Misha Rai Wins Woodrow Wilson Women's Studies Fellowship

mrai.jpgWhen Misha Rai was a teenager, at an all-girls boarding school in India, she and her friends would secretly smuggle and read romance novels despite them being banned by the nuns. A combination of her clandestine love for this type of writing and her other literary obsession, detective novels, resulted in a very odd early ambition.

"For a long time I wanted to be a swooning heroine who was always shinning her ankles and knees as she went about detecting things," Rai says.

In addition to being inspired by fictional tales, Rai had real-life experiences to influence her imagination. Her father worked in law enforcement as an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, and Rai and her brother would snoop and eavesdrop on dinners their father hosted, listening to him and his friends swap stories of work.

Now a doctoral student in creative writing at Florida State University, Rai is working on her first novel, Blood We Did Not Spill, as part of her final year of dissertation writing, and a part of the story focuses on the experiences of a female IPS officer. In fact, she says the book "in its preliminary conception was meant to be a literary romance that mirrored some of what I read in my teenage years. The novel definitely has elements of that but it is also a historical novel and a political novel and of course, a detective novel."

Because of the groundbreaking work she has already done on Blood We Did Not Spill, Rai is a 2016 recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Women's Studies Fellowship. She is the first-ever fiction doctoral student to win this fellowship in the 42 years the fellowship has been given.

The fellowship supports the final year of dissertation writing for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences whose work addresses women's and gendered issues in interdisciplinary and original ways. A financial award of $5,000 given to each fellow is for expenses such as research-related travel, data work or collection, and supplies connected with completing their dissertations. In addition, their dissertation titles are publicized with leading publishers at the conclusion of the dissertation year.

Rai has already used some of the money to complete research work for her novel. During the months of April and May in 2016, she spent five weeks in India, where she interviewed female IPS officers. These women stood out, Rai says, because they were pioneers, in either the kind of work they had done or were doing or due to the positions they held in the police force. Apart from her interviews, Rai is also incorporating in her novel tidbits of conversations and stories she overheard as a child.

"Much of the history of the female police officer in the novel is a culmination of these half-remembered, half-heard stories in my childhood," Rai says. "It's the same for other characters too, like the dacoits - bandits - in the novel. They are based on men my father investigated and caught. In fact, there is one scene that endeavours to mirrors reality completely."

Rai visited a number of prisons in India, specifically touring the prison her novel is partly set in. The jailor answered all her questions as hypothetical and improbable as some of them likely sounded, Rai says. He also let Rai speak with members of his staff as well as provided another crucial opportunity for information gathering.

"What could be considered as the icing on my novel's cake was being able to specifically talk to prisoners who were in for long stretches," Rai says. "The things they told me helped make the novel stronger. Even a small detail about how they arranged themselves to sleep now as opposed to when they first came to prison helped."

The experience was surprising for Rai because she found that she was not far off in what she believed to be true of the lives of policewomen and prisoners, even if some details were incorrect.

"There again, conversations, interviews, and archival research helped strengthen the authenticity of my novel, which would have been impossible without the support of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation," she says.

When Rai found out that not only was she one of the recipients of this years' fellowship but also the first-ever fiction doctoral student to earn the honor, she went through a rollercoaster of emotions.

"Shock. Disbelief. Elation. Disbelief. Shock," Rai says, listing the emotions. "[Then] relief at finally having the worth of my project and novel recognized. Often it had felt that for four years I'd been writing in some dark corner and the world at large cared little for what I was doing, so there was mental and literal fist pumping involved."

Still it wasn't until after the foundation's official announcement, which Rai says, "exhilarated and terrified" her, that she finally set aside any fears she had of the foundation having made a mistake.

"I was convinced that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation would soon email to let me know that they had meant to email another Misha Rai whose project was truly brilliant but had accidentally sent it to me," Rai says. "When time passed and that didn't happen, I just felt unbelievably humbled, grateful, and lucky for what winning this fellowship specifically said about my novel - quality of research, originality of subject matter, ingenuity of plot, etc. - and the positive impact it will have on my career in general."

Rai's work as an undergraduate and graduate student paved the way for the work she is doing now at FSU. When she was earning a bachelor's degree in journalism from University of Delhi, she worked as a trainee reporter for a national newspaper, where her love for research and fact checking was born. She also has two master's degrees, one in globalization and communication from University of Leicester and one with a concentration in fiction from Bowling Green State University.

"I worked for about five to six years between my two master's degrees and it was the nature of my work - human rights policy based - and the places it took me to that really informed the protagonists and backdrop of the novel," she says.

Rai also has experience writing blog posts for The Missouri Review, a journal, she says, that is open to diverse ideas. Her contributions include a craft essay about Taiye Selasi's short story "The Sex Life of African Girls" and a post structured as a letter to her parents about the month she spent researching her novel at London's British Library, where Rai made a discovery about her paternal great-grandfather.

Rai's current work as fiction editor at FSU's nationally recognized literary journal The Southeast Review focuses on finding and publishing writers' works that are unique and different not only in content, structure, setting, and prose style but also from each other and from what has been published in the journal before. Rai says, recently the journal has published reimagined fairytales, historical fiction, and speculative fiction in their issues.

"Apart from wanting our readers to make a very real connection to the work we publish, whether or not the stories relate to their lives, I also want them to be surprised, and hopefully impressed, by the work we choose," Rai says, adding that an editor's job is one of the best she could ask for. "When a story makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, I get to email a writer with the good news - We want your story. We want it, please. And what could be more satisfying than that?"

Rai mentioned numerous professors who have been instrumental to her work at FSU, but says she has to begin with Bob Shacochis, writer-in-residence for the English department's creative writing program.

"At the right moment, he really kicked my arse - or my novel's arse - and his criticism changed the structure and to some extent the content of my novel," she says. "He has been incredibly encouraging, kind, and generous with providing both feedback and mentorship."

Diane Roberts's book Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America has inspired Rai and she says Roberts herself "has been such a cheerleader of my work." Roberts is the head of Rai's Ph.D. committee, and she "has kindly put up with all my various requests, long solicited and last minute as they have been."

Professors Jerrilyn McGregory, Virgil Suarez, and Robert Olen Butler all made contributions to Rai's success as a writer.

"I remember explaining the plot to Dr. McGregory, and when something was not clearly thought out or was put in the story for superficial reasons, she questioned that choice. She really saved me from making quite a few gaffes," Rai says.

Suarez, she says, calmed her skittishness about her work, and Butler taught her to put a lot of thought into the novel's first 500 words. Butler also brought his book agent to campus, and the notes Rai received from him helped her look at the novel differently. Also the workshop of Mark Winegardner helped Rai.

"His was one of the last workshops I took at FSU and his take on how to make fiction accessible was really helpful," she says.

But it was Jennine Capó Crucet - no longer at FSU - who provided Rai early on with just the right amount of challenge and encouragement to write the best novel she could.

Rai continues work on her novel, and winning the fellowship has motivated her and given her more confidence in her work.

"I want the novel to live up to, and hopefully surpass, whatever wonderful expectations winning this fellowship has placed on it and I'm just so happy to be working on it every day," Rai says.

Nina Nguyen is an intern for the English department and she contributed to the reporting and writing of this article. She is a senior undergraduate majoring in English with a concentration in literature and minoring in international affairs.