#FiveDesiFaves: Zilka Joseph shares her favorite books of poetry and hybrid essays

Desi Books Ep 56 w/ Zilka Joseph Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 56 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 Zilka Joseph, who has a new poetry collection out titled In Our Beautiful Bones. She’s sharing her five favorite desi works of poetry and hybrid essays by: Nissim Ezekiel, Reetika Vazirani, Agha Shahid Ali, Sejal Shah, and Sumita Chakraborty.

#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH ZILKA JOSEPHINTRODUCTION

Zilka Joseph’s work is influenced by her Indian and Bene Israel roots, and Eastern and Western cultures. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Poetry Daily, Kenyon Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, Asia Literary Review, RESPECT: An Anthology of Detroit Music Poetry, 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium, Cheers to Muses: Contemporary Work by Asian American Women, and The Kali Project. Her poems and chapbooks have been nominated for Pushcart and PEN awards, and Best of the Net. Sharp Blue Search of Flame, her book of poems was a Foreword INDIES Book Award finalist. Her third chapbook, Sparrows and Dust, was recently nominated for a Pushcart. In Our Beautiful Bones, her new book, has been nominated for a PEN America award. She was born in Mumbai and lived in Kolkata for most of her life. She now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. She teaches creative writing workshops, is an editor, manuscript coach, and a mentor to writers in her community.

In Our Beautiful Bones traces various stages in the poet’s journey as an immigrant from India who makes a new life in the US and her encounters with racism and otherness. In it, she explores her Bene Israel roots, the origins of her ancestors, her life in Kolkata, the influences of British rule and a missionary education, her growing knowledge of what racism and marginalization mean, how Indians and Indian culture are perceived and represented. While delving unflinchingly into the violence and global impact of colonialism, the weaponization of the English language, the evils of tyranny and white supremacy, and the struggles of oppressed peoples everywhere, she creates powerful collages from mythology, folklore, fairy tales, scriptures, world cultures, literature, music, food, and current events. Traditional and experimental forms, historical information, sensory riches, wit and word play, and an unwavering and clear voice make this book a compelling read. In Our Beautiful Bones is a multi-layered, sharply ironic, and sometimes pathos-filled critique of the world. And, at the same time, it is visionary and a triumph of the human spirit.

The transcript of this episode is also up on the website at desibooks.co.

And now, here’s Zilka Joseph with her #FiveDesiFaves.


#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH ZILKA JOSEPH

Hi everyone, thanks to Jenny Bhatt for inviting me to share my five favorite books with you. As a poet, I approach different ways to tell my story, and as I was thinking about what books made a great impression on me and my life or my writing, (and believe me, there are too many to name here), I thought I would share books, or really their authors, that were significant in my journey—first, as someone who lived and taught in India and had no idea that she would be poet one day, then as an immigrant who now lives in the US and who did really became a poet but in a very unconventional way.

Poet Zilka Joseph, who has a new poetry collection titled In Our Beautiful Bones, shares her #FiveDesiFaves by Nissim Ezekiel, Reetika Vazirani, Agha Shahid Ali, Sejal Shah, and Sumita Chakraborty. @DesiBooks


As a student in Kolkata, India, and with the start of the new ICSE and ISC exam system, we began to be exposed to Indian writing in English. And it was perhaps at that time I realized that we had our own identity, our own style, and voice. And, of course, no one proved that to me more than the poet who is considered the Father of Indian Poetry, Nissim Ezekiel. I can still remember the impact of ‘The Night of the Scorpion’ and how my interest in his work grew from then on.

The book I would like to mention here is Ezekiel’s Collected Poems published by Oxford University Press in 1992, and republished in subsequent editions later. It has poems from seven volumes of his poetry as well as poems written between 1964-88, which were published in journals, and unpublished work too. This is a book that every Indian writer and writer of Indian origin should own. Ezekiel’s break from Romanticism, his critical insights into Indian life and its paradoxes, his detached portrayal of its ironies, his exploration of love and desire—which were quite revolutionary for those times—all made him India’s best known English language poet.

It gave me permission to believe that we Indians could claim our own power over the English Language, and aspire to be poets. For me, there was another dimension—I too am Bene Israel like Ezekiel and I felt empowered to claim my identity. In my new book, In Our Beautiful Bones, I have several poems that deal with the complexities of being a poet who reads, writes, dreams, in the conqueror’s language. And though we have been informed by English Literature and Language, we chafe under that burden too. Not only that, when we immigrate to Western countries like the US, people comment on our English, our accent, and in academia, our colonial English is often called out, or looked down on. English, once again, becomes a weapon of racism and “otherness.” Two poems in my book that particularly deal with these issues are: ‘English as She Is Spoke’ and an abecedarian called ‘A-Z of Foreign Anguish’—which was inspired by the ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’ by M. NourbeSe Philip.

Zilka Joseph discusses Nissim Ezekiel’s Collected Poems and how they’ve been a foundational influence for her own poetry in #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


The next poet that made an impact on me was someone I began to read maybe a few years after I immigrated to the US. I had just joined a poetry workshop and it was not easy for me to fit in and no one could really relate to my life or experience. I began exploring contemporary American literature. I heard about a young poet named Reetika Vazirani. I ordered her books of poetry, devoured them. At the time, I was writing and studying poetry seriously and was still familiarizing myself with the aesthetics and poetics of major poets. And her expertise, her clever use of language stunned me. The book I read first was White Elephants which was from the Barnard New Women Poets Series and published by Beacon Press, Boston, 1996. And later World Hotel, published by Copper Canyon Press, 2002. Her compelling poems took me through voyages and languages and conflicts, and the issues of identity, belonging, immigration, displacement, and citizenship—all subjects I struggled with myself with and had no one to guide me.

Only later, I found out she was deceased, a tragic death by suicide and that she killed her infant son before she took her own life. Her death stunned the literary world. Now sadly, her work is being forgotten, or perhaps people are afraid to bring up her name. I feel it is important for us to bring the spotlight back to her work, so I encourage you to look for her books. 

[Reetika Vazirani’s] compelling poems took me through voyages and languages and conflicts, and the issues of identity, belonging, immigration, displacement, and citizenship.” ~Zilka Joseph #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


As I began to get published and had a chapbook of my own called Lands I Live In—which was nominated for a PEN Award—I decided it was time for me to look into enrolling for an MFA in poetry. Not just to pursue formally my love of knowledge, but so that I would have a Master’s degree from the US and that would allow me to teach. Around that time, I was introduced to the work of Agha Shahid Ali, and I realized even more how much I needed to learn, and to reinvent myself, produce new work. Ali’s work was not just a shock and challenging to me, but he embodied all the things that I felt and knew I was—an Indian who had absorbed worlds of eastern and western knowledge, spoke many languages, and could leap from Urdu songs to classical music to the blues. His ghazal—the form he created and perfected—was a revelation to me. I strove to write some myself. His mastery of many difficult forms like the sestina and the canzone is legendary, as are the stories his friends, colleagues, and students tell about him.

Once again, I missed an opportunity to meet and perhaps be taught by a genius because, by the time I knew about him, he had died. He died young, very tragically, of brain cancer. Not very long after his mother died of brain cancer too. One of my favorite poems is ‘Lenox Hill’, which about his dying mother. I realized much later that my book, Sharp Blue Search of Flame, in which I mourn the death of my mother, had probably been subconsciously influenced by Ali’s heartbreaking poems of lament in his book, Rooms Are Never Finished. Each of his books is a gem, so the book I’m recommending here is his The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems of Agha Shahid Ali, (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008) so you can cherish most of his writing. It includes an unpublished poem, ‘The Veiled Suite’, where he tells of meeting a veiled stranger in his dream who predicts the death of the poet. Haunting indeed.

“[Agha Shahid Ali’s The Veiled Suite] includes an unpublished title poem [about] meeting a veiled stranger in his dream who predicts the death of the poet.” ~Zilka Joseph #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


I was one of the oldest students in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. And I struggled to stay afloat, not just because of the challenging coursework, but also because there was not much diversity. It was intimidating as I had never studied in an American university and I had been out of touch with academia for nearly two decades. I also dealt with post polio syndrome so I was fatigued and the physical effort I had to put in to keep up with the program was huge. But since then I have published several books, taught many workshops, coached many a writer.

In my exploration of Indian writers of the diaspora I came across the work of Sejal Shah, an insightful and outstanding nonfiction writer. The book I highly recommend is This Is One Way to Dance, published by University of Georgia Press, where she allows us into her world as a Gujarati woman and her life in America, her love of dance—which becomes the main metaphor for the book—the expectations of her own parents and community as well as the ignorance and prejudice she faces in the world outside, the issues with identity and how people like us are pigeonholed by society and the publishing world.

She is a master of craft. Her essays are inventive, provocative, and yet vulnerable. And they pushed me as a writer to be inspired by hybrid forms. And, as she proves, there are many ways to dance and, so too, to experiment with form. In my books, I have used forms such as the sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, ghazal, and the abecedarian, and found that the labor that goes into writing these very gratifying. I also use different prose poem forms and collages.

“[Sejal Shah’s This Is One Way to Dance] proves there are many ways to dance and, so too, to experiment with form.” ~Zilka Joseph #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


A writer who has recently exploded into the world of poetry is Sumita Chakraborty. Well-known in academia and as poetry editor of the prestigious US journal AGNI, she published her first book of poems, Arrow, published by Alice James Books, 2020. She is now the Helen Zell visiting professor at the University of Michigan where I did my MFA. Complex and convoluted, mythic and yet concrete, it is a work of singular and devastating beauty. Always questioning and building layer upon layer of complexity, association and allusion, she is a poet’s poet. The arguments in her poems are far from straightforward, they demand attention, her images are concrete yet surreal, she weaves in the personal and the mythic in extraordinary and agonizing ways. I was mesmerized, intrigued, disturbed, all at the same time. Like poets Ali and Vazirani, she is a brilliant academic and she has already proved herself to be a stellar poet. I look forward to her forthcoming books.

“Complex and convoluted, mythic and yet concrete, [Sumita Chakraborty’s Arrow] is a work of singular and devastating beauty.” ~Zilka Joseph #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


Thanks Jenny, for giving me this opportunity to share a little bit about my life in India and the US, my journey in poetry and publishing, and to share some of my favorite books with everyone. I hope your listeners will check them out and, perhaps, write to me letting me know what they think.

I also hope people will check out my new book, In Our Beautiful Bones, and write to me to let me know what they think.

Poet Zilka Joseph, who has a new poetry collection titled In Our Beautiful Bones, shares her #FiveDesiFaves by Nissim Ezekiel, Reetika Vazirani, Agha Shahid Ali, Sejal Shah, and Sumita Chakraborty. @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 56 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 Zilka Joseph, who has a new poetry collection out titled In Our Beautiful Bones. She shared her five favorite desi works of poetry and hybrid essays. The transcript is also up on the website at desibooks.co.

Episode 57 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Please tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. 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. And please share this on via social media if you enjoyed listening or reading. Help raise the tide of South Asian literature.

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