Elena Gomez Interviews Jahan Ramazani

By and | 1 February 2015

EG: And someone who has experienced their country being colonised, doing that sort of language play with those aspects doesn’t necessarily reaffirm those colonial boundaries? You’re arguing that they’re actually more subversive …?

JR: That’s a great question. It’s always a complicated thing; that is, when a postcolonial writer such as Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott , Patience Agbabi or Daljit Nagra, or writers from Africa, India, the Carribean, Oceanic writers … when they are engaging writers from the global North, do they end up reaffirming the hegemonic power of what they’re writing against? This has always been a question when those writers take up and engage someone like Shakespeare. And it’s a live question. I guess I would think of it always as a negotiation. That is, because these writers often are engaging both in certain kinds of homage, paying tribute to, the capacities that have been released by some of the great precursors in the language that they’re using, whether it’s Shakespeare or Wordsworth of whoever it might be, and at the same time they’re inevitably trying to make a space for themselves, and release new possibilities into that language – to write, to tunnel into the language with new resources that they bring from their own indigenous cultures.

EG: To say that these things might come from a global North but don’t belong to them …

JR: Exactly.

EG: Which I guess you can kind of do less problematically than the other way around …?

JR: That’s an interesting question, because we tend to think about writers from formerly colonised nations or parts of the world as indigenising, creolising, adapting those literatures and cultures of the global North much more than the reverse, but I think the reverse is also quite interesting. A writer like Kamau Brathwaite thinks about the creolisation process as really a two-way process, so that people in plantations who had all the power – their ways of speaking, their ways of thinking, were nevertheless inflected by the culture of the slaves that they held. So, that might be an example of a kind of creolisation in reverse, say. But I think, yeah, what you were hinting at was when a painter like Pablo Picasso uses, say, African masks as a source of inspiration – that kind of engagement is across uneven …

EG: Power structures?

JR: Yes, power structures. And that is problematic. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to draw too strict a boundary so that writers from the global North only have to draw on other writers and resources from the global North, because that then becomes constricting. In our own moment clearly we want writers to be really deeply sensitive to that unevenness that we were talking about.

EG: I guess the problem isn’t really the interaction with those other forms, the problem is the power structures themselves.

JR: Exactly. But someone like Agha Shahid Ali, when he helped popularise the ghazal in North America, the UK and elsewhere, he clearly was anxious for white, western writers to take up this form and its resources. And these things are very complicated often: though he was a writer from Kashmir and this was part of his own local, indigenous culture, he wasn’t working in those forms until he was exposed by the formalist writer James Merrill to the possibilities of formalism, because he had earlier been trying to write in a free-verse style, very much under the influence of T. S. Eliot. So he strangely enough got exposed to the possibilities of fixed forms by North American writers like Merrill and through that then thought, ‘Wow, this is really great. Why not go back to my own literary traditions such as the ghazal? I always think that [with] these transactions of writers, it’s too simplistic to impose a kind of national, political paradigm on them. And I like to think of it as a much more fluid, bidirectional negotiation between literary cultures.

EG: Do you think of a possibility beyond transnationalism in terms of poetics? For example is there, through poetics, or poetry more specifically, the potential for an abolition of any anchor to national framing and whether it’s boxed in or not … whether you might see transnational poetry as leading towards a dismantling of boundaries, borders …

JR: I think that’s right. I don’t want to sound too utopian, but I think there is a strain or an impulse within the transnational literary forms that we’ve been talking about of, you know, hope, to move beyond boundaries of various kinds, whether it’s of gender or of the nation, or even of temporality. To think beyond the boundaries of one’s own imprisonment within a particular time or moment into a deeper sense of archaic time, for example. Or out of the imprisonment within one’s subjectivity, or particular subject position, say. I’d like to think that poetry is a really powerful way – because of the imaginative power it has – of thinking beyond many different kinds of boundaries.

EG: But I also think what you’ve written before adds to that, besides the imaginative, the very point you make about poetry’s ability to assert itself, makes it so much more interesting as a tool to explore other ways that we use language, I think.

JR: That’s right. Poetry makes us very self-conscious about it because it is always so self-conscious about the different kinds of language that it’s incorporating and using. Whether it’s different discourses, snatched and borrowed from news or law or tv or advertising or what have you, and it holds them up to the light and thinks about them, or whether it’s through, say, code-switching and the movement between high and low registers, or even diglossia, say, if you’re a Latino or Latina writer, between English and Spanish. I think that those kinds of juxtapositions of different discourses against one another and rubbing them up against one another reveals something about those different languages in relation to one another.

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