How to Render to Mediocrity
by Sheena D’Lima
February 5th, 2022
Illustration by Jery John
When Cheryl Strayed sits down to write, she says she aspires to greatness but renders to mediocrity. I return to this piece of wisdom often. In essence, her advice is about pushing through that first wave of anxiety when you write and creating from a place of humility and forgiveness. Only, I find now, my ideas of both greatness and mediocrity differ in some way from Cheryl’s. I write in English in India.
I’ve had a lot of jobs and I’ve done a lot of writing; the desk at a local newspaper, magazines, student papers, progress reports, research projects, emails, chirrupy promotional literature for software companies, start-ups and local real estate companies.
I’ve blogged. I’ve reviewed. I’ve entered contests. I write. Words have paid my bills, become my strongest marketable skill, sustained me. I thrill at the hunt for just the right word; I play with turns of phrases; I love how annotation can become a thing birthed but separate from the original text; I love striking the right tone; fussing over punctuation; contracting an unwieldy sentence or breathing life into an unformed one. These things bring me endless joy. I revel in the English language and its possibilities and it has loved me back –– For the most part.
Often, my love of the language hovers just out of reach. I am at once, stilted, wooden, unoriginal. This happens most when I write personal nonfiction or creative fiction. The flustering in my mind convinces me that there is no one more stupid than I am. I am mediocre. The truth is, the English I write professionally is divorced from the English I experience. When you write, you bring the self to the page. Often, an editor will instruct you to “make it informative” or “make it funny,” and it’s easy for me to embody that voice, even if I don't necessarily feel it. When I create MY fiction or write about my personal experiences, I often wonder which self I want to inhabit.
Anandi Mishra sums up this feeling in the brilliant essay Why do I write in my colonizers’ language? She says, “Hindi became the cotton pyjamas I wore at home, while English would be my uniform for school time,”. I want to write meaningful fiction and honest creative nonfiction. But you can’t write with any real honesty and vulnerability in your school uniform! Like Mishra, I too have a complicated relationship with English. However, unlike her, I have never spoken anything else.
My great-grandparents would speak Konkani 1 only to each other. Their eight children spoke nothing but the Queen’s English, if you please. My great grandfather, who worked with the Railways in British India, lived in fear of his family speaking English with an accent. He famously carried a dictionary with him everywhere and was in the habit of looking up new words and writing them down. My fathers’ side of the family, who migrated to East Africa two generations ago, wove new social and cultural meanings into the English they spoke and wrote.
A language spoken by multiple culturally diverse groups along the Konkan Coast. The Konkani my great-grandparents spoke, borrowed from conventions of the Portuguese language and was distinct from the Konkani spoken elsewhere on the Konkan Coast. My great-grandmother lived in a tiny village called Kunchelim in Goa, a former Portuguese colony.
Historic etymology according to Dictionary.com
Often, my love of the language hovers just out of reach. I am at once, stilted, wooden, unoriginal.
Thanks to this legacy, I only speak Indian languages with friends and colleagues. My 'mother-tongue’ is English, I tell people. They always stare in surprise. I’m always embarrassed. It is this history that I bring to the page. In my family, having access to English was our biggest social currency. My mother is an English teacher and so was her mother. We were told that our “command” over English would take us where our middle-class, non-networked background would not. Wielding English gave us a patina of power; inherited, not earned.
However, for my family, the English we speak best, the English where we are at our brightest, most vulnerable and most animated is Home English. Home English is a language that has acquired words, suffixes, imagery and inflections from Hindi, Gujarati and even Konkani. It blossoms on the tongue, disobeying the rules in the Wren & Martin High School English Grammar and Composition textbook on my mothers desk 2. Home English contains hilarious, literal translations of common Hindi phrases and a spider web of inside jokes. It has love. It IS love. Why does this English evade me when I write?
This well-thumbed ubiquitous reference book is the terror of English-Medium Indian school students. Much like the family Bible, it is often an inherited tome. To this day, an instruction to identify the adverbial and subordinate clauses in a complex sentence, makes me shudder.
I’m not the first writer who has these battle wounds. Many writers from locations outside the Global North, the colonised world majority, subvert the rules, bend the English language to their will, mould it into something else entirely, capture dialogue that is true to the inner world, and lived realities of their characters.
Bernadine Evaristo’s 'Girl, Woman, Other' rejects punctuation entirely. Toni Morrison's prose in Jazz pays homage to an era in American music while revisiting the idea of America entirely. The patois in Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy reverberates with life. I could go on. When I read this literature, I am inspired not only by the shining skill but by the bravery. Someone must have told these women to aspire to Dickens, Hemingway, and Wodehouse. They refused. How I long to inhabit my Home English the way these writers have inhabited theirs. This then becomes my lifelong, loving exercise in aspiring to greatness, but rendering to mediocrity. It becomes, as all art must be, an exercise in unlearning the self.
In attempting to embrace Home English in my creative writing, I burrow past the colonial legacy of my Railway Goan-Catholic maternal great grandfather and my paternal grandfather who boarded a ship to Kenya and made a life there. I dig through that history, through the associations I’ve made about English in India, its connections to power and access, its politics, the social and cultural capital it affords me. I remember how I feel when I let a grammatical error slip out in elevated company – that flame-hot lick of embarrassment. I find what I love about my English, I claim it, I try my hardest to inhabit it fully, with no shame. Only an unbridled joy.
Ebert, Teresa L., Manifesto as Theory and Theory as Material Force: Toward a Red Polemic, JAC Vol 23 2003
With the idea of writing, a manifesto becomes a creation of the hand and it is interesting to keep its Latin root manus at the back of the mind.
Allende, Isabel in Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran, Penguin 2013