SSASA 12 – “What is one piece of American Literature that shaped you?”
My trip to Salzburg to participate in the Salzburg Global Seminar’s twelfth session “Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions” at the beautiful Schloss Leopoldskron comprised of many profound moments of learning. At our Graduation Dinner in St. Stephen’s College, way back in 1999, my happy batch-mate Siddarth Correya had said that his learning in college had been as much outside the classroom as inside. The Schloss provided me with the atmosphere I was hopelessly nostalgic about post leaving College Campus. You learn during the sessions, from what is said, but you learn as much from just being there, and from what is still left unsaid.
It has taken me awhile to unpack. Between laundry and reams of notes, I find stories, I catch myself smiling. At the Schloss, the rooms overlook the sprawling lawns, fountains, the lake, the mountains, sunshine, inside the discussion focused on the nuances of authorship, or, the symbolism of a wet sari in a Bollywood film. The generous meals were sprinkled with conversations: the political air of Malaysia, traveling from Calcutta to Berhampur, the paintings that denote seasons, is there music playing? The range of speakers and topics were mind-boggling. The mind danced. And, the refrain I kept returning to, what does this mean for American Literature and the ghazal?
But, let’s just set aside my emotionally charged pen, (erm keys), talking hard facts, this Seminar belongs to the rare breed where seamless structure and efficiently managed logistics magnificently merges with informal atmosphere. It is an intensive program and an immersive one; you are dipped in and saturated. And you leave knowing that your thoughts have been tweaked.
As I slowly return to reading and writing, I feel I have greatly benefitted from the experience for three reasons. Firstly, because it has managed to refuel my faith in this field – sigh, campus life, also there is so much work still to be done. I know, I do hear the dismal talk about the state of academics and funding, but, by golly there is so much research still to be done, and this field is so deliciously dynamic. Secondly, in the library, at the Schloss I found ghazals I had not read before. I carried back these gems with me to use in my studies, along with lots of notes that I will try to incorporate into my research. Lastly, bierstube. That’s all I can say!
Enjoy the pictures! You might notice a picture of a cactus that has flowered. While I away our resident prickles decided to shine in neglect.
More about the seminar: The seminar was hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA).
It had attendees from 26 countries that included novelists, critics, Ph.D. candidates, academics, editors, professors, and performers. The speakers and discussion groups sought the definition of ‘new’ and aspects of it in American literature.
Seminar website: click here (spot me in the picture – black and white outfit, approximately in the middle row).
Edited to add: official pictures <— click
We went over to the Australian cafe Drover’s Dog for breakfast with our friends. It has a nice laid-back vibe. I could see myself reading the papers in a corner sipping a mug of coffee, the place is great to meet folks as well – warm wood interiors, soft and natural light and lots of vases with flowers. It is a bit noisy on the weekends.
The menu is not run of the mill and has a few interesting options e.g. corn fritters that came with a perfectly poached egg and chili jam. I appreciated that on asking for a glass of water they offered a pitcher of water with herbs and lemon. Small gesture that makes a big difference.
The service is friendly. Children were quite welcome.
We reached a consensus that we ought to give this place: 4 stars (out of 5)
Location: Heemstedestraat 25, Amsterdam Oud-Zuid.
It is August. Soon we will be in Autumn – Fall. I like the manner in which fall as a word rolls inside the mouth, in the end making the tongue meet the roof of your mouth.
For that reason and a few other.
Leaves – A Ghazal
What eats you from inside gradually leaves
They place your body covered lovingly with leaves
In winter they told me that these trees have color
That nature undresses seductively dropping leaves
I waited and watched nothing ever came of it
You closed the door quietly when you leave
My shirt, my trousers, bits and pieces of me
Gathered now in a dust pan, your gaze sweepingly leaves
Change happens when you aren’t watching
From the door the old lazy wretch of a dog reluctantly leaves
I painted the chairs yellow to match your mind
A sleepy head watches the sun finally leave
Meditation has made Das still
When someone says go away, she happily leaves
The joys of Amstel Park, where Bambi and I often spend hours. He hates the bees and loves the flowers, how ironical, how can one exist without the other. In the park they have a toy train that goes inside what we like to call “the deep dark woods” (a nod to Julia Donaldson). We have not spotted any Gruffalos yet, however, we have spotted butterflies, cows, sheep, goats, llamas, emus, turkeys, hens, roosters, peacocks and peahens, pigs, ponies, birds, rabbits, buffalos, and bees, lots of bees, and some mosquitoes.
Poem: “Conversations About Home (at a deportation centre)”
Poet: Warsan Shire
Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on my face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck, I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.
I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home. But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth.
I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.
Why this poem (in one line) – Going to break the format for Shire because I love her so very much:
Is this even a poem? I like the manner in which it breaks that boundary to speak about boundaries. What should a poem look like on paper? Should it be indented like a river in the middle of reams of white? Or is this it, this big chunky mass of words? And, it is personal, like Adrienne Rich always said, this is her story, this is my story, and the story of many women. I find it strange when the public, the professional, and the personal are not on the same platform. As though these water-tight compartments are created to not know about the other. We are making colonies out of our lives. Indra Nooyi’s interview, her comments about women and motherhood, have been floating around my Facebook page – what is this all? Who wants this all? Is this all a monolithic singular structure? It saddens me at multiple levels – on having a mother that tells you to leave work at work, and at home be you, is that other you – not you, and why does that have to be a mask, a role. There is a gravitation towards a non-organic way of being.
My favorite poem by Shire “Ugly”:
Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and sea water.
They said she reminded them of the war.
On her fifteenth birthday you taught her
how to tie her hair like rope
and smoke it over burning frankincense.
You made her gargle rosewater
and while she coughed, said
macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell
of lonely or empty.
You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her,
hold her like a rotting boat
and tell her that men will not love her
if she is covered in continents,
if her teeth are small colonies,
if her stomach is an island
if her thighs are borders?
What man wants to lay down
and watch the world burn
in his bedroom?
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things
doesn’t she wear
the world well.
© 2013, Warsan Shire
From: teaching my mother how to give birth
Publisher: flipped eye, London, 2011, 978-1-905233-29-8