Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

On the Line podcast: A conversation about Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam

Last summer, a month before I was due to head to India for my wedding, Catriona Wright, Laboni Islam, and I, gathered in Kate Sutherland’s living room to discuss Tarfia Faizullah’s poetry collection, Seam (2014).

It was mad fun. We talked about a lot of things, like structure, word choice, voice of the speaker(s), and ethics of research that led to this book. I especially talked of the problem of co-option of voices of the survivors of 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War (the biranganas), and how Faizullah’s privilege as an American woman in academia (on a Fulbright scholarship, no less) allowed her to do so without repercussions.

And, we had a peek at Kate’s poetry collection, which is rather kickass.

You can follow Kate Sutherland on Instagram, where she posts her poetry reads.

You can listen to the podcast here.

seam

 

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A November evening that led to The Unpublished City

The Unpublished City line-up

The Unpublished City (Toronto: BookThug, 2017).

Where to begin? Some things, I believe, happen for a purpose, a reason. Happenstance, I like to think. Se-ren-di-pi-ty.

Last November, I had the privilege of being a part of a small group of writers sharing living room space with Dionne Brand. Discussing our current projects, our aspirations, our roadblocks. It wasn’t the best time in my life, but I am glad I made space for that evening. Something about that evening and its conversations opened a floodgate in (the writer) me. I came away, alive.

Line-up

17 of us (minus Katheryn Wabegijig) being introduced by Dionne Brand, Harbourfront Centre, 22nd June 2017. Photo: Catherine Coreno/@cthrn_c, from Twitter.

A part of the privilege came with knowing Phoebe Wang, who has been/is/and possibly will be nothing short of invincible when it comes to creating a much needed community for BIPOC writers. I don’t say this lightly. I don’t say this because I have come to value her friendship. I say this because it’s true. Because very few can do as much as Phoebe does in filling the much needed gap in the Toronto lit scene when it comes to recognizing multiplicity of identities; or, as it’s more easily understood, creating a space for “diversity” to thrive.

And so it was my knowing of Phoebe that led to that evening in November, and that evening that led to an opportunity to submit to an anthology curated by Dionne Brand, The Unpublished City. The anthology is an initiative of IFOA (International Festival of Literary Authors)/ Toronto Lit Up to promote diverse writing in Toronto. The anthology features 18 writers from the Greater Toronto Area.

I have a short flash fiction piece in it, “Mars in Scorpio”, a piece just shy of 600 words. It was the first creative piece I wrote this year. It was the first piece I wrote in a long time. It was the first piece of fiction that poured out of me. I credit it to that evening in November. (I also credit it to my partner who suggested I use a personal story to write this one, and the more I say about how lucky I am to have someone like him, it will never be enough. It is also happenstance in so many ways, our meeting, our being together, but that’s another story for another time.)

5 questions with IFOA

Self explanatory.

Now, almost six months into this year, I have more such pieces since. Pieces that have similarly poured out me. My friend, Heather Olaveson, says, they were waiting. All I needed was a push.

Here’s a toast to that November evening.

My five questions about writing with IFOA can be read here.

A little something on the anthology in Quill and Quire can be read here.

The anthology is available through BookThug here.

Doyali and I.

Before the event at Harbourfront Centre. With Doyali Islam, whose poem “43rd Parallel” is also in The Unpublished City. June 22 2017.

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seven years strong: an ode to survival

On April 22nd of this year, WordPress kindly sent me a notification reminding me of completing seven years of this blog business. Little did it know (or, acknowledge) my intermittent growing silence. I have been quiet, most often than not, on and off in the past two and a half years. My closest friends, allies, even some foes, know why. The past two and a half years have been spent in a cloud of anxiety and depression, both triggering the other, more often than not.

My tongue has been in exile in the process. I kept telling myself if only I could convince myself to survive, I could conquer anything. Isn’t it sad how much more difficult it is to admit our fallibilities?

Finding my writing (and political) voice took letting go, took recognizing my limits, took giving up in order to move forward. The desire to sprint hasn’t left me, but the older, wiser, survived-a-battle (both inner and outer) me knows better. This reborn me knows that recognizing limits is not failure, that recognizing failure is not giving up.

It took me seven years to find my writing voice. For the first time in my life, when anyone asks me, “are you a writer?” I hesitate a little at first, and then say, yes.

I started this year with a flash fiction piece that poured out of me, “Mars in Scorpio,” which will be published in Toronto Lit Up’s The Unpublished City anthology; a project curated and launched by Dionne Brand. I will be reading this piece with 17 other brilliant writers on June 22nd at Harbourfront in Toronto. These are big deals for me. Giant leaps for little me.

I also had a provocative essay that questioned the problematic and debatable canon of Canlit published in FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity)‘s Program in early May. The essay was accepted almost two years ago by a big publication in Canada and then revised a million times, and then rejected on some dubious reason (they wanted me to rewrite the whole thing minus the discussion of Writing Thru Race conference held in early 2015 in Toronto because it was apparently “dated”). I didn’t respond and instead submitted it to FOLD when I saw their call. It was a good decision. It was the universe sending me a message.

Finally, I have been writing a lot this year. I wrote a short story in February which is currently under consideration at a Canadian magazine. I am also working on a short story at the moment (which is taking on the length of a novella). And, I am inundated with story ideas, one of them as a children’s book. I am buzzing with creative energy, a thing that was not possible as recently as December. I hear voices that speak to me, that tell me their stories, that lead me to unknown places. I am no longer questioning whether I am a writer. I just know.

There is another part of me that is excited for the academic project I have undertaken, my big fat dissertation. My own idea, developed by me alone, with necessary input from a fine committee. The best possible committee I can have for the project I have undertaken. I am blessed. So very blessed. Sometimes, there is a negotiation, a conflict between my two worlds, but that is a negotiation I have to engage with as I go forward.

And finally, there has been this new desire in me to give back to the community. Curating and running Balderdash Reading Series has been a part of that desire. I was fortunate enough to receive a Graduate Enhancement Fund for the next year to run the series. There are other initiatives I am looking into as well that will allow me to engage with the larger community outside, perhaps even build a bridge between those in school and storytelling? I don’t know. I am exploring possibilities.

A large part of this has been possible because of a few generous people in my life. To name a few: Doyali Islam. Phoebe Wang. Jing Jing Chang. Beth Marie. Bilan Hashi. Heather Olaveson. Samah Katerji. Maggie Clark. My mother, Jharna Sur. And my love, my heart of hearts, Krishnakumar Sankaran. Thank you for giving me so much, and asking for nothing in return. Thank you for helping me survive.

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no more pretending

coverstory-swartz-themarch-875x1200-1485494439

“The March” by Abigail Gray Swartz for The New Yorker; Source: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/cover-story-2017-02-06

 

It’s been 2017 for a while, and a good year at that. So far. I can’t help but caution myself against changing winds that often, if not always, upset what we call our “positive outlook”.

Last year was – how shall I put it? – adversarial, at best. Yet, it was also the year I learnt the most, the most important lesson being, no more pretending. And, that is also my resolution this year, just being true to who I am, and being self-aware of my limitations. Just because I have become an expert at keeping a low profile, people automatically assume I have my shit together.

Well, bullshit.

I am still getting there, and I have been blessed with a strong community of people around me, sometimes like godsend in a single moment, sometimes always there, like an invisible umbilical cord. Yes, definitely lucky and blessed. Friends in unlikely places, a partner who has helped me survive, family who always support (although with doses of reprimands mixed in), and a community of writers I am just beginning to know.

This year is going to be a game-changer, and not just because I am getting married. As a writer too, I know things will happen, and happen for the best. I can feel it in my gut.

For now, there’s academia. There’s life (and Krishna, my life). There’s the reading series I have curated (it deserves its own blog post), and other little nuggets of opportunities that will slowly unfold as the year goes on. For now, I brace myself. For now, I am ready.

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up to date

It’s been 3 days ish since I submitted my comprehensive exam (3 short essays), a few hours since I finished with most of my teaching assistant duties (marking) – although grades need to be uploaded – and am a few days away from moving back home. I should be exhilarated, right? I should be relaxed… but like most of my life in action, the tinge of unfinished business graces the air around me, and until I am done (which I am never, usually, as there is always something unfinished), I cannot breathe.

It’s also the 6 year celebration of this blog. Happy birthday, us!

I have some news that I guess I should dispense with. I have my first ever publication forthcoming in a Canadian magazine this spring. Cause for (some) celebration, I suppose. It’s a short fiction piece from a collection of short stories that I have been working on for the past – 3? 4?  – years.  I performed the piece recently at Laurier. It’s one of my most difficult/best pieces till now (I say that every time, I know), and merde! I wasn’t stage shy at all… no shaking feet, or quivering heart. It seems I have conquered that godawful stage fright thing I always had.

matrix

Well, then.

I also have a poetry manuscript in progress. I am so happy with what I have been writing in the past few months. I guess I have sort of been on a creative high considering I am in love with a writer; also, a dear friend; also, my partner; also, the person I am going to marry.

There, that’s it… for now.

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How, then, to begin, to begin?

If the subject – here, the writer of colour – is unaware of the absence of speech, then where does he/she begin? Or, as Roy Miki asks, “How, then, to begin, to begin?” – an excerpt from the final essay I wrote for Dr. Smaro Kamboureli’s graduate English class at University of Toronto end April 2015.

On 24th November 2015, I was invited by Dr. Jing Jing Chang to give a short talk to her undergrad class on Bollywood films at Wilfrid Laurier University. The talk addresses my existence as a South Asian person/academic/artist in Canada, and negotiating that identity through creative writing and academia.

The talk ends with a performance of my most recent work of poetry, “elephant in the room.”

Since I don’t completely despise how I sound, here is the talk in its entirety:

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W.T.F.

book

Disclaimer: This one got a little personal.

I have been questioning my life choices lately.

Here I am. Finishing up my first year as a doctoral candidate in English. On the cusp of thirty.

Not that age should be a factor. I am not worried about getting older. Hell, I am actually ready for the big 3-0 (still several months away). Nor am I in a rush to get married, having recently extricated myself from a relationship that wasn’t really working that well.

No, I am just wondering why I haven’t done it yet. Written the book, you know? There was a time when I saw myself a published author by the time I hit my thirties.

A joke really, considering that one only gets one chance at that first book. Fuck up, and you are fucked.

Pardon the language, but really, W.T.F?

A writer friend who is also as engaged in academia as I am states that she is unable – unable – to be both a creative writer, and an academician.

I beg to differ. I can be both. For me, it’s not about the switching between the academician and the creative writer that’s the problem. But the mental space. The time one gives oneself to become both – not necessarily at the same time – and do it well.

Well, well. That is the key word, isn’t it?

How does one do it well? How does one know that one is doing it well? And, how does one do it and know that one is not fucking up?

I have realized these are questions that have their own answers, depending on who you are asking.

Me? I am still searching for my own versions of truth.

But I feel them shimmering. Hovering just out of reach.

But there they are. Right there. See?

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