Sunday, 30 June 2019

From India to Iceland - guest post by Jonaki Ray

“You have exactly one minute to catch the bus!” the woman at the airport told me.

“Is there enough time?”, I asked, alarmed.

“Oh yes, it’s just outside. Go out and towards the left.”

I crammed my wool cap on my head, put on my jacket, and ran outside with my luggage cart. Outside, a parking lot filled with cars, three people smoking in a group, and a few buses could be seen. But, I couldn’t see my bus and within seconds, the icy wind made my eyes water and my glove-less hands tingle.

As I circled around the parking lot, my anxiety took over, aggravated by the cold. What if I don’t find the bus? What will I do? I didn’t have enough spare cash…what if the bus leaves me behind? I had just landed at Reykjavik and had pre-booked a bus to pick me up at the airport and drop me off at the hotel, which was about 45 minutes away, through an online website.

Fortunately, the bus was waiting, and when I finally figured out that “left” meant the left side of a road outside the parking lot, I ran towards the bus, and after apologizing to the driver, stowed my luggage and clambered aboard. As my hands and the rest of me thawed, I found myself feeling simultaneously warm and blessed. After all, I was one of the five writers from over 700 candidates who had been selected for the 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat, and I was on my way to it!


Four of the five winners of the Alumni Award.
I never set out to be a writer. As a child, I read everything I could get into my hands, but I was also good in academics, and my parents and peers advised me that studying “humanities/arts” was not going to lead to a secure and stable life. I opted for an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, and then a Master’s in it in the USA. In America, I realized that people take much more diverse paths and try out various options, but I was still trying to be “secure” and changed my specialization to Computer Science and completed a Master’s degree in it. It was after a short stint as a software engineer that I started writing and decided that writing was my “one love”.

I returned to India and started my career from scratch. I worked as a journalist, then as an editor. I kept writing and sending out my work for publication to magazines in India, but the success rate was rather low. I went through a phase where everyone else seemed more creative and productive, not to mention successful, and discouraged, I stopped writing.

Finally, I joined a writing group that was advertised in an online newsgroup. Although the group disbanded in about a year, even that short duration was important because I received feedback and support for my writing, especially the prose poetry that I had started writing in response to events in the world, my country, and my life. I enrolled in a couple of online (MOOCS) courses and received positive feedback on my pieces.


Louis de Berniäres
Encouraged, I joined a couple more online writing forums, and started sending my work to online journals outside India. In 2015, I received my first couple of acceptances—an online platform based in Singapore accepted three of my poems, and a couple of short pieces were published in an American blog (now sadly off the radar). I was still getting rejections, but I was also learning and reading and writing more.

Starting from 2016, although I still received rejections and still do, I also started getting published all over the world, won and got shortlisted in international poetry contests, including winning the 2017 Oxford Brookes Poetry Contest, and was selected for writing residencies in Spain and Italy. In 2018, Oxford Brookes Poetry Center nominated me for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. I went back to short fiction writing, and one of the pieces was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by US-based Zoetic Press! All these honors were through the powers of the Internet, and I had yet to meet any of the editors or judges in real life, including the organizers of the retreat in Iceland, Eliza Reid and Erica Green.


I was excited but a bit nervous the day I arrived in Reykjavik, especially when I realized that there were around 100 participants. The first evening of the retreat removed my doubts when I was greeted warmly by Eliza and Erica. I enjoyed the reception and welcome drink, mingled with fellow writers, and listened to the eleven faculty authors, which included Tessa Hadley, Sarah Moss, Louis de Bernières and Chigozie Obioma; Ivan Coyote, Priya Basil, Ann Hood, Paul Yoon, Elizabeth Renzetti and Ragner Helgi Ólafsson, read out their writing. Each participant could select five workshops, and after a lot of indecision, I chose the ones I felt would help enhance my style of writing the most.

Ann Hood discussed beginnings—what differentiates good ones from bad ones, and then reviewed some of the samples we had given her, including mine in her session. Paul Yoon showed us how even clichéd topics could be written in new and interesting ways through a short story he had told us to read, and we discussed various aspects of it. Louis de Bernières and Ivan Coyote discussed plotting and how to set up and stick to a writing routine. Tessa Hadley’s workshop had us all read a short story, The Gold Watch. The story is written in a deceptively lucid style, but once she led us through almost each line of it, and we discussed the deeper meaning behind each passage, we realized the brilliance of its writer, John McGahern, and how he had managed to convey so much through a relatively brief piece. Besides the writing tips and practices, I was amazed at how friendly and grounded each author remained and chatted with us freely during our free time and events.


Tessa Hadley
We could also explore Iceland through guided tours, and I went on the famous Golden Circle tour, where we visited Skáholt, the Geysir geothermal area, the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, and the Pingvellir National Park. The day ended with a reception at the residence of the President of Iceland!

It has been three months since I returned to India, and I realized that though most of my writing has been published virtually, it has led to real-time learning and friendships, not to mention mentorships. And I have returned with renewed resolve to write more and participate in the community of writers even through the digital media. After all, the virtual is now increasingly the “real world”.


Website: https://jonakiray.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/jona_writes
Older writing at: https://jonaray.contently.com/

6 comments:

Griselda Heppel said...

I’d never heard of the Iceland Writers Retreat and am seriously impressed - to be one of only 5 winners out of 700 applicants of an awarded place at such a prestigious event is a huge achievement. I also take my hat off to you for persisting in your dream when every ‘sensible’ instinct tells us to go for a safer, better paid career, and you are highly qualified to do so. May you go from strength to strength in your writing!

Enid Richemont said...

I'm echoing what Griselda has said, and I'd never heard of the Iceland Writers Retreat either, although I have been to Iceland - what an extraordinary country it is. Impressed that you made it out of 700 applicants, too.

Umberto Tosi said...

I admire your perseverence, which obviously has carried the day for you, as is never easy, but always needed by even the best of us.

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Great post, Jona! Welcome to the AE world.

Jona Ray said...

Grisdelda, Enid, Umberto, thank you so much for your kind words! Dipika, thanks to you for introducing me to the AE world, and all your support!

Jona Ray said...

Sorry, I meant to type Griselda, and the extra d is a typo!
It is a really nice feeling to hear such encouraging words from fellow writers. Thank you, all, for being so supportive.