‘Write because you cannot live without writing’: An interview with Mary Jean Chan and Preti Taneja
With just a short time left to enter the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, which closes on 30 June, 5pm BST, Wasafiri sat down with judges Mary Jean Chan and Preti Taneja to discuss writing advice, the importance of rejection, and what they’re looking for in a winning entry.
Wasafiri: What catches your attention in a submission? What are you looking for?
Mary Jean Chan: A certain vitality in terms of a poet’s use of language and imagery. I am drawn to the unexpected, those leaps of the imagination, that moment in a poem which makes you see the world anew.
Preti Taneja: Confidence, voice, style and attention to detail. A compassionate sensibility and a commitment to the characters and their world.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the validity and worth of literary prizes, but what value do think they can still bring to a writer’s practice?
MJC: I think prizes such as this one can be very encouraging for emerging writers, especially as it brings with it the opportunity for mentorship and publication.
PT: In practical terms, if you win a prize with financial award attached, or mentoring, or other forms of community support and access (for example to a library or residency) prizes can make a huge difference to your practice. They can help writers to make time to write. That’s invaluable and hard-won in the real world.
As all writers know, it can be difficult to face all the rejections that come with the career. Do you have any advice on dealing with those inevitable setbacks? How do you make the most of it?
MJC: Looking back at my own rejections, I feel grateful to the editors or judges who didn’t take my work before they were ready. Those were often poems that did end up benefiting from further editing, as well as peer and mentor feedback before they finally appeared in a magazine or on a prize long/shortlist.
PT: Just keep going—reading, writing, drafting, editing. Remember that even while you are doing that, there is a structural system of gatekeeping that is rife with biases, that your work is going out into, and do the work anyway. It has to be for the love of it, first and foremost.
Preti, short fiction can be really tricky to nail in 3,000 words—what do you think makes a great, engaging short story?
The same things that make long form work—finding the exact right marriage of craft elements to tell the story you want to tell, and make the reader feel what you want them to feel. The constraint of a word count can be as liberating and demanding, and as generative as the expansiveness of a 1000 pages.
Mary Jean, poetry as a genre is sometimes characterized as more difficult to understand, or less exciting than fiction or life writing. What do you love about poetry, and what it achieves?
I love the compression of language in poems, how so much can be said with just a few words. To me, poetry is language at its most distilled, which I find incredibly exciting. Also, poetry can be both fiction and nonfiction in terms of its thematic concerns and approaches, which is why I’m drawn in particular to this genre.
‘New writer’ is a stage that everybody goes through, but it can often feel difficult or hopeless to navigate. Do you have any advice for new writers?
MJC: Write because you cannot live without writing, not for any external validation. It is a gift to be a beginner; a beginner’s mindset is something more seasoned writers will always have to attempt to regain if their work is to continue to develop and flourish.
PT: Often by the time someone gives you that label, you’ve been writing all your life. Add up your history in the way that makes sense to you, and don’t let people pigeonhole or patronise you. If you bring your whole self to navigating the politics and pressures of being read and judged in public for the first time, then you will be able to take every high and low of this new world in your stride.
And finally, what have you both been reading lately?
MJC: Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski, Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri, Passing by Nella Larsen, The Roles We Play by Sabba Khan, Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley.
PT: I’m reading Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell, which is just like being surrounded by the love and stories of a group of women in my family I thought I’d never have access to again. It’s so moving to read this syntax and style in book form, one of the first reading experiences that captures a Hindi that speaks very deeply to me. I’m also reading Black Bread, White Beer by Niven Govinden which has just been re-released. So painful, moving and funny, and breathtakingly ahead of its time.
Mary Jean Chan is the author of Flèche, published by Faber & Faber (2019) and Faber USA (2020). Flèche won the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry and was shortlisted in 2020 for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre First Collection Poetry Prize. In 2021, Flèche was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Chan won the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem twice, receiving an Eric Gregory Award in 2019. In Spring 2020, Chan was guest co-editor with Will Harris at The Poetry Review. A Ledbury Poetry Critic, Chan regularly writes for The Guardian Review. They are a Rathbones Folio Prize Academy member and a judge for the 2022 Jhalak Prize. Chan is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Oxford Brookes University and also serves as a supervisor on the MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. Born and raised in Hong Kong, they currently live in Oxford.
Preti Taneja is a writer and activist. Her first novel, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press/Knopf), won the Desmond Elliott Prize for the UK’s best debut of the year and was listed for international awards including the Folio Prize, the Prix Jan Michalski, and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. It was a Top 10 literary fiction book of the year in The Sunday Times and others, and has been translated into several languages. Her second book Aftermath, (Transit/ And Other Stories) is an abolitionists’ lament against terror, trauma and the UK’s school to prison pipeline, and has been critically acclaimed in the Los Angeles Review of Books and the New Yorker. She is a Contributing Editor at The White Review, and Professor of World Literature and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, UK.