His Father’s DiseaseThe House With a Thousand StoriesThe Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri TehsildarCatapult Bitch Media The Boston Review Electric Literature The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India The Kenyon Review The New York Times The Guardian UK
Namrata Poddar: You’ve been writing for several years as a fiction writer, a literary critic, an editor, and a translator. What inspired you to turn to poetry as a literary form? How was writing different from writing fiction or nonfiction?
There Is No Good Time for Bad NewsThe House With a Thousand Stories,
NP: As we’ve often talked about, the heads of Big Five publishing houses in the U.S.—now Big Four—are white, as are 85 percent of literary gatekeepers who acquire and edit books. What was it like to find a home for your poetry collection in the U.S. as a brown, queer, indigenous South Asian writer?
Nearly 150 presses rejected my manuscript, even though most of the poems were already published in reputed magazines, and the manuscript was a finalist for two awards. I spent more than two thousand dollars in submission fees. I have a full-time job. I don’t know how people who don’t have similar privileges would be able to do this. The publishing industry in this country is very unequal, and this inequality isn’t limited to the Big Five, but thank God, you don’t need an agent to publish poetry—I mean, mostly, unless you want to be published by Norton or Penguin. And I deeply admire the small presses who do this completely out of a passion for keeping the form alive. Otherwise, I wouldn’t dare to dream of finding a publisher for my poems.
But this is also because contemporary mainstream US literary culture is deeply insular and hostile to different ways of writing and storytelling, or to work set abroad. America sends their soldiers and drones everywhere, but its editors are not so keen about acquiring stories from abroad. Strangely, the American publishing that I read about when I was a student at Delhi University was about brave, daring, intellectually adventurous editors such as Barney Rosset, radical journals such as Evergreen Review, farsighted and erudite literary agents such as Georges Borchardt, who took a lot of pride in ushering in translations and supporting provocative, unruly political fiction from outside the U.S. that defied the expectations of American readers and enriched everyone. These editors were not subservient to sales; rather, they made sure that the books they loved were sold despite their challenging subjects and styles. Right now, most publishing professionals want to be political or to be seen as political since it has cultural cachet; but they will only accept work where politics is presented in a consumable, nonthreatening way. So we have the Netflix Novel. Artistically adventurous works thrive, but often in small and independent presses such as Soft Skull or Coffee House. Or at university presses, where intellectually curious editors fight for books they are smitten by. This is not sustainable. The large publishers will have to step in and pump in resources to keep radical writing alive.
NP: What I loved the most about Bad News is a freshness of voice, a lyricism, and an aesthetic that doesn’t feel like it’s straight out of an MFA program. Your book’s aesthetic places itself squarely within a tradition of BIPOC writing from across the world, whether it’s the use of repetition, oral storytelling, folklore, or a playfulness with the English language which, in this case, is informed by the polyphony of Indian languages. Since you teach creative writing to both graduate and undergraduate students, can you share your relationship to the writing workshop? How do you see “the workshop” as a pedagogical or an aesthetic ideology impacting your writing?
AK: Thank you for your generous reading. I think that’s because I have never taken a poetry workshop in my life and have learned from many writers in the Global South. But eventually, my work is rooted in multilingual literary traditions of Assam, and the rest of India.
My relationship to the writing workshop as a silent participant (as in, a student) was ambivalent. As a student, I have never let the workshop be a referendum on my writing. For me, it is just another set of readers who are trying to help me make it better according to their aesthetic tastes. I don’t have to agree with their viewpoint. Perhaps this grit comes from having supremely and brutally honest friends in my life? I don’t know! But I have mercilessly honest friends, and I treasure them. Perhaps that’s why workshops have never bothered me. Right now, as a teacher, I see the workshop as a space for conversation where the writer gets to ask the largest number of questions about their submitted work.
NP: A “we” speaks as a recurring narrator in Bad News, a “we” of the marginalized that affirms itself against a “they” that I interpreted to be the protagonists within official narratives of India in both global media and history textbooks. Can you name this “we” for us?
AK: I think the “we” in the poems are people, birds, turtles, entities, or just a body-less voice. But this voice is within the community and preserves memory, retells stories, so that people can learn lessons from those stories.
NP: What struck me the most as a woman reading your book is the degree of sexual violence and grief the women in your poems undergo. As a male writer, what were some of your challenges in telling the stories of women battered by patriarchy and failed often by male leadership? How did you overcome them?
AK: Women face the highest number of atrocities in zones of state violence. This is an all-too-familiar story across the world. The story of any political conflict isn’t complete without the experiences of women. My project would be deeply inadequate without poems that address this experience.
Reading my writing through an American multicultural lens of gender or racial identity may not work. I am an Assamese writer, influenced and shaped primarily by Assamese literary aesthetics, oral and written. I was brought up in oral and indigenous literary cultures; the ability to imagine from various perspectives is seen as an indispensable talent, a strength, a possibility, a requirement. One is judged on whether they are a good storyteller based on this ability to imaginatively inhabit the experiences of other souls.
I am an Assamese writer, influenced and shaped primarily by Assamese literary aesthetics, oral and written.
We have something called Thiyo Naam, where one storyteller stands and tells stories all night from the epics and mundane daily stories. They usually stand in the middle of a group of people who sit on a large carpet or hay covered with a bedsheet, playing cymbals, flutes, and percussion instruments. These functions are often performed in winters when there is less possibility of rain. The storyteller holds just a shawl or a towel (gamusa) which they use as a prop to “become” various characters. The strength of these stories was not merely in the acting but in the lyrics—the text of the story—that have been passed on through generations. These texts are sheer poetry, and the dialogues are punchy, powerful. The storyteller changes into a woman, a child, a man, a king, a warrior, a peacock, a cobra, a mentally-ill person in an instant because there is no time to wait. My culture taught me that there are no limits to the literary imagination.
NP: Some poems in Bad News pay homage to both Assamese poets, like Hem Barua and Birinchi Bhattacharya, and Western canonical ones, like Paul Éluard and Ezra Pound. Can you talk more about the poets who influence your poetry? And poet-peers whose work excites you the most these days?
AK: Some of my favorite poets whom I return to are Derek Walcott, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forché, Arun Kolatkar. The folk songs inspire me in Assam. We have songs for every occasion: weddings, deaths, different kinds of prayers, etc. I love the powerful poetry of Wole Soyinka. Pablo Neruda’s political poems, such as the one that ends with “come and see the blood in the streets,” still haunts me, and he is another one who is very popular in Assam. The songs written by Bhupen Hazarika, a friend of Paul Robeson, are wonderfully provocative, political, and often narrative. All of these have shaped my literary imagination.
NP: Bad News ends on a poignant, lyrical meditation about freedom, a freedom that India’s Northeast continues to await, as I understand it. A yearning for freedom, of course, is at the core of most, if not all, good literary writing. Can you elaborate on the specific sense of freedom your poems yearn for and your book ends with?
Since India’s Northeast is a politically turbulent zone, there is frequent reportage about this region in national and international newspapers. People in South Asian Studies departments in the West study “India’s Northeast” and write dissertations. And especially because of the policies of the new Hindu fundamentalist regime, there is more and more coverage about the problems in the Northeast. And yet, this coverage is nowhere close to where it needs to be. However, if you look closely, most of these narratives spread a racist imaginary about the region; a similar kind of racist narrative eventually translates to racism and sexual violence toward people from the Northeast in India’s mainland. This, of course, has a long history: of colonizers writing about us and presenting the indigenous people of Northeast as unruly, xenophobic, and savage. The subtext of the coverage of Northeast issues in global platforms is the same. We need freedom from this. Magazines, newspapers, online news portals, etc., have a moral duty to highlight indigenous perspectives instead of being complicit in our erasure and dehumanization. But, again and again, especially India’s national news and the world’s global news outlets, put us back in the shackles of the colonizers by misreading and misrepresenting us. People in India and people in the Indian diaspora in the US have asked me questions like if we still travel from one city to another on the backs of elephants. Once, someone mentioned a rhino. Where on earth have you heard of rhinos being tamed? Yes, these people are small in numbers, but they won’t ask something so ignorant to someone from Bengaluru or Delhi. This is the level of ignorance we have to deal with on a regular basis. Since we don’t have a huge diaspora, others get to tell our stories, which are not robustly challenged. Having said that, there are many Indians in the diaspora who actively try to amend this ignorance. Learn from and support voices from the Northeast. So, among many things, I wish we had freedom from powerful people telling our own stories to us. I wish we were allowed to tell our own stories.
Namrata Poddar writes fiction and nonfiction, teaches literature and creative writing at UCLA, and serves as the Interviews Editor for Kweli where she curates a series on Race, Power and Storytelling. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, Poets & Writers, The Kenyon Review, The Best Asian Short Stories, Electric Literature, VIDA Review, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, BORDER LESS, was a finalist for Feminist Press's Louise Meriwether Prize, and is releasing from 7.13 Books in March 2022. Find her on Twitter, @poddar_namrata, and on Instagram, @writerpoddar.