“Tishani Doshi’s writing, prose as well as poetry, is unassuming in its quiet intensity, and explores ideas about home and belonging, love and desire, body and identity. There is a keen emphasis on nature and repeated reminders of our shared humanness. She transcribes instances of transformation and narrates the lives of individuals who occupy liminal territories. Doshi’s works are intensely lyrical, building a seamless bridge over troubled waters where the calm exterior masks the turbulence beneath. In doing so, her writing examines the hidden faces of humanity with a startling rawness and vitality, but she somehow manages to balance the dark with the light, indifference with intimacy. Her characters are fabulously human; the women especially are fearless, bold and unapologetic, but they also have moments of insecurity. This true to life protrait that Doshi creates is unforgiving but there are still moments of grace, love, kindness, empathy and fellow-feeling.”
Areeb Ahmad Co-Editor-In-Chief
To start off, how has your extensive training in classical dance forms helped you in expressing yourself as a writer? Does the fusion of the two somehow aid you in owning an expression which is distinctly yours?
I didn’t actually have extensive training in classical dance. I did a smattering of dance as a child, and I took up yoga seriously in my early 20s – but in fact, I came to Chandralekha as a non-dancer. I never wanted to be a dancer in the way that I wanted to be a poet, and so the accidental nature of dance in my life has always been something joyous and strange. What I did with Chandralekha was far removed from classical dance. It was rooted in classical traditions – yoga, kallaripayyatu, bharatnatyam, but it was not codified in the way those traditions are. Chandra was working with the abstract, and for someone like me, who was coming from the narrative tradition in the sense of wanting to create worlds in novels, and using words in poetry to create meaning – to abandon this in dance, was a great freedom. To share her vision – that you could arrive via your own story or with no story at all, but participate in a work of art, that was so utterly abstract, and yet, still had the capacity to move you – in fact, had greater capacity to move you, precisely because it broke free of narrative – was for me, a huge understanding. Dance and language now work together in interesting ways for me. It’s hard for me to entirely separate them, but I’d say that my building blocks, my vocabulary is still language first, movement second. One follows the other.
You have a singularly unique take on performative poetry and creative media. At a time when spoken word poetry has exploded over the globe, what is your opinion on these newly emerging forms of literary expression?
Spoken word has been around forever. When poetry began it was spoken aloud, so there is nothing so radical about this idea. If you look at the etymology of the word poetry in different languages, it has to do with making, seeing, creating. There is an impulse in poetry that goes beyond observation, and somehow this connects to our sense of what it is to be human. I love the flexibility of poetry – it is completely open to collaboration, it has an elasticity and a quickness that fiction doesn’t have, and while it can dwell in the singular, it can also encompass the epic. The power of poetry is the power of being able to name, to say, to speak out loud, and so this is not a new thing, but the oldest thing we have going, and I don’t see it losing any of its shine.
You talked about a certain mystery which lies in creating poetry in your preface to Countries of the Body. With your transition to prose, did you find a parallel for expressing such similar poetic subtleties?
I think of the practice of writing as being mysterious in the sense of where and why our ideas come from, what happens when we begin something but move away from it in the writing, and what makes us write to begin with. This mystery continues whether you’re writing prose, poetry or essays, and for me, it is only when I’m writing that I believe in the project of writing, that I understand what it is I’m doing. There are periods – like the one I’m in now – after I’ve published a book, and where I have very little going on creatively, that I wonder at what I’ve done and how. There are ideas, but if you’re not actually writing, if you’re just talking about those ideas, it has little to do with the practice of writing.
In your collection Everything Begins Elsewhere, there are poems like “Lines to a Lover from a Previous Century” and “Walking Around”, which mention influences from other poets – Mir and Neruda respectively. What effect, if any, has the poetry you’ve read and experienced had on your writing? Are there any specific poets who have influenced you?
One important lesson I learned early on was to forget about trying to be original. There is nothing original about literature. Everything has been said. Any which way you look at it, someone has been there before you. The funny thing is that despite this, we still have an urge to create, to add our voice to the tapestry of other voices. Everything I write has been influenced by things I’ve read, heard, seen — by film, painting, music. The idea that you can create in a vacuum is as impossible to me as the Immaculate Conception. I want to be influenced, I’m happy to be influenced. All poems are kaleidoscopic, born from poems that went before, and this is how it should be.
You mentioned during a launch event that you started writing your new novel, Small Days and Nights alongside your brilliant recent poetry collection. In fact, the initial plan was to publish it before Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods. What led to the later publication? Also as a writer of both prose and poetry, how do you decide which works better for a particular idea or thought?
Ideas flow over across forms. These things are fluid and work themselves out. I wrote the poems first because they seemed more urgent, and they require less stamina. It takes longer for me to find my way into a novel, and it’s harder for me to stay there. Small Days and Nights and Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods share many themes, and these are not new themes, they’ve been popping up since I first started writing. Writers have obsessions. We return to them like cream buns.
Small Days and Nights has a lot of autobiographical elements. Your brother Ajay, like Lucia, was born with Down Syndrome and you yourself, like Grace, inhabit two different national/geographical identities. Would you say that your fiction takes off from fact? In what ways, if any at all, do you mirror reality, or consciously move away from it, in your writing?
Reality is merely a trampoline. You stand on it, you jump, you arrive somewhere else. I think like most writers I write about things I’m concerned about, or that I have some affinity for. I write through prisms I know and prisms I must guess at. When I read something I want to be transformed by language, I want that trampoline effect to transport me somewhere else. Biography is entrenched in most fiction – whether or not writers admit to it or not. If you read the biography of a writer and then read their work – you draw lines between the two. If Tolstoy had not served at Sebastopol we might not have had War and Peace. If Dickens had not been hot on the heels of a girl called Nelly, we might not have had Great Expectations. I think it’s a mistake to look for the writer’s life in their work because fiction is a different enterprise, but I think it’s disingenuous to insist that these are divided continents.
You recently taught an advanced fiction class at NYU Abu Dhabi. What are your views on the teachability of creative writing? What would be your advice to students who are thinking of enrolling in such courses?
I suppose much depends on what you want out of a course like that. Not all my students are aspiring writers. Some are aspiring psychologists, filmmakers, historians. I believe strongly in a liberal arts education that allows you to experiment, to fill the waters of your lake from other sources. Regardless of their aspirations, the lessons remain the same – to develop a good ear, to be disciplined, to kill your darlings, to remember that god is in the pots and pans…. and I suppose the nicest thing about a class is that you can create a community, a safe space where you can encourage all the shy exhibitionists out from their shells and encourage them to share.
Finally, we’d love to know more about what the future holds for your writing, and if you have any little nuggets of wisdom for emerging writers and authors in the Indian literary landscape.
My advice to writers is boringly always the same, which is to read widely and deeply, to read things out of your comfort zone, to read for guilty pleasure, to read in translation, to understand the mechanics of that which you wish to be a part of. I remember hearing Nadeem Aslam talking about how he used to copy out paragraphs and pages of writers he admired. I think it’s a fine exercise. Copy out by hand a poem, a page, a chapter, to try to understand the cadences of language and the power a voice can hold. In doing so, perhaps you will find your own. I think when you’re beginning you want to subvert the mystery somehow, to miraculously arrive with your voice in full flow. What you know when you have been writing for a while is that nothing is effortless in literature. Even if it feels completely swung from the hip – thwack, light, easy, perfect – know that it has been earned. So there’s no trick. Put in the hours.
Tishani Doshi is an award-winning poet, novelist and dancer. Her most recent books are Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Poetry Award, and a novel, Small Days and Nights (Bloomsbury).