INTERVIEW: Jayinee Basu, author of Asuras
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Jayinee Basu is a Calcutta-born writer, translator, and poet whose debut book of poetry, Asuras, was recently published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. Here, she talks about her new book, Indian literary culture, mythology, and the intersections of science and art.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: One thing that really stood out to me as I read Asuras was the how this poetry, at times very personal and emotionally violent and even sensual (you know, like how we expect poetry to be), also folded in references (often rather oblique or obscure ones) to the worlds of medicine and biology and psychology. You were a pre-med student, so these references make sense from the standpoint of biographical analysis, but what made you decide to include them in your poetry, especially as they’re often very niche and inaccessible to a lay reader?
Jayinee Basu: So the sad truth is that the huge majority of things that I’ve been reading during the making of this book have been science textbooks, and many of these poems started in chemistry and physics classes where I struggled to remain awake and present. Even in the hands of a capable teacher, basic science material can be really tedious. One way I dealt with that is by thinking about concepts like conservation of energy or rotational inertia as scalable systems that you can use as metaphors for more macro, abstract phenomenon. This is a really cheap and easy trick to make unintelligible aspects of your life make some sort of sense, and also to remember an otherwise confusing concept on a midterm. Although the purpose was less about getting an A (this would be clear looking at my GPA) than making an interesting conceptual connection.
CH: Can you elaborate on some of those connections?
JB: One thing I think about a lot is elastic potential energy, google’s definition of which is: “energy stored as a result of deformation of an elastic object, such as the stretching of a spring. It is equal to the work done to stretch the spring, which depends upon the spring constant k as well as the distance stretched.”
A spring can be made of anything, as long as it has an acceptable combination of elasticity and rigidity. Humans are elastic and rigid in a bunch of bizarre ways, so I think about that in relation to histories of oppression, about how powerful groups put in an enormous amount of effort and work into keeping less powerful groups contained, essentially spring-loading them for rebellion. When that rebellion will happen depends on the historical context, like the severity of brutality inflicted and the duration of its perpetration, which I think of as the distance stretched, as well as the unique confluence of factors that cause uprisings at a specific moment in time, which I think of as the spring constant k.
Of course, this is an imperfect and maybe ludicrous metaphor in various ways, main one being that people don’t even superficially resemble springs. But still, I feel that the concept of ‘coiledness’ and ‘compression’ and ‘release’ are useful when thinking about human behavior.
CH: Your work carries a strong undercurrent regarding oppression and rebellion, particularly in poems like “Beleghata,” in which you allude to Bhagat Singh and the Indian Independence Movement. Coming, as you do, from Calcutta, how does your cultural background shape you poetry, and your politics?
JB: Thank you for spelling it that way, I still feel a strange dissonance seeing it spelled Kolkata even though it’s phonetic. I spent the first six years of my life in Calcutta, and despite having a generally horrible memory, so many aspects of living in that city are branded into my brain. I think the most important way it has influenced me is by giving me a very direct understanding of the depths of poverty and violence that human beings are capable of enduring and inflicting.
Calcutta is (was? probably is) a politically charged place. I remember once at a picnic with my parents and their friends I got up and took the microphone (there is always a microphone around at Bengali gatherings for drunken singing) and said I wanted to talk about the Dunkel Draft. I was three, and had read those words on a wall with a big hammer and sickle without knowing what it meant. My parents laughed a lot. I still feel like that frequently, seeing words that refer to events that have incomprehensibly huge effects, trying to figure out how I should feel about it, and feeling like I’m three years old. Other things I remember about living under sort-of-communism: standing in line for gross tasting milk, people knocking on your door collecting taxes for various causes, consuming translated Soviet children’s literature. The last was the best part.
Calcutta has also informed a lot about how I feel about gender. I shouldn’t go into it because it pisses me off too much. Every single girl and woman worker in my mom’s nonprofit is trying to pay off a dowry. Once I was supposed to be taking care of this really poor little girl with a brick embedded in her forehead because some asshole kid had hit her with it. I couldn’t figure out how to keep her entertained so I gave her some colored pencils and paper and asked her what she wanted to draw. She said she had never drawn before, so I suggested she start with a circle. She wasn’t really grasping the concept of drawing and didn’t want to make a mark on the page. Like she was physically uncomfortable with the idea of leaving a mark. That always stuck with me as the most distressing effect of poverty and the devaluation of the girl child. Or maybe it’s actually really enlightened or something, I don’t know.
In terms of poetry, it’s funny. Bengalis are real stuck up about their literary heritage. You produce one old guy who wrote a bunch of good shit (Rabindranath Tagore) and you think your people are birthed into being by Saraswati herself. My parents are both really into Tagore and I think he is deeply boring. I do like the Ray family though, especially Sukumar Ray. I like the idea of poetry serving as snarky social commentary. I also like Purnendu Patri (I’m just listing people I’ve translated) because his poems are really hot, which is nice in a culture that can be kind of weird about sex.
CH: There are so many trains of thought in there that I want to follow up on, but first, since you brought up Saraswati, let me really quickly touch on mythology — you’ve titled your collection Asuras, which from my limited understanding, references a group of Vedic entities which are just really hard to map to modern / Western ways of thinking about mythology. They’re the bad guys, or at least some of them are, but not ‘demons’ in the typical sense, and also they’re affiliated with nature and knowledge-seeking. So, not following the ‘popular’ mythic binaries of good / bad, natural-wild / artificial-cultured, all-or-nothing.
JB: Asuras are really interesting — there’s that question on OKCupid that asks what drives you, and the choices are something like love, knowledge, self expression, and something else I’m forgetting. I actually felt guilty putting down knowledge, because I felt like I had some kind of moral duty to put down love (love in a universal sense) but I really think curiosity has kept our species alive for the most part, and definitely me on a personal level. Even when I hate most everyone and think that humans are the worst and can’t be trusted, I’m still like, fuckin’ magnets tho, how do they work?
I’m not the best versed in Hindu mythology but as far as I can tell, asuras have been literally demonized for their unchecked knowledge-seeking and lack of humility, which I think is a pretty apt characterization of the scientific discipline. I am fascinated by epistemologies that force us to reassess the controls we set in a given experiment, the questions we choose to ask, and the types of phenomena we consider appropriate for scientific examination. I think of the internet as the ultimate asura — filled with information but ultimately without a purpose.
CH: I like that idea of the Internet being the ultimate asura. You talk a bit in your poetry about the Internet, or at least about computers — 404 errors, the grey checkerboard background of Photoshop, etc. I mean even just now you elaborated on the idea of curiosity-as-motivator by talking about OKCupid surveys. And there’s certainly a lot of ‘net poetry’ out there now, in which poets use the internet or artifacts of digital technology or quotes from online conversation as the raw material for their writing. Your poetry doesn’t seem (to me) to really fit in that category, though — there’s too much of the physical world still there, and lines like “a world full of butter and condensation and cascades of sarod / sizzling hot on your golden skin” (to select nearly at random, there are so many) seem to situate you in an almost imagistic vein. What kind of poetic tradition do you see yourself as working out from?
JB: I can definitely see imagism — I am really into image-making in its various forms, and I associate poetry more with painting than anything else. My senior thesis was mostly a concrete poem I made on a broken typewriter. It took me a while to think about how to answer this question because like I can tell you who I enjoy reading and who I have been reading while making this book — Rosmarie Waldrop, Rae Armantrout, Richard Brautigan, Alice Notley — but I don’t want to suggest that I’ve managed to incorporate any qualities of what makes these poets really remarkable into my own work. I think my writing process might lack the kind of literary intentionality that seems implied in the question.
I will say that I’m pretty into ekphrasis and that Asuras started originally as an image by image meditation on Zoe Strauss’s excellent photo book America. It was originally going to be titled Reading America. Some of the poems still retain the titles of her images. I went through the book at a really pivotal point in my life, when I first moved to San Francisco and was trying to process how I was allowed to live here when people who had lived here their entire lives were getting pushed out of it. Being an immigrant, I am really sensitive to any senses of entitlement to a place, or to a place retaining a certain character. I have a lot of trouble with decolonization and anti-appropriation rhetoric, since I have experienced both sides of the coin and am not sure how to feel about what seems to me an ideology that would require, at its most honest, nearly everyone who lives in this country to leave.
But to take a stab at answering your question I think aesthetically I feel most like neo-expressionist painters like Emil Nolde, Anselm Kiefer, and Daniel Richter. I value hypersubjectivity a lot.
CH: Who do you refer to when you describe people being pushed out of San Francisco? I’m reminded a bit of one poem in Asuras where you / the speaker (I assume they’re pretty close in much of this book?) claim that “westerners specialize / in manufacturing // semblances of struggling, / notions of movement.” Is that a description of this immigration dynamic?
JB: Just like ninety year-old grandmothers and families of five, the general story of gentrification. Despite the fact that I have negative money and am an immigrant myself, I’m still demographically a gentrifier and that makes me feel bad. That poem isn’t directly about gentrification though — it’s more about the struggle to define your personal battles/demons when you live a life that offers few “natural” obstacles like widespread poverty or violence or hunger or illness. That’s not a sentiment meant to diminish anyone’s pain, because pain is relative. Anger and pain, even if induced, are good propellants for action. It’s something like this thing Sam Dwyer posted on his instagram of a picture of a piece of bismuth and something his mentor said about how “the physicality of history is turning into a menger sponge, a theoretical object of infinite surface, and zero volume.” I think that’s particularly true of the history of the left.
CH: So does your poetry supply that missing volume? (Or I guess, is your poetry even leftist?) How do you process that shallowness that permeates western / gentrifier / liberal thought?
JB: I don’t know if my poetry is leftist, I hope it has a place there. I’m not saying that this tendency for all edges and no volume is a bad thing. I don’t even think it’s particularly shallow. It’s actually kind of wonderful for political thought to constantly be acknowledging the infinite number of unique experiences and holes that can exist within a generalized contour. I think the ultimate project of the left is for us to be able to abandon heuristics altogether and interact with each other on the terms we set for ourselves. This requires a massive amount of acknowledged humanity and shared language. It’s a worthy, if impossible, goal.
The history of the left is characterized by constant self-policing and splintering, which really takes a toll on our ability to organize and pin down political objectives. The jargon-based identity politics that has really taken off on the Internet seems to be a direct reaction to that inability to organize. Everyone wants to find their people — the ones who have experienced similar traumas and have a shared language with which to discuss that trauma. But no one will ever understand your trauma in all its subtlety, in all the little details of it that really make it yours, and realizing that is a disturbance in and of itself.
This stuff can feel really alienating to me. I view our hyper-inclination to form ideological tribes as a very real threat to understanding each other, regardless of the totally decent intentions and political necessity of said tribe. It’s really easy to forget the “strategic” part of Spivak’s strategic essentialism. But I say that as someone who has suffered relatively little in terms of acceptance. The need for a tribe is more urgent for some existences than others.
I also want to be clear that I’m not trying to characterize radical movements as being inherently insular or hysterical or fascist in a way that’s typical of white people who are mad that they have to be conscious of their word choices. Social justice warriors are overall a good phenomenon. I just enjoy making fun of myself and my friends, and especially the impossible desire to be a good person. Self loathing is a terrible thing to waste.
CH: That’s a really powerful point, that so much leftist or progressive thought, now carried out online, takes the form of increasingly niche terms for tribes and traumas, but the traumas are ultimately unknowable (or at least the nuances of those traumas.)
At the same time, I’m thinking of your poem “Twin Beds on Cantrell St.” which uses incredibly simple, common language to describe trauma (or a prelude to a trauma) — the speaker of the poem addresses someone else in bed, realizes something is very wrong, but concludes, “the room cost me fifty bucks / and we can’t just leave without / coming to some kind of grasping / of why it’s okay for me to do / what I intend to keep on doing.” And it’s so chilling, because there’s nothing in the language that indicates malice or is even exceptional in terms of word choices, but the entitlement comes through with horrifying clarity precisely because of that simple, everyday language. How do you see your role in addressing trauma in writing? What’s your hope for the reader when they read that?
JB: I don’t feel like I know enough about the way trauma works to be able to really lead a dialogue about it, but I am really interested in studying how the emergent sensation of trauma (“I have been hurt and I am traumatized”) comes from the multitude of small and huge instances of pain an individual may face throughout their life, and how that sensation helps or hurts them. Not everyone feels traumatized, although it’s likely that everyone has felt pain. It’s like small amounts of “controlled” trauma is supposed to help a person by giving them “a tougher skin” (I always think of it as emotional microdermabrasion) but under what circumstances can trauma be controlled? Do you have to trust or love the agent administering the trauma? Can it be yourself?
As the ways in which we interact with each other becomes more complex, the experience and expression of trauma starts manifesting in these really fantastical arabesques, through things like art and porn. It is easy to make fun of 14 year olds on Tumblr who identify as various different Otherkin but it’s also just really impressive that they’ve managed to access these seemingly super opaque parts of themselves and given them names that other people recognize. That’s kind of amazing to me, someone whose general response to anxiety and uncertainty is to get a really bad stomachache and fall asleep. I’m also interested in the feedback loop of trauma influencing normative behavior standards which people publicly comply with but completely fuck up in their private life, causing more trauma and an increased enforcement of normative behavior. It’s a strange effect that leads to things like the collapse of alt lit.
I don’t really have a specific hope for the reader except just to notice if something makes them uneasy or to laugh and try to pinpoint what about the poem had that effect.
CH: Can you expand a little bit on what you meant by the collapse of alt lit being brought about by people publicly (but not privately?) complying with normative standards? Admittedly, I think I first heard about you via ‘alt lit’ circles, although your writing bears very little semblance to much of what is pointed to as typical ‘alt lit’ — in fact, I wasn’t even sure it was a community you were aware of.
JB: It would be dishonest for me to say I’m not associated with alt lit. Its collapse was a sad thing for me in many ways, since it involved my friends and people I had been romantically involved with. One unhappy aspect of jargon-y social movements is that the words can be used like sparkly ornaments to attract the people you want to sleep with, and once you’re there naked in front of each other, the ornaments are just in a pile on the floor because you haven’t actually internalized any of the concepts; so you end up hurting people because of your carelessness. This is a generous characterization of the ‘macktivist.’ Many are outright predators.
I find that kind of codified yet superficial use of language really curious. Science language is used like that a lot, to code for ‘truth’ and ‘power’. It can go from being just a language thing to an attitude thing. On the first day of a semester, my best professor stressed the inductive nature of science and that you can’t prove anything is always true, but only that some things are not always true. My worst professor said that he had a Ph.D., made fun of astrology, and characterized science as being based in ‘facts’. They said similar things, but in a way where I wanted to learn from one of them and wanted to roll my eyes every time the other one said anything at all.
I felt somewhat paranoid about this when I was using words like ‘stochaistic’ in my poems. I didn’t want it to read as “look at meeeeeee, I know SCIENCE, I’m sooooo smart and correct”. I wanted to be sure that I was using those words because of the specificity of their meaning and not as a way to add legitimacy to something that might be seen as fluffy. I think that is what I like about alt lit — there is no real pressure to legitimize your work because there is already an acknowledgment and even celebration of its fluffiness. Art so often does feel fluffy and pointless, even for people who are making it. Like, who gives a shit really about what you think or how you feel except your mom or someone who has a crush on you or something.