One statement that seasoned authors and professors will always say is “write what you know.”
I remember when I first started writing, I was under the impression that I had to Americanize my story. In my master’s program, I was one of the few women of color. I wrote with Caucasian lead characters because I thought that’s what was normal. That’s what I read growing up. Aside from Born Confused by Tanuja Desai, I had never read a novel written for an American audience with Hindi words in it. Every time I sat down to write, my story came to my fingers and as it went onto the page with the Hindi words mixed in, I assumed my audience wouldn’t understand.
When I wrote using an Indian lead a character in undergrad, my critique group would get stuck on Hindi words that were thrown into the English. It felt weird for me to sit there and have to explain my story because, to me, that meant I wasn’t a good enough writer.
As I grew & learned, my craft morphed and my mind opened. I Iearned that the story I’ve been trying to tell is the same story that I once wrote down at seventeen years old in my dorm room while studying for my physics class I definitely didn’t need to be in.
The issue here is not that I didn’t know how to write, but that I assumed I knew my audience. As a writer, we aren’t given the luxury of knowing who our audience is. We aren’t given the luxury of knowing who needs to read our work. We write the story that is burning inside of us. I’ve learned now that I’m not supposed to Americanize my story nor do I have to make my story more Indian in any way. It is perfect just as it is because it is mine and therefore, it is unique.
Every professor will tell you to write what you know and every writer will fight this one simple statement. It’s as if it’s in our blood and we all have to realize it on our own. I am finally writing what I know. It took me 10 years after finishing my master’s of fine art in creative writing to sit my butt in the chair and really write words on the page.
The truth is, I’ve been writing organically for the last 10 years even though my fingers weren’t hitting the keyboard as often. I’ve been writing by allowing my mind to open to possibilities. I’ve been writing by fantasizing about my story. I’ve been writing by meditating, finding the calm and peace within myself to feel comfortable and vulnerable enough to share more stories.
I want to take Alka Joshi as an example. She wrote a beautiful piece of fiction set in 1950s India with tons of language that someone who isn’t Indian or fluent in Hindi may not understand yet it is a widely popular novel that landed itself on Reese’s Book Club List because it has induced emotions, feelings and delivered a story that needed to be told even to a diverse audience.
So for you writers out there, young and old, who like me felt like they needed to change their stories to fit an audience, STOP. Start writing YOUR story. Don’t Americanize the characters’ names. Don’t leave out the ethnic words. I want to feel your culture when I read your work. I want to learn new words when I read. I want to experience what it is like to be in your protagonist’s shoes.
Words have the power to make you feel and words have the power to help us heal.