Category Archives: Writing about writing

Eight is my number

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Early in 2017, an astrologer told me that 2018 would be my year. While 2017 would be filled with extraordinary luck (which it was), 2018 would be the year I would begin to reap the fruits of my labour, so to speak.

I laughed at the irony of this previous pronouncement as come day two of 2018, everything started going to shit. I had to leave Mumbai – and my partner – in the midst of a bandh situation (with a potential situation for riots). I had to also leave behind almost all of my belongings, and considered myself lucky to be able to catch the flight to Toronto (via Delhi). In Delhi, my flight was cancelled due to weather conditions (read: fog). There were other things too, like the overall shittiness of Air Canada for not rescheduling my flight without charging me an arm and a leg. It didn’t matter what the ground conditions were in Mumbai at the time, I had to catch the flight, or lose my money.

The memory doesn’t make me bristle anymore. But the tone of the new year seemed to say: you are fucked, my friend.

Oh, and I also got the dreaded viral flu, with a cough that nested in my chest for a month.

So, as I approached the 8 year anniversary of my writing blog, I did so with trepidation. This has been a prolific year so far, in terms of writing (I try and write creatively every weekend now). I had atleast ten things in the Submittable queue. The most I have ever had in my entire life! Two rejections came by. Then, an acceptance (of a poem) in a magazine I had been trying to break into for years. But no fiction; nothing fiction yet. I began to wonder about my credentials as a writer. Maybe, my writing was just not good enough. (I want to add here that these are self-destructive thoughts that many writers have in personal low moments, and indicates nothing of the writing itself).

Three days before the anniversary day hit, I got an email. One of my queer short stories had made it into the Honourable Mentions list in a fiction contest.

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“Toklas to your Stein” (which in retrospect is a pretentious short story name) was the first story I wrote this year. It came to me in fragments. It came to me in bursts of frustration. It came to me and didn’t reveal its purpose till the very end. It also took me a whole month to write. Weeks of agonizing over a story that seemed to make absolutely no sense to me. The sections were haphazard, at best. At worst, it was an experiment in what I thought to be avant garde.

I wanted to submit a story for a contest, and I submitted this one (it’s all I had at the time of the deadline). The judges were none other than the esteemed Cherie Dimaline and Ayelet Tsabari. I felt a little ashamed because it was a story I didn’t really believe in. The style seemed off, and unlike anything I had ever written. And then I indulged in a terrible habit that I have: continued editing even after submission, all the while berating myself for submitting what I considered to be a “lesser” version.

When the contest version actually made it to the honorable mentions list, I was a bit shocked. I expected a rejection. Really, that would have been okay. The email that morning from Humber Literary Review made me feel numb. I wondered in my half asleep state if I was still dreaming. And, because I wanted so very badly to be seen (as a writer of fiction), this was the logical conclusion of my nightmares.

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Imposter syndrome is real. It is far more real when you are a queer woman of colour writer, without the backing of an MFA, struggling to make sense of the worlds in your head, and the worlds you manage to put down on paper. And because the world of writing is so tiny, there is constant pressure of wanting to be seen, and not being seen, while everyone else seems to be far more visible.

Sometimes, what this writer needs is a boost. An acknowledgement. A head nod of sorts. It doesn’t matter where she stands at the moment, and how much she has achieved, it never seems to be enough (because on most days, it isn’t). On most days, she is invisible any way. On most days, the world is a shit hole, and she is just trying to exist. But there are days when she wants to be seen.

There are days when I do.

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Canisia Lubrin once told me contests are not measures of success. I know. I agree. Same goes for publications, or even visibility in general. Most times, it’s really about who you know, and how much cultural capital that person holds, and how much of that capital they are willing to share with you.

I am grateful however to Cherie Dimaline and Ayelet Tsabari – writers I admire and haven’t yet had the good fortune to talk to in person – for seeing something in my story.

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TFW

Happy 8 years to the blog! My story, “Toklas to your Stein,” along with five other stories from Humber Literary Review’s Emerging Writers Fiction contest (winners and other honorable mentions) will be in the June (print) issue of the magazine.

UPDATE April 29th 2018: I received a Lambda Literary Fellowship in Fiction this year. It will allow me to work on my fiction manuscript with Chinelo Okparanta in LA this August. Eight must really be my number!

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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

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“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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Becoming Chikni Chameli in 3 Steps

I encountered Chikni Chameli in the December of 2011, mid afternoon at the Calcutta airport, waiting to board a flight to Indore. I was on my way to a friend’s cousin’s wedding. The overhead televisions kept blaring the annoying music of the item song, in sync with its provocative lyrics and gestures. Men and women alike had their eyes glued to the rhythms of Katrina Kaif’s thumkas and chest thrusts.

Fast forward to December 2013. Calcutta, again. 2 am. I am hunched over my laptop, seeking inspiration to finish my final assignment for Carolyn Smart’s fiction workshop class. Write a flash fiction piece, under 500 words. There are no parameters, except for the word limit.

I finally find inspiration , through another writer I admire. And, a stream of unconsciousness. Who knows where inspiration really comes from?

Several drafts, and a few rejections later, my piece sees the light of day.

My short fiction, “Becoming Chikni Chameli in 3 Steps,” is up at Matrix Magazine. You can read it here. It is a part of their trans issue, edited by Lucas Crawford.

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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 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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