Minal Hajratwala: Women Authoring Change

By Hedgebrook Staff

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Categories: Women Authoring Change,

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Alumna Minal Hajratwala is a poet, author, and coach who teaches Writing from the Chakras and Blueprint Your Book. We asked Minal to talk about her work as a Woman Authoring Change.

 

What motivates you to write?

I’m driven by both desire and need. Desire: Writing can be a deep pleasure. Need: Writing is how I figure things out. Honestly, if I didn’t write, I wouldn’t understand people at all, not even myself. Desire is a much better motivator than discipline. I’m not a regimented or routine-oriented writer, although I am strict with myself about some things… I’m also a rigorous editor, and editing has its own pleasures for me. My motto: Writing is magical—when it’s not torture!

 

Do you consider yourself an activist?

The most consciously activist work I do these days is in creating safe spaces for all kinds of people to put their stories into words. It’s amazing to support people in breaking through what’s often a lifetime of internalized oppression, shaming, and silence. Trauma survivors seem to gravitate toward classes like Writing for the Chakras, which is all about working through deep memory and getting into the body… I do free workshops for some community groups and I also take selected pro bono clients; one of my favorites right now is an activist filmmaker who’s making an incredible documentary about her own deeply disenfranchised community. I’m passionate about supporting survivors, gender and human rights activists, and people pushing up against the limits put on our freedom of expression.

When we get to do our work free of publishing pressures and academic institutions, in a space motivated solely by a deep love for freeing the voice of each writer, these temporary communities and relationships can become so loving and supportive — a lot like Hedgebrook, actually.  And that change ripples out into each person’s work, which is what making large-scale change is all about, I think.

A small portion of the literary work I do is overtly political. I write occasional op-eds, and I’ve put together a first-of-its-kind LGBT anthology that launched last year called Out! Stories from the New Queer India.

The rest is informed by a deep activist ethic. When I wrote Leaving India, for example, I was conscious that I was basically engaged in a 150,000 word extrapolation of the feminist motto that “the personal is political.”  I needed that framework in order to place the individual migrations of my relatives in the larger global social and economic context of the Indian diaspora.

The poetry collection that I’m working on now is a blend of the political and the spiritual. It’s basically an account of my search for answers to the big questions—a search that took me through Hinduism, feminism, Queer Nation, Buddhism, writing, performance art, and more. In co-founding The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, we’ve been intentional about putting the empowerment of the poet at the center of the publishing model.

 

What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?

This is a tough question! I think a lot about women and ambition, and ever since I was a small child, I thought of writing as a way to become immortal. It wasn’t really about having people read my words; it was just that books seemed so permanent to me, like little gods, living on after all the humans who were involved with them had died. Writing actually felt very private, so in order to have an impact on the world, I also planned to be Miss America and then President and win the Nobel Prize, in that order.

Now what touches me the most is the sensation that I have when someone tells me that something I wrote is meaningful to them, resonates with their own experience, or has helped them in some way. Years ago, when I was barely a published poet, I met a woman who told me she’d taped up a poem of mine from an obscure feminist literary journal to her wall, and it helped her. I couldn’t even imagine why, because I was writing my poems so inwardly.  I puzzled over it for a long time, until I realized that “my” writing is not really about me. I don’t want to fall into the trap of false humility or female self-denigration, but I do feel like the more I can disappear into my writing, the more it can touch people. That touch, that sensation, is the greatest impact I’d hope to have.

In my work as a coach, which is also a lot of writing—creating prompts, suggesting revision strategies, writing about writing—it’s easier to say: I want the impact to be that of freeing up the words of other writers.  Everything I write for other writers is just a massive permission slip: Be wilder, be willing to be wrong, be too big for the page, be your smallest and most vulnerable self, be intimate, tell secrets, keep secrets, be yourself, be free of your most judgmental self, be the Self beyond the self.

 

What’s the best feedback you’ve received from a reader?

May I share two stories?

Just before Leaving India was published, I was terribly sick with bronchitis. In between coughing fits, I managed to check my email, and this wonderful blurb from Alice Walker came in.  I printed it out in a big font. I’d loved her writing so much for years, and every time I emerged from my medicated haze, I’d look at the quote and just feel awed. Validation from a powerful writer who’d faced criticism for her work and kept writing helped a great deal with the fear that I was having about releasing the book into the world, the vulnerability of that moment.

The second was a message I received a few months after that book came out, from a woman who said she was reading it aloud to her mother. The mother was an immigrant and they were laughing and crying, and the mother was recalling stories, which the daughter had never heard before.  And the mother was very ill, with cancer, so they were spending all these hours together at the hospital with my book and their own stories. That was very humbling, to experience how sharing our stories can open up such beautiful intimacy.

 

 

About Minal Hajratwala:

Minal Hajratwala is author of the award-winning epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), which was called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by the Washington Post, and editor of Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013). Her latest book is Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a collective of which she is a co-founder. She graduated from Stanford University, was a fellow at Columbia University, and was a 2011 Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar. As a writing coach, she loves helping people give voice to untold stories.

 


 

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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