by Dr. Sanaz Fotouhi
Despite some resistance from my banker father to do a ‘practical’ degree—I am sure he is not the first or the last person to advise so—I decided adamantly that I wanted to study English Literature, to be a writer, and to teach literature at a university.
Without much choice as to where I was going—my expat parents were not letting me go any further from them than we were already from home—I enrolled at HKU and, oddly at a time when English was not really heard around campus, I delved deeply into dedicating myself to this study.
I was of the lucky generation who had the opportunity to study literature in the Old Main Building, sitting by the so-called haunted pond reading poetry, and running in and out of the rooms with the squeaky doors to sink myself passionately into learning creative writing from Dr. Page Richards and Professor Shirley Lim. I learned with great enthusiasm about modernism and post-colonial literatures from Professors Douglas Kerr and Elaine Ho.
For me studying literature was not studying—it was pure joy, pure ecstasy. While my friends in other departments were making sure to take the right steps for their careers, I carelessly delved into reading, writing and doing what I loved. I wanted to be a writer and to teach literature in a university. That was my path and that was the education I needed.
But it was not so easy. As they say—make plans and the gods will laugh at you.
I did end up doing what I love, but not exactly how I had planned it.
After I did my BA, I went to do an MPhil at HKU. Eventually, life took me to Australia where I enrolled in PhD program that took me six years to finish, not because I slacked off or did not love my topic but because during this time, I founded and directed a film festival, co-produced two films in Afghanistan, moved cities, moved houses three times, and travelled numerous times, not to mention dealing with everyday life.
Yet, by the end of it, I had not managed to get one teaching opportunity! Not a single university around Australia found it in their hearts to give me even a single tutorial space. Although I did publish a book from my PhD, and published over ten articles, lack of teaching was a problem.
Four years after the PhD, I found myself still without a teaching job. It was a frustrating period, to say the least. But I had refused to give up my passion and continued to write during this time. I finished a novel, wrote creative nonfiction about my experiences in Afghanistan, and still kept applying for teaching jobs around the world, competing sometimes with as many as two hundred people for a single position.
People thought I was crazy. Apply for a normal job. Go do an admin job 9-5, they said. Become a secretary. Do something like a normal person would. You have so much management experience, they said. I refused. I lived on working part-time in retail, made odd money writing articles, and knew that one day I would make my dream come true.
I wanted to be a writer and work in a university.
But the academic world did not want me and it seemed that the universe had other plans. After spending time writing enough university job applications to equal another novel, and after hearing horror stories of the shifting world of academia, I gave up wanting to be part of it. Maybe I was not meant to be based in a university.
And then it happened. As soon as I let go, a fantastic opportunity presented itself to me.
By coincidence, a friend at Monash University introduced me to Jane Camens, an Australian writer who had founded and had been running—out of HK, coincidentally the same time I had lived there—an organization called Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT). And she was looking to hand over the baton to someone else after a decade of its management.
APWT is a literary networking organization that brings together writers, poets, translators, editors, agents, and anyone who is interested in the literary field in an annual gathering. Each year the event is held in a different country in the region—exotic locations such as Manila, Macau, Bali, etc – and some 150 people from around the world attend to network, launch their books, run workshops, and present their work.
I found myself at home. I knew then that this is what the universe had planned for me.
I was a writer—I considered myself a writer by then—and had five years of admin experience through the Persian Film Festival. And more importantly I loved to surround myself with like-minded people who take the risk of sharing their passion through their written work.
Jane took me on, and I shadowed her for a year. In November I took over as the General Manager of APWT during our annual general meeting in China.
Now, I am in the midst of organizing the APWT ConFest in Bali in October 2017.
I believe, without a doubt, that I have the best job in the world for me. I write, travel, read, and communicate on daily basis with creative people I admire—some becoming good friends.
The moral, if there is any to be had, is this: keep dreaming. To whomever has told you an English degree is useless, I would say, any degree is useless. How many people do you know who have put their useful degrees to good use, unless they are very specialized? I believe it is not about what degree you complete. It is actually about the amount of passion and dedication you devote, and about not giving up when everyone around you thinks you should.
The School of English is working to reinvigorate active connections with our Alumni. We invite you to drop us a quick line—tell us where your English Studies degree has taken you! And if you’d like to share your experiences with fellow Alumni and current students, we’d love to help make that happen. Please contact us at email@example.com about contributing an article.