Author Interview: Meena Kandasamy On Embracing the ‘Problematic’ And ‘Junglifying’ Culture

The brilliant, evocative and seriously funny Meena Kandasamy emerged victorious last week when she quickly disarmed and thoroughly charmed all those who attended her signing of Tomorrow Someone Will Arrest You, her latest poetry collection. And so, doing what we do best, we cornered an innocent author into giving us an exclusive interview.

From fears of being mimicked by Chat GPT to the loving ways in which we must all junglify culture, this transcript faithfully records each ‘um’, ‘ah’ and ‘hahaha’ of what ensued. Read on!

Sashrika: Firstly, what are some “problematic books” that must be recommended? 

Meena: *Laughs* I think we have a lot of restrictions on what young people can and cannot read. And I remember one of the first banned books that I was reading was The Satanic Verses. So a lot of banned books! Those that get banned for a variety of reasons, should be read. All of Salman Rushdie. It’s always a lesson in learning how to write. How to hold a long sentence together, how to tell a story, how to grip your attention and how to play with language. I think it’s one of those interesting books. The other problematic book I think is Lolita, for instance. People have a lot of moralistic takes on it but at the end of the day, it’s still a book. And I think the same about a lot of left literature that gets banned all the time. I think they should be essential to read.  

Sashrika: What is the importance of physical bookstores? 

Meena: That’s a very good question! There are two processes that I think are happening simultaneously. One is that libraries have stopped being a place where you go for information. I’m going to touch 40s now, so I still belong to a generation where we had to go to libraries when we were kids. And then you’d naturally go from Book A to Book B. Even to find a book you had to go through a lot of books. Libraries as a public institution just don’t exist anymore. There are university libraries but very few people have access to them. And once that system collapses, where else do you go to browse books? Where do you have this joy of, you know, knowledge? 

What we have instead started doing is that we go to Google, and then we fall into a rabbit hole of information. Or we take the easy option, where we know exactly what book we want to read and go to Amazon to buy it. I think we are, then, very blinkered in our vision of what we buy and read. So I think physical bookstores kind of change that algorithm for you. They kind of break you from your echo chamber. And I’m a mother of small children so it’s really interesting when you take them to bookstores. I don’t think any website can do the same. Because at bookstores they discover authors and books, and they discover how to be quiet. So yeah, I think they’re very important. 

Sashrika: What types of books have your children discovered?

Meena: Problematic books! 

My son reads a lot of Tintin. And I remember reading my first Tintin when I was in 6th standard and I used to be really proud. Like ‘Yeah, I’m in 6th standard and I’m reading such a big book!’ And he’s seven years old and he reads it, which makes me feel ashamed of being proud earlier. My partner is Belgian and one of the creators of Tintin was from Belgium. So, he tells me, “Meena, that’s racist shit!” And he is white so he is very politically correct! “Meena you can’t let him read this racist stuff. It’s very colonial!” And I’m like, ‘He’s a child, he’s reading books, he’s going to learn all of this for himself later on. Let him figure it out.’ 

So yeah, they’ve discovered Tintin. And there is something called Dog Man? It’s a kind of series for kids. It’s a cop who is half-dog and half-man. And there is something called Science Comics? It has wonderful books on sharks and coral reefs. So every morning he’s like “Mama did you know that…?” And then I’d know that some information or fact is coming at me!

The second one is, for instance, and I don’t know why, but he has discovered books on chess. So always has all these puzzles and is explaining, like ‘This is an attack‘ and ‘This is a capture‘ and I’m like, ‘OK.’ So yeah, my children love books. 

Sashrika: Your poem This Poem Will Provoke You ends with the lines: “This poem will not be Penguined. This poem will not be pulped”. Would you say that there is a sort of McDonaldization within literature now? And an obvious hegemony that dominates what will be read and what authors end up writing? How do you think that impacts the quality of literature? 

Meena: The poem that you mentioned comes from a very specific point. It was when Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus, was pulped by Penguin. And they had managed, I think, to sell all their copies. So fair play to them. But they did not have it in them to face the legal challenge. To stand up for the book. They just said that they’re going to withdraw the book. And I think that’s a very dangerous point because you are one of the top five/ big 5 publishers. And if you give up without a fight then how do you expect the independents to go and have a fight? 

I think that was one of the sparks behind the poem. To say that, you know, you are such a hegemonic corporate structure and you don’t want to get into a legal battle. Which means that you’re basically telling writers to go fend for themselves.

Does this affect the quality of literature? I don’t know. A lot of these big publishers still want template books. But I do think that it’s going to affect the politics of literature. It’s going to tell everybody to write ‘safe’ things. Write things that will put you into print. Write things that will not get us into legal trouble. I remember working on my first few novels with independent publishers. And then at some point, I remember working on Varavara Rao’s book for instance. And you realize that the actual edits that deal with language or with facts are less than the legal edits. Because there are so many legal edits! We are actually editing to not get into trouble. We are not editing for clarity. We are not editing for language. We’ve just given all that up. We are editing just to make sure that nobody gets into trouble, and that everything you write is anodyne. It’s like an anaesthetic. And I think that’s very dangerous for literature. Because a part of literature is to rouse you. It’s to awaken you. It’s to make you a stronger and braver person. So I think these are at cross-purposes. 

Sashrika: In your introduction, you said that the poet lives in language and your collection contains poems that are raw, and experimental. They’re also polyphonic because they’re filled with multiple languages, quotes and tweets. Can you speak to the importance of your many identities and experiences in creating an idiolect or poetics that is truly yours? A language that you can live in. 

Meena: I think it’s quite interesting because when you read this book and you tell me these things, you deal with the book as a unit, as a whole. But I’ve lived with this book for over the last 12 or 10 years. And so my own speed of navigation with it was in terms of the time it takes for 11 years to unravel in your life, not the time it takes for the book to be consumed. So I wouldn’t have been as aware or as self-aware of what is happening. And self-awareness comes with hindsight. You look back in the collection and you realize that this is what you’re doing with language, this is what you’re doing with resistance and this is what you’re doing with identities. How do you own up to everything? 

I think what’s very important for me is to, on the one hand, say who you are, but also reject all identities. Because if we fall into the identity trap, we can never come together as people. Like, look at Palestine. If you say that everybody who is not Palestinian should not speak on Palestine… We all become caught in our little traps, right? So I always think that we have to really understand where we are coming from. And, at the same time, realize this powerful thing called ‘solidarity.’ Which means that it doesn’t matter who we are. We stand for what we think is right, what is good, and what is beneficial to people. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk.

And is there a specific language that I think I am using? Not necessarily, but that language does come from a certain place. I don’t think there’s a stamp of me because, you know, all of us can be mimicked by ChatGPT. So how much do we own ourselves? 

Sashrika: Do you think you can be mimicked by Chat GPT? Like I could ask it to write like Kandasamy? 

Meena: Yeah, someone tried that last year. A journalist from The Hindu. She asked Chat GPT to write poems like I do. And she came back and I was like, OK, this is really funny. Chat GPT is possibly ‘Meena minus sex appeal’. I can live with that. 

We can all be mimicked. Part of how we fashion ourselves is to also resist that appropriation. Resist somebody else becoming you or morphing into you. Because they don’t want to lose their identity. 

A lot also comes from the fact that I’m Tamil, and I’m trying to smuggle some of that identity into English. Like, how do you look at colours? How do you protest? What is there in your language and your culture? How do you borrow from something that belongs to you or something that you discover belongs to you? It is part of why you write, right? Because you have something new to say. Because this is something you don’t encounter. I mean, if this is the voice that I encountered, then I wouldn’t be writing because I would be like, ‘Oh, she is saying the kind of things I want to say.’  

Sashrika: In multiple places, ‘love’ has been presented as a radical emotion. That makes me think of Audre Lorde, who is someone you’ve also quoted in your collection, and her politics of love or even the idea of the ‘erotic’ as a source of power. Do you think your political philosophy follows suit?

Meena: The premised centrality and radical power of love? Yes, I do. I really think so. And there are two or three answers to this. 

When we live under repressive systems, whether it’s fascism, or the crassness of capitalism, or this whole imperialist war machinery, or anything that is oppressive at the heart of it– the system has to justify a kind of hate. The system has to say that some people don’t deserve things. Whereas love is an emotion that says, ‘You deserve everything.’ And I think, in that sense, love goes further than empathy. In empathy I’m like, ‘I feel your hunger. I feel that you’re suffering.’ But it’s not about feelings. It’s about what you do once you see, once you feel. And I think love is like that call to action. It is to say, ‘OK, let’s change these things. Let’s start fixing this. Or, at least, let me join you in crying with you.’ So I think it’s a very radical emotion. 

I remember addressing a press conference in Delhi in 2012 and some woman, a famous intellectual type, came to me. She said, ‘You’ve been through all this violence. How do you still believe in romantic love?’ And she was actually blaming me. Like what kind of an intellectual believes in romantic love? What kind of a communist believes in romantic love? But I think it’s at the heart of it. You cannot be an intellectual and you can’t be a communist without actually believing in love. 

Sashrika: This collection catalogues the many atrocities that have been part of recent history. From lynchings and rapes to the UAPA. What would you say is the political value of ‘memory’ in literature? And what would you say is the role of ‘fear’? Specifically the fear of being forgotten and the fear of forgetting?

Meena: I think memory is quite central to it. And it dictates a lot of politics, for a lot of people. For instance, my father comes from the Cauvery Delta. And in the Delta districts, you take great pride in being communist. I think they kind of overdo it, you know? And where does that come from? I mean people wear red, there are lots of communist memorials there… and it’s very rare because the rest of the state is very Dravidian, with DMK and AIADMK. I think it’s because of the amount of struggle that went on there, the price that people paid with their lives. So it becomes a kind of identity. That we are from there, we are people who fight, and stand for the good thing. I think memory is quite interesting because you may not always be conscious of where it comes from, but you replicate the conditioning, the history, the culture. 

And I think what we are going through now– whether a poem catalogues it or doesn’t, whether the news cycle remembers it or doesn’t– I think it’s going to affect us in ways that we are going to see unravel. We’re going to see it in the ways in which our lives unfold. We’re going to see it in the ways in which we hold our silences. Do we always make a comment? Do we withdraw from making a comment? Who are our friends? How do we socialize? How much of our life do we share with others? And I think, in that sense, we are always constantly reacting to things that went on before. We are reacting, in some way, to that memory that we all carry with us. 

I think ‘memory’ is very interesting from a literary point of view as well because so many of these struggles don’t get into print, they don’t get chronicled, and therefore they are forgotten. Like 2002 Gujrat– what does today’s generation remember about it? Babri Masjid– what does today’s generation remember about it? Or the agitation for reservation? Or even some movements like Ambedkar’s or Periyar’s. You don’t remember because it isn’t taught in schools. It doesn’t get into the mainstream because nobody was writing about it. So I think that is a huge thing that needs to be done. And I really started grappling with this question of ‘collective memory’. Also, because of what’s happening now in Palestine, not that it has anything to do with my book. But in 2009 you saw the same thing unfold in Sri Lanka, with the Tamils being killed there. There was this ‘No Fire Zone’ and they would drop bombs in there, on hospitals. They would say that they are trying to kill terrorists and they use this line to literally wipe 100,000 people away. So we know that this kind of thing happens. But the problem is that we do not remember. Everything seems like it’s happening for the first time, but we should have got these lessons from history. We should have learned. This is how imperialism functions. 

Memory is not just about literature. If you want to save our lives, if you want to save the future for all of us– it’s very important that you remember. And is it a preoccupation in literature? Yes. Even though none of these poems were written from a ‘memory’ standpoint as much as from a ‘helplessness’ standpoint. That something is happening. Like the gang rape, or the incident in Hathras, or this CAA protest. And you literally cannot do anything physically. Maybe you can go to a protest? But the only thing that you can do is to put something into words, something to say that OK, this happens now.  

Sashrika: In your This Poem Will Provoke You you say “This poem will not culture the jungle. This poem will jungle the culture”– which, by the way, is an amazing line. What would you say are the ‘jungle’ elements that find freedom in writing? And how do you think your work unleashes the jungle into culture? 

Meena: Those are my favourite lines of the poem as well.

See, part of what they’re trying to do, whether it’s in Operation Green Hunt or what they’re trying to do within Bastar or even the Western Ghats…somewhere there is this idea that these people don’t have development. Adivasi people need this. They need to be brought into the mainstream. So this idea of “culture in the jungle”– that lower caste people or marginalized people need to be taught how to be civilized. You need to learn these manners. You learn to speak a certain language. You need to speak it a certain way, dress a certain way, look a certain way, all of it. So that you can be taken seriously, right? Or become part of a ‘humanised’ society? To fit into these brackets. And this is not a mission that has stopped with the colonialists, it predates everything. This behaviour goes back to even, for instance, the control of women. You read a text like the Kama Sutra, which you think is a book about sex but it’s a lot about– ‘bad women are those who stand in front of their houses and comb their hair.’ And then, therefore, who is a ‘good’ woman and who is a ‘bad’ woman? What are these things? 

There’s so much effort in trying to say what is ‘good’ culture. And how to de-junglify somebody. How to make them enter ‘proper’ culture. And the other thing, the pushback to that, is to say, ‘OK, these reckless elements, these elements that you want gone, these elements that you want to tame, this hair you want to straighten– all these things that you find problematic, I think that they should actually belong to mainstream culture.’ Because that’s how you democratize a culture. I think that’s where it comes from. 

Pick up Meena Kandasamy’s ‘Tomorrow Someone Will Arrest You’ from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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