Wasafiri Wonders: Sharanya Deepak
By Wasafiri Editor on May 6, 2021 in
I veer towards writing about memory as a way to navigate something very present or painful in my adult life.
Ever wondered what your favourite author’s first drafts look like? Or which book they love that nobody’s heard of? Wasafiri Wonders is a series that asks these questions for you.
Sharanya Deepark is a writer from New Delhi whose work reflects on food, language, conflict, and the commodification of culture. In 2020 she won the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize for life writing for her essay ‘Seamless’, published in Wasafiri‘s spring 2021 issue, and in 2020 she was part of the Montez Press Writers Grant. In this edition of Wasafiri Wonders, Sharanya writes about memory, rituals, resistance and the act of writing. Read more of Sharanya’s work on her website.
1. Describe your first drafts in one sentence.
I write messy, kind of corny first drafts. It feels like peeling off layers of skin, almost. They’re not very good, often excerpts of thoughts I have had, and it takes a lot of determination to then string those together. That’s where the real work lies.
2. Tell us about your writing rituals.
My rituals are so scattered right now! I’m trying to perfect them, so I actually use them to be able to write instead of lingering within them. I also still have a hard time picking the writing I want to do at this moment in time – like my essays – over writing for work. But when I do, I clean my desk before each time I sit down to write. I put my phone away. I have a small room with a large bed, which doesn’t work well for sticking to the task, so I sometimes move my desk to a position in which I cannot see the bed. There is a lovely coffee ritual by the writer Yemisi Aribisala that I try and emulate whenever I can. Yemisi roasts and grinds her own coffee and then drinks it, robust and dark, it is so simple, but so luxurious and tasty. When I absolutely cannot get any words out, I draft an email to my friends. This has helped recently, because so many people I love are so far away. It all pours out then — no filter, kind of needy. I use snippets of my emails to begin writing.
3. What themes do you gravitate towards and why?
I’ve only really just gained confidence to write my essays, instead of dreaming about them. For the last few years, I have been writing mostly about subjects surrounding food culture, which I enjoy and am thankful for. But just now, I veer towards writing about memory as a way to navigate something very present or painful in my adult life. My friends also joke that I end up writing about Delhi more than I intend to. It is the kind of city that can be so difficult and grating, but when you are from it, it lives in your bones. I have a lot in common with it too — we are both sort of willingly tormented, loyal, and hot-tempered (the word in Delhi for people that get angry quickly is ‘garam khoon vaalay’ or ‘those with warm blood’). It’s not the kind of place you can remove yourself from smoothly when it is your home city. It may live inside me, as I do in it. I would also like to write about friendship, or the very terse bridges between friendship and romantic love, only because my ideas of the second still very much stem from the first.
But when I do write about them, these themes are not often welcomed. Because cultural consumption is geared so much to what people in the West want to read, I realised that these bubbles are ordained on countries like mine as well — people want to see a specific kind of story from writers in the Global South. I have noticed that Indian writing about family, colonialism, or violence is more readily consumed than anything else. Or, I have internalised that I need to first be a capable researcher and journalist to be able to write essays at all. I didn’t mean to come here with a complaint, but it is a bit infuriating. Even as perspectives of South Asians in Western diasporas widen, I feel like the subcontinent still lives in patronising stereotypes, and assumed identities or experiences. More than once, an editor has told me that something I wrote was not ‘Indian enough’ or they have prodded to include more prototypes of assumed identities and experiences in my work. Which is why Wasafiri is so valuable to me; it destroys these gymnastics. And why I was so grateful when the judges picked ‘Seamless’ as worthy.
4. What’s the book you haven’t written yet, but want to be known for?
I want to write a book of casual essays – not casual as in silly – but a collection free from being typeset in theme or linearity. It would be a luxury to be able to write one of those. How fun to possess the universality to write about anything. I also wish I was better at writing fiction. I have these two characters swimming in my head: best friends who grow up together but never meet in the scope of the book. I have found that distance – both physical and experiential – has come to inform my experiences quite a lot, often in very difficult ways. I would love to write about these two pals, but I need to get good at it.
5. What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I can’t remember where I heard it, but I do believe that to just sit down and write a chunk every day without judgment of the text itself is good advice. I tend to edit as I write, which slows me down but also takes me into a critical place, emotionally, which can potentially be a slump. Many people have told me to write first thing in the morning, which feels like a great tip, but I haven’t been able to manage it just yet. I once read an Ali Smith interview in which she was asked, ‘When was the moment you think you arrived?’ and she said ‘I hope that moment never comes.’ It’s not advice or anything, but I thought that was excellent. It reminded me why I started writing in the first place. To cope, almost.
6. What is your favourite book or pamphlet published in the past year and why?
A friend of mine who was back home from London, where he lives, brought along a copy of Poor, Caleb Femi’s book of poems, which I read during a lunch gathering at his house. The poem I read was about spring, and the scenes that Femi describes really stuck with me. I have always loved London, where I’ve tried to live a couple of times, but visas destroy dreams, alas! The initial kind of love was an imposed one, because we had to read everything British in school, and that’s not the good kind of love. But it’s really in visits in the last few years that I’ve come to see crevices of the city outside the colonial imagination of it. I consider work like Femi’s informing so much of that. It is so gentle, powerful, and liberates London from the way it was marketed, freeing the city from a kind of elite aspirational paradigm. Which is no small service to it, and to those like me, who hold it in our imagination.
7. What is a classic you recently read for the first time?
I recently read Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry for the first time. I had read some in school, and I had known uncles and older male relatives who read him. To me, reading Iqbal seemed like a thing men did — the discussions around politics and selfhood he inspired always manifested in men. So I never tried. It’s also tricky that with the partition of the subcontinent into India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh, South Asian classics become restricted by borders. In the late 1990s, when I was in school, right-wing Hindu majoritarianism began to gain momentum. Iqbal and his work began to be relegated to Pakistan, and students like myself would be discouraged to read him. It’s all horrid, but the good news is that this kind of divisiveness is also futile.
In 2019, we had large protests in Delhi against the current government’s violence and majoritarian policies, and Iqbal’s poetry was everywhere. Recited out loud by children, and painted on the streets. I bought a collection then, but because I read Urdu very slowly, I had to buy a corresponding one, written in Devanagari script, and am reading between them both. The imagery in Iqbal’s poetry is strong, affirmative, and it helps me anchor myself in the flux that India is going through today. It is valuable for me to read in the languages I live in for a change.
8. What is a book or pamphlet you love that no one else has heard of?
I want to shout-out Mangal Media, a collective of writers outside North America and Western Europe. I think it’s commendable that Mangal is trying to think outside the dominant cultures of our world, resist them, mute them, even. They published an essay on Nobel-Prize darling Peter Handke’s denial of the Srebrenica massacre by writer Adnan Delalic which taught me so much when I first read it. Apart from that, I also love Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… which is a translated collection of essays by Gogu Shyamala, a Dalit woman writer from Telangana. A sharp, beautiful book, it is this kind of literature that disrupts the deep-set ownership that caste solidifies on culture in India.
9. If your newest work were a music album, what would it be and how would it sound?
I think my writing may have a quietness to it that I absolutely do not have in real life. Temperamentally, I am clunky — fast movements, unabridged thoughts, constantly earnest body language. I think I have a noisy sort of presence. People who know me and then read me have told me that I express a stillness in my work that I have for some reason eradicated from my personality. I associate this kind of sentiment with the piano, but not the classical kind. I guess my writing could sound like a Tom Waits album? I love Closing Time because it is informative in its sadness, and has all these very vivid scenes. The album would also be layered with contemporary music from North India and Pakistan, because I write in English but I think in Hindi and Urdu. There is a musician in Karachi called Hasan Raheem who I’ve been listening to a lot recently. I’d be thrilled for my writing to sound like he does, just cool and empowering.
10. Which books or authors are relevant reads in our political climate —or one you’d recommend to current world leaders?
Chigozie Obioma’s novels are so beautiful and terrifying. I believe they can reach into the guts of those like our contemporary world leaders, who seem to be blind to suffering and humanity. Akhil Katyal and Aditi Angiras’s anthology of queer poets from South Asia is a compassionate and incredible book, much needed for the leaders of the continent. Kashmiri writers – like poet Uzma Falak and novelist Mirza Waheed, to understand the region, which is often obfuscated by the Indian nation-state. My personal theory is that everyone who complies with the US Empire has never read James Baldwin, and absolutely should. For our own leader supreme in India, whose cruelty seems to have reached baffling limits, I wonder what could introduce him to a bit of humanity, but I’m stumped. It would help if he as much as read our newspapers, the one that he hasn’t bought out. Maybe a magazine like The Caravan, but would that stop him from tearing the country apart? I doubt it, but this is a beautiful question that gave me a bit of hope for the first time in a long while.
Enter the 2021 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. Entries close 31 May, 2021.