Women and the Global Imagination: Sweet Time

by Allison Williams

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Allison Williams explores cross-cultural difference and its effects on both creativity and productivity. We hope you enjoy reading. To read more on this theme, visit our store and buy or Winter 2014 issue (print or ebook), or become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Sweet Time

The auto-rickshaw driver is lost. He circles the college until I find a student who will let me use his phone. Sonia pulls up in another rickshaw, two little engines buzzing in concert while she settles up with my driver. I bundle in next to her and we go around the corner to the apartment building. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t dark glossy tile, a gold tromp l’oeil accent wall, and a modernist painting of Ganesha playing a flute. Eleven women look expectantly at me when we walk in. They are Writers’ Wing and they have been meeting monthly for ten years. I am here to teach a workshop.

Most of the two hours, we focus on how to get an idea and how to make it into a story or a novel. We talk about structure, we do a couple of exercises, I read one of my essays. Near the end, before snack time, I ask, “What is the biggest challenge you face when writing?” I’m expecting to hear something about dialogue or plot, or how to get published as an Indian writer in an English-dominated literary world.

“Well, my husband’s parents live with us. Dinner has to be something they will like, so always something cooked. By the time dinner is eaten and cleaned up, it’s almost time to go to bed.”

The ladies nod. Another one speaks up.

“After I look after my son’s homework and set my daughter’s clothes out, my mother-in-law needs me. Then the morning is gone and it’s time to cook lunch.”

Our hostess adds, “I can get time to write on the weekend, but when I come back the next week I forget my place in the story!”

I look around the circle of ladies in designer jeans, flowing salwar khameez suits, one has come from her job at the nearby temple, still in her saree. They have smartphones, maids, Twitter accounts, and a thousand years of tradition telling them to have children, a set of live-in parents, and to cook three hot meals a day for the whole lot.

* * *

Around the table at Kenyon Writers’ Workshop, three academics, two grad students, a guy from an ad agency, a California Superior Court judge and me. Sure, we have parents and in-laws. We put them in assisted living, or they move to Arizona. Even the able ones don’t live with us. Even our bitchiest mother-in-laws don’t demand deference in our houses, and if they did, we might humor them or resentfully comply, but we wouldn’t believe them entitled to it. None of us cook three times a day, with or without a maid.

Our teacher passes out oversize index cards. “Think of a particular age, between about five and fifteen,” he says. “Write everything from that same age or close to it. And write like you’re there, not looking at yourself from now.”

We write flash essays of five or six sentences from his prompts.

A smell from that time.

Your favorite item of clothing.

When you realized an adult close to you was imperfect.

In another exercise, he passes out maraschino cherries on napkins, and we write about associations with the cherries’ smell, taste and color. Each time, we shuffle the index cards and write some joining sentences.

Out of these little scraps—“crots”—we build short personal essays, then expand them. Several of us end up with sellable pieces. All of us love the workshop, we love having a week out of time, away from our jobs and homes to focus on writing, around other people focused on writing. A week of cafeteria breakfasts and dinners and social lunches at the little town deli, half of us staying in B&Bs or hotels that make our beds.

* * *

Back to Mumbai, in the beautiful upper-middle-class apartment, Writers’ Wing now having met for eleven years. Maraschino cherries aren’t a thing here, so I have asked the hostess if she can please provide something that is a small, sweet food that all the ladies would recognize from childhood.

“Well, I made ladoos, but I’m vegan now so they are beet ladoos.” The ball-shaped sweets are normally molded from graham flour and sugar held together with ghee. These are dark purple, but still sweet and textured, like a very dense donut.

“OK,” I say. “Let’s freewrite a little bit about the ladoos. You can write as yourself, or as the character you’re writing in your latest story. Start with looking, and write a few sentences about what that color reminds you of.”

We write about smell, and pinch them with our fingers for texture, and taste them carefully, trying not to get purple crumbs on the white leather sofa.

“Next step. Shuffle your papers into any order. Then take a look at what you wrote. Clean it up a little, not major editing. Then write a couple of sentences that connect the four short sections to each other.”

We go around the circle and read our miniature essays.

“I remember my grandmother brushing my hair. Her skin was brown like a regular ladoo and she had a purple saree like this ladoo.”

“We took ladoos to school, maybe Mom would have a box of them from a wedding, and she’d put them in my lunch. After lunch, we all smelled each other’s hands to see what we had eaten.”

I am totally bemused by the thought of schoolchildren politely smelling each other, but it’s a thing, they all did it, they say. There are stories about a favorite pair of shoes, about a dog that followed a girl to school, about growing up female and Indian and in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore. They remember their mother’s hands and their father’s anger, the same things I remember. They are surprised at how easily some of the pieces become whole.

“You could publish that!” one lady says to another. Then her face lights up. “I could write one of these while I’m waiting for the pot to boil!”

The room dissolves into chatter about short breaks—when I’m waiting for my son to come out of school, when my daughter is at her music lesson. I eat another ladoo and it tastes of time, the sweetness of scraps salvaged and pressed into something whole.

Allison Williams's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewThe Drum, The New York Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the Social Media Editor for Brevity and a two-time winner of The Moth StorySLAM. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram or visit her website idowords.net.