Monday, June 22, 2015

Chatbook Chat: Nandini Dhar Discusses Lullabies are Barbed Wire Nations

Lullabies are Barbed Wire Nations, finalist in the 2014 Two of Cups Press chapbook contest

Author: Nandini Dhar

Publisher: Two of Cups Press

Publication date: 2015

When We’re Free, We’re Free by Nandini Dhar

A moment is an old aluminum bowl, squatting down to eat. A volunteer in a relief-camp. Scooping up a spoonful of khichuri. Consistency like water. Yellow like shit. A fly in the bowl. Dip your fingers. Catch the fly in between them. Toss it out. Now continue to eat whatever is left.

Survival: cutting such moments into two, shoving them under the bed. Arrive at a moment by treading on many more moments. Home is a wall closing on another wall. Home is a disease. Home is a stamped passport. Home is a denied visa. Home is a chronic ailment. Memories of unrecorded famines, a fishbone sucked dry. Broken between old men’s teeth – the last remnants of nourishment. Re-draw the map of a nation. Make a list of its diseases. A historical geography of its ailments, afflictions and non-cures. A human body is an archive. Of stories, memories. And diseases. Re-draw the map of a nation through its diseases.

My sister Tombur and I were born into the knowledge that every bit of our skins preserve the memories of past afflictions, and we start sucking each others’ thumbs. Only if we could spit-erase the maps of past maladies that way. When we wouldn’t stop even when we reached the age of four, our mother began to dip our fingers in bottlefuls of kalmegh. We stopped. Because kalmegh was bitter. More bitter than neem leaves. More bitter than bitter gourd. More bitter than our mother’s wrath. We soon invented other strategies – chewing our own hair, biting nails, throwing water on cats – to try her patience. But we were forever cut off from the legacy of chronic diarrhea which plagues almost everyone else in our family and neighborhood. We are the citizens of a free and brimming nation. One that has bypassed the two and half generations before us.

(first published in [PANK])

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Nandini Dhar is the author of the chapbook, Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations (Two of Cups Press, 2014). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Potomac Review, [PANK], Los Angeles Review, Whiskey Island, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of the journal, Elsewhere. Nandini hails from Kolkata, India, and divides her time between her hometown and Miami, Florida, where she works as an Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University.

Author blog

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[This interview was conducted via email in June 2015.]

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations.

ND: I see my chapbook as one hybrid long poem comprising primarily of prose-poems. There are a few line-based poems that provide a kind of contrast to the block paragraphs of the prose-poems. At the center of this long poem are two little girls. They are sisters. Twins, to be more precise. Their names are Toi and Tombur. They are growing up in the Kolkata of 1980s. I see my poem as a poetic reflection on their gradual politicization, on the space where they are beginning to figure out the complex histories that have shaped the world they have inherited. To that end, the poem makes references to crucial elements of Bengal's history – Partition, Naxalbari, the left movement as a whole.

NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

ND: The phrase “Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations” has been torn from one of the lines in a poem that appears in the chapbook. The line is: Lullabies are barbed wire nations whose boundaries no little girl would ever cross. I didn't think too much about the title. This phrase somehow seemed right. What I wanted the title to convey is the fact that this is a book about childhood. And a lullaby is a poetic genre irrevocably associated with childhood. I also wanted to make it clear in the very title that this is not a book about childhood nostalgia per se. This is, in nutshell, a book about how childhood is implicated within structures of systemic social violence. And then there is the little fact that a lot of the lullabies – and this is definitely true in Bengali – deliver a community's understanding of social and historical violences in and under the guise of trivial, in and under the guise of the figure of a child in the middle of the act of falling asleep.

NCL: Please discuss the choice for a chapbook. For example, why did you choose the chapbook as the vehicle for your poems rather than a book-length manuscript or a section in a book? When you started, did you intend to create a chapbook? How long did it take to write this chapbook (or, alternatively, how did you know it was time to stop writing)?

ND: I love chapbooks as a form – the brevity, the compactness, the physical-material appeal of holding a chapbook in hand. But at the same time, I have a chronic condition that Salman Rushdie calls elephantitis. Everything I try to write tends to be epic length. So, I have always wanted to write a chapbook while being aware of the fact that I am not very good in reproducing the brevity that this form needs. But then, this chapbook somehow felt right. I didn't plan consciously on a chapbook. I wrote the first poem in 2011, and I began to submit in 2014. In fact, Two of Cups was the first place where I submitted my work. I am still writing Toi-Tombur poems. So, obviously, the twins need more than a chapbook. But at that time, the poems I had written felt right as a chapbook. And it feels good to have released the twins out in the world before they attain their adulthood in the form of a full-length or something else.

NCL: The poems in chapbook are rooted in the perspective of Bengali girlhood, What are some of the other themes, metaphors, and other elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

ND: In terms of forms, the block paragraphs of prose-poems play a unifying role. Often times, these blocks are long. In all practical purposes, a lot of these poems could be broken up into more poems. And that kind of breaking up would have allowed the readers more white space, more breathing space. But that's exactly what I didn't want to do. Instead, I wanted to play with breathlessness. I wanted to engage in an aesthetic of density. I mean, modern Bengali history is dense. In the course of one hundred and fifty years or so, we have experienced colonialism, multiple famines, partition, independence, several political upheavals. It is a society where modern life is interspersed by what is precolonial, premodern. In other words, it is where there is a tangible sense of the existence of the feudal past within the contemporary everyday. “History”, in Bengal, didn't begin in 1492. I wanted to recreate that sense of density in my poems.

In terms of themes, I wanted this book to be about an angry little girl, an overtly intellectual little girl. Her anger is the essence of her intellect. She is looking for an art form, but art forms which cannot accommodate either her anger or her intellect will not suffice. But at the same time, this angry little girl is not narrating her own story. Her story is being narrated by her twin, who is a much quieter version of our angry little girl. Who, then, has the ultimate agency in the book? And why? But also, why is it that the narrator, Toi, is so obsessed with her sister. From my perspective, there are the questions that I would love to have my readers think about.

In a completely different note, this is also a book that attempts to write of a girlhood spent in the middle of post-1960s left political despair.

NCL: On your blog, you wrote:
If anything, I want my book to be read by my activist friends in India and United States and elsewhere. If anything, I want my book to be read by my friends who have never wanted to be anything other than activists, but haven’t been able to, given the constraints that are way too complicated to get into in this post. If anything, I want my book to be read by my disoriented, passionately self-destructive, confused, disillusioned, once-upon-a-time activist, now-complete-failures group of friends. It is a book which has been written for my fellow leftists. And, I am not ashamed of that.
As a writer, I am interested in craft. But, I am more interested in the politics of that craft. I like it when someone says what I have written is a good poem. I like it even better when someone wants to talk to me about the politics of that poem. And, that’s why, this book is written for my fellow content-seekers. Those who are not just concerned with how to write a line, but also about what to write in that line, the layers of history, ideology and emotions that might underlie that one line.
Could you speak a little bit more about those two paragraphs, especially about the politics of craft as separate from the politics lifted up by content. 

Could you tell us about one of the poems in the chapbook that exemplifies or speaks to what you are getting at in those two paragraphs? How did the poem come to be?

ND: I will go back to the issue of density and white page that I have briefly alluded to before. Let me do this with an example of a poem:
Our uncle lost his job. Began to spend the mornings playing ludo with himself. We were ten and Tombur had just begun to feel jealous of Anne Frank. A girl who looked as small as us, yet shared space with men with beards. My sister was searching – for little girls who have ceased to speak in the language of little girls. Anne Frank proved to be exactly what she was looking for.
We never wanted to be white. But within the stickiness of the chewing gum on our teeth, we made Anne Frank speak in Bengali. Frankfurt was a village near Kumilla. Amsterdam was the name of a little town in East Pakistan. Now, Bangladesh. Pizen was the neighborhood between Kashipur and Baranagar. That's why our uncles spent their youth reciting passages from Julius Fucik. And our grandmother cried and cried while watching Kapo. Her tears a river inside our home. Silt accumulated in the crevices of the couch, fish around the bookshelves and green rice-fields overtook our living room. Grandmother was happy: she rowed a canoe from one room to another, catching koi with her empty hands. This was how it was on the other side.
And then, my skin erupted into rashes. Pink like a girl's ribbon. White like papaya milk. This was nothing new. The smell of the paddy-fields – so much green huddling together – always made me itch. So I climbed onto the bed at the edge of the house. From here, one could not always smell the green. And there was nothing else to do. So I read, switching on a flashlight beneath the bedsheet. Tombur wrote stories about dead crows on ceiling fans, dripping blood on a teacher's sari. I explained to her how mimosa leaves closed when touched.
Tombur told me, you're too nice. You're afraid of hurting others' feelings. That's why you'll always be a loser. Afternoons, we spent tearing up pages from composition books, folding them into cranes. Since I would not leave the bed, Tombur would climb the stairs alone to the terrace, left our paper birds for the rains to erase our fingermarks.
And then I threw up for seventeen hours straight. Grandmother's green flees from the sound of my retching. I climbed down from the bed. Tombur and I began to go to school.

If you read this poem, you'll find that it is a dense, crowded poem. A lot of things are happening here at the same time. A lot of names have been dropped. For all practical purposes, this is a poem that could have been broken down into multiple prose-poems. And with a little bit of tweaking, these prose-poems could also have been line-based poems. Possibly. A lot of my readers who read this poem before publication felt that it needed more white space. This is one of the places where I resisted feedback. Precisely because it is the white space – the breathing space – that I didn't want to provide my readers with. Or, for that matter, myself.

If you read the poem, it begins with the uncle losing his job. Then, it goes on to talk about Anne Frank, alludes to the Czech Communist Julius Fucik who was killed by the Fascists, provides a nod to the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo's film Kapo, and refers to the Baranagar-Kashipur massacre in 1971 in the state of West Bengal, India. Other than the Pontecorvo film, which also probably is the most canonical in the list, no footnote or endnote has been provided. In other words, I am not explaining. But at the same time, I am squeezing into this poem, and definitely in this paragraph, a good chunk of global history – the Holocaust, the Partition of India, and Naxalbari.

I have been asked by my readers – American – “Should I know all of this Indian history?” I will use this interview to respond to that question. And my answer is, yes. My answer is, yes, even though I know it is humanly not possible to know the history of every nation in this planet. I don't. Yet, I know, I should have. But then, there is a problem in that very question. It is not at all as innocent as it sounds. That space of not-quite-innocence has a name. Actually, multiple names: Eurocentricism, Americocentrism, First Worldism, imperialism, colonialism, colonial legacies. By that token, the histories of how nations like India and Senegal were implicated within histories of the Second World War, are written out of the First World textbook histories of the world wars. Because that implication is also about the histories of colonial/imperial violence. By the same token, the human sufferings of the Bengal Famine and the Partition of India, which were more or less contemporaneous, are relegated to obscurity within the dominant narratives of global history.

But then, the reverse isn't exactly true. I can't really get away by saying, “Should I really know about those world wars to begin with?” You can insert other things too in place of the world wars. In other words, there is this question of imperial privilege or lack thereof. Then again, the history I am alluding to, isn't really that obscure to everyone in the world. And there are people in this world who would know what I am talking about without any endnotes, footnotes or explanations. So, when I write about the affective hold Holocaust had within the post-independence, post-partition Bengali leftist imagination, I am referring to a world that is internationalist. I am referring to a world that attempted to embrace a form of internationalism in its own flawed way long before transnationalism became a fancy word in American academia. I am also referring to the publishing history of the Bengali leftist world. How certain texts from certain other languages and cultures were translated and circulated amongst activists, intellectuals and artists.

And this history is not reducible to one's national or ethnic identity. In other words, this is not a history automatically recognizable to everyone who identifies as Bengali or Indian. It is a history that would be legible in that deep, intimate kind of a way only to those who belong to a particular political subculture. A political subculture that cannot really find its own complex representations in mainstream Indian literature.

Last but not the least, this history is dense. It is complicated. State violences, famines, political upheavals rarely leave any breathing space, any white space, relief or respite. That's exactly what I was trying to reproduce in this poem: the breathlessness of multi-layered histories. The white space might have made this into a “better” poem, but the density, in my opinion, makes it into a more “political” poem. At this point in my life, I prefer the latter.

NCL: What difficulties or challenges did you encounter in writing some of the poems?

ND: How to represent childhood as an adult. I did not want my book to be about “childhood memories” per se. Rather, I wanted to look at childhood politically, aesthetically. I wanted to cast my glance at the seemingly trivial moments of childhood and amplify these moments, read these moments. I was also determined that this would not be a children's book. It was going to be a book for adults about childhood. But the question I had to ask myself again and again was, am I colonizing children and childhood by doing this? How as an adult does one create the visions and imaginations of a decolonized childhood? I kept going back and forth between POVs, for example. I kept writing the story of the twins in a third person voice. I kept going back and forth between Toi and Tombur, trying to decide who should be the narrator. Then, finally, I stuck to Toi, and it felt right. I also had to come to terms with the fact that it is only as an adult that I could have written this book. And there is something to be celebrated about that occurrence.

NCL: Also on your wonderful blog, you wrote a notice to those who would be readers of your chapbook:
I do not have a twin sister. Neither a twin brother. I have never given birth to twins. Everything that I write about in that little book has happened to me. Nothing that I write about in that little book has happened to me. It is a work of pure imagination, except when it is not.
I had to smile when I read it—that idea resonates strongly with me personally. I immediately thought of a 1991 interview in The Paris Review, in which the interviewer asked poet Donald Hall a follow-up question about Hall’s process of discovery through revision: “So there is a sense in which you are touching a deeper Donald Hall in this material.” Hall’s reply was:
I hope so, yes. Not in any boring autobiographical way. In The Happy Man I have a poem in which somebody talks about his time in the detox center. A friend asked me what I was in detox for. Well, I never was. For the poem I made up a character; I talked through a mask I invented, which I do all the time. I love to fool people, even with fake epigraphs—but also I wish they weren’t fooled. Of course my poems use things that have happened to me, but they go beyond the facts. Even when I write about my grandfather, I lie. I don’t believe poets when they say I, and I wish people wouldn’t believe me. Poetic material starts by being personal but the deeper we go inside the more we become everybody.
First, what caused you to write that clarification regarding twins? What are your thoughts about Hall’s response and/or on Hall’s attribution of the qualifier ‘boring’ to autobiographical content? What are thoughts on confessional poetry? on “poetic” truth as function of fact?

ND: I wrote this post kind of playfully. I was asked, quite a few times, in workshops and such, if I am a mother to twins. Or, if I have a twin sister myself. I have no autobiographical writings as such. To be sure, all writings are autobiographical in some way or the other. What I have problems with is the limited notion of what an autobiography is. And the notion that every work a writer produces is autobiographical in a vulgar kind of a way. That's what I was trying to allude to in that post without engaging in a long, theatrical discussion.

I wouldn't at all say that autobiographical content is “boring”. For me, whether it's boring or not, depends upon the specific autobiography itself. In other words, what I am asking here is a more fundamental question: what makes a life interesting? To me, this is a loaded question. There have been literary schools and writers in our shared global literary history who have placed lots of deliberate emphasis on “experience” and leading an “interesting life.” There are obviously questions of class, race, gender, colonial histories to ponder when when we refer to such categories as “experience” and “interesting.” For example, does E.M. Forster's sojourn to India make him a more interesting writer than the Bengali writer Ashapurna Debi, who rarely left the confines of her home in South Calcutta and took to a very meticulous documentation of middle-class Bengali domesticity? I don't think so. To me, an “interesting life” is a life that is committed to self-consciousness, retrospection, criticality and reflection, and last but not the least, a questioning of the power structures within which one is implicated. So, to me, an autobiographical project that aims to think through one's own lived life in critical ways is important. In fact, for the editorial/curatorial work I do for the bi-lingual journal Aainanagar, me and my co-editor are always looking for personal narratives, precisely because we believe in the power of the autobiographical to democratize and radicalize. What, to me, is boring, is an absence of criticality, self-reflection and simplistic attempts to glorify, celebrate and justify oneself through the mode of autobiography.

Personally, I am not committed to the notion of truth as a function of facts. That does not mean I believe in the deliberate distortion of facts. Neither am I blind to the possibilities of the hurt that such distortions can cause, both in an individual and a collective sense. But even in our everyday social lives, I think facts can conceal a lot, even when they are not deliberately distorted. So, obviously, I don't necessarily care about facts in poetry. I prefer to read them as complex texts. I am more interested in representations, figurations and ideologies.

I think, “confessional poetry” has played an important role in democratizing the American poetry sphere. It has led (white) women or even a man as privileged as Robert Lowell to speak of certain forms of social taboos, marginalizations. But even as I acknowledge this, I have to ask, is the face of American confessional poetry still too white? Too upper-class? And why is that? But where I have serious problems with, is the use of the word “confession.” To me, this is a word that reeks of a kind of association with Christianity – the closed box, the priest as the authority figure on the other side. One might even say, during our times, the figure of the priest has been replaced by the shrink. But that's another story. I refuse to give that kind of power and authority to either, for one thing. But for another, the word “confession” invokes a sense of guilt. Am I supposed to feel guilty because I am writing of my own violation? I think not. Consequently, I have nothing to confess. I have a lot to observe, analyze and reflect upon. I have nothing to confess. But I have a lot to tear apart.

NCL: What has been the reader response to your chapbook? Have you encountered anything you were not expecting?

ND: I don't think it has been formally reviewed anywhere. So, I am not sure if informal responses count. Of course, my publisher Leigh Anne Hornfeldt liked it enough to publish it. To me, that counts as a form of reader's response. My friend and co-editor Dena Afrasiabi, who is a gorgeous fiction writer herself, said, how surprised she was to see the similarities in our writing voices, although we are such different people. My workshop buddies at Rooster Moans Poetry Co-operative, where most of these poems have been workshopped, were rigorous in their critique. But, at the same time, it is their overwhelmingly positive feedback that had encouraged me to submit this chapbook manuscript for publication in the first place. But, no, I have not yet come across any response that's unexpected.

NCL: What else would you like readers to know about you or your chapbook?

ND: I think of this chapbook as a text where I have tried to weave in allusions to other writers, artistic traditions, political traditions, and histories. In this book, I am conversing with other writers. For example, one of the reasons why I chose to write about twins in the first place, is because I wanted to nod – in my own feeble way – to the twins in Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things. A book which, in my opinion, pretty much changed the primary political and ideological direction of Indian Anglophone literature. These are the kinds of things I would like my readers to pay attention to, rather than trying to figure out if this book is autobiographical or not. I would also love to have my American readers to question the politics of their own knowledge about India/South Asia/the subcontinent, as they read these poems.

NCL: What are you working on now?

ND: I am still writing about the twins. Which means, I now have a full-length collection on my hands to work on. I am also working on another full-length collection in my native language Bengali and a short story.

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