My best teacher

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
This award-winning author had no talent for marching at her Indian school and none for hockey at her English one. It was only when she went to America and met an unusual teacher who encouraged his pupils to tear up rules that she discovered her talent for writing

I had a strange mixture of education and teaching styles, although it did illustrate the different attitudes to education. I didn't leave India until I was 14 and I started off at the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai. It was run by nuns from Ireland, but they didn't try to convert us to Catholicism, although we knew all the prayers and the hymns.

There must have been about 50 girls in every class and only two or three were Catholic, so when they went off to do their catechism we did what they called socially useful and productive work, or SUPW, which was raising funds for a school for the blind or planting trees.

For gym, we marched up and down wearing long white dresses. We didn't play any sports it was too hot so instead we went into marching competitions with other schools. I wasn't very talented at marching.

When I was 14, we moved to England and I went to school in Cambridge for nine months. It was a strange time: I had to do the then O-level exams and the system seemed so much easier than in India, so much more relaxed. We also played hockey, but I had no talent for hockey, having only marched.

Then I went to the United States, and it was even more relaxed and you could be artistic. I owe the American education system a lot. I went to school in Amherst, Massachusetts, and when I was 17, I went to Bennington in Vermont. It was arts orientated and I started to write. I was surrounded by performers who transformed my way of thinking. The first writing class I took changed everything. I had never thought of being a writer until then. Anyone who takes you seriously at that age is really to be congratulated, but Phillip Lopate did.

There were no exercises, there was nothing childish about it at all, he just said "write" and told us to push ourselves to the extreme. This was my first realisation that it wasn't mechanical and it didn't matter if it was flawed, and that it might even make a better work than something that was more perfect.

Before that I was studying science and I was planning on being a biologist, but I realised writing was the right thing for me. It was difficult, but I was incredibly happy: it is a great moment, when you know what it is you want to do.

Phillip was so different from most writing teachers. There's a feeling that you study all these books on character and plot and then put together a story. But to me that is contrary to what it should be about: you have to work out these things within the narrative; they can't be studied like a science. Often the books I liked best were the ones you could find flaws in, and you often only get to that by letting go of all the civilising influences.

A lot of the writing being produced in America now comes out of creative workshops, but it doesn't have the feeling that I cherish. After those classes, I was always quite rebellious and it was hard for me to be a good student in a writing workshop. Phillip taught me a way of writing which allowed me to write more seriously. It wasn't just something that I did; it was something I loved

Kiran Desai, 35, won the Betty Trask Award for her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, published in 1998. Her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, won the 2006 Man Booker Prize and the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award. She was talking to Nick Morrison

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