Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A New Publication: In Search of (Non)Authenticity?

A poem of mine has just been accepted recently by the journal for their forthcoming issue on food. The acceptance email said, it was selected from amongst 600 poems, and the issue will be on mail sometime in November. The poem is what I will call an example of a kind of "feminist" revisionist aesthetics. I was trying to imagine how Mary Beton's cook would look into her relationship with her employer, how she would speak about the process of the food-production itself. So, the poem, as I myself understand it, is not about celebrating food at all, but it is more about the labor that goes into the production of food.That's why, apart from all the usual reasons, I am elated. Do you all know who is Mary Beton? Coz the first time I workshopped this poem, no one in my class knew!

Well, she is Virginia Woolf's aunt, in the book A Room of One's Own, who died from a horse-fall in Bombay and left her a legacy!

I do have a soft spot for this poem. For two reasons. One, it's one of the few poems where I was experimenting with the voice. I was trying to adopt the persona of someone who is clearly not me, and not even someone like me. Someone who belongs to a different class and time in history. So, I was stretching my imagination a whole lot. Secondly, ever since I have read Alice Walker's In Search of My Mother's Garden, I have wanted to write about A Room of One's Own from a South Asian woman's perspective. So far I have written three. In a "women's literature" class I took at my alumnus in Pacific Northwest, the instructor, a Jewish-American white woman began the class with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. She said to us that she was appalled that these days it is possible to graduate from a Women's and Gender Studies program without ever having read the book. I kind of identify with her emotions, partly because I guess, the first time I read the book, it was on my own.So, at some elevel, this very idea of churning out feminists in the same way the schools and colleges have churned out clerks and engineers, for example, kind of intrigues me. I go back and forth on this issue, depending upon the context, but one of the things that is undeniable is the fact that this book by Woolf enjoys this almost absolute canonical status within the WGS programs, women's lit courses.

Personally, I love the book a lot. Seriously. Especially the way she begins with this whole little narrative about Shakespeare's sister. I guess I love this book also for a very personal reason. I never had a room while growing up. But there is also a part of me, which feels helpless in front of its class and imperial privileges. I mean, gender is not the only reason why women do not always have rooms of their own. And why women, a whole lot of men do not have rooms of their own in this world either. Something that Alice Walker touches upon succinctly in her essay, so does Tillie Olsen in another one. But what attracted my attention was this sentence:My aunt, Mary Beton, I must tell you, died by a fall from her horse when she was riding out to take the air in Bombay. […] A solicitor’s letter fell into the post–box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. I mean, come on! I will have to be a real dud to just pass this on, right? So, yes, the poems I have written on this book, three so far, two of them deal with this particular sentence in two different ways.

The first one, that came out in Muse India, is one of critical appreciation. More respectful and reverential in its essential tone. I clearly express my indebtedness to Virginia Woolf and then go on to provide a soft critique of her work. The other two are more aggressive in terms of both language and sentiment, more pointed in their critique of Woolf's class and imperial politics. But the process of writing this poem also brought up some issues for me. I knew from the very beginning that there is no way this one is going to be “authentic.” I haven't done any historical research, or any research on the dialect/linguistic usages of an Indian/South Asian servant woman working in a British kitchen in late 19th/early 20th century Bombay. What kind of Hindi or Marathi will she speak? Besides, I don't know Marathi. And, there is this question that how does one reproduce in English a dialect in Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil or any other South Asian languages for that matter? Whenever I think of this question, I keep going back to Arundhati Roy's dalit character Velutha. Is this one of the reasons why he doesn't talk much throughout the novel? How does one translate dalit Malayalam into English when it's hard to reproduce even the nuances of a proper middle-class Bengali/Hindi/Marathi/Malayalam in Anglo-American English? So, in a way, it all boils down to the issue of translation to begin with, the politics of it all.

So, when I was beginning to work on this poem, I wasn't exactly thinking of being “authentic.” I was more interested in making a political intervention, bringing up a possibility. I was more interested in what in academia we will call "problematizing" the smugness of Woolf's ideological, political and intellectual horizon. How would the world of “intellectual”, “scholarly” or even “feminist” mem-sahibs look to the women who worked for them in the kitchens? Why didn't Woolf (and so so many others like her) haven't looked into it? Honestly, too, I don't know. Precisely because my own world in India is very very similar to the world of the mem-sahibs. If anyone ever takes an honest stock of the history of the feminist movement in my own country, and that work has currently begun, my location will be very similar to the white feminists in the West. But then, what does one do with it? What does a writer/scholar do with that knowledge? For me, there are only two ways in which I can deal with the aftermath. Begin to show the problems, limitations of my own location and position. That is, engage in a ruthless criticism of myself again and again. And then, also begin to branch out beyond my own comfort zones. The way I understand it, there are two ways in which one can do that. Through one's writing, through one's life. And the two, for me, are inextricably linked. This is not the place for me to talk about what I have done with it in my own life. At least, not yet.

But, as a writer, this poem was one of the ways in which I have tried to venture into that discomfort-zone. I have repeatedly asked myself, haven't I appropriated the voice of a poor woman in the process? Isn't that problematic? The answer is yes. Very much so. But then if I have to be completely honest, there is the other reality. Writing this poem made it imperative that I think of a world very different from mine in minute, physical terms.I mean, you cannot write a persona poem and still be not explicit in terms of the physical details. Especially when the title of your poem is Ballad of a Turmeric-Tainted Palm. It was, as if while inhabiting the voice of Mary Beton's cook, I was also forced to embody her space within the world at large. I was thinking of what kind of labor she would perform and how. I was trying to imagine the world of an “other,” in a way I am never required to do within my everyday life. And believe me, when I use the word never, I am serious. No, not while engaging with any progressive political rhetoric, academic seminars on subalterneity and intersectionality, or even the leftist student movements had ever required me that I think of switching positions/roles this way. So, in a way, this poem forced me out of my classed comfort-zone, even if it was for a little while. But then this whole thing of being kicked out of one's comfort zone is tricky, precisely because there is no going back, and as I am writing this post, I am still trying to wrestle with the implications of such acts.

It is pretty common to instruct the beginning creative writers to write about the worlds they know. "Write what you know of." We are told inside workshops. I agree whole-heartedly. I mean, any writer worth his/her salt should have some capacity to de-code his/her known world, right? Similarly, I know about writers who claim that they can't really write about anything that hasn't passed through their own existence. I agree with that too! Although, I should also say, I am not very confident with that arrogant vouching for autobiographical realism. It's far more complex than that, I will like to believe.

I mean, for me to write this poem, I really had to question Woolf, read and re-read her, transplant myself to the kitchens in my own home, the homes I know of in India, the domestic-maids or even the middle-class women who provide labor in there. So, all these things were indeed "passing" through my existence. But I would also say, if we are honest and dig deeper to reveal the world we know best, as writers, we will be, at some point or the other, forced to branch out into the slightly unknown. And this is where, for me, writing is all about living! There is no other way round! And even when I was writing this poem, I was thinking, sure I don't know how it feels to work inside a colonial kitchen in those direct terms! But what if I had to work in there? What did I do when I had to work in other such closed places and leaving was not an option? Yes, I will spit on the soup-pot or the boiling tea-water. Literally and metaphorically. Without providing a whole lot of details, let me also "confess" that I have done similar things, and no, I don't feel any repentance. So, in lots of ways, I was still digging into the well of my own experience. And as writers, this is not something we can ever avoid! But imagining the "other", if done without engaging in short-cuts, can also pave the way for artistic and political solidarity.

So, one thing I am pretty sure of, writing, if done honestly and sincerely, will make you political. However you define that damn term.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Deadlines, Revisions, Literary Sexism

Deadlines can sometimes do wonders. As I discovered last week. I needed to submit a story within 4,000 words to my online workshop. Now, most of my stories are longer, and personally, I have no problems with that. Having grown up on Progress Publishers heavy doses of Tolstoy and Eisentein Cine Club screenings of Tarkovosky, I am fine with long rambling stories spanning 1500 pages and long, ranting films of four hours duration (both feudalism and state socialism, it seems, have one thing in common. It frees the artist of the obligation to have to work for putting meals on the table. Consequently, it becomes very very hard to churn out novels less than 700 pages or films less than 3 hours. But that's another story!) Now, I am a slow writer, who needs lots of time to churn out new stuff. So, there was no way I could have produced a 4,000 word coherent write-up within a week. Instead, what I did, I attempted to revisit one of my old stories. I was stuck in that in terms of the plot and the characters seemed to lack motivation. Now, as I sat down to revise it, I kind of had an epiphany. I re-moulded a lot of the directly autobiographical material into something more fictional. I let myself go where I was previously afraid to go. That is, the inherent contradictions and violences of the lower middle-class Bengali life. That desire for upward mobility which often times manifests itself through gender norms and the way children are treated. So now, although the traces of the original story will still be visible to those who had read the very first draft, a lot of the basic structure has undergone serious changes. I haven't been able to do all that I wanted to do, and I will need at least another 1,000 words or so to pull it together in the way I want. But, I can see something now, which I couldn't before.

Therefore,yayyyyyyy to deadlines!

In other words, I came across this while surfing the blog:
There was a nice, short girl from the riverside of a Kerala village who wrote a book in the mid-nineties. A sweet, small novel which was likeable but immensely forgettable. But it was not the case. The staccato style she employed got the attention of the Booker judges and it went on to win that coveted award, thanks to which millions of copies were sold, and still counting.
Arundhati Roy became a household name since then

In an Indian publisher's blog.

I was a little stunned to read this one, and am just wondering, am I the only one to read a kind of intense sexism which I thought has become really really obsolete? Especially since none of the commentators point it out in their comments? "Nice, short girl from the riverside of a Kerala village"---come on now! I am a little bit weirded out to see that an upcoming publisher can use such infantilizing, diminutive terms about a writer and just get away with it! Or is it just that, globalization has brought in the nineteenth century all over again? (Remember Twain's comments about Harriet Beecher Stowe....the little lady?) And it's me who should feel obsolete in here?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Camus and Poems in Kritya

Having just finished reading Camus' The Stranger, I was wondering about the ways this novella has often been received in my hometown Kolkata. I was only in Eleventh Grade when I first read it. I have friends, who in college, could recite passages from it without having to look into the book. I also have friends who began to learn French after reading The Stranger. In one of my short stories, I have dealt with that legacy a little bit, and it is partly because that I want to revise this story that I went back to the novel. Now, Camus is one of those writers who intrigues me. I just don't know how to categorize him sometimes. I am totally in awe of his sleekness, I try to move myself back to his world. How metropolitan France must have looked to this rectum-ripe working class white kid from Algeria! But still, my primary reaction to Camus has been in the past, "dude, stop celebrating alienation!" and I still kind of think of him the same way!

So, the way I get it, the crux of The Stranger is this idea of state power performing itself (I keep thinking of Ngugi wa' Thiongo's essay "Acts of Power" whenever i come across this idea of state performing itself anywhere.) Also, Joseph Roach in Cities of Dead, says something similar, "[...]law as performance that appears to operate in almost any culture: regulatory acts and ordinances produce "a routine of words and gestures" to fit the myriad of protocols and customs remembered with the law or evoked by it"(56). Camus takes lot of pain to point out to this theater of law, so much so that his protagonist Mersault doesn't always understand if he is an actor or just a passive audience. In a way, then, it's not hard to understand, Camus is trying to deal with state violence in a really complicated way throughout the narrative. But then...yes, but then...the only accidental violence that happens within this book are upon women and Arabs. Is this accidental? I think not. And, I think, it totally ends up revealing the centrality of both male-supremacy and reliance upon empire within the mid-twentieth century European social-aesthetic movements, modernist or otherwise. Camus' novel only articulates those contradictions, wittingly or unwittingly.

Two of my poems came out in this month's Kritya. You can find them here and here. In order to read the first one, please scroll down a little bit, ok? Both of them were written a while back, and does not exactly represent my present aesthetics. But they do represent an important phase in my development as a writer and poet. The first one is an interpretation of a very common Bengali lore, that there is an old woman with a spinning jenny inside the moon. The second one, yes, it's about sexual violence and rape. A poem that nearly broke me. The line "pain penetrates me drop by drop" is a line by the ancient Greek poet Sappho. It's an one-liner, so far as I know no one knows if the full poem is lost, or Sappho just wrote this one sentence. Anyway, this poem is also my reading of that one-liner by Sappho, my tribute to her. So, please stop by and let me know what you think about them.