Interview with Gwen Benaway

passage

Context:

I reviewed Gwen Benaway’s poetry collection, Passage, which was published recently in Arc Poetry Magazine’s Canada 150 Reconciliation issue. The review started with a reference to Neal McLeod’s book, Indigenous Poetics in Canada. After the publication of the issue, I posted a photo of the review on Twitter. The photo led to a Twitter conversation with Gwen where she informed me of the problem that lay in invoking McLeod in a review of her work, given his history of domestic abuse of Indigenous women. The news of his abuse had broken publicly a few days before I posted the photo on Twitter, while it had been common knowledge within the Indigenous community. While I acknowledged the news as something recent and something that I had been unaware of, I also began to defend the review itself. Instead of being a productive conversation, the conversation became a disagreement. Doyali Islam, the reviews editor for that particular issue, stepped into the conversation, but the conversation ended without any resolution.

The next day, after I had a chance to reflect on the Twitter interaction and the actual issues raised by Benaway, I reached out to her via email with an apology. Over email, we were able to unpack the problems raised by the presence of McLeod’s name in the review. The following interview rose out of that initial email conversation. Benaway and I met in downtown St. Catharines during Queer Canada, and over lunch, unpacked some vital issues plaguing CanLit in relation to Indigeneity, today.

The interview is now on The Rusty Toque. You can read it here.

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Synchronicity, this.

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South Asian Writers Panel- L to R: Kama La Mackerel (moderator), Tara Atluri, me, Kamala Gopalakrishnan, Sabah Haque, Anil Kamal, ASL interpreter. Courtesy: Jade Colbert (Twitter: @cocolbert)

Synchronicity looks like this.

I participated in two queer events – one academic, one literary – in the month of November, my birth month.

It’s no secret that my stories often have queer characters as protagonists, negotiating their way through life in Canada. And, it is also true that a chunk of my doctoral dissertation deals with trans theory and queerness in Canadian novels. But when both of these worlds come together in the most powerful time in my life, my birth month (!), I see it as a message from the universe.

Because believe it or not, I applied to both Queer Canada conference and the Naked Heart Fest on the same day in July. No coincidence, this.

The conference was organized by Natalee Caple of Brock University. My memories: Hugged by Dionne Brand. Meeting up with an old friend. Having my paper heard by Rinaldo Walcott, and then catching up with him after.

queer canada

I presented a paper on Shani Mootoo’s work at the Queer Canada conference (a paper on gender fluidity in Valmiki’s Daughter). The conference also ended up being iconic because of the much needed interview I had with Gwen Benaway on the precarious relationship between the Indigenous writing community and the POC writing community in Canada (forthcoming in The Rusty Toque).

 

The Naked Heart Festival – the largest LGBTQ  literary festival in the world – which came exactly a week after, became crucial for the connections I made. I was on the South Asian Writers panel on Day 2, and then, “Racialized is a Verb” reading on Day 3.

I met other queer South Asian and QTPOC  writers. I read to a packed room. The emcee whose name I forget, quite overcome, gave me a sudden hug right after my reading.

These are things that will stay with me.

The experience not only opened me up to another community of literary artists, but I wondered why I had not been brave enough to apply in the past. Maybe, it wasn’t meant to be, then. Maybe, now it was right.

 

I am grateful. Immensely grateful. If this is an indication of where my life is going, I am happy. This is what happiness looks like, for me; a balance of my two worlds.

Perhaps, synchronicity looks like this.

nakedheart

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On the Line podcast: A conversation about Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam

Last summer, a month before I was due to head to India for my wedding, Catriona Wright, Laboni Islam, and I, gathered in Kate Sutherland’s living room to discuss Tarfia Faizullah’s poetry collection, Seam (2014).

It was mad fun. We talked about a lot of things, like structure, word choice, voice of the speaker(s), and ethics of research that led to this book. I especially talked of the problem of co-option of voices of the survivors of 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War (the biranganas), and how Faizullah’s privilege as an American woman in academia (on a Fulbright scholarship, no less) allowed her to do so without repercussions.

And, we had a peek at Kate’s poetry collection, which is rather kickass.

You can follow Kate Sutherland on Instagram, where she posts her poetry reads.

You can listen to the podcast here.

seam

 

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A November evening that led to The Unpublished City

The Unpublished City line-up

The Unpublished City (Toronto: BookThug, 2017).

Where to begin? Some things, I believe, happen for a purpose, a reason. Happenstance, I like to think. Se-ren-di-pi-ty.

Last November, I had the privilege of being a part of a small group of writers sharing living room space with Dionne Brand. Discussing our current projects, our aspirations, our roadblocks. It wasn’t the best time in my life, but I am glad I made space for that evening. Something about that evening and its conversations opened a floodgate in (the writer) me. I came away, alive.

Line-up

17 of us (minus Katheryn Wabegijig) being introduced by Dionne Brand, Harbourfront Centre, 22nd June 2017. Photo: Catherine Coreno/@cthrn_c, from Twitter.

A part of the privilege came with knowing Phoebe Wang, who has been/is/and possibly will be nothing short of invincible when it comes to creating a much needed community for BIPOC writers. I don’t say this lightly. I don’t say this because I have come to value her friendship. I say this because it’s true. Because very few can do as much as Phoebe does in filling the much needed gap in the Toronto lit scene when it comes to recognizing multiplicity of identities; or, as it’s more easily understood, creating a space for “diversity” to thrive.

And so it was my knowing of Phoebe that led to that evening in November, and that evening that led to an opportunity to submit to an anthology curated by Dionne Brand, The Unpublished City. The anthology is an initiative of IFOA (International Festival of Literary Authors)/ Toronto Lit Up to promote diverse writing in Toronto. The anthology features 18 writers from the Greater Toronto Area.

I have a short flash fiction piece in it, “Mars in Scorpio”, a piece just shy of 600 words. It was the first creative piece I wrote this year. It was the first piece I wrote in a long time. It was the first piece of fiction that poured out of me. I credit it to that evening in November. (I also credit it to my partner who suggested I use a personal story to write this one, and the more I say about how lucky I am to have someone like him, it will never be enough. It is also happenstance in so many ways, our meeting, our being together, but that’s another story for another time.)

5 questions with IFOA

Self explanatory.

Now, almost six months into this year, I have more such pieces since. Pieces that have similarly poured out me. My friend, Heather Olaveson, says, they were waiting. All I needed was a push.

Here’s a toast to that November evening.

My five questions about writing with IFOA can be read here.

A little something on the anthology in Quill and Quire can be read here.

The anthology is available through BookThug here.

Doyali and I.

Before the event at Harbourfront Centre. With Doyali Islam, whose poem “43rd Parallel” is also in The Unpublished City. June 22 2017.

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seven years strong: an ode to survival

On April 22nd of this year, WordPress kindly sent me a notification reminding me of completing seven years of this blog business. Little did it know (or, acknowledge) my intermittent growing silence. I have been quiet, most often than not, on and off in the past two and a half years. My closest friends, allies, even some foes, know why. The past two and a half years have been spent in a cloud of anxiety and depression, both triggering the other, more often than not.

My tongue has been in exile in the process. I kept telling myself if only I could convince myself to survive, I could conquer anything. Isn’t it sad how much more difficult it is to admit our fallibilities?

Finding my writing (and political) voice took letting go, took recognizing my limits, took giving up in order to move forward. The desire to sprint hasn’t left me, but the older, wiser, survived-a-battle (both inner and outer) me knows better. This reborn me knows that recognizing limits is not failure, that recognizing failure is not giving up.

It took me seven years to find my writing voice. For the first time in my life, when anyone asks me, “are you a writer?” I hesitate a little at first, and then say, yes.

I started this year with a flash fiction piece that poured out of me, “Mars in Scorpio,” which will be published in Toronto Lit Up’s The Unpublished City anthology; a project curated and launched by Dionne Brand. I will be reading this piece with 17 other brilliant writers on June 22nd at Harbourfront in Toronto. These are big deals for me. Giant leaps for little me.

I also had a provocative essay that questioned the problematic and debatable canon of Canlit published in FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity)‘s Program in early May. The essay was accepted almost two years ago by a big publication in Canada and then revised a million times, and then rejected on some dubious reason (they wanted me to rewrite the whole thing minus the discussion of Writing Thru Race conference held in early 2015 in Toronto because it was apparently “dated”). I didn’t respond and instead submitted it to FOLD when I saw their call. It was a good decision. It was the universe sending me a message.

Finally, I have been writing a lot this year. I wrote a short story in February which is currently under consideration at a Canadian magazine. I am also working on a short story at the moment (which is taking on the length of a novella). And, I am inundated with story ideas, one of them as a children’s book. I am buzzing with creative energy, a thing that was not possible as recently as December. I hear voices that speak to me, that tell me their stories, that lead me to unknown places. I am no longer questioning whether I am a writer. I just know.

There is another part of me that is excited for the academic project I have undertaken, my big fat dissertation. My own idea, developed by me alone, with necessary input from a fine committee. The best possible committee I can have for the project I have undertaken. I am blessed. So very blessed. Sometimes, there is a negotiation, a conflict between my two worlds, but that is a negotiation I have to engage with as I go forward.

And finally, there has been this new desire in me to give back to the community. Curating and running Balderdash Reading Series has been a part of that desire. I was fortunate enough to receive a Graduate Enhancement Fund for the next year to run the series. There are other initiatives I am looking into as well that will allow me to engage with the larger community outside, perhaps even build a bridge between those in school and storytelling? I don’t know. I am exploring possibilities.

A large part of this has been possible because of a few generous people in my life. To name a few: Doyali Islam. Phoebe Wang. Jing Jing Chang. Beth Marie. Bilan Hashi. Heather Olaveson. Samah Katerji. Maggie Clark. My mother, Jharna Sur. And my love, my heart of hearts, Krishnakumar Sankaran. Thank you for giving me so much, and asking for nothing in return. Thank you for helping me survive.

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no more pretending

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“The March” by Abigail Gray Swartz for The New Yorker; Source: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/cover-story-2017-02-06

 

It’s been 2017 for a while, and a good year at that. So far. I can’t help but caution myself against changing winds that often, if not always, upset what we call our “positive outlook”.

Last year was – how shall I put it? – adversarial, at best. Yet, it was also the year I learnt the most, the most important lesson being, no more pretending. And, that is also my resolution this year, just being true to who I am, and being self-aware of my limitations. Just because I have become an expert at keeping a low profile, people automatically assume I have my shit together.

Well, bullshit.

I am still getting there, and I have been blessed with a strong community of people around me, sometimes like godsend in a single moment, sometimes always there, like an invisible umbilical cord. Yes, definitely lucky and blessed. Friends in unlikely places, a partner who has helped me survive, family who always support (although with doses of reprimands mixed in), and a community of writers I am just beginning to know.

This year is going to be a game-changer, and not just because I am getting married. As a writer too, I know things will happen, and happen for the best. I can feel it in my gut.

For now, there’s academia. There’s life (and Krishna, my life). There’s the reading series I have curated (it deserves its own blog post), and other little nuggets of opportunities that will slowly unfold as the year goes on. For now, I brace myself. For now, I am ready.

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Becoming Chikni Chameli in 3 Steps

I encountered Chikni Chameli in the December of 2011, mid afternoon at the Calcutta airport, waiting to board a flight to Indore. I was on my way to a friend’s cousin’s wedding. The overhead televisions kept blaring the annoying music of the item song, in sync with its provocative lyrics and gestures. Men and women alike had their eyes glued to the rhythms of Katrina Kaif’s thumkas and chest thrusts.

Fast forward to December 2013. Calcutta, again. 2 am. I am hunched over my laptop, seeking inspiration to finish my final assignment for Carolyn Smart’s fiction workshop class. Write a flash fiction piece, under 500 words. There are no parameters, except for the word limit.

I finally find inspiration , through another writer I admire. And, a stream of unconsciousness. Who knows where inspiration really comes from?

Several drafts, and a few rejections later, my piece sees the light of day.

My short fiction, “Becoming Chikni Chameli in 3 Steps,” is up at Matrix Magazine. You can read it here. It is a part of their trans issue, edited by Lucas Crawford.

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