Minal Hajratwala won a Lammy this year for her book, Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, a delightfully insightful novel that combines memoir, history and reportage to trace her own family’s story and answer questions of identity and change for all migrants. Here, she shares her thoughts and experiences through an e-mail exchange with us. Not only is she a poet, journalist, and award-winning novelist, but she is also a writing coach and is about to go to India for 9 months as a Fulbright Senior Scholar, to research her next book. She’s also currently seeking a publisher for her poetry collection, Unicorns & Fabulists.
1. I’m interested to hear more about this “queer diaspora” you mention in your webchat One Heart/One World/One Pride, as well as the correlation you draw between migrants and LGBT people in their quest for self-identity. Can you discuss what you mean by “queer diaspora” in relation to the Indian diaspora you write of in your novel? How are they similar or different?
Technically a diaspora comprises people who left a single homeland and migrated beyond it, so in that sense, Indians form a true diaspora and LGBT people do not. But in a looser sense, if we define diaspora as people who live in diverse places but share elements of culture and identity, and who came from a similar type of place, we can think of LGBT people as a diaspora. Most of us come from heterosexual parents/homes, and if we’re lucky, we can migrate out and find a community of people who are more like us. Like immigrants, as queers we often leave our original homes in search of a better life. And as I said in that chat one-heart-one-world-one-pride, another thing we have in common is that by virtue of our circumstances, we have to ask the question, “Who am I?”, in a more focused way and perhaps at an earlier age than many other people.
2. How did your experiences as a poet and a journalist play into the creation of the book? Did these two literary identities impact your research and writing in any specific way? Where do they intersect and differ?
I’d been a journalist for years and I had also been writing poems for years—I still do—but whenever I tried to write about my family or the diaspora in those forms, I wasn’t satisfied. It turned out that neither poetry nor journalism was quite big enough to hold my family stories; I needed a narrative, almost epic form. Journalism gave me certain research tools and the discipline to keep trying to write in the clearest, most transparent way possible. Poetry gave me an instinct to keep reaching for the emotional and metaphorical center of the story.
3. Tell me about your writing experience. What was your process during the research phase? Were writing and research simultaneous? What was the most difficult part of the process? What was the most enjoyable?
My writing process was agonizing! And loooong. I had thought I would research the book in a year and write it in a year. Seven years later, I finally turned in the first draft to my darling and very patient editors! For the research, I traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, England, Canada, and of course throughout the United States—basically anywhere I had family members. In each place I interviewed as many relatives as would talk to me on the record, and of course I stayed in people’s homes. I had already met most of them at one time or another over the years, because people in our family travel a lot. But it was wonderful to get to know my relatives in a different way. As a child and then a young woman, I was naturally limited in the kinds of conversations I would normally have. But as a researcher, I could talk to everyone, from elders to teenagers. I was always clear that the interviews were for publication and I always gave people the option to go “off the record” with anything they didn’t want the world to know, so I think that created a kind of ease and comfort. For the most part they very sweetly and willingly shared not only their memories but also their photographs, archival documents, old passports, everything with me. And my ability to speak the language, Gujarati, improved dramatically. In each place, I also met with academics or historians who had insight into the history of the South Asian community in that particular country or city. And I went to local libraries and national archives to look at documents related to the early history of Indians in that area, censuses and statistics about the community, Indian newspapers and newsletters, and mainstream newspapers—really anything that would give me the texture and context for the personal stories that my relatives were telling me.
4. How did writing this book change you as a writer, if at all? Do you have any new insights on writing or yourself as a writer, because of it?
Even though I had a very complete book proposal and outline going into it, the process of selecting from all the material I gathered, finding (and losing, and finding again) the voice of the book, pulling a few strong narrative threads from hundreds of disconnected anecdotes, and overcoming my terror of making the wrong choices was quite time-consuming. Amazing, too: I learned so much about myself, my fears, and my own creative needs. I am much more confident as a writer now, and also much more willing to allow my process to unfold in its own time. And I am more willing to seek out and ask for help in the process, whether that’s somatic therapy or coaching or a writing group or a class or a friend’s ear to bend. I now know that I write best when I have the appropriate support.
5. I noticed you offer your services as a writing coach. Can you tell me about your motivation for this? What kind of writers have you worked with thus far? What is your process in helping writers?
I call it “therapy for the book,” and I have two motivations as a coach: (1) I know how indispensable coaching has been to my own process, and I wanted to be able to offer that kind of support to my own communities as well. And (2) when people ask for my help, as they do, it’s great to be able to say yes in a way that’s also sustainable for me. I’ve worked with people on specific projects — fiction, memoir, journalistic nonfiction, proposals, etc. — as well as people who just want to reconnect with their writing and have someone there on the journey with them. Occasionally I offer group classes as well, when someone invites me to teach a workshop or organizes a group of writers who want to learn from me.
Individual coaching is always guided by the writer, so in the first session we talk about the person’s goals, needs, fears, and challenges. I’m like the fairy godmother; I aim to provide consistent, clear artistic encouragement and problem‐solving, and maybe little sparkles of hope and magic in the process. I also come from an anti‐oppression framework that takes into account the particular creative obstacles often faced by people whose gender, class, race, disability, sexual orientation and/or other qualities work against mainstream narratives. Often we’re blocked by old ideas of what we think we’re not allowed to say, or have been told we don’t have a right to say. So we work on deconstructing the inner critic. Sometimes I’ll offer personalized writing exercises, games, and homework/assignments to break through blocks or develop skills. Let’s say you feel like your characters are flat; I might suggest some character exercises and games, and then we’ll talk about how that felt and what you learned that you can use. Sometimes I’ll listen and help someone puzzle out problems with plot, theme, metaphor, structure. Sometimes I’ll read a section or a draft and give feedback. Sometimes I’ll help set up a realistic writing plan/blueprint, and then guide you through what you need in order to meet your goals. I try to keep it fun but also provide a safe space for the real difficulties and struggles that can arise when we write.
6. What role can writing play in building the alliances you mentioned in your Lambda Acceptance speech?
Writing and speaking out are some of the basic tools of activists and organizers, so in that sense I think we writers have a place in organizing. In my Lambda speech, in the wake of the Arizona immigration bill, I wanted to express my fervent wish that we as an American LGBTIQ community can find the IQ, the intelligent queerness, to take a progressive stance on this increasingly critical national issue of immigration. To the extent that writing can touch hearts and minds, that it can wake people up to the empathy that has lain dormant within them, that it can explain or translate an experience to people who may not have had that experience — yes, it has a role. But real alliance-building is about actually talking to and becoming intimate with people of diverse experiences. It’s much harder work than writing, I think!