I want to write an essay about writing nonfiction during a pandemic. Both are tough but also easy. You just need to get used to them. Attempting one inside the other, I decide to simplify. My nonfiction is not creative, it comes more from a place of hard work and slogging it out than anything else, although I might have described it thus so on a few occasions, so I decide before even starting that I’ll write this essay as a way of trying to understand where this format of writing comes to me.
Writing nonfiction is not new to me. I had always known the “essay” as something comprising three parts. Written in exams to describe mundane things and events and places and people. For both languages, English and Hindi, for all 12 years of academic life in school, we were required to write essays three times every year for exams. Then there were also the unit tests, and regular class homework. The topics, maturity and depth of these varied as the years passed. I remember till standard five we had grammar books for both the languages that came with essays as references. There were essay topics that I read and probably also wrote for the longest time. These were cultural standpoints, little windows for me to look into the life of a particular theme beyond the immediate periphery. These included the long, five or six paragraph long understanding of the cow, the nation, a mother, a festival, summer vacations or a fair. Delving deeper into discussing these essays then made me understand how anything can be a subject for an essay, a talking point, an extension of the writing self.
In school I used to be one of the top five best essay writers. Back then, I did not know of the word “essayist”. In standard 11 I wrote an essay about loving a Hindi film actor who was known not as much for his acting skills as for his onscreen “kissing scenes”. It was a self-serious essay where I used words like “serial kisser” and “bold” to describe him. It was a pretty direct, forthcoming essay about not just accepting a side of my personality but also drawing it out on the bigger canvas of the essay.
My English teacher corrected the essay and praised portions of it, leaving in-line compliments where she found something remarkable. It would still be 14 years till I would write my first nonfiction essay and get published in a literary journal. In these years I would also find my personal favourite essayist, an Indian English language writer whose book of essays took my world by a storm.
I had just moved to Delhi in 2017 when Sumana Roy’s How I Became A Tree was published. A seemingly unassuming collection of essays, this book came to become my talisman on all things “essays”. Before I started reading them, a question had visited me: What could these essays contain? Some comprehensions, to be sure—shining pieces of prose that transported me to a place full of a various knowledge about trees. As I dipped my toes into its pages, a few preternaturally sensitive assessments revealed themselves, fluorescently condensed thoughts that were at all times beyond any kind of writing stereotype. Above all, these essays were vast repositories of pleasant and dubious satisfactions on trying to come to terms with aspects of a subject that was so dear to the writer.
The first paragraph of the title essay (also the last one) goes like this:
Outside my bedroom window is a papaya tree. It is like a mother to me—I take it for granted like I do my mother. This is not a lazy simile—our blindness to plants is pervasive and widespread. As I’ve said earlier, I’d spent much energy on recording the responses of a variety of plants and trees to the wind—the leaves of the bamboo and the mango, grass and the jackfruit.
Roy in this paragraph showed me what an essay could be: the journey of the mind on paper, in the form of the written word, tearing through uncertainty. She pointed me in the direction of the singular nature of the format, not so highly regaled among the writers I had been reading before. Her words in the essay collection took on a profound urgency. As I listened, I knew I was closer to something that would help me. Soon, I started hitching my way on these words to a place where words made better sense.
The year 2020 would go on to become the year when we would all be constantly on the edge for one reason or the other. For me, personally, it would be the year when I would cry a lot more, work from home for the first time, get into online therapy, cook more than I had ever dreamt of and not just write whisky pretty notes in my journal, but also get them published. 2020 became my writing breakout year.
When everyone seemed to be losing themselves in reams of fiction, to get away from the real world and its horrors, I trained my attention towards the deeply internal world of nonfiction. I read and wrote more essays than ever before. And Sumana’s book became my companion to navigate through these parched lands during a tumultuous time.
Writing nonfiction came as a surprise to me. As someone who has wanted to be a writer since childhood, I never thought I would launch myself into the literary world as an essayist. As a reader, I had grown up on a steady diet of fiction doled out in thick volumes by Indian authors from far and beyond. English was the language they wrote in, but the grammar was that of thorough imagination. Coming from a thriving culture of the imagined world, changing gears into reading nonfiction was a pleasant surprise. Roy’s collection of essays in 2017 charted a new, formal understanding of the written word. Her essays trained my mind into thinking of translating my present moment, experiences and life into the written word in a novel, unprecedented way.
How I Became A Tree mixes memoir, literary history, nature studies and philosophy. In that, it propelled me to shift the gaze inward and think about writing what would soothe the creases of my mind in a pandemic year. I didn’t want to dwell on the imagined. From her writing, I gathered an architecture. A paragraph, depending how it was structured, could crack the open the yolk of my existential worries. In the form of essays, the phalanx of my monologues and soliloquies peppered with references, inspirations and examples, would blossom on the page in a literary form. Gingerly as I wrote essay after essay, I learned from the magic of Roy’s essays the precise deftness of the nonfiction form.
One after another, under the aegis of my favourite writer’s essays, I discovered a voice of my own in a form so new. When I invested this borrowed faith in my words, a sliver, rather a flood, of writing emerged. I was dreaming in sentences, floating in reveries of the written word, all thanks to the promise I had glimpsed in Roy’s essays.
How I Became A Tree opens with a set of observations that might strike some as odd:
At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees do not wear bras.
Then it had to do with the spectre of violence. I loved the way in which trees coped with dark and lonely places while sunlessness decided curfew hours for me. I liked too how trees thrived on things that were still freely available—water, air and sunlight; and no mortgage in spite of their lifelong occupation of land.
This invoked in me a susurration for the unknown. I was surprised but also piqued by her choice of opening paragraphs. I drew strength from the words, regaling in thwarted attempts then to capture my own small obsessions.
I could sense that even in their most technical form, Roy’s essays came to afford her a relieving sense of anonymity. Unlike what I had thought of essay writing to be, she wasn’t forever having to explain herself in them. The essays were a decipherable surface, a sort of lexicon of imaginations, understandings and predictions of a writer’s life. At any given moment, these words could hide and reveal the deepest secrets of their writer without laying anything bare.
Years later, my essays too took on a similar route. I paid attention to their flow and realised how often they did half the world of decoding the mystery of self, effortlessly communicating my thoughts and feelings in a self-invented shorthand. I had always suspected fiction to be supercilious, even hollow and realised how behind it, much got lost in the process of self-explanation. The excess words often creating a menagerie that failed to have an integral meaning outside of the story. Whereas in nonfiction, there was no excess. The more the number of words, the more I could fit myself into them.
It was impossible to rush plants, to tell a tree to ‘hurry up’. In envy, in admiration and with ambition, I began to call that pace ‘Tree time’.
Even at their vaguest best, there is nothing feigned about the vagueness of Roy’s words. They leave the exact impression she intends for them to leave. Creating a crater in their wake where the reader dips in and out of the stirring they offer. Roy’s writing revealed to me an intense knowledge of a kind that would fold and camouflage itself in these essays without coming across as overwhelming. It was the same with my essays.
I was struck by what seemed to be outlines, initial sketches of ideas, started filling themselves out during the pandemic. When I read Roy’s essays in the torrid summer of 2017, these ideas had existed in a nascent form. I had wanted them to be more than what they were, without being able to see where the extra would come from. In 2020, these gaps began to fill themselves.
It seemed to me that the interim time had given them a density of their own while the pandemic lent them a sense of urgency. I was soon raking up lived experiences and literary inspiration, spinning out essays both long and short.
The ethereality with which Roy experiences plant life on the page provided me the reckoning I had long waited for. The essays bring opposites together, creating a beautiful melange of undervalued, overlooked and otherwise unwritten narratives about a favourite obsession of hers. They inspired in me the urge to chase my hauntings similarly.
Trees are faceless, Roy writes. It was perhaps this that had brought me to them, to escape the scrutiny of the face. In the process of chronicling these diverse aspects, How I Became A Tree takes the form of a literary paean to all things unnoticed, in the process, giving me the courage to commit to the paper my own wild ideas.
In December 2020 when it was announced that Yale University Press and Yale Books would be publishing How I Became A Tree in America, I felt a strong sense of homecoming. The book that had nurtured my dreams would now be creating a ground beneath the feet of many more readers, all the while lending a grammar to all that that we don’t know we miss.
Preorder it here.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writing has been published by or is forthcoming in the Chicago Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aeon, Popula, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essay, “A Satyajit Ray Lockdown,” appears in the anthology Garden Among Fires (Dodo Ink, July 2020). She tweets at @anandi010.