Many poets move from poetry to wring a novel, as Mona Arshi did recently. Ruia had successfully published a feature novel before I decided to publish her. Hence, it has been fascinating to guide her journey to poetry. The Word Masala Award for a debut collection is rare. It has been awarded only once before to Mona Dash. As Dash, Ruia has proved me right. You simply cannot put a good poet down!
Ruia’s strength comes from her uncanny taste for the narratives. It would be seen in the poem she has chosen for us. Poets can be very hard-hitting with a simple premise and divergent observations, they coalesce together to startle us. An insightful story-telling becomes a compelling social commentary. It seems Reshma is a master at it.
Reshma Ruia is an author and poet based in Manchester. She has written two novels, Something Black in the Lentil Soup and A Mouthful of Silence, shortlisted for the SI Leeds literary award, to be published in June 2022 as Still Lives. Her writing has appeared in British and International anthologies and magazines and commissioned for BBC Radio 4. Her debut collection of poetry, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties, won the 2019 Debut Word Masala Award. Her short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is out now. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani- a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers.
In this poem, I play with the notion of identity for an immigrant. The central protagonist is a Chinese woman whose entire sense of self is questioned by a casual interaction. Her rich heritage and the poetic meaning of her name has no relevance in her adopted homeland. She needs to conform and adapt to her new circumstances. My work often explores this constant tug of war between assimilation and identity. The need to be valued for who one is, rather than who one is expected to be. The poem’s playful tone highlights this, albeit in a non-didactic manner.
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Your poems anchor on the narrative approach, a strong trait of English literature. As you are a very accomplished novelist and a short story writer, was this a natural style for you? What is poetry to you?
I started my writing journey as a poet at sixteen and won a UNESCO award for poetry. Having grown up on Ghalib, Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Das and the English Romantic poets such as Shelley and Keats, all three mediums I write in reflect the significance of language: how we use it and to what intent we use it. I tell a story using words to build a world that entertains the reader and illuminates something within them or sheds light on a new way of life. My poetry is bold and direct. Any lack of the pyrotechnics and awareness of technicalities such as sestinas and quatrains in my poems, I make up with narratives.
The aim is to connect with the reader and move them. I want them to relate to what I am saying and recognise aspects of them. In fact, at the recent launch of my short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness, a reader observed that my poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties, could be considered a companion volume to my short story collection. They both explore the vicissitudes of life and capture the predicaments of ordinary people, migrants and refugees and those who are old or have experienced loss and grief.
Too many people are afraid of poetry or give up on it when they are older. I want to change that. May I also take this opportunity to thank you for recognising my poetry and publishing my first volume, A Dinner party in the Home Counties, which was awarded the 2019 Word Masala Award.
I read your poem, An Empty Milk Bottle in New York, at the Matwaala Literary Festival. It aptly sums up a dilemma and a nature of life for women without any fuss and a need for the dramatics. You make a better argument with subtlety. What is feminism in poetry to you?
I think the world today has become too strident and shrill. Everyone has an agenda and a point to prove. Writing, however, needs to be subtle. We live in a largely patriarchal world full of inequalities, and as writers, we must expose this, but let’s do it in a way that doesn’t resort to propaganda and finger-pointing.
My aim as a female poet is to explore the dilemmas and challenges woman faces in an imaginative, indirect way. I want to use humour, irony, satire and imagery to get my message across. In my opinion, this is far more effective than headline-grabbing naming and shaming. We as women are powerful in our own unique way, and we ought to celebrate our differences rather than ape the men or try to be them. Feminism, for me, means the freedom to choose and self-belief and not viewing men as the malevolent ‘other’. Language is a powerful medium. Let’s use it responsibly and creatively.
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You have a doctorate in literature and teach English literature at Manchester University, yet you are gently humble and do not make noise about your greatness, the streak I have come to adore in you. Why do you think-especially-Indian poets and writers must focus on the quality of work rather than on blind self-promotions when promoting their work on social media? Where could they go wrong with the overt self-promotion? What are your standards for quality?
Thank you for your very generous and kind observations. It’s sad to see how social media, and media in general, has hijacked the role writer plays. We are reduced to acting like second-hand car salesmen touting our wares at every opportunity. Not only are we expected to write, we now have to sell our work and perform as a writer at every available opportunity. There are sharp elbows in this business, and I hate this aspect of writing. As writers from the Indian diaspora, we live in parallel worlds but do not fully belong to either of them.
Whether I am writing poetry, short stories or novels, my aim is to give voice to this duality of being, to capture this permanent state of impermanence where one floats between identities like a balloon refusing to be tethered. My new novel, Still Lives, will be published in June 2022. It is about such a hyphenated existence, the price one pays to remain honest to oneself. This hybridity is a gift for a writer, a rich source of material to draw upon, but as writers attempting to break into mainstream publishing in the west, one encounters numerous obstacles. Society nowadays is hyper-aware of diversity and inclusion, but I feel this is just lip service.
As Indian writers, we are either lumped together or politely ignored. Nothing is overt here. I have to assume that this exclusion is done in a very well-meaning way. And should I say there is a lack of solidarity or kinship between established writers and those emerging? It is obvious. Instead, I find black writers are far more supportive of each other. It was to redress this that I co-founded The Whole Kahani writers’ collective along with my fellow poet Kavita Jindal. Our aim is to showcase the variety of voices within the South Asian diaspora and support new talent. Our third anthology of short stories, Tongues and Bellies is out now.
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In this regular series for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.