Love across a broken map

Tell us more about the inspiration behind your short story in Love across a broken map?

Reshma: I am fascinated by the cult of celebrity and the extent to which one can identify with and pine for the gilded life of such a celebrity. My story, ‘Soul Sisters’, takes this obsession to its extreme end. It is also a comment on loneliness and ageing and the ways in which an individual tries to cope with and escape from the drudgery of life.

Mona: My short story is called ‘To London.’ I actually wrote this during my Masters in Creative Writing course for a module called ‘Writing the city.’ We were exploring how place, especially a city, influences writing. I knew my story just had to be about London! I thought of writing an emotional, intense, nostalgic love, which is not what most of my other work is about. I wanted to explore love for a person but also for a place and how the two intersperse with each other in our memories. This story I feel is as much about London as about love. I felt this story was appropriate with the theme of the anthology, which had started off as being ‘stories about love, longing and friendship.’

Rohan: I have always been interested in the tension between fate and free will and wanted to explore astrological influences (as an indication of fate) when challenged by free will (the passions of the heart). The inspiration for the tone of ‘We are all made of stars’ in the anthology came from a short piece by James Joyce (‘Evelyn’) in his seminal collection ‘Dubliners’ and the protagonist who has to decide whether to leave the security of life with her father for a new life and love.

Kavita: ‘Three Singers’ started as a potential radio story, so it was going to be fairly short. I was keen to explore several themes even in that tight format. Ostensibly the story is about mixed-race twins looking for love in London and meeting an attractive man at a singing lesson. Underneath that narrative I have delved into twin-ness, mixed-race identity, the importance of appearance, classes held in church halls, and semi-classical Indian music. My inspiration came from people-watching in London and wishing that there was a thumri singing class that I could attend.

Radhika: My own encounters with love. When I was younger, my definition of romantic love was very black and white. I thought you either love someone or you don’t and there is nothing in between. The more I loved, the more I realised that love thrives in in-between spaces, in shadows and in the unexpected. From there came the idea, what if I write a story about a woman who says I love you to her partner for the first time on the day that she breaks up with him? In the Nine-Headed Ravan, Matrika acknowledges her love for Aman as her drives away on his bike, possibly never to be seen again.

How did your short story develop during the workshopping and editing process?

Mona: My original story written for the Masters course work was longer than the version in the anthology. While workshopping and editing, I removed some of the descriptions to make it tighter. However the most important change was the ending itself. This is a story when nothing much happens in the present, in the sense that it has all happened before, and the protagonist is thinking back about a time in her life. The ending was perceived differently by different people. Some wanted to see more, a strong closure and something more happening between the lovers. Some felt too much was being said. It was Farhana who at the very last minute, suggested ending the story at the point it has ended here. That meant I would have to forgo the last paragraph of the protagonist reminiscing and rationalising, which I wasn’t ready to let go! So I asked the group to read it again, and four of them read it and all four said they too preferred this ending. I read my own story with fresh new eyes, and then I realised I was hanging on to the last few paragraphs simply because I liked the writing but it didn’t do anything for the story. Therefore, it had to go!

Rohan: Initially, the idea started as a commission for BBC radio 4 writing on the concept of what we mean by relationships. I was exploring the difficulty and wonder of the mixed race marriage. The idea then developed as TWK looked at creating a new anthology around love and longing. It was a challenge to move from the shorter (more punchy) radio format to the greater freedom of prose. Driving this was the thought of love as the manifestation of free will and fate as its nemesis.

Radhika: The journey of the protagonist became clearer with every draft. It was great to get responses to the story from the group – it helped me understand what was working, what wasn’t clear and make changes. As the writer, everything about the story is clear to you. It’s only when someone else reads it that you realise what the weak links are.

What did you learn about short story writing through this collaborative process?

Radhika: Writing a short story is all about sharpening your words and making each one count.  The collaborative process really helps in that. It also teaches you that all writing is about rewriting.

Reshma: Whilst every writer came up with their own suggestions regarding my story, I felt the ultimate responsibility of accepting or rejecting these ideas lay with me. A short story is like a sprint whilst a novel is a marathon, as someone rightly observed, and reading all the stories within the group helped me to appreciate the significance of pacing the story and the challenges of creating full-bodied characters within a specified word limit.

Rohan: Seeing things from a completely different perspective. Working with writers of different backgrounds and gender helped with characterisation and plot. Sometimes the writer is too close to his/her material and seeing the material through a different set of eyes can really open doors in the mind.

What excites you as a writer and what makes you angry?

Reshma: I am excited by the fact that as a writer, I don’t have to retire ever! There are a multitude of stories shouting to be told and this fills me with dread and excitement. Writing is very similar to giving birth – shaping a new life through words that have to ring true and reveal something new. What makes me angry is the lack of time and as a woman who is also a mother, daughter and wife, the necessity of juggling so many balls in the air at the same time. I would love to go on a six month writing retreat and focus on writing alone, but the world seems to be constantly intruding.

Mona: I love the process of writing, love a new idea, new words which come trotting into the mind and I love the whole process of workshopping, and editing and editing. I write poetry as well but there is a difference, as the start of a new short story really excites me. Rejections and the world of publishing, that is another ballgame though. I feel the publishing industry is very elitist, it is very hard to break into that elite circle of mainstream agents and editors and publishers, especially when you are an Asian writer. The expectation is that if you write about India it has to be about colour and elephants and heat! I am born and brought up in India, it is hard for me to portray India as some exotic foreign thing where everything is perfect or everything is wholly imperfect! I feel editors and publishers needs to be able to see beyond stereotypes and understand a story in India may not be about poverty or corruption or similar. I don’t know the answer how, but I wish publishing could be less commercialised.

Kavita: What I find exciting at the moment is writing about the subjects that intrigue me, and possibly, only me. I love research. Speaking generally, I am most motivated when I’m tackling topics or themes that refute certain perspectives and attitudes. I also really enjoy collaborating with visual artists and musicians. Hypocrisy angers me most of all. It is the background context to many of my stories.

Farrah Yusuf: What excites me are the endless possibilities and that often as I write a story will take turns I did not expect when I started out. I wouldn’t say anything angers me but I do find myself constantly apologising for using the word writer to describe myself or for trying to protect time to write. That may say more about me than it does about anything else though!

There’s been so much talk about diversity in books and publishing, how do you feel this anthology will add to the wider debate?

Reshma: I feel this anthology is unique as it has been written by a collective of writers who lead very different lives and come from different parts of the subcontinent. We bring our own particular interpretation of love – the illusions and delusions that inform it.  I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

Mona: TWK is a very diverse group, in the sense that each of us have widely different experiences in terms of where we grew up, and the places we lived in, before coming together in London. This anthology may be seen as yet another typical Asian writing, but I hope people read it to see that none of the writing is typically Asian fare or problems, but there is a cohesiveness to the theme of imperfect love stories.

Kavita: I know you mean ‘diversity’ in a wider sense; but for ‘The Whole Kahani’ this anthology is a fantastic example of diverse authors pulling together. The ethnic backgrounds (four different countries), religions (four), academic qualifications, upbringing, family circumstances, and work life all differ greatly from writer to writer yet this mutual project brought out the best in everyone.  For the wider debate on diversity in publishing, there is only one thing to say: Buy this anthology. Publishers will follow the money.

Where do you find inspiration in a city like London?

Mona: I love London! I love its energy and the tranquillity.  I can feel inspired just walking around the city; the architecture, the sense of history in layers and layers, the modernity and newness, it is all here!  You can turn a corner and find a blue plaque of some great person, and you can never forget that amazing literary figures have lived and breathed in the city. The real London and the London one reads about in books and sees in movies are firmly entwined. I don’t need any specific place, just the city, and the thought of the city is enough for me!

Rohan: I like the parks. I can sit on a bench and look at people pass by all day. When I’m not looking and learning from people, I look at the landscape and draw inspiration from that.

Kavita: The wonderful thing about London is that if you have an interest, however eclectic, you can usually find a museum or society dedicated to it. I love all the museums, big and small, scholarly or wacky. I learn something new every single day. But my biggest inspiration is just sitting on the top deck of the No. 9 bus, listening to all the languages being spoken around me; eavesdropping on the conversations I do understand and looking down at the frantic pavements and fabulous shop-windows.

Radhika: I moved to London two years ago and for the first time had the time and support to do what I always wanted to – write. This is a writer’s city – there’s so much going on – talks, courses and events. It’s made me feel incredibly supported as a writer.

Where are your favourite places to hang out in the city?

Farrah Yusuf:  Southbank, for so many reasons not least the second hand book store and Foyles. As well as that any of the markets, I could spend hours wandering around them. I usually come away having eaten far too much and bought something I really don’t need. My current favourite is Colombia Road, followed Brick Lane’s food market and if there is enough time Spitalfields and Petticoat Lane.

Mona: I would say around the river and anything which gives me a view of the city, so I like South Bank, I like the Shard, and I like the Heights bar where TWK meets. Hyde Park and Regent’s Park are perfect, closer home, I also visit Greenwich Park a lot. There are museums and museums to choose from, and I love to visit the National Gallery and Courtauld Gallery. And then there are all these nice restaurants and pubs to go to! I have too many favourites.

Rohan: Regents park and the Embankment.

Kavita: Having talked up the No. 9 bus route, I have to admit now that I often need a break from traffic and my favourite places to hang-out are green oases such as the tow-path by the river and Richmond Park, where I like to walk.

What was the last thing you went to see – in the theatre/ exhibition / artist talk?

Reshma: I just saw the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Manet and the Garden and heard David Constantine give a talk on his story, ‘Forty Five Years.’

Mona: It was an Impressionist Exhibition in the Royal Academy of Arts – Painting the Modern Garden, from Monet to Matisse.

Rohan: Kid carpet and the family rock show in Colchester, a very talented musician and actor who performs and writes for young children.

Kavita: This week I went to Asia House for a small but exquisite exhibition of ‘Turkestan’ treasures – traditional jewellery and textiles from Central Asia.

Radhika: I saw the Artist and Emipre exhibition at the Tate Britain. It was fascinating, especially the bit about art as propaganda. There was a painting about the Mutiny of 1857 against the British in India. Now, I’ve always studied the Mutiny as a story of India standing up and rebelling against the colonial masters and then being ruthlessly and bloodily crushed by the British. But, here was this painting that showed the Indians as the inflictors of violence on the British women and children. I did a double take when I saw it!

What other groups or organisations have helped you develop your skills as a writer?

Reshma: I am a member of Society of Authors and they hold regular talks and conferences through the year. I also try and attend the London Book Fair.

Mona: I am a member of the London Writer Circle for the last six years. We meet on the last Wednesday every month. We read and feedback in the meeting itself, and because of this, the feedback is instantaneous and comes from the heart. I have learnt a lot from this group in making a short story tighter. I also did a Master’s in Creative Writing recently and enjoyed the workshops. I am still in touch with my fellow students and we often feedback and workshop each other’s work.

Rohan: My creative writing MA at Birkbeck college. I learnt about postcolonial fiction, the theory underpinning good writing and the short story form.

Radhika: I’m also pursuing an MA in Screenwriting at Birkbeck university. I love writing in different forms and I love the way forms overlap and teach me more about writing. Thanks to my focus on screenwriting, my writing has become more visual and more fearless.

How and when was The Whole Kahani formed?

Kavita: Initially the group began as a spin-off workshop group for writers who had contributed to ‘Too Asian, Not Asian Enough’. In 2013, those members who had continued to meet regularly had a discussion about the future and the ethos of the group. Many important points came out of that discussion, namely: the uniqueness of our group as British writers hailing from the South Asian diaspora; the fact that individually we drew on dual or triple heritages in our writing; how well we understood each other; and our perspectives on London, where we held our meetings. Thus ‘The Whole Kahani’ was named and born. A 21st century central London set.

Where and how often do you meet?

Mona: We meet every month in the Heights bar, St George’s Hotel.

Are you open to new members and is there a fee to join?

Kavita: We welcome new members. They do have to be prepared to make a commitment to the group and its workings. Our selection process is based on “quality”; this is, of course, impossible to describe, but all decisions are made by consensus.

How has being a member of The Whole Kahani developed your writing?

Reshma: Writing is a very solitary occupation and belonging to The Whole Kahani enables me to not only exchange ideas with fellow writers but also learn from them, since we bring our own individual writing styles and unique perspective. The fact that we workshop each others’ stories, helps me in having the discipline to write and submit with a deadline in mind.

Kavita: I thrive on the discussion aspect of TWK meetings; stray remarks on one story may spark new ideas for another. Also, it’s great to experiment with themes and forms to see how they play, and to bounce new ideas off a group that is composed of phenomenally intellectual people.

Do you only write about Asian stuff?

Reshma: I don’t think fiction can be put in a labelled box since the themes I write about such as relationships or the individual’s interaction with the world around have universal resonance. There are no borders in writing or one’s imagination, particularly in today’s interconnected world where everyone has a ringside seat to events as they unfold.

Mona: I personally don’t define my work as Asian and not Asian. But I think writers will tend to write about what is closer to them, and in that sense, my characters are mostly Indians, though I have short stories where characters are not Asian or it is not about Asia. As a group, I think most people have the same principle.

Rohan: No, I also write historical, science, and childrens’ fiction (YA and picture book) outside the Asian genre.

Kavita: No, I write about ALL stuff. A film critic recently listed Woody Allen’s themes as: life, chance, fate, love, guilt. I would say those are my themes too. My characters are often, but not always, Asian, and sometimes mixed-race. That is a deliberate choice, because I want there to be stories about ALL stuff for my ethnicity too and not have one type of story for Asians and another type of story for non-Asians, and a third type of story for bi-racial people. We are all human beings, suffering and celebrating in the same way, emotionally speaking, across the globe. There is no ‘Asian stuff’; it is all ‘human stuff’.

Farrah Yusuf: No, I tend to write about whatever idea I want to explore. At times that may include Asian elements or be set in Asia but at other times it will not.

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