Celebrating 10 Years of LR | Process Profile: Monica Mody on “Nani’s Letter”

LR: Celebrating 10 Years (2010–2020); Process Profile; Monica Mody; photo of the author, a South Asian poet with long, wavy hair, a maroon print top, and silver necklace with a blue oval pendant. She is smiling while looking straight down into the camera.
Issue 4 contributor and former blog staff writer Monica Mody (Photo courtesy of author)

In anticipation of the ten-year anniversary of our first issue, we’re excited to return to our process profile series. Over the course of the summer, we’ll be catching up with past contributors as we ask them to reflect on their process for either a poem of theirs—whether one that appeared in LR or one that they’ve written more recently. Today, as we close out APA Heritage Month, we’re excited to kick off the series with a profile from Issue 4 contributor and former blog staff writer Monica Mody, who reflects on parsing both Motherlines and borderlands as she wrote her recent poem “Nani’s Letter” (first published in Kajal Magazine).

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“Nani’s Letter” was published in Kajal Magazine earlier this year. It appears, as well, in my 2019 PhD dissertation, “Claiming Voice, Vitality, and Authority in Post-Secular South Asian Borderlands: A Critical Hermeneutics and Autohistoria/teoría for Decolonial Feminist Consciousness.” I maintain that cross-genre and multi-genre writing makes space for the insurgent epistemologies of the borderlands—in this, I am joined by Gloria Anzaldúa, whose theory of the borderlands continues to animate new decolonized pathways.

“Nani’s Letter” is an epistolary poem, written as the letter that my grandmother might have sent to me across time—across the Partition of India—across the legacies of trauma and silencing. The violence my grandmother saw is not a matter of the past for the Indian subcontinent, which is yet to heal the national trauma of colonialism and of the Partition. What follows are synergistic excerpts that precede the poem in my dissertation.

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Nani

In 1947, my two-year-old mother lost her mother. Grandmother—Nani—was killed by a rioting mob during the violence that spread in the wake of the Partition of India and Pakistan. She was killed by the mob in her own village, along with her sister-in-law and nephew.

In 1947, I lost my mother’s mother. For a long time, I did not realize that this one loss imbricated multiple losses. Growing up, it was not only my grandmother who was absent from my life: entire lifeworlds she would have brought forth were absent too. Naomi Ruth Lowinsky writes, “Standing at the crossings of family history, generational change, and archetypal meanings, a grandmother locates her grandchild in the life stream of generations. She is the tie to the subterranean world of the ancestors; she plays a key role in helping a woman reclaim essential aspects of her feminine self. Standing close to death, she remembers the dead. She tells their stories, hands down their meanings and their possessions.”[1]

Without a grandmother or grandmother figure around as a child, I did not have a guide into this wider circle of relationships. And yet, it was not a loss I fully comprehended. The silence around Ma’s family and what they had gone through shrouded my ability to perceptually be aware of the contours or depth of the loss. In writing about my grandmother, then, I am reclaiming not only her, but also myself from silence.

Crossing the Border

Before the Partition, Ma’s family lived in Dera Ghazi Khan, a district in the Punjab Province. The violence that erupted before the Partition took both Nani and the wife of Nana’s younger brother. The exodus also tore the family from the land they had lived on—their embedded histories.

These losses are also mine. The shared border between “me” and “them” is where silence has collected around these losses.

One way to recover the stories in this silence is for me to cross the border, return to Dera Ghazi Khan. I must recreate the borderlands to return to Nani—to mourn these losses and find healing. “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”[2] Heeding this guidance from Anzaldúa, I will perform the return first in memory and in imagination. As I articulate this journey in writing, I want it to light up the hauntings, relationships, narratives in my motherline. I want it to intervene in the improbability of an actual return to Dera Ghazi Khan.

Colonial Distance

For a while, I become a proto-colonial armchair traveller, travelling to Dera Ghazi Khan via W. W. Hunter’s The Imperial Gazetteer of India. It takes me a moment to recognize the irony in this. The Imperial Gazetteer was among the projects undertaken after the 1857 Revolt to provide relevant and reliable information to the colonial administration so as to better map, measure, and control the native populace.[3] It is a prototype of systematized knowledge production based on an ethnological focus on race, caste, and religion. The ethnographic accounts provided in the gazetteer—along with census reports—reflected the nineteenth-century colonial policy of relying on racial science to justify British domination over India. India was the “laboratory of mankind”—and in this laboratory all kinds of cultural differences between different groups of people were naturalized under racial and ethnic categories.[4]

Unhappily, projects such as the gazetteer and the census also eclipsed all other forms of knowledge production.[5] The epistemologies behind such knowledge production are precisely what I am seeking to decolonize within myself.

The Imperial Gazetteer does not recount the dreams of the people living in Dera Ghazi Khan in 1885. It does not tell us the stories that were told to its young or the songs that were sung around the fire. It does not seek to see into their hearts or the soaring of their souls. It does not give any sense of what they cherished or valued, of who they really were. Being attentive to these would have meant giving the colonized interiority—and ascribing to them a fullness of humanity.

The gazetteer was not interested in Dera Ghazi Khan as a place, which in cultural geography is a social concept. Place designates that which is “created by people: it is lived experience; it is the ways in which people use and imagine space.”[6] This is in contrast to space: the physical, three-dimensional expanse. Space is a configuration of geography that enables distance—rather than intimacy—to be an interpretive norm. Space exists within conventional awareness because distance can be identified as an interval between separating objects.[7] Distance, detachment, disinterest: these are the epistemological attitudes through which positivistic colonialist logic comes to articulate what it claims are universal organizing principles—and comes to disarticulate dignity, embeddedness, intimacy. 

The gazetteer, with its claim of presenting empirical and statistical data, created sufficient distance between the people being studied and the “neutral” administrators undertaking the study to legitimize colonization. Colonial expropriation and subjugation depends upon articulating sufficient separateness between the colonizer and the colonized; the “data” in the gazetteer made this separateness possible.

This goes against my intended goals for performing a return—to come to a deeper, more soulful knowing of my grandmother and her affective life, to locate myself in the life stream of generations. There must, then, be a different way than a colonial tool to find my way back to my grandmother.

To Know: To Reconstruct

I was made by my grandmother, even if I never knew her. To know her, I turn to the relational hermeneutics of creative reconstruction, to imagination. It is not graspability I seek, but evocation. Without lived or inherited memories—amidst so many fragmentary narratives and silences—how may I rediscover my connection to this ancestress, to my motherline? How may I center my grandmother’s voice and agency? How may I restore to myself a voice that knows its own falterings, silences, and cries as part of a stream of generations?


[1] Lowinsky, The Motherline, 115.

[2] Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 87.

[3] Marriott, The Other Empire, 208–13; Arondekar, For the Record, 12–13. In her monograph engaging with the colonial archive, feminist and queer/sexuality studies scholar Arondekar suggests that the massive archive of texts from this period relied on for imperial governance “literalized the distance between colonizer and colonized.” Ibid., 13.

[4] Pinney, “Colonial Anthropology in the ‘Laboratory of Mankind,’” 252–63. As I read historian John Marriott’s research on the construction of caste and racial typologies in nineteenth-century India, I was nauseated to realize that these typologies continue to pervade the mindsets of contemporary Indians: that I, too, have unconsciously internalized the taxonomy of what Marriott phrases “physiognomy, colour, and physique.” Marriott, The Other Empire, 211.

[5] Marriott, The Other Empire, 214.

[6] Van Schendel, “Spatial Moments,” 99.

[7] Lawlor, Voices of the First Day, 41.


WORKS CITED

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera = The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Arondekar, Anjali R. For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Lawlor, Robert. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991.

Lowinsky, Naomi Ruth. The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots. Carmel, CA: Fisher King Press, 2009.

Marriott, John. The Other Empire: Metropolis, India and Progress in the Colonial Imagination. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Mody, Monica. “Nani’s Letter.” Kajal Magazine, February 2020. https://www.kajalmag.com/poem-nanis-letter.

Pinney, Christopher. “Colonial Anthropology in the ‘Laboratory of Mankind.’” In The Raj: India and the British, 1600–1947, edited by C. A. Bayly, 252–63. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1990.

van Schendel, Willem. “Spatial Moments: Chittagong in Four Scenes.” In Asia Inside Out: Connected Places, edited by Peter C Perdue, Helen F Siu, and Eric Tagliacozzo, 98–127. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

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Monica Mody is the author of Kala Pani (1913 Press) and two cross-genre chapbooks. Her poetry also appears in Poetry International, Boston Review, Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, and Immanence Journal, among other places. She holds a PhD in East West Psychology and an MFA in creative writing, along with a more rarely used degree in law. She was recently awarded the 2020 Kore Award for Best Dissertation in Women and Mythology for her multi-genre dissertation which utilized theory, memoir, and poetry. Her previous awards include the Nicholas Sparks Postgraduate Writer-in-Residence Prize from the University of Notre Dame, Naropa’s Zora Neale Hurston Award, and the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing. Monica was born in Ranchi, India. Additional work drawn from her dissertation can be found here and here.

Guest Post at the American Bookbinders Museum Blog

ABM Guest Post Screenshot

We’re excited to announce that we have a guest post up on the American Bookbinders Museum’s blog this afternoon. LR editor Iris writes about the history of the chapbook and its importance to the modern poetry scene and describes four chapbooks by some of the poets who are featured in our ongoing collaboration with the museum for National Poetry Month:

“Four Beautiful Chapbooks by Asian American Poets to Read for National Poetry Month”

Click on over to read about Monica Mody’s Travel and Risk, Barbara Jane Reyes’s For the City that Nearly Broke Me, Candy Shue’s You Know Where You’ve Been By Where You End Up, and Debbie Yee’s Handmade Rabbit Society, and please don’t forget to stop by the museum tomorrow night (Thursday, April 21st), where we’ll be taking over their Third Thursday event series with more work by Monica, Barbara, Candy, Debbie, Jason Bayani, and Brynn Saito.  You’ll get the chance to view pieces that each poet read last Saturday, to respond in writing, and to construct and bind a mini chapbook of your own to take home.

For more information, please see the Facebook page for the event as well as our previous blog post that describes our collaboration with the museum in more detail. And if you’re enjoying our focus on the chapbook, stay tuned for a dual interview about the chapbook with poets Margaret Rhee and Chen Chen next week. There’s plenty of goodness still to come before National Poetry Month is up!

2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Monica Mody and Cathy Linh Che

Monica Mody (L) and Cathy Linh Che (R)
Monica Mody (L) and Cathy Linh Che (R)

We’re excited today to introduce a new, three-part mini series to the blog. For each part in this series, we’ve paired up two different emerging APIA poets and have asked them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s installment features two poets with very different aesthetic styles but intersecting thematic interests: Monica Mody (author of Kala Pani, which was recently published by 1913 Press) and Cathy Linh Che (author of Split, forthcoming from Alice James Books in April).

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LR: In the wake of Valentine’s Day, we’ll start with this: what are your literary obsessions, and what breaks your heart? 

MM: Literary obsessions // Poems that catch me by my throat & pull me into the heart/breast of the poem. That dwell in the mouth of the beast and its opposite, its wholeness. That trigger an ache in the body, or bliss. On whom the eye falls and there is nothing but light. Poems of the earth, troubled about the relationships of humans with non-humans. That peel the crust of indifference off my eyes. Some of these poems have not yet been written. Two collections that I am looking forward to being obsessed with are Lucas de Lima’s Wet Land, and Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, Don Mee Choi’s new translation of Kim Hyesoon.

Heartbreaks // When poets write only to follow trends or to matter to the opinions of others, rather than let their hearts be broken in the writing of poems or dragged by wildness into that space that is of the animal the plant, relational, non-speaking, verboten. // When poets stay on the surface of poetry, stymied at the edge not jumping, stay with the dry husk of consensual meaning and consensual reality, stop themselves with rules and how-to’s.

CLC: Who are my literary obsessions? Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Srikanth Reddy, Jack Spicer, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, and James Baldwin. I’m interested in precise, intelligent, beautiful writing that takes great risk. What breaks my heart (in the best kind of way): honesty. My own and other people’s ability to speak up and out about issues that feel exposing and vulnerable.

Continue reading “2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Monica Mody and Cathy Linh Che”

Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)

Books We're Looking Forward to in 2014, Part 1It’s the first month of the new year, and so much news about exciting new books has come across our desk of late that we thought we’d put together a couple of roundup posts in order to put some of the titles that we’re most looking forward to reading in the coming year on your radar.  In today’s post (part 1), I’ll be discussing six recently published titles (five full-length books and one chapbook) that have made top priority on my to-read list for 2014. Part 2 (which will follow next week) will focus on forthcoming books that are due out in 2014.

Note: the books discussed below appear alphabetically by author; the order in which they’re listed does not reflect any sort of ranking or order of preference. (We’re equally excited about all of them!)

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The Arbitrary Sign by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (Red Wheelbarrow, 2013)

Desmond Kon is a two-time contributor to LR (his work appears in both issue 1 and issue 5), and both times that we’ve published him, Mia and I had a really hard time choosing just two of the poems he’d sent in each batch. Desmond’s work interests itself in philosophy, visual art, pop culture, and the sounds and textures of language: he is interested in dadaism and in other forms of the avant-garde, and has a unique gift for finding the music in both “high” language (such as academic jargon) and “low” forms of speech—slang, text speak, gossip column patter. The genius of his poems lies in their polyglot nature—the way that he mixes contrasting modes of speech and weaves easily in and out of a variety of languages. His pieces work because there is a delightfully haphazard quality to their approach, a lightness that plays against both the weight of the poems’ scale and subject matter and the deliberate care with which the poet has gathered, built up, and sculpted their many intricate layers of texture and pattern. Desmond, a highly prolific writer, has published multiple chapbooks (both in the US and in his home city-state of Singapore) and has a long list of journal and anthology credits to his name—and for good reason. I’ve no doubt The Arbitrary Sign—a philosophical twist on the form of the classic alphabet book—will be as delightful as the rest of his body of work.

For a sneak peek at The Arbitrary Sign, head on over to Kitaab to read six of the poems that appear in the collection.

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Kala Pani by Monica Mody (1913 Press, 2013)

This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long while now. Monica wrote for us as a staff reviewer from 2010 through 2011, and we later had the privilege of getting to publish a poem of hers in issue 4. Her work is deeply invested in myth and parable, and the textures of her writing are rich and sinuously complex—by turns liquid and transparent, and by others, knotty and grotesque. She has an exceptionally keen ear for music and magic, both of which suffuse her work.  I had the pleasure of getting to read and workshop portions of Kala Pani back in 2009. It is a hybrid piece (partway between poetry and prose) that takes up the narrative of a group of world travellers who converge around an ancient tree.  In it, the poet deftly plies together the fibers of what at first appears to be an allegory-like story, only to tease and unspun these threads mid-strand and remake them again (differently) in the next breath. What I admired most about the manuscript when I saw it in workshop was the way in which the tapestry of the piece’s language shatters and shifts at a moment’s notice—like quicksilver. Monica is a brilliant critical thinker, in addition to being a talented poet, and it shows in the deeply intelligent nature of her writing: though she is keen to investigate notions of trauma,  geography, time, race, gender, spirituality, etc., her writing neither preaches endlessly nor holds to an overly simplistic view of the political: rather, she holds questions up to a mirror, testing them on a knife’s edge. She recognizes that the notions of place and identity are inherently fraught with instability, and she both celebrates and problematizes this complexity: the characters of which she writes transform and bleed into one another, metamorphose and cycle back to avatars of themselves, over and over again, in many different ways. It’s been a couple of years since 1913 first announced that it had acquired Kala Pani, and now that the book is finally out, I can’t wait to read the finished product.

Excerpts of Kala Pani can be found at The Volta, the Boston Review, and Lies/Isle.

Continue reading “Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)”

Summer Reads: Monica Mody’s Top Three

Today’s reading list, part of our 2012 Summer Reads series, comes from Issue 4 contributor and former Lbook reviewer Monica Mody. Her recommended reads:

1. Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability. Art: Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam; Story: Srividya Natarajan, S. Anand (Navayana)

Breathtaking reworking of the graphic novel form by the Pardhan Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, which opens out the story of BR Ambedkar’s life into a multilinear, multi-layered narrative about how caste oppression continues in contemporary India.

2. Speaking of Siva, translated by A.K. Ramanujan (Penguin)

Translations into English of the vacanas, i.e. bhakti poems, of four 10th-12th century Virasaiva saints from Karnataka, along with a wonderful introduction by Ramanujan.

3. India: A Sacred Geography, by Diana L. Eck (Harmony)

Eck meticulously and soulfully persuades that the landscape of India is “living, storied, and intricately connected” through pilgrimage practices.

Also I’ve been keeping track of the books I buy/borrow/receive (and read) as I travel through India this summer—this list might also be interesting to LR readers.

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For more, read Monica’s “Myth of Spirits” in Lantern Review, Issue 4.

To see the rest of this series (and find out what else our contributors have been reading this summer), click here.

What have you been reading this summer? Leave us a comment or drop us a line on Facebook or Twitter to let us know.

Friends & Neighbors: Monica Mody’s TRAVEL & RISK

Our very own Monica Mody (who writes reviews for us) is having a splendid writing year, and we are very excited for her. We recently received word that her chapbook Travel & Risk (Wheelchair Party, 2010) is now available in free e-book form on the publisher’s web site. (It’s also available for purchase in a limited print run for $3, or with all three other Wheelchair Party Press titles for $9—an option which we highly recommend as well, since each Wheelchair Party chapbook is painstakingly hand-bound into a hand-screen-printed cover created by its publisher, CJ Waterman).

Travel & Risk is rubbly on the tongue and lovely in the ear; a long poem that is almost surgically aligned into neat single columns on the page, and yet whose imagery—at times playfully, and at times ominously—shimmers wickedly in the corner of the mind’s eye, slides languidly out of the field of one’s vision, returns winking to adopt its most serious instructive guise, when all the while you know that it is running joyously, inexorably amuck behind the scenes.  A read that we highly recommend.

Monica’s work also recently appeared in the Boston Review, and her manuscript Kala Pani was just accepted for publication by 1913 Press, to be released next year.

Congrats, Monica!