Tishani Doshi shares her journey as a poet and a novelist

Rituparna Mahapatra in conversation with Tishani Doshi

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Photos credits: Carlo Pizzati

“Girls are coming out of the woods,/ wrapped in cloaks and hoods,/ carrying iron bars and candles/ and a multitude of scars.”

“Even those girls / found naked in ditches and wells, / those forgotten in neglected attics, / and buried in riverbeds like sediments / from a different century”.

These lines from the title poem of Tishani Doshi’s book, ‘Girls are coming out of the woods‘ in 2017, came at a time when the world, India, in particular was waiting to explode & rage at the heinousness towards the ‘female’. Doshi painted an imagery about what it meant to be a woman; the dangers of being one, on a larger canvas, talking about women brutalised and murdered ; their stories refusing to be forgotten. It touched the nerve of a society attuned to not ‘speaking out’. This book went on to be shortlisted for the Ted Hughes prize in 2018.

The Welsh-Indian Poet, Novelist, Dancer Tishani Doshi has published six books of poetry and fiction, which have won many accolades.

Her debut novel, The Pleasure Seekers was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize and longlisted for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She was awarded the Eric Gregory Award for Poetry and her collection ‘Countries of the Body’ won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2006. Her third novel, Small Days and Nights, is a tale about a daughter’s return to her homeland & family, which raises questions on belonging, acceptance, love & grief. Small Days and Nights has made to the shortlist of the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2020 along with Jay Bernard’s Surge, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, and Jumoke Verissimo’s A Small Silence.

Recently at the Hay Festival, AbuDhabi; Tishani over an e-mail interview with Rituparna Mahapatra, talks about her books, protagonists, dance, her love for the sea and things that keep her going.

Born to a Gujrati father and a Welsh mother, How have both places ( Wales and India) influenced your thinking and writing? Has one of them become a stronger influence?

I’ve never lived in Wales, although I’ve visited for a few weeks at a time. Wales has always represented possibility to me, elsewhere, that place where part of me comes from, an otherness that is not entirely foreign. India, particularly Madras (Chennai as it is now known as) has been the centre of my life. This city and its radius, its coast, has been home and forms the basis for most of my explorations through poetry, dance, fiction.

Your parents chose to make India ( the less advanced country) their home, which you mentioned as a case of “reverse immigration”, the love story of your parents inspired you to write “The Pleasure Seekers”. Could you tell us about your early childhood days? What were the things, people that influenced your thinking?

My parents met in Toronto. I don’t know that it was a conscious decision to make India home. I think as it is with a lot of people, the idea was to see how life in a certain place would go, and for them that place was Madras, where my father’s family was. I believe there was a trial period of two years which turned into now 51 years and counting. My childhood is encapsulated with place – with houses specifically. The house that I grew up in on Shafee Mohammed Road is a place I return to in dreams and it appears in ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ as the house with the orange and black gates. School was dreamy. We studied in thatch classrooms and the compound had many mango and tamarind trees under which we shared our tiffin boxes while trying to dodge crow shit – and it all felt so huge and full of wonder. When I visited many years later, everything had shrunk, the playground particularly, and I saw the smallness of my childhood, and yet, when I was in it, it seemed so large.

Describe what living in India means to you and how it has shaped your writing?

I’m not sure I can describe it. I know I choose to live there because it’s the closest I feel to myself and it also has the ability to make me feel most estranged from myself. It recalibrates like no other place.

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Photos credits: Carlo Pizzati

In your writings, the quest for identity, home, reclamation has always been of great importance. Why?

We’re living in a time of unprecedented human movement, so these questions of identity and home are more important than ever. On a personal level, I try to work through some of these issues because I want to reject the trap of belonging — that sense that we must find something to belong to – whether it is country or family or nation or state, and yet, there is a human impulse to gather, to a group. When does identity become a cage, when is it solace? Why do we push so hard for the individual and yet long to belong to a collective. These are human questions and so they are important to me.

Your book ‘Small Days and Night’ is a realistic portrayal of a woman’s struggle to conform to an establishment. The protagonist; the mad-dog lady ‘Grace’, struggles to find a place in the social hierarchy, the family system, loneliness and eventually belonging. The book covers a myriad of issues that modern India faces. How and why did you feel the need to talk about this?

It’s the story I’m concerned with now. What does it mean to move around the environment that I do with the anatomy I have? What are the privileges, disadvantages, dangers, fears that a woman in contemporary India must navigate if she chooses to live alone? What does it mean to be a caregiver in a country that disregards so many of its citizens with such disdain and violence? How to tell that story without sentimentality and how to reframe our structures of the family, what if our families disappoint us or let us down? These things weren’t things I set out wanting to write about. Honestly, all I wanted to do was to write about the abundance of dogs, but then other things crept in.

Your poems are free-flowing, almost musical at times. They give a certain freedom to the reader; your verse most of the time creates vivid imagery, to establish; giving way to playfulness, but then it also progresses rapidly to disestablishment. According to me, I see a deep-seated urge to dismantle the world order and re-establish one. Right or wrong?

All of poetry for me is about reclamation. I don’t know so much that it’s about dismantling the world, although certainly I think I employ elements of surrealism and irony which do precisely that – but it’s also about examining all these things we’re bombarded with and then trying to do something with them in the poem. So re-establish, yes; reclaim yes, remake. The poem is a vehicle for some kind of transformation but it also needs to be able to make occasional fun of itself, it needs to be able to hold the light and dark simultaneously.

Your internationally acclaimed poem “The Girls Are Coming out of the Woods” talks about the dangers of being a woman in India. It gives a voice and brings attention to the horrific incidents around women; which are increasingly and alarmingly becoming a norm. Do you feel today, we in our fast-paced lives have become insulated to reacting to such incidents, and it is necessary to jolt them out of this trance?

I think it’s less about feeling insulated or desensitized and more a kind of paralysis for some people. Because of the way news is disseminated, the barrage of social media, the addictive nature of technology to make us want to feel always connected – there’s no escape, no place for thought or quiet or reflection, so the feeling of insulation is really just a need to breathe. Poems are interruptions, they are jolts. They are also incredibly elastic and poetry as a form allows us to respond to events that disturb us in a way that goes beyond a mere headline.

Talking about fast-paced lives brings me to its alter which you spoke about on ted talk on ‘Slowing Down’. Is your living by the sea, an attempt at that? What does the ‘sea’ mean to you?

All life comes from the sea. It is life-giving and life-taking. Living by the sea these many years, I never tire of it, and never feel sure of it either. I am in awe of the sea – how it brings me closer to a sense of my own mortality, not just because of the way the salt air eats into everything — hinges and trees and hair —but because coastlines are one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet, and in the past two decades my coast has seen a tsunami, a cyclone, floods, drought – we know that sea levels are rising and so communities that reside along the coast will be displaced. So it’s like sitting on a bomb, but while you’re sitting there, the view is incredible and the breeze, oh so sweet.

All of poetry for me is about reclamation. I don’t know so much that it’s about dismantling the world, although certainly I think I employ elements of surrealism and irony which do precisely that – but it’s also about examining all these things we’re bombarded with and then trying to do something with them in the poem. So re-establish, yes; reclaim yes, remake. The poem is a vehicle for some kind of transformation but it also needs to be able to make occasional fun of itself, it needs to be able to hold the light and dark simultaneously.

You are both a poet and a novelist? How do you handle both the forms of language? Is there a fine line separating them? What would you essentially describe yourself as, a poet or a novelist?

A sentence performs different functions in poetry and fiction, but on one level it is all language. There are certain issues of construction and sustainability that change between the forms, but in a sense, you are dealing with words. I find when I’m working on poems my relationship to time is different. There’s an immediacy and completeness to the process. A poem stands alone. With the novel — time is intoxicating and can lead you down many dead ends — you are universe building, and on another level the completeness of a novel when it’s done is remarkable, a miracle really, but while you’re working on it you feel utterly fragmented and shredded.

Writing a novel after poetry considered, a progression. What do you think?

I don’t know ­— I feel poetry is having a huge resurgence. The novel feels staid almost, a really spent force. It’s all autofiction and memoir and non-fiction now, and this whole thing of creating characters and a universe for them feels almost twee – although the best novels do exactly that. But as far as stature goes within the literary hierarchy, the novel does not have the weight it used to have. Poetry, by contrast, is I think having this renaissance across all forms — page, stage, spoken — I don’t sense apathy at all, although there may just be people who don’t read at all, and you know, god help them. I don’t think of it in terms of progression or regression as it would imply some kind of chain of command. I write what is demanded of the moment. I won’t be writing fiction for a while because I just finished a novel, and after emerging from the long tunnel of having accomplished that, I need to stand in the sun for a while. There’s a new collection of poems in half-completed state, so I’m eager to work on those, but it’s not a step up or down, you know?

You also are a dancer. You have beautifully incorporated dance into your verse, and have excelled at projecting it as a natural extension of your creativity; blending form, verse and movement. Along with the thoughts in your mind, you have also used the body to express it. How did this happen?

After many years of apprenticeship! Of letting all these things sit in my body and not being in a hurry. I had a remarkable teacher — Chandralekha, and for fifteen years I worked on a single dance production – that grounds you in a way, and after doing that, I was terrified actually of trying to do something by myself, and I just thought, it’s an experiment, it’s not a real thing, let’s just see what happens. I felt the need to make something and so I did. And I’m glad that it has resonated.

Do you feel vulnerable, while performing your poetry?

But of course. Performing it and speaking it and writing it, it’s all bloody terrifying.

Presently, Tishani is writing a memoir on dance and the body.

Rituparna Mahapatra is a writer, based in Dubai. She teaches creative writing in English and is Kitaab’s Editor-at -large, UAE.

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