Interview with an Indian Lifestory Author, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

In a previous post, I reviewed a life story called “Love in Hyderabad” by Bhaswati Ghosh, about her romance with the city and her budding relationship with her new husband. This is the second part of the interview about writing and publishing the story.

To read part one of the interview click here.

Jerry Waxler: You wrote your story within your own cultural point of view, so you made no comments to the fact that you were falling in love with your husband after marriage, rather than before. I think you did a lovely, fun, uplifting job showing this love. I suspect one reason this component had so much authentic power is because you gave no background that it was an arranged marriage, since in your culture, that is the norm and there is no reason to explain it. You were just there, inside it, inside your own point of view. To me, that makes great memoir writing. Did you debate this decision within yourself or with your editor? Were you tempted to offer any explanation to a reader who might have been confused about falling in love with your husband?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Ha, ha, I am glad this question came up. Ours wasn’t an “arranged marriage” in the conventional sense of two strangers getting married after brief introductions. We had known each other for about a year through our blogs before we first met in person. At the time, my husband was working in the US and I was in India. When he came to visit me, we met just twice. Even though we knew each other, our interactions were mostly limited to the virtual space. So while we liked each other enough to get married, the love needed ripening. And that happened after the marriage, in Hyderabad. In the context of the story, I didn’t feel the need to share all this detail with the readers and hence left it a bit ambiguous. I do remember my editor asking me about this, and I told him that we had met each other online.

Jerry Waxler: That’s a fascinating circumstance, Bhaswati. Maybe an opportunity for another story. (laughing) You delved into the delicious food you ate. I was surprised by the specificity of your menu and the intensity of your pleasures. I don’t typically see this much emphasis on food in memoirs, although I do know that in writing we are taught to include all five senses. Typically taste is short-changed but not in your story. I wonder if you had a particular reason for focusing so specifically on your eating experience, or if you could comment on that.

Bhaswati Ghosh: Oh yes, I have a particular reason and that is my intense love of food. Food is essential to my appreciation of any culture, and it was the same in case of Hyderabad. What made it even more prominent in this story was the novelty that this city presented to me in terms of cuisine. The rich assortment of food available here was definitely good news to me, but what made it even more appealing was the affordability. This enabled us to sample a lot of different foods within a short span. Since a lot of the tastes were new to me, I remained more curious than I usually would be. My taste buds were alive to the unfamiliar but inviting sensations, and that has possibly found a reflection in my descriptions of foods in the story.

Jerry Waxler: The journal, Global Graffiti Magazine, that published this short story focuses on international articles so your piece about Indian culture spoke directly to the heart of that particular publication. How did you find a publication that was looking for a piece like this? I ask because I think most aspiring writers are trying to figure out where to publish their work, and so we would love to learn something from you.

Bhaswati Ghosh: My “system” of finding venues for my writing is quite conventional. Like most people who use the internet, I rely on Google for my searches. Currently, another good source of finding suitable markets is Facebook, which has a number of resources in the form of Groups/Pages that provide links to writing sites/journals etc. I found the link to Global Graffiti via one such group. As far as I remember, it was Places for Writers.

Jerry Waxler: Where can I look for more life stories, with this same, clearly communicated, lovely storytelling quality?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Unfortunately, I haven’t found too many avenues for this form of (personal) storytelling. The immediate names that come to mind are Granta, Cha (an Asian literary journal) and The Caravan.

Jerry Waxler: I love to read about cultural mixings, for example reading books about travel to foreign lands, or immigration, or cultural intermarriage. Such crossings reveal things about our lives that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see when our perspective stays within one culture. Your story was actually based on such cultural surprises, crossing from the city of your birth to the city of Hyderabad. However, there is another cultural crossing at work here. By reading it in the U.S. I had some of my own surprises. So it became cross-cultural not within the story, but out here in the contract between reader and writer. Interesting! What was your relationship to international writing? Did you have any particular background,r preparation, or intention to write for an international English speaking audience?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Not really. About six or seven years back, I joined an online writing community, the first for me, which mostly consisted of Americans as members. My interactions with these writing buddies enhanced my knowledge of Americanisms more than American English. That and reading international publications has enabled me to develop a style that I hope appeals to readers from different cultures.

Jerry Waxler: Nice. I love writing groups, and you’ve offered yet another benefit that I hadn’t thought of. How about a crossover market in the other direction? What sort of audience is there for aspiring western authors in India?

Bhaswati Ghosh: That market looks more and more promising. If a recent report published in a leading Indian daily is to be believed, nearly 90 million Indians speak English. Publishing houses are proliferating in the country, bringing out more titles than ever before. Festivals like the Jaipur Literary Festival (http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/) draw big names from the Western literary circuit every year, besides also featuring notable authors from Asia and Africa.

Jerry Waxler: You write about living in India, and now, it looks like you have immigrated to Canada. We’re on the same continent. Welcome! How do you plan to reach out to publications in this part of the world?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Thanks for your welcome. At the time of writing and subsequently publishing “Love in Hyderabad”, I was already in the US, in California, for nearly a year and a half. My husband worked in the Bay Area as an IT specialist, while I managed the home and my writing. We moved to Canada in June 2011. Being relatively new here, I am still exploring publishing avenues in this country. I hope to answer your question with more clarity only after spending some more time here.

Jerry Waxler: What else of yours can I read on line? What else are you working on that I can look forward to reading?

Bhaswati Ghosh: I blog at http://bhaswatighosh.com/. It’s part of my website, which also has links to some of my online publications. Among new things, I have started a series on my blog called “Immigrant’s Postcard” (http://bhaswatighosh.com/category/immigrants-postcard/), in which I record my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada. I intend to write these as short, conversational sketches that will acquaint readers with an immigrant’s perspective. I am also working at a tree sloth’s pace on my first novel, but your interest may just move my writing limbs a bit faster!

Note
You can read Bhaswati’s story by clicking here. Global Graffiti Magazine, Bhaswati Ghosh, Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

Click here for Bhaswati’s blog

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Interview with an Indian Lifestory Author, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

In a previous post, I reviewed a life story called “Love in Hyderabad” by Bhaswati Ghosh, about her romance with the city and her budding relationship with her new husband. This lovely story, published in an international literary journal provided many of the rewards of much longer works. To learn more, I interviewed the author about her experience as a writer. This is the first part of a two part interview.

Jerry Waxler: Your story sounds like a short memoir, complete with character arc and excellent character portrayal. I was surprised to see this clean, memoir-like structure. It reminds me of the Japanese art of bonsai, that creates the illusion of forrest in a tiny pot. Or maybe it’s just because I’m so interested in memoirs I see them everywhere. (Laughing) Did you set out to write a brief memoir?

Bhaswati Ghosh: That was the whole idea of this story. I did not intend to write it like a typical travelogue, as in my memory, the city of Hyderabad shall always remain entwined with the first few months of my marriage. This wasn’t just a new city for me; it was the first place I was exploring with my husband. This is where the two of us discovered each other most intimately, while also learning what we individually meant for the other partner. Since B, my husband, had a relatively light work schedule, we spent a lot of time scouting the city steeped in history, nature and a strong cultural ethos.

Jerry Waxler: As the reader learns about the Place in the story, we also learn about your important and complex transition from a single to a married woman. The story contains a clear, compelling character arc, something I would have expected in a much longer work. Could you explain your goals and ideas about character arc in short story, and in particular how you manage to scale character arc down to the shorter form.

Bhaswati Ghosh: In this particular story, I used an outline. The theme was clear in mind from the start–I was going to write about the city where I “found” love. Keeping that in mind, I broadly divided the story into sub-sections, focusing on different aspects of Hyderabad and how they corresponded to or even facilitated to the growth of my relationship with B. These included watching wildlife, relishing the city’s culinary culture, exploring its history, and being amused by its furtive romance.

Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. I can almost visualize you looking out over the landscape of that whole period and scaling down each segment to fit into the form. Nicely done. I notice that the language and sensory experience is especially rich, even luxurious. I wonder if perhaps this attention to language arts is more appropriate to a short story. For one thing, a short story writer has more time to passionately craft every sentence. And similarly a short story reader can perhaps read more slowly, pondering each sentence. When I read a full-length memoir, or a novel for that matter, I want the language to flow lightly from one sentence to the next, so the story can move along. Could you comment on this observation that perhaps richer language arts are more appropriate in short stories than longer ones?

Bhaswati Ghosh: To be honest, this never occurred to me, while writing the story or even after completing it. I just wrote in a language that naturally comes to me, constrained as I am by my limitations of vocabulary and aesthetic expression. I, like you, enjoy writing that flows smoothly, without burdening the reader too much (irrespective of the length of the piece). I sure hope mine achieves that effect!

Jerry Waxler: I love the story because it conveys sentiments in rich, musical language without being stuffy or pretentious. Somehow you have avoided the problem I have found in some stories that are trying so hard to be literary they are not fun to read. Could you say anything about your style that would help me understand your method or intention?

Bhaswati Ghosh: This is linked to my previous response. I have no intention of being “literary”, “stylistic” and so on for the sake of it. All I want is to convey my emotions and ideas with clarity and honesty. Some humor never hurts. That is the kind of writing that I am most drawn to and possibly draw the most from. The honesty factor is crucial–it entails allowing oneself to reveal one’s vulnerability and discomfort along with one’s confidence and joy. This is one of the most powerful ways to connect with readers because at the end of the day, we are dealing with the same emotions and emotional responses.

Jerry Waxler: Around 35 years ago, I met a Pharmacy student from southern India. To share a bit of his culture, he loaned me a book of philosophical essays by Rabindranath Tagore. Each one started out with a description of landscape and nature that was lush with life, and filled me with the joy of living. The reading experience was remarkable for the fact that I’ve remembered it all these years. Your story evoked a similar sensation to those essays I read many years ago. Perhaps it was something about that marsh inside the city, and the birds who could navigate, and bring their beauty and song into your urban experience. This evocation of Tagore may not be a coincidence. I notice you mention him on your website. Does he influence your style?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Rabindranath Tagore is a major influence in my life, of which writing is only a certain part. As a Bengali, I had the privilege of being introduced to him at an early age, and it wasn’t difficult to take a liking to his words because of his ability to appeal to all ages. His works for children are particularly endearing and even empathetic.

Tagore has remained a constant through the many changes in my life, almost taking the place of a close personal friend. I feel deeply impacted by his ideas of convergence and inclusion, cultural appreciation of the other, which comprise the essence of his humanism.

Jerry Waxler: Your story seems to invoke a complex blend of your own joy, love, and admiration intertwined with the scenes around you. Perhaps the scenes in the story were lush because your emotional engagement in the city was so rich. Tell me more about your process to bring authentic emotion to the page, to find the most compelling aspects of your own response and then do your best to pass those sensations along to the reader?

Bhaswati Ghosh: The response to this has already been well articulated by you in the question. Hyderabad was a unique experience for me in more ways than one. This was the first time I had stepped into southern India, having always lived in north India, with occasional visits to the eastern part of the country. The differences between this city and Delhi, my hometown, were more than just surface level. People here were more mild-mannered and easygoing as against the often brusque and rushed mood that prevails in Delhi. Public transport was decent, safe for women, and affordable. I saw a lot more birds than I would in Delhi on a day to day basis. Being alert to these offerings helped me bond with the city without making any effort.

Note
You can read Bhaswati’s story by clicking here. Global Graffiti Magazine, Bhaswati Ghosh, Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

The Freedom Writers Diary is a collection of diary entries written by inner-city high school kids in Los Angeles. When I first heard about it, I thought the book would be too scattered and too youthful to have anything to do with memoir writing. After I started reading, I discovered these authors were doing essentially the same thing any memoir writer does; telling stories about their lives, and sharing them with the world.

I was stunned by the intensity of their circumstances. In the classroom, the kids separated themselves into racially defined groups – Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and Whites.  Out on the street, many were members of rival gangs, killing and being killed for the color of their skin. Most of them had been shot at, and almost all had lost at least one friend to gang violence. The cultural tension portrayed a more complicated view of the American Melting Pot than I ever knew, and highlighted the terrible tendency of human beings to group together with their “own kind” and to exclude and misunderstand “the other.”

This particular classroom was designated for the throwaway kids, the ones who would never make it. Their home life was racked by poverty and drugs, and broken families. Some had been evicted and a few had even been homeless. When Erin Gruwell, a new teacher fresh out of college, walked into her English class, two things seemed obvious to everyone but her. First, these kids would continue their murderous hatred for each other, and second, none of them would graduate high school.

Through her innovative use of literature and journal writing, the young teacher defied both of these predictions, offering her students opportunities to escape their apparent fate. They raised their test scores, crossed racial lines to form deep friendships, finished high school and went on to college.

Uses of Journaling

To try to overcome their initial hostility to her and to each other, Erin Gruwell asked them to write about their personal lives. She had no idea she was turning on a spigot that released a flood of revelation and sharing. Through the writing, members of the class opened up to each other, breaking out of rigidly defined racial identities.

The journey to tolerance was helped by Gruwell’s use of world literature, especially the recollections of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of another diarist, Anne Frank. After reading Anne Frank’s diary, the students realized they were not the only ones persecuted. The Holocaust’s impact on the kids was so strong, Gruwell wanted to teach them more. She took them to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and she introduced them to several Holocaust Survivors. By visiting these horrors of recent history, they began to open their eyes to the futility and horror of racial hatred.

Shakespeare helped, too. The kids thought it was stupid that the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet would kill each other merely for being born with the wrong name. Then Gruwell pointed out the similarities to their own situation. They made the connection and learned another lesson about prejudice.

After four years of sharing their stories with each other, working together to raise money for educational projects, and becoming avid students of the literature of tolerance and survival, these kids traded in their hatred for harmony. Over and over they use the word “family” to describe their feelings for their fellow classmates.

The Power of Sharing Private Experience

Now that their diary entries have been published, the rest of the world can share their moral journey, too. Like the shape-shifters in magical myths, they tear off the masks of gang bangers, of druggies and anti-social kids who will never amount to anything, and reveal real people, with real dreams for family and a safe society. Their experience makes me dream of the possibilities.

After they graduated, the book ended but the kids kept pushing their agenda. Using the public awareness generated by the book, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers formed a non-profit organization, the Freedom Writers Foundation, to bring the message of hope to other schools.

Their public relations campaign shifted into high gear when the Freedom Writers experience was produced as a movie starring Hilary Swank. The production moved me as deeply as the book did, and will extend the reach of their message even farther, proving this amazing lesson about memoir writing. By telling the story of our own lives, we reach beyond ourselves, sharing experiences that potentially help other people grow, turning private lives into a public act of social change.

Writing Prompts
Write a situation in which you felt empathy for someone who was on the other side of some wall, contained behind the boundaries of your pre-judgment. Write what it felt like before the connection was established, and then what it felt like as the wall started to crumble and you saw the real person beyond it.

Consider some interaction you have had with a person from the “wrong” race or religion. Tell a story about your interaction. Stretch your imagination and try to tell the same story from their point of view.

Write about a period in your life when you felt stuck behind a façade, in which others saw you differently than you saw yourself. Write a story about taking off that mask.

Write a story about a book that made a difference in your life.

Write a story about a teacher who made a difference in your life.
Notes

The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic, with Erin Gruwell

Freedom Writers Foundation

Read my essay “The Terrible Logic of Uncivilized Boys” about Mark Salzman’s creative writing class inside a juvenile detention center for gang members in Los Angeles,

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn more about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers