Imagining our Parent’s Lives: An Email Interview with Kirun Kapur, Author of Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (Elixir Press, 2015)
Last winter in the middle of Boston’s crazy blizzard, Kirun Kapur, a friend of mine from high school, took the time out to respond to my questions about her latest book.
The book, mainly about her family’s experience escaping the Partition of India in 1947, the largest human migration in modern history, presents a speaker searching for answers about her family’s past.
The book is lovely. If you say you enjoy poetry, you should read it.
And if you write, you should read this interview.
Kirun Kapur: Sorry I didn’t get back to you. We are digging out of a terrible blizzard (36 inches of snow in two days!) and more on the way. This is the time of year when I wonder why I ever left Hawaii…
Jackie Chappel: First off, congratulations. I enjoyed the book and found myself particularly entranced by the musicality of some of the pieces. I related to the need to imagine parent’s past lives and was surprised I actually got (some of) the historical and mythical references.
Reading it, I assumed that it was autobiographical. I’m thinking particularly of the father’s regret over leaving his home country (Pakistan?), not the interviews with the Cain. How much of the poems are autobiographical, how much fictionalized?
KK: Thanks, Jackie. Glad you enjoyed it.
Good question. I know this seems like a very straightforward question, but I find it’s a tough one to answer. My father’s family did live in the part of India that became Pakistan in 1947. He survived Partition. He came across the new border on those famous trains. But, this isn’t a very good answer. I think that’s because what lurks behind questions about autobiography are questions about truth — Did this really happen? Did it happen to you? — and the relationship between writing and truth is not a straightforward one.
“[The story of the Partition] was a story that was always present in my house, though it was rarely talked about out loud. In part, I wanted these poems to be the voice I sensed but didn’t hear.”
Let me try to answer it this way: The story of Partition was something I really wanted to address in this book. It was a story that was always present in my house, though it was rarely talked about out loud. In part, I wanted these poems to be the voice I sensed but didn’t hear. These poems are made out of those silences. They are made out of my remembering and misremembering; things I read, things I’ve forgotten I read; things I dreamed or wished or wished I’d dreamed. In this sense, the poems about “my” family are no different than the poems about Cain and Abel. Those too, are based on a story I half remember, things I’ve read and dreamed and things I’ve forgotten I’ve dreamed or read. So, you could say that the Cain poems are as autobiographical as the Partition poems or that the Partition poems are as un-real as those about Biblical brothers. Like all poems, they are music and breath. Like all writing, they are acts of language and imagination.
Whatever truth a poem tells, it’s not primarily a factual or autobiographical truth. Jennette Winterson has a great way of talking about this. She writes, “Art is not documentary. It may incidentally serve that function in its own way but, its true effort is to open to us dimensions of the spirit of the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living.”
JC: Your emphasis on the history of the Partition and the comparison of your family to Adam & Eve’s/Cain & Abel’s (and Arjuna’s) came through clearly for me. The fact that the book was not just about “growing up” but centered on this moment and the ramifications, I think help to make the collection strong.
I want to ask you about the theme of displacement which comes through particularly in the last act of the book.
What ethnicity do you consider yourself? Is your family Muslim or Hindu? Does it matter? To what degree do you feel your family was displaced? To what degree did your family members, particularly your father, actually feel the survivor’s guilt suggested in the book?
KK: Partition was the largest human migration in modern history. Close to 20 million people were displaced. My father was just one of those millions. He and his family left everything — their home, their possessions, their relatives, all of it — and started over in the newly independent nation of India. They were not unusual. In both India and Pakistan, the stories were the same — violence, displacement, grief. Then, starting over, building new lives and new nations. Much later, as an adult, my father came to this country, though he chose not become an American citizen until recently. My mother is American (of European decent). She was raised as a Catholic, while my father was raised as a Hindu. They traveled back and forth, living in both India and the U.S. while we were growing up. I was born in this country. I’m an American — and possibly, a few other things. I don’t feel displaced so much as plural. When I have to fill out a form, I usually check “Other.”
JC: Over what period of time were the poems written?
KK: The bulk of the manuscript was written in about 4 years, but there are a few older poems in there as well. One or two date back all the way to grad school!
JC: During the four years you wrote, were you actively looking to put together a collection. Or did the poems just end up being thematically related? Did you write without the support of a writing group?
KK: I hoped I was putting together a collection, but it took time to see how it all might fit together. I didn’t have a writing group, though I did have a few friends with whom I shared work. Their feedback was invaluable along the way.
JC: One of the issues that comes up is the father’s survivor’s guilt. How much of this guilt really informs your father, other family members, or others who survived the Partition?
KK: I don’t know for certain how everyone felt. I’ve had to infer and imagine.
JC: While the index describes key events, the poems, I would say, are difficult to understand without some understanding of Indian mythology and history. What its he push and pull you have with your audience and accessibility? To what extent are you interested in being known/understood?
“I don’t write to be understood. I want to make something — something alive.”
KK: I’ve never really thought about being understood, in that sense. I don’t write to be understood. I want to make something — something alive — as crazy as that sounds. I’m not sure I understand a Mozart sonata or a Rothko painting or a Berryman sonnet, yet they succeed brilliantly as works of art. They’re alive. Obviously, I’m no Rothko-Berryman, but, if I’m lucky, my poems might succeed in being alive, in doing some of the (many) miraculous things a poem can do.
As such, I don’t have any hard and fast rules about accessibility. I think each poem operates according to its own rules and methods. As a poet-friend said to me recently, “Complete logical clarity isn’t always the goal in poetry.” One of things I love most about poems is their ability to make leaps that may not be logically or narratively obvious. Mysteriousness, even confusion, can be a wonderful quality in a poem.
In these particular poems, I tried to strike a balance between providing enough context and preventing background information from overwhelming the life of the poem. Sometimes too much extra information obscures what the poem is actually doing. I used epigraphs and endnotes as sparingly as possible. I hope it was just enough to provide a framework, but not enough to entomb the poem.
JC: Kirun, In your poems, you imagine important moments in your parents’ lives, something I’ve also done. What did you learn about *through the process of writing about them?
KK: Do you mean what did I learn about them, or what did I learn generally?
KK: My parents are both survivors. I’d never thought of them that way until it emerged as a theme in the poems. When I see the “Mom” and “Dad” as characters in the poems, I’m reminded of how magnificent and generous and courageous my real-life parents are.
JC: I’m just about at the end of my questions, but could you describe your research process a little? What did you learn about the Partition that is perhaps not common knowledge?
KK: Hi Jackie, Sorry for the delay. I was in the midwest for some book events, then flew back into a blizzard and a house full of stomach flu. Below is the answer to the last question.
I didn’t do any kind of targeted research. I just read what interested me — everything from Greek myths to biblical scholarship to novels. I was thinking about families and creation stories. And poems. I’m always reading all kinds of poets — Montale, Bishop, Faiz, Gluck.
As far as the Partition material went, nothing was common knowledge. Despite the scale of the event, the history of 1947 is relatively unknown in the U.S. I was most interested in oral histories. I already knew the basic facts and the more I worked on the book, the more it became clear to me that the poems were not about the facts, but rather about how events get remembered, lost, imperfectly retold and become part of culture and identity.
JC: Here is my last question: What are you working on now?
KK: As for what I’m working on now…I’ve been working on a series of poems about Heloise and Abelard, the medieval scholars/lovers. I’m not sure if they will amount to anything yet, but it’s exciting to have a new set of obsessions.
JC: It’s great to hear about your latest “obsession”. That’s definitely a good thing!