Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fears

I know this is getting repetitive, but I really can't help it. I SHOULD REALLY BE WORKING ON MY DISSERTATION NOW. Instead, I am surfing through the net, checking out random blogs and thinking about writing.When I took this up, I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't think I will suffer from this kind of lack of motivation.It's not that I don't have anything to say. But it's just that I am thoroughly thoroughly bored with academia, and hence my lack of motivation. It's not that I am dis-illusioned, I never had much illusion about academia to begin with. But now,it just doesn't feel right to keep on writing this way. But at the same time, I am one of those people who feels extremely angry at one's own self for not finishing the initiated projects, and I can't leave academia simply because this is the best of the worst.Moreover, since I have spent so much time working here, it would be extremely stupid to leave without that damn PhD.
But what I really want to do, is write my own shit. In the non-academic mode.

Now that I have let it out of my system, I will be very honest. There are certain things that I have acquired from this academic gig. A chance to read a lot. To see things critically. Move beyond the surface. Move beyond my narrow comfort-zones. Keep on pushing my own writing, until every word begins to carry traces of that gut-wrenching pain, which somehow is only visible to me.So,I would definitely say, this is something that has prepared me, is preparing me to even think of writing my own stories down. But there are days, when I just break under the pressure of deadlines. Under the pressure of this very knowledge that there is this thing called dissertation looming large in the background! What to do!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Rich Man and the Parrot: Notes

Parrots are ambiguous animals (bird). They are beautiful, full of colors,great to look at. Spectacular, literally! Humans love them, because they look beautiful, and most importantly, they can mimic human speech. Just finished reading a re-telling of a Persian tale by Suzan Nadimi called The Rich Man and the Parrot. The story was originally included in Rumi's Masnavi.

The high point of the story is, when the parrot tells his master who has so long denied him his freedom, "When my brothers held their tongues, they told me that the sweetness of my tongue was holding me captive. And when they froze and fell to the earth, they showed me the way to freedom. I froze and fell, too, pretending to be dead. You opened my cage only when you thought I could no longer fly away.

Great! Materials for my un-finished poem, I guess?

But, the parrot did not have any sisters! Brotherhood of Parrots! Huh! Seems like material waiting for my intervention too!

While this dissertation is in my life, and I am depending primarily on my Teaching Fellowship to feed me, I will have to spend every alternate day with prose and poetry. Ideally, I would loved to devote the morning to poetry and the evening to prose, with all the readings tucked in between. But, I can't! Since the dissertation is looming large, and the funding is exhausting itself, and everyday, I am moving closer to that day when I won't have any left at all. At this stage in my life, I can't deny the enormous ways in which being in academia has helped me. All those weeks of trying to yank out academic papers have done something hugely important for me. It has taught me that it ain't a work of art unless you have spilled some of your own blood on it or wrenched your guts!

So today was the poetry day. Actually this weekend is going to be a poetry weekend majorly. Because I am revising one of the poems, and I want to send it to one of my primary readers by the end of this weekend!

And finally I have begun to revise the draft of the first chapter of my diss. Shall I say, yayyyy? Or shall I just wait for myself to turn it in to my reading group? I am opting for the second one myself, but if there is anyone else reading this post, feel free to utter that non-verbal sound of pleasure for me!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Mascara Literary Review

Two of poems were published here in Mascara Literary Review.

Have just completed the first week of school, and have been wondering how exhausted that already makes me feel. But trying to hold up my head, and see what I can do. It's funny how hard it becomes to blog when I am within this work schedule!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Random Notes

Had a relaxing day today. Didn't write, didn't think of anything academic. Went to Goodwill with DRR and bought some sweaters. Then, since Half Price Books is right next door, dropped in there too. Although I am broke, ended up buying a few books. Reading Tania James' Atlas of Unknowns, having just finished Mary Watson's short story anthology Moss.

Watson's collection is one of those where a reader goes back to again and again. The writing itself is extremely lyrical, full of symbolisms. She does these little playing-arounds with the norms of short-story writing. Most of the stories play with this extremely skillful alternation between close third-person point-of-view and omniscient narration. In short, it's one of those collections, which made me feel that although I am not always getting exactly what Watson herself as the writer might be wanting to get at, there is a lot that I can learn from her.

Have some ideas brewing in the head. Will try to write them down from Monday.

Super-Natural In My Stories

I have been thinking of the ways some of the beginning writers I have met in the last couple of years turn to supernatural in their stories. Ghosts, haunted houses, spirits. On the one hand, I am fascinated by the idea of super/sur/however-else-you-might-put-it natural, and I think, in my own works, I have crossed that realism/non-realism border much more freely in my poems. In reality, I am always trying to figure out if I am not using the super-natural as a coping-out mechanism. The truth is, a lot of writers I have met in the last two years, do tend to do that. I have written a story with a ghost. I have tried my hand at creating an alternate world, and I must admit, I have a lot more to learn in this field before I can do even any mild-level justice to these forms. But most importantly, I am afraid that sometimes I am really using the super-natural to let me not have to deal with certain contradictions, rather than facilitating an exploration of that contradictions. So, for now, while revising the stories I am working on, I will stay away from them, although there have been suggestions to do so. And I am almost tempted.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Phelna Story

My friend SD had some interesting readings of the Phelna-story. According to her, the narrative flows well. The story also shows a good grasp of the different kinds of voices, but what I don't have is the right amount of action to go with that. Now, that's something I have come across before. I am not someone who packs lots of actions within the lines. And elsewhere I have talked about this "pro-action" approach. But, I do think, in this case, this was something I myself was also feeling before I sent it out to her. So, I am not surprised. Now, basically, I need to find more trouble for Phelna. I need to land her in the midst of more confusion, and maybe might even have to introduce another character or two.

My initial thoughts were to land Phelna in the middle of a other group of kids, and then have her learn through some playground violence about her father's death. I even thought, maybe I can link that knowledge with her mother Anu's over-protectiveness of her. Maybe have a scene where Phelna comes and asks her mother about what she has learnt from her friends, thus causing Anu to freak out. It's possibly, then, that Anu frames the lie about her father being merely away. Now, I do think this can be a valid testing-ground. But then, I have another story about playground-violence, and I don't want to have two stories going on within very similar settings. As it is, my stories so far are dealing with a very narrow set of people to begin with.

Now, I am thinking, what if I bring in a servant-figure? A girl, slightly older than Phelna, but not much? Who stays in their home almost for nothing, in exchange of some food and shelter? And who lets it out to Phelna that she has no father? Then, when Phelna will ask her Mom about it, it will cause this other girl to lose her job, and will also lead Anu to unleash all these protectiveness? But then, what it will do is, force Phelna to reside within this realm of knowing and not-knowing, and maybe at the end of the story Phelna will realize something about her father's death!

This second one, right now, seems like a more exciting choice. It will mean that I have to deal with lots of different things, not the least of which is class, and all these zig-zag intersections of occurrences. That will also mean that I push the limits of the existing narrative further. And...and...that means, an increase in the number of words...meaning, another longer short story. But, I guess, the material demands that I spread myself a little bit more. And I will just have to wait and begin to work, and see where it takes me. At this point, I am feeling slightly better to have been able to think this through, but I am also feeling intimidated by all the extra-work I will need to do because of it.

But then, that IS the nature of this work, isn't it

Parrot-Lores and My Poem

I have always had this thing for parrots. So, I wasn't surprised when somehow the words "Parrot Kings" stumbled out of my pen when I was working on a very tentative rough draft of the "Generations" poem. Then, now that I have a slightly less tentative third draft, I am wondering what prompted my choice of the Parrot King as the father/husband. I am not very sure, but what I am realizing, if done well, this can open up a range of possibilities.

a. Parrots have always been looked upon as these talking birds, fetishized as such. In that sense, they have always been very close to human beings. Now, that can be an interesting location seen from the eyes of a parrot.

b. Eagles vs. Parrots (Eagles symbolizing royal, imperial power while parrots symbolize intelligence, word-skills etc.)

c. the presence of parrots in the urban landscape of India/South Asia (the astrologer parrots)

d. the wealth of parrot-tales in Indian folklore

e. Rabindranath's tota-kahini

So, basically, immense possibilities in carving out a historical space for parrots, which would also hopefully help me to characterize the Parrot King better. I still don't know the end of the tunnel here, but at least, I am beginning to see an opening. I think I have already poked my head through it. Now, I really don't have any other option than to keep walking through it, and see where it takes me. If I am lucky, the other end of the tunnel will provide a glorious view of some little explored terrain.

Some will say, this where my Muses have pushed me! I prefer to say, the historical unconscious!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Birds

Reading Terri Windling's essay on birds in folklore. In the last one year, I have been pulled to birds in my own writing without exactly meaning to. There is the short story now burning in the back burner after a couple of drafts. The long poem Generations, which I am planning to begin to work on after a few days. Now, Windling's essay has all kinds of references to birds, but has nothing about parrots. So, I am trying to compile a small bibliography of my own.Not too overwhelming, but something that will push my own characterization of Parrot King a little further. So, here it is, below:

1. Pinault, David. Notes from the fortune-telling parrot : Islam and the struggle for religious pluralism in Pakistan (book)

2.The rich man and the Parrot

3.Parrot culture : our 2,500-year-long fascination with the world's most talkative bird
2004
Boehrer, Bruce Thomas.

4.Black parrot, green crow : a collection of short fiction / by Houshang Golshiri ; edited by Heshmat Moayyad

5.Author Ghatak, S. M., 1926-
Title The case of the parson's parrot and other stories / S.M. Ghatak.
Publication Information New Delhi : Rupa & Co., 2002.

6.Author Jain, Neera.
Title A parrot that could pray and other tales : tales of Tenali Raman / retold by Neera Jain ; design and illustration by Nandita Chatterjee.
Publication Information New Delhi : Rupa & Co., 2002.

7.Skelton, Robin.
Title The parrot who could : and other stories / by Robin Skelton.
Publication Information Victoria, B.C. : Sono Nis Press, 1987.

8.Padma Sudhi, 1938-
Title Virtues of parrot-learning : thirty parrot-tales from Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism / Padma Sudhi.
Edition 1st ed.
Publication Information Poona : Western Ghat Publication, 1987.

9. Lal, Rangi.
Title The parrot and the starling : [tales / by Rangilal] ; translated by K. P. Bahadur.
Edition 1st ed.
Publication Information Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1977.

10.Uniform title ukasaptati. English.
Title Shuka Saptati : seventy tales of the parrot / translated from the Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar.
Publication Information New Delhi : HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

There are some more that I have ignored for the time being. Ten is a good number to begin with, I think. Now, on a different but related note, Windling also has this section on swans and she mentions this Grimm Brothers' story "Seven Swans", which is all about a sister sewing shirts for her six brothers who have been turned into swans. So, sewing, brother, sister--raw material for the other project I have on quilts? Seems like it! What I am waiting for?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Concluding the Story...Characterization

Two of my readers think that I should have ended the "A Phuchka for Bindudi" story differently. Or rather, I should show Bindudi's reactions. I am still thinking about it. On the one hand, I do have this kind of love for "open endings." So, for me, the present conclusion symbolized an interaction, an attempt on the part of the "we" voice of the story to initiate a contact, which breaks the conventional mold of their previous interactions with Bindudi. Now, I wanted to have it as an attempt, a suggestion. Nothing final. Who know how Bindudi will react after that. Who knows if that small interaction will lead to relationships. There are so many "ifs" and "buts" there. And those "ifs" and "buts" can be stories in themselves. But then, I do have this tendency of leaving out vital confrontations out of the story. In one of the stories I had workshoped in one of the UCLA Extension workshops, I had ended the story at this attempt of confrontation. But the actual confrontation never happened. Partly because I felt, in the context I was writing about, all the inter-personal complexities and traumas can't be solved by mere confrontation. The very notion that "confrontation" can lead to something is, I feel, rooted thoroughly in a certain kind of worldview. For me, sometimes, certain things can't be confronted, and the biggest "confrontation" lies in the recognition that there will always be certain blank areas, non-existent answers. But that's not what this Bindudi story is all about.

So, now I am trying to think, if I indeed make Bindudi speak, what will she tell these girls? Come and have tea with me? A happy rejuvenation of sorts? Probably, that's what readers would like to see too. A kind of bridge-building! But, then, what purpose will that bridge serve? I am not sure. Or, do I want Bindudi to snap back? That will be consistent with the rest of the choices I have made throughout the story, but what will that signify either? That Bindudi might be going through certain changes, but she is still holding on to some of her basic values/traits etc. which made her into Bindudi in the first instance?

This needs more thoughts...personally, I am more drawn to the second one. Because, I don't think, for one thing, that all stories need to end with a happy happy happy note. That's not what life is all about. Secondly, I do want to show all these contradictory resolves in this woman's character. So lets' see...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On Being Verbose

I have been thinking about my own writing for the last few days. Going back to some of them, reading through them, and I realized, I am quite, er, VERBOSE. My poems are long, my stories are long. So, if you are a believer in the maxim "saying less is more", then, probably, my writing is not for you. I tend to say a lot, through a lot. Part of it is just that I think, certain things tend to take up more space. Although it's not like I myself don't enjoy precision. But I like those long, rambling stories full of details a lot better. Especially when they work, especially when they let me see a setting, an environment, a character up down sideways. I think it takes a lot to delve into those details. Writing skills, observational skills, analytical skills. But I have also been thinking, is there a gender-divide in terms of our reception of the length of the work? Like, so much of the poetry criticism has praised Emily Dickinson for being brief and precise. I myself love Emily Dickinson, but it's not her precision which makes me love her. In fact, that aspect is secondary for me. She is doing a lot more in her poems than being merely brief, precise, and miserly with words. But does it de-stabilize us a little bit to imagine a Whitmanesque or Ginesbergian verbosity from a woman? Is that praise for precision also a desire to contain the women writers? Asking her not to take up too much space?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Question to Self

Really cold here in Austin today.

Have been wondering, why the poems I have written in the past few weeks/months full of women who choose to leave? What am I trying to deal with (or maybe, it's all about not dealing with things) as I write about these fugitives?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Re-Writing of Cinderella Poem in Pratilipi

I was re-reading the second poem that Pratilipi has published. In some ways, it's a straight-up persona poem, taking on a voice that has not been explored enough in the literature, in my opinion. There is, of course, Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Step-Sister, and I am glad that I got to know about its existence after I had written this poem. Otherwise, I don't think I would be inspired enough to write my own version of it. When I was writing this poem, I was thinking about two things:

1. The Limits of Solidarity.
Feminists have written a lot about solidarity between and amongst women, and given the premise of the movement, it seems to be the most obvious choice. In fact, I would think, all social movements/collective actions are based upon the idea of solidarity. But then, what are the limits of solidarity? When does solidarity become problematic or even impossible? What are the limits of sisterhood?

2. Agency and Ideology. Some of the feminist criticisms I have read about Cinderella read her as a "victim" figure. And I would agree, to a large extent. But is it always so? What if a woman decides that there is real advantage in towing the line, in acting in accordance to patriarchal norms? Sticking to norms always has its own rewards. What if a woman values those rewards too much? So, in that sense, she is using her agency or subjectivity. That's not the issue, the issue is, how we are to read her choices ideologically, politically, philosophically. So what I was trying to explore in the poem was, what if Cinderella had chosen to fit herself with the requirements of the little glass shoe? So, the step-sister's voice, which is angry at Cinderella for that choice, is an extremely loaded voice. The step-sister reveals to the readers her ideological baggage, and it is through that ideological lens that she reads her sister's choices.

So, in certain ways, the poem was meant to be a critique/criticism of the idea of "sisterhood" prevalent in feminist thoughts. And this is something that interests me immensely, and I think, it's also something that has come back in different ways in the poems that I have written during this period.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Two Poems in Pratilipi/Thumbelina-Charit

Two of my poems came out in Pratilipi. You can find them here. In many ways, the poem "thumbelina-charit" is one of my most personal poems, political too. So, seeing it within a journal-space, I could not help wondering, how will my readers read it. Or, will they read it at all? In many many ways, the poem is an attempt to put in words my reflections of the gender-politics of the leftist social movements, the way they often think of "women's participation" as the ultimate goal. Consequently, the emphasis begins to fall on mere "participation" and never really on how that participation was achieved, and what that participation entailed. Now, that I re-read it, I think, there is also a fair amount of that political confusion which had been mine for the last two decades. I know, it's not the confusion/experience of the majority. And, if I have to be perfectly honest, it's that kind of confusion which is not only "obsolete" now, but is fit to be kept inside the glass-cases of a museum. But it has been very real for me, for a lot of my friends, who in a post-Naxalbari Kolkata/West Bengal/India had tried to find political direction in non-CPI/CPI(M) Marxism, while questioning a lot of the basic tenets of Marxism itself. How does that confusion look from the perspective of a woman? That has been my quest throughout the poem. But then, the poetic speaker here is not me. There are lots of personal stuff in this poem, but not enough of auto-biography. Neither, in my opinion, is it confessional. I think, trying to fit the historical/political material into the Thumbelina-story framework, had also helped me to prune out some of the more autobiographical stuff, which was there in the earlier version of the poem, had been pruned out. In so many ways, the essential visual of this thumb-size woman of the Thumbelina story, had always disturbed me. I found it to be extremely violent, and there was no way I could ignore that aspect. And the two, the basic theme and the material I was bringing to fill the gaps in the fairy-tale plot, I think, complemented each other in the end. Now, it's for the readers and the critics to decide on the rest.

In a way, I am happy, that this poem found home in an Indian journal. For lots of different reasons.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Continuing The Thread of the Last Post...

Gave the story a read. Now, I am still determined on two counts:

1. This story, this particular one, needs to focus on the little girl.

2. The whole story cannot be in first-person.There are things in there which I want the readers and the narrator to know, but not Phelna, the protagonist should not necessarily know about them. Because the story itself is based on her not knowing certain things, and believing in them, precisely because she is so young.

So, what seems to me, might work in this case, is a mixture of two voices. Phelna's first person narrative, and a third person omniscient voice which will let the reader into the details which Phelna does not necessarily know, but which are indeed important for the story itself, and will hold it together. I am hesitating here, because there is only so much one can do within a short story, so how will this alternation of voices work within the story? I can totally see this trounced in the workshops, because it would not necessarily fit into the way most American writers are trained to understand "voice" and "perspective." Besides, there is also the real concern, if that kind of cris-crossing of voices can work for the limited space of a short story? I don't know if it will, but at this point, the only thing I can do, is to try my hand at it, see where it goes, and then ask my friends, readers and workshop colleagues about it.

The other things that need to be worked upon more:

a. Phelna's perception of her absent father, and building some tension around that. Make the father's absence felt within the story-narrative as well as within Phelna's perceptions of the world.

b. Build upon the character of Phelna more by showing the reader more about her inner world/everyday world (some of the material from the first draft of the story can be used for this.)

Now, it seems like I have done the background-work that needed to be done for this story, and all I need to do from tomorrow onwards, is to get back to the actual work of re-writing it. I am looking forward!

Choice of the Narrator/Protagonist

Decided to go back to one of the stories I have turned in for Beth Ann Bauman's workshop. In a nutshell, it's a story about a little girl getting into a school, or rather not getting into a school. It was one of the first stories that I had ever written, and admittedly, had more autobiographical details than a lot of the other stuff I had written more recently. It wasn't a very popular story in the preceding workshops. Most of my colleagues thought the story wasn't going anywhere, there wasn't much happening, and while I do think, part of it has to do with the American school of setting up the conflict-exploring the conflict-resolution of the conflict model, the story too had some glaring problems. Part of it is that, I was too attached to the authenticity of the material, the real-life occurrences, rather than the logic of the story. So, as a result, it kept seeming like a sweet little childhood story, an exercise, more than an actual story. Hardly any readers caught on the intensity of the violence I was trying to communicate, the inherent violence with which we begin our lives within an educational institution. So, part of the revision process meant that I throw out a lot of the autobiographical stuff, situate this little girl, the protagonist of the story in a background very different from mine in certain ways, and actually, make life much more harder for her than it had ever been for me.

But then, I landed in another problem. Most of my readers wanted the story to be narrated in a first-person voice, Beth herself thought that the main character is too young to reflect upon the crises I am dealing with, and instead of having her as the main character, I should have the mother narrate the story, who clearly has more at stake. I do agree, and I do think, that needs to be a totally different story, which, at this point is slow-cooking in the back-burner of the stove. But I do want this story to be this little girl's, and although I am not sure why, I am resisting the first-person narration, because it seems to me, it will take away a lot from the story. So, at this point, I am just trying to figure out where this story can go, and reading Richard Russo's essay In Defense of Omniscience, hoping it will provide me with some clues to my problems.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Random Reflections

Just finished reading and making some editorial-notes-to-myself kinds of work on my old essay on Belinda's petition. The basic work is there, the theoretical premise, I think, works, but the writing itself needs to be developed a lot more. Besides, I need to see where the other primary materials are going. One thing I noticed while making those editorial comments, I do tend to write EXTREMELY long sentences. Is it a fallout of my post-colonial education, I wonder?

Was reading Rana Dasgupta's Muse India interview earlier today. I haven't had a chance to read his books, they have been on my list for a long time now, but I haven't had a chance to get to them so far. At one point, Dasgupta says, on being asked to speak about his choice to set his stories/novels outside India, responds:

There is particular kind of psychological sensitivity in India to ridiculously claim that there is no poverty or violence in the country. Poverty and violence are absolutely legitimate subjects to write about. I still haven’t found a way of writing about this country. It’s a very, very complex place and it’s been written about very much. I would like to write about this country, and if I do, it will probably be non-fiction because I find that the reality of this country is itself complete. One doesn’t have to make it up. The reality is so stark and intense that just reporting on it, as it is, is kind of enough.

I agree with Dasgupta on a few counts:

a. Poverty and violence are legitimate subjects for fictional/literary discourse.

b. India is a very very complex place.

But I am not sure what to think of the other stuff. South Asia, undoubtedly, is an over-written region. India is itself an extremely over-written country. But isn't every over-written place an extremely under-written place too? I am yet to come across a novel/short story which speaks, for instance, about the lives of me and my friends in Kolkata. Similarly, I am not totally in agreement with his view that the "reality" in India is "itself complete." For, to me, no reality is ever complete. Similarly, fictional representation is not just about "making up." Neither it is about "reporting." To me, it's this complex combination of imagination, social analysis and this awareness of being rooted in history. The best I can come close to is thinking of it as a process where one tries to find out how individuals embody social history in and through their seemingly inconsequential actions and activities. And then, of course, translating all of that into language, into forms. In what Dasgupta saying, I am not finding that complex inter-relationship. Maybe I will understand what he is trying to say when I read his stories and novel.

You can read the entire interview here.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Spring 2010 Syllabus

Happy New Year!

I have been trying to finalize the readings for the Spring 2010 class I am teaching. Since, we are all supposed to teach In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, I am also using his recent New York Times article. It complements the book nicely, it's an essay rather than a book. And in my own experience, freshman students who mostly take this class, find it easier to process single essays than full-length books. Most of my students refer to any full-length book as a "novel", and most of the times I have to devote a class-period to explain to them the difference between "fiction" and "non-fiction." I know I am old and cranky, and like all old people like to fall back upon nostalgia, but still, when I was eighteen, I did know the difference between a novel and a full-length non-fiction book! But my students don't, and in order to be realistic, I prefer to teach more articles in class, rather than full-length books, precisely because I want them to process the stuff I am teaching, and use them for their own essays, and not just merely gloss over them.

I will keep the Susan Reizman blog post I had used for my Fall class and will add Amanda Marcotte's essay from Pandagon.net to the list, because I think, it does provide an interesting feminist critique of Pollan's view, but from a slightly different perspective from that of Susan Reizman. And this will help me to demonstrate to my students that a controversy need not always have just two sides. In fact, it can have many!

Now, that I have figured this out, I need to go back and read the essay I wrote on Belinda's Petition, and figure out where it needs extension/re-vision and re-writing.