Alex Martinis Roe’s book To Become Two: Propositions for Feminist Collective Practice. Upon a few swaps, our correspondences became increasingly layered, with multiple threads interweaving. Sometimes, we did not write for months on end, letting words ferment and life happen in between the pauses. From one interior to another, the sheets of paper became a material bridge connecting our spaces, our hearts, and our consciousnesses. It offered a mode of being and thinking together, across timezones and borders, cultivating a shared garden, where we watered, with our words, seeds of thoughts. Our personal act also has political resonance, I believe. In European literary history, women’s letter-writing is a keystone in the development of écriture féminine. In her coinage of the term, Hélène Cixous writes ‘woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.’ Through writing, we love each other and love ourselves. By writing letters, we can attend to one another’s words, repudiate high-culture conventions, and find our own tongue— this is écriture féminine par excellence. Historically, letter-writing has provided women with an opportunity to indulge in words and assert themselves intellectually. As Virginia Woolf famously argues in A Room of One’s Own, women have been systematically denied the space and the means to engage in creative activities. Yet 18th-century onwards, if not a room for her own, a woman might have had a bureau to write letters on. The relatively unrestrained form of the medium and the intimate nature of the communication allowed thoughts to germinate. It also gave rein to a type of literature that did not exclude quotidian affairs, which is a sphere that generates some of the deepest insights. Women were thus able to communicate with men and women alike, writing texts to be read confidentially or aloud to a crowd of multiple people. Far from being a purely domestic form, letter-writing offered an opening onto the public sphere, enclosing political and philosophical contemplations, and showing how the domestic is, in fact, also political. Later, in the wake of women’s movements in the 20th century, letter- writing was taken up again with renewed pertinence, with an awareness of this history. Ongoing efforts in archival research have been unearthing historical bonds ranging from sisterhood to lesbian love and creating a new canon of intellectual, political, and ethical struggles across the ages. 70s onwards, feminist practitioners have reignited the practice by adapting it to contemporary needs, communicating with each another on personal or theoretical topics, as well as mobilising it for more practical campaigns, lobbying and campaigning through collaboratively drafted open letters. Letter-writing needn’t be a survival or a romanticisation of an antiquated tradition, as it can speak of contemporary urgencies and create new networks of exchanges; especially so if we work to understand its strengths and weaknesses as a literary, political, and social carrier, and its capacities in communicating women’s needs.

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Sophie Calle, Etoile Dancer at the Opéra de Paris, detail from Take Care of Yourself, 2007. https://www.frieze.com/article/sophie-calle-1.

Sophie Calle, detail from artist’s book of Take Care of Yourself, 2007. https://moom.cat/en/item/take-care-of-yourself.

In a 2007 work titled Take Care of Yourself, Sophie Calle responds to a breakup message with the help of 107 women professionals. By declaring their breakup through email, her boyfriend kept Calle at an arm's length from a crucial life-event. Needless to say, Calle was left utterly speechless. In response to the coldhearted sterility of his gesture, Calle finds a voice in the creative solidarity of women, who respond to the message with the tools available to them through their various disciplines: a dancer, a clown, a chess-player, a philosopher, a proofreader, a lawyer, a judge, a rapper, her mother, etc. By transforming a private correspondence into a conversation piece, Calle rejects the soliloquising tendency of the letter; instead, she relies on others, creating a network of support, trusting others’ expertise, sharing authority, and generating new knowledge. Expression becomes contingent and relational, as responses and epistemic positions proliferate. Working from a feminist assumption, and in extension of structuralist and poststructuralist theories, Calle recognises that even the seemingly spontaneous medium of the letter is a highly coded channel. Interpreting her ex-lover’s letter by deconstructing it in 107 ways reveals some of the rigid conventions he resorts to; but also, by devising 107 different responses with the help of others, Calle seeks creative alternatives within communication, and invites diverse expressions to flow and keep her afloat. Even as we are bound by codes and common practices, what matters is how we use them; most importantly, how we rely on them when relating to one another. All of our interactions are mediated to varying degrees. Nonetheless, we can exercise some choice when it comes to which channels of mediation we allow to saturate our relationships. Cultivating this awareness is an act and an ethics of care; one we can practice and cultivate through, as it happens, letter-writing.


References

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1, no. 4 (1976): 875-93.

Gibran, Khalil. “On Houses.” The Prophet. Knopf, 1923.

Jolly, Margaretta. "Confidantes, Co-workers and Correspondents: Feminist Discourses of Letter-writing from 1970 to the Present." Journal of European Studies 32, no. 2-3 (2002): 267-82.

Jolly, Margaretta. In Love and Struggle : Letters in Contemporary Feminism. Gender and Culture Series. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Shakespeare Head Press Edition of Virginia Woolf. Malden, MA: John Wiley/Blackwell, 2015.



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