A former Open City Fellow answers 10 questions about her writing life
December 10, 2021
Editor’s Note: As the Asian American Writers’ Workshop celebrates its 30th anniversary, we invited current and former editors, writers, community members, and workers to make new meaning from the Workshop’s archive. Together, they have awakened AAWW’s print anthologies and journals, returned to the physical spaces of the Workshop starting from our basement location on St. Mark’s, and given shape to the stories from within AAWW that circulate like rumors, drawing writers back again and again. In revisiting the Workshop’s history, we hope for insight into the ever-changing landscape of Asian diasporic literature and politics and inspiration to guide us forward in our next 30 years. Read more in our AAWW at 30 notebook here.
Where do writers find inspirations? How do they start their days? Are writers’ desks stereotypically messy?
We often would like to ask, or have actually asked, almost every writer that we’ve come to know these and many others are questions. It is fitting we try to find answers as we celebrate the Workshop’s 30th anniversary this year.
We have nurtured quite a handful of writers of color through our Margins and Open City Fellowships. Many of them have gone on to write and report for mainstream publications and publish books.
Former Open City Fellow Humera Afridi agreed to give us a snapshot of her writing life and share some writing tips. Known for her lyrical and magical prose, Humera wrote for The Margins a 41,000-word, four-part series of incisive and moving essays on Arab women in Bay Ridge who are coming into their own as activists and assimilating into Arab-American identities.
— Noel Pangilinan
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1. What’s on your nightstand?
A Himalayan salt lamp; a handcrafted olive-pit tasbih from Istanbul; a glazed ceramic heart made by my son a few years ago for Mother’s Day; Saidiya Hartman, Bessel Van Der Kolk; Sufi prayers; a nugget of Bohemian moldavite; a blue apatite globe to inspire lucid dreaming.
2. How do you start your day? What’s a typical day for you?
Weekdays begin early. I prepare breakfast for my son and make sure he’s off to school in good time! Mornings often include prayer and a short Sufi meditation, and 15 minutes on the yoga mat, after which I settle down at the dining table to work, or if it’s a research day, I head to the New York Public Library—Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. The best days possess a sense of flow and harmony, a feeling of accomplishment. But, then there’s the eternal challenge of appointments, emails, and my own capricious mind.
3. Coffee or tea? Why?
Both! It’s a habit, a soothing mechanism, I suppose. I switch back and forth throughout the day. I begin with a pot of brewed Assam and cardamom tea, switch to Genmaicha at some point in the day, and on especially demanding days, I make a pot of coffee blended with chicory. Better sips of tea and coffee throughout the day than munching on a bowl of peanut M&M’s (which does happen now and then)!
4. Any book you’re reading now? Any podcasts you’re listening to now?
There are so many, many books that I want to read (piling up everywhere!) and not enough time. I’m in the midst of a nonfiction book project that has required a tremendous amount of archival research. Currently, I’m spending hours deciphering faded handwritten letters while also reading theosophical literature from the early 1900s and learning about immigration rules for foreign visitors to the United States at that time. Specific books that I’m dipping in and out of these days include Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow, The Heroine with 1001 Faces by Maria Tatar, Mission France by Kate Vigurs and the Biography of Pir-O-Murshid Inayat Khan.
5. When do you write best?
I prefer to write first thing in the morning. If the day is my own, unbroken by appointments, and especially if a deadline is looming, then the hours blur and I will work late into the night. However, that only works well while my son is on break, and we don’t need to rise early for school. I work best when the world is still.
I also work best when I don’t have a looming appointment or social or school commitment. Somehow knowing that the day is wholly mine allows for a capaciousness that I seem to really need for creative writing. During the pandemic and lockdown, it was easier to lose myself in my work, I didn’t have to keep up with the world. Writing for me is about burrowing deep, going underground, losing a sense of time. I find it very jarring to come out of that and put on a social face. It takes me a long time to settle into that flow.
6. How and where do you get ideas for your stories?
Usually, it’s a combination of being moved or intrigued by a person or situation and feeling a strong desire to know more, a need to get to the heart of the experience, or the ‘mystery’ if you will.
7. Do you have any tips for interviewing people? Like, what tools do you always use when reporting?
Before an interview, I read up about that person’s work, their life, and really try to get a sense of their trajectory. What are they passionate about? I might begin with asking questions around a topic that I know is close to their heart even if it isn’t the focus of the story. I like to know how a person got to a particular milestone on their life’s journey, their influences, their mentors, the obstacles they had to overcome.
As far as the technical aspect, I use my phone to record interviews, however, way back in the past when I worked as a staff feature writer for the Gulf News in Dubai, I always used mini-cassette recorders and then, later, digital recorders. The iPhone has made recording interviews simpler!
8. How do you deal with writer’s block?
What’s that? Just kidding…
Self-doubt, along with a crippling sense of perfection and, or, ambition, can potentially become obstacles on a writer’s journey. Health traumas, financial challenges, family and work responsibilities that demand significant resources of time and energy can all impinge on that vital sense of freedom that a writer needs.
Exercising helps. Conscientiously seeking out trees, grass, and water; meditating; experiencing joy and community; breathing well; reading widely, all help! Locating that voice within, the inner knowing that you’ve got this, confident that you’re doing all you can even as you negotiate challenging circumstances–and being patient with yourself–helps.
9. What are you working on now, and what recent work are you proud of?
I’m writing a biography of World War II heroine Noor Inayat Khan. A book project, like raising a child, is an act of love, a commitment that requires time, diligence, energy, and resources over the span of several years.
I am proud of the creative impulse that persists and drives a work into being despite circumstances that try to shut it down. As a single mom, I am proud, too, of my son, who is now a freshman at high school! He is kind, creative, grounded, and possesses a strong ethical consciousness.
10. What is your fondest memory of being an AAWW Fellow?
I cherish the creative and diverse community that is AAWW! I fondly remember Noel and Jyothi and everyone at the Workshop who were so supportive and nurturing of us fellows. So much about being a writer has to do with persevering, keeping the faith, not allowing oneself to be silenced, especially by one’s own inner critic. And then there’s the culture at large that doesn’t usually seem to want to acknowledge you, that sees you as marginal at best. At AAWW, to be in the vibrant center was nourishing, inspiring, and creatively generative. I felt seen and heard, my voice was valued, and the stories I wrote mattered.