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Creative Thought at Work The writing life


The Web site of Neela Vaswani ’96 re- veals her penchant for “paleontology, the Indian railway system, female detec- tives on television, goats, bats, bad-tem- pered camels, her husband, and online Boggle.” It notes that “she is left-handed, although she plays the fiddle and knits right-handed.”


It also offers a look at her writing life, which includes the recent book You Have Given Me a Country. Part memoir, part history, part fiction, it addresses “themes of identity, in-betweenness, categoriza- tion, and love” in the context of her family, says Vaswani, who is the daugh- ter of an Irish Catholic mother and a Sindhi Indian father.


A Skidmore creative-writing major and Asian studies minor, Vaswani says she re- ceived unflagging encouragement from professors in the English department. (One even set her up with her husband, actor Holter Graham ’94.) After gradua- tion she moved to New York City and worked “seemingly crappy” jobs—deliver- ing phone books, doing data entry, wait- ressing, being a prop girl for independent movies, driving an ice-cream truck, doing sound for low-budget theater produc- tions—which afforded her more flexible writing time than a 9-to-5 job. These slice-of-life work experiences also provid- ed fodder for her craft. “I soaked up everything,” she says, “and used it in my writing. I learned how to pay attention to the world around me, how to channel


emotion, how to notice and store details in a creative way.” Vaswani went on to earn an MFA in fiction from Vermont College and a PhD in American cultural studies from the University of Maryland. You Have Given Me a Country began as her dissertation. “All the themes I’d been studying for years were still bubbling inside me” after


But as Vaswani says, “writing should be a labor. It’s a craft that needs time and dedication and sweat.”


NEELA VASWANI ‘96 HAS WRITTEN A “FIERCELY BEAUTIFUL” NOVEL.


“I SOAKED UP EVERYTHING AND


USED IT IN MY WRITING. I LEARNED HOW TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE WORLD AROUND ME, HOW TO CHANNEL EMOTION, HOW


TO NOTICE AND STORE DETAILS IN A CREATIVE WAY.”


the PhD was finished, she says, and “it felt like the right time to turn the material into a story.” That’s not to say it was easy. Vaswani spent six years on the project. “It was tough to get the imaginative space need- ed for me to create characters out of my family mem- bers, to show them as realistically as possible,” she says. “I wanted readers to fall in love with my parents, and


the best way to do that, I felt, was to make them into complex characters.” In researching and interviewing, Vaswani didn’t expect to learn as much as she did about her family—and herself. She feels more connected now, stronger, “part of a longer line”; there’s a broader context for understanding her life. In that sense, the writing was cathartic as well as laborious.


During a particularly diffi- cult spell in the revision stage, she got a boost from Barack Obama’s election. “Something about the face of the American president changing, and that new face being biracial, helped shake me out of my writing troubles. The structure of the memoir fell into place.” Reviewers have called You Have Given Me a Country “fierce - ly beautiful,” “mesmerizing and poetic,” “a wonder, a whole world.” But what’s more important for Vaswani is that her family and friends love the book. “Those are the critics who mean the most to me,” she says. Others have told her the memoir “made them think about their own families and


their context in history, and to ask ques- tions of their parents and grandparents, and to sit and listen to the ‘old stories’ again.” Vaswani is working on her third book, a young-adult novel due out from Can- dlewick Press in 2012. (Her earlier work includes short stories that have been widely anthologized and won her an O. Henry Award in 2006.) The writing life, she’ll tell you, is all-consuming and not for the faint-hearted. Despite its romantic reputation, “sometimes it’s no fun at all. It’s a lot of drudgery and frustration, to say nothing of the backaches and poor pay,” she says. “But if it’s who you are and what you’re meant to do, there’s nothing better.” —MTS


EDITOR’S NOTE


For more exemplars of creative thought at work, see http://cms.skidmore.edu/ctw


30 SCOPE WINTER 2011


CHARLIE SAMUELS


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