Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Writing From India to America: Ramola D


When you talk to most professors in the English department they profess that reading became an obsessive hobby from an early age. However Ramola D could not stop at reading books, she had to write them too. "I couldn’t read for long without itching to put the book down and write my own stories and poems," she said. However, throughout much of her life in India she could not pursue this interest directly and instead found reading and writing a hobby. "Reading was always an impassioned experience, it kept me going through my degrees in science and business—libraries were my escape route to freedom and the other worlds in books," she said. " I remember all the hidden-away armchairs, open windows, drawn blinds, scratched-up desks, dim lighting, slants of sun and musty stacks in libraries I have loved--reading helped situate me mentally as a writer."

Ramola found herself informed in some way by every author she ever read. She said, "I’ve learned syntactic effect from Hemingway, the power of voice and image from Joyce, fluidity in narrative from Scott Fitzgerald." Today she cites the works of Marguerite Duras, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner, Janet Frame, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Kate Braverman, and Carole Maso as particularly illuminating.

Ramola's recent interests have coincided directly with the creative writing courses she teaches. As a writer of fiction reflecting on "the bicultural aspects of immigration" and "historical characters within a colonial setting battling a pervasive imperialism," she is currently in dialogue with authors who discuss the same topics. She said, "I’ve been drawn to exploring strongly-voiced narratives of difference, from characters who experience dislocation of sorts, often by way of migration or by way of being in a statistical minority in a given cultural setting, I am drawn to the work of writers tackling these issues." Ramola has been interviewing Lan Samantha Chang, Junot Diaz, and Sandra Cisneros. She has brought these transcripts to class and gained thought provoking discussion from it.

Teaching creative writing has benefited Ramola enormously. She believes that discussing readings keeps the literature "alive." "Reading the poems and stories I love when teaching a class brings the work back to me in a fresh and vital way—it keeps those writers in front of me, not just in a distant memory from grad school days," she said. Ramola even finds a special significance to teaching ENGL 081 or Introduction to Creative Writing, through which a revival in her passion for playwriting led her to adapt a fairytale this year for a children’s theater, Classika/Synetic Theater, and also write a play around what happened in Gaza in Dec/Jan of 2008/9. In some sense, Ramola does not believe there is much difference in the writing process for a beginning writer or an experienced one. "I struggle with some of the same issues that beginning and student writers deal with on the page—issues of craft that come up with every new piece of writing... This commonality of effort means I relate viscerally to what students are striving for in their work; when I offer advice in workshop, it comes from my own experience of striving to be a better writer," she said.

Writing has been a constant throughout Ramola's life. She has been writing poetry, essays, and fiction from a young age. She found her nonfiction essay writing during her undergraduate years as a physics major helped sustain her. These first few articles were printed in local Indian papers. After her postgraduate work in journalism, Ramola found her work printed in magazines and newspapers of India. After finishing an MBA in business back in India, Ramola left for the George Mason University Creative Writing MFA program. She was unhappy to learn she would be forced to choose between fiction or poetry.
"I chose poetry because I believed then I needed to learn more about writing poetry. I didn’t believe it meant I was going to write only poetry from then on—I continued to write and read fiction as well during and after my MFA," she said. However this focus on poetry led to her first book Invisible Season, which won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize in 1998. Ramola then turned to short fiction writing, but her fiction was almost too influenced by poetry and she found the first drafts of her latest book rejected. After reworking the collection a few years ago, she finally found a publisher—after the manuscript received the AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction--in University of Massachusetts Press. However Ramola has not given up poetry. She said, "I, like most writers, am not a publisher myself (unless blogging counts), I can only write what I am driven to write and strive to publish. What gets picked up seems to define one’s profile—but I continue to write across genres."

Ramola's striving to be a better writer has led to the publication of her latest collection of short stories Temporary Lives. The book may be a collection of separate narratives, but with common themes of "women and men in constrictive situations striving to regain voice and self, and of young adolescents awakening to selfhood." She said, "The stories come from my experience as a freelance journalist in India, from memories of my school days, from old family stories and bits and pieces of newspaper articles—the voices come from women in arranged marriages that are often repressive, also working men and children kept from freedom of expression and action often by virtue of social position, caste, or gender." The book offers a wide variety of voices, featuring those from the middle class Ramola was raised in to others on the margins of society. "I’ve always believed in the intrinsic desire of all beings for selfhood and expression—it’s what I saw around me, growing up, even if this desire was often expressed as a struggle or a suppressed longing—and it is what became my subject on the page in the stories in this collection," she said.

You can attend Ramola's joint reading with Gina Welch on April 21 at 7 p.m. in the Marvin Center 310. Her website can be found here. Ramola's book can be bought here.

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Writing From India to America: Ramola D
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