"A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. " ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Friday, March 25, 2011

We're Moving

We're decided to switch our blog to Wordpress. Click here to be redirected.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Salman Rushdie comes to Atlanta

On my way to work a couple of weeks ago, right as I pressed the button to change radio stations after my commune with NPR radio on my way to work, the words “Salman Rushdie speaking on memories at Emory University” snagged in my ears. Rhianna was moaning about whips and chains on the new radio station and I was in the mood to sing along, so I made a mental note to hit Google up with those words later since the Emory campus is down the road for yours truly.

It turns out that Salman Rushdie is a visiting professor at Emory University in Atlanta, GA this semester. I had already missed the first public dialogue he’d done with Deepa Mehta. (Midnlght’s Children is being turned into a movie with Deepa Mehta directing it. When I have my novel published, I’m going to hold out for Deepa Mehta to come knock on my door – or, the more likely reality, go bang on her door until she answers just to rid herself of the knocking.) So, amidst disappointment, I scanned on down on the press release and saw that Rushie was doing another public conversation on the role of memories in writing that coming Sunday.

Now, I’m not a super-fan of Rushdie. Magical realism just isn’t my thing, so after reading the first two pages of Midnight’s Children, I walked away from the book. In fact, as long as I’m playing confessions here, I haven’t read a single Rushdie novel. However, what does intrigue me as a creative non-fiction writer is the role and use of memories in writing; plus, there was the fact that Rushdie is a renowned South Asian writer and I want to be one, so I figured I should go be in his presence.

The event was held in a church auditorium on the Emory campus, on Sunday at 5 PM, free and ticketless. On the big day, I showed up at 3:30 PM and was fifth online. All 5 of us had plunked down onto the floor and buried our heads into a book as we waited for the doors to open, which I now find amusing. I snagged a seat front and center in the first row. Make no mistake: Salman Rushdie saw me. When I finally get my book published and he sees my photo on the back jacket, he’ll say, “She was the woman who kept fidgeting and texting while I spoke.” To clarify: I wasn’t texting. I was taking notes on my cell phone so that I can write this blog entry for the good of mankind and memoir writers everywhere.

There were a few highlights throughout the event. It was a conversation between Rushdie and a senior member of Emory's upper echelon around the construction of memory, of how we believe the truth of our memory more than the actual facts themselves. Rushdies example elicited chuckles from the audience. He explained when the Indo-Chinese border wars were happening and China essentially beat the Indian army, conversation amongst the adults took place that he overheard about how, now that India was no longer part of the British empire, we might become part of the Chinese empire and how people might have to learn to speak Chinese. As he mused on this memory with his family, Rushdie's mother interrupted him and essentially told him not to be daft because he was in boarding school in Britain when all of this went down. When Rushdie checked the actual records, he found that he really was in Britain at the time. Rushdie had literally reconstructed this memory through others’ and placed himself in that moment in time. This made him fascinated with the construction of memory.

Since I have every intention of writing a memoir, I'm quite fascinated with this idea of a construction of memory, especially since the only thing I have to compare the fallacy of my own memories is those of the family and friends. In that scenario, how does one determine whose truth is stronger? This is something I’ve struggled with in my writing – my perception of what I know happened versus others’. I felt marginally at ease when, as Rushdie discussed problems of truth in the novel, especially for things like verbatim dialog, he very bluntly dumped on our heads that “there's no way people remember dialogue the way it is written in memoirs. It is partly--if not completely--made up, but they are making it up in service of the truth.” Memoir authors, including myself, are clearly making things up; the question is how much are we making up.

The conversation meandered its way through how we look at the past with the eyes of the present and the way we see the past is transformed by the times of the present, which is quite true. Three years ago, I might have ended my bestseller with the main character going on to live a morose, melancholic life, the sort of life heroines in Bollywood movies live when fate takes her down before her happy ending musical. Today, however, I know my main character, no matter what she does, will live, whole-heartedly, wildly. None of the facts of my past has changed; my perspective, however, has, so I shake my head in agreement with Rushdie.

Then we came on to one of my favorite subjects: on how to write a memoir, about the differences and similarities in writing fiction and non-fiction. Rushdie stressed that one must create "novelistic elements," in non-fiction writing, where we must make the people come to life on the page, even the character baring our own name. "If you can't make them live on the page,” he stated matter of factly, “then it doesn't matter that they really live." One point that struck home was that, in writing a memoir, we have to be particularly critical of the character representing ourselves. We cannot go easy on ourselves - and we cannot write out of revenge. Rushdie encouraged really looking into if something needs to be said or not. Of course, if it is vital to our story and truth, then it must be told, but if it's not, he recommended rethinking it, to examine why we feel the need to recreate an event that didn't add to our truth - which essentially is saying that if it doesn't add to pushing your story forward, you don't need it.

Rushdie was quite witty actually - there were a reference to how he's quite tight with Jerry Springer after being on a talk-show together (long amusing story that involves poking fun at a leader of the gun rights group in the U.S.). When the topic of the abundance of memoirs in the market was brought up, he attributed it to Oprah Winfrey and the creation of the confessional culture.

Q&A took the conversation all over the place. Somewhere in there, it came up that Rushdie himself wrote the screenplay for Midnight”s Children, describing the experience "like cutting off both arms and limbs" since he had to cull the novel to exactly what needed to be in the movie and what could be abandoned. Someone piped up with the question of whether Rushdie regretted writing Satanic Verses; Rushdie shut that question down with a quick no and moved on. When asked for tidbits on how the progression of his own memoir was going, Rushdie was quite tight-lipped on the content but elaborated that he believes that if he keeps his mouth shut, then the words will come out through his fingers; he finds that projects often lose their steam because people talk about it too much. I wonder if that was a message specifically for me. When asked if he would choose to categorize himself as a writer or as his public speaking self, Rushdie ended with "I chose the life I chose to tell stories."

The man is strangely charismatic in person. I have a feeling Padma might have had an effect on his fashion sense. Rushdie very charmingly was dressed in a quite dapper suit with red socks. His voice and accent, if I closed my eyes, I could quite attribute to a much younger, debonair man.

He's going to be at Emory the entire semester. On my way out, I overheard a current Emory student casually toss of that Rushdie would be visiting his creative writing class. I wonder if he truly comprehends the depth of the privilege he has or if he will look back years later in amazement and thump himself on the head for the opportunity he let pass by.

DWL pilots its YouTube channel

Exciting news! We've just taken a significant step to cementing our online presence as an international writers' community. With the soft launch of the new DWL/Papercuts channel on YouTube, we're looking to reach out to a wider audience and to promote our writers in a more diverse manner.

The experience of reading something, be it a poem, story or article, totally changes with some context or perspective. Audio-visual content provides both. We hope that supporting A/V material will make the content more accessible, easier to interpret and more interesting for readers.

Just to clarify: this is a pilot. We've only put two videos up so far and are gauging the response to them. If people like the concept, we will launch the channel formally and improve the production quality. The videos will always have an 'at home' feel to them, though, because we want to keep them real and to represent the true essence of amateur writing.

Go to http://www.youtube.com/user/DesiWritersLounge to check out the channel. AND DON'T FORGET TO CLICK ON THE 'LIKE' BUTTON!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Karachi Literature Festival – Day 1 contd.

By the end of the first day, the festival was running well behind schedule. Mics weren’t working, sessions were starting up to an hour late and audiences were getting fidgety. Fortunately, an amazing aura of excitement continued to surround the hotel, so while there was some annoyance amongst the festival goers, no one really cared for too long. In retrospect, it’s quite possible that the organizers just didn’t plan for so many people to attend the event and got overwhelmed with the response. Some of the sessions were crammed to maximum hall capacity, particularly the Works in Progress session at the end of the first day.

This session was going to be a crowd puller from the start. The US embassy, which was a major partner in organizing this year’s KLF, had brought together quite the celeb group at one table: Ali Sethi (The Wish Maker), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), H.M. Naqvi (Home Boy), M. Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes) and Sunil Sethi (The Big Book Shelf). I don’t think anyone was expecting anything really solid to come out of this little sitting; for most of the fans sitting there, it was probably just a chance to kill five birds with one stone. Considering that, one still managed to walk away with some interesting little nuggets from the aforementioned writers.

Ali Sethi was the youngest and the most intense member of the panel. Everything about him was geared to create an impression, from the stark rims on his glasses right down to the dramatic way in which he read out passages from texts about religious minorities in Pakistan. Evidently the writer still most concerned with ‘finding himself’, Sethi spoke passionately about the need to know one’s social reality and to figure out what one’s ‘social and economic inheritance’ was. His investigations into violence against religious minorities were driven by this same need to understand events as they unfolded around him; a process that his idealistic education abroad did not prepare him for, he said. Writing could help you decide what you believed in, said Sethi. This was an interesting turn from what one had normally heard, which was that you inevitably put to paper what already exists in your head and heart.

Daniyal Mueenuddin was by the far the most relaxed person sitting at the table. Leaning back comfortably for the most part, he listened with careful (though at times incredulous) attention to the rest of the panelists. He was adamant that writing was play for him – that he sat down to write when he wanted a break from real life. This stood out in sharp relief from the others’ descriptions of the writing process. M. Hanif, for example, spoke about the sense of loss that he felt when he was done writing a book: as if ‘an old friend or lover you’ve quarreled with every day has suddenly upped and left’. “I think all writers are mad,” Hanif grinned. “What kind of person sits in a corner and makes up stories and expects to be taken seriously?”

Sunil Sethi then followed with the opinion that all writing was ‘a hardship post’… by which point Mueenuddin, who’d clearly had enough of all the intensity, was compelled to sit up and disagree. Somehow, listening to him speak, one understood why he felt this way. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s work thrives on honesty and simple statements of fact. Nothing is strange in his world. The entire strength behind his debut novel was its easy, un-judging frankness. So yes, if I were to imagine Mueenuddin working at his desk, the image would not be of a tortured artist wringing his hands over the multiple layers of meaning hidden behind every sentence; it would be more a picture of a slightly relieved man writing his diary after a day of not quite being himself.

It was Hussain Naqvi who brought the whole picture back into perspective.“The production of prose becomes incidental,” he said. “Being a writer means negotiating life, family, making a living; and producing something that resonates within you as well as with others.” While Ali Sethi's write-or-die attitude was infectious and Mueenuddin's writing-is-play approach made sense, it was probably Naqvi's exposition of the process that summed up the reality of being a career writer most effectively.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Karachi Literature Festival - A DWLer's observations

This entry has been submitted by Hamdan Malik.

Day 1: Confused, anxious, even shivering slightly.

My first KLF sitting was the Zulfikar Ghose writing workshop, which was quite interesting even if more of a lecture than a workshop. Some of what he discussed had already been advised on the DWL forums. He encouraged writers to write with brevity and recklessness and insisted on avoiding generalization and abstract notions.

At the end of the session, I met Jalal, Batool, Afia and Faraz. After a few minutes of chitchat, they ordered lunch and I took a zuhar break.

Returned to attend “Kia Urdu parhney waley kam hotey ja rahe hain” late and was sure I won’t find a place to sit, but all went well for me since they'd had technical difficulties and were running a half hour late. 

The session started with Ms. Arfa Sayeda Zehra apologizing for the delay in very pure, refined Urdu. After a few initial remarks, she handed the floor to panel members - interrupting only when the discussion veered too far off its course. It was pointed out that regional languages were facing the same problems across the Indo-Pak region as Urdu; various causal factors were put to light. One of the problems noted was the print and binding method used here; others were more abstract like natural birth and death of languages.

Day 2: Ego, anger, compassion and conclusion.

"A talk on Sufism with a foreign majority panel... this should be interesting," I said to myself. It was interesting but to be honest I felt the only thing they did was to endorse contemporary mazaar culture and very safely ignored the real essence of tasawwuf . I had a question for Wasim Frembgen that I tried to ask in the lecture but they didn’t have the time to field it then.

Came back after Zuhar to find Afia distributing flyers. Then she had to buy a book and at the bookstall we bumped into fellow DWLer Madiha. We went back to the same table where we were sitting the day before and started chatting with some people who were sharing the table with us. They left after a while and we still hadn’t placed our order before Afia started running around again, trying to catch celebrities to milk interviews out of them. Finally, we had coffee and a short while later I spotted Wasim Frembgen and had my questions answered. It didn't change what I thought of the Sufism talk, but we finished off nicely with a walk to Karen Armstrong’s lecture.

Monday, February 14, 2011

We're Back!

So that didn't take too long! We're back online after having switched to our new host. The forums are up and running and within the next day or so, Papercuts will finally be available on its permanent address www.desiwriterslounge.net/papercuts.

Meanwhile, watch out for the next installment of Vol 7 material, coming your way on February 15th!

We are grateful for your patronage and your patience during the host switching.

- The DWL Team

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Website down for maintenance

Hi everyone,

Just an update that the DWL website is undergoing maintenance right now. We hope to be back online within 24 hours. Till then, you can always head over to the temporary Papercuts site www.paper.takhleek.com and read the latest issue and comment on the pieces.

We'll see you soon!

The DWL Team