Interview With Ashish Isaac
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Sown by Lightly Touching Hands” focuses on the loving relationship between the speaker’s grandparents as seen through daily routines. How did you select the lens through which you portray this relationship?
Ashish Isaac: In many ways, the poem was conceived as a resistance against forgetting, which I suppose is something that all poetry does. Once it was clear that my grandma had Alzheimer’s disease, we all had to watch the myriad ways in which she slowly lost a sense of herself and the world around her. There were times too when I’d find my grandpa convulsed with grief. Sometimes, when she wouldn’t listen, he would raise his voice, or snap at her, but I always noticed too how much he hated doing this. But right until the end, the way they looked after each other in all the small ways, through the daily routines that make up a life—that was a revelation to me about a love I knew more through abstraction than experience; a love that was unassuming, quiet, and full of a noble dignity.
RR: We’re intrigued by the contrast between cultural traditions and the conformity enforced by colonization. How did you approach writing this juxtaposition?
AI: The pressures of conformity are felt on either side of this juxtaposition, in my view. All of our thoughts and ideas from the very first moment already come to us from a fully formed world that has pre-existed us. What is different about colonization specifically is the ways in which it entrenches a sense of insecurity among the colonized, and compels acknowledgement of the colonizer’s superiority because of factors like the nation’s economy, its military strength, its knowledge. In very real ways, English in India is the language of the more privileged classes. Being able to speak and write fluently in English is viewed as a class-marker, similar to how the English viewed the French language in Chaucer’s time.
Because of these reasons, I’ve always felt at least a nagging sensation about English being my first language. This poem then was a way to address the absences in the language so that I could still articulate my own reality effectively. Personally though, I don’t think there exists a binary choice between the worlds of the colonizer or that of the colonized. As Walcott notes in “The Muse of History,” both ways of thinking are indelible aspects of our psyche, and it is only a defeatist worldview that presumes that people and cultures can be neatly categorized into such simplified caricatures. I’ve always believed that the power of art lies precisely in revealing the complexities lying latent within such deceivingly simple positions.
RR: The title appears in the piece twice; which came first, the title or the line? How did you decide on this central metaphor?
AI: It was the line that came to me first. The idea first germinated through a conversation with my brother one night. We live on land that was cultivated by our grandparents from a wilderness into a farm that provides us with food every day. My brother pointed out how a few generations have grown up from this soil—since we were fed by it. It’s why the poem starts with an inventory of food— because in many ways, food is a direct expression of a family’s love and labor. Sowing is also about the investments we make in life, and what this can lead to. With my grandparents, if you only view their lives isolated, it seems to lead eventually to grief and tragedy, as perhaps all lives do. However, with the realization that so many of us exist and live healthy lives because of their choices, it gives a sense of how expansive their lives really were in essence.
RR: This poem has a cascading free verse structure with indented lines. Do you typically experiment with form in your work?
AI: I started off writing poetry trying out forms that best suited my ideas, but I was also always impressed by the economy that was possible with traditional forms, and so I also wrote some verses in these. However, I find that traditional forms don’t work very well when you want to write in the English language in the way that you speak it—the Indian rhythms and intonations in the language are totally different from how the English speak it. In this particular poem, the cascading structure evolved organically from a central motif: that of each line at a separate level of indentation can be used to sustain a single idea. So, for example, the poem begins with ‘I think of writing…’ and then you have the following two lines naming the different things, and then in the next stanza the reason behind the thought is expressed. Note how the second stanza does not begin at the same level of indentation: this is a way to indicate that the second stanza works as a kind of response or answer to the first. It is this logic of how we read lines and hold them in our minds, that sustains the structure of the entire poem.
RR: What is your favorite cultural dish and who is your favorite person to share it with?
AI: Oh there are different things that go with different people! At home with family, fishes are beloved, and are a central part of the cuisine of Kerala, which is the southernmost state in India. There are some of my college friends with whom I loved getting street food—shawarma, momos, and so on.
A particularly beloved food-related memory goes back a couple of years when I stayed at my university hostel in Hyderabad. When all of us in the friend-group were broke, we would pool our money together to buy some biriyani. Then we’d diligently divide the food among ourselves (we’d always want more!), and have some Coca Cola, while bemoaning the ills of capitalism. Although we’ve all grown much since then, it is a time of my life that I look back on with a lot of fondness.
Ashish Isaac’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here.