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Posts tagged ‘author interview’

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 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.

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. 

“I am a die-hard romantic, unabashedly indulging in childhood memories”, says Dr. Santosh Bakaya, Poet, Author of ‘Where Are The Lilacs?’

Interviewing Dr. Santosh Bakaya, Author of Where Are The Lilacs, a collection of poems on restoring peace and harmony.

With her stupendous poetic treatise Ballad of Bapu (published by Vitasta, 2015) on the life and times of the father of the nation and the advocate of the non-violence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, which is an effervescent poetic treat to even those who have not been Gandhiji’s staunch devotees/followers, Dr. Santosh Bakaya’s foray in the literary arena of Indian writing in English has not been any less phenomenal. I was introduced to her brilliant, evocative body of work through The Significant League, a vibrant literature group in Facebook from where she had received the International Reuel Prize for Writing and Literature in 2014, and have been humbled to know the silken flow of her words that meander like a never-ending cascade, with effortless ease in both prose and poetry. Where Are The Lilacs, another one of her notable poetry collections published by Authorspress in 2016, following the success of the critically acclaimed Ballad of Bapu is like a never-ending corridor where the birds of peace fly unabashed, challenging and enquiring the essence of the crushing reality of hate and devastation all around. Up, close and personal with the author, we get to know the spirited, erudite soul giving birth to this classic collection. We get to know what inspired her to write the poems of Where Are the Lilacs and what exactly defines the versatile body of her work. Dr. Santosh Bakaya is also the celebrated author of Flights From My Terrace, a collection of 58 evocative, soul-nourishing personal essays, published by Authorspress in early 2017.

Lopa Banerjee: Dr. Bakaya, so nice to connect with you! After your phenomenal book Ballad of Bapu, the poetic treatise on the political and personal life of Mahatma Gandhi, Where Are The Lilacs, your collection of one hundred and eleven peace poems is making waves in the literary arena. What is your inspiration behind choosing these subjects for your literary work, whether it is the deep-rooted political philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi, or the poems of Where Are the Lilacs where you are a lyrical advocate of peace amid a savage, all-pervading landscape of cruelty?

Santosh Bakaya: Well, I have time and again reiterated that humanity cannot do without the principles that Gandhi stood for – Truth, non-violence and peace.

Martin Luther King Jr, had prophetically maintained, “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of civilizations are written the pathetic words,’ too late’.” Indeed, it is high time, that we chose between peaceful coexistence and violent co-annihilation.

Let not that tide in the affairs of man ebb, let us seize it at the opportune moment. And the opportune moment is now. Or never.

‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ Thus wrote W. H Auden in his poem, ‘In memory of W. B Yeats’ – yes, but through poetry, poets can vent their ire and frustration at a world gone awry – where children die just like that! We have reached the stage where we have already started ringing our hands in impotent rage and muttering, “Too late, too late.”

I have always advocated peace, be it in my classes, or through my words. The all-pervasive cruelty, where humans are killing each other with a cannibalistic glee is so nightmarish.

Through this collection of peace poems, I have tried to emphasize, ‘the fierce urgency of now’. I have always raised my voice against injustice in any form and staunchly echoed King’s words that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, and through my writings will hopefully continue to do so.

Lopa Banerjee: What is the significance of the title of the collection, Where Are The Lilacs? What, according to you, are the Lilacs, hidden under the blanketed coat of the ‘bloody mess’ and ‘the discordant notes of the war drums’ which you have elucidated in the foreword/Author’s Note? Would you define the poems only as your reflections on the myriad ‘peace notes scattered around us’, which you mention in your Author’s note, or do you think in the hands of a sensitive, discerning reader, they would also serve as an antidote to the anguish and despair that destruction brings along with it?

Santosh Bakaya: Well, the title of my book has been taken from Pablo Neruda’s heart – wrenching poem, “I’m explaining a few things”, where he talks of his beautiful house, bursting with geraniums in every cranny.  This house of flowers was reduced to a ‘dead house’ in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war when the profusion of flowers in the garden disappeared, and the poet was left exclaiming, “come and see the blood in the streets”.

Some of these poems I wrote, while gruesome scenes flashed on the television screen, some are cathartic endeavors, and others are prayers. I cherish the hope that one day, ‘the longed for tidal wave of justice’ will sweep away all violence and injustice from this world.

When I write, my heart takes over, and my head sits pillion. Yes, there are myriad peace notes scattered all around us, but we are so obsessed with so many meaningless pursuits that we just don’t have the time to string these notes to create a soothing peace song.

When I have recited my peace poems, I have seen people crying, and commenting about the futility of violence. When will all this end? They ask. Yes, it does serve as an antidote to the anguish and despair that destruction brings, but I feel, that if I can awaken people to the ‘fierce urgency of now’, my task will be done.

Lopa Banerjee: In the very first poem of the collection, you write: “Ah, soft, the delectable petrichor/Wafts from the rain-drenched earth./In this birth is lost the stench of gore.” There is a very sweet lyrical flow in the poem which brings in the torrents of rain, ripping ‘the skies apart’. Then again, in the poem ‘The Moon Hums A Peace Song’, you present the moon as a corollary to this image of the rain, both being lingering metaphors washing away the insanity of bloodshed all around us. Would you say these poems are representative of the romantic poet within you who ushers in childhood fantasies to ward off the senseless demonstration of violence around us?

Santosh Bakaya:  Yes, they are escapist metaphors for me. Nature is always soothing, the moon, the sun, the stars are indeed an antidote to the insensate violence all around. Just as an infant’s thumb creeps into its mouth, when it wants to be soothed, similarly, I rush to these metaphors of nature. They instantly soothe me.

Yes, I am a die-hard romantic, unabashedly indulging in these childhood memories.  Many are the times, when the moon, walking the night in its silver sheen, has quelled the stormy turbulence in my heart and the twittering birds have silenced the churning and burning of the heart. Nature is my haven I scurry into, when confronted with the senseless violence around.

Lopa Banerjee: The poems that follow carry the delicate lyrical images of ‘love birds’, ‘chirping and twittering’, the mermaid and the dolphins frolicking and traipsing by, ‘the chubby five-year-old’ boy clapping with ‘juvenile laughter’ to the mellifluous symphony of the rain, the blue balloon, ‘bloating with promise.’ How indispensable have these lyrical images been in the crafting of these poems?

Santosh Bakaya: All these images are very important – they are not merely images but scenes which I have witnessed in the lanes, bylanes and thoroughfares of life. I can never erase the memory of that rag picker child, from my memory, who was chasing a bloated, blue balloon, his face sheathed in happiness, so pure, that it brought a deluge of tears. Small pleasures of life have the potential to make us happy, why hanker after material trinkets?

Lopa Banerjee: The poems also seem to carry a very nostalgic air, along with a romantic refrain, which I sense, has come from your ineffable attachment with the natural landscape of Kashmir, your hometown and your childhood haven. For example, in the poem, ‘And The Fires Burned’, there are some lyrical associations of a young girl with the river Lidder, the boulder, the pine tree, the hyacinths and the nameless other flowers, as she reflects sadly on her father’s tragic demise. Again, in the poem ‘Magic Of The Peaceful Past’, you write: “Changing colour like autumn leaves/Floating around like snowflakes…” How has your association with the physical and emotional landscape of Kashmir shaped up a part of this collection? Would you say these delicately woven poems can also be virtual messengers of peace in the volatile reality that your hometown is facing for some years now?

Santosh Bakaya: Yes, the condition of my hometown, known for its communal harmony, for its spectacular beauty, for the poetry of Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon, and for its Sufi saints, is pathetic right now, and no one seems to be bothered.

I was not born in Kashmir, but we spent a lot of our childhood days there. I keep going back, to find myself cavorting next to the pines, inhaling the fragrance of the poplar- lined boulevard and watching the Lidder, the pebbles making love to the waves, and shepherds singing songs of peace.  My heart bleeds. It bleeds for my hometown that is Kashmir.

Yes, it bleeds through my poems.

I don’t know, whether my poems can be virtual messengers of peace in the volatile reality, but, yes, I am known to cling to straws and maybe someday, I will think that one day, I “did something slightly unusual.”

Lopa Banerjee: In your poem ‘Woman of Substance’, you write about Rosa Parks, the famous American civil rights activist and her daring defiance that pierced through the mindless segregation of a racist America. Any particular reason why you chose to include this poem in the collection? Is it because you opted to extend your voice towards any kind of social injustice that has shaken the core values of a world besotted with inequality and intolerance?

Santosh Bakaya: My all-time favourite quote is the one by Martin Luther King Jr: “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In this anthology, I have tried to include poems, which talk of injustice. By refusing to stand up in the segregated bus, to make place for a white passenger, Rosa Parks, on 1 December, 1955, stood up not only for her beleaguered community but for the entire human race. She stood up for peace and equality. Her one brave step created a revolutionary storm in the world.

Peace means inequality, intolerance, fairness and justice.

Call me naïve, but I earnestly cherish the hope that maybe “someday, “in the deserts of the heart”, the healing fountain might start?

Lopa Banerjee: The poems of the collection are evocative enough to compel the readers to look back at the tragic moments of loss and devastation, while also taking in a fistful of hope and happiness that comes with the closure and the catharsis that humanity derives from the warfare. For example, in the poem, ‘The Colours of Love’, the “two sparrows appear/Hopping cheerily on the branch of a dead tree”….and then “The two lovebirds fly away/To the golden gates of their paradise…To awaken the next dawn.” Also, in the final poem of the collection, ‘A New Year Dawns’, you write about the soft, soothing radiance of the euphoric dance of a new dawn, a new year. What has inspired you to portray these binary feelings of reflecting the dark and miserable, and also the lullaby-like, wistful, hopeful poems, that fit so well into this poetic narrative of peace?

Santosh Bakaya: In this topsy – turvy world, the good, bad, the ugly all go together.  There is pain, devastation, selfishness, and there is also love. Being a die-hard optimist, I staunchly believe in the power of love, and hope that the uninhibited and continuous flow of love, will one day drown the rampant cacophony of hatred and lilacs will again bloom.

Poets like Pablo Neruda will not expect us to ask, and where are the lilacs? Bandits will not come through the skies to kill children and the blood of the children will not run through the streets. Gunfire and blood followed the Spanish civil war when the smiles, the brilliant hues, the vibrant life, the flowers, the cavorting children all vanished, and Neruda was left with the bruised notes of this heart- wrenching poem, from which I have taken the title of my book.

How poignantly Neruda writes,

“And one morning all that was burning,

one morning the bonfires

leapt out of the earth

devouring human beings.”

Why should humans fall over humans with cannibalistic glee? Why indeed!

Lopa Banerjee: You write about the Kalashnikov in your characteristic heart-wrenching expressions in the poem ‘Such A Cruel Thing This Kalashnikov’: “Ah, It is small in size/But severs all earthly ties/Plays dangerous games/And is obsessed with changing names.” Would you say that Where Are The Lilacs is meant to be an eye-opener for the perpetrators of war and turmoil, as much as it is for the young children born into this world, who, you hope and wish, “do not have to ask Santa for bullet proof jackets, a world where childhood is a synonym for happiness”? What would you have to say about the book as a legacy for them?

Santosh Bakaya: Well, I have always maintained that hatred is corrosive, hatred cannot beget love, and only love can beget love. The war – mongers have always scoffed at the peace –lovers, contemptuously calling them peaceniks, and heaping venom at them.

It is not for me to say whether this book is a legacy for the children, I can only say that I have poured my anguish and my despair in this book, and the hope that someday, humanity will realize the colossal folly of being inhuman, and our children can move around without any fear.

War in any form is bad, how can the bludgeoning on innocence, strangulating of juvenile dreams be justified?

Lopa Banerjee: I remember you stating in an interview regarding another book of yours, which Reena Prasad, poet and editor too, mentions in the foreword to the collection: “I did not have to make any conscious effort, these slivers of memory just erupted from the subterranean depths, fitting into the narrative smoothly.” How true are these words about this particular collection of poems? I guess at least some of the poems here have evoked the sense of a vibrant nostalgia of idyllic times gone by as you have depicted a cramped apartment, the hushed innocent sleep of an infant, the anguish of an old woman who had ‘borne many a slingshot’. What part does your memory play here, vis-à-vis the depiction of the metaphorical truth that is a poet’s biggest tool?

Santosh Bakaya: Yes, the nostalgia is always there. Always.

I have had a wonderful childhood, loving parents, who showered us with love, without pampering us.  It is the untrammeled flow, the frothy effervescence of love that can keep the world going. Hatred will destroy this world, making us go back to the Hobbesian state of nature, which was ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

Lopa Banerjee: The phenomenal poet Robert Frost had famously said about poetry: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” You have authored two poetry collections, ‘The Ballad of Bapu’ and ‘Where Are The Lilacs.’ Many of your poems have found home in national and international anthologies, journals and e-zines, and also, you have been a featured poet in Pentasi B World Friendship Poetry. Besides, you have received the International Reuel Prize for literature in 2014. As a renowned advocate of poetry, what is your take on these words of Frost?

Santosh Bakaya: Yes, I do agree with Robert Frost, as many of my poems have begun as a lump in my throat, followed by a crushing sense of rampant injustice. The bludgeoning of innocence, the sufferings of refugee children, and devastated mothers, have always brought a lump to my throat.

Nostalgia has always been a part of my poems, nostalgia for the times when it was joy to be alive, nostalgia for the times when chasing kites and butterflies was a serious preoccupation demanding single-minded concentration, and plucking guavas from the neighbor’s garden was the happiest pursuit on earth.

Yes, homesickness has also been a recurrent theme in my poems. Home is definitely where the heart is, so at times, I feel as if I have left my heart behind in the flowerbeds, the rockeries, the terrace, the garden of my childhood, and   I keep revisiting them through my poems.

Although I hail from Kashmir, I was not born there, yet, I keep going back to scrape my roots there, and am happy to find myself still thriving there, under the overgrowth.

Yes, I yearn for a profusion of love in this world so that all the hatred, animosity, ill- will and rancor is buried deep under this deluge. Yes, I am love-sick, forever craving for love to replace hatred.

Let me tell you something, I had gone to Accra, Ghana, West Africa in May 2016 as one of the delegates to be part of an international poetry event, co – hosted by Pentasi B and the Ghana Government and to receive the Universal Inspirational Poet Award. One day, while on a visit to Jamestown fishing Village, a small, poor child, maybe five or six years of age, erupted from somewhere, and hugging me tightly said, “I love you!”

It was indeed a precious moment for me, bringing home to me the power of love.  That poor orphan had nothing to give me, just his eloquent bony arms which spoke the language of unadulterated love.

It is not too difficult to give love, and I have a fervent hope that the white dove flying diffidently in the petrified skies, will one day gain a sure-footedness, and strike a chord in hearts sequestered in hate, and those hate – clogged hearts too will burst into peace songs.

‘Where are the Lilacs?’ is available in Amazon India, Amazon.com, Flipkart and in the website of Authorspress India.

Amazon.in:

http://www.amazon.in/Where-Are-Lilacs-Santosh-Bakaya/dp/9352073320/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488222219&sr=8-1&keywords=Where+are+the+lilacs

Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Where-Are-Lilacs-Santosh-Bakaya/dp/9352073320/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1488222298&sr=8-2&keywords=Where+are+the+lilacs

 

Lopa Banerjee is an author, poet, editor and translator based in Dallas, Texas. She has co-edited two books with Dr. Santosh Bakaya, ‘Darkness There But Something More: An Anthology of Ghost Stories’ and ‘Cloudburst: The Womanly Deluge’, a poetry anthology with 28 contemporary women poets of the Indian origin.

 

“I do not think that one can plan a creative transition, it just happens..” says Sunayana Kachroo, poet, lyricist, dialogue writer

Born and brought up in the idyllic Kashmir, Sunayana Kachroo is one of those poets and creative artists of the Indian Diaspora whose poems, lyrics and stories are replete with the tenderness and nostalgia of an emotionally fraught Kashmir. Her first poem was published at the age of 15, and since then, through her poetic journey she has explored different forms of poetic expressions like Kavita, English Poems, Nazms and Dohe. Through heavily influenced by the lyrical microcosm of Gulzar Saab, she has created her own niche, endorsed by celebrities, filmmakers and theater personalities. Her oeuvre has been vast and impressive, encompassing poetry and lyrics, dialogue writing for films, collaboration with musicians et al. Sunayana’s short film “In search of America – Inshallah” was selected for the Short Film Corner at Cannes 2015. She has also been featured as a poet and panelist for prestigious events, including the Bangalore Literature Festival 2014, Harvard University’s Annual Poetry Reading event sponsored by South Asia Institute, South Asian Women’s Conference, Waltham, MA, among other places. In a tete-a-tete with Sunayana, we talk about her journey as a poet, lyricist and creative artist. 

Lopa Banerjee:  Hello Sunayana, it feels great to have you here. From your first poetry collection titled Waqt Se Pare [Beyond Time] to being chosen as the Star Performer for the upcoming New England Choice Awards, it surely has been a heady journey for you! Carl Sandburg had once famously said: “Poetry is an echo, asking for a shadow to dance.” How did you get the calling of that echo, that muse, and how do you perceive this shadow dance of yours, evolving and gaining momentum year after year?

Sunayana Kachroo: When we sow a seed, we do not see the sapling for a while and then one fine day, it fights the gravity enough to come out. For someone who doesn’t understand this process they may feel that it happened overnight but we know that is not the case. Although, I did publish my book in 2013, I have been writing on and off for a while. My father had a huge library of books and I had “A Tale of two cities” in my hand even before I could walk. There was a lot of music in the house, that I feel must have been marinating somewhere in my subconscious. Music also helped me escape the pain that I saw all around me when the migration of Kashmiri Pandits happened in 1990. Most of my memories have songs attached to them. I have been a big fan of Jagjit Singh ji, Madam Mohan ji’s compositions, RD Burman-With Gulzar Saab and Gulzar Saab’s poetry.

 

Lopa Banerjee: Whatever much I know about your journey from the idyllic valleys of Kashmir to Boston, the cultural epicenter of the east coast of America, it is about dramatic transitions. With a computer science degree from the Pune University, India, the transition as a software analyst in the US might still be considered as a known and expected trajectory. However, I must say that your transition from a software professional to a poet and creative writer, a lyricist with the mission to promote poetry is a unique and exceptional once. When would you say you felt this transition from within, and how did you go about it?

Sunayana Kachroo: I do not think that one can plan a creative transition, it just happens. I moved to the United States in 2000, hoping to work here for a couple of years and then move back to India.  Life had other plans and here I am 17 years later, telling you that I never feel settled anywhere. Home is no longer a place, it is in this moment of transition. In the year 2010, a couple of months after my son was born, I was waiting in the parking lot of a restaurant and I wrote my first few lines, I shared those on Facebook. A few of my very generous friends appreciated and encouraged me to write more. I think I have to thank Mark Zuckerberg a lot.

 

Lopa Banerjee: If I am not wrong, your journey as a featured poet in literary festivals began with Bangalore Literature Festival 2014, after your debut collection of poetry was brought out. Thereafter, you have been part of many literary congregations in India, and also in the US. The general perception about most popular book and literature festivals is that they are red carpet events for established and celebrity authors/poets. Would you say they generally give adequate support to underrepresented writers, or creative artists with an impressive body of work? Or is it all only about the glitterati among the literati with strategized events which are more ‘saleable’ than anything else?

Sunayana Kachroo:  My journey as a featured poet started here in the US, with an organization called Hindi Manch, that got the ball rolling for me, I am honored to have been given the opportunity to recite at BLF 2014 alongside famous Punjabi poet Nirupama Dutt. However, I agree with you that the big literature festivals look beyond your LQ (Literary Quotient) and probably feature poets who can bring audience as well. It is sad and discouraging for the upcoming poets like me because I feel that they need to create a platform to launch new voices too, not just those who have already made their name in this field.  There are many publication houses that come to these events and it would be great to have a program for the first-time writers as well. Not everyone who writes well can afford to self-publish.

 

Lopa Banerjee: From writing poetry to writing lyrics for celebrity singers including Sonu Nigam, Jasraj Joshi, Anuradha Palakurthi, and Hrishikesh Ranade, how did this journey evolve? Did the ‘musicality’ or lyricism in your poetry provide you the impetus to pen down the lyrics of the songs, as a conscious exercise, or was it yet another ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions’, in Wordsworth’s words, that eventually shaped your journey as a lyricist? How do you envision your journey as a poet writing books as a solitary journey, vis-à-vis, a lyricist writing songs to be performed for a much wider platform?

Sunayana Kachroo: Lopa, to tell you the truth, When I first started writing, I never thought that we could actually create songs out of it. At the insistence of my husband’s cousin Suchitra, I decided to approach music director trio-Jasraj, Hrishikesh, Saurabh. They took two songs out of my book and composed two amazing songs “Tera Haath” and “Pyar mein nadaan”. In fact, they didn’t ask me to even change one word in these poems. When I heard the songs for the very first time, I realized the power of music and how words and music together can create a soulful experience.  

Sonu ji’s song was for a movie and again I had written the lyrics first and then he composed and sang it. Director Danish always gives me the freedom to think about the lyrics while we are at the inception of writing for the movie, so I am involved with the character from the very beginning.

My experience with Anuradha ji has been very interesting because we created different pieces every time, starting from a poem converted into song to a tune on which I wrote lyrics, so in that sense I learnt a lot too. We recorded at Yash Raj studios as well, which was a dream come true for me.

 

Lopa Banerjee: Your feelings as an expatriate Kashmiri, the turmoil, the yearnings and the Sufi spirituality comes across in your poems and lyrics very spontaneously. How would you say Kashmir is invoked in your creative writings as your muse, and how has your poetic persona and emotions been shaped by the physical and political landscape of Kashmir, your homeland?

Sunayana Kachroo: Distance makes heart grow fonder- I guess that is how I can describe my love for Kashmir. When it was all available to me and all around me, I didn’t even care to talk in Kashmiri. English was a much “cooler” language and an equalizer in many ways. You talk in English …you have arrived.  However, when I moved to the USA, I started craving for Hindi/Urdu and Kashmiri as well. I would hunt for every ounce of Kashmiri that was available anywhere. I forced myself to speak to Kashmiris in Kashmiri and try to speak in Hindi and Urdu as much as possible. “Hindi Kavita” channel has been helping a lot too, bringing classic poems and poets back in “fashion”.  Sufi or spirituality is a mindset, either you have it or you don’t ..I have never thought of myself as a Sufi writer, I write what comes to me. In fact, I would love to write item songs, I recently penned one for Anuradha ji and realized that it is easy to write about sky but very hard to write about eyes.  Gulzar saab’s abstract writing has been of great influence to me, in fact I owe a lot to his poetry. There is a certain kind of motion in his words, even in his most still poems, there is a promise of movement. There is talent but most importantly there is a lot of craft…hand picking and pruning of words too. “ bahut din ho gaye teri aawaz ki bacuhaar main bheega nahi hoon main” how beautiful is this verse. That is the magic of Gulzar saab, “woh nabz pakad letein hain..baaqi ke jism tatoltein rehtein hain”.

 

Lopa Banerjee: From writing poetry to dabbling in lyrics to meandering in film writing, has your journey been an organic one, you would say, or did just one pursuit make way for the other and you listened to your gut feelings when you ventured into each of them? Can you share with us how it feels to be at this nonstop crescendo of creating words, images, characters and their inner sojourns?

With Gulzar Saab, her inspiration

Sunayana Kachroo: One word would be- Chaos…lots of it. I live in a world of constant chaos, there is unfortunately no set pattern for writing. The only thing I have been able to do is that I have promised myself that I will treat writing as I used to treat my job-Show up. So sometimes I wait ….and wait…..and not a word comes out, but I try to keep my promise.

 

Lopa Banerjee: When it comes to your foray into scriptwriting/dialogue writing for films, I would definitely want you to share some words about your association with Renzu Films, based in Los Angeles, and director Danish Renzu, about which you have spoken briefly in your other interviews. Did the Kashmir connections between you both work as the bridge, resonating your thoughts with his in terms of storytelling, which explores the pangs and struggles of Kashmiri people?

Sunayana Kachroo: Kashmir connection definitely works as a bridge. Language, food, locations– all these have great influence on your life. We are the artists that are born out of Kashmir’s womb and pain, we understand life in a different way.  Danish has been more like a mentor and a collaborator. I had never seen a movie set, had never seen how a script looks like, what is a dialogue, character, scenes. He has groomed directed my creativity in the right direction, he is a professional and we do not let our political and personal influences impact our professional association.

Lopa Banerjee: In context of your association with Renzu films, we must talk about the much-awaited film Half Widow under their banner for which you have written the dialogues and the song lyrics. I have already read that the film has been inspired by Parveena Ahangar, the Iron Lady of Kashmir, an advocate for heartbroken women of Kashmir throughout the political conflict that the state has witnessed. Can you share with us the connotation of its title and how was the idea of the story expanded in its screenplay?

Sunayana Kachroo: Half Widow was definitely inspired by the journey of Parveena ji. However, there are half widows in Bangladesh, Baluchistan and many other conflict zones around the world. Neela happens to be in Kashmir. I have written dialogues and the song for this movie, however the real challenge for me was when we decided to write a lot of Kashmiri poetry. I had to really read a lot and consult Kashmiri scholars to make sure what we are presenting makes sense. I hope our effort is appreciated. 

 

Lopa Banerjee: How has your experience been like, in the sets of the film under production in Los Angeles? While looking at the story developed through the lens of the female protagonist Neela, what were the emotions triggered in you as an expatriate Kashmiri and also a sensitive poet and lyricist? I would quote a few lines here from an article ‘The Half Widows in Kashmir’ published in ‘The WVoice’. “While men in conflict zones are celebrated, decorated, and revered for their heroism, women and children are often just referred to as the bystanders of the discord.” How does the protagonist’s journey illustrate it in the film?

Sunayana Kachroo:  I do not see Neela just as a Kashmiri woman, I see her as a human being experiencing loss and tragedy, in despair, lonely, hopelessness and her journey to self-realization and then to empowerment. There are instances where I cried even when I was writing the dialogues…her love for her younger brother is almost motherly or probably greater, I relate to that in my own life.

Neela’s struggle is education, my struggle is probably something else…However we all are looking for personal remedies to universal pains…Our source of pain may be different but our songs of overcoming are universal.

Lopa Banerjee: You are also working on producing an anthology of stories on Kashmir, chronicling the tragedy, turmoil, angst and also, I believe, the nostalgia of being a part of an idyllic landscape, now war-torn and striving to pick up its broken pieces. Can you share a few words about your experience with this anthology, and what would it offer its readers?

Sunayana Kachroo: Lal Ded, Arnimaal, Habba Khatoon, Roop Bhawani, Kashmir has been very blessed to have some many bhakti , sufi and mystic poetesses.  After the political unrest and the displacement of pandits, I felt that we needed to bring that ethos back. ‘Pottalav- Echoes of Kashmir’ aims to be that medium. I am coediting this with a renowned poet and mentor to many -Dr Santosh Bakaya ji. It is an honor to work with her.

Lopa Banerjee: Thank you so much for your time and really enjoyed your insightful answers, Sunayana! Wish you all the very best in this journey of yours.

Lopa Banerjee is a poet, author, translator and editor currently based in Dallas, TX.