Writers On Writing / Zoya Patel on the joys of the essay form


“It allowed me to be more interrogative and a little more experimental with things like timelines and sequencing. Now I just can’t seem to stop writing essays, it’s the most enjoyable form of writing for me by far!”


What draws you to the form of essays and creative nonfiction?

I didn’t always see myself as a non-fiction writer, and certainly not as an essay writer. But I really enjoyed reading the form, especially in books like Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright, and No Way! Okay, Fine by Brodie Lancaster. When I set out to write about race and feminism (the main topics explored in No Country Woman, I found myself gravitating to the essay format, after trying to write narrative memoir. It allowed me to be more interrogative and a little more experimental with things like timelines and sequencing. Now I just can’t seem to stop writing essays, it’s the most enjoyable form of writing for me by far! (Though I do have a novel coming out next year, so I dabble in other forms!). 

No Country Woman is made up of memoir essays. What are the challenges of sharing such personal experiences and observations to the public? 

Being a millennial, I don’t find it too challenging to share personal experience publicly in a general sense – we’ve been publishing our every thought online since I was in my early teens, albeit to much smaller audiences than young people today.

But writing about race made me feel very vulnerable, because whenever I’ve explored my experiences of racism in my writing in the past, I’ve been met with criticism and ridicule by readers through comments. Writing a book felt both safer and scarier – safer because there wasn’t the immediate avenue for feedback, but scarier because the avenues that did exist for feedback are more public, like reviews. It’s hard when you’ve experienced prejudice or discrimination to put yourself out there with vulnerability, knowing it might backfire. 

Which writers are you obsessed with at the moment?

So many! I love Sarah Krasnostein, and am devouring her latest book, The Believer. I’m a big fan of Cheryl Strayed, whose non-fiction is just stunning, and who shares beautiful insights about life and humanity. But I also love the writers that really shaped the way I think and read, like Virginia Woolf, who I return to a lot!

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Zoya Patel is the award-winning author of No Country Woman, a memoir of race, religion and feminism. She is also the founder of feminist literary organisation, Feminartsy and co-host of the Margin Notes podcast alongside Yen Eriksen.

Zoya has won numerous awards for her writing and editing, and has been published widely, including in The Guardian, the Australian Financial Review, ABC, SBS, Junkee, Overland, Meanjin, Sydney Morning Herald and more. She was a 2020 judge for the Stella Prize, and is the Chair of the 2021 Stella Prize Judging Panel.

Join Zoya Patel for her online feedback course for essays and non-fiction, 5 July to 26 November. Enrol here >>

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