Dr. Meena Khatwa is the author of ‘The Lilac Sari’ found in EPOCH Issue 03: Roots, available to purchase here.
Why do you write CNF, and do you explore other genres in your work?
I love reading all types of literature, and in my sixth year of running a book club we have read over 45 books. Many of the stories that have lingered long after reading were non-fiction titles: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold; and The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks by Steven Johnson. I readily discuss these with peers, recommend them and buy them as gifts. Through these authors’ words, I have travelled through time, witnessed events and eavesdropped on conversations.
Creative non-fiction (CNF) is a genre I feel very comfortable and familiar with – as Mark Twain said, ‘write what you know’. Storytelling is a human instinct, whether it’s done when sitting around a campfire, thumbing through a photo album, or hearing grandparents reminisce. As an academic at the UCL Social Research Institute, I teach students qualitative research methods. I impart knowledge on devising, capturing, and writing about lived experiences. Using narrative methods, my PhD retells the stories of home, identity, and belonging of migrant mothers and their British-born daughters. Through these narratives, we share commonalities, evoke discussion, and connect. That is what I hope to achieve in writing and sharing my CNF work.
Did you have a piece already written when you learned about Epoch’s theme, or did you write a new piece? If so, how did you approach the theme of Roots in the creation of your work?
The Lilac Sari is my first creative non-fiction piece. An outpouring of my visceral experiences and feelings, it was a cathartic exercise in dealing with grief. I wanted to capture the vivid events surrounding my gran’s death and funeral. So much happened and was revealed during those unforgettable nine days, and in the process, I learnt a lot about my own identity.
Initially, I only wrote this for myself and shared it amongst friends. The positive feedback I received boosted my confidence in sending it to publishers. I had struggled to find the perfect home for my piece, but I persevered and while browsing online I discovered Epoch Press. It was a moment of serendipity, not only did this publisher specialise in CNF, but the theme was ‘Roots’! When I read Epoch’s interpretations of what ‘Roots’ meant to them, I was so excited to find somewhere that suited my style of writing. I like the ethos of Epoch and now I’m so pleased and proud to see my gran’s story immortalised in print!
What is the biggest challenge when writing CNF?
Drawing on the facts, truths, and experiences we encounter can be a complex writing journey. During the process, we sometimes grapple with the question: who might I offend if I write this? Although I feel a sense of freedom when writing CNF, I am conscious of the implications my words may have. I teach ethics, so I’m mindful of the dilemmas faced when dealing with anonymity, and highly sensitive material. Do we dilute the truth, or do we shine a light on those times which were not particularly happy? I also feel the pressure of ‘doing the right thing’. It’s a process that is equally frustrating and joyful. Another major challenge is finding the time and headspace to write while juggling full-time work and parenting.
What’s your favourite piece of art in your home?
I have two favourite pieces of art which hang in my home office. When I first laid claim on this small room, I wanted it to be a place where I could work, escape and write. After the newly painted walls had dried, my partner Lionel gifted me with a framed print of a vintage Penguin book cover, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. The other piece, which hangs above my desk, is a beautiful linocut print titled ‘Woman with Book’ by the artist Paddy Hamilton, who lives on the Kent coast. I bought it when my book club visited Dungeness to discuss the novel The Birdwatcher by William Shaw, where it is set. The print features an image of the artist’s partner carrying a gigantic book standing on a wooden deck. It is inspirational and symbolises so much to me: the book club excursion, my love for literature, as well as my wish to be a published writer.
A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
Woman with Book – Paddy Hamilton