I am struggling with the self-promotion part of being an author. There are so many voices in this world, so many fascinating perspectives and important issues to consider, so I'm usually playing the role of listener. Aren't writers supposed to help make sense of all those voices, rather than compete with them? I continuously feel pressed to make up my mind about myriad topics, vast and myopic, based on information I take in all day long -- is it unethical to buy quinoa from certain distributors? What information do I need to form a stance on fracking, and whose stats can I trust? Should I take my friend seriously when he proclaims to be a men's rights activist? Should I read that David Sedaris book on my desk first or On Human Nature - which will benefit me more as a person and writer? More info on Syria, click. An op-ed on machoism in the movie industry, click. An analysis of gun violence in the U.S., click. An inspirational piece about a man who tried to helicopter around the Arctic Circle, click. "10 Ways to Reduce and ReUse," click. Sign our petition to end solitary confinement of pregnant inmates!, click.
With so many voices, I find I am increasingly distracted. Writing is an act of centering myself, of returning to my own voice and locating my perspective in the midst of everyone else's. Publishing is an act of promoting this expression, which is where I have found some discomfort. There is a constant debate of whether we have raised or lowered the bar for all writers by making publishing so accessible; on one hand, the competition is fiercer and one would hope that the best will rise to the top naturally (a capitalistic view?), but on the other hand, it offers a soap box for ideas not fully formulated, for more noise to block out what we all need to hear. Writing should be a modest endeavor, but publishing is inherently not, no matter how much you believe in what you are saying. That is why I am always on edge about posting blog posts and participating in Twitter and Facebook, i.e. Writer Promotion 101. Am I adding to the noise? Am I saying what has already been said? Will people benefit from what I say? While I'm chattering, what am I missing?
Writers always have to balance this desire to listen but also be heard. We might wrestle with this sense of perfectionism in what we put out there, as well as a yearning for quietude against a need to stay relevant by weighing in.
The question is, When do you weigh in? At what point have you gathered enough information where you have a place to publish on a given topic? And at what point do you know that what you are saying hasn't already been said in some way? I think the answer is we must create our own space wisely; we must accept that we can only write to the extent that we understand, and that has limits. I think as long as I write as honestly as possible and to the best of my ability at that moment, I can be proud of what it is and accept wherever it may end up - or if it will not be read at all.
Such a philosophy can be problematic. Squeaky wheel gets the oil, right? I am learning how to strike a balance between maintaining quality in what I put out there and committing hefty time to "catching a break" by being a louder voice in the crowd. This involves breaking out of my comfort zone and talking about my writing more through different outlets. It also involves trying to making myself recognizable to readers who are looking for something specific.
It is good for every writer to find a niche. Stephen King fans know where to turn when they're craving horror or supernatural fiction. He has perfected his focus area to a degree, and that is how he markets so well. When I read big authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Chimamanda Adichie, Junot Diaz, Cara Black, or Margaret Atwood, I know pretty much what I am getting because their style and genre are consistent. This type of recognition and branding makes their voice louder.
At the same time, I don't want to be pigeonholed. I've written all over the place and don't feel like I want to settle just yet; I want to keep digging for new methods of expression so that maybe what I put out there will be different and newer than whatever else is available at that moment, without being avant garde. I want to keep learning, deciding, changing. I guess self-promotion makes it feel as though I've settled on that marketable voice, or that I am speaking out of turn when I would rather just focus on the craft. Gradually, I'm working through the crowd.
On religion and culture
Religion and culture are so intertwined that they can be difficult to pull apart in a fiction setting. The informed reader will try to see these distinctions. In this book, I am not speaking for all Islam or representing global norms of Islam. Rather, I am portraying life in a small, 1960s village in Bangladesh where cultural practice and religion intermingle in their own unique way. Look anywhere, and you will see that culture brings nuances despite the defined religion. Shamanism, the evil eye, and mystic healing are not accepted practices of Islam, but they are cultural practices in certain parts of Bangladesh. Again, remember the setting: this is something that has changed drastically since the 1960s.
Nazli Kabria, author of Muslims in Motion: Islam and National Identity in the Bangladeshi Diaspora, writes: "Informed by a potent nationalist narrative in which Bengalis struggle and prevail over foreign oppression, Bangladeshi identity may be an important source of pride." This evident pride and cultural perseverance is something that drew me to write about this setting of Bangladesh in our imperialistic world.
Without Shame mainly illustrates the concept of cultural imperialism. The idea of the “white savior” is not new, but it is a necessary perspective to continue exploring and challenging. This is the perspective of Rodney, who is almost comically naïve and entitled in his efforts to “change” Sariyah’s village. His flaws - in how he interacts and observes - exist as a statement on neocolonialist attitudes; and his relationship with Sariyah is a microcosm of colonialism itself which begins with the courting, the interfering, the unfulfilled promises, the inevitable destruction, and the colonizer absconding from the mess.
Colonial influence is also important to consider in the context of East versus West Pakistan. After British colonial rule ended, territorial lines were drawn to separate a "Hindu" India from a "Muslim" Pakistan (the lack of thought that went into the Radcliff Lines is worth noting). The "habits" of colonizing did not end there, as West Pakistan took a dominant position over the East. Though East Pakistan had a higher population, West Pakistan politically controlled them. They also set language standards (an Urdu mandate) that threatened the mobility of Bengali-speaking citizens. This isn't my way of pointing fingers but it is about discussing the perpetual effects of colonialism, and now neocolonialism.
On the author’s Western perspective
While there were many postcolonial settings I could have drawn from, I chose Bangladesh because its history embodies the effects of imperialism. Of course, I am most familiar with the cultural values of my American character Rodney, whom I developed as mockery of the “white savior” archetype. Then another character emerged: Sariyah. I found myself walking in another woman's shoes in a culture with different - yet ofttimes very similar - values and truths from my own. I did this because I viewed her voice as more important than Rodney’s. I wanted to portray what it is to be an imperialized culture in a neocolonial world, where my own country is ever the imperialist.
Excited about some new reviews of Without Shame:
"Katherine Russell has done a very fine job with her novel. The characters are plausible and the events as well as the themes the novel touches upon will provide many interesting discussion points among readers."
"She [Russell] brings up pertinent issues of culture and language and how Colonialism affected people’s lives on these different levels. Moreover, she begs the question as to whether foreign education in developing countries actually works for the people or against them. I particularly enjoyed the intellectual debates between characters in the novel. One of the main characters Sajib, for instance puts forth the question as to whether English really is the language of progression and whether American education in East Pakistan was valuable or if it served to further strip the people from their culture...The political angle of the book did not overshadow the narrative and because it was so naturally written as part of the main story, it was not boring at all, instead it proved to be insightful."
-Muslim Women Exposed
"This book feels like it is set out for greatness. The book is written in a beautiful, almost poetic style, with a complexity of themes that I can imagine perfectly fitting in to a heated literary discussion as a high school or even a university setwork."
-The Jozi WAHM Guide to Everything
"Sariyah...starts working as a maid at Martin House, an American compound that brings American volunteers to teach the village people about agriculture, home economics, history, English and hygiene. There, she meets Rodney, a clueless, entitled, privileged (my opinion) teacher, who goes to teach in an attempt to avoid being drafted into the army...He thinks that things need to change in Eastern Pakistan and he thinks he knows how change should occur. He wants to bring “development” about...I saw the story as that of clashing patriarchies....white Western privilege is well and alive and that the rest of us continue to be subjects of “discovery,” “development” and of “saving.”"
-A good analysis of Rodney's role in the book, by Eren of Muslimah Media Watch
In the final weeks of waiting to see my finished book, I'm full of excitement, anticipation, and - the writer's curse - self doubt. Did I write a book that my friends and family will think is a worthy read? Did I create a work of fiction that will move complete strangers and provoke thought? Will it catalyze the right conversations? Every writer, at some point, is shaken by these fears. We're all afraid of being thought of as frauds (someone, somewhere is not going to like your style, or where you place your commas, or how you described that one character's 18th century cottage), slid under a microscope, every word scrutinized. That is because a good writer is also a harsh self-critic; it is rare to feel something is complete, absolute, and perfected. It has less to do with modesty than it does with a fear that all this time, energy, thought, research, and craziness you poured into a project might fall flat. If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
I wanted to bring someone's courage to life through Without Shame. It wasn't a Muslim girl, or a woman from a small Bengali village, or a naive English teacher determined to fix the things he doesn't understand - those details came from my curiosity about these lives and a desire to walk in their shoes. But I wanted to bring to paper what I know about pain, loss, and the things that can hinder or feed the human spirit. That includes what I believe about colonialism, and the things we continue to colonize. Of course, writers are also afraid of our work getting misinterpreted or read literally, but I can't influence my intended neocolonial interpretation indefinitely.
First, I must trust that I have made it to this point through diligent work. I deleted more than I wrote. I sculpted carefully while I shaped my own worldview - the process of writing was a process of growth, of forming my own ideas. I reached out to Bengalis. I spent endless hours in libraries, getting lost in personal accounts by Peace Corps volunteers. How else do I have these strange facts floating in my mind, that I needed to use the word thana for "village" because the story takes place before the 1980s, before the word for "village" changed to upazila. These things you have to ask questions about when you write on a different era that you didn't live through.
But secondly, as I await the launch of Without Shame, I must return to the poem that propelled me. When I lost direction, I returned to the words of Rabindranath Tagore. The poem below inspired and informed my themes and the truths I wanted to convey. It is inspiration for how I want to live life, and how I want my country to be. I found this poem after I began my novel, but it instantly sparked my purpose in writing it. You'll find these words in the front pages...
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
I am gearing up to read the first round of edits on my novel, Without Shame. I'm realizing my skin has gotten thinner since college. Perhaps I feel more vulnerable to failure. I used to do four workshops in a week. Whenever it was your turn to get workshopped, you sat there silently for a half hour as twenty other writers critiqued your work. Even if they said things you disagreed with or they completely misinterpreted your work, you had to swallow it. There was no rebuttal. A writer's easiest defense was to ignore their words. But I took every comment into consideration, even if it was to better understand general audiences or the possible interpretations a person could take from my work.
There is nothing healthier than that for a writer. Criticism keeps us on the ground, looking at our work critically so that we might bring it closer to perfection. In fact, I often shrug off compliments, or I take them very lightly, because I'm worried they'll destroy me - I know that a big ego blocks improvement, and it blinds artists from seeing themselves and the world honestly. It's good to get compliments here and there, though; they might offer some reassurance that you don't completely suck. Still, we must always continue reaching for our better selves.
As I prepare myself to read those edits - which very likely will slash up this novel I've nursed for five years - I will keep these words in mind: "There's no good or bad. There's practice or no practice." -Based on an oracle Chinese saying and adapted by a modern-day American, my husband. (He's the lucky one who gets to talk me through this!)
So I'm getting in the mindset. Tomorrow I will read over my editor's comments, and I will take them in stride, and my writing will get stronger. I will put my novel before my ego. I will remember that writing is and always will be a practice - finishing the novel wasn't the end game for me as a writer, and neither was finding a publisher. It is the role of my profession to continuously improve.
No! Printing and bookbinding is not a dead art - in fact, in its rarity, it becomes more of an art. Every year, my hometown hosts a small press book fair to show some of the unique books being hand-printed out there. This place in Buffalo called The Western New York Book Arts Center has old letterpresses. I've been in their basement studio - it's filled with printers boxes and thousands of hand-crafted zinc plates, carved blocks, and stencils...all for hand-crafting unique books.
Some publishers also print "collectible" editions of books to last a long time. I recently received a book that was leather-bound, printed by Easton Press, which focuses on creating high-quality, lasting books. I have a Coleridge book that was printed in 1995, and I know it will last long past its centennial in 2095, so I can pass "Kubla Khan" and the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to my kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. The book is leather with gold engravings, pages painted gold. The only difference from the old books is that the pages aren't hand-cut, so they are smoothly intact.
As enchanting as old things are and intriguing their pasts, I'm not opposed to printing new books in the old way. It's wonderful when books can last 100+ years, but paper isn't made to last ages past that. My book of Whittier abolitionist poems from the late 1800s is falling to pieces, to the point where I'm afraid to open it. The pages have all detached from its glue binding. But the cover is beautiful - hand painted and still vibrant. My point is we don't necessarily need to preserve the books forever; but we should preserve the art of creating quality books.
Katherine Russell is an author, poet, activist, and freelancer from Buffalo, NY.