How I Write: “The work itself provides the inspiration”

Originally appeared as an interview with Jeff Tamarkin in The Writer Magazine

“The work itself provides the inspiration.”
By Jeff Tamarkin | Published: December 2, 2014

That Tanuja Desai Hidier’s novels are imbued with an undeniable sense of rhythm and melody is not a surprise: Hidier is also a singer-songwriter. Her new album “Bombay Spleen” is in fact based on her newest book Bombay Blues, which updates the story of Dimple Lala, the now-19 Indian-American protagonist of Hidier’s earlier YA work Born Confused.

On the CD sleeve, Hidier refers to each song not as a track but as a chapter. “Music is a huge part of both of my books,” says the U.S.-born, London-based author. “With Bombay Blues, I wanted the book to have the feel of a piece of music on every level, right up to the concluding double codas. And with “Bombay Spleen,” my aim was for the album to have the feel of the arc of a novel. For me, the book and album are one project, thoroughly intertwined in process and execution.”

Research: Born Confused is set in New York City, where I lived for many years. Bombay Blues is set in Bombay, a city that I didn’t know very well at all before embarking on this project. I’d only lived in Bombay for about a year shortly after birth; I’d visited a few times in my childhood. So very little research went into Born Confused. Bombay Blues was an entirely different process: a living of the questions. Diving so fully into the unknown it became a part of me. Although in my headspace and imagination, I inhabited Bombay for the entire three to four years of the writing and research process, I actually spent six weeks there over the course of a year to research.

Style: I just love language: playing with it, pushing it, pulling it close, closer. I’m in love with the musicality of it – how rhythm and melody can be created not only through word choice, but by the perfectly apt punctuation mark. Em-dash or colon? Comma or ellipsis? That’s the question. Something about quote marks, especially at the end of spoken phrases, feels untrue to me, at least for the books I’ve written so far. Em-dashes – of which I’m a big fan – feel more accurate to me: indicating the moment one begins speaking, but running those words right into the speaker’s headspace. They’re a bit more dreamlike, usher a gentle sliding in and floating into the character’s zone.

Inspiration: I believe it’s always there; you just have to be aware of it. The work itself provides the inspiration. You don’t need it to write; rather, you often need to write to experience it. I’ve learned
I can’t really have a bad day when I write, only when I don’t. Once I’m in, I’m in; the trouble is, in fact, exiting that state. Two huge catalysts that help me find it (and remain in a state of perpetual perspire-ual inspiration): a deadline – which, although they kept shifting during the process, I had [deadlines] both times from the get-go as I sold both books based on proposals – and the ultimate lifeline, motherhood. In the decade between books, I became a mother to two little girls. Morning person? Night person? You become a “whenever you can” person – and as parenthood keeps you in a kind of permanent state of jetlag, the a.m./p.m. distinction requires a thorough suspension of disbelief, anyway. You learn to dive right in during the time you do have to yourself.

Focus: I never write with the audience in mind, only the characters and story (which, come to think of it, is possibly more respectful to the reader). The foremost duty is to be true to them and, in so doing, fall upon some kind of “truth” that resonates with people of any age and background. With Born Confused, I never set out to write a specifically YA novel, but for years I had been wanting to express a South Asian American coming-of-age kind of story. Bombay Blues is in a bit of an out-of-the-box position, as it’s a much more of an adult/crossover story, if one has to put it in those terms, but is the sequel to that of a younger character.

Jeff Tamarkin is associate editor of JazzTimes. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, novelist Caroline Leavitt.

Reflections on the Writer’s Path

Reproduced from my portfolio page on The Girling

From the stage to the pages of her novel, Bombay Blues, the long anticipated sequel to Born Confused, Tanuja Desai Hidier proves that your own voice is louder than self-doubt or fear. Tanuja’s love for writing started from a young age and never stopped, resulting in an adventurous career including performing in NYC and London’s music scene to telling the story of Dimple Lala an Indian-American teenager struggling with the blending of two cultures. Read more on Tanuja’s journey from self-doubt to ultimate self-expression.

Name: Tanuja Desai Hidier

Twitter and Instagram handle: @ThisIsTanuja/ @tanujadesaihidier

Location: London, formerly NYC

Occupation: Writer/Singer-Songwriter (Books: Born Confused; Bombay Blues). Albums: Bombay Spleen (songs based on Bombay Blues); When We Were Twins (songs based on Born Confused).

Age: 42

School: Minnechaug Regional; Brown University

Secretly Obsessed With: Blue M&Ms, funny cat videos and “Gangnam Style”.

On My Nightstand: My nightstand is in fact composed entirely of books. Currently at top tier: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murukami, Woolgathering by Patti Smith and Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier. Earplugs, Kleenex, bottle of water, my daughters’ drawings and little love notes included.

Last Thing You Read: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, Serenade and Mildred Pearce by James Cain and Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil.

Last Thing You Listened To: Lullabye and…the Ceaseless Roar by Robert Plant and the Sensational Spaceshifters, Stay Gold by First Aid Kit, Happy by Pharrell Williams and Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea by PJ Harvey.

How did you get started?

Books and music have been a part of my life since I was a child. I began writing poems when I was about six and then wrote two book length(ish) stories when I was in fourth and fifth grade. In my teens I was primarily writing short stories; I did some creative writing workshops in college and after as well, when I moved to NYC. And then, during those post-university years—after a childhood spent in utter confidence I would one day be an author—self-doubt and insecurity (and endless distraction, AKA NYC) struck. I simply wasn’t sure I had enough of a story to tell—nor the ability to tell it even if I figured it out.

I turned to music as an outlet in NYC. In a way, this was my more positive manner of avoiding writing fiction—it was a way of being creative without the isolation and long-term intensity/inward-turning that the discipline of novel-making requires. A couple years later, completely bitten with the bug to be in a performing band, I answered an ad in the Village Voice and ended up getting the gig as lead singer in punk pop band io, with the brilliant Atom Fellows—who has remained my musical collaborator ever since (with him I wrote half of Bombay Spleen, my album of original songs based on my novel Bombay Blues).

When I moved from NYC to London, io was the hardest thing to leave behind—although in a sense I never did, given my uninterrupted musical relationship and friendship with the inimitable Atom (I’ve included a mystery band called io in Bombay Blues in homage of how we first connected; at one point they perform a song — “Light Years” — that Atom and I wrote together for Bombay Spleen).

In London, I soon joined a band called San Transisto, and through it met Marie Tueje, my musical sister and dear friend now, with whom I wrote about half of Bombay Spleen as well. Music kept me in a creative space that I believe was vital for my fiction writing…when I finally got back to it. It was in London that I began work on my first novel,Born Confused, set in the context of the burgeoning bhangra/Asian Underground scene in NYC—a scene I’d lived the last few years when I was there. Being in London, it turned out, was just what I needed to begin to see those years clearly, and filter through to the heart of the story I wanted to tell.

With Born Confused, though I did work/play with San Transisto during the writing process, mostly I was just focusing on the book. When We Were Twins, my album of songs based on Born Confused, came about as an afterthought, although an organic one; we didn’t record it until Born Confused had already been out two years.

With Bombay Blues and Bombay Spleen, the book- and album- making process were intertwined all the way through the three years it took for me to complete them (though most of that time was spent burning the candle at both ends on the book). And the entire way, the prose led me to the essence of the songs, and the songs deeper into the prose. For me, Bombay Blues and Bombay Spleen are part and parcel of the same project, from inception to fruition—in fact, I finished recording the album at the end of April 2014 in NYC with dream-teammate producer Dave Sharma only days after handing in my final pass on the novel to dream-teammate editor David Levithan.

What key elements played into your success?

My lack of it? Or, rather, my lack of framing it that way? I’ve never thought of any of this in terms of success or not success. I just wanted to write a book with a South Asian American heroine. To completion. And I also just wanted to make music. Express an idea, a space. Be true to my characters and story, both prose and musical.

The anchor that allowed, encouraged me to dive into unplumbed waters was and is my family, and friends. And I’m also a huge believer—from experience—in this idea that miracles meet the prepared mind. You take a step towards what you’re seeking, and it will come running towards you: Complicity. Synergy. Synchronicity.

What’s the best piece of advice you received?

Find excuses to DO things, not to not do them. From my father. Also, during my years of stressing out about whether I would ever write a book, on our runs around the NYC reservoir, my brother would give me numerous pep talks (while I gasped for breath, trying not to pass out). He encouraged me to view writing not as a stress, a struggle, a torment—but rather as a gift and a reward. And my best friend from college once told me (when I was wondering aloud about whether I’d ever figure out what to write): “At least you have a mode of expression. Count yourself lucky.” These bits of advice, these perspectives, remain with me to this day. And no matter how intense and challenging the writing process gets, I’m always very aware that I am truly lucky to be doing it at all. I feel a deep gratitude to the universe—and these wonderful supportive people in mine—for teaching me this.

What struggles did you face getting to this point?

Really, the main struggle was internal. Doubting whether I had what it took to write a novel. Utter confusion about what to write. In short: Not realizing the value of my own story. I’d realized at some point in NYC that I wanted to write an Indian-American story—but felt I wasn’t Indian enough nor American enough to do so. One heart-pouring night in the East Village out with a friend, I was lamenting this fact to her when she turned to look me straight in the eye and said, “That’s your story.” It was a pure lightbulb moment: It had never occurred to me to consider my hyphenated identity as—rather than a neither-here-nor-there space—a You Are Here. A world, a way, a tale in its own right.

I’d never fully felt a part of either side of my hyphen. But, as I realized later, that was a part of being part of it: Walking the hyphen. Treading the bridge in-between at all times.

The title of Born Confused comes from the term American Born Confused Desi (or, local/person of South Asian origin). This term was created by South Asians from South Asia to describe this generation of the diaspora, these second and third gen kids who are purportedly confused about where they come from. When I first heard the term I was both thrilled and offended—thrilled that there was a term to describe us…but offended that a group of people who weren’t part of that space had come up with this not quite flattering (if still pretty funny) alphabet.

Part of what I wanted to do in Born Confused is turn the ‘C’ for Confused into one for Creative—as this felt to me to more accurately reflect the dynamic desis that peopled the world I’d known in NYC, who were in fact shaping and creating the culture as they went along.

And as far as confusion—well, this is a human thing. What Dimple goes through I think many people, from any, many cultures go through; really, at heart, it’s about finding out (and embracing) who you are, figuring out your place in the world, what you want, what you love. These things are universal.

During my own NYC years of confusion (about career, culture, love, life, which subway line to take….)—and avoiding my novel (or, more positively put, gestating my first book), amongst other things, I worked several jobs as a copyeditor (which—though at the time the serial comma often risked sending me into a coma—has turned out to be a great skill for cleaning up prose and songs alike). I also interned at The Paris Review, hostessed at a Tex Mex restaurant, worked as a secretary (unfortunately, for my coworkers) in the Whitney Museum’s Film & Video Department, walked a saluki (who one day escaped me and sent me on a 100 mph chase through Central Park), co-hosted an online streaming music program, and party promoted at a nightclub—all this while collecting course catalogues and contemplating my escape from it all by going to grad school (really, an escape from writing that book!)…though I could never figure out for what.

On some level, up until that point, I’d always viewed most of the jobs I’d had as obstacles to the path I was meant (I hoped) to be on. But as a writer (well, as anyone really!) you can turn that obstacle on its head and discover a portal. What’s wonderful with storytelling—whether through fiction or music—is that any experience is still anexperience, and you can learn to value it as fodder. That’s not to say there weren’t moments where I wondered if I was getting a little too into the fodder and not enough (or at all) into the fiction. But ironically, and wonderfully, the very confusion I felt during my years in NYC—my most lost moments of all—ended up being the catalyst and unremitting spark for Born Confused.

After all, a little confusion’s not a bad thing. It makes you question things. Reassess. Reinvent.

Who was the biggest influence in your professional life?

My professional life is fully intertwined with my personal life. Biggest influence? My parents and brother for always believing in me, before even I fully did myself. And my husband and Jeevansaathi, who many years ago put “Writer’ down as my occupation on my landing card when we were traveling together…in massive, utterly legible, incontestable block capitals—something I had never dared do myself (this was before I wrote my first book, when I was working my way towards cross-cultural themes through my short stories). Seeing it down in writing like that somehow made me feel it was true—that that dream had already been realized, I just had to catch up to it.

What accomplishment are you most proud of? When do you feel most successful?

I’d like to rephrase this question, as, again, I never really think of any of this in terms of success. When do I feel happiest? When I’m making, actually creating things: in the heart of the writing and music-making process. There’s nothing like it, and I miss that feeling…seek that feeling…which is maybe why I do any of it at all! The creative process is a hard-won and truly intense, illuminating, challenging, adrenalizing—a divine—one. (Amongst other things!)

Something that always makes me feel a lovely warm feeling is when I hear from readers. Many have reached out to tell me heroine Dimple Lala’s life is their life; that she’s been a true companion for them on their own roads. This is a priceless gift: To find that by delving deep into yourself and your story, you’ve found a space which resonates for people from all kinds of backgrounds, age groups. To find you have—and are—connected.

And though I cannot call my children an ‘accomplishment’, as they are their own little huge beings, they give me a quiet and incomparable joy (as well as a noisy and incomparable fatigue and frustration—but hey! It’s all part of it). They’ve given me a lot of perspective as well on what matters most (The ladybug has escaped! Everything must wait!)

What advice would you give to girls looking to enter your industry/space?

Know that you have already entered that space. Behave that way. Believe it. Own it. In even contemplating it, you’re in; your destiny’s written; you’re writing it. You want to pen a book? A song? Your book, song already exist; now you have to just work your way towards them, much like a sculptor works her way to the goddess in the stone.

You don’t have to be published to be a writer; you just have to write. You don’t have to have a record deal (who would want one these days, anyways?) to be a musician/songwriter. You just have to make music. Write songs. Listen, play, sing—anything: If you want to bust out into a show tune don’t let the indie-cool judge in you stop you.

Just keep doing it, keep honing your craft. Don’t be afraid to write twenty pages and chuck all but the last one, because that’s the one where you finally got to the heart of the matter. If you have to be scared of something, be afraid of not writing those twenty pages…and forever never discovering that heart.

Don’t worry about what anyone will think. Don’t even worry about what you think. Be true to your characters. Surrender yourself entirely in service of your story. Amazing things will come of it. Divine things.

And keep in mind, inspiration is a habit; you don’t need to wait for it to get to work. You can’t wait for it: It’s by doing the very work itself that you free it, it appears.

And it will, it will. Never doubt this. Trust in this. And in the power of your own story.

And most vital of all: Trust yourself.

Photo Credit: Shanker Raman

All Born Creative Dreamers: What ABCD Means to Me

ABCD, or American Born Confused Desi, is a term first generation South Asians in America, and elsewhere, have for these second generation Americans who are purportedly “confused” about their South Asian background. (Desi means “from my country” in Hindi.) The alphabet extends all the way to Z, in fact. Two versions: American Born Confused Desi Emigrated From Gujarat House In Jersey Keeping Lots of Motels Named Omkarnath Patel Quickly Reaching Success Through Underhanded Vicious Ways Xenophobic Yet Zestful.

And: American Born Confused Desi Emigrated From Gujarat House In Jersey Kids Learning Medicine Now Owning Property Quite Reasonable Salary Two Uncles Visiting White Xenophobic Yet Zestful.

When I first heard the term ABCD, and directed at me, by university friends from Pakistan and India, my reaction was mixed: a sense of excitement that there was a term for ‘us’, we Indian Americans who till that point had seemed to inhabit a neither-here-nor-there-space (when I was a child, we were constantly ticking ‘Other’ on questionnaires demanding our ethnicity as no other option seemed to fit). And as well, a sense of indignation — at being named (and in a somewhat derogatory manner) by people who were not in fact part of this ‘other’ space.

When I was living in New York in the late 90s I heard this term bandied about quite a bit. But it was in the process of becoming outdated (if it had ever been fully appropriate) even then. The late 90s The late 90s was an incredible moment in terms of the subculture’s gaining of critical mass and momentum.was an incredible moment in terms of the subculture’s gaining of critical mass and momentum: We witnessed the birth of South Asian Studies departments, South Asian Student, Journalist, Lesbian & Gay associations, parties such as DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra and Mutiny, South Asian film festivals and more. At the same time, mainstream culture was adopting (some would argue coopting) many aspects of South Asian culture: Gwen Stefani in the bindi, Madonna’s yoga period, and so on.

The intersect and sometimes clash of these two forces was a fascinating space. It was a period of cultural confusion and cultural exhilaration — which can be one and the same thing at times. What did it mean to be Indian? To be South Asian? And, at the heart of that: To be American? And at the heart of that heart: To be yourself?

Why did a bindi — an element of an ancient culture and later, in some cases, a symbol of immigrant shame — look trendy on a non-Indian girl but often What do you do, how do you feel, when popular culture begins to make mad use of your own?outdated and traditional on an Indian one? What do you do, how do you feel, when popular culture begins to make mad use of your own — before you feel like you’ve even gotten a grip on it yourself? How can you be a minority if the majority is latching on to so many parts of your heritage? What does it mean to be a minority, anyways? What are the prejudices directed towards that group from the outside in — and those directed from that group out? What are the ones that exist even within that group itself? What if you could find a space (such as HotPot, the nightclub in my first novel Born Confused, inspired by DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra party) where the minority is the majority — what might happen then?

Born Confused takes its title from this ABCD moniker, and is a redefining of this alphabet through the journey of Dimple Lala, an aspiring photographer living in New Jersey (it’s set both there and in New York City, largely in the context of the burgeoning South Asian club scene) as she turns the C for Confused to a C for Creative. American Born Creative Desi: This seemed to me to be a more accurate version to describe the second gen South Asians who peopled my world, and were in fact shaping and creating the culture as they went along. It seemed to embody the idea that this Neither Here Nor There is in fact a You Are Here.

And that we are All Born Creative Dreamers. And are creating, scripting our own stories to realize our own dreams, expand and define our own space. So for me, through the process of We are All Born Creative Dreamers.writing (living), the term ABCD has been redefined to the point it is more of a historical record of previous preconceptions about the culture. We’re living in such a globalized world now — with so many people having access to travel, whether physically or through the Internet — that even the idea of a geographically or nationally centered sense of identity is often a tenuous one (geography, nations themselves are not as fixed as maps may lead one to believe).

Several ideas I was working with became clearer to me during the writing process: how identity — cultural, personal — is fluid, a continually morphing thing, and that much of this morphing is in your hands as well. And that part of the process of coming to terms with your own is learning to put yourself in another set of shoes and walk. And further, walking, inhabiting another terrain — a ‘foreign’ space — and discovering what is ‘foreign’ in you in a new context is key to the process as well. This terrain can be an actual place, country, setting. This terrain can be art, dream, the imagination.

So how do you reconcile two, or really, multiple worlds, loves, cultures, languages, sexualities, without losing yourself, in a way that allows you to remain fierce and undiluted? No easy answer, but part of the solution could be to stop seeing things in terms of conventional dualities and dichotomies, as so tidily bifurcated, and to start to come to some sort of more encompassing view of the world and of identity. And to create a language that allows for expansion rather than one that constricts, boxes a person into easy, often inaccurate, and usually suffocating labels and names.

Bombay Blues, my sequel to Born Confused, out this August, moves into this space: is an exploration of these New York City characters transplanted to modern-day Bombay, of what happens to their dynamics, relationships, sense of self as they follow their art and heart in this new setting.

So for me the term ABCD was a vital starting point. To a work in progress: an alphabet I hope to continue expanding, translating, redefining as I, we, go.

Originally written for The Aerogram on June 2, 2014

Photo Credit: Immortal Light Photography

Kirkus Reviews Interview / Feature

Originally appeared as an Interview with Jessie C. Grearson in Kirkus

Kirkus Reviews says Tanuja Desai Hidier “quietly revolutionized” young adult literature with her literary debut, Born Confused (2002), a South Asian American coming-of-age story voiced by 17-year-old Dimple Lala. Hidier’s sequel Bombay Blues transports Dimple, now two years older, to modern-day Bombay for a family wedding, in a story that Kirkus calls, in a starred review, a “prose-poem meditation on love, family and homecoming.”

Hidier had intended to continue the story of Dimple and her friend Gwyn in New York City, but says it became “abundantly clear that the next point of exploration for Dimple (and me) should be Bombay: the birth city of my mother and…that of my parents’ courtship,” a place she says she “barely knew.” By then she’d had her own two daughters, and becoming a parent “crystallized” her desire to learn this part of her family’s history.

“I longed to forge a tangible connection to this metropolis of myth and memory—to write my way towards, and hopefully into, it,” she explains. So she traveled to Bombay in 2011. On her first full day there, she says she stood on Juhu Beach with her father, the site of his “once-upon-a-time strolls with my then-saried mother. I had a very quiet joyful moment where I sankalped (cast my wish): I made a vow to myself to just be open to whatever adventure…lay ahead of me, to have faith in that openness…and that wonderful, unimaginable things would be imagined, and in so being, would occur.”

That openness is expressed in an imaginative, inventive writing style; Bombay Blues brims with musicality and lyrical prose that is ready to be heard, not just read. This quality will not surprise fans who know that Hidier is not just an author but also a singer/songwriter, now based in London. In fact, she’s created another art form, musical “booktracks,” companions for each of her novels. Music, she explains, is both “another form of storytelling” and such an inextricable part of her writing process “that the music and prose are one space and place” for her.

Hidier seems drawn to places of blurred boundaries—whether between cultures or creative disciplines like writing and music. But this, she believes, is, in fact, where we all live. “It’s less a matter of its being two spaces with a blurred boundary; more like it’s always one space upon which that border is the imposed element—sometimes useful, sometimes detrimental. Culturally, this was the idea I explored in Born Confused: that that neither-here-nor-there space (Indian? American?) is in fact a You Are Here—an identity in its own right.”

Such spaces are rich with creative potential—but they take time to explore. “I did feel a sense of ‘slowness’ during the process, which was very different from the ‘rush’ that accompanied me during the nine (pre-motherhood months) it took to write Born Confused. But Bombay Blues was a very different sort of project, and required this kind of underwater feel.” In any case, she adds, “you can’t rush your story, prose or musical. And in a culture that seems to be increasingly about speed, fast, quick fix, insta, I don’t mind at all the idea of taking time—a slower … approach—towards discovering and expressing an idea.”

Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Photo Credit: Dhiroobhai C. Desai

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