Writing the Wrong
Looking Back on Graduate School Pretension
In 1995 I was a wide eyed college graduate, a newly wed, and excited about living in my very own Manhattan apartment. I got a job in the marketing department of an engineering firm making three hundred and fifty dollars a week after taxes. I thought futons were hip. I was, in short, heartbreakingly young. The only thing I was not sure of was what I was going to grow up to be. The jury is still out on that one actually.
Three months into my job, by some miracle, I got into one of the best graduate writing programmes in the country at New York University. I was wait listed and I called up the admissions people and made a hard sell and they let me in. I don't even remember what I said but I tend to think on my feet and shoot from the hip when I want something really badly and I managed to convince them that I had a career in writing. You see, they had let in the requisite number of South Asians that year. All women, all much more talented than me (I am assuming), who wrote about--you guessed it--saris, turmeric, arranged marriages, cross cultural confusion, kissing white boys, Bharat Natyam dancing, the usual rigmarole. My admission story had the rather pretentious title “The Moss of her Skin”, taken from an Anne Sexton poem. It was told from the perspective of a baby girl who had been buried alive in pre-Islamic Arabia. The story, to say the least, was morbid and not sufficiently exotic. To top it off, it was badly written. I was in an experimental phase. That's the excuse I use for everything that doesn't pan out. Unflattering outfits, doomed love interests, dubious recipes, you name it, it was experimental.
At any rate, someone did see enough potential in my writing to at least wait list me and that was how I finagled my way in.
NYU is very competitive and back then South Asian American female writers were really something rare, like Pandas ambling down the street in midtown Manhattan (I am now experimenting with analogies). This was before Jhumpa took the world by storm. There were three of us that year, two in fiction and one in poetry. We had famous instructors like E.L. Doctorow for fiction and Galway Kinell for poetry. Giants, one and all. I was assigned an extremely cantankerous (but funny) Croatian writer, who got mad at us and stalked out the first week of class because we were all lightweights (according to him). I had no idea writing programmes were run like West Point. At any moment I expected him to tell me to drop and give him fifty solid opening sentences. My Indian rival, we'll just call her Seema Kewlani, had gotten Doctorow's class and she had also won the New York Times Fellowship which essentially paid for her tuition. To give you an example of where I was on the totem pole: my financial aid checks arrived late so I could not make the payments and when I went to discuss this with the director of the department, the inappropriately named Charity Hume, she said, “Oh, that's too bad, it's okay if you can't be here this year. Just drop out. And, you are?”
One day I was sitting in the common area in our department and Seema spotted me. Before that I overheard her talking to a gaggle of white boys who were hanging on to her every word.
“I had no idea what to do after Columbia . It was either medical school or this, so I took my MCATS and my GREs and got into both. But what I really love is Indian Temple dancing.”
Did I forget to mention that Seema was a dancer and, therefore, lithe, long, sinewy and graceful, with lovely hair and arched eyebrows? That is why the white boys all giggled like school girls on crack and then collectively sighed at one of the most conceited yet flaky statements every uttered.
Then Seema spotted me. She elegantly detangled herself from her admirers and glided up to me. She said:
“Hello, I'm Seema.” There was a pause.
“Are you Brahmin?”
I was confused. No one had ever asked me anything like this before, so I said, “No, I'm an Aries.”
Seema was puzzled but she accepted the answer and glided away.
As fate would have it, the poetry Indian was nearby and she heard the whole thing. She came over, already laughing.
“Brilliant answer,” she said. “Hi, I'm Nipa (not real name), and I am a Kshatriya (warrior caste).”
The whole point of this story is that, being neither a warrior nor a priestly scholar, I was an underdog at NYU and it affected my voice as a writer. I tried to please and thus, did not produce decent fiction, until I met Edwidge Danticat, the author of the wonderful book Breath, Eyes, Memory. Edwidge was a soft spoken, doe eyed Haitian, who had found tremendous success at a very young age with her book.
She was a much welcome respite after a series of grandstanding, self-involved instructors who really did not care about their students or played favourites and enjoyed dropping names, “Oh, and that was when Salman and I decided to slice the jarlsberg lengthwise!” Crap like that.
I was learning, however, to have a thick skin and effectively critique literary work, but I was not as nurtured as I needed to be. Until Edwidge. She was the one who said--after fellow students wanted me to put in more saris and turmeric, etc into my stories--
“Don't listen to that. Write what you feel.”
She was also the first to point out that I was funny.
“Being funny is hard, Sharbari. Funny writers are rare.”
You know, until then it had never occurred to me that that was a strong suit. She also told me that I should not wish for success until I was good and ready. Only then would I fully appreciate it. Edwidge was twenty-six when she told me this. Already a wise soul. Her words are among those that sustain me when I falter.
I have started this special journal. I cornily call it the book of miracles and in it are people whom I have encountered and situations that re-affirmed my faith in everything. Some examples: a man named John, whom I met only once and who gave me a ride home in the middle of the night when I got off at the wrong stop. And the ultimate compliment, a friend who asked me, in the event of their untimely demise, to take care of their child. In this book I will include Edwidge Danticat, Haitian writer extraordinaire, who taught me to believe in my own voice and gracefully wait for success--whatever that may be. A secret: she isn't Brahmin either.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009