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Jenny Bhatt | Longreads | November 2018 | 20 minutes (4,950 words)
I. Separation Rites (Phase 1)
“All my life I have lived and behaved very much like [the] sandpiper — just running down the edges of different countries and continents, ‘looking for something’, having spent most of my life timorously seeking for subsistence along the coastlines of the world.”
— Elizabeth Bishop; Words in Air
In early 2012, I was at a dinner with my work team in Silicon Valley. It was an unusually warm late-winter evening in shimmering downtown San Francisco as we settled around our large center table in a popular and packed Italian restaurant. We’d had a long few days at an off-site conference working through some complex issues related to a newly announced business transformation program. Amidst the clinking of dinnerware and happy chatter all around us, the much-needed glasses of wine helped ease us into lighter non-work banter. Someone — it might even have been me — started a conversation asking everyone what they would do work-wise if they had the absolute freedom of choice. That is, if money, time, talent, and skill were no object, what would they rather be doing instead?
Slowly, shyly, each one of these people, with whom I worked daily, opened up about their deeper joys: gourmet cooking; ice-cream making; theatrical singing/performing; organic farming; fashion blogging, etc. The animated faces, wistful voices, resigned smiles, and gentle shrugs — their entire range of honest emotions will stay with me forever. It was one of those sudden time-stood-still moments and, within it, we had stumbled unexpectedly onto a crucial personal connection: the universal human desire for deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.
That evening also helped me make up my wavering mind. Before the end of the month, I would hand in my notice. On the day I left, I wanted to turn around, like Jerry Maguire in that famous office-leaving scene, and say to those same team members: “Who’s coming with me?” (I did no such thing because my reasons for leaving the new job after only three months also involved a few more complicated variables beyond a need to start over.)
So, after nearly two decades of working across corporations in Europe and the US, I began my middlescence as a 40-year-old free agent. It helped that I had already sold my home in anticipation of purchasing one closer to the new job, and did not have any financial debt for the first time in nearly two decades. Also, I had some savings, a small cushion meant to get me through what I had thought and hoped would be a brief transition period into the next phase. And my relationship status was: single.
What I wanted was to write full-time. Or, rather, I wanted writing to be my main mode of being in and engaging with the world. But I hadn’t simply awakened one morning and decided this. Up until that point, I had been writing part-time for some-30 years, snatching what time I could during weekends and vacation. I had accumulated a modest publication history: a national award for a short story at age 10; a short story and a poem in a children’s print magazine at age 14; two short stories and five literary essays in an online magazine by age 29; an essay in a print anthology at age 30. From my mid-20s to my mid-30s, I had also worked on my craft through several writing courses and workshops at a couple of well-known Midwestern universities and one semester at a low-residency MFA before assorted factors led to my dropping out.
The life of a first-generation naturalized immigrant, though, is typically held hostage to their citizenship status. I was 38 when I finally received my citizenship after multiple hurdles along the way. Until then, as much as I fantasized about a literary career, I needed to earn a steady living. And I could not afford to be anything less than a model employee — hardworking, ready to take on any position or project, and near-indispensable — to stay safe from the periodic house-cleaning layoffs so loved by corporate America, which could put my immigration status in jeopardy.
Not a single one of those writing milestones, then, had occurred along a straight, smooth trajectory. For each one accomplished, there were several others missed. Most were hard-won while progressing up unsteady career ladders within the engineering, marketing, and management consulting fields. Many were interrupted while wending my way through three continents, six countries, five US states, six companies, twenty homes, and two long-term relationships. All along, there have been heavy personal tolls for persisting as a slave to two masters: the paying career and what I called my “writing hobby.” And there have been the usual lifelong roadblocks that other women from similar backgrounds will recognize: a socio-cultural conditioning rooted in a patriarchal upbringing in India; the ongoing discrimination faced as a woman of color working in white-male-dominated industries; the drawn-out process of securing citizenship of a country where I felt most at home; the never-faltering aim of wanting to be financially and emotionally independent with “a room of my own.”
I had accepted all of the above as necessary rites for frequently crossing borders both physical and metaphorical. Navigating my paths across as a minority, I had become an expert at code-switching and coping with the daily micro-inequities. In America, I had learned to perch smartly on the hyphen of my Indian-American identity, ready to hop to one side or the other, depending on who I was with or what I was doing.
Till, as a single and childless 40-year-old woman of color, I found myself slipping unwarned down a steep slope toward the verge of disappearance. In workplace, family, and friend gatherings, I was deferring more frequently to the younger, or the coupled, or the oldest. My lone voice carried the least weight at any given time. Beyond a loss of vote and visibility, it felt like an erosion of my self.
This midlife pivot was about more than making time to write. It was also my biggest mustering of courage to reclaim and re-assert my place in the world.
II. Separation Rites (Phase 2)
“It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.”
― Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room
When Walter White of Breaking Bad needed to start a lucrative new career, all it took was an enterprising young partner with appropriate connections, some easy-to-acquire laboratory equipment, and a Winnebago out in the desert. And, of course, a whole lot of attitude. For the rest of us trying to switch to new careers and ventures — lucrative or not — things are not quite so serendipitously scripted.
During the first two years of my new freedom, I developed a meticulous, thorough discipline of writing-related activities versus actually writing: running an online literary magazine and taking a year-long course in personal finance. I was hedging my bets by learning skills to bide me through the journey from obscure to established writer. Unable to give up the habits of my corporate schedule, I worked for 16-17 hours every single day of those two years while entirely avoiding submissions to other publications. The literary magazine grew to 500+ subscribers and 200+ contributors and got mentions at a couple of well-known media sites. All the stock investment portfolios I was managing exceeded average market growth rates too. And my personal finance blog grew well enough that a couple of my entrepreneurship articles went viral when shared on other sites. I did write a third each of two separate novels, but put them away quickly, lacking the confidence to know if they were any good.
My mother’s sudden passing in India in 2014 was the big jolt that shook me out of my entropic state. During the three months or so before, we had been having frequent discussions about the folk-tales and stories her father had told her in childhood, and his own unpublished translation works. She had proudly shown me, via video chat, her small set of custom-made glass-covered bookshelves with her favorite Gujarati writers’ works. The language was difficult for me at that time, so she had offered help if I was interested in doing some translation work. My constant memory of those days is of her wide smile as she looked into the iPad camera and sipped her morning chai on the porch swing. From the nearby trees and hedges, mynahs, bulbuls, pigeons, and robins chirped, cooed, and warbled along with her. In the Bay Area, multi-tasking with dinner or online browsing, my responses to her alternated between a distracted “sure” and a slightly guilt-ridden, “But I need to write my own stories first, na.” This was simply idle chitchat, I thought, with her one daughter who did not care for domestic exchanges about cooking and children. And, of course, we had both imagined there would be plenty of time.
During her last rites in India, as my siblings and I cried and laughed through our many memories and stories of her, I ached inside for not taking her seriously about the stories she had wanted to tell; that I had not given due consideration to her own tentatively re-emerging literary yearnings, late in her seventh decade.
Throughout those two weeks, when jet lag meant lying awake at night untangling knots of worries, I forced myself to face two stark facts: per my personal financial plan, my current account would be empty in a year if I continued to pay California rent and expenses; there were no guarantees in life and I could go just as easily without much to show for my existence.
By mid-2014, I sold off almost everything I owned in the US, packed all my books and some other essentials into a shipping container, and moved back to India after nearly 25 years, renting a spare apartment my father owns. Since leaving as a teenager, I had visited often enough for family events but never considered returning for any extended period. My plan was to work on a couple of books and return to the US once I was able to make a modest living from writing.
This second separation phase of my midlife reboot had even more ritualistic aspects with the selling and giving-away of my belongings — from toaster to car — and physically traveling to another continent to start over again. It felt more definitive and enormously significant. At the same time, despite knowing my physical destination well enough, having spent my formative years there, I still had a sense of being lost because of not being able to make out a horizon ahead.
III. Liminal Rites
“I was numb, but it was from not knowing just what this new life would hold for me.”
― Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy
India had made notable socio-cultural progress due to the political liberalization begun shortly after my leaving in the early-1990s. Still, I had not expected it would be easy for a single, 40-something woman to live alone in a Tier II city. Having lived and worked in other countries where, in a couple of cases, I could barely speak the local dialects, I had anticipated re-assimilation issues, though on a lesser scale. Beyond the heat, pollution, traffic, men staring, etc., I had mentally prepared for other daily inconveniences rooted in the sexism, classism, casteism, colorism, and corruption I had known while growing up. The privilege, I told myself, of being able to move to a place with some immediate family just a few miles away would outweigh any trade-offs.
But instead it was the acceptance issues within this family that took me by surprise. During the first two years, they were awkward and uncomfortable when introducing me to others due to a lack of the usual labels of career, or husband, or children. We came to an unspoken agreement to say I was a tech consulting executive on a break.
As we are not a family of readers or writers, there was also general speculation about what I was planning to accomplish and how I was going about it. One of my siblings openly criticized my move at every opportunity, even gaslighting me in the bargain. A couple other siblings often questioned my plans directly. My father and brother once offered seed investment money to start a small business — in their opinion, it would be a more productive use of my time. My father had a cardiac health scare (unrelated to my choices but adding to the overall tension among us all.)
These were times of high conflict — partly because I was accustomed to an unquestioned independence, but mostly because my move and career change would have been non-issues if there had been a male partner by my side. A year after I moved to India, my youngest sister and her husband also left their full-time jobs to travel for a couple of years. No one in the family has questioned them quite so intrusively and insistently. The interpersonal tensions between us were like heavy chains drowning me deeper into my internal sea of roiling uncertainties and fears.
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About this time, I also began to drift away from my friends from my corporate life. The miles stretching between us were more than physical because my literary work was of little interest to them. I took a couple of online creative writing courses and joined a couple of online writing groups with the hope of joining some like-minded communities. Not only did these require a lot of time investment but the asynchronous communication via chats and posts did not feel particularly helpful at the time. I was completely off the social and the literary grid — both in the US and in India.
To make some local friends, I joined my residential society’s managing committee as one of several volunteers. That was short-lived because the otherwise all-male committee shouted at each other so much that they rarely agreed on anything. The police even came out a few times to settle physical brawls. And the committee men’s wives viewed me as a suspicious anomaly even as they tried to engage me to arbitrate proxy arguments via Whatsapp on behalf of their sparring husbands. I stepped away entirely when, at one committee meeting, tempers ran so high that one of the men threw a chair across the room and it came within inches of where I was sitting. None of the other men stopped his ranting or removed him from the room — most simply carried on yelling too. This volatile microcosm of Indian society where slurs based on caste, class, color, and creed flew openly between educated urban men and women was troubling for what it revealed about our collective humanity. But, more than anything, they made me retreat into my filter-bubble even more.
Through all these physical and emotional disruptions, I was working to examine themes in my writing that I had not done before. Things were no longer as black and white at this stage of my life and that made writing about them harder. My writerly preoccupations were also starkly different in India than they had been in the US. Given the headspace I was in at this time, my responses to even normal questions during everyday conversations were halting and long, as if I was encountering certain ideas for the first time or had a tumult of them all at once and having to sort and think them through out loud. As much as this drained me physically each time, it often annoyed certain family members too. Then, every negative interaction with them felt like it sliced off more brittle, jagged pieces of me.
Soon enough, I sealed myself off as if at an elite, secluded writing residency. Structuring my own DIY MFA, I invested 16-17-hour days, again, in reading and writing.
And I finally cut my hair short and let it go gray. I had been coloring my hair since my early-20s. This was also one of the things my family had been nagging me about. So, in a way, it was a quiet rebellion because I couldn’t articulate how much they had upset me. It was not a decision I made lightly because, in Indian society, it meant crossing another threshold from “Sister” to “Aunty.” Despite everything, it felt like a much-needed release.
The rites I went through during this phase left me feeling more dislocated — as if I did not belong anywhere and that both society at large and my own family had no use for someone like me. Yet, even as I was closely scrutinizing my own values, flaws, and frailties during this time, I became firmer than ever in my commitment to the choices I had made.
All that said, 2014 and 2015 were the two loneliest, most agonizing years of my life. Even now, as I am still in India, there are occasional reverberations that toss everything up again.
IV. Incorporation Rites
“Now I become myself. It’s taken time, many years and places.”
― May Sarton
Writing is about a response to the world and can only be done by periodically engaging fully with it. I could not remain in the intense liminal state of isolation and fragmentation forever. The darkness, rich and fertile though it was, had to give birth to something new.
I began sending the fragile offshoots of my writing to literary magazines. There were plenty of rejections though some included personalized feedback and kind encouragement — all proving to be much-needed nourishment.
Finally joining social media more actively, I connected with a few other emerging writers. And I began to follow some role model writers, whose daily words shone like rays of inspiration. More recently, when I reached out looking for debut women writers over-40, thousands responded from all over the world — many with heartbreakingly personal stories of the odds they’ve had to fight against. These, too, have been vital fortification.
There was so much of India I had not seen before I had left the first time. The country had gone through many rites of passage of her own. I began to travel to different parts — sometimes with family, oftentimes solo. As a tourist, I didn’t mind being the invisible observer and it struck me that, for a writer, this wasn’t such a bad thing either. Whatever the case, I became more comfortable with the lingering worries that had started at 40 — of disappearing and becoming nothing after midlife; of dying, like my mother, before my writing could amount to anything.
Eventually, all the light and sustenance got through and a few acceptances, paid publications, and small award nominations and shortlists flowered.
When I had enough polished stories for a book-length collection, I sent that out into the world too. Again, there was a cycle of rejections and near-acceptances. Some agents and editors even wanted the books I had mentioned as works-in-progress instead of the completed one I was querying about.
The first book deal I got, after several hiccups, was for one of those works-in-progress. Though I had not been querying for it, it seems fitting that the book is a literary translation of one of my mother’s favorite writers’ works, which she had mentioned often in those months before passing. This deal also helped me cross a significant respectability threshold within my family. “Literary translator” is a more tangible identity for them to present to others than the vague one of “writer.” So much of our identity is not about how we see ourselves but how others see us.
I was offered a second book deal, for my own short stories, three times before I nearly put it away for good. Each time, I walked away because the publisher and I were not a good fit. This book has been decades in gestation, not just the past few years, and with plenty of sacrifices along the way. Entrusting my book-baby to a multi-year professional relationship with a publisher has been a fraught decision. And my search continues at the time of writing this.
These two books have been prolonged rites of passage and taught me a lot about both the US and the Indian publishing industries. One of the biggest setbacks was discovering how publishing gatekeepers everywhere see “debut” and “emerging” as synonymous with “young” for various commercial reasons; how they prefer the know-it-all assurance of young writers over the no-certainties perceptiveness of older writers; how they want overnight debut bestsellers rather than works distilled from complex and varied life experiences.
A few years ago, the writer Zadie Smith was on the Desert Island Discs podcast. Having once been a 22-year-old wunderkind with an award-winning debut bestseller and now a writer in her 40s, she said, “. . . there’s no replacement for experience. You can’t fake it, you can’t fictionalize it. It won’t develop your heart, it won’t develop you as a person. It’s a kind of game that you can play on the page but it’s not the same as being alive. Being alive is a very radical thing; it’s much more difficult . . .” Listening to this podcast again recently, I realized I’m still integrating those radical, impossible-to-fake lessons and insights gained over the last six years. Doing so is also a critical rite of passage before I can truly begin the next new journey.
Two things, I know now, can definitely be true at the same time: an emerging writer can also be a middle-aged writer. My midlife literary growth was spurred by both a keener sense of temporality and finally wresting the space and time needed to achieve a requisite level of skill. As a late-blooming woman writer of color, it took reaching a certain age to shore up the confidence, conviction, and resources to work on my craft and send my work out. There was no script so I made my own plots and paths, which was challenging but also liberating. I was not able to rely much at all on formal support networks — educational and cultural institutions typically award their mentorships and fellowships to either young or highly-qualified writers. My informal support networks have been hit-or-miss. Because of all this, the acts of writing, submitting, and getting my work published continue to be deeply political for me.
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Researching other midlife-and-beyond women writers has shown me that a late bloom can be brilliant and enduring because of the lived-in wisdom composted from our richly-seasoned experiences. In both our lives and our writing, our preoccupations are no longer about seeking acceptance for a particular self (the sum of our perceptions, beliefs, thoughts, emotions, etc.) or identity (the persona(e) we present to the world.) We are more driven to explore, through our writing, the many selves we now know are possible even if some of them cause us inexplicable churn and are transitional.
I think often of the folk-tale that Toni Morrison began her 1993 Nobel acceptance speech with — about an old, blind woman approached by the younger folks of her community wanting to test her wisdom. The question they ask pertains directly to her disability — her blindness — which also sets her at a disadvantage to all of them. They want her to answer whether the bird held by one of them is alive or dead. Though she cannot see, she understands what they’re doing. After a long silence, she tells them she does not know the bird’s condition but she knows it is in their hands. Morrison explains that, with her response, the old woman is bringing attention to how the young people are using their power to mock her helplessness and not taking their responsibility toward the bird’s life seriously either. She goes on to say, “So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency — as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will.”
For women coming to writing in midlife and beyond, it is a similar act of agency. Our stories are also in danger of death and erasure. Writing them takes a political and a rebellious will after having repressed our voices and words for decades due to longstanding socio-cultural biases and prejudices. To paraphrase Morrison, our midlife creativity is radical because it re-creates us even as we create our works. Every bit of validation or praise is hard-won because we have to work that much harder for our visibility and voice as we get older.
Morrison’s Nobel speech goes on to describe some back-and-forth between the old, blind woman and the younger people. It ends with them asking the old woman to pass along her history to help them get strong; to tell them about what the world has been to her and what it is to be a woman observing from the margins and the edges of towns. These are stories that always need to be told and heard and read.
Reflecting on my earlier transitional/liminal phase, I see how my sense of self had shattered so completely that I needed to rebuild it piece by piece with old and new skills, interests, ideas, and opportunities. I had to plumb deeper, range further, expose some tender nerves, and break through long-calcified mental maps of personal and socio-cultural boundaries.
So this messy, solitary process of becoming a writer in midlife has been much like Adrienne Rich wrote in “Diving Into the Wreck”: “And there is no one/ to tell me when the ocean/ will begin,” where “I have to learn alone/ to turn my body without force/ in the deep element.” Rich went on to add: “I came to explore the wreck./ The words are purposes./ The words are maps./ I came to see the damage that was done/ and the treasures that prevail.” I am still sifting through the damage and the treasures of my evolving ideals, values, and relationships. And the words emerging from all that wreckage continue to guide the shapes and textures of my stories; they sustain me.
There will be, no doubt, more rites of passage to move from “emerging, midlife writer” to “established writer.” One aspect I’m exploring is how to become a better literary citizen. That might require an immersive, full-time literary degree program back in the US or starting or joining an indie press for other marginalized writers or both. Hopefully, there will also be a kindred spirit to travel the rest of the trail with. Nothing has been straightforward, easy, or predictable so far and I don’t expect the rest of it to be so either.
The French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, used the metaphor of a large house with many rooms and corridors to describe how society is comprised of many groups. When a person moves from one group to another, (s)he passes from one room to another, crossing certain thresholds, territories, cultures, and more. Such a passage is often accompanied by rites — structured or unstructured; personal or communal; secular or sacred. Van Gennep and other cultural anthropologists further defined three types of rites of passage: separation rites; transition/liminal rites; incorporation rites. Examples of each type have existed within ancient civilizations. And, even today, nearly all societies have ceremonial rituals to mark the passage from a particular life phase or social status into another.
Growing up with patriarchal Hindu traditions in India, we observed many important rites of passage as ceremonial rituals. I never cared for how they subordinated women to men and abdicated individual responsibility to the “divine.” But their origins, meanings, and adaptations have always fascinated me.
One coming-of-age ritual for young boys was the sacred thread ceremony, signifying entry into the student phase of life. Of the several elaborate steps involved, I recall how the boy is presented with a platter of four symbolic or talismanic items. The one item the boy selects is supposed to indicate the shape of the rest of his life. In ancient times, the boy would keep the chosen item with him throughout his student phase as a reminder or guide for his thoughts, words, and deeds. The specific items and their meanings vary in different regions of India. In the western state of Gujarat, among my people, these items are as follows: a book or pen symbolizing knowledge; a comb and mirror symbolizing physical wellbeing; a knife or dagger symbolizing valor; and some coins symbolizing financial wellbeing.
For women like me moving into our middlescence (or beyond), it seems apt that we have a set of symbolic items to carry along during our passage. Rather than choosing only one, let’s take them all. I propose a ceremonial ritual with friends and family that involves a platter filled with the following as guides for the journey ahead: a key symbolizing a room of one’s own; some coins symbolizing financial wellbeing; a compass symbolizing one’s true north; an anchor symbolizing the strength to hold fast in any storm; and a preferred piece of silver jewelry symbolizing both kindness or compassion from others, and the ability to age with style.
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Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary critic, and literary translator. Her non-fiction can be found in The Atlantic, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, The Millions, PopMatters, Scroll.in, and more.
Editor: Sari Botton
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