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PRAJWALA DIXIT: The price of writing as an immigrant in Canada

Prajwala Dixit
Prajwala Dixit - Contributed

I am brown. I am an immigrant. I am an immigrant from a non-Eurocentric culture. I am a woman.

And I have dared to write.

What I didn’t know was that there was a price to pay in not just what I wrote but how I wrote.

ಪದಗಳ ಗೊಂದಲ

Words.

Try as you might, you can’t escape them.

From thoughts to policies, from the etchings in clay to these simple blobs of a pattern you consume, they’re omnipresent.

Writing began as simple scribbles that turned into routine school assignments. While the fine details of those scribbles escape me, what stayed is the pure and simple abandon I felt when I wrote.

The world of words has been source of solace, an escape from the mundaneness and the complexities of life. Inside its ecosystem, I find, time flows as swiftly as Canadians consume their Tim Hortons. Thoughts stir like water, sometimes, as though moved gently by a listless oar and, at other times, as though crashing against a rocky shore.

Without any constructive effort, writing for the soul became a part of life. Language, geography, culture, gender, race, religion, caste, and colour – none of it mattered when I wrote for myself with the abandon of a six-year-old. But, like any good story, change was imminent. New questions came my way when I began writing for public consumption.

“Will they understand this word?”

“This needs to be italicized. This isn’t in English.”

“The audience….remember who they are.”

“It is standard practice to italicize this…that’s what XYZ manual says.”

“Add a footnote. This makes no sense to a white audience.”

And not just from people whose pigment was lighter than mine.

“You write for white people.”

“Stop being a coconut. Try being browner.”

“Stop educating them. It's not your responsibility.”

“The Goras won’t get it. Use English. Don’t use any Indian languages.”

“But if the dialogue is in Hindi, then how will they understand?”

I'm glad you won't see this in the web version of this article - the rounded alphabets of Kannada and the sharp lines of Hindi will grace your screen as my subheadings. But, ironic as it is, if you happened to pick up a print version, you'll notice that the same luxury was not possible. Unfortunately, Kannada and Hindi scripts could not be imported because the software used didn’t recognize them.

The weight of words

Words.

Italicized. Bolded. Capitalized. Underlined.

Their power undeniable. Their intricate construction and design conveying to us more than the apparent.

I carried the weight of these questions as they came from people I value(d) tremendously in my professional life. None of them appeared malicious. In fact, they appear to have originated from a place of support. Still, they plagued my mind and my process, leeching any amount of confidence I had in my work.

“Should I submit this piece? It has so many words in Sanskrit.”

“Do I add a glossary at the end? Will they get the meaning if I don’t?

“Why am I italicizing it, if in my character’s world, this word isn’t foreign?”

“Should I follow XYZ manual or ABC? Which one is used here?”

Some of these may appear trivial, but they provoked thought.

“Who wrote these manuals? When were they last updated? Do they have an ethnocentric lens?”

“How do I make emotion transcend language?”

“I want people here and there to understand my world and work. Is that never going to be possible?”

“Why isn’t my writing considered Canadian when it is being written in Canada? And what is Canadian writing?”

New to writing for public consumption, these thoughts ran amok in my mind like a kid on a sugar rush zipping around in their underwear. The noise was as annoying as a housefly buzzing away while I tried to concentrate my faculties in honing my work. All I wanted to do was squish it. (Or as they say here in Newfoundland, squat it). It’d be fine if this annoyance were innocent, but it manifested in more dangerous forms, like fear and anxiety, self-doubt and mistrust.

Out of this potent concoction of emotions, for a major award submission, I remember penning a little note to the reader that spoke about why the piece I was submitting came without footnotes and italicizations. I wanted to submit the piece the way I had written it, but really was shackled by fear that it wouldn’t be understood. I nearly lost the award. But, as the cliché goes, I gained perspective.

A juror’s note about my piece, which won the award, said, ‘Writing is collaborative, it’s a collaboration between writer and reader. Don’t try and take some of their job away!’

इन रास्तों के हमसफ़र

The feedback brought me back to reality. It helped me understand my privilege even in having the space to etch these eight hundred words, something that has demanded fight and blood.

The feedback grounded me. It helped me see milestones laid out for me in Divakaruni and Lahiri’s existence, Wheatley and Angelou’s poeticism and in Kaling and Singh’s theatrics. Their words soothe, tickle, provoke and strengthen. They have transcended human impediments of language and border and survived time. And just by being, they have encouraged and reminded me to do what I had always done.

Simply write with pure abandon.

I am brown. I am an immigrant. I am an immigrant from a non-Eurocentric culture. I am a woman.

And I have dared to write.

Prajwala Dixit is an Indian-Canadian engineer, journalist and writer in St. John’s, NL who writes a regional column for the SaltWire Network. When she isn't engineering ways to save the world, she can be found running behind her toddler, writing and volunteering. Follow her and reach her at @DixitPrajwala  

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