Take us through the process of writing “Landscape of the Partisan.” How easy, or challenging, was it for you working on it?
This poem is part of an anthology I worked on during a period of great personal upheaval. The poems were written from a place of shadows; almost like a womb, dark, yet warm at the same time. Landscape of the Partisan itself is reminiscent of the famous Latin idiom which reads memores acti prudentes futuri (roughly translated into, “mindful of things done, aware of things to come; thus, both remembering the past and foreseeing the future”). The anthology does not feel like a conscious and concerted effort towards an end, and yet, to feel wholly is the goal while traversing these poems. It is the wish of the poems to make readers feel what is interspersed in themes of guilt, remorse, yearning, identity and loss. The writing of Landscape of the Partisan is tantamount to the re-construction of a world gone askew. The reader can wander into it and take a meteoric leap of faith. It is a world of experiencing and feeling.
At what point in your life did you decide to be an artist?
I grew up in a parochial home where the dinner table conversations mostly tended to shy away from the arts. However, the burgeoning influx of art in my home could not be stopped in the form of books and a penchant I developed for different art forms, be it music or films. I always craved intellectually stimulating interactions and whatever lack I came across, I filled with art. In a void of endless clockwork days, I created a form by imbibing the enigmatic songwriting of Bob Dylan or the darker and insidious peering into the soul of Leonard Cohen’s poetry. This idyll was completed with the more visceral medium of films where I found home in transcendental themes and visual poetry encapsulated in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick. Although it is inevitable at times that art gets shafted conveniently into boxes and genres, I always craved to steer clear of dogma, instead satisfying myself with both the conventional and the unconventional.
How do you know when your work is ready to be published or submitted to editors?
We never really know, do we? I am notoriously unreasonable when it comes to clicking that final “submit” button. There is plenty of rethinking, re-evaluating and questioning both the form and content of what I have written. I tend to read from different perspectives: of a reader, of a writer and also of someone who might be reading anything from that particular genre for the first time. I want to be the primate who soaks in all the senses for the first time whilst reading a particular poem, or a story. After having exhausted all those means, I try to be thorough and especially meticulous with the messaging of the piece, a poem or a story. It so happens on occasion that a poem or a story written with a particular message in mind turns out entirely different, or one that is devoid of a message in the beginning springs up its own raison d’etre during the course of writing it. Truth be told, the submitting process can be exhausting and time-consuming, but I believe taking time with it and struggling through rounds of edits augurs well eventually for the overall quality of the piece.
Whose work inspires you, and why?
My literary practice has been inspired most by Milan Kundera, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marcel Proust and V.S. Naipaul to name a few. As far as poetry is concerned, I am particularly influenced and moved by the work of Alfred Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas and Frank O’Hara. Each of these writers has a unique voice which resonates with my upbringing and where I find myself at different junctures in life. I grew up in a small town, besieged by conflict for half a century where everything was scorched under the assault of commotion. The neighbourhood I grew in was a microcosm of everything but the conflict, with an insulated environment brimming with children belonging to the conflict, yet happy and boisterous, cradled between a pastureland and a deep gully that swelled with bougainvillea and hummed with cicadas in the summer. This proved to be an endless wellspring of material for my writing since my early days.
My writing weaves around the idea of grief as a center, a tether, sometimes all too apparent and sometimes as an undercurrent, always lurking in our lives and making its presence felt, as well as how regret shapes our memory, as an active force in life and not just a metaphor. My writing is also concerned with the regeneration of grief as much as the overcoming of it, leading to the regeneration of some life, if not a whole, at least a part of it. I owe this in large part to the writing of Kundera who infuses his writing with the subtle intricacies of the travails of memory in a person’s life. I remain intrigued to this day with how Kundera shapes his characters with sentiment and sentiment alone. In the same vein, I find resonance with Proust’s meditations on memory, and its lack. I also like to infuse my writing with certain psychological moorings and dabble into questions of existentialism, transcendence and morality, akin to writers and poets like Dostoyevsky, Whitman and Eliot. If I had to sum up my writing in the shape of a springboard from which I always leap, it has to be what Kundera said about memory and identity: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Do you think African literature is where it should be today, and where does your style of writing fit into it?
I must admit my foray into African literature has been somewhat recent, which has only led to searing regrets about not having done it earlier. My first experience with African literature came in the form of A Grain of Wheat and other works of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I remember feeling especially overwhelmed and moved by the prescient portrayal of all the various subjects and a feeling of shared melancholy. I then moved to the poignant and singularly remarkable writings of Wole Soyinka which forced me to move out of my comfort zone in my own writings and explore new mediums of writing and conveying, at the same asking deeper and more profound questions. A Dance of the Forests felt like reading a language through a medium that I had never experienced before in my life. It was the encapsulating feeling of a pilgrim, a time-traveller entering into a long forgotten ancient womb which once was home to all of humanity. The most recent work I have read is the extremely powerful and moving portrayal in Things Fall Apart by the truly inimitable Chinua Achebe. To try and incorporate the profound yet universal themes which African literature tackles and in the distinctive, almost esoteric way that it does remains a daunting challenge for a writer like me.
It’s my earnest wish that more and more people living outside the continent get to experience the astonishing melting pot of writing that is African literature.
Read and listen to “Landscape of the Partisan” here.