Identity, Appropriation and an Interrupted Kind of Absence

To witness violence, environmental abuse, militarism, the oppression of humans and animals; to feel history like winter passing through your bones, to observe your life whittle away, and to turn the scraping into a frisson, a chant or a song, I believe, is the poet’s task.
 

Michelle D’Souza, aka Cahill is an Australian writer of Goan-Anglo Indian heritage.  Her short story collection Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo, 2016), won the NSW Premier's Literary Award for New Writing and was shortlisted in the Steele Rudd Queensland Literary Awards. Her honours include the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award, the Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize and the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Prize shortlist, among others. She has received grants from the Copyright Agency Limited and the Australia Council for the Arts in poetry and fiction. Here, in conversation with Selma Carvalho, she discusses her book Letter to Pessoa, blurring the cultural boundaries, and gender roles.

 

Selma Carvalho: Thank you, Michelle, for having a chat with us, at the Joao Roque Literary Journal. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance through our poetry editor, Rochelle Potkar. One of the objectives of the JRLJ is to introduce, and form relationships with diaspora writers. Can you tell us about your connection to the Indian subcontinent, your formative years and your early influences?

Michelle D’Souza Cahill: Thank you Selma, for the kind invitation to speak with you.

Elsewhere, I have talked about my background and early influences although I question what the past is. Melanie Selgado in an interview with Eunice de Souza writes that ‘the past is a fiction of one’s own making; memory distorts, distils, creates from distance its own separate life.’ (Talking Poems, Conversations With Poets Eunice de Souza (OUP, 1999), p123)

I feel as if my connection to the subcontinent has been an interrupted kind of absence, since I haven’t lived there. Growing up, India was where the family tree bloomed; a place where the exotic became familiar; a distant but very real home and a phantasmagoria especially after I’d visited one summer for the first time with my mother. My grandfather spoke Portuguese and was a spritely, affable man. My grandmother was frail, and she hardly spoke. The social gatherings were captivating but also a little overwhelming because I wasn’t used to having extended family around. Later, in my young adulthood, India was a subject for study and curiosity. Some of my close friends at university were NRIs from different backgrounds: Tamil, Sikh. We watched Hindi movies and followed India or Sri Lanka in the cricket test matches, and we called out racism. I travelled back to India in my early years as a writer, read a little Vedanta philosophy, became a vegetarian, dated a Hindu and developed some intimacy with India in my reading and writing life. My mother’s side of the family are Goans, my father’s family were Anglo-Indians. I came to appreciate the difference between two colonial cultures in how those who had been ‘governed’ became assimilated as mixed-race people. Instinctively, I resented my patriarchal Anglophone education and ached from nostalgia, a characteristic symptom of diaspora. To an extent, these tensions have informed my work. I would say all these facts and memories are my connection to India.

 

SC: While reading the title story ‘Letter to Pessoa’, and I quote from it ‘Old radio plays a sevillanas, the guys at the bar are drinking cerveza, the coffee wakes me up,’ I was transported to Garcia Marquez’s world of barren South America deserts, jilted countessas, and exiled presidentes. But I had to remind myself that you are, in fact, invoking Pessoa himself, resurrecting him, as it were, from The Book of Disquiet. As a Goan, I constantly feel invaded by this sense of transnationalism which spans the lusosphere and coalesces the reading experience from Pessoa to Marquez to Junot Diaz. How did you arrive at Pessoa?

MC:  I discovered Pessoa, by serendipity around the same time I discovered Mayakovsky. I was an undergraduate at the time, browsing through the poetry shelves of a bookshop near Wynyard station, when my eye caught an edition of his selected poems, with an introduction by the translator, David Butler. I was intrigued by the front cover, a photograph of Pessoa, his singular expression at once intensely serious and bohemian. I vaguely recall that someone had recommended Pessoa. I remember being very excited to buy the book and feeling eager to acquaint myself further with his lyrics of urban melancholy, in my spare hours. The poems struck me for their cool philosophical tone, their nihilism and apparent simplicity at a time when I was questioning what poetry was, and what it could be. I was curious about European and Portuguese modernist writing. The poems were immediately accessible, narrative free verse. The heteronyms were fabulous, especially for their personas. It was a world away from the poetry I had studied at school and university: Plath, Lowell, Marvell, Donne; Slessor. His poems seemed to me to be contemporary but also bursting with the seed of something revolutionary and elusive.

 

SC: Because of my work with the ‘Oral Histories of British-Goans’ (British Library, Kings Cross, 2014), the story ‘Biscuit’, set in Nairobi, resonated with me. You write: ‘But our lives began to change when the squatters were outlawed. Land had been stolen, income had been restricted. There were buses exploding, houses had been burned, families decapitated.’ This is a reference to the Mau Mau uprisings which led to Kenya’s independence. Decolonisation was a period of uncertainty for the Asian community. What inspired this story of Asian dislocation and exile, which marks a departure from the rest of the collection?

MC: If I was to answer this question in one word it would probably be ‘immigration’, though inspiration for the creative process can’t be defined. Because it is conflated with process, inspiration escapes culpability. Thank goodness! The thrill of writing is its randomness, the unpredictability, the unknown which somehow is in balance with trust and confidence in the translucency and liminality of experience. I really felt this when writing ‘Biscuit.’ Focalising the story through the voice of a cat provided safe boundaries. I could distance myself from trauma, the private experience of being separated from home. But, it also saved the story from being repetitive or stuck and allowed for a palimpsestic play of possibilities.

 

SC:Some mornings the light burns a hole in my eyes that I call living. I think of you filling your pockets with river stones, one for every unwritten book, one for Vanessa, one for Leonard and one for Vita.’ I love this line from your story, ‘Letter to Virginia Woolf.’ In one fell swoop, you have captured everything and everyone that mattered to Woolf: her writing, her sister, her husband and her unconsummated love affair with Vita. Woolf was not considered a poet, but rather a writer of poetic prose or the poetic novelist. Your own work beautifully marries prose and poetry. Can you tell us how you came to this form, firstly I presume to poetry and then to prose poetry?

Fiction is the most physically demanding genre I have attempted; my body curls up like an old woman during the process of writing and editing a fiction manuscript, simply from fatigue and stiffness.

MC: Well, I did write some poems at school but then took a different direction at university in studying medicine, which has proven over the years to be my ballast. I read poetry but I didn’t write much for years. I enjoy the versatility and scope of poetry; the way it can navigate through silence, rhetoric and figurative language.

Simultaneously, as a young adult I had loved the prose form; I wrote a novel that sat in a drawer and was not published. I think that novel was an apprenticeship that lasted for many years. I had been travelling abroad and writing. I was living a solitary writing life, independent of the industry or the academy, some of the writing from this time comes into the stories in Letter to Pessoa. My prose is lyrical, engaged with language as much as narrative elements or character elements. My early drafts were difficult to place in literary journals.

Poetry was a form I could get published in; for me I don’t think there was a developmental trajectory from poetry to prose poems to short fiction. For a while I thought of myself as a ‘poet’, now I think of myself as a ‘writer’. And on becoming a mother it was less demanding for me to work on a poetry collection than the immersive process of a novel.

Fiction is the most physically demanding genre I have attempted; my body curls up like an old woman during the process of writing and editing a fiction manuscript, simply from fatigue and stiffness. Afterwards, I have to unfurl, but there is a loss and frailty, and I often want to cry. I’m way too sensitive. If someone asks me a question in the post-recovery phase, I may not be able to answer. At such times the compassion and discretion of readers and industry helps.

There is a sacredness in writing, when one is absorbed in the otherness of the text. At such moments what we call ‘the self’ dissolves entirely. Self becomes little more than a vessel …

My fiction isn’t mainstream or genre-based. It is more experimental and risk-taking; it isn’t an identity politics either. It isn’t clearly signalling as ‘ethnic writing’ or ‘immigrant writing’. Of course, I am political and ethical when there is so much injustice and censorship in our world. But I think my true interest lies in the fragment, the sustained metaphor and the ephemerality that manifests through the act of writing.

There is a sacredness in writing, when one is absorbed in the otherness of the text. At such moments what we call ‘the self’ dissolves entirely. Self becomes little more than a vessel …

Losing its borders, it experiences ecstasy. I had wanted to call that novel, (the one which taught me how to write but never got published), ‘Ecstasy’. ‘Writing as process finding form’, is how I should like to describe my oeuvre.

 

SC: Poetry has made a comeback, thanks in part to the support it has received from indie presses, literary journals, government grants, and also the ability of the form to re-invent itself, to become the expression of a new generation, who must find their own incantations of love, beauty and protest. Your poetry has been critically acclaimed. ‘The End of the Dream’ a poem from The Herring Lass (Arc, 2016) was highly commended for the Forward Prize. What do you think is the role of the poet today?

MC: That’s kind of onerous. I can’t speak with authority for the poet today, but I’ll do my best. Here goes. Poetry is going through difficult times where the common denominator is social media and the pressure is to be visible and vocal. Technology has programmed us to be hectic, to shun privacy and silence for the fecundity of signs and through concatenation to produce verse. Verse is often project-based, endorsed by popular appeal and literary festivals. We wear our books on our sleeves, a little creased and a little stained by everyday compromise. But the act of poetry witnesses things that are ordinary and extraordinary, and which stand outside time. To witness violence, environmental abuse, militarism, the oppression of humans and animals; to feel history like winter passing through your bones, to observe your life whittle away, and to turn the scraping into a frisson, a chant or a song, I believe, is the poet’s task.

 

SC: I’m currently reading Lionel Shriver’s Property (Borough, 2019). She’s an extraordinary writer but in 2016, she was almost deplatformed from the Brisbane Writers Festival, for her views on identity politics. Your own writing spans the breath of cultural and geographical spaces. Do you consider yourself an Australian writer who happens to be a minority or a minority writer? What are your thoughts on how identity politics has shaped the writers’ imagined worlds, and the moral ambiguities surrounding cultural appropriation?


It is problematic to harp on about appropriation without some consideration of the severe disproportion in literary representation and the subjective filters that invariably do apply. In other words, who is narrating the stories about cultural difference?

Shriver was deplatformed in Brisbane. Her opening speech was insensitive to Aboriginal people and other minorities in Australia and to the organisers mostly because of the condescending tone, sense of superiority and total indifference to issues that are very real to many of us. There was zero referencing of the difficulties faced by writers or the obstacles to minority narratives which are deeply entrenched, not merely in the book industry but in literary canons, in policy and cultural history. She was politically and ethically careless in the specifics she designated. The fact that controversy over her opening speech has been sustained points to the deep disturbance it caused.

But in her public rebellion, in her candour, unknowingly, perhaps Shriver was defying the fakeness of a tokenising publishing culture of curated storytelling which appears to offer platforms to some while retaining its central dominance through the control of arts funding, philanthropy, prizes and public speech. In my experience these dynamics may work against minority writers to position them as advocates of diversity, to brand them and to delimit their mobility across genres.

women are disadvantaged by reproductive and domestic work that goes unpaid, by violence against them which is exhaustive to their creative capacity and by cultural misogyny manifesting in the legal, education, media and health sectors

SC: I quote from your story, ‘A Miko Coda’: ‘For a woman, a housewife to the spirits, the path in life is fraught with compromise if she chooses to write.’ Personally, I’ve found it is women writers who are called upon to compromise and looked down upon as ‘hobbyists’. What needs to change to empower women in the writing world?

MC: I think we need to continue to support the presence of women in the writing world as creators and producers, as editors, directors and at management level, and we need greater diversity of women and non-binary people across all groups in writing and publishing. More generally speaking, women are disadvantaged by reproductive and domestic work that goes unpaid, by violence against them which is exhaustive to their creative capacity and by cultural misogyny manifesting in the legal, education, media and health sectors. Equal pay and affordable childcare are important to support these goals. Sarah Manguso and Kate Zambreno discuss these concerns and how they impact women writers in an interview which I’ve recently read in The Paris Review.

 

SC: What is your next book?

MC: It’s a book that is in conversation, though not always consonant with Virginia Woolf, with diary writing and her connection to India.

My poetry collection Vishvarupa is being reissued. I’m thrilled to bits about this. And an anthology of stories that I edited, We’ll Stand In That Place is in print soon with Margaret River Press. Both of these books have gorgeous covers!

SC: Thank you for your time.

MC: Thank you for having me, Selma. And for these questions.

 

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Michelle D’Souza Cahill’s book Letter to Pessoa can be purchased here.

Banner picture is of Uluru, Australia. Courtesy of wikipedia.