Teaching Creative Writing in South Asia

I taught my first creative writing workshop five years ago at Kearny Street Workshop, a wonderful Asian American arts non-profit in San Francisco. There was a rare thunderstorm the night of the workshop and as the participants made their way up to the third floor from Capp Street, a somewhat nefarious alley in the Mission District, I felt like I was teaching in the room Sebastien escaped to in The Neverending Story. It was a good start.

Since then I have taught several more creative writing workshops at KSW, at an experimental reform school in Colorado, to kids at a continuation high school in San Francisco, and inside the SF juvenile hall. Besides the KSW workshops, most of my experience teaching writing and storytelling has been with disenfranchised young people in the United States–meaning mostly young people of color who have had institutional experience or are at very high-risk of being touched by “the system” — meaning foster care, group homes, juvenile justice, etc. It also means that they have very little access to wealth, and very high chances of becoming incarcerated as adults. In India, I have met several people doing amazing work with different kinds of young people, almost all of whom are extremely poor. I’ve had several long conversations about how doing work with young people in India/South Asia is so entirely different from the work in America, mostly because in India these young people are tremendously open to change and grateful for the opportunities they are given through these programs. This obviously isn’t always the case — people drop out or take the wrong path regardless of what they’ve been given, but the sense of hopelessness is different. I’ve gotten sympathetic looks from several people who I think are doing incredibly difficult work with orphans and slum children when I tell them about my work with juvenile hall kids in America. It has really made me about the multi-tiered, hierarchical systems that are in place in America that create such a subdued rage, resentment, misunderstanding and violence amongst our young people. It has also made me itch to get back to work.

I recently had the opportunity to teach a tandem writing-music-video workshop at the Shree Mangal Dvip Boarding School, founded by Buddhist teacher Thrangu Rinpoche, in Boudnath – a city just outside of Kathmandu. The boarding school serves 600 Himalayan children who travel long distances to gain their education here — (like really, really, really long distances, one former student told me it is a three-hour bus ride and seven days of walking to get to his home village!) We worked with eight 15 and 16-year-olds in the VidKids media program started a few years ago by California Institute of the Arts Integrated Media Program professor Tom Leeser, who is one of Robin’s mentors and good friends.

Robin and I got to Nepal a few days early and relaxed for a few days in the quiet of Nagarakot’s tiered hillsides. I spent most of my time reading the incredible Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? — a book about the University of Michigan Community Prison Arts Project, written by PCAP’s founder Buzz Alexander. It is one of the inspiring and educational books I have ever read. Though Buzz is writing about doing work in prisons with America’s most oppressed populations, when we finally met with Tom the night before our first day with the VidKids from poor Nepal—there was scynchronisity. Tom was quoting Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which figures as a major text in the class that PCAP students take as prep to their volunteer work. Tom, Robin and I decided that we would make the week with the Nepali kids all about playing and experimentation, which is different from the hierarchical, rote-memorization, exam-heavy education system South Asian kids usually have. We were also pushing the idea of collaboration. We wanted to create a classroom space where we weren’t telling the young people what to do and where we would be creating as equals. Of course, this is much harder than it seems, but the kids were very open to the play.

I started off as I often did in my summer media programs with kids at Youth Outlook, with the life map project, which I learned initially from either Ian Kim or Jeremiah Jeffries — friends in San Francisco who gathered together a solidarity group back in the Bay Area several years ago. Basically, students draw a quick, symbolic life map of their life. By map, I mean more like treasure map with one event leading to another, or it can also be a portrait. The main thing is to notice the symbols each person uses to characterize life events. In media workshops, we use this life map to generate story ideas for commentaries like these amazing and harrowing tales. In Nepal, we used the maps to come up with common themes and then try to compose group poems. When one group’s maps yielded only sports and activities like football, volleyball, music, dancing and swimming, I had the kids free write on how these activities make them feel, and a poem filled with beautiful words (like: ‘magical mystery, tired, fulfilled, sky’) arose. Other days, we wrote metaphors and similes about our hearts, eyes and minds, or wrote a group book based on nine elements of a story. The final writing project was to complete metaphor or simile poems about their past, their present and what they think of Nepal (I was …, I am …, Nepal is …) —inspired by this video by local spoken word poets/hip hop group Lyrics Independent. Later, Robin and I got to share the stage with these poet/rappers and a whole crew of slam poets at an amazing poetry event organized by Pranab Singh and Suvani Singh, who run Quixote’s Cove, a dope bookstore.

The eight young people we worked with all came of age in the decade of Nepal’s government turmoil. I was surprised to learn that Nepal is actually the poorest South Asian state, and definitely could tell this by lack of infrastructure. The roads were terrible, but the most telling sign was the 14 hour power cuts that the city suffered. The time rolled every day so that sometimes the power went out at 1 pm and at other times I was woken up by the lights in our hotel room coming on at 3 in the morning. Since we are addicted to our laptops and the internet and were trying to get ready for a digital storytelling workshop most days and only had one power outlet in our room, Robin and I discovered we are not good with scarce resources and some days felt very much like ugly Americans. It was a good lesson.

In our final performance, we took samples from the poem sentences that the VidKids wrote about themselves and about Nepal and used the MPC1000 to do live cut up poems (with beats and collected sounds) to a looped video that the young people had shot around the school, projected on screen made of handmade Nepali paper, while another video of their poetry showed on another screen. The kids had also graffitied their words on some of the other paper. All in all, we certainly achieved our goals of not doing anything too linear and filled up the computer room with sound, words and images.

On returning to Kolkata, I led a workshop at The American Center for nearly 50 high school students, for an annual creative writing event they have every Spring. This was a completely new experience for me because the young people were from 25 of the best private high schools in the Kolkata area–I’m talking about storied, British-era high schools that graduate their students to elite universities all over India and the rest of the world. A very different population than I am used to working with. I was super excited to be a part of it, except for the catch that it had to be a competition, complete with trophies! I tried to slyly discourage competition by reading them Emily Dickinson. [I mean, not that this is unheardof, I competed in the illustrious Power of the Pen tournament in middle school, even making it to the state finals, where I choked on some silly prompt, but have fond memories of going on a walk on the Ohio State University campus and throwing rocks at a stop sign with my best frenemey.]

Anyway, I decided to focus on a workshop idea that I learned from Peter Orner in graduate school, taking the oft-told family story and turning that into a crafted narrative. I focusing on the use of specific detail, language, tension, mood etc—starting off with some cognitive creativity jump-starting ideas that I learned from an amazing workshop from my Indivisible co-editrix Pireeni Sundaralingam.

It was amazing to be in a big room filed with Indian students in varying uniforms. It became clear that creative writing was not an educational tool that was utilized at these schools, since India in general has a major emphasis on science and math, but that the room was filled with budding writers and voracious readers. It was also fascinating to be in a room full of eager students. Whenever I asked for volunteers, arms would shoot into the air and the youth would stand to answer or read their work! How strange, but wonderful. The young people were truly lovely and after an hour and a half workshop, and a tea break where they got pound cake and mango juice, they all set to work on their competition piece. It was so exciting to see these young people bent over their papers. I could feel the creativity buzzing. There is nothing like seeing 50 kids writing stories by hand in this time of video games and Facebook. I wish I had an equivalent picture of students I worked with in Megan Mercurio’s English class in the San Francisco Juvenile Hall, because I often felt the same energy there. I was pleasantly surprised at the numerous stories of heartbreak and romance written by young men, and my co-judge commented on the endless numbers of ghost stories. In the end, we awarded the top prize to a very shy young woman for a story about a girl in the metro station who may or may not have been a terrorist.

More and more lately, I’ve been really thinking about pedagogy and about my experiences teaching writing and literary arts in different settings. Yesterday, I met with novelist, professor and blogger extraordinaire Rimi B. Chatterjee at Jadavpur University to get a feel for the creative writing field here in India. Monday, I’m going to go see the people at Jana Sanskriti, so I can connect and learn about one of India’s largest Theatre of the Oppressed groups–a technique I want to know more about. Next week, I hope to meet with the people at the India Vision Foundation, one of India’s leading NGOs working on incarcerated rights and rehabilitation. I’m so excited to see how this work is being done here and how I can take back knowledge to my own work in America.


The Strange Geographies of Reading: A review of Wench

One quarter of the way through my year of reverse-migration, I’m learning fascinating lessons about myself through my own reading habits.

I have been actively chasing the dream of living in the Motherland for the past 10 years, and subconsciously, perhaps ever since I was born as an Indian American in Dayton, Ohio. From my elementary school days of ethnic denial to getting all Roots in college, to the deep longing of adulthood—the desire to come back to India and try and understand this complex place by living and breathing it in for an entire year.

My quest has always been closely connected to books and my own art. I’ve read a majority of South Asian American and South Asian Diaspora writing. Whenever I come to India, I build a collection of books by Indian writers that are only published here. My first published short story was set in India. My first few months of writing in India were pulled very much by what surrounds me: the crumbling glory of Kolkata, the crows in the Neem Tree outside my window, my grandmother’s legacy of escape and love and rebirth in the tumultuous 1940s.

But three months in, my reading habits suddenly took a direct and surprising turn back to my (actual) homeland.

At the end of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I had that icky reader feeling of dissatisfaction that was paired with a general travel malaise, perhaps even a tinge of homesickness. You know, that moment where all the books you have with you seem utterly unreadable. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly where the feeling was coming from—I just knew I needed something else.

I surfed the NY Times Books section for something I thought might be interesting and I saw a large ad for Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. This book had caught my attention on a review list for Fiction Writers Review last Fall, but my transitory state prevented me from reviewing it. Suddenly, I felt like it was EXACTLY the book I needed at the moment and I had to read it right then. (This led to a some two-hour procedure of trying to get the file from my computer onto my iPhone Kindle app since I didn’t have my Kindle with me or wireless internet. Sometimes my reader-self can be like a teeth-grinding junkie, and my Kindle the best drug-dealer I’ve ever had.)

I was caught up in Wench immediately. Here I was, in my apartment in Kolkata, falling deeply into a book set 150 years ago in Xenia, Ohio some 15 miles away from the place I was born.

Most of the dramatic action of Wench happens at Tawawa House, an Ohio resort where Southern plantation owners would vacation with their slave concubines. The book closely follows one of these women, Lizzie, whose master Drayle has taught her to read, and favored their two children by allowing them to live in his own house. At Tawawa House, Lizzie strikes a friendship with several women from other plantations, including the fiery Mawu from Louisana—whose entrée into Lizzie’s second summer in Ohio creates an epic change in the way Lizzie views her own place in the world.

In choosing to tell the story from Lizzie’s point of view, Perkins-Valdez pulls you into this character’s traitorous position of survival. It reminded me a little of Laura Esquivel’s Malinche, about the Hernan Cortes’ translator Malinalli, which was much better in concept than actual execution. Whereas Esquivel focuses more on anthropological descriptions, Perkins-Valdez doesn’t shy away from Lizzie’s emotions and her sexual relations with Drayle. Though, I think one of the most difficult aspects of writing a novel like this is the fine line of writing about the sexuality in a way that doesn’t soften and romanticize it, and sometimes I wanted to cut my teeth on some of the brutality that Lizzie was experiencing, but I think Perkins-Valdez was tricking us into seeing the world through Lizzie’s half-closed eyes.

Because of the close third person storytelling, we are forced to be close to Lizzie, even when—in the first section of the book—I found myself balking at her choices and trust in her Master/lover.  Early in the novel when Mawu asks Lizzie: “You think you love him?” about her master, Lizzie thinks:

Lizzie felt the “course” rise in her throat, but stopped herself as she registered Mawu’s disapproving tone. She felt if she answered no, she would be betraying Drayle. If she answered yer, she would be betraying something else.

Lizzie’s confusion is hard to take, and at first I found myself wondering why Perkins-Valdez didn’t choose Mawu as her heroine. Especially when Lizzie suddenly betrays Mawu and tells Drayle of her friend’s plot to escape the resort, since they are on free land.

But Lizzie understood [Drayle’s] anger even if she hadn’t expected it. She forgave him for it. He loved her, and he was afraid she would leave him, too. That was what made him so upset. Her leaving. His beloved Lizzie. The mother of his children.

It wasn’t until Section Two, when Perkins-Valdez gives you the backstory of Drayle’s seduction of Lizzie starting at the age of 13, that suddenly the truth of Lizzie’s position becomes more clear in the novel’s narrative. The conceit of the novel exists in the ability to write about slavery from the POV of someone struggling to survive inside this insidious structure. At the end of the day, I think it was a challenging and brave choice to make the story arc Lizzie’s realization about her own status, instead of telling a story about escape to freedom.

There was so much in this book that was familiar, like the hot Ohio summer landscape full of grassy forests and streams. The four slave women even take a trip to downtown Dayton late in the book. Tawawa House was real, and is now the setting for WilberForce University, one of the oldest black universities in the United States and a part of the community I grew up in. It was fascinating to read this book while I am in India, and discover a moment of wonder about the history of Southwestern Ohio. But I realized that the familiarity and interest went beyond my connection to Ohio as my birthplace. The familiarity also had to do with my understanding of American history, and my interest in the legacies of class, race and gender issues that began with slavery. Reading Wench made me think a lot about the complexity of the African American community and its origins. It made me think about skin color politics in America, which I am so much more familiar with than those here in India. There was something comforting about this level of awareness, where in India my brain is constantly back-logging questions and grasping at a history that I am less familiar with. I’ve written here before about how being truly comfortable in a new community comes from more than just being able to communicate–it is about shared idiom and pop-culture references, but it is also about a shared understanding of history.

Wench is a fascinating book and a wonderful debut novel, though I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it with the same amount of gusto if I had read it in another time and space. Somehow, as a reading experience, it helped remind me about who I was–an immigrant in America whose life is shaped as much by slave politics in the 1850s as it was by the rumblings of the independence movement that was happening in India at the same time.

The whole experience made me dwell on the idea of geography and reading novels, especially in this year of travel. Usually, before I travel to a new place, I want to read a novel set there. This summer before going to Prague, I was re-reading bits of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being–thinking of Tomas and his lovers as I walked around the cobblestone streets. Before coming to India, I wanted Robin to read The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, which I had read the following year.  When I landed in Delhi, every Honda City car was driven by that novel’s narrator. But the geography of reading novels can work in reverse as well. When leaving San Francisco, I was reading Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus and missing San Francisco just like the novel’s protagonist.

I’m excited to continue to track my geographic reading patterns and am curious about those of other people: Do you read about the places you are? The places you are going? Places you have never been? Places you have left? Or does geography have nothing to do with your reading habits? I recently met a world famous whistler, who is traveling in India for several months, and decided to tackle Proust since she has free time.

Since reconnecting with my American-ness while reading Wench, I’ve read several novels based in the US, and am now excited to go somewhere new–perhaps even back to India. Actually, the next book on my list is Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie, which begins in Nagasaki just before the dropping of a nuclear bomb. This choice is inspired by seeing Shamsie (a Pakistani writer) in Jaipur, and the recent natural disaster rocking Japan. Let’s see where it takes me.


A Brief Interlude on Pain

I’ve been utterly distracted for the past five weeks: the fuzzy mind-state of illness, the nurturing love of having my mother around, the warm-press of a family reunion. I didn’t really want to get into it here, but I found I couldn’t just go back and pick up on the blog-post strands I had made drafts of in early February. So, here I am, starting afresh.

Daily writing is such a challenge, but the strain of not writing has become to be a larger and larger cloud in my life, making a few weeks without sitting down with my words a jagged, disjointing experience.

I vow not to let it happen to me again. Ever.

Anyway: Pain.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been suffering from a minor skin infection on the back thigh of my right leg. Okay, maybe not minor, but not major in the way that it ever threatened my health seriously. I won’t go into any of the gory details, but what has left the biggest impression on me is the way the body and mind deal with physical pain.

I’ve always been a fairly healthy individual (touch wood). And perhaps because of the privilege of my health and my parents’ occupations as physicians, I have had a steely attitude towards health care and illnesses. Though my parents healed most of my childhood illnesses with antibiotics, I developed a “Pour some ‘Tussin on it” attitude throughout my 20s. Let things run their natural course, I would say. Hot tea and lemon and a shot of whiskey will cure anything, right? Not suffering from any anxiety-induced health issues, I had no sympathy for those who did. [I once had an ex-boyfriend who would grab his neck in agony every time we fought. My yelling: “It’s all in your head!” helped neither the fight, nor his ailment.] I’ve always assumed I have a high pain tolerance, too – mostly because of my disinterest in taking mild pain killers.

The bump on my leg went from a minor itch to a tenderness to a dull ache to a throbbing pain to a sharp high-pitched jab, which had to be repeatedly triggered during a healing process that included surgery and daily packing with medicated gauze. Today it has receded to a faint stinging and awareness.

Throughout this process, I observed how the body and mind are worn down by physical pain, which grows into epic proportions in the mind if you let it. Interestingly, I was just reading Week Two of Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation when my pain was transitioning from throbbing to the sharb-jab. In the chapter, entitled “Mindfulness and the Body: Letting go of burdens,” Salzberg says: “A very good place to become familiar with the way mindfulness works is always close by—our own bodies.” She recommends a “Body Sensation” meditation, where you “train your mind to be with a painful experience in the moment, without adding imagined distress and difficulty.” She cites this study from the University of Manchester in which they found that meditators are better equipped to handle pain.

Well, what I learned is that I am not particularly well-equipped to handle pain, and that it is very difficult to free pain from it’s accompanying emotions and lingering distress, though it is an almost exhilarating experience to endeavor. I also found a striking cultural difference in health care issues around pain. America is all about sterility and sedation: General anesthesia! Vicodin! Codeine! Morphine drips! They give you major novocaine at the dentist just to clean your teeth. In India, I found that sedation and pain killers are not something easily given, and that the concept of pain is widely accepted as part of healing and health care. My tough-guy ego was bruised when many of my family members talked about suffering from similar ailments at one time or another, and though they agreed about the pain—there was an acceptance of it’s naturalness that I felt my western upbringing prevented me from having. It gave me a different understanding of life here in India—certainly of health care. It gave me an immense amount of newfound empathy for the children at the Rehabilitation Clinic for Children, a hospital for poor children with orthopedic deformities where Robin works.

I have to admit, in the middle of this experience, when the world around me was distorted into a dirty, over-bright, lurid fun house—I did have some fantasies of “going home.” [But where is that really though? My storage space in San Francisco? The empty room in my mother’s house in Ohio? Or is it maybe even here in Kolkata?] But in retrospect, I feel stronger for the empathy I’ve gained, and that which does not kill us, will very likely end up in a future piece of fiction.


What Junot Diaz Said …

As I mentioned in my last post, Junot Diaz was the darling of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Having been a huge fan, student, and proselytizer of his for the past 10 years, even since studying with him at VONA, it felt akin to the first time I saw people really grooving out to hip hop in India–meaning there was some kind of cultural translation that happened when Junot spoke about America that I somehow can’t convey. Anyway, Junot said a lot of important things about the practice of writing, the struggle of being an artist, communities of color in America and more, so I thought I’d geek out and share some of his words with you.

When pushed to talk about how his experience was extraordinary when taking into account his background, i.e., being from a disadvantaged community of color, Junot said:

Well, of course, but we’re talking about collectives, we’re talking about large groups of people. Look, the way the United States society is organized, you don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that the United States is not interested in the success of communities, it is interested in the success of individuals, it is interested in the success of individuals – and that’s what matters most. For me, I’m different, I’m interested in the success of communities. Don’t come to me and tell me, ‘Well,  shit is great because we elected a black president.’ I’m interested in what is happening at the African American community level. We might have elected a super special individual, but we don’t do much for communities. So, I think any of us who come out of communities who have exceptional luck or exceptional success, it speaks very little about the individual and speaks more to society who like to select a winner and codemn everybody else to some messed up crap. And I think sure, we work for it, we work really hard, blah blah blah, but when I was growing up there were plenty of kids who were far smarter than me, plenty of kids far harder working than me, but there wasn’t room. There is one space in the row boat and because your mom didn’t get sick that year or because the cops didn’t pick you up or because you didn’t get sick, or because some other craziness didn’t happen to you, you were the person who scrambled onto the boat at that time. And sure, you can give yourself a lot of credit for scrambling onto the boat, or you can say: ‘Yo, it’s kind of fucked up that there is only one seat up in here.’ ”

Junot, on failure:

“Anyone who works as an artist, there will be a moment when you will be deeply tried, where you will be challenged to your core self. I always say this and I will repeat it to the end of time, You don’t discover you are a good artist because you are awesome …. You discover you are a good artist when everything goes wrong and it keeps going wrong, and you hang in there. And you hang in there, because you are driven by two things, your love of the form – I mean, how would you suffer years of “failure” other than you love the form? I love literature, … but also the knowledge of what we do as artists is the ultimate faith-based initiative. You are already assuming anything that you write, and anything that you do as an artist, will somewhere in the future will encounter someone that will need it. You are putting your hand out into the darkness, with the faith and the hope, that another hand will come back. You are already lost in the deserts of hope, you might as well hang in there. The nature of what we do is about believing beyond all possibility. I’ve come through through to the other side, and I can safely tell you, the only thing that matters that when you’re utterly lost in the desert as an artist, is that you keep going. That’s when you discover you’re strengths as an artist. To touch your strength as an artist is far more useful to an artist than success. That strength, that resilience you encounter in the desert is the one that will keep you alive as an artist forever. Success is something else. I’m not sure success breeds strength, but I certainly know reslience does. Keeping that faith alive when there is nothing to show that you should have it –that’s fundamental. And if you can develop that while you’re out there being lost – you’re good to go. You will do what we need you to do as an artist.”

When asked if he identifies as a Dominican writer or a “universal” writer, Junot said:

“This is an extension of that other debate …. There is the larger debate: the umbrella of the national question, we are always looking for ways to parse human beings out into ‘are you in or are you out,’ and we even do it to ourselves, we’ll be like: ‘That guy’s not Dominican enough, and that person is….’ The extension of that is: If one declares themselves a Dominican writer, that immediately excludes you from being just a writer.  That it’s a false choice between the two. That one must chose between the deracinated writer class that has never existed–that you can be a writer with no class, no race, just wedded to your art, which is nonsense, because you are writing in a language that most of the planet can’t read – no matter what language you are writing it in. So, you’re not just a universal writer, you’re always going be tied to language in a way. I don’t think there is anything wrong with both specificity and universality in a way. So, anytime people ask me to choose if I’m a Dominican writer or a larger universal writer, I say that’s nonsense. Why can’t I be those two things, and another five million things and leave two empty spaces in case I come up with any other shit to fill in?”

Junot, on the failure of realism to be able to capture the horror of slavery:

“I like to read in various genres, science fiction, fantasy and horror. Realism isn’t the primary modality, in some ways their fantastic metaphorical lenses are attempting to describe what I would call “extreme realism”. For example, realism as a tactic is very poor at describing what it means to have been enslaved for 500 years. What does it mean to have been the product of a work-breeding experiment for 500 years? Now, to capture, realism is great, there is probably someone out there who could possibly capture it, but I have not read realistic novels that approach the nightmare of the chattel slavery of the New World, that extreme reality of what it means to have been bred for generation after generation and the people who were “weak” were worked to death and the people who were “strong” survived to create another generation of slaves. I find that horror far more aptly approached in science fiction and fantasy novels than I’ve ever seen it approached in realistic novels.”