Again, it’s Christmas time, no one is reading, this is like writing in my diary or to a few trusted friends instead of to the whole group of casual readers. Anyway, I’m not seeing 2.0 until Saturday, so there’s nothing else to post about.
I just had another frustrating interaction with an editor. And I know it’s my fault, because I resist them. I don’t trust them. And I think it’s partly because I was born politely not trusting people in authorty (ask my parents, even before I could talk I was given them looks like “do the two of you really know what you are doing? I’ll pretend to pay attention to you just to be polite but we both know you are just faking it.”). But also because I’ve never felt like I’ve had someone who really “got” me, understood what I was doing, wanted to mentor me. Which over the years has taught me to never fully reveal myself, what’s the point? Better to just reveal the charming surface person.
Teachers have always really really liked me, as a person. I am charming and sweet and most of all, I really really like them back. I like most people, and so most people like me. But that doesn’t mean they understand me, or understand what I am trying to do.
I kind of made my peace with that through high school, teachers would always like me but I shouldn’t expect any more than that, I should hold myself back a little and not say my full thoughts. But in my heart I always pictured college being different, I would go to college and I would find that one teacher everyone always talks about who inspires me and understands me and says “yes, Margaret, I am excited to work with you and help you become all you can be!”
I kept up those hopes all the way through the college tours. I was kind of a catch, based on my high test scores, so I got to have special one on one appointments with people in my department. And I was all set for those one on ones to be this meeting of the minds where I would finally understand what school was about and why I was here. And they weren’t. They were nice people who saw a nice little teenage girl with glasses and long hair and told me what fun college would be for me and showed me a syllabus of their classes. They didn’t ask for my deep thoughts on anything and I didn’t volunteer them, and they forgot me the moment I walked out of the room.
I had 3 minors and a major in college (German, English, Moving Image Arts, and History). Every teacher loved me (because I am/was adorable) and none of them seemed to really “get” me. Even my film teacher, she thought she did, she was excited to have a student that actually took multiple classes with her. But she had no idea what I was really interested in with the films, she kept trying to mold me into another mini-version of her, interested in technical aspects and European New Wave cinema. So I learned to just sit there and smile and write for the grade and keep my thoughts to myself.
I did eventually find the “teachers” I wanted in college, when I had a job for two months shelving books at the university library. I found the film section and read every book on the shelf. This is why I will always always love Anupama Chopra, because she was the first person who truly understood me. Sure, she never met me, but her books changed my life, made me go “yes! This is what I came to college for! This is what I was looking for!” I gobbled up her book on DDLJ, and that brought me to the entire BFI series of film analysis and I read every single one. In between my “real” school work.
(This book. I’ve essentially memorized it)
Senior year, I took another leap, I found and applied for an internship at a film society all on my own. They accepted me and I was so excited, I thought this was going to be it, the place where I fit in, the people who could teach me how to be what I wanted to be. And they were very nice. And they liked me. But they never really seemed to have time to have a conversation with me. A few words on the first day, direction to what they needed me to do, and then I was on my own again. They did learn and remember I was interested in Indian film (that came up once when I was proofing something and corrected the spelling of Guru Dutt’s name). I thought maybe that would spark some kind of connection, but no. It just sparked confused conversations when someone mentioned being into Polish film and I asked what neighborhood they rented from. Because, see, you aren’t supposed to be into foreign films that you have to actual interact with “foreigners” to watch, you are supposed to be into foreign films that you watch at art house theaters. And that taught me that the film society film fan community was not going to be mine either. But it was fine, on my lunch breaks I ate my peanut butter sandwich and read my BFI books in the breakroom.
After college, I got a job for a while at an Indian heritage association type thing. That didn’t pan out for many reasons, but I also never really connected with anyone there, they didn’t want someone who was interested in pop culture and deconstructing it, they were all into high modern art and never watched movies. I tried volunteering for the local Indian film festival too. They kind of forgot about me? It was weird, they wanted me on conference calls for a while and then just kind of stopped acknowledging me? So I was just there listening with no one talking to me. I stayed on the group emails too, but no one ever said anything directly to me and I never said anything either. That was it, that was my involvement, being cc’d on emails between a bunch of other people who forgot I was in the virtual room.
(I became invisible. Very similar to this, except not at all. Although it was kind of fun reading all this internal strife without having to be involved in it)
And then I decided to start grad school. Found a local film studies program and wrote specifically to the one person on the faculty who did Indian film. Met with her even, she was nice, didn’t seem that excited about working with me but at least she existed. And then she moved to a different school a couple of weeks later without bothering to tell me after I’d already committed, so I started grad school in a program that had absolutely no one doing anything related to India.
All the teachers in grad school liked me too. I’m nice. I do the readings. I come to class ready to discuss. I laugh at all your jokes and smile through out class because I am so happy to be there. But by this point I wasn’t really surprised that no one knew what I was doing. One of my last classes was on industrial structure, I volunteered early on to do a presentation on the Indian film industry (it was one of the class assignment options, to do that along with a paper). The teacher forgot about me and ended up squeezing me in the last day of class, cutting my time from 15 to 5 minutes. I got 4 minutes in and he was going “wow, this is amazing! This is fascinating!” and then the time was up and the class was over and I never saw him again. That’s as close as I came to having a teacher really get excited about what I was doing and saying. But it was fine, I found new “teachers”. Tejaswini Ganti, Priya Joshi, Sheila Nayyar, Rosie Thomas those are the ones I love the most. But there were dozens of others, I bought book after book and read every article (on top of class readings), and I found this whole community of people who truly understood me and inspired me. They just haven’t happened to ever meet me.
And at some point, I decided I should try to get published. The first attempt was very successful, a nice off-beat website (unpaid of course) that had no idea what I was writing about but was very encouraging. It wasn’t exactly perfect mentorship and appreciation, but at least they didn’t interfere too much. Academic publishing was a little more difficult, I managed to get one article published with minimal re-writes. A second I gave up after the 4th attempt to please them because I realized we would never understand each other.
(This is why I still haven’t written about Dil Se. The article was on it, and after rewriting it so many times for people who just didn’t seem to understand what I was saying, I can’t face writing about it again)
I also decided to try conferences. My first conference was fun, the school gave extra credit to students who attended so I actually had people there for my talk and they laughed at all the right moments and appreciated what I had to say. Second conference wasn’t at a school, it was fellow students and academics. No one came to my panel. Like, not even my fellow panelists. I sat alone in a room for 45 minutes. Eventually the area chair in charge stopped by, admitted that she knew nothing about Indian film either, and offered to make me chair instead. All of a sudden I was put in the position of mentor without ever really getting to be mentored, you know? I put in my time, 3 years coordinating the area and encouraging little panelists and answering their questions. Well, “little”. Most of them were full-fledged working professors in their first jobs trying to build up their resumes. Somehow I, in grad school, ended up doing the grunt work and paying my way to make sure the conference happened so they, with actual real jobs and funding, could improve their resumes. It was odd. In those 3 years, our panel never got more than 3 people in the audience, usually between 0 and 1.
I did go to a couple other conferences besides the one I was chairing. One of them had the usual 0 attendees (if you don’t count a teacher who came to support his student and then got bored and left in the middle). Another one actually had a decent crowd, but the moderator cut off and talked over the panelists so much that none of us got to make our points. I was probably the person with the most knowledge and experience on the topic in the room (the moderator was a musicologist who happened to be desi, I think that was her only qualification for moderating, being desi), I think I got to say about 3 sentences. No one really noticed me. Finally I gave up on conferences.
(I didn’t have the worst time of it at that conference, that was the panelist who wanted to talk about Sita Sings the Blues, but the moderator went off on this thing based on a 30 second clip about how it was disrespectful and only saw Sita as a sexualized being and wouldn’t let the panelist (or me, eventually I tried to help) explain that the piece was actually questioning the sexualization and had far more layers)
I tried mainstream places too. I actually had a meeting with someone from the Roger Ebert website. He was pleasant and friendly and seemed interested. I sent a follow up email, never heard back. A few months later I saw that they had hired someone else to do occasional Indian film reviews. I commented on one of them and got an abusive response from the author for daring to contradict him. It was strange. I sent pitches in to a whole variety of other places and heard either nothing at all, or a response of “this isn’t a good fit for us” which translated to in my head “I have no idea what you are talking about”.
The best experience, really the only truly good experience, I have had is with my book editor. She had no idea what I was talking about either, but she was willing to learn and she understood my writing even if she didn’t understand my topic. She suggested I put in personal stories within the book, she suggested a different structure for the book, she was wonderful. And she found a technical editor who really challenged my knowledge and forced me to go back and confirm everything I said. I wish that had been a website or a magazine or some other regular outlet instead of a book, I loved working with them for those few months but then it was over forever.
I’m not alone in this, my friend Dina is the same. That’s why we are friends. We met before we started grad school (through that Indian heritage group that fired me) and started meeting every few weeks to talk movies. We shared books and articles with each other. And eventually both decided to go back to grad school in film. Through out grad school, we had our own separate unofficial seminar, challenging each other to learn more and from different sources. Everything she read, she loaned to me, and vice versa. And we still see movies together every Friday for the same reason. We can talk about them and hone our arguments and gain a different perspective. I guess it’s what grad school is supposed to be like, but never was for me, I always just watched other people talk about their thing and then talked about my thing and watched everyone’s faces go bored and blank.
(Showed “Choli Ke Peeche” in one class as part of my talk, thought at least that would wake them up. No response. I think they weren’t sure if it was okay to laugh or not)
So I started this blog with very very low expectations. A whole life time of people going “yes yes, that’s nice” and not listening to what I was saying. And miracle of miracles, you all actually listen!!!! And take it seriously! And respond! Most of all, I finally have confirmation that I can write, and I can build an audience, and I can make people care about what I care about. I just have to have a chance to do it.
It’s spoiled me. I have a much harder time now when I try to write somewhere else and an editor says they don’t get my argument, or I am going too far or not far enough, or my conclusion isn’t happy enough, or whatever. Because I know there are people out there who are capable of appreciating how I write and what I think just as it is. It’s made me dangerously brave, I keep trying to be myself instead of smiling in the corner. It’s not making more people understand me or what I am saying, but it is making them like me a little less than they used to when I was just nice cute Margaret who kept it all inside.