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.
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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).

Words as Image: How “Thank You” Originated

January 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

girl w cameraSejal Shah discusses the origin of her recent Brevity essay “Thank You” and offers up an intriguing writing prompt.

I have often relied on objects and images to help convey meaning in my stories, poems, and essays.  Perhaps over-relied.  However, I also felt that I had found a way in to a telling a story that worked.  In “Street Scene,” a lyric essay about a close friend who took her life, I found the image with resonance that knitted the essay together was that of the now-filled-in swimming pool of my childhood in my parents’ backyard.  “Street Scene” is about remembering and grieving this friend, whom I met when she was in her thirties; the present tense of the essay is a week-long trip to Paris some years later, and the childhood pool initially seemed like a random out-of-place image.  (She had never even seen the pool and we might never even have talked about it.)

My writing group pointed out that the pool and the associative memory of it that followed didn’t have anything to do with LeeAnne or the present-day of the narrator, who is walking around in Paris, but I felt stubborn about the pool, and refused to give it up.  I worked on this essay for over two years (I have a patient and kind writing group), and with the wise suggestions of the editor of the literary journal that published it, the image emerged and quietly grew to be the central image of childhood, the past, and my longing for LeeAnne’s return.  The image of the pool was the right one, but I had had to trust it and also, to learn to trust myself.  Writing and completing “Street Scene” gave me the confidence to trust myself.

My essay in the September 2013 issue of Brevity, “Thank You,” is unlike anything else I’ve ever written in that the two words themselves become what is usually an image in my writing—a touchstone, a repeated phrase, a symbol, a talisman, a warning, an entreaty, an objective correlative, a prayer, a plea, a longing, a wish.  Voice and imagery have traditionally driven my writing.  In both the fiction and nonfiction I’ve written, I have never used a lot of dialogue.  I think of writing assignments that ask students to overhear and record bits of dialogue in restaurants, in coffee shops, on trains, in line at stores, in line anywhere. As a teacher, I’ve given these assignments myself, but often haven’t taken the advice to listen closely, myself, and to write down what I hear.

When writing “Thank You,” (the whole first draft came out in one rush—it was a gift), I mused on how often the man in the essay and I said “thank you” to each other, but when I expected and wanted to hear thank you the most, the words never came.  The title of the essay and the essay itself would not have worked without the sentence from the young daughter.  The little girl’s father and I both thought it was an odd and funny thing for his daughter to say:  I love this book so much I’m not going to say thank you.  I am intrigued by the gap between what we say and what we feel or think we feel. When I showed an early draft to a few other writers, at least one was puzzled by the title.  Who is saying thank you?, she asked.  And what is she (the narrator/me) thankful about?   He is gone, I never met the daughter, but the words and story stayed with me.  I am thankful for that.

Writing Prompt:  Many essays, stories, and poems I’ve written are letters to people I have loved or people who haunt me—these are letters I am unable or unwilling to send.  “Thank You,” is one of those letters.  Write a letter that you can never send or will never send—to someone with whom you are not in touch, or who has passed, or to whom the ability to speak at a certain level or pitch has faded.  Who are the people who haunt you and what would you say that you never had a chance to say, if you could say it?  A brief essay in the form of a letter, a direct address, a wish.

Sejal Shah’s writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, The Literary Review, Web Conjunctions, and AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle. She lives and teaches in Upstate New York. Find her online at www.sejal-shah.com.

Brevity 44: Just Around the Corner

September 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

(c) Joel Brouwer

(c) Joel Brouwer

Happy to announce that our September 2013 issue will be up and running next week, with fine new essays from Jill Talbot, Sejal Shah, Amy Wright, Cris Mazza, Garnett Kilberg Cohen, Mary Jones, Scott Russell Morris, Kathryn Miller, Lisa Knopp, Karen Salyer McElMurray, Kent Shaw, Sally Ashton, Tami Mohamed Brown, Paul Crensaw, and the dashingly handsome Ira Sukrungruang.

Plus craft essays from Beth Kephart, Joe Bonomo, and Chelsea Biondolillo. Also interviews with Susan Kushner Resnick and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher.

Oh, yes, and book reviews too, from Deborah Thompson and Amye Archer.

And the stunning photography of Joel Brouwer.

Stay tuned.

Not Dead Yet

August 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

800px-FuneralNew Pages has announced the death of Brevity Poetry Review and we’ve received a few questions as a result.  No, this is not us, and no, we are in no way affiliated, and yes, we are alive and strong as ever.  See you in September with a new issue, featuring:

Ira Sukrungruang, Cris Mazza, Jill Talbot, Scott Russell Morris, Mary Jones, Garnett Kilberg Cohen, Lisa Knopp, Amy Wright, Kathryn Miller, Kent Shaw, Sally Ashton, Sejal Shah, Tami Mohamed Brown, Paul Crenshaw, and Karen Salyer McElmurray

Here is the New Pages announcement:

Brevity Poetry Review Goes Under

Brevity Poetry Review has announced via email that they are closing the magazine permanently. Unfortunately, it appears as if the website and the archives no longer exist. “I offer my sincerest apologies and thank you for your understanding,” writes the editor

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