Rishi Dastidar: “Nations ‘appear’ to be timeless, but they are inventions, human inventions, as much as the steam engine, the microchip, dare I say it, poetry.“
Interview by Emilia Mirazchiyska
We started this interview by way of a joke, when I told Rishi Dastidar that I found it strange that his second poetry collection, Saffron Jack (Nine Arches, 2020), lacks a contents page.
There are four possible answers to this conundrum: a) Because the author treated the book as one long narrative poem; b) Because the author likes surprising his readers; c) Because the author can’t use the Table of Contents function in Word; d) Because the author is a post-modernist in the worst sense of the word.
The most likely answer is the first one, if we trust a review in The Guardian (Sat 9 May 2020), in which Saffron Jack was described as ‘’a long narrative poem that revises the fervent imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, from Plain Tales From the Hills.”
The review goes on: “Dastidar’s central character, Jack (a play on the union jack and to hijack) is an outcast who rejects a system that has neglected him to become king of his own country. ‘Every country,’ he declares, ‘is imaginary.’”
So, Rishi, “Every country is imaginary.” But, only in poetry, in filmdom and in fictional stories, I’m afraid, or also in dreams of everyone? Would you agree?
I might challenge that a bit actually! It’s quite a trick of the nation state to make itself appear inevitable – but of course, when you look at global history, many of the groupings that we now recognize as ‘nations’ are actually creations of the 18th century (don’t confuse the myths they spin about themselves about how old they might be, or how far back into the past their history and peoples goes) willed into being by specific individuals, as well as the impact of specific technological changes.
My thinking on this is strongly informed by the late Benedict Anderson, a political scientist who wrote Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Briefly, his argument is that nations are socially constructed and yet they are imagined because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.
Two things come from this: 1) nations *appear* to be timeless, but they are inventions, human inventions, as much as the steam engine, the microchip, dare I say it, poetry. So what happens when we start to treat them with less reverence? 2) How far and deep can such a community be, especially in an age of individualism? If we have been trained over the last 40 years or so, to revere ourselves more than the communities we live in, doesn’t that contain the seeds of destruction for the idea of nationhood?
More poetically: why wouldn’t everyone dream of being a monarch or president, a ruler of a state of their own? It’s one answer to feeling a lack of power and agency in your life. Or at least, it is for me.
When and how did contemporary poetry come into your life?
Later in life, not until I was into my late 20s. I hadn’t studied literature or creative writing at all at university, and while I had an ambition to be a writer of some sort I had assumed it would be as a journalist (that didn’t end up happening – my day job is as an advertising copywriter.)
So: contemporary poetry came into my life by chance, by accident. It was 2007, and I was working just off Oxford Street at the time, London’s main shopping street. One Monday lunchtime I popped into the big Borders bookshop that was there at the time, and as I was going up to the first floor, a book with the title ‘Ashes for Breakfast’ caught my eye. I picked it up and… it was a moment of Damascene revelation for me, as I flicked through the pages. I had no idea that it was possible to do this with language: to leave white space, to not go to the end of the line; to be urbane and flip and witty and intellectual all within the space of four lines. I was hooked. I knew I had found the thing that I truly wanted to try to write.
I bought the book (it’s by Durs Grünbein, and remains wonderful), and by the end of the week I was enrolled in an introduction to poetry class, taught by the brilliant poet Clare Pollard. That was my start.
Where were you born? What is your mother tongue?
I am London born and bred and, apart from university and a nine month stint in a town about an hour’s drive north of London called Milton Keynes, I’ve never lived anywhere else. (I sometimes feel bad about that – maybe I should have had more adventures elsewhere! But then, growing up in and around London, well, that’s an amazing playground to have as well.)
And now, to shame myself: I am monoglot, terribly, horribly monoglot. Mum and Dad, having emigrated to the UK from India in the 1960s, thought it was vital that me and my sister had English as a first language, and so in the main that’s what we spoke; and I never really asked to learn more (and more about Bengali). I know enough to know when Mum is telling me off, let’s put it like that.
I equally lack any facility with European languages: once when in Paris, I attempted to order in a restaurant; I had barely uttered “Je voudrais” when the waiter cut me dead, and said “Sir, perhaps it would be better for all of us if we did this in English.”
Why Kipling? What’s your ‘story’ with him?
Well, Saffron Jack came about far more through the film adaptation of The Man Who Would Be King, directed by John Huston, and starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. It was that that captured my imagination, rather than the novella – though when I went back and read it, I found that the film had (at least to my mind) made the story darker than it appeared to be in the book.
Would you like to write a review of that film for Inkroci?
Ha! There’s a line in the book that attempts that – ‘The Kaffiristan Job’; a play on The Italian Job, still one of Caine’s most famous films, and a reference to the type and nature of the Hutson adaptation: a semi-comic caper, as it were…
Other than that, I wouldn’t say that I have a strong relation to Kipling – in the UK, he is a figure who I think has declined in relevance over the years; I don’t get a sense that, outside of ‘Kim’ and ‘If–’ he is much thought of at the moment. I suspect that will change again, as we start to have a proper reckoning with and of Britain’s imperial legacy, and the role of culture in that, as a transmitter of ideas of racial superiority.
A provocative question. Do the English have a sense of guilt for the subjects of the empire born in the colonies? Have they been paying them more attention lately? Would you say something about this in a literary context?
This is difficult, and contested territory, and we should be very wary as we venture into it, especially with potentially explosive terms such as ‘guilt’.
Let’s start at the top. Your use of ‘English’ is instructive, because of course we are talking about the British Empire, not the ‘English Empire’ – and the persistent conflation of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ (especially by, mostly by, people in England) has been one of the reasons why, historically, the UK has not had a more clear-eyed debate about colonization and its aftermath.
To my mind, it’s not guilt that is the issue when it comes Britain’s relation to, and relationship with descendants of people who were subjects of the Empire – it’s a not knowing, a form of collective amnesia almost. To the extent that we were ever taught imperial history at school (spoiler alert: it wasn’t much) post-WW2 decolonisation was presented as an almost painless, bloodless, inevitable process (give or take the few bodies of partition in India [I am being sarcastic, for avoidance of doubt]) – not for Britain the horrors of, say, France’s war within Algeria. And so in that context, it’s not guilt that confronts us initially – more an absence of knowledge.
Where that becomes significantly problematic is when this absence of knowledge collides with the reality of citizens of that Empire landing on the shores of the motherland after 1948. Because what we can say we have seen is that those citizens, from the Caribbean, from the subcontinent, not being seen as citizens – which is what they are and were – but rather as aliens. And of course, citizens from the dominion nations (Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc) did not face, or have to suffer this type of othering.
More positively: I think, overall, British literary culture is getting better, and has been getting better, at reflecting the complexity and nuance of this story, and especially over the last 20 years. You can see it in high-profile events like Bernardine Evaristo winning the Booker Prize, Roger Robinson winning the TS Eliot Prize. But you can also see it in the broadening of voices that are now part of literary culture, and reflecting on Empire as part of what they write about. Saffron Jack is a small contribution to that.
Please share your thoughts on the necessity of poetry readings online… I imagine Zoom is here to stay. People have become used to meeting, giving readings, for instance, without traveling.
Has poetry been ‘necessary’ online? Absolutely – I think that, for many people, it has provided a much-needed point of connection and consolation.
And I suspect that poetry will be one of the last activities to go back to the way it was before the pandemic, in small, poorly-ventilated rooms. So Zoom and other online platforms will be here to stay for a while.
That has the potential to be, I think, a good thing. It was shaming to discover how little so many of us had, up to that point, thought about accessibility – how hard some people might find it to get into an event, how tricky others might find it to hear.
We’ve seen, with enough allowances and preparation, online platforms can reduce those barriers to access, so more people who want to participate can. Our challenge, once things get back to normal, will be finding ways of bringing people further away together with people live in the room. Perfectly possible, but it will require event producers and performers to think ahead more.
You are part of the writers’ collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. What does this mean to you? How would you present this team to someone who has never heard of it?
Malika’s Kitchen has been a vital part of my development as a writer. It’s a space where a number of us come together, and work on all aspects of our poetic craft. Uniquely, most sessions are led by members, so you get a chance to work to work out ideas you might be thinking about, and road-test them with others.
But more than that: it’s a feeling of fellowship and support you get by being part of the group. We all write in different styles, and are pursing different artistic agendas. But we all work to help make each other better at what we do, and what we’re trying to do. It’s a good feeling.
Which are your favourite themes in poetry?
Hmm. I’m not sure I’m a ‘theme’-driven writer as such: most of my poems tend to start as snatches or fragments of language that I can’t get out of my head, that I fixate on; and then I see how they develop, and through that, what the poem might be ‘about’ starts to emerge…
That said, a lot of what I write tends to come back to thinking about aspects of the economy and politics, and a lot about the future too, especially the ecological crises we appear to have sleepwalked into. I have been writing a lot about the sea at the moment, and giving voice to a weary Neptune, at a loss as to how to cope with what humans have done.
How important for you is contact with and feedback from your readers? How do you imagine your ideal audience?
I wouldn’t say that contact is a key part of my working process, because the chances of it happening are so fleeting and unpredictable, so I have to be able to work without it, and trust my instinct to pursue the artistic ends that I want to. But it’s lovely when that contact and feedback happens; to know that some arrangement of words that you’ve put together has triggered some form of response in someone – that’s wonderful indeed.
I don’t think I ever have imagined my ideal audience. I would say it’s absolutely anyone who wants to take a chance on a book, filled with things that are poems, but might not be like ones that you’re familiar with, tonally and subject-wise.
Does a poet need to have a mentor or not, in your opinion?
I would say yes, as I have benefitted hugely from having different mentors and teachers at different stages of my development so far. It is possible that someone can develop their talent without the help of a mentor – but it is more fun to do so in the presence of someone who has wrestled with similar artistic challenges that you might have, and can help you navigate to your destination.