Sharing Truth and Hope in Words
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Ceylon Today Features
Najaha Nauf is currently a second year student, studying for a Bachelors degree in Psychology. She also teaches little kids how to be their best selves at Royal Institute International School. When she’s not out and about making the world a better place, she spends her free time learning how to be the best version of herself.
Her story is an interesting one, and you can uncover a small snippet of it if you read her debut novel, Slow Dancing with the Stars, which tells the story of a deeply personal journey that is best experienced than explained.
In conversation with Ceylon Today, Najaha shared the story behind her book.
A writer from the start
Najaha, picked up the pen at an early age and hasn’t let go of it, since.
“A majority of my teenage years were spent writing whimsical scripts for friends to act out and poems I could perform for audiences, not forgetting stories that I hoped would bring people comfort, all while acting as a conveyor to what I believed was important,” she explained.
“Writing was my way of saying ‘I’m here and I’m listening, you should be too,’” which is essentially what her book Slow Dancing with the Stars is all about.
Najaha’s debut stint as an author began as a series of letters she wrote to herself, with no intent of sharing with others, “at least not at the start” she admits.
“It was an attempt to contain my thoughts instead of letting them consume me, because there was so much going on that I couldn’t really tell anyone without tiring them out, or so I believed.
“So I morphed my reality with fiction and gave my story a home among many others,” she said.
Writing the book was not easy for Najaha because of how deeply personal it was. In fact, by the time she had completed the story, she was aching with emotions of grief and loss and a faltering sense of accomplishment; it “made my writing process and the faith I had in myself very inconsistent. Some days I would find comfort in the idea of writing for myself and keeping the book hidden away from anyone else. On other days, I would resort to sending my friends entire chunks of the unedited first draft to ease into the idea of letting the world in, on what I believed was a story full of bitter pills to swallow.”
Catharsis amidst grief
The writing process however, although a cathartic one that helped her grow as a person, “to become more honest,” as she put it, made her realise how much of our mental wellbeing we overlook on a daily basis. “Though these feelings may be universal, if you never speak about them, they’ll never be addressed,” she mused.
“In my own way, I have learnt that grief isn’t something negative and that I don’t have to keep these feelings festering within me. Writing this book has taught me that we don’t always recover, sometimes we endure and that’s okay.”
A poetic page turner
While reading her book, you’ll encounter plenty of symbolism and cryptic messages interlaced into the storyline, making the overall experience of reading her book a very interesting journey that is oftentimes easier felt more than comprehended.
You’ll also notice a very poetic flow as you read through each page. As for her unique writing style, she notes, “I’ve always been more comfortable with poetry, having been a part of the Wendy Whatmore Academy of Speech and Drama from the wee age of four. Something about how such little words could create so many avalanches has always inspired me,” she said.
An ardent reader of the classics, Najaha noted how her literary horizons were broadened from stories of many genres, which also has made a big influence on who she is today. She talked of how being exposed to various writers and poets during her last years as a teen inspired her to find her own flow and prose.
“It also helped me accept the fact that writing and poetry are mouldable crafts that I should never feel afraid of experimenting with - which is some solid advice to follow even outside of writing,” she opined.
“There’s no way of knowing how things will turn out if you don’t try.”
Opening up new perspectives
Najaha believes that literature has always played a powerful role in getting conversations started and in opening up new perspectives for people.
“Because of how unique and different we are, it can sometimes be difficult to relate to each other,” she said. “But the books, stories and poems we have are proof that our core values have always been the same.”
She’s a firm believer that understanding literature is a life skill that everyone needs, and is a tool to understand that there’s always going to be multiple sides to every story.
As for Slow Dancing with the Stars, she aims to show in multiple perspectives like how the actions of its protagonist, effects the lives of the characters around her.
She hopes that her readers will get an insight into how each person’s life is intertwined with the lives of others, “how your wellbeing has an effect on theirs,” in her words.
“In a way, I wanted to highlight how healthy relationships are built on the understanding that you are not alone despite whatever it is that you may be going through,” she concluded.
“Slow Dancing with the Stars discusses loss, grief and anxiety in a casual manner because it hopes to pave way for conversations about such topics becoming the norm,” Najaha explained.
“It also speaks about a specific psychological disorder that a lot of people can misidentify or overlook, because of how easily the symptoms can be dismissed. By writing about this, I hope those who have experienced these symptoms but have been too afraid to talk about it because of the stigma surrounding mental healthcare as a whole, are able to come to terms with the fact that there is hope for recovery where there is treatment and that there is no shame in seeking treatment. Your mental wellbeing is just as much important as your physical wellbeing.”
“I hope they find hope in my words and speak their truth the way Tori spoke hers”, she concluded, referring to her novel’s protagonist.
A message to you
“An author’s debut work, I believe, is a reflection of what they wish they could tell themselves,” Najaha explained.
“I hope Slow Dancing with the Stars instils the idea that acknowledging your mental illness does not equate to you being the mental illness, that mental healthcare practitioners aren’t all detached individuals who will not take you seriously, that being a mental healthcare practitioner does not mean they are free from having bad days, that family and friends will not leave you because of your mental illness, that there is help out there, that therapy is a slow, non-linear journey rather than a shortcut to recovery but you’ll never be alone in your suffering.”
She also hopes that you, the readers will enjoy Slow Dancing with the Stars.
“The time, dedication and effort that goes into a book is tremendous,” she explained, noting how important a role the readers play and how much she values hearing feedback about her work.
“In a country where so many of us are creative, passionate and full-of-life, it is you who uplifts us and make the tedious process of creating art something rewarding.”