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Give a woman a mask, and she'll take you somewhere new

Updated: Mar 9


"When you write, your soul can be genderless and borderless, multilingual and free." Buy the issue



I am a child of five countries, and can vote in none of them. I speak four languages, and while I write my stories in only one, I can’t help but think of them all as mine. So, a few years ago, a certain news story rocked me to my core. A Latina student named Tiffany Martinez submitted a paper and received feedback that the word “hence” was not hers. The story went viral, partially because so many have heard something similar. While every writer yearns to hear feedback, sometimes what you receive can make you angry, or even break your heart. After all, we write to reach out, to be understood, and it hurts to know when it didn’t quite work out that way.


Most of the time, editors are well-meaning, and are genuinely trying to help you reach a broader audience. But everyone who gives advice speaks from their own experience, and sometimes what you need is not someone to help you become more like them, but to find strength in your own craft. And of course, there will always be those who want to tear you down, who believe they can colonize language itself, exert control over its rules, or exploit it for their own ends. Language is power, as all writers know. Decolonize your writing, and you free your imagination to create worlds better than the one we have. 


It isn’t easy, though. I have had stories receive entirely different feedback from editors depending on whether I sent them under my real name or my pen-name. It’s forced me to come into my own enough to share some of what I’ve learned so far. Of course, I’m still early in my journey.


I once received feedback on a query that my protagonist must have a last name, not just a first name. But in many countries, particularly in South Asia, surnames only came into use through colonization, and my story was a fantasy world where that colonization hadn’t happened. I also received feedback on my use of capital letters, which was no more unusual than other writers, who often use them to talk about some Very Real Thing that isn’t necessarily a noun. But of course, it can be hard to tell when feedback is valid, and when you’re getting it because someone thinks English might not be your first language. 


My breakthrough moment came when I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Nobody uses capital letters the way she does, and when I saw this sentence I paused, read it twice, spoke it aloud, and then burst into amazed laughter. 


“Ammu shook her and told her to Stoppit and she Stoppited.”

 

Could it be? Could a Booker-prize winning, bestselling author have used the English language to express such a uniquely Indian thought? And if she could do it, why couldn’t I? After that, any time I felt annoyed over having my intentions or my fluency questioned, I would imagine an editor’s face the first time they saw that sentence, and my mood would lift. Now I can answer, calmly but firmly, Yes, I meant to do it that way.  


My second lesson would be simplicity. I fell in love with long, periodic sentences, with parataxis and the rhythms of poetry. I was moved to tears by the passage in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that explains why those who have never experienced discrimination find it easy to say, “Wait, change comes slowly.” A single sentence, a whole page long, begins with “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…” and goes on, leaving you breathless with a long litany of the indignities of being Black in America, eventually forcing you to despair before ending “—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” That sentence is a perfect union of form and meaning. 


But when I used language like that in my fiction, or when I emulated other literary writers’ styles, editors would give me feedback like “It’s clear you can write, but I just wasn’t drawn into the story.” I was angry, yes, but eventually realized that my writing wasn’t always serving the story I meant to tell. I was writing that way because I felt like an imposter who needed to show these beautiful sentences as credentials to get people to read my story. 


Then I read Lee Child. Who, like his character Jack Reacher, has nothing left to prove. And I couldn’t stop turning the page. Even when he writes sentences like these that begin with conjunctions. Now, before I write, I say the words, I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.


Have I conceded too much? Doesn’t the language of my colonizer confine me? Of course it does. I once wanted to write a story where the gender of the protagonist remained a mystery till the end, when any assumptions would be shattered. There’s no way to do that in third person without making the ‘reveal’ obvious by using ‘they’ from the outset, marking them out as “non-binary” in the Western sense, instead of what I was going for, which was to point out that binary gender was an imperialist construct. Several cultures are more fluid about these things, but the need to classify nature into clean opposites, like good and evil, heroes and villains, black and white, or male and female, has its roots in imperialist attitudes of control and order. The world is wilder than that.


So when I write my characters, I have to be really honest with myself. Am I writing them this way so a Western audience will understand them? Or is this who they really are? That questioning is important, because it is a place of vulnerability, of being comfortable with the ambiguity of the world and human nature, instead of trying to control it. I often ask myself, Is it still me over here?


Then I reflect on the strangeness of that question, specifically what it means to “still be me.” Authenticity, the way the West understands it today, is tied to individual identity, the borders of our minds and bodies. It started with Descartes’ I think, therefore I am, which roots authenticity in individual consciousness. That is not how every culture thinks about identity. The Upanishads speak of a single, indivisible Self manifesting in all beings. In Sanskrit, the phrase tat tvam asi (That thou art) expresses that the individual and the Absolute are one, and to claim an individual identity separate from the whole is egoistic delusion. 


In these moments, I’m glad of the mask of a pen-name. I am not bound to the name on my passport, the country of my birth, or the terminology of gender and sexuality that exists today. If Flaubert could write Madame Bovary, and if Arthur Golden could write Memoirs of a Geisha, why must I be constrained to tell the stories of immigrant assimilation or culture shock? Why would I write purely from and of my own identity? Why would I colonize myself? I write because I want to be everything, everywhere.


I can’t help this wanderlust. I’m making up for lost time. I grew up in Saudi Arabia before the internet made it possible to explore the world, where women have only recently been permitted to drive and still require the permission of their male guardians to do most things, including work and travel. My novel, Driving by Starlight, follows a young girl who dresses as a boy to avoid the religious police from the Committee for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. No, really, that’s what it’s still called. It was based on my own experiences, of being caged in by the world, and using fiction to escape.


A strange thing happens when you police so much what people are allowed to do in real life, as every fascist regime eventually discovers. The imagination breaks free. I recently read Anna Burns’ Milkman and found in it the same irreverence for the rules I have been striving for in my own work. A nameless woman protagonist, with a penchant for reading-while-walking, struggles with a complicated relationship with her maybe-boyfriend and the unwelcome attentions of a stranger. Set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where every act is politicized, this story, with its refusal to define and name things, reminded me that as writers, language can and must be our rebellion. The stories we tell, and how we tell them, are how we either perpetuate or break free of the systems of oppression. 


When even ordinary things are forbidden, you question everything. When you write, your soul can be genderless and borderless, multilingual and free. Language is not something bound by the systems of the past, but an elemental magic wilder than human ambition and deeper than the sea. Because the true promise of storytelling is adventure, not order. So rather than trying to capture ideas, to colonize them the way we do so much else including nature and each other, sail among them with curiosity instead. And the next time you hear feedback that tells you the reader is still set in the past, don’t let it become a judgement upon your work or your worth.  Set yourself free and say to them, Let me take you somewhere new.



Breakout Box



  1. Editors can mistake your creativity for faulty execution. Remember that they come with good intentions, and want to make your work be more like what they know already sells. Thank them, but do respond and explain, Yes, I meant to do it that way.

  2. Your writing must serve the story. This is fiction, not the TOEFL. Great writing is invisible, and keeps people turning the page. Before you write, say to yourself, I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.

  3. Authenticity is about really telling the story you mean to tell, and staying emotionally true to characters even as you try to make them comprehensible to your audience. As you write, ask yourself, Is it still me over here?

  4. Know why you write. At its core, writing is about empathy, understanding new perspectives. I write because I want to be everything, everywhere.

  5. So many constructs, including binaries of gender, heroes/villains, or good/evil are rooted in the past, in ideas of victory and conquest, that we need not hold onto anymore.  Set yourself free and say, Let me take you somewhere new.





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