In Conversation with Author, Poet & Translator Lopamudra Banerjee
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
One can’t actually take away the homeland from a writer’s heart, and this is what you will find in author Lopamudra Banerjee’s cover story. Born in a small town Barrackpore of Kolkata, she is presently residing in USA with her two daughters and husband. Though she calls it her adopted city but she has settled well, yet in her heart she misses her true home in Kolkata and shares a kind of love and hate relationship with it. She can’t leave it behind for what it has given her, be it literature, art or memories from her childhood days to youth, she still finds herself reminiscing often about her first home. As a daughter of her beloved ‘Tilottama’ she feels duty bound to give it a visit once in a year and shares with it a strange kind of bond that is beyond words. At times she seems much hollow for missing it, and yet again being in love with her adopted home she symbolizes herself as a bird caged in a woman’s body. As she has said in her interview that this vacillation has made her much of a Diaspora writer, yet who she truly is as a writer, poet and as a woman this exclusive cover story will give you a wider glimpse into her life.
Cc. Woman and her Muse, your book is a collection of poems, short prose pieces and few stories. Why did you choose this title for your book?
Lopamudra. ‘Woman and Her Muse: Poetry & Memoir’, my book, as many readers who have read
know, is my tribute to the world of art, literature, cinema, a diet in which I grew up since my formative years, a journey in which I have matured, evolved into a woman as well as an artist. In the preface of the book, I refer to the lines by Anais Nin:
“For too many centuries women have been muses to artists. I wanted to be the muse, I wanted to be the wife of the artist, but I was really trying to avoid the final issue – that I had to do the job myself.”
This quote, I think, is kind of self-explanatory. A woman is always part of a familial home/world (microcosm) and a world-at-large (macrocosm), and hence, her life experiences are stark, vivid and ravaging, which becomes part of her stream-of-consciousness.
As the title of the book hints at, ‘Woman and Her Muse’ is more about the identity of a woman as a creator, an artist, a writer who, while seeking her muse and while crafting the poems and personal stories, questions her own gender and the predominant patriarchy which compels her to pick up her pen. Her muse here is diverse and defies stereotypes and status quo, including a celebrated Durga painting, the female body as depicted in museums, poetry and prose on a dancer/ballerina, a singer in a bar, Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, among others. At the same time, it is also an aesthetic journey where she embraces the sights and sounds, paintings and visuals of her diasporic surroundings in India and the US, making them her triggers that let her explode with her writings, weaving together diverse genres, across geographies and boundaries.
Cc. Reading your book it was quite comprehensible, that you miss your birth city Kolkata or as you have used the name in your book ‘Tilottama’. Tell me something about your growing up years and college days in the city and what is it that you miss the most about Kolkata?
Lopamudra. Kolkata and I, honestly speaking, have a love-hate relationship, which is very aptly illustrated in our short poetry film ‘Kolkata Cocktail’, which I have co-produced along with Ipsita Ganguly and Gopa Bhattacharjee. It is very difficult to express the exact feeling of my bond with the city and the vicissitudes of my life in relation to the city. You have to see the film where I feature and read my book ‘Thwarted Escape’ to unfold the multiple layers and nuances. While I was born and brought up till my school life in the sleepy suburban town of Barrackpore in the outskirts of Kolkata, Kolkata became my refuge in my later years off and on, and since then, it has been a tumultuous journey of longings and despair. It’s difficult not to miss the throbbing veins of the city, the pulses of Park Street, the serenity of Prinsep Ghat, the poetry of Esplanade and the Ma flyover, even though I am thousand miles away in a city which again is my second home and my sanctuary. I have become this diasporic person with a dual life breathing within me, though in essence, I have always wanted to be a citizen of this world.
Cc. I noticed that you have a stronger inclination towards Rabindra Nath Tagore, be it his literary work, his life story that you have shared in bits and pieces in your book as well. Why is it that you choose to translate his works only, although your own writings are mostly women centric?
Lopamudra: While reading Tagore’s magnum opus work of fiction ‘Galpaguchchho’, and while reading his female-centric dramas ‘Chitrangada’ and ‘Chandalika’, I have realized what many others have too, in all these years: Tagore is one of the greatest feminists of his times. The reason I chose to Tagore was initially his songs and poems, I have already said in my earlier interviews, which grew on me since my childhood like old roots, like a religion quietly observed and internalized. His music, writings, art and above all, his existence within me, like many people of Bengali origin, is like a subterranean flow which would never stop and give me sustenance for this lifetime for their deep-rooted mysticism and spirituality.
However, the reason why I chose to translate his selected stories with strong women protagonists in ‘The Broken Home and Other Stories’ is that deep within, I found indescribable affinity with the characters of these women—be it the essentially literary, sensitive soul of Charulata, the feisty, rebellious Giribala, the pensive Haimonti or the spunky, soulful and emancipated mother-daughter duo Sohini and Neela in Laboratory, who were not shaped by the norms of the patriarchal society of their times and claimed their rightful places in the universe. Even in his dramas ‘Chitrangada’ and ‘Chandalika’, Tagore’s spirit of feminism and human inquiry shines bright, and feminine subjectivity with the questions of gender, beauty and the menace of casteism form the core of the narratives, hence my choice of translating these gems into English for the global readers.
Apart from Tagore, I have also translated Bengal’s other classic authors like Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Sukanta Bhattachaya, Jeebanananda Das for online publications and have also completed translating into English Bengal’s literary doyenne Ashapoorna Debi’s novel ‘Bakul Katha’, the third part of her award-winning trilogy which is now with the publishers. Among my peers of poetry, I have also translated Kalpna Singh Chitnis and Sunayana Kachroo’s Hindi poems into Bengali and English, so you can see my efforts in translation is not constricted to Tagore alone, though people know me mostly for my translations of Tagore.
Cc. If you ever write a Biography either on Mrinalini Devi or Kadambari Devi, whom will you choose to write upon and why?
Lopamudra: As much as I know, many notable books have already been written about the women in Tagore’s illustrious Jorasanko family. But given a choice, I think I would like to write about the most dark, esoteric, brooding Kadambari Debi, who was Tagore’s muse in every sense of the term, mostly in his formative years when she was present in his life in the physical sense, and after her death as a surreal creative force in his journey as a poet, author, philosopher A lover of literature, poetry and the arts herself, Kadambari’s life was an enigma, trapped inside the patriarchal ancestral home of Tagore, the Thakurbari of Jorasanko, Kolkata and she remained an enigma even after her tragic suicide, resulting from deep depression that went unattended. In fact, ‘Charulata’ in Tagore’s novella ‘Nastanirh’ (adapted into the award-winning film ‘Charulata’ by Satyajit Ray) has glimpses of the invincible spirit and unquenched longings of Kadambari Debi in the characterization of the protagonist Charulata.
Mrinalini, Tagore’s wife, on the other hand, was his conjugal partner and inspired him in her own small way to continue his humanitarian pursuits, including the formation of Tagore’s educational haven, his Ashram, Shantiniketan, in Bolpur, West Bengal. She tended to him and their children with her sweet, traditional, unconditioned love that was characteristic of women in her times. I think both women complement each other in their own unique, distinct ways.
Cc. Your book ‘Thwarted Escape’ as the title suggests or if I have to talk about ‘Woman and her Muse’ I see this constant urge of escaping from the humdrum of your mundane life and come back to Kolkata. Why don’t you feel being at home in your adopted city Dallas?
Lopamudra: Those who have been acquainted with my books have found that the various elements of place, family and relationships have shaped both my persona and my writing, and I would say, these elements have made me an author with a leaning towards diaspora writing, both in poetry and prose. In my memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, there is this emotional urgency to go back to my Kolkata roots, and rediscover my childhood, my identity as the daughter. At the same time, I try to portray my life as a lover, wife, mother and a writer in USA, my adopted home and the myriad experiences here which are organically connected to my journey of self-discovery. I guess that is the essence of diaspora writing: referring to the oscillation between the two worlds, the one which I belonged to, and the other that I am a part of now.
In my book ‘Woman and Her Muse’, there is a section, ‘KOLKATA: The poetry in which I breathe’, which is quite self-explanatory. Like an old lover, Kolkata keeps coming back to me and reclaims me. However, ‘Home’ is a very fluid concept to me and I really don’t think it is any singular place. I am equally at home in my adopted cities in USA where I have lived with my family, as I am when I go to Kolkata for my annual trips. You have to read my book ‘Thwarted Escape’ to really internalize this feeling of fluidity.
Cc. Which contemporary women writers you admire and why? Is your writing inspired by any such women writers?
Lopamudra:In Indian writing in English, especially Kamala Das, who has shaped my poetic persona and my sense of sexuality of a woman, through her feisty, her intensely passionate poems and her autobiography ‘My Story’. Among the very current authors, I must mention Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose prose style touches me for its strength as well as subtlety. Among the modern English poets, I am perpetually in love with Sylvia Plath and Maya Angelou, and among the contemporary women poets of our times, I find Tishani Doshi, Danez Smith, Joy Harjo extremely awe-inspiring in terms of their content and style. Among my fellow poets in the current literary scene, the works of Santosh Bakaya, Jagari Mukherjee, Kashiana Singh, Deepika Chand, Mallika Bhaumik, Ipsita Ganguly, Gopa Bhattacharjee and many others are worth reading again and again, because of the richness of their imagery, style and diction. Though I don’t consciously try to imbibe any of these poets and writers and rely on my own unique style, reading all of them opens up my literary vision and my horizons as an artist.
Cc. How much struggle as an artist you have faced in the current place you live in and do you think things would have been much easier if you were in India, when it comes to writing or publishing your works?
Lopamudra: There is not much difference in my struggles as a writer and artist here in USA, compared to India as the creative, artistic world and the publishing world is mostly the same, and I have been privileged enough to be surrounded by the best writing mentors in both Kolkata, India and in USA. While in India, I received the love of my literary mentors, academicians Sanjukta Dasgupta of University of Calcutta, Prof. Shanti Sarkar, Dr. Santosh Bakaya and many more names who have indulged my writing and creative pursuits unconditionally, at the University of Nebraska, I was fortunate to find my two mentors, Dr. John T. Price and Dr. Lisa Knopp, who taught me the art of nonfiction writing. Getting published by proactive and appreciative publishers is yet another story, as in most cases, big publishing houses look for celebrity authors or reputed personalities, and in USA, literary agents mostly determine the kinds of work big houses will want to publish, keeping in mind a lot of factors, including marketable content, among other things. However, in my case, I have mostly been published by small literary presses and also as an indie author till now, so I didn’t have much hurdles in getting my books out for the niche readers that I have been able to reach as of now. There have been a few glitches here and there, but I am sure many artists have faced them, which only enriches the learning curve and makes you more determined to continue your journey.
Cc. How did your writing journey start? Was it from the beginning that you wanted to be an author/writer or it happened through some other cause/s?
Lopamudra: I was fond of the act of writing since my childhood, but writing seriously actually started with my foraying into journalism and content writing in 2003 (after my Masters’ in English from the University of Kolkata, India), and then my wings spread further as I was enrolled into a masters’ program in the University of Nebraska in creative nonfiction writing.
Poetry was my first love, but it was a clandestine pursuit all the while, and I never took it seriously before the publication of my memoir ‘Thwarted Escape’ (2016). All this while I have been passionate about writing regarding social issues, be it in newspapers, in portals or e-zines. However, if you ask me what I wanted to do when I was really young, my choices were: dancer and theater artist. None of these really happened later, but I guess I had a strong flair for the arts, right from the beginning. Writing is only a manifestation of this artistic self.
Cc. Which book remains most close to your heart till day and you would suggest it to other aspiring writers or readers as well?
Lopamudra: So many to name here! ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte, ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou, ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, poetry collections of Sylvia Plath and also ‘The Bell Jar’ (her autobiographical novel), ‘I am Malala’ by Patricia McCormick, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hossaini. How can I forget ‘My Story’, the fascinating autobiography of Kamala Das! All these books are slices of my soul, my psyche as a writer has been shaped so much by these…Recently I am gobbling up the engrossing essay collection of Dr. Santosh Bakaya, ‘Morning Meanderings’, written in her characteristic classical style. If aspiring writers are not reading any of these books, they really don’t know what they are missing!
Cc. Lastly, how would you identify yourself; as a writer, as a poet or as an author? Which one you feel would justify your essence more as a literary person?
Lopamudra: I would like to identify with the image of a free bird trapped in the body of a female who occasionally spreads her wings in not only writing, but the whole gamut of the creative arts, editing, singing, sketching or painting, films, performing arts and above all, speaking about her body and mind as a free landscape.
To quote my favorite poet Rumi’s lines: ‘Only from the heart can you touch the sky.’ So, let me see what my sky has in store for me in the coming days. Now, I am talking like a poet, so you get the drift, I guess!
Thank you dear Monalisa, I truly appreciate your quest to know about me and my journey through this interview. It was a soul-stirring experience to lay bare my soul and I wish all the very best for Chrysanthemum Chronicles mag and for your own writing and editorial journey! ‘ShuvamBhavatu’!