Thirty out of 50 writers speaking at this year's Festival of Asian Literature are female, an impressive change from the London event's launch in 2007 when only two women were involved, writesHuma Qureshi.This year's Festival of Asian Literature, which opens in London later this month, has two reasons to celebrate. Not only is the festival entering its fifth year, but of 50 acclaimed writers speaking at it, 30 are women.
At a time when the lack of women contributing on panels and debates is being questioned by the British media (a study by the Guardian found an alarming lack of women being asked to take part in panel discussions on radio, television and organised events), the Festival of Asian Literature appears to have redressed the balance.
The director, Adrienne Loftus Parkins, says it's about time, too. "There have been notable books coming from women in Asia for a long time, and it's time we took notice."
When the Festival of Asian Literature was launched in 2007, there were only two female writers involved - the Indian author Kiran Desai and the Chinese novelist Xiaolu Guo. In 2008, there were three. Now there are 30, including the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, the Iranian writer Kamin Mohammedi and the Vietnamese writer Kim Thuy. What's changed?
Loftus Parkins says it's down to a growing interest in new female voices from across pan-Asia.
"There are already several well-known, predominantly south Asian women writing in the UK, such as Kamila Shamsie and Moni Mohsin, who might be considered the forerunners of Asian feminist literature," she says. "But the difference is now, there seem to be so many new female voices from all across Asia, vibrant voices, who are getting attention, publishing books and winning awards. Of course, there have been strong women writing throughout Asia for a long time. But we are seeing more work from Asia in general, and many publishers have taken an interest in work by women."
Publishing in the western world remains a largely male-dominated industry but the gender divide is more pronounced across Asia, with some critics referring to the south Asian literary scene as a "boys' club". But slowly, a shift has been taking place.
Kali for Women, India's first feminist publishing house, was founded in 1984 specifically to publish and promote female writers. After it launched, a further three women's groups in Pakistan similarly dedicated themselves to publishing fiction and non-fiction produced by women. In the UK, the not-for-profit organisation Vaani was established to promote Asian women's writing - this year, it is publishing its second anthology of short stories.
But it's about quality writing, not quotas, as Loftus Parkins stresses. "Despite a desire to promote Asian women writers, I didn't make a conscious effort to invite mostly women to the festival. I chose the best books, and the best moderators. It just so happened that 30 are women."
The journalist Rani Singh is appearing at the festival to discuss her biography, Sonia Gandhi, and the role of women in politics in Asia. She says being a woman and of south Asian background was an "asset" for her writing the book. "My publisher was considering other male journalists as well as me when they were deciding who should write Sonia Gandhi's biography. I have a personal connection: I too am in a male-dominated industry, and like Sonia, raised two children on my own. I can feel her journey in a way that a non-south Asian man might not be able to."
Roshi Fernando and Nikita Lalwani are two of the fiction writers also appearing at this year's festival. Fernando was born and raised in the UK to Sri Lankan parents, while Lalwani was born in Rajasthan and grew up in Cardiff. Both agree that there has been a definite increase in visibility of writers either from Asia or with Asian heritage.
"There is more pluralism in terms of visible female voices for sure, which is a sign that the issues they are writing about are deemed to be of current interest to a mainstream audience," says Lalwani, whose second novel The Village will be published this summer. "It is a period of transition, and it does feel exciting to read work from that part of the world right now."
Fernando, the author of Homesick, a collection of moving short stories about the experience of Sri Lankans living in Britain, says female Asian novelists are "tenacious", adding: "We have something new and exciting to say."
But both warn of the inevitable dangers of all female, Asian writers being lumped together. "It's not possible to see Asian female writers as one homogenous mass, and each writer is very distinct from the other," says Lalwani. "Many female writers would hesitate to define themselves simply under the bracket of 'otherness'."
Despite the understandable reluctance to be placed in the same box bound by virtue of culture and gender alone, Fernando suggests there is a common thread which Asian writers share."If we are to be defined as 'Asian, female writers', then perhaps what we all have in common is a more daring perspective, free of the defining principles of post-colonial writing," she says. "As women, perhaps we can use the cultural backgrounds of our parents to create a wholly new literature."