The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: How have becoming a professor and co-editing the online journals Elsewhere and Aainanagar influenced your own writing?
Nandini Dhar: Working as a literature professor has enabled me to read a lot. Also, my job requires me to read beyond my comfort zone. I did my PhD in Comparative Literature, a discipline that requires students to be proficient in at least two languages and literatures, so I’m used to reading in more than one language, reading in translation, and reading literary traditions which I know nothing about. Being a critic and teacher of literature has taught me to look more critically into literary norms and institutions, and to question everything considered sacred by the literary marketplace of our times. I write from a strange place of knowledge – that what is considered holy today in the literary marketplace will be tossed aside tomorrow. Today’s literary celebrity will be a minor footnote in tomorrow’s literary history. Today’s anonymous writer will be tomorrow’s canon. And to write from this place of knowledge is simultaneously unnerving and liberating. Being a literary critic has taught me to write irresponsibly.
As an editor, I get to read writers writing at many different levels. It gives me a chance to witness how writers develop. It gives me a chance to see how different writers construct their own creative subjectivities differently. And it’s great gift. It lets me grow as a human being. I am sure these things impact my writing. But I don’t think this is a process where two plus two equals four. It’s a slow process, often subterranean. I tend to believe my growth as a human being facilitates my growth as a writer.
RR: You have written elsewhere that your birth city, Kolkata, “forms the default setting of all your writings.” Other than your personal connection to the city, what draws you to Kolkata in particular and the narratives that exist within its history?
ND: Like most cities of the world, writing about Kolkata would reveal a history of capitalist modernity in India. Writing about Kolkata allows us to think about how European colonialisms created urban modernities which can’t always be understood in terms of European urban modernities. Writing about Kolkata, for me, also means writing about Bengali/Indian/South Asian literary and political radicalisms – examining their innate contradictions, and trying to make sense of how cities, political and literary movements and human lives are ultimately intertwined with one another.
RR: You have written a lot on mothers, mother-figures, and other traditionally gendered roles including your work appearing in the anthology “Mother is a Verb.” In what ways would you consider, or not consider, your work to be influenced by feminism or questions of patriarchal structures?
ND: My work is unquestionably influenced by feminism. I consider myself to be a feminist, and my writing about mother-daughter relationships comes from a very conscious feminist decision to understand the power dynamics and patriarchal ideologies that shape mother-daughter relationships. I don’t write about mothers in an effort to uncritically glorify motherhood. I write about mothers and motherhood as a way to think about how motherhood is a social relation and an institution implicated within larger power structures – capitalism, neoliberality, patriarchy, state, imperialism, caste, race, etc. I am also keen on thinking about motherhood as a space of policing where girls are taught to conform to social and political norms. I don’t see motherhood and mothering as inherently liberation. Nor do I think of it as a space where love flows naturally. Like all other social relations, there needs to be a lot of ideological work for any liberation to happen in the mother-child relation.
RR: The mother executes a lot of agency in this poem, holding active power and sway over her children and daily tasks. However, the line “the past is something she cannot afford to repair” points to the one aspect out of her control. Can you speak to your motivations framing a woman’s narrative by a personal or institutional history?
ND: As an Indian/Bengali woman, writing about motherhood is tricky. And I would say, inherently political. There is a long tradition in India of thinking the nation as mother. If you follow the recent political news in India, you will find this is something that has come up ferociously in Indian politics, where the ruling religious right are vigorously advocating this kind of gendered allegorical thinking. So much so that during the International Working Women’s Day that we observed recently on March 8, the rallying call from a section of the leftist-feminists was, We Won’t Mother India. There is, by the way, also a Bollywood film called Mother India, released in 1957. A lot of my mother-poems have been written keeping this political imaginary in mind, using figurations of mothers in their everyday lives, as against this allegorical mother. The line that you quoted is an indirect reference to this much-larger allegory-making, over which individual women have no control. But then, they can take control of their own resistances against it. A lot of my mother-poems attempt to document such resistances of “real” mothers. Like most resistances, these are not perfect resistances, and are often expressed in the form of domination over children – the only human beings over whom, within patriarchal family structures, mothers have any control. In that sense, you can also say, my poems are all about fucked-up resistances.
RR: You have published work in both English and Bengali. Do you find that one language performs certain functions of poetry in an easier or more natural way than the other? What are your considerations when choosing a language in which to write?
ND: This is a really interesting question! I am glad you asked it. I tend to write about the same themes in English and Bengali. But the thing is, the writings come out as very different poems. This is partly because when I write in Bengali, I can take into account and fall back upon a long and voluminous archive, where there is already a language to speak about these things. As a poet, I have to figure out my relationship to this language. And maybe this figuring out of the relationship is also the space where my own language is born. But on the other hand, when I am writing in English, I have to do a double-take – I have to think about how I write about a very Bengali reality, lived in Bengali, in a language that is far from that reality. And, then, obviously, I also have to think about what kind of English will express my concerns best in English. So, in a way, writing in two languages are complementary for me. But they are also very different.
Nandini Dhar’s work in Issue 3.2: