In a change from the original programme, Chitra Ramaswamy closed #SYP101 with an address to the delegates about her experience as a journalist and then moving into writing her debut book which was published in 2016.
Chitra Ramaswamy is an award winning journalist and writer. Her first book, Expecting, a collection of nine essays for the nine months of pregnancy and birth, was published in April 2016 by Saraband. It won the Saltire First Book of the Year award and has been described as ‘immediately, poignantly, gripping… magnificent’ by Zoe Williams, ‘elegant, funny, brimming with acute observations and suffused with a gentle intimacy’ by Gavin Francis, and ‘a glorious read’ by Denise Mina. She currently writes mainly for The Guardian and lives in Edinburgh with her partner, young son, and rescue dog.
Chitra is mostly aware of the imposter syndrome she feels as a newly 38 year old who is, to use her own phrase, ‘long in the tooth’. But she also realised that her first book Expecting came out earlier in the previous year and she’s still relatively new to publishing. Going into the process she felt naive and inexperienced and knew journalism best, but didn’t know how arduous publishing can be.
Chitra explained how Expecting was published. She tried to write since she was eight years old and always wanted to be an author. There was no representation of girls like herself in writing while she was young and she started to write characters that were white because she didn’t know it was an option to write, for example, an Indian character.
In 2013 Chitra was pregnant with her first child and was going to write an outsider story of pregnancy and birth and wanted it to be an ‘intimate and strange’ account but also universal. As a ‘social document’ it could be a ‘personal story’, one about herself as a bisexual with a female partner and a mixed race baby. This kicked off the beginning of Expecting.
Coming back to the current day, Chitra acknowledges that with Brexit and Trump, publishing has never been more important to document these turbulent times. She can see ‘how radical and subversive publishing can be’ in these ‘genuinely tumultuous times’ and we should be making the effort to publishing different voices from the usual.
A cautionary tale: Chitra wrote the first three chapters of Expecting and was taken on by Jenny Brown Associates to get the book a publishing deal. Jenny punted the chapters around with confidence but was met with little victory. Every publisher they approached said they loved the writing but it was ‘not for them’ or ‘too niche’ (can pregnancy really be niche?!), ‘too narrow in focus’ and ‘only pregnant women would be interested’. This was until the book found by Saraband who had an ‘infectious enthusiasm’ for the book and ‘they just got it’.
Until last year Chitra never really spoke about her identity but she now sees it as important to share her experiences in the current climate. She realises she has a story and a voice to share and is willing to take the risk to be heard. How else is great art made without risk? Chitra found publishing more averse than expected and thinks there’s room for improvement there. Saraband is a testament to the health of independents who are the true risk takers of publishing – disseminating exciting ideas and voices which is so essential during these times.
What an inspiring and great talk to end our day on!
Photos by Chris Scott