A Writer and a Residency: In quest of space!


The Sangam House Residency applications for 2010-2011 are open now. And it takes me back to the time when I was at Adi Shakti Properties in Pondicherry in 2009 January in an unanticipated excursion that changed many equations in my life. But there was a time when I read about residencies and thought ‘oh, all that happens to people who are full-time writers and have no responsibilities at home.’ And I didn’t think I was good enough to apply.

When one is raw and struggling, is still unpublished in any scrolls worth the name, and has just a certain amount of confidence to ride on, it is very difficult to be brave and apply for a writer’s residency. Let alone hope to be selected. The very prospect of a whole month or more of time of one’s own, a room of one’s own with no distracting thoughts of housekeeping or laundry or menus…aha! That’s bliss! That’s heaven on earth! I forgot to say at ‘no expense’ from my pocket except my train ticket to Pondi. But would an upper-middle-class small-time struggling-writer and a mom-wife-daughter be able to brave the fears and go ahead and apply?

I found my courage, in my need to write down that ‘novel’ of mine and then when I looked to how to apply, thinks got more complicated. I needed three documents to justify my application. One was a set of recommendations, or nominations as they call it from two writing or publishing professionals. They have defined publishing/writing professionals as publishers, published writers, published translators, professors, editors and literary agents. The letters were supposed to be mailed (even emailed) directly and we had to send the rest of the requirements separately.

When one is just one published translation old, and several pieces of web fiction mature, it is tough to know any such persons. At least was there someone who would think, ‘let me give this woman a nomination and a chance to write what she wants’? I almost had no hope there!

But thank god for that online group of friends, those precious creatures I hold in high esteem… I casually slipped the question to all those who were on chat one fine morning on how and where and who I could approach for letters of nomination. Ideas poured in. I was in tears of gratitude by the time I had read each chat message, these guys are superb, my dear, I told myself!

I zeroed in on two people whom I could safely bet on for nominations…one was a writer whose book I was translating at the moment, and the other a respected academician-writer I was fortunate to know on a personal basis. Both of them knew me and my work enough to say I ‘wrote well’ and showed promise. And meanwhile I had to provide two other documents as well.

One was a one page statement on what I would work on while at the residency, if I got selected. Now I had a hundred ideas on what I could do, but what I ‘would’ do was a different matter. The online cabinet was called again, and I fished out my novel premises under consideration and sent them round. The ‘selection committee’ considered five story outlines and asked me to think about one which was my personal selection as well… so I set to work out why I wanted to write that piece of fiction and how it would benefit my creative urges. The write-up went round twice and additions and deletions were accommodated.

The third thing to be submitted was a copy of one’s published work. Now I did have a published translation but it wasn’t so good, even by my standards. And I did not mean to do translations during my residency. I did want to work on my novel, which had lost its way in my day-to-day hours of a writer as a working writer. So it was voting time again, and the committee went through my fiction published online and chose one, which they considered well enough for people with a finer level of understanding.

I was astounded that the very first emails to my ‘nominators’ came back successfully and the letters went out to the address of the residency, so did my application. And the wait started. It was August, September, October, November… and I even set a Google alert for the residency, but no news crossed my way about anything working out. The residency was all set to start in November mid, and that send my hopes dipping… so it was all as I expected, I was not good enough.

But I gathered one last bit of courage and wrote to Arshia Sattar, who was coordinating the residency for the South Asian writers. I never expected to hear from her, but still took a chance. But surprise! Arshia wrote me a very kind letter saying the residency was in full swing but I had been wait-listed, so would be called only if one of the selected writers dropped out. Guess what I felt! I was WAIT-LISTED! That was too good to be true… and by that time I knew the writers selected for the residency included Mohammed Hanif who was in the Booker long-list that year…good god, so somebody thought I was good?

So with half a hope in my heart, I waited, but who would drop out of a chance to be at golden Pondicherry for a month for free and write one’s heart out? Came January, and all my hopes simmered to a dry residue. Next time, gal… I promised myself, and started to think of who would recommend me again…but on January 11th, a mail popped into my mail box, which changed my life forever…

It was from Arshia , it said

Hi Suneetha
Happy New Year we have a vacancy at Sangam House from Jan 12 to Feb 8 Would you be able to come?

Well, I guess you know what I felt when I read that letter…I did go, at a very short notice, and I have written out my experiences at Sangam here, http://theasianwriter.co.uk/2009/06/the-sangam-experience/

But as a person who works form home, and never hoped to get a minute outside my home to ‘write’ for real, this was a BIG beginning and it made such changes to my perspectives on life and writing. If you are a writer and desperate for space, try residencies, it is NOT something that happens to others, it will happen to you too, but only if you apply for one. Everything starts with an application.

The Sangam House has opened its doors again this year and check out their application details here… http://www.sangamhouse.org/interestedwriters.htm

Good luck!

Suneetha is a writer by passion, profession and hobby. She writes fiction in English, poetry in her native tongue Malayalam and journalistic features in both. She can be contacted at yashovathi@gmail.com

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