Monday, December 26, 2011

Topic: "A Writer's Journey" Location: Suva, Fiji Islands

Speech given to the students and the staff of the University of South Pacific on August 11, 2011 (9 am to 10 pm)

Thank you to Dr. Mohit and Dr. Anurag for giving me this wonderful opportunity to be with all of you today. It's truly an honour. I don't want to overwhelm you all with too many details of my life; So I'll give a brief account of where I am from and how I came to be a writer.

I grew up right here in the beautiful city of Suva and attended Nehru Primary School and then Mahatma Gandhi High School. My love for stories was instilled in me at an early age, before I started school by my mother. She was an amazing storyteller who re-accounted all the Indian myths, legends, religious gospels, and parable...some of my favourite stories being those of Birbal and Maharajah Akbar. As a child, I loved listening to all these stories. And this love for them eventually motivated me start creating my own short stories. I wrote a short story a day during my Primary School days.

At age 12, during school holidays, I wrote two screenplays on an old beaten up green typewriter that never ran out of ribbon. The dialogues were in Hindi. One was titled Jeevansathi meaning "Life Mate" and the other was titled Jewels. Jeevansathi was a controversial play for early 80s as it dealt with divorce in our Indian culture, something that rarely occurred and was seldom discussed at that time. I still have these plays stacked away in a closet back in Canada, collecting lint and dust.

In 1988, my life drastically changed when at the age of 14, I emigrated to Canada. I was in Form 4, or as Canadians call it, in Grade 10. Assimilating into a foreign culture and my education became my main focus. And I stopped creating characters and writing stories.

It wasn't until 13 years later that I discovered my love for writing again. It was interesting how this came about. I was in my final year of University, completing a Psychology Degree, hoping to become a chartered Psychologist. At that time I was also changing residences. I was quite stressed.

My friend who was helping me move noticed a few sentences I had written on a scrap of paper which I had thrown in the rubbish tin, or as Canadians would call it, garbage can. He took it out of the garbage and asked me who wrote it. I told him I did; it was rubbish. Just throw it away. Instead, he put it in his pocket. I shrugged it away. I was too busy with the move to comment.

Two months later, this same friend asked me to enter an Albertan magazine's annual short story competition. I told him that I didn't write. At this time, I had forgotten about the screenplays and stories that I had written back here in Fiji. He gave me the magazine and asked me to just try anyhow.

I did...out of curiosity... to see if I could. It took me two weeks to write my first short story under 2500 words. I called it "The Noise Collector." I entered it into the competition and didn't win. However, the whole process of writing that short story reignited my passion for writing.

Others read the story and enjoyed it. I became curious to see if I actually had any talent. I had already registered in my final two courses left to complete my Psychology Degree. I withdrew from them both, paid the withdrawal penalties, and registered in two Creative Writing courses. I did fairly well in them. I wrote several more short stories and for the final project, I completed the first chapter of a novel, calling it Cleo. It was a suspense thriller, popular fiction set in Vienna, Austria.

My friends read the single chapter and wanted to know how the story ended. I offered to tell them the ending. They wanted to read it for themselves. I told them not to be silly, I wasn't about to write a whole novel. I stacked the chapter in my closet, alongside my Hindi typewritten plays, and forgot about it.

It so happened that I got laid off from my work and due to a frail economy and lack of work experience, I was unable to find another place of employment for good six months. In these months, I struggled to support myself and my daughter. Having time on my hands with nothing to fill, I started rearranging my home. While cleaning out my closet, I found the chapter of Cleo. To keep my mind off my financial stresses, I decided to attempt and complete a whole novel -- if I could. Surprisingly, in 4 months, it was completed. My friends read it and encouraged me to send it to publishers. I took their advice; I was curious to see what actual publishers and editors would think of my work.

After much research, I submitted three chapters of Cleo, standard in those times, to appropriate publishing houses. I came to understand words such as "slush pile" and the importance of having a publishing history, a web presence, maybe an agent -- all things that I didn't have.

I decided to send my short stories to literary magazines. I read other successful authors biographies for ideas and inspiration. I understood from reading these biographies that rejection was a part of any aspiring writer's resume. And I got (and get) many of those.

What motivated me most in those years when rejection letters piled up high was the fact that instead of just sending a standard rejection form, many editors and publishers personally wrote back asking questions about my characters and where I get inspiration from. They stated that they enjoyed reading my stories and felt that I was talented. They encouraged me to continue honing my skills and continue developing as a writer.

Another thing that I learned when I was sending Cleo to publishers was that most Canadian publishers were looking for literary fiction that had rich multicultural themes, was character driven, and set in Canada. "Cleo" was none of these things.

So...I wrote another novel...The End of the Dark and Stormy Night that was all of those things...and more. For the writing of this novel, I was greatly inspired by the Indo-Canadian director, the daring Deepa Mehta, who explored lesbian themes in her controversial film Fire. I found her courage to stand up for difficult and sensitive issues quite influential and admirable.

I'll read a bit from my novel The End of the Dark and Stormy Night : now...

[Read from Chapter 14/Pages 115 to 117 where Elisha explores her lesbian desires]

[Read from Chapter 5/Pages 36 to 39 where one of my most favourite character, Mrs. Anand is introduced]

[Read from Chapter 17/Pages 134 to 136 where Ravi, main character goes to the theater in the city of Calgary] Recently, I went to Village theater in Suva, and I was very happy to find the entry prices were only $6.50. You see, in Canada, tickets costs over $15. A movie night is an expensive night out. And no, you don't get butter with popcorn...only Ravi discovers in this piece.

That is all the reading I have for you from this novel.

Recently, I completed another novel titled Kalyana set in the Fiji Islands. It is going through edits currently after which I am hoping to send it out to publishers.

I am excited to continue pursuing my life as a writer. I guess I am curious to see how far I can take this. And I hope that you all can also find that curiosity within you that drives you to continue pursuing this craft, and honing your skills as a writer.

Thank you.

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