What an honour to be asked to speak here, at the inaugural Asian writer festival. Celebrating ten years of celebrating work by Asian writers, a true testament to Farhana’s spirit and tenacity.
And that will be the theme of this talk. Spirit. The passion for what we do. And tenacity, the motivation to keep doing it. What we do, and why it’s important.
Ten years ago, I was publishing my first novel. I was completely unknown, what they call in the trade a slush pile author. It sounds like a derogatory phrase, but it’s just fact; my manuscript was in a pile with all the other hopeful submissions from unknowns. I probably seemed a bit of a dilettante, with my background in corporate finance and advertising. Doing campaigns for Harpic with catchy little lines, like what does your loo say about you. The truth was that I’d been writing since I was seven years old. It wasn’t a hobby. Sometimes it wasn’t even a pleasure. I wrote then for the same reason I write now. Because I must. Because there is nothing else that I would want to do.
But who would know that? Who would know the intense passion, the intent, with which I wrote, unless I sat them down across a table, and made it known. Unless I spoke out. I didn’t have the opportunity to do that when I was first published, I was living in another country with two babies less than 2 years old. (Who are now those big boys sitting over there, in the corner.) And as a result, in those early days, I had some pretty politically incorrect comments about my books, based not on the words I wrote, but the smiley press photo my publisher took of me, and the pretty paisley endpapers. “So, do you write Chicken Tikka Lit, then?” With a comment, muttered under the breath, “I’m so tired of Attractive Asian authors churning out this sort of book.” But not so muttered, nor under the breath, as it still made it into the published review.
So this is what we’re up against. And let’s not pretend for a moment that it’s a level playing field. Of course, everyone in the arts fights to be recognised for what we do. I acknowledge that. We feel obliged to justify the importance of what we do, even, to explain why unwinding our narratives from ourselves, spinning stories from the stuff which makes us, has a value. It’s frustrating, as scientists don’t have the same obligation to justify their daily work, at least not in the field of medicine, where I am currently training. Doctors may help us stay fitter for longer, but what are we being kept fitter for? For a better understanding of our daily struggle, the search for that thing that gets us up in the morning, the resolution of that thing that keeps us awake in the night. The discovery of passion, unburdening of fear.
So yes. All artists fight for the right to practice their craft, and we, as Asian writers, fight more than most. We fight for our places on publisher’s lists, for our places on the prize lists, for our places in the promotions. We writers, both men and women, may be dismissed because of our appearance, because of the boxes we have been put in, the brands that publishers have built. Accused of being too political, or not political enough. Too Asian, or not enough.
In short, we may be judged for something other than our words.
We can and should be relentless in telling our stories, and some may hear, but they may not listen, and then our stories are only half told, not reaching our readers, dripping away like tears in the rain and drops in the ocean. I always tell my students in Oxford that writing involves a triangle of relationships, between author and character and reader. We need to reach our readers, we need to try.
So ten years ago, the Asian Writer, a newbie like me, took my work seriously. And I wasn’t afraid to take my work seriously. Which I think is an important lesson for all new writers. Writing the story is important, but speak out loud, make a noise. And all our voices together are powerful. A storm. A flood.
If you don’t treat your work with respect, who else will? If you don’t tirelessly promote your place on the programme, who will? It’s worth remembering that no one cares more for the wellbeing of your work, than you. And that passion is infectious. Find advocates. Celebrate them. When my first editor fell in love with my first novel, the sales team said that she brought it to them and her eyes were shining. And that was worth more than all the box ticking in the world.
And what of the work itself? There are many books and courses teaching you how to write, and if that sounds somewhat oxymoronic, for something that is creative rather than interpretive, artistic more than artisan, at least you can be taught to write better.
But what you choose to write, or rather what chooses you, that spark and passion that takes you through the 90 thousand words of your novel, that’s unique to you. It sounds rather obvious, but there’s a lot of work, a lot of typing, that goes into a book. Lots of blank pages to fill in a lonely room. There’s your blood on the keyboard, your sweat and tears. There’s doubt and compromise, as you leave your imaginary world to earn your living, to do the school run, to care for parent or child or spouse or friend, to pay your debts and your dues, to present a sane and civilised face to the world.
I firmly believe that good writing has a cost to the writer, it takes something from you, so when you put it on the page, you can be sure that it is something of value. It has been carved from the closest place to your heart that you can spare.
And that is why you cannot write with insincerity. You cannot write something that you think other people want to read, if it is not what you want to write. Following the market is like panning for fools gold, because maybe you can fool someone long enough for an elevator pitch or even yourself for a few chapters, but you cannot write if you do not care. And this is where it gets tricky, because we may find a publisher who expects us to write a certain kind of story. Or who tells us not to write a certain kind of story.
And I am going to urge you now, write what you will. Dance as though no one is watching. Because the truth is that no one will guarantee you a readership, for each story you write. No agent, editor or publisher. But that’s ok. If you write with passion, if you write the story that only you can tell, and you do the best with whatever talent you possess, you know that you have done all that you can do as an artist and practitioner. And if that story does not find an audience, for whatever reason, there are always more stories to tell. They are spinning around you, flowing through you, from you, and you just have to reach out, and pluck your next story from the air. And make it real.
And we are Asian writers. We are here because of a common background or interest, we may be first or second or third generation, we may have Asian spouses or siblings or children, we may write about the place we fell in love with or where we made our homes. We are those who left, those who stayed, those who discovered. We have wings and we have roots. All of these stories are important. I would never tell another writer what to write, but I made a decision to people my novels with people like me, like my parents, like my Anglo Asian children. Because if I do not put moderate Muslims at the heart of my literary fiction, I do not know who else will. And I made a decision not to write about cultural difference or cultural clash, I write about people. Flawed and fragile, knotted into their worlds by their relationships, tossed about by the turbulent emotions.
A book is an invitation. It opens up your imaginary world, the place at the heart of you, and you ask people to come in, to walk around in your world, to try on your shoes. To understand what is under your skin. We are divided in despicable ways, we have burning bridges between us. So write your story and invite everyone in.
And the more we do that, in these increasingly troubled times, the more we explore what we share rather than what divides us, the more we encourage empathy while understanding otherness, then we do not simply justify our craft. We are redeemed by it.
But let’s talk about tenacity. It’s all very well to talk about the stories that are written with passion, but what keeps you going, when your stories are rejected. Let’s debunk the myth. Because for every writer with a stonking six figure debut fresh from the Faber academy, smiling toothily out of the newspapers with ironic self awareness, there are writers who have written book after book before getting published, let alone getting their big breakthrough. Most writers I know have had at least two books rejected, before their debut novel. I’m one of them.
I don’t think we talk about failure enough. I don’t think we normalise it. Because failing to publish your work, isn’t a failure. It’s apprenticeship. Failing to write your story is the failure. The unwritten story is a tragedy. I don’t presume to advise, but I will share advice I received as a new writer.
One of my first readers offered this advice when I’d written my first literary novel, after I’d sent the painstakingly polished manuscript out to publishers and agents. It had been a true labour of love, and because that novel was semi-autobiographical, it was hard not to take the rejections personally. The manuscripts trickled steadily back to me, the postman knocking on the door to pass me yet another fat brown envelope, which I added to the stack in the corner.
Many of the responses were what I called “rave” rejections, which funnily enough didn’t make them easier to take. Editors and agents wrote phrases like: “it breaks my heart that I can’t publish this book, but.” But. It was too close to real life. It was too achingly sincere. There was no market for it.
And then came the advice. From one specific editor, at the end of her thoughtful letter. “But …I can tell you’re a great writer. So keep writing. I’d love to see what you write next.”
Keep writing. That was it, and that was all. It sounded so obvious. But bizarrely enough, it almost hadn’t occurred to me before. As a debut writer, I had only focused on the book I had already written. But this editor had called me a writer. Of course, I WAS a writer.
And what writers do is write. Because surely I had another story to tell.
So I stopped worrying about the book I had written, and started thinking about the book that I wanted to write. Instead of looking back, I looked forward. I kept writing.
That next book was Bitter Sweets, the novel that got published as my debut. And my first editor, who gave me that advice, was the one who took it on. I’ve published 6 novels now. And as a published author, I’ve written 6 more manuscripts that never made it to publication. For many reasons, for being too experimental, or for having no commercial potential. But I’m not done yet and I’m never disheartened. I remember that advice, and pass it on.
You’re a writer. So keep writing.
Because your stories are important. What we do is important, and we have to keep doing it. To create that storm. That flood. Break down the them and us, and invite the other to walk across the burning bridge.
I’m a small person. I have been dismissed, like everyone. I have suffered agonies of doubt, like everyone. But I have kept writing. Every day. I write because I must. I invite everyone to my world, and I have put people like me, my family and friends, at the heart of my fiction. I am a small person, but when I write I have a voice. It gets louder with every story I tell, and know it has been heard, and echoes all over the world.
If you’ll permit me, I’d like to close with a personal experience, on the tragedy of the unwritten story. Before my father died, I met him in Paris. He’d lived an astonishing and wayward life, he had been a writer once, and always intended to write his autobiography. He told me he had finally completed it, that it was on a disc in his hotel. Two weeks later, he died in that hotel, and when my sister and I went to him, the disc in his case was blank. It took me ten years to write his story for him, the one he never told. It was this book, The Flying Man, and I’d like to share this small passage from the end.
(Reads from last pages of Flying man: “…A story for someone else to tell…wasn’t there anything else you had to say to me? Wasn’t there anything else that you had to say at all?…He pushes the door, which shines briefly about the edges, as though illuminated. He knows there is light on the other side.”)
I urge you to find your light on the other side. Do not leave your story unwritten. Write with spirit. With passion. And keep writing, until you are heard.
And I cannot wait to hear the stories you create.
This is the full-text of the opening keynote delivered by Roopa Farooki at The Asian Writer Festival, on Saturday 21st October 2017.