My guest, today, is Sapna Anu George. We met through Write Tribe, but really discovered our common interests once we started talking about freelance writing, family, and cookbooks.
How did you first become a journalist and freelance writer?
Sapna Anu George was exposed to language and words from a young age. Her grandfather worked for a leading newspaper in Kerala, and he kept important clips of news and events in his home. For Sapna, reading and writing were as natural as breathing. “A bunch of uncles who discussed and shared the books they read was an added incentive and helped preserve the habit of reading. I often heard them mention an aunt who had passed away in the late 1950s – a writer who dedicated her life to language and writing. I managed to find her novel, Nadinte Makkal, in Kerala Sahithaya Academy (Kerala Literary Society). It was published in 1950.”
Sapna’s voracious reading habits were encouraged by her father. “My dad discussed with me the books he read, and suggested good authors to me. I did my Masters in English Literature. This was a wider door to poetry, literature, and variations of language. Since then, I would scribble poetry inspired by my moods, about love, about friends, about the things that interested me. Through poetry, I expressed my thoughts and feelings well, but these remained hidden between the leaves of my notepads in college. I never lost them, and about 25 years later, in 2009 I first published my collection of poetry in Malayalam called “Swapnangal” which means dreams. Later, in 2012, I published my second book, a collection of poetry in English called, Songs of the Soul. And the latest book was in 2013, a collection of my articles in all regional newspapers and online portals in Malayalam called “Swapnarekhakal”. At present my cookbook in about to be launched by a leading publisher in India.
“My life after marriage took quite a turn; we moved across the sea to Qatar. Journalism, here, was a controlled and underdeveloped area, yet I was asked to write for the supplements that are brought out by Indian newspapers for special occasions like Christmas and Onam. The Indian newspapers needed a local who understood society and current trends. Later, I was asked to do a column in a local language, Malayalam, for one of the leading newspapers in Kerala. That was later syndicated to many other newspapers and magazines. But the added advantage was my comfort with both English and Malayalam. I write in both languages.” We are based in Muscat, the Gulf of Oman and here I still continue to freelance and write for Indian newspapers, as well.
How did you balance family and career?
“I never mixed the two. I could manage a balance, although there must be support from the family and I was blessed to have that. My kids’ awareness of my writing grew, as they did, so I am sure they have had their proud moments.”
As a journalist, what sort of stories interest you most? Are there any topics you’ve specialized in over the past 15 years, or will you tackle just about any assignment that comes your way?
“I mostly wrote about home and social issues, and about friends who excelled at something. For Home, I covered subjects like, ‘what are the hazards and advantages of being a housewife?’ and I wrote about women who have been successful in creating a home-based business. Social issues like bar dancers in the Gulf region, growing your own vegetables, and making fertilizers and pesticides with ingredients found in your kitchen. I like to write about any subjects that are socially important, including those things we easily avoid and think that are not important. In a Bahrain newspaper, I write a weekly column only on “women” called “swpnadanam”. Subjects are women at any phase of life, from housemaids to writers to dancers—to anyone who provides valuable resources to society or to their own families.
“Yes, there are advantages to being a freelancer, to choosing your own subjects and setting your own timeframes. I would also accept work that’s related to language: translations! But my work and concentration always been on being freelancer, and journalism is an honest effort to bring people and society face to face with unique subjects they otherwise not notice. Right now, I write three newspaper columns for Indian and US newspapers and two food columns on weekly basis.”
You mentioned that you are also in the midst of a shift from journalism to writing short stories and poetry. What’s prompted this change – what is it about fiction and poetry that makes you want to write it?
“Jotting down poetry was my first experience with expressing emotions through my writing. I was not sure how and where to share these expressions until I came across blogging. I have since published two books of poetry, one in Malayalam, swapnangal, and one in English, Songs of the Soul.
“I have been experimenting with short stories. I write one if I come across a picture that inspires me with incidents or milestones in life, like meeting a classmate, or first rain for the season or an alumni meeting of preschoolers! Anything and everything can inspire me to write a short story. Keeping a diary was a habit my daddy has inspired in me from a very early age. I saved many incidents from my life in those diary pages, which someday I hope to write as autobiography or a novel.”
What made you decide to write a cookbook, Sapna?
“Food and cooking have been an interesting part of my life. I used to write column in a U.S.- based portal called ‘pachakam’ which in English means cooking. Eventually I began to answer readers’ questions on food and cooking. Later, I started another column in Malayalam. For these columns, I used to take step-by-step snapshots whenever I cooked at home. In fact, my niece, who is married to an Italian, suggested that I write a book on Kerala cuisine, with the recipes her grandmother and mother cook—food that she is she missing in her in-laws’ home. Following her line of thought the concept of a cookbook filled with the recipes that my daughter might miss while she’s in college, and when she moves away from home, was formed. The cookbook is done, now, and is being published by an Indian publisher called DC Books.”
My mother compiled a cookbook, many years ago. I’ve toyed with the idea of updating it and republishing it. You mentioned that you were writing yours for your daughter, presumably to share some family favorites passed down to you by your mother and grandmother. Do you think that this intergenerational connection is at least as important as the food itself?
“Yes, 101 %! This cookbook is a mix of tradition and memories that I am leaving for my daughter in print. It is also for kids of her generation who might miss their mother’s food and the tastes they grew up with. The recipes in my book are those that are found cooking in an everyday Kerala home—nothing new or unknown to anyone from Kerala’s cultural background. Yet I have gone a couple of steps further and separated recipes as vegetarian, non-vegetarian, pickles, sweets, and curries from Christian, Hindu, and Muslim families. An added new trend of backwater recipes which are those cooked with fish and non-vegetarian ingredients, fresh from water and land. I am leaving a tradition, culture, and specialties that I was taught by my own mother and my grandmothers and my mother-in-law in this book. No more 2nd editions of another cook, this is going to be only one, yet an English version is already in process.”
How do you test your recipes? Do you get your daughter to make them, and see if they turn out “just like her mom used to make”?
“I always cook and take my own photos, but mind you, I am no professional! Always been a photo junkie starting from my Sony auto focus to my current camera Cannon 550 D and Note 5 phone too. Every recipe in the book and in my columns is tested and photographed by me.
“Some of the recipes, my daughter herself has tried with great success, even impressing her grandmother. My daughter is a final year Law student and stays with her grandmother who’s half British by birth, which is again a training period for her as well.”
What’s the cookbook called? Do you have a launch date for it, yet?
“Right now, the book is in the regional language Malayalam and its soon going to be in English too. The cookbook is called Ruchikalude Swapnakoottukal (the dream combination of ingredients). There is my implication of my name in almost all the books that I write, whether its poetry or my own article collection or a cookbook. The book work is over, the launch date is not decided yet.”
I am looking forward to the book’s launch, Sapna, and wish you great success! I’m sure that your daughter, and other young people leaving home for the first time, will appreciate all the love and effort you’ve put into bringing it into being.
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