The first week of March I flew to Austin, Texas.
When I stepped out of the hotel to find something to eat, the sun had disappeared. My ears were immediately assaulted by a cacophony of bird sounds. The trees swarmed with birds that looked like crows but didn’t sound anything like crows. What birds were these?
For dinner I chose the closest place I could find, The Boiling Pot on Sixth. It served crawfish, crabs, and shrimp, boiled up Cajun style. When my order was ready, the young waitress, all smiles, tossed it on the sheet of butcher paper that she had earlier rolled out on the table. With a friendly pat on my arm, she said, “You eat with your hands here.” No problem, I’m used to doing that where I come from. Next to me, four Japanese men snapped photos of their meals. I’ve done that too, but my dinner wasn’t photogenic. It tasted great, though.
I was in Austin for the annual conference of the AWP (known today as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs). When I was in the MFA program at Mills College, I was familiar with the AWP through free copies of their magazine, the Writers Chronicle. But I’d never considered attending their conference.
This year I was invited by the novelist Sorayya Khan to join a panel of South Asian writers on “Writing War, De-scribing Empire.” Last year I had reviewed her book “Noor,” the first novel by a Pakistani writer to focus on breaking the silence on the Pakistani war that birthed independent Bangladesh. We came to discover that we shared an interest in writing about war, specifically the war in 1971, for me the defining moment of my coming of age. As it turned out, the same panel would also present a reading the day before at the University of Texas.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in Austin, but I’m glad I went.
Category: writing (Page 2 of 2)
The first week of March I flew to Austin, Texas.
Forget inspiration, forget talent, don’t worry about imagination: her advice for a new fiction writer was simple.
"Persist," she said.
Around the time I discovered Octavia Butler’s writing advice, I was still new to writing fiction. I was anxious about both inspiration and talent. I worried about imagination, since in my rather complicated life I had picked up a thousand or more ‘real life’ stories, enough to write many, many pages of narrative. I remember telling my first fiction workshop teacher, Elena Rivera, that I wanted to learn how to break out of the grip of real-life experience.
Twelve years after I typed out my first ‘story,’ I have to say, Octavia was on point. Persistence rewards.
While speaking to a few dozen friends recently, I tried out a confession. I said that I was not really who I claimed to be; I was not as old as they knew me and that I had stolen the identity of someone older, someone who had gone through a much richer vein of experiences than I.
It was a joke, and it fell completely flat. Only a few people knew the references. None seemed to care.
I was making fun of two figures from the writing world who had just been in the news. James Frey had been exposed by The Smoking Gun for having exaggerated many chapters in his life for his memoir A Million Little Pieces. And J.T. Leroy had been exposed as not the bad boy male writer he claimed to be, but a woman who had apparently done none of what the author had claimed.
Perhaps we writers get more excited by what other writers do than most people.
But I understand the impulse to make believe.
Two of my friends have recently posted podcasts of their writing on the internet, one on The Writers Block at KQED in San Francisco and another at Podbazaar. I am toying with the idea of producing one of my own stories in audio and posting it here.
With podcasts, I can listen to my friends’ pieces either through my computer or downloading them to an mp3 player. Like audiobooks, podcasts could be good to carry along on a long drive somewhere.
Clearly, audio is alive and well, the beneficiary of new technology in production and distribution of digital content. Today a writer who thinks they can hold a reader’s attention with their recorded voice, with access to a computer with a microphone, can use freely-available software (like Audacity) to record a piece. She can then easily find a place on the internet to host her story. Voila, a podcast is born. Why, there is even a site that will allow you to record your podcast through your phone.
Podcasts are being used by professional establishments as well as independent artists and commentators. The internet had already allowed anyone to publish text. Now, it has opened the way for anyone to do ‘radio.’
On a global scale, however, I am concerned about the analog-digital divide.
Laila Lalami was in San Francisco last week to promote her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. She, of moorishgirl.com fame, was born in Morocco and came to the U.S. for grad school. In the Q&A, an Indian man questioned her on her choice of writing in English. He said he was grappling with the challenge of writing in a language that is not one’s first language. Laila replied that while her native tongue is Arabic, her first literary language, learned in school, was French, but later as a result of coming to America, English has become her writing language. She mentioned some of the difficulties that come up, e.g. how to reproduce dialogue that in real life is taking place in Arabic, and how some idioms are simply untranslatable.
This got me thinking — again — of the relationship between one’s writing language and mother tongue. This is a huge subject, but let me jot down a few thoughts here.