I had been taking photographs since high school but abandoned it for many years until I started traveling to India after college. Even then, I did not process the negatives or work with the images with such seriousness until I met Leandre Jackson, a brilliant photographer based out of Philadelphia. During all this time and for years to come, Leandre was a mentor, teaching me craft and encouraging me to keep shooting regardless of all else. See his work here.
Leandre was a senior paralegal by day at Community Legal Services, a nonprofit for civil legal aid for the poor. I was a law school intern entering my final year of law school. In between intakes for landlord-tenant matters, clients being evicted and suffering in inhabitable apartments, I consulted him about clients, and observed his images on the wall. One day I asked him about the photographs. When I told him that I took photographs too and he asked I share them, a beautiful collaboration unfolded. Leandre, Elizabeth Derickson, another photographer and former CLS housing unit paralegal, and I developed a group exhibit called “Living,” a collection of images portraying ordinary people from around the world and how they live.
In 2006, we exhibited “Living” in the Community Legal Services office in north Philadelphia together for the first time.
In 2008, we had a group exhibit in Chelsea, New York titled, “Look Close, See Far.”
In 2010, we shared “Living” at the Visual Legal Roundtable Conference at University of Pennsylvania.
In 2010, we also had another exhibition in the North Philadelphia office of Community Legal Services and this time with a Gallery Talk. Here are a few images by Leandre of me and Liz talking about our images.
Post MFA. I submitted a proposal for the first time to read my creative work for the annual symposium at the University of Hawaii-Manoa on Pedagogy and Community Building sponsored by the Center for South Asian Studies. Something about the call for papers from a wide variety of people- not just academics, but artists, writers, practicioners- drew me to submit a proposal. All credit goes to Professor Sai Bhatawedkar for this vision. I have been to many conferences but as a lawyer, not as a writer and certainly not to share from my project about the Meos and family history. Reading such intimate work, turning the anthropological gaze inwards to understand my own identity and community, was new territory.
I arrived a few days before the conference and appropriately wandered around Waikiki beach. To prepare a reading at the beach for a panel was new and should really be done more. The conference turned out to be as eclectic as one might have imagined with participants from all over- the US, Canada, India and we all had a wondrous few days together, culminating in snorkeling in the Great Pacific ocean.
I finished my MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Newark. I was exhausted and sad and grateful when it ended. I studied with so many impressive faculty, John Keene, Alice Elliot Dark, Tayari Jones, Akhil Sharma, Jayne Anne Phillips, Brenda Shaughnessy. And of course, classmates from all walks of life. During the MFA, I had two student readings, including one at the KGB Bar which held the student reading series. I revised many short stories, some poems, worked on a hybrid memoir, and even learned how to make a visual book, interlaying poems with images.
It’s an unusual gift to be in such an environment, immersed in reading and creative writing. The mind and heart just unfurls. It would be difficult to describe to anyone who has not underwent this experience the kind of connections that form from sharing creative work, so unlike any kind of classroom experience I’ve had.
After the first year of the MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers-Newark, I spent two weeks at Ithaca College at an Image-Text workshop taught by writer Catherine Taylor and photographer Nicholas Muellner. We created powerpoints that experimented with images, prose and negative space. I kept thinking of my photography and my words as separate beings, only they insist on merging. During that week I played with a project that fused images of Mewat, archival images, and excerpts of a short story. It was thrilling.
The workshop concluded with a Symposium of writers and visual artists. Claudia Rankine kept giving us student-interns projects. We did what she asked without question, only to learn that she was having us work on a powerpoint project with her. We fused our images with one of hers of a woman walking through the Tate museum and overlayed it with our own images (mine was a series of steps of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi) and overlayed with a voiceover from a philosophical text. Claudia Rankine worked to teach me how to read this text, encouraging me to slow down, take breaths and pauses, enunciate at the right places. Watch and listen to the final version here:
John Keene, who later became my thesis advisor, worked away quietly in a corner. In those few days, he produced the skeleton of book of poetry, later accompanied by photographs with Nicholas Mueller and published by ITI Press. I met many artists there, including a friend Ching-In Chen who wrote a novel-in-poems called The Heart’s Traffic. So much experimentation.
Ithaca too is beautiful, full of greenery and gorges.
2014, I went to my first writing retreat at VONA. On a whim, a close friend told me that we should apply together. I’m so glad I did. I spent a week at UC Berkeley in Willie Perdomo’s poetry workshop. One has to experience a VONA workshop to know the kind of electricity, conversations, friendships it generates.
Here’s our group picture, “Poets Looking Up at the Sky.”
One afternoon I set out to see the writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s home in rural Florida, two hours from my own hometown. It was a pilgrimage of sorts; I have a fascination with writer abodes. I was in transition at the time, anxious about the future. I found comfort in her sweltering Florida home amongst orange groves.
Rawling lived in Cross Creek from 1928 -’53. A DC native and at first an anthropologist of sorts, she began writing fiction about the “Florida crackers” who were neighbors. She published The Yearling. It was translated in many languages, including Hindi, a copy of which is in display at Cross Creek. I was intrigued by her transformation in Florida, reflected in her home which felt like home. I spent the afternoon there, documenting what I saw. She was a great hostess and writers, such as Robert Frost and Zora Neale Hurston, visited. (Her relationship with Zora Neale Hurston was a complicated one because of the racism of the time.)