She appeared to me out of nowhere.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances – I might have been on a bus, or it might have been a dream. All I know is she popped into my head and didn’t leave.
A woman with black hair staring out unto the ocean.
For a year, I carried her around in my head.
One summer, after she arrived, I was hanging out with a friend. We were talking about writing, and I decided to tell her about this mysterious woman. When my friend asked what the story was, I gave an entire spiel about where this person lived and what was going on around her. I didn’t know it then, but what I described was the central plot for Saltwater Spirits.
When the same friend suggested I try a writing exercise, I brushed her off immediately. I was always a writer — an avid journaler, a political essayist perhaps. I even flirted with poetry and stand-up comedy a few times. But fiction? No way! Fiction was untouchable. I read fiction voraciously but never understood the kind of person wrote fiction. All I knew was that person wasn’t me.
Later that summer, I told my counselor that I wanted to pursue writing.
“I think I want to write.” Those were the exact words I used.
She recommended a book called The Artist Way, and I religiously followed the steps outlined in that book, searching for some divine corroboration from The Universe, that I could indeed, do this. That I was not crazy – only prone to bouts of anxiety and depression, both old friends.
One day, when I was talking to a friend who was pursuing her own goals in music, I divulged my big secret with this woman in my head. As I spoke to her, more aspects of the story shifted into focus. That’s when I knew I couldn’t put this off any longer. I had to right write things.
I decided to sit down and listen to what this mysterious woman had to say.
When I finally put pen to page, her story flowed out of me. I didn’t know much, but I knew some things. She was young. She was Malay and Muslim like I was. She lived in a village close to the water, and someone was trying to take that away. I didn’t know what to name her, so I designated a placeholder name.
Norma. My Nenek’s name. The name of my maternal grandmother.
When I continued writing her story, I couldn’t bring myself to change the name. It was the right name for this person.
“A good, strong name,” as one of my characters remark at one point in the book. Funny enough, that character shares the same name as my paternal grandmother, Jannah.
It took me 6 months to finish the first draft. If only I had known that was the beginning.