Interview with Nandini Dhar on Historians of Redundant Moments

Julianna DeMicco talks with poet Nandini Dhar about her latest poetry collection Historians of Redundant Moments (Agape Editions, 2016), global domesticity, and how young girls get politicized.

JD: Tell me a little bit about your background. Do your background and personal experiences feed into the narrative of Historians of Redundant Moments?

ND: I was born and raised in Kolkata in the state of West Bengal, India. Bengali happens to be my native language. Most of my poems are about Kolkata in some way or other because that’s the space I happen to know best. So in a way, yes, this book is intensely personal. Like me, the twins of this book grew up in the eighties and nineties. Interesting times to grow up in Kolkata, interesting times to grow up in India.

But at the same time, I’m not very interested in what I call vulgar autobiography. I am a person who believes that everything that passes through my consciousness in some way or other becomes part of this ever-changing self that is me.

So to state something seemingly obvious, everything in this book is pure fiction. For starters, I am an only child. So, no, I don’t have a twin sister. I am also not a mother to twins.

JD: What political, cultural, and aesthetic influences helped shape the poems in this collection? 

ND: I almost want to bypass this question, and say, “Geez, I want to leave that to readers and critics.” My other impulse is to say, “Everything you can think of.”

But if I have to be more precise, the two spaces I had been thinking of while working on these poems were contemporary Bengali poetry and the American MFA-Poetry Industrial Complex. The Bengali poetry world is not (yet) reliant on the philosophies of academic professionalization in the way the American one is. So in some ways, the power structures there are far more complex. In some ways, far simpler. A lot of the imagery and language in this book comes from the modern Bengali lyrical tradition. Although I don’t think there is much precedence for the kind of lyrical “we” I write in this book in modern Bengali poetry.

On the other hand, in this book I was also interested in writing about gender and domesticity in a way that (hopefully) unsettles my readers a little bit. One of the bigger questions I was asking while thinking through the poems in this collection was, how is domesticity as an ideology written about in contemporary American poetry, especially the poetry that emerges from – and stays close to – the MFA complex? I was also prompted to ask, can my material be accommodated within those prevalent modes of writing domesticity and domestic spaces? As I kept writing and thinking, my answer began to tilt increasingly toward the negative.

That said, this collection is about my engagement with a specific kind of domesticity-centric contemporary poetics that we often see and read about in much of American contemporary women’s poetry. This is not to say that a lot of that poetry is not excellent in terms of craft, appealing, or not doing important cultural work. They often are. But there is also a productive problematization of contemporary American domestic poetry that needs to happen. And it needs to happen at the hands of writers like me. The writers who, because of the sheer accident of birth, have felt the weight of what historian Judith Walsh calls “global domesticity” on our shoulders. I see this book as a feeble effort to try to shake that weight off my shoulders a little bit.  

JD: In Historians of Redundant Moments, how do the specific main characters – the twins – give a fresh perspective to the social and political events that you wanted to write about?

ND: I have always been interested in twins. Partly because, to me, they suggest forms of personhood that go beyond the liberal, Western understanding of the individual and unique self. But I am also interested in the idea of twins, because they have been often written about most exquisitely in world literature. The most obvious example is Arundhati Roy’s novel God of Small Things, which casts a political and aesthetic shadow on my book, which would be evident to readers of both.

Because of the twoness of the twins – something that moves beyond the one, the unique, the self-made – I could write about the tensions, the internal push-and-pull intrinsic to any historical or personal event. But this tension is also something intrinsically difficult for us to understand, to theorize, or to even feel. As you probably noticed, the twins – Toi and Tombur – often times see things quite differently. They don’t quite agree with each other all the time. There is no mythical solidarity between them, no mythical sense of  community that would magically get rid of all conflicts.

On the other hand, they observe things which are deeply political – past political movements, left radical mythology, revolutions. Things about which little girls are not expected to have opinions. In that sense, the book is about how little girls get politicized. In the process, the book asks, what will change when we see events of world-historical importance through children’s eyes? What does it mean to think and write about the children’s – especially little girls’ – gaze? So, you can say, the book is also committed to developing an aesthetics of the girl gaze that is also rooted in a certain politics of unsettling the status quo.

JD: What do you think your collection says about the myriad ways in which women are objectified, or reduced, in countries around the world? How do you think this collection fits into that socio-political conversation?

ND: The world is a huge place. So I have no way of knowing if this collection – meagre as it is, and the work of an equally meagre individual – says anything about women so diverse, coming from such dissimilar backgrounds, with such divergent histories. Nor I am sure if one single collection should have to shoulder such a responsibility.

This collection was written out of a particular writer’s everyday engagement, one that spans very specific places, institutions, and human beings. In national terms, I have to deal with two countries on an everyday basis – India and United States.

There are some very specific problems when trying to write about India from within US. In the American landscape, India is overtly visible. Almost everyone you meet has dined at an Indian restaurant. Almost everyone has taken a yoga class. Almost everyone knows someone who has tried out some vaguely South Asian spiritual claptrap. And although your friends and acquaintances may not say this to your face, there is a claim of intimacy that they are staging vis-a-vis certain commodified practices they see as Indian, South Asian or subcontinental.

And of course to write as an Indian/South Asian/subcontinental woman is doubly difficult. Because, again, when people are not saying things to your face, there are assumptions about you floating in space. Certain forms of curiosity – did you grow up traditional? You must be hating going back home since your parents (and your culture) happen to be oh-so-patriarchal! You must have become feminist after coming to US, right?

One of the things I try to do in my work is to interrogate these assumptions. What the heck is traditional? Feudal social formations? Pre-feudal social formations? How does capital – which is often assumed to automatically mean modernity – create its own traditions? What are the rituals of capital that a modern, post-colonial South Asian/Indian/Bengali family houses within its four walls? What does it mean to think of an Indian/Bengali feminism that owes its roots – however problematic this word might be – more to left-radical social movements than to American (predominantly white, but not exclusively so) feminisms?

In doing this, I am being extremely and pointedly specific. What I am writing about is a specific kind of Indianness, which is very, very middle class. But “middle class” is a complex and heterogenous formation in India. I am writing about being middle class in an even more specific kind of a way: as a certain form of Bengali-Indian middle classness during a specific time in history.

In other words, I am not at all interested in representing India per se. I am speaking about a specific geography, a specific class, a specific linguistic identity that happens to be located within the geographical territory we know as India.

Beyond that, I will leave it to my readers to judge whether this collection should play a role in their lives, if at all.

JD: Do you have any upcoming projects we should look out for?

ND: Once I finished writing this book, I recognized I was not done with the twins. Historians of Redundant Moments covers a very small aspect of their lives, after all. So I have been writing other twin poems. But in what eventual form Toi and Tombur will reappear, I am not yet sure. I am an extremely slow writer. I celebrate slowness. And nurse a profound, almost instinctive mistrust of the overproduction of anything, but most especially literary-creative production. So when this project will culminate into a viable public form, I am not sure. I don’t have a definite date for it.

Nandini Dhar is the author of the chapbook Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations (Two of Cups Press, 2015). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review, Grist, Tusculum Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of the journals Elsewhere and Aainanagar. Nandini hails from Kolkata, India, and divides her time between her hometown and Miami, Florida, where she currently works as an Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University.

Julianna DeMicco is a senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically those written during the Medieval Era to those written in the Early Renaissance.

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