How PEN Austria General Secretary Sarita Jenamani finds poetry to be “an act of introspection, self-realisation and a sanctuary”
By Gargi Vachaknavi
In the heydays of ABBA, there was a popular song called ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’, which spoke of a girl who led an ordinary life but became the ‘queen of the dancing floor’ when she stepped into the role of a ‘pretty ballerina’. Sarita Jenamani is a bit like that. She works as a marketing manager in Austria but turns into a lyrical whiplash when she picks up her pen to write poetry.
Sarita Jenamani, with a background of economics and management studies in India and Austria, is a poet, a literary translator, anthologist, editor of a bilingual magazine for migrant literature – Words & Worlds – a human rights activist, a feminist and general secretary of PEN International’s Austrian chapter in the literary world.
Perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of her personality is her poetry that has so far been published in three collections, the latest being Till the Next Wave Comes. English is the chief medium of her creative process. The other two languages she writes in are, Odia, the state language of the place of her origin Odisha (India), and German, the language of her country of residence, Austria. She uses these languages for translation projects that she undertakes from time to time. Sarita translated Rose Ausländer, a leading Austrian poet, and an anthology of contemporary Austrian Poetry from German into Hindi and Odia. She has received many literary fellowships in Germany and in Austria including those of the prestigious organisations of “Heinrich Böll Foundation” and “Künstlerdorf Schöppingen”. In this exclusive, she talks of how poetry empowers her to find her individuality and address social issues, of how being in PEN has taught her that thought stretches beyond all borders and of a past and present that shuttles between varied cultures.
What moved your muse? When and how did you start writing?
Actually, I did not want to be a poet rather poetry, as Neruda once said, arrived in search of me. All my joys, sufferings, passions, and memories that significantly leave deep impact on me, turn into ash, sink into my being and again rise like a phoenix in the lines. This provides me the pleasure of seeking an enigmatic truth in some ancient temple. Such feelings compel me to write poetry. Poetry for me is an act of introspection, self-realisation and a sanctuary.
Do you write only poetry or prose, essays, etc?
Basically, I love to write poetry and see this as my forte but occasionally I write essays and articles too.
You live in Vienna. What brought you to Vienna? How long have you lived in Vienna? How has it impacted your work and writing?
I have been living in Vienna for almost two decades. I went to Germany with a writer’s fellowship and later, I moved to Vienna with a job offer. I and my family fell in love with this city and we decided to stay on. Vienna is arguably the most liveable city in the world and a visitor’s delight in any season of the year. Till today this opulent, old-world metropolis manages to maintain simultaneously its timeless and yet boldly contemporary character. It was the capital of Europe’s third-biggest empire; it is a city of rich western classical music, at the same time, its history is overshadowed by a Nazi past. It makes you realise how beautiful places can be turned into the graveyards for innocents because they were born to a certain faith. This makes you rethink your convictions and it also encourages you to re-establish trust in mankind when you learn how bravely people have fought against injustice.
Somehow the old part of the city with its narrow lanes reminds me of my hometown — Cuttack. Sometimes, time and space get blurred while passing through these streets.
Do you miss your life in India? Does that impact your writing?
My mother and my sisters and the whole extended family live in India. It is the aura of this country that shaped me. The touch and teaching of my mother, the selfless love of my elder sister, the rivalry with my younger sister, the calmness of my father, the flavour, the smells, the spirituality of the ancient temples, childhood friends every single moment stays with me. Then Indian philosophy which states Vasudheiba kutumbakam, the world is one family, influenced my worldview! India definitely influenced my thinking and my writing process.
You are a marketing manager and yet you write poetry and academic papers and essays. How do you juggle all this together? How do you balance the dionysiac element in yourself with marketing, a practical profession?
I think they perfectly complement each other. Writing must be as diverse as life itself is. You cannot go on living in your own bubble of poetry or literature to be able to write well. Literature is as complex as life itself. I feel unlike accounting or sales, marketing is creative area. Similarly, poetry, particularly for me, is just like any medium of art. It needs a keen understanding, it requires deep and fine feelings and the ability or discipline to mercilessly cut unnecessary lines and intensify the whole expression to make both substance and treatment more precise and precious. The more you master juggling between diversified worlds, the better impulse and inspiration you get. It gives you a chance to travel through different worlds and then you paint your own one.
Did any writers, musicians or artists impact your work? If so, how?
Life itself inspires me every day! Then the endless recitations of diverse verses by my mother while I was growing up invariably inspired me. But, certainly there are a number of poets whose work fascinated me such as Oriya poets Madhusudan Rao and Sachi Routray. Similarly, poets from other Indian languages; Ghalib, Kabir, Tagore, modern Hindi poets Agyeya and Kedarnath Singh. And yes, Rumi, Borges, Paul Celan, Eliot. The list is endless. Painters like S.H. Raza, Klimt, Van Gogh, Indian Ragas, Pandit Jasraj, the flute of Hari Prasad Chaurasia, the music of Bach, instruments like sarangi, cello, inspire me to get into a creative framework and certainly they have an impact on my writing.
You are the general secretary of the Austrian Chapter of PEN International. What does this involve?
It is a great honour for me to hold this post in a European country. PEN (Poet Essayist Novelist) is international writers’ organisation. It was founded in 1919 in England and it stands for freedom of expression during war as well as in the time of peace. PEN believes literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals. In all circumstances, and particularly in times of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion. As part of PEN, we involve in mediating if freedom of speech faces any danger, we mediate to free the imprisoned writers, we work closely with humanitarian and semi-governmental bodies and provide platform to voices that are forced to get silent. On 15th of November we commemorate writers in prison day.
Writing only for the sake of writing is not my cup of tea. I do not believe that literature is only for enjoyment or for literary discussion in salons. Literature in my opinion should evoke without losing its literary standards. I am blessed to be part of PEN where I can work for such convictions.
You are also the co-editor of an Austria based bilingual magazine for migrant literature Words & Worlds. Does this get you in touch with writers from varied backgrounds and expand your world for you? Does being in touch with many writers help your creative process? Do you learn from it? If so, how?
Migrant literature has writers from diverse places, but almost all of them share one single problem, that is, the issue of language. Many of these writers land in the countries with totally different linguistic milieu and, resultantly, their literary voices are not heard in their immediate surroundings. So the idea of the magazine that I co-edit is not only about literature but about human beings who feel connected through literature. There are people from different cultures that help me in my creative process, and in such an atmosphere, one travels from culture to culture without getting stuck in monotony. You find how similar we are despite our differences and you never stop to see new possibilities and seek truth anew every day.
You write both in your mother tongue, Oriya, and English? What is it you write in Oriya? Poetry or more?
Basically I write poetry. Odia has a rich tradition of literature. At home, we were encouraged to imbibe our literary traditions. My mother was very much conscious about it and somehow I started to write first in Odia and then in English. Especially after immigrating, I started to write more and more in English.
Though language constitutes a major part of our cultural identity and with immigration this identity gets dissipated and the relationship with the language becomes somewhat ambivalent. During the initial years immigration, you do not or you cannot figure out which has a greater impact on you, the pain of losing your native language, your mother tongue, or the pleasure of acquiring a new language or looking for a universally accepted language. Immigration shows you that your identity is not stable and one of the factors that induces its change is the language. Bulgarian-French philosopher, Julia Kristeva, believes that when mother tongue becomes redundant, the subject is “liberated” from the discourse that constitutes his identity. Again, every language perceives the world differently and different languages determine the process of thinking differently. Through exposure to multiple languages from different cultural backgrounds, one gets an opportunity to interpret or describe one’s experience or thought from another point of view.
How many languages do you speak and write in? You translate too. To how many languages do you translate from Oriya? From English to Oriya or German? Have you translated Oriya to both German and English? Do tell us a bit about what you find in translation?
I speak, Odia, my mother tongue, Hindustani, English and German and write in Odia, Hindi, English and trying to write in German as well. I have not translated much from Odia to English because there are a lot of good translators over there to do that. Rather I love to translate from other languages. I have translated a couple of Hindi and Urdu poetry for magazines in Odia a very long ago.
After getting introduced to German literature, I came to know we just knew a handful of writers from this language and that’s why I started translating German poetry in a book form. I have translated Holocaust poet Rose Ausländer into Hindi, a collection of contemporary Austrian poetry and poems of Dr. Helmuth Niederle into Odia and now I am translating one of the best poets of post war Europe, Paul Celan.
You have co-edited a book on Partition Poetry. Can you tell us a bit about the book and its content? Who are the poets and what does the book show?
I am originally from India and my co-editor is from Pakistan. We were in a neutral country with an equally disturbing past that annihilated six million human lives in the Holocaust. We were both members of PEN and we often wondered and discussed the silence of the poets about the Partition of India. Partition has been narrated and re-narrated by our writers. However, in our literature it was prose, especially fiction, wherein we have an immediate effusion of the partition narratives but putting aside Urdu poet Faiz’s Subh e Azadi, or to some extent, Amrita Pritam’s Aj Aakhan Warish Shah NooN in Punjabi, our collective memory can hardly recall a third poem on the subject. Does it mean that our poets had simply no courage to look into the eyes of the naked realities of poetry itself? Were they more concerned with the poetic niceties and subtleties than giving vent to the feelings of their agony and anguish? These were the question that we wanted to address. Fortunately, we were able to trace out more than 90 poems in various languages though, of course, we might have left may other voices but this is the first anthology of its kind and it is going to be published in German next year.
Your intense and beautiful verses in your debut collection, Till the Next Wave Comes, are a treat of two cultures merging to create an explosion of beautiful lines. How did the collection come about?
You are right that in Till the Next Wave Comes there is an amalgamation of both Indian and European cultures through the eyes of an immigrant, a third person that describes her feelings and perceptions from a very different angle, not confining herself to the world of memory, homesickness etc. In other words, through a physical displacement from her language-milieu an immigrant writers get a fresh impulse, a different position to look at the things and resultantly to portray from another, new perspective — a process that gives, in turn, a new twist to the literary production. My first collection of poetry is Shards of the Sky. My second collection In Scriptures of Sand Dunes is a bilingual edition (English/German), published in Vienna. Till the Next Wave Comes is the third one.
This year you wrote a paper on violence against women for a symposium. Would you like to tell us about it?
Yes, I have presented a paper on ‘Violence against Women and Indian Literature’ last month in a PEN symposium held in Vienna. Interestingly and strangely enough, till today young women have internalised the patriarchal and masculinist ideologies and, in that sense, most of them remained quite conservative in their outlook even towards their own being, rights and the overall questions of empowerment. Perhaps that is the reason that a great majority of them do not understand what it means to have freedom and be liberated from misogynistic social traditions. Having already internalised patriarchal notions, they see themselves only as having the responsibility of carrying the great Indian tradition and, thereby, forget their own existence. Women writers have pointed out that national identity would be incomplete, immature and anti-national if it does not include the women of the area in its fold along with their identity as a separate, unique entity in a patriarchal society with all the essential requirements such as freedom and due respect.
Apart from the writings of stalwarts like Kamla Das, Eunice de Souza, and Meena Alexander, Manju Kapur, Tsleema Naseern, powerful voices of Kalpna Singh Chtinis, Mitali Chakravarty, Nalini Priyadarshini have found their place in this essay
What are your future plans? Another collection of yours or others?
It is always good to have no plan and let creativity takes its own flow. However, as I mentioned before, I am translating Paul Celan, recently co-edited a book for PEN Austria, Allah’s Imprisoned Pupils: Prison Poems from Islamic Countries. Maybe another new collection of poetry will be ready by the end of 2020, who knows…?
Gargi Vachaknavi wafts on a sunbeam through various realms and questions the essence of all existence with a dollop of humour.
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