Tag Archives: Phd

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with a flash fiction piece that poured out of me, “Mars in Scorpio,” which will be published in Toronto Lit Up’s The Unpublished City anthology; a project curated and launched by Dionne Brand.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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Good Indian Girls Do Not Waste Time Writing Books

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 24th May 2011.

*FYI: Beti = daughter, Samajdar = sensible, Thik hai = Alright, Jaldi = Hurry

“You want to do whaaat???!!”

Write a novel. Now calm the eff down.

Ever wonder how it would be to take a hiatus from life to follow that one niggling dream that dances on the edge of your consciousness day-in and day-out? I do. All the time. And, being an Indian girl let me tell you, it isn’t easy. An Indian girl is a ticking time bomb.

“Do you want to be the only thirty-something to marry the leftovers? Life isn’t Sex and the City.”

Jeez. Leftovers. That’s what my dad calls the baldies and the divorcees, since that’s who you will get if you decide to get married post-thirty. Why, thank you. That does mean I have a neat little bracket of five years left, right? Right?

Wrong. If you are a brown girl baby, you will know that we have two very neat choices (no, infanticide is not one of them): academics or marriage. Ever since I started my stint at grad school with my Master’s in English, daddy dearest laid off with all the “beti*, don’t you want to get married?” Now that my year is winding down, and I have to decide for either the PhD route, or the working girl route, there it is again. I am reminded of my expiry date, my limited shelf life, my doomed future as a single brown girl. See, Indian parents do not hand you a Kit Kat when you decide to take a break from life. A break from life is a luxury that does not exist in the Indian dictionary.

I don’t ask for much. Just want to be a Mistry or a Roy. Maybe, a Lahiri at least. Just not a contrived cow. “A contrived what?” you ask. A contrived c-o-w. Now what is a contrived cow? The market of fiction is filled with contrived cows. In other words, books that pass for literature but are instead filled with superficial plots driven by clichés and contrived platitudes. Books that are great for mass market sellouts, but won’t be remembered twenty years down the line.

There is nothing wrong with being a mass market writer. To each his own. The books sell. You make millions and then you are forgotten. If you like money and fifteen minutes of fame, you might consider the route of mass market. But some mass market writers know how to write and make money, while some are just contrived cows who end up making money by chance. Jeffery Archer and John Grisham belong to the former category. Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon also belong to the former category but to a lesser degree, while Twilight series writer Stephanie Meyer is a contrived cow who just got lucky.

I don’t want to become a non-contrived-cow mass market writer either. That is taking the easy way out. I want to create literature. Get short listed for a Booker, if not win one. I want people saying my name with a hushed reverence within literary circles. (Small dreams, sigh.) Or, atleast give it a try. See if I can. How on earth can I concentrate on creating history if I have small versions of myself crawling around me, tugging on my t-shirt and competing for my attention? So, here I am. Dreaming of taking off for a few months and writing my first novel. Yes, you read that right. I am still at the dreaming stage. But even that comes with restrictions.

“No, no. You can’t write on that… it’s too controversial!”

Err, dad. Are you a realist fiction expert? No? Didn’t think so. Back down, maybe?

“But, but, BUT! Can’t you write on something else?”

Hmm. Can I? Sure. Do I want to? Nope.

Now if I had said instead, “Daddy dearest, I want to get married. Here are some high resolution photos of me in an Indian and a Western outfit (you know, to show the purrrfect blend of Eastern and Western values. As if it can be discerned from some lousy pictures the high blends that I am made of!) that you can put on Shaadi.com. Jaldi!* I am so ready to give up my freedom and make babies,” I would have been rewarded with the aren’t-I-lucky-to-have-such-a-samajdar-beti* look. Now, who doesn’t want to be one of those samajdar betis? Do I see hands? No? Shy, are we?

Instead, this not-so-samajdar-beti decides to take a year off from academia, fly off to the city of her birth and start working on her first novel. Yes, he says finally. Thik hai, go. I am sure you will meet someone in India.

Indian parents, I tell you. Will never change.

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Amber Dean on Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group

I conducted this interview on 15th November 2010. It was published by The Ally on 24th January  2011.

An exhibition held at the end of summer in 2009 at the You Me Gallery in Hamilton sparked controversy and gave birth to Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group when it showed photographs of street based sex workers taken with surveillance cameras. Amber Dean, founding member of Big Susie, explains further about the exhibit that sparked the idea for the group, “The owner of [The] Pearl Company… put together an art show that exhibited photographs and surveillance images that he had taken of women doing street sex work outside of his gallery and theatre. And, he exhibited these [photographs] without their knowledge and… consent”.

The artist in question is Gary Santucci, whose exhibition was described on the You Me Gallery website as “turn[ing his] lenses on the city’s underbelly and [his] mind to the immense question of how we can make positive social change”. Dean, who has done academic work in the area with her PhD on representations of women doing sex work in inter-city neighbourhoods elsewhere in the country, considers that Santucci could have been “well intentioned but he ha[s] absolutely no analysis about sex work”. He had “no concern for the kinds of risks that he was exposing these women to when he… put up these pictures”. 

The uglier picture behind Santucci’s “well intentioned” art exhibit lies in his personal agenda to secure zoning permits for his art gallery and theatre. Santucci wants to be seen as a “moral crusader… who wanted to shine a bright light in the dark corner of Hamilton that nobody wanted to look at”, but either fails or refuses to take into account the consequences of his art show. According to Dean, “[t]here has been a real increase in hostility towards these people who do street based sex work in Hamilton, especially in the last year that started with [Santucci’s] art show, but has mobilised with some neighbourhood groups that have gotten involved organizing with the police out of a desire to just displace street based sex workers to push them out of residential areas into somewhere else”. Big Susie aims to counteract the negative attitude that has been in place since Santucci’s exhibition. Dean contends that “there… was nothing in Hamilton that was specifically doing advocacy for sex workers on a sex positive basis and was advocating decriminalizing”. As recently as last fall, Big Susie came into being with their five board members and a mailing list of a large number of supporters drawn through their past two events, and through support and funding from CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees).

But coming about even as a small collaborative group wasn’t easy: “We received some positive… and negative press. Some of that negative press suggest[ed] that by promoting sex work, [we] are also promoting violence against women”. However, after having received funding from CUPE  and overwhelming turnouts at their last two public events, Big Susie has been optimistic about their growth. Currently, the group hopes to have new people join their board and help build the organization, as well as, hold workshops specifically for street based sex workers on “harm reduction” and “basic safety and first aid”. 

To know more about Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group, or to get involved, email bigsusies@live.ca.

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All Work and No Play Makes Me a Grad Student

An edited version was published by South Asian Generation Next on 4th November 2010.

I have been meaning to write this post for a while now. But I have been busy. With grad school. 

Life as a graduate student is overrated. For one, you are always over exhausted. 

Remember that day when you received that acceptance letter in the mail? That absolute joy that filled you when you realised that you would be joining the world of academic elites, something you had deemed impossible? Remember that smugness you experienced when you announced proudly to all those waiting in the wings to judge you by your future prospects? Remember? 

Well, this “joy” is short-lived. It is squashed out of you through over work.

“Now, what is a little over work when a degree with a coveted Master or Doctorate next to your name on an official sheet of paper awaits you at the end of your journey?” you ask belligerently.

I would say nothing, except for the fact that I:

  1. Plan my life around naps: Yes, naps. An undisturbed all night’s sleep is out of the question when you are a grad student. Sleep is an inconvenience. There is just always too much to read, too much to write, too much to do!
  2. Read books with names like Dangerous Liaisons*, except they are books on feminist theory on gender and politics.
  3. Live from weekend to weekend: Weekends mean longer naps.
  4. Dream of the day when I could wake up and go back to being a carefree undergrad student: Sometimes, these dreams can become nightmares when you wake up and realise that they are nothing but dreams.
  5. Want to kill myself when I have to read endless badly written first year papers: You conveniently forget that you used to be one of them.
  6. Marvel at the lack of creativity of excuses on the part of first year students: Yes, you have been there and done ALL of that. So, when a student comes to you and says he couldn’t hand in an essay on time because he accidentally hit a deer on the way to school and then his car broke down, after which he lost his way to the university from the car repair store, you raise a sceptical eyebrow and go “Huh! Really?”
  7. Wish that I had a life beyond naps and endless reading, and then remind myself that I should be lucky to be in grad school, and then wish I had a life… all over again.
  8. Silently plot to kill my students when they hand in unstapled papers and justify themselves by saying, “but I folded the corners”. No shit.
  9. Attend 8:30 morning lectures of first year classes that I don’t belong to, but I am a TA (teaching assistant) for: You have forgotten what 8:30 classes used to be like, especially after you vowed in your first year never to take one again. Karma can be quite a bitch, huh?
  10. Nap in my office in between classes: How else do you think I get through the day?

 Ok, back to my books now.

*Dangerous Liaisons is a 1997 collection of essays on politics of gender, race and identity, edited by Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat.

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