A hummingbird-inspired writers’ circle
No, the hummingbird is not found in India. Yet as a teenager growing up in Delhi and nurturing hopes of becoming a writer, a hope with fragile bones and gossamer wings, I found myself drawn to images of this bird. Hummingbirds are the smallest of birds, and get their name from the humming sound produced when they rapidly beat their wings. When the prism-layer of cells on their feathers diffracts light, this bird will metamorphose into gorgeous colors. Hummingbirds hibernate for long periods, and need nectar to survive. The most important trivia about hummingbirds, however, is that they are also the only group of birds that can fly backwards.
In any profession, anywhere in the world, one realizes the perils of not belonging to privileged inner circles; glass ceilings quickly become apparent to women artists without famous fathers, husbands, and mentors to provide ethical (rather than predatory) mentorship. Some years ago, floating on the periphery of a literary gathering in Delhi, I overheard a celebrity editor asking “Kiski beti hai? Kaun log hain?” I had just been awarded a distinction from Oxford University and was in the process of choosing among several full-scholarship Ph.D offers from American universities, while also having completed my first book and working on a gender project in rural India. In my own ways, I was urban, middle class, privileged; and in my own ways, I was trying to challenge myself and push my own boundaries, learning from both failure and success. But for this patriarchal individual, young women’s own qualifications, courage and work ethic were perhaps unimportant; instead, which man’s daughter, wife or mentee she was would determine how she was treated.
In the years following my move to the United States, completing the Ph.D and lecturing at universities while also getting two more books published, the challenges facing writers continued to haunt. In a newspaper column published last year titled ‘The Writer as a Hummingbird,’ I wondered how writers choose “between the personal hierarchies of power brokers, those with the famous last names or the money; and an impersonal market that seldom understands politics, aesthetics, sentiment?’” (http://www.sundayguardianlive.com/opinion/6921-writer-hummingbird) I thought of vultures and other raptors of the writing industry, of famous writers: the big birds. And, tentatively flapping its wings close to its nest: the tiny hummingbird.
That is how the Hummingbird Global Writers’ Circle was born. A transnational reading series, its aim is to bring people together in different parts of the world to foster a love of books, to discuss craft and other aspects of story-telling, and to promote cultural exchange and global understanding in small ways. I floated the idea during my book reading on a winter evening in Manhattan, and it was greeted with enthusiasm by friends and fellow-writers who had gathered around a cozy fireplace, in a beautifully book-bound Tribeca home. Once the initiative was announced, exciting collaborations began to be finalized. (To learn about the circle’s activities, see https://www.facebook.com/The-Hummingbird-Global-Writers-Circle-291948757937161/?fref=mentions&pnref=story)
A reading is being held next week, at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender in the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A small, intimate event, free and open to the community, it brings together award-winning novelists and poets around the theme of “writing gender.” Then, in October, California: a reading at an iconic bookstore in San Francisco followed by an open-air weekend reading in Graeagle, in the lap of the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountains. A setting replete with rolling mists and echoes of faraway songs, it reminds me of my beloved Kasauli. The theme in California is “steep hills,” covering issues ranging from nature, to entrepreneurship, to the challenges of vexatious litigation and fundamentalisms faced by writers. This will be followed by readings in New York, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon.
As the Circle travels to many more places, expanding to include multiple languages, genres, themes and formats, rolling out details in a phased manner becomes critical. With more people, places and collaborations being finalized, expectations will increase as will error and introspection. As I juggle the circle’s demands with my regular job as an academic, and a million daily chores, we will need to remind ourselves that, in flying forwards or backwards, tiny wings are better than none at all.
No, hummingbirds are not found in India; but they are found in the place I, as a traveler, call home for now. And these birds teach me every day that homes can be built with just a few drops of nectar, sunlight, soil, nesting materials – a root here, a leaf there - and a little bit of sky.