The Accidental Playwright: talking with Wajahat Ali

| Writing & Publishing


Wajahat Ali describes himself as an ‘accidental playwright’ that had the ‘fortuitous good luck’ by creating a successful first play that then enabled him to embark on a career as a writer.

This first play, The Domestic Crusaders, is an award-winning piece of theatre that has been performed in America and around the globe, including Off-Broadway in New York. In 2010 it was the first play to be published by the American literary journal McSweeney’s. Eight years after its 2004 premiere it continues to be performed and discussed, a successful run that is clearly due to more than simple good fortune.

The Domestic Crusaders is a slice-of-life in two acts, focussing on a Muslim Pakistani-American family of six who meet at home to celebrate the 21st birthday of its youngest member. Sparks fly among the three generations, culminating in a battle as each family member struggles to assert their opinions while maintaining family unity. It remains relevant almost a decade after it was first produced – a situation that Ali finds a sad reflection of the state of affairs in the US.

“The play, from a purely current affairs standpoint, does quite bluntly and honestly discuss the post-9-11 or rather post-post 9-11 world that we all occupy as global citizens,” Ali says. “The intersection of language, national security, religion, identity and politics that have emerged from that collision, this generation has quite literally inherited. I wrote the scars and memory of that event.”

The topicality of the play is just one facet of its success. Its humanity – and the fact that it makes people laugh, Ali points out – is perhaps the true reason behind its wide acclaim.

“The play is a universal family drama told through a culturally specific lens,” Ali says. “I think I’ve been successful because when you strip away these layers, people see universal emotions and universal family tensions and relationships.”

As a writer, Ali cares about telling stories that demonstrate our shared humanity, and theatre offers a rich tradition that enables him to reach an audience in a profound way.

“Playwriting is the universal storytelling genre, method, technique. A few people in one location, forced to confront and talk to one another. That’s a play,” he says, noting that every culture in the world has theatre. “You do it for an audience in a very immersive, interactive, visceral way. It’s very intimate and it’s almost uncomfortable. But if you pull off your job, the audience is able to see a reflection of their reality.”

Despite its tradition, the motivations and techniques of modern playwrights are fresh.

“The modern playwright’s role is the passing of the baton,” Ali says. “All the stories that have been told, there is a new way of telling them. Stories of families have been told before but unfortunately we haven’t heard the stories of all families, which is sad, especially in this modern day and age where there is no such thing as local anymore.”

The local becomes the national and international with the push of a button, and this hyper-connected new media world is changing the face of live theatre. “It’s the theatre of the internets,” Ali says. “But it’s just a new way of sharing stories.”

As a writer, Ali has embraced these digital opportunities, working as a new media journalist and commentator. However, his current project has brought him back to scripts, though in a new way; he is working on a HBO tv pilot with co-writer Dave Eggers, the founding editor of McSweeney’s.

Although Ali never considered writing for TV, once suggested to him it seemed like a natural fit with his playwriting skills. Both mediums are about telling a story, and both need to engage and sustain an audience across time.

“I realised that I’m telling a story,” Ali says. “I have to sustain the audience’s interest, I’m taking them on a journey, and there’s an arc. They have to invest in the characters and invest the emotions, and care about them.”

So while writing for TV is very different because it has its own format and accepted structures, pared down to its core it’s all about these base storytelling techniques. The questions a writers asks of his TV show reflect universal literary concerns:

“Are there characters that are interesting? Will the audience watching at home or on their ipod invest in the characters? Will they be willing to go on this journey? Can you sustain their interest and involvement for a 52 minute time span and do it repeatedly week by week for twelve weeks? That’s it.”

Although figuring out the limitations and freedoms of writing for TV was a challenge, Ali’s early grounding in playwriting helped. A writer has got to be able to deliver, and being able to do so often comes down to experience.

“My experience of producing and writing and publishing Domestic Crusaders gave me the ingredients, the confidence and the fundamental tools to dive into this brave new world of TV writing,” Ali says.

For someone who describes himself as ‘never meant to be a playwright’, theatre has nonetheless led Wajahat Ali to a writing career. As a writer his goal is to share his ideas, and hopes they will continue to ignite discussions and effect social change.

This piece was first published in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Show Daily.

You can find out more about Wajahat Ali at his blog, Goatmilk, or by following him on Twitter. There is also an interesting mini-doco on the Domestic Crusaders.

Peering through the window @ ADIBF

| Travel & Bikes, Writing & Publishing


“Books all open a window onto a different world…” began host Anita Sethi on an Abu Dhabi International Book Fair panel about the role literature plays in spreading cultural understanding.

Tishani Doshi is a poet and dancer of Welsh and Indian heritage, who started writing only after she had left her hometown of Madras as a young woman. It was being immersed in a new culture – America’s deep south – that lead her to begin thinking about questions of culture. She believes that seperation leads to understanding:

“As a writer you have an acute sense of standing outside and somehow trying to figure out what is going on. You need to be at a distance in some way so you can see the picture clearly.”

Emirati writer Mariam Al Saeedi had a similar experience. Growing up in cosmopolitan Abu Dhabi, she never saw people of other nationalities as different to her – until she realised that, perhaps for some, she was the other.

“Being Arabs, wearing the uniform… I started to realise that it really makes you look different, though I don’t feel it,” she said, and it was through this realisation that she began to see the importance of books and writing.

“Literature made me think that it’s the way to bridge all these feelings of differences. We get to mingle and see each other less as the other and more as the same.”

I love the idea that through books we are mingling with people from all around the world. It reminded me of what Adam Talib said at Sharjah Book Fair last year, that “translations are like eavesdropping on national conversations.”

Doshi agrees with Al Saeedi about the connective power of art. Despite embracing her role as an outsider – “if I ever get too settled I leave; discomfort is good” – Doshi’s constant state of flux has lead her to an understanding of the human condition. No matter where anyone is the world, she says, they share what it is to be human:

“The basic human questions are the same, whenever you ask them and whenever you ask them. Although our stories are different, it’s also the same story that’s been going on and on.”

As writers we find new ways to tell these same stories. I think great literatures resonates so deeply because it reminds us of this shared humanity.

This panel was presented by the British Council as part of ADIBF’s UK Focus.

Abu Dhabi, ahoy!

| Travel & Bikes, Writing & Publishing

Tonight I’m heading to the Emirates to do my thing at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi but I have loved exploring bits of the region over the past two years, mostly in a literary capacity at the Sharjah International Book Fair.

In addition to a show kitchen and an industry program, Abu Dhabi International Book Fair has an outstanding literary festival, plus an intriguing-sounding eZone. Not to mention the lineup of speakers is brilliant. Take a peek at the UK Focus to get an idea of the quality of presenters heading to the fair. If you think I might be pretty stoked about this trip, you would be right.

Watch this space and Planet EWF for updates from Abu Dhabi. For those with Twitter inclinations, the hashtag is #ADIBF12.

In totally unrelated news – the Wheeler Centre did an interview with me last week about veganism: This Vegan Life.

Bikefest roundup

| Travel & Bikes

bike panda

The month of Bikefest has sadly drawn to a close. It’s been a fun festival of bikes and riding and hanging out with cyclists of all stripes. It was also a whirlwind of blogging activity over at The Squeaky Wheel:

Bikefest will be back in 2013. Until then, happy riding!

Desert ride: across the Nullarbor on a Surly

| Travel & Bikes

Straight, flat and long, the Nullarbor is an iconic touring route. When I needed a break from my hectic life, the idea of a solo unsupported desert ride was appealing. There’d be no phone, no internet, no people, nothing to do each day but ride. So I boxed up my bike and by combination of plane, bus and ute, got myself to Norseman in Western Australia to start my desert cycling adventure.

I was traveling eastwards to take advantage of prevailing winter winds. Excitement – or was it nerves? – coursed through me as I turned right from Norseman onto the Eyre Highway. I would follow the white line of this road 1200 kilometres across the desolate centre of Australia, travelling through the Nullarbor all the way to Ceduna in South Australia.

Unfortunately, I found myself riding directly into a tiring head wind. So much for prevailing winds! I hadn’t trained for this journey, except that I keep fit as a commuter and recreational cyclist, a fact that struck me as unwise now that I was on the road. Despite being an experienced tourer, my Surly Long Haul Trucker was heavier than usual, my Ortlieb panniers weighed down with ten litres of water in bags and lots of food, as well as the usual camping gear.

My first destination is a sheep station 100 kilometres from Norseman and, passing the 70km-mark, I already couldn’t wait to get off my bike. Day one pain! Dusk was falling as I turned off the Eyre and onto a dirt track. A short, slow bumpy ride later, I arrive at Fraser Range Station. I had ridden 105kms. Exhausted, I hit the showers, ate, and crawled into bed at 7pm.

Eating breakfast at 6.20am the next morning, the sky above me was an astounding electric blue. Rested and energetic, I set off, cruising easily if slowly for over 100 kilometres. I was riding to reach a rest stop marked on the free Nullarbor (car) touring map I’d picked up at Belladonia roadhouse, my only guide. (After all, on a single straight road, how could I get lost?) After a long day in the saddle, the final 20 kilometres are painful, my legs heavy and the bike slowing with each revolution. Finally, there’s the sign, one kilometre to go. The rest stop is basic, as they all are on the Nullarbor: a pit toilet and a few picnic tables. A handful of caravanners are also setting up camp for the night.

I’d ridden 145 kilometres and my hands were shaking as I swapped my lycra for jeans and a flannie. Camp set up was basic: pop up my one-man ‘coffin’ tent, inflate sleeping mat and throw it inside with my sleeping bag. The ground is too hard to hammer in pegs so I anchor the tent by affixing it via ocky straps to my pannier bags. Sleeping quarters ready, I turn my attention to dinner, lighting my little gas stove and cooking instant noodles with dehydrated peas and corn. Before bed I lean back and stare upwards. The night sky is a wonderland of stars dangling down towards earth, an astounding lightshow.

The rain started at about 3am. Getting up, I threw a plastic tarp haphazardly over my tent, to little effect. Rising two hours later, feet wet and everything else damp, I cursed as I packed down my wet camping gear. The rain had cleared but other challenges lay ahead.

The 90 Mile Straight is Australia’s ‘longest straight road’, a 146.6-kilometre marvel. Riding excruciatingly slowly in headwinds through a desolate landscape, I was intolerably lonely. At midday I ate a sad lunch of thickly-spread peanut butter and honey sandwiches, sitting next to an isolated emergency phone, miserable. During the morning I had averaged just 17.5km/hr. Just ride to that tree up ahead, I’d tell myself, then put my head down and mash the pedals til I got there. Then to the next landmark, then the next.

On a map it appears as though the Nullarbor has towns along the way, but most names represent nothing more than a roadhouse. Nevertheless, they were something to look forward to. Proper toilets, hot coffee and cold drinks are a treat – even if the coffee is Nescafe and the Gatorade $5.50 a bottle!

I pulled into Caiguna roadhouse at sunset on day three, 135 kilometres under my belt, and sat down in the diner, scanning the menu. Fresh food is scarce in the outback, and vegetarian food is also limited. Roadhouse menus feature fried food and grilled meats, hardly appetising for a hardworking vegan cyclist! Beans on toast, hold the butter, were my mainstay. This plus the noodles, dark chocolate and protein bars I carried saw me safely across the Nullarbor, but I had a constant craving for fresh veggies. (One day I was given an avocado, a remarkable gift from a passing motorist.)

In addition to stodgy food, the travails of the Nullarbor are numerous: the road is badly maintained, the harsh sun and lack of shade can be brutal even in winter, and the tourist and truckie traffic is unrelenting, and includes 100-tonne roadtrains travelling at high speeds. Not wanting to join the hundreds of eviscerated kangaroo carcasses on the side of the road, I kept an ear out for approaching traffic, moving far to the left when I heard something coming, often pulling right off into the gravel shoulder.

My progress along the great road was slow; a 75 kilometre ride into headwind had me crying in frustration on day four, and the following day I was sidelined after 95 kilometres thanks to an approaching cyclone. The first drops of rain fell as I checked into the Madura Pass roadhouse motel, but the worst of the storm passed overnight, while I was tucked up cosily in bed.

Finally I picked up a tail wind. Riding out of Madura Pass on day six, I was flying. The Nullarbor is not a sandy desert, rather, there are scraggly shrubs and orange dirt as far as the eye can see. Vast an unchanging for hundreds of kilometres, it’s beautiful. Coasting with the wind behind me, I watched wedge-tailed eagles soaring on the air currents high above. I was grinning, loving that special feeling of being in the saddle, cadence just right and the conditions perfect.

Pulling into a roadhouse for lunch, I’d ridden 115 kilometres and there was life in my legs still. The wind was furious and yesterday’s storm lingered, but, suspecting it would stay behind me, I kept on. It was as though a gentle hand was on my back propelling me forward, as my speed rose and rose – 32km/hr; 35km/hr; 38km/hr. The 75 kilometres to the small township of Eucla flew by.

Full of energy still, I paid for a campsite, removed my panniers and went joyriding. I pointed my bike down a dirt track that cut through a national parkland, and was startled when hundreds of kangaroos loomed, bouncing alongside me. I’d ridden 200 kilometres and was euphoric, high on a love of cycling!

Sunrise and sunsets in the desert create spectacular displays, with blue, orange and pink hues lighting up the land. Thus was the dawn on day seven, and I was particularly stoked because I’d had a latte at breakfast. (Remarkably, the café at Eucla harboured not only an espresso machine, but soy milk as well.) I pedalled towards the South Australian border, legs spinning, content. Clearing the quarantine station at Border Village, I settled in to ride another double century, cycling the length of the great stretching arc of the Nullarbor Plain in a single day.

After midday, and a hundred kilometers ridden, I was flagging. Despite taking on plenty of water I was panting uncontrollably, and my sunscreen-covered arms and face were burning with a prickly heat. There was no shade in which to rest so I kept going, a bit panicky. But as the afternoon passed and the sun slipped from the sky, my panic abated; I was ok. As dusk turned to night my legs grew weary. My front light, solar-powered, lost its charge. I pedalled furiously to avoid getting stuck riding in the dark. My legs were burning as I clicked over the final five ks. Finally I arrive at Nullarbor roadhouse, stiffly dismount and lean my bike against a wall. The roadhouse manager, asking where I’d ridden from, remarked that I’d come 200 kilometres. ‘201, actually,’ I correct him, proud.

Suddenly, I was approaching the end of my journey. On day eight the flat disappeared and I rode over 100 kilometres of rolling hills. The landscape changed utterly, desert became brown paddocks and tin windmills; agricultural land.

Riding into Penong on day nine I was startled to find an actual town, with streets and houses and shops – civilisation at last! The final 75 kilometre straight to Ceduna was beautiful, a red asphalt road cutting between green fields, but challenging. After 1200 kilometres of riding I was feeling the strain, and used all the tricks I had to keep my legs rotating: ride to the next tree, don’t look at the odo til you’ve done five kilometers, just put your head down and go go go. Finally, I arrived.

It barely felt real. I had ridden 550 kilometers in the first five days of my trip, and a further 700 in the final four. Remarkably, I’d had no mechanical issues, not even a puncture. Riding the Nullarbor is not the most scenic or difficult touring route, but it is a serious challenge. My odo showed 1250 kilometres and I was grinning. I had ridden across the Nullarbor!

This article was first published in Ride On magazine, Dec 2011.

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See what else I have written about my desert ride. View all photos.

How women writers are getting by, globally

| Arts & Culture, Writing & Publishing

Happy International Women’s Day! Below is an article I wrote that was recently published in Newswrite. Other great links to explore today include:

How women writers are getting by, globally

There has been a lot of talk recently about the state of women’s writing in Australia. It is accepted that women struggle to earn the recognition that their male counterparts achieve: they win (and get shortlisted for) less prizes, they are less likely to be critically reviewed or invited to writers’ festivals, and they probably won’t be read as widely.

In an attempt to redress the balance, the past few years has seen a rise in conscious-raising exercises around Australian women’s writing. The Stella Prize has been established, Meanjin ran a ‘Tournament of Books’ to find Australia’s greatest novel written by a woman, and there’s a blogger-led Australian women writers reading challenge taking place online. But how are women writers faring in other parts of the world?

Recently I was lucky enough to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Panellists at the Fair came from many backgrounds, including the Arab world, India, Britain and China.  It was refreshing to get a global perspective on the discussions currently taking place in Australia; women writers all around the world face the same challenges that we do here.

Kate Mosse (Britain) and Oumaima al-Khamis (Saudia Arabia) spoke about the importance of writing about women, especially as it creates history — how it is almost impossible to describe to people of privilege how frustrating it feels to be oppressed, to be written out of history, and to have no literary role models to identify with. The importance of fiction, and writing in general, that features women cannot be understated. This is particularly striking when looking at the cultural makeup of the panel. The world is filled with white Western male heroes; the importance of representing diversity as well as gender in literature is vital.

On the same panel, Indian bestselling novelist and media commentator, Shobhaa De, agreed, saying: ‘In too many cultures, and too many countries, women speak the same language … of silence.’ But, ‘today more women are breaking the silence with bravery, sensitivity and passion.’

De was one of the first female novelists in India. Her first book was commissioned by a publisher, who nonetheless told her: ‘In our experience, madam, people are not interested in what women have to say. In our experience, madam, people do not buy books by women, there is no market.’ Luckily, he was proved wrong, and De went on to become one of India’s bestselling novelists of all time.

While it is important that many voices are written and published, it is also vital that those words are read.

At the Fair there was much talk about translation and the importance of reading globally. Writing can be a way of sharing information about our cultures, not just in the facts about what happens in our societies, but about shared truths.

Translator Adam Talib commented that ‘translations are like eavesdropping on national conversations’, a lovely thought and an appropriate call to arms for everyone to be thinking about reading more broadly.

But women from Asia and the Arab world face the same challenges that their Western counterparts do, and usually in more extreme ways: they are less likely to be published to start with, and will most likely have a smaller readership. Many also have to battle cultural or social stigma just to be able to write. (Did you know that the first novel published by a woman in the United Arab Emirates was released only 40 years ago?)

In Australia it can be difficult to read books in translation and from non-Western cultures; in many cases, they are simply not easily available to buy or borrow. In addition, finding good books by women writers can be extra challenging, as women are less likely to be published and translated. However, with a little effort, you will be able to find some exciting and inspiring writing by women from around the globe.

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