Writing Nonfiction as an Indian Woman
December 11, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Anandi Mishra
Earlier this year, after years of putting away the plan to write creative nonfiction, I decided to submit to literary magazines in the US and Europe. What awaited me was a sweet little dilemma. What could I write from my vantage point that would interest readers of those magazines that I had been reading myself for the last few years?
I did not know what ideas I should and could pursue. One set of ideas would manifest itself as too bold in my south Asian Indian woman mind. What if my family read it? Would my friends be tolerant of knowing that I masturbate? What about that sentence that said that I smoked pot? All the what ifs would cloud my mind and soon blur my creative vision. I was lucky to have one friend who could give creatively balanced feedback — my boyfriend. M always created a comfortable ground before pointing out small issues here and there and helping me to see what was good to go. When I voiced my apprehensions, he would listen with a sensitive ear. His feedback would soothe me, instilling in me a little bit more confidence to go ahead and pitch my ideas.
My other worry was that my ideas were too meek, blunt, and superficial for American and European magazines. For my pitches to stand out, I thought they might need a bit of self-absorption, singularity, and navel-gazing. While I didn’t lack these qualities, I found it hard to understand how to distill them all into my writing. If I wrote a pitch, it would come across as too apparent. I worried it would excite my simple Indian literary taste buds but be too bland for the other side of the world. I would read, scrolling down websites, one after the other, skimming through essays written by my favorite writers of Indian origin. How did she strike this spectacular balance between the personal and the private? How did she allow this beautiful detail into the essay without prying deeper into it? Why can I not do this? How do I make some — heck — any of my pitches work?
Reading, making notes, penciling thoughts on margins or into my notebooks, I would let these favorite writers’ words weave inspiration around my head. I would parse through their words and let my imagination take off from there. Sometimes a sister thought would take hold of me, and I would quickly jot it down. On other occasions, I would go off on the same tangent mentally, trying to understand how to arrive at a topic that I would be the best person to write about.
As I went down this road of finding inspiration, seeking courage, the list of women writers of south Asian origin who gave me hope, kept increasing. I read more essays written by people all across the world, but especially by the women who came from backgrounds similar to mine. At least, vaguely, remotely, minutely similar to mine. I would scroll past their Twitter handles, into their websites, reading almost all the nonfiction pieces written by them. Although this all happened at the sub-conscious level, I was rapidly also creating a bank of my own ideas. Geeta Kothari, Abeer Hoque, Jhumpa Lahiri, Dur e Aziz Amna, Iva Dixit, Sejal Shah, Janice Pariat, Sumana Roy, Anjum Hasan — their essays, each vastly different from the rest, intrigued me. Picking up from there examples, I started internalizing how to find that perfect balance.
But it would still take me at least ten times the rejections against the acceptances to arrive at the first satisfying piece of writing. I understood that while Melissa Febos’ essays were mind-boggling, they were also, at least to begin with, uncharted territory for me. I could find courage to be vocal about my innermost demons from them, but I wouldn’t be able to be vocal about what kept me awake at night. Indian society still classifies certain subjects as taboo, and I wanted more and more people from my home country to read me. Nonetheless, my first essay addressed something that I had never seen another Indian woman writer address in her work.
My day job is as a communications professional, and with the 2020 pandemic lockdown, my home and bedroom became the place where I worked, attended office calls, ate, wrote, read, and slept. While my work continued on weekdays, during weekends I found it hard to get myself to write, to sit down and do the one thing that I have deeply enjoyed since childhood. Then one day, during an over-thinking spree, I figured out that I was looking for a go-ahead from someone. I moved out of my parents’ house in mid-2008 and since then have in one way or the other always needed permission to do something, anything, from them or from other “elders” around. It is common in our North India culture for women and also men (up to a certain age) to always feel the need for a sign off on every small thing, such as wanting to grow nails or go for a night out with friends.
When I sat down with an essay pitch, I worried that I was being devious. Was I cheating on my employers? Was I lying to someone? Was I being unthankful? Was I hurting someone by writing on the side? One weekend I checked with my boss and she assured me that she was perfectly fine with me publishing literary essays. I was still not fully convinced. What I needed then, I would realize later, was the final nod from an over-imposing authority. I waited, stuck in this limbo for weeks, for this permission to come through. And when it did not, an epiphany struck.
One Saturday afternoon, I sat in front of my bookshelf, wrested out a book of essays by a favorite writer, folded into a palthi, and thumbed through its pages. I read one essay after another, deriving from each of them permission to write, to feel, to wander and get lost about in the land of my own words. It was in those vulnerable moments that I, an Indian woman who doesn’t come from a family of creative types or moneyed types, gave myself the permission to forge on ahead on this uncharted territory. In doing so, I became my own muse, my own guru, my very own agent provocateur, my teacher, and my special student.
Later that afternoon, I decided to refuse the binary and marry my two sets of ideas. I would blend the two in a way that was idiosyncratic of my blog pieces that I had been putting out since early 2018. I would let my inner world come and live itself out on my pages in the way that I wanted. I told my stories my way, and in doing so, I owned the very essence of them.
I started from there, and I’ve been ploughing my way through. To quote the one and only Toni Morrison,
I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.
Eight months from my first nonfiction publication, my writing journey has only begun. There is hardly that nuance that comes with the remove of a longer passage of time, but so far it has been a delicate ballet of awkwardness, one that I have learnt to enjoy. I am following Morrison’s advice and beginning to own this joy that comes with noticing, looking, and capturing the world in my words.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writing has also been published by or is forthcoming in Mint, Popula, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3AM Magazine, Transformations, RejectionLit, Berfrois, Multiplicity Mag, and elsewhere. Her essay, “A Satyajit Ray Lockdown,” appears in the anthology Garden Among Fires (Dodo Ink, July 2020).
Thank you for your eloquent comments Anandi. It could not help but notice that your vivid depiction of your personal insecurity, uncertainty, fear, hesitation and reluctance on your inspirational journey mirrors not only my own, but my guess is many women, regardless of race, creed or origin. I also happen to be an immigrant although of European descent and raised here in the US for most of my 70 years. Yet I still struggle. with all these issues and others. Congratulations on your victory and for capturing our struggle to come into the light of authorship.
Thank you for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment here. The battle has only commenced now, what with the publishing just beginning and I continue to go through these blanked out phases when nothing makes sense and its all too clouded.
Thank you especially for citing “the one and only Toni Morrison.”
Thanks a lot for taking the time out to read and comment on this Jan. I indeed draw a lot of strength and inspiration from Morrison.
This is a great read with thoughtful insight into your particular lived experience. I am moved to see how you invested the mental and emotional energy into learning to give yourself permission to write your own truth! And I love that list of inspiring authors.
Thank you so much for reading the blog Amy. It was a clumsy space I was in for quite sometime earlier this year. And these authors, writers, all of them, helped me find my feet and voice in these very weird times.
Anandi, I am echoing the plaudits of those above and noting that I have had some of the same misgivings about my writing and about “permission.” Good for you for persevering and being honest with yourself. That’s courage!
Thank you for reading the blog Barry. I did let the blog simmer in my mind for a while before I finally find the precise words to put it out there. So glad it find home here and resonance with you.
Thank you so much Barry for reading the blog. I’m so glad it found resonance with you. I did let the thought of this blog simmer in my mind for a while before I actually wrote it out. So these thoughts have been with me for a long, long time. Happy that Brevity gave them a home.
Anandi, you are doing important work, thanks for letting us have a glimpse at your process!
Thank you Adrielle, for saying that. Its just a way to get better at our work, as writers and human beings too, measure by measure. Thank you for reading the piece.