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Interview

Amit Majmudar, a poet and novelist, once called himself “the servant of two masters,” and indeed, he has published both verse and fiction to critical acclaim. The Poetry Society of America selected his collection 0˚, 0˚, published in 2009, as a finalist for the Norma Faber First Book Award, and A.E. Stallings awarded his second volume of poems, Heaven and Earth, the Donald Justice Prize in 2011. His latest book of poetry, Dothead, came out in 2016, a year after he was named Ohio’s first Poet Laureate. Majmudar’s poems have also appeared in The New Yorker, Image, and Poetry. The author of two novels, Partitions and The Abundance, Majmudar won an O’Henry Prize for his short story “Secret Lives of the Detainees” in 2017. He has also published a novella, Azazil. Beyond poetry and fiction, his work includes translation and essays. In his latest book, Godsong, he renders the Bhagavad Gita into English quatrains, while also providing context for and reflections on the Hindu scripture. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, on the Kenyon Review’s blog, and elsewhere. Jane Zwart spoke with him in April 2018 during the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College.


Image: Let’s begin by talking a bit about genre. A while ago now, you published an essay called “The Servant of Two Masters” in the Kenyon Review, and in it you put forward a number of really beautiful generalizations about poetry and novels. One of my favorites is “the poem makes masks; the novel makes golems.” So, which is easier to fashion? A mask or a golem?

Amit Majmudar: I think that depends on what I’m trying to do. The way I look at it is that a poem makes a sound and a novel tells a story.

Of course, you can write prose that has musical characteristics, prose with internal rhyme, prose with runs of meter. In fact, my first novel Partitions has runs of meter in it, which I don’t know if people detect. And Melville’s Moby Dick has runs of meter.

You can also write poems that tell stories. That used to be very common, particularly in the nineteenth century, when some of the most popular poems were narrative. Consider Longfellow or Sir Walter Scott or the oriental romances that first made Byron famous. It’s true: Byron became famous as a narrative poet. Then, of course, there are those great epics, Homer and Virgil and Beowulf and so on. Those are all poems that tell stories.

But it’s the audience—all of us in the civilization itself at this particular moment—who want poems that make sounds and novels that tell stories. So it all depends on what your endgame is. In general, I write novels purely from the interest of telling a really interesting story and therefore can forgo musicality. Sure, I want to try to make the prose good. But at the same time I can pass up a lot of the bells and whistles that I’m capable of because I want to get this story across, and I want to get it across as powerfully as possible. I think The Abundance, my second novel, is an example of my easing up on the verbal hijinks in order to make sure that the character and her story came through.

On the other hand, I’ve written entire poems purely to alliterate, purely to rhyme, purely to play with a set of sounds that didn’t have any idea or any emotion associated with them, which is not how people typically think about poetry. People tend to think, “Oh, you had to break up with your girlfriend, and that’s why you wrote a poem.” But sometimes—though certainly not all of the time—I’ve written a poem solely to play. For instance, “Save the Candor” in Dothead had a highly unlikely origin: I happened across a Wikipedia article about the California condor, and there was a typo in it that read “California candor.” So I wrote a poem, substituting the “candor” for the “condor.” The poem takes place in California, in Modoc County, and defines a habitat for this “candor” and announces that now the creature has become extinct. The whole poem arose from something as minor as that typo, which someone has corrected since. I almost want to edit it in again.

It’s not that making a mask or a golem is easier. It’s that the purpose of the words governs the genre.

 

Image: Let me ask one more thing about that same essay. You say the poem “makes the self strange” and that the novel “makes strangers familiar.” What about scripture? More specifically, how does the Bhagavad Gita, which you’ve just translated and published under the title Godsong, play between strangeness and familiarity?

AM: That question opens up the entire Pandora’s box of Hindu metaphysics. One of the central elements of the Gita—and really one of the central elements of other religious traditions and even of our politics—is this question: Because I am me and you are you, what is our relationship? And, by extension: Are you my enemy? Are you my friend? Are you a threat? Are you not a threat? But a scripture adds this other element, which is God. And a further question: What is this love triangle that contains me and you and God? The Gita would answer, and so would I: Look. Me, you, and God are all fundamentally the same.

That contention in the Gita holds true not just of myself and all the other selves in this room. It goes beyond human selves to include all of the non-human living things out there: all of the animals, all of the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. The Gita would say that all of these selves are atomizations, which puns meaningfully with Adamizations. Adamization is coming to be like Adam, whom the book of Genesis depicts as the first human being. Atomization is God entering into multiple small divisions of itself, multiple indivisibilities. Indivisibility, of course, being another term for individual—so that every cell is identical to Brahman, or God.

Thus, the whole purpose of existence is, through many births and deaths, to improve yourself spiritually, until you reach the pinnacle of being human. At this pinnacle of being human, you have reason, you have free will, you have the ability to read scriptures. But in addition, through yoga, which really means yoking, you join yourself to God, taking on the state of God, merging into God. And that is Nirvana.

So scripture makes the self strange; it insists that you yourself are one with God. But it also makes the strange familiar; it gives us an atomized, Adamized version of God. It makes Brahman recognizable.

 

Image: Given this version of Brahman, it makes sense to me that polytheism is a perfectly logical conclusion. But you’ve called yourself an “extremist” in your polytheism. What do you mean by that?

AM: Well, for example, the title poem in my first book, 0˚, 0˚, is a vision of Christ. Specifically of Christ crucified on a map of the world, where the equator and the prime meridian form a metaphorical cross. And I’ve had many poems, like this one, printed in Christian publications: Image, America, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and other magazines and journals associated with seminaries or theological institutes or places otherwise based in the biblical tradition.

I’ve also written a prose poem called Azazil, which is a Sufi Islamic retelling of Paradise Lost; it appeared, serialized, in the Kenyon Review. And even earlier, when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I wrote a verse play about the Buddha.

Anyway, none of those religious traditions is technically my own. The way I look at the polytheistic aspect of Hinduism, then, is inclusive. This extreme polytheism has elements of pantheism and elements of monotheism in it. In fact, in a very complicated way that I won’t wade into now, there is in Hinduism the sense of a pantheon. Everyone knows about the different Hindu gods: Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Rama, Krishna…. And goddesses as well: Durga, Kali, Uma…. But I think that a true polytheism, a truly open and soul-opening and transformative polytheism—polytheism in the best possible sense—must radicalize, including in the pantheon the gods of entirely other traditions. Those of the Near East and those of the Far East. Which means that the true test of polytheism can’t simply be to “study” the biblical tradition, the koranic tradition, or the Sufi tradition. The true test is to try to inhabit those many traditions and to exercise my creativity from within them.

As for the years I was writing overtly Christian poems—poems that partake of Christian imagery more unabashedly than the poems of many writers born within the Christian tradition—I wrote as though that faith were my own. In part, I used literature to understand Christianity. But I know that I also arrived at Christianity through literature. When I was maybe thirteen years old, I blundered into Dante’s Inferno for the first time. And there were all of those footnotes about popes and Thomas Aquinas. There was the harrowing of hell. All told, you can’t get through Dante without understanding Christianity, so Dante was how I came to Christianity. I had to learn about Christianity to experience this transcendent poem.

So “literatures” plural and “religions” plural have always been completely inextricable for me.

 

Image: This makes me think of your essay “Neureligion,” in which you float an interesting analogy. First, you talk about the movements of the arm—extension, flexion, rotation—and how each depends upon its own neural pathways. None of those motions in and of itself has any particular morality attached to it. Rather, morality has everything to do with the action those motions add up to. The essay goes on to think about monotheism, polytheism, and atheism, suggesting that metaphorically, if not literally, each one follows a distinct neural pathway—and none of those “neureligious” pathways has any kind of morality in and of itself either. You conclude that any one of these “movements of belief” can lead a person to compassion, but that most of us use only one. Do you think there’s something specific about writing that urges you to try them all?

AM: I think so. If you’re not a novelist, you don’t necessarily have to think yourself convincingly into the minds of other people, people who have fundamentally different belief systems from your own. Maybe you don’t have to do so if you are a novelist, either, but it is an excellent exercise. To try, say, if you have a very strong atheistic bent, writing a religious character. To see what things look like from inside that head. For me, trying for that jump of understanding is a literary aspect of my personal belief, my personal religiosity.

Apropos of that essay, though, I’d point out that Hinduism itself follows multiple religious “pathways.” Somewhere in my commentary on the Gita, in my translation Godsong, I talk about how polytheism, atheism, and monotheism are in the end scholarly descriptions for ways of believing that people do instinctively, without thinking deliberately about the contrasts between them.

From the very origins of Hinduism, you can find schools of thought that are technically atheistic. That is, ways of believing that don’t include a controlling God. Yet this particular atheism is part of Hinduism. In fact, the economist Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, characterizes himself as a Hindu atheist, and there’s no contradiction in that.

Hinduism does not—and this is one of its most unusual features—attribute moral qualities to states of mind or states of belief. It attributes morality or karmic charge only to actions. And that’s why the Gita, the Godsong, talks about action relentlessly. It focuses on the work that you are supposed to do. Not on the results, but on the action itself. If you have such a focus, moreover, you will not attain negative or positive karma as you move through the world; you will be free of your actions, unattached. It is in part this concentrating strictly on the work you do that makes Hinduism a highly ethical religion.

To put it another way: Hinduism does not believe in thought crime. And that is particularly important for us now, as we live in societies comprised of people from every background imaginable. In the old days, when societies were more religiously homogenous, thought crimes could have horrible consequences: persecutions for heresy, etc. Even now, of course, every religion has the disputes of its scholars, which is fine—even sometimes interesting. But I think it’s crucially important not to attribute sin to certain ways of belief.

 

Image: I wonder if we could turn to what you would attribute sin to. The Gita, after all, talks about both the divine and the demonic, and both manifest quite clearly in Partitions. At one point in that novel, a young man named Qasim explains to another, Saif, the work of trafficking women made vulnerable by the upheaval that followed the partition of India (into India and Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh) in 1947:

The money these days, Qasim explains, is in girls. In girls, he phrases it, the way a business man might say in rice or in shipping or in gold. They are everywhere, left unattended, needing only to be roped and put in a truck. […] Out in the country, he says, it’s a free grab. None of this tugging trinkets off corpses, swollen fingers stubborn in the rings. Certain nawabs are paying three thousand rupees for each piece—Qasim uses the English word, piece—even though they know the supply is high; they want first choice, want to have the girls stood in a row so they can lift and squeeze a breast, thumb the lips up to check the teeth. Many of the girls are torn, marked up, but even the damaged ones are selling. […] These girls are longing for someone to give them houses, chores, masters. They know their own men won’t take them back. Seizing and selling them—it’s a way of returning them to life.

“They’ll be thankful.” Qasim grins at Saif and claps the muscled part between the neck and shoulder and squeezes roughly. “And how do you think they’ll thank us, hehn, brother?” Saif grins and lets himself be shaken; he has let that us pass unquestioned. He is sold.”

I wonder what you would say about the origins of such evil, apart from simply chalking it up to human nature.

AM: I think part of the answer goes back to what I was saying about the divine tendency, or the divine quest; once you understand the unity of you and me and God, compassion is almost inevitable. I would not hurt you any more than I would hurt myself. But when religious difference, class difference, or racial difference comes between us, and I think of you as “other,” as something that is “non-self,” anything becomes possible.

In that sense, just as the divine tendency moves in the direction of unity, its inverse closes off the other, closes off more and more things, as non-self. That is the downward instead of the upward movement of the religious quest. And that down-going is paradoxical, as well as tragic: the very congregations and temples and churches—all the religious communities that we espouse and become a part of—are always threatening to make us discount the humanity of outsiders. That threat also holds true of race or social class, and sometimes gender. We find it too easy to say: Those are my people; those are not my people.

In the case of the partition of India in 1947, the violence that such claims make possible took place consistently across religious lines. There would be times when looting would spare a store to one side and a store to the other side and hit only that one store that belonged to the member of the other faith. The other faith.

It’s interesting, though, that these people of “other” faiths had lived side by side for literally hundreds of years. Yes, under the thumb of the British Empire, and before that under other imperial forces. There had been intermittent, small-scale, localized outbursts of communal  over the centuries, after the initial trauma of the Muslim conquest—but nothing on the scale of the Partition. Punjab and Bengal were largely peaceful until, in 1947, democracy and the European notion of nation-statehood were introduced. When these mostly stable groups, who had lived in parallel for years, were  divided on paper, they went for each other’s throats.

That, too, is paradoxical: that something we see as liberating ended up catastrophically dividing these interdigitated populations. Mind you, they were not best of friends previously, the Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims. But they understood each other’s humanity enough to say, “You stay out of my way, I’ll stay out of your way, and we’ll come to a living arrangement.” That living arrangement broke down once power became a bone of contention.

Only after the British left did people start grasping for power. They started asking, “Who’s going to run this country? Who’s going to call the shots? Your group or my group?” We think of decolonization and the defeat of colonial powers as a good, but it’s actually a mixed bag. Because colonialism meant the introduction of European notions of nation-statehood—like a nice bounded area on a map and then parliaments and elections and run-offs—mass politics entered the fray. And that became devastating when the British quit India.

Even Hinduism, this very diverse and tolerant and multifarious religion, has over the past fifty to sixty years become increasingly homogenized. In fact, elements within it are now turning toward the mass politics of intolerance. A violent intolerance that hadn’t entered the Indian subcontinent for twenty-five hundred or three thousand years has emerged since the introduction of democracy. It’s a catch-22.

 

Image: Your novel Partitions both recognizes these divisions and undermines them, going back and forth between different characters or groups: a young Sikh woman; a sort of nominal Muslim doctor; and then a pair of Hindu twins. Could you talk about how you set the novel up so that its narrator can cross those lines? How, in other words, can your narrator tell these stories about characters whose religious identities would put them into an antagonistic relationship, but do so with compassion for them all?

AM: I can, but, spoiler alert: the narrator’s dead. More to the point, he’s a sort of disembodied spirit who is waiting to make sure everything is okay with his boys—those twins—before he allows himself to pass on. In that way, the book borrows the Buddhist notion of the bodhisattva, an enlightened being who chooses to stay back—rather than entering into Nirvana—and to engage in acts of compassion towards living people. That idea, as applied to Dr. Jaitly, allowed me to overcome space and time and to create Partition’s unifying thread.

You could do that in other ways. Most simply, you could just have an omniscient narrator who says, “Okay, meanwhile, over five hundred miles away.…” But I felt that having the father of the twins be that omniscient narrator, or, rather, an omnipresent narrator, was the way to put the storyteller’s skin in the game.

 

Image: It’s not just in the narrator’s voice, though, that Partitions works to overthrow divisions. For example, there’s a line about Dr. Masud, the not especially devout Muslim doctor: “He knows his caregiving is neither Muslim, nor Sikh, nor Hindu. Or rather it is all three of these. The name, on the man or on the God, is something around it, not of it—thinner than the gloves on his scrubbed hands and peeled off just as easily.” Is that a simile you would second?

AM: I think so. Ultimately what divides us is everything that encrusts the nature of the self: our personalities, our backgrounds; the accidents of our races, genders, ethnicities, languages. All of those things vanish when you die. Then what remains of you is just that divine atom.

 

Image: What about the politics that encrust our natures? On the one hand, it seems like this source of division isn’t one you’ve been eager to take up in your art. You say, in fact, that for political poetry to be any good, there needs to be a certain amount of anguish involved, and you give the example of the Vietnam War. Yet some of the poems that have earned you the most attention are political. Take “T.S.A.” and the title poem in Dothead. And, as these are good poems, can you talk about whether any specific anguish pushed you into writing them?

AM: Maybe it’s the same for you: I know that I was very politically unaware and indifferent until 9/11. It’s hard to believe that there are people getting driver’s licenses who weren’t alive when that happened, who regard the striking images from that time as long past. Then again, I was born in 1979, and if, when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, someone had mentioned the Islamic Revolution of 1979 or “the hostages,” I would have thought, “Oh, that’s ancient history.” 9/11 is ancient history for a lot of teenagers right now. And while it’s unsettling to realize just how old we are, what strikes me more is how, for me at least, 9/11 meant that all of a sudden geopolitics and politics in general were no longer something far away that I didn’t have to worry about.

And if that was how I woke up to a kind of anguish, I think that for a lot of young people now the election of Trump and the many school shootings are likely to serve the role of a wake-up call. Probably in the generation before us it was Vietnam. So every generation ends up having its particular moment when its people have to put childish things away.

Still, I try not to let politics overwhelm my work, even though it sometimes feels like that could be all I ever wrote about. I think there is more to life than politics. At the same time, I suspect that a life that is completely politically indifferent is perhaps a bit deficient.

Of course, the best argument against that would be Emily Dickinson. Dickinson’s most brilliant poems, hundreds of them, were written during the Civil War. Yet they never even refer to the war. And so “the soul selects her own society.” That’s the truth. The further back you go, historically, the more evidence for that you find. You might realize that Hamlet was written roughly the same year that the East India Company got its charter, or that the Napoleonic Wars don’t play into Jane Austen’s novels.

Often, then, literature is stubbornly indifferent to our day-to-day political squabbles. So while I do believe that it is important to be at least to some degree engaged, that’s not a requirement for being a good writer.

 

Image: Obviously, much of your work takes on cosmic or political drama—the big stuff. But there’s also a lot about the small stuff: not about beginnings or endings, but more about middles and the stuff of everyday life. There’s a passage in The Abundance that gets at that, a moment when the narrator and her daughter are cooking together.

AM: In The Abundance, I wanted to try to get inside the head of someone unlike me, which I described earlier as a useful experiment for novelists. So I decided to create a narrator who was female, elderly, and in a poor state of health. That is, this woman had been diagnosed with an unnamed terminal cancer. And the story also focuses on her daughter, Mala, from whom she is not completely estranged but to whom she is not close. That kind of partial alienation seems to me more common than complete estrangement. Anyhow, the two of them come together over these old recipes that the daughter, in her pursuit of a career as a doctor, never learned. Because, of course, she now realizes that those recipes are going to vanish with her mother:

The day after the landscapers arrived to work in the backyard, Mala and I go from tenderness to argument without intending to. I am about to drop some cumin in the dahl when Mala stops my wrist.

“Wait, wait,” she says. “How much are you putting in?”

My fingers are pinched together. I turn them up slightly. “This much.” I drop it in.

“No, Mom, wait. I need to know how much that was.”

“Why?”

“So I know for the future.”

“It doesn’t matter how much exactly.” I pinch my fingers and open them again. “This much. You use your sense.”

“I don’t have a sense.” She points at the notepad she has at her elbow. “That’s why I’m writing all this down for myself.”

“Write down ‘some.’”

“‘Some’? How much is ‘some’?”

“Write down ‘a pinch.’ Even cookbooks use ‘a pinch.’”

“Cookbook writers aren’t as neurotic as me.” She picks up the stacked plastic measuring spoons and holds out the smallest one. “Here. Sprinkle the same amount into this so I can see, at least.”

I do, even though I feel silly doing it, and the grains barely fill the depression.

She makes a notation. I roll my eyes. “Are you going to measure it in micrograms, Doctor?”

“If I could, I would.” She sets down the pen. “I want to get things exact.”

“However you make things will be right.”

“I don’t want right.” She takes up the ladle and stirs. “I want exact.” She keeps stirring, maybe so she doesn’t have to look at me. “I want you.”

 

Image: I love this passage because both characters, despite approaching it by very different routes, want the same thing. Mala seems so clinical, but her efforts are absolutely about love. And the narrator, who instead relies on an instinctual “sense”—her ends are also about love. When it comes to your own art, writing, do you work in a way that is more technical, like Mala? Or do you work more by sense, like the narrator?

AM: It’s changed over time. I feel as though initially, in the apprenticeship years, to be technical is very important. Because of that, I’ve written a lot of poems where I’m literally just trying to get a form down. On the hard drives of some of my old computers, you might randomly open up a file and find a hundred sonnets or 150 ghazals. And they’re all terrible. But in those poems, I was trying to get the sound right, and I was doing the counting, and I was putting the rhymes in the right places—making sure that I got everything exact. Do that enough, and the technique becomes your sense. So now I can write these forms. I can write in rhyme and meter without thinking about it. Writing, for me, sometimes becomes almost a matter of will: choosing a form and then putting everything in place. And by that “everything,” I mean whatever anyone else might put into prose, maybe into a diary entry or something like that. All of that emotion, all of the references and the ideas I want, I can put into poetic form. Because I went through the Mala phase, now I am at the Mom phase.

 

Image: How do you choose the form, though? Why do you say, “Oh, this should be a ghazal” or “This should be a sonnet”?

AM: The connections between the technical forms and the actual content are opaque, I think. Sometimes the choice can be very deliberate. For instance, if I want a certain recursiveness in a poem, it is wise to use a ghazal because that form comes back to the same refrain, constantly, in every other line. Or if I’m playing through two sides of an argument, I’m going to opt for a sonnet.

Then again, a ton of the poems in my books are extemporized. So extemporized that the initial line governed how the rest of the poem was put together. If I wrote the initial line, and it was right, I knew that I needed to replicate it metrically, and in tone. And that replication takes the poem down the page until it is a poem.

“Save the Candor,” which I mentioned earlier, is one example of that kind of poem. I wrote the opening, the first line and then maybe the second, and at the third line I knew how the rest of the shape needed to come out. The poem told me, so I just kept going with it. There’s nothing conscious about technique in such cases, because it took shape—the poem and its form—just as I was entering it. My only task was to finish following it out.

 

Image: Your work is full of other artists, some in a more metaphorical sense, as with the art of cooking or the art of mathematics, and some in a very literal sense. And it’s not just in the novels, but also the poems. Escher and Vermeer and Donatello make appearances, and then there’s “In a Gallery” and one of my favorites, “The Glassblowers of Venice.” Among these, or elsewhere, is there a non-literary art that you feel particular kinship with?

AM: Yes: music, probably. A lot of the time I start a poem based on a sound or sounds. Starting with sound, I experience the poem as a vacuum, a phonetic or a musical vacuum that pulls words into it in a particular configuration, one that makes the sound that I want.

When I was teaching myself to write ghazals, for instance, I would just write down the rhyme words and then work to backfill the poem in an interesting way, couplet after couplet. Rhyme will work like that too, much of the time. I do know, of course, that a lot of people think of form as a sort of constraint. They feel boxed in by the sonnet or by the stanza form. For me, though, it’s the reverse. The form becomes such an engine that sometimes I have to stop it. Or at least I have to slow it down because if I let it go, I’ll just blather out rhymed stuff that delights only in its own sound.

 

Image: Describing the poem as a vacuum brings to mind the question of artistic creation. You have argued that describing the artist or writer as a creator only holds up metaphorically. Because the writer’s work is about recombination and, sure, invention, but it’s not about creation per se.

AM: Right: not about creation ex nihilo.

 

Image: To conclude, then, let me ask what would you say about how you, as an artist, connect to God’s artistry. Or, to put it another way: what does the divine artistry mean about what your task is?

AM: I think when the divine works generation-to-generation within a species, it works through love. In love, people pair off and beget children. And that begetting of children, through love, is a kind biological recombination. New people come into the world because love leads to a recombining of our genetic material. And if you think of love as both a motive and a force, then in that sense you can see that God is constantly letting us previously existing people create new people by recombination.

And in the same way that writers recombine letters, they recombine tropes and archetypes. Novelists recombine what they’ve read in other books into new books. Poets recombine poetry into new poems. And that recombination, too: it operates through love.

 


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