Writing, war, and Terrorist-ish: An interview with writer Shymala Dason

I’m going to be completely honest and say that I rarely read literary magazines. I have a hard time getting invested in short stories – in my experience, they’re either spectacular or…meh.

Shymala Dason’s “Terrorist-ish” definitely falls into the former category. Dason is an Indian-Malaysian American NASA consultant turned writer (we got one! woop!) and editor. “Terrorist-ish,” which was published by the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in 2015, is familiar in the sense that it covers those scary places where people of color are scrutinized, dug up and around and under. But it’s also completely different from anything I’ve ever read before – how many books have you read that have an Indian-Malaysian college dropout and accidental porn star as their main character.

Exactly.

I talked to Dason about how she found her way to writing, and what familiar-but-different stories she’s planning for the future:

1. You come from a heavily scientific background, and even worked for NASA! How did you make the transition into writing?

Courtesy of Shymala Dason

I’ve written for as long as I can remember, poetry, journal or memoir. The first more or less proper (though dreadfully bad) poem was when I was about eight. I began to play with fictionalizing with adolescent angst stuff in secondary school, and writing remained my sanity mechanism through math grad school and NASA. But always on the side. Then my father died, and I thought about all the dreams he had died without fulfilling. He was a young man during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, and instead of going off to medical school he became an ambulance driver, and an Air Raid Warden, serving his family and community. Whereas all I was serving was my 401K, which isn’t all that noble. So I switched my focus. But I’m still not ‘transitioned’ in the sense that I’m not making my living from writing.

 

2. How does your scientific experience influence your writing, whether it’s subject matter or style?

There are two elements I think come from science. One is trying for a fuller picture rather than writing from my own particular perspective and idea. The other is in the method of writing, which is rather like putting together bits of code from a library to make a new program, or working in separate layers in PhotoShop and then merging them.

I always have random bits of text floating around – little bits of dialogue, descriptions of place or atmosphere or character, story sketches… And I put these together and shuffle them around until patterns emerge. That final process, though, is more poetry than science.

3. You’re a manuscript editor as well. How did you get into that, and how does it impact your own writing process?

I’ve been fortunate to have the bestselling historical novelist Beverly Swerling as a mentor for some years. Beverly is the literary half of Agent Research & Evaluation, and she also does critiques for selected clients. A few years into our relationship, I was able to make a useful suggestion for one of her books, “Bristol House” (I am mentioned in the acknowledgements!), and some time after that she got a request to critique a science fiction novel. She’s one of many literary people who don’t work with science fiction, but she remembered my science background and that my first couple of short story sales were to Marion Zimmer Bradley, so she referred that client to me. And then he referred another. It’s both exhilarating and frightening to put one’s hands into another person’s work. I’ve received good editorial advice, myself, and bad advice, so I’m very conscious of the responsibility to do it right. I don’t think editing impacts my own writing process. It’s more my writing process impacts the way I edit.

4. Your short story, “Terrorist-ish,” is about an undocumented immigrant with big dreams and a head for songs. What inspired the story?

I was running errands, driving in Columbia, MD one day not to long after 9/11, with the car radio on. First there was the news, which was full of arrests and alarms – wholesale detention of Arab students, and so on – and then when I surfed away from that I hit a Bollywood-Bhangra station which was reporting on the same news, but instead of NPR it was, “Yo, Badmash, be careful out there, yaar! They are simply rounding up people…” It was Hinglish, it was vulnerable, it was incredibly brave despite being afraid, upbeat in a Bhangra-rap sort of way, and the first sentences of “Terrorist-ish” popped into my head. The rhythm of that voice was irresistible. I pulled over in a DSW parking lot and jotted down the opening lines. I had to stretch pretty far back in memory to my high-school days to find people who spoke the way this character speaks to get the rest of the story, but if I’d used a normal voice, the story would just have been depressing.

The [main] character, like me, is Indian diaspora by way of Malaysia, from a community of people who’ve been in Malaysia for several generations. I’m Christian, I wrote the character as specifically Catholic (rather than Anglican/Episcopalian, as I am) so I could be more colorful in the Christian references, and not just joke about Mothers’ Unions but also about confession and penance and so on. All tongue-in-cheek, broad humor to balance the horror of an ordinary guy needing to worry that someone will decide he’s a terrorist.

5. Why did you choose the title “Terrorist-ish”?

It’s a spectacular title, isn’t it? I can say that without being immodest because I had several truly horrible ideas for the title – “Boy-type Illegal with Dark-Dark Skin” was one, so you can see titles are not my strong point – and Anelise Chen, who accepted the story for publication in “The Margins” (and was a spectacular editor), suggested this title, which was perfect since the story is about the post-9/11 paranoia where, suddenly, all Brown people, particular young Brown men, were suspected of being terrorists.

6. You have two upcoming novels, one on the Malaysian global diaspora and one about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War II. What are the inspirations for these novels, and what issues will they touch on?

It all comes somehow from the Malaysian community. Probably half of the people I grew up with are now scattered around the world. So that’s the inspiration for the global diaspora story, as well as my short story collection. What drives the expats, what it’s like being strangers in a strange land and having no ground under your feet at all except the ground you create, and even then – as the present times are making clear – we are only welcome on sufferance that may change at any moment. And then there’s the strain in family bonds, the chasms between people who once ate out of the same dish and now, values shifting with time and movement and location, we look at each other, stay-at-homes at expats and vice versa, or from one generation to another, and everything is simultaneously as familiar as one’s own face, and yet totally strange.

The Japanese invasion of Kuala Lampur, 1942

As for the WWII novel, I wanted to tell the story of Malayans in WWII Malaya. Not British, not Japanese, but the local people. It’s their story. My father’s story, the story of that entire generation. One out of 25 Malayans died of the war. That’s a lot of dead. And for the rest, from 101 recipes for tapioca and water spinach so they didn’t starve, to a resistance as heroic as anything in France and against an Occupying force that decorated the streets with decapitated heads to maintain ‘discipline’, it seemed a story worth celebrating. I want to tell the survivors’ tale before time washes it away.

6. What do you hope to achieve with your writing?

I’ve never thought, “This is what I want to achieve.” It’s always, “These are the stories I have to tell, how do I tell them?”

I suppose all my writing is about disagreement and reconciliation, or hardship and reconciliation, even if it is reconciliation as the wartime generation had to do it, reconciling themselves to irreversible loss. I would like my work to contribute somewhat to reconciliation – between peoples, between generations, between expats and stay-at-homes.

Connected with that is the impulse that is making me write the WWII book. True reconciliation means nobody gets written out of the story. So, telling forgotten or overlooked stories is important to me.

You can find out more about Shymala Dason at her website, and read “Terrorist-ish” here.

Diversity of cultures and characters: Sajidah K Ali talks “Saints and Misfits”

When it comes to writing, Canadian author Sajidah K Ali’s story is one of perseverance in achieving your dream.

Sajidah K Ali, courtesy author

Sajidah was born in South India and is Muslim, and is currently living in Toronto. For a while, her Creative Writing degree sat in the background as she pursued motherhood and a career in teaching, but she returned to her first love (don’t we all?) a few years ago. Now she’s getting ready to release her debut novel, “Saints and Misfits,” a young adult story. I talked to Sajidah about the book and her experience as a writer.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue being a professional writer?

I majored in Creative Writing in the early 90’s. Yes, that long ago. While I had every intention of become an author, I instead embarked on other journeys – that of becoming a mother, a teacher, and so on. It was only about ten years ago that I decided to put my all into something I’d wanted to do from the beginning: write stories.

Tell me about “Saints and Misfits.” What is the book about? What was the inspiration behind it?

It’s a story about a Muslim fifteen year-old who finds her voice and, essentially, meets herself, in the midst of something painful. I like to call it a Muslim girl power story. But it’s not told in a dark way; the book is peopled with characters that provide the main character, Janna Yusuf, an opportunity to see the absurdities, hopefulness, and humor of life in the different communities she moves in.

I can’t say there was one inspiration behind it; it was more like I wanted to explore several threads (some that are not frequently explored, like that of how religious messages of “patience and forbearance” may be internalized wrongly, especially by Muslim women) and in weaving them, I found this story.

What was the process of getting published like for you? Did you struggle to find a publisher, or was it a fairly smooth process?

My experience of getting published will seem short ‘n sweet but I have to tell you that it took me five years to write “Saints and Misfits.” After I had finished writing the story, I spent ONE WHOLE YEAR on just rewriting the first chapter! Once I was satisfied with the manuscript (after five years, remember), I looked for a literary agent – which is the only way to approach one of the big publishing houses – and once I found the wonderful John M. Cusick of Folio Literary Management, I worked on the manuscript a bit more with his feedback and then went on to submission. The amazing Zareen Jaffery at Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Salaam Reads, showed immediate interest and we had a deal. This process of finding an agent and selling the book took about three months.

So, long story short: it was a blessedly smooth process after years of being that quintessential writer tapping away at a keyboard, ready to throw in the towel but not doing so only to prove to my 12 year-old self that you have to try your dreams.

What do you have in the works now?

I’ve finished a picture book, working on a second and in the drafting and outlining stages of another YA novel.

What inspires your stories generally? How does your background as a Muslim Canadian influence your work?

Ah-ha moments inspire my stories. Those moments that something becomes clear to you and could only become clear to you because the juxtaposition of all circumstances in your life allow it to be so. They occur throughout our lives and I like to capture that in writing. I think that’s what my short stories & narrative essays (that I write under another name) and “Saints and Misfits” are all about: that moment of clarity.

I’d like to think my background as a Canadian allows me a sense of ease when I’m writing about diversity within diverse communities. Multiculturalism is an important aspect of our Canadian identity and that plays out in our daily lives, which then spills over into my writing: the easy friendships between my diverse characters in Saints & Misfits is an example of this. And, as a Muslim, I’m naturally inclined to explore the diversities within the Muslim community – and not just the diversity of cultures, but diversities in religious understandings.

What’s your advice to young novelists trying to get published?

First, the one everyone says: read, read, read. Artists need a medium to make art and for writers, that medium is comprised of a palette of words and sentences and voice and forms and so on. The more you read, the more you have up there to work with to make your own art, your own stories.

Secondly, find your writing rhythm. Not that it will stay the same throughout your career, but read about how different writers do their job and try different things out. For years, because I was a very successful pantster in university (someone who writes by the seat of their pants, relying on inspiration, fueled by the fear of deadlines approaching), I thought I had failed because that style didn’t work for me later on in life. But then, every time I’d try methodical outlining and plotting, that didn’t work either (fall-asleep boring!). I found out my way was to balance the two: pants & plot, pants & plot, pants & plot…repeat until the book is done.

And lastly, don’t write to trends. Write the stories you want to tell, using the palette you’ve assembled (that will be unique to you because no one else in the entire world is the sum of all things you’ve read & experienced) and your audience will find you.

Actually, another lastly: don’t give up. That’s the common thing that all published writers have – they didn’t stop trying.

On food and family with author Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber is an award-winning author, with multiple books exploring identity and heritage through the lenses of language and food. She’s also written for The Washington Post and The New Yorker, among other publications, and today we have the distinct pleasure of featuring her in The Quibblerview! Diana talked about her inspiration and her new culinary memoir, Life Without A Recipe.
Diana Abu-Jaber, from her website.
When did you first begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I started writing before I knew how to write. My family was filled with story-tellers, so the experience of making stories, their shape and arc and form, was  very familiar to me. Summer vacations, starting around fourth grade, were taken up with writing novels in my school notebooks. The first real work I published was actually some poetry when I was an undergraduate in college. The Windsor Review published a couple of my poems and sent me twenty dollars-it was thrilling.
Your new book is a culinary memoir, but this isn’t the first time you’ve written about the impact of food on your life. How would you say cooking and writing intersect for you? What are the ways in which the craft involved in both is the same, and what are the ways in which it is different?
Writing and cooking are both creative, intuitive, improvisational pursuits-they also rely on focus, testing, and revision. And cooking is a wonderful metaphor for all sorts of human experiences and ways of seeing. But there’s a real timer on food that makes it a challenging, evanescent medium to work with. You have to time your dishes; you have to make sure ingredients are ripe but not overly so; you have to serve hot or cold or just so. The great mercy with writing is that-at least most of the time- you can take your time. The longer you work on most writing projects, the richer, better, more developed they become. Unless, of course, you’ve worked something to death, then you’ve got another problem.
Your books seem to cover a wide range of topics. What inspires you to write? What are some of the things you try to explore in your writing?
I write to remember, to tell my truth, to entertain myself and my friends, and in large part, I write to try to better understand myself-what I feel and think-as well as to try to better understand those around me. I seem to be haunted by issues of culture and identity, family and community, and of course food-that always seems to show up in my work, even when I’m not trying to write about it.

How do you go about constructing your novels? Do you start with the characters, the plot, or a mixture of both?
I don’t usually follow the same path-it changes from project to project. But in general, I prefer starting with a storyline of some sort-not really a whole plot, but some sort of hook or angle. My thriller Origin started when I woke up one day with a character’s voice in my head telling me her life story.

My first memoir was organized around specific food memories about cookies and baking. But my new memoir, Life Without a Recipe, began as a response to the advice I got from my writing teachers that I could be a parent or a writer but I couldn’t be both. I’d felt haunted by those voices and, after years of writing-and parenting-I wanted to answer.

What is the very first thing you do when starting a novel? And what is the last thing you when you’ve completed it?
It’s a pretty organic process for me, so I don’t have a kind of identifiable ritual or pattern. Novels start in the imagination, in dreams and conversations and observations; they accumulate. For me, there’s a lot of thinking and note-taking. Once I’ve dreamed up a story-arc, I’ll usually try to cobble together an outline, maybe do a bit of research, and soon after that I’ll attempt writing a first page.
“Completion” is an even more approximate term– there are drafts upon drafts upon drafts. I beg friends and family to read and give me feedback. Even after my agent has weighed in and my editor has sent me notes, there are more revisions as well as copy edits. Through it all, I’m plagued by uncertainty, the eternal sense of incompletion, that it can’t possibly be done. Eventually, I try to console myself with that wonderful quote: art is never finished only abandoned. And, as soon as I can, I try to start something new.
Who are some of the authors whose styles you admire?
Virigina Woolf; Michael Ondaatje; James Joyce, Ray Carver; Chekhov; Marilynne Robinson; Annie Proulx; Anton Shammas; M.F.K. Fisher, Louise Erdrich, and about a million others.