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Drunk on Ink Q & A with Lisa Romeo and ‘Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor and author of the forthcoming novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. 

Read Jaggery Issue 11 Spring 2018

Lisa Romeo is the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press). Her short nonfiction is listed in Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Brevity, Under the Sun, Hippocampus, The Manifest Station, Brain Child, Sweet, Inside Jersey, and many other places. She teaches in an MFA program and lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and sons.

Starting with Goodbye, published by University of Nevada Press, asks if it’s ever too late to (re)connect with a parent. When Lisa Romeo’s late father drops in for “conversations,” she wonders why the parent she dismissed in life now holds her spellbound. Lisa reconsiders her affluent upbringing and the emotional distance that grew when he left New Jersey and retired to Las Vegas. She questions death rituals, family dynamics, Italian-American customs, midlife motherhood, and her own marriage as their new father-daughter relationship transforms grief and delivers powerful lessons about the bonds that last past death.

Soniah Kamal: First author/book you read/fell in love with?

Lisa Romeo: From the time I could read at age 5, there were so many children’s books about horses that I read in nonstop gulps, and I can’t remember the name of a single one. The earliest books I remember for certain loving were National Velvet by Enid Bagnold, and Karen by Marie Killilea. The former because I lived and breathed horses, the latter I think because it was the first nonfiction book I read for pleasure and I was so taken by the idea that someone’s life—a non-famous person—could be in a book

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

One glass of Moscato or Riesling. Unless I’m hot, then I only want ice cold water!

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

Hmm…this is tricky. I want to ask, mandatory for whom? But absent that, the way I’m feeling most days, I’d say “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats.

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

A lot of them! I read nonstop, but my schooling didn’t include a lot of classics…or maybe it did and I can’t remember. Which I suppose means I need to read or re-read them all. I think in my teens I would have had more patience for Jane Austen, especially because I always longed to live in England.

A favorite quote from your book J

“This father is gone, never was, and is sitting right next to me.”

Your favorite book to film?

I’m so easily and consistently disappointed by most film adaptations of books I’ve loved. Purely for fun I’d say, Under the Tuscan Sun!   Based on the book by Frances Mayes.

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

Just a few miles from home: Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ. The staff really know their stock and make interesting recommendations but will also leave you alone; there are author events at the store several times a week; and it has that quiet but sublimely buzzy vibe I like in a bookstore.

The one thing you wish you’d known about the writing life?

How long the learning curve is, how that learning curve never ends, how you’re never really finished nor completely satisfied with what you’ve produced, even after it’s published!

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

I’ve just published my first book, so I can’t speak to what it will be like to move on to book two. Though I’m guessing: equally difficult!  I’ve published hundreds of essays, articles, and other short nonfiction pieces, and each one poses its own challenge to write and place. It doesn’t get easier, you just know more and can avoid the obvious mistakes.

Dog, Cat, Or?

I’m a horse person from way back. I had five horses over about 17 years, and I rode and competed in hunter-jumper horse shows from my teens to my early 30s.

Favorite book cover?

This changes constantly! I suppose I should say my own, since it’s a photograph of my father that I took. But recently, my favorite cover is Still Life with Horses, a memoir by Jean Harper. A horse’s eye is very special and the artist (Benedicte Gele) captured it perfectly in pastels and chalk. Take a look, you’ll see.

Favorite song?

Strictly because it takes me back to meeting my husband and hearing him sing for the first time: “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin.  (My husband, I must note, became the anti-thesis to the neglectful father in the song!)

Recommend a Small Press and Literary Journal?

Sarabande Books does a lot of interesting things with essay and other nonfiction forms.

Missouri Review, for overall consistency and readability. I’m never disappointed.

Last impulse book buy and why?

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, MD and T.J. Mitchell. Because I was wandering through a bookstore after doing a reading, and my eye always lands on books about death and the many things that might come after! (I’m strange that way.)

Soniah Kamal’s novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan is forthcoming from Penguin Random House. PRE ORDER . Her debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s TEDx talk, Redreaming Your Dream, is about regrets, second chances and redemption. Her story Jelly Beans was selected for The Best Asian Stories Series 2017 and her award winning and Pushcart Prize nominated work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Normal School.

Drunk on Ink Q & A with Rachel May and ‘An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor and author of the forthcoming novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. 

Read Jaggery Issue 11 Spring 2018

Rachel May is the author of two books of fiction, The Experiments and The Benedictines, and two books of nonfiction, Quilting with a Modern Slant and An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery, just out from Pegasus Books. She’s an Assistant Professor at Northern Michigan University and has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio, VCCA, and Millay Colony.

About An American Quilt  published by Pegasus Books   

Following the trail left by an unfinished quilt, this illuminating saga examines slavery from the cotton fields of the South to the textile mills of New England?and the humanity behind it. When we think of slavery, most of us think of the American South. We think of back-breaking fieldwork on plantations. We don’t think of slavery in the North, nor do we think of the grueling labor of urban and domestic slaves. Rachel May’s rich new book explores the far reach of slavery, from New England to the Caribbean, the role it played in the growth of mercantile America, and the bonds between the agrarian south and the industrial north in the antebellum era?all through the discovery of a remarkable quilt. While studying objects in a textile collection, May opened a veritable treasure-trove: a carefully folded, unfinished quilt made of 1830s-era fabrics, its backing containing fragile, aged papers with the dates. The quilt top sent her on a journey to piece together the story of Minerva, Eliza, Jane, and Juba?the enslaved women behind the quilt?and their owner, Susan Crouch. B&W illustrations throughout

Soniah Kamal: First author/book you read/fell in love with?


Rachel May:  Bread and Jam for Frances, a classic 😉 and then A Wrinkle in Time and then The Bluest Eye

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Coffee, coffee, and more coffee…that doesn’t really lead to unwinding but gets me writing. J My students tease me for my coffee habit.

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip; Missing Persons, a new story collection by Stephanie Carpenter; everything by Anne Carson

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

War and Peace? I wish I’d been a better student freshman and sophomore years of college, when I was in all those survey classes.

A favorite quote from your book ?

“I look to the past and seek the people whose stories enliven a world I didn’t know but can still feel in present. I reach for the tactile—the clothes, a quilt, the thin paper on which loops of cursive huddle to fill the page…I learn about the food people made in the past, their daily habits, the authors they might have read, speakers they’d have heard—and this past seems to exist around me in the present, informing my days, changing the places I thought I knew.”

Your favorite book to film?

Alice Munro’s short story “Chance,” from Runaway, which was turned into the Spanish-language film Julieta. Also, Stuart Little (it’s impossible not to love that cartoon mouse).

read Chance

Favorite Indie Book Stores?

Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA; Snowbound Books in Marquette, MI

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

How lonely and uncertain it is—we do all this work for years on end, with no promise of it coming to anything—and, on the flip side, how many deep friendships I’d find through writing, how much I’d come to love interviewing people, how rewarding it can be to focus on stories in the world around me.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

Everything requires patience, which I have to work very, very, very hard to cultivate. Maybe that’s my life’s work—gaining patience! The more I’ve invested in a book, the more daunting it feels. I’m lucky I’ve gotten to publish, and I’m grateful for it. But it still feels like standing naked on a stage and offering up a baby to the world, with all this hope and fear that they’ll make it. I’ve learned to seek help from wiser people, which makes the process easier.

Dog, Cat, Or?

I love and own both. Also horses and goats. Here is Penny, my cat, and Piper, my dog.

A favorite book cover?

The new Little Women cover embroidered by Rachell Sumpter

A favorite song?

Right now: José Gonzalez “Heartbeats” and Etta James “Sunday Kind of Love

Recommend a Small Press and Literary Journal?

Siglio Press makes gorgeous image+text projects, Braddock Avenue Books is publishing great fiction (full disclosure: they published my novella in shorts!), and I love Michigan Quarterly and VQR

Last impulse book buy and why?

The Phantom Atlas, by Edward Brooke-Hitching. It’s a book about all the mistakes maps and atlases held—places that didn’t exist, impossible monsters—and it’s beautifully made with heavy pages and glorious illustrations.

Soniah Kamal’s novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan is forthcoming from Penguin Random House. PRE ORDER . Her debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s TEDx talk, Redreaming Your Dream, is about regrets, second chances and redemption. Her story Jelly Beans was selected for The Best Asian Stories Series 2017 and her award winning and Pushcart Prize nominated work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Normal School.

Drunk on Ink Q & A with Rebecca Entel and ‘Fingerprints of Previous Owners’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor and author of the forthcoming novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. 


Read Jaggery Issue 11 Spring 2018

Rebecca Entel’s first novel is Fingerprints of Previous Owners (Unnamed Press, 2017). Her short stories and essays have appeared in Guernica, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Cleaver Magazine, The Madison Review, and elsewhere. Rebecca is an Associate Professor at Cornell College, where she teaches multicultural American literature, Caribbean literature, creative writing, and the literature of social justice. She grew up in Cleveland and currently lives in Iowa City.

About Fingerprints of Previous Owners. At a Caribbean resort built atop a former slave plantation, Myrna works as a maid by day; by night she trespasses on the resort’s overgrown inland property, secretly excavating the plantation ruins the locals refuse to acknowledge. Myrna’s mother has stopped speaking and her friends are focused on surviving the present, but Myrna is drawn to Cruffey Island’s violent past. A wealthy African-American tourist arrives with new information about the history of the slave-owner’s estate, and tensions finally erupt between the resort and the local island community. Suffused with the sun-drenched beauty of the Caribbean, Fingerprints of Previous Owners is a powerful novel of hope and recovery in the wake of devastating trauma. In her soulful and timely debut, Entel explores what it means to colonize and be colonized, to trespass and be trespassed upon, to be wounded and to heal.

Soniah Kamal: First author/book you read/fell in love with?

Rebecca Entel: Beverly Cleary was a major force in my childhood. Once I finished all the Ramona books, I started writing my own.

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Chai. Wine. Repeat.

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

Anything by Toni Morrison.

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

War and Peace. It’s still staring me down from the shelf.

A favorite quote from your book ?

“So many stars out the sky looked spangled with broken glass, like pieces of what had been a life.”

Your favorite book to film?

The Wizard of Oz

Favorite Indie Book Stores?

Indie bookstores are some of my favorite places! I live in Iowa City, where Prairie Lights is the heart of downtown. I sometimes forget how special it is to live somewhere where the bookstore is always full of people.

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

How to get really skilled at making time for writing.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

The writing never gets easier – it’s always new – but I have gotten better at trusting the process. I’ll have to let you know about the publishing/marketing angle, but I think that’ll be different each time, too.

Dog, Cat, Or?

Dog (preferably wiener)

A favorite book cover?

I really love the cover of Lily King’s Euphoria and the edition of Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America that looks like a sheet of notebook paper.

A favorite song?

I’ll never get tired of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.

Last impulse book buy and why?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding’s Nasty Women anthology. It’d been on my to-read list, and I picked it up while I was traveling.

Soniah Kamal’s novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan is forthcoming from Penguin Random House. PRE ORDER . Her debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s TEDx talk, Redreaming Your Dream, is about regrets, second chances and redemption. Her story Jelly Beans was selected for The Best Asian Stories Series 2017 and her award winning and Pushcart Prize nominated work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Normal School.

Craft of Writing: If Wallace Stevens could talk to Toll Brothers


Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

by Wallace Stevens

The houses are haunted

By white night-gowns.

None are green,

Or purple with green rings,

Or green with yellow rings,

Or yellow with blue rings.

None of them are strange,

With socks of lace

And beaded ceintures.

People are not going

To dream of baboons and periwinkles.

Only, here and there, an old sailor,

Drunk and asleep in his boots,

Catches tigers

In red weather.

 When I landed in the United States, my aunt drove me home from the airport to her house, where I would stay for a few weeks before going on to graduate school. I remember the deafening silence during the drive. My aunt and I had plenty to say to each other, but throughout the drive I was aware of a silence that began outside the raised windows of her car and extended to the moving scrim of houses and buildings in the neighborhoods we passed as we drove to her home in an expensive Cincinnati suburb. To me, the silence was tremulous. It hung like a cobweb, threatening to shatter into the noise and chaos I was used to on the city streets of India, which were filled with honking and the sound of engines sputtering, the discrete sounds of transport vehicles fashioned out of the cabins of small trucks, extended to contain seats for anywhere between 3 to 10 passengers, of scooters, of motorbike riders revving and roaring, all against the irrepressible tinkle and chime of bicycle bells, clanking obstinately between their fuel-driven counterparts. Only, it didn’t. The silence remained unbroken. When we pulled into her curving cobble-stone driveway and I stepped out of the car, the silence grew louder, broken only by occasional bird-call. The quietness made me so uncomfortable, I could not sleep for nights. Is it this silence that dresses the American suburb, and haunts its houses, bathed in the bright light of bulbs, in the white night-gowns of Steven’s poem? Not comforting like the silence of the woods, or a quiet garden scene, but a silence borne from the lack of necessary disorder, a silence that is artificial and curated by the very laws and regulations that make American suburbia the haven of safety and predictability that is its unique selling point?

Stevens’ poem is a commentary against the anodyne life of the American suburb. The sameness of the homes, the white-lit unity of their little blocks and fences and lawns, the trundling mail-truck. None of them are strange, he says, but why would we be, the houses might say in reply. The people who live here are not going to dream of baboons and periwinkles. There is no place here for the artistic and the frenzied, or for the outlier. It is only the poet who wants to  experience life in its many colors. The poet is alone in craving the sight of purple houses with green rings. For company, he has the drunken sailor, who, having rejected social mores and himself been rejected by society, dreams of catching tigers in red weather. Modern, civilized society is blind to its own delirium. Everything that is colorful and human and alive is lost in this ghost-country of perfect homes and perfect order. “Give me chaos, give me truth, give me danger,” is the implicit cry of the poet, but he will not be granted it; to have access to it, he too has to live on the fringes of society, like the sailor asleep in a drunken stupor, still wearing his boots. The cost of freedom is too high to pay for those who buy into the humming dullness of ordinary living. The American suburb is part of this American mythology — it is a product of the nearly mythical reach of urban and suburban sprawl, and the industries that run behind these systems to make them look and work the way they do. The poet pleads for the mythical qualities of color and wildness, of animals and exotic accoutrements, as absurd as lace and beaded belts, to somehow make their appearance and redeem modern American living of its curse of uniformity and conformity.

By using whimsical and absurd imagery that is the complete opposite of everything that the poet actually sees, Stevens evokes the vigor that is absent from modern living with its trappings of comfort and respectability. How wonderful that we can never know what exactly a tiger in red weather is. But we can dream of it. Yet even that dream, of a tiger bounding and leaping, borne from some deep and unexplored desire, is the luxury of a homeless sailor. The people who live in the neatly painted homes set in rows upon a street, have lost even the ability to dream of what they might truly want and need.

– Mary Ann Koruth



Drunk on Ink Q & A with Jamie Sumner ‘Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood.’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor and author of the forthcoming novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. 


Read  Jaggery Issue 11 Spring 2018

Jamie Sumner is a writer and mom living in Nashville. She is the author of the book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood. She has written for The Washington Post, Scary Mommy and Parenting Special Needs Magazine and has an essay forthcoming in The New York Times. She is also an editor at Literary Mama. She can often be found at the park with her three kids, the dog and a large cup of coffee. All the writing happens when everyone else is asleep.

Publishers Weekly says…

Feeling imperfect? There are mom-books for that – offering solace in faith and welcome infusions of humor as well. Jamie Sumner, in Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood (FaithWords, April 10) describes her journey through infertility and special needs parenting. Her trip has not been easy, but Sumner found in the Bible stories of women who show her hope, companionship and triumph in releasing herself in God’s hands.

UNBOUND gives hope and encouragement to all women whose picture of motherhood is strained by disillusionment, otherness and even despair. Women do not talk enough about the reality of motherhood: the struggle it takes to get there, the loneliness of it, the unmet expectations. We are often too ashamed to share our difficult stories. We quietly absorb the posts of sonograms and happily messy houses on Facebook as we inwardly wonder what’s the matter with is. We struggle to meet the everyday needs and special needs of our kids, caught by surprise that this is what motherhood looks like. With honestly and vulnerability, JAMIE SUMNER walks readers through each stage of her own journey to motherhood through infertility and special needs parenting.


Soniah Kamal:  First author/book you read/fell in love with?

Jamie Sumner: I have two books that wooed me at two very different times in my life. The first was C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was the first book to make me believe that magic could be hiding anywhere. The second was Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. I read it in the NICU after my son was born and felt for the first time that no, it’s not just me and this particular situation, all mothers feel this crazy.


To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Coffee to start. Wine to end.


A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

As a former English teacher, my list is long. But I will say, Lord of the Flies. It’s such a testament to the unraveling chaos of our human nature when all the rules disappear. It’s like every single episode of Survivor made real.


Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

Ah yes. Grapes of Wrath. I just couldn’t get through it. Steinbeck is a genius, but it took East of Eden to lure me in and make me go back for this one.


A favorite quote from your book? 

I have two:

“Life is a continual etching and erasing. We form expectations and God forms reality. Sometimes they line up nicely, like tracings at right angles. And sometimes God plays Jackson Pollock and we’re all over the place.”

“Motherhood is often like this, a continually changing plan that has you kicking the tires and eating fried rice.”


Your favorite book to film?

The first Harry Potter. It is magic made perfect.


Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

Parnassus here in Nashville.


The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

I wish I had known that creation happens in secret, but promotion is one big loud shout through the megaphone. Being a professional writer in the modern world takes both the quiet and the noise.


Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

Nope. You build your platform and hope that street cred will get you places. But ultimately, each work must stand on its own. Marketing gets easier with practice, but the writing and publishing reset with each book.


Dog, Cat, Or?

Dog! I have had my Zoe longer than I have had my husband. She might be my soulmate.

Favorite book cover?

I love Rupi Kaur’s the sun and her flowers with the hand-drawn sunflowers. It’s simple and genius, much like her work.


Favorite song?

“Heavenly Day” by Patty Griffin. It makes me want to take a nap in a field.


Favorite Small Press and Literary Journal?

As an editor for Literary Mama, I have to vote for us on this one. We hit such a unique market—mothers who write, and write well, and writers whose works hit on the mother-child relationship. We celebrate the famous and the up-and-coming and the great small press finds. We love it all.


Last impulse book buy and why?

I bought The Power by Naomi Alderman because I was 39th in the hold list at the library and needed in now. It was worth it.


Soniah Kamal’s novel ‘UnMarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan is forthcoming from Penguin Random House USA. Her debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s TEDx talk, Redreaming Your Dreamis about regrets, second chances and redemption. Her story Jelly Beans was selected for The Best Asian Stories Series 2017 and her award winning and Pushcart Prize nominated work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Normal School.

Drunk on Ink Q & A with Falguni Kothari and ‘My Last Love Story’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor and author of the forthcoming novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. 

Falguni Kothari is the author of unconventional love stories and kick-ass fantasy tales. Her four novels, most recently MY LAST LOVE STORY, are all flavored by her South Asian heritage and expat experiences. An award-winning Indian Classical, Latin and Ballroom dancer, she currently spikes her endorphin levels with Zumba. She resides in New York with her family and pooch.

My Last Love Story
Simi Desai is thirty years old and her husband is dying of cancer. He has two last wishes in his final months: first, that she’ll have his baby so that a piece of him lives on, and second, that she’ll reconcile with her old flame, who just happens to be their mutual best friend. And so over the course of their last summer together, Simi’s husband plans a series of big and small adventures for this unlikely trio, designed to help them say goodbye to each other and prove to Simi that it’s okay to move on without him—and even find love again. Beautiful and poignant, Falguni Kothari’s My Last Love Story will pull your heartstrings as only unforgettable love stories can. Read a review of My Last Love Story in the New York Times.Soniah Kamal: First author/book you read/fell in love with?

Falguni Kothari: As a child, it was End Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series. I loved the idea of living inside a tree trunk like Moon-Face. I’d sometimes try to squeeze myself into small spaces and pretend I was living inside a tree. As a teenager, I fell in love with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Name one girl who was raised in South Asia and didn’t!). As an adult, my once-a-year re-read is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.


To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

It’s mostly chai, sometimes wine, rarely coffee…but Pindar! Water is best.


A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

Try all of the above at least once in your life. It just seems a more complete education. Then, you can stick to the reading format you most prefer. Much like print or ebooks.


Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

I don’t think I ever had to push through a book. I mostly love reading books. I have simply not picked up several of the classics, this not read them. I don’t know why. I should change that.


A favorite quote from your book

This is the quote that gave me this book’s title. My working title was something else entirely and absurd now that I think of it.

Why I love this particular excerpt? It gives you the crux of the book in a paragraph.

“I went back to my husband and explained something to him. “Imagine I’m an ocean. You are the bright sunlit part of me, and Zayaan, the darker depths. I need you both to be who I am. I love you both. Always have. Always will. But, Nirvaan, you are my last love story. I don’t want another one.”


Your favorite book to film?

Hmm. I think the Pride and Prejudice BBC miniseries with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. I even like the one with Knightly and MacFadyen. (That Darcy will never get outta my head!)


Favorite Indie Book Stores?

WORD Bookstore in New Jersey and Brooklyn, Anderson’s Book Store in Larchmont.


The one thing you wish you’d known about the writing life?

The publicity and promotion aspects of it. I am not talkative by nature, at least with people I’ve just met. As a writer, I’m continuously meeting new people now and it’s nerve-wracking. Also, at conferences and book events, I am so removed from my home bound comfort zone that I feel like popping a Valium a day. Luckily, popping a pill terrifies me more than speaking to strangers.


Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

It becomes worse. Or that’s the wrong word. It becomes bigger. The more books you have, the more people/ readers/ librarians/ bookstores know you and want to do events with you. So, you have to juggle that many more pins in the air. You do get more adept at the publicity and marketing though, and if you’re a planner, it’s a piece of cake.


Dog, Cat, Or?

I’m an animal-lover. Every animal except reptiles are my thing. However, I think dogs actually are man’s best friend. There is no better companion for a human than a dog.


A favorite song?

Anything by the late great George Michael, Ronan Keating and Arijit Singh. Their voices are soulful.


A favorite book cover?

I have many. But most recently, I was wowed by The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin.


Last impulse book buy and why?

Tracy Wolff’s Lovegame. The cover was attractive, the price was right, and I’m in the middle of revisions for my 2019 women’s fiction release and I wanted to read something completely unrelated and raunchy. I like sexy, raunchy books. They make me relax and smile, maybe even laugh out loud.

Soniah Kamal’s novel ‘UnMarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan is forthcoming from Penguin Random House USA. PREORDER here. Her debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s TEDx talk, Redreaming Your Dreamis about regrets, second chances and redemption. Her story Jelly Beans was selected for The Best Asian Stories Series 2017 and her award winning and Pushcart Prize nominated work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Normal School.


A close read: “Mozart’s Final Hour”, a poem from the New Yorker.(Feb 26, 2018 issue)

My father is playing the B-Flat Sonata
Hidden under the rented baby grand
I press one pedal or another,
“damper,” “sustain”—

My father is playing the B-Flat Sonata,” begins this poem, Mozart’s Final Hour” by D.Nurkse, in a recent issue of the New Yorker. In this short, but redemptive poem about a child and his father, the narrator—ostensibly, the poet himself— takes on the great themes of filial love and mortality in the fraught, but primal bond between father and son. Without wasting any time, the scene is set. The child seated, “hidden under the rented baby grand” is not merely innocent, and trusting, but filled with awe of his father, the pianist. Why else does he hide? In the act of hiding, with its echoes of wonder and shyness, perhaps even fear, and in the father’s blindness to the child’s position under the piano, literally at his feet, the poet captures an age-old trope of the relationship between boys and their fathers: the child’s yearning to be seen and recognized, and the parent falling short. The awe-filled child, rendered so real, by the grown son, who looks back at that awe, and at that parent, with sadness.

The opening movement of Mozart’s B-Flat Sonata has a quietness and yearning to it; even when it launches into a glittering piece of virtuosity, a liminal melancholy hovers over it like a cloud. The poem reflects this floating, lingering quality. The child attempts to help his father realize the piece by pressing the pedals that extend the sounds, or muffle them, but in doing so, the emotive register of the music changes. The music becomes inaccessible — the father is unable to evoke the musical magic of Mozart’s work; it is as if the music is no more able to speak to him. He cannot capture its magic in his playing even though this is all he wants to do.

Mozart grows pompous, prissy,
or strangely tongue-tied.

Is the joke on Mozart, or on the father, trying to play the piece to his best ability? Note that the poet calls Mozart pompous and tongue-tied, as if the entire interaction between father and child whittles to a stale, unemotional performance. Rather than directly criticize the father, the poet addresses the quality of his playing. This is the child’s reading of his father, and his accusation: even the beauty of Mozart turns into something cold and distant in his father’s hands. If Mozart’s sonata is representative of beauty, including the beauty of love between father and child, then the pianist has failed in his rendition of both music and love.

There is also the sense of how the child manages to distort his father’s earnest efforts. The child is well-meaning, just as the father is dedicated. Yet the music they produce together —the child at the pedals, the father at the keys—falls short, too.

You can watch the shadows come—
the elm in the French window
impenetrable as a score.
Rain is a diminished chord.

The weather changes, day moves into night, as if mimicking the difficulty and unpredictability of the father’s efforts. It is no surprise that the shadows of evening, the inner darknesses of boy and man, appear in the windows. Even the elegant elm is an obstacle. It begins to rain. Nothing provides inspiration. 

I press those huge slippers
that smell of fart and wax,
gently, and my father
adjusts his timing delicately.

Now the child inches closer, ensconced in the dark womb created by his father’s presence and his piano-playing, so close and so real that the rest of the world, the intruding elm, the rain, all cease to exist. With tentative hands, he presses his father’s slippers. Larger than life as his father might seem, his slippers quickly remove any pretense of this. They smell of “fart and wax”, and yet, the child touches them. He does not touch his father though. It is enough just to touch the old, smelly slippers. The little concert continues at the piano, and momentarily, something of beauty is born.

Its late.

Perhaps it is, too late.

Mozart bloated with sepsis says:
Fetch me my quill. I have an idea
that will make me famous.

The pathos of the dying artist, wanting to create — even when there is no hope left. Bloated Mozart, whose intricate genius the father tries to grasp in his playing, died prematurely, his work on earth incomplete. The poet’s repeated references to Mozart as arrogant, as remote, and finally as a sick man on his deathbed, are at odds with how we are used to thinking about a man of incredible genius and fame. There is a shift in language, from the lyrical (rain is a diminished chord) to the brazen (fart and wax) and a shift in subject. A dying Mozart reappears.  And in this dying, we see the failure of the promise of fatherhood. The child is the audience, the father the performer who cannot impress—don’t talk about ideas and quills, says the poet.

Now the room is entirely dark.
My father is playing by heart.
That stupid grief—he memorized it.

This is where the poem comes to a head. All its force collects in this one line: “That stupid grief—he memorized it.”  The narrator, disgusted and disappointed, finally breaks out of the trance of childhood and identifies his father’s mistake. His voice is conversational and furious—he abandons formal language and bursts out. The father could not forget his sorrow. It made its way into the Mozart piece, and it made its way to the little boy, who sat beneath the piano, looking up, to his father, for reassurance, but was denied it. The paternal figurehead is incriminated.

Our love is like nightfall
or a trill: you can see through it
but not it.

These simple lines appear at the end of the poem, full of grace and wisdom. The son, despite his deep disappointment with his father, recognizes that there is love, no doubt. He knows his father loves him, but the affection is inexpressible. Like nightfall or a musical trill, the son senses its existence, but does not have the luxury of experiencing it. This is not enough, and this is the poet’s sorrow. The observation is a commentary on poetics too. How does one express the inexpressible? Their interaction on a rented piano, however tender the image, in the end, just did not cut it, did not make the mark. 

Delicate lyricism is offset by a fierce thesis.

Then time shall be no more.

This line, which comprises the entire second section of the poem, is a double allusion. James Joyce was paraphrasing the Bible in “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” when he wrote, “Time is, time was, time shall be no more”. The meaning is that we are out of time, that time has run out. The narrator is in the present, when time is no more, and there is opportunity only for recollection and synthesis, in poetry. One day soon (if not already), the poet says, his father will be no more. And then, so shall time—his chance for change, for making amends to his son—all of these, will be no more.

I don’t think its a coincidence that the shape of the poem on the page is lean, like a column or a narrow pillar, and its language so simple. Neither its form nor its content convey abundance or excess of emotion. Though the themes of art are universal, we look to art –to stories and novels and poetry and movies– to bring those themes home, to situate ourselves in these investigations into life’s emotional truths, because art is the apotheosis of individual, human experience.  Art does not rationalize. Pure art possesses and projects pure emotion, and when we hear  from the son in this poem, who remembers sitting at his father’s feet as a boy, at the piano, listening to the longing in Mozart’s music, while filled with a longing of his own, we understand fathers and sons everywhere.  In Mozart’s greatness and in his death, we see the figure of the father.  Yet both are only human, and both are tragic, their creations fragile, left to fend for themselves. Mozart’s sonata does not live and breathe in the pianist’s hand in the way he wishes it to. It is the same with the child he created. Like shadows, they touch without meeting, they inhabit the same spaces, but without speaking and celebrating their bond.  In the end, they are tied to each other by the the very gulf of sadness that divides them.

Mary Ann Koruth


What we write about when we write about writing. (A response to Yiyun Li).

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li.
Hardcover, 208 pages, Random House Inc. 2017

In “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” Yiyun Li’s intelligent and deeply nuanced memoir on her life and her writing and the interminable connection between the two, she quotes from her novella, “Kindness”. The episode she describes is of a little girl who wants to buy chicks from a peddler. Because her father cannot afford them, two women in the market pay for them. She takes them home and cares for them, but they die, eventually. The girl steals eggs from her kitchen and cracks them open, washing out the yolks and whites. She then tries to return the dead chicks to the eggshells, trying to fit their tiny bodies into the halves, but finds that she is unsuccessful. The excerpt ends with the girl making this observation, “I have learned, since then, that life is like that, each day ending up like a chick refusing to be returned to the egg shell.”

Li’s assertion, throughout this book, is that she has abandoned her native tongue, Chinese, and adopted English as the language she writes in. In addition to giving up Chinese, but also, as a result of this choice, she has abandoned elements of her childhood in China, and would like to live in a world that is as unpopulated by memories of her life, growing up in China, as is possible. The book was written over a two-year period during which Li was hospitalized twice for suicidal depression.

Though the questions that Li raises, and the statements she makes, are about writing, they become questions about life and living. This is why her book is so unusual and so profound. In giving up a past, in renouncing it as completely and unambiguously as Li has chosen to renounce Chinese, surely her writing is informed and influenced by the vacuum created by that choice, as much as it would have been informed and enriched by embracing it. Li is the first to admit this — in life, as in writing, our selves are as much a result of what we choose to be as what we choose to not be. Like chicks refusing to return to the eggshells, we are what we give up. We can choose not to retrace our steps, but there is no erasing; the erasure of memory and the revisiting of it — aren’t these almost equally unreliable?

Why write autobiographically? Li asks this question pointedly. The word “I”, in English, is melodramatic, she writes. “In Chinese one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip that embarrassing I, or else replace it with we. Living is not an original business.” Li insists that she does not write autobiographically — because she does not, or did not, at the time of writing this book, have a “solid and explicable self”. She refers to a state of “unraveling” in between her hospitalizations. She writes to erase the self — but that is impossible, because nothing brings us closer to our truest selves than the practice of art.

I can often trace an autobiographical element to my stories. But that is not what I am interested in, for this piece. It is the sense of self that Li grapples with, and that she describes other patients in her hospital grappling with, a sense of self so flung into sadness that she wanted to erase it completely. I cannot pretend to understand the depth of Ms. Li’s despair, but I cannot be alone in having known despair and emptiness. I write to escape myself; writers like Li, are talented enough to do so successfully in their stories and novels. In my own poems and fiction, I fear vanity; how much of memory, of pain recalled, is mere indulgence? The “I” that Li suspects and would dispose of, raises a similar question for me. Do our individual selves matter enough to justify autobiographical writing? My answer is no, yet I cannot help returning to that elusive “I”. In any case, all writing is personal, so that trying to escape the “I” is a bit of a bluff. So much safer to publish journalism and criticism. Fiction and poetry are hard, but until I am certain of the validity—and quality–of what I create, a lot of my other writing will remain an escape.

An Indian colleague of mine was surprised when I told her during her farewell party in the office, that two years ago, she had asked me, as I walked through the lobby, to show her to her interview, and though neither of us knew it at the time, her future boss. She did not recall our interaction.

“Am I that forgettable?” I laughed, which was silly, because she was thinking of her job prospects in an empty lobby on a blue, cloudy day. Anyone else, in my place, would have done the same for her. Yet when I took my son to the doctor last week, he told me he remembered me from a year ago, when I visited him with my daughter. I was surprised that he would, because I was, at the time, thinking only of her. I don’t recall saying anything that would make him remember me, but he did. Our ideas about ourselves are consistent only in our own eyes. Writing, unlike life, has the advantage of hindsight, which makes for more predictable results. You might be able to identify a writer by her voice or her oeuvre, but the truth of who she really is can be impossible to lay a finger on. And so, the writer, in search of a self, keeps writing, and her readers pick up the thread wherever she leaves it, in her books.

I have not yet completed Li’s book, partly because I want to linger and bathe in her many aphorisms, her entangled thoughts, which defy and provoke each other, reminding me that uncertainty is a state worth having.

What I take away from it, as far as my own writing is concerned is this: if I could speak with as much assurance as I write, how much more memorable I would be to the people I meet. But the page is more patient than a person, though what I write, I write for people. Perhaps I am simply too careful in relationships, even casual conversations — the fear of causing damage or hurt by saying what I think, or bringing into question my own immaturity, the fear of revealing weakness, seals my lips and distorts what I would naturally say. Writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is a lifelong exploration of the gap between truth and what I think is the truth — between absolutes and relatives, between the objective and the subjective, between negative space and positive space. I seem to have assumed that the truth (of life, of art) is unknowable — distant from my own experience of it. This is a form of posturing, but it is also true. A digression from things is often only a path of return. I can only speak for myself, and so, I write.

– Mary Ann Koruth

Bollywood Movies and Me

My earliest memory of a Bollywood movie belonged to a time when renting out video cassettes from a parlor was quite a popular pastime during vacations. The first movie I saw on one such video cassette was the 1989, Salman Khan-Bhagyashree starrer – Maine Pyaar Kiya. At that time and age, love meant friendship; the “not so wealthy” were always kind at heart; the affluent were nasty and love stories always ended with “happily ever after”. A little later came my first big screen encounter with the 1990, Aamir Khan-Madhuri Dixit starrer – Dil. A trip with cousins, led by my dad (who took pride at haggling with black marketers) will always be remembered for the melodramatic hero-heroine rivalry, defiance towards family, sacrifice and finally again a “happily ever after”.


As a teenager, crushes on Bollywood movie stars were quite common. With a single watch of the 1992 release – Khiladi and some convincing at home, I had this huge poster of Akshay Kumar in our bedroom. After learning about some trivia related to the movie – Khiladi was a remake of the erstwhile whodunit, Khel Khel Mein – there was this new found respect for my parents. Suddenly their generation was cool for enjoying a good murder mystery just as much as we did. On the heels of Khiladi was the 1993, Shahrukh Khan-Kajol-Shilpa Shetty starrer – Baazigar. Baazigar was special for different reasons though. Coming from the same school as Shilpa Shetty, as giggly girls, we were just so intrigued by how our senior basketball player got catapulted into the glamorous playground of Bollywood; intrigued by how a chocolate boy hero can metamorphose into a villain and still be likeable. The “Kaali Kaali Aankhen” song brings back sweet memories of afternoon dance practice sessions on a terrace for our colony’s new year bash. It also brings back memories of violence and a gory climax. For someone like me, though, the end never really justified the means.


The latter part of the 1990s’ saw a duo of block busters – Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge(1995) and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) release in theatres and into our hearts. No matter how clichéd it sounds, it is actually true that women of all ages and sizes, secretly dream of living a Yash Chopra leading lady’s life – always innocent and beautiful, always attired in an enticing yet elegant way, always falling in love amidst picturesque locations. Both DDLJ and DTPH had this and more. Contrary to popular belief that DDLJ can be watched a million times, I actually watched DDLJ just twice. But twice was enough to touch a chord and leave a lasting impression. While the nation went crazy over the “palat” scene and the “Ja Simran ja…jee le apni zindagi” dialogue; there were nuances -Shahrukh circling Kajol on a cycle in an innovative song sequence; Farida Jalal’s teachings to her daughter about a woman’s life; the subtle comedy slipped between hero-heroine, father-son, hero’s father-heroine’s aunt dialogues, etc. that I recollect even today. DTPH was my first, first day, last show, late night outing. For someone who enjoys dance and is a romantic at heart, it was a pretty good outing. While there was nothing fresh about the story line, actors, dialogues or scenes; what stood out for me was the simply superb music. Every song in the movie was unique in its own way. There was a song for each situation and a heralding of a new kind of choreography for Bollywood. I am not a hard core Uttam Singh or Shiamak Davar fan but the combination just touched a chord yet again and left a lasting impression yet again.


We grow, we change and so do our tastes. Bollywood movies started focusing on characters and themes more than the traditional hero-heroine love story capers. I started enjoying varied genres a lot more than the regular run-of-the-mill ones. With the millennium came the Paresh Rawal, Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty, Tabu starrer – Hera Pheri. Hera Pheri could undoubtedly be the “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro” of our times. A complex plot made simple with clever dialogues and closer to real life characters. The terms LOL and ROFL may very well have been coined after watching this movie. The title justified the story line; the actors did justice to their roles and it was 3 hrs of time well spent. I can’t really recollect any other time when I have laughed so much, with tears in my eyes and appreciation in my heart. A huge salute to the wonderful actor that he is, Paresh Rawal. Another movie that brings tears to my eyes, for a very different reason has been the 2007, Shahrukh Khan and a bunch of talented girls’ starrer – Chak De. It was a welcome change to watch the spotlight shifting from King Khan to the theme – Poignant but strong; unknown faces but high recollection value; zero glamour but captivating; girls’ hockey but still engaging, patriotic but yet interesting… With all due respect to the movies that went on to make it to the Oscar nominations, Chak De, in my opinion should have been there on the list.


Post Chak De, I don’t seem to remember movies very clearly. There has been some brilliant cinema made, wonderful characters portrayed, realistic themes chosen – but something has changed along the way. The Vidya Balan starrer – Kahani; the Aamir Khan venture – PK; the light hearted Ranbir Kapoor, Konkana Sen movie – Wake Up Sid are some that come to my mind. There are many, many more. But…movies are no longer elusive – tickets easily available at multiplexes, actors easily visible on TV and easily accessible on social media are perhaps contributors. Nevertheless, I see the tide turning in my life with my little daughter following my footsteps. She seems to enjoy a good movie over a packet of caramel popcorn just as much as me. 5 movies down and the winner is Bahubali. She has anointed each family member with the name of a Bahubali character. Though not originally from Bollywood, Bahubali deserves a separate write up, I say. It appears as though my movie fetish will be revived!




She the Shakti: A Poetic Celebration of Femininity, A Chorus of Change

An Interview with Meenakshi M. Singh, editor of ShetheShakti anthology and founder of SheTheShakti Inc.

In Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s famous dance drama ‘Chitrangada’, the indomitable warrior princess of Manipur, Chitrangada introduces herself to her love, Arjun through these following lines: “I am not the one you hail in the alter, worshipping, nor am I the one you keep behind you, in negligence. Recognize my essence while you keep me beside you always, in your bounty and amid deep hours of crisis, allowing me to be a true partner in your life’s journey, a true accomplice in your missions” (translated from the original Bengali). While browsing through the pages of the bilingual poetry anthology ‘She the Shakti’ (Authorspress, 2017), I felt the resonance of these lines, which conveyed to me the quintessential spirit of womanhood.  

In this collection of 300 poems in both English and Hindi, composed by 124 poets, both women and men, the editor Meenakshi M. Singh, an award-winning poet and REX Karamveer Chakra Awardee brings to the fore the spirited, lyrical voices that empower womanhood through the potent medium of poetry. The anthology builds a discourse around the concept of equality of women through a unique poetic collaboration spearheaded by Meenakshi and her organization “SheTheShaktiInc”, a women empowerment center that she founded in 2017. The poems and prose-poems collected celebrates this concept of equality of women, which had long been denied by the power dynamics of a patriarchal social structure. Meenakshi writes in the foreword to the anthology: “It’s time that history gets created by female gender and history is written fairly. Where female is the main protagonist. It’s time for that change.” In an intimate conversation with her following the publication and critical acclaim of the book, we talk about her inspiration behind this publication and her mission and vision behind her enterprise SheTheShaktiInc. 

Lopa Banerjee: Hello Meenakshi, in the foreword to the English section of the mammoth and timely anthology ‘SheTheShakti’, you write a poem with a rhetorical question: “Do the pens have a gender? /Is it that the ink flows better through a man’s poem?” Would you say these questions that bubbled in your poetic psyche ushered in a womanly deluge where other voices joined in, which resulted in this anthology?

Meenakshi Singh: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Lopa, if we reflect any of the historical epics, or literary work of significance in the past, there is not much presence of a woman’s voice. The protagonist is always a man. I doubt that there was any dearth of thinking women in past. It’s natural for any human being to claim their freedom through expression, so I believe the subjugation was imposed on women as a mandate; it was all patriarchal conditioning.

This fact has really compelled me to claim an equal ground and to change the history for the future. Shetheshakti has emerged like the lava as if it was there, ready to erupt. I had never expected that an idea of mine could turn so grand that it would engage 124 contributors so actively, to celebrate the spirit worldwide. The huge anthology took birth in just 3-4 months’ time without any sponsors or a big team backing it. I still feel overwhelmed from the tremendous response from contributors, including you, raising a woman’s voice in the patriarchal society. I believe that it’s some supreme power that united us all to bring the muted voice of woman to the fore.

I believe that the claim to equality which is at the core of feminism needs to be celebrated and voiced, regardless of gender. The time has come to unite in this collective sentiment. It’s as beneficial and important to be gender sensitized and perceive the world equally for a woman as well as for a man.


Lopa: The blurb of the book describes it as a ‘‘grand poetic celebration of femininity.” As an award-winning poet yourself, what has been your vision and mission behind celebrating the spirit of woman empowerment through the medium of poetry, which mainstream publishers generally refrain from publishing?

Meenakshi: I always perceived woman as a powerful being, as a creator (Janani), rather than a victim and thus envisioned ShetheShakti as a celebration of feminists. ShetheShakti was never objectified as an anti-men or an outcry project of sulking/blaming men. It’s a statement of power of the dissenting woman, embracing the spirit and importance of both the masculine and feminine. 

I chose poetry as my medium to empower woman’s voice as personally, I have spoken most of my truths through poetry. Poetry heals, liberates and empowers and so poetry is an important armor of Shakti. Poetry has enabled me to feel enough and thus I came up with a book in 2016, “I am Enough” which was a tribute to womanhood. I have benefited from poetry to carve out an identity and received respect in society through poetry, so I truly believe in the power of poetry and know that poetry could be instrumental to change the fabric of the diasporic society. And hence, I chose poetry to fulfill my mission of an egalitarian society.

Lopa: What kind of societal change do you envision from the production of such a collaborative project?

Meenakshi: ShetheShakti did prove that it was the need of the hour, and therefore numerous people united with this cause.  I must confess that I received many requests after the anthology launch to bring a second edition. I express my humble gratitude for AuthorsPress publisher and Director Sudarshan KCherry ji, who stood like a pillar for this cause. Also I express my heartfelt thanks to the volunteers Aparnaa Laxmi for being the co-editor, Samrudhi Dash, Simran Arora for her enthusiastic efforts in the compilation and graphical posters, Mahima Sharma for spreading the spirit out and loud. I also want to thank eminent poet Chitra Desai for writing the foreword in the Hindi section. I want to thank the male poets especially Dilip Mohapatra Ji to join this celebration of feminism and make it an all-inclusive project. My humble gratitude to each and every poet who came forward and joined this chorus of change.

 Lopa: The themes of gender and sexuality, the feminine identity, the theme of repression of the woman in patriarchy have evolved a lot over the ages, and across cultures and continents. Which feminist poets/authors and artists do you draw inspiration from, if any?

Meenakshi: I have been influenced by many feminists but especially the voices of Maya Angelou, Virginia Wolf, Anais Nin, Coco Chanel, Chimamanda Ngozi have liberated me and empowered me. I feel amazed to think that the viewpoint and the literary oeuvre of Maya Angelou and Virginia Woolf are  still so relevant. Kamala Das, Shashi Deshpande, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey are few of my favorites. And I love feminists of all types from Kamla Bhasin, Shobha De, Meghna Pant, Lady Diana, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Diksha Bijlani, Kangna Ranuat, Priyanka Chopra, Natasha Badhawar, Shaili Chopra, Aparna Vedapuri, Vinita Agrawal, Joie Bose, Smeetha Bhowmick, Lopa Banerjee, Chitra Desai, Vinita Dawra, Geetika Goyal, Meena Agarwal,Shivangi Maletia, Malala, Emma Watson, Santosh Bakaya, Nabina Das, Neela Kaushik, Joshna Banerjee, Paromita Bardoloi, Abha Singh, Monica Oswal, Shivani Pathak, Smriti Irani, Meena Kandasamy, Milee Aishwarya and all those men who respect and celebrate women. There are many groups, forums and portals which give me inspiration in daily life.  

Lopa: What connotations do the coinage of ‘feminism’ bring to your mind as a poet, author, woman and mother?

Feminism is humanism to me, being sensitive and respectful to all humans regardless of gender, race and creed. Feminism to me, is synonymous with equal opportunities, privileges and the status for women at home ground and workplace. Unfortunately, feminism is often seen from a negative perspective, like a feminist is angry, anti-men, rebellious and one who doesn’t conform. But as a poet, writer, mother, feminism to me translates as equality and balance leading to harmony.

Lopa: Keeping in mind that we women have really come a long way from struggling to claim our rightful space in the universe to actually accomplishing giant strides in the diverse spheres of society, has the world really known the importance of gender sensitization?

Meenakshi: The identity of female has gone through evolution in terms of roles and responsibilities. As if earth has boundaries, territory for sexes. Roles were acquired as per the innate qualities of each sex and now is the time where they need to be redefined. We are much beyond the age of hunting where only masculine was revered. In this age of technology, women have all the access, skills and tools to reach out and the professional world needs the gifts of innovation, creativity, communication, which is possessed by both the genders. I feel disturbed to think that in the Indian context, the mindsets of people are still wired, stereotyping the roles of women and men. The Laxman Rekha still gets drawn and the woman who dares to cross it is called a feminazi. Even in the society of animals, there is no gender inequality between sexes but humans hold this distorted view. This gender bias is still evident in the 21st century. 

Lopa: Do you think we still need to evolve a lot in our thoughts and actions regarding the true essence of woman empowerment? 

Meenakshi: It needs a revolution to shake things and restore that balance and ShetheShakti is not less than a revolution. I would be happy to witness those times when a woman stops imitating a man to prove her equal identity but embraces her womanhood to be able to celebrate herself emotionally, physically and financially. That is woman empowerment to me and that is my mission.

Lopa:  The depiction of womanhood, the strength, power, frailty and humanity of a woman in Indian society has mostly been shaped by religious conditioning, by the portrayal of women in mythological epics and scriptures. What is your vision regarding the force of femininity as depicted in religion, culture, literature and epics?

Meenakshi: Indian society is rich and empowered due to its roots but there is no mandate or guideline to renew it to make it suitable to the contemporary times.

I would like to point out the hypocrisy in Indian society, especially in the portrayal of a woman. On one hand, the woman is worshipped in temples as Shakti, the symbol of power and on the other hand, she considered as the weakest, dumbest, lowest creature in the society. I understand the derivation of this philosophy from the financial status quo of a man in the family. But then the woman is supposed to follow certain norms, she is rendered mute and caged in homes. This arrangement of keeping the women confined might have suited in the days where enemies invaded.

But in today’s times, I find it ridiculous and irrelevant. I wonder, unless a woman comes out of her shell, how she would be able to prove her independence, and equalize with a man’s status quo? It is heartening to see so many women coming out, reclaiming their equal rights.

Religion has a significant role to play in a woman’s journey in India. My thoughts could be scandalous but most of the Goddesses, the ideal women were muted, underpowered and followed their counter parts like blind followers. All man Gods had their own vehicles but goddesses didn’t…they sulked and waited and dedicated their lives, waiting for their men. I doubt such mythological depictions. I have my doubts about such stories and fables crafted by men, but then that’s a personal viewpoint. The entire lifecycle is governed by the conditioning a girl child goes through in India. The Indian ethos and norms need urgent revision to suit to contemporary requirements and gender roles. 

Lopa: Let me also ask you about the organization “She The Shakti Inc” that you founded in 2017, which is an initiative of yours towards attaining woman empowerment. What are the major highlights of this initiative, apart from its literary aspect, i.e., books/anthologies?

Meenakshi: To give back to society, I pledged to have a mission to empower fellow women through their creative expressions and dissent. In order to do this, I launched SheTheShakti Inc., a woman empowerment center, on Jan1st, 2017. It came up with ShetheShakti, an anthology of 124 poets, a grand poetic celebration of feminism, a collective voice towards empowering woman’s voice in the society. It expressed a chorus of change, of celebration, of hope. It is founded to empower a woman’s voice and raise her identity from all aspects. ShetheShakti is also bringing out an anthology of poems, ‘A Chorus of Youth’ by young Indian poets of age 8-16 years, to foster the creative expression in today’s youth as I believe the voices and creativity of youth don’t get platforms other than schools to get unleashed, and ShetheShakti wishes to be an enabler for our future generation. ShetheShakti has tied up with the NGO Neofusion and announced ShetheShakti Star award on Kaka Hathrasi’s Day to recognize the most creative student in neoFusion academy where all under privileged children are getting holistic education under the tutelage of Dr. Anubhooti Bhatnagar. 

Lopa: Do you think literature and arts is sufficient to attain the goal of empowering feminist voices, or we need more grassroot level initiatives to attain it?

Meenakshi: Literature and art do possess the power of altering society’s gender consciousness, thereby empowering women. It all sprouts from the mindsets of people; gender equality has to be sown in young minds first so that our daughters can blossom. So literature might not seem enough, but has significant role to germinate gender equality in society. Since ages, history, literature and art has shown the supremacy of men over women and thus we are in this unequal state. If you read any story of a fast which Indian women keep, it’s all about duties and dedication of a woman for men/boys. There is no fast in the Indian culture which is kept for a woman/girl/mother. So the attitude needs to be changed at the grassroots level.

My vision for ShetheShakti is to become an instrument to build such a humane society which celebrates, embraces and empowers girls and women psychologically, emotionally, physically and socially. I am working as a woman empowerment coach at the minimal level now. I am exploring various mediums other than Literature and arts and have high hopes towards ShetheShakti. 

Lopa: The best thing I have seen as one of the contributors of ‘She The Shakti’ is the outpouring of the poetic voices of men joining in this collaboration of change. Do you think this will add to its constructive, proactive dissent and solidify the awareness of women being synonymous to Shakti (power)?

Meenakshi: I am grateful that you acknowledged the solidarity and the potency for change in ShetheShakti. Having male poets joining in for feminism and woman empowerment is the most beautiful phenomenon in this endeavor. I salute the male poets, especially for being man enough, for their courage and resonance. As I mentioned earlier, ShetheShakti is all inclusive and stands to raise woman’s voice, but at the same time it carries equal respect for a man’s voice, resulting in a balanced society. You must have noticed that during the recent “MeToo” campaign all around the world, some men also came forward to join in the campaign and it’s beautiful that men also feel it is the need of the times to unmute the silence of women. 

Lopa: Creating an anthology is always a collective experience, rather than anything else. However, the cathartic journey of publishing the anthology invariably enriches our sense of self-exploration by reading the literary works of others. Do you think any of the discerning contemporary poetic voices in ‘She the Shakti’ has strengthened your vision of femininity and humanity?

Meenakshi: ShetheShakti stands on behalf of every woman and thus will stay as a collective voice forever towards elevating the status of the half of the world. It belongs to each and every poet of ShetheShakti as it does to me but personally it has been the most fulfilling creative project for me for some beautiful reasons. As I expressed at the book launch program in Delhi that the amount of joy I felt at the launch of Shetheshakti was boundless, way more than I would have felt at my exclusive books. Secondly, I was from IT industry and it was my dream to get published few years back. I knew that feeling of ecstasy and I wanted to give back to the society in a manner to enable others to feel that joy. So we engaged poets in ShetheShakti, including both veteran authors and literary stalwarts and also emerging poets and this concoction is very special to me.

I received so much gratitude and respect to the point of being overwhelmed from contributors from all walks of life, including a scientist, housewife, dancer, doctor, and even an underprivileged woman and an 84-year-old woman. This will stand as my most precious fortune.

I have deep regards for the stalwarts and eminent poets who engaged and graced ShetheShakti anthology and since numbers are huge, it won’t be feasible to list the names here. All the voices bring power, change and uniqueness to build feminine voice and it’s not possible for me to compare and judge anyone’s poetry. Each poet is dear to me and is an important member of ShetheShakti family. 

Lopa: As a mother of two daughters, do you wish to sow the seeds of woman empowerment and gender sensitization in their young minds, starting from a tender age? 

Meenakshi: I envision ShetheShakti Inc as a change maker in the society towards an equal, humanistic, sensitive and egalitarian world.

Me and my husband used to work together. I chose to quit my corporate job when my twin daughters were born. I did receive consolation from a few aged neighbors for giving birth to twin daughters in this 21st century.

My role as a nurturer at home has never been looked down upon and I am able to pursue my passion of writing as my choice. So the seeds are already sown in the psyche of my daughters. And the way we celebrate the presence of our daughters does bring delight to my heart and a sign that times have changed. My writing, my choices and my identity must have played a role in shaping the viewpoint of my daughters about a mother.

My twin daughters Mihikaa and Maansi are stronger feminists than me as I have encountered during our discussions. Once there was a placard, “Save the Girl child” when my daughters were just 5 years old. Then Maansi had asked: why not save the boy child, mama? At home, sometimes we pass statements like girls keep their room clean due to our conditioned minds and instantly my daughters correct us pointing out the gender stereotype and then we need to utter the correct statement: kids keep their rooms clean. I wish in our future generation, both sexes are always treated equally.

I feel delighted when my daughters look up to me and want to be like me when they grow up. It reflects they have no such prejudices that a woman needs to be submissive and apologetic about her choices.

When we were children, it wasn’t easy for our mothers to make independent choices and they would have felt apologetic if they partied or dressed up like today’s women do. They were apologetic for claiming their own freedom. I could claim that my pen gave me that power and confidence.

Once my daughter asked me that why do we worship these goddesses and who’s the best? There is a poem of mine, “Don’t be a goddess dear daughter” which I wrote, reflecting on a role model among our Indian goddesses. I told my daughter to be her own goddess than follow anyone though my daughters are not that old to understand the meaning fully. I was quite apprehensive to recite this poem in public as it could indicate sign of blasphemy, but as a poet I felt it was my responsibility to show the mirror of our society and to discard irrelevant thoughts. This poem has been well received in all forums and I believe the society is ready for change.

Lopa: What are your future endeavors towards women empowerment, empowerment of the girl child and societal changes?

Meenakshi: I envision great things for ShetheShakti, but since I chose to raise myself through raising my daughters and being there physically present with them at home, I am working from home. I envision expanding this center to be an institution of creative expression, running workshops, open mics, theatrical workshops, bustling with creativity, art and nurturing women empowerment, thereby transforming our society into a sensitive and humane one. It will be an organization where women come to realize their innate potential. I founded this single-handedly and would be happy to have like-minded partners and a team towards strengthening ShetheShakti.

Woman empowerment doesn’t translate into aping men or being like men but being like a woman, embracing and celebrating herself, as is. In this consumerist age, women need to go beyond pink and be truly empowered beyond the stereotypes of looking good. Rather they need to feel good from within. And when one woman stands to empower another woman, the results are better as it is the women who have a bigger role in society to weave its mindset. So it’s time that she doesn’t feel limited, confined and prejudiced.

We envision a transformed world where both the sexes collaborate in tandem as Shiva & Shakti. That is our legacy for our sons & daughters to blossom in a gender-neutral society. She is the Shakti herself and she needs to realize and believe in herself that she is enough, as is, always.


Lopa Banerjee is an author, poet and editor based in Dallas, TX. Her memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’ and her debut poetry collection ‘Let The Night Sing’ have received honorary mentions at Los Angeles Book Festival 2017 and New England Book Festival 2017 respectively. She has also received the International Reuel Prize for Poetry (2017) and for translation (2016), instituted by The Significant League.

Meenakshi M. Singh is an author, founder of SheTheShakti Inc., a woman empowerment centre. An author of three books, her literary work has also been published in more than 50 national and international anthologies and journals. She has been conferred the much reputed Karamveer Chakra Award, the REX Global Fellowship and also the Magicka Women’s Achievement Award, Pride of Women Award by the Agaman group and the SashaktiNari Parishad Pride of Nation Award in 2015. 

Learning from Andal, Learning from the Devadasi

Andal as a Goddess depicted in Tanjore art.

Recently, the Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu called Andal a devadasi and sparked off some protests by the Tam-brahm community. Honestly, the protests by this unassuming, middle-class community in the history of Tamil Nadu caste politics are a new and far more interesting phenomenon, the historical scholarship, on the other hand, is old, hackneyed, ideological and in urgent need of revision. In the face of the protests, Vairamuthu apologized and pointed out that he was not calling Andal a devadasi anyway but another scholar from a 70s book that can’t be located easily was (in Indian Movement: Some Aspects of Dissent, Protest and Reform by Subhash Chandra Malik). As usual, the issue spiraled into pointing out the distorted histories of the left and corrective attempts from the right on some fora. Tradition has it that women are excluded from issues concerning them, so we must ask: what should our take be on this issue? As feminists, we revel in Andal and her exemplary life as much as we do in the devadasis’ contribution to our society, temples and art forms. Yet, the feminist take on the Andal-devadasi controversy cannot be simplistic or shy away from the problems of history-writing. To show why, I draw from my own research into medieval bhakti a bit and present some thoughts you could consider in making your mind up.

For those of you yet to google Andal up, here is her story in brief. Andal as a baby is found in a garden by Vishnuchitta, a temple priest who then brings her up as his daughter. She tries out garlands meant for the temple deity, thinking they must first look beautiful on her if they are to look beautiful on the deity. One day, Vishnuchitta catches her doing this and admonishes her, for unworn and pure flowers must be offered to Hindu deities. Soon after, the deity appears in Vishnuchitta’s dream and insists that he wants only those garlands tried out by Andal. Andal’s devotion is so deep that she asks to be married to Ranganatha at Srirangam when she grows up, another form of the same deity. Upon marriage, she merges with her beloved deity with no traces left behind. She is hailed as a Goddess and is one of the twelve much-revered Tamil Vaishnavite saints of medieval India. Andal composed two works, Tiruppavai and Tirumozhli. Andal means ruler. The story of Andal is deeply moving. Andal’s innocence, sincerity and perseverance as well as her strength and delicateness are remarkable even when her story is told in unsentimental ways.

When I first heard the story as I child, I was moved to tears and didn’t need to know the history of medieval India to understand it. I say this because there is nothing complete or irrefutable about the history that is doing the rounds aka one that Vairamuthu is drawing his understanding from. Why? The mainstream history that we have today is indeed leftist. It works on the standard format of looking for the feudal lord and the underdog in everything it touches. Even simple inferences about the extraordinariness of Andal makes it paint the rest of the women as super-ordinary. It is such an attempt that makes historians say speculative things like, women took to spirituality because of the oppression of patriarchy in those times or that women never ventured out of the house. My research reveals many credible historical sources wherein women ‘converted’ their husbands’ sect from one to another and even demanded to be married to a person with a certain kind of devotion. They are known to have rejected or rebuked husbands for their lack of devotion as well. The birth of daughters was prayed for and celebrated in medieval India and their loss upon marriage, mourned. Women ruled as queens during this time. In leftist histories, the regressiveness of medieval society and tradition is premised on an assumption of egalitarianism and Protestantism that is attributed to the Bhakti period in comparison with the Protestant movement of Europe. Contrary to the assumptions made, Bhakti did not seek to eradicate caste or gender inequality, it only reiterated what was held to be true in the Vedas: that for spiritual sadhana, class, caste, gender and such worldly categories do not matter. Further, viewing medieval society by premising ourselves in modernity shows our uncritical affiliation with modernity so as to declare tradition as its polar opposite, rife with superstition and backwardness. We must simply disagree with and condemn Vairamuthu’s position that Andal was a devadasi because it is historically inaccurate with no evidence to back the claim. Devadasis have a rich and varied history—not all women who were devadasis were treated as prostitutes; some were performers of various art forms, others led pious lives within the bounds of temples. Andal lived in the immediate surroundings of a temple because she grew up as Vishnuchitta’s daughter and temple priests traditionally lived within a stone’s throw from the temple. This doesn’t make her a devadasi. Andal lived most of the years of her short life being in love with Krishna, her favourite deity and her compositions express her love in erotic terms. But this too does not make her a devadasi necessarily, she could just be a devotee. She married her beloved deity, but this was no ordinary marriage or devadasi marriage. She was dedicated to the temple deity beyond and above requirements of her, of her own will and inclination. She was not bound by tradition to do so. Her choice is what we should find fascinating. Andal surrendered herself to Krishna, but also chided him when she wanted to, accusing him of anything she wanted to. For her, Krishna was real; she was not deluded. Her life was a miracle in itself and though hagiographies may exaggerate, she is not the first or last in the long line of saints who leave their physical bodies in an unusual way—whatever we may or may not understand or believe of this today. We don’t have to uncritically accept these claims but they are stories alright. It is better we let questions persist rather than propose answers that are baseless.

This said, the protests from the Tam-brahm are not unproblematic. They tend to emerge from a moral position of superiority that looks down upon devadasis and sex-workers with enormous insensitivity. Though the protestors have put forward a simple demand for apology, the contours of their position are not entirely unknown. Their moralistic position refuses to acknowledge the complexities of caste, class and gender and seeks to look the other way when complicity in forms of oppression are mentioned. They practice such petty moralism today that they disown their own if they feel that one or another person does not conform to the black-white world they love to hold dear. If only they developed a more sophisticated stance towards their understanding of society and history, could we take them more seriously each time they cried ‘hurt religious sentiments.’ I say this despite the fact that the Tam-brahm community rarely comes forward in this manner, remaining genteel, even effeminate and ultra-cautious. The Tam-brahminization of classical art forms that were wrenched from the hands of the devadasis during the nationalist period is a well-known history that we need to remember on this occasion. The point again is not to critique individual left historians or be anti-brahminical and attack them but to be aware of the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their approaches even if on a case by case basis.

Whether women are religious or not, their cause does not benefit with affiliation to either of these positions. One extols the devadasis and condemns Andal somewhat, the other extols Andal and could condemn the devadasis. If women would like to be respected, not for their sexual choices, which is an intensely personal matter, but for being women, as humans equal to men, then where do these two polarized options leave us? Feminist positions unassociated with the left are hard to find. Yet, in this era of postmodernism where ideology is quite passe, why shouldn’t we hope to embrace multiple, vague and arbitrary positions regarding Andal instead of insisting on one or another history?

The bare minimum of Andal’s story, whether fact or fiction, is inspiring enough for women. We would have a problem with Andal if our understanding of feminism was simplistic enough to admonish femininity, devotion, marriage, family, love, sexual desire because they are patriarchal. The truth is, women embrace all of these or reject them or tweak them, or like Andal interpret each in her own way. Women of today tend to marry and redefine it, fall in love and opt out of it, have families they care enough to fight with, call out on their children, celebrate and contain their desires and practice any number of variations of all these. Being feminine does not mean being weak. Strength and femininity can co-exist and has co-existed, as in Andal. It is patriarchy that would like to have us believe otherwise. In addition, it is our general assumption that medieval India did not speak out about sexual desire, which is why we tend to think of Andal as extraordinary or rebellious. Medieval women negotiated sexual desire anyway.
Even if streedharma was followed during these times, it was considered a path to the highest cultural goal, moksha. Women by tending to their husbands and his family would secure a coveted position for themselves, their labour was of value. Miraculous powers were often a byproduct of their filial devotion, while filial devotion in general had rewards as well. Andal’s love for Krishna followed the marriage model and streedharma which reaped her very rich rewards. She vanished without a trace into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple at Srirangam, uniting with a deity who rules the earth and the Gods! Within the logic and narrative of the story, there is enough to convey the effectiveness of Andal’s devotion, the perfect achievement of her worthy aims. The characteristics Andal displays in her story are of great value too. Persistence being one. Purity being another. How much control over one’s actions should one have to be single-minded and unwavering like her! It’s not trivial; anyone of us working outside the home or inside it knows that our everyday tasks too demand great focus from us. Cultivating a character is not to be underestimated and inculcating values considered noble are not necessarily futile though there is much cynicism about them today.


Andal, her life story narrated pictorially.

If our feminism is not just a bunch of stereotypes and one where we don’t look at our past or tradition as inferior and silly but are ready to learn some lessons from, we may find much that appeals to our critical minds in there. If our feminism is one where we know that traditional women make choices too—within tradition, whatever the repertoire maybe and however it may appear different to those who have opted out of tradition, then Andal and the devadasi would be equally great. We will help ourselves much if we viewed medieval India as we view our own society today with versions of tradition and modernity competing for our attention; the spectrum beautifully diverse, fickle and irreducible. Let us hope that the young women of the Tam-Brahm community are already asking important questions of their mothers, chipping away at the black-white world into a grey. In her own life, Andal convinced her father to a marriage with the deity Ranganatha in Srirangam, a town far from Srivilliputtur where she resided. Vishnuchitta assembled his family and others and traveled the whole distance as the bride’s party. No ordinary feat. Any of us who has stood their ground on career or marriage with our families would know. Andal does not have to lend herself to our 21st century life directly, women have the imagination to understand her life and her achievements as per her own context, spiritual as it maybe. Neither does the devadasi have to narrate her woes to us in detail before we feel a burning rage against those who exploited her. Andal, the woman, sans her modern and so-called traditional interpreters, is all we women really need.

This essay was first published on Women’s Web.