#DesiLitBiz: Community Question on coming to writing later in life

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This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


“I’d always wanted to be a writer but, for various reasons, I could focus on it only in my late forties. I’ve finished a novel and am sending out my short stories to various literary magazines. Though a couple of them have been published, I feel that older South Asian women writers are at a huge disadvantage. It seems as if we have everything loaded against us: age, gender, region, craft, and culture. Do you feel this to be the case too? Are there any specific forums for older South Asian women writers? Are there any literary magazines that prioritize publishing such writers?”

~Veena Narayan, Kochi, Kerala (website; newsletter)

This week’s question is from a Desi Books community member, Veena Narayan, about coming to writing later in life and whether older South Asian women writers are at a huge disadvantage. #DesiLitBiz #WritingCommunity @DesiBooks

Jenny Bhatt: Thanks for this question, Veena. And, first of all, congratulations on holding fast to your writing practice and making this progress despite how the deck is often stacked against writers like us.

You’ve raised a topic that gets discussed a fair bit among older desi women writers. I’ve raised it often enough on social media, at book events, in essays, and reading lists.

Ageism in the literary world exists across the board as it does in almost every field and sphere. We see it with certain literary awards and lists that still have age thresholds or limits. But, for us South Asian women—whether we’re living in South Asia or within the global diaspora—it’s more involved.

It starts with our own cultures, where women of our generation and earlier were expected to follow certain life scripts. If we chose or needed to work outside the home, the jobs or careers we had could not be writing-related ones. And this was definitely more so if we came from the lower or conservative middle classes where a job was about putting food on the table and paying the bills. Of course, there are always exceptions and outliers but we’re talking about the norms.

Traditional western publishing was, until recently, run by older white women. Despite that, as many studies over the years have proven, attention across the publishing ecosystem was given to male writers (and mostly white ones.) This has changed considerably just in the last decade or so. In fact, I began querying my first book in 2017 and it wasn’t quite the scene that we see now with more young people of color working in publishing and more independent presses. As great as all that is, what I keep hearing is how these younger publishing professionals prefer to see themselves or their particular preoccupations in the books they take on. And, because a good majority of them come up through the MFA system or through the publishing world itself, they also tend to prefer working with writers who have similar credentials and literary networks with MFAs, residencies, fellowships, grants, etc. At least in the US, this is a notable trend among even desi writers who get the big book deals. So this also speaks to the craft issue you mention. As a writer, you may have honed your craft the old-fashioned way for decades, but if you don’t have the usual credentials (which require time, money, and effort and are not possible for everyone) and networks, it’s that much harder. And, in terms of culture, as I’ve mentioned before, the desi books that sell well are the ones that confirm western biases about South Asian culture and are easier to package and market, especially to book clubs looking for a bit of “Culture.”

Within South Asia, it used to be that the traditional publishing world was so small that it was considered “incestuous.” Everyone knew everyone else from having gone to the same educational institutions and having worked together in some capacity or other within the publishing ecosystem. Also, there were few women in senior decision-making roles. Now, we see a lot more women in significant positions at various South Asian publishers. However, demographically, they’re typically from generations younger than ours. So, again, they’re looking mostly at readers like themselves and often choosing works that speak to their particular preoccupations rather than a wider range across class and age divides.

Let me repeat: I’m speaking about general situations and there will always be exceptions and outliers. Thankfully, a couple of media venues do spotlight these: Poets & Writers; Bloom. Also, we’re talking about traditional publishing which has its own set of gatekeepers along every step of the way. A writer can always choose to self-publish but that’s a whole different kettle of fish and requires its own little essay.

In both of the cases above, the writer’s gender isn’t as much of an issue anymore. We see, both in the western world and in South Asia, a lot more women writers getting published, reviewed, and awarded. They mostly happen to be younger than our generation, of course.

So, with all of the above, my answer to your question about feeling like older South Asian women writers are at a disadvantage is: yes. We’re out there working away but we’re still fairly invisible and the many gates across the publishing world don’t open easily for us.

You ask about whether there are specific forums for older desi women writers. I don’t know of formalized forums. I’m connected with older desi women writers in India, the US, and the UK. I do see more of their informal support systems within India and the UK than I see in the US. We’re far more clique-y in the US for some reason. Can such forums or collectives of like-minded people coming together to form a community help? Yes, if the members are good about sharing ideas for how to navigate the publishing world. Yes, if we understand that we don’t need to keep trying to get a few seats at someone else’s table because we’re capable of making our own tables. But all of this takes organization effort, generosity, and a focus on the greater common good.

And, finally, you ask about literary magazines that prioritize publishing older desi women writers. Not that I know of. And I’m not so sure that will help the situation I’ve described above.

Here’s what I believe might help (although, of course, it is all easier said than done):
—if the publishing industry accepts that readers come in all ages, colors, and stripes and that, in fact, older women readers (beyond the typical culture-seeking book clubs) are a significant paying demographic to cater to as well;
—if publishing folks appreciate, as I wrote in my Longreads essay, that “a late bloom can be brilliant and enduring because of the lived-in wisdom composted from our richly-seasoned experiences”;
—if older desi women readers demand, uplift, and celebrate books where they can see women characters like themselves;
—if younger readers of all stripes understand that older writers do make interesting and valuable contributions;
—if older desi women writers harness the real power of community and literary citizenship to build our creative spaces and to keep raising the tide so that it lifts all boats;

I’m sure I have not alleviated your concerns because I have not shared any magic bullet solutions. These are long-running and deeply-entrenched problems that, despite so many smart people across the publishing industry the world over, remain so. What we can and must all keep doing is raising awareness through more conversation, online and offline.

All that said, more power to all of us older desi women writers. From my essay again: “For women coming to writing in midlife and beyond, it is a similar act of agency. Our stories are also in danger of death and erasure. Writing them takes a political and a rebellious will after having repressed our voices and words for decades due to longstanding socio-cultural biases and prejudices. To paraphrase Morrison, our midlife creativity is radical because it re-creates us even as we create our works. Every bit of validation or praise is hard-won because we have to work that much harder for our visibility and voice as we get older.”

I wish you all the very best in your writing and publishing journey. Hang in there. If there are some things we older desi women writers have plenty of, they are our hard-earned patience, resilience, and sheer persistence. I hope we can feature your work soon at Desi Books.

This week’s question is from a Desi Books community member, Veena Narayan, about coming to writing later in life and whether older South Asian women writers are at a huge disadvantage. #DesiLitBiz #WritingCommunity @DesiBooks

More about Veena Narayan at her website and newsletter.


This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


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