Zilka Joseph, Interviewed by Z.G. Tomaszewski

Name and briefly explain, if you would, the writers who have had an immense influence on you as a writer. Are there poets who you have related to, perhaps because of a shared cultural crossroads?
I don’t know if there is any writer that has had an immense influence. Growing up I read a lot of mythology --Greek, Roman, Indian, the great epics –The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Bible, folk and fairy tales, and they continue to fascinate me. Then in college my background was in English Lit, so I read a lot of Shakespeare, Romantic and Victorian poetry. I also read Indian writing in English, and great writers like Tagore in translation (and a little bit in the original) when I did my masters in Comparative Lit. I think it’s inevitable that elements of what I read seeps into my work/words in imperceptible ways.
Since coming to America, I read writers of the diaspora, and I felt that what they wrote validated my experiences and my attempts at writing again. Among the poets I admire are Agha Shahid Ali, Reetika Vazirani, Kazim Ali, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. But they are certainly not the only writers I read or enjoy. I deeply admire the work of Lorna Goodison, Laura Kasischke, Marge Piercy, Natasha Tretheway, to name just a few.
Lands I Live In is, as William Olsen stated, “a book of arrivals.” When we arrive somewhere, both mentally and physically, we must obviously have departed elsewhere. Since you have traveled extensively what can you say of the process of acclamation? What’s the importance of adaptation, especially as it relates to poetry? What can you say of absorbing one’s surroundings, but also of having to release/let go?
Absolutely, there is a departure, and there is an arrival both mentally and physically. But that also means that we constantly deal with the loss that I mentioned earlier. And that would refer to the “release” or “letting go” that you mention here but it takes time to process and understand it. I know I will never be the same person I was when I left home. It takes a few visits back for that fact to really hit you. It also takes a while to come to terms with the fact that there is a distance that grows even with the people who knew you and whom you knew well. But what I am saying is not new, it is something that anyone who moves away from home must feel, only this is more challenging and works on a larger scale. And this process of coming to terms with loss and also feeling the excitement of learning new things and doing new things becomes one of acclamation. Adapting, experiencing, processing –all this allows me to look back and look forward, allows me to think about all those fundamental questions like “where do we come from” and “where are we going”.
How does it feel existing in a transitory state?—Experiencing a dichotomy of cultures between where you were born (in Mumbai) and where you moved to initially in the U.S. (Chicago) and where you currently reside (in Ann Arbor)? Have you settled?
Existing in a transitory state is a human condition, and for me moving from one place to another, absorbing different cultures seems to have become a part of the fabric of my life. When I first moved to the US, (and I am sure this happens to anyone who visits a new country with a very different culture) it was difficult to see a “larger picture”, but now the more I travel or move, the more I feel that I am a citizen of the world, a modern cosmopolitan world. No matter where you go, dichotomies will always exist, and you face them even when you move from place to place in the same country, or when you have friends who look at the world very differently than you, whether they are friends you have in the country you came from or friends you have in the country/places you have moved to.
As far as “settling” goes, there is always the part of me that will feel settled almost anywhere --with people from all cultures and from all walks of life, and there is the part of me that will be restless and unsettled no matter where I am. I feel more at home in Ann Arbor because of the diversity and because I can stay connected to academic and cultural events in the city, much like I felt when I lived in Chicago.
You chose to leave those you love—family and friends—those who care about you. What has this been like for you?
Heartbreaking. It seems to get better/easier once you are able to start a life here, and when you are able to create “home”, but you have to work at it. Then there are times you think it’s getting worse. But then again, you also realize how lucky you are to be able to enjoy wonderful people and places in two countries across the globe! Another thing I realized is that I will find a few like-minded people wherever I go, and I will find a community of writers too, so I should not be afraid of moving. But what seems to get harder for me is to say goodbye to my parents (who are both 87 years old) each time I visit them in Kolkata.
What’s your concept of home? Could you discuss your struggle with sense of place, with feelings of belonging?
I think I sort of answered this question when I talked about being “settled” in an earlier question. Home will always be where I grew up, and when I am with my parents, and home will also be the home I make with my husband wherever we choose to live. On the other hand, there are things about my home, my family, my friends, my cities, my countries that I will always be uncomfortable with or feel disconnected with, and when you have had experiences that have changed you, challenged you, made you grow, sometimes you find yourself completely out of place with someone who you may have been very close to before. I don’t see that as a problem, but a lot of this depends on your personality and who you are, and how quickly you can adjust to changes, but at all times I am aware there is never any gain (and I don’t mean material things) without loss, and there is a sadness, a very deep loneliness that exists as a result of that, but at the same time there is tremendous joy in learning new things, and exploring and being open to the “journey” and the teachers I meet on that path. As I grow older I find I am beginning to fear change more, I want to “settle” and not have to deal with a new set of challenges. But then I always think, if I don’t try a new path, a new job, or new experiments with my writing, then when???
In the poem “Footprints”, what is the deformity that the speaker mentions? Is it a physical illness? Is it because the speaker is a well-educated woman who likes to write, who lives (or lived) in a society where this was not encouraged?
Yes, it is both of those things. Physical because I suffered from polio when I was six and I deal with the residual issues till date. You have to remember also that in a traditional country like India it was hard if not impossible for a woman with any kind of handicap to get married. My family was more progressive so these issues did not arise at all, but what I am doing in the poem is showing how a girl with any “deformity” is looked at and also how education can be a hindrance to marriage, as can a girl/woman who has a mind of her own. Of course a lot has changed, and thankfully the status of women has changed quite dramatically over the last decade, but so much depends on the individual family or situation, and whether one is born in a rural area, and/or and in very traditional and religious family. And let me clarify something here, the girl/woman in the poem is not a writer, or at least that is not what is meant to come across in the poem. She is being judged because her education may be making her too clever, and also the fact that her handicap would certainly prevent her from getting a husband.
Have you felt that you’ve faced tension being an Indian-born woman who’s also a writer?
Yes, I have, but I think being a woman in any world, eastern or western is hard, but of course, more so in the east because of the role that is imposed on women and because society can be very unforgiving. For me I think, what’s been really difficult is the struggle I’ve faced as an immigrant trying to make a life for myself here, and having to prove myself over and over again as a writer or teacher, or sometimes simply as an intelligent and well-educated human being.
The speaker shares recollections past and more recent, encounters that support the notion of memory’s stronghold. Could you talk a bit about nostalgia? What do you long for since you’ve been away from the land where you were born? Is it landscape, people, objects of interest?
Memories are definitely a huge part of my life and nostalgia inevitably comes in, especially when I recollect scenes from my childhood. I am aware that I am looking at things through different “lenses” or even “mirrors”, and imagination and emotion play a role, as do language and the editorial process too, so when people read my work simply as autobiographical or as memoir I think they are limiting the scope and vision of the writing. Behind that writing is experience, imagination, human feeling and failing, and most of all the forging of the poem into a work of art.
I long for a lot of things…local foods, parts of the city I love, the birds, the sun, the smell of rain, my parents…
Lands I Live In is sectioned into two parts, the first labeled “Across Worlds” and the second, “Old Countries”. What is the importance of this? How did you arrive at a decision to do so?
The first part focuses on “journey” while the second part mostly on memory and personal history and links it or juxtaposes it in different ways with the current reality of the speaker. But they mesh together to show that the speaker lives and travels in several “lands” at once, and how the past and the present are intertwined and at the same time disconnected. At least that is what I hope comes through. I sort of “felt” my way through the process of arranging the poems and titling the sections, but when doing so I also knew how easy it is to slip into sentimentality, and I had to be very careful that this was not a book about romanticizing the past, the country and people I had left, but at the same time romanticizing is a real part of the process of dealing with loss and writing about it, and I wanted to stay true to the genuineness of the emotions.
What’s been the process of publishing like for you? What’s it like in India compared to the U.S.?
Working with small independent presses has been a great learning experience, and I learned more through trial and error and by talking to people who have been published. And the more I get a sense of how things work in the publishing world, the more I understand what a long slow journey it is, especially so if one is not part of the mainstream/ academics.
In India, I was published in journals and newspapers, but I have not had a book published there. I am guessing the process is not very different, especially if one is looking at the bigger publishing houses. I do know there are some excellent small presses that do a wonderful job, but I don’t know about their processes.
In particular, you have two chapbooks out (What Dread and Lands I Live In), how has this been for you? Is there an extended time between when it’s accepted and when it is published/released? How much input did you have in the aesthetics of the chapbooks?
It’s very exciting to have two chapbooks out. It depends on the press, but sometimes it takes a year from the time it is accepted to the time it is actually published. Again, it differs from publisher to publisher on how much input you are allowed. For Lands I Live In, I had a lot to with it, collaborating with Judith Kerman on designing the cover using the photo as well as the image of a silk scarf etc. She worked really hard to achieve the effect I wanted and I will always be grateful to her for that. What Dread has a set format so all I did was send them an image for the cover.
Are your two chapbooks part of one persona? Do they represent a single speaker with an expansive consciousness or are there two different speakers?
No. My first chapbook has an autobiographical element and has a more personal voice. My second one is about dread and the darker side of human and animal worlds, but both draw on experience and imagination.
Since a writer works with different styles or subject matter at different times, the same happens with persona. I don’t think the two chapbooks represent one speaker at all. I am not sure how to answer this question, but I am wondering if the “expansive consciousness” is the self, the self that is always learning, growing, and the works of the writer are expressions, experiments or explorations of that self and the world as the writer goes through different experiences and stages of life.

Works by Zilka Joseph

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.