#FiveDesiFaves: Vidhu Aggarwal’s favorite diasporic works of speculative poetics and alternative fantasy

Desi Books Ep 49 w/ Vidhu Aggarwal Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 49 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #FiveDesiFaves segment, we have Vidhu Aggarwal who has a hybrid poetry collection out titled Daughter Isotope. She’s sharing her five favorite desi-punk, desi-futurism, and desi-fantastic works that engage in speculative poetics and alternative fantasy spaces.

The transcript of this segment is also up on the website.

#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH VIDHU AGGARWALINTRODUCTION

Vidhu Aggarwal’s poetry and multimedia practices engage with world-building, video, and graphic media, drawing mythic schemas from popular culture, science, and ancient texts. Her poetry book, The Trouble with Humpadori (2016), imagines a cosmic mythological space for marginalized transnational subjects. Avatara, a chapbook, is situated in a post-apocalyptic gaming world where AIs play at being gods. She has had works published in the Boston Review, Black Warrior Review, Aster(ix) Journal, Poemelon, Leonardo, among other journals. She is currently engaging in a “cloud poetics,” as a way of thinking about personal, collective, and digital archives as a collaborative process with comic artists, dancers, and video artists. Her latest book of poetry, Daughter Isotope, is out now. A Djerassi resident and Kundiman fellow, she teaches at Rollins College in Florida.

Daughter Isotope is a book of hybrid poems that speak to multiple iterations of “daughter” tropes across generations, national borders, and timescales. A central question of the book is “What is a collective archive?” within a global, disparate, migrant cultural space. Daughter Isotope is organized in a series of four “clouds,” calling up the vague, penetrable borders of our digital lives, both searching and searchable. 

Throughout the manuscript, the poems operate as types of search engines that test the boundaries of often overlapping archives or “clouds” that make up diasporic experience. Starting with a series of poems based on the Mahabharata, an “encyclopedic” Sanskrit epic-cloud about an apocalyptic war composed over centuries, the organization of the manuscript is based off of South Asian polyvocal storytelling traditions. Like Donna Haraway’s cyborg, a “daughter” gender could be seen as any “child” or subject under a rigid paternal order—whether Hindu nationalism or U.S. exceptionalism—whose filiation is in question. Dispersed through the manuscript are multiple versions/clouds of Draupadi, Emily Dickinson, Judy Garland, Krishna, Michael Jackson, and the aspirational figure of @agirl, among other uncertain “daughters.” The poems interrogate the stability of various “daughter” genders through myth, online personas, computer gaming, nuclear physics, and artificial intelligence. 

And now, here’s Vidhu Aggarwal with her #FiveDesiFaves.


#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH VIDHU AGGARWAL

Thank you, Jenny Bhatt, for inviting me to reflect on my five fave South Asian writers. Thank you for giving me an impossible task—since my love is vast and boundless. While there are many many works by South Asian writers I admire, love, and keep by my bedside (Mani Rao’s translation of the Bhagvad Gita, for instance), I’m going to highlight just a few writers who engage in worldbuilding (speculative poetics and alternative fantasy spaces) from a diasporic perspective like I do. I see these faves as sister texts to my own book of poems, Daughter Isotope, which mixes myth and technology, and crosses genres—from science fiction to epic poetry. Any curation is selective, partial, incomplete. The works that I’m choosing—short stories, comics, poems, and hybrid narratives are written by first and second gen immigrants like myself in English. But I want to make a quick shoutout to the poets Monica Mody, Rajiv Mohabir, Purvi Shah, Arun Kolaktar, and Saba Razmi, who are also doing or have done work in this mytho-poetic, fabular vein.

  1. The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T. Malik
  2. Ambiguity Machines and other Stories by Vandana Singh
  3. Apsara Engine by Bishakh Som
  4. The Flayed City by Hari Alluri
  5. Humananimal: A Project for Future Children by Bhanu Kapil

Poet and multimedia artist Vidhu Aggarwal shares her #FiveDesiFaves: diasporic works of speculative poetics and alternative fantasy by Usman T. Malik, Vandana Singh, Bishakh Som, Hari Alluri, and Bhanu Kapil. @DesiBooks


My first fave is Usman T. Malik’s novella, The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, published by science fiction publisher Tor in 2015.  Malik’s protagonist Salman, whose family lives in Florida, goes on a journey of ancestral discovery about his grandfather’s life in post-partition Pakistan. As someone who lives in Central Florida, I was instantly drawn to Orlando as a setting for the grandfather’s tales, which feel otherworldly to Salman. I can say the same of the stories my parents told me growing up in Louisiana and Texas. I accessed them through this swampy remove—as an American.  I wonder if the swampy atmosphere of Central Florida also influenced Malik’s rendering of the fantastic.

After his Gramp’s death, Salman, an academic in Boston, enters more deeply into the world of his grandfather Sharif’s  “cosmovision.” After reading his Gramp’s diaries, Sal begins to see connections between scientific concepts such as Lictenberg figures—patterns formed on surfaces (such as skin) from electrical discharges (such as lightning)—and jinns from Islamic cosmology. In his Gramp’s diaries, jinns are not trickster genies, but carriers of “concealed memory” of the “inorganic mineral consciousness” of human origins.  Salman travels to Lahore and finds not only his grandfather’s jinn but the concealed history of his grandfather’s life as an artist, abandoned in his move to the States.

In Daughter Isotope, I too look at ancestral myths and mineral consciousness.  My poem “Angels at Rawalpindi,” builds off of the art work of Saks Afridi’s SPACEMOSQUE, where robotic ANGELS are “spun out of a psi-flash of paradise” and pray on the ground where they received their “first touch of minerals and microorganisms.”  But Rawalpindi is also the ancestral home of my father’s family in Pakistan, which they fled during partition.

Vidhu Aggarwal discusses how Usman T. Malik’s The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn looks at ancestral myths and mineral consciousness in #FiveDesiFaves. @DesiBooks


Another sister-text is Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and other Stories, published by Small Beer Press in 2018. Drawn from the storytelling traditions of the epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Islamic lore, Singh’s work reveals fantastic planetary infrastructures with wild techno machines. Singh explores the attributes of late capitalism—how various species interact with technoculture and adapt to accelerating climate change. There are characters who are scientists that work with biomimicry, looking to existing ecosystems for bio-friendly innovations, while others characters seek vengeance for the violent incursions of empire—the destruction in the wake of interplanetary wars. Singh also has some great titles, such “Somadeva: A River Sutra,” and “Lifepod.”

She performs hilarious reformations of concepts from science, philosophy, and cosmology. One character, a physicist named Sujata, starts the “Anti Occam’s Razor Society,” because she finds that the notion that the simplest solution explains a phenomena is dull. In other words, our interactions with technology is complex! Other characters have mechanical bodies and shift gender over hundreds of years.

Such gender-fluid bots and sentient detectors appear in my book Daughter Isotope, as well. In my poem “Mahadevi Malware,” I imagine the goddess Kali as a computer virus: “Net mama’s got gamma rays in her marmalade // She’s eating primal lava like raw meat. Net mama says rags and migrants are the materials of//wartime.

Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is a sister text to my Daughter Isotope, says Vidhu Aggarwal in #FiveDesiFaves. @DesiBooks


Speaking of worldbuilding, Bishakh Som, graphic artist, and author of Apsara Engine (Feminist Press 2020), started out as an architect in NYC. Her work charts the texture and life of cities, both ancient and futuristic, through living maps and cartographies. Her cityscapes have a liquid, melting, organic feel—fleshy, feminine—a horizontal interactivity with the environment and the people. Not the towering vertical of the skyscraper—eclipsing people and trees and glasses of wines.

Bishakh also has characters appear and reappear in different timelines and situations; they look the same but their names might be different, or their names might be the same but they have different situational histories. It’s fun and uncanny! This is Bishakh’s sense of the multiverse, where past, present, and futures converge in unusual ways.

I have collaborated in poetry/comics with Bishakh; her work has been very influential on my own multiverse tendency where there is always “another me in a parallel universe” lunging in warrior asana or crouched in an obscene squat. That’s from my poem “The Book of Books” (in Daughter Isotope) and it has a tingling sympathy with  Bishakh’s “Swan Dive” in which two queer desi characters meet as friends and lovers, across different locations and times (across the U.S. and India), introducing themselves to each other over and over again in various quasi-utopias—past and future. Goddess bots, animal/god hybrids abound in her stories.

“I have collaborated in poetry/comics with Bishakh (Som); her work has been very influential on my own multiverse tendency where there is always “another me in a parallel universe” . . .” ~Vidhu Aggarwal #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


So just like in fiction, worldbuilding happens in poetry too. Hari Alluri is a poet who lives in Canada. He is the author of The Flayed City (Kaya Press 2017), a brilliant book. But I want to talk about his more recent work. He writes a series of poems that perform a counter-narrative of the epic, Mahabharata, from the perspective of Ekalayva, a Nishad boy who lives in the forest. Ekalavya is a minor character in the Mahabharata, which focuses on kings and mighty people—the big players in empire.  Alluri generates the world of the jungle with poems from the consciousness of trees, jackals, as well as people: Ekalavya’s world. In this work, Alluri critiques the ongoing violence of empire on forms of indigenous knowledge and lifeways.  Ekalavya’s skills as an archer rival the prince Arjun. When Drona, Arjun’s great military guru, rejects training Ekalvaya because of his lowly status, Ekalavya builds a statue of Drona as his guide and trains himself as an expert archer through meditating on this statue. 

In “Mahal,” which appears in Counterclock, Hari Alluri writes of this moment: “Clay, wet against blade. Its shape—of seeming. Blade my will-be lover seeks the features of his guru with, blade of this thumb he licks to bulbous them and smooth.”

In this poem, Alluri also anticipates the moment when Ekalavya will cut off his thumb at  Drona’s request. The story is brutal! And it shatters me, and shatters my ideas about the morality of the heroes of the Mahabharata.  One day, during a hunting expedition, Arjun discovers Ekalayva’s great archery skills by accident. Ekalayva tells Arjun that his teacher is Drona. Though, of course, he is speaking of his statue. Drona has never actually trained him. Angry and envious of Ekalavya’s skill, Arjun returns to the forest with Drona, and Drona demands a gurudhakshina, a gift for being his guru/teacher: Eklavya’s right thumb. Eklayva gives Drona his thumb, ensuring that Arjun remains the greatest archer as Drona has promised him—but only through this extreme violation. In gorgeous, sensual language, Alluri is a master worldbuilder with fantastic rhythms.

In “Pacifying Archery (Ekalavya Adūnīs)” from Cocolit, Alluri writes:
I used to have a thumb God was afraid could hobble 
His chariot of inheritance. Each birth and death is finite. Infinite 
precipices. May I bridge with my obsession, 
keep back the abyss. Archery means to hold. 
Hold. Relinquish. This jungle: my from. Some define peace as a palace 
our entrance disturbs. The space between release and pierce, 
wide enough to fit a life

Hari Alluri’s worldbuilding in poetry, especially his counter-narrative of the epic, Mahabharata, is one of Vidhu Aggarwal’s #FiveDesiFaves. @DesiBooks


As my final fave, I’d like to talk about Bhanu Kapil’s hybrid narrative, Humananimal: A Project for Future Children (Kelsey Street Press, 2009). Kapil is a British-Indian writer whose family is from Punjab. In this book, she returns to India with a French film crew to make a movie about the famous case of “feral children,” Kamala and Amala, “two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India” in 1920 and raised by missionaries. Neither child thrives in their new environment. Like in Alluri’s work, the jungle features heavily as a site of alternative knowledge and resistance to colonization. Kapil’s writings explores the residue of empire with vivid scenes of the Reverend Singh’s attempt to convert Kamala and Amala into human children, a violent intervention that never quite takes: “Balled up, her shaven head and spine visible through her skin, the wolfgirl was a singular presence, almost butter-yellow against the granular fabric of the Kodak paper.” Kapil relates this story of the wolfgirls to her father’s history and childhood and his eventual move to England. “The legs: as a child, my father ate butter straight from the cow. Once, when his mother caught him red-handed at the churn, she beat him to blood with a bamboo cane.”

Kapil’s work gave me the fortitude to write about my father in Daughter Isotope. Growing up, I always felt I could not write about my family—that it would be an act of betrayal.  So I dedicate the poems “Uranium Pellet Sutra,” “@Deathbed,” and “Migrant Domains” to Bhanu Kapil.

Vidhu Aggarwal discusses how Bhanu Kapil’s work gave her “the fortitude to write about my father in Daughter Isotope.” #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


All in all, I want to make a case for writing that plays with time and place and occupies the space of the fantastic. Desi-punk, desi-futurism and the desi-fantastic—terms that derive from Afrofuturist paradigms in the States. Afrofuturism has influenced and informed categories of other global futurisms including desi (South Asian) futurism and Latinx futurism. Critic Ytasha L. Womack argues that Afrofuturists redefine culture and notions of blackness for today and the future.  As the scholar Ryan D’Souza elaborates: desi-futurism is not simply fantasy and escapism, but about survival given the multiple dislocations of the South Asian diaspora across continents—Africa, the Americas (Caribbean), and Europe in the state of post-coloniality.

“…desi-futurism is not simply fantasy and escapism, but about survival given the multiple dislocations of the desi diaspora across continents […] in the state of post-coloniality.” ~Vidhu Aggarwal #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 49 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #FiveDesiFaves segment was from Vidhu Aggarwal who has a hybrid poetry collection out titled Daughter Isotope. She’s sharing her five favorite works of desi-punk, desi-futurism, and desi-fantastic works that engage in speculative poetics and alternative fantasy spaces.

Episode 50 (can you believe it?) will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Please tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Email at desibooks@desibooks.co. And please go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. You’ll get all the updates you might have missed as well as some new stuff.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

Poet and multimedia artist Vidhu Aggarwal shares her #FiveDesiFaves: diasporic works of speculative poetics and alternative fantasy by Usman T. Malik, Vandana Singh, Bishakh Som, Hari Alluri, and Bhanu Kapil. @DesiBooks

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