A Scene From Scratch 

Mary Anne Mohanraj wants to create a support network for aspiring South Asian writers in Chicago. Step one: find aspiring South Asian writers in Chicago.

Four years ago Sachin Waikar decided to become a full-time writer. He'd worked in Beverly Hills as a clinical psychologist before moving to Naperville in 1998 to work at a Chicago consulting firm. But fatherhood, along with a bout with testicular cancer, forced him to reconsider his career path. "After being ill I had to think more seriously about what would make me happy, and working there certainly was the opposite of that," he says.

Waikar, 37, hadn't written much before leaving his job except an unfinished novella--about a dissatisfied consultant. His wife, Kalpana, took a job while he got his career going. (They now live in Evanston with their two children.) He sold a few pieces, including one about his son that appeared in a 2003 essay collection, Toddler, and one about his switch from consultant to writer published last year in A Matter of Choice: 25 People Who Transformed Their Lives. He also wrote a collection of what he calls dark stories about Indian-Americans living in the western suburbs; in 2004 he found an agent who tried to sell it, but it was rejected by a dozen publishers.

He was also a member of the Naperville Writers Group, but it proved an imperfect fit. "I was one of the few people trying to do it for a living at an earlier age," he says. "A lot of members were in retirement and writing stories or memoir-type stuff. I wanted to make my living as a writer." Last summer he came across an article in "Publishers Lunch," an online publishing-industry newsletter, about Mary Anne Mohanraj, a Bucktown author who'd struck a deal with HarperCollins to publish her short-story collection, Bodies in Motion, and a novel. "You don't come across a lot of South Asian writers who get book deals," he says. "When I saw she was from Chicago, I got in touch with her."

As it happened, Mohanraj had recently helped start DesiLit, a group organized to support South Asian writers. She founded DesiLit with other members of the South Asian Progressive Action Collective, a local organization that addresses issues like forced deportations from the U.S. and sectarian violence in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Since the summer of 2004, DesiLit has attracted 70 members, including Waikar, and now has chapters in six cities.

Mohanraj, a visiting professor in Roosevelt University's creative writing MFA program, had initially planned to have DesiLit organize a reading series featuring prominent South Asian writers, but that idea soon turned into Kriti, a three-day festival of readings, discussions, film screenings, performances, and workshops. (Kriti is Sanskrit for "creation.") "Since there were so few South Asian writers in Chicago, we knew that we'd need to bring writers in from out of town," Mohanraj says. "And it's often easier to persuade writers to come if they'll have a chance to spend time with other writers."

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Arranged Marriage, The Mistress of Spices, and Queen of Dreams, will discuss the state of literature from the South Asian diaspora on Saturday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival; her speech doubles as Kriti's keynote address. (Kriti's three-day pass includes admission to the speech; the Saturday single-day pass does not.) DesiLit is hosting a dinner with Divakaruni and is a cosponsor of Salman Rushdie's and Vikram Seth's appearances at the Chicago Humanities Festival on Sunday. "If past CHF events are any indication, the audience tends to be almost entirely white," Mohanraj told fellow DesiLit members at a recent organizational meeting. "So we're hoping for some cross-pollination, to entice people to come over to us."

One of the main goals of Kriti is to attract beginning writers, as well as those who don't identify as writers at all, which is why the festival is holding writing workshops and how-to panels on fiction and nonfiction writing. "South Asians in America have traditionally gone strongly into medicine, law, sciences, and computers, but I've met a lot of those doctors and lawyers who secretly harbor a passion to write," Mohanraj says. "Whether or not people decide they want to write full-time, they will at least be encouraged to explore that."

"I'd definitely include myself in that category," Waikar says. Since joining DesiLit he's been working on a loosely autobiographical novel set in his native Ohio, that he calls an "Indo-American coming-of-age story in the 80s." He'll appear at a number of Kriti panels and read a nonfiction humor piece about an Indian woman cabdriver in Manhattan.

Mohanraj hopes DesiLit will eventually launch a small press dedicated to publishing personal essays. "Culturally speaking, there are all these people like my father, an immigrant who's a doctor who has great stories and would like to tell them," she says. "And I would like to hear them. It would be really valuable to the younger generation to have these people writing these memoirs, and having them accessible for us to read."

Kriti

WHEN: Fri 11/11-Sun 11/13

WHERE: Northwestern University School of Law, 357 E. Chicago

PRICE: $35 for a three-day pass; day passes are $15 (Friday and Sunday) and $25 (Saturday)

INFO: 312-399-2896 or desilit.org

MORE: See Chicago Humanities Festival schedule in Section 2 for info on appearances by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Salman Rushdie, and Vikram Seth

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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