There is an exciting new author you should watch out for. Her name is Zoya Patel, the founder and editor of Feminartsy. Previously named ACT Young Woman of the Year for her commitment to raising the profile of women’s voices in the media. More recently, the author of No Country Woman, a fabulous feminist memoir published by Hachette Australia, out on August 14.
Zoya regales her experiences as a first-generation migrant to Australia from an Indian-Fijian background and her story talks about how she has developed her sense of belonging.
Here, she writes exclusively for The Carousel about how she discovered her voice.
It’s 2008, and I am seated in a muggy classroom in the tower campus of University of Technology Sydney. It’s day one of classes, and I’m still shell shocked from moving out of home, leaving Canberra for the chaotic streets of Sydney, and navigating the city in the extreme heat of late February.
The lecturer for this class is a commanding middle-aged woman in the kind of draped, shapeless black clothing I associate with creative women who have a decent income. Success practically wafts off her and infiltrates the room, adding to the existing stench of aspirations and naivety that clouds us.
‘So the first question is, who here is a writer?’ the lecturer says, her tone one of complete boredom.
I start to raise my hand, and then stop, realising that no one else is raising theirs – instead, they’re all surreptitiously glancing at each other. I’m confused. Why are we all here if no one is a writer? Isn’t this Creative Writing 101? Isn’t the whole point that we’re writers?
In fact, at this point in time, the only thing I know about myself is that I’m a writer. I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen, filling notebook after notebook with my stories. Through all of my adolescent angst and cultural confusion, the one thing that has stayed consistent is the fact that I write. I do it as a compulsion, and I love it. I have never questioned my identity as a writer, so what is this posh-looking lecturer insinuating?
She looks at our blank faces with a small smile of satisfaction.
The rest of the tutorial is a blur. Within a month, I am on a bus back to Canberra, having dropped out of university. I am still a writer. But nothing else in my life feels very certain.
I tell this story of my slightly terrifying introduction to university because it highlights what I have always felt is a fundamental fact of writing.
There is no such thing as a Writer. At least, not insofar as you can actually define it. Writers are everywhere among us, and some of them don’t ever even lift a pen or open a laptop. In fact, that we rely on such a mundane word to capture the art of storytelling is kind of a shame – to write is to think, to dream, to talk, to examine, to explore, to beautify, and sometimes this leads to the actual construction of sentences on a page.
When I left that degree in Creative Writing, it wasn’t because I had any doubt about writing as my vocation, but because I wasn’t certain that I needed a formal structure around me to support my creativity.
Writing has always just kind of happened for me, so in a way, it was more important that I have the space and freedom to drive my creative projects myself.
When I came back to Canberra from Sydney, I threw myself back into volunteering for the magazine I had been writing for since I was 15, Lip Mag. It was a feminist publication for young women, and soon I had wriggled my way into an editorial assistant role, and within two years, was the editor-in-chief.
I also started writing for street press, blogging, and putting my hat in the ring for whatever writing-related opportunities came my way. With each new project or opportunity, I found myself gaining more traction with my words, with different publishing opportunities arising.
Eventually, I moved on from Lip and founded Feminartsy, another website for women’s writing that focusses on personal stories that interrogate gender. In 2016, I had been running the journal for two years, working on multiple arts festivals, and guest editing for other publications.
But even as I committed to project after project, I felt somehow disconnected from my original purpose as a writer. I knew I wanted to write, but what had I really written over the past eight years since leaving college?
I had always dreamed of writing books, but in my haste to stick my fingers in as many pies as possible, I had only been writing a handful of essays and short stories – nothing with any weight. That year, I resolved to write a novel. I had no real idea how to, but I had heard a friend say that Bryce Courtney had advised workshop participants that the best method was to simply write 600 words a day, every day. They didn’t have to be good words. They just had to be words, a starting point to work from.
I diligently made this my mantra, and wrote 500 words on weekdays, and 1,000 words on weekends. It was torture. I was convinced my novel, a story of an immigrant family in the diaspora, struggling to maintain their connections to their culture and each other, was hollow. The characters were two dimensional. The thing had no rhythm.
But I ploughed ahead, and finished it on New Years Eve 2016.
It felt like I had run a marathon. I had no idea if it would go anywhere, but the first step was done – I had written a book.
What I didn’t know that night, as I watched the clock ring in 2017, was that in the next nine months, I would go from having written the first draft of a novel, to being signed to a literary agent, to meeting with publishers, to selling my newest project – a collection of memoir essays – and then writing that entire book too.
I went from having a vague notion of what I wanted to achieve, to having the profound privilege of other people believing in and backing my work.
Now, my book, No Country Woman is entering the world. It is not the book I set out to write in 2016, but in a way I needed to write that novel so that I could stretch my writing muscles and come to this point, where the essays that make up No Country Woman flowed out of me seamlessly.
In fact, writing No Country Woman was like opening a floodgate I hadn’t realised was closed. My thoughts on and experiences of being a migrant in Australia – of the barriers, the challenges, but also the opportunities and wonderful relationships I have encountered – were always waiting inside of me, ready for the right channel to emerge.
This book feels like a culmination of every piece of writing I have ever attempted, the fruition of so many years of ruminating on these issues. It is humbling and exciting to think it may impact readers, or make a stranger think about these issues.
I feel like I can finally understand what that lecturer was trying to say, all those years ago at UTS. She was saying that the label of ‘writer’ is not assumed, it is earned. It is not earned through publication, or through accolades, or through sales figures. It’s earned through hard work.
A writer is someone who writes – who does the hard work of creating stories, building them with words that stack like bricks to eventually build a house for their thoughts. The greatest proof that we can ever have of our status as a writer is to be read, even by just one person.