Polarization has scope to do good too: Meena Kandasamy, poet, writer, translator & activist

Meena Kandasamy is a name synonymous with strength and feminism, advocacy and equality in literature. Her poem Rape Nation, written on the Hathras gangrape, went viral on social media in 2020. Her words by her speak of dissent, and she rages at the plight of the oppressed. At the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, Kandasamy spoke with Reya Mehrotra about her Ella Mulligatawny Dreams, the pandemic, the impact of polarization on her work and the scope of translations in contemporary times. Edited exceptions:

How was the pandemic for you as a writer?
I was stuck in London with two children. The pandemic took a toll on my relationship with my partner as well, but we survived it all. On the work front, I didn’t manage to write much but worked on some translations and wrote a little about how women were spending their time during the pandemic. Timelessness does give way to finding some time to write, but I still think the best stories I wrote in this period were from the ground.

We are becoming more and more polarized in our thoughts. What kind of impact do you think it will have on society at large?
On one hand, polarization is happening outside of us, and on the other hand, it is also happening in intimate spaces. I hear people say they can’t be in their family groups, that their mother, sister or neighbor are becoming insufferable overnight. So how do you find space to be yourself in the middle of all this? Polarization is largely related to state structure, politics and media, but it has also become a part of intimate spaces, which is dangerous. But the fact it’s there also has enormous scope, because even if you change one person at a time, you manage to do something good. This means that political work is not just for political parties to do but every individual has to make a small intervention. There is a lot of misinformation and WhatsApp universities functioning, but that does not mean you will stay away from social media or hide away. The answer lies in countering by being there.

Does it impact your work in any way?
Social media platforms allow instant access to things and some platforms have algorithms especially to amplify this. A writer has to be at a place where opinions are formed. The rigorous forces or the right wing are not waiting for a book to come out to form opinions. They have a strong presence on social media. As a democratic force, one has to be where people are and not isolate them because of opinions. I don’t think being vocal on Twitter takes away from my poetry or the beauty or lyricism from what I am trying to write.
Polarization has existed for hundreds of years. The caste system is not new. In Tamil Nadu, it has existed since the 12th century. Women have been treated less intellectually and oppressed since years. It is all just more visible now. As a writer, those who call you out on Twitter are not who read your work. Last September, I was at a conference and some people started protesting that I wrote about Ram and Sita. I was like, when I wrote it a decade ago, you were living under a rock, you were not in touch with literature. Just when someone is visible on social media, you hear rumors and voice your opinions.

You translated writer and activist Salma’s novel Women, Dreaming in 2020. Do you think translations have found their place among readers and publishers?
Translations have acquired more prestige now. Earlier it was seen as a stenographer’s job. Now there is more intellectual rigor. There are many awards and honors for it and it is spoken about more openly. Translations are being looked at as serious literature.

Do you think debut authors or poets are finding more acceptance now from publishers and readers than before?
No. And I don’t think that’s changing anytime soon. I remember I found it difficult to get my first collection of poetry published. Then Kamala Das (writer and poet) helped me. She told me about a young man in Kerala who ran a poetry house. Random people like NGOs would come to me and say they would publish my work, but after a year they would tell me that the committee decided against it. When you are young, the struggle is real. That’s where social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram these days come in and new writers find their own audience.

Around two decades ago, you wrote in your classic poem Mulligatawny Dreams ‘i dream of an English full of the words of my language. an english in small letters an english that shall pull a white man’s tongue…” How far do you think we have moved towards the dream?
I wrote the poem almost two decades ago when I was 17 or 18. I am a Tamil woman who writes in English. Tamil is very alive in anything I say. If I wasn’t Tamil I don’t know if I would have many things to say. I write with a particular perspective and point of view, but I am also very much influenced by my mother tongue so I still dream of “an English that shall pull a white man’s tongue”.

What is your next work about?
I am writing my own collection of poetry after 12 years. I am also putting together translations of Thirukkural which is a classic old text of Tamil poetry. I am also working on a novel.

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