Portfolio/Project Progress #mixer

For my project, I’m interviewing/surveying young Indian American women about their perspectives on dating, love, and marriage to find out how they navigate different, sometimes contradictory cultural forces when it comes to relationships. I’m a part of that group too, so I’m also writing something  about my own family: my grandma’s “love marriage” in India, my mom’s arranged marriage in India, and my experiences trying to bridge two cultures when I date and consider whether or not I want to marry. I want my audience to get a better sense of what Indian culture is like, especially what it’s like in this country, and to challenge some of the stereotypes they may or may not have in mind. I also want to demonstrate the range of experiences that come with this particular blend of cultural identities (Indian and American) and how this diversity shapes different experiences of feminism.

So far a lot of people on campus and in other parts of the country have responded to the survey I distributed, so I have a lot of interesting information from that. But I’m still in the process of interviewing people and freewriting about what I’ve gathered so far, so…I don’t really know how I’m going to organize any of this yet. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. All I know is that I want to split the writing up into different subtopics and pages so it’s more digestible, and I want to use as many photos, video/audio clips, and direct quotes as possible to let these women speak for themselves. My job will be to write the connecting threads and try to synthesize everything in a clear, engaging way.

I’ve decided to use Weebly as my portfolio and project platform because of its drag-and-drop site builder and customization options.

Weebly Site Builder

I’m excited about how many opportunities there are to incorporate visuals and audio, both of which are important for my project. It’ll be easy to create a landing page and put the project on display using an image gallery, and I think it’ll look really nice. But on the other hand, I’m worried about having enough high resolution images to make the best use of all that visual space! The Weebly templates all, of course, have huge, beautiful images. I want to make sure my images are relevant to my project and/or portfolio in general and that they’re high quality.

So anyway, my biggest problems right now are organization and time. Big ones. I want to be able to pull everything together without rushing it so I can be happy with the end result, but time is flying and I’m not where I was hoping to be at this point! But I trust that the more I work on it, it’ll come together. This weekend is definitely going to be dedicated to my capstone and my portfolio.

Diverse Voices

What really excites me about writing right now is that for the first time in my life, I’m realizing how much of a privilege it is to express myself publicly, and I’m trying to take advantage of that.

In the not-too-distant past, writing for an audience – even a small audience – was difficult not only in a practical sense because of technological limitations; it was also doable only for a select group and nearly impossible for women, people of color, and people otherwise lacking in social power. For most of history, millions of voices were muted.

I’ve taken it for granted that for my whole life, I’ve been encouraged by my parents and teachers to read and write; so much so that as a child, I never once doubted that that path – education, independence – should be available to me as long as I work hard enough. Which is why I didn’t even think about feminism until late high school or the beginning of college – I couldn’t see that despite my own privilege, there is a need for it.

But now I appreciate when I see how many people are getting their voices out there through student publications, blogs, zines, etc., and it’s inspired me to do the same. The DIY attitude behind a lot of these things is great, because it encourages all kinds of people to express themselves regardless of social or economic constraints.

Even though this was written and published pre-internet, this article is an example (a rather grim one) of a woman, Sohaila Abdulali, who wrote about something that was previously unwritable, especially in India. You’ll see, if you read the piece, the extent to which she had been belittled and silenced after the event that she’s written about, but she made a point of including her name and photo to show that she owns her voice and that she isn’t ashamed of what she’s written.

My 3rd Grade India Journal

My project will be an exploration of my family’s culture and an effort to understand others’ choices as well as my own cultural identity. In a lot of ways, this is very closely linked to my identity as a writer; much of my early journaling (and also some of my more recent journal writing) centered on self-exploration, on trying to understand the “self” that was developing in the midst of a large, close-knit Indian community and a diverse American community at school. I didn’t think of it that way at the time, of course, but looking back I can see my writing as an effort to reconcile the tensions between my parents’ beliefs and the kinds of things I was hearing, reading, and feeling outside of my house. Over time, I progressed from simply recording my frustrations and opinions to questioning them and trying to understand my parents’ (or other people’s) perspectives.

Going to India when I was 8 really challenged my thinking and helped me to get a better sense of where my parents were coming from at times when I disagreed with them. As part of a school assignment, I kept a journal while I was there; while it’s lacking in insightful analysis, it does contain a record of some of the things that surprised me and challenged me. It also makes my privileged and previously narrow mindset (hopefully “previously” narrow!) painfully visible, which inspires me to work even harder to open myself up to as many different perspectives as possible as I move forward with my project.

My India Journal (Nov-Dec. 2000)
My India Journal (Nov-Dec. 2000)
My first entry! (Nov. 2000)
My first entry! (Nov. 2000)

“The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End”

Sugar Girls

I decided to look for someone who was working on an oral history project, because that’s a big part of what I want to do for my own research. I came across this article written by Duncan Barrett, one of two authors of “The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End,” a story of working-class women in London. Barrett talks about the difficulties in collecting oral testimonies and writing the collected stories as honestly as possible.

One thing he discusses is building rapport with interviewees. For him, part of this entailed the struggle to suppress his own opinions and beliefs during interviews. He had to accept racist and homophobic comments that he would normally speak out against in order to respect the women’s perspectives and allow them to tell their stories. I think this is something I may have to deal with; I can’t speak for those I haven’t met yet, but I do know some of my family members are prejudiced against certain groups, either because of a history of violence (such as that between Hindus and Muslims) or just because of their own personal bias, and these prejudices can sometimes play a big role in choosing marital partners.

Barrett also says that he and his co-author aimed for a “novelistic style,” writing “not in [their] subjects’ own words but in a single authorial voice, in order to make the women’s experiences gel together as one story.” This is probably similar to what I’ll do; even though I know for sure that I want to include a lot of direct quotes from the women I talk to and make sure their voices come through distinctly, I’ll also have to work their stories into a larger context and present them in a way that makes sense to me. I think this will be really difficult and, for both ethical and fact-checking purposes, will require me to send drafts to the people I’m writing about. That’s what Barrett says he did, and he sometimes had to rework some passages or contend with changing testimonies.

After reading this article, I’m even more aware of the difficulty in collecting oral testimonies, but at the same time, that’s what I wanted: a process of discovery and of collecting real, potentially messy stories.

Understanding Indian Arranged and Choice Marriages

For my project, I’ve chosen to look more closely at both arranged and choice marriages among Indians living in the United States. As someone who personally has zero interest in getting married anytime soon, I’ve struggled to explain to myself why I’m so interested in this topic. But that itself may be part of it – the fact that social structures and gender roles are changing, and, for what may be the first time in history, it’s becoming more and more socially acceptable and common not to marry. So how does the addition of this relatively new, third option in the arranged-vs.-choice mix affect the lives of those who come from a culture that is so deeply steeped in collective, family life?

I think that on a broad level, I want to try to understand as many different experiences and life choices as possible; as both a reader and a writer, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do – to connect with characters and the people in my life – but before I started college, (in typical first-generation-American/Joy-Luck-Club fashion), I rarely made the effort to turn that curious, empathetic eye toward my own culture. In the last four years, however, I’ve practiced reading, writing, and speaking in Hindi; accepted and even grown to like the cheesiness of Bollywood; studied Indian media “Beyond Bollywood”; studied Indian history; written essays and papers about my family and culture; etc.

But I’m still looking for more, somehow – particularly at a time when I myself am confronting the totally open, blank future ahead of me after graduation, I’m looking to understand how people choose to build their lives. For many, the question of marriage is a big part of that process. Combining my curiosity about Indian culture with my interest in gender and women’s studies, I’m going to focus on women in particular.

I don’t want to compare or evaluate what kind of approach to marriage is “better” or has a higher chance of success. I want to explore:

  • Motivations behind and attitudes toward both arranged marriages and “love matches”/”choice” marriages
  • How Indian women of different ages living in the U.S. conceptualize the role of marriage (and perhaps, though not necessarily, love) in their personal and social lives – is it economically necessary? Emotionally fulfilling? Integral to the family structure? Etc.
  • The day-to-day, human experience of marriage (both the hopes or goals leading up to it and the lived experience of it) as opposed to surface-level stereotypes of either arranged or choice marriages.

(Sorry, lots of parentheses and interjections. I’m still figuring things out!)

The notion of digging past reductive stereotypes of “barbaric” arranged and “foolish” choice marriages to expose the rich, diverse realities of women’s married (or divorced or widowed) lives is really the part that excites me most. This past summer, I stumbled upon old pictures of my parents – whose marriage was arranged – and seeing them as a young couple not yet rooted in the role of “mother” or “father” made me want to know more about what their lives were like before they became parents. What was it like living with a near-stranger and getting to know them? What were their common or independent goals? How did they spend their days?

My parents’ wedding (1978)
My mom!
My mom!
What are these outfits.
What are these outfits.

Now, of course, this wasn’t the first time I was conscious of the fact that my parents are, indeed, human beings in their own right, independent of the role they played in my life. But seeing those photos of their early married life reminded me yet again how easy it is to see only the surface of another’s life and not the memories, choices, and feelings that have shaped it.

That’s what I’m looking for, hopefully via interviews with Indian women on campus and also others of different ages. I will supplement with stories/interviews from my own family members as well as more analytical and generalizable scholarly research, but mostly I hope to talk to women who come from different backgrounds than my own. Finding them and getting them to open up will be the tricky part! As far as form goes, all I know at this point is that I want to weave together a narrative, or perhaps a collection of intimate stories, rather than just a synthesis of data. Outside research will definitely help me structure and analyze these stories, but my main goal is to gain a deeper understanding of the human experience of marriage.

Female Infanticide in India

While researching the attitudes behind arranged marriages and choice marriages in India and the U.S., I stumbled upon the issue of female foeticide and infanticide in India. According to this Huffington Post article, “2.8 million girls in India have gone missing in the last 20 years.” Some other articles report even larger numbers. Millions of baby girls are killed, sometimes before birth via sex-selective abortions and sometimes after birth via God knows what method. The main reason for this is very much related to my project: dowry.

I was dimly aware of this issue, but I didn’t realize it was so widespread. Perhaps that’s partially because I have in mind the example of my dad’s parents, who were very poor but still raised eight children, including five daughters.

But marriage is a very important part of Indian culture, and even though dowry has technically been illegal for fifty years, it still plays a big role in securing good matches. This is why sons, who carry on the family name and bring money into the house, are valued, while daughters, who leave the house when they marry into another family, carrying all of their moveable wealth with them, are considered economic burdens.

I have no interest in perpetuating the commonly held view of India as a (culturally, if not economically) backwards country. In many ways, it’s not backwards at all. However, I do believe that the country is failing its women in many ways, and I think it’s important to expose issues like this and examine how they affect the day-to-day choices that people make. After all, part of my interest in my project topic stems from an interest in gender and a commitment to feminism. Issues of starting a family, pregnancy, and abortion play a big role both in considerations before marriage and in the daily experience of marriage. Abortion in particular is a big issue to consider, because in the context of American politics, I am very much pro-choice. I’m not, however, in favor of gender screening and sex-selective abortions. At the same time, I can’t imagine that even those who make that kind of decision make it without difficulty. I’m curious to see how this issue will work into my research.

Unlearning Myself

Sweetland has inflicted on me the irritatingly insistent need to question and explore, to look at things from as many angles as possible. In the year-and-a-half since I started both the MIW gateway course and the peer tutoring program, I’ve started cracking myself open and trying to change and grow – and writing has played a big part in that.

I’ve always been obsessed with details, lists, and plans, but when I started freewriting, I invited messiness into my life. Before that (and sometimes even now) I couldn’t stand to write anything without a thorough outline. I’d stare at a page for hours, laboring over every word I wrote. When I started looking more closely at my writing process in 220 and 300, it occurred to me that if I didn’t change something soon, I wouldn’t be able to keep writing, at least not in any meaningful way. And when I started freewriting (to force myself to write more often, more quickly, and more creatively) I started uncovering other parts of myself and my life that were also stunted, in need of change.

‘Well, great!’ I thought, feeling oddly excited. Through my writing I identified problems and questions that I hadn’t seen before, which opened the way towards finding solutions. Right?

A few months later, I found myself clinging to a coffee cup and nervously flipping through note cards, getting ready to give a presentation about “dysfunctional writing techniques” (including procrastination and perfectionism) – all while running on an hour-and-a-half of sleep after I’d stayed up all night working on presentations and a paper.

Okay, so…fixing my problems wasn’t nearly as easy as acknowledging their existence.

Change takes time. Like, months and months and months of watching things get worse before they get better, of feeling like I haven’t moved forward at all even though I know I have.

It’s like I have a belief, a feeling of what I should do or who I could be “hovering, but not fully realized” (to borrow a phrase from a ‘Believer’ interview with Joan Didion) inside of me, but I need time to make that belief stick and to act on it. Peter Elbow talks about this concept in his book, “Writing Without Teachers,” in a way that really resonates with me, particularly when he says:

“If we get a ‘new’ idea, or perception, almost invariably it’s the third or seventeenth time we’ve encountered it. This time it took…What’s really new is the letting go of an old perception, thought, or feeling which was really preventing assimilation of the ‘new’ thing already waiting in the wings. Thus the crucial event in growing is often the beginning of a relinquishing…Only this permits the restructuring necessary for taking in the new perception, idea, or feeling.”


"Writing Without Teachers"


So as I’m in the middle of letting things go and undoing parts of myself to make room for growth, in a lot of ways, I’m less put-together and less in control of myself than I was when I started the gateway course. But (on most days) I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. I’ve opened myself up to growth in so many ways, even though I’m still in the beginning stages, and even though I experience huge setbacks: I’ve started to change the way I eat and take care of my body (and I wrote a piece about that for the Food Issue of my friend’s feminist zine, Peachy Keen), I’ve reopened the possibility of vision therapy for a complicated eye problem that I thought was impossible to improve, I’ve been writing more often and with less stress, I’ve started meditating regularly to give myself a break from to-do lists and anxiety, I’ve learned how to communicate better with my parents and my friends – and so much more.

I’ve learned (and am still learning!) to start with whatever I have, wherever I am, and move forward in any way that I can. Even if it doesn’t feel like enough.

[End self-help saga.]

Vision and Writing

I’ve been working on an essay about an eye condition that I have and its potential psychological/social effects. My eye muscles are misaligned, which makes it difficult to use both eyes at once, fuse the two separate images together, and make eye contact. As dismal as that sounds, I’m enjoying writing this. It’s forcing me to question how this issue that I’ve just sort of accepted as a part of my life has really shaped who I am. It feels a bit like therapy.

One of the things that its made me realize is that my eye condition might be one of the biggest reasons that I turned to writing in the first place. Because of the actual physical strain of holding my eyes up as well as the cosmetic appearance of my eyes, I’ve always felt uncomfortable communicating verbally. The easiest way for me to connect with people is through writing. Also, I’m beginning to realize that the way I (literally) see the world affects the way I think.

Susan Barry, who had an eye problem similar to mine, touches on this in her book, “Fixing My Gaze.” She underwent vision therapy in her forties and managed to make incredible progress towards regaining binocular vision. She wrote:

“Most surprising to me was that the change in my vision affected the way that I thought. I had always seen and reasoned in a step-by-step manner. I saw with one eye and then the other. When entering a crowded room, I would search for a friend by looking at one face, then the next. I didn’t know how to take in the whole room and its occupants in one glance. While lecturing in class I always spoke about A causing B causing C. Until I watched my children grow up, I had assumed that seeing the details and understanding the big picture were separate processes. Only after I learned the details could I add them up together in the whole. I could not, as the saying goes, see the forest for the trees. But my kids seemed to be able to do both at the same time.”

I’ve thought about that many times, but I wasn’t sure if it was just me, or if it had something to do with my eyes. Now I think it’s probably both. I’ve always considered myself to be fairly smart, but, frankly, kind of slow. I have a hard time participating in class because I need a lot of time to absorb and synthesize information before I can form an opinion on it. I’m sure this is true for a lot of people, with or without “normal” vision, but for me personally I think it’s due in part to the way my eyes work. Writing gives me that time and space to work out my thoughts and see what they add up to.

In a way, all of this points to a somewhat unhealthy dependence on writing. There’s no denying that to some extent I need to loosen my grip on written words and develop my verbal/interpersonal skills. But on the other hand, writing has been both an invaluable coping mechanism and act that challenges me to think and to learn.

Letters & Handwriting

I recently read this article by Matthew Gasda about the value of regularly writing letters instead of just emails. He thinks this is one of the best ways to develop as a writer, because it allows us to “think on the page” and explore, in depth, our ideas as well as different writing techniques.

Email is all about being as concise as possible. Letter-writing is about expression and exploration.

Gasda says:

“Writing an email, usually in the midst of several other activities simultaneously — that is, while distracted and unfocused — fundamentally can’t be the same thing as sitting down in a moment of relative quiet to compose a letter. There is some hard science to back this statement up — our brains just read and process text differently on a screen…”

I used to write letters fairly often, and I loved doing it. More often, though, the way that I make myself write regularly (which is, I think, Gasda’s main point) is by blogging or writing in a journal. The latter has actually become my preferred method; I’ve only recently realized just how much of a different there is between writing on paper and typing on a keyboard.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my freewrites:

“I can’t keep up and my hand hurts but for some mysterious reason I feel that I have to do this by hand. Like I won’t get as much out of it if I don’t. I’ve spent the past several – 6? 8? – years writing almost exclusively on a screen, but even though there are a lot of benefits to that (speed, convenience, privacy, organization) I find that there’s some sort of mysterious process that occurs when I touch pen to paper. Almost like I’m more connected to the ideas in me. Maybe because I’m physically producing letters and words and phrases instead of hitting labeled keys on a keyboard. I really don’t know. This has helped me brainstorm and start writing. Maybe b/c it feels less permanent and fixed than a computer document, even though really my text is more easily changeable and re-arrangeable there. But then again, maybe its precisely that, that pressure of editing capacity/possibility that makes me anxious and blocked. I’m still learning.”

Writing Apprehension

Hey, guys.

For my peer tutoring class I’m researching ways in which writing centers can help students with writing apprehension (dread/fear of writing) and any emotional aspect of the writing process. I’m mostly focusing on “dysfunctional writing techniques”, whether that’s procrastination, perfectionism (compulsive editing-as-you-write), or dependence on rigid rules (grammar, catchy intros, the five-paragraph essay, etc.). All of these things hinder the flow of productive writing and cause stress.

I’m just wondering if any of you have any particular strategies that give you momentum as you write, or help you deal with any frustration or stress that you may feel.

I think some degree of stress is probably healthy, because you sort of have to throw yourself in before you really know what direction you’re going to take, and there are always problems and specific choices to be made. But stress that’s caused by compulsive editing or any of the other things I mentioned is usually counterproductive.

I’ve been looking into exercises like freewriting, writing “shitty first drafts,” and loop writing, all of which center on the idea that writing is a process of discovery; the best way to start is just to write, without editing anything (spelling, word choice, etc.), whatever comes to mind. After that, you have something to work with, even if most of it is junk, and it’ll probably lead you in new directions that you hadn’t considered before. I think this helps address the problems of not knowing what to write (procrastination), getting bogged down on word choice (perfectionism), and sacrificing interesting, original ideas in order to fit into some rigid framework. My biggest issue is that I’m not sure that any of these solutions are practical when it comes to a thirty-minute tutoring session.

Do you guys have any ideas? Either ideas for general writing techniques or for specific tutoring techniques would be appreciated. Thanks!