Friday, July 17, 2009

Rachel Kann's Workshop, Woolf and Workshops

Just finished an one-week workshop with Rachel Kann on Call and Response:Poetic Conversations. The basic idea was, all the workshop participants respond to a writer/poet and/or a poem/literary text in their poems and then turn in the finished draft for feedback and comments. A poetic dialog of sorts. I have long been interested in the idea of rewriting as a critic, and no one working on neo-slave narratives, post-coloniality, women’s writings can actually bypass the immense significance of re-writing or different modes of revisionist aesthetics and their complexities.

I did not generate any new work for the workshop, but turned in an old poem, written earlier this year. One from the series I am writing on
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I have long been intrigued by this text, especially the way it frames the question between women’s creativity and economic independence. And my storytelling mind keeps marveling at this whole idea of Shakespeare’s sister, through which Woolf introduces the primary concept of the book---the need for a woman to have a room in order to be creative. Much later, I had come across Alice Walker’s brilliant essay In Search of Our Mother’s Garden, where she provides an extremely insightful problematization of the very basic premise of Woolf’s work, the very idea of a woman’s separate room, through a racial/class lens. In lots of ways, the series I am writing is based on that premise pointed out by Alice Walker, although I am primarily interested in locating Woolf’s work within more of a context of the colonial drainage of wealth which directly effected the sub-continent, and in an offhand kind of a way, also led to the emergence of British Modernisms. So, one can also say, in this series, I am also trying to confront Woolf’s white feminism and some of its ideological implications, without losing sight of the fact that A Room of One’s Own is indeed a text which has influenced me profoundly, and has led me to think of the relationship between gender and creativity in more complex terms.

My colleagues at the workshop liked the poem, and Rachel herself has provided some really useful suggestions. So, right now, I am busy re-visioning and editing it. This is one of the things I love about the workshoping process ~ the way it often forces a writer to think about the aesthetic-narrative-political choices one is making, and if the need be, to defend them within a community of reader-writers. Of course, it’s not hard to see how that process can become problematic, but I must also say, that during this week, it did feel affirming and just plain good to get some positive feedback about my work from other poets and writers. Especially since, the week before had been one of receiving rejections from quite a few of the journals to whom I had turned in some of my work before leaving Austin.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


The new story is happening, but very very slowly.I am not pushing myself to produce huge chunks all at once. Rather, I try to write 200-300 words everyday, and reflect on the story outline before and after producing those words. Although yesterday I did end up writing around 500 words. I wonder, if the difficulty is partly because of the fact that my main character is someone who is hugely different from me-- a small-town teenager, whom everyone reads as too shy, too burdened by social norms, and too ordinary. I have never lived in an Indian/Bengali small-town myself, although I have visited them and have friends who have grown up in there. So, it's not something I know directly in the way I knew of things when I wrote some of the stories of the Pipli series. Although, once I began to write, even in the Pipli series, things began to assume their own lives, and pushed me out of that autobiography mode. Or should I say, vulgar autobiography mode?

In that sense, I am beginning to think, that all writings are autobiographical in some way or the other. I mean, there is no way a writer can write about things if it hasn't passed through his experience or existence. I am willing to go for extremely broad definitions of the words "experience" and "existence," but I don't think it is possible to write even a fantasy tale or a historical fiction (things which are by definition beyond realism, and therefore beyond the so-called real world experience), if the writer hasn't experienced history or the fantasy world in some way or the other. So, I am not surprised, when I find myself unconsciously falling back upon my own memories of how I felt as a fifteen year old while writing about this girl who is vastly dissimilar in terms of background. Now, I just need to continue with the narrative and see where it goes.

In other words,have begun to read
Rishi Reddy's debut collection Karma and Other Stories. She has a really strong voice, and a lucid way of writing about people and their complexities, which is magnetic. A little bit like Jhumpa Lahiri, but from what I have read so far, there is a bigger space for rebellion, especially young girls' rebellion in her stories. And I cannot help enjoying that!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

But Where is the Conflict?

Have started the new short story, written like a page of it. Although I am still not sure where it is going, I have a better sense of the narrative. I am trying to experiment with the kind of voice Faulkner uses for his story A Rose for Emily. I am not sure if it will work fully, the we-voice thing, because already I can see the narrator becoming much more of an involved entity, more so than what becomes of him/her within Faulkner's story. So, that needs to be seen. I don't know fully yet...

In the last one year, I have been consistently told in the workshops that nothing much ever happens in the stories I write. I have also been asked, but,
where is the conflict? Part of it, no doubt, is my own bad writing. I mean, I am only beginning to write, think through stories,words, representations as a crafts-woman seriously. Previously, my relationship to literature has been pre-dominantly one of a reader-critic. So, I don't expect instant success. But, I have also begun to wonder, if there isn't something more to that conflict-nothing much happens question than just my bad writing. Coming to think of it, nothing much happens in, say, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhayay's Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) for a good length of time. Nothing much happens in Sandra Cisneros' House on the Mango Street or Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye until one comes to the tail-end.So, is it possible that this question is itself ideological in nature? A question that emerges from a generation of white American readers/writers who are used to the catastrophe model of Hollywood film-narrative? I mean, let's face it, nothing much happens in most people's lives, yet a lot happens too! So how does a writer choose a story? In Bengali, as well as in the entire gamut of post-colonial literature, there is a very rich tradition of character-sketches. Kind of a fictional version of life-writing, where the very writing of a character, reveals a lot about the complexities of history, society, culture, narrative. It is true I have been trained within that tradition, and that training has been primarily sub-conscious and un-conscious. And it is within that tradition that I want to locate myself.

So, in a way, I think, I am more interested in exploring the contradictions and the tensions in a story, rather than exploring the conflict (Thanks to UCLA-Extension Daniel Jaffe for pointing this out in a workshop.)

But I also wonder, to what extent, my readers have been expecting me to satisfy their ethnic curiosities? But then, I also want to hone my craft. So, I don't want to use that as an excuse for not working on my craft. So, my question is, where does a third world/writer of color (insert any other non-dominant identity here) go to develop their story-telling skills while clinging onto the complexities of their experiences both in terms of the forms and the contents they are embracing?