The SAWCC Literary Festival titled “Emerge: New Mediums, New Voices” took place on April 3rd and 4th in Manhattan. The festival’s keynote artist Tanuja Desai Hidier read from her novels Born Confused and Bombay Blues and performed songs from the accompanying ‘booktrack’ albums When We Were Twins and Bombay Spleen with bandmate Atom Fellows. The following article intersperses my own experience of the festival with an interview I conducted later with Hidier.
“If it is still in your mind, it’s worth taking the risk.” – Paulo Coehlo
I almost didn’t attend the reading. Writing about a festival about writing as a way to get my own writing started now seemed like a terrible idea. Exhausted after a day spent discussing craft, identity politics and the impossible decisions involved in pursuing a career in the arts, I arrived late. The reading had already started.
In the Lower East Side, nestled between bars and graffiti’d walls, Bluestockings’ intimate space was packed to capacity. I hung out at the back, having planned my escape. But as I listened to Hidier read a riveting excerpt from Bombay Blues, I was sucked into the vortex of the world I had been avoiding for so long.
I couldn’t recall exactly when I’d read her first novel Born Confused; it had landed in my hands somewhere between the angst of high school and the smugness of college. I remembered identifying deeply with the protagonist Dimpla Lala, but to hear Hidier read the vibrant and lilting prose that jumped off the page was an entirely new experience. She was born to write, I thought, and to sing.
So I was surprised to learn that Hidier once believed the opposite; she just did not think she could write a novel.
“I felt like I had no voice,” she said, reflecting on her journey post graduating from Brown University.
She remembered “insecurity and endless distractions.” A myriad of jobs included but were not limited to working as a copy editor, magazine intern, hostess at a Tex-Mex restaurant, dog walker and party promoter.
At the reading, it seemed absurd to me that a writer so confident in her prose would have ever doubted sharing her work with the world. Hidier attributed some of the fear to the world in which she grew up, Western Massachusetts to be exact, where Hidier recounts, “there were no people of our particular color…anywhere.”
The lack of representation of South Asians in mainstream media led Hidier to have doubts about writing an Indian-American protagonist.
“I felt not Indian enough to tell the Indian part of my story, and not American enough to tell the American part.”
The doubts extended onto her songwriting as well. As a child, she imagined a Caucasian frontwoman of a band singing her songs instead of herself.
“I didn’t recognize the value of my own story. The power of my own voice,” said Hidier.
All that changed when destiny brought her a meeting with David Levithan, who was about to launch The Push imprint at Scholastic. Initially, she approached him for copyediting work but once she shared her book idea, copyediting was the last thing on either of their minds. Scholastic bought the book and what had initially been fear to the author turned into fuel.
Levithan’s support and Hidier’s family’s enthusiasm have been instrumental in her career.
“The man who would become my husband put ‘writer’ down in the occupation line of my landing card when we first traveled to France together to meet his family. This is well before I was working on Born Confused. This made it feel real somehow, like I just had to imagine, work my way into the role,” she reminisced.
Once she did start writing and the book came out, Hidier instantly became the voice of a generation. The prior year, when she auditioned to be the front woman of the band io, being put together by NYC’s Atom Fellows (the musical collaborator with whom in large part Hidier created the booktrack albums of original songs based on her novels), she literally found her voice, a voice that has been within her since she was a child. She articulated an early memory, story-songs she performed for her mother in the kitchen.
“Stories and storytelling were always a passion for me. I think I always liked imagining other ways to be, other ways to see,” said Hidier, summing up the answer I give to those who wonder why a person would choose a profession known for cutthroat competition, emotional instability and economic uncertainty.
Those that write often come to it early. The stories they write are borne within them and no matter how many ways they try to avoid the inevitable process of articulating the story, they cannot rid themselves of what is already part of them.
I looked at my notebook, filled with notes and observations from the festival. I had written down affirmations, underlined them thrice. Some of what I wrote was directed to me – you can do this. Just write.
After a decade of what could only be described as an on and off relationship with writing, one that included studying craft at school and at workshops, a memoir in limbo, many jobs in between, and a growing theatre company, the urge to go back to writing resurfaced, like a relentless addiction. I did everything I could to avoid looking at the pages of my unfinished memoir, until I received this answer in my e-mail from Hidier –
“I cannot stress how much more work it is to avoid your novel than to just sit down and do it! Careers are made and destroyed, trying.”
Hidier recalled the early days of SAWCC in that e-mail as well, describing the late 90s as a time in New York when, “a subculture was gaining critical mass and momentum.” The existence of SAWCC had been an important cultural and personal space for the author.
“I feel like it was part of a period that tangibly fueled my journey towards finding my own voice as a writer.”
Years later, she became the keynote artist at SAWCC’s Literary Festival. And at her reading, as worn out and glum as I was, I experienced a surge of similar inspiration, from an author whose work I loved and admired. I could not fully know where the inspiration would lead, if anywhere at all, but I had to allow myself to walk this path. The last line of Hidier’s e-mail to me read “to finding our way” and so I dared to embark, trusting in the thing that had compelled me for as long as I could remember.
For more information on Tanuja and her books and music, please visit www.thisistanuja.com