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The Penwalas: South Asian Storytellers in Atlanta

By Girija Sankar Email By Girija Sankar
March 2016
The Penwalas: South Asian Storytellers in Atlanta

 

What do Anjali Enjeti, Ajay Vishwanathan, Anju Gattani, Kamla Dutt, Reetika Khanna Nijhawan, Soniah Kamal, Tinaz Pavri, and Waqas Khwaja have in common? They’re all published writers, and they live in metro Atlanta. While writing is an all-encompassing passion for some, others juggle demanding jobs with the consuming need to tell stories. Khabar talked to them to gain insights on how they transform their dreams into words.

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“Shakespeare wrote sonnets, so I decided I should try that, too,” says Waqas Khwaja about his early inspirations to write. A professor of English at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, Waqas had always been drawn to the written word. Growing up in Pakistan he would write poetry inspired by Wordsworth. The writer reminisces, “There was once a school assignment to write a poem. I remember the last two lines I wrote: ‘and suddenly the boat turned into the water….’ I was searching for a rhyme, so I wrote, ‘and out in its place came an otter.’ My father reviewed my lines and suggested, ‘This is good, but how about ‘a smiling otter?’” Suddenly, the addition of the adjective ‘smiling’ made the poem so much more powerful!” Waqas’s early fascination with writing developed over time and eventually found him writing poetry, translating Urdu works, and teaching literature. His first book of poems was published when he was 17: “mushy, romantic stuff that I got rid of by flinging all the copies I had into a canal a few years later because I couldn’t bear the style any more!”

The call of the written word…
Waqas continued to write even while pursuing a career in law and later in the Pakistani civil service. But the call of the word was too powerful—so much so that after some false starts at home, Waqas eventually moved to the U.S. to pursue a full-time academic career in literature.

Anjali Enjeti is working on a novel called The Parted Earth. Also an essayist, with bylines in many publications, she has always loved words. “Some people can say they always knew that they were writers,” Anjali notes. But not her. “I did enjoy writing…but I did not know that writing full-time as a career existed or that it was something I could aspire to.” When maternity came knocking, after law school and a full-time job, Anjali found herself reading voraciously but also writing small pieces––diversions that blossomed into a full-time pursuit.

“For a girl who was shy, who found it hard to speak up in a crowd, at that moment it was as if I had been heard by everyone at once.” 
          —Anju Gattani

Anju Gattani, author of the novel Duty and Desire, grew up in Hong Kong. Her British-model school drew students from 36 nationalities and she was “surrounded by diversity from the beginning, with a strong international flavor of differing thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.” Anju’s first exposure to publishing came when her artwork was published in the Sunday edition of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper: “For a girl who was shy, who found it hard to speak up in a crowd, at that moment it was as if I had been heard by everyone at once. I continued to submit poems and drawings, continued to be published, and then entered an Easter essay competition and won second place. What a thrill!”

 

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Kamla Dutt (right), a geneticist by training and a short story writer in Hindi, moved to the U.S. in the 1960s for advanced graduate work. Kamla comes from a family of avid readers; her father “had a Master’s in English and all the men [in the family] read English works and women read in Hindi. But everybody read!” She started writing short stories in Hindi and also took an avid interest in theater. “In Chandigarh, where I grew up, I had an identity. When I moved to the United States, I found that I had none. I turned to writing to express myself. Not so much to publish but to get my thoughts on paper. I sent my stories out for publication and they were picked up by well-known Hindi publications.”

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Tinaz Pavri, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Spelman College, Atlanta, loved to read as a child and was “drawn to memoirs as reservoirs of direct insight into the souls of people at critical time periods.” Tinaz recently published her memoir, Bombay in the Age of Disco: City, Community, Life, about her childhood days growing up in Bombay as a young Parsi girl.

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Ajay Vishwanathan, a virologist by profession whose collection of short stories, From a Tilted Pail, was published in 2014, writes to slip into another world, “[because] writing gives me unlimited license to improvise and innovate. And this rejuvenates me as I return to my own life and my routines. Basically, writing hands me a world that enhances my own.”

 

 

“My father was a remarkable wordsmith and an orator who read the poems I penned as a child with great flourish, as though he were quoting Wordsworth or Keats.”
       —Reetika Nijhawan


Reetika Nijhawan, author of Kismetwali and Other Stories, (nominated for the 2016 Townsend Prize for Fiction) revels in the company of words. “I cannot carry a tune––my children will attest to that! I cannot wield a paintbrush with even a modicum of aptitude. My father was a remarkable wordsmith and an orator who read the poems I penned as a child with great flourish, as though he were quoting Wordsworth or Keats. He regaled my brother and me with extemporaneous tales. And he always had to have the last word in an argument, especially with my mother! Clearly, I inherited his love for the written word.”


As a young girl, Soniah Kamal, author of An Isolated Incident (also a finalist for the 2016 Townsend Prize for Fiction), would pen plays for amusement during afterschool hours: “I was one of those annoying neighborhood kids who would write plays and force everyone to act. I would organize story time every evening.” She wrote her first story, a horror story, when she was nine. A childhood dream to pursue acting gave way to writing: “I never felt comfortable calling myself a writer because I hadn’t actively chosen it. I had wanted to be an actor instead. But over time, I continued to do it. Maybe fate knew better!” Chasing fame, it would seem, is a fickle endeavor for writers. Seeing one’s name in the byline offers, perhaps, a flicker of pride that quickly fades. “Over time those things come to pass,” says Soniah. “I ask myself, if no one ever sees my writing, would I still write? The answer is yes.”

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Poetry, fiction, or essay?
Fiction and poetry appeal to Ajay’s sensibilities as a writer “because in a life constricted by rules and routines where you have little control, it allows one to slip away into another world where the people and the settings are all in one’s control….I can bend rules and create my own crests and troughs.”

(Right) Ajay Vishwanathan.

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“I find fiction the most freeing form of writing,” says Anjali, a sentiment that is echoed by Soniah, who adds, “I am comfortable with all forms of fiction— short fiction and novel.” Fiction allows her “to play God for a little while.” Her novel, An Isolated Incident, grew out of a promise to her grandfather to write about Kashmir and was written over a period of ten years.

(Left) Soniah Kamal's novel, An Isolated Incident.

 

“I find that I have to be very disciplined to write fiction. With personal essays, I am able to sit myself down and write at a stretch,” says Anjali. Like Soniah, she, too, spent a decade mulling over her main characters and the plot of her first novel: “I wrote 100 pages in my twenties—and then one day, many many years later, decided to take it up again.” But then again, a writer does not have to explore all forms of writing. Soniah explains, “Today, writers are expected to do everything and writers expect the same from themselves. But it shouldn’t have to be. Fiction comes to me naturally so that’s what I enjoy the most.”

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Writing fiction is grueling work, says Anju, adding, “It requires a reservoir of patience and I don’t get results for a long, long time— in terms of publication. But the process of cleaning up a dirty draft, crystallizing the work, and discovering hidden secrets in the story and characters is priceless! It’s like running a marathon… slow and steady pacing toward the final goal.” 

(Right) Anju Gattani.

 

 

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Reetika revels in both nonfiction and fiction: “When writing features for newspapers and magazines, I work effectively within the framework of objective, word count, and deadline. A rather satisfying experience when one receives the job-well-done nod from the editor. Free flowing fiction is both daunting and exhilarating because there are no guidelines or parameters, or rules, for that matter. And one seeks recognition from various quarters—friends, family, editors, agents, publishers, and ultimately, people unknown—readers!”

(Left) Reetika Khanna Nijhawan.

 

Anjali, who earned an MFA in fiction in 2014, says, “It’s just very hard to get that kind of training elsewhere. I got so much out of an MFA that might have taken me forever to pick up and learn.”

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Becoming a writer….

Is it important to receive training in writing? “Yes, absolutely,” Anjali argues. “I attended so many classes and workshops in the Atlanta area….I’ve lost count!” Writing is a craft that needs careful nurturing much like any other skill. “You cannot be a concert pianist unless you work hours and hours,” Anjali adds. “You cannot be a good auto mechanic if you do not train for years.” But does an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) get you there? Anjali, who earned an MFA in fiction in 2014, says, “It’s just very hard to get that kind of training elsewhere. I got so much out of an MFA that might have taken me forever to pick up and learn.” For Ajay, a degree in writing matters less than lifelong learning and practice. An MFA degree is great to have, but if not, Ajay argues, “I think you can train yourself by looking at others. In today’s world of free information, it takes that ceaselessly roving, discerning eye to figure out as much as possible. For me, writing is an intimate, creative force.”

(Left) Anjali Enjeti.

 

 Reetika does sometimes wonder if she needs to get an MFA: “I envy writers with an MFA in creative writing. When I lamented my lack of formal training to a senior newspaper editor in Mumbai, he said, ‘Skill can be learnt on the job. Passion cannot be taught.’ I have come to endorse that view.” Reetika may yet decide to get that degree once her children head to college, just “for the fun of it!”

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Waqas, who teaches creative writing at Agnes Scott, endorses informal groups or collectives of like-minded writers and aspirants who come together to read and critique each other’s work. “You [also] meet people who are really good readers but may not be writers themselves,” he notes. “It is excellent to receive feedback from them, too.” Knowledge of more than one language is also important for a writer, Waqas argues, “to hear a different rhythm, to know a different sensibility, a different tune. For a writer it is very important to be able to read and appreciate literature in more than one language.” In other words, a good writer is also a good reader.

(Right) Waqas' book of poems.

For Soniah, who is three years into a fouryear MFA at Georgia State University, it’s a tough call. “One can go both ways,” she points out. “I wrote my book before I started my MFA. What is really important is to receive feedback and to actively seek it. But the good thing about an MFA program is that you are in a class full of people who can do that [provide feedback]. I signed up for the MFA program because I was curious about it…and also because I won a scholarship!”

The method…
Writing, as has been argued here, is both a creative endeavor and an intellectual pursuit. Advice on method may appeal to the intellectual in a writer but how does one go about the process of writing? Waqas admits that his writing method is unruly: “between teaching and academic service, it’s hard. I jot down ideas as they come to me sometimes when I am brushing my teeth. When it comes to scholarly work, my writing is more intentional and planned. With creative writing, you have to suspend your faculties, and let the story and the words take you where they go….stop the mind from shaping the story but instead let the story and words take over.”

Tinaz admits that sometimes not all ideas materialize into a story, “and the jottings get lost in a pile of paper somewhere.” Anjali sets herself mental deadlines for her writing tasks: “I always walk around feeling compelled to write. But I have to be disciplined about it. Otherwise, I will make every excuse to not write—I will walk the dog, do the dishes…just anything but writing. Discipline is very important for me.” I shall not procrastinate, Kamla has to repeat to herself as a daily mantra, a credo that is painfully shared by most writers!

“For me, it’s about finding the precious moments of time to write at home even as two of my kids are fighting and the youngest one is clinging to me by my neck.”
—Soniah Kamal
 

Soniah has three children aged 14, 13, and 7. She began writing her first novel when her youngest son was two: “If you really want to do something, you will find the time to do it. For me, it’s about finding the precious moments of time to write at home even as two of my kids are fighting and the youngest one is clinging to me by my neck.”

Ajay allows ideas and scenes to come to him through the workday: “If writing a novel, I usually work on a scene in my mind during the day… while driving, in the shower, or in the middle of a tedious meeting. If my scene has crystallized to the extent I want, there’s no problem finding the flow to my writing. In fact, I look forward to quickly getting the scene down on paper. If the scene is too long, my writing regularly takes me well past midnight.”

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To write is to meditate, says Anju: “The process of writing the story is one of discovery for both my characters and myself as I follow my primary and secondary characters’ lead into their story world. Through the telling of the story, the countless rewrites, revisions, and edits, the fog of that first draft begins to clear so that I can filter the story to squeeze out the premise and finally the deeper meaning of what my characters are trying to tell me. And in turn I end up learning something about myself or perhaps what my subconscious is trying to tell me.”

 

(Left) Anju Gattani's novel, Duty and Desire.

 

Read to write or write to read?
Every one of these writers acknowledges the importance of reading to hone their craft. For Waqas, reading crucially helps him “to understand how others process experiences...not to imitate them but to develop your own voice.” For Anjali, “at a micro level, it has taught me how to integrate dialogue and scenery into stories.” The growth of the internet and the liberalization of the craft of writing, Anjali argues, have embraced new ways of expression including flash, slipstream, or visual poetry.

Reading offers insights into technique, says Soniah, “How does a writer increase pace here, for example, or sentiment there?” To this Ajay would add, “[Reading] is the key to deciphering what works on the bookshelf, and what works in sticking inside a reader’s mind. Personally, I’ve stopped reading purely for pleasure. I read to look for inspiration, for clues to success. That line that lingers. The twist in the tale that appears seamless. The passion for the well written sentence that in turn re-ignites mine. In a way, that gives me pleasure.”

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“Reading releases something in us that enables the writing process and shapes the words that we will later write. It’s the parent to the child.” —Tinaz Pavri

(Right) Tinaz Pavri.

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Publishing 101
For a budding writer, publishing—getting one’s writing Out There—is a test of patience, humility, and nerves. “It was an exceedingly traumatic experience,” Reetika admits, about her book publishing experience. Reetika was initially keen on publishing her work in literary journals. When she started writing, however, she noticed a theme evolve around the collection. “At that point, I decided I would self-publish.” Half-hearted attempts with publishers in the U.S. led to seeking publishers in India. “I had sent it to OM and Roli Books but had also started the groundwork for self-publishing. I even bought a guide on how to go about it…but a week before starting the process of selfpublication, I received a contract in the mail from OM.” 

(Left) Reetika Khana Nijhawan's book, Kesmetwali and Other Stories.

 

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Anjali admits that the process of finding a literary agent can be involved and often painful. On a more positive note, publishing today is nearly borderless. Authors writing in the U.S. are able to publish in India and to wide audiences. Soniah, whose novel was published in India, argues that her novel “has been recognized by my birth country, Pakistan, and by my adopted country, America, even while the book was published in India!”

(Left) Soniah Kamal.

 

 

Writing while in America about South Asia…
The writers profiled here write about myriad themes, and not all are about South Asia. Rather than writing about what they know, these writers write about who they are. When Kamla Dutt started writing, her themes were centered on displacement and the alienation that she had experienced as a recent transplant to the U.S. in the late ’60s. Her training in genetics and the biological sciences, she says, is also evident in allusions to flora and fauna in her work.

While Ajay’s stories are mostly set in India or have Indian characters, he has also published stories with non-Indian protagonists. Waqas contends that even while writing in English, South Asian writers can evoke the lilt of the vernacular: “Sometimes, in writing coming from South Asia or from South Asians, if they are merely mimicking the style of the Western writer, then it doesn’t serve literature well. But, if you are writing informed by the cultural milieu, you hear it in the language, even if it’s in English. The music, the tone, the feel. Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, and Rohinton Mistry… their writing is not traditional English writing. There’s something different about them. But if you adopt the prejudices that are encoded in the language (which we received from the colonizers), it perpetuates the harm of colonization. Writing should be inclusive, not reactionary.”

Reetika, whose short stories portray the everyday Indian—the chauffeur, the housekeeper, the cleaner—as the protagonist, would argue that writing about India from the outside affords perspective through distance: “There is always sorrow in dislocation from home, but I do not want to write about the immigrant experience. There is so much beautiful writing already in that space—Jhumpa Lahiri comes to mind. I started with one story and somehow it grew into a collection of stories around a common theme.”

Practice, practice, practice…
Waqas encourages writers to trust their instinct. He adds, “Good writing does what you want it to do in the least amount of words. In that sense it is a precise science and an exacting art. If you produce a 1,000 page novel, you shouldn’t be able to take even a sentence out.” But, Waqas adds, rules of writing exist only in so far as they do not encumber the writer: “The point is that the end product should be compelling and not just to you or your mother or father but also to a complete stranger.” Anjali adds, “Rejection is so common and so discouraging in this industry. So having writing partners and mentors has been huge for me.” Ajay agrees and has learned to become “inured to dismissal, to being told, ‘This will not work.’ If I had paid attention to the countless rejection letters I’ve received all these years, I’d be buried somewhere under my sulk pillow and not sitting up beyond midnight looking for another reason for my novel’s character to take the plunge.”

“As an employed scientist who is a part-time author, I have strong support from a spouse who not only edits every word I put down on paper, but also gives me space to myself whenever I need it, often relieving me of more mundane activities when I am deep in a scene or trying to pin down a nagging detail.” —Ajay Vishwanathan

The community of South Asian writers in Atlanta provide each other support through informal gatherings and meetings. Ajay acknowledges that as a part-time author he has drawn on the feedback of family and friends: “As an employed scientist who is a parttime author, I have strong support from a spouse who not only edits every word I put down on paper, but also gives me space to myself whenever I need it, often relieving me of more mundane activities when I am deep in a scene or trying to pin down a nagging detail. Today, I am blessed with well-read and wonderfully keen-eyed friends who give me constructive criticism to improve my work.”

Tinaz, a political scientist by profession, advises aspiring writers to think outside the box: “You can write creatively, no matter what your ‘real’ job is. For a long time, I thought that as an academic, a political scientist, I really had no business in the creative writing field. But yet I felt so compelled to write, that one day I just did. I would urge wouldbe writers to similarly disregard the parameters of their ‘daytime’ job and make time to write the stories that are in them. And in fact, it is freeing to finally write, and the act of committed writing seems to spur on a greater deluge to come.”

Fledgling writers should not be afraid to send their work out to different publications, says Soniah, adding, “There are so many literary journals out there today. But research the journals to see who and what they publish, first”—lessons, she admits, that have accumulated over years of receiving rejection letters. Ajay offers as advice to aspiring writers, “Write about anything, even when you can’t think of specific ideas. For those who want triggers to get going, look around you for inspiration. It will come. It could be a photograph, a painting, a spoken phrase, a movie title, or a sticky note on your office door.”

The last two decades have seen a welcome proliferation in the number of South Asian writers in English in the diaspora. Atlanta’s South Asian writers can be considered part of this new wave of writers— passionate about their craft, honest in their writing, and persuasive in their voice.


Girija Sankar (www.girijasankar. com) is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. Her writings have also appeared in Eclectica, India Currents, JMWW, Alimentum, Youngzine, and Muse India.


Resources for Writers:

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