I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I remember when Adam & I first met at the home of writer and then U.N. official Shashi Tharoor. He was beaming holding Cyrus Cyrus in his hands. I think he had just come to New York from the Harbourfront Festival in Toronto. It must have been 1990. We left the apartment and walked in Midtown together, carrying on an animated conversation over a square radius of about 20 blocks.
I want to make that conversation public, allow readers to walk with us. I am sure we talked of politics that night, of the root of the word: polis , community. Adam discovered that I am a Tamil ambling forever on far away islands, and said, I still remember, “Why do you care so much about roots?” The branches, my friend, and where they go. That’s our subject and our calling.
Where is the sap flowing at the moment? Does it come up from roots or has it flowered into some new kind of tree, a hybrid, a transplant? Let us ask our children for the answer.
Indran Amirthanayagam Let’s start with Shant Cottage, where I know I can stop for a sweet milk tea and some dried fruit and a swing in the garden and a climb up one of the most memorable winding staircases in England. Tell me about your house and how it got its name. Does it help you write your novels?
Adam Zameenzad It is more than 300 years old. What used to be two of a set of four peasant cottages, to go along with the landlord’s main house. The peasants, according to old custom, were given tenure of the cottages for working on the fields and farms. The old farm died out or was subdivided for reasons I do not know. According to some people, Shant had something to do with smugglers. The other two peasant cottages were destroyed: these were meant to go as well, but for some reason they were allowed to remain (some say to hold war prisoners). Both were made into one and served as a pub, then as a petrol station, and, more recently, only 22 years ago, it was a roadside café, serving truckers.
The woman running the place was elderly, so she sold it. She is about 90 now, and still lives a mile or two away in an old abandoned railway station. The couple who bought the café turned it into a house and sold it to us 20 years ago.
It was in bad shape, and to a great extent it still is, in spite of the fact that we have sunk some money into it. The area around the house was paved to allow for trucks to pull over, and before that, for the petrol station. We cleared it out, had tons of soil put in to create a garden. It’s been mostly my wife’s efforts…. It is miles away from civilization. There are fields all around us, but, unfortunately, they are interrupted by a main road full of trucks…. And truckers that were the mainstay customers of the old café. So, while being in the countryside, it does not have peace and quiet. Personally I would prefer a cosmopolitan environment, as it would be more inspiring for my writing, though the garden is quite beautiful. There are lots of birds, and for better and for worse, foxes, whom we love, but who come and steal our chickens every now and then. Claire and Goldy were snapped only the day before yesterday. It was very sad.
I think this is more than you bargained for…
IA A 300-year old cottage for smugglers turned into a petrol station; countryside that gives no peace. Do you think novels come like that, requiring a mowing and clearing of experience before you can start to write the story? In other words, is there always something before the novel, some inchoate mass of experiences that becomes ordered by the reality of the decision, say, to buy the property and then to build or refurbish the house, chapter by chapter?
I write while packers put some of my life in boxes as we prepare to leave Monterrey for the United States and then Vancouver, the next stop in the journey of a diplomat, poet, and vagabond.
AZ To some extent you are right. Writing a novel requires a lot of digging out, chucking away, selecting, molding, shaping, and reshaping of all the above; and then hoping for the best…
I began by writing poems, and still do now and then, and therefore have some idea of the invigorating thrill of having a poem fall upon one’s senses. Also, like you, I compose bilingually, in Urdu and English. However, for you writing in a second language is a much greater achievement, as you learned Spanish only recently, while I grew up speaking Urdu and English, with some Punjabi, Persian, and Arabic thrown in.
How do you manage to give shape to that which touches or moves you?
IA Your message arrives as I wake up in my mother’s home in Rockville, Maryland. Eugenia and I drove here along with my son, Anandan, baby daughter, Lola, and cocker spaniel, Lucky, and a mountain of stuff, arriving late last night. It was a record drive, from Monterrey, Mexico to Washington in four days. The tour in Monterrey had finished.
It’s hard to find the right words at the moment to describe the feeling of history in this house, where my parents have lived since 1988, where my father dressed for the last time before shuffling off in his car to the church around the block where he suffered the heart attack that took him away from us in 2003.
How to talk of the origins of poems without articulating the stuff circulating on the tongue and in my mind…getting it out in some way…. Inspiration lasts ten minutes or ten hours, not a lifetime. You can’t make a poem a day from the muse’s feeding tube. The image appears messy, inchoate. I write it down in a line. As I write I find the rhythm, I decide where I want the lines to break, and by some interior alchemy I find my thoughts fall into groups of lines, into verses. The poem takes shape in ordered units even though I write in free verse.
I have written poetry in Spanish since 1999. Previously I wrote a dozen poems in French and I have gone now back to writing in that language. I find that I can write the conversational, intimate poem that I love easily now in Spanish, perhaps because I don’t have all the extra words flapping about in my brain. My Spanish comes from reading 20th-century poets: Neruda, Borges, Cernuda, Lorca…. it comes from speaking with my lover and my friends and my editors and all the taxi drivers and bus conductors in Latin America. In English there’s a riot, a great battling of spears and swords and lances, and I have to calm the warriors down. In Spanish and French I move to the rhythm of the gardener, digging patiently to prepare the plot and plant the seed.
I lost my other native language, Tamil. It disappeared one day after I arrived in London, an eight-year-old boy trying to adjust my skin to the new blazer and shiny gold buttons, and conkers, and Monty Python’s flying and witty circus, as well as the bitch-black-bastard language of the black-caped witch on a black bicycle who slung her filthy tongue at me one afternoon and left me seared and telling the tale more than 35 years later.
I am excited to know about your poems in Urdu. I remember an evening at the Kiev in the East Village, where we sat down with our poems. We spoke of Agha Shahid Ali and his championing of the ghazal. I remember your beautiful ghazal composed on the tongue that night—your translation of Faiz. I would be grateful for a bilingual book of your poems in Urdu and English.
AZ I’m very curious about the black-caped bitch. Could you explain more? When you say that the inspiration for a poem may last ten minutes or ten hours, how do you feel during that inspired period? Do you feel physically different in some manner? Emotionally? Intellectually? Does everything become more intense, or more fluid or diffused? Writing fiction is a much more drawn-out and sometimes tedious process.
IA You ask about inspiration. I think of Allen Ginsberg and breathing in and out. Inspiration transforms the body. A kind of shaking, accompanied by heightened sensorial awareness. It’s temporary, and hardly a daily occurrence. In the last two months I’ve only had one such day and wrote five short poems (all about fish) to document the passing through of the hurricane, that whirlwind lifting poems out of dried-up stumps, lifting the stumps themselves and making them dance. Writers have to be limber, to be able to take the energy when it whistles through.
“The Black Caped Bitch” was a kind of energy, foul, pestilential, damming, flaming, coal-tarred—she crossed my path in front of the Ministry of Coal (or Mines, I can’t remember the name for certain governmental institutions) on Grosvenor Square. She had black spectacles and a jutting jaw. She was quite fast on her black and white bicycle. What’s to be done…in a few seconds she colored my experience of London. Perhaps she was a messenger from the satanic mills soon to be tossed aside by newer capital and capitals—and she was as real as my face, a nasty old woman who flung abuse at me.
I am trying to manufacture a series of manageable hurricanes in order to write more frequently as I get settled into Vancouver, my new home. I joke, of course. One can’t force the muse to howl. I have recent projects: a book of poems written after the Asian Tsunami called The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems was published last year. And another in Spanish, Sol Camuflado, to be published eventually in Chile. In Vancouver and everywhere else there is plenty of silence and the solitude required to bother the mojo and get him hollering in verse.
AZ I can understand, to a degree, the inspiration that you speak of. It’s a sort of mystical, metaphysical experience at once transcending the physical and the material—the body—yet deeply integrated with it, immersed in it. But my poems, if and when I do write a poem, which is not often these days, tend to arise out of an emotion: anger, love, pity, pain, despair. Such an experience, or an emotion, or a combination of emotions, envelop my very being out of which a torrent of words flows out, often crude, exaggerated, without the subtlety and artistry of a true poet.
As for writing fiction, especially novels, it is somewhat similar, but prolonged, seemingly unending. Something enters my psyche, disrupts the normal inflow and outflow of emotions and actions, forces me to devote attention to that power, that urge that keeps battering at my insides from the outside, and vice versa. For example, in my novel Cyrus Cyrus, I became obsessed with the idea that birth is the wage of sin. Using that premise as a starting point, I constructed the story of an untouchable caste Indian-Christian boy whose process of growing up involves a journey through three continents, then death and descent into Hades, with the possibility of rebirth. My attempt was to present the whole passage from living to dying and end with Shiva’s Dance of Death, which could result in the re-creation of this world in another, and different, form. In the book I appear to be all for global warming and environmental damages which might bring about the immediate destruction of this unjust world and make it possible for a new and better universe—with intellectually and morally superior life forms—to emerge.
Unfortunately, more often than not, ideas such as these attack and distract me. I find myself going from one project to another: I’ll write 50 pages of one, 100 of another, even more of yet another. I find it difficult to complete one before I take on a new one. The situation is worse these days, as, physically, I am not feeling at my best.
IA I pick up on the torrential response of language to the torrent that wakes up the dormant volcano. Yet, we’re surrounded always by tragedy and uncertainty. I just read that a third of the world’s people do not have proper lavatories. They defecate and urinate in the open air, on street corners, in plastic bags that are tossed onto piles and seep into canals. Mario Vargas Llosa drew attention to a UN report on this in a recent column in El País. So there you go. The writer writes, informs, spreads the news, galvanizes readers to action, to right action.
I am ready to put my shoulder to the wheel, for the love of my fellow Man and Woman and the right to a toilet seat and a secure system of waste disposal. But why should we not act like our best friends the dogs…or perhaps we do, not soiling the places we use for beds?
AZ I am not cynical. Just downright depressed and without hope. There is nothing I can do to change the way the world is going. Nor can anybody else. Not in the near future, not in my lifetime, though the signs of change, a most desirable change, are there. The failure of American strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the calamities befalling countries of the Soviet Union after its breakup, etc, are ultimately going to lead to a different world order. There: I have used the dreaded words “world order,” words favored by power hungry dictators of all sizes, shapes, and colors.
The world dictators of democracy, before or while promising, giving, forcing the vote on “the people,” in many cases take away whatever people had in their previous lives: jobs, homes, health facilities, and so much more. Not only what they had in their lives, but their lives.
But I mention the impending failure of the dictators of power and wealth, of Democracy. I should also predict a similar fate for the tyrants of perverted faiths, of Theocracy, of maniacal religious zealots. Each kind encourages the other, almost produces the other. Each will also end up destroying the other.
IA I called an early unpublished collection of my poems “Dictator of the Lyrics of Love.” Dictare, to tell, relate. At the root of dictator is an administrator of the world’s morals, the headiness and rush and illusion of wordsmiths and their desire for a platform, the world’s stage.
Inequity is Mankind. But I suppose I believe in the United Nations, in peoples and nations working in concert to tackle the scourges: HIV/AIDS, lack of potable water, food scarcities, civil and uncivil wars. And despite my vested interest in writers, fellow members of the guild, I would have nothing to say without seeking to understand people from all walks of life. It’s the social contract, my friend, between writer and everybody else on the planet, and every living creature. Imagine the horror of that word—creature—as opposed to human being. Let us also devote ourselves to eliminating the prejudice embedded in creature, beast, cur, and recognizing the worm in the rose-cheeked human cherub.
AZ I think I overstated my case regarding my utter helplessness and hopelessness concerning the current and future state of this world and the quality of its leaders, the victory of extremists of all sorts over the forces of love and compassion. Note that I omit the use of the word “reason,” as it is “reason,” in some shape or form, that is used by all tyrants to justify their tyranny, whatever form it may take. This, as a result of some very uncomfortable editorials and interviews being published in many British newspapers—a euphemism for viewpapers—that have annoyed me to the limits of my patience. The current tricky political situation here, with the departure of Blair, and the “sacking” of the second Liberal Democrat leader, the election of Cameron by the Conservatives, aggravated by the persistent fear of terrorism and demonization of Muslims and their equally obnoxious responses, have brought out the worst among extremists of all sorts. All this is leading to my disenchantment with the “system” to an extreme of my own. At least during moments of despair and the ever-present feeling of my personal impotence to do anything about anything.
Perhaps I should better understand that entering too much into a political rather than a literary or academic discussion is not really a great idea.
IA Yes, Fox News is turned on in every airport and waiting room in the United States. Of course, nothing is printed for free even if it advocates for free speech or denounces the muzzling of somebody else’s press.
Wallace Stevens spoke of poetry as a kind of money. He must have meant that it’s used in exchange. One loss converted into an elegy. The loss of a country becomes a funeral march at the end of a symphony. I think of the War Requiem and Owens’ poems. But I have also read that he just intended to say that its value is comparable to that of money.
What are you working on these days? Tell me more about the novels on which you are currently at work. In my case, I have new poems written in French that will be published soon in the journal Exit, in Montreal, and just a few weeks ago I started a blog where I post poems in my three working languages: English, French, and Spanish.
AZ You ask about the books I am writing. From the universal to the particular; the eternal to the temporal; the precious to the ordinary; the heavens to a computer screen. This answer will seem very prosaic and unartistic, but it is true, simple and down to earth. However, Truth, in the singular, absolute, and capital T is quite another matter. Not that it is not simple—it is simple, very much so—but it is equally complex, obvious yet obviously hidden, slipping out of the desert that consumes all deserts, unable to be contained in the jungle that comprises all jungles.
My books are many and varied. Briefly:
1. A fictional examination of one aspect of van Gogh’s life.
2. A child’s journey in an unnamed island to search for Mother Mary after he is told that she knows where his parents are.
3. A study of the life of a third-generation Muslim living in the U.K. in the context of terrorism, etc.
4. A personal, non-fictional perspective on the world today.
5. Occasionally the odd poem forces its way into consciousness and onto paper.
IA From the particular to the particulate flesh and the jumping beans called nerves. I wonder if after twenty thousand centuries of human life I am still an amoeba swimming in the amniotic sea, a womb baby, a jellyfish in the mother vast dark. When will I ever escape, assert myself, become boy then man, comfortable in my majority, in the wealth of children and poetry collections published and well-treated?
Pound wrote a poem for Whitman saying, “it was you who broke the new wood/now is the time for carving.” We have been carving since the dog dug up Eliot’s garden, and Auden doused himself in bitters on 52nd Street, and Dylan beseeched his father to not go gently into that good night. We have been carving since Guy Amirthanayagam wrote “the road is dark and stained with damp gray leaves” and later wondered if his son Revantha would ever reveal his awesome secret, “that there is in life an undertow of sadness/which rocks what fleeting gladness there is today or may once have been.” We have been carving since Yeats slouched to Bethlehem and admonished himself and his friends: “We who seven years ago/ talked of honor and of truth/now shriek with pleasure/ at the weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.” We have been carving since Bob Lax wondered aloud about being 108 years old: “and not/ one per-/ fect/ hai-/ ku /writ-/ ten.” We have been carving since Cummings became puddle-delicious and Jaime Manrique saw golden bees of light strike Gotham’s sparkling towers. We have been carving, Adam, with Maria, your heroine, wandering through Latin America in search of Heaven. We have been carving since Allen jumped off the hydrogen toadstool and puffed a nicotine-free cloud, and long before then, when he sat with Jack Kerouac on the tin-can banana dock.
And I have only just begun to carve, and I’m 46 years old with five poetry books on the shelf, and another one on the way.
AZ Urdu, Persian, and Arabic are excellent vehicles for poetry, in my opinion. Very melodic, and so many, many words rhyme, that rhymed couplets or alternative rhyme schemes are very popular, and musical. The very reading of them, aloud, can transform one’s very soul, transfer one to a different sphere of existence, transplant one’s very roots from here to somewhere nearer to nowhere than anywhere. At least for a few fleeting, inspirational moments of mystical ecstasy.
IA I write because Allen Ginsberg scratched out half of my first draft and said you must always be severe with your lines. He added sunflowers to the page and led me to read “Sunflower Sutra” and America and wander about the supermarket in search of old Graybeard.
He also led me to Smart and Kerouac and William Blake.
I write because my father handled my first poems with gentleness and saw the spark of a small diamond buried in their four-beat boogie.
I write because my mother read to me as a child, because the whole brood slept on a huge bed under the mosquito netting on the red tiles of Kynsey Road, Colombo 8.
I write because I grew festooned with plantain trees and mangos, and the rambutan seller knocked every season on every door of the house, and, at school, marbles, toffee, and cricket bats whiled away our days. We knew little then of blood hatred, rape, pillage, slaughter, burning of a people’s ola leaf manuscripts.
I write because even grown-up and ignorant and wise I try to shield my children from all of the above scourges, especially ignorance.
I write because I do not wish to retreat to fantasy, or escape into a delicious romantic paradise, but will advocate my fellow man and woman’s pursuit of that kind of happiness.
What’s the harm if we can all eat and have spare time to listen to music and grow pomegranates and bathe our lovers in frankincense?
I write because I refuse to become ironic even in these best of times as icebergs become postcards under a boiling sun.
I write because in the end all writing (and thinking) lead to contradictory states of mind: do I dare to eat that peach?
How shall I greet the strongman? Praise him for the order of the streets or the broken skulls brushed off in the gutters?
Why do we have to destroy to create? I must ask Shiva to manifest himself again. Meanwhile, I can console myself with Anandan, my son, his avatar, bright as a songbird and strong in picking up the refuse we leave on our streets.
Anandan, I write for you. And Lola Indrani, daughter, in what new world will you be forged: in Spanish and English?
What poems will you both bring to save the icebergs, to give the elephant herd a chance to go south and north again? Let me at least give you a home and treat your first poems with gentleness.
I write for you, Adam, aptly named to represent my dearest friends—how can I evoke them all in this space large as the planet?
I write for myself, for my mother, for the mothers of my children, for God and country. Let us rescue the concept of country, of serving a people. Let us be proud even if the heckler shouts be ashamed. And if patriotism is not everyone’s daily broth, let us all serve the earth and keep in balance with the planets and stars. Let us not forget what Blake told us, that we are on earth “a little space / to learn to bear the beams of love.”
I write because I am beaming, in love.
AZ I envy you with all my heart. I wish that I could beam, beyond the beam I see in my eye, but I try to make the best of a bad job.
Indran Amirthanayagam is a multilingual poet, essayist, and translator. His books of poetry include The Elephants of Reckoning, El Infierno de los Pájaros, and Ceylon R.I.P. His most recent collection, The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems, was published last fall by Hanging Loose Press. Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Amirthanayagam is a US diplomat based in Vancouver.
Adam Zameenzad spent his early childhood in Nairobi, later returning to his native Pakistan. He is the author of six novels translated into many languages: The Thirteenth House, long listed for the Booker Prize; My Friend Matt and Hena the Whore; Love, Bones and Water; Cyrus, Cyrus; Gorgeous White Female; and, most recently, Pepsi and Maria. He lives in Kent.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee