Interview with Anindita Sengupta

Anindita Sengupta is the author of Walk Like Monsters (Paperwall, 2016) and City of Water (Sahitya Akademi, 2010). She was a Charles Wallace fellow (Kent) and has received awards from Muse India and TFA India. Her work is in several anthologies and journals such as Plume, Feral, One, Ice Floe Press, Perhappened, and others. She lives in Los Angeles, California. Her website is aninditasengupta.com and she tweets as @anu_sengupta

Describe the relationship between your culture to your writing. How is your identity a navigating mechanism for you to write your pieces?

Culture is hydra-headed; sometimes it affects my work insidiously. I am obsessed with the place and often use it as a lens, a way of looking, a way of entering a poem. If stanza means ‘room’, I often step into that room with a particular place in mind. My identity is somewhat hybrid: I was born in Kolkata and grew up in Mumbai. In my twenties & thirties, I lived in Bangalore. I moved to Los Angeles about five years back. A hybrid identity is a way of moving in the world. It is like stranded colorwork in knitting. You have to maintain the tension between various strands just right or the whole thing goes off. I am finishing a full-length collection that talks about this tension, the invisibility one can feel in different spaces. Because to be part of many groups is to also not be part of any of them. For a while after moving to the US, I felt disembodied. The book explores how I embodied myself by making things with my hands, specifically through yarn crafts. It was a way of healing, of fashioning myself anew.

In terms of my ancestors, my father’s parents moved from (then) East Bengal during the Partition. That resides alongside my own pre-occupations with home, migration, and alienation. Themes such as poverty, colonization, and post-colonial trauma affect me. I write about them to understand and navigate. Sometimes, to argue. Because there is a dominant culture that surrounds me and I must be in an argument with it. I have a poem coming out in a journal later this year that deals with global inequity in waste management.

I draw on natural imagery from places but also from books, movies, science journals. Beyond the identity of a nation-state, we are affected by the common world we live in, the one inhabited by bears, salmon, geese. Reading about that world and bringing it into my writing is almost an act of defiance, a refusal to be bordered by narrow expectations of what I “should” sound like.

Describe your thoughts while writing the piece.

As news of the second wave of Covid-19 in India started coming in, like most Indians in the Diaspora, I felt a mix of grief, rage, helplessness, and survivor’s guilt. I was spending all day on Twitter, glued to the news, and having nightmares when I slept. Watching family and friends in India deal with loss and grief, wanting to help them, not being able to visit—these have been common experiences for so many of us who live far away. At the same time, people in the US are being vaccinated. They are feeling cheerful and optimistic. Things are re-opening. The contrast is almost unbearable sometimes. Inhabiting two different worlds can split one at the seams.

It is not that I grudge the happiness of one set but how I wish, some of that was available for others. The global inequity in terms of vaccines is being discussed widely. The US recently agreed to back a vaccine patent waiver so production can be scaled up but a few countries are still blocking this waiver. This happens even as people die en masse in several countries around the world. The pandemic is not over because rich nations decided it must be so and sealed their borders.

Separately, I was reeling from the Indian government’s abject selfishness and utter, malignant incompetence. I did not have high expectations of this government—they were responsible for genocide in Gujarat—but I had underestimated their appetite for carnage. Overcome by the horror, I started writing a series of poems to sort through the images, to put them down somewhere. It became a way of bearing witness, of documenting all the different aspects of this trauma. I can’t say it helps me “make sense” of it. There is no way to make sense of such devastation. Some things must remain beyond comprehension. This is an attempt to record and remember.

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