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Fiction and Feminist Curiosities: Stories from when the writing writes back

This piece reflects on the process of writing as crucial element of a feminist research process. The author draws on her experiences of working alongside magical realist fiction to glean feminist insights for a centering emotional experiences of humans who inhabit the international.

In her latest non-fiction marvel, Elena Ferrante shares her experiences of being a writer. The opportunity to peek into the inner workings of her gorgeous writing was reason enough to warrant an enthusiastic purchase, but it was really a WhatsApp blurb from a dear friend who was relishing the book so much, that it made her want to plan a “proper holiday” just so that she could spend it with Ferrante’s well-loved fiction, that made me reach for it sooner than planned. Amidst many breath-taking jewels about the complex nature of writing that she generously shares, Ferrante also invites us to think about how we think about writing. What might have seemed indulgent to some, was like reading my most intimate thoughts, struggles and even triumphs about writing being articulated for the whole world to read. Professions, genres and even languages away, I felt a certain kinship with Ferrante’s journeying with words. Simply put, as an accomplished fiction writer and as an early career PhD scholar, her and I were the same when it came to writing; and our collective belief in it being the way of experiencing and extending ourselves into the world.


For my doctoral research, I read magical realist fiction to make a case for emotional worlds which often go missing in unemotional analyses of international politics. It has taken me exactly eighteen months to condense my project into this one sentence and yet, it feels tentative. It feels as though I am trying to squeeze a tide in a tube to reduce how overwhelming it seems (and probably even is). The feminine urge to doubt my positionality; and by extension of the work I produce, is made more acute in the face of academic pursuit of favoring parsimonious theories over complicated feelings. The pressing demand for objective research in the neoliberal academy often dilutes and depoliticizes research intentioned towards prioritizing subjective experiences which get buried underneath the weight of such attachments to innocence. The discipline-ing of creativity to the point where writing becoming merely a vehicle for expressing ideas, rather than a practice that is integral to the formation of ideas itself reflects the violence of research processes which murder authors by burying their complex emotional situatedness in their research. Feminism offered me a way out of this quandary by recognizing the importance of coming-up-against established forms of thinking and writing, as a crucial part of the project of retrieving emotional lifeworlds which rub against, resist and spill outside the margins of academic prose. When asked about why I chose to centre fiction as a way of studying international politics, I found myself reaching into my feminist curiosity for writing and saying- “It’s because I love sentences, well-crafted ripe sentences”. By identifying my positionality as a writer making sense of the world and myself through the written word, I was able to make room for alternative forms of writing which are not usually permissible in the academy but can often become roadmaps for grappling with a world where one was placed without warning. While this does not stem the flow of further questioning, it allows me the joy of riding the tides rather than evading them.


In my research, I am interested in the culmination of the emotional with the methodological, which animates feminist, postcolonial as well as aesthetic explorations of emotions, particularly expressed through their use of literary sources besides academic prose and alternative, creative forms of writing, which prominently feature and engage the emotional. I focus on the literary genre of fiction as a specific form of storytelling attuned to both- an accounting for emotional worlds as well as reimaginations of the relationships between emotional humans and their worlds. Specifically, I look at magical realist fiction; the work of Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as a literary genre that weaves together the emotional and political experiences of humans and how they relate to each other. Stipulating that the bias against emotions is complicit in the stultifying lack of human stories in the discipline, reading magical realism become a methodology which undertakes the emotional work of recovering emotionally entangled human lives to reimagine the international. Exploring alternative ways of writing that resist forms of academic knowledge production which conform to hegemonic standards of writing, citation and history, allows fiction to uncover hidden (dis)connections, interdependencies and disjunctures, leading us to more holistic and representative forms of knowledge. Far from being mere falsities, fiction goes beyond established norms of knowledge, to construct a creative space that challenges existing ideas and information, while beckoning thinkers to write about an imaginative international- one which is made magical simply by acknowledging the emotional-relational and indeed human encounters that make and unmake our world(s).


How do fiction and feminism intertwine in the critical project of reimagining an emotional international? Feminists in the discipline have long called for an intentional investment in the relational and emotional parts of IR. For feminists, international politics at the very heart of it, is not an intellectual enterprise but rather is a matter of how human beings, and the collectivities they have created, find themselves in emotional worlds. In opening up these alternative worlds, fiction challenges the fixity of meanings and discourses on the world. Asserting the multidimensionality of textual knowledge, feminists have shown how fiction helps us move from identifying texts as containing singular absolute and original truth, to recognizing them as performative spaces which are a part of something living, active, breathing and include a variety of selves and truths which blend and clash. Feminist, postcolonial and aesthetic thinkers are drawn to alternative worlds, and are therefore attuned to different ways of ‘seeing’ and ‘being’ in these worlds. Far from the singularity of the world ‘out there’, these approaches are interested in the relational and emotional lifeworlds; drawn from the phenomenological concept of lebenswelt (lifeworlds) which pertains to the human ways of being-in-the-world, with which they have inseparable connections. In search for lifeworlds, such approaches have travelled outside the strict boundaries of disciplinary objectivity and its consequent detached knowledge about the world. I argue that it is in their exploration of lifeworlds as sites of political analysis, that feminist, aesthetic and postcolonial thinkers make use of methodologies which are reflective of the emotional worlds they hope to encounter. The use of literary sources which illuminate these lifeworlds and their distinctly emotional characteristics, becomes an important methodological choice for such scholarship, in ways which fuses the method with the purpose of research.


Towards the end of her book, Ferrante talks about how the journey of writer-to-writing is akin to that of heart-to-page. I relate deeply; to that desperate desire of writing down not only what’s in the heart, but the heart itself. Fiction harkens to a specific kind of impulse for knowledge which cannot be found in neat or self-assured disciplines. In mapping my research alongside the generous, diverse and emotional geography of fiction, I am able to imbue my love for writing with an equal love for a politics of humanity that I found missing in the canonical texts which stipulate the boundaries of the discipline. While the road to a more emotional International Relations warrants an engagement with a plurality of methods; a sustained interest in how and when in fiction; does the personal become political, and indeed; international, is in safe hands between feminists who will till all surfaces to plant seeds of curiosity; including and beyond WhatsApp gardens and well-deserved holidays.

Shambhawi Tripathi

Author bio

Shambhawi Tripathi is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, and her doctoral work seeks to engage emotional lives in magical realist fiction as a transformative “magical” way of doing global politics. Alongside her interest in feminist, postcolonial and emotional stories about the world, she finds herself through cooking, watercolouring and dreaming about being with her cat back home in Allahabad, India. She tweets @shambhawi_t and her website is at

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Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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