When a Writer Goes to Work…

Most of you  know I have a day job. That means I’ve to operate in the real world like a real person. I can’t daydream endlessly or treat my day job as a school visit. Of course if everyone who likes my books reviews them, puts stars on them on online retail websites and recommend to their friends, soon I could stop going to work and write all the time.

In the meantime, I thought it would be fun to tell you how my boss at the day-job gets exasperated with me when I forget I’m not a writer on those three days.

PLEASE DON’T TALK IN RHYME and other exasperations!

© Chitra Soundar

Chitra, you cannot write business requirements in rhyme
and you cannot autograph business contracts with Keep Reading.
Chitra don’t ask your colleagues to join in the chorus in a meeting
and NO! That  video conference was not for making #readoutaloud videos
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kATDWRHMJkw&t=41s
The above video was made at home! Full disclosure!
Chitra please don’t correct sentence structure in every business email
and please don’t ask your staff to imagine an alien and a cow during work hours
Chitra please don’t read out minutes of the minutes like a story
And don’t illustrate your meeting notes
Chitra please don’t clap your hands when you want attention
And don’t organise team meetings into groups of 3
Chitra, please can you stop staring out of the window
and get back to your boring paperwork.

Well, I try most days to be good. Some days, I scribble on the side and some days I get grumpy because I want to be somewhere else. But I should say I have the most understanding day-job ever. They support my writing in very big and small ways. So this is just a tongue-in-cheek poem I wrote, on the way to work.
In part this is inspired by a post that Sarwat Chadda posted on 17th May titled “Shane’s World” about a Walmart employee (from Thunder Dungeon).

An Irreverent Guide for Patrons of Reading

Originally published on http://www.patronofreading.co.uk/


Don’t worry! This guide will not be serious. This guide is neither full of practical tips nor some amazing ideas. It’s just another writer, avoiding the work-in-progress, hoping to rescue thousands of children from forced learning of subjunctive clauses and modal verbs.

Patron of Reading is a bonkers idea from the three musketeers – Tim Redgrave, Jon Biddle and Helena Pielichaty. And more crazy people like authors, illustrators, school teachers, head-teachers and librarians joined up and made this bonkers idea more brilliant. Who would have thought reading for pleasure was a thing? DoE haven’t heard of it, it seems! But we don’t worry much about them when we have wonderful characters and amazing facts in so many books.

To me, being a Patron of Reading is an adventure. By adventure I mean, I have no idea what I’ve got myself into and I figure out as I go, guided by the children and the teachers who have invited me in.

So how does this adventure start? Like all adventures, it starts with a tall man with a big heart and almost no hair. He checks you out with his twitter thermometer and measures your ability to read for pleasure. You write children’s books? Then don’t worry – most probably you’re already afflicted with this condition.

Then you get listed on the Patron of Reading website. Think Match.com except for matching hibernating authors with super-humans like librarians and teachers. Like in any dating profile, just reveal enough of your reading for pleasure tendencies and the general neighbourhood where this affliction affects you – and I mean more than your own room – like a city where people live and schools are run. (At least for now; if you don’t vote, who knows, all parents might have to home-school compulsorily).

See what I did there!

Then the tall man with a big heart tweets out your patron profile to a legion of followers who re-tweet it as if these are cute cat pictures until an eager school spots you and goes Aha! We’ve would like that one please – yes that author with the yellow shirt, long hair, standing next to a stack of books and a pile of laundry. Is that you? Then you’ve been matched.

Once you’re matched, the above-mentioned tall man will approach you with details of your suitor. Where is the school? Who will be in touch with you? Who is this teacher who on top of everything they do, has agreed to be the Patron of Reading coordinator.

Like in any self-respecting matching situation, you get to talk (and by talk I mean, by email or phone or Skype or telepathy, whatever suits) with the potential school you will be patronising.

 

Here is the thing – this is where you reveal your reading habits – poetry? Ghost stories? Adventures set in abandoned islands? Don’t be shy. You’d be surprised when you listen to their choices.

This is where you find out what does your potential suitor want? What kind of school is it? What motivates the children? Why did they choose you? What could you bring to the table (other than a chair of course)?

You have questions? You are too shy to ask your potential suitor? Shoot it across to the matchmaker. He has weathered every what, why and when.

One too many?

Well – what do you think? Have you agreed the terms and conditions of patronising? Do you have a date setup? Ooh! That’s exciting, isn’t it?

Hold fire! Don’t relax yet. Plan the first visit as you would plan any school visit – except you’re not going to be running creative writing workshops. You’re going to find ways to promote reading for pleasure. The keyword as you might have noticed is PLEASURE!

Like in any first date, take it slow. Don’t overwhelm the school with your enthusiasm. I’ve been there! Both in life and in schools. Figure out what they need from you and in what levels of enthusiasm. You might have time between two book projects and want to run a competition for the children. (Or you just want to procrastinate). Teachers as you might have guessed from teachtwitter, are an overworked bunch. They might not have time to jump into every rabbit-hole the patron wants to. So KEEP CALM and READ FOR PLEASURE.

Then agree frequency of visits. Ask them how they would like to stay in touch when you’ve returned to your cave after inspiring them with the love of reading. Maybe they would want to, maybe they won’t. Maybe the things you initiated on the first visit doesn’t fully pan out. Don’t fret. You get to go back, build relationships and try new things.

That’s it – there is no secret handshake (well, I’m not telling you, if there’s one), there is no heavy manual in all European languages (Brexit means Brexit, didn’t you know?)

And there are no set rules about how you patronise reading. Standing up, sitting down, upside down, reading poetry, non-fiction, stories, picture books, newspapers and cereal boxes – it’s all up for grabs.

Willing to take the plunge? Reach out to the tall man with a big heart (also called @jonnybid) and leave the rest to the universe.


Chitra Soundar is a Patron of Reading at West Earlham Junior School in Norwich, where she brings stories from different countries into the classrooms. She gets on their radio show, teaches them voice modulation and tells them stories from brilliant books. And when she’s not patronising, this is what she’s up to. Find out more here. Have questions, shoot her a tweet at @csoundar.

 

World Poetry Day 2017

Today is World Poetry Day and I’ve been itching all day to come back home and read poetry – Swirl words in my mouth, say it aloud, marvel at the meaning and feel the beat in my blood. What should I read and what am I in the mood for? I could go back to one of my favourite poems – so simple you can memorise in a few minutes.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45032

Or I could read some perfect verse from Ted Hughes – The Thought Fox.

http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/ted-hughes

Or I could read nonsense rhyme (and an alternate legend) from Roald Dahl.

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/cinderella-35/

Then I decided I should check out contemporary Indian poets who are writing amazing poetry in both their own language and in English – people who have had similar experiences to mine, poems that have arisen from the crowded streets of an Indian city.

Here is a little taste of the poems I’ve been discovering. So delicious, so full of meaning, like a layered cake full of your favourite flavours and some that are full of bitter truths like a little piece of ginger inside a plum cake.

Here read this by Anamika, translated into English.

Which is the place from where we fall,

become clipped nails,

fallen hair trapped in combs,

fit only to be swept away?

Read the rest here: http://bigbridge.org/BB17/poetry/indianpoetryanthology/Anamika.html#

And read this, my latest favourite poem by Jerry Pinto, who also writes wonderful children’s books.

I want a Poem

I want a poem like thick tropical rain

Dense green spatter of syllables

Drumbeat consonants, fertile with meaning.

Sudden. Short. Unforgettable.

Afterwards, jungle silence. 

And it goes into more beautiful imagery… read the rest here.

And here is a scene from a crowded train in Mumbai – the poem Andheri Local  by Arundhathi Subramaniam evokes emotional and physical proximity so well.

Like metal licked by relentless acetylene

we are welded –

dreams, disasters,

germs, destinies,

flesh and organza,

odours and ovaries.

Find out how the narrator feels when she (or he) gets out of the carriage.

And finally I want to finish one of the greats of Indian poetry – Maharishi Rabindranath Tagore.

This snippet from verse 21 is one of my favourites from Gitanjali – the Nobel Prize winning collection of spiritual poems.

The spring has done its flowering and taken leave. And now with the burden of faded

futile flowers I wait and linger.

The waves have become clamorous, and upon the bank in the shady lane the yellow

leaves flutter and fall.

What emptiness do you gaze upon!

Do you not feel a thrill passing through the air with the notes of the far away song

floating from the other shore?


I can’t let WorldPoetryDay go past me without writing a little snippet myself. Here is my humble attempt

When My Grandmother Came…

Chitra Soundar

When my grandmother came, as an immigrant bride

She brought with her, a box of bronze

Simple, plain and its edges chipped by grandmothers gone.

I opened it to find,

The coolness of cumin,

And the grace of fenugreek,

The confidence of coriander,

The passion of peppercorns.

 

When my grandmother came, naïve and wide-eyed,

The box she brought, the one of bronze

Fragrant and familiar of things left behind.

I opened it to find,

The sliver of joy,

And the reason for love,

The reason to belong,

The attar of HOPE!

 


 

Goodbye 2016!

It’s that time of the year again when everyone looks back at the departing year and introspects, ruminates, sighs.

2016 was one such year – where the world’s balance was shaken, politics everywhere has been less about the people they serve, natural disasters occurring more often and some bright lights switched off.

2016 for me personally was a mixed bag as well – but I should say if I don’t count the collective disappointment of Brexit and the US elections, and if I just focussed on the inner nucleus of my writing, it has been a good year. 2016 has been a culmination of hard work from many years and some of those have paid off.

46bfec_f5268c0aea994555b1e2c98fc517784b-mv2My first picture book came out in the UK – Pattan’s Pumpkin (illustrated by Frané Lessac and published by OtterBarry Books) and that definitely gave me a place in the space, a small seat at the table, even though Farmer Falgu has been a roaring success worldwide. And then of course Farmer Falgu himself has decided to fly to the UK with Red Robin Books, which is amazing. Three picture books in the UK certainly gave me some elbow space at the table.

My second title in the Prince Veera series came out with Walker Books – A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice. And it rekindled interest in the first title too – A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom.AJOP_9781406364675_PC_UK_circ

I got mentioned in a few diverse books list, did a novel length amount of blogging and officially become a Picture Book Den-er. I used to have my nose pressed against the Picture Book Den window and I’ve now been invited in. How cool!

I was at many amazing events this year – as usual the SCBWI conference was a highlight, but more important to that, I proved myself as an accomplished liar at the SCBWI anniversary party. I reconnected with SAS and went to Folly Farm and of course also joined Picture Book Den.

At my MA, we celebrated a summer of events with Vermont MFA students and I made some lasting friends, stood in a queue next to David Almond and listened to some great writers read and speak about their stories. I should mention that a few months after the summer celebrations, recently, in December, I had a one to one session with David Almond (yes, have you fainted?) and he was so inspiring and encouraging. He in fact wanted to read more of the story he had reviewed and it was uplifting.

A bunch of us, from the MA and SCBWI and non-SCBWI friends attended a seminar by John Yorke. What I hadn’t expected was that I would pitch a screenplay on stage on behalf of five of us who worked on an assignment and get commended by the judges and by John Yorke. Small things like these keep me going in search of whatever is the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

POR_seal_800x800_blackAs an author, I was proud to be asked to be Patron of Reading by West Earlham Junior in Norwich. My first trip to Norwich was fabulous, the children so enthusiastic about reading and a wonderful team of teachers, literacy coordinators and believe it or not, a school librarian for real too. Over this year, I’ve visited schools in London, Lincoln, Norwich, Liverpool, Wiltshire and Somerset and performed in festivals in Linton and Medway.

On a personal note, I set aside my shyness and went to a Bollywood dance class., moved to a Wiltshire town to spend half the week writing and playing house like a grown-up when there is no evidence of me ever turning into one. I’ve been watching and photographing birds around where I live, going on walks in the countryside and generally filling the well in my soul.

thankyou

I’m thankful to so many friends and all of my family for being there, for booksellers, librarians and teachers who invited me to their schools and children who were kind enough to read my books and tell me about them too. I’ve been blessed with wonderful parents who take joy and pride in my success even if it is as small as placing my first poem in an anthology (Yay!) or releasing two new titles in the UK in their presence. My sister and her brood and my brother-in-law have been enormously supportive and I cherish my time and love of my little nephews who draw with me, play with me, listen to my stories, make up new stories and demonstrate car-crashes almost causing bodily harm.

I don’t know what 2017 will bring. It’s starting with a bang with appearances at the Jaipur Lit Festival, two new book launches and a family wedding. It has the promise of more joy – more festival appearances, more WBD visits and more stories to write. I wonder if I would get comfortable driving a car again next year, see the world around where I live, have a sleepover with my nephews at the new place,  transition from part-time writing to full-time writing, perhaps even unagented to agented? Who knows? That’s what makes it exciting – the not knowing, the struggle, the unexpected success and the cycle of it.

happy-new-year-2017

I wish you all a wonderful 2017 and I hope your dreams come true and you get both what you want and what you need. Read widely, share a lot, smile more and I’m sure we would have chased 2016 back to where it came from. Let’s welcome 2017 with open hearts and warm hugs.

I Write Like I Cook

My first cooking lesson perhaps started when I was six, because I hung around my grandmother, sitting on the kitchen counter, listening to her tell stories from her past, smelling the foods she was making. She taught me how to cook without tasting – just with the smells.

15
When I was ten, I really had to cook. A full family meal. I learnt from my Mum who stood outside the kitchen giving me instructions as I nervously mixed and stirred and listening to the number of times the pressure cooker hissed. My mum and my her mother-in-law, my grandmother, didn’t measure any of the spices. Everything was intuitive – a pinch or a handful or just the right quantity. There was no recipe to follow. Nothing was written down. All the cooking was passed down by practice. If I hadn’t spent time in the kitchen arguing over whether the salt went first or the spices, I would have never learnt.

Until I was in my teens, I knew only the regional cuisine I was brought up on. In India every time you crossed a 100 KM you crossed a cuisine line. I grew up in the state of Tamil Nadu, but Tamil Nadu itself has tens of cuisines, all regional, and many passed down from 2000 years ago.

indian-cuisine-map

When my interest in cooking got stronger, I started experimenting with other Indian cuisines. I tried Gujarati food from the west, Punjabi food from the north, Kerala food from the south-west, street food from Mumbai. All vegetarian, and all adapted. I don’t think I ever cooked anything that I didn’t change a bit here and there. Even to my mum’s recipe. In fact, some family recipes have been irrevocably changed and my dad thinks it’s for the good.

As I left the country in late 20s, and moved to Singapore, I remained an Indian foodie. I still experimented – but only with Indian food. foodcourtThe vast array of food courts in Singapore didn’t tempt me one bit – primarily because they did not fathom how anyone could be vegetarian for 7 days a week, 365 days a year and definitely on the extra day in a leap year too.

But I did venture slowly into international food – not necessarily always authentic, but an adventure nevertheless. I started travelling to the west around this time and had to quickly find alternatives to Indian food that didn’t contain egg or fish or meat of any kind. Italian, Greek and some Mexican if you knew the difference between con and san.

Moving to the UK 11 years ago, introduced me to the vast array of supermarket shelves. I walked around the aisles (I still do this in mega big food stores), looking at strange names – Paprika, Sun-dried tomato paste, Rosemary, Thyme, Pesto, Udon noodles and such.westernherbs

I not only learnt to appreciate world cuisine, I wanted to experiment, learn and cook things I liked. My philosophy about food is – learn to cook what you love to eat. That way I never have to wait for someone to cook, or find a restaurant.

Experimenting with new spices from Europe and South America taught me new flavours, new smells, new combinations. I cooked a lot of Mexican food – like vegetarian chili, burritos, tacos. I cooked Italian. I love pasta more than pizza for some reason. And some British food – especially crumbles and pies.
For a while I kept my two interests separate – I cooked Indian food the Indian way and the world cuisine as per downloaded recipes. Then slowly I started mixing and matching. The more confident I got with the spices, the more I experimented.

I started taking traditional Indian recipes and adding western ingredients into it. And voila! These turned out to be my signature dishes. Those that my mum and my sister want the recipes for. Although it still frustrates my sister when I say – just a pinch of this and a trickle of that.

Then I took the western dishes I loved – especially the pasta and started adding Indian ingredients into it. My brother-in-law freaked out. He politely asked me to cook Indian the next time he visited – because he is an authentic foodie and my mixing up food cultures troubled him and kept him awake at night. I’m getting hungry thinking about so much food.

But the point is, I’ve recently realized that my writing has also taken a similar journey and the parallels were obvious when I looked.

When I had started out writing, of course I wrote as per the rules. I didn’t change anything, I didn’t modify anything. Not just from a craft point of view, but also from content – edicts like if you’re a girl, these are the kind of things you wrote about. What was not allowed, I wrote in diaries. I sometimes regret that I destroyed all my diaries before I left India – they contained raw emotions, anger, passion, sorrow, frustration and so much truth. Perhaps as a grown-up I would cringe at my teenage diaries. But nevertheless they would have been more authentic than the stuff I showed others.

I don’t think I ever thought I’d write for publication until I left India. I sent in poems and essays to competitions and magazines.newsletter storytellingprize The kernel of a writer was there. I wanted others to read my stuff. I secretly left my writing where people could see them. I loved it when I won prizes and things got accepted. But never in a million years, a lower middle-class girl could aspire to focus on writing and not a career.
The next stage of my writing started when I reached Singapore. I started writing down my stories on paper. By now the Internet had reached the html stages and I could Ask Jeeves! (remember that?). This was the time when Yahoo was still god and Google hadn’t been born yet.

I read lots and lots of books – craft books and fiction. I wrote every day. I sent out stuff every week. Many returned, one or two found their place. At this time, I wasn’t sure what type of writer I was – as much as I didn’t know what food I loved other than Indian. I wrote business articles that were published in the national newspaper. I wrote inspirational essays; I wrote short story and the first one was published in the Singapore Airlines magazine. I was experimenting in the kitchen and in my notebook.singaporeair

When I settled on children’s writing, I knew why. My imagination was too bizarre and weird for grownups. I wanted wishing chairs, my own faraway tree and witches and goblins and magic. I settled down into writing children’s fiction the same time I settled into my Indian cooking. I had experimented, I had figured it out and I was happy where I was.

When I came to the UK, it was a completely different ball game. I bumped into serious talent and I quickly realized I had to up my game. But it took a long time to understand how.

img_2590 img_2591
As with my cooking, and experimentation with western cuisines, I realized there was a perception that I had to figure out. Indian food had to be a certain thing – curry. People thought they knew what authentic curry was and they didn’t want an Indian telling them how it should be. It was the same in the stories I wrote. I was told what I should be writing or what was authentic. And when I experimented with western cuisine, and western plots, stories, characters, that didn’t go down well either.

Like in my cooking, I realised my authentic experience was not in the popular experience. I wasn’t sure if I had to write only Indian stories that matched the accepted norm, would I be “exploiting” my heritage just to get published. It was like cooking “curry” for a dinner party instead of cooking my authentic south Indian food. I had to connect to India in every story.

brick_lane_restaurants

Because for many gatekeepers, my “western” stories were like being invited to an Indian home and being served fish and chips. They had come expecting Sag Aloo and Naans.
I switched gears very slowly. Many writing workshops later, many retreats, lectures, random courses, tens of SCBWI events later, I was figuring myself out. This was not just a writer’s journey. I had to figure out my identity – I had become a British citizen but I wasn’t born here. I had to deal with the conflict of my identity as a person and as a writer.

2118204336_a83ce986e4_z
Less than half a decade ago, the recipe started to take shape. I could smell the spices, I could figure out the pinch and the trickle. I did exactly the same in the kitchen and in my writing – I blended my experiences in. I’m different and I am one. I’m a contradiction and I’m ambiguous.

Like the brinjal fry (brinjal is aubergine, just in case you were wondering), I made with my mum’s recipe modified with sun-dried tomato paste, I mixed the ingredients in the writing. I started figuring out how I could bring an authentic story to a western audience. I think I’m still figuring it out. Like how I still go to explore spice shelves in supermarkets, to find the ingredient that I could add to my mother’s spice box, I’m constantly learning how to blend my experience growing up in India with my world citizenship.

Sometimes the spice combinations don’t work. Sometimes they blow my taste buds and it becomes a classic recipe. Same way, some stories just work. Some struggle and stay inside my notebooks.

As I said, I cook the same way I write. I’m richer for the new spices I’ve learnt to use. I’m one person with multiple experiences. What’s authentic to me would never be authentic to my next-door neighbour in India who grew up right next to me. We had similar experiences and different ones. Who is to say which one is more authentic?

There is no single story to humanity. All our stories are universal and unique at the same time.
So next time you visit me, ask for some authentic Indian food and don’t gasp when you don’t see the curry takeaway staples on it. As for the stories, I can only hope I stay true to my characters and spin a good yarn. Like with food, the writer or the cook is only part of the experience. They have to be completed by a reader or a guest. Come and have a taste. You might be pleasantly surprised.