Tishani Doshi on Poetry

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

INTERVIEW

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

Aathma Nirmala Dious

Tishani Doshi is a poet, novelist, and journalist, who is currently teaching in the Literature and Creative Writing Program. She was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award in 2018 for her collection of poems Girls Are Coming out of the Woods. Her recent novel Small Days and Nights was published by Bloomsbury in the UK and will appear from Norton in the US next January. A reviewer in for The Guardian described Small Days and Nights as “ a concise novel of staggering depth.” She spoke with us on the eve of her performance at the 2019 Heykayah Festival at NYUAD.

Aathma Dious: You wear many hats as a writer: journalist, fiction writer and poet. Do the disciplines seem separate for you or do they often bleed into each other?

Tishani Doshi: Writing is writing. I think of myself as a poet first, and so there’s an engagement with language regardless of the form I’m working in. But I suppose there’s a different relationship to time across the disciplines. If I’m working on a novel, I tend to be in this tunnel for months and I find I can’t do any other kind of writing, or anything else really. You’re also dealing with time in the novel, which is this huge unwieldy beast. Poetry is more elastic, a poem is its own universe, and there’s a completeness about it that’s very satisfying. Also, I find I don’t need to live in a tunnel to write poems. Essentially, writing is putting one word after the other, but the tricks are different.

AD: How do you know when you are ready to write a new poem? What kinds of things inspire you?

TD: Poems arrive. Recently I’ve been inspired by news stories. I’m fascinated by the fact that we’re living in this age of information but are still no closer to explaining consciousness, that truth and fake news sit side by side, that change is happening at such a torpedo rate. I often think poetry is the one form I have that allows me to respond to all these things. India has also been a fertile place for me in terms of inspiration, and living away from it as I have been this past year, while I’ve been teaching at NYUAD, has allowed me distance to examine what’s going on there—a lot of which is politically quite dark. Poems are a way of reconciling—so when you hear a minister of education saying Darwin was wrong and we have descended for sages and rishis, you know, obviously, that goes straight into a poem.

AD: How did you begin envisioning the dance for the poem “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods”? What comes first, the dance or the poem?

TD: I’m an accidental dancer in that I never had a formal training in dance. I worked with the Indian choreographer, Chandralekha, for many years, and so during that time I was working with someone who had a strong visual expression and I was part of that vision. After she died, I found I was not ready to give up on dance, as I’d been performing for fifteen years, and over that time I had built a physical vocabulary for myself drawing from yoga, bharatnatyam and kallaripayattu. So with “Girls” it was really about finding in movement what I was doing with words, which is to say, finding a way to reclaim the female body.

AD: Looking back on your writing, is there a favorite piece of work or a memory about writing you would like to share?

TD: I was a junior in college when I took a creative writing class which changed the direction of my life. I have few moments in my life which I count as decisive moments, where I recognized even then that this choice was moving me in a different direction. Meeting Chandralekha was one of them, but deciding to become a poet in college was also one of them. I knew then that all the statistics and economics stuff I was doing was fine, but it was never going to be enough. I’m glad I followed my intuition.  

Tishani Doshi

AD: Do you have any poetic influences and what poets are you reading now?

TD: I’m omnivorous and polyamorous and all kinds of influenced when it comes to poetry. This semester I’ve been revisiting old favorites with my students—Wislawa Szymborska, Ada Limon, Bob Hicok, the Beats, and the Bhakti movement among others—and so this is what I’m reading (because obviously there’s no time to read anything else when you’re teaching).

AD: Tell us a little bit about your composition and revision processes.

TD: So—I like to compare it with Indian miniature painting, even though I’m not a painter. The first step is drawing the rough sketch with charcoal, then firming up with a brush and introducing more details, then followed by a thin coat of white primer, then black, then removing the blemishes and burnishing so that the colored pigments can be applied layer by layer. Then, the painting is placed face down and this fuses the pigments into the surface and gives the painting a luster, and HERE the magical step which is called the “khulai,” literally, the opening up, where the painting comes to life, but no, it’s not over, there’s shading, stippling and more burnishing to do, and finally the borders and margins are given and colored in. And between the first and final stage a thousand things can go wrong, and in a less pretty way, that’s the writing process as well.

AD: The UAE government has celebrated 2019 as the “year of tolerance.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between poetry and tolerance?

TD: That’s an interesting question. I like to think of literature as being an empathy-enabler, we read because it allows us a way in to the imagination. We can experience other lives, other realities, other worlds. But the strange thing about poetry is that while it is, I think, one of the most honorable forms (there are so few perks to poetry that only the really devoted need apply), there is also a bizarre trend of dictators loving to write poetry. If you take a quick historical inventory of dictators, many of them wrote poetry—Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Hitler—so writing poetry doesn’t automatically make you empathetic. Perhaps if they’d had more successful careers as poets they might not have tortured people so.

AD: Is there anything you are hoping to learn from being part of Hekayah this year? Is there anything about the evening that particularly excites you?

TD: I’m just happy to be a part of the festivities. It looks like a great line-up. 

Tishani Doshi performs her dance version of “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods” at a TEDx event in Chennai in March 2018. The poem is read by her with music composed by Luca Nardon.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at NYUAD and the poetry editor for Electra Street.

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

INTERVIEW

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

Aathma Nirmala Dious

Zoe Jane Patterson and Vamika Sinha are seniors in the Literature and Creative Writing Program at NYU Abu Dhabi. Last year, they founded the online literary journal Postscript; this year, they are each writing creative capstones, Patterson in fiction and Sinha in poetry. They shared some insights into their creative practices in advance of their appearances at the 2019 NYUAD Hekayah Festival.

Aathma Dious: Tell us a little bit about your composition and revision processes.

Zoe Jane Patterson: For me, poetry begins with discomfort. You’re about to board a 14-hour flight; babies will cry, your skin will dry out until you look like a sphynx cat, and as soon as you sit on the toilet there will be turbulence. There is nothing beautiful about this situation. But if you write it down you get to control it: you get to sculpt it, make fun of it, and use it to think about other, bigger things.  No matter what the discomfort is for me, whether it’s physical or social or internal, if I turn it into a poem then I gain some power over it.

My poems almost always have a narrative thread that runs through them, probably because I tend to see the world through stories. That narrative, or at least an ending, gets formed in the first draft. My first drafts usually over-explain themselves. It takes me a while to let go of stanzas that are slowing things down because of my anxiety that I won’t be understood. Once the poem has been sculpted, I consider each word, shaking it down and swapping it for synonyms. I read the whole thing out loud. It’s also essential for me to show new poetry to a handful of trusted readers. I never feel like a poem is done, but eventually I can let myself leave it alone.

Vamika Sinha: I don’t generally plan my poems, unless I have a bunch of complex ideas I’m dealing with that need a little bit of structuring beforehand. I usually have one central idea or image that pops in my mind, and I’ll put that down and build the poem around it. Not all my poems are short or compact, but I guess most are. I like the challenge that concision poses, the idea of creating as much meaning and beauty within constraint. But to be honest, I don’t think too consciously about length. The poem is as long as I feel it needs to be, as long as I’ve conveyed what I set out to. A lot of it is intuitive.

How do you know when you are ready to write a new poem? What kinds of things inspire you?

ZJP: Poetry can come from lots of places for me. Sometimes I have a fleeting idea and scrawl it down. It can be an image, a contradiction, something absurd, a situation, or a joke etc. Then I go back to it and see if it’s supposed to turn into a poem or short story or be part of a larger piece of fiction. Poems also often come out of my rants and annoyances. I start ranting to someone I love about something that makes me angry or uncomfortable, and those thoughts are later recorded in my journal as the terrible first draft of a poem. Sometimes the same thing happens when I’m ranting to myself in my journal. I get inspired by discomfort, and I often feel the need to write when I encounter injustice. I always want to write when I encounter really great writing or artistry of any kind.

VS: I don’t know if I’m ever “ready” to write a poem. I think I love it enough that it feels natural to always kind of be thinking about writing, in the back of my mind. I’m always coming up with images or scraps of stanzas and putting them down in my phone, wherever I am. And then later, it’ll usually become something fuller, a larger developed poem when I push myself to sit down and write. I get a lot of inspiration from music. I’m actually a trained musician and music was there for me before writing or literature cropped up in my life, that was my main discipline and artistic outlet. I love mixing music with literary form, like jazz poetry for example, and referencing musicians that I think are monumental. My capstone, for example, is named after a song by Solange Knowles. Otherwise, I’m very inspired by movies, theories and books I read, personal emotional experiences, women’s histories, and cities. Also food. And love, of course.

DG: Speaking of food … Vamika, in your Postscript essay “Hungry City,” you write about eating ramen and the ways in which your experience of New York was “shaped by Asian hand.” How did food become central to your writing and your understanding? 

VS: I first started thinking about food and writing during my first year writing seminar in freshman year. I took “Street Food” with Deepak Unnikrishnan. I remember not even wanting to take this class, thinking “What’s the point of taking a class called ‘Street Food’ and in a city like Abu Dhabi?” But a lot of people talked well about the professor, so I registered. It was one of the most pivotal decisions I’ve taken at NYUAD. Professor Unnikrishnan became a very important mentor to me over the years, and I learnt so much, not only about writing, but about observing the world and the city in that class. Food is a conduit for larger conversations about our world. Over time, I’ve expanded on my experiences with food in various cities as ways of meditating on urban life, socio-political experiences, cosmopolitanism, and more.

AD: Have you had any fun or memorable food encounters in Abu Dhabi that you’d like to share?

VS: Nothing too exciting. I’ve had a few fun encounters while running the “AD Secrets” column for The Gazelle. A friend and I discovered a ludicrously tiny Game of Thrones-themed sandwich shop in a very random part of the city, and it turned out to be one of the greatest sandwich experiences both of us had ever had in our lives (the place is called “Game of Toast”). In general, I love recording the misspelled menu items in Abu Dhabi cafeterias, stuff like “sea snak” instead of “sea snake” or “saghetti salomon” instead of “salmon spaghetti.” It’s almost as if the typos are a requirement if you want to thrive as a diner here. I also love random quirky things like finding a drink called “Happiness” or existentially confused items like “Small Fish Big.”

Zoe Jane Patterson

AD: Zoe, you grew up in Al Ain. How different is it from Abu Dhabi? Do you find that you treat the two locations differently if you write about them?

ZJP: Al Ain radically shifted my ways of seeing myself and the world. I experienced formative teenage years and milestones there, but more importantly, it shook me out of my North-American suburban mentality. The city is this small dot of an oasis that exists in a vast desert, but somehow, it’s also large in all the worlds it contains and connects to. Al Ain is a city that feels like a small town, so it nurtured me in softer ways than a bigger city might have, and it’s the first home that I fiercely loved. My capstone project, which will hopefully someday become my first novel, is set in Al Ain because of how much I learned there and how much I believe in its magic.

Abu Dhabi is home though; I love walking through the streets here, taking notes of quirky shop names or conversations with strangers. Abu Dhabi has an anonymity and mobility that Al Ain never did: In Al Ain I would never walk through the city center, there was nowhere like the corniche for social mixing. It’s harder to write poetry about Al Ain, because life happens behind closed doors there. Prose has the breadth to yank them open but my poetry struggles. I wouldn’t want to live in Al Ain again; it was a wonderful cocoon and introduction to the world but my younger self belonged there much more than I do. I feel better able to criticize Abu Dhabi, and to sit with its discomforts, which has made for more and better poetry.

AD: For the Hekayah application, you had submitted a poem about Abu Dhabi that, I dare say as someone who grew up there, was quite spot on.  Could you talk more about it?

ZJP: Thank you! “Invisible Abu Dhabi” was the first poem I ever wrote about this city, and it came out of a long walk with a friend after dinner, from one end of the corniche to the other. As we walked, the sun started to set, and I thought about all the ways that the city changes when darkness falls. It’s almost as though Abu Dhabi transforms into an entirely different place. I was thinking about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and was reading a collection of short stories by Murakami called The Elephant Vanishes at the time. As we walked I imagined alternate realities, and at the same time I was uncomfortable with my own position in the city at night. Suddenly home had become slightly sinister, and I wanted to re-enact that shift in a poem.

AD: Vamika, do you find that it is different to write poetry in or about Abu Dhabi than in or about other places places you know like Botswana or New York?

VS: Well yeah, it’s different to write about any city because every city is different from the other. My capstone, which bridges cosmopolitanism with women of color, deals with a lot of how women move differently in every city. Abu Dhabi is different because it’s situated in an Islamic country, with this very transient and patchwork demographic. It’s starkly different from New York, obviously, or Botswana or anywhere else really. The way you interact with others, I’ve theorized, as in any city, depends on what history has produced in that city. UAE history has produced a certain type of population with mixed ethnicities, certain class dynamics, religious realities and laws and rules that affect the way I move in Abu Dhabi. The city’s history overlaps with my individual history too, so as an Indian woman who has grown up in Africa, speaks a certain set of languages, is a certain age etc, or in other words, what my body is as a collection of histories, interacts with the city as a body of histories, and it’s what happens in those interactions that I try to make poetry from, whatever city I’m in. Each city differs because the histories and the way those histories overlap with mine are always different and evolving too.

AD: Do you have any poetic influences? What poets are you reading now?

ZJP: I have two books of poetry that I bring with me wherever I go, one is by Emily Dickinson, the other is by E.E. Cummings. I don’t think my writing is anything like either of theirs, but if I ever need to get inspired I leaf through one of those books. I also turn to poets such as Claudia Rankine, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Ted Hughes. Poetry isn’t always inspired by poetry though—a poem I’m working on right now was inspired by Ways of Seeing, which is a collection of short essays by John Berger about looking at artworks. I’m often inspired by artworks and films. Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro remains one of my biggest influences.

VS: I’d say I’m pretty influenced by Safia Elhillo, Fatimah Asghar, Ada Limon, Gloria Anzaldua, Claudia Rankine, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. But also other kinds of writers, including fiction and theory. My favorite writer for example is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah is one of the most important books to me as both a writer and woman. Open City by Teju Cole is another major book. I also think a lot about James Baldwin, Edward Said, Langston Hughes, bell hooks and again, musicians and lyrics/rap. I’m heavily inspired by artists like Mac Miller, Solange, FKA twigs, Frank Ocean, Mitski etc. I feel like I’m always having conversations with what these people have wrote in my head and those conversations and thought processes eventually come out in the poems, as ways of thinking and re-thinking, and making and remaking, the world.

AD: Zoe, you write short stories as well. What draws you to that form?

ZJP: I started writing short stories for creative writing workshops. Before that I was always interested in writing a novel, and never really read short stories or saw them as a true form. Once I started trying to write them though I realized how difficult they are to master. You have to create an entire believable world with interesting characters in a short amount of time and you need to drag the reader along with a plot that’s interesting. All of the elements of a novel are in there, but none of the breadth. Writing and reading short stories always makes me feel a little breathless. I write them now as a way of testing ideas for new worlds, and of practicing plot and getting into new characters’ heads. Sometimes I get an idea for a scene and I just write it out to see what happens, and then I realize the scene is unfolding into a plot. The excitement of that almost spontaneous unfolding makes me want to keep writing new stories. 

Vamika Sinha

AD: Let’s talk about Postcript How did that come about?

VS: We started Postscript mostly by chance in our dorms while we were studying abroad at NYU Paris. It came out of us not taking any literature classes while we were there and sorely missing it.

ZJP: A group of us were sitting in a café, sipping overpriced coffee and lamenting the lack of literature classes being offered by NYU Paris. We were coming to the slow realization that we would have to teach ourselves that semester. Then, someone had the idea to write a poem on our napkins and recite it for the others. These poems were terrible. We decided to keep going by writing a terrible poem every day and posting it in a group chat. It was our own shy way of expressing ourselves and our fears to each other without saying anything out loud. We let the work be bad and ugly, but after a while, we started to write real poetry with urgency. We wanted to share it with more than just each other; we wanted a reason to write and a place where our thoughts mattered. We decided to create that space for ourselves.

VS: We started to write a lot of poems together for fun about our experiences and dilemmas and questions and all the newness we were grappling with while living in France. We decided we want to share this work and our ideas and conversations on a platform, and so our little slapdash creation was spontaneously born. We wrote about the process last year in The Gazelle.

AD: Now that it’s launched, what do you see as the mission of Postcript?

ZJP: Postscript started off as a place for artists and writers whose work might be treated like a footnote, or an addition or amendment to the larger more important stories. We wanted to put those voices in a space together, and to create a network rather than a hierarchy between them. Postscript champions critical work: work that probes, pulls apart and investigates. The result has been submissions from all over the world, from a queer non-binary farmer making collages in Germany, to post-colonial poetry from Trinidad. The network has expanded and grown much more than we expected, and we hope to continue growing it to give space to these important conversations.

VS: We talk about our mission in the Gazelle article, and we’ve also written a mission statement. We’d ideally love to create a print issue by the time we graduate, have some more chapbooks, expand our contributor pool, up our readers etc etc. Basically, keep it going on an upward trajectory where it becomes more and more established.

AD: Tell us about what you’ve done with chapbooks so far.

ZJP: We’ve always wanted to be able to share physical copies of our work. Digital space is convenient, but it also comes with its own sets of challenges. A chapbook is our first attempt at using more traditional methods to disseminate work, and we’re so grateful for our contributors who agreed to be part of this first experiment. The chapbook is called Landing. It starts with the prose-poem “Origins” by Jamie Uy, then “Whole Foods” by Vamika Sinha, “I Want to Wear a Qípáo too” by Samantha Neugebauer, “China Doll” by Tzy Jiun Tan, “Frida” by Zoe Patterson, “Unfeeling Fortunato” by Amal Al Shamsi and “Incessant” by Elyazyeh Al Falacy. It ends with the final line of Elyazyeh’s poem “i’m not sure how i got here but i landed like an anchor.” (All of these poems are available on Postscript’s website.) There are also artistic contributions by Sandra Paris, Caitlyn Peck, and Tessa O’Halloran. We think of the chapbook as a microcosm for what we’re trying to do with Postscript as a whole.

AD: The UAE government has celebrated 2019 as the “year of tolerance.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between poetry and tolerance?

ZJP: I think tolerance is important, but I don’t think it’s the word I’d use to describe what poetry does. Tolerance is about the ability to withstand difference, which is a necessary first step towards true harmony in a young and diverse country like the UAE. But poetry doesn’t just withstand difference: it can probe it, dive into it, push its boundaries and acknowledge its discomforts. Poetry can wrestle with difference rather than simply accepting or enduring it.

VS: As I said earlier, poetry, like any good art, is a way of rethinking and remaking the world around us. That includes social issues, politics, interpersonal relationships. So how do poetry and tolerance intersect? Apart from obvious stuff, like fostering empathy, allowing the reader to inhabit another’s mind and all that, poetry offers us new perspectives, just different angles of looking at the same thing, from meditating on an apple slice to getting catcalled in a foreign city. Of course, prose can do that too. Statistics and research can present the same information. But what’s special about poetry is that it remakes meaning and beauty out of whatever topic it deals with, through the sheer craft of working with language in an innovative and dynamic way. Other writing presents the problem or question, may even provide solutions, but poetry allows us to walk into it, to experience

AD: Is there anything you are hoping to learn from being part of Hekayah this year? Is there anything about the evening that particularly excites you?

VS: I haven’t performed poetry on stage since doing Rooftop Rhythms in freshman year! So I suppose I’m ready to reconfront the idea of going up on stage and sharing my work again now that I’m older and have written more, and with a larger audience.

ZJP: There is always so much to learn from having conversations with other artists. I am particularly invested in the arts scene in the UAE, which is still young and growing. The conversations we have now and the projects we produce can shape the future of the arts in this country. We are creating traditions, and that’s powerful. I’m most excited to share the stage with a group of artists I admire. I’m especially excited to see Professor Tishani Doshi perform, she’s one of my mentors and someone who I hope I can write like someday.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at NYUAD and the poetry editor for Electra Street.
FURTHER READING

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

OP-ED

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Yasmeen Tajiddin

November 2019

Nobody says she was born a chemist, but somehow, if you’re an artist or a singer, people assume you were born with that talent. 

Going into my Playwriting class, I thought it was a class where I would be comfortable. I took Intro to Creative Writing last semester and wrote a couple of scripts for an acting class. How hard could it be?

The answer? Really, really hard. Every week we talked about another aspect of playwriting that I had not considered the week before. What are the characters’ relationship to the setting? What is the visual language of your play? What is each character’s personal ideology and how do they clash? And my personal nightmare: what does your character sound like?

Apparently, everyone can’t speak like me, so I had to think more actively about how people speak. Every YouTube hair tutorial became a lesson in the use of “like.” Every idiom I unconsciously use on a daily basis became an important choice in my writing. Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak. All these moving pieces had to boil down to seven to ten pages every week, each script better (I hoped) than the last.

            Vocal Ensemble, on the other hand, was something I knew I would be terrible at. My only experience with reading music was playing cello in the 5th grade, and I have to concentrate embarrassingly hard to hit all the notes in “Happy Birthday.” There was a lot of room for improvement.

Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak.

On one of the first days of class, the professor stressed that we needed to do vocal warm-ups every day. Similar to my experience in Playwriting, I found there were so many more elements that go into choral performance than just hitting the notes. While it isn’t the common understanding, people who can sing well study. Rather than a thing you’re simply good or bad at, a singing voice can be developed by regularly “exercising” it. Sure, someone can be born with a good singing voice, but if she doesn’t know how to shape her mouth for certain vowel sounds, or how to control her breath for higher or longer notes, or where to place a note for the best resonance, she won’t be nearly as good as she can be. I, like most people, did not know all these elements went into singing, let alone what they meant. The reality is, every piece of music is dissected and analyzed before it is fit to be performed in front of an audience. 

We don’t often think of artists as scientific or meticulous in terms of their processes. But when an audience hears a polished choral performance or a scene from a play, they are actually hearing the hours of work that went into each performance. The recent Open Studios event helps demonstrate that fact: for our thirty-minute Open Studios singing performance, for example, we spent an hour and a half each week of the semester learning and refining the same four songs. By the time we performed, I felt like I was taking a test I’d studied for extensively. It felt like a relief to put our final product in front of an audience and hear positive reactions; simultaneously, performing reminded me of sections that I still needed to work on.

Photo Credit: NYUAD Arts & Humanities

 

Like STEM, writing and singing demand extensive research, studying, and practice. A very small portion of artistic skills are innate. So while I did think I was a good writer who could improve, I now know how and what to improve on. And while I’m not the best singer, I know that I can get better and sing something harder than “Happy Birthday.”

Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.
FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

The Present is Female

The Present is Female

The Present Is Female 

A List of 12 Novels You Should Read

 

November 2019

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Never mind the adage that “the future is female”; the present is female, and we have Morrison to thank for it! Beloved speaks with such power and verve to the originary historical trauma of U.S. contemporary life that Morrison’s novel spurred the emergence of trauma studies as a major field of work in the U.S. academy and beyond it. I cherish this novel and do not want to imagine a contemporary Anglophone literary field without it. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Possibly the best novel of this millennium. (You can quote me on that.) Four friends from college make their way through turbulent comings-of-age often shaped and marred by the unspeakable traumas of late capitalism. Literary lore has it that Toni Morrison told her creative writing classes at Princeton that ”I don’t want to hear about your little life”; Yanagihara’s novel offers a wonderful example of how ostensibly personal stories can offer macronarratives about our cultural moment at the start of the 21st century.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

A rival for the title as this young millennium’s best novel so far. Smith published White Teeth within three years of receiving her BA in English Literature from Cambridge University. In significant ways, the novel reads like a showdown with the English canon in which Smith’s studies had immersed her: Opening ”early in the morning, late in the century,” the novel treats us to a sweeping, Saturnalian panorama of the post-empire. Initially panned by conservative critic James Wood as ”hysterical realism,” the novel and its successors in Smith’s oeuvre embrace the disorderly, the messy, seeing in chaos and dynamism a new way to narrate contemporary life and its peculiarities.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

A story of addiction, the post-plantation, racialized income inequality, and police brutality, Ward’s novel speaks with clarity and indignation about the reality facing Black bodies in the U.S. today. Like Morrison, to whom she professes her literary matrimony, Ward physicalizes Black female suffering in the figure of a tree. Readers of Beloved will find Ward’s climactic last scene impossible not to juxtapose with the scars on Sethe’s back, though Ward goes even further than her predecessor in discussing the web of roots that nourish the tree that comes to represent fraught U.S. history post-1619.

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Danticat contemplates migration (Haiti to New York), institutionalized misogyny, childhood sexual trauma, and the interconnections of language with race and gender. I will never forget the novel’s descriptions of “testing” rituals that intend to gauge a girl’s virginity but serve the de facto function of legitimating male physical overreach in the context of unquestionable patriachy. Read the novel for the horrors it exposes, yes, but also for its protagonist’s efforts to survive and overcome them.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Any reading of Kincaid’s novels must begin from a consideration of her relation to Antigua, the island she calls home and whose systematic exploitation by predatory tourism industries she documents in the non-fiction work A Small Place. Kincaid locates much of the social malaises plaguing Antigua(ns) in their role as perpetual servants to transient white visitors, bringing to mind what Tsitsi Dangaremba called the “nervous conditions” of postcolonial subjectivity. This novel’s explorations of depression and poverty thus gestures toward efforts to explain their occurence by the indignities that Antiguans experience as servants in their own nation. But perhaps the novel’s deftest move occurs in its discussions of female homosocial relations and lesbian desire in the private sphere—a rebuttal of Western queer studies discourses that see private queerness as deficient and premodern. Annie John challenges Western readers to check their/our assumptions of what modernity looks like, and to ask to what extent we caused the problems in Antigua that we now lament.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

After Morrison’s death earlier this year, Walker has become the custodian of U.S. moral consciousness. No less grandiose claim would do justice to Walker’s role in shaping contemporary U.S. awareness of the legacies of plantation slavery and the contemporary realities of the post-plantation and gender violence. Nor does it seem grandiose to elevate Walker to this position of cultural arbitrarion and record-keeping if we consider the shaping influence The Color Purple and its author had on younger novelists. Zadie Smith may have grown up in London, but speaking about her earliest literary exposure at Stanford University earlier this year, she said: “Toni Morrison [and] Alice Walker […] for those of us who grew up Black-British, our models were [U.S.] American.” With a legacy that crosses the Atlantic Ocean, Walker offers narratives that explain our contemporary moment and demand moral actions to undo our freighted legacies.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

As the most prominent women writer in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston created the discursive space for African-American women to narrate their own realities—to give accounts of themselves. The line of inspiration from Hurston via Morrison to a plethora of (queer) women novelists (of color) working today makes Their Eyes Were Watching God required reading for anyone who reads contemporary novels. But what makes Hurston’s novel more than required reading is her capacity for world-making in African-American vernaculars. Their Eyes Were Watching God inserts itself in flood narratives from Gilgamesh and Noah/Nuh through Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, warranting that we read Hurston not just for her historical role in clearing discursive space, but as a poetic master in her own right.

Passing by Nella Larson

As a Danish citizen who crossed the Atlantic to study in the U.S., I have long wondered at Larson’s absence from mainstream Danish literary canons and at her relegation in the U.S. to niche/historicizing reading lists (“women writers in the Caribbean”; “interracial queer novels of migration,” etc.). Passing could well serve as the premier text through which to capture the African-American prose tradition of the 1920s. In its efforts to make “the great (U.S.) American novel” a story of racial passing and border-crossing, Passing might well rival Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom! as one example of that elusive national narrative.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

No survey of contemporary U.S./Anglophone novels (as I am realizing that this list seems to offer) would be complete without reckoning not just with slavery, but also with the Native American genocide starting in 1492. Silko’s novel probes the limits of the novel as a cohesive form, while her narrative experiments with non-linearity to unsettle readers’ expectations of what Native American novels should represent. I think of the contemporary Native American poet Tommy Pico’s “Nature Poem” (“I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit,/makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure—why shld I give a fuck abt/‘poetry’? It’s a container”): Silko bends the novel’s form to her will, interrogating even the act of readership and suggesting its tacit extractivism.

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

The stories of at least seven women (Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Saint Thérèse, Cha, her mother, and the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone) weave together and form a thoughtful, rich meditation on womanhood, trauma, and martyrdom. Dictee and its author traverse oceans and literary borders and ask whether it makes sense to persist in grouping texts togetehr in national canons given the porous nature of contemporary cultural boundaries. In a gruesome echo of Cha’s misgivings about female martyrdom, Cha died from gendered sexual violence in a brutal murder shortly after Dictee’s release. Dictee thereby presents readers with the chance, if nothing else, to commemorate Cha’s life by engaging with her work, all the while recalling the acute insufficiency of our efforts to curb gendered sexual violence.

Crimson / HOMO Sapienne by Niviaq Korneliussen

Let me conclude this list with a recommendation that differs from the eleven novels above both because it comes from the ultraminor field of contemporary Greenlandic lesbian literature, but also because it approaches representations of trauma not through dramatizations of it, but through its elision. Crimson imagines a Greenlandic society all but sanitized of its Danish colonizers. It responds to the contemporary reality of rampant homophobia with a strident vision of queer acceptance and celebration. (I worked with Professor Ken Nielsen on a capstone project about Korneliussen’s counterimaginative moves for my capstone project in 2018 and recommend the novel almost as an antidote to the Arctic Orientalism that pervades representations of Greenland, not least in the wake of the 45th U.S. President’s suggestion that he wanted to “buy” the (autonomous) island.) Read it to feel renewed hope that no matter the catalogue of traumatized texts above, a decolonial and post-violent world might just be waiting to be born.

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a degree in Liteature and Creative Writing. He is currently a doctoral student in comparative literature at Stanford University.

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Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Ria Golovakova

November 2019

Plato can rejoice: writing has finally caught up to speech.

Back in 370 BCE, the Greek philosopher lamented in his dialogue Phaedrus that written words “stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent.” In contrast to a live speaker, the author of a text is unapproachable. As a reader, you only have the words to go by, and “if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” If you want to express a criticism, the author needs to be there to support her writing, as “alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”  Except not anymore—social media has changed that dynamic.

Photo courtesy of freestocks.com

Authors are everywhere, and they want to talk to their readers: much like asking a question after a speech, a reader can now close the book and tag the author on Twitter, sending her all the pressing questions that the reading inspired. If the ending was unsatisfactory, the writer can be pressed to disclose more information. If a side-character was popular, the reader can request a spin-off or at least extra tid-bits about the character’s life. If the premise was controversial, the writer can be made to acknowledge the criticism. Roland Barthes is irrelevant—the author is no longer dead.

In 2017, Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The Guardian that “writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low,” and he lamented that the new Internet age has destroyed any notion of a “private life” outside the screen. He also wondered about the writer’s role in this digital landscape: “what if she didn’t unplug when confronted with the new fictionalities but inscribed herself into the web and reported back?” I propose to answer that question with the case study of a very Internet-active author: J.K. Rowling.

An example of
J.K. Rowling’s infamous tweets.

Photo courtesy of freestocks.com

The writer behind the beloved Harry Potter franchise has taken a particular liking to Twitter. In fact, she has now become a running internet joke (or meme) for her notorious use of the platform to add to and augment the series’ canon. She has posted answers to fan questions that drastically changed the interpretation of her books or contradicted them entirely, with claims that Albus Dumbledore was actually homosexual or that Hermione Granger wasn’t white. In an article for WIRED, Emma Grey Ellis claims “at this point, Rowling herself seems to be running with scissors, ready to slice up your childhood.” She compares this behavior to the culture of fan-fiction, which has exploded since the early 2000s on Internet forums and has been particularly active in the Harry Potter fandom. But Ellis recognizes that Rowling’s interventions “seem as remote and unnatural as bad fanfic,” because they do not respect the internal logic of her original stories.

Still, consensus holds that Rowling’s statements are canon because they are made by the original author. In a paper titled “The ghost of JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the ur-fan,” Dion McLeod and Travis Holland suggest that such intervention forces the fans “who wish to read the texts through the dominant authorial lens established by Rowling” to “reinterpret the meanings they had previously found in the texts.” The paper in fact proposes a new way to look at the reader-author relationship, where Rowling becomes “the ur-fan.” In this role, she interacts with the fandom in a way that a fanfiction writer might, but she is given precedence because of her status as the original author of the text. This way, her interactions with the series become a gray area of not-quite-text and almost-canon.

These blurred boundaries suggest that the text is no longer the whole story, even with authors who are less active on social media than Rowling may be. There has been a rise in authors who either started out as popular social media users or who became more successful as writers because of their social media followings, such as John Green or Rupi Kaur. Of course, one can argue that all of the authors discussed so far do not write literary fiction, and that more mainstream pop fiction may lend itself to social media interactivity. But to me it seems short-sighted to assume that the authors of highly literary works could not be interested in the possibilities that Twitter brings. The dynamic between readers and writers is now fundamentally different, and even those writers who do not appear on social media do so as a conscious decision, which becomes part of their branding.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Even if a writer is not on Twitter, some of his or her readers will be. Ellis speculates that “the future of storytelling is likely something more participatory and inclusive,” with readers actively involved in creating and interpreting literature in ways that were not possible in the past. Fan fiction, interpretive theories, analysis video essays, speculative fan art, inspired original fiction, discussion boards: readers can gather in multitudes of digital spaces and mold their favorite works as they please, potentially toppling down the author’s superiority and making literature a two-way street instead of a sermon.

Rudy Rucker’s science fiction novel Software presents a model of evolution that resonates with this  discussion. Within the story, the creator of “boppers” (intelligent and self-conscious robots) Cobb Anderson, realized that “no one can write a bopper program … they’re too complicated” but one might not have to. Instead, he “set a thousand of simple AI programs” loose, with “fitness tests” that mirrored natural selection, and mutation when “all the surviving programs were randomly changed.”

Twitter reminds me of this software battle ground, where readers instead of AI programs are all set loose and compete for likes and retweets with their contributions to a fandom. Authorial intervention or other unexpected events, as well as the simple changing make-up of users, serve the role of mutation to the general landscape. Individuals build their ideas off of each other, creating complex systems of theories and interpretations that none of them could have come up with alone. As a public forum, the internet has created a growing network the creations of which are more than the sum of its parts.

The future of literature may be in trusting the crowd and the community. After all, genuine fans tend to want the best for the books they enjoy and their engagement may increase the value of the text more than the isolation of a static book ever could. Perhaps literature has now become the new Athenian assembly, after all. If Plato saw it, maybe he would not criticize writing as much as he did.

 

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.

FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Four Poems

Four Poems

POETRY

Four Poems

Maitha AlSuwaidi

The Sun

When you describe me;
Do not compare me to a flower.
Do not compare me to the moon. 
Do not compare me to a melody. 
Think of me as the big, bright sun. 
For flowers wither,
The moon relies on the brightness of the sun to shine,
Melodies grow repetitive and boring. 
But the sun,
It is the reason you wake up in the morning. 
It the reason the flowers in the balcony of your tiny apartment back in your New York blossom. 
It is the reason the moon shines on your restless composure when you’re up all night missing me, every single night 
It is the reason you wrote all those songs about me, each morning a new melody. 
And if I, the sun, ever explode from the agony you’ve been feeding me 
I will take all source of life along with me,
Including yours. 
So, think of me as the big, bright sun.

 

شكراً ماما

:إلى أمي الحبيبة

أريد أن أهديكِ كل البلاغة في هذه الدنيا لأشفيَ كل الآلام التي استعرتِها من الدنيا

أريد أن أقدّم لك تشبيهاتَ نزارِ وكلمات كاظم

أريد أن أهديك كلماتي الباهتة هذه.

أقبلي مني المحبة

اقبلي مني المحبةَ في ليالي السهر والسمر

لإنني لا أستطيع أن أقدم لك الكثيرَ عدا الأحضان والكلمات

.فاقبليهم مني 

The Ultimate Guide to Toxicity 

Man,
Man up.
Man up; vulnerability is not an option, and neither is crying
In the case of the existence of tears, it should be the tears of the girl you lured to love you unconditionally, never yours
Man-age to get the upper hand, at all costs
Man-age to push her to her limits just for you to catch her before she falls
Man-date your inferiors, in other words, the females in your family that love you unconditionally
Man-euver your way to as many hearts as you can before you decide to settle down. The more, the man-lier
Man-ifest your faux affection when she abides to your demands and deprive her of it when she misbehaves
Man-ducate her resistance like you will man-ducate that salmon you will force her to cook for you. It may taste fishy and stinky, but you will enjoy eating every single bit of it. You will, nevertheless, remind her everyday of how stinky it tasted

Man-ipulate
Man-ipulate her like a subject in one of your scrutinizing studies
A dependent variable
A lab rat
A case study
An object to be acquired
And when the treatment fails to produce the result you hypothesized
When the lab rat gets sick and dies
When the case study fails
When the human you objectify becomes an object
When the wo-man you deep-down loved becomes nothing but your shadow
When she becomes nothing but the remnants of the whole person she was before you
Tuck in your toxic masculinity in the inner pocket of your expensive suit
And walk into a dark room to silently kill your shadow
And then, man-ipulate the next wo-man
Man up.

 

A Heaving Chest

To get used to fear is to feel heavy
To feel heavy is to drag your heart with a thin rope behind you as you trail by time’s tail
To feel heavy is to sob your eyeballs out when you realize your mother no longer is your best friend

To feel heavy
Is to feel insane
Even when you’re steady
Even when you’re driving in the right lane
It is to be willing to jump into the next person’s shoes as long as they are not yours
It is to blame

Blame

Your father
Your childhood best friend
That one harsh high school teacher
The car accident you got into last year
The one person you thought would never leave

To feel heavy is to never blame yourself
When maybe you should.

 

Maitha AlSuwaidi is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. She is a writer, a poet, and a performance artist. Maitha hopes to combine her interests in politics and sociology with her practice of creative writing. She will be appearing at the 2019 Hekayah Festival at NYU Abu Dhabi this week.

FURTHER READING

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