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Fiction Gives Me Hope

After nearly 20 years of experiencing varying degrees of censorship for her nonfiction, writer Nandita Dinesh turned her creative eye toward another form. Here, she details why fiction gives her hope.

At 15, I wrote my first ever article for a high school newspaper, discussing an ongoing controversy at our campus in western India: concerns that the school’s Registrar was making mistakes in reporting student grades on their college applications. The article asked questions of the Academic Dean’s office, questioning—in admittedly, very amateur ways—the efficiency of a process that most of us saw as being central to our futures. After all, if our grades were being reported incorrectly to colleges, what hope did we have of getting into our dream Ivy League institutions?

The day after the article was published in this 200-and-something member community, in a newspaper that had limited readership beyond that campus’ borders, I was called into the Head of School’s office. An older Caucasian British man in his 60s who didn’t think he needed to ask me any questions about why and how I had written the piece ordered me to publish an apology. I think I remember him making me stand close to the door for the duration of this short reprimand for which he had his assistant call me out of my math class.

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I don’t doubt for a second that he was unaware of the power he exuded in that moment to a 15-year-old girl, from a small-ish town in southern India, who was very nervous at the reality of speaking to an older man. To an older white man. To an older white man who spoke with a British accent. Dazed at the glimmer of something that I didn’t know to name at that age—I would call it censorship now—I remember writing an apology that wasn’t an apology. “I’m sorry to say that I have been asked to write this,” or something to that effect, “and that the administration feels like their voices haven’t been represented adequately.” An apology that was not an apology; an apology that wasn’t even acknowledged after being demanded; an apology that I was forced to issue for my earliest work of nonfiction.

Fiction gives me hope.

In my 20s, a different kind of nonfiction consumed me: writing academic essays and articles about theater in/about conflict and post-conflict zones; works that—with the kind of untarnished idealism that perhaps can only exist in one's 20s—aimed to shine a light on grave injustices to which the international community had turned a blind eye. Like the genocide in Rwanda. Or the devastation being experienced by children abducted and made killers in northern Uganda. My experiments with academic writing were centered in a desire to change the world; to foster peace and non-violence and all those big ideals that I then saw as attainable goals rather than as murky categories.

As I wrote these articles and papers and dissertations, I found myself running up against a different kind of limitation. One that comes from having to follow the rules set out by the world of academia. Of having to write through the ideas of others. Of not being able to bend rules too much, lest one not seem scholarly enough. Of having to theorize and justify and explain and rationalize because even if I was writing about some of the most complex conflicts in the world—given the rules of academic writing—highly subjective experience had to be articulated through objective academese.

Perhaps the clearest warning sign that this form of nonfiction was not for me came when, after a contract had been signed for a book, a 70-something-year-old white male leader in the field of Performance Studies told me, “You’re not saying anything new. I’m withdrawing your contract.” Here I was, a young Indian woman (there weren’t that many of us in the academic world of Performance Studies at that time; I daresay there still aren’t), writing from/about contexts not widely spoken of in that field of study (like Rwanda and northern Uganda and Guatemala and Nagaland), trying to write “differently.” Here I was, with all these dimensions of newness and difference, being told by the most stereotypical gatekeeper I could imagine that I wasn’t bringing anything new to the table.

Seriously, dude?

Oh yes, I’m arrogant enough to think otherwise.

Fiction gives me hope.

Fiction Gives Me Hope

In my 30s I decided to focus my efforts on an immersive theatrical performance about Kashmir; a work that I had co-created with a team of Kashmiri artists. Nonfiction that was situated within a dramatic framework: not reportage; not academic writing; but an in-between form that used theater and aimed to educate non-Kashmiri audiences to realities from the Valley. What resulted was perhaps the most ambitious theatrical effort I’ve ever had the honor of co-writing and co-directing: a 24-hour immersion in which spectators became participants in an aesthetic, educational, and cultural experience.

Cue a new form of censorship.

This time, it was the police.

Three men, claiming to be plain clothes police officers from that part of India, who showed up in hour two of the performance, during only our second show with a live audience, and who told us that they had heard “Kashmiris were doing something suspicious.” They told me that they had come to make sure that we were—actually, they never really said what they were afraid we would do, but one can imagine what their fears were. These officials did not have the time or inclination to read the 200-page script; they did not really want us to get into the specifics of what we had created. What they did want were the names and addresses of every single creator of the performance: from my 70-year-old experienced Kashmiri co-creator who had a nuanced understanding of the risks inherent to our collaboration, to the 16-year-old Kashmiri actor who had joined the team to travel outside his hometown for the first time. What they did want were the names and addresses of every single audience member at the performance: from dear friends who had shown up to support us, to grassroots activists who we didn’t know, who had many reasons for being worried about additional police surveillance.

The entrance of the police created, for me, the kind of fear that comes from unspoken threats; the kind of fear that seems hyperbolic in retrospect and insufficient in the moment; the kind of fear that led to our live performances having to be canceled.

Of course, it didn’t end there. Our published script was hit with restrictions from the moment it was published. Our attempts to film the work, as a way to preserve an archive when live performances became impossible, led to us having to record the scenes under self-imposed house arrest because our hosts (in a different part of India this time) were threatened by vested local interests who seemed to share the same concerns that those police officers had so indirectly articulated a year earlier.

Nebulous fears with implications that could have led to lynching. Or charges of sedition. Or arrest. Or worse.

The kind of fear that seems hyperbolic sometimes, but chillingly realistic in others.

Fiction gives me hope.

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In attempts that have spanned almost two decades, across and between genres, my experiments with nonfiction have resulted in some kind of repression. Limitation. Censorship.

That the work can never be separated from the specific “thing” it talks about.

That it can never be something beyond the form it is cast as.

That it inevitably results in a curb, of one kind or another.

Fiction, on the other hand … fiction seems to allow for something different.

Fiction seems to allow for a little more possibility.

That maybe form can have fewer boundaries.

That maybe content can soar beyond specificities.

That’s why This Place | That Place was written.

Because fiction gives me hope.

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Proper grammar, punctuation, and mechanics make your writing correct. In order to truly write well, you must also master the art of form and composition. From sentence structure to polishing your prose, this course will enhance your writing, no matter what type of writing you do.

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