Amravati International Conference held during 25-26 Nov 2011, releasing of my book' Poetry n Drama: texts n Context', My talk in the Plenary Session on 'Literature and Projection of Women as chairperson.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Gopi K Kottoor: The Poetry of Emotion, Colour and Passion
Literary Interview by Capt. Dr. Arvind Nawale
“I feel that the process of poetry is like blood running in the body. The blood does its function. Poetry, for which you are ordained, is doing its job all the while for you whether you are aware of it or not. I let it. The poetry runs within, taking resources from all around and stirs it with emotions of all kinds. The poet is only the outlet, the medium. When the trigger comes, poetry bleeds.” -Gopi K Kottoor
*The Present interview is published in my book Global Responses to Literature in English, ISBN 978-81-7273-652-1, AuthorsPress, New Delhi
Gopikrishnan Kottoor is a major contemporary voice, and foremost among Indian poets presently writing in English . He is an award-winning poet, with the highest number of prizes and short lists featured in the All India Poetry Competitions of The Poetry Society (India)- British Council . His prizes include, The Special All India Poetry Prize-97, The Second All India Poetry Prize (General Category-97) both in the same year, and Commendation prizes (95,98). His poems have appeared in Orbis (UK), Ariel (University of Calgary), Toronto Review (Canada), Nth Position Online (UK), Arabesques (Africa), Plaza (Japan), The Illustrated Weekly Of India, Chandrabhaga, Indian Literature, Kavya Bharati, Lipi, Opinion, Kavi (India), and various. Anthologies in which his poetry has appeared include The Golden Jubilee Anthology of Post-Independence Poetry In English (National Book Trust, India), The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry In English (UK), Verse, Seattle (USA), Special Issue on Contemporary Indian Poetry in English, Give The Sea, Change, Fulcrum (USA) and various. Kottoor was visiting poet, Augsburg University, Germany, and India Guest at the University of Vienna (Austria), in 2004. His book Father, Wake Us In Passing, appeared in German as a Laufschrift Edition in 2004. He attended the MFA poetry program of the Texas State University,San Marcos, USA in 2000. Poetry from his book ‘A Buchenwald Diary’ was listed as a prayer in the book ‘Through Another Lens, Liquori Books, USA 2011. His Oeuvre includes novels, plays, children’s stories, literary reviews, lyrics for music, and transcreations. His latest collection of poems ‘ Victoria Terminus” appeared in 2011. Kottoor has published 9 books of poetry, 3 novels (the third in press), 2 plays, 2 transcreations , 1 childrens’ book, and edited, ‘ A New Book of Indian Poems In English’. He is the founder editor of the poetry quarterly ‘ Poetry Chain’. His new book ‘Vrindavan, The Coloured Yolk of Love’ will appear in 2012. Film scripts, short stories, a play, novels, a collection of juvenilia, and a new poetry collection are on the anvil. He regularly reviews poetry for The Hindu, Literary Supplement.
AMN: Good morning, Mr. Kottoor. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Do tell me something about yourself and how you came to be a poet, novelist and playwright.
GKK: I was born in Trivandrum, in beautiful Kerala, which I guess has something mysteriously stinging my soul and connects me to poetry. The beauty of its inscapes and lake scapes, the lilies of the rivers and the fragrance of its greenery have something to do as well. In fact, in the first part of my recently published novel, Presumed Guilty, there is a lot of me, shaping into a poet. The lonely childhood, the meeting point with nature, grappling the texture and finesse of female flesh and beauty, is all me, shaping into a poet. The character was the medium. Good you ask this question, and good I can open up this way.
I have been a poet, primarily, and a misfit perhaps, as all poets are, and sure, must be. This world is not a poet’s world! Keats was my great early influence, with his life, love for wine and desire for hemlock, his loves, his poetry, self-spite, and letters. When I caught TB at around 23 at Keats’s age, I didn’t quite think much about it because Keats was still strong on me. I felt that a true poet had to catch it anyway and secretly felt proud. Luckily there was a cure. For long years I have remained a poet, a poet mostly and primarily, and have lived my life that way, with other influences as Allen Ginsberg both in my poetry and in my life.
I had my first published my first poem in Youth Times (Bennett & Coleman), when 17. It was a love poem for a girl in school and went.,.. ‘ I remember you with the towery inflorescence of the mango flowers, and the caterpillar fruit of the mulberry’. Both the mango flowers and caterpillar fruit were of my home garden. It was Shiv.K. Kumar who first published me both in Youth Times and The Illustrated Weekly of India. Thereafter Kamala Das used to give me centre page spreads often filling it with me in Youth Times. Those events helped me climb up. Gauri Deshpande published me in Opinion. Anees Jung introduced me in Quest. The lives of poets that influenced me made me write my plays, ‘The Mask of Death’ on the dying days of Keats in Rome, and ‘Fire in The Soul’ on the life of the Nationalist poet Bharati. It is closeness to nature, and the haunt of childhood recreating the freshness of reminiscence that is involved in my first novel ‘A Bridge Over Karma’. Presently I work in a senior capacity with The Reserve Bank of India, Mumbai.
AMN: When did you first start writing, what made you feel the need to express yourself in this way?
GKK : As I said, I was around 16, when it happened. I remember a time I gazed in awe at the kitchen boy next door who read out to me his poems beneath the champak in blossom by my home, that he hid away from his house lady who used to burn them. Poor boy. I haven’t heard of him after. I used to marvel how poetry used to be written, while studying in school. Then, before I knew it, and bull dozed into calf love by a girl to whom I haven’t ever spoken to, I started writing poems about her beauty. Then slowly, and painfully the themes changed. My father, who saw my scribbles, was elated, that his son was showing signs of becoming a poet, and waxed eloquent about me to his friends. It was he who salvaged all the early brittle stuff and printed them into my first book ‘Piccolo’ which meant, an Italian flute. The name was chosen by him after consulting the dictionary. I became what I am in poetry because of him. This I have acknowledged in ‘Father, Wake Us in Passing’, which they say is a poem that’ll see me through, and I believe so too. It is a book that has brought forth tears all over the world wherever I read it.
AMN: I am reminded G.B.Shaw’s play Candida and concept of calf-love in it. But that’s a different case. Okay, Please tell me how did you "discover" poetry? At what age did the light bulb come on for you, and what poem/poet flipped the switch?
GKK: I have answered this already. From the time I started writing at about 16+ poetry became my passion. I would do nothing but write poetry, sleep poetry, dream poetry. I filled notebook after notebook and wrote at least ten or fifteen poems daily. I have still preserved most of the notebooks. I still go back to them at times, and will go to them again after 60 when I retire. I find they can still lend me inspiration. After I started reading poetry, and it was poetry, poetry, poetry. I read every poet I came across, I read them deep. I waded through the various techniques the poets used to bring home the truths of their poems. Poets as Dylan Thomas, R S Thomas, Norman McCaig, Walt Whitman, Wordsworth, John Donne, (I like him really) Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, W B Yeats, Robert Frost, mesmerized me. I hugged modern American Poetry entirely. I think I must have read at least a thousand poets. It includes Lorca, Yevtushenko, the Haiku masters (Basho), Mandelstam, Neruda, Heine, Vasko Popa, Sappho, Vidyapati etc. In India, I was bowled over by the love poetry of Pritish Nandy, and used to initially imitate his prose poems, but soon gave it up. Of my first published poem, I have already made mention. Two poets who had a say in shaping my poetic career were, Shri T K Doraiswamy (Nakulan), the avant garde Tamil writer, and Dr. Ayyappa Paniker, my English professor.
AMN: A few days back, I read your Victoria Terminus. A few months back, I have published one paper on it in my one of anthologies. The structure you’ve attained is mesmerizing. Each poem stands on its own; united as a collection; your pieces form powerfully personal coming-of-age story with a strong narrative bend. Did you write chronologically, or did you put together the poems after they were finished?
GKK: They were put together and are selections from nearly all my nine books of poetry.
AMN: Can you describe your poetry writing process?
GKK: It is difficult, but I’ll try. There is no single way that I adopt. At times, I find that I write after reading a book of poems that has moved me. It stirs the process in me and sets it in motion. I write and most often rewrite. Sometimes I rewrite so often that I lose my original poem. At times I am inspired to write down a complete poem. I feel that the most successful poems are the ones that have a lot of craft and mind going into the poem’s nuances. At times, a reading of my old notebooks helps to begin a poem afresh. Sometimes, it is a single line, with lines contemplated and following after, or else it is the whole poem. It has also happened that the germ of some poem lying unattended within for years suddenly becomes a strong urge within you to deliver it. One passion may trigger another. Well, it is all about alpha waves, and there is no single way. To think of it, even a poetry competition can trigger an impulse to write. It happened to me. I turned a four line poem, called ‘The Coffin Maker’ in one of my note books into a prize winning entry at the All India Poetry Competitions.
AMN: What’s your editing process like? Do you craft one poem until it’s done, or do you have several works-in-progress in various stages of development?
GKK: As I said before, every time I edit a poem, I see a new dimension, a different world. The poem becomes a crystal globe for gazing into a future poem that holds the ideal, perfect poem. Many sacrifices may have to be made. Nowadays I work on my poems directly on the computer and save every draft in series. It helps. I can always go back to my originals, and look up the version I think I must see again. It is common for me to have more than twenty to thirty versions of the same poem. I cannot be happy with the first version, unless of course I am certain, but that is really rare. Yes, it has happened often that after I think I have finished a poem, I still end up making more versions of it. Meanwhile I might have written other unrelated poems as well.
AMN: When do you write? Are you always composing in your head, or do you set aside certain chunks of time to work?
GKK I am basically an owl. I live by night. But these days I retire early. But nothing like night to me for all kinds of creation. No, I am not always consciously composing in my head. I do not set aside time that way. I feel that the process of poetry is like blood running in the body. The blood does its function. Poetry, for which you are ordained, is doing its job all the while for you whether you are aware of it or not. I let it. The poetry runs within, taking resources from all around and stirs it with emotions of all kinds. The poet is only the outlet, the medium. When the trigger comes, poetry bleeds. Sometimes the poet in his frenzy at wanting to write his poem looks for it as for a drug, to help him return to himself. It thus works without and within. Essentially, when both without and within merge is born the consciousness of the poem.
AMN: You won the Philip McCormick scholarship of the Texas State University, Southwest Texas, USA and you were Poet-in-Residence in the University of Augsburg, Germany, on a sponsorship by the Indian Council Of Cultural Relations,(ICCR) in association with Tagore Centre, Berlin, Germany. You were also invited to read your transcreation of Puntanam at the University of Vienna, Austria. Did these experiences leave you with something that’s been especially useful in your other writing?
GKK: Yes, most parts of Father, Wake Us In Passing, were written and shaped in a Macintosh computer in the school lab in Texas, and in the plane shutting between America and India, and behind father’s prescription sheets while he lay in a coma in the hospital. ‘ A Buchenwald Diary’ grew from my visit to the Weimar concentration camps in East Germany. A poem from the book, ‘ Bread’ as I said is recited as a prayer by Sister Benjamin Franklin, of the Adorers of The Blood of Christ , and published in her book which includes poetry by Internationally eminent poets as well. So these experiences have been my priceless treasure in shaping and crystallizing my poetry to a great extent.
AMN: Do you have a specific writing style?
GKK: The synthesis of emotion, visual imagery, and colour, is important to me. As I have said in one of my recent review articles, I like to remember what Prof P. Lal wrote to me to whom I had sent my MSS ‘ Milestones To The Sun’ when 24. He said ‘Your poetry is exceptional. Indeed it is. Lyrical, evocative, memorable, suggestive, and poignant’. I guess this is what every true poet must aspire to be if he wants to write lasting poetry. Poetry, if it touches the heart, will live. It can touch with emotion, colour, suggestion, and evocation. Best, to try and have poetry that is an infusion of them all.
AMN: What has sustained your relationship with poetry over the years?
GKK: Any form of sustenance is possible only with love and passion. So it is with poetry.
AMN: I read your short poem ‘Roses in Vrindavan’… ‘When roses fade/ Krishna/ again and again/ you come to my mind/ and make them bloom’. The poem appears to me a spontaneous and wonderful composition! How did you come across such a fascinating ideas? Where did the seed come from and how did you develop it?
GKK: It was a poem that began as a simple love poem. ‘Krishna’ was a later addition and incorporation into the Vrindavan sequence. The poem was a normal love poem to begin with. But perhaps I was already Radha, though the Vrindavan concept had not yet materialized yet. But I now feel that without my conscious knowledge I was stepping in that direction- to write the Radha Krishna poems. The poem truly was my ‘first’ Radha Krishna poem, though I remained unaware. Thereafter out of a spontaneous feeling, I typed in two or three poems into facebook in similar vein. By that time Vrindavan had also waded in. Then a few friends on facebook like Priti Aisola, Tikulli Tiku, Manu Dash, and Prof Subbarayudu became my gopis, sort of, praising the poems. And the dam broke.
AMN: While you were writing, did you ever feel as if you were one of the characters? For example in ‘Roses in Vrindavan’, is Krishna projection of you?
GKK: Yes, I was Radha, most often, and occasionally, Radha turned to Krishna, because essentially Radha-Krishna is one, and without Radha, there is no Krishna. I guess, one essentially has to be Radha first as Krishna himself cannot otherwise be. She is the spring of the poetry of love that Krishna turns out to be.
AMN: You write poetry, fiction and drama. How do you handle these genres at a same time? There’s often a talk about how the study of poetry can have a positive impact on the novelist and essayist. Could you share your thoughts regarding this? Also, what hurdles might a poet face when making the transition from poetry to essays and novel-length projects or dramas?
GKK: As I said, I do not compartmentalize. My novels, my drama, they are all nurtured in poetry. Between Poetry and drama, there can be no separation. From poetry to novel and drama is no hurdle but a flow. The poet is essentially a dramatist; he lets emotions take on characterization. So Hamlet is a poet, so is Macbeth and Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s hands. Shakespeare, master poet, is naturally the king of drama. Every great novelist began as a poet sometime or the other. Well, poets when they write novels, write poetic novels. The way I write my novels has been interpreted primarily as poetic. Sitakant Mahapatra says so in his introduction to ‘ A Bridge over Karma’ that it is a poet’s novel. So did Jayanta Mahapatra eulogize the novel, in one of his letters to me, after he had read the first few chapters that I had sent to him. Of ‘Presumed Guilty’ my second novel, the poetical narrations have won special acclaim and mention in the reviews. Is not Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man And The Sea’ great poetry?
AMN: How did you turn towards writing a novel? Tell us briefly about your ‘ A Bridge over Karma’.
GKK: ‘A Bridge Over Karma’ was written over a period of around four years. That time, I was not tuned in to the PC yet, and so wrote down the entire novel by hand and revised it over and over again. The basic inspiration was our partially ruined ancestral ‘Tharavad’ house near the Pallana riverfront in Alleppey, Kerala, with its teak broken wood stairs, leading up to an attic filled with sand and with bats flying in through the dimly lit stained glass windows . The germ was the haunting effect of the house all through my childhood days. We used to get there by steamboat and paddle canoes during vacations. There were coconut trees all around as far as the eyes could see; and lagoons all around where lilies in their myriad hues grew and among which the delicious thighed frogs hid; the pink mukkutti and thetti flowers grew upon their banks. The house had snakes in the cupboards that left eggs broken and skins shed among the books such as ‘ The Book of Knowledge ‘ in about ten volumes, which great grandfather had brought from England; Upon the cracks on the damp floors, termite mounds grew to around three to four feet. The people who lived in it were my ancestors who practiced untouchability to core detail. The novel presents a time when untouchable women were not allowed to cover their breasts, but would come to thresh the overflowing grain of the high castes. The house, along with a painting of my great great grandfather, who was known as the Tambran, or The Feudal Overlord inspired the book. Not only ghosts, but even houses inspire novels! In many ways the house has also fostered my poetry. One of my recent poems ‘The Attic of the Gods’ draws inspiration from the bat infested attic of the house. Memories that haunt you never quite leave. I have also posted the copy of the oil painting of great great grandfather who inspired ‘ A bridge over Karma’ on facebook.
AMN: How you turned toward drama. Tell briefly about your The Mask of Death and Fire in the Soul.
GKK: ‘The Mask of Death’ was born out of my unending passion for Keats. As I said, I caught TB around his age, but fortunately, cure was around. It was while attending the Civil services interview and medical examination that the Koch’s Lung diagnosis was confirmed. Keats haunted me. I learned about poetry’s need to be crafted and made perfect from Keats. One reason to write the book was to try and enter the poet with my imagination. I wrote the book with the help of his letters to Fanny Brawne, and by imagining how his home near the Spagna would be like. It was a challenge. The book grew on its own, I wrote it as a spontaneous flow completing the book in two weeks. Frankly, years later on a visit to the bedroom in Rome in the house where Keats died his agonizing death, I was fascinated, how close my imagination had taken me to his bedroom and its ceiling where the painted yellow flowers were ‘I feel the yellow flowers already all over me’. I wished to paint the ecstasy of his love, and the helplessness, and the agony of Keats’s dying. There are readers who think it is a masterpiece. Well, let it be.
‘Fire InThe Soul’ grew out of a reading of the life of Subramania Bharati. It is interesting that you raised the question of the author entering the character. It actually happened to me in the case of ‘Fire In The Soul’. I not only entered the character. I lived Bharati. All through the period I was mesmerized into believing that I was indeed Bharati in my previous birth. Bharati was not just imagination, He was turning real, I was soon turning into him. Now I am freed of him. I think you enter your characters, they turn real and possess you. No wonder I felt that I could even have been Krishna in a previous birth. Sounds like sacrilege. Even to me. I think in a way all this is what Keats termed as ‘ Negative Capability’.
AMN: You also wrote Wander from the Great Wide Wander Galaxy. What got you hooked on children’s writing?
GKK: Wander grew out of my stay in Navi Mumbai hills, in Belapur. There is a hill near the residence where I stayed which stirred my fantasy. The Vashi creek over which I used to commute daily gave me the idea of the celestial child falling into the backwaters, and being rescued by the children.
AMN: There is to your credit the translation/transcreation of books like-Poonthanam's Jnanappana (Fountain of God), Kukoka's Rati Rahasya as (Love's Ecstasies). What makes a successful translation in your opinion?
GKK: A successful translation must attempt to close in on the original, without losing the boundaries of its spirit. A transcreation attempts that. I do not think that it is possible to do a cent percent transfer job from one language to another. But some specialists do a really good job.
AMN: Which is your masterpiece?
GKK: I think it is better to ask what it is that I like to be remembered by. Victoria Terminus is a collection that contains poems I wish to preserve. It contains Father, Wake Us in Passing, Mother Sonata, and individual poems that have received good ratings. ‘A Buchenwald Diary’ is a personal favourite. It has also won rave reviews like ‘Father, and Mother Sonata’.
It has been said that suffering and pain is too much in my poetry The criticism I feel, is farfetched. It is suffering that moves the world. The greatest paintings such as ‘Guernica’ by Picasso and ‘The Crucifixion’ by Dali have all been about suffering. If suffering and pain moves you in poetry or any work of art, it turns the personal to the universal and abides. To my critics, I suggest that they also read ‘Vrindavan- The Coloured Yolk of love’ which is soon forthcoming as a book with 214 poems on the theme of Radha Krishna, which is filled with colour, sensuousness, beauty and the ecstasy of love. Readers across the world have already rated it high. There are over a 2000 hits in less than six months for its online version. The readership simply seems to go on and on. It makes me feel happy.
AMN: How do you like to be seen by your readers? As an English poet? Dramatist? Novelist? Or Children’s writer? Why?
GKK: I am known as a poet. In everything that I write my readers see poetry. Without poetry, perhaps I am nothing. It is not just written poetry. Poetry is like blood, like breath. I guess, poetry begins and ends it all. I think it is my blessing and luck to be known and remembered the way I am.
AMN: What kind of creative patterns, routines or rituals do you have?
GKK: No patterns, routines, or rituals. I like to sleep a lot. I do not like to exercise. I like to read poetry all the time, and to listen to good music in whatever form. I would like to direct a film, if possible based on my forthcoming novel ‘Hill House’, partly again based on a true story, that draws on the life and murders of Bela Kiss.
AMN: Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
GKK: Yes. So many. They are not really influences, they are milestones to me. Keats, Ivor Gurney, Carol Ann Duffy, Sharon Olds, Heine, Edward Thomas, John Donne, Ernest Downson, Vidyapati, Sappho, Lorca, Swinburne, Neruda, Owen, Yeats, Larkin, Norman McCaig, Douglas Dunn, Dylan Thomas, and many more have been milestones to me at some point or the other. I have learnt from them all, and still continue to learn.
AMN: Do you see writing as a career?
GKK: As I said, to me writing that has engaged me has been primarily poetry. It is to me a part of my life, like blood, like the beating heart.
AMN: What advice would you give to someone out there with a dream to write a book, but unsure whether to do it or not.
GKK:Go, sit where you think your alpha waves will rise and write it down.
AMN: What poetry books are next to your bedside table? Why do you appreciate them?
GKK: Modern American, British and European Poetry. They fascinate and inspire me.
AMN: What are you reading right now?
GKK: These days my poetry reading is mainly online. I read the award winning pieces and enjoy them.
AMN: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
GKK: My new book, a crime-cum-romance fiction, Hill House will soon appear. A political satire, Empoeror Banana and The Sovereign Banana Republic will also be out. I am working on my new book of poems which will follow ‘ Vrindavan’- The Coloured Yolk of love’. Other books include a play ‘ A Woman In Flames’ based on a true event of the 90’s in Mumbai involving a famous performing artiste. I review poetry these days regularly for The Hindu Literary Supplement. I also want to put poetry chain back on wheels.
AMN: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring poets and writers of India?
GKK: Yes. I would strongly advise them to be passionately involved with their work- and to fear not to delete and start all over again. I would want freshers to read more and more poetry if they want to be poets, and not be satisfied to write dishonest poetry just to see their name in print. To remain cloistered, to publish in trash magazines and to pretend to yourself and to others that you are a recognized poet is easy. But ask yourself if you are doing the right thing. To be a poet is to have a lifelong commitment with words. It is hard work . You’ll know when you hit upon your own voice. Until then, keep writing. Don’t be in haste to publish trash in the name of poetry in red light magazines and to join gray groups that will ultimately get you nowhere. It is best to be honest, have patience, and suffer and write. And most of all read and enjoy poetry, classic and modern. It sure helps in moulding the poet in you and giving you direction...
AMN: Who are your favourite Indian English poets?
GKK: I like the honesty, nuances, craft, and attention to detail of A K Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, and Arun Kolatkar. Some of the other seniors appear to often get lost in the maze of their narrative poetry and end up repetitive. Among the younger ones, I haven’t seen any that have brought out a bright substantial corpus or, even a handful that remains in the memory after they are read, though there might be individual poems by them. This is a personal observation. The young however seem focused on a lot of self -pushing these days, when they should be focusing their energies more on their poetry. Who remembers a Bridges, Watkins, or Barker who were tall in their time, or reads them these days? Time has its own way with poets, and poets like Hopkins and Dickinson get ahead and stay.
AMN: Thanks.. All the best for your future literary ventures.
GKK: Thank you, Mr. Nawale. It has been an interesting session with you
- Capt. Dr. Arvind Nawale
Saturday, November 5, 2011
Sarojini Sahoo: A Fiction Writer and Trendsetter of Feminism in Contemporary Oriya Literature
Literary Interview by Capt. Dr. Arvind Nawale
Sarojini Sahoo: Born in a small town of Dhenkanal in Orissa (India), married to Mr.Jagadish Mohanty a veteran writer of Orissa, Sarojini Sahoo, is a prime figure and trendsetter of feminism in contemporary Oriya literature. For her; feminism is not a gender problem or any confrontational attack on male hegemony. So, it is quite different from that of Virginia Woolf or Judith Butler. Her fictions always project a feminine sensibility from puberty to menopause. In English, one novel and two anthologies of short stories have been published to her credit. Bengali translation of two of her novels have been published from Bangladesh. In Oriya, there are eight short stories collections and eight novels in published form to her credit. Two of her novels and one of her short stories collection have been published in Hindi and one novel in Malayalam. Recently AuthorsPress has published her English essays collection Sensible Sensuality. She has been conferred with the Orissa Sahitya Academy Award, 1993, the Jhankar Award, 1992, the Bhubaneswar Book Fair Award and the Prajatantra Award. She has published eight anthologies of short stories and five novels. Delhi Doordarshan, the National Channel of India has featured her life style and creations in its special tele-serial ‘Literary Postcard’. Recently, she has been enlisted among 25 exceptional women of India by the Kindle magazine of Kolkata.
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
*The present interview is published in my book Feminine Fragrance ISBN 978-93-81030-28-8. GNOSIS, NEW DELHI
AMN: Welcome, Sarojiniji. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
SS: Very politely, I have to say, I am not such a personality, that you would ask me to introduce myself. I have very few words stored in favour of mine to introduce. I write fictions mostly and poems sometimes. I write both in Oriya and English. But I prefer to write my creative stuff in my mother tongue because basically I think one can express one’s emotions truly in one’s mother tongue only. But I do write my essays in English, because I feel comfortable in that way. It is interesting that in Oriya, I don’t prefer to write essays and all my articles are written in English. I am a columnist, a blogger and some critics mentioned me as a feminist. But I don’t know whether I am a feminist or not, because ‘feminism’ in current days has become an umbrella term and to be a female writer, now it seems, is the only criteria to pronounce herself as feminist. It is pleasurable to note that the term ‘feminist’ is not considered insulting nowadays as it was in the time of 80’s. But the radical feminist and preferably the western feminists do not concur with my ideas of feminism. It is interesting that some critics name me as Simone de Beauvoir of India, where I find opposite to Simone’s ‘others’ theory and in my various essays I have described how I differ the great philosopher. I think, feminism should not be a stereotyped hysterical man-hating fanatics, but should be a broad social movement striving for the equality of each individual worldwide. It should emphasize our femininity rather to impose the self-styled classified feministic attitude of the second wave.
AMN: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
SS: As a child I never thought myself to be a writer rather in before my teen days I had a wish to become a ‘detective’ because at that time I was a voracious reader of famous detective novels. In my teen days I wanted to be a lawyer but it is an irony that though I possess an LLB degree and I have license, I didn’t become a lawyer till date.
AMN: Your prominent publications in general?
SS: In Oriya I have ten published novels and eight published anthologies of short stories. I have one collection of essays in English titled Sensible Sensuality. One of my well-known Oriya novel Gambhiri Ghar has been translated into English and published from India under the title The Dark Abode (2008) and published from Bangladesh in Bengali as Mithya Gerosthali ( 2007 ). Prameela K.P has translated this novel into Malayalam and has been published as "Irunda Koodaram" by Chintha Publishers, Thiruvanthapuram. In 2011, the Hindi translation of the novel was published under the banner of Rajpal & Sons, Delhi with title Band Kamra. Martina Fuchs has translated it into for German and it is going to publish shortly. Another novel Pakhibas has been translated in to Bengali and published from Bangladesh under the same title in 2009. This novel has been translated into Hindi by Dinesh Kumar Mali and has been published with same title by Yash Prakashan, Delhi in 2010. My short stories are translated into English and anthologized in two collections: Sarojini Sahoo Stories (2006) and Waiting for Manna (2008). One of my short stories collection in Hindi has also been published by Rajpal & Sons, titled Rape Tatha Anya Kahaniyana (2010)
AMN: Okay. Why do you write?
SS: I write because when I write I am. I am myself. I create myself. I express myself. Some part of me reaches out to the world and possibly touches the world, and maybe a small ripple spreads.
AMN: I would like to know about your reaction on the talk of your being a prime figure and trendsetter of feminism in contemporary Oriya literature.
SS: I don’t know whether I am a prime figure and trendsetter in contemporary Oriya literature or not. I am a simple writer and I want to express my agony and pathos as being a woman. Few years ago, when a tele-documentary on me was made by Delhi Doordarshan for their ‘Literary Postcard’ programme, after reading my stories, the Producer cum Director Dr. Satti Khanna asked me why I am a feminist writer? He pointed out that in most of my fictions; I have painted the women's issue. I told him that time if I am a feminist that is because I am a woman. Later Cathy Nelson, a student of Orleans University when prepared her project work on Simone and me, asked me,” I feel Simone De Beauvoir may have gotten distracted. Her allegiance and responsibility may have fallen toward Sartre and the need to prove herself as the minority in a male dominated world and academic field, as opposed to really understanding the other women around her. Whereas, with you, I find that your work is very much grounded in the understanding of women in general, rather than a specific part of women, such as Simone seemed to get hung up on marriage and motherhood. These two things came to define her, I think, through her work as 'not married' and 'without child' more so that the average woman may have been defined by 'being married' and 'motherhood.' This seems ironic to me. Later, Linda Lowen, the women’s guide of an American website asked me in an interview, “You are known for pushing the envelope, openly discussing female sexuality in your stories and novels in a way that hadn't been done before. Isn't that risky?”
I am not consciously trying to write feminist writings. What I want to portray only the feelings of woman from her preschooler days to the post menopausal days. I think, there are some feelings, intricate mental agony and complexity which a man couldn’t feel any day and these should be discussed in our fictions. I portray the feelings of a pregnant lady (Waiting for Manna: Amrutara Pratikshare), hysteria (Burkha,Deshantari),fear of being miscarriage (Sakal:The Morning) false pregnancy (Tarali Jauthiba Durga :The Melting Castle) , agony of and annoyance of menopause (Damppatya:The Couple ), Lesbianism (Behind The Scene) .I have also portray the shaking situation of a sixty years old lady, who is still waiting for her menopause and in every month her embarrassing situation when she find herself in bleeding (Aparanha :The Afternoon).Even in my story Jahllad (Butcher) I have told the story of an infant who finds herself being raped by a caretaker servant.
You might have marked a typical shyness has been found in common women writer's voice while relating the truth and exposing their inner self. Even their weaknesses or love relations are also not expressed clearly in fear of social scandal of their character. A typical womanish shyness prevents them to write their actual feelings towards sex and love. This is not only due to any restriction imposed by their family, but much time we find that an idea of being a good girl pursues them to hide their own feelings and experiences. You know in India the 'chastity' means a lot for a woman and it is always demanded that a female should keep her 'chastity' pure and perfect. (It is another issue that nobody asks a man for the purity and perfection of his chastity). In case of poetry, one can hide herself with mystic metaphor or myth, but in fiction, one has to open herself completely. So, it is difficult for a woman to write any fiction sincerely hiding her experiences and reactions. I never find any 'inhibition' in relating reality while writing. Because while I write, I place me alien from the otherworld. Writing for me is a muse, a monologue, a kind of self-intercourse. I enter in to the chore of the character's self and find where I am hiding there. I lift my self to the above, much more above from those characters and open and tear and alter them as if I am re-dressing, remaking my self. There is no place for the second or third person at that time. Inhibitions are caused when you are aware of another's existence. When no body is there and you are going to open yourself, to whom you would inhibit? Is there any restriction, limitation, or shame to open anyone in front of one's own self?
AMN: I agree with you but what exact kind of feminism you believe in and glorify through your writing?
SS: For me, feminism is not a gender problem or any confrontational attack on male hegemony so it is quite different from that of Virginia Woolf or Judith Butler. I accept feminism as a total entity of female-hood, which is completely separate from the man’s world.To me, femininity (rather than feminism) has a wonderful power. In our de-gendered times, a really feminine woman is a joy to behold and you can love and unleash your own unique yet universal femininity. We are here for gender sensitivity to proclaim the differences between men and woman with a kind of pretence that we are all the same. Too many women have been de-feminized by society. To be feminine is to know how to pay attention to detail and people; to have people skills; and to know how to connect to and work well with others. There will be particular times and situations within which you'll want to be more in touch and in tune with your femininity than others. Being able to choose is a great privilege and skill.
I think 'femininity' is the proper word to replace 'feminism,' because the latter has lost its significance and identity due to its extensive involvement with radical politics. Femininity comes from the original Latin word femine which means ‘female’ or ‘women’ and certainly the word creates debatable identical characteristics. It separates the female mass from a masculine world with reference to gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, nurturance, deference, self-abasement, and succorance. And patriarchy also sets the group alien from them in their traditional milieu.
There are many more differences in theories among scientists, anthropologists, and psychologist regarding the nature and behavior of the female mass. Biologists believe the role of our hormones, particularly sex hormones, and the structure of our chromosomes are responsible for such a dichotomy in gender, though some queer theorists and other postmodernists, however, have rejected the sex (biology)/gender (culture) dichotomy as a “dangerous simplification.” Psychology, often influenced by patriarchy, categorises women as different from the masculine world in certain behavioural, emotional and logical areas. Social anthropologists deny the concept of biology or psychology which keep women aside from the masculine world. Simone De Beauvoir’s saying “one is not born a woman, but becomes one” impressed social anthropologists so much that they create a different theory of feminine socialisation.
Here in my bloggings, I have constantly tried to analyse the ‘truth,’ as related by biologists and anthropologists. What I think true to my sense and sensibility, I have expressed without any hesitation. But still I don’t consider myself as a conformist because I consider myself more a writer and as a writer, I think I am always a genderless entity. In my opinion, a writer should not have any gender. But still, patriarchal society has prevailed; is there any possibility to have a genderless society?
AMN: How your feminism is different from that of Virginia Woolf or Judith Butler?
SS: Virginia Woolf′s Orlando- A Biography is an impressive field of discussion on gender identity. Meditating about the notion of identity, femininity, masculinity, and sexual desire, Orlando provides a light-hearted account of Woolf′s own “theory of sexuality” that still captures the readers attention. Inspired by the rise of ‘the new enterprise of sexology’ and the new discipline of psychoanalysis as well as through her personal attraction towards Sapphism, Woolf comments on the substance of sex, the nature of gender roles, the role of clothes for gender identity and on sexual orientation in Orlando. In her novel, the protagonist feels he has metamorphosed into a woman—the same person, with the same personality and intellect, but in a woman's body. The concept of ‘right soul in a wrong body’ developed from this novel to which Judith Butler described those signs or analytical models which dramatise incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire and named it as ‘queer theory’. In my book Sensible Sensuality, I discussed these gestures and showed how these are throwing out powerful rhetoric of ‘thwarting the binary gender system’ means nothing if it comes from somebody who hates the world, loses his or her confidence to face life, and doesn't like himself or herself as a person. I can understand the positions of intersexuals or transsexuals who are born with differed biological bodies. There should be rational steps to make all feel comfortable and to mix up everyone into the mainstream. What I am against is the pop-culture clichés to express these feelings like “man trapped in a woman's body” or “woman trapped in a man's body.”
AMN: What compels you to write on feminism?
SS: In my article ‘Bicycle & Me’ I have told that story. When I was born, my father was not present beside my Mom. Finding my self a female baby, my mother had a shock, because my father was expecting a son and my birth might be the reason of her humiliation in future. My Mom told me later, she could not sleep the night with fear of facing my father with a girl child. She was praying all the night to God for changing my gender, but God did not pay attention to her pathos cry and hence my Gender was not changed. But my father is a strong headed man and he could not forget his sorrow of not becoming a son’s father. This story compelled me to think about feminine mass. The second experience of my childhood might be responsible to frame out my ideas of feminism. As my father had an obsession for a male child, he wanted to see me as a boy and therefore, I was dressed as a boy; my hair was cut like a boy’s; and I used to play boyish games with boys instead of girlish games with girls. But cross gender activities had no impact on my life and I stayed as a girl. Later when I read Margaret Mead, Simone De Beauvoir I found a great gap between their theory and my experiences. They have proclaimed that men and women were not a function of their biological differences, rather, they resulted from differences in socialisation and the cultural expectations held for each sex. From my childhood experience, I observed the theory did not seem to true in my case. This realization is also responsible to force me to write against the old milieus of feminism.
AMN: Do you think women in India are still under the dominance of men?
SS: Yes. Female fetus killings are still prevailed in Indian society. An unmarried daughter -- pronounced a spinster even in her late twenties -- brings shame upon her parents, and is a burden. But once married, she is considered the property of her in-laws. In this context, un-wed mother, separated, single or unfaithful women are considered outcasts. Living out of wedlock with a partner is still virtually unheard of. During their marriage , the bride’s father has to pay dowries in the form of lots of money, furniture, jewelry, and expensive household items and even homes and expensive foreign holidays to the bride groom and still the phrase "bride burning" was coined in India after several young brides had their saris lit on fire in front of a gas stove either by their husbands or in-laws because of their father's failure to meet demands for a bigger dowry .As there is custom and tradition of joint family, a bride has to face her tyrannical in-laws and still traditional Hindu society rejects divorcees. In case of sexuality, the active role of woman has been always denied and it is considered that woman should not be open to their sexual desires. For which you can find many of women have crossed their menopausal stage without having a single orgasm in any day. In religious rituals and customs also females are barred to take part in all worship. In Kerala, females are not allowed to enter in the Ayeppa temples. They are also barred to worship the God Hanuman and in some regions they are barred to even touch the linga idol of Lord Shiva. In recent politics also though all political parties have assured to reserve 33% of seats in legislation in their manifesto, still it has not been transformed to law as the male dominant political parties are opposing the bill. In financial matter, though women are allowed to work out side, but their rights on any house hold matters always have been denied. A woman has to take charge of the kitchen, even if she is a earning member and she has to go out side for her job .The husband will not take charge of kitchen, though he remains un employed, as it is supposed for a man to cook for her family is against his manhood. Legally, though according to Court, sons and daughters have equal rights on patriarchal property but still now as per practice, ownership changes hands from father to husband to son and the role of a daughter or a daughter in law is denied. So, how can you deny that women are not under the dominance of men?
AMN: How you got the idea for your fascinating novels and short stories. Where did the seed come from and how did you develop it?
SS: I never roam in search of a story nor I frame a story before writing. The stories I have written usually come from the lives roaming around me. A character or an event may strike me and I find a ‘story’ clicks. I start writing and it is the motive force of the story that drags me to an end.
AMN: What’s your writing process like? Do you have set hours? Do you think for a certain number of words or pages per day?
SS: I prefer to write in the afternoon hours. Summer season has been proved a creative season for me, not for its attributes, but it provides me a long holiday from my job. I try to write regularly but there are no fixed hours reserved for my writings.
AMN: How you plan for your novels and short stories? Do you start with a protagonist and then develop the plot as you write or you have the beginning, middle and end all set in your mind before you start writing?
SS: I have told you earlier that all my novels are unplanned and I never think about the conclusion. I believe my novels and short stories get life during their creation and they lead their way to find a suitable conclusion.
AMN: It’s wonderful. Okay. Your writing raised many controversies. May I know what kind of criticism you want to have on your fictional writing?
SS: For many times, my writings have raised many controversies. But I don’t bother for any criticism. I expect, critics should read my writings thoroughly before writing.
AMN: At what point did you begin to think about writing a novel or story?
SS: I started writing first in our school magazine. My short story was published in a literary supplement of a daily newspaper The Prajatantra, when I was a High school student. When I was a student of under graduate classes, my stories had been published in The Jhankar. At that time the magazine was very much reputed for its scholarly writings and only the scholars of literature could get a place there. Publishing in that magazine was considered at that time as the opening door for recognition of poets and writers. My lecturers and teachers felt amazed and appreciated me for my writings. Though I started my carrier as a short story writer and for a good time I had been in those fields but that time I had a 'phobia' for novel writing. After 90's onward, when I started writing my first novel, I overcome this trepidation. Nowadays, I have been writing very few short stories and all my creative times have been spent for novel writing. You know, the novel has a huge landscape and the author has much more freedom than the short story writer. You can emerge any idea any story plot in a novel. Virginia Woolf's An Unwritten Novel could have been a short story. The total time span of her novel Mrs. Dalloway is only one day. I think, like me Virginia Woolf might have been emerged her story ideas and plots in her novels.
AMN: Have you read Anita Desai and Shobha De? Is there impact of them on your writing?
SS: You may call it as my ignorance, but I haven’t read any of Shobha Dey’s writings. But Anita Desai is no doubt a powerful writer of our age. She may be considered as real successor of R.K.Narayan. But in my writings, I can’t say whether Desai does not influence me as her and mine fictions are oriented to two different worlds.
AMN: Which writers influence on your creative mind?
SS: In writing, I have been influenced by many of Western writers. How could I utter one name? He may be Dostoevsky, he may be Kafka. He may be Joyce and may be Proust. But are they my hero? I don’t think any one as idol. If any one to consider as idol, he is Jagadish Mohanty. I got influenced by him in my writing of earlier days. In 70’s he was a trend setter. Not only my self, but all of my contemporaries had also been influenced by his theme, style and language. But later, after my marriage, I find myself in a different sphere of thinking and I chose my own style of thematic approach.
AMN: What do you think is a good novel and a good short story?
SS: The story or novel, which makes stunned and made readers reticent for a long time, is certainly be a good fiction. In a good fiction, readers should be able to identify the characters with them.
AMN: Is your writing an autobiographical account of your lives?
SS: Sometimes. Writing is a very complicated process, especially in case of fiction. An author has to enter in to the characters and same time he/she has to rise up from the characters so that author could look on him. Sometimes a character follows the author, Sometimes an author has to follow his/her characters. So, every fiction is a kind of autobiography of an author and on the other hand it seems different. It is difficult for a reader to say which one from author’s life has been included and excluded, what had been made up, what not.
AMN: Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence as Anita Desai?
SS: I can’t write with so much noise or when I am not lonely. This is an interesting fact that though I and Jagadish reside in a house, our writing process and time are different. He can write even in coffee house ( his Sarala Award won short stories collection Suna Ilishi was written in a restaurant). But I can’t. I need silence. So I have chosen the afternoon time, when there is no one in my home to interact me.
AMN: How your family helps in your writing, particularity my FB friend, your husband Jagdishji Mohanty?
SS: Unlike to those traditional women writers, I have been referred, as a frank-speaking and my husband has never raised any complaints for that. He was my lover before my marriage and I was using to write my feelings truly at that time and never either my father or my lover argued with me for painting these feelings. After my marriage, in one of my famous story “Rape” I painted his male dominated characters, but he did not bar me to write this. As a writer, he has always remained by my side whenever any controversy arises for my writings. Our relation is not like a typical married couple of India. Our friendship some how similar to friendship between Sartre and Simone. It is an interesting fact that when I was writing my novel The Dark Abode , I didn’t attend our kitchen for few months and Jagadish managed all.
AMN: What are some of the unexpected and notable responses to your fictional works?
SS: There were some interesting happenings with my story writings. Gambhiri Ghar (The Dark Abode), the most controversial novel of mine was first written in a story form and it was written for a special issue of an Oriya periodicals. Before the publication of the short story it was rejected and I was asked to submit another story in place of ‘The Dark Abode’. While inquiring the reason of the rejection of my story, I was told that the editor would talk to my husband. This comment of the chief editor made me irritated and I asked the chief editor whether my husband has an authority over my writer self? The patriarchy idea of the chief editor made me to transform the short story to a novel.
Once I was also insulted and forced to beg apology for writing the story Jalha (The Butcher) by the staff council of my college. It was about the rape story where the victim was an infant. The story was claimed as an obscene one and the matter was referred to the Governing Body of the college to remove me from my service of lectureship from the college.
For my story “Rape” I was criticized for using the word ‘fuck’ in my story for several years. It was a story of admitting sexual desire of a woman and it was intolerable for a patriarchal society to find a woman peaking about her sexual desire. The story has a central idea whether a woman has no right for sexual desire even if in her dream.
In my story ‘Agneyagiri’ (The Volcano), I have painted two types of woman. One is a traditional one, submitting herself to husband, family and society by losing her identity and another one as searching for her identity. It is the story of two sisters, both having from same family background but the ultimate way of their in the air was different. My elder sister felt herself very impaired, thinking that the story was meant for her. No one from my family took it easily. As a feminist writer, from time to time, many people (both male and female) certainly get hurt by my frankness. I think a writer is a challenge for the society and also always has challenges from the society.
AMN: What has been your biggest surprise about writing?
SS: I wrote my novel Maha Yatra before visiting Kedarnath. Later I paid a visit to that place and found every situation is perfectly according to my novel.
AMN: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
SS: Hopefully it will be better than it is now. I think literature never dies. It was remained before invention of scripts and will remain after obliteration of the present media of expressions. Without literature, people would have no choice about seeing their lives.
AMN: What are you working on now? What can we expect soon?
SS: Just now I have completed a novel Dadan in Oriya and it has been published recently. Now I am planning to write few more articles on feminine discourse in English so that I could submit my manuscript to publisher very shortly.
AMN: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring novelists and short story writers of India?
SS: I'm not sure I would presume to give advice, but here are some hints I tell myself: If writing is important to you, read widely and voraciously and write less than you read. Don't plan on making a lot of money from your writing and link your writings to the culture of your region, its real life, its metaphors, and images. Another thing I want to remind that publishing a book is not just writing, it is only a SADHANA. That is my two cents.
AMN: Do you want to give any message to the readers?
SS: I am thankful for all the readers who have taken the time to read my books and who have posted a review or dropped me an email. I think it was hard to continue writing without their support and love. When I started blogging in 2006, I was a lot more unskilled. I had dreams in my eyes and during the last five years I have become more accomplished. I have learned. I have experienced what works and what doesn't. I have realised what is important and what isn't. I have changed. These all happened as my readers remained with me through out a long period and shared their ideas and comments with my blogging. I expect their love and affinity for my writings in future.
AMN: Thanks Sarojiniji for talking about your passion for fictional writing. All the best for your future literary endeavors.
SS: Thanking you too.
-Capt. Dr. Arvind Nawale