Craft and Culture: An Interview with Roshni Riar
Roshni Riar is an emerging writer and Creative Writing BFA student at UBC Vancouver. Working primarily in poetry and memoir, she explores the relationships between culture, language, trauma, and identity. As a winner of the 2019 Short Forms Contest, her words have appeared in Room Magazine 43.2. She has poetry appearing in forthcoming issues of The Antigonish Review and CV2 respectively and is a Poetry Reader for Non.Plus Lit and a Contest Reader for Prism International. Find her on twitter @arekayare.
Hannah Macready: Hello Roshni! I’m thrilled to have the chance to speak with you. It turns out we’ve had a similar educational trajectory, starting in non-writing fields, falling out of love with academia, and eventually admitting our passion for writing (aided by the wonderful professors at Douglas College). Can you tell me what inspired you to make the shift from Psychology to Writing? How did you finally take the leap?
Roshni Riar: Hi Hannah! Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to take part in this project.
Actually, our similar trajectories make me even more excited to talk! For me, it was a slow and miserable run up to deciding I wanted to take writing seriously. I went to post-secondary straight out of high school, not passionate about anything except for writing, which I didn’t see as a viable option at the time. Truthfully, I don’t think I was really ready to have the relationship I have now with writing. I just felt really overwhelmed, disengaged, and confused about what I was doing there. My mental health was really, really poor and I refused to get help because I was trying to repress a lot of trauma that I just did not want to deal with again. It was a nasty cycle I’m sure so many people know all too well. The worse I felt, the worse I did and it got to a point where I decided to cut my losses and drop out.
Around that time, I moved out, met my partner, started travelling a little and didn’t actively think about education or writing at all until one day I was sitting at my office job, bored, and realized I was always writing little poems and short story ideas in my free time, and had done so for as long as I could remember. It just sort of clicked. It was like, “Well, if I’ve been gravitating towards this all my life, then why have I been fighting it?”
After doing a lot of self-work on my relationship with writing and with my past, I moved into a totally different headspace. I felt ready to acknowledge things I’d previously ignored and see what sense I could make out of my life on a page, as well as how my experiences could speak to others. That night, after scrolling through all this writing I had subconsciously done over the years, I applied to Douglas College. I had written off academia entirely because I didn’t think I “should” study Creative Writing, but when I started to think about it as an option, I became really excited to learn and experiment and meet other like-minded people. I have a huge privilege in being able to go to school because I truly want to learn and I want to write, and that’s really what’s kept me going through my time at Douglas and now at UBC.
HM: I love that you were able to find your passion and feel confident pursuing it. It’s so special when we have the opportunity to chase our dreams and I think you’ve got an amazing career ahead of you. Since we’re here to celebrate amateurs, emergence, and the hustle of starting a literary career, can you tell me what has been the most difficult part of this come-up for you? What has been the brightest?
RR: I think the most difficult part is navigating through the self doubt and imposter syndrome that rears its head at me. My writing had always only been for me and now that I’m sharing it with others, I’m constantly asking myself if I’m the right person to be writing about the things I write about, or I’m questioning why I’m writing about certain things and why I think it’s significant. It’s definitely tough trying to find your place in a community that both amazes and scares you.
The way I try to combat that feeling is to remind myself why I’m writing: because I need to and I want to. Also, therapy. A lot of my earlier writing dealt with making sense of some of the trauma (cultural and otherwise) that I grew up with, and it was really important for me to make sure that I set firm boundaries for myself in order to not retraumatize myself just because I felt compelled to finally talk about certain things. Figuring out my own boundaries has been really crucial for me to explore my upbringing and reconnect with and analyze parts of my culture that I’d spend years divorcing myself from.
The brightest part has been the amazing people that I have met along the way. The connections that writing has brought me are so incredibly valuable and precious. From the friends I made in class, to incredibly supportive professors and department members who encouraged and believed in me, I feel so thankful to know the many people I would never have known otherwise. Another thing that has been really magical is the healthy reconnection to my culture; through sorting through my feelings and experiences in writing, I’ve been able to find the pockets of goodness that I willed myself to forget about years ago.
HM: I’m happy you brought up culture because your writing is full of culture: food, language, mnemonic nuances, and tradition that seeps from one end of the world to the next. Culture is so dynamic, the same things that make it beautiful can make it equally unnerving. Can you tell me a little about how you juggle the beauty and the beast of culture in your work?
RR: There’s a lot I’ve lost; a lot of language, memories, people who were the keepers of my cultural richness and goodness that I no longer have, so a lot of my writing comes from a place of grieving those losses and also from remembrance. What I didn’t expect was that as I worked through my grief and analyzed how certain ideals, practices, etc. I’ve witnessed or been through have impacted me, the guilt of not feeling “enough” sort of shifted, and allowed room for me to carve out my own place in my culture, free from familial and social obligation. I spent a really long time angry that things were the way they were, and convinced myself there was no goodness to the culture I was born into, which was really unfair to myself but I recognize it as a coping mechanism.
Writing was always the place to voice my frustrations and differences of opinion, and it still is, but I’ve been really actively trying to shift the way I engage with writing to be more than just a vessel for pain. A lot of my writing still involves me trying to figure out where that line between trauma and joy is. I’m realizing the more I explore that side of me and reconnect with important practices– like writing about (and cooking) food that I grew up with that sometimes hurts to think about because it brings up painful memories, but is also a huge source of comfort and belonging– that there isn’t really a clear marker and I’m beginning to be okay with that.
HM: I love that kind of re-discovery, where things that once hurt you can become fuel for your passions. That idea reminds me of your poem, “From All Four Corners” which won the Room Magazine Short Forms contest in 2019. In the poem, your character explores colourism, belonging, and place. How do you think displacement affects our view of ourselves? How important is place to our integral values?
RR: I think, at least for me, displacement had a huge impact on my sense of self. There’s this feeling when you don’t feel like you quite belong anywhere, it’s like you’re constantly reevaluating yourself, constantly grasping at points of connection as ways to legitimize your place in the world; sometimes they do just that and can be incredibly meaningful, but sometimes, as is life, relationships fade and it’s like you lose a part of yourself that maybe you couldn’t afford to lose.
Growing up and forming community in Northern Manitoba, which is what “From All Four Corners” is about, was really heavy and impactful. Our relationships with each other were so intense, urged into closeness through trauma and isolation. We really needed each other to ground ourselves to something, yet I think we all knew it was fleeting. I moved around a lot, all in the same, tiny town, so I never felt truly comfortable anywhere I was. For me, growing up, nothing felt like it was forever. I was always searching for myself, searching for a sense home, in everything I did, in every relationship I formed. It’s strange growing up without any sense of permanence, it just constantly makes you second guess yourself and everything around you. So, I think that’s why I turned to writing. I wanted to capture these feelings, these places, these people on a page, so that if they went away, at least there was some record of what they meant to me.
HM: You’ve had a range of literary publications to date, Room Magazine, CV2, and The Antigonish Review. How have you found the editing/revision process during your publication journey? Is there any advice on this process that you could pass on to other emerging writers?
RR: The process has been really interesting! I’m kind of learning as I go along, but I’ve received some very valuable advice from professors and other writers. I’m an over explainer, so a lot of my work tends to err on the longer side if it goes unchecked. Having to edit for specific word counts can be really hard, but very helpful for peeling away what might seem essential, but actually detracts from your overall point or image.
Something I’ve discovered is that I actually work well with prompts/deadlines, so themed issues and contests actually really encourage me to write if I’m in the right frame of mind. But sometimes, I have all these intentions for submissions, and then I can’t muster the luster and the deadline slips by, and that’s okay too. It happens, and there will always be another submission period.
Advice: don’t be discouraged by rejections! As a reader for two lit mags, I can confirm that sometimes it’s really, really damn tough to make decisions on all the special writing I have the honour to read. There is a home for your writing out there somewhere, just keep searching for it.
And if an editor encourages you to resubmit in the future, they mean it!
HM: Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. Finally, what is on the Horizon for Roshni the writer? What goals do you have for your career/art?
RR: Thank you for making the time and space for me! This was a pleasure, Hannah.
On the horizon for Roshni the writer… not a crazy amount! I took some time off from writing this summer, so as I get back into the swing of things with school (I just started my first semester in UBC’s CRWR BFA program), I have a bunch of experimental ideas for poetry that I’d like to work on and send out into the world! I’d like to do a Masters after I finish my BFA, but I’m really just taking things day by day. Who knows where I’ll be in a few years! All I know is I want to keep writing, and hopefully find some more publication homes for some of that work. Honestly, my goals are just to be happy and continue to pursue fulfillment, connection, and understanding through writing. For now, an espresso tonic and a fuzzy blanket will do.