Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Interview with Shahnaz Habib

In today’s blog, we are delighted to feature an interview with Kerala-born, Brooklyn-based writer and MFA instructor Shahnaz Habib. In this interview, Shahnaz talks about the practice of “walking and writing”; about the definition of home and what it means to be a writer who comes not just from one place, but from many; and about the elusive quality of “balance” in a writer’s life.

In your interview with the physician and writer Abraham Verghese, you asked: “Can you begin by telling us a bit about all the different places that are a part of you?” As a writer born and educated in India and now living and writing in New York, how would you answer this same question?  How have these different environments informed your writing? What are the advantages of having more than one language and culture on which to draw for your creative work?

So much of my best writing comes from confusion, and the confusions and contradictions of belonging to more than one place have been a very profitable source of inspiration for me. I grew up in Kochi, a small town in southern India. I moved to Delhi and then New York for grad school, and fell in love with both those big cities, very different from each other. I also lived for several months in Turkey, and Istanbul, to me, is simply the best place on earth. All these places have shaped my writing – I feel perennially an outsider, someone looking in through a window, someone making sense of all these glimpsed lives. I have become both obsessed with place and reconciled to the idea of not having one home. Language is my home.

Something else that happens when you have left pieces of your heart in different places as I have done in Kochi, Delhi, New York, Istanbul, is that it is impossible to be indifferent to the world outside. An earthquake or a bombing somewhere in the world does not seem to be something that happens far away to another place.

You have written fiction, essays, and poetry. Can you tell us about your writing practice? Do you move back and forth between these forms or do you tend to concentrate on one at time?

I don’t write much poetry anymore, so it’s mostly between essays and short fiction. I do feel that fiction takes more time to grow inside me, and I have learned not to rush it. When a story is ready to be written, it’s always such a pleasure to be completely immersed in its fictional world. Just in terms of proportions, I write more nonfiction than fiction. But when I do write fiction, it feels like a deeper dive.

You have talked about the relationship between walking and writing: is this a regular practice for you? Do you “walk and write” daily?

I go through phases. Sometimes walking is a big part of my life. Part of the year, I work full-time at a very intense job, and it’s such a pleasure to escape during my lunch break and take long city walks. But when I am working from home, I often fall prey to the temptation of working in bed. In pajamas.

In the morning I sometimes drop my daughter off at her school bus. And then when I turn homewards, there is always a tug of war. Should I just keep walking? I mean, here I am, all dressed and presentable enough for the world. Sometimes, the walker wins. Sometimes the cocooner wins.

Do you have a dedicated space in which to write?

You mean other than the bed? No.

What are you working on now?

Essays. I am very slowly putting together a collection of essays on not traveling. I am also reading some books as research for a novel I want to write.

At Bay Path, you teach two semesters of Creative Nonfiction Writing: Form and Theory. What do you most enjoy about teaching? What creative possibilities does the online format offer you as a teacher?

I am amazed by the stories my students are telling about their lives. I think Bay Path’s program, by virtue of being online, reaches students who have extremely intense and full lives, students who don’t have the luxury of taking two years out of their lives for a typical offline MFA program. Some of them are primary caregivers, some of them have jobs they can’t afford to leave. And those busy brave lives get reflected in the essays they are writing and the perspectives they are writing from. That’s an honor, to be able to read and respond to such important stories.

I also think the online format and the facelessness it fosters can be a blessing. It gives students the courage to be vulnerable, to tell stories that perhaps wouldn’t come out in a more face-to-face setting. Also vice versa, when students read each other’s work in class, they are responding to the words, not to the personalities.

In addition to teaching and writing, you are also an editor and a parent.  How do you find balance in your life?

I have been thinking about this a lot, especially in the context of the long resistance that is ahead of us in the next four years. How will I find the time to make a living, parent, protest, and write? It takes so much time just to unscramble and understand the political nightmare that we are living through. Balance, at least for me, is a myth. Something in your life will always be wanting attention and not getting it. Right now, since it’s the beginning of the semester, I have been focused mostly on making sure that my students are supported. The writing has taken a back seat. But there’s an ebb and flow to these different roles, and soon I’ll turn to my writing, feeling refreshed by my engagement with my students, and reinvigorated by all the wonderful mobilizing that is happening in our communities.

To learn more about Shahnaz and her work, please visit her website.