Prithvi Varatharajan Interviews Maria Takolander

By and | 1 February 2015

PV: There’s a relationship between nature and culture in your work, between an animalistic human body and a modernity of cars, TVs, offices and hospitals. In your poem ’47 Degrees,’ set in a hospital, you write, ‘While we sleep, cots are x-rayed into molten, / and radiance seals the eyes of women and men.’ The modern world often seems to be sterile, too, in the way you render it: hallways of hotels are ‘designed by doctors,’ and in your poem ‘Night Feed,’ plastic, lip sticked women with red telephones appear on TV, while off-screen there’s a suckling newborn baby; you write ‘Greetings, they mouth, from modernity / to the time traveller at my breast.’ I wonder if you might’ve adapted this dialogue between the body and modernity from gothic literature. Does the gothic genre have something to say about the experience of being a flesh-and-bones creature in the sometimes strange and cold modern world?

MT: Well, in regards to the second duality you’ve identified in my work, which involves an engagement with human beings as both biological and cultural: we are both biological and cultural. If our first womb is a biological one, inside a woman’s body, the second is surely the world into which we’re born, and in which we’re immediately surrounded by cultural constructions. If we’re a boy or a girl we’re given an appropriately gendered name, we’re dressed in appropriately gendered clothes. Culture is there operating on us from the moment we emerge from that biological or natural space into this cultural and modern world that we all inhabit. So I am interested in that, but I suppose I’d also like to challenge the idea of the natural. I’ve had, at poetry readings, some quite strong reactions against my childbirth and pregnancy poems. In fact at one memorable reading, a male member of the audience told me that if perhaps I wasn’t a natural mother or didn’t feel like a natural mother it was because I didn’t have a natural childbirth. Because he had, before suggesting this, asked if my child had been delivered by caesarean [laughs]. He was therefore able to make the assertion that my not being a natural mother was attributable to this specific reason.

It may be the case that pregnancy and childbirth are natural phenomena. But that doesn’t make them any less strange. It is also the case that, naturally speaking, we are creatures inhabiting a planet orbiting the sun, in space. And yet I don’t think there would be too many people who would disagree that that is a bizarre condition of our lives.

Gothic literature is of great interest to me. As a teenager I was a fan of horror films – and I think a lot of teenagers are. And I think there’s something in that, in terms of it being a genre that allows one to look at the body in all its horror and glory. Teenagers are entering adolescence and their bodies are changing quite drastically and obviously: this is something that’s a preoccupation for them, and something they can witness, in a way, through the gothic genre. The gothic genre continues to play an important part in my imaginary: it’s not something I’ve rejected since becoming an adult, and I think it’s because it is one of the few genres that isn’t sanitised, that isn’t afraid to look at those darker and less palatable aspects of human nature.

PV: You wrote your doctoral thesis on South American magical realism. I’ve got two questions about this. First, what drew you to this literary tradition and imaginative mode? And, second, how has this interest come into your poetry, if at all?

MT: Well they say that all PhD theses are in fact motivated by autobiographical impulses. I suppose if I was attracted to magical realist literature it was because it was a form of literature that allowed the unseen to erupt into our regular understandings of reality. And in some senses that is a legacy of my Christian upbringing, an attraction to a spiritual dimension. However, having since become an atheist, that still remains an attraction: not so much conceptualising otherness or mystery as related to spirituality or religion, but just as a dimension of our lives. Magical realism also led me to understand more about history. As a form of fiction it’s historically invested in ways that aren’t given enough attention. And in political ways – in ways that challenge the status quo and conventional understandings of our present. So if I’ve borrowed anything from magical realism in my poetry it’s that willingness to question things, to not take things as they come, to not accept conventional wisdom about things or sanitised visions of things, but to think more deeply about the world.

PV: You teach at Deakin, in literary studies? Or creative writing?

MT: Both.

PV: In both literary studies and creative writing. How does your academic research intersect with your creative writing?

MT: I actually don’t think there’s a great deal of difference between creative writing and scholarly writing, in that for me both begin from a position of not knowing, and both are incredibly hard won in moving towards a position of knowing. So on that level I don’t see a great difference between those two forms of writing. However, on another level, what I love about creative writing is that there are no parameters. There’s no need to be attached to a methodology. You have a great deal more freedom to experiment with form and with ideas.

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