Letters to a Writer of Color: Deepa Anappara and Taymour Soomro on Finding Community With Each Other
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Fiction writers Deepa Anappara and Taymour Soomro join co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss the newly published essay collection Letters to a Writer of Color, which they co-edited. The book features 17 pieces by authors of color from all over the world reflecting on aspects of craft and the writing life. Anappara and Soomro talk about how experiences in their MFA program led them to collaborate on the book. Contributors include Kiese Laymon on the second person, Ingrid Rojas Contreras on trauma, Myriam Gurba on art and activism, Sharlene Teo on reception and resilience, Amitava Kumar on authenticity, Mohammed Hanif on political fiction, and Femi Kayode on crime fiction.
Soomro reads from his essay about origin stories and Anappara reads from her essay on the ideal conditions for writing. They also discuss other themes in the book: isolation in the writing world, non-Western storytelling, questions of translation, ongoing violence against people of color, and literature as a mode of social education.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I wonder if you can just tell us a little bit about how you two met and ended up working together on this project.
Deepa Anappara: So we met at a master’s program in creative writing in the U.K. and Taymour, in fact, was the very first person I spoke to in the course and at the university. And as we mentioned in our introduction, Taymour was born in Pakistan, and I was born in India, and these two countries are often at loggerheads. But like many Indians and Pakistanis who meet in the West, we very quickly became friends. I was very grateful for that friendship because I faced quite a few difficult moments in that master’s program, primarily because it was quite white, the faculty were mostly white, and the references were white, the writers who we were told to read were white, and, our writing, which was set outside the West, was quite often misunderstood.
People would tell us that they couldn’t engage with our writing, they didn’t understand the non-English words that we used in our work, and just that our stories were too digressive. It was really helpful to have another person to talk to about these subjects. We were two of the few students of color in that program. And, you know, those particular questions that we had related to our craft, like how do we translate our culture, or should we translate our culture? These were not addressed as part of the program at all. And I ended up talking to Taymour about these questions of craft that I had, which were very particular to me, and that were not addressed in that program, which really discussed a very Western aesthetic. And I would say that the book really originated in those conversations that we had as students in the master’s program. Would you agree with that, Taymour?
Taymour Soomro: Yes, absolutely. You know, I feel so, so lucky to have met Deepa and to have met her so promptly in that program. As she said, we were amongst very few students of color in the program. We were very much at the beginning of our writing careers, and we were vulnerable, very vulnerable to the instruction and the feedback that we were getting, particularly from instructors, but also from peers. It was invaluable for me, it was so critical for me, having Deepa both as emotional support and as a technical support and part of it, of course, was that she understood the context that I was writing about. And so my writing didn’t have this sort of foreignness to her.
But also, as she said, there were these technical questions that we were both grappling with; the book has a chapter on translation, and translation comes up often in the collection. This was a question that was a challenge for me. So it was great to have Deepa there to discuss how much we needed to translate, and how to translate, how much of our culture we needed to translate, what was integral to the story, and what wasn’t. And, as she said, it was really those conversations that were the beginning of this book, because we found so much community in each other, and that community was really, really so important for us, and so trying to extend that community outwards.
VVG: So can I ask when this was? At the top of the show, we were talking a little bit about my experience in an MFA program, which was, at this point, almost 20 years ago. When was this?
Whitney Terrell: I have a related question about workshops, because that’s where craft gets discussed a lot of times. The first creative writing workshops started here in America and there are a lot of MFA programs here. I’ve spent a lot of time in France because my wife’s a French professor, and they don’t really do that so much or, if they do, it’s very new. I don’t really know what the status of creative writing programs are in the U.K. I was surprised when you said that you’d studied together there. Do they exist in India or Pakistan?
DA: We have creative writing programs in India now, but I think maybe there’s one at a university. So there are very few. And you really have to travel abroad to actually study because there are very few scholarships. Taymour can tell you about Pakistan.
TS: Pakistan is the same. Really, I think that there is one. And in the U.K., of course, there are so many, and they follow the American model. In some ways, it’s a kind of imperialism as well. This is the model, I suppose, that has been practiced, and it’s sort of accepted as the way to teach. And so it’s been exported pretty successfully.
VVG: It’s my impression that the U.S., the U.K., Australia and South Africa, basically, have them.
WT: Oh, really, South Africa has a lot of creative writing programs?
VVG: There’s Cape Town and stuff. There’re places to study there, but it does seem, as you say… to describe it as a form of cultural imperialism seems pretty accurate to me.
WT: Taymour, your essay on origin stories is the first one in the book. Would you read from it?
TS: Sure. So you know, this chapter that I wrote was really to interrogate the stories that I was telling myself and other people about why I write and also where I thought my background in writing or experience in writing might come from, and actually the essay turned out to be a really valuable way for me to interrogate those stories. So I’m reading from a couple of pages in.
The fiction of mine that has been most successful with industry gatekeepers is fiction that stays in my lane. But in my writing program, I studied with three CIS-het white men for whom there seemed to be no lane at all, none that constrained them at least. One of them was writing a novel with a Japanese protagonist, another with an Iraqi, a third a Chinese. Their novels were published soon after we finished our degrees. Their writing and their success, unsettled, even irritated me. Was it jealousy? It was the kind of jealousy, that they were allowed to, that they had the audacity to tell any story they wanted, as far from their lives, with protagonists as different from themselves as they could possibly be.
It made me wonder whether the power a writer has over their fiction is a power the writer has over their person. The imperative to stay in your lane, to write what you know, these are forces I think many writers must guard against, though some—those who are queer, those who are racialized—seem to be more vulnerable and more sensitive to its effects. The gatekeepers and the readers are not so easily conned by us, so that Elena Ferrante is presumed to be Lenù in her Neapolitan Quartet, so that Monica Ali is presumed to write well only when she writes about Bangladeshi immigrants.
By writing freely, each of the three men I studied with reminded me I had less power than he did, that his fiction, his person, was not constrained in the way that I was.
VVG: Thank you. So, Taymour, you write in that piece about the fictions we create as an act of self-identification, and you retell some stories that you told about yourself when you were younger, and then in the section you just read, you touch on the conditions and form your most successful work has taken, and I wonder how those two ideas meet for you?
TS: Right. You know, I think that, for me, this essay, which was so much about interrogating the relationship between truth, and lies, and fiction, and, you know, the essay is also about con artists, and lying, and lying is such an unequivocally negative word, and in some ways, I wanted to try to reclaim it. And to think about how, through storytelling, we construct these identities for ourselves, that engage with truth, that engage with falsehood, and that those stories become an initial lesson in the kind of storytelling that we might engage in later. For me, constructing my identity when I was younger, as a queer South Asian teenager in London, I felt so different. And in my attempts to assimilate or my desire to fit in, I ended up telling all of these stories about myself. For so long, I felt as though that was a bad thing that I had done, that those stories that I told somehow reflected negatively on me, and this essay was a way to try to reclaim that, to think of that, actually, as an education. To think of those stories as having some elements of truth in them and not having elements of truth in them in the way that a fiction might.
• Letters to a Writer of Color, co-edited by Deepa Anappara and Taymour Soomro
• Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line • Journalism • Short Fiction
• Other Names for Love • “Philosophy of the Foot” in The New Yorker • Essays and stories
• Ninth Letter • The Southern Review • Eleanor Ferrante • Monica Ali • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 5 Episode 35: The Fall of Boris Johnson: Margot Livesey on British Politics, the Brexit Blunder, and the Prime Minister’s Lies • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy • Madeleine Thien • Amitava Kumar • Tahmima Anam • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 5 Episode 6: Nadifa Mohamed on Writing the Convoluted Terrains of Immigration • Leila Aboulela • Graham Greene • Flannery O’Connor • Myriam Gurba • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins • “On ‘Oprah’s Book Club,’ ‘American Dirt’ Author Faces Criticism” by Concepción de León – New York Times (2020)