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Nanowrimo Advice on Failure from Minal Hajratwala

Jaggery’s own Ask the Unicorn columnist, Minal Hajratwala, gives advice on National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo):

 

FAILURE

Dearest lovely writer,

Halfway through, it’s about time we start thinking about failure.

I’ve already written ##,000 words. I’m out of ideas, my fingers hurt, and my dog misses me. Plus it’s the holidays. Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead.

I’ve barely written #00 words. I’m a zero, basically. I’ll never catch up now. Why bother? I’m going to the NaNo FAQs to see if I can take my profile down.

What do we do when faced with the great gaping jaws of failure?

I often wish I could be one of those cool-headed, even-keeled writers who pumps out a steady stream of prose during the 9-to-5 hours and then gets to go out for beer and biryani.

Maybe you’re one of them. If so, congrats to you! I don’t hate you. No, really I don’t. A little envy, maybe. What, I look green? That’s just because one of my characters has been ingesting Paris Green.

The truth is, I’m not that kind of writer. Never have been. I despise the 9-to-5. I sleep through most mornings. My favorite writing time zone is 1am to 3am. I don’t drink beer.

And the more I remember these things about myself, instead of sulking and envying, the more writing I get done.

What about you? What kind of writer are you? As you pump (crawl?ooze?) your way through NaNoWriMo, don’t forget to notice what you’re learning about yourself and your writing.

What are your inner critical voices saying, and how are you getting past them — or not?

What time of day works best for you? What boosts or saps your energy? When do you love writing? When do you resent the heck out of it?

What do you do when you think you “should be” writing? What habits have you developed to avoid your writing? How can you defeat your own self-defeating habits?

These questions, and what you notice about your writing, will serve you long after November 30, whether you meet your goal or not.

By this point in my writing life, I know my habits pretty well. When I’m not writing, I’m often checking my email or Facebook. As a working writer and writing coach who is gearing up for a book tour, I actually have legitimate reasons for being online. (You probably do, too).

The other morning, for example, instead of writing, I replied to an interview request from the BBC, updated my website events page, publicized an upcoming workshop by posting it to some Facebook groups, scheduled a coaching call with a client, and went online to order a new bookshelf for my writing room to take advantage of a 25% discount — all valiant, justifiable uses of my time.

And yet… the whole time, I knew I was avoiding my NaNo novel. I’d write an email and think, “I should do this later and write now.” I’d pen some scintillating marketing prose and think, “I should be writing my novel now, not this.” After all, it wasn’t as though I had no free time at all; I also cuddled the dog, took a long nap, and played a video game.

And then, eventually, after all that, niggled by the nagging feeling (or nagged by the niggling feeling) that I was behind schedule, and haunted by the (again legitimate, justifiable!) lack of writing for the previous two days … I wrote.

I got over the voice saying “failure, failing, fail” by admitting that, yes, it’s true. I might completely, utterly fail.

At my novel. At my life.

I actually only have 19 writing days available in November, so my goal has been to write 2,632 words per day. Whew! So far, I’ve mostly failed. I’ve met that daily target only once.

But I’m writing. I’ve written on days I thought I wouldn’t be able to; I’ve surprised myself with both my devotion as well as my apparently not-yet-tapped capacity for procrastination. My novel is growing, and I’m understanding the characters better. I haven’t lost the plot; hey, look, I even have subplots!

Your mileage and methods may vary. When I met our fantastic India ML for a quick co-writing session in Mumbai, she noticed that I write longhand. Yes, I’m old school. Eventually I move onto the computer, but I write in notebooks.

How do you count? she asked. I use an average words-per-line, roughly approximating each page as I go.

When I’m stuck, I write directly about the process of being stuck. It usually helps me figure something out and get moving. This counts; this is work on my novel.

I’ve also made a four-pages-and-growing list of freewrite topics, so that I can just grab one and go in each writing session — one of the strategies I suggest for my writing students and clients. Don’t have a topic list? Make one (yes, that list of words counts toward your total!), or follow the NaNo sprints on Twitter, or just email me and I’ll send you my 10-Minute Writing For Muscles of Steel exercises. It’s all good. There’s no wrong way to do this.

Write on your own personal timezone. Write blindly, not even looking at what you’re typing. Write long nasty letters to your own inner critics. But write.

And if your inner editor is whispering lots of sweet-nothings about failure, join me in the goal I’ve set for this month: to become the most verbose, wordy, prolific failure in the history of literature.

I’ll race you there.

Love,
Minal

An Actual (South) Asian American Speaks from the Ruins of Best American Poetry

by Rajiv Mohabir

© 2012 Rajiv Mohabir | Bahini, knock a dholak

I woke up angry on September 8th, the day the Best American Poetry anthology came out. My greatest literary achievement had been eclipsed by some white man pretending to be Asian American in order to publish his poems, as though being Asian meant he had access to a more privileged consideration of his work by editors. He relied on the white notion of “reverse racism” as a model for publishing his poems that had been rejected when he used his actual name. The “poet” (from here on the “faux-et”), Michael Derrick Hudson, used the pen name of “Yi-Fen Chou” to obscure the fact that he was white. He stole the name of a woman he went to high school with—talk about terra nullius and white entitlement. In his statement in Best American Poetry 2015, Hudson speaks directly about his reasons. The faux-et wanted to point out the oppression of white people by using a Chinese “nom de plume” to show how his poem had been rejected over forty times with his real name, but had made it into this prestigious anthology upon his affecting a Chinese persona.

Hudson relied on the presumption that editors read poems by people of color differently than they do white people’s poems and therefore he could have an “easy in” by using a Chinese name. (This is an Orientalist’s dream in yellow face Technicolor.) In his bio, the faux-et claims to do this strategically, as though to say: “look, white people are subjects of reverse racism.” Only a fool would believe in “reverse racism.” Racism is systemic, structural, something that people of his own ilk have created to make sure they come out on top, to ensure that they drain every last brown country dry of its resources, be it bauxite, labor, or poems.

David Lehman, the founder of the Best American Poetry series, made a statement that left most people dissatisfied. He insinuated that the faux-et’s use of a pseudonym is a time-honored tradition, and this was just a continuation of that trend. Sherman Alexie, the well-known Native poet who chose the poems for this anthology, states his reasoning for including the poet in the anthology in a blog post. He claims that after discovering Yi-Fen Chou’s true identity, removing the poem from the anthology would cast a doubt on all of the other poems selected. He believed that by removing the poem from Best American Poetry 2015 he would be admitting to “racial nepotism.” But by keeping it in he did injustice to us, to me. People of color protested against his decision on the basis that there is no such thing as “racial nepotism.”

The implication in Alexie’s statement is that editorial silence and blind submissions are what keep people out of sticky situations involving “identity politics,” a bad word for liberal white writers. I would argue, however, that nom de plumes and pseudonyms are part of an appropriative tradition whereby cultural productions and identities from the Global South are consumed by the North—black face, yellow face, brown face are strategies in this ideology that seek to represent the lesser-than-white unassimilable body of color as non-entity. Lives in the South and Southern diasporas are not valued the same way that white bodies are despite American liberal attempts at “leveling the playing field” without restricting global capitalism. There is identity politics at stake with this “color blindness” itself in that it’s just a way of denying difference of experience: the “I-don’t-see-color” that wants everyone to appear equal without addressing inequalities in class, gender, sexual orientation, and race. Yet simply put, we are not equal. The white supremacist hetero-patriarchy is a framework that continues to stifle people of color. And in the case of the faux-et and Best American Poetry 2015, white privilege also includes the purloining of identities in order to legitimize your claim. Think Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith.

*
When I told my mother I was in the Best American Poetry 2015 anthology, she echoed the word, “American?” I don’t know which she believed less—that my poems were read and liked, or that I am considered an “American.” She sensed that I lie when I claim to be American. But it’s no lie, at least nationally—I have a passport from the United States, a privilege that my family had to work hard to get. As a Guyanese writer my layers of belonging are complicated. Claiming to be anything is to trick others about who I am. How can I represent myself when I write about “Asian American” experience?

Even as I consider what it means to send this to a South Asian publication, I feel the lie flower in the back of my throat. I am ethnically Indian—Bhojpuriya and Tamil—but my family has lived outside of the subcontinent since 1885. I claim to be Caribbean, but Guyana is actually in South America. When I say South America people think of Spanish language, but Guyana is the only country in South America with English as its official language. I claim to be Guyanese only to be corrected by friends that I am unmistakably American only to be corrected by acquaintances that don’t buy it with their hailstorm of where-are-you-froms. And to boot, I was born in England. You can see my problem.

So it should come as no surprise that claiming to be Asian American feels like a stretch—but it’s a convenient term when it comes to locating me as a poet. Mostly, it’s for people to recognize me, a category that’s neat and fits well inside American patterns of racialization. I wouldn’t claim to be Asian American when talking with my sister—we’re Coolie. This is something invisible to the American poetic landscape, an in-between place where Creolization and hybridity present a logic of migration. When I say “Me one real Coolie bhai” it doesn’t translate neatly into “I am an Asian American,” or “I am a South Asian American whose parents are from Guyana.” I use the term “South Asian” strategically—my family is from the “Old Diaspora,” another term that is given to us from the outside from people wishing to locate us with their nets of identity.

Are South Asian Americans even Asian Americans? In Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, Gayatri Gopinath posits that South Asians are at the edges of Asian American textbooks and that the definition of “America” in “Asian American” should be broad enough to encompass the “Americas,” which would allow for a reconfiguration of diasporic space. This is hard to grapple with emotionally as it’s been one hundred and thirty years since India has been in my family’s imaginations, that place where our ancestors signed their freedom to Empire with their thumbprints, a mythic homeland to which we point our dreams. When I do use this particular assemblage of identity, it’s to align politically with an entity of literary activists fighting Orientalism and oppression. The term “Asian American” is a hard-won term that needs much personal negotiation.

*

Our anger over the faux-et’s appropriation and dishonesty is absolutely necessary. We are right to be angry and to demand that this whole matter be corrected, addressed, and fixed. The stake is the erasure of people of color in a system structured to eliminate us through the pretense of “good” poetry, which presumes poems should be chosen without taking representation into consideration. Yes, racism still exists, and there are still whites-only poetry communities and spaces.

As an actual Asian American represented in this anthology, I have some questions: Does this faux-et believe that I am more privileged because my ancestors were enslaved, raped, and murdered by colonial masters? Is it a privilege to belong to a long line of unlettered farmers who signed their names as thumbprints, tricked by Empire’s empty promises? But can we just please get away from only talking about white people?

My mother cried when I explained that it meant that a writer whose work I love chose one of my poems—one of my Indo-/Caribbean/Guyanese/South/Asian/American? poems based on chutney music to be included in what he considered to be the “best” American poetry. She knows inherently that my poetic genealogy is transnational, nuanced, diasporic, and musical—that it must be. That poetry is an act of survival for us. I couldn’t tell her about the controversies surrounding this task—about representation and the problems that follow the successes of people of color in this nation. How that despite what we achieve, despite our hard won successes, despite her sweat and backbreak, despite her mother’s blood and alienation, our struggles and success are still coopted by white people who think that we, for whatever stilted reason, have it better than they do; that despite everything, the world of American poetry is still only talking about white people.

What I propose is a call-to-action literary activism at its most necessary: stop centering white poets. Let’s replant the garden in the middle of the ruins. Buy books of poetry by poets of color. Read works by people of color. If you like what you read then reach out to them. Send them an email. Tell them that you love their work and that they should keep writing because it has touched you. It’s not easy being a poet of color; it’s easy to feel isolated. Acknowledge the work you love and the poets who spend hours crafting works that they hope will one day speak to others.

Read books and poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rafael Campos, Chen Chen, Natalie Diaz, Saeed Jones, Jericho Brown, Terrance Hayes, Joan Naviuk Kane, Jamaal May, Claudia Rankine, Jane Wong, Afaa Michael Weaver, W. Todd Kaneko, Purvi Shah, Soham Patel, Chin-In Chen, Henry Leung, Joseph Han, Sarah Gambito, Joseph Legaspi, Amalia Bueno, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Oliver de la Paz, Vidhu Aggarwal, Minal Hajratwala, Cathy Lin Che, Janine Joseph, R.A. Villanueva, Allison Hedge Coke, Sherwin Bitsui, Kimiko Hahn, Tarfia Faizullah, Kazim Ali, Matthew Olzmann, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Sevé Torres, Monica Ong Reed, Suni Chandy, Zakia Henderson-Brown, Charif Shannahan, Ocean Vuong, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Sally Wen Mao, Wo Chan, Kenji Liu, Eugenia Leigh, Barbara Jane Reyes, Allison Joseph, Jocelyn Ng, Amir Rabiya, Biswamit Dwibedy, R Zamora Linmark, Margaret Rhee, Hari Alluri, Emily Jungmin Yoon, Anna Saini, Jay Deshpande, Donovan K?hio Colleps, Paul Tran, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Mg Roberts, Derrik Austin, Dan Lau, Christopher Soto, Margaret Noodin, Laura Da’…the list goes on.

One thousand congratulations to all of the people of color in Best American Poetry 2015! Your accomplishments are worth celebrating! I celebrate you right now.


Rajiv_MohabirRajiv Mohabir is the author of The Taxidermist’s Cut (March 2016), which received the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books. His second manuscript won the 2015 Kundiman Prize and is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2018. Receiving the AWP Intro Journals Award and a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, he received his MFA in poetry and translation from at Queens College, CUNY. Currently he is pursuing a PhD in English from the University of Hawaii. Read more of his work here.

Photo Credit: © 2012 Charmila Ajmera

The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective Indiegogo Campaign

The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is the brain child of Shikha Malaviya, Minal Hajratwala, and Ellen Kombiyil, three poets who met in Bangalore, India, in 2013, and decided to found a mentorship model collective literary press. The Collective aims to publish new & emerging Indian poets, on the basis of manuscript merit, mentor them through the publishing process from A to Z, and then train them to eventually become mentors themselves. In addition to publishing books, The Collective also gives poetry workshops, organizes readings, develops poetry curriculums rooted in Indian poetic traditions & much more. They’re all about widening the dialogue on Indian poetry and bringing it out into the open.

So far the collective has published two titles, Geography of Tongues (December 2013/January 2014) & Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (November 2014). They hope to publish three more books in the coming year & will be releasing  inPoetry, a poetry app which will bring Indian poems in English to readers through their mobile phones, as well as designing an online poetry workshop.

In order to realize their goals, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is now running an Indiegogo campaign. While India has influenced the world in music, film, fashion, philosophy, and countless other ways, her poets have not yet had the international platform they deserve. The Collective hopes to remedy this oversight and, through the power of social entrepreneurship and community, allow the verse of Indian poets to shine everywhere. Please consider being a patron of poetry & donating.

 To learn more, visit:

 

Column

Ask the Unicorns

You do know the difference between procrastination and foreplay, don’t you? If you treat spending time with your book as just an obligation or, worse, a job—well, we all know how that kind of love affair goes.

Ask the Unicorns: The Novelist in the Mist

Petri_Damsten-Bird_in_the_Morning_Mist-Flickr

© 2013 Petri Damstén | Bird in the Morning Mist | via Flickr

Dear Unicorns,

Okay, homies, this is the year I finally finish my novel. I decided my discipline will include, at a minimum, waking at 6 a.m. everyday to write before work. So, I got up at 6 a.m. to write, but found myself in a bit of a quandary, stepping back into the world of a manuscript after a significant amount of time away. Any suggestions for how to tackle re-entry? I found that I had to begin with a read-through in order to jog my memory about what had been written and reacquaint myself with characters . . . then what? Need some guidance around process so as to not feel so overwhelmed.

—Lolan BuSe

Dear Lolan,

The unicorn homies totally sympathize.

We’ve all been there. No matter how committed you are, life and its consequences can intrude, and then suddenly—weeks, months, years later—you’re trying to push through a big giant something to re-enter your book.

I muse a lot about the nature of this something. It feels like that eerie magical fog that conceals certain islands, which you can only find if you know the special witchy words AND you get the right boatman AND the goddesses agree that it’s your time to go there.

You can wander in the mists for a long time, disoriented, like Odysseus returning to Ithaca. Or you can do exactly what you did, which is to say, “Oh, hey, mists. Guess I’m in ’em. What now?”

I’m reminded here of the wonderful advice that my own writing coach, Susan Griffin, gave me over the seven years it took me to finish my own monstrous book (which, it’s important to note, was five years longer than I’d anticipated, which meant that I spent every day for thousands of days in an absolute White Rabbit panic—“I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!”).

Susan, who’d already been through the special agony of a long-suffering manuscript—in her case, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome slowed her work, which you can read all about in her memoir What Her Body Thought—told me this:

A manuscript is like a lover.

You have to keep giving it a little attention, she said. Even if you just touch it every day, that helps.

In the depth of my writer’s block, there were days, weeks, when literally all I did was touch the manuscript.

It helped.

I’m going to go out on a limb and extrapolate here. (Hey, Mom, don’t read past this. We’re talking about lovers here, okay?)

The thing is, if I haven’t been with a lover for a long time, even one I know deeply, there’s often some shyness. We need to get to know each other again. We can’t just get right into the down and dirty.

Do you ever feel that your relationship with your book is even more intimate than your relationship with any other person?

I do.

So if I have to be away for a long time, it’s good to be gentle coming back. A read-through is a beautiful idea, and maybe even a little gentle editing. Fixing up typos. Listening. Touching. Stroking her hair.

And then, maybe it’s time to express my intentions.

Dear Book,

What I want to do with you now is ____.

Or:

Beloved manuscript,

I’m so sorry we’ve been away from each other. I missed you a lot. How are you? Here’s how I’m really feeling about you . . .

Do this as a freewrite: 10 minutes, no stopping/thinking, just write whatever comes. Get the emo out, and then you’ll probably know where to go. What parts are really begging for your touch.

And then . . .

As you enter a sustained relationship, you may want more than heat and cuddles. You may want to, you know, make plans together.

Notice I said “plans,” not “demands.” Please don’t think I’m saying you should spend hours drawing up an elaborate spreadsheet that accounts for every minute of your writing time and what chapter/subchapter/scene you will be working on at every millisecond.

There are lots of ways to make a plan. The key thing is to not take too much time deliberating—just enough to get going. One of the best ways is to make lists.

Three very helpful lists to keep:

List #1: Descriptions to write

Start a running list of things you’ll need to show not tell: characters, locations, smells, objects, moments, bodies/body parts, what everyone wears, colors that’ll be important in the book. Make the items on your list very specific to your book, and as concrete as possible: Her mood as she enters the abattoir. The key that the detective discovers in the boathouse. What the boathouse smells like.

List at least 20 items. Add to your list at any time. Repeat this exercise whenever you run out.

List # 2: Events/scenes to write

This list is short or long depending on how far you are in the book. Keep it visible and give yourself a nice bold checkmark or gold star when you do one. (Seriously—stickers are very helpful to the book writer.)

In these freewrites, try to stick with the action and keep it moving. Don’t let description slow you down; remember you can always add it later, from List #1. When I walked into the darkened boathouse, right away I could smell [insert smells here—something putrid]. I gagged, then covered my mouth with [??handkerchief? ok, describe later] . . . and that was when I heard a bone-chilling sound.

Notice that this is not fantastic writing. Remember that you can edit later. Make editing notes if you want along the way, or not: I heard a bone-chilling [ugh! cliché] sound. The air started to waver, and so did my knees. Suddenly . . . Keep the action moving.

List #3: Things to figure out

This is an excellent list to keep so that whenever you run into a big gory problem, it doesn’t slow down your writing. (OMG. I killed off Charmaine in Chapter Three, but then in Chapter Eleventeen I showed her rescuing the talking squirrel!) Instead of interrupting your own flow, just jot it down on your list: Charmaine dead in Ch2, alive in Ch11ish— fix. And keep going with your description of the texture of squirrel fur, or whatever.

Now, how do you use all these lists?

On days when inspiration is hot, you don’t. You’re rarin’ to go, so you don’t need no friggin’ list.

On days when you’re willing but just a little empty, or in need of direction, pull a description or scene. One of my clients even plays “freewrite lottery”: she writes her topics on slips of paper and puts them into a fishbowl on her desk. Set a timer, pull one, and go!

Descriptions make for great 10-minute warm-ups to ease you into your workflow each day. They’re fun and get the blood flowing into your fingertips. And you need this stuff, so it doesn’t feel like waste-of-time journaling. Ten minutes of red might result in a list of 50 different metaphors and synonyms for red, which would be helpful if your book is set in Maoist China, or an abattoir.

Scenes require more attention, so think of them as the tofu in the bánh mì of your work session. If your scene feels too big and overwhelming, chop it up. Set a timer for 15 minutes and just write the beginning of the scene; another 15 minutes: write the end. Connect them with the middle. This doesn’t have to happen all in one day. It can, in fact, be lovely to give yourself some suspense by starting something and then leaving the outcome till the next day, so you know exactly where to pick up, and are excited to get to it.

Do, by the way, accept the unicorns’ permission to introduce a sense of play into your workspace, if you haven’t already. The reality is, writing a book is a slog enough of the time, without adding a really heavy bludgeon on top of that. Whatever excites you—colored pens, cartoons on the walls, post-it notes in the shapes of sea animals—is not a waste of time, if it makes you feel excited about working. Don’t fret about wasting time.

You do know the difference between procrastination and foreplay, don’t you? If you treat spending time with your book as just an obligation or, worse, a job—well, we all know how that kind of love affair goes. It’s not pretty. The toughest instruction my Zen teacher ever gave me about my writing process was, “Enjoy.”

And on those days when you’re a little low energy, or the mists are really thick, tinker with your fix-it list. Figuring things out is satisfying, and you may not even need to compose full sentences. Sometimes your problems help solve each other. (All right, look, what if Jerome rescues the squirrel, that’s kind of good because he disappears in the second half and I wrote down that I need him to come back, too, so . . .) Edit or rewrite the problem scene till it works, or just jot a note and add it to List #2.

Look at you, working on your manuscript!

Love,

The Unicorns

Ask the Unicorns is an advice column about living the creative life, written by Minal Hajratwala and channeled directly from the ancient unicorns of the Indus Valley. Got a question about writing, reading, relating, creating, or being desi? The unicorns know. Write to AskTheUnicorns@gmail.com. Please indicate whether you would like us to publish your name or keep your question anonymous. All questions will be considered for publication; they will NOT be answered individually.


Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, author of the award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), and editor of Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013). Her collection of poems is forthcoming from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.

Issue 3: Summer 2014

Fiction

The Humanly Dog of Colonel Haider Usman

Ms. Bhonsle knew the diplomatic power that is necessary for a single woman in her fifties who lived alone. Indeed, balance meant a moderation of excesses that would otherwise not fit into Indian middle-class life.

Skokie Nights

Rimi loved the tragedy—or rather, the poetry—of teenage girls found dead. She didn’t want to be raped or murdered or harmed in any way. She just wanted to be a corpse, like some girls wanted to be a bride or a princess.

Poetry

A-B-C-D

A for assimilation
B forgetting the brown
C for Columbus, not Colombo—
that song that every immigration child knows

Republic Day, 2014

I wanted to parade a toy soldier,
Impotent and unmanly,
In this country of men and manners.
I asked the police for permission.
They said, sorry,
We only parade puffed up chests.

forest, matheran hills

notice, she said, language body nature prayer
follow the same rules of resting

My Father’s White Shirts

i fill the washing machine with soap and a week’s worth
of my father’s undershirts
tangled like a clutch of heron’s eggs ready to hatch
only one will live

Oranges, memory

I buy one and dig my nails
beneath skin. Ride these waves
of scent with me

Essays

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on Books for Young Readers

I wanted a story that would be a great adventure for readers, but also one that would introduce readers to the Indian landscape, Indian ways of life, and Indian philosophy and values. I wanted a magical object out of Indian myth. I wanted a reverse quest tale (returning a magical object to its original home) . . .

A Dynasty of Dust

India can harden hearts or fill them with the ripe, sweet fruit of compassion. If the pilgrim is sincere, and attentive, and lucky, then India might deign to reveal partially glimpsed hints of the truths that lay hidden beneath the surface and beyond the cloaking veil of maya woven out of dust and traffic diesel fumes and smoke from wood-fires in rusted upright oil drums . . .

A White Girl Makes Bangladeshi Piaju

Being from Vancouver, I’ve tried South Asian cuisine in fusion form, because Vancouver is the First Lady of fusion food cities. However I don’t recall ever having a traditionally prepared South Asian dish, let alone preparing one myself. I hoped with the available resources I would be able to meet the challenge. So, to Google . . .

Art


1_American Beauty II_2014_hibaHiba Schahbaz

I am investigating issues of self-identification within the lexicon of miniature painting, and in the process, re-contextualizing miniature painting in contemporary art. By observing the symbolism and iconography of the cultures around me, I construct imagery that fuses the real with the imagined.

1_The Edifice Butterfly_tulikaTulika Ladsariya

My paintings are a social commentary on the division of society through the iconography of labor. Bricks, lumber, plaster, and bright house paint recur in my oeuvre. Through this process of hunting, lugging, and working with heavy material, I try to empathize with the workforce that I depict and choose to think of art as labor.

1_hayfever_michelleMichelle Cherian

As I wander through the streets of Kathmandu on a crisp morning, I take in 80s neon pink, stark black-and-white stripes, an emerald green satin sash . . . These are the immediate colors and textures that glide through my mind as I download this moment’s inspiration.

1_Evry1wants2leave_shoiliShoili Kanungo

When I draw, I like using a lot of details. I think of the page as a nonlinear storyboard, with no guidelines for where to go and—hopefully—lots to discover. When I paint, I am a little obsessed with swirling lines. I do love lines.

Reviews

Celluloid Man: Back to the Future

The new documentary Celluloid Man highlights the legacy of P. K. Nair and the debt the country owes this visionary.

Geography of Tongues by Shikha Malaviya

Shikha Malaviya’s first book is a collection of poems that awakens the reader’s sense of taste, offering poems about pineapple pastry, mashed bananas and milk, guava leaves, red chilis and pomegranates, strawberries and mangoes.

Paging Ms. Marvel: The Perks and Perils of Creating an Islamic Feminist Superhero

The new Ms. Marvel comic series offers its readers something exciting, progressive, and new. Kamala Khan, who later transforms into Ms. Marvel, is the first major South Asian superhero protagonist in the Marvel comic book–verse.

Column

Ask the Unicorns

You do know the difference between procrastination and foreplay, don’t you? If you treat spending time with your book as just an obligation or, worse, a job—well, we all know how that kind of love affair goes.

Arisa White writes ‘Post Pardon’ based on poet Reetika Vazirani’s life and death.

I was living in California the first time I heard about  poet Reetika Vazirani. I mention where I was living because this woman I did not know is one of my strongest memories of living in a State/place I grew to love despite the few months I was able to call California home. The reason which  I first heard about Vazirani was less than stellar. She had committed suicide and, what seemed, impossibly, even worse,  she had also killed her two year old son. My elder son was, at the time,  two and a half years old, and, don’t we all suffer dark nights, and yet, we fall asleep and wake up ready to give a new day a fresh chance. I could not get her son out of my mind. That night I wrote a story about such an incident but I did not try to get it published for some  words you need to bare your heart of just for yourself. But, since that day over a daceade ago,  I do think back to that woman and her son and wonder what happened? What happened?

Poet Arisa White  is trying to answer exactly that in Post Pardon, a series of poems loosely based on Vazirani’s death. White had met Vazirini and her son, Jehan, and she was also a student of Jehan’s father, Pultizer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa.  White says:

“Post Pardon is an investigation of that why; it is an effort to occupy the mindset of a person who would commit an act of murder-suicide, in such a way where reason is not given, judgment is not passed, or excuses are formulated. The series of poems is a chorus of voices speaking from the interiority of a woman who contemplates life: the taking of her own and that of her only child.”

To peer into what may have lain in Vazirani’s heart, Arisa White uses the strategies of  Irish poets  Medbh McGuckian and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill. White was drawn to  McGuckian’s ablity to imagine and create worlds of her own and Dhomhnaill gaze into the  spaces between sanity and insanity. White is also writing an opera based on Post Pardon.

thanks to Minal Hajratwala for the tip on Post Pardon: the Opera. You can see the kickstarter Post Pardon trailer here.

Ask the Unicorns: Touchstones on the Yellow Brick Road

by Minal Hajratwala

Dear Unicorns,

I’m interested in writing (unsure about specifically what genre) because I feel as though I have so much to say that others need to hear. What are some ways to improve my writing? How do I distinguish between good feedback and bad feedback?

—Joshua Thurman, University of Michigan

Dearest Joshua,

In 1880, the critic Matthew Arnold introduced the idea of “touchstones” to the Western literary world.

In his time, most critics relied on their own personal inclinations, often tinged with an argument about historical significance, to discuss new works of literature.

His essay “The Study of Poetry” was the first to make the radical suggestion that we should create a list of “truly excellent” examples and measure all others against these. He called these examples “touchstones,” after the black stone that metallurgists and smiths of the nineteenth century used to test the purity of silver and gold.

For writers sorting through a lot of feedback—including our often-clamorous chorus of internal critics—I suggest putting this idea to use.

Start a “Touchstones” document or a small notebook. In it, write down the lines that represent, for you, the height of style, emotional expression, sheer ambitiousness, or any other quality you desire and envy and hope to achieve in your writing. Copy out the sentences and paragraphs of your heroes, or even lines that are your own best work. Keep them short. Read them from time to time. Absorb the rhythms and cadences of your touchstones. Feel their heartbeats.

Let your touchstones become your compass and inner guide—not to criticize yourself or watch yourself fall short, but to study. Find the writers you love and learn from them on the page if not in the flesh.

Meanwhile, write with the utmost freedom.

Write as much as you can, and keep doing it no matter what anyone says. Don’t let your touchstones inhibit or narrow you. Learn as much as you can, from any source possible.

You have to write enough, and consistently enough, to tune in to the inner voice.

Easier said than done? Then practice free-writing as taught by “Natalie Goldberg: set a timer, keep the pen moving, get specific, lose control.

The goal is to create a sense of absolute freedom on the page; an intimacy between you and your page that is unshakeable.

You will edit, shape, and craft your words later, and that’s where you can learn the most from other people and their feedback.

But real freedom on the page, liberation of the mind? That’s something you can only fight for yourself. And the inner voice you develop through that good fight will tell you all you need to know about good and bad feedback.

You probably already know the difference in your gut, and if not, you will with practice.

Good feedback resonates with something inside that you know to be true and niggles at you until you solve the question with more (not less) writing. It’s like a string of fairy lights leading you on the path toward your touchstones.

Bad feedback creates a sense of dissonance and disempowerment and threatens to shut down your process.

The same is true of other people’s writing strategies and advice (even from unicorns). Learn everything you can about writing, but listen to it the same way: gut check.

At the same time, it’s important to distinguish petty preferences from true gut wisdom. Try, as best you can, to separate the qualities of the person from the quality of the feedback. Sometimes fools, political enemies, and people with bad breath will also hit upon a helpful truth.

Like many writers, you may find it helpful to find the tribe—whether a big community, or just one close writing buddy or two—who will support your work. Invest in quality time that will feed your work: workshops, conferences, private mentorships. Save up when you can. Don’t be shy about applying for scholarships when they’re available, suggesting barter arrangements, and offering research or administrative assistance to the writers from whom you want to learn. Be a joiner or a leader; there are writers’ groups and organizations for almost every subgenre and subdemographic out there, and if it doesn’t exist, you can create it. Many writers of color find there’s nothing like our own literary communities for feedback we can trust.

Don’t forget that while you’re doing all this work in community to protect your solitude: the core time between you and your page.

I’m afraid that, like so much writing advice, we are now in danger of entering the territory of platitudes. That may be because, as the Tao Te Ching says, “The Way that can be spoken of is not the true Way.”

What you’re really doing when you write is approaching the mystery. You’re like Dorothy approaching—despite wicked witches and flying monkeys—the Wizard. In the end what you’re looking for is home: the home you’ll make out of words, to share your truth with the world that needs it.

In Oz, the Wizard was a fraud. But luckily for us, there is a true Wizard here, one who has all the answers that you need.

Guess what his name is.


Ask the Unicorns is an advice column about living the creative life, written by Jaggery Contributing Editor Minal Hajratwala and channeled directly from the ancient unicorns of the Indus Valley. Got a question about writing, reading, relating, creating, or being desi? The unicorns know. Write to AskTheUnicorns@gmail.com. Please indicate whether you would like us to publish your name or keep your question anonymous. All questions will be considered for publication; they will NOT be answered individually.


Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, author of the award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), and editor of Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013).


Issue 2: Spring 2014

Fiction

Alexithymia

My thaththa conducts a neurological exam on his newest patient, the cricket. Antennae quiver as thaththa speaks. He asks the cricket to explain the meaning of the following expression: he kicked the bucket.

Once Again Next Year

From somewhere in the darkness rose the groans of a skinny, stammering boy and the chanting voices of a group of young men and women. Aaschey bachar aabar hobey. The annual slogan of the pujas that was meant to reassure everyone about the continuity of the festival, of joy and of life itself.

Poetry

Draupadi

In real life, she wasn’t blue like in the comics,
she was dark as soot,
probably darker.
She appears when we’re not looking
like
her parents only wanted a boy to do all the fighting

Street Dog Dreams: Rashbehari Avenue

Is he riding shotgun in an auto-rickshaw, his scarred ears
flapping in the diesel dust?

Eulogy to a Skinny Midriff

On summer trips overseas when I was 3, 6, 9, 12,
My aunties used to whisper, What are you feeding her?

Pankti in Five Padas

So you remember Superman,
not Shaktimaan, veal not enthu
cutlets in Ramarajan pants
turning up half hour early
to help the host host his party?

Essays

Raining in Bhutan

Pine air wood smoke crick of jungle insects peaked white chortens with relics in their bellies kuzuzangpo-la do you speak Dzongkha curfew 8pm too many voices culture kit in bag (maple syrup, Canadian flag pins) where you from chilip we had Americans here before.

Finding Home In Madonna Inn

The rooms emulated Bollywood as an ode to the homeland, while the décor, the ambience, and general visual appearance were carefully cultivated and curated to reflect an aspirational Middle Eastern lifestyle. These houses were ornate and grand, an interesting coexistence of nostalgic narratives of home and interpretations of the current life away from home.

Shifting Mobilities: Diasporas in Flux in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane

Although entrepreneurial labor is a valid way of achieving integration and attaining conventional ideas of success, it unfortunately seems to come at the expense of political participation.

Art

01_Main_WorkSa’dia Rehman

Sa’dia Rehman works with themes such as isolation, shame, and hidden social boundaries. Her installations, sculptures, and works on paper explore subjects that are considered taboo such as sexuality, power hierarchies, and normative ideals around gender.

01_smiling_manJoão Pires

Understanding India is as futile as finding the sun at night. Unlike any other place I’ve been, this is a country to feel, to take a deep breath and sense, and it will all come to you. Out of all this contrast and shapeshifting, there’s something that sweeps the whole country: life.

Sabina England

My film explores the emotional state of a woman’s mind: her relationship with self, her relationship with the other woman, her relationship with the divine, her relationship with Mother Earth, her relationship with humanity.

01_BrothersAmina Shafi

In 2010, I went with a team to Nepal to process refugee applications of ethnic Nepalis who fled Bhutan from persecution or were forcibly repatriated back to Nepal by the Bhutanese government. On my time off, I explored the cities of Damak, Kathmandu, Bhaktaphur, and Dharan.

Column

Ask the Unicorns

Start a “Touchstones” document or a small notebook. Absorb the rhythms and cadences of your touchstones. Feel their heartbeats.

Column

Ask the Unicorns

A spoonful of hot ghee is nothing like unicorn blood; and yet it is a way of extending the life of the butter. … Now I’m going to tell you the secret to immortality.

Ask The Unicorns

Dear Unicorns,

Can’t really believe I’m writing to unicorns but I saw your post on someone’s wall and figured hey, why not. I’m 27, my family doesn’t understand me, I don’t understand myself, blahblahblah, so what. So the thing is, I really want to write. I think. Or maybe paint. Make art. Be an activist. Leave some kind of legacy for the world, live forever, be enshrined in immortality — yeah, although it’s embarrassing to admit, that’s what I want, except I don’t know the specifics. Plus there’s all this other stuff I should do, like do more yoga and apply to grad school or get a better job with health insurance or clean the bathroom regularly and eat more vegetables or meet more (better) men and be a kinder person. I’m not depressed, really I’m not, I mean I can do all the normal stuff, go out with friends or whatever, I have a sort of job that’s enough for now because I live cheap, even though I hate the job, and I want to get out of this town, and I don’t really want to go back to school because I still have all that debt, and it just seems like anytime I want to do something, I feel really, really, stuck in a way I can’t even describe because everyone is like, It’s not that bad, or Why are you being such a drama queen, or Why don’t you just do something about it then, and I can’t because all these voices in my head are like, Who the fuck do you think you are to do that, what makes you so fucking special.

—Dramatic Desi, Stuck in Sioux City

Dearest Dramatic Desi, Stuck in Sioux City,

First of all, the unicorns want me to tell you that you are, actually, special.

While the tears of a phoenix heal, the blood of a unicorn confers immortality. But I know you’re not one to go about slaughtering unicorns, so I wonder if it’s time to take a good look at how else you might extend your life.

It seems to me, Dramatic, that you’re living too small. You’re hanging out at “not that bad,” but in your hot red heart, you yearn for art and unicorns and “so fucking special.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, meditation on the preciousness of our human lives is a foundational practice. This Precious Life by Tibetan teacher Khandro Rinpoche describes the 18 qualities that make human life precious.

Can you believe it, Dramatic? Eighteen? Can you think of 18 (or more) ways that your own life represents an awesome opportunity?

I can. We could have been born as mosquitoes, or roaches, or vipers. But instead, here we are, in these soft, unprotected bodies, with our wild gelatinous brains and sultry hearts protected only by delicate arches of bone. Breathing in. Breathing out.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” asks the poet Mary Oliver. And Rilke: “You must change your life.”

The fact that you’re writing to mythical beings today, Dramatic, tells me that you are ready to change your life. It also tells me that you have a healthy imagination, sense of humor, and perhaps a bit of desperation. These are all excellent traits that will serve you well in your journey.

So, begin. Make one small change today: tilt toward your desire.

This slight adjustment may, at first, take place only in the mind: perhaps a resolution not to beat yourself up for being who you are, for surviving whatever you have survived, for yearning toward what others around you don’t dare imagine. It may last only twelve minutes before your old pattern reasserts itself.

Resolve to enjoy those twelve minutes — 720 seconds! — of freedom to their fullest.

Tomorrow, make it half an hour. The voices you’re carrying around with you are strong, Dramatic. They won’t go down without a fight. You’re not being a drama queen; you’re being the ultimate realist. So expect the fight, and fight.

Then tilt a little further: Write down your intention, the one you sent out to the unicorns: I want to leave some kind of legacy for the world. Post it somewhere you can see it.

The next day: Read it. Several times. All day long.

And know — believe — there will come a day when you are ready to tear it down, because you no longer need it. “The time will come / when, with elation / you will greet yourself arriving / at your own door, in your own mirror,” promises the poet Derek Walcott.

However, there is no rush to reach that day. There is no deadline. This is your life: This slow, beautiful, precious leaning, and learning, is your life. This fight.

The more you win, the more you tilt, the more you will fall into—in love with—yourself.

Does this sound too simple? I’m sorry, Dramatic; I don’t mean to deceive you. You know better than anyone that it is not simple. You might — no, you will — need support, though I can’t say exactly what form that support will take: different friends; professional healers; self-help books; knitting; the love of a dog; a beautiful new journal where you write down every single possibility? I don’t know.

What I do know is that, as you hone your intention, as you relax into it, the way will become more clear. Your commitment is, itself, a process of purifying.

Purification has gotten a bad name, as it’s been associated with born-again rituals of deprivation and chastity. I’m trying to talk about something different here.

When my mother used to make ghee in suburban Michigan, before there were Indian grocery stores everywhere, we would boil several sticks of butter. It’s amazing, what happens to all those solid sticks exposed to heat.
First they melt. You have to watch the pot and keep the heat low, so they don’t burn or stick.

(What needs to melt in you, dearest Dramatic?)

And then, sometime after it gets all soft, the butter-soup comes to a boil. Through boiling, you end up with a hot, golden, clear liquid.

Where did the solidness go? It did not evaporate. It simply transformed.

A spoonful of hot ghee is nothing like unicorn blood; and yet it is a way of extending the life of the butter. Ghee does not spoil outside a refrigerator. It does not burn; its tolerance for heat has risen. You can fry anything in it, for it has emerged from the heat ready to take on the flavor of all the spices.

And its own taste changes, deepens, becomes richer. It adds a wealth to anything on which you spread it. It is more pure gold, more essence of butter, than a pale yellow store-bought stick ever will be.

You might even call it erotic, in the sense that Audre Lorde speaks of the erotic: “a resource within each of us … firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed feeling.”

Getting to what really turns you on, Dramatic, could be the hardest thing in the world. It is the work of a lifetime. It is as difficult as a poem, and “men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there” (William Carlos Williams). Really, they do. Suicides, homicides; arguably, many come from this same lack, this hollow. A neglect of what is precious about our lives.

Now I’m going to tell you the secret to immortality, Dramatic.

We extend our lives by giving something to people that they will cherish, and carry with them, and pass on to others. We become bigger not through self-sacrifice but by being more ourselves, and then becoming brave enough to show our truest, most precious selves to the world.

A final word of advice, Dramatic:

Don’t try to change everything at once. Some people can do that. Not you; not yet. Pick just one thing — it doesn’t even have to be the biggest thing. It might be very beneficial to start small.

Tilt, and watch the whole world shift.


Ask the Unicorns is an advice column about living the creative life, written by Jaggery Contributing Editor Minal Hajratwala and channeled directly from the ancient unicorns of the Indus Valley. Got a question about writing, reading, relating, creating, or being desi? The unicorns know. Write to AskTheUnicorns@gmail.com. Please indicate whether you would like us to publish your name or keep your question anonymous. All questions will be considered for publication; they will NOT be answered individually.


Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, author of the award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), and editor of Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013).


Issue 1: Fall 2013

Fiction

Boys Like That

Boys like that are ugly babies. They smile at everyone and offer wilted flowers to tables and plastic chairs. Nobody picks them up unless it is an absolute emergency.

The Summer of Young Uncles

That summer, all of Saima’s uncles began appearing. They were like those Russian nesting dolls made out of the same mold: some with red moustaches, some with brown, some short, some skinny, some fat, but they all had the same look.

Amrikan Dreams

Krishna held firm to the view that a traditionalist was a dependable man. A man of moral fiber who would never let a beautiful woman or wayward daydream distract him.

Poetry

what it’s like to be sri lankan in 2012 for those of you who aren’t

It’s going home to Jaffna if you’re young, Tamil and male and not automatically being snatched by either army. Maybe. For a moment.
It’s white vans.

Kalkatiya

she asked the emissaries, “How much
for a day’s toil?” They carried us away to a dock
and locked us down. Paid in irons, we tore our throats…

At the Dancing Square—Chowk

Not all men are tone deaf unable to hear the call
of hunger. Body, bosom, bare hips, needless to say
bare feet. She cannot afford the luxury of sleep.

Model Minority

the Punjabi slips
pungent
against my teeth, weeps
when I stumble
at its edges: arches
and whorls I cannot read.

Pickling

embalming mangoes in mulled mustard oil, she tells me
the best of the season must live longer. So each April
she carefully preserves. Pickles in glass jar churning…

Here Is a Red Cat and a White Cat

All these children with their dark glossy hair;
They sail on in their small shoes.
They are floating upward almost…

Essays

Flying Saucers

I took the glistening black vinyl out of its sleeve, removed the dust wrap, placed it on the turntable.
… Lost in the grooves of these long-playing records is the history of discography, which began in 1902 with the founding of the Gramophone Company of India.

The Cab Driver and I

The driver freezes in the middle of his three-point turn. He gazes up into his rearview mirror for a better look at me. “You’re from Pakistan, and you teach Americans?” His frown is so concentrated that he looks angry.

Bitter Honey: Sexual Violence in Desi Hip Hop

Although generally approbatory attitudes toward sexual violence in music would not necessarily lead directly to rape, they create and reinforce a culture that allows rape, facilitates woman-blaming, and disempowers women. In the context of the Delhi gang rape case and the protests that ensued, it is important to note that this culture attacks women just for being women.

Race, Class, and Gender at the Margins: Exploring My Name is Khan

Post-9/11 Islamaphobia, enveloping all brown-skinned people into one homogenizing dominant gaze, opens some room for mutual recognition of Otherness at the margins of American society.

Art

Freedom Colour

… moments where the “play” that arises from the festival allows for a freedom of transgression between caste, class, and gender lines in India.

Indo-Caribbean

Indians have lived in the Caribbean since the mid-1800s, brought by the British as indentured laborers to work in sugar and rice plantations in Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, and other colonies.

Delhi Through the Night

…the gaze of a middle-class, academically-oriented woman from a relatively small town, who feels more comfortable and safe behind a camera as she walks anonymous through the wide and narrow, intimidating and yet liberating streets of the capital city of Delhi.

Sacred Heart

…delicate interplays between vulnerability and empowerment, intimacy and exhibitionism, and subjective and collective expressions of feminist, queer, and cultural identities.

Reviews

Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali

In trying to grasp and define the contours of his own spirituality, Ali comes to some of the most startling and refreshing conclusions about his own religion and selfhood.

Karma Gone Bad: Or How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood, and Water Buffalo by Jenny Feldon

For an immigrant such as myself, who moved from a big city in a developing nation to battle the loneliness of living in the US, I was eager to read Jenny Feldon’s reverse experience.

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry edited by Sudeep Sen

This anthology serves as a conglomeration of assertive, fresh voices, a long way off from the rich inherent, albeit stringent, tradition of Itihasas and Puranas.

Crossing Black Waters by Athena Kashyap

Kashyap writes of sundering, separations, crossings, reunions, and uncertain reconciliations. The break with an imagined home is never forever; return is always a possibility yet remains unsatisfying whenever it occurs.

Column

Ask the Unicorns

A spoonful of hot ghee is nothing like unicorn blood; and yet it is a way of extending the life of the butter. … Now I’m going to tell you the secret to immortality.

Editorial

Why Jaggery?

The publishing world often tries to put its writers into boxes: easily-marketable boxes. You can’t really blame them, in some sense—it’s much easier to create a shelf in the bookstore, label it ‘ethnic literature’ and then put all the ‘ethnic’ writers there, than it would be to market each complex writer individually. The big publishers want a young desi woman to write an arranged marriage novel, because they know where the market is for those books. There’s a reason they keep putting red saris on our book covers; they know what sells.


The inaugural issue of Jaggery is co-sponsored by the Asian Studies and Asian American Studies Programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.