Shruthi Rao: Don’t Cross a Writer

Shruthi Rao’s Manya Learns to Roar was one of the winners of the Children First writing contest, for books about children with special needs. It will be published in August 2017.

You know what they say – Don’t cross a writer, she’ll put you in a book and kill you.

I don’t know about killing (my lips are prudently sealed) but, growing up, I certainly imagined detailed scenarios of torture and punishment for all those who laughed at my stammer and underestimated my abilities because I had a stammer. Those unwritten stories in my head would always end with those people grovelling before me on the ground, and me, the hero, showing them what stuff I’m made of.

As I grew older, I mellowed (ahem) and the rage fizzled out as I tried to see things from other people’s point-of-view. It was then that I turned my ire toward the entertainment industry and laid the blame squarely at its door. Many movies had people who stammer (PWS) usually as the hero’s sidekick who hung around just to stammer and offer comic relief. Because, you see, it is cool to laugh at someone struggling desperately to get words out. I’m sure there are movies out there with PWS who are not laughed at, but I never got around to learning about them. Because if there was a movie with PWS, watching it would be torturous, like waiting for the other shoe to drop. When will he stammer and be laughed at? Now? How about now? It wrung all the enjoyment out for me.

And if the PWS wasn’t comic, he was sinister. (Yes, I’m thinking of K-k-k-kiran.) Or else, he was weak, afraid and ineffectual.

Even JK Rowling let me down. The moment she introduced a PWS in the first book, I said, “A-HA! Look out for this character. This is not real life. So, he has been given a stammer for a specific reason. He’s the one to watch.” And we all know how that turned out. There are battles raging on the internet about whether Prof Quirrell really stuttered or was putting on an act. But the fact remains that Rowling’s aim was to make him look like a nervous, weak, pitiable character. By doing this, Rowling consciously helped perpetuate a stereotype and it’s hard for me to forgive her for that. I was nearly out of my teens when the first book came out, and I had grown a thick pachyderm skin by then, but my heart goes out to those young children who stammer who encounter this despicable stereotype in an otherwise brilliant series.

And so, when I started writing fiction, I knew I wanted to write about real PWS, who are people like anybody else, who just happen to stammer. They might face situations that affect them because they stammer, or maybe they go through life pretty easily. I wanted to write some stories with PWS as protagonists, some with PWS as side characters. Some in which the stammering is an important part of the story, some in which it isn’t.

I tried to write such stories, but most of them collapsed under the weight of my intentions. Some of them burnt down to a crisp within the first page maybe because I was intensely invested in the topic. I needed to create some distance. So, I waited.

And then, the Children First contest was announced. This was it! They were asking for just the kind of story I wanted to write. But I didn’t have a situation. I didn’t have a character. I didn’t know what the stakes would be. Besides, the ghosts of my other stories were hovering over my laptop, grinning at me and shaking their heads in derision. But, just like I ignore people who laugh at my stammer, I ignored these ghosts too, and put my fingertips on my keyboard.

I don’t know what was different this time. But Manya Learns to Roar happened. It flowed out of me. In fact, in the middle of the story, I got another story idea. I had to stop writing Manya’s story and write the other one in a rush. I even sent that out before I finished this one. (That second story made the final shortlist of the contest as well.) And then I came back to Manya again, completed her story, and sent it out.

The day the results of the contest were to be announced, I set an alarm for 3 am (I live in the US) and woke up to check my email and Facebook. When I saw my name among the four winners, I leaped out of bed and performed a nocturnal dance. But when I went back to bed and snuggled in, the reigning emotion was more of satisfaction than of joy or excitement. I had finally started what I had always wanted to do.


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