Minal Hajratwala on How to Write Like a Unicorn

Aug 24, 2016

How can publishers promote voices from the margins, and how can writers do their part in insisting that their voices are heard? For authors who write in multiple genres, what’s the best way to choose the style that best matches your content?

In episode 18 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews poet, publisher, and writing coach Minal Hajratwala about her genre-bending writing style, the joy of coaching other writers, and how publishing can be a form of activism.

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Guest: Minal Hajratwala

Minal Hajratwala is a unicorn of many colors, and a poet at heart.

Her latest book of poetry, Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, includes poems and the script for her theatrical poetry extravaganza, “Avatars: Gods for a New Millennium,” which was commissioned by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco for World AIDS Day. It is published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, which publishes contemporary poetry books from India under a collective mentorship model.

In 2009, her epic memoir Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It was called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by the Washington Post. The book won a ton of awards, and she spent seven years researching and writing the book, traveling the world to interview more than seventy-five members of her extended family.

Minal is also the editor of Out! Stories From the New Queer India, which was published by a Mumbai independent press, Queer Ink, in 2013.

She is a writing coach and teacher helping other authors find their voice, particular queer writers and writers of color.

Minal Hajratwala wearing a blue and white shirt and pans, sitting in a stone windowsill in front of green plants and rocks. Text reads: There's a cycle between having a creative block about a topic and really letting it ripen, ripen, ripen until the right form comes out.

We chatted about

  • How Minal’s journalism background shaped her personal memoir (02:40)
  • Navigating multiple genres for different types of work (05:30)
  • Cyclical, natural writer’s block (08:30)
  • Working in publishing as an active way of bring marginalized voices into the world (12:30)
  • Minal’s work coaching other writers (16:10)
  • Imagining otherwise (26:50)


Minal’s personal writing motto

I work under the motto “write like a unicorn” and for me that gets to the idea that we each have a unique, magical voice and that there is no need for us to all sound like each other or think like each other.

Cyclical writer’s block

There’s a cycle between having a creative block about a topic and really letting it ripen, ripen, ripen until the right form comes out.

Promoting the stories of writers from the margins

How do we as writers who are considered sometimes to be from the margins —but who actually make up the majority—how can we put our stories front and center?

Imagining otherwise

I imagine a world of infinite possibility.

More from Minal Hajratwala

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty gritty work of Imagining Otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas On Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency, helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts in live and public conversations and create more just worlds. This week’s episode is brought to you by our grad school rockstar program and dissertation rockstar bootcamp. Enrollment just opened for fall 2016. Both of these programs help progressive interdisciplinary scholars like those featured in this podcast create awesome work, build accountability and community, and rock their interdisciplinary careers. If you or someone you know is a grad student who wants to create a regular writing routine, stop drowning in email, prioritize self-care and finish their dissertation along with other social justice-oriented scholars, you can go to gradschoolrockstars.com to find out more. This is episode 18. My guest today, Minal Hajratwala is a unicorn of many colors and a poet at heart.

Cathy Hannabach (01:24):

Her latest book of poetry called Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, includes poems and the script for her theatrical poetry extravaganza called Avatars, Gods For A New Millennium. It was commissioned by the Asian art museum of San Francisco for World AIDS Day. It’s published by the great Indian poetry collective of which she is a co-founder and she talks about in this interview. In 2009 her epic memoir, Leaving India, My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Cathy Hannabach (01:57):

It was called, “incomparable” by Alice Walker and, “searingly honest” by The Washington Post. The book won a ton of awards and she spent seven years researching and writing it, traveling the world to interview more than 75 members of her extended family throughout the Indian diaspora. Minal is also the editor of Out, Stories From The New Queer India, which was published by [inaudible 00:02:20] independent press called Queer Ink in 2013. In addition, Minal is a writing coach and teacher helping other authors find their voice, particularly queer writers and writers of color. Thanks for being with us Minal.

Minal Hajratwala (02:34):

Hi, thank you for having me.

Cathy Hannabach (02:37):

So you are the author of a number of books, among them the absolutely amazing memoir Leaving India, My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents. What’s that book about?

Minal Hajratwala (02:49):

Oh, thank you. It is about my family and the Indian diaspora and how we all migrated out of India over the past hundred years or so.

Cathy Hannabach (03:02):

That sounds like quite an epic saga.

Minal Hajratwala (03:05):

It is. It was epic. And it was epic to write it and research it, and it’s an epic in itself. My family right now is in nine different countries. So it’s really the story of how that happened, starting with my great grandfather who left India in 1909 and went to Fiji.

Cathy Hannabach (03:25):

Wow. It also seems like, and the book itself illustrates a huge amount of research that you had to do, right?

Minal Hajratwala (03:33):

Yes. I started my career as a journalist, and so that really served me well. And I actually developed the proposal for the book while I was on a fellowship at the Columbia School of Journalism. And so it really was a product of that environment and my training where I was looking for the answer to that question, how did this happen? How did our family become so far flung and so scattered all over the world? And how did that happen to the entire Indian diaspora? And so in order to answer that question I really needed to do research because we had a lot of stories within the family, like your grandfather wanted to go to Fiji, so he went. But then that didn’t of course take into account the huge historical social economic forces that made certain countries open to Indian immigrants at certain times and closed at other times.

Cathy Hannabach (04:34):

So this is obviously a memoir and it’s perhaps the book that you’re most well known for. But you write in a ton of different genres. You’re a poet, you obviously wrote this memoir, you have written a number of nonfiction essays, articles, blog posts, you kind of run the gamut. And I’m curious what it’s like to move across those different genres.

Minal Hajratwala (04:56):

I am a poet at heart. So I started as a poet and I have always written poetry and published here and there in journals and so on for many years. And, but I also have this journalistic side of me. And I actually feel like leaving India became a kind of confluence of those two voices where the journalistic tools served me very well in the research. And then the poetic voice came in, in terms of being able to create a story that had a lyrical quality and certain imagistic moments. So it’s not an experimental book in any way, but I do feel like both sides of my writing life came together in that book for the first time to create this particular nonfiction voice, a creative nonfiction voice for that.

Minal Hajratwala (05:48):

And I find that I really seek out the voice that is right for the thing that I want to say in the moment. So for many years I actually had tried to write poems about my family. Some of those are actually wrapped into the text. You wouldn’t recognize them because the line breaks have been taken out. But they do form a kind of what I think of as the emotional spine of that book. But really poems individually for me turned out not to be big enough to hold the epic scope of the story I wanted to tell. So that’s why I had to seek out the nonfiction form for that.

Cathy Hannabach (06:27):

That’s fascinating. So if poetry lets you get at certain questions or express certain ideas, and creative nonfiction or more kind of long-form work lets you get at other ideas, what is that, right?

Minal Hajratwala (06:42):

What is that? That’s the big question.

Cathy Hannabach (06:46):

No, I think it’s fascinating, right? So what issues or topics or maybe feelings or affects does poetry let you explore that say a memoir doesn’t?

Minal Hajratwala (06:57):

For me, I think that any form can be pushed to its limits and stretched in to address anything. Certainly people have written amazing epics about their families in poetic form. For example, I think about a book called, Does Your House Have Lions by Sonia Sanchez where she really writes the epic of her family and in particular her brother’s death of AIDS through a very tight, formal poetic style. But, so it’s certainly possible. I think for me, it’s really the experience of kind of obsessing about and muddling along on a topic until it has the right fit.

Minal Hajratwala (07:45):

So for example, I had an essay published with Granta last year called, A Brief Guide to Gender in India. And I had lived in India before … I had just moved to Los Angeles. And before that I’ve lived in India for six years. And pretty much from the day that I arrived in India, the topic of gender was front and center for me as it is for many Indians. And so I was puzzling, puzzling, writing little bits and scraps and so on. And then somehow this particular form came to me to write it as an instructional manual. And that freed me up to say a lot of the things that had been sort of pent up and not expressed. So for me, sometimes there’s a cycle between having a creative block or something about a topic, and really just letting it ripen, ripen, ripen until the right form comes out.

Cathy Hannabach (08:43):

The form of a manual makes me think of Kate Bornstein’s fantastic book, My Gender Workbook, right?

Minal Hajratwala (08:49):


Cathy Hannabach (08:50):

Where it really is designed like a workbook with fill-in-the-blank here, almost kind of madlibby type exercises where you answer the questions yourself, right? But it’s also in the form of a workbook. It’s a theoretical analysis of how gender works. So it’s an interesting connection there.

Minal Hajratwala (09:09):

I love Kate Bornstein’s work. And when I was an undergraduate many, many moons ago she came to our campus and did a production of her play, which was called Hidden Gender. And she was actually one of the first people who flirted with me. And so I was very young and stammered a lot and didn’t know at all what to do.

Cathy Hannabach (09:36):

So your newest book that came out fairly recently is a book of poetry called, Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment. And it was recently published by the Great Indian Poetry Collective of which you are a founding member. Is that also written in instruction form or is that just the title?

Minal Hajratwala (09:57):

parts of it are. The title is a line from one of the poems, which is really about sort of the apocalyptic state of America.

Cathy Hannabach (10:10):

Appropriate going into the election season.

Minal Hajratwala (10:13):

And so it’s an ironic line in which one of the things that is kind of a sign of the apocalypse is that we have bountiful instructions for enlightenment everywhere. And everybody thinks that they know or is at least selling themselves as if they know. So the book … But parts of the book, yes, are in that kind of instructional form. Some parts are list poems, there are dialogues. So there’s a poem that’s a dialogue between Lady Gaga and Cassandra of Troy where they talk about fame and suicide and prophecy.

Minal Hajratwala (10:48):

And then there’s another poem that is a dialogue between Achilles and Arjuna who is the hero of the Mahabharat, the great Indian epic. And they are veterans of their respective wars and they’re suffering from PTSD. And they’re talking about the tragedy of war and how they were misled by the gods and goddesses into fighting wars that they didn’t want to fight. So yeah, I had a lot of fun with the book and the book consisted of poems that have been written over a long period of years. And it was a lot of fun to put them together.

Cathy Hannabach (11:26):

So tell me about the poetry collective. You co-founded this with some awesome folks and you’re publishing some really amazing work. What’s it like to run that?

Minal Hajratwala (11:36):

It’s amazing. So my co-collaborators are [inaudible 00:11:40] and Ellen [inaudible 00:11:43]. And we all met when we all lived in Bangalore a few years ago at a literary festival. And we realized that we were all passionate about poetry. We were living in India, there were a lot of amazing poets around us. And we decided to start this press, and we decided to experiment first with our own books to learn the publishing process beginning to end, starting with how to decide which poems go in the manuscript. And how to make them really good with each other by work-shopping, and all the way down to what paper do you print on, and who’s the printer? And how do you decide how many copies to sell? So all the business end and working with artists for the covers. So we really experimented and learned our … Cut our teeth on our first three books by each of us.

Minal Hajratwala (12:36):

And then we created a manuscript contest, which is free every year. And we usually get about a hundred submissions from poets all over the world of Indian origin or with a connection to India. And a good chunk of those are poets in India itself. And then we have a guest judge who chooses manuscripts for us, and we also choose some ourselves. And we’ve been publishing three books a year. So that’s been really exciting and there is such a huge wealth of talent in India, so it’s been really beautiful to be able to bring out works by other contemporary poets.

Minal Hajratwala (13:19):

And we just have a new book that’s about to launch in October called Slow Startle by a young poet named Rohan Chhetri who is of Nepali and Indian origin. And it’s a beautiful book. And Mary Carr, who’s one of his mentors has written a blurb for it. And so it’s really exciting to learn about the whole business of publishing, and it’s very empowering also as a writer to not feel like we have to just sort of be beggars at the door knocking on the house of publishing and hoping that someone will throw us a crumb, but to actually take control and understand how it works from the other side too.

Cathy Hannabach (14:03):

Nice. So in addition to being a writer and a publisher yourself, you also teach other people how to write and how to publish their work. In your practice as a writing coach and through the writing courses that you teach, how did you come to do that work? [inaudible 00:14:21] about it? What made you turn to basically helping other people do this thing that you love doing yourself?

Minal Hajratwala (14:29):

So when In Leaving India came out, I started getting messages from other writers, some friends and some people I didn’t know, asking if I could help with their books. And so of course I did try to help when I could and then I realized I would actually … I’m really enjoying this and I would like to be able to make this more of what I do, and maybe there’s a livelihood in this for me. I had been teaching a little bit of occasional writing workshops and so on, and really learned a lot from that. So I started coaching and then as I was coaching, which was wonderful because I really loved working with writers. And in the process of writing, Leaving India, I was very blocked. So it took me about seven years to write that book, much of which was spent agonizing and also discovering a lot of different ways around my writing block brain.

Minal Hajratwala (15:26):

So I realized I actually had a lot of knowledge about how to approach it and what comes up in the writing process. As you know, and as your listeners know, writing is so hard and so many things can come up that I think we all just can use every bit of help we get.

Cathy Hannabach (15:46):


Minal Hajratwala (15:46):

And I ended up really being able to write my book because of a writing coach named Susan Griffin who of course is a very well known writer herself. And she really helped me and held my hand and gave me tissues and so on through the writing to really figure out how to write what I was trying to write with Leaving India. And so it felt really great to be able to share that with other people. And in particular, I found that writers of color and queer writers were not finding the help that they needed and that I wanted to really make that accessible.

Minal Hajratwala (16:27):

After some time of coaching, I also realized that a lot of the things that come up in coaching are shared experiences. It’s not really one person’s pathology in any way. It’s that there are tools that we’ve never been taught that we can use. And so then I started teaching online classes, which was great because by that time I was living in India, and I could work with people all over the world through the classes at a more affordable rate than what the one-on-one coaching would be. So it kind of organically developed and it’s been beautiful. I’m so proud of all the writers I work with. And it’s always so gratifying when someone’s like, “Oh, I got my book contract, I signed with my agent, I’m sending you my book. Now it’s out.” All those great milestones that we can celebrate together.

Cathy Hannabach (17:19):

You have a course coming up in September, right?

Minal Hajratwala (17:22):

Yes. I have a course coming up called Blueprint Your Book, and it is open now for enrollment. And it is really, it’s six weeks. It’s intense, and it’s really everything you need to know about structure. Because what I found was that structure was the big puzzle of writing my book. And for a lot of writers, even people who come out of MFA programs for example, we are really good. We learn about description, we learn about character, we learn about the language and making language beautiful. Or maybe people who are writing PhD dissertations or books out of their dissertations, you learn about the material, you’re really an expert in your material. But then how do you string that together in a compelling way where you structure things so that someone can enter into and follow along with the story or the series of thoughts that you’ve come to love and care about.

Minal Hajratwala (18:24):

And so that’s what Blueprint Your Book is about. And each week we take on one topic. So we start with time, and we work through a bunch of exercises and ideas of how to structure time. Really starting with at what moment does your book begin? At what moment does it end? What’s the time period you cover? What are the key events in that timeline, and how are they related? What is the cause and effect between them? So week one is time, then we work on place. Then we look at character, at narrative tension, which for a fiction writer is plot, for a nonfiction writer is usually a question that needs to be answered by the end of the book. And we work on an action plan.

Cathy Hannabach (19:10):

Wow, that sounds really thorough and fantastic.

Minal Hajratwala (19:12):

Oh, and theme. I missed one, theme. We work on theme. Yeah, so usually people … Oh sorry, go ahead.

Cathy Hannabach (19:21):

No, I was going to say, I’ll be sure to put links to this in the show notes so folks can sign up if they want to.

Minal Hajratwala (19:26):

Oh sure. I’ll send you the links. Great. And usually people come out of it with a really clear plan of what it’s going to take to finish the book. And also I find that people tell me years later, “Oh, I’m still using my notes.” Or, “I’m using my notes for my second book now.” From the class.

Cathy Hannabach (19:50):

That’s the best news. That’s what we want to hear, right?

Minal Hajratwala (19:52):

I know. Isn’t it so gratifying as a teacher when someone remembers you?

Cathy Hannabach (19:56):

Exactly. So I’m curious how you see your work combining art activism and academia in the service of social justice?

Minal Hajratwala (20:10):

Well, I am deeply and profoundly committed to bringing the stories that need to be told into the world. That’s what I care about the most. And I feel like there are a lot of different ways that people can do that. But for me, one of those ways has become really working directly with writers to tell stories, especially stories that are really untold stories that are really missing from the mainstream narratives that are just urgently needed. And I think we’re in this period of time where we can see as [inaudible 00:20:50] said in her talk, which has been really well-circulated, the danger of a single story. We’re right here in the middle of election season, which is all about competing narratives, and we’re seeing all these sort of false stories and false prophecies flying around. And missing in that are a certain set of voices that just somehow never seem to get the traction.

Minal Hajratwala (21:16):

And so what I feel like my work is about is, how do we as writers who are considered sometimes to be from the margins, but who actually make up the majority, how do we put our stories front and center first in the process of writing? How do we make sure we’re writing what we really want to write and not compromising ourselves, right? Not trying to adhere to some standard that is not our own. Then in the process of editing and revision, how do we make our material the best, the shiniest, the most true version of itself? And then in the process of publishing, how do we empower ourselves to either learn what we need to learn about writing book proposals, for example. So I have a class for that. Or how do we learn what we need to know about pitching our work outwards? Or how do we do what we need to do to take the reins ourselves and become editors, become publishers?

Cathy Hannabach (22:18):

Nice. So I want to take a turn here and talk about unicorns.

Minal Hajratwala (22:23):


Cathy Hannabach (22:24):

Because I know that this is a big figure for you in your writing coaching, your work broadly, it’s all over your website, it’s all over your social media. So why unicorns? What does this animal do for you?

Minal Hajratwala (22:38):

Well, it’s a question about whether it’s an animal or not.

Cathy Hannabach (22:41):

Oh, I’m sorry. Okay. What does this figure do for you?

Minal Hajratwala (22:43):

But I think a unicorn is fine with being identified as an animal, although it’s perhaps much more. So let’s see where to start with this. So I work under the kind of motto, write like a unicorn. And a lot of the writers who work with me are very excited to be identified as unicorns. And that again for me gets to the idea that we, each of us have a really unique, magical voice. And that there’s no need for us to all sound like each other or think like each other. And in fact, our voices are so much more powerful if they’re really true to who we are. So, that’s one aspect of it. The other is that, so after I finished writing, Leaving India, I was sort of hugely relieved to be done with this very difficult project and also terrified of starting another project.

Minal Hajratwala (23:41):

And so I did what any queer person in San Francisco would have done at the time, which is I went to a tarot reader who gave me a tarot reading and they told me that my reading was incredibly consistent across all these 13 cards in every house of the whatever, the whatever that I needed to do the magical work. And I was like, what the heck is that? And so I started thinking about what was magical to me at different points in my life? And I ended up writing a series of poems about unicorns, and shared those with some writers at Hedgebrook because I was at Hedgebrook on a writing residency a little bit later. And I thought, I have these eight or 10 poems, it’s a nice little sequence. And the other writers were fantastic and they were like, oh no, you’re not done because we have all these questions.

Minal Hajratwala (24:36):

You need to go and do some unicorn research because we want to know all these things. And so then I went in and Hedgebrook is this beautiful writing residency off the coast of Washington state and there’s no internet except in one little cabin in the middle of the woods. And so I went to the little cabin in the night and started Googling. And I looked up all kinds of things like unicorns and sex unicorns and technology, et cetera. And eventually I looked up unicorns in India, and I was shocked because it turns out that the oldest unicorn images in the world are actually from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which lived 5000 years ago on the India, Pakistan border. So then it really became a calling and I started working on a whole sequence of what has ended up becoming fake translations of the language of that civilization, which has never been translated or decoded.

Cathy Hannabach (25:41):

Wow. It reminds me a lot … So the Idea’s On Fire, which is the producer of this podcast, one of our team members, Terry Park is similarly obsessed with unicorns.

Minal Hajratwala (25:54):

Oh, we should meet.

Cathy Hannabach (25:57):

You should totally meet. I think you guys would have a lot to talk about. You both have that kind of performative aspect to the work that you do. You both certainly have an artistic aspect to it and you both draw inspiration from unicorns in both, so you should totally chat.

Minal Hajratwala (26:12):

I think unicorns are a thing that has been really misunderstood. They’ve become this kind of pink, plush marketing ploy for small girls in America. But they have a really complex and interesting history.

Cathy Hannabach (26:32):

So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests and this podcasts is called Imagine Otherwise. And the purpose behind it is to basically talk to really awesome folks who are creating things in the service of a better world, whatever that better world means to them. And I get to ask them, and this is really the entire impetus behind this is that I wanted to gather people and ask them this question. I just decided to put it on air.

Minal Hajratwala (27:00):


Cathy Hannabach (27:01):

What’s that world that you’re working towards when you write your poetry, when you coach your clients, when you write big memoirs and do research on them, what’s that world that you’re working towards? What’s the world that you want?

Minal Hajratwala (27:15):

I have a poem called Unicorns For Dummies. And in that poem I talk about how in the unicorn world actually there are no dummies. Every story is important and specific and beautiful. And to me, I think that is part of it, that that unicorn country is available to all of us and that we just have to step toward it, to move toward it. And that when we do that individually, then we also create a collective world in which that is possible for everyone else. And so maybe I can just read a few lines of the end of the poem.

Cathy Hannabach (28:11):

Yes, please do.

Minal Hajratwala (28:12):

So in the poem the person is kind of on this pilgrimage toward some imaginary country. So then the unicorn says to the person, “Despite your parched lips, despite the thorns and termite wounds in your thighs, don’t be grim, for you have to believe in the beast. It’s fabled horn. But most of all in the tender bead within you. Bead of blood and rice, bead of light, swelling fourth, bead of horse sweat and sea in which the world is refracted and the cliffs fall away. And everyone you were gives way to who you will be.”

Minal Hajratwala (29:03):

So I imagine a world of possibility, of infinite possibility. And maybe that seems naive in our times, but on the other hand I also am hugely inspired by other people who see that possibility. And one of the movements that I feel really demonstrates that in a remarkable way right now is the black lives matter movement where there is this way that has existed in America for hundreds of years, which is that black people can be shot and killed at any time by the authorities. And these three women who founded the movement have imagined that that doesn’t have to be our reality. That we can work toward a different reality. And they’ve put out this amazing strategy for how we move toward that.

Cathy Hannabach (30:01):

I think that’s a fantastic place to end on. So thank you so much for being with us.

Minal Hajratwala (30:08):

Thank you Cathy. And I’m so delighted to be part of the Imagine Otherwise world.

Cathy Hannabach (30:17):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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