In our series of letters from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Sharmila Tagore reflects on being a dreamer


An author friend
told me about “dream worlds.” She had come across them in a fantasy novel. They
were places that existed somewhere on the spectrum between “real” world and
“virtual” world.

For instance, if you’ve ever dreamed of going home, you might be able to tell
that it was a place that’s similar to your home, but without the same
problems. The house is clean and well-ordered. The furniture has pictures in it
that you loved as a kid, and the appliances you remember to be the coolest
things in your home. You have a cat who loves to go into the kitchen and eat
food out of the bowls that you remember being put there.

These places exist because people have been dreaming about them. You see
them, and you know that they’re real because you’ve imagined them. In the real
world, dreaming about them is no different. People can see them, remember their
own homes, and feel just as satisfied and contented in their virtual reality as
they experience on the other side. They know that they’re not in “reality”
because it’s only a dream, not really “there.”

In the real world, dreaming, when you’re good and you’re really good, you can
get away with it.

But I’m not really good. No matter how many times I tell myself I am, I’m not
great. There’s always more to learn, more to prove. I might have had a
perfectly respectable and fulfilling career as an actress and model. But then I
got a show, and I failed miserably. I tried really hard, but that was all I
could do- and I felt stupid and powerless. People told me I could do anything
if I wanted to, and I knew I wasn’t ready, couldn’t be ready. I became a
struggling artist- a dreamer who wrote stories about the things that had
frightened her most. My writing was never good enough to become published
(yet), but my dreams were all I had. So how could I say I was good enough for
the dreamworld?

Some of my dreams have stuck with me because I’ve spent so much time dreaming
about them- and sometimes these dreams have turned into reality. When I tried
really hard to get into the acting game- which I’m still struggling in- I felt
more like an outsider than one of the few people that could “pass” with ease.
When I wrote stories, I felt a lot of pressure because no one would ever be
interested in what I had to say. And when I finally did publish my first novel,
I didn’t feel I could use it for anything other than personal validation.

My first dream-world took the better part of a year to fully manifest. After
I’d written the story, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to see it
become a reality, to see it come true. And all I could use for validation was
my dreams. I couldn’t use my writing or my art. I didn’t know that was enough.
I didn’t even know that dreams were real. My own personal validation was all
I could get. If the dream didn’t come true, I would have to accept the fact
that dreams were no good. The dream was only a dream.

Some dreams become a reality. Some dreams don’t.

When I felt I couldn’t get into the art world or the acting one, I tried my
best to keep myself busy. I made a bunch of money- but nothing ever seemed
like enough to make me happy. I tried to make my dreams into a reality. But
I didn’t feel like “real” or “satisfied”- I had my dreams, and I was

I realized that I needed to create something that I wanted to be true to- not
a dream that I’d always dreamed and wanted to be true to. And that meant I
needed to find a way to make my dreams into reality. For someone like me, who
never felt completely complete or happy, that meant making my dreams a reality.

So one day, I went to a bookstore on my book tour and I ran into a man who
was a fantasy fan. I had a book in my hand, and I knew he would love it. I
opened the book, and he laughed at how different and how weird the novel looked.
I turned the page and started reading, just to see what would happen.

After I finished that book, a lot of dreamers came to me to tell me my dreams
were not good enough, they couldn’t be as good as the fantasy novels I wrote.
They didn’t make enough money, so they can’t live like they imagined. I
determined that if those dreamers could only have enough money to live like
they wanted to- not one penny more, but one penny less- that they could feel
true happiness. When they made more money, they would feel like they were
satisfied, right.

So the next day I returned to my bookstore and started looking through the
books that the dreamers had told me weren’t good enough to be published. And
that’s when something hit me. There was always someone looking to publish my
writing or my art.

I had spent my life writing stories and trying my best to be happy and be
successful. Some of them were published. Some of them didn’t. My dreamers
wanted me to be successful. When I told them they can have my dreams if they
felt satisfied, they felt like they were happy because they had the things they
wanted. When I told them they can have what they wanted if they made more money,
they felt like they had earned it. They were happy, and they had what they
needed- validation.

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