“I had to grow a new tongue,” a conversation with poet Divya Victor – curated by Mary-Kim Arnold

Photo courtesy of Hannah Ensor.

Divya Victor is the author of CURB (Nightboat Books); KITH, a book of verse, prose memoir, lyric essay and visual objects (Fence Books/ Book*hug); Scheingleichheit: Drei Essays  (Merve Verlag); NATURAL SUBJECTS (Trembling Pillow, Winner of the Bob Kaufman Award), UNSUB (Insert Blanc), THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR MOUTH (Les Figues). Her work has been collected in numerous venues, including BOMB, the New Museum’s The Animated Reader, Crux: Journal of Conceptual Writing, The Best American Experimental Writing, POETRY, and boundary2. Her work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, and Czech. She has been a Mark Diamond Research Fellow at the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum, a Riverrun Fellow at the Archive for New Poetry at University of California San Diego, and a Writer in Residence at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibit (L.A.C.E.). Her work has been performed and installed at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Los Angeles, The National Gallery of Singapore, the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition (L.A.C.E.) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). She has been an editor at Jacket2 (United States), Ethos Books (Singapore), Invisible Publishing (Canada) and Book*hug Press (Canada). She is currently Associate Professor of English at Michigan State University.

We spoke about ancient, embodied questions of pain and bearing witness, how poetry might encircle the suffering, and how daily acts of care can help sustain us in grief.  

Mary-Kim Arnold: I am curious about your early experiences of reading and writing. Were there books and authors you loved as a child? Are there moments or events that stand out to you as being part of your development as a poet? Who might you say were your early influences? 

Divya Victor: As a child, I was a feral writer. I wrote on every possible surface—on fogging mirrors, on the walls of our house, on dirt roads, on terracotta tiles of our terrace, on my math notebooks and my mother’s textbooks, on my father’s newspapers—and with many tools—sticks, crayons, chalk, mist, condensation, grass pulp, spilled milk, blood, smashed capsules of cod liver oil. Anything could become a writing surface, anything a stylus. Content seemed beside the point. The world teemed with mediums, and improvising methods of making marks was a delicious way of blowing small, glistening bubbles of a ‘child’ time into linear and opaque ‘parent’ time.

And, I was a ravenous reader. In our one-bedroom flat in Trichy (India), we had a narrow shelf for books behind the fridge (which was in the living room). I would wedge myself between the old Voltas and the shelf to pull out a volume. This corner of the tiny room was as much a library as a site of nourishment and preservation—or, perhaps these functions are kindred and my parents approached them intentionally, seriously—we held a shared belief that aesthetic fulfillment was at the core of survival, was its very motivation. I also read while walking, while hanging upside down from the bed, while squatting on scorched asphalt. Silent reading was a kind of privacy in public. Large format, hard covers made that possible. The page was a dis/orienting device, not a mere surface.

When I turned 7 or 8 (and was still in India), I began reading Hergé’s Tintin and the French writers Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix. I recognize now that they drew me in with the tether between travel and risk, empire and power. I remember the summer when I stayed home and  recovered from chickenpox. Isolated from peers and eating only “cooling foods,” I became obsessed with my mother’s scrapbook of “Sunday funnies,” which were mostly syndicated series from the United States—Beetle Bailey, Family Circus, B.C, Garfield. Each panel was a window into US imperial fantasies, bourgeois heteronormativity, and the dark, dark comedy of being American.  In these comics, the characters seemed so trapped and unhappy, as if the world that had been sold to them had been disappointing. But, at the same time, I was also reading RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days, which imagined our lives as a series of elfin surprises, striped with wild possibility, and embodying abundant moral ingenuity. Narayan’s hand-drawn maps of the fictional Malgudi were important to me when I was writing CURB. I drew on my early fascination with these. Narayan showed me that our relation to space is subjective, that location and position are kindred constructions, that a sense of horizon begins at a glowing sternum. His argument was that space is made by those who occupy it and vice versa; only later did I study this again through Henri Lefebre, Gaston Bachelard, and Sara Ahmed.

MKA: You mention a poem from Kith, “No English. Indian. Walking,” which led to the writing of CURB and I wondered if you could say a bit more about the origins of the book, how traces and preoccupations from earlier work took shape in CURB?

DV: The questions knocking around the chest of CURB are primeval, for me. They feel ancient, like they precede my own literacy. I’ve been hearing their hum and chatter long before I could speak back to them. How do we witness the suffering of strangers? How does the experience of pain expose us to the limits of language? What is the sound that a memory makes when it slumps into disuse? Where, within us, do we remain estranged from ourselves? I remember worrying about prototypes of these questions quite early—on playgrounds, in classrooms, in hospitals and other sites of discipline. I have memories of frustrating my teachers with these questions, or fretting about never having friends who could help me figure these out. This was, of course, before poetry came barging in with din and drum, screaming and steaming like a juggernaut.

CURB began with a sense of incompleteness within Kith. I felt that there was a missing knot. The string of marigolds kept scattering when I tried to wear the garland. The poem in Kith you are referring to concerns the case of Sureshbhai Patel. Patel was assaulted by Madison (Alabama) Police Officer Eric Parker when he was taking a walk in his own neighborhood. A white neighbor had called and reported the sighting of a “skinny black guy.” This is a typical, recurrent misrecognition. I saw in it the other face of Black and Brown coalition: our resemblance as historical subjects. This event surfaced in my research for Kith, but I didn’t know how to responsibly write about white supremacist police violence against immigrants yet, and I did not want to, by any accident or habit, take an autobiographical “view” of this event which had happened to someone else. It was important to me that I refuse the false binary—the compulsion to identify with Patel on one hand, and disidentify with Parker on the other. Poetry had to address the problem of my complicity, my wedged pose between the perpetrator and the victim of violence.

Between writing Kith and CURB, I had also given birth via an emergency C-section. So I came to understand, in a very bodily way, that I could no longer write from a state of injury, from a state of emergency; I had to write away from my “wounded attachments” (as Wendy Brown has put it). I had to imagine a documentary poetics that could address how my own identities were attached to my sympathetic nervous system and my sense of historical injury. How might a poetics relieve me of any kind of compulsory or coercive empathy, while also maintaining my alertness to what has and has not been documented? South Asian Americans, especially Muslims, Sikhs, and undocumented kith are disproportionately policed in the US; we need to be able to see that abolition is possible and necessary. Our freedom is tied to Black liberation and to fighting the carceral state, both through policy and in the imaginary. I needed to find the forms with which I could call in my community’s fantasy that more policing keeps us safer. I needed to find forms through which I could describe how “the law” and its actual and affective apparatuses brutally alienate us from our most intimate places of self-knowing and grieving, as migrants.

I had to grow a new tongue so I wouldn’t speak, compulsively, only about myself. I wanted to imagine how lyric poise, when accompanied with documentary rigor, could refuse the market’s mandate that minorized writers commodify their own trauma. CURB helped me do that; CURB helped me imagine how I could accuse and admit, witness and be vigilant while also calling myself in. It closed the open circuit in Kith; the scab could now form on a wound opened in my previous book. 

Photo credit: Aaron Cohick

MKA: In “Sugar on the Gash,” your essay for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW), you talk about a poetics “formed in the moment of catastrophe,” and later, a poetics “of debridement,” in which a site of wounding can become a site of rescue. In CURB, there is such attentiveness to place, to locations—specific to the point of coordinates—as sites of violence, and also as locations of connection and care. I wonder if you could say a bit more about that transformation—if that is the right word for it—in CURB?

DV: In “Sugar on the Gash,” I recall an accident which took place in my childhood. I was riding in a rickshaw with other children. It tipped over and crashed after tripping over a furrow they had dug to run underground cables that would allow Indians to consume the U.S.-led Gulf War. The rickshaw driver’s own daughter was the smallest child in the rickshaw, and her lip was ripped in the crash. When an aunty in our neighborhood saw this, she ran towards this child with a fistful of sugar and placed it in her mouth. In this anecdote, sugar heals the flesh wound, yes, but it also performs what we so desperately need: the social acknowledgement of pain. A circle formed around the hurt body. I began to wonder: How does poetry form this kind of circle? What is this circle doing? Spectating? Bringing in a fistful of sugar? Witnessing what story and drawing what conclusion? I drew the conclusion that the Gulf War, thousands of miles away, had given my little friend a bloody lip. This is how one nation touches another. This is how empire bullies. And what does my poetry say to bullies? Writing this essay taught me that my critique of the ongoing colonial projects is highly localized, that my memory is tethered to the ecological, that history ruptures in the flesh. If so, then what do we rescue from such sites?

There are many poems in CURB that are concerned with bullies and being bullied—poems about the police, imperial logics of violence, the sexual assault of children, medicalized births, Indian cinema, and the cold bureaucracy of immigration. And, of course, the programmatic bullying of the immigrant here, through the USAmerican brand of xenophobia. We have felt its searing gaze in public; it has stolen so many of our kith. But, composition also allowed me to see a germ of what remained even within the shattering at the site of injury. CURB also documents quotidian evidence of how we do sometimes survive the violence with dignity, with something of us still intact. The coordinates at the dog-ear corners of the pages in CURB often point to this noticing, this attention. The poem “Blood/Soil” is marked by the coordinates of the site where Sureshbhai Patel was assaulted. When I was researching the incident in a BBC report, I kept pausing the footage on the frames which contained camphorweed—a brightly nodding, hairy, perennial weed. With these coordinates, I was observing the location of what was still flourishing near the curb that runs alongside the pavement where the police undertook a leg-sweep that paralyzed Patel.  The weed lingers, remains. 

“Threshold” is a poem which documents my physical response to hearing the news of the shooting which killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla. In this poem there are three sets of coordinates. These form a literal triangulation—between the site of the xenophobic hate crime in Olathe (Kansas), the approximate site where Kuchibhotla’s funeral was held near Hyderabad, and my own body in Singapore, where I was when the news broke. Here, the coordinates describe my attention to how racial triangulation—between a hegemonic group and the opposing stereotypes of the Asian American as ‘perpetual foreigner’ or ‘model minority’ had proven fatal in the Kansas shooting. When Kuchibhotla was murdered, I was in my third trimester, and the shock of the news had a pre-natal impact. Which is to say, it touched two generations at the place where shared care is autonomic and unintentional, where we are the most helpless, in a way, about how we care and who we care about. This was an instructive feeling that went against everything I knew about what a documentary poetics could accomplish. It taught me that fantasy, sentiment, projection, and transference do leave stains and traces in both method and matter within a poem. Reckoning with gestation as a site of composition helped me understand who my closest neighbor could be. While making notes and sketching for the poems, it became important that I distinguish between a kind of impulse of care for a stranger and a more ideological or identitarian empathy, which seems to rely on the very mythologies of belonging that my work is trying to break apart.

Photo credit: Aaron Cohick

MKA: This last question I’m borrowing from Khadijah Queen. While working on such a difficult and taxing book, what was your favorite thing about writing this book, perhaps something that surprised you, or brought you joy, however complicated that might be?

DV: I wrote the two iterations of CURB—the artists’ book from the Press at Colorado College and the extended edition from Nightboat—in my study in two separate homes in Michigan. I was living with my mother, my grandmother, my husband, and my newborn (who is now four). I think the surprising experience had less to do with what was taking place during the writing and more to do with what is outside it and thus sustains it. When I was writing CURB, the study was suffused with the scent of vetiver, salt, and a sense of heat and horror—even the stacks of books that were growing around me seemed to tremble because of the stakes I was working through. Unsurprisingly, the process of navigating the materials of national horror and cultural trauma had a chemical impact on my body. The labor of CURB was  a creeping fire burning a path right through me—but to where? to who? My daughter, my mother, and my grandmother were always just a wall or a staircase away. We were in this umbilical labyrinth, in our own soft cells, and we’d gather three times a day to eat and hug and console each other. Every day, I would write, weep, grow exhausted at my study—at the very margin of the house— and then I’d return, frayed and wrung out, to the heart of the home, where my grandmother would have laid out a lunch on an oval dining table. This was my “favorite thing”: the daily act that steadied me, that fed my hungry, tired heart. I allowed my daughter to acknowledge my labor (“Ammi makes words for feelings”) and I spoke to her in our soft, muddled babble; I occupied my hands with playdoh and wooden blocks so I could pause from shuffling through sheaves of grief that this project had compiled. 

A few years ago, they removed “survivors guilt” from the DVSM and moved its symptoms to a general category of PTSD. When any writer is operating in the duration of “post” in the wake of any catastrophe, we have a responsibility to observe how our relationship to this duration stains the materials, the composition, the methods, and the very nest in which our dreams work to revise the day’s drafts. My family saved me when I was writing this book. That rescue was the sugar on the long gash of this curb between me and all those I wrote about, between me and the strangers for whom my poems may bear witness.