From unicorn poetry to publishable fiction: Author Minal Hajratwala on working in multiple genres
“I feel like I’ve always written in a lot of genres. So it’s not that I haven’t written fiction. It’s just that I haven’t written publishable fiction. Or that I’ve started a lot of short fiction and not been able to find my way all the way through till the end.”
In this audio clip, Minal Hajratwala, unicorn of many colors and poet at heart, speaks to Mary Anne Mohanraj about her mostly self-taught experience in making a turn to writing fiction. Listen to this excerpt from their discussion or consult the transcript below to answer the following questions.
(1) One of Hajratwala’s first statements in this clip is the above quotation: “…it’s not that I haven’t written fiction. It’s just that I haven’t written publishable fiction.” Take a couple minutes to think about what Hajratwala means by this.
- If you’re working through these questions with a partner, see how their thoughts compare to yours.
(2) Mohanraj talks about how she studied Creative Writing, in contrast to Hajratwala, who studied Journalism. Hajratwala mentions that one of the gifts of attending Clarion has been the exposure to writers who come from different backgrounds and draw upon different methods.
- What is your background as a writer (academic, work experience, self-taught, or a different type of training)?
- How do you think it has affected your writing style or choice of genre?
(3) Although Hajratwala says she has more to learn about the “nuts and bolts” of writing speculative fiction stories, she can reflect on her experience as a long-time editor and is confident that even with a messy piece she’ll be able to make the language do what she wants it to do in the end. What are your strengths as a writer? What are your weaknesses? How do they affect the genres you write in?
(1) Mohanraj and Hajratwala discuss feeding “the Muse(s)” — or the difference between drawing on their writing tools to complete a story and being inspired by events in their own lives. Take ten to fifteen minutes to write two short stories — one where draw on your technical knowledge of writing as a craft, and one that is instead sparked entirely by your imagination.
- As Mohanraj comments, many of us don’t have the luxury of waiting for ‘the Muse’ to visit, especially exactly when we need it the most. If the inspiration isn’t coming to you, let your thoughts drift, and come back to this prompt when your imagination is sparked.
(2) Hajratwala does not expand on how she started writing unicorn poetry in this particular clip, but later on in the full interview, she does:
“…I started Googling various things like unicorns and you know, history, unicorn, whatever, unicorns in sets, unicorns in this, unicorns in that. And at some point I put in unicorns, India, and all this stuff came up. And I was like, “What?” And then that was when I learned that actually, the first unicorn images in the world are from South Asia. They’re from the Harappa civilization, the Indus Valley Civilization. So which is now the border of India and Pakistan. And so then I was like, “Oh my god, I just finished this huge project about identity, like, this is the last thing I want to write about!” So one side of my brain was saying that and then the other side was like, “It’s destiny! I’m supposed to write about the unicorns they are channeling through me!”
- Do you have a particular obsession, favorite animal, food, or curiosity that you haven’t incorporated into your writing before? For this exercise, use the internet, books, or the minds of your classmates to learn something new about this phenomenon. Then, over the next few days, draw upon that newfound knowledge in order to write a one to two page story or poem about it.
- You can check out a selection of Hajratwala’s writing online.
From her poetry book Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment:
And in Granta Magazine:
- Operation Unicorn: Field Report
- A-list, grade b dreams
- Hajratwala also writes and shares essays, ideas, and opinions in numerous online publications.
Minal Hajratwala (www.minalhajratwala.com) wrote the award-winning epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by the Washington Post; Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (poetry); and the Moon Fiji travel guidebook. She edited Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013) and co-founded The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective. She graduated from Stanford, was a fellow at Columbia, was a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar, and attended the Clarion West workshop in 2019. Her Granta essay “A Brief Guide to Gender in India” was named one of the 10 best pieces of writing on the web for 2015. She created the Unicorn Authors Club to help authors finish books. Listen to her full interview with the SLF here (1:10:40).
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Nice, nice. So, I’m gonna ask you to talk about that a little bit more. And this is sort of continuing a conversation we were having earlier. I did Clarion West in ‘97, as a student, and then I taught at Clarion in 2009. I know that Minal, like myself, both of us work in multiple genres, nonfiction, Minal writes unicorn poetry, among other things, but is now making a turn to fiction. So maybe if you could talk a little bit about, here at Clarion, what have you learned, what is translated over from the nonfiction experience? And what is new as you’re coming into fiction?
Minal Hajratwala: Yeah, I feel like I’ve always written in a lot of genres. So it’s not that I haven’t written fiction. It’s just that I haven’t written publishable fiction. Or that I’ve started a lot of short fiction and not been able to find my way all the way through till the end. So, what has happened to me mostly with short stories is that there are a handful that have just come out as-is, which are those, you know, those little gift pieces of writing, which are fantastic, and also don’t teach you anything and are not replicable. They’re just sort of all one thing. So, that’s lovely and happens every, you know, seven years or so, with a sort of flash fiction kind of story.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: It’s funny, I – do you know how there are all these painters of the old days who are like, waiting for the Muse to descend and visit them. And I remember sort of laughing at that when I was a baby writer and thinking like, well, that’s ridiculous. And these days, I’m like, oh, no, that has actually happened. There have been moments right? Where like, something just comes sort of fully formed. You’re in the right moment. All the stuff that’s happened in the back of your brain comes together and something smarter than you can, like – or something, something you’ve been subconsciously thinking for a long time, right, kind of coalesces into a perfect story. And then you’re just like, “Okay, I’m just channeling.” Right?
Minal Hajratwala: Yeah. And it’s not that there’s no craft in that. There’s, you know, there’s a craft of waiting. And there’s a craft of following the right directions and not, sort of, getting distracted in the wrong way.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: But I think, I feel like that is in some ways a luxury that was only afforded to independently wealthy white men for a long time, right? Of like, “No, I’m gonna sit around and wait for the muse to descend. Because this is not my job,” right? Or, it’s not a job I need to support myself. And so I will go to cafes and drink and talk with my friends and feed the muse. And I actually think it’s really important to feed the muse, you know, going to museums or walking in the park or going to the beach. But it’s so hard to make the space for that in everyday life. If you do have a job and family responsibilities, right?
Minal Hajratwala: Yes. And that’s what’s really beautiful about being immersed in a long workshop like this, because it is – I love that we’re talking about the Muses, because I’m actually – the story that I’ve been walking around with this week is in part about the Muses, the Nine Muses, as this –
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Oh really, that’s hilarious! I didn’t know that.
Minal Hajratwala: – as this girl gang in Hollywood, who are sort of preying on all the ambitious, talented people.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Yeah, I think there’s like this, you know, for a long time, I felt like, well, I studied right? I’m South Asian, we want to do something, we go to school, right? Like, this is the, the cultural training, right? Anytime I don’t know what to do, I’m like, “Maybe I should go back and get another degree!” So I did an MFA and I did a PhD in writing, and I went to Clarion. And all of that, I think, gave me a lot of tools. And those are super useful for being able to get through stories when the Muse is not visiting, right, and still do a good job. Not just working on, like, pedestrian things, but [to] be able to craft something strong. Do you feel like there’s still a difference between those pieces and the inspired pieces?
Minal Hajratwala: You know, I feel like, with my poetry. I’ve worked on it enough, where – and it’s a different form, it’s shorter, of course. But I feel like I’ve worked on it enough where the quality and the experience of the crafted pieces and the kind of – what I think of as like the received pieces – is similar. That they – I don’t feel a big gap and often, later when I look at them, I can’t necessarily remember how, you know, which way I went about [it] unless I really sit and think about it. And you know, you studied Creative Writing – I never did. I’m very self-taught as a creative writer. I took journalism, I studied journalism, and I think that that really taught me certain aspects of the craft like, first of all, just being a really clear writer, not, not getting too, you know, messy with the writing. And I’ve been an editor for a long time. So I’m good at working with people’s stories.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Because you work as a writing coach, you have an entire business, right?
Minal Hajratwala: Yes, I do. And I can really see what to do with other people’s stories, even fiction. I can, I can work with it. And I – it’s very clear to me. And then I think it’s like anything else. Each thing has its own craft. So I’ve taken courses. And in poetry, I’ve had some really amazing teachers who really broke things down. And I think what I’m learning now in Clarion West is both some of the nuts and bolts of stories and also specifically being steeped in a speculative fiction world with the teachers. So the first week we had Elizabeth Hand who is amazing. This coming week, we’ll have Stephen Graham Jones, who is [in] a completely different vein, with his Native American horror, and stories, which are also amazing. And so I think it’s, really it’s such a gift to learn from all of these very different writers whose work is different, whose methods are different. And at the same time not to learn in the abstract – like, here I am reading a craft book – but to learn on our actual stories – here I am producing a story every week. And I have this story and it’s got a problem. And then here’s my teacher, who’s saying “Here are some things that you can do about that problem.” And I sit in class and I go, oh, okay, then draw a direct line from, you know, my problem in my story to the solutions and see which one is working. And I think that kind of like, laboratory experience is really precious, especially for someone like me, who doesn’t, I never did an MFA or anything like that.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Right. Well, and a lot of MFAs are not very rigorous in that way. Right?
Minal Hajratwala: Yeah.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: So I think there’s a lot of chance in how creative writing gets taught.
Minal Hajratwala: And a lot of times it’s at the sentence level, which I, I feel like I have a grasp of. And that’s the part that I think really serves me from, you know – my experience in writing is that I know that even if my stories that I’m writing in one week are messy, or, you know, there’s clunky wording, or whatever, I know I’ll be able to clean them up and I can make them pretty, and, you know, to make the language do what I wanted to do. It’s really the shape.