When the poets make any experience immediate and refresh it to something you can relate to with ease, poetry needs no ladders to your heart! It doesn’t mean that the experience cannot be labyrinthine and layered with images and meanings. Yet, if it is simple, it still can engage you at sensory and intellectual levels. Debjani Chatterjee explores narratives, forms and language in this manner.
FRSL has been called “a national treasure” (Barry Tebb). She has worked in industry, teaching, community relations and psychotherapy. An acclaimed , children’s writer and translator; she is a former Chair of the National Association of Writers in Education and currently an Associate Royal Literary Fellow and Patron of Survivors' Poetry. Major prizes include a Peterloo Poetry Prize, a Lancaster Lit-Fest Poetry Prize, and a Muse India Poetry Translation Prize. Her 70+ books include: Namaskar: New and Selected Poems. A pamphlet and full collection are due from Hedgehog Poetry Press in 2021.
‘Choice’ is taken from my micro-pamphlet, ‘Smiling at Leopards’ (2018). For any writer, it is a very natural – indeed essential – place to inhabit two or more worlds and to have multiple personas. I have grown up in many lands, and feel that each is ‘home’. ‘Choice’ is my assertion as a writer that I ‘choose to choose all’.
Scylla and Charybdis are two sea monsters in Greek mythology. Being ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’ is an idiom meaning ‘between a rock and a hard place’. Other similar idioms are: ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’, and ‘to choose the lesser of two evils’.”
In your poem, ‘The Question’, while experiencing “saffron, vermilion, cow-dung, sacred mud...”, you wonder about your Indianness: ‘Am I in this, or is this part of me?/ Does the lotus unfold within me/ and am I its muddy bed?’
You also have a wonderful way of scooping up everything in your path to find a poem, as in your poems about the roadside parrot fortune teller. Having lived away from India for a long time, is this Indianness nostalgia and a different perception? How does it translate into your poems?
Yes, there is an element of nostalgia in the poem. But, is it my nostalgia? As in many of my poems, written in the first person, ‘The Question’ gives the voice of an Indian in exile. And, yes, in this instance, the voice is not far removed from my own. It is an early poem from the 1980s. I still had Indian nationality, but in July 1983 I married a British academic, a step that I saw as a commitment to permanently living here. So, it was certainly a time when I was exploring the meanings of ‘home’, ‘exile’, ‘language’, ‘culture’, and ‘foreignness’.
My father’s work as an Indian had taken me to various countries. Instead of a tourist’s fleeting glimpses of other lands, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the language and culture of each land where my father was posted. Sometimes, as in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) and Hong Kong, the posting was for two years, and sometimes, as in Japan and Egypt, we enjoyed longer stays of nearly four years. There was an Indian posting after every two abroad. This cosmopolitan upbringing inspired the line in ‘The Question’: ‘I have inherited the world’.
I have known you since the Eighties and seen you promoting diaspora poets with various anthologies. Rare at the time, they have historical value. How do they differ from the new anthologies? Are some of those poets now writing differently? Has the mainstream now embraced Indian poets?
It was hard to convince publishers to bring out anthologies that were bilingual, multilingual, by Asians and by Asian women. I tried persuading various publishers. I also approached ‘community’ publishers who were a little more receptive. This was how ‘Barbed Lines/Katar Rekha’ (1990), a bilingual anthology of poetry and prose by Bengali women, came about. Its winning the Arts Council’s Raymond Williams Community Publishing Prize hugely encouraged everyone connected with it. More such anthologies – ‘Sweet and Sour’, ‘Daughters of a Riverine Land’, and ‘A Slice of Sheffield’ – followed.
Someone who loved my work was the late David Tipton of Redbeck Press. He asked if there were enough good contemporary South Asian poets to warrant an anthology, but, as my book took shape, his excitement mounted and he allowed me more and more pages until ‘The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry’ became the sizeable and impressive book that won the 2000 Raymond Williams Community Publishing Runner-up Prize.
Another difference is that in the 1980s, 1990s, and even in this century’s first decade, it took considerable research to discover diaspora poets. Social media networking hardly existed. I am proud that my anthologies gave exposure to many talented unknowns, including Daljit Nagra and yourself.
You received an MBE for literature when poets were struggling to get published. With over seventy books to your credit, you were recently made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. You carried the Olympic torch in 2012. Your community work is also substantial.
Is this you in these lines from your poem ‘I Was That Woman’?
‘I was that woman who destroyed my breast/to fight with men on their own ground.’
When I wrote ‘I Was That Woman’, aged 19, I did not know that someday I would decide to destroy my breasts in battling against cancer. The lines quoted refer to the heroic Amazons. But there are many more women’s voices in the poem, women from history, myth, and literature, from across the world.
You know, from your own experience of national honours, that they don’t necessarily translate into publishing contracts. Nevertheless, some honours have been very welcome. Sheffield Hallam University’s honorary doctorate for ‘outstanding contribution to Literature, the Arts and Community Service’ was awarded on my 50th birthday, a heart-warming present from an alma mater in my home city. The MBE in 2008 came during my first . Neuropathy had rendered my hands useless, and I was at a low ebb. Even if I survived, I believed my writing career was over. Despite the MBE’s association with an obsolete British empire, I welcomed it as a recognition of my literary services. Honours are also pleasing for the sake of family and friends. Each honour has its unique aspects. Becoming an honorary Fellow of the RSL, for instance, is a recognition by fellow writers since the election is by one’s peers. Word Masala’s Lifetime Achievement Award too is close to my heart.
MBE runs as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. He is the recipient of many awards, including as Poet of Honour at New York University in April 2019. Practised by many poets in English literature internationally, he has invented a new poetic form entitled Rapid. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.
In this for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.