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Talking Books

Anmol Sandhu talks to Sonia Chauhan about her book This Maze of Mirrors

Hi Joanna. Thanks for talking to The Wise Owl


RS: Your collection of Cherita ‘river lanterns’ has been released recently. Our readers would be eager to know (as I am) what inspired you to write this beautiful collection of 90 virgin Cherita. 


JA:  I have been published in Ai Li’s Cherita journals for a while and love writing in this form.  I mentioned in my email correspondence to Ai Li that I aspired to have my own Cherita collection published.  She offered to edit my selection of poems from a large selection that I sent her.  I would say my inspiration came from reading Ai Li’s own collections of her Cherita verse, they are so beautiful. 


When I began writing these, I was mindful to really show me as not only a writer but as the person beneath and how the Cherita form bends to the art of storytelling.  It took me some time to write these and I am delighted with the narrative that Ai Li made with her choices for my book.  When another person chooses, they can distance themselves from your work and look critically at what you have sent.  It was a real honour for me to entrust the creator of the Cherita with my work.



RS: Your book is a collection of Cherita verse. Cherita is a genre of recent origin (1997). Tell us what attracted you to this genre of poetry. Were there any creative influences in your life that encouraged you to adopt this genre as your own.


JA:  I am attracted to this genre of poetry as I hold a deep reverence for Ai Li’s poetry and the short form poetry forms as a collective.  I was excited to see that Ai Li had developed this new genre.  She published my short form verse in the 1990s in her journal Still and I was sad when this was no longer in print.  I enjoyed the challenge of learning how to write this new form and find it really resonates with me as a writer.


I discovered her new form of Cherita and was hooked by these story gems.  I really admire the way that the Cherita journals are produced and enjoy reading the work within these.  As a writer it is important to keep on working at your craft and I love it when I get to enjoy the work of a fellow poet in the same genre. 


RS: River Lanterns has been edited and published by ai li, the creator of Cherita as a genre. How was the experience of connecting with the doyen of Cherita and having her select your Cherita?


JA:  As I mentioned earlier Ai Li had published my work in the 90s, then through offering Cherita to her for publication, the connection was reborn.  I have always enjoyed reading Ai Li’s poetry and I have found her to be a gracious supporter of my Cherita.  Sending my work to the creator of the genre I think really made me conscious that I had to elevate my writing to meet the standards to have enough quality Cherita for my own individual collection.  The experience is something that I will treasure as I now have a collection published other people can enjoy and will hopefully encourage them to do the same.


RS: Cherita is said to be a unique form of storytelling…storytelling in 6 lines. M Kei says that Cherita verse ‘combine the evocative power of tanka with the narrative of a personal story, like the vignettes we glimpse as we sit in a café and watch the world go by.’ Do you agree ? For the benefit of the readers would you please elaborate on this.


JA:  Yes, I think M Kei’s insight is correct.  Cherita to me contain the voice/song/whispers around the campfire as the stories unfold.  They can be written about such a wide range of experiences, focused through the lens of the individual. I love the power of tanka, and I see Cherita as a close cousin, both forms use beautiful language to sing a fragment of the world that we live in.


RS: I feel what differentiates Cherita from narrative storytelling, is that it tells a story about life & our spiritual journey. This is very true of your Cherita:


have you
found it yet

the fun arcade

where wishes
are the alchemy
of breath


What are your thoughts on this?


JA:  Yes, I feel a real connection with Cherita and my spiritual side.  This is an element that attracts me to using this form.  It allows me to explore and highlight aspects that may not be accepted in other types of verse.  The Cherita can be used as a blank canvas for me to embed my perspective of my inner and outer world through stories. 


RS: What are the themes or stories you have touched upon in your various Cherita verse?


JA:  Where to begin…  The Cherita in this collection provides a map of my highs and lows.  They reveal how I see the world and feel about it.  I enjoy adding elements of fairytales, myths, rich imagery, and aspects of the natural world.  The importance of love, loss, friendship, connections, truth etc. all are within.  The Cherita captures a moment of beauty, in time, often of universal things that happen to all of us but told from the narrator’s perspective.    Often there is a vein of spirituality running through the verse.



RS: There are some cherita terbalik also in your collection. For the benefit of our readers please tell us how this form is different from Cherita and why we need a different syllable arrangement for this form of poetic storytelling


JA:  The Cherita terbalik also tells a story but ‘terbalik’ is the Malay word for upside down or reversal (   It is a different arrangement of the original Cherita stanza format.  By using another variation of the Cherita format it enables the writer to alter the flow of the story that they are telling, such as the example from my collection below:


the ruby shoes

the glass slipper

the fairy dust


as a child

I imagined all


in my cupboard


To me this verse is stronger with the terbalik arrangement.  Writing Cherita I make a judgement as to which stanza suits the flow of the story.


RS: Do you also write in other genres like haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun on a regular basis?  Which is your favorite genre among all these genres (we know your fondness for Cherita of course)


JA:  Yes, I also write in other genres such as haiku, senryu, tanka, Haibun and other short form verse.  I began writing contemporary poetry first and then I discovered haiku when I was looking for poetry journals to read and subscribe to.   I fell in love with haiku and feel that they are the guardians of nature and our world.  I find short form poetry very special; these dewdrops of tiny forms really capture a sense of the world around us. 


I see the bonds between these genres as strings from the same bow –


the heart harp


wind and rainfall

skeins from sky


this humming

of a melody

our soul bonds


Selecting a favourite is like asking a parent to choose a child.  They all hold a place in my heart.  I began with haiku and then progressed to tanka – aspects of the heart.  These are the two that led me into this world of short form poetry and were my entry point for exploring and discovering other genres.  I wouldn’t like to be without any one of them as they each offer a different way to express aspects of the world and my own life journey. 


RS: What advice would you give budding poets of Cherita verse?


JA:  The advice I would give to writers of any verse is to READ, READ, READ.  Study the form, work on your craft, support the journals that publish them – if you want to write them, then surely you will enjoy reading them. Write, keep on writing and honing, learning the form, find your own style/voice, make connections in the writing world – even if online and listen and appreciate editorial advice – they have a vast range of experience, and this is how you grow as a writer.  The short form poetry world is a beautiful, supportive place.  When you buy a journal that publishes Cherita verse or another genre, be open to learning and see how well other writers use the form.  Try and buy the collections of writers that you admire, this keeps our writers’ world vibrant and alive.


Thank you, Joanna, for taking time out to talk to The Wise owl about your beautiful book. We wish you the best and hope you make this unique storytelling genre rich with your verse.


Thank you so much for asking me to talk to you. 

Talking Books

Anmol Sandhu talks to Sonia Chauhan about her book This Maze of Mirrors

AS: This Maze of Mirrors was ranked second in Amazon’s Pen to Publish Award. What was your first reaction to this win?


SC: I remember I was out for dinner and a reader congratulated me on Instagram. That’s how I got to know the story had won. Now, I take time to react to life events. So, at first I had no reaction. As the days passed and more and more people reached out, the feeling took shape. Must have been a staggered kind of joy.

When I’d entered This Maze of Mirrors into the competition, my aim was to figure in the top ten. That the story got second prize was way beyond what I’d imagined. It still feels like a massive stroke of luck.


AS: I loved the name Shatrujeet and the not-so-subtle symbolism of it. He was, in a way, his own enemy. How hard was it to write a character who is an alcoholic, yet evokes sympathy in the hearts of readers?

SC: Thank you for loving the man I imagined. I chose to call him Shatrujeet because of the underlying theme of the story – that ultimately, all the enemies you need to win over are within. For him, it was the fear of rejection that sprang from a traumatic childhood.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’ve had some chances to observe addicts in close surroundings. One of my beta readers is a de-addiction specialist and he guided me a lot in navigating Shatrujeet’s alcoholism. Still, it was a challenge to write an intelligent yet psychologically broken character. But a good story will tell you why people are the way they are and that’s what makes a reader root for a character.

That's why you still support a flawed guy like Jessie Pinkman or love seemingly unlovable men like Snape. Every time a reader highlights Shatrujeet's dialogues from his conversations with his wife, I feel bittersweet love.


Shatrujeet is an alcoholic, a bad husband, and an absent father.

Still, it is him that readers have loved the most and tried to understand the most. I’m grateful.


AS: The themes of generational trauma and abuse are not explored intensely in mainstream books or cinema. What was your reason of picking such a powerful theme for your book?

SC: I like to write stories that showcase human complexities. That behind every unpleasant personality, every weakness of character, and every denial of truth is a wound of the past. 

Generational abuse is not often talked about. But the truth is that a lot of our personality – our triggers, emotional responses, and perceptions of life – are set way back in childhood at the hands of our caregivers. For a child, the family unit is the first face of the world at large.

So, the question that stayed in my mind was – how does your upbringing affect the way you bring up your child? And that’s where the character of a kind yet weak alcoholic man started spinning in my head. And what better obstacle to give him than a doting but strong-willed daughter?


AS: Are there any authors or books that have greatly influenced your writing style or approach to storytelling?


SC: Ever since I took up writing, my reading experience has greatly eroded. I don’t just read books anymore; I analyse writing styles. It’s a fair price to pay. If I really love a book, I read it the first time as a reader and then re-read it to find out why I loved the writing style so much. Many of my paperbacks are heavily underlined and filled with scribbles, no longer fit for donating or passing around among fellow readers.

One of my all-time favourite authors is a pensive American woman called Lionel Shriver. Her novel We Need To Talk About Kevin was awarded the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005. Lionel’s stories are deeply introspective and viewpoint based. The plot unfolds through the thoughts of the character trying to make sense of what happened. Isn’t that something we all do in moments of internal silence? Regurgitating life events to figure out what we make of everything.

Another of my absolute favourites is Lauren Groff. Her short story collection Delicate Edible Birds is one of the finest examples of creative writing. She’s written each story from a unique point of view. For example, in one story, the narrator is a city. In another, it’s the collective voice of a group of women calling themselves ‘we’.

I remember her short story, Birdie, published in the Atlantic. It’s about four high school friends who get together after 20 years because one of them is dying of cancer. That story taught me so much about how real people talk to each other. It’s a masterclass on dialogue writing. You can read it for free at the Atlantic.

Some others I love are Chimmamanda Ngozi Adiche (for her focus on culture), Joyce Carol Oates (for capturing sagas so well), Arun Joshi (for penning the ambivalent), and of course, Haruki Murakami (for sheer courage to be beautiful without making sense).

And here’s a controversial one – I adore Bukowski’s poetry.


AS: Shatrujeet’s journey to his daughter, Mridula, combines elements of mystery, introspection, and self-discovery. Tell us how you develop your characters and put them into unique plot lines. Any tips up your sleeve?


SC: Characters take shape in my mind much before plot does. It’s only after I’ve fleshed out the basic details of a character’s life, habits, and mind-set that the plot reveals itself to me. That’s my natural process. But I will admit that maintaining elements of mystery while the character undergoes personal change is a challenge for any writer.

Surprising inevitability is a pivotal tool I’ve used to maintain the mystery of the story. For example, a key mystery in the story is – where does Mridula run away to? When Shatrujeet finds her at the end, I want the reader to be surprised as to where she is but once I do it in a way that once it unfolds, this was the only place where she could have been. You’re surprised but you see how this was the only it could have been.

As for self-discovery, I use a few tricks laid out by the masters of storytelling. One of them is ‘What’s the Worst Thing that can happen to this particular Character with these specific Wounds and Wants?’

List out a few odds and then choose to pitch him against the most impossible one. Here, we have an alcoholic man barely stumbling through domestic life when suddenly, we force him to stand up and take charge of his family’s future. How is he going to find a missing daughter who he knows nothing about? That’s an impossible odd, and a delicious one.


AS:  In a time when ‘content creation’ is everything and more and more people are beginning to call themselves writers, what would be your suggestion to upcoming artists who want to write great stories and not just make good content for social media?

SC: I have two suggestions for those who want to write well.


One – and I know this will inflame some – but stop overdosing on pop content. I’m not asking you to stop reading books and blogs; I’m asking you to limit the amount of information you consume every day.

Writers need to gate keep their attention and focus it on what’s important. Read a story at New Yorker rather than scrolling reels on Instagram. Listen to one writing podcast than skimming six articles on Medium.

To write well, you need to spend one hour in mental silence. The next hour you simply get bored. The third hour, that’s when the first draft flows.

Two: stories come at a personal cost. Honestly, great writers are those who are motivated to sit down with themselves and think about life. From Kafka to Camus to Dostoevsky, people who clutched life as one does a Rubik’s cube and kept twisting the pieces from centre to side are the ones who wrote timeless prose.  

Cutting honesty, embarrassing truths. Shameful confessions. Scraping an old wound, or an exploding rejection. These are the ingredients of a great story. If it doesn’t shake your pen or bring tears to your eyes, it needs some more work.

In summary, good writing is all about channelling your honesty on paper.


AS:  So, what’s next? Tell us something about your future projects.

SC: For me, writing is a long haul game. I’d be fortunate if I spend the rest of my life writing and I’m always in the middle of writing something or the other. So, I’ve got a couple of projects that I’m working on at the moment and then there’s something that’s in the post-writing stage. Let’s hope everything sees the light of day as published work in print.  

About Sonia Chauhan
Author Photograph - Sonia Chauhan.jpg

Sonia Chauhan is a professional writer, editor, and author. Her stories are contextual and layered, exploring inner lives and private worlds. Her characters are often conflicted people who are on solitary quests to discover themselves. Her stories have been published in literary journals and anthologies including The Wise Owl, The Muse, Unbound Script, and Monograph Magazine. Her debut novella, You Tell Me, was published in Sep 2021. Her second novella, ‘This Maze of Mirrors’, (published in October 2022) was ranked second in the prestigious Pen to Publish contest held by Amazon. Sonia is a corporate attorney and runs an independent law practice in Chandigarh.

About Anmol Sandhu
Interviewer Photograph - Anmol Sandhu.jpg

Dr. Anmol Sandhu is a Ph.D. in Management and is currently working with Ernst and Young. Her literary journey started with writing middles for The Tribune and Hindustan Times for over five years. She later started writing Terribly Tiny Tales, through which her work was selected by filmmaker Imtiaz Ali as part of a movie promotion campaign. Sandhu is a screen writer and has a Punjabi short film to her credit. At present, she is co-writing the story for a feature film.

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