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Rough Draft: two U of T alumni’s podcast delves behind the scenes of writing

Rachel Evangeline Chiong, Sarim Irfan on creative collabs, chance meetings
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BELINDA HOANG/THE VARSITY
BELINDA HOANG/THE VARSITY

In 2019, Rachel Evangeline Chiong, who had graduated from U of T a year earlier, was hired to photograph New College’s orientation. During one of the training meetings, she remembered wondering, “Who is this person with a British accent behind me? He won’t stop talking.” 

That person was Sarim Irfan, one of New’s head orientation leaders. He remembered Chiong as the photographer from a leaders’ retreat earlier that year. “You see her — cinnamon roll — but at the time, I didn’t know her, and she had part of her hair shaved. I was like, ‘Yo, this girl is tough.’ ” 

“I looked like a punk,” Chiong laughed. 

“I was mildly intimidated,” Irfan said. 

Those were their first impressions of each other. After orientation week was over, the two began messaging on Instagram and found out they were both writers. They struck up a friendship, and several months later, Chiong sent Irfan a voice note. 

She’d been listening to classical piano music while getting work done and spoke over the music instead of turning it off. “I was like, ‘Did you hear what you just sent me? That was kind of magical,’ ” Irfan recalled. “Rachel was like, ‘Yo, should we start a podcast?’ ” 

Irfan agreed because he thought she was joking. But that was not the case. Soon, they found themselves recording a test episode, and Chiong bought a mic, sending it to Irfan’s home without telling him. 

The two alumni — Irfan graduated in 2020 — dropped three episodes of Rough Draft, their podcast, on February 4 and have published a few more segments since. They open each episode with a poem, and then, they “explore, dissect, and meme on the craft they so adore” — writing. So far, Rough Draft has covered topics that fall into three umbrella categories: the craft of writing, literature, and literary culture. 

The Varsity sat down with Chiong and Irfan to chat about Rough Draft.

On collaborative creativity

Although the two haven’t been friends for long, they make a strong team. Chiong has wanted to make a podcast for years and has previously collaborated with friends on projects that fell through. To her, Rough Draft was worth pushing for because she knew Irfan would be a good person to work with.

“Sarim and I, we joke that we’re the same people, but we’re actually different people when it comes to work ethic,” she said. “There are times when I’m always ‘push, push, push, push,’ but then, Sarim will ground me and be like —”

“Okay, okay, don’t say that,” Irfan interjected. “You’re painting me as lazy. We keep each other in check. Rachel pushes me when I’m being lazy, and I calm her down when she’s pushing herself too hard.” 

Instead of scripting their episodes, Chiong and Irfan ad-lib the show. Before they launch into the topic of writer’s block in episode one, “The Blank Page Menace,” Chiong introduces herself as a writer’s block survivor, and Irfan follows that up with a quip: “I’m Sarim. The only thing more blocked than my writing is my dopamine.” 

In episode two, Rough Draft delves into the value of literary translations, and in the third episode, “Numerical Nonsense,” the two debate the criteria by which books should be rated. Both hosts primarily hope their listeners take a sense of enjoyment away from the podcast — plus “maybe the odd bit of actual education,” as Irfan said. 

“For example, Rachel mentioned on the podcast once that in Tagalog, there are no gender pronouns,” he said. “That was news to me, and it was nice for a bunch of our listeners too because a couple [of] friends even messaged me like, ‘Yo, I’m Filipino, and I didn’t know that.’ ” 

“It’s why Filipino relatives will always be mixing up ‘he’ and ‘she,’ ” Chiong explained. 

Drafting the future 

In the future, Chiong hopes that the podcast grows enough that they can cover audience-suggested topics, and Irfan expressed an interest in inviting guests onto the show. “The selfish reason I want to get that big is because I want an excuse to meet all my favourite authors,” Irfan said. “Rachel’s secret big dream is that Grammarly sponsors us for one episode,” he added with a laugh, seemingly only half-joking. 

Apart from that, Irfan said that he would love to build a community around the podcast so that he can discuss writing with others, “rather than just me yelling at Rachel for 30 minutes — which I love doing, but it could be more, you know.” 

“It’d be really fun to be known as the two people from Rough Draft,” Chiong said, expressing the hope that their work is recognized in its own right rather than as a side project. Producing the podcast “is low-key a part-time job,” so her long-term goals also include making the project financially viable and being able to hire their editor and audio engineer, Jon Catanus, whom Irfan calls the podcast’s “backbone.”

“We’re both aiming high, which is, In Sha Allah, God willing, a good sign.” Irfan said. 

Rough Draft can be found on Spotify, and more information about the project can be found on its website.