Sneha Chowdhury: What does it mean to be a feminist poet? Do you identify as a feminist poet?
Nandini Dhar: As I am reading through this question, Sneha, I am thinking, this very question – what it means to be a feminist poet – is pushing me towards a definition. As a worker in the academic theory industry, I put food on my table through my ability to define cultural texts and socio-cultural phenomena. And, that’s probably why, I am always a little bit wary of definitions. Every time I am defining something, I also tend to think of the inevitable exclusions from my definition. So, I will resist this effort to define what constitutes a ‘feminist poet’. Yet, I do think, definitions do important work.
I will, then, try to come up with a very basic definition of a ‘feminist poet’. A ‘feminist poet’ is a poet who pays attention to how gender constitutes an important category – often times, of unequal distribution of resources – in the social world we inhabit. A poet who pays attention to how such attention will change the very work of poetry-making. I am not saying that only in terms of what we often term as ‘content’, but also in terms of what constitutes the formal elements of poetry – the line-breaks, punctuation, metaphors. Everything.
Personally, I don’t believe in a feminism that does not take into account questions of state and capital. Or, for that matter, a feminism which remains by and large uninterested in the questions of class, caste, or race. I don’t believe in a feminism that is not equally committed to questioning the myriad forms which the neoliberal onslaught assumes in our contemporary historical moment. Which, obviously, also means, an awareness of the politics that often constitutes the multiple poetry communities we inhabit as writers. How are our poetry communities complicit in the dominant cultures of neoliberalism? Can we resolve this complicity through a mere inclusion of gender in our poems? To me, the answer is obviously no. But then, that answer in the negative, I believe, also calls for a more complex sort of feminism. Something, I don’t think, in India, as poets, we do very well.
I do identify as a feminist – not in an unproblematic way though. It is often the poet part that makes me a little bit uncomfortable. I write poems. I often process my existence through poems. But, the word ‘poet’ also suggests a kind of solidity that I cannot always identify with. In other words, the word ‘poet’, I believe, is also a historical category, which connotes a specific way of seeing and being in the world. A specific relationship to language, to the material and social world. A specific relationship to patronage. I am not sure I want to associate myself with all of that baggage. Instead, I prefer to be a feminist (along with a lot of things), who writes poems. Sometimes. Often times.
Sneha Chowdhury: How has feminism shaped or affected you as a poet?
Nandini Dhar: Part of that shaping came from this very realisation that even when I like the work of a lot of the male poets, their gender ideologies leave me cold, and frankly terrified. (You can possibly think of my essay on the Hungryalists that was published recently in Cafe Dissensus.) From that fear, also comes a kind of rage. I have no qualms in saying, rage is pretty much the dominant affect that prompts me to write. But then, as I recognise now, rage, too, is a complex emotion. There is a sense of loss embedded in every form of anger. Rage can also be a powerful form of mourning, I think. And, rage exists very openly in some of my most favourite feminist literary works and political rhetoric. Think of the work of someone like bell hooks. Or, Rokeya Sultana. Would it have been possible to write what they have done, without rage? I personally don’t think so.
But then, I think, certain aspects of that kind of work, would also exceed a narrow definition of feminism or feminist art per se. In that, most of the feminists who have inspired me, happen to be attentive to issues of class, capital, caste, race or community. Not always in the same way. Not always in that order. And, not always to all of these categories at the same time. But, for a piece of feminist art to work, I do need an acknowledgment in some way that gender almost always intersects with other categories.
Anyway, to go back to the question of rage, I think, rage is a form of feminist affect. And, an essential form of affect for feminist art. I mean, as a teenager and a young adult, I had been angry about the fact that I didn’t see myself or the subjectivities I embody, represented in most kinds of men’s writings. An awareness of this absence, then, also made me think of the ways in which I can look for myself in literature and art. If I can’t find myself in men’s writings, does that mean, I will find myself unproblematically represented within a lineage of women’s writings? Can there ever be a homogenous understanding of women’s writing? The answer is, obviously no.
The truth remains, I cannot find myself in most of the women’s writings either. And, again an awareness of that absence has often made me ask, what are the ways in which one can construct a feminine political subjectivity that is not vacillating between the two poles which often guide women’s social subjectivities – domesticity and sexuality – while being cognisant of the ways in which these two categories determine women’s lives often times. And, often in disproportionate ways.
In other words, what I am looking for is a language which would enable me to think of questions such as, how do women relate (or, don’t relate) to state. To categories of capital. To political movements. These questions make the work of the construction of a seamless body of women’s writing difficult. So, if I have to answer your question in a sentence, this would be it: If my feminism made it possible for me to be alienated from certain kinds of male cannons, my understandings of Marxism and radical-left sympathies, my academic work as a critical race studies scholar, also made it difficult for me to think of a homogenous notion of feminism or women’s writing. But, in this mix, I have learnt to respect conflict. I have learnt to think of conflict as the guiding force of art and literature-making.
Sneha Chowdhury: Could you name some of your favourite feminist poets, and cite examples of poems that you like, lines that are particularly striking to you?
Nandini Dhar: Right now, I am really enjoying the work of the African-American poet Natasha Trethewey. I have been reading and re-reading her poem ‘Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956’. You can listen to Trethewey reading it here. What I love about this poem, is the way, race, class, gender and factory labour come together. The lines are short, the descriptions are sparse, yet, right on point. But, what it does for me, in this poem, is the final image of the woman – a black factory worker – and her soiled Kotex. For me, it was a lesson on what you can probably call, object history. How in our lives objects come to occupy an ideological space. Quoting the right object in a poem can break it or make it. But, also, this is a moment that exceeds the object. I mean, it’s not just the Kotex that does the job here. It’s really the soiled Kotex that builds up the final moment of the poem. And, I keep thinking, how in this poem, the soiled Kotex of a black factory worker – soaked in menstrual blood – becomes the symbol of a very racialised, gendered and sexualised class conflict.
And, in some ways, given that this is a narrative poem, and often in narrative poems, we do get sucked into the work of building up an immaculate setting, I think, what Trethewey is doing is so vital. Trethewey doesn’t fall into that trap here. The poem is not filled with objects per se. Instead, it’s crowded with people. And although we know, as factory workers, the women are in the business of manufacturing objects, what they are making – those objects – don’t dominate the poem. Precisely because this poem succeeds to progress through this opposition, this duality, that in a space where objects are manufactured for others’ consumption, we hardly get any detailed representations of what’s being made. Instead, the emphasis is on the ruined object. A ruined object that’s essential to a woman’s sense of sexual dignity. And, that ruined object is ultimately made into a weapon in a racialised, sexualised class struggle in Jim Crow America. And, in transforming a ruined object into such a weapon, the poem also creates a realm that pushes against the dominant culture of commodity fetishism. When I think of feminist poems, it is this multi-layered cultural work that I expect from the poem.
Of course, I am also thinking about all the conversations we are having about menstruating bodies in India as I am reading this poem. How can we write about those realities in a way that does justice, not just to gender and femininity, but to inter-relationships among labour, class and caste?
Eunice De Souza’s poem ‘Women in Dutch Paintings’ has always struck to me as brilliant. Although they are not poets, I have found the work of three Bengali novelists – Ashapurna Debi, Sabitri Roy and Sulekha Sanyal – to be extremely crucial in re-thinking a Bengali literary feminist lineage. In the recent past, I have also felt inspired reading and re-reading works of such poets as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.
Sneha Chowdhury: Is it okay to disavow your identification with feminism when you are not writing poems that are overtly feminist or do not overtly refer to a feminist issue?
Nandini Dhar: It depends upon the context. I don’t think, we can ever talk about a series of prescriptions when it comes to poetry. Not even feminist ones. Or, any other art, for that matter. But, personally, I think, an awareness of gender as a category can change the very texture of a poem, even when it is not explicitly about a ‘feminist issue’, as you put it. And, when I say gender, I am thinking not just about femininity, but also about masculinity, and other forms of gender identities that feminisms historically have not done a great job of addressing. So, for example, a lot of the poets have written city poems. In fact, I am seeing a lot of the Indian poets writing about cities these days. And, I do think, cities can be an extremely important site for our artistic explorations. But, what does it mean to write about the city as a woman or a transperson? I mean, anyone who ever had to think of the city streets as sites of sexual violence, is bound to write about the streets in a way that is essentially different from, say, the overwhelmingly male and masculinist Hungryalist writing of the cities. Or, the Beats aesthetics of the cities.
Sneha Chowdhury: Do you think feminism can act as an overarching force that informs every aesthetic decision you take as a writer?
Nandini Dhar: No, not necessarily. I do write from a place that is aware of the complexity of gender as a social and political category. But, quite a few of my poems are also about relations of conflict that bind women with each other – along class, familial or ideological lines. In a way, I don’t think that there is anything new about that. Women writers in India and abroad have always written about such conflicts. And, we all can speak of multiple forms of feminisms – Socialist, Marxist, working-class, black, queer and dalit feminisms, so to say – that have often centered such conflicts in their own writings and actions. Yet, in most mainstream feminisms today, such conflicts still occupy uncomfortable positions.
I mean, can Zohra Bibi and Mrs. Sethi occupy the same feminist space? I don’t think so. Yet, in spite of this acknowledgement, most of us, who are engaged in the work of culture-making – including this tricky business of writing poems – are closer to Mrs. Sethi than to Zohra Bibi. It’s a reality that often makes us uncomfortable. So, for instance, when we write about contemporary neoliberal domesticities, how do we write about both of these phenomena? The class conflict that occurs between women inside the affluent high-rises, and the sense of claustrophobia the housewives who live in such high-rises feel? The class conflict that occurs between someone like Zohra Bibi and a professional woman like myself? And, if I push the envelope a little bit, the class conflict between the highly educated, urban employer of the Delhi NCRS – who happen to be women – and the men she employs as servants and drivers? But, then, representation of that discomfort, and these realities, are bound to cross the borders of any homogenous notion of feminism, which talks only about women and/ or gender and sexuality, into the realms that deal with class, urban space, migration, labor, capital and neoliberal domesticities.
Sneha Chowdhury: Can you talk about some of your own poems that you’d like to call feminist poems? Tell us what went into the making or writing of these poems.
Nandini Dhar: Instead of poems, I would like to talk about my first full-length poetry collection Historians of Redundant Moments: A Novel in Poems.
This book grew out of my love for longer forms. I was writing individual poems, which kept going back to the same characters, same themes and locales. I knew, I will have to think of a different form, a form that’s somewhat different from a collection of individual poems. I kept resisting the idea of a novel-in-poems, precisely because, I wasn’t so sure of the narrative essence that often comes with the very idea of a ‘novel’. Yet, I was telling a story of politicisation of two little girls. I was telling a story of the points of intersection between the domestic spaces and left-radical political movements. I was telling the story through the stories of two sisters, two little girls, who also happen to be twins. You know, little girls are not exactly thought to be political beings. So, in that sense, this project is also a feminist project. But, at the same time, I wasn’t terribly interested in the stories of these two girls’ sexual coming of age, for instance. There are, of course, ways in which sexuality appears in this book – as something uncanny that the girls observe when they are trying to understand the lives of the adult women around them. But, there was a deliberate effort to keep the story circling around issues of state repression, political violence, resistance, political history and class. Class as it is lived within Bengali Hindu middle-class homes. Class as it was lived by middle-class Bengali Hindu little girls in a pre-liberalisation, post-Left Front, post-Naxalbari era. Not that I am creating a binary between sexuality and politics in that sense. Needless to say, sexuality is in itself political. Yet, in popular perceptions, sexuality almost always becomes the default realm of women’s subjectivities. I was trying to stay out of that – somewhat consciously.
And, as I was writing this book about children – as an adult – I began to think more and more about the rhetoric of infantilisation and its relationship to gender. The rhetoric of infantilisation that pervades our legal language in India right now, especially with the issue of ‘love jihad’. I had been thinking, how infantilisation of women marks the rhetoric of Hindu fundamentalist politics. So, here in this book, I have two little girls, who speak in very adult voices. I would like to think, speaking in adult voices about very ‘adult’ concerns – such as ‘history’, ‘state’, ‘political violence’ — becomes a way to flip the power equations inherent in political language.
Here is a poem from the book:
The skull of a little girl, a miniature dinghy on fire, a ceramic doll’s
house with a broken chimney, the wooden frame of a stringless guitar,
an ocean-floor of dead rats. What else can the rigid ribs of the walls
fit inside? A labyrinth of half-notated songs – my mother’s. The wreckage
of a novel which never could be written beyond the first three lines – my
uncle’s. Alphabets from a forbidden romance, the white space
of curves filled up by notes scribbled in illegible calligraphy – my
aunt’s. The overabundance of meanings that can be retrieved from the torn
pages of Dakshindesh, Deshabrati. Whatever was left after almost everything
was confiscated. A tap on the wall, on our fingertips the evidence – in
this community, everything and everyone is unformed, fractured,
interrupted. A scratch of our fingernails along the walls – inside
every fissure of a brick, broken bones. Every piece
of peeled paint, shredded owl skin. A push with your head, thwack, bump.
The simultaneous revelation. Face each other, hand in hand,
the first timid articulation: this is not where we can lean.
What is left is a mangled promise. A silenced
sun hangs over the neighborhood. Nazia Hassan blares
assurance from the next door uncle’s stereo.
I repeat disco, disco, disco. Like a scratched record.
My sister always and already alert about words,
whose meanings she does not know, is reciting
nashelee hain raat, nashelee hain raat, nashelee hain raat.
Mother peels off her skin to make a rag – to dust the dining-table.
Home, Mother says, is the shadow of an over-active quill.
Home, we sisters suspect, is our mother’s bone sculpted into walls.