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Our parents plan MCATs, we dream of MTV

Conversations with writers, poets, and journalists from over fifteen countries on how they got started, reports Ami Dalal.

india Updated: Feb 23, 2006 11:36 IST

"In Nigeria, people are channeled into trade professions like business, medicine, and engineering. Writing is not considered a proper profession," answers Nigerian-born novelist, Sefi Atta, when asked why she was an accountant for ten years before she began her writing career.

This sounds familiar to many second-generation Indian youngsters in discussions with their parents about their choice of major in college. A combination of hard work and professional degrees brought many Indian immigrants to the United States. To their horror, their children are indulging in impractical ambitions that seem to stem less from Beethoven piano recitals and more from MTV music videos.

Our parents came from a country where scoring below the 90th percentile meant they didn't get entrance into a university. Anything less than a professional degree meant a meager, erratic income in a blue-collar job. My grandmother woke up my father everyday at six am to study for two hours before he left to school. Formal education was the only way up and out.

Their formula is infallible; the failure rate of a professional education and a steady job is close to none. However, in a country where the recipe for success ranges from college drop-out Steve Jobs to Harvard-educated Bill Gates, the surest path to glory isn't all that clear-cut.

Mariah Carey was discovered while singing to herself as she filled up the gas tank of a music executive's car. JK Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book by hand in a café with her sleeping child propped up in the chair beside her because she couldn't afford daycare.

Though we see Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman accepting their Oscars, we don't know how they got there. We know exactly how our parents did it, and we know how to imitate their success: get a proper degree, work hard, and keep the rest for hobbies.

But if we do want to tread a riskier route, "to do something creative," says Ekow Eshun, journalist, author, and Artistic Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London), "it's not straightforward, and you need to understand that."

In fields where fame and riches are uncommon, and anonymity and financial struggles abound, a lot of us would like to know exactly how it is that people in unusual professions get started, whether they had always known what they wanted to be, and how much they struggled along the way. At least, I would.

I had a chance to interact with over forty writers from nineteen countries in Asia and Africa who were gathered in New Delhi for a three-day literary conference. Among those present were Dr. Don Mattera, South African poet, journalist, and political activist; Nawal el Saadawi, renowned feminist and one of the most widely-translated Egyptian authors; and Indira Goswami, winner of India's highest literary award, Jnanpith, and leader of the peace panel between the government and Assamese rebels.

"My husband was killed and they gave me a compensation of Rs. 10,000 (US$225)," says Indira Goswami as she introduced herself at the conference. A relative and two intimate friends were also killed during rebel clashes, yet she continues to write and to lobby for a peaceful resolution to the insurgency.

Dr. Don Mattera, 71, was the leader of one of the most violent gangs in Johannesburg and founder of the Black Consciousness movement. "I am an intellectual by accident," says Dr. Mattera, author of several books and recipient of the World Health Organization's 1997 Peace Award, "I was just a street kid."

"My teacher asked the class to write a fiction story. He gave me a zero. He told me I was not a good Muslim. That I do not respect God and justice, because I asked God why He favored my brother over me," says Nawal el Saadawi. With a glowing mane of snow-white hair, she reclines peacefully by the hotel pool between sessions.

Nawal el Saadawi continues: "In Egypt, the most creative go to prison for at least three months. I lost my job when writing about female genital mutilation and virginity. My husband was in prison for thirteen years." She was imprisoned for two years, but continued to write in her jail cell using a black eyebrow pencil and a small roll of tattered toilet paper. Nawal el Saadawi exudes a calm confidence and contentment that comes from having spent her life doing what she believes in.

She is 74, I am 22; what happens in the interim years between then and now? What are the real-life details that are not revealed in the press releases, newspaper articles, and biographies? The family objections, the self-doubts, the failures, and the money concerns?

As the evening wore on, I got a chance to speak to some of the younger writers who faced these questions recently. For Sefi Atta, it began when she saw a flyer for a creative writing course hanging outside of her boss' office. "It was an accident that I started writing, I still feel like an accountant," she tells me at the dinner table.

First Published: Feb 22, 2006 12:09 IST