Female Camaraderie

On May 18, 1886, three days following the passing of Emily Dickinson, Susan Dickinson, in her eulogy, described the poet as one with “the gentleness and reverence of old saints”. To Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-law was a martyr who “sing[s] while [she] suffer[s]”. Such love and friendship that these sisters-in-law shared seems to transcend all worldly companionships.

I first got to know Emily Dickinson during my days working in a bookstore. I remember poetry was the least popular genre that brought in the least sales. Dickinson was shelved at a somewhat obscure corner, clothed in dust as her poetic garb.

emily-dickinson-stop-death4Getting bored with the mundane yet necessary housekeeping, I took a break and started to read Dickinson. What caught my attention, and piqued my interest in her was none other than her most celebrated poem, “Because I could not stop for Death”. That was how, amidst death and dust, Dickinson managed to draw a response from this uninspiring worker in a bookstore, and convert her. I purchased the entire collection of her poems on the very same day.

The collection became my occasional bedtime reading, which I dipped in every now and then. Recently, I decided to have a deeper understanding of Dickinson as part of my study of American Literature, for my BA English course.

Her intimate letters to Susan Dickinson have become part of my reading. I was greatly moved by the love and friendship between the two women. Whether it is lesbian love (as it appears to be so to some) or sisterly love, what binds the two women is, indeed, genuine and beautiful. To my mind, the love between the two women is simply spiritual and divine.

Such loyal and rock-solid friendship with another woman has always been an unfamiliar terrain to me. I can say with certainty that my small handful of close girlfriends are more than just fair-weather friends. That said, we aren’t, however, each other’s confidantes either.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking, how do women define a true friend? Does someone of the same gender enhance the friendship and help both parties to open up better?

One of my classmates, a guy, believes so strongly in his group of boyfriends, whom he came to know during his two-year training in the army. The friendship was to him, a camaraderie that would weather the storm, come what may. He believes that friendships between women aren’t as enduring, and they are bound to drift away from one another once they are married and have kids. This, he thinks, is because a woman’s instinct is to put her family first.

There was a time in my life when I resolved to sever a tie–a relationship that was strained, and had eventually deteriorated into emptiness. We have a saying in Chinese – you will realise who your true friends are only during times of adversity. It was during this troubled time that one of my girlfriends offered some solace in the form of kindness and understanding, for which I felt very much indebted to her. So, when she discovered fibroids in her uterus that had to be removed, I decided that it was time for me to return her kindness.

My friend’s fibroids were not as malignant as cancerous cells, but they were nevertheless, unwanted growth that impeded her from an otherwise healthier body. Just like how she stood by me when a painful someone left my life, this was the time for me to stand by her as she went under the knife.

I arrived at the hospital as early as the visiting hours began. By 4 pm, her relatives started coming in. Her cousins, her aunts, and uncles. There were about three aunts, maybe three cousins and two uncles. In the ward of four beds, her visitors outnumbered all the three other patients put together. As they chatted in Malay, as a Chinese, who couldn’t understand a word, I felt a little awkward. She too struggled to make me feel included, a task, I think, a recuperating patient should be spared from. It took a while to dawn on me that perhaps, my presence was not necessary anymore. In fact, it could be dispensed with.

The Malay community in my country is known for its strong sense of unity, especially among family members. Walk into any hospital here, and it is not difficult for one to notice that the patients with the most visitors are the Malays. This is even so in the animal clinics, where a cat can be accompanied by a minimum of three or four Malay owners.

If there is one thing that I have learned from the hospital visit that had turned awkward, it is the realisation that such an offer of friendship will become superfluous, if one does not recognise the time to take one’s leave. If I could elaborate further by using the sentiments of Jaques in As You Like It, every player has his/her exits and entrances on a stage. Just like in a play, an actor’s premature entrance will stick like a sore thumb. Likewise, a delayed entrance creates an absence too conspicuous to be ignored.

Moving from the Dickinson’s example to modern day, I feel that the other praiseworthy friendship between women, could probably be the friendship portrayed in Sex and The City. I remember how moved I was as regards one episode: Carrie Bradshaw has encountered yet another problem. In her first person narrator voice, a voice so saturated with intimacy and so barren of self-consciousness, she says, “It’s hard to find people who would love you no matter what. I was lucky enough to find three of them,” and she heads on to the café where her three girlfriends await.

Striding the streets of New York in Jimmy Choo heels, with three equally snazzy best friends was a thing to be envied in my teenage eyes then. Almost 20 years on, the shoes that I aspire to wear are no longer Carrie Bradshaw’s Jimmy Choo, but to indulge in quiet days of writing. I treasure friends who are understanding enough not to be offended when I take a rain check on a get-together. They will know that friendship between women is definitely more than just shopping buddies. More importantly, our spending more time with kids and family does not mean that the friendship has started to wear thin. Such unspoken pact between two women does not come from clocking in the number of hours spent together. That is not how friends keep-in-touch. It is forged by being present, when support is needed in dire straits. A true and selfless friend would understand the significance of her entrances and exits.

We need not be impressed by an extensive list of friends; we should be lucky just to have a handful of whom we are assured that we could count on. In fact, the kind of stage that I have in mind is akin to Beckett’s: minimalist, yet intense and rich.