Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we feature 2018-19 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink interviewed Roohi Choudhry, short-term Resident Scholar who was at the Collegeville Institute for several weeks in September. Choundry is a writer and teacher from Brooklyn, NY. During her residency, she worked on her novel titled The Land That Joins Them. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
What is your novel about and how is the writing process going for you?
I’m working on revisions for a novel, The Land That Joins Them. It intertwines the stories of two women: one is a nineteenth century Indian woman taken to southern Africa to work as an indentured laborer. The other story is contemporary, following a Pakistani academic who is coming to terms with the violence and religious extremism that pushed her to migrate from her homeland. In combining these stories, I’m interested in examining the common ground between women migrants across time and space, and the strength they gain by standing in solidarity with each other. I just finished a third draft at the Collegeville Institute and am looking forward to getting some feedback on it from readers before revising further.
You describe yourself as a nomad and talk in the biographical note on your website about “counter-mapping.” Can you tell us a bit about that concept and how it applies to you and your writing?
I’ve always been fascinated with maps; I suppose it comes from a childhood spent navigating multiple migrations as my parents left Pakistan, where I was born, and traveled through Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Dubai while I was growing up. At some point in my writing process, though, I became frustrated with the limitations of maps in terms of defining my fiction. In some ways, they were a reminder of the arbitrary borders, usually drawn by powerful men, that had brought ordinary people like me, my family and my ancestors so much pain and suffering. I stumbled across the interdisciplinary concept of counter-mapping, and read scholars such as Nancy Peluso who writes that “…maps can be used to pose alternatives to the languages and images of power…Alternative maps or ‘counter maps’…greatly increase the power of people living in a mapped area to control representations of themselves.”
The idea of subverting the language of power through maps inspired me. In joining disparate characters across borders, I seek to subvert the traditional bounds of narrative space. I see my characters as both joined and divided by notions of belonging as well as the religious and cultural norms mapped onto their bodies. Instead of defining my characters, the lines drawn between them become a site of intimate negotiations of their love and faith.
All over the world, our own present moment’s narrative is dominated by groups who cling to their imagined communities as defined by national and religious borders. By the old maps. So, at this moment, I am particularly compelled by the importance of connecting unlikely co-narrators in order to chart a new discourse guided by their shared suffering and compassion, rather than old, imagined allegiances. That is how I propose navigating our contemporary religious setting that is so often defined by conflict—by using my fiction to shine a light on the common ground between us, despite our borders. Counter-mapping feels like an apt analogy for this work.
You do all sorts of writing: personal essay, short fiction, reporting, interviews, and the novel. What is the most satisfying for you and why?
They’ve all been satisfying in different ways. I truly believe that you have to find the form that best reflects your artistic impulse at a particular stage. For many years, shorter works allowed me to try on a variety of narrative techniques, characters, voices, and experiment with how to bring a story arc to a conclusion. Once I really immersed myself in writing this novel after graduate school, though, I’ve been consumed with learning how manage a large project and have really enjoyed the expansiveness it allows. So far, I haven’t wanted to return to shorter forms again. But perhaps that will change when the time is right!
How has the experience of the Collegeville Institute been for you?
It’s been a wonderful experience. The natural beauty of the Saint John’s campus has been particularly inspiring. Many bits and pieces from the prairie and woods of the Arboretum have found their way into my writing, even though my novel is set in completely different landscapes — the semi-tropical KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the mountains of northern Pakistan, the rice paddies of southern India. In all my work, but especially when writing about “the land that joins them,” describing the natural world surrounding my characters is critical. So, breathing in the crisp fall air of the Chapel trail, chancing upon a flock of wild turkeys in the woods, observing the mist skip across Stumpf Lake in the morning — all these moments have been instrumental in helping me reach into the sensory experiences of my characters as they find refuge in a new land or yearn for the lands they’ve lost.
As a writing coach, what is one piece of advice you find yourself giving again and again to writers?
When it comes to the craft of creative writing, almost every student I’ve ever had works hard on breaking out of the voice imposed by academia, the workplace, email, etc — the expository voice. The language we use to impart information, opinion and facts is useful, but it is so pervasive that people often struggle to break away from its comfort. Especially people who are used to writing well. But there’s nothing more important for the beginning creative writer, and many writers who are further along as well, than learning to live in their narrative’s present moment and show us the world from that perspective.
Aside from craft issues, just about every writer in the world struggles with doubt! So much of the coaching work is helping people believe that they have stories that other people need to hear. And once their nagging self-criticism takes a break, they’ll learn how to use the tools they need to tell those stories best.