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A Short Analysis of Lord Byron’s ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’

Dated ‘Missolonghi, Jan. 22, 1824’, ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ is a poem Lord Byron wrote on his 36th birthday, less than three months before he died. Byron was at Missolonghi, in Greece, fighting with the Greeks in their war for independence. It’s one of Byron’s most […]

In Conversation

In the early months of 2021, with the pubs and clubs, not to mention the shops, closed until further notice, Jeremy Atherton Lin  and Kevin Brazil came together to talk to reminisce about drag nights and gay clubs, and the community these places nurture. Atherton Lin is the author of Gay Bar, a cultural and personal history of gay bars across London, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Kevin Brazil’s What Ever Happened to Queer Happiness? will be published by Influx Press in 2022.

 

Kevin Brazil:

When lockdown first hit – good lord, it’s almost been a year – I couldn’t bear the thought of going out. Getting through was just about all I could manage. Even in the summer, when there were raves happening up in Hackney Marshes, and a friend told me stories of everyone sitting around a bonfire, passing around a key, I was like: nah, I’m good.

I went to one socially distanced drag show in Bethnal Green in October. Maybe eight tables, one song each from three queens. (A little stingy, don’t you think?) We couldn’t cheer, so we had to shake maracas. And the maracas didn’t even work. It was the saddest drag show I ever did see, and not in a sweet way. It was just sad.

But over Christmas it really hit me. I think like everyone I thought bars and clubs would be opening up again this year, and now, who knows. I spent December going for runs in the countryside and listening to lives mixes recorded at clubs and festivals on my headphones. I spent January reading about the history of nightclubs. And then I read your book, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. I know it must have been written and finished a while ago, but now that subtitle has taken on a whole other meaning. You spend a lot of time imagining what would happen if gay bars no longer existed – what is it like for the book to come out in a world where, at least temporarily here in London, they really don’t?

 

Jeremy Atherton Lin:

Kevin! The failed maracas are so zeitgeisty. I guess one way of thinking about it is, yes, that was a pathetic event, but what would the online version have been? The equivalent to failed maracas on social media is, at best, the humiliation of very few likes. At worst, it’s accusations flying, people piling on. Lately I find myself assuming all queer people are mad at one another. Perhaps because we aren’t engaging in spaces where something like the maracas malfunction occurs, sad but also funny. (Or was it not even funny?) The saturnine humour of the paltry rattle, something spontaneously experienced in real time and space. And the sidelong glance. The actual sensation of feeling seen. Proprioception. And maybe the drag queen onstage says something a bit yikes, a bit iffy, but hey she’s an elder, it’s a performance, let’s give her a chance. (Then she strikes again. But at least there’s someone else there to share another sidelong glance with.) And maybe the bartender is a hottie but you don’t envy his job in a pandemic. So instead of the compare-and-despair that happens alone on a device, this person becomes dimensional, their earlier and later more readily imaginable. And you watch him laugh with one customer then grimace at the next, and there are dimensions.

But, yes, same as you, initially I didn’t want to go out, either. The lockdown put a moratorium on serendipity. There’s this Henry James passage on the lines of, a city’s excitement is the danger lurking around the corner, even if you never turn that corner. Now around-the-corner has been closed.

Around the time of the first lockdown, I came across this popperbate video comprising different porn clips edited together to create a narrative of horny men in an American suburb who commune via cam from behind closed doors. It includes establishing shots, taken from Google Street View or whatever, of banal suburban curbs and hedges and driveways, the suggestion being that a frisson runs through the street. I have to admit, I find that sexy. I’m from the suburbs. I grew up at the end of a cul-de-sac. I have come to kind of embrace my suburban view of the world, which, for me growing up, was very much about observing popular culture at a remove.

But my larger concern is that as we sequester online, our lack of imagination threatens to foreclose our respect for other people’s realities.

Hope things are ok as can be with you. Sun today!

 

Brazil:

Dimensions: what a gorgeous way to phrase it, and what a beautiful thing to have done – to have taken that anecdote about maracas and unfolded it to reveal all the facets of what that evening could have been. For of course a sad evening out is better than sitting at home, observing, as you say, queers getting mad at each other online. I’ll take your fantasised version of that night over what really happened – though isn’t that the truth of any night out?

I wonder if the online anger is also caused by the queers not being able to be together in person. Being less able to support each other to cope with the shit that keeps happening. I think of the UK High Court ruling, in December, that trans children now need a court order to access hormones for their health care, and what it must be like for them, and their loved ones, to be doing that more alone.

That those maracas were disappointing, though, made me think of one of the first lines that really struck me in Gay Bar: ‘The gay bars of my life have consistently disappointed.’ Mine too! And from the very beginning. Here is another anecdote for you. The first time I went to a gay bar I was maybe seventeen, it was called The George. I had taken a three-hour bus up from the country where I lived to the city, had gotten changed in a McDonalds, and went to the small side bar open during the day – nicknamed, as I would later learn, Jurassic Park (think about it). I went in, a guy in his forties bought me a Coke, and it took him about 5 minutes to invite me back to his. ‘I worked on Madonna’s last tour, you know.’ Could all the clichés I have feared have been more confirmed? In a way, the disappointment was exquisite.

And yet I’ve kept going back, for all the reasons you write: ‘If my experiences in gay bars have been disappointing, what I wouldn’t want to lose is the expectation of a better night. Gay is an identity of longing, and there is a wistfulness to beholding it in the form of a building, like how the sight of a theatre stirs the imagination.’ I wonder if the disappointment of gay bars – one I wouldn’t want to lose – is bound up with what you say they offer: the sidelong glance. The sidelong glance might lead somewhere – but it might not.

And this, in turn, might not just be something inherent to gay bars, or ‘gay’ as a specific identity, but to your final concern: our respect for other people’s realities. Their sidelong glances might not give us what we want; I’d hazard to say they mostly don’t. But we go out, as you write, ‘to take risks . . . to be close to other bodies’.

One thing I admired in Gay Bar was how it used the gay bar to think about the history of a very specific social identity – ‘the gay’ – but also the nature of our social identities in general. That all ‘our identities always lie in the aspiration’. You track how those aspirations have changed, in your own life, and in Britain and the US around you: aspiring to be ‘gay’, then a ‘fag’, then ‘queer’. We can see our identities as different aspirations – not different truths about who we are – which allows us to question them, analyse them, and maybe get rid of them, with less of a sense of threat. Or is that just a way of avoiding risk?

Things are OK with me, and I hope they are too with you. And sun again here in south London!

 

Atherton Lin:

You were intrepid. A three hour bus ride! My first experiences were very much about being taken along. Almost like being assigned gay. Acquaintances detected a flair and presumed homosexuality. But I thought it possible these two things were coincident, that my particular flame was my own and didn’t belong to gay. You wrestle with something like this in your essay ‘Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness?’ Do your thoughts around this shift?

Your three-hour bus displayed some impressive self-knowing. I was being read. Are there self-identifications you prefer? As you mentioned, I love fag. For myself. Homosexual as a noun is now unsayable, and therefore kind of tempting. Supposedly Foucault wrote about himself San Francisco, ‘I am a homosexual in a city full of gays.’ Gay Liberation is a tremendous legacy, but the word gay can feel embarrassing. I don’t think that’s internalized shame. It just sounds goofy. I never heard it positively as a kid. Now it’s anodyne. And I always felt gay bar was a term to be played in a minor key. ‘Here’s to the gay bar’ sings Frank Ocean, mentioning it just once (and he is taken there). To me, personally, queer can feel like the Tate Britain term – weirdly, the one I employ to avoid offending delicate sensibilities. High-end anodyne. But that’s unfair to its expansive roots, its role as an upsetter. Just as disavowing gay may be spurning hippie elders (gay as in Gay Sunshine).

Anyway, either through your own impetus or my own passivity, the gay bar was a given. That may be something I keep trying to articulate: that homosexuality can be private, but gay is public-facing. When I’ve written about feeling real, I suggest that identity may lie in the aspiration. But also in my example of the song ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),’ it begins ‘you make me’ – so it’s not just about feeling real, but feeling seen. I tried to enact that in the writing, later in the book: mutual recognition. Maybe a little narcissism thrown in? That’s cool with me.

I wonder if that guy actually worked on a Madonna tour. His identity was in the proximity. And he wanted close proximity with you. Do you remember the bus ride home?

 

Brazil:

I remember the cream knitted vest I bought in a thrift shop, thinking I needed something gay-but-not-too-gay to wear (though really, what was I thinking). I remember how greasy his curls were on his balding head (was it Brylcreem? Dax Wax?). But the ride home? Nothing. I think that’s because, for me, the thrill has always been in the anticipation, the potential, what might be. Since we are swapping Foucault anecdotes: I’ve never agreed with his belief, perfect as it is as a quip, that the best moment in the life of a homosexual is ‘likely to be when the lover leaves in the taxi’. For me it has always been waiting for him to arrive.

Maybe that pleasure in the idea of potential, the moment when you believe something unscripted can happen, isn’t so far from your belief that your flame was your own. And maybe it is a way of answering your question about labels and cultural prescriptions. ‘Fag’ to me, has always been too North American. It always sounds in my head with a drawling American accent; I can’t even hear it in Irish English. ‘Queer’ was something I first encountered in the pages of an academic textbook, long after I knew I was attracted to men (I’ve never known I wasn’t). So it has always felt foreign, and today, I share your sense that it is a bit ‘Tate Britain’, a bit heritage. I have spent a lot of time wondering, and some time writing, about the conundrum you meditate on in Gay Bar ‘of whether such subcultures are heritagable at all’. It seems like every day there is a new queer heritage project. Only today I read about a queer heritage audio walking tour designed for Cambridge University. Do you think there can be ‘queer’ heritage? Is that the same as asking: do you think there should be? Though I also share your sense that this hesitancy is unfair to everything that ‘queer’ as an identification has been able to achieve. And that the security to be so hesitant is a luxury that previous generations of queer activists made possible. ‘Gay’ – that is what existed as the world’s name for what my desire was, and I walked right into it, just like I walked into that gay bar, and it felt fine.

But would I have built it for myself? Probably not. Since aren’t these labels and spaces erected by heterosexuality as a way to manage its issues? And honey, doesn’t she have issues. In my essay about queer happiness, as you sensed, I wanted to write about how limited the scripts of gayness and queerness can be. Or rather – the public scripts, since like you, I more and more think that these scripts and identities are about claiming a public identity, which is about achieving political rights, social recognition, and so on, but really has little to do with telling the truth of who we are and what we want. Which is why straight memoir and autobiography don’t quite fit as the literary genres to grapple with identity, at least for me. Where I am now, is where that essay ended up – the anecdote of Lou Sullivan feeling most gay when he checks out another gay man checking him out on the street. (Is that another version of your sidelong glance?) Who we are – which is what we are using these labels to try and pin down – comes into existence through the recognition of others. (Another reason why first-person writing can’t quite grasp how identification works). That is why these demands are so fraught, I think. It’s not enough to say who we are: the fight is over having others say they believe it, that they see it, that they will say it back. And we can’t ever control other people. That is the pleasure, and also the terror.

Though we still have to offer a version of ourselves to those others. You write, at one point, that ‘Memoir is how you groom yourself. Memoir is drag.’ I loved this idea of memoir as drag. It’s as much of performance as anything – and no worse for that. I wonder what you think of memoir more broadly. Why has it become the dominant literary form at the moment? Or perhaps – the dominant tone, inflecting fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. What is so seductive about it? What do we want from reading it? Do we forget that it’s drag?

 

Atherton Lin:

I was on my daily constitutional, thinking: Kurt Cobain proposed that everyone is gay as a kind of irony; now everyone is queer and it’s a kind of banality. Then I had a chat with my mom and she called me Jemmy, just a variation on Jem, for Jeremy, but I took delight because jemmy was supposedly an epithet based on the reputation of King James VI and I as being passive in bed (and global affairs). So there’s an archaic one, possibly due a revision – or screamer, from early in last century, is good. I like the dirty and obnoxious histories, and that seems different than heritage, it’s more like gossip.

And you’re so right on the pronunciation of fag. I say it so American, so Californian – it could never sound like a cigarette. My accent is fickle. I grew up in California, but I’ve lived in the UK for 14 years . . . today I find myself saying tuh-mah-tow not ta-may-toe so that people understand me. There’s so much pressure to be our true real self, and here I am faking an accent to be polite, so that the person knows I mean tomato, and isn’t forced to ask me to repeat myself. So etiquette punctures essentialism.

There’s an analogy I left out of Gay Bar because it generalised other gays, but it still seems kind of true for me . . . There are two different bars in the book named the Black Cat, one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t help thinking about the perhaps apocryphal notion that black cats evolved to be amenable and affectionate in order to shirk their bad rep. Like, don’t worry, you can cross my path, I’ll just lie here in the sun being sweet not hexing you. But obviously I’d never want to make a claim that all gays are eager to please. Which brings me to the memoir drag: a part of me does write to be liked. Wayne Koestenbaum has written about that. Or our friend Foucault saying he wrote to get laid, basically. As soon as you realise you can’t show everything, and you select and, I think, the performance begins.

Rather naively, I didn’t really foresee how people would take my book to mirror their own experience. The ‘we’ in the subtitle, Why We Went Out, is more about me and my lover, or a small gang of us. It’ll be taken that I’m speaking for all of gaykind but throughout the book it turns out to be a red herring, something that – due to difference, or outright factionalism – is revealed to be impossible. The first person in the book, or first person plural, is a lot about inhabiting my imagined self, or presented self, but also how I am the product of other people’s legacies. We inherit past glory and mistakes. We’re porous. I actually am very porous – things get stuck in my skin easily. I told Wayne Koestenbaum that once, and he replied that I have five thousand vaginas. Anyway, that’s why we need to get back out in spaces together, I think. To invade each other’s borders. And for someone to say something that takes you by surprise.

 

The post In Conversation appeared first on Granta.

The Best Online Book Clubs For 2021 | Writer’s Relief

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Submit SHORT STORIES AND BOOK EXCERPTS ONLY!

DEADLINE: Thursday, March 11th, 2021

The Best Online Book Clubs For 2021 | Writer’s Relief

If you’ve been missing meeting up with other writers and readers to discuss books—check out virtual book clubs! Writer’s Relief has found a great article on bookriot.com that lists the fifteen best online book clubs. Books and Boba may be a great place to start, since it’s a podcast and a book club all in one. Or check out the New York Public Library’s Book Club or Oprah’s Book Club!

Check out the full list here.

 

Richard Alther: How Literary Fiction Is Like a Rorschach Test

Novelist Richard Alther explains how his latest book, Bedside Matters, opened his eyes to the writer’s evolving relationship with their work and the benefit of adding uncertainty to a plot.

Richard Alther was born and raised in suburban New Jersey. He graduated as an English major from Cornell University and pursued twin careers as a writer and painter. He is the author of five novels: The Decade of Blind Dates (2008), Siegfried Follies (2010), The Scar Letters (2013), Roxie & Fred (2017), and Bedside Matters (2021).

After several years in Manhattan, he moved to Vermont and earned his family’s living writing extensively about vegetable gardening and homesteading. His simultaneous career as an exhibiting painter included gallery representation and one-person shows in Montreal, London, Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, and Florida.

Follow Richard’s blogs and essays on Medium: richardalther.medium.com

Richard Alther

In this post, Alther explains how his latest book, Bedside Matters, opened his eyes to the writer’s evolving relationship with their work, the benefit of adding uncertainty to a plot, and more!

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Proper grammar, punctuation, and mechanics make your writing correct. In order to truly write well, you must also master the art of form and composition. From sentence structure to polishing your prose, this workshop will enhance your writing, no matter what type of writing you do.

Click to continue.
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Name: Richard Alther
Literary agent: Wildbound PR & Literary Management
Title: Bedside Matters
Publisher: Rare Bird Books
Release date: March 9, 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: A cinematic non-linear take and frank examination of the promise of life, even at its end, Bedside Matters concern us all at one time or another as we ask the ultimate question: What matters most?
Previous titles by the author: The Decade of Blind Dates (2008), Siegfried Follies (2010), The Scar Letters (2013), and Roxie & Fred (2017)

Beside Matters by Richard Alther

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

What prompted you to write this book?

Losing two of my closest friends in their 40s left an indelible scar on my soul. In a lifetime of reading serious fiction, especially contemporaries for me like Roth and Updike, mortality was evident as an underpinning of their characters’ feverish grasp onto life while they could. In writing my five published novels, each was triggered by immersion in a particular issue, usually contentious, about which I wanted to explore multiple viewpoints: to raise questions without necessarily settling on an answer. We typically have nonfiction for that. For Beside Matters, I addressed one possible scenario to how life could end, looking back without regrets and on a note of grace. I wanted to see inside my protagonist’s head and heart to imagine how one might approach death with forgiveness, dignity, and peace.

(When You Outgrow Your Genre: Tips From a Romance-Turned-Literary Novelist)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

This novel, like my others, took two to three years from start to final draft. Much of this process for me is saturation in other books, especially nonfiction tangent to my central theme, in this case, of one person’s dying. It gestated through filling notebooks with ideas. Bedside Matters started with what impending death might mean not only for my protagonist, Walter, but also for his adult children, the ex-wife who left him, former business associates, and new characters entering the last year of his life. The story ended, however, with an exclusive focus on Walter’s journey. Yes, his reactions to others but the singular choices he made for navigating each twist in the path.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

With the benefit of an editor, I confronted the challenge of adding measures of uncertainty to better encourage the reader to advance. For example, in one exchange of Walter’s offering a financial gift to his former wife (he’d already taken good care of her), she kindly declines what she sees as another bid for her forgiveness at ending their marriage. I had only written another notch in his belt of belated generosity. Now, it’s more complicated and engaging for the reader, myself included.

(Why Literary Fiction Isn’t Boring)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

Whereas I thought I was crafting a story about a man as a fictional medium for investigating my fixation with dying, it became “a dress rehearsal” for me personally. I wasn’t anticipating that. To quote Joan Didion on the creative process, “Every choice one makes alone—every word was chosen or rejected, every brushstroke laid or not laid down (I’m a painter as well) betrayed one’s character—on the canvas or the page … How you make those choices reveal everything about the person that you are.” So, a novel, like a painting, is a self-absorbed Rorschach test. I already knew I write about what compels me. I learned, particularly with this book, that I was digging much deeper at a look into my psyche and true self.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I would hope a reader of Bedside Matters would gain insight into the thought that dying can open to an expanded view of the leaving of life. It can involve forgiving oneself, or not; forgiving others, or not; appreciating joys experienced, or not; acknowledging the gifts of love, or not. For a rich man, it could be seeing one’s privilege in the context of all humanity, a world of increasing haves and have-nots, and his providing for many people beyond his immediate family of heirs. Above all, I would hope a reader might come away, if applicable, with the usual, iron-clad self-construct in our Western culture of rugged individualism shifting to one more modest, as an ordinary person inextricably woven into a much, much grander whole.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I regard the education of a writer is to read, and never stop. Clearly, we are drawn to masters of the craft, but also to wholly new chapters of innovation, possibilities for ourselves beyond the writers we most admire as well as learn and take inspiration from. A final item of advice: The process is the payoff. If you love to write, the rest can follow.

5 Fascinating Hobbies Of Famous Writers | Writer’s Relief

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Submit SHORT STORIES AND BOOK EXCERPTS ONLY!

DEADLINE: Thursday, March 11th, 2021

5 Fascinating Hobbies Of Famous Writers | Writer’s Relief

When you picture famous writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or Leo Tolstoy, your mind’s eye probably has them scribbling away at their next great book. But what do writers do when they’re not…writing? The research experts at Writer’s Relief took a few moments to uncover the unexpected, fascinating hobbies of a few famous writers.

Unexpected Hobbies Of Famous Writers

Emily Dickinson: Dickinson was an accomplished baker. She won second prize in the 1856 Amherst Cattle Show for her round loaf of Indian and Rye. And Dickinson wrote numerous drafts of her poems on kitchen papers…including a wrapper from a Parisian baking chocolate!

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Sherlock Holmes author began playing cricket in school and continued participating in the sport for over thirty years. According to the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, he played in 412 matches for more than fifty different teams. Conan Doyle often played cricket with other writers, including J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan!

Agatha Christie: Christie developed a passion for archaeology after a trip to Baghdad. How did she get there? On the Orient Express, of course! It was during this trip that she met her future husband, Sir Max Mallowan, whom she would later accompany on archaeological digs.

Leo Tolstoy: The War and Peace author was an avid chess player. Tolstoy learned how to play the game when he was just a young boy. Snippets about him in chess magazines reported that he and his family were quite passionate about chess—his pets were even named after chess pieces!

Sylvia Plath: Plath’s father was an entomologist who specialized in bees. At one point, Plath and her husband decided to become beekeepers. Before Plath passed away, she wrote a series of five poems about bees.

 

Question: What’s your favorite non-writing hobby?

Why Do I Write in My Colonizers’ Language?

When I started keeping a diary at twelve, it was in English. The daily newspapers we read at home were in Hindi, but to foster a better understanding and faster learning of the language, my father had subscribed to an English business daily as well as an English national daily. In school we were penalized a hefty 5 rupees for every word spoken in Hindi. At age five, I was awarded Best in English by my class teacher. In the subsequent parent-teacher meeting she asked my parents the recipe behind my success in the language, to which my father had replied jokingly, “We talk in English at home.” We didn’t, but it sounded good.

For my family, friends, relatives, and teachers, English was seen as a language of access. It could land you better jobs, remove limitations, and open up avenues. English speakers were high achievers, often conflated with the colonizers who ruled over us for about 200 years. It was ironic that the language of our colonizers was seen as aspirational, something that could lift us out of the discomfort that our parents’ mid-level jobs put us through. In reading all the subjects at school in English, we were made to understand that English was the language of possibilities. My cousins who studied in Hindi schools wouldn’t have all the opportunities that would have been available for me.  

Torn between these two worlds, I found accidental love in the language that was imposed upon me.

Torn between these two worlds, I found accidental love in the language that was imposed upon me. From a young age of six or seven I started voluntarily, subconsciously veering towards reading and writing in English. Every April we would get new books for the next class. I would cover them with brown paper, stapling all four corners secure, and then dive into the stories within. 

After the end term exams in March, we would get a short ten-day break before starting the new session. During this break we would get to buy new books, notebooks, prepare school uniforms and bags for the new session. By the end of the week before school re-opened, I would have finished reading all the short stories in the English and Hindi coursebooks. An introverted child prone to reading in heaps almost always alone, I would then go on to keep a notebook called the “rough copy” and jot down all the thoughts I had after reading those stories. I chose to write them in English to keep my parents thinking that I was doing something of value, importance and related to school. In fact, subliminally I was drifting further into a self-structured culture of reading in the language of my colonizers.

The year 2020, full of challenges as it was, was also the year I started publishing non-fiction.  When I graduated from writing for myself to writing professionally, my chosen language of publication was English. I had worked as a reporter for several national English dailies before, but this writing was for myself alone. It did not come as a surprise to me. Through the last five years I had tried to rebuild my relationship with Hindi. I bought books, read them, albeit very slowly. I sometimes wrote in Hindi, too. When the mood struck, I would type messages in the Devangiri script to friends, family, and especially my mother on WhatsApp. I tried hard to read and re-read Hindi literature writers I had grown up reading, to reignite a spark where there was a long-existing deadness. Despite it all, I kept falling behind. One way or the other, I would lose patience, procrastinate, or simply lose interest and put off reading or writing in Hindi to another day.

Learning English was equivalent to being aspirational, ambitious, and striving.

In April 2020, when my first personal essay was published, I found myself at an impasse. A dilemma confronted me: Why was I writing in English? The more I tried to think about it, the more the answer eluded me. Once again I sat through long afternoons watching interviews of writers in Hindi on YouTube. Understanding the language was not a problem, but I had been brought up to think of Hindi as an obsolete tool. A knowledge of Hindi language alone did not ensure a great career. Drab government jobs, teaching opportunities in the heartland, and a clutch of other such limited avenues would be available to people who did not know the English language. Learning it was equivalent to being aspirational, ambitious, and striving. As kids, my brother and I were often produced before relatives and family friends to recite a poem in English, or just reel off a passage from Shakespeare. Back then, it was a marker of respect, class and being upwardly mobile. But personally, English meant a remove from my daily life, a place wherein I could hide and be by myself reading, writing, existing. 

And English had its own talismans. In standard five my English teacher Priyanka Gulati told us, a class full of about 47 children, that any student’s best friend is a dictionary.  She made this remark specifically to English, making me think about the language in another new way. While we did have a Hindi to English dictionary at home, getting an English to English one piqued my interest. It opened up my vocabulary, loaning me more time and showing me ways in which the language could be used. This was more than fifteen years ago, and I remember those words crystalize in the inner recesses of my mind. Since then, till about five years ago, I would buy a small English dictionary every now and then, keeping it in the pocket of my clothes, or in the small sling bag I always carried. A pencil, a dictionary, a notebook—these have forever since kept me company through my three big career moves across seven cities in two countries.

Whenever I sat with an English storybook, or an English language newspaper in hand, reading it, that paraphernalia—pencil, notebook, dictionary—was my little fort of protection. The language opened vistas for me that were inviting. They were happier, lighter places of joy, winters, snowfalls and Daffodils. Short stories by Kathrine Mansfield, Anton Chekov, Leo Tolstoy and Guy De Maupassant in English, became a portal to a new, richer place I was not content being a mere visitor to. Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore’s short story The Postmaster was inviting to me because the details in English language kept me hinged. It was a thrill to discover that a place in India could be written about in a foreign language (English) in a way that would become accessible to me. Similarly, I felt a pull each time I read something in English, realizing that my experiences in Hindi could be translated and written in English for someone, anyone to read. 


I was raised speaking French, and did not begin learning English until I was nearly 7 years old. Even after that, French continued to be the language I spoke at home with my parents. (I still speak only French with them to this day.) This fact inevitably affects my recall and evocation of my childhood, since I am writing and primarily thinking in English. There are states of mind, even people and events, that seem inaccessible in English, since they are defined by the character of the language through which I perceived them. My second language has turned out to be my principal tool, my means for making a living, and it lies close to the core of my self-definition. My first language, however, is coiled underneath, governing a more primal realm.

This passage from Luc Sante’s essay Living in Tongues correctly captures the crux of my relationship with English and Hindi. With liberalization, modernity, and technology making their way into our lives after 1991 (the year of national economic reforms, and also the year when I was born), the Hindi that I was so closely attached to also underwent a change. English so densely permeated the air outside our houses that we didn’t even realize when it started drifting inwards. With liberalization, privatization and globalization, as a nation we were moving forward, using English as our crutch to get ahead. In the years that followed, English started assuming a bigger role in the lives of all of us middle- and upper-middle class Indians. From being a luxury, it was moving towards a necessity. My mother’s office graduated from the use of typewriters to computers. This meant she shifted to using English has her modus operandi in office, coming home with books on the Gandhi family written in English. In this way, Hindi began fading farther back into my life as the lingua franca of my daily life with parents, relatives and close friends. A link to my own history, Hindi became the cotton pyjamas I wore at home, while English would be my uniform for school time.

Born to an erstwhile British colony, I have come to understand that heritage comes with burden of maintenance.

In 2021, while my speaking and thinking still continues to be dominated by English, I dream in a no-language grammar or in the Hindi of my childhood. When interacting with our house help or the vegetable vendor, I flit to the Hindi of my hometown. In this I get a peek at the myriad ways in which language dominates and controls how I navigate through life. Among the several parallels between life in my hometown, Kanpur, and Delhi (250 miles away) where I work,  the omnipresence of Hindi is one of the most significant. In the years before, I noticed the small ways in which English took over my life; now I notice Hindi overlapping and projecting itself, almost as if asserting its tiny presence over the larger-than-life façade that English casts over us. While talking to my boyfriend, at times, I slip unknowingly into Hindi. This is new—it didn’t used to happen in mid-2018 when we started going out—and it makes him uncomfortable, because his first language is Bengali. I make him understand then that as I am growing older in Delhi, so close to home, my English is beginning to gather a thin patina of Hindi.       

Born to an erstwhile British colony, I have come to understand that heritage comes with burden of maintenance. And it has certainly not been easy for India to chart its own path after independence. Some of the more enduring legacies of the British Raj continue to form a big part of our identity and symbolize much of what is right and wrong with it. The English language tops the list. India’s 2011 Census showed English as the primary language of 256,000 people, the second language of 83 million people, and the third language of another 46 million. This makes it the second-most widely spoken language after Hindi.

In my 30 years of life in India, I have traversed the long route of understanding and learning English as the ticket to a better life to now dealing with the language English in a routine, almost mundane way. When I went to school, my parents wanted me to learn the language so as to secure a better career. Now, English has become the language across all kinds of workplaces. Across these diverse workplaces, it is a unifying language, but the way in which it is employed and spoken differs vastly.

Each morning, when I buy vegetables from the vendor outside my house, we talk in Hindi, but we always sign off the transaction in English. I say a thank you and almost always, if he’s not in a crushing hurry, Raju replies with a simple, “You’re welcome, didi.” The recent Census confirmed that English in India is no longer a foreign language, and I see this in my life as well. The colonial language has also become a unifying medium of conversation. 

But it still carries colonial legacies. Since I arrived at the language from school and in the spoken way, I tend to use long, complicated words for seemingly mundane things, words that no native English language speaker would use. When I get a word wrong in its meaning or usage there is an instant pang of shame, that is unlikely to be found in any native speaker. A lot of Indian writing in English still continues to be in a “flowery” version of the language that makes for difficult reading. Friends have found it tough to read some of my earlier writing without referring to a dictionary. I now realize that these are colonial burdens, shames that we have carried forward without realizing their nature and gravity. 

The fact that English is my colonizers’ language makes me queasy. It was an unintended gift, acquired at the cost of a lot of lives.

The fact that English is my colonizers’ language makes me queasy. It was an unintended gift, acquired at the cost of a lot of lives, money, and years of suppression. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha, in his book Inglorious Empire writes, “That Indians seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation was to their credit, not by British design.” The English language in India has now moved on from being just a language to a way of life, a common ground. But it’s important to remember that it was initially employed as a tool to rule, divide and suppress us. These were the words of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay when he wanted to introduce the language in India: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals, and in intellect.” 

Writers like Sante and Vladimir Nabokov, who also learned English as a second language as a child, have a control that is superior to that of most native speakers. They write fluidly, with grace, pulling the reader intuitively into their worlds. While I am yet to let go the pedantic ways in which I use the English language, I also continue to read and mend my relationship with Hindi. While I am acutely attuned to the ways in while English defines the colorisms of my daily experience of life as it is lived, I also look at being once again a fluent reader and writer of Hindi. 

Luc Sante in his essay Lingua Franca writes, “In order to write of my childhood I have to translate. It is as if I were writing about someone else. As a boy, I lived in French; now, I live in English. The words don’t fit, because languages are not equivalent to one another.” This mirrors much of my life as a kid, so much of which was lived in Hindi. Now, at 30, as I continue to find my place in the writing world, I believe I could live in either of the languages—Hindi or English—but I choose English. It’s a burden, carrying the heavy weight of a colonial legacy forward, but in doing so, I have also found a struggle and language unique to me. Sometimes it does occur to me that I might not have an authority over either of the languages, but like Sante, it also lends me an advantage of mobility. In drifting between them, I could be anywhere or nowhere at all.

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