Writing her way to glory

Last Updated 27 June 2014, 15:27 IST

From powerful female fashion editors to women heading publishing houses, Sujata Massey’s journey of self-discovery, as a writer, offers an engaging peek into our changing society.

Twenty-eight years ago, my writing life began at a daily newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland called the Evening Sun. This was the late 1980s, and women reporters were writing opinion columns and finally covering “hard news” such as crime, sports and finance - although few had actual editing jobs, excepting food, fashion, gardening and pets.

I’d signed on as a general assignment features reporter, but within a few months was assigned the fashion beat. I did like clothes - however, I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into writing stories about the superficial. I wanted to be among the trail-blazing women reporters. I guessed that I’d landed in fashion because I was a young female rookie who couldn’t complain - just as I stayed mum when I was shown to the desk between two chain-smokers that nobody else wanted.
 What I really wanted was to be out of the newsroom working as a foreign correspondent telling stories about the world. But I knew I had to start small to get anywhere. I aimed for New York City, 200 miles. I managed to convince my cynical male editor to let me cover spectacular fashion shows, as “the new styles for fall and spring were big news”.

I came across supermodels Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell, but the journalist in me had eyes only for the stern-looking senior fashion editors dressed in all-black, towering on heels, carrying gilt-edged handbags like weapons. These style arbiters from Vogue and Harpers Bazaar and Elle seemed more fearsome than any schlumpy male newspaper editors. The New York fashion editors were the first powerful publishing women I saw - but not the last.

Unfortunately, news about new hairstyles or hemlines wasn’t significant enough to make it to the front page. And my article output was far lower than my peers, even bolstered by the cookbook reviews I offered to do for the food editor. 

At age 27, I left the paper feeling regretful at leaving the friendly community of writers, but at the same time quite thrilled I’d found a wonderful partner, and that the two of us would move to Japan for his work. Living with my husband an hour south of Tokyo, on a generous government allowance, meant that I didn’t need to take any sort of paid job and could experiment with writing outside of journalism. In those pre-email days, I wrote long letters to my husband, who was working as a US Navy doctor and often away at sea. I also wrote letters to my parents in Minnesota and essays for local Navy publications. 

Privately, I began roughing out a crime novel. My story was set in modern Japan and featured a female protagonist, who was neither a cop nor detective, but a young art history graduate who couldn’t get the job of her dreams because of sexism and foreigner discrimination. It took me four years to complete writing the first book The Salaryman’s Wife. To my delight, it was accepted by the first female agent I queried - who sold it within six weeks to a respected mystery editor, also female.  By the tenth mystery novel in the Rei Shimura series, I married away my “decidedly sexy” heroine. By then, I was back in the United States with my husband and our two elementary-school-going children. I longed to write a new book that didn’t have to abide by mystery genre conventions, and I wondered whether I could craft a novel set far away from my home territory, perhaps in a country that was part of me but not intimately known. Did I dare to write about India, the country where my father was born, and I’d always loved visiting?
I decided to allow a year for research before committing. Before the writing came a daily Hindi course taken for a full academic year, supplemented by many months of pleasurable historical research. I began understanding my own family’s links with the founding of Calcutta and early independence politics. The book became a very personal experience. 

In the end, I’d written City of Palaces, a 500-page book narrated by a naïve 10-year-old country girl, who grows into a new life as a freedom activist, social sophisticate, wife and mother. I had cried over parts that seemed too dark to dare writing and smiled at other sections that made me long to be a college girl in 1939 Calcutta. It turned out to be an old-fashioned epic novel and was not as quick to sell as my mysteries. Fortunately, it wound up being bought, first by Simon & Schuster in the USA and after that Penguin/ Random House of India - publishing houses where each of the CEOs are women!

Like both of my literary heroines, my journey has neither been quick nor easy. It took years to gain the courage and confidence to write about serious issues of gender, caste and religion, and describe faraway places like a local, rather than a tourist. Of course, my family’s needs have impacted my ability to travel for research, as well as the amount of daily hours I can spend writing. 

But I realise that I have a self-determined job that surpasses what I imagined for myself twenty-eight years ago. As long as I write, I’ve got the world at my fingertips: a happy ending indeed. 

(Published 27 June 2014, 15:27 IST)

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