Mona Dash: In Conversation with Jaydeep Sarangi
Mona Dash was born and educated in India, and came to London to work, in 2001. With a background in Engineering and Management, she works in Telecoms Solution Sales.
She writes fiction and poetry and her work has been published in various magazines internationally and anthologised widely. She has recently gained a Masters in Creative Writing, with distinction, from the London Metropolitan University.
Dawn-drops is her first collection of poetry published by Writer's Workshop, India. Her first book of fiction is represented by Red Ink Literary agency.
More about Mona Dash at www.monadash.net
Jaydeep Sarangi, poet and scholar, draws out Mona Dash in a Conversation that delves into her work her life and the main sources from which she draws her creativity.
Jaydeep Sarangi: Could you please tell us about your childhood?
Mona Dash: I grew up in the coastal town of Berhampur in Odisha since my father, a doctor, taught in the Berhampur Medical College. I was fortunate enough to have a very happy childhood and I thoroughly enjoyed my school days in St Vincent's Convent. I must have seemed quite boring as my main interest was studying, competing for 1st place, and reading books, books and more books! I was very much lost in my own world. The school library and 'Bookland,' a small book shop near the school were some of my favourite places. Most of us were vociferous readers of Enid Blyton and had developed a complex system of exchanging books with each other so that we could get to read several books, but without having to make as many purchases. I still remember weekend trips to Gopalpur-on-sea and the roar of the sea as we would rush down a sandy hill to the beach. The other interesting aspect of my childhood was the variety of people who visited; since my mother is an established poet in Odiya literature, noted poets and people from literary backgrounds, were always at home, deep in discussions. I think it was because of living in a books-induced world, I developed a fascination to travel and explore the world, and due to the exposure to other writers, I always thought writing was one of the things people did naturally.
JS: When did you discover your talent for writing?
MD: I don't know if I ever thought 'I must write as I have a talent.' It was always the most obvious thing to do, considering the atmosphere at home and school. I started writing poetry when I was about nine or ten years old I think – for example I remember writing about a fan, and how weary it was getting, working its arms to cool people. I wrote a poem about the rain being like a mother and that was published in Telegraph's poetry for kids section. My parents read my poems and encouraged me to keep writing, saying the more I wrote the better I would get at it. I wrote some poetry even as I pursued my Engineering degree; in those four years, there were annual competitions, college magazines, other students who enjoyed writing, and that kept me motivated. It was during my MBA that I didn't write even a single poem, for all of the two years. Life just took over.
But luckily I revived it a little when I started working, and my first book of poetry was published by Writer's Workshop, India. Some years later, after moving to London, I also started writing short stories. However I didn't really send them out or share my work. That was my mistake I feel. The whole process of sharing your work is a significant part of the writing process; there is the creative part, but also important are writers' groups, networks, submissions, and the inevitable rejections! It is the whole circle of writing.
JS: How do you structure thoughts into a poem?
Usually a single thought will become the underlying concept of the poem. Once I have this 'concept' or core of the poem, I will write all the words and phrases which come to mind, in free flow. For example I have a poem titled 'Belonging' and the way it came about was I was thinking that the place we think we belong, the place we are perceived to be belonging and the place we actually belong to, can all be very different. I have a poem called 'A certain way' which I wrote to explore the perceptions people have about immigrants, and the stereotyping which however may not be true.
The first draft is therefore quite rough. Once my initial thoughts are written, I work on the actual structure and form of the poem. The beginning and the end, I finalise much later, once I feel the concept is presented. And then of course there is always a lot of editing and polishing to be done.
JS: Is there any specific significance of the titles of your collections?
MD: My first book of poetry is called Dawn Drops and this was because the poems I felt were quite delicate, romantic; almost a fleeting capture of an emotion. Just like the moment of dawn which comes and goes very quickly. Hence the name, signifying 'drops of the dawn.'
My first work of fiction is called Untamed Heart and while this wasn't the first title I had chosen – the publisher spent a lot of time to decide and finalise the name – it is characteristic of the characters and story. I won't give away anymore as the book isn't published yet!
Skylark Publications of UK is planning to publish a collection of my poetry, through crowd funding. The title of the collection will be open to the public to choose, as part of a competition, so that will be interesting.
In 2014, a name I proposed was selected for an anthology of Indian poetry edited by Dr Vivekananda Jha. He asked all the contributing poets to suggest a title for the anthology and my proposed title 'The Dance of the Peacock' was selected. The reason I thought of the name was because poetry is after all a dance of words, and the peacock the national bird of India. I felt it was the best way to depict poetry from India.
Essentially the titles borrow from the collection and are inspired by the material inside the book.
JS: Who are your favourite poets?
MD: There are just so many; Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, W B Yeats, Sylvia Path, Keats, Baudelaire, T S Eliot, to name some.
JS: Can musing poetry be taught/trained?
MD: It's interesting you ask this. There are several initiatives now, creative writing courses, poetry school and so on. But, did Wordsworth have his poems edited or was Shelley trained to write? Would Yeats have been a better poet if he had been sent to a poetry school?
Yet, I recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing in the London Metropolitan University. One of the modules we studied was Poetry. Did that improve us as poets? I don't think so, yet certainly it was very useful to get feedback from others about your work. Peer feedback is a major part of any such course. It was also interesting to study about forms and structure of poetry. We tried techniques such as writing the same poem in long lines or breaking up a single sentence into shorter lines, and then analysing which read better. Poems are just so much about language, structure, forms as well. So while the heart of a poem can never be taught, the body of a poem, to some extent, can be.
JS: You mention you completed a Masters recently. You have also just won a scholarship to complete a PhD in Area Studies. The output is meant to be a novel. Do you feel obtaining a degree is essential to writing or essential to a writer?
MD: There are many creative writing courses these days. Publishers such as Faber and Faber, literary agencies such as Curtis Brown run six monthly courses to write novels. The line-up of writers and agents who come in and present is very impressive, so I was initially contemplating something like this. But then, with my educational background being technical and business related, I felt it would be very interesting to pursue Literature academically. I'd always loved the English papers we had as part of curriculum, whilst studying science. I also wanted to connect with other fellow writers, for my social circle comprised of people like me, professionals working in companies. I thoroughly enjoyed the course, and the submissions associated with each module. A student of English literature would probably not benefit any more than they already have before, but at the stage if life I was, it provided me with a much needed outlet. While it is certainly not essential, sometimes immersing yourself in the writing environment can help.
JS: You come from a land charged with Jagannatha cult. Did you write anything on that rich tradition?
MD: Yes, I am from Odisha, born and educated there. I didn't ever live in Puri, but of course I have visited the temple many times. Unfortunately, I haven't yet written anything about Lord Jagannath, or the temple, or the place, or any of the myths and traditions surrounding Him. Perhaps I should! I have written about some Odiya festivals and customs in my fiction, and my characters will usually be from Odisha, but my poetry, I don't think, has been very influenced by Odisha specifically.
JS: You mention fiction. So what is the main difference between writing poetry and fiction and which one is a more natural form of writing for you?
MD: Like most writers, I started writing poetry first, then short stories, and then attempted a novel. Poetry however is more inspirational. So while I can write or think of prose, either a flash fiction, short story, or even parts of a novel, at any time, poetry is more flighty, and doesn't arrive so easily. Poetry has her special moments and gifts! In terms of expression, I think poetry is more about your own sense of self and how you express it, as a reaction to what you see and experience. Fiction is about other people, characters and situations which want to be written about.
JS: Which is harder to publish?
MD: Well, if you mean in magazines in journals, there are enough outlets for both, but as always it's very subjective. Editors tend to choose what they like and what fits with the magazine,
In terms of collections, poetry collections are often in form of chapbooks, or are self-published and rarely there would be agents dealing with poetry. Novels thanks to the commercial success have a different path, of finding an agent first, then a publisher. Both have their own challenges!
JS: Postcolonial critics often emphasise the agency that speakers of English in post-colonial societies have in the way they use the language in their identity formation and to create their own discursive space. Do you consider this contextualised English (i.e. Indian English) as the new variety (model) of English now?
MD: Well, there are two things here. One is writing grammatically correct English, however with the addition of Indian words and phrases, like so many of the Indian writers have done successfully. Leaving aside India, there are books like Sam Selvon's the Lonely Londoners where the entire book is written in a creolised form of English. The narrative voice works and to have all the characters speak in a strait laced English wouldn't have worked. In my opinion, English borrowing from Indian languages, phrases and expressions is in fact enriching the language and adding an extra dimension. English as a language grows by absorbing from other languages. However, I don't think writing English carelessly, which is not grammatically correct in the traditional sense works; in fact it gives an incorrect perception about English from India. I often hear people saying the new books being written India are not of the highest quality of English; however, we have Indian writers regularly making a Booker or Pulitzer shortlist. It depends on what you refer to as Indian English.
JS: Do you subscribe to the idea of 'english'?
MD: I think you mean variations of English in cultural contexts. Yes, I do subscribe to the idea. English is a global language and it is very versatile. I may ruffle feathers here, but I do recognise that the original English is from England, and, for example, American English is a form of, but it's not the real English. So the spelling of colour is colour and not color! I don't like the 'zfication' of every word like organise, realise and so on! However I am fine with the adding of words from other languages and adding an extra dimension to the writing. Arundhati Roy for example had a delightful turn of phrase and expression, in The God of Small Things. It was not the Queen's English, but it was beautiful English.
JS: In countries like India there is a threat that the country will lose the depth of its age old vernaculars because of the wide spreading acceptance of English as the daily mode of communication and publication. What is your take here?
MD: That is, indeed, a sad thought. A prominent language like Hindi will survive, but what about literature written in the smaller regional languages? What about the writers who know the richness of expression in a language that is not English? Unfortunately, due to the volumes associated with English, regional writers are also wanting to write in English. Translations, of course, help in reaching out to a bigger audience, but what about the cadence of the original language? The fact is that the audience is wider when the language is English. But the ways to counteract this and still encourage Literature in the vernacular languages is for more initiatives - awards, journals, etc in regional languages and perhaps for poets and writers to understand that the competition is way higher when everyone is writing in English!
JS: What can the function of literature? Is literature a by-product of literary movements these days?
MD: I have a strong affinity to literature more than any of the other art forms. I believe in expression in any art form; while music, films and anything audio/visual will always be more popular, the power of the written word cannot be underestimated. It gives us an alternate world to escape into, and it also helps us appreciate the world around us. It is the only way we can experience, explore, without leaving our actual space.
Leaving aside that, however, is the fact that certain trends can also affect what is being written and being published. The big ticket publishers will take decisions on a commercial basis, will publish only a certain kind of writing; some will succumb to this and write what is being asked for. The true writers will however write because they need to, irrespective of the trends and dictates of publishing, these are the people who strive, and who believe in their originality, this is so crucial to the cause of Literature. If you read some journals and magazines published especially by Universities, you will find that a lot of writing is very similar, and then you see that most are creative writing degree holders and are obviously writing in the same vein as accepted. But then someone will come along who will shake all the existing views and establish their own voice. These are the people who shape Literature. The Man Booker 2015 winner Marlon James mentioned how his first novel was rejected seventy times and he almost gave up writing! That is an example of the publishing industry letting writers down.
JS: What is your mother tongue?
My mother tongue is Odiya. I do read Odiya and had in fact topped in my school ICSE exam. (much to the surprise of our teacher as many of us had scored very high marks!). However, I also studied English from the time I went to nursery school, and this became the de-facto language when talking to friends, teachers, and work. My school was very strict that we speak in English as the main language. Being in England now, obviously means English is the main language of communication. So English is my adopted mother tongue, Odiya my birth mother tongue!
JS: Is bilingualism a help or hindrance in language acquisition?
MD: It is said that it is best to teach several languages to children early in life as they can absorb languages easily. Some have a flair for languages and can be bilingual or trilingual. As a writer though, the language is your medium, your friend. You have to be strong in one language to express yourself. It is good to know several languages but I feel the main language has to be one and the stronger you are at it, the better. I think it just depends on the person. The majority I feel will speak one language better than the other. I think the answer therefore is you can pick up languages easily to speak in if you are bi-lingual etc., but whether you can express yourself creatively in several languages – I am not too sure of that.
JS:A large part of our identity is rooted in nationality. How has migration from one nation to another affected your identity?
MD: What migration to another country does make you an observer forever! It's not a bad thing being a writer, as what are writers, but observers!
So, you come to one country and see the differences in culture, habits, weather, clothes, etc, you learn to accept and love them; or as some do, you hate them. Then you go back to the country you came from, and now you see the differences in yourself. So depending on the situation, you either feel you belong to two places, or you feel you belong nowhere. That is how we are, as diaspora. I, personally, however, feel very positively about my dual identity. I draw from India's heritage and spirituality: it is my bedrock. I cherish the confidence and security I feel in England. My identity, I feel, is stronger just because I have a wider persona to embrace. Perhaps, I have it easy as Indians are no strangers to Britain, and so many have been here before me and struggled to carve an identity. As writers as well, Indian writing is very much a force now.
JS: Could you comment on the poetry scene in your place?
MD: England is after all the birthplace of English literature and London is a very happening place regarding everything. Thankfully, that includes poetry also. There are several events on an almost daily basis, a lot of competitions, and a lot of magazines. There are open mic events one can walk into and perform poetry, serious poetry readings, readings from renowned poets. The possibilities are endless. The trick is how do you focus, where do you submit, how do you make a small niche for yourself and equally avail of all the opportunities on offer? The standard of writing is also exceptionally high, so there is a lot of learning to do. If you wrote a lot, attended the events and festivals happening, did readings and so on, you could be busier than having a full time job!
Just the other day I heard of this concept called 'The Poetry Takeaway.' It is essentially a mobile burger van like place, started by a group of poets. They compose poems for you within some minutes and you can take that away, and, of course, you can order food.
There is also the Poetry on the underground and on London buses; where short poems or extracts from poems from new and established poets is written inside the tube, or in buses. These are great ways to bring poetry to people.
JS: Is writing an act of resistance and emancipation for you?
MD: Writing is everything really. Sometimes it is resistance, sometimes it is breaking free; for me it is expression. I think all creative arts stem from a similar desire, and people choose different mediums. For me, it is the written word. I like the fact that it is not physically visual, I like the fact that everything is seen or felt and experience just through words. I have a very low concentration for watching television, or playing video games, but seeing words fall out on paper whilst reading, or form on the laptop screen/paper is magic. More than fiction, though, I have used poetry to explore my angst or frustration. A lot of my poetry is of course about identities, immigration, perceptions. Poetry is personal, and by its very nature is such a beautiful way to express one's angst, anger, or happiness.
JS: Who are some contemporary Indian poets, who are published in the magazines in England?
MD: As I mentioned there are just so many magazines here, and so many new voices, so many established voices. Some of the British Indian poets I know of, in no specific order are Daljit Nagra, Imtiaz Dharker, Debjani Chatterjee, Shanta Acharya, Yogesh Patel, Usha Kishore, Kavita Jindal, Siddharta Bose, Mona Arshi, Bashabi Fraser. There are, of course, a lot of poets living in India, but being published here.
JS: Publishers often consider publishing collections is a commercial suicide. How do you view this?
MD: You mean collections of poetry? It is indeed sad that publishing is such a commercial business. Publishing is expensive business, and even in fiction, publishers are not making enough, so let alone poetry. I work in technology and business, so I do understand the drivers for things to be commercially viable, the returns, the benefits and so on; however, I wish it wouldn't apply to literature. It is also a situation publishers have created of their own making. They have sometimes put in so much marketing efforts and hype to generate very high sales for some authors, this means that they keep increasing the entry thresholds.
JS: You are a well known poet in the UK. Do you consider there would be any difference between a native English poet and a bilingual/trilingual poet from Asia?
MD: It is very kind of you to say this, thank you.
I think there is a difference in style. Modern poetry from England seems to be very precise, very compact, each phrase stripped clean, it feels like an exercise in objectivity. The poets from Asia, or should I say India, as I haven't read much from other parts of Asia; have a different approach to poetry in the sense it is more classical and lyrical.
JS: Do you write in Odiya?
MD: My only attempt to write in Odiya was long back, a single poem I write in school. I still remember that poem! I never tried as I feel my language would lack the depth which comes from knowledge and experience.
JS: If you are to prepare a text book for school students would you include your poems?
MD: I think I would ask what age of children it would be for. With a young son myself, I am quite curious to see what children like, and believe that things would be humorous, inspiring, and something they will enjoy. Adults sometimes think poems /stories written for children should talk down at them, but it shouldn't. There should be an element of fun, images, anything to brighten their imaginations and feed their ever active minds. Some of my poems I feel wouldn't be appropriate or relevant for young children.
But I could include some of my poems; few years back I had started converting the Panchatantra stories into rhymes as I felt that would be good way to revive those stories of wisdom. I have one called 'Frog and the Butterfly' which was written for my nephew when he was around nine. I haven't actually sent these out anywhere.
JS: Will poetry travel in the age of cyber mania?
MD: I think it will. Thanks to the internet, a lot of poetry is more available. There are these sites you can join which send you a poem every day. People quote poetry on Facebook etc, though sometimes when they don't give the due credit it isn't good. There is also a lot of mixed media poetry, and this is all about juxtaposition of the written word with other forms of media. I feel all these different ways of accessing poetry is good for poetry in general.
JS: Would you kindly share with us a poem that represents you as a poet?
MD: That's a hard question! But I will share a poem I mentioned before, called 'Woman.' It has been published in Kavya Bharati before.
I am no different from you
homeless, grey saree in tatters
matted hair, uncombed, unoiled for weeks
bindi smeared, vapid eyes
running through streets
to the cries of mad woman
crying for the son killed in a street fight
ten years back.
I too have buried my flesh
I am no different from you
in glittering cocktail dresses
in red sarees, shiny blouse
see through petticoats
crimson gleaming lipstick, flowers
clipped on scented black hair
stoned in public
for the lack of morality.
I too have traded my flesh
I am no different from you
attacked when defenceless
touched when asking not to be
nails gouging eyes out
but always failing
to stronger biceps
blood, oozing slowly.
a victim's vulnerability
I too have plunderers on my flesh.
Always, a different name
a different country
a different life
But the same I.
MD: Thank you for your questions!