God Writes Straight By Broken Lines | Dipika Mukherjee

That time when you want to read but the peacocks haven't finished their meeting

Greetings from the Sacatar Foundation in Brazil!

Two dedicated months to work on my manuscript seemed like a fabulous opportunity (my first two novels were completed in residencies in the US and India). The application was competitive and the website alluring; a writer’s studio on stilts, other studios dazzling white and remote and sea-facing…when I received the offer, I imagined writing to the sound of breaking waves.

Hammocks and a wide verandah
This is indeed a stunning property, as you can tell from the pictures. But after two and a half weeks here, I’m not sure it is for all writers.

There is only one writer’s studio. In this cohort of six accepted residents -- three Brazilian and three foreigners -- all of us are writers. 

So I have been assigned a writing shed. My workspace has a view of the sea fringed by palm trees, but it is essentially a large artist’s studio furnished minimally with a table and a chair, and some empty shelves and a basin in a corner. One side is open to the elements and the other two sides have large white doors which open up fully, to let in lots of light and air.

I work with handwritten notes and cards as well as a laptop; as Virginia Woolf articulated so well, writers need a closed door. The wind through this shed swirls loose papers in the air. When I return from a bathroom break, there is the excrement of a small animal, sometimes two, left as a calling card on the notebook or next to my computer (yup, critics everywhere).

St Theresa
So, instead of the messy buildup of a manuscript -- the notes tiled on the table or tacked on a wall, the chapters stacked up with fluorescent marker lines, the multiple books open at key pages -– mornings begin by estimating which books and notes I’ll need for that day’s writing. Then hauling that stash back into the tiny bedroom at night (the main building used to be a retreat for catholic girls). I have to remember to bring chargers and adapters.

Travel takes you out of your comfort zone, and this residency is certainly forcing me into a new pattern of working. I no longer rely on the inspired and chaotic buildup of words, but reboot daily on a clean table. Every. Single. Morning. 

Amorous tortoises
Of course, there are compensations. The ten tortoises that live in the lower portion of this shed continue their rambunctious lovemaking even if it is three in the morning, so I never feel alone. The island is beautiful, as is the old colonial building with a large verandah and tiled floors, the hammocks at every corner swinging in the fierce wind. A short pier leads to the sea. The full moon over the water looms so close that she seems to be reeling in the high tide. The ancient gods have bestowed a fascinating spirituality on this island, which I hope to write about.

This was probably the rockiest start to any residency I’ve been in, and not only because we travelled to Itaparica island on a ferry boat. We began with a “lottery” at the very first meeting, to solve the problem of “jealousy”. This felt like a soap opera, but five of us were on the jetty terminal with the Residency Manager, and I obediently picked a paper, which was a B in the sequence of A-E (the sixth resident was delayed by a day).

The next day all three Brazilian residents, irrespective of the letter drawn, were assigned the three beautifully-furnished sea-facing studios; the writers studio on stilts, the dance studio on the beach, the raised music studio. Even the Brazilian resident who had arrived too late to participate in any lottery. 

This made me wonder -- in a fit of jealousy, no doubt -- whether the allocations were based on entrenched nationalism or a casual inhospitality.

But I have survived years of child-rearing while simultaneously working, and I know the focus I need to complete a manuscript in 56 days. So I write like a motherfucker, to quote past alumna Cheryl Strayed, because the point of a residency is not to start crusades in foreign countries, but to write this book. 

I write and collate a steady stream of words, sometimes in the shed, often in my bedroom, and I am reaching an average of 1490 words a day. I shoot for 1300 a day, and have 30,835 words in the 18 days of being here (I started off with about four thousand), so this is not bad. If I keep this up, by day 56, I can leave with a manuscript of 75000 words. How many of these words will be publishable is anyone's guess, but getting the words down is a start.

Ok. I, too, am rolling my eyes at my first-world problems in the face of real issues like terrorism, or even the obvious destitution on this island. But I assume most of you are reading this from the UK or Asia or the US because you have followed my travel posts, and if you have come this far, maybe you are even looking for that perfect residency this year or the next to finish your own book. (Chicagoans, Ragdale applications close on May 15, apply fast!

So here are my top three (tried-and-tested!) favorites. All international residencies, in my experience, have bad internet, balanced by delectable food and warm hospitality:

      1) Rimbun Dahan (Malaysia). Your host is the family of Malaysia’s most famous architect and you will feel like you are living in a museum but you get to touch everything! Every day will make your heart pound with excitement, from a visiting wild boar to a monitor lizard ponderously crossing the lawn. Malaysia’s open mic scene is exploding and this residency is pure magic for too many reasons.

      2) Sangam House (India). Wake up to the sound of ankle bells in this picturesque dance village. The fragrance of damp red earth. Organic food only, home-grown and home-cooked. Long, long walks.

      3) Joya Arts Residency (Spain).  The Andalusian mountain range and walk paths through olive trees. Old Moorish ruins. An eco-residency which will make you feel like you are saving the earth while chasing your dreams.

I am sure I’ll feel much happier once this book is done. In this deeply spiritual country, maybe it is true that Deus escreve certo por linhas tortas: God writes straight by broken lines.

Will I finish my manuscript? Will my days here spark joy? I’ll let you know…in the meantime, keep writing (and appreciating the comforts of your writing space!), wherever on earth you may be.

Jesus and his dark nuns take on the indigenous Gods with white pawns...nothing is black or white. 

Dipika Mukherjee is an internationally touring writer sociolinguist, and global nomad. She holds a PhD in English (Sociolinguistics) and is the author of the novels Shambala Junction, which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction, and Ode to Broken Things, which was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. She lives in Chicago and is affiliated to the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University and is Core Faculty at Story Studio Chicago.


Umberto Tosi said…
Sounds like you drew adventure in the lottery along with rutting turtles, scatalogical critter critics and other perks of that Brazillian writers' paradise. Your concentration remains admirably steadfast - forged in the fires of parenthood. I salute your grit and sense of humor - 1400 words a day is impressive in even the most serene of environments. Good luck on the book!
Thank you Umberto! Am furious at myself for not having the willpower to write like this in the study at home or my office at Northwestern. I miss family and the Chicago writing fraternity...but adventure, yes 😊
Kashiana Singh said…
This is extremely insightful and also made me live the turtle magic with you! Thanks for sharing - have been considering a residency or a workshop for 2020, this helps Dipika!

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Margery Allingham and ... knitting? Casting on a summer’s mystery -- by Julia Jones

A writer's guide to Christmas newsletters - Roz Morris

Irresistably Drawn to the Faustian Pact: Griselda Heppel Channels her Inner Witch for World Book Day 2024.

What's Your Angle--by Reb MacRath