Learning to Swim is about a refugee trying to adjust to a new life in a foreign land. Most people would think that he has every reason to be grateful. He’s managed to survive a harrowing journey. What’s more, he’s been given a roof over his head and a means of earning a living. He came in search of this new life because he felt he didn’t have any other choice. But having gotten to the new land, he’s never fully sure of whether he’s in the right place. Happiness seems an abstract, distant concept.
When you lose everything and have to start over without any semblance of the life you once knew, what keeps you going?
The human instinct to survive is a profound and powerful thing. I wrote this story as a means to examine this character’s desire to go on. But what gave me, a twenty-five-year-old product of privilege and peacetime, the ability, or more importantly the right, to take this story on?
When it comes to writing, we’re all told to write ‘what we know’. An easy task, at least on a superficial level, because our lives are full of experiences – happy, sad, melodramatic and most importantly, strange – that can be mined.
This was how I started writing short stories seriously. A few years ago, my recollection of my first day in boarding school resulted in a story entitled ‘11’ that led to a writing spree covering landmark events at different ages of my life; 15, 19, 21, 24. However, this was mostly a self-involved and overly nostalgic approach to writing. The resulting work bordered on ‘twee’-ness and was bereft of a strong narrative. But I found it to be an important way to process my memories and fit my experiences within a fictional context.
The real challenge as a writer, I’ve learned, is bridging one’s own life to that of another person, especially a person in a totally different set of circumstances. How could I use my memories and my experiences to better understand what life is like for other people? How could I create characters that were distant from me but still retain that personal, or autobiographical, feel?
The truth is, I don’t really know the answer to that question. All I can do is research and try and identify with my character’s desires and the feelings that come at different points in his or her narrative arc. But even then I’ll only have a rudimentary idea of what life is like for that person.
We all know about the refugee crisis. I wrote Learning to Swim based on the news and documentaries I had watched along with the op-eds and first-hand accounts I had read in the past few years. When writing the story, I realized that giving the narrative a personal bent wasn’t difficult. I’ve felt like an outsider countless times. I’ve struggled to navigate in environments that were completely foreign to me. I’ve felt the guilt that comes with losing a loved one.
A much, larger challenge loomed. How could I write this story about a life so far removed from my own without making it exploitative?
I tried to focus on the universal aspects of this character’s story. The mundane aspects of a new life in a foreign land. The yearning for one’s home. The anger and disillusionment that comes with not being accepted. The feeling of ‘otherness’ that comes to people who are desperate to belong.
The answer to the question of whether I succeeded or not in not making the story exploitative is subjective, obviously. I just wanted to write the best story I could. To make it engaging and moving without skimping on the less dramatic elements.
All writers mine the lives and stories of other people for their creations. Some do it to entertain but some also do it to help their readers relate to another person.
I think that’s why I write. To engage with lives other than my own. That’s also the reason I read.
A few questions to end with.
Is it our duty to engage with or understand the lives of people in unfortunate circumstances? Is it our right to be entertained by the lives of people who are better off? Does empathy preclude the possibility of an artistic experience or do they go hand-in-hand?
Yours in eternal unenlightenment,