Writers’ desks: space for art, art for space

[Note: a version of this essay was published in the March – April 2022 issue of Springtide Magazine (“Spaces”, Volume 1, Issue 004)- click here. To read the published version of this essay on my blog click here.]

There is an obvious path for this essay to take– the politics of demanding a space of one’s own. We will not be taking it. We won’t talk about how marginalised writers do not have the space they both desire and deserve. We will not be; because this is obvious. If we cannot agree on this, proceeding further is impossible. Instead, imagine this: a young writer, a mere decade into her career, having the ability to draw another young writer– a student of hers– out of their shell to write, to confront the overwhelming realities of discovering caste. Of course, Vijeta Kumar was not alone in this. Photographs of Dr Ambedkar and Rohit Vemula supported her efforts. 

Based in Bengaluru, Vijeta Kumar teaches English at St. Joseph’s College. As a child, she turned to writing to seek solitude, a place to hide in. Desperate to find this space, she would write things and “then set fire to them”, to show she could have have a wall and it couldn’t be touched. Writing was born out of this process. What does Jeanette Winterson say in her memoir Why be happy when you can be normal?, when her mother sets fire to her books? ‘What is inside you is safe.’ What is inside you cannot be easily destroyed. Thus, after a while, the burning stopped and the writing stayed. And though for a few years, Kumar never wrote, she returned to it in renewed form, when she started teaching. Her classroom fed into her writing, and her writing ‘leaped’. 

Kumar has since written essays for several outlets such as the Deccan Herald, Huffpost India, and the White Review. Her essays often foreground ordinary experience while steadily touching upon political questions. The latter she approaches not with caution but with a coolness of a conservationist. In Give a Dalit Man a Pair of Scissors, and He’ll Show You What Freedom Is Kumar describes the loneliness that caste can coerce but also invites you to see how Dalits resist. We will show you freedom, she seems to say. At some level, writing mediates this ability to grasp freedom.

In her essay Why Don’t More Writers Become Public School Teachers, Belle Boggs, the author of The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood argues that the work of the best teacher-artists is never “entirely selfless. It is an exchange”. Classroom spaces, she hints, can better writing. Many renowned writers have delivered words while aggressively reconfiguring their writing schedule. “I stole time to write” said Toni Morrison famously. This is true for writers who are also mothers, or teachers, or anybody who cannot afford a sabbatical from reality. Vijeta Kumar arranges her writing around her classroom. Often, her writings begin in her classroom. Sometimes, she empties the ends into her classes, tying her words with what she would’ve taught that day. This process, she admits, allows her writing to hit places she could not have on her own. A space like a classroom offers writers a daunting range of experience and energy. Would it be too far-fetched then to say writers within such spaces are able to make a collection of available thoughts meaningful? Teacher-writers as bricoleurs. 

When I coax Kumar into discussing writing rituals, she admits to having a few. Like dedicated playlists and a cultivated dependence on the sound of keys clicking. “When I’m typing on my keyboard, I find that there is space enough that I can listen to the words” She says. While she takes my questions seriously, responding with long, considered opinions, she is also self-aware. For instance, she says “maybe, I am just spoilt” to her need to listen to the keyboard clicking to allow for a “rigorous carpentry with words”. But sound is important to a space. Maybe writers carry these sounds, pouring them to concoct their spaces.

The relationship between writers and their desks has a long, fascinating history. There are writers who have tidy desks like Jacqueline Woodson. There are messy ones, and ones who do not book mark a space– for whom, anything from the floor of the kitchen to the crowded bus stand becomes a writing space. An important element of Kumar’s desk is the photograph of Dr Ambedkar. His presence not only allowed her to occupy space, but helped her students, aspiring writers among them, to feel like they belonged.

Photo courtesy: Vijeta Kumar

The relationship between art and space goes beyond a mere connection to the physical space in which one creates. Various social factors affect people’s relationship with a space, resulting in different experiences. Art bears the complexities of the space it tries to capture. While social identity plays a role, even among similarly located people, art would flow differently. For instance, in his review of Roy DeCarava’s photographs, Tomas Unger writes that DeCarava’s commitment to archiving ordinary lives of Black people in Harlem translated to a creative expression and not a “sociological statement”. 

On the other hand, when a space is sought to create art, such a space too, in turn, bears the complexities embedded in the artist’s method and being. Simply put, artists often have to create the space they want to be in because such a place did not exist until then. For Vijeta Kumar writing arrived before her space. Writing was a means of transport, through which she has been able to seek various forms of solitude– a component of her desired space. Not the kind of solitude that one achieves by being left alone when one wants to be, but a kind that is interior. While she sought the former, the latter she embraced gradually. Solitude can also be a weapon of resistance. Writing is a useful tool to fake a certain kind of solitude, she says.  A kind of solitude that reads: ‘do not disturb, writer at work’. When you come from a marginalised caste or class, workplaces can be tough and such mechanisms are useful shields, she says. They are useful not only to shoo the nuisance away but to move on with the writing. Because that is what they don’t want happening, right? 

Acknowledgments: thanks to Vijeta Kumar for her time and her generosity of thought. Springtide Magazine for the opportunity. My friends Agnee Ghosh, Sweta Dash, and Pragati K.B for their valuable comments.

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