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If I write about my culture, will anyone read it? Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar answers.

Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She is the author of Morsels of Purple and Skin Over Milk. Born to a middle-class family in India, she later migrated to the USA with her husband and son. A technologist by profession and a writer by passion, she won first place in ELJ Micro Creative Non-Fiction Prize, placed in the Strands International Flash Fiction Festival. and is the runner-up for the Chestnut Review Chapbook Contest. Her stories have been shortlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Awards and SmokeLong Micro Competition. She is currently a Prose Editor at Janus Literary and a Submissions Editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. More at Reach her @PunyFingers.

I first met Sara in the South Asian Flash Writers group where she read a story from her collection, Morsels of Purple. I was immediately taken by her vivid, realistic writing. For this interview, we met over Zoom and talked about our doubts while sending out stories steeped in our cultures, using non-English words in writing, and the importance of author bios. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation:

Shipra Agarwal: How and when did you start writing? Or, when did you know that you wanted to write?

Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar: Unlike many writers that I’ve read about or talked to, the only writing I did as a kid was for school assignments. But I’ve always been a reader; I’ve always read a lot. I studied engineering in college, and I didn’t write anything during that time, either. When I migrated to the US, I finally had the time and solitude to write – I was not on a work visa, so I wasn't working. That’s when I started a blog about my immigration journey, my experiences, the differences in culture I was seeing. Also, my son was a toddler at that time. I wrote about his tantrums, how he was growing up, learning new English words, going to day-care, making new friends. I just wrote about my own day-to-day life but I was surprised by how many people visited that blog. Somehow, it started gaining popularity and people connected to my writing. That encouraged me a lot.

Then, I obtained a work visa and started working, and life became more routine. The immigration experience was no longer a novelty and my son grew up, too. I needed something new to write about, so I started writing fiction. But again my fiction is real-life based; there is always a non-fiction element to it. There’s one truth, or some level of truth, I should say. As writers we modify the ending or middle of the story so it becomes a story and not a journal entry, of course.

When I posted these stories on my blog, someone commented that why don’t you send it to literary journals. I had no idea about the many literary journals and magazines that welcomed unsolicited submissions. I started following some writers on Twitter and that’s when I saw that there’s a whole virtual world out there.

Very hesitantly, with a lot of doubt, I sent my story, the first ever story I wrote, to a journal and they accepted it. That story was based in India, it had Indian food and characters. I didn’t know that someone would accept it. I thought I had nothing to lose; I was just writing for myself. And next year, they nominated it for Pushcart. I was like, no way, it’s not happening!

SA: I also had similar doubts, you know, that no one would want to read my stories because they are set in India and steeped in a culture that people won’t know much about.

SSC: Yeah, earlier I wasn’t sure, too, but that one acceptance propelled me forward. People are there who want to read it. Everybody wants a change. In every walk of life: What you eat, whom you meet, the places you go to. They want a change of palate in reading also. They want to read about places or cultures they haven’t been exposed to.

SA: Very encouraging to hear that! You started with flash fiction, shorter fiction, like you have in your first book, Morsels of Purple. Was that a conscious choice?
SSC: Flash fiction is mainly because of the lack of time. I don’t have the time commitment to write a bigger piece. I just write in the snippets of time I have available after work and family duties. In the morning, when I’m brewing my coffee or brushing my teeth, that’s when some ideas come to me and I write them down. Also, I realized that flash fiction is not lacking at all. You can say a lot in a thousand words.

SA: Absolutely! Morsels of Purple was a revelation to me. It was the first all-flash book I read, and was stunned by the emotional impact of these page-long stories. I love the book’s title, too. How did you come up with that?

SSC: Morsels, of course, because my stories are bite-sized. And I use that word a lot in my stories, I don’t know why. There are some words that keep coming back, like swivel is another word I use a lot. And purple I chose because it represents feminism. It’s one of the colors of International Women’s Day. It’s the color that stands for dignity and equality, and that’s the theme of most of my stories: Gender parity and a quiet kind of feminism. I tried Morsels of Life, Morsels of Womanhood, but I didn’t want to give the book away. Purple had a kind of ambiguity but it was also clear, so that’s why I went with Morsels of Purple.

SA: Skin Over Milk is also such an evocative title. And, so fitting to the story. How did you move from writing flash to this longer story?

SSC: Skin Over Milk started as a flash piece. It was a three-hundred word story. I wanted to write about the rain in India, because the monsoon is such a powerful phenomenon. When I started writing that story, it somehow came to me that the brothers are drinking milk while the sisters are deprived of it. I submitted that story to the Bath Flash Fiction where it was on the shortlist. They asked me if they could publish it, but after that I wouldn't have had the rights to publish it anywhere else for about a year or two. I said no because somewhere in my heart I knew that I wanted to expand on the theme. I didn’t even have the names of the girls then, or their ages defined – I just used the collective PoV “we” – but I knew that I wanted to write more about their lives.

I also found two other pieces of mine that were about rain – one, was about the ear piercing experience, and the second was about a large mango that drops from the tree. It’s a metaphor for the grandfather’s death. It has a fantastical element to it. So, I thought if I combined these three stories and weaved them together, I might have the beginning of a novella. And having written flash fiction for a while, I wanted to try my hand at longer fiction. Then, I added more. The train journey, the festival etc. Once it was done, I submitted it to Chestnut Review and it was a runner-up at their chapbook contest.

SA: One thing I noticed in Skin Over Milk is that whenever you use an Urdu word, like Ammi or Namaaz, you add an English descriptor, like My Mother, Ammi, or The Morning Prayers, Namaaz. Was that a conscious choice while writing, or was that a more editorial thing that happened later on?
SSC: That was an editorial decision. While writing I just put the word in, because sometimes it's hard to find translations. And sometimes with translations, the word loses all its meaning and weight, so I wanted to preserve those words. In flash stories I just put the words in and assume that the reader will google it, but since this was a longer piece and these words were repeated many times, I made an editorial decision to put the meaning in there the first time so the reader doesn’t have any questions later when they stumble upon it again and again.

SA: How long did it take for you to write Skin Over Milk?

SSC: See, mostly writing is rewriting. You write the first draft very quickly but when you read it again, you ask if there are any loose ends or things that need to be explained more. Like, the parrot. I had the parrot in the first few chapters but when I wrote the end, the parrot wasn’t there anymore. I needed to complete the arc of what happened to it. So at the end I added a section about Ammi letting the parrot fly off. So, I would say that the first draft I wrote in about three months. But the editing, and re-editing, and rearranging, and adding the missing parts took a long time.

Then again when I was working with the editor, Maria, we went back and forth as she said that some things were not clear and needed more explanation, so I added things, removed things. Till the book was about to be published and we were at the final draft – no more changes – I was working on it. About a year, I would say, off and on.

SA: What’s coming up next? Are you working on another book?

SSC: I’m not a very disciplined person. I start some things, then leave them in the middle. I am working on a novel but I leave it for months then I gain some momentum and write a couple of chapters at a stretch. It’s been ongoing for more than two years now. I keep saying once I do this, I’ll get back to it. The first draft is not complete yet. I have to tell myself no more flash fiction and focus on the novel!

The novel is overwhelming. There are so many things you have to think of. Where is it going? How is it all going to fit? Should I change it all and start again? Novel writing is a herculean task. But I’m in it so maybe one day I’ll have it out.

SA: You’re the submissions editor for Smokelong Quarterly and the fiction editor for Janus Literary. What do you look for in a submission? Do you look at author bios? Whether the writer has an MFA or not, or the number of publications they have, is that important?

SSC: All the submissions that I read are blind. For Janus and for Smokelong, I don’t see any identifying information on the submissions; there are no names. For Smokelong, if there’s any identifying information on the submission, we reject it right away because it doesn’t meet the submission guidelines. It doesn’t matter who is submitting. It could be your first time or a writer who has published many books. Only the quality of the submission matters.

What we look for in submissions is clarity, first of all. Is it clear enough? Are there any loose ends? Who is this person? What is this person doing? What is happening here? Although in flash there’s a limited number of words, clarity is very important.

And resonance. It has to resonate with the reader. The location doesn’t matter. The themes don’t matter. Because there is nothing in the world that hasn’t been written before. If I say I write about feminism, it has been written before. It’s just how you write a story and how it impacts. It should hit you in some way.

SA: What advice would you give to upcoming writers?

SSC: Just keep writing. Don’t give up. You don’t need anyone’s permission to write. If it makes you happy, write. The results will come. You have to be persistent about it. You learn from the rejections, too. You reevaluate the story: How can I make it better? Is the ending not working? Do I need to start from a different place? See what’s not working in the story, what needs to be changed. Don’t give up because of rejections. If your story is good, someone will definitely accept it. Even if you don’t submit anywhere, write for yourself. We write to express what’s in our heart, that expression shouldn’t stop.

Sara's books can be purchased here:

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