Exploring A Career In Writing With AutHer Award Winner Jahnavi Barua - Eastern Mirror
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Exploring a career in writing with AutHer Award winner Jahnavi Barua

By Moakala T Aier Updated: Nov 22, 2023 1:24 pm
Featuring Dr. Jahnavi Barua, the doctor-turned-writer from Assam on challenges and more that aspiring writers can take home on EM’s Wednesday Special on Education
Exploring a career in writing with AutHer Award winner Jahnavi Barua
Jahnavi Barua

DIMAPUR — Medical doctors may have gained notoriety for their bad handwriting but Dr. Jahnavi Barua loves writing and is good at that. It was during an extended break she took to take care of her infant son with medical issues that the doctor was reconnected to her childhood love – writing, triggered by reading. She termed the switch from medical career to writing as “accidental”, but the journey thereafter was a measured one, as she shared her thoughts with the world.

She began writing slowly, one short story at a time, resulting in her debut collection of short stories titled “Next Door”, which was published by Penguin India in 2008 and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her second novel “Rebirth” was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her third novel “Undertow” won the Best Fiction Prize in the AutHer Award 2021 and the Kalinga Award for Fiction 2021 after being longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 and the BLF Atta Galatta Book Prize 2020. Her short fiction has also been widely anthologized and her work is part of several university syllabi.

Exploring a career in writing with AutHer Award winner Jahnavi Barua
Books written by Jahnavi

The doctor-turned-writer from Assam, who has a long line of interests including reading, listening to music and gardening, told Eastern Mirror in an interview that writing enriched her life by opening up a new world of connections – readers and writers – and of thought and feeling.

Read on to know what the Bangalore-based writer has to say about writing, time management, challenges and more that aspiring writers can take home:

Are there specific educational or training paths you recommend for someone interested in pursuing a writing career?

My path into writing was an unorthodox one – I did not study English or literature or writing. It was just my love of reading, my intrinsic writing skills and a voice I had that helped me write. In any case, in my time, there were few degrees or courses that trained you to write.

These days, however, there are many courses that a prospective writer can enroll in if they wish to study writing. The best option would be to do a degree in creative writing; studying literature also helps. One can attend workshops in writing that can be of great help. I conduct such workshops in writing too and am very happy to say that some of those who attended have gone on to publish quality fiction. But I must add here that training to be a writer involves much more than study. You have to inculcate a habit of listening to the world and to yourself. You have to love language and have a knack with it. You also have to love stories, for in the end, you are a storyteller when you write. These qualities are essential in sparking off a writing journey if there is one ahead of you.

Exploring a career in writing with AutHer Award winner Jahnavi Barua
Sharing insights about one of her books on stage

What are the aspects a student needs to be prepared to embrace on the path to becoming a full-time writer?

Writing full-time in our country can be a bit of a challenge. I always advise young writers, in the beginning, to pursue a main career that will meet their financial needs and to write alongside. The reason I say this is that unless you are extremely fortunate, it is unlikely that writing will give you a reasonable living. It is extremely difficult to get published and even if you do, the financial return may not be enough for you to live on. Only certain segments of fiction, such as mythology, romance, chick lit, campus lit or crime and of course, non-fiction may pay enough for you to manage. I must say, I was very fortunate to be published almost as soon as I began to write, but I still cannot live off it. Thus, it may be wise to have a supplemental source of income when you begin to write. I apologize for bringing up the financial aspects of writing, but since this is a guideline for young writers-to-be I thought I should share this very practical aspect with them. If the young writer is still determined to pursue writing after knowing the challenges ahead, then he or she must be prepared to be tremendously patient and determined. And understand that one writes for the love of it, for the love of the written word and for the stories that one tells.  Writing is a lonely, long and arduous path. It is also an all-consuming path that sometimes demands all else be sacrificed for the sake of writing. The young writer may have to take time away from family, friends, leisure or socializing in order to write. Writing is almost a vocation in that sense, like being a doctor or a nurse.  There is no other way to put it and it is probably better to understand that before one sets off on it.

Yet, at the end of that road lies a satisfaction like no other. A sense of achievement of having created something very precious.

What genres or styles of writing are particularly popular or in demand in the Indian publishing market?

Literary fiction, as a segment, in our country does not usually translate into massive sales or commercial returns. I personally have to depend on other means for sustenance and do not look to my writing as a viable source of income. Thus, I conduct writing workshops; I read manuscripts and short fiction for a fee. Yet, from my writing, I derive a profound pleasure and satisfaction that makes up for the small financial returns. This creative return is more than worth the small commercial returns. Connections with readers and fellow writers across the world also are a precious part of this journey. As is the feeling of being part of something worthwhile and valuable and of making a difference in the world. For instance, I just learnt that I have been included in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Indian Writing along with all our and my personal heroes of Indian writing of the last few decades – this recognition is something that makes all the difficulties of writing worthwhile.

Non–fiction is always very popular. The others are Crime fiction, Romance, Popular writing, Fantasy and Mythology. I am afraid, the kind I write — Literary Fiction – wins awards but not sales!

Exploring a career in writing with AutHer Award winner Jahnavi Barua
A caption from Jahnavi’s Instagram

What are some key qualities and challenges a writer must navigate, as outlined in your experience?

One of the first qualities a writer has to inculcate is discipline. Writing is a solitary pursuit and one which is not time bound. There are no deadlines and also, it may take years for a manuscript to come to fruition. And there is no coach or teacher or boss to push you to write. Thus, it is critical that the young writer has enough motivation to get up every morning and sit at that blank page. How long you write is an individual thing. Some writers are happy with just 500 words a day and some write 2000. But the key thing is to write. Every day!

The second very important challenge to overcome is managing time. If the writer has another job, then it becomes important to carve out time to write every day. If the writer manages a home and family like I did, it is probably more difficult for there are no timings or boundaries in the running of a home. It now becomes critical to find that time to write. I write late at night after the household sleeps but over the years that leads to many sleepless nights and all its attendant troubles!

Do you have any tips for managing the practical aspects of a writing career, such as dealing with rejection?

One way to face rejection is to have deep confidence in what you are writing and believe that eventually a publisher will see your work for what it is worth. I also find that if you do not allow the publishing part of writing to dominate your life and instead let the act of writing satisfy you, it is easier to handle the delays in getting published. That is why it is so necessary to have a life outside of writing too; one that can provide comfort when the going gets rough in the writing world.  I have personally been fortunate that I have not had a manuscript or story that has not been published once I sent it out. But, there have been times when it has taken some time for a publisher to revert and I have somehow not been unduly disturbed. I carry on with my non-writing life that is as important to me as writing and eventually things work out.

Can you recommend any resources or writing workshops that might be beneficial for a budding writer in India?

As far as resources for writing goes, the first advice I would give a budding writer is to read and read widely and deeply. I cannot advocate for any workshops as I have no experience with them personally. I would say this much though – I find many fiction workshops being conducted by resource persons who are not fiction writers and I am not sure that is the right format. I believe only a practising writer can offer the right sort of insight into writing that a new writer needs. Thus, maybe the workshops that are run by published writers would be the best options. I teach writing in Bangalore and plan to start online, so if any of your young readers are interested they are welcome to reach out to me. I am on Instagram and accessible there @jahnavibarua please feel free to follow me and reach out.  I am happy to help with advice and guidance.

Many find the publishing world perplexing. Could you provide an insider’s perspective on how the industry operates?

The publishing industry can be a mysterious space to those looking in from the outside but it is not that complicated. There are two ways a writer can submit a manuscript to a publisher. The first is to connect directly with them: there are usually submission details on all the publishers’ websites. The second is through a literary agent and there are many in the country today. Once submitted, the wait is long – it could be a couple of months before the publisher reverts. If accepted, the process of drawing up a contract and other legalities ensue. Eventually, the book is printed and this takes a year or more and is then sent out to bookstores. If rejected, the writer needs to start the process of submitting elsewhere again.

What guidance would you offer to emerging writers looking to enter the realm of professional writing?

My own journey in writing has been smoother than I had expected. Nearly twenty years ago, I stepped into this world with no training whatsoever, armed only with a love for reading and a profound interest in the world around me and I have had three books published that have won awards and hearts. It has been a satisfying journey and one that I have enjoyed.  I write slowly  – many years may pass between books  – and I think I live my life fully as I write along the way. Perhaps, this rather laid-back approach to writing has been my biggest strength for I do not feel the pressure to write quickly or publish every year. I can offer the young writing the wisdom I have garnered from this philosophy. Write from the heart; write at your own pace and make sure you live a full life. It is this life that will feed into your work and your books.

Tips to Enhance Writing

1.  Read, read and read!

2.  Keep a journal or diary – that is a daily writing exercise that will keep your writing muscles supple.

3.  Keep fit – you may be surprised how demanding writing can be physically.

4.  Write with honesty. The reader can always spot something that is contrived or fake.

Rapid Insights:

Sight of comfort

A piece of chocolate cake. I have thirty-two sweet teeth!

Meaning of ‘home’

A place where I can be myself and the people I can be myself with.

One-word feeling when surrounded by nature


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