I am so beyond THRILLED to bring you the first in my "writers you should know" series. (I haven't come up with a name yet.) Every few weeks, I'll bring you an interview with an amazing writer friend, hopefully someone who has marginalized identities. I'm deeply honored to open this chat with Awanthi Vardaraj.
Awanthi is located in Chennai and writes on food, feminism, poverty, erotica, and other topics. She is a columnist in The Indian Express, the South Asian Voices columnist for Wear Your Voice, the Letters from India columnist for ROAR, and a contributing blogger for TomatoInk. Awanthi and I met because of a Facebook writers group last year and became fast and close friends. In the past several months, her success has skyrocketed, and I couldn't think of a better person with whom to open this series. She's also an avid reader of my Tuesday Telegrams.
I chatted with Awanthi about her beginnings, about writing, about the patronage of the arts, and her dreams. I hope you enjoy!
So I'm curious: what's your roadmap? Where are you now, and what got you here? Tell me about you, what makes you tick, and why you write.
It's weird, but I didn't really set out to be a writer; my first love was actually acting. But I began reading when I was really little, and as a natural result of that I began writing when I was really little. I remember reading my first 'story' aloud when I was four or five. I don't think it had much plot or structure, as stories go, and I wish I could tell you what it was about, but my audience (my grandfather) was very impressed, and clapped a lot.
I have stacks of notebooks and diaries that I wrote in all through my childhood; not just 'Dear diary, this happened to me today.' but also scraps and fragments of larger thoughts that I still go back to and read to this day. I was a philosopher who had never read Plato; I had a tendency to philosophize my everyday that I now find staggering (I still do this, and I think all writers do to a certain extent, but to see it in the child I was is astounding to me); I wrote hundreds of verses of poetry; I wrote stories; I wrote books. I made notes that go into thousands of pages.
For all this, as I said, I didn't dream of becoming a writer; I dreamed of being an actress who wrote. There is a very large difference. But I wasn't allowed to go to acting school in NYC at 17 like I wanted; my family couldn't afford it, for one. It was too far away, for another. I swallowed my dream and life went on, including enrolling in - and dropping out of - a literature degree in a local college for women - and then travelling around the world for a decade, working, living, loving, and having adventures.
I kept writing all the while; I wrote my heartbreaks; I wrote my losses; I wrote my victories; I wrote my chance encounters; I wrote about the newness of things, and the sadness of things lost; I wrote about the similarity of life and humans around the world, and I wrote of my confusion when I finally began to miss home (I have never felt at home in India, but it was the only home I knew to miss). I returned home to India because my grandfather was dying; I was closest to him, and still miss him incredibly; then I stayed.
It was around this time that I began having an idea for a novel that kept growing in my mind; this was different from previous ideas because this one took hold of me like a fever; I began writing it while I was doing my Montessori degree (which I completed) and then while I worked in a publishing company as a project manager managing other people's books (the irony strikes me too, every time). I stopped working at the company and took some time out of my life for a while; I'd saved, I'd bought a home, I was comfortable. I think back to this period now as a really blessed time in my life that I feel lucky to have had. I wrote. I travelled inside of India, never having explored the beauty of my own country. I think I exhaled for the first time in my life. I felt the joy I had never felt before of allowing myself to root into a piece of earth that was mine.
Unfortunately the idyllic time ended in a couple of years; the house had previously been mortgaged to a bank, and the bank owned it, not me. I was evicted in 2013, forced to leave my refuge, and like a leaf in the wind, I've been blowing about ever since.
I did a number of things between 2013 to mid-2016; I worked in a bakery; I did some data entry work; I kept my own baking business going, even supplying a supermarket with my own baked goods (they ended up not paying me, and I've not had any payments from them, still); I tried a number of things to keep my head above water, but I drowned. If not for the assistance of some of my closest friends, my cats and I would never have made it.
Last year, in mid-2016, my friend added me to a writers group on Facebook, and I woke up to the notification one day. I went to look at it, curious as to what it was. It changed my life. I ended up meeting and befriending my people - my people - including Naseem, whom I adore - but, more relevant to this question - I ended up falling into the thing I should have done diligently all of my life: writing for a living. 2016 was hell for me; my relationship with the love of my life ended, and my beloved cat died; I had nothing to lose and I committed full time to establishing my reputation as a writer. Eight months on, I'm a weekly columnist with The Indian Express, a national newspaper here in India; I'm the South Asian Voices columnist at Wear Your Voice Mag; I've got bylines I'm proud of, and more bylines on the way. I can't believe this is my life sometimes. I can't believe I finally found myself.
I adore you too, for the record. That's a really incredible story! I think it's really encouraging to hear when people finally follow their calling and everything falls into place with them. It sounds like these intense experiences are the fodder for your work.
You're right. Sometimes I wonder why things have had to be as hard as they have been, and I think that's human. It's human to think wistfully of the road and wish it had been a bit easier. But the truth is this: if I hadn't lived my life I wouldn't be me. Not the person, and certainly not the writer.
Your work doesn't focus on just your own experiences, though. You've written everything from fiction to reported pieces. What made you decide to branch into the more journalistic side of writing?
Honestly, it's being a part of this very brilliant group of female/non binary/genderqueer writers who do such amazing work and who have made me believe that I can too; we are the marginalized in the publishing world who took it upon ourselves to start and foster our own version of the good old boys club, if you will. The good old boys clubs of the world believe in lifting up their own, in promoting themselves or theirs. Well, we do the same, for ours.
Something I want to do is to make sure - to the best of my ability - that every writer out there who falls under this umbrella is a part of this group so that they may also benefit from its resources, encouragement, and support, the way I have done. I nearly fell by the wayside, and I might have done, and it saddens me to think of all of the other people out there whose words are being stifled because they don't know that people want to read their words, that people want to pay for their words.
I've benefitted so much from the group, too. I don't think I would have even considered leaving my PhD program if it weren't for you all showing me that it's possible to make a living from my writing.
Speaking of payment, as you're aware, it's a huge issue in publishing. Writers are often deeply undervalued, and key publications like The Huffington Post don't pay their freelancers. Even places like The New York Times barely pay their writers, considering the audience reach. Why do you think that's the case? Art has always relied on patronage, sure, but everyone nowadays reads articles online.
Honestly, I can barely talk about The Huffington Post without feeling equal amounts of crippling disappointment and utter rage. A company that would be nothing without its writers famously continues to exploit writers although they can well afford to pay people. I wish that people would stop writing for them, but they won't. I considered writing for them myself at one point because of the 'reach'. But I want to tell writers reading this that the reach is fictional; it's a figment of your imagination, and it is fostered by companies like The Huffington Post so that you will continue playing the game by their rules. 2017 is the year of resistance. So. Resist. And everyone else - don't click on their links. Don't give them the traffic. Send people elsewhere or use services like https://donotlink.it/ to deny them their clicks.
That goes for everyone. People need to consider that writers are the ones with the commodity. We write the pieces that keep people clicking on their sites. How about a little appreciation here? How about a lot? This is why I will always admire the sites who not only pay well, but who pay on time, and I will boost those publications and those editors above everyone else.
It's sad that so many of us have to have a Patreon or the like simply to make ends meet. It shouldn't be this way. Writing shouldn't have to be such a struggle; the starving artist trope should have been retired a long time ago. It's shameful, and it's a crying shame that society could treat artists this way considering our art - whether that is music, words, visual art, or something else - inspires so many and brings so much thought and joy.
I agree with all of that, especially on the "don't link!" sentiment. I hate seeing HuffPo linked around, especially if it's a good article, and it frustrates me to no end when editors hang around "exposure" like a piece of candy. Like many have said before, people did of exposure!
I don't know if you experienced this at all growing up/in school, but there was a lot of snobbery around artists in my experience, meaning that everyone else made fun of "artists" as not doing anything productive or useful. But art is how we see ourselves and understand the world, how we know we're not alone. When I was in college--and I imagine a lot of others experienced this as well--art majors were laughed at as "not real majors." Because at least you might be able to do something with a humanities degree, but an art degree seemed so worthless. Maybe this is just how science majors viewed it; most of us were major snobs. But I think about what art is in this world, and I don't understand why so many people feel that way; when people ask what you do and you say some sort of art, they almost always scoff.
They scoff because this is what we've done, as a society. We've made art appear worthless and we've made artists appear lazy. And yet none of us, not a single one of us, could live without art. We couldn't stop ourselves from stopping to watch street theatre. We would laugh at a mime. Every single person who has ever scoffed at an artist would queue to buy tickets to a film they've been waiting to see. They would walk into museums and art galleries, and then boast about the latest showing they were privy to, or talk about some art they bought. Every single one of them has likely dissolved into their own thoughts with the headphones on, or ignored the world with their nose in a book.
Why laugh at art when you are a consumer of art? When you cannot live without art? When that art, in some way, defines you?
It's something to think about.
I reflected on that briefly when I left Philadelphia, thinking about why I felt so guilty for leaving my program to do my art. And you've described exactly the issue: we've made art appear worthless and artists appear lazy, while every single one of us still consumes art in some form. Every person I know who scoffed at art had songs that spoke to them, or movies they loved. So many of us who grew up isolated escaped in books; I know books saved me more times than I can count.
I wonder if people devalue art because they think anyone can do it. You and I have talked about this before, the idea that "anyone can write a book." I don't see it happening in other arts, but it happens all the time with writing.
Last year there was a story - I think Al Jazeera broke it - about how robots could soon do the bulk of the writing on news sites, doing away with the need for writers. And I laughed. I laughed because while a robot may well be programmed to look up facts and spit them out in a manner that may even be cohesive, no robot could ever take the place of an actual human when it comes to the art of storytelling. Our ancestors kept stories alive by repeating it to each other; this repetition kept stories alive, and kept humans alive; stories are part of the breath that sustained us, part of the reason our lungs inflated and compressed; stories are in our DNA.
No machine could ever replicate that; no machine could ever take our place. Telling stories is human, and our humanity, our relevance, our very survival, is tied up in stories.
Similarly, not everyone can create art. I couldn't paint to save my life; I can sing, but I can't play a musical instrument; I can act, but I can't draw. I can write. I can write. I can write. But not everybody can write. And it is the act of writing that will reveal that. Sometimes I wish I could be a fly on the wall when all of those people who say 'I'll write a book when I retire', as if it were as simple as that, when, if, they ever pick up a pen to write that book, or sit down in front of their computers, I wish I could watch because I could always use a laugh.
I find it frustrating whenever anyone says "I'm going to write a book about that/when I retire" as though it's easy work, as though writing isn't both exhausting and exhilarating. Writing is work, it uses energy, and it's a real job. People saying they can do it feels disrespectful to me. I believe that writers (like other artists) can come from everywhere, but to say that anyone can be a writer? I don't know. We can always better our craft, even the very best of us, but some people honestly believe anyone can do it.
And I don't know if being frustrated with than mindset is arrogant of me or fair to the people who want desperately to write. I wanted desperately to write for so long, but I doubt I was any good at it. I still doubt that I'm any good at it, which I think is natural for most people in general. But there are plenty of people who love to write but aren't good writers. I don't want to stop anyone from following their passions, but what happens when the end result is that artists, as a whole, aren't taken seriously, and therefore aren't paid?
If you desperately want to write and you legitimately can't write, then it's likely that you're already writing. As I did when I was a child, these people are probably filling up notebooks with their thoughts, ideas, and dreams of what they want to write about when they can finally write. They probably feel joy when they write paper letters. They are likely blogging already.
Those are the people who desperately want to write, and who are already writers. People who dream of their craft and are already honing it in the way that they know how, in the way that works for them.
But the people who have never written a story, never felt the joy of writing a poem that's been gnawing on the edges of your brain for a while, never felt the burning need to take out a pen and just write on something, anything - I wrote on the back of a menu once because it was a brilliant idea and if I didn't write it down immediately I may have forgotten it by the time I went home - when THOSE people tell me that they can write a book, that's when I roll my eyes. I no longer try not to. I just do. I have sometimes challenged those people and asked them to tell me what their book will be about, and they loftily respond that it will be about anything, and I think to myself that no, it will be about nothing.
I will lift up anyone who is a writer, and who writes, but if someone who has never written tells me - ME, who has been agonising over a novel for twelve years - that they can just magically write a book that they don't dream about, that doesn't torture them - I refuse to take them seriously. I refuse to listen. Because that is an insult to me, and to people like me, and to the people who desperately want to write, and who do write, and who dream about writing.
So speaking about dreams, and someone who dreams about writing: what next? Clearly, many dreams you maybe didn't realize you had are coming true, so where will you go next on the Awanthi journey?
Ha, the Awanthi journey is proving to be very interesting, with many twists and turns. On a professional note, I want to continue to go from strength to strength; I want to really establish myself as a writer of note; I want to nail those bylines I've been dreaming about. I want to become comfortable financially; I don't dream of great and immense wealth, or walls awash with gold, but I do dream of being able to pay the rent every month on time, and paying my bills, and buying food for the cats and for me, and being able to care for myself and sustain myself so that I may continue.
Soon, I want to have the luxury of devoting weekends to my personal writing, both for my blogs, and for my novel.
And on a personal note, well, that's pretty easy. I want to be loved.
I want to make sure we share all of Awanthi's links so y'all can follow her on all the things: twitter, Facebook, personal website, food blog, and Patreon. I also want to share Awanthi's two latest pieces at Wear Your Voice (CN for alcohol abuse and domestic violence) and NPR's The Salt. They're both incredible and heartfelt, and the second one has a delicious recipe to try. I hope you'll reach out to her about her amazing writing!
This was originally featured as a Tuesday Telegram on February 21, 2017. Join us every Tuesday at tinyletter.com/naseem.
Don't forget that I'm also on Facebook and Twitter, and if you've got a dollar a month to spare, please chip into my Patreon. I'm thinking about doing a serialization of my completed manuscript for patrons only, so if you'd like to jump in on that, join today! I'm soon doing another Q&A for this month.