7 MIN READ
Few countries on earth pack as many languages and cultures into such a small place as Nepal. With her writings, Kalpana Jha has helped us understand the complexities of living in such a mixed multicultural society. In her Writing Journeys essay this week, she describes how reading and writing have helped her, as someone from Nepal's southern plains, decipher the “sense of not belonging in a society and the rejection of my identity.”
Writing is far more than just recording words on the page, she says. It is a tool, a method of discovery in its own right. Jha shares Laurel Richardson’s wonderful formulation that “writing is a way of ‘knowing’.” For Jha, regular reading and critical thinking go hand in hand.
To make sense of her journey, Kalpana ji often draws from academic theory, but she also dislikes the “tyranny of hard-to-read, complex language.” She offers some useful reminders about “conciseness, simplicity, and clarity.” Nepali schools, she laments, too often emphasize “articles, prepositions, and verb tenses,” but ignore “clarity, flow, and idea connection.” Thanks to Kalpana for giving us a lot to think about this week.
Kalpana Jha's writings include ‘Need for Black Feminism’, The Kathmandu Post, April 14, 2017; ‘Debunking Nepali Marxist Feminism’, The Record, October 4, 2020; and the book, The Madhesi Upsurge and the Contested Idea of Nepal. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Delhi.
Writing Journeys appears each Wednesday. Last week, I shared favorite ‘lessons learned’ from my own writing journey. Two weeks ago, Sujeev Shakya described writing as a team effort. The previous week, Kesang Tseten shared about the similarities between filmmaking and writing. In earlier weeks, Niranjan Kunwar described finding his “own voice” while reading other people's drafts, Kunda Dixit noted that “the trick is to keep things moving”, and Shradha Ghale shared that “the most difficult thing is to get started.”
Coming next week: Janak Raj Sapkota
My writing journey
Writing can be a way of life, a means to express one’s identity and experiences. This realization, however, came at a later stage of my life. Throughout secondary school, writing was only about completing essays where the focus was mostly on grammar. My school's exam-centric teaching-learning model did not emphasize what made ‘good’ writing but rather what was ‘grammatically correct’ writing. The school emphasized articles, prepositions, and verb tenses, but ignored clarity, flow, and idea connection.
A major turning point came when I joined undergraduate school to pursue social work. Paradoxically, while the course requirements were to read and reflect as much as possible, very little aid was available in the school for improving reading and writing skills. Being responsible and finding resources for my own learning were my biggest challenges. In addition, another challenge was the undue emphasis on jargon and wordy, complex language whereas little attention was given to conciseness, simplicity, and clarity. Few reading materials explained complex concepts in simple language.
It was only in my second year of school that a professor started re-orienting students, not just about writing style, but also on ways to read texts, review, and reproduce new ideas. I was introduced to theory and non-fiction writings by thinkers and scholars. As I started to enjoy the process of reading, writing started to become easier. What I maintained throughout was reading the texts several times not only aiming at understanding the content but also focusing on the use of new words and style of expression.
While this effort to improve continued, a new transition came as I went for my graduate studies to India, where the academic environment was far more demanding. The reading and writing was rigorous and in-depth, yet less daunting because I was used to the process by now. This regular exercise of reading, discussing, and writing reflections strongly influenced my writing style. The strong academic orientation that is reflected in my writing is also a result of my early training in reading and writing in an environment dominated by strict academic rules.
In India, I spent quite a bit of time studying identity and identity construction. I began to synthesize what I had struggled with throughout my teenage years, and also what others face in their daily lives. Engaging deeply with post-colonial and feminist scholarship improved my own critical thinking and reflective abilities. The sense of not belonging in a society and the rejection of my identity — my readings helped decipher it all. This set of reading, research and thinking culminated in my Master’s thesis.
While the thesis marks a milestone in my writing journey, the intimate process of research, reading, and writing also helped me understand how we are constantly trapped by our circumstances, surroundings, and experiences. I realized that writing provides a voice to my feelings, gives meaning to my experiences, and adds value to my struggles. My writing is an expression of every fiber of my multifaceted being, and my struggles and past experiences. My writing is thus largely shaped by the sense of my roots, of where I come from, and the knowledge that the identity I bring to writing is, in itself, socially constructed and constantly changing as a consequence of my developing life trajectory.
To explain my writing journey, I use a quote from Laurel Richardson’s Writing: A method of inquiry, which I read when I started learning basic research skills in graduate school. Richardson says, “writing is a way of ‘knowing’—a method of discovery and analysis. [...] writing as method does not take writing for granted, but offers multiple ways to learn to do it, and to nurture the writer”. This defines my writing, which has largely been about the representation of the self. Challenging dominant values and beliefs and practising writing as situated social and political practice has enriched my work.
While regular reading and critical thinking have remained central to my writing, as a researcher, discovering facts, and adding new experiences are also at the core of my writing. Although academic writing has its rules, which can be limiting, I also embrace my limitations and work on developing them into strengths. In this entire process, the biggest learning that I have come across is that mastering the ability to write with a high-level of creative skill, and integrating disparate ideas, synthesizing perspectives, and showing concern for accuracy is a never-ending journey. I continue to learn as I practice writing. Also, having been brought up in a conventional writing culture, liberating myself from the tyranny of hard-to-read, complex language and decolonizing the writing process are constant struggles for me.
Writing is therefore an evolutionary process rather than an end result. Writing must be approached as a continual exercise of learning through practicing. No publication or a final product marks an end to the writing process itself or discovering new and better ways to express. Focus thus should be on making the process meaningful for oneself, as the process itself can be very fulfilling.
Knowing what you want to achieve through your writing is important. That could be writing for your own self-satisfaction, not catering to anyone at all. Respect your own writing process — no matter how different from others. Your mind has its own way of working and it is what makes your writing unique. I emphasize reading, either for research or just for fun; reading will make you a better writer. There are no particular writing rituals that I follow apart from taking a break after my first draft is ready. I leave it aside for at least two days and when I go back to it, I can better see my flaws and errors and correct them.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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