Interview with Mihir Vatsa

Our Blog Editors interviewed Mihir Vatsa, an Indian poet and the editor of Vayavya, for this week’s blog. In this interview, we ask him about the practice of writing and the habits that pertain to it in some way or another. We also ask Mihir about not only staying committed to writing, but also staying committed to writing about Hazaribagh.


Blog Editors: Ernest Hemingway wrote first thing in the morning. Maya Angelou reserved hotel rooms just to write. Stephen King forced himself to write six pages every day. Susan Sontag instructed people when not to call. Have you developed any specific methods for writing?

Mihir Vatsa: I wish I could reserve hotel rooms to write. Someday, perhaps, I will. I usually write at night– the darkness sorts relevance from distraction. When I am writing to meet a deadline, I set a target. With prose, it is thousand words. Poetry is more malleable that way– just three lines could be a poem too, as long as they are good three lines. I am more relaxed with poetry, less so with prose. The latter demands some discipline, I have learned recently.  

BE: Do you journal? And how well do you work with or meet deadlines?

MV: Unfortunately, no, I don’t maintain a journal. I do have some romantic affinity towards the process though, and I like to hear stories that involve journal writing. I have tried it before, but have stopped midway. Trivial things begin to annoy me– is the notebook cover journalish enough, what if I wrote something and someone read it, if I am doing it on my PC then what should be the password, do I really want it personal or do I secretly want it read? I think of these clearly pressing thoughts and defer it.

I think I can work with deadlines, though I procrastinate a lot. So if the deadline is tomorrow, I would get working today, not sleeping, not eating, a bit possessed. It’s not a healthy practice for a writer, but then writers are not really known for their exemplary health.

BE:Do you outline ideas before or do you let the form teach you what kind of story you are writing?

MV: I do outline, but mostly in mind. I prefer having some ideas, some thoughts about what I should write once I start the computer. Often a poem is left hanging for a few days: one stanza emerges, then there is the wait, then another line comes up. When I am not writing, I am working with collages– cut here, paste there. When I think I have enough to go with, I start typing. With longer poems, I take it slow, filling in the blanks first, then tying the content up as the form suggests. With prose, and especially essays, I have found that it’s helpful to have some pointers beforehand, a road map, on how to progress from one thought to the other without jarring the flow.  

BE: What do you do when you become stuck while writing?

MV: If the deadline is far, I give in to the block. I switch to Netflix or Youtube, or take up a book which I had been meaning to read. You can only watch something for so long. When saturation hits, writing becomes a needed retreat. Sometimes I get stuck because I don’t want to put an idea into a form that I have already done before. Then, reading helps. I go to the internet and read whatever poetry I can find, preferably by poets who are alive. That way, I get to see what other poets in the world are doing, how they are managing language, how they are working with form, and so on. The last time I got stuck, the deadline was close. So I ordered a book and told myself not to touch it before I finished writing. It kind of worked.

BE: How do you stay committed to Hazaribagh? Is there a different lens or observation you require in order to practice the writing of something so close when you want it to reach far?

MV: This is a really good question, actually. My upcoming book A Highland in the East (Speaking Tiger Books 2019) is a memoir about living and travelling in the Hazaribagh plateau, and though I had a great time writing it, I was also often conflicted about my loyalty to Hazaribagh. I am not talking about the town per se– Hazaribagh is like any other small Indian town. It has its half-finished buildings with exposed brickwork, it has its temples and mosques and narrow streets. Somehow these things haven’t appealed to me yet. I am more attached to Hazaribagh’s landscape. Therefore, the hills, the trees, the rivers, etc are my points of affect. I remember, this one time, my friend Raza Kazmi and I were staying for a few days at Palamu Tiger Reserve in Latehar. The place is about a six-hour drive from Hazaribagh. There, I was surrounded by taller hills, denser forests, reliable waterfalls, and it made me sad. What if I outgrow Hazaribagh? “You can be committed to Hazaribagh and still enjoy Palamu,” Raza said something along this line, and though I understood him, I was still uncertain. What I fear is that one day there will be nothing wonderful about Hazaribagh for me. No waterfall will excite me. Been there, done that– that kind of boredom, you know, and so I try to modify perspectives. There is a lot in Hazaribagh, things that I still don’t know, so maybe one day I will enjoy the roads, or the history, or engage with the place in a more direct, participatory way. At the moment, I am gripped by the plateau; later, it might be some other aspect of the town.

Perception is universal– the way I perceive Hazaribagh may be similar or different to people who perceive other places, but the act is not uniquely mine. As writers, we work in and with shared cultures, so I think while Hazaribagh may be a little-known, “niche” place to write about, the things I feel when I am in Hazaribagh do resonate with people outside. When I post a photo of a hill range and see the reactions on it, I know I am doing something right. I try to understand the relevance of Hazaribagh for other people, and this is a conjecture at best, but I think that in Hazaribagh, I work through a dual-gaze. I am both an insider and the outsider, insider to the town, outsider to the plateau. When I look for information on, say, how the lake came about, or how the hill was fashioned earlier to appear the way it does now, I am being a hopeless local historian; on the other hand, when I venture into the forest, trailing a stream and not knowing where it would take me, I feel more like a tourist. Perhaps this duality works, though I am not sure yet.

BE: Do you think your editorial practice, or editorial ethics, have impacted your practice as a writer?

MV: Maybe? I don’t really know. Earlier I used to get irritated at the long wait to get a response, but as someone who has also been on the other side of things, I realise now that such delays happen, especially if you are working as a small, un- or underpaid team. One thing that I loved doing as an editor was to really edit– and not just select– a poem for publication, you know, the old-fashioned way. I would chance upon a poem which was almost ready, except that it didn’t work in some parts and patches. Whenever it was the case, I offered detailed feedback, putting the ball in the poet’s court. Here is what I think. If you agree, we can go ahead with the publication. With my own writing too, I am not averse to feedback or revision. I appreciate it if someone devotes a chunk of their time to offer comments on my work. This is something that I cherish with respect to writing, mine or someone else’s.


155727205559673739MIHIR VATSA is the author of the poetry collections Painting That Red Circle White (Authors Press 2014) and Wingman (Aainanagar & Vayavya 2017). A former Charles Wallace Fellow of Writing at University of Stirling, UK, Mihir is the winner of Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and a Toto Funds the Arts Award in Writing. Mihir lives in the plateau-town of Hazaribagh, India, where he works across the disciplines of literature, writing and human geography.

On Shakespeare’s 455th Birthday

BY JOANNA CLEARY AND MARIA PRUDENTE

Joanna Cleary: I’m so excited that we’ve agreed to have a conversation on the best-known playwright in the history of English literature– William Shakespeare — in honour of his birthday. As an English and Theatre major, it probably comes as no great shock to hear that I love his plays and sonnets. However, it might come a surprise to find out that I didn’t consider myself a fan of his work until I saw it performed in the theatre. My first exposure to Shakespeare came when my ninth grade English Literature class studied Romeo and Juliet. While I loved the rich images Shakespeare created, I struggled with the unfamiliar language and often grew frustrated because I read the script much more slowly than I read contemporary works. When my class when to see a live performance of Romeo and Juliet, however, I found myself absolutely immersed in the world being created in front of me. I grew to deeply appreciate Shakespeare as one who not only writes about the human condition but does so in a way that allows everything he focuses on – from emotional character development to philosophical questions – to take on an ephemeral life of itself. Now over to you – when did you first learn about Shakespeare?

Maria Prudente: Romeo and Juliet was my first experience too. My first monologue class was a Shakespeare workshop. I began, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” and I remember the creative director of the theatre looking utterly confused. In retrospect, I love that at twelve I didn’t bother to gender the monologue, but in actuality, I just liked it best. I thought it was elegant and beautiful, I didn’t care that a man said it. In my freshman year of high school, I was cast as Rosaline for our production of R&J. I was gutted. I had no lines though I got to wear a special floral head-piece. For a character who never speaks, it was easy to create an interpretation of her because Shakespeare offers us information on “fair Rosaline” through other characters: Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio. I am not surprised to hear that you became a fan after seeing his work in the theatre. I support the notion that Shakespeare should be seen, not just read. In terms of writing, what I’ve always liked about Shakespeare is that there is no subtext; the language does the work for you and that, in essence, is the brilliance of Shakespeare’s writing. There is a vast legacy of work to choose from — what is your favorite Shakespearean sonnet or play?

JC: I know it’s a bit of a cliché to cite this as my favourite Shakespearean text, but I love Romeo and Juliet. While it’s often dismissed as overly dramatic and unrealistic, I strongly believe that the dramatic tension and spectacular plotline is precisely what captures the feeling of newfound love in the play. My favourite line of the first act is when Romeo first sees Juliet and declares “[o], she doth teach the torches to burn bright” (Act 1.5.42) — the statement is so simple, but also so profound and bursting with emotion. I completely support the contemporary social emphasis on people knowing how to be independent, I also think that love — platonic love, romantic love, and everything in between — has an important place in the human condition and deserves to be recognized in poetic expressions such as this. Speaking of how Shakespeare relates to the modern world, what do you think are the best contemporary adaptations of his work?

MP: I agree with you that the universal themes of love are why Romeo & Juliet is so captivating. We understand it as kids because they, too, are impulsive, impassioned kids and we nostalgically, sympathetically relate as adults. For me, I measure the best contemporary adaptations of his work by what is most relatable. Whether we are consciously aware or not, what we connect to when we watch The Lion King is what we connect to in Hamlet, and, what we connect to when we watch My Own Private Idaho (a classic Gus Van Zant film) is what we connect to in Henry IV. My favorite is Ten Things I Hate About You as a modern adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. At theatre conservatory, I was selected to perform Kate’s monologue for several hours over several days for prospective students and I resented the fact that Kate wasn’t more like her modern adaptation in 10 Things I Hate About You. In the movie, we see Kat as a feminist figure, and in Shrew, Shakespeare characterizes Katherine as a fiery female turned anti-feminine, submissive wife. Would Kat have said to Patrick, “Humble your pride, then, since it’s useless, and place your hand beneath your husband’s foot? As a gesture of my loyalty, my hand is ready if he cares to use it”? I don’t think so. That’s why I think modern adaptations are important because they spark a bigger conversation. Was Shakespeare commenting on misogyny and feminity in Taming of the Shrew? Do we believe this was his point of view? Did 10 Things I Hate About You try to deconstruct gender and female oppression and correct the characterization of Katherine through Kat? Shakespeare is still challenging us in the 21st century. Aside from comparing modern adaptations, what do you suggest people do if they want to understand and enjoy Shakespeare’s work?

JC: I definitely agree that contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s work often help make the material more relatable to people who aren’t familiar with the language or the era in which he was writing. However, I also think that people should also experience performances of his original scripts in order to fully appreciate the nuanced worlds Shakespeare creates through his language; after all, he’s known for being a poet just as much as he is for being a playwright. If there are no performances of Shakespeare’s work playing, I’d recommend listening to his work via audiobook to hear his words being said aloud, which is how they are intended to be heard. I had to listen to an audiobook recording of Othello when I studied the play in my Gr. 10 English Literature class. Initially, I hated that audiobook because it moved too fast for me to keep up, as I wanted to stop every time I came across a word I didn’t understand (which was often) and look it up. However, I gradually came to understand that it didn’t matter if I didn’t understand every word because hearing the play aloud helped me more deeply emotionally connect to the world being created before me. Anyways, going back to your acting background, what Shakespeare character (regardless of sex or gender) have you always wanted to play?

MP: I’m jealous of those boys playing Hamlet. There’s even a play by William Missouri Downs called, Women Playing Hamlet where a woman cast as Hamlet has a massive existential crisis during the whole process. Because Hamlet is so consumed by his masculinity (or lack thereof), it would be fun and challenging maybe to regender him; to flip his questioning his bravery “am I coward?” and the insult of “unmanly grief” on its head. What role would you like to play?

JC: I’ve always wanted to play one of the three witches in Macbeth. Like all delightfully grotesque characters, I think it takes skill to not overdo their persona or characterize them in a predictable way that’s been already been done. Personally, I’m interested in looking at the witches as characters who raise questions on class and status in the play – what does it mean for Macbeth, a member of the upper class, to talk with witches and, later in the play, go as far as to seek them out? What does that say about class corruption? And, if one looks at the witches as symbols of femininity, what do they say about gender roles and dynamics? What does it mean for them to, in a way, seduce Macbeth? I would love to take on a role rich with the potential to explore topics such as these. I also greatly enjoy ensemble work and would relish the opportunity to work with two other actors playing my fellow witches, as it has been my experience that a show is strongest when members of the cast are united. Moving onto Shakespeare himself, however, what’s one question that you’d ask him if you two were somehow able to have a conversation?

MP: I think I would ask how much politics during the Elizabethan era influence him. I think his work verges on the political by way of his characters and it would be interesting if there were specific issues that felt so pressing he needed to write about them. We are living at a time of extreme political polarization so I would be interested to know what he would write about today.  What would you ask?

JC: Hmm, interestingly, I don’t know if I would ask him anything. I thought I’d have lots of questions ready in response to you, but nothing seems to be coming to mind. I think perhaps I don’t want Shakespeare himself to influence my perception of his work, as so many insightful and creative relationships between us and him have been built precisely because of the fact that there are huge gaps in our knowledge of his life. That said, I think today is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time pondering the many mysteries of William Shakespeare and re-read some of his poetry, be it his sonnets or his plays. And now over to you, dear readers – we hope that you too can spend some time reading Shakespeare on his 455th birthday!


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JOANNA CLEARY is an undergraduate student double majoring in English Literature and Theatre and Performance at the University of Waterloo. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The /tƐmz/ Review, The Hunger, Pulp Poets Press, Every Pigeon, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Subterranean Blue Poetry, among others.

155113583331125364MARIA PRUDENTE has written about feminist ethics for Manifest-Station and is featured in Grey Wolfe Publishing’s upcoming anthology of nonfiction short stories. Maria is a professional stage and film actress. She received her training from the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute and graduated from the American Musical & Dramatic Academy with a concentration in Musical Theatre performance. Maria is the Content Editor at CountrySkyline, LLC and proud member of Actor’s Equity Association. She lives in NYC where she studies Creative Writing at Columbia University.

On Writing and Memory

Our blog editors interviewed SMRITI VERMA, a poetry editor for Inklette about her relationship with memory, and its relationship to her writing. The interview traces the way we navigate writing from or about memory, and how we trust it if we do.


Blog Editors: When you write, do you rely on memories as sources of inspiration? What are your favourite memories to write about?

Smriti Verma: I feel that almost all art is embedded in memory and impressions – the kind of experiences we hold near to us generally come to bear on the kind of writing we do or its thematic concerns. There really is no escape from it, given that emotions are rooted in memory itself. I feel that mine have more or less commanded not only what I write, but also how I negotiate with these memories, whether these are traumatic or otherwise. I won’t say I have favourite memories to write about as such, because those are actually to write of, but I feel my childhood and experiences in university are some of the places I draw inspiration from.

BE: Likewise, what memories are hardest for you to write about?

SV: I feel trauma and joy are really these two binaries which are hard to articulate in words. The expression of extremes become silence, perhaps due to the mountain of effort required, or the simple inability to express what may be too deep (or powerful?) for words. It can be hard to really render a beautiful experience or a painful one onto a page when the writer isn’t able to separate his writer self from his emotional self in this regard.

BE: In your opinion, how do we know if what we remember is true? Do you think that we should use memory to write what it true, or do you think that truth and memory have a more complex relationship?   

SV: Definitely the latter. So much of contemporary literary output has and continues to probe at the illusory boundary between real and imaginary, about the act of remembering as an act of constant re-imagining of the past, and how fragile the concept of truth is. A lot of literature produced since the 20th century has shown how the very idea of an objective material truth might be suspect. I once read somewhere (possibly bad tabloid claim but I found it interesting anyhow) that every time we remember a past experience, we edit one detail in it. I feel that the realms of collective and personal memory are such rich reservoirs for writing, and exploring the subjectivity of truth, the multiplicity of truth or truths, so to say. I also feel this theme holds relevance for the current political crisis going on in different parts of the globe as different versions or interpretations of these truths come into contention.

BE: How do we trust the memories of others? Does it matter?

SV: This question really opens up another area, of trust and where it arises from and whether it has any validity if all of us really are as brutally lonely as we feel sometimes. I feel the nature of memory itself is not to be trusted, but trust also arises from sympathy and compassion, which can really be markers about how “true” (to use the word with certain suspicion) or untrue something is. But it matters. It definitely does. All of our memories constantly define and redefine us and respecting those identities is a major part of being in and with the world.

BE: As a writer, what do you want to be remembered for; what to you want your artistic legacy to say about you?

SV: I’m not sure exactly – not as of now, maybe because I’m too young and also because I haven’t given the idea of being remembered much thought. It is quite a big question, and if I had to think of an answer, I would say that I would want to be remembered for doing something that merges the areas of art and social change. I’ve started questioning perhaps the kind of places art comes from, whether these are sites of privilege, and if yes, then what can we do in our role as writers to redirect these art forms towards something helpful, something that connects.


150126426218111SMRITI VERMA grew up in Delhi, India. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Adroit Journal, B O D Y, Cleaver Magazine, Word Riot, Open Road Review, Alexandria Quarterly, and Yellow Chair Review. Further work is forthcoming in Construction Literary Magazine. She is the recipient of the 2015 Save The Earth Poetry Prize and enjoys working as a Poetry Reader for Inklette and Editorial Intern for The Blueshift Journal.

Traveling in Italy as a Poet

BY DEVANSHI KHETARPAL

I spent the last semester in Florence, Italy, which seems like a long time ago. I returned to my hometown of Bhopal, India, in mid-December still confused about my time there. I thought that choosing to learn Italian or to choose Italian literature as one of my fields of study in college was an impulsive choice on my part. In hindsight, however, given the fact that I was reading works by Elena Ferrante, Italo Calvino, Jhumpa Lahiri and Antonio Tabucchi around the time, it doesn’t seem to be such an impulsive decision now. I don’t know why I decided to go to Italy though. I was happy in New York, a city where I think I truly belong. I didn’t want to leave New York and yet I passively wanted to spend some time in Italy.

My Italian was alright when I got there: I loved listening to Italian music, I could read some short poems in Italian and I could sustain small talk in the language. Yet I never imagined what it would be like to be surrounded by the Italian language, its differences and dialects. When I first arrived in Florence, I realized what it means for a world to be somehow written and formed by a language. Squares became piazzas, train became treno, and other words permeated from the landscape into my own imagination, on to my own tongue and memory. I recalled the world differently, I came to know its greetings differently; the lens through which I saw the world began to fade away and made way for a new one. Today, as I write this in New York, I find it difficult to go back to the way in which I used to look at the world. I have fleeting thoughts in Italian more often now. This afternoon, I had a small thought in Italian and immediately found myself scribbling it onto a piece of paper: Nel mio cuore, c’è un lago.

What does it mean to have a lake in one’s heart? I am not sure at all. My hometown of Bhopal has a lake that I think of when Bhopal emerges in my thoughts or dreams. It is strange that Italian is becoming the language that carries these thoughts of home to me. It is strange that Italian is becoming the language that can so succinctly and accurately describe almost instinctively what my heart is and consists of. How did I get here? Where did this language come from? And how did it become the language of my heart? I lack the most accurate answers to these questions but I think they don’t have accurate answers either. Maybe Italian will not be the only language of my heart and maybe there is another language that knows my heart better. For now, however, I am at peace with these thoughts I harbour in Italian. As a poet, I know that my relationship with language is an intimate one. It goes beyond the realm of love or romance; it exists within the realm of friendship. For so long, Italian and the experience of speaking or writing it and thinking in it, felt strange, foreign. But I have come to realize that like any other friendship, it is one that blossoms with time. Like any other friendship, you grow to be comfortable with it and like any other friendship, a language can make you feel less lonely.

In Italy, the Italian language became my friend. I didn’t have my closest friends with me in Florence and though I now think my childhood was very lonely, loneliness is now something I find painful and almost intolerable. But, on the other hand, I recognize that loneliness is a excruciating yet essential part of writing, and of being a writer. I feel lonely when I conceive a poem but not after I have delivered it. Once it’s on the page, I have something to look at, something to hold on to. In Italy, as I reflected on this practice of writing, I realized that the arrival of language into my mind and on the page is what truly dispels the darkness of this loneliness. With Italian as a third language, I had received another friend to populate the space of my mind, the depth of my heart. Even when I was travelling around Italy, my companion, who had a different temperament than mine, made me feel lonelier at times. It was then that I was forced to keep turning back to Italian, to language and words as way to continue living and thriving. Loneliness can be depressing and isolating and the lack of words usually makes it worse. But with another language, I feel as though I have a way to look at the world even when I am submerged in the depth of the lake that is in my heart.


155389164570624267DEVANSHI KHETARPAL is a sophomore at New York University, majoring in Comparative Literature with a minor in Creative Writing. She is from Bhopal, India, and currently lives in New York. She works as an application manager for The Speakeasy Project, poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine and an intern at Poets House. Her poetry collection, Small Talk, is forthcoming soon from Writers Workshop, Calcutta. She is a recipient of the David J. Travis Undergraduate Research Fund from NYU Florence and her work has been published in Best Indian Poetry 2018, Transom, Aainanagar, Vayavya, TRACK//FOUR and Souvenir among others. Website: www.devanshikhetarpal.co.

March: A Month Rich with Writers

BY JOANNA CLEARY

March: (sort of) spring, daylight savings, and St. Patrick’s Day. Even better, however, this month also happens to hold the birthdays of several talented writers, both famous and not. While the list goes on and on, spanning from Robert Frost to Henrik Ibsen to Dr. Seuss, here are six lesser known, but equally gifted, authors born in March:

Ralph Ellison (March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994)

“I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived. Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me? And wait until I reveal how truly irresponsible I am. Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement.”

-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

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Best known for his novel Invisible Man (1952), which serves as a critical commentary on many of the social struggles African Americans faced in the early twentieth century, Ellison’s legacy lives on in the voice he carved for people of colour in a time where minority voices were suppressed even more than they are today.  

Fun Fact: Ellison’s father loved literature and hoped that his son would grow up to become a poet; ironically, Ellison never dabbled in verse throughout his writing career.  

 

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (March 1, 1892 – July 24, 1927)

“Green frog,

Is your body also

freshly painted?”

– Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, ‘Green Frog’

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Seen as “the father of the Japanese short story,” one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after this writer. 

Fun Fact: Akutagawa was named “Ryūnosuke” (which means “Son [of] Dragon”) because he was not only born in the Year of the Dragon, but also in the Month of the Dragon, on the Day of the Dragon, and at the Hour of the Dragon.

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806 – June 29, 1861)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘How Do I Love Thee?’

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Having begun to write poetry from the age of six, one of the works this English writer is best known for is her sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?”

Fun Fact: Browning’s father forbade his twelve children from ever marrying, prompting him to disown his daughter when she married her husband, Robert Browning, after a secret love affair.

Jeffrey Eugenides (March 8, 1960 – Present)

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’ I’d like to show how ‘intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members’ connects with ‘the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.’ I’d like to have a word for ‘the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.’ I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.

 – Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

pasted image 0-3This American novelist and short story writer’s novel Middlesex, a controversial work exploring an intersex protagonist’s coming-of-age story, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Eugenides is also well-known for his 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides.  

Fun Fact: In college, Eugenides took a year away from his studies to volunteer with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.  

 

Emily Pauline Johnson (March 10, 1861 – March 7, 1913)

And only where the forest fires have sped,

     Scorching relentlessly the cool north lands,

A sweet wild flower lifts its purple head,

And, like some gentle spirit sorrow-fed,

     It hides the scars with almost human hands.

And only to the heart that knows of grief,

     Of desolating fire, of human pain,

There comes some purifying sweet belief,

Some fellow-feeling beautiful, if brief,

     And life revives, and blossoms once again.

-Emily Pauline Johnson, “Fire-Flowers”

pasted image 0-4.pngBecause her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother was an English immigrant, Johnson’s poetry explores Indigenous and mixed race identity at a time when colonialism in Canada was at its peak.

Fun Fact: In addition to writing verse, Johnson also wrote and performed in amateur theatre productions throughout her life.  

 

Toni Cade Bambara (March 25, 1939 – December 9, 1995)

“Words are to be taken seriously. I try to take seriously acts of language. Words set things in motion. I’ve seen them doing it. Words set up atmospheres, electrical fields, charges. I’ve felt them doing it. Words conjure. I try not to be careless about what I utter, write, sing. I’m careful about what I give voice to.”

-Toni Cade Bambara

TCB-Part-1-Box-15-Photo-Toni-Cade-Bambara-SeatedA prominent writer in the 1960s Black Arts Movement, Bambara’s 1970 anthology The Black Woman is considered the first inherently feminist collection of writing to focus on African-American women.

Fun Fact: In 1970, this author changed her name to include the name of a West African ethnic group — Bambara — after finding the name written as part of a signature on a sketchbook that belonged to her great-grandmother.


149460297287447JOANNA CLEARY is an undergraduate student double majoring in English Literature and Theatre and Performance at the University of Waterloo. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The /tƐmz/ Review, The Hunger, Pulp Poets Press, Every Pigeon, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, andSubterranean Blue Poetry, among others.

 

Interview with Linda Ashok and Jamel Brinkley

Our blog editors, Maria Prudente and Joanna Cleary, were interested in interviewing writers about their obsessions and repulsions and how they influence writing. Scroll down to read their interviews with two writers we love, Linda Ashok and Jamel Brinkley.


LINDA ASHOK

Maria Prudente: I find that writers need to return to their obsessions in their work. Do you write about your obsessions and, is it challenging to find new ways to write about them?

Linda Ashok: I am not sure about what is implied by obsession. Are you referring to recurring motifs? The thing about my writing is that I never have to think too hard and I mostly go with the flow; writing is quite organic for me as I extract elements from my unsettling dreams. In this process, there are elements that appear quite frequently but they neither demand anything nor dictate. 

MP: Are you ever driven to write about what repulses you? How do you fight the urge to not write around it but through it?

LA: Like anybody else, I am repulsed by any kind of violence but I do write about it because it is therapeutic for me. It helps me to see the underlining of what we perceive as violence. It also builds familiarizes the readers to recognize violences they experience in their personal or public spaces.

Joanna Cleary: As a Communications and Branding professional as well as a writer, how do you think the increasing role of virtual reality and communication in our lives has affected your creativity and creative work? 

LA: Well, virtual reality has built and broken our lives in many ways. In my case, I leveraged virtual reality to expand my creative pursuit; I lived places before I literally travelled to those places. Imagining I am in a certain place, imagining the lives of people local to those places, helped me manifest my desire to live those places in real life through positive affirmations. I experienced their poetry, their struggle, their joys through virtual reality. So yes, it contributed a lot to my writing while also exposing me to a lot of toxicity that affected my mental health in several ways. That I am currently dealing with social anxiety is because of being overwhelmed by the duality of people as seen on social media vs real life. And of course when your life is affected, it does reflect in your work too.

JC: Can you speak to what inspired the title of your 2012 book of poetry, whorelight

LA: My book came out in 2017. I imagined a different name for it and that was whorefrost. But over the four years of its preparation, I found a mention of ‘whorefrost’ somewhere on the net and that really upset me. I wanted to have a unique name to my book. So I continued brainstorming until one day I coined ‘whorelight’ to define how light streams into our darkness, sleeps with it, and leaves everything illuminated. I feel it is akin to those sex-workers who somehow fill in a lot of void in the lives of their customers; and therefore ‘whorelight’ talks about many such moments and experiences that prostituted to fill the many spaces in my life forever inquisitive about meanings.

MP: I was so moved by your poem, ‘We Two Women Can Father A Child.’ Can you elaborate on how that particular piece came to be? 

LA: A certain phase of my childhood happened in the company of my biological mother and my step mother. My mother was too courageous to share her family space with my step mother and she did it to help my dad manage his finances better. In the wake of the world being more accomodating of non-binary relationship, that childhood experience of mine acted as a prop wherein I imagined my mothers discussing how they alone can father me without my dad being around. It is also a depiction of my queer sensibilities imagining two women fathering a child with more considerate human values.

JC: When I read “chew my tongue like a cannibal/ eating a red, fleshy berry” from your poem, ‘Tongue-Tied,’ I was  struck by the theatricality of language. Do you ever perform your work live?

LA: I do. But to myself. These poems are not for a listening audience as the kind of patience they have wouldn’t be enough to simulate the interior theatricality of the poem or poems as such. And even if I am given a very patient and perceptive audience, I would still refrain from performing it as these are very intimate pieces. 


JAMEL BRINKLEY

Maria Prudente: Writers seem to write a lot about their obsessions. Maybe that obsession is a place or a type of person. A writer I know constantly writes about going back inside her mother’s womb. Do you write about any of your obsessions?

Jamel Brinkley: I would say I do, but I’m usually not aware of that fact until after after I’ve written and I can retrospectively look at my work to truly see what I have done. For example, only in hindsight did I see that in my book I was writing about, and obsessed with, families, brotherhood and male friendship, masculinity, and love of various kinds.

MP: Are you driven to write about what repulses you? How do you face that challenge head on?

JB: I think I’m driven to write about what fascinates me, about what I have questions about, and perhaps that sometimes means writing about what repulses me. I think the challenge is making sure that what I’m writing about is interesting to me, so if feeling repulsed is the only response I have to a character or action, then I probably won’t write about it. Complicated or even contradictory emotion is key in driving and sustaining my interest in any story.

Joanna Cleary: According to your website’s description of your collection, A Lucky Man, the work “reflects the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class—where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.” Can you speak to what luck means to you? Is it an obsession or a repulsion, or both? 

JB: I wouldn’t say that luck is a repulsion; maybe it’s something like an obsession. On the one hand, luck, or the idea of being lucky, is one that I mean to take seriously in the book. I hope that every story contains at least one moment of genuine joy or pleasure or grace for my characters, the kind of moment that makes one feel lucky to be alive. On the other hand, or at the same time, I do mean my invocation of luck to be seen with some irony. For the protagonist of my title story, for instance, luck comes to mean something painful. His life hasn’t turned out the way he expected. And the idea of being fortunate, of being blessed by fate, means that his sense of deserving good things in his life is a lie. What I’m talking about now isn’t unrelated to the myth of meritocracy, which, for some reason, so many people in this country believe in wholeheartedly.  

JC: According to your website, you have many literary events and workshops coming up. Can you speak to how you find that participating in these events influence your work as a writer?  

JB: It’s a real pleasure to meet with readers of my work and with those who are interested in reading my work, and it’s fun to meet with people who are devoted to the writing life. That said, there is a difference between being an author (a public figure) and a writer (a private figure), and participating in all these events has pulled me away from writing. I’ve felt less like an artist than a promoter of my own work. In response to that feeling, I’m learning to be a little less precious about the conditions I require. For example I’m learning how to write in the sterile environments of hotel rooms and, at times, even on airplanes, instead of always needing my apartment, my desk, my coffee mug.

JC: Can you tell us about your current writing fellowship at Stanford?

JB: The Stegner Fellowship is a two-year gift of time and money for which I am very grateful. I benefit from the amazing writing and insights of my peers, the other fiction fellows, when we meet for workshop every week. And we all benefit from working with the Stanford creative writing faculty, with incredible people like Elizabeth Tallent and Chang-rae Lee.


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Author of whorelight, LINDA ASHOK is the 2017 Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Chichester, UK. She is the publisher of RLFPA Editions, Founder/President of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts that funds the annual RL Poetry Award (since 2013), and the founding editor of the Best Indian Poetry series. For features, press coverage, published works and more, visit lindaashok.com

 

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Photo credit: Arash Saedinia

 

JAMEL BRINKLEY is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has received fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Stanford University. A Lucky Man is his first book. He lives in California.

Interview with Jenn Givhan

In celebration of International Women’s Day, our blog editors, Joanna Cleary and Maria Prudente, interviewed poet and novelist Jenn Givhan for the Inklette blog. Read on to know more about the women writers who inspire her, writing about motherhood and lots more!



Maria Prudente:
In your collection, Landscape with Headless Mama, you include the experiences of what you call “different mother-entities”. What compelled you to write about women through the collective experience and difference in motherhood?

Jenn Givhan: When I first tried having a baby, I experienced infertility and loss. Though I felt like a mother and mothered the unborns of my heart and imagination, I could not bring a living child into this world. At the time I was working on my Master’s degree in literature, focusing specifically on Latinx views and portrayals of motherhood, searching for mothers outside of the narrow definitions of birthmother that Western society put dataURI-1552097845512upon the lexicon, and found that in many other cultures (Latin American/Mexican, for instance) much of the mothering work is shared by tías, hermanas, abuelas, primas (i.e., female relatives) and I was taken, for instance, with Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate and the role of Nacha, the abuela figure, the magical cook, an indigenous woman who is the primary caregiver of Tita as she grows up, and then later, adult Tita as the wet nurse of her sister’s baby, who becomes a Nacha-like figure to the girl, raising her in the kitchen. As I searched through the literature and began forming my own poetics, I asked questions of motherhood such as is the infertile woman the fertile woman’s doppelganger? Does she represent a fear of being without value in patriarchal society? This all helped me develop a poetics of motherhood outside of the patriarchy in my first collection and beyond, and I’m currently working on a lyric-hybrid memoir Quinceañera with Baby Fever that further delves into my experiences as a Latina growing up on the Mexicali border, examining the cultural stigmas toward childbearing and mothering in the Latina community filtered through my own experiences with teenage sexuality, contraceptives, abortion clinics, miscarriages, and violent relationships with machismo boys/men.  

MP: How does your identity as a Mexican-American women influence how and what you write?

JG: My identity as a Mexican-American woman is embedded in everything I write—even when I don’t explicitly examine my cultural heritage or reference it in my work—because it is linked to my worldview, my deepest belief system, how I view the world and myself. As I discussed before, my work tends to examine mothers at the center, all the variations and possibilities for what mother means, and my own Mexican-American mother is at the heart of this. Everything I write grapples with the complexities inherent in straddling cultures, roles, expectations. Where mainstream U.S. culture would ask me why on earth, for instance, I’d try having a baby while still a college student, why I’d adopt a baby in grad school, my Mexican family never once questioned my deep desire to be a mother, even so young. Now, I’m examining the changing perspectives in my culture and re-evaluating the expectations I felt so crucial, and I’m showing my daughter all the myriad choices she has—she’s eight years old, and we’re already planning for Harvard, which is where she says she will attend college, and which we’re visiting this summer after a book expo for my first novel. I love the Mexican-American woman role model I can be for her—she sees that I’m a mother, yes, but that’s just one aspect of who I am and the possibilities she can hold for herself, if she so desires. She is growing up to know her own strength, and that’s the most powerful aspect of our Latina badassery I can pass onto her.

“Alongside these forebears, I strive to weave together a multilayered song of endurance, survival, and, ultimately, celebration sung by the many women of color working together in the resistance.”

Joanna Cleary: Trinity Sight, your debut novel about a woman’s journey through a dystopian New Mexico, combines indigenous oral-historical traditions with modern apocalyptic fiction. What inspired you to do that? 

JG: I started out writing a story about a woman in New Mexico who loses her family and is on her own, and must find her own strength if she hopes to reunite with them, and perhaps more importantly, to see who she always was, with or without her family. The core of this story, then, is very close to my own heart, and speaks to my own greatest fear(s). Because my own family is from New Mexico on my great-grandmother’s side, and has roots to the Puebloan peoples, the stories that I was researching as I was reclaiming my own family history became enmeshed in protagonist’s search for strength and resilience. I didn’t necessarily set out to write a “post-apocalyptic” book, but the stories of the ancients here in the Southwest lend themselves to the cycles of destruction and rebirth that the indigenous peoples here have long known of and recorded in their sacred stories. I’m so grateful that my own inner journey connected with the ancients’—and that I’ve been able to glean a different perspective on dystopian fiction from a Latinx/indigenous perspective, centering us in our lands.

MP and JC: Which women writers have influenced you the most?

JG: My work follows the tradition of lucille clifton, who writes, “we have always loved us” and “come celebrate with me/that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and failed,” and Audre Lorde, who writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” My work follows my forebears Sandra Cisneros, Rosario Castellanos, Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, Toni Morrison, and Ana Castillo, and through paths tread clearer by contemporary poets Lisa D. Chavez, Natalie Diaz, Natasha Trethewey, Patricia Smith, and Margo Tamez. Alongside these forebears, I strive to weave together a multilayered song of endurance, survival, and, ultimately, celebration sung by the many women of color working together in the resistance.

MP and JC: What do you think is the most important message to share with emerging women writers?

JG: Believe in yourselves, beauties. Believe in yourselves so strong and resilient, so neverending, that no one, no one, can knock you down longer than it takes you to brush yourselves off and stand up, stronger, taller, braver than before, and to put your whole heart out there again and again and again. People will try to keep you down. And you will fall sometimes. And it will hurt. I wish I could say it won’t, but it will. You might not publish your first poem or story or even your tenth. You might have to send your book a hundred places. All the while you are putting your entire heart out for the world to see, keep learning. Keep growing. Keep shining. Stay open. When doors shut in your face, knock harder, knock louder. Knock the effing doors down. Climb up the fire escapes. Never, ever give up. Keep studying. Keep transforming. Keep shutting down the patriarchy. Shut that shit down every single time. And this all starts here: believe. In yourselves, in your truths, in your worth. As I believe in you. Together, we will change this whole world. ❤


15521042047946229.gifJENN GIVHAN, a National Endowment for the Arts and PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellow, is a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert. She is the author of four full-length collections: Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series edited by Billy Collins), Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize chosen by Ross Gay), and Rosa’s Einstein (Camino Del Sol Poetry Series, forthcoming 2019), and the chapbooks: Lifeline (Glass Poetry Press) and The Daughter’s Curse (Yellow Flag Press). Her novels, Trinity Sight and Jubilee, are forthcoming from Blackstone Press. Her honors include the Frost Place Latinx Scholarship, a National Latinx Writers’ Conference Scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize chosen by Monica Youn, the Pinch Poetry Prize chosen by Ada Limón, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize 2nd place chosen by Patricia Spears Jones, and fifteen Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review, among many others. Givhan holds a Master’s degree in English from California State University Fullerton and an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she can be found discussing feminist motherhood at jennifergivhan.com as well as Facebook & Twitter @JennGivhan.