Adrian Grima talks to the much-travelled Nepali poet Itisha Giri in a time of confinement

The pandemic has made us more aware of our complex, often difficult relationship with space. The space that we revel in, the space that is denied us. We’re perhaps more aware than ever that space is a fundamental human right but for many it is a luxury that they cannot afford. I ask Itisha Giri how the restrictions imposed by such an invasive virus have affected her space.

“I suppose, this virus made me realise how fortunate I am to have a place that feels safe and is free of any potential threats to my body or general well-being. This is in stark contrast to many who are confined in spaces that are potentially violent. Many did not even have the choice to stay at home. Daily wage workers were forced to put their lives at risk in order to provide for their families. For them, the pandemic was more than just a health scare – it was also a threat to their lives and livelihood.”

Giri tells me she “can’t unsee the images of migrant workers making long and arduous treks on foot to get back to their villages in India.” Neither can she “unsee photos of a daily wage worker in Nepal who was found dead on a sidewalk. So, the notion of space cannot be detached from those who inhabit or lay claim to the benefits offered by that very place – whether that be a home or a country.”

Poems and place

On a personal level, while I was grappling with restrictions on movement and lockdown-induced anxiety, I also thought a lot about how being restricted in a space can change the very nature of that space. There were days when the space I was most familiar with would turn on me, become hostile.

Talk about space inevitably leads to reflections on place. Giri feels she has never really belonged to a place. All places have offered her a certain level of intimacy, Nepal, Hong Kong, London, and now Spain. Although her poetry tends to engage with the wider world and the stories of people she meets, it also deals with her personal struggle to make sense of her “identities and the purpose they serve in different locations”.

Poetry has offered her “the stability that one would otherwise find in the rootedness of a place, or the comfort of kin. It is perhaps distance and alienation that lends me the courage to question, reject, or even rebuke the visible social realities that confront or affront me.”

Here’s a stanza from ‘I Have Created’:

I have created – a country for you where your fractured self lives by multiple names – and no pen can pin you down to be the one that belongs to someone else.

And yet, in her poetry she often chooses not to mention places. How has the pandemic complicated her relationship with place?

“I think all of my poems emerge from a place, whether that be a specific location or fragments of memory tied to a more fluid sense of place. The virus made me realise how I have always considered distance from a beloved place or people as something concrete that can be measured and consequently traversed or conquered, but that is no longer the case.”

English, Nepali

Inevitably, I ask Giri why she writes her poetry in English.

“Growing up, we were told mastering the English language meant social mobility and social capital. English was a language of promise, aspiration. Many of my peers will tell you stories of being punished for speaking in Nepali in English medium schools.”

It is evident, she adds, that the privileging of English language has come “at the cost of suppressing and castigating indigenous languages,” what she describes as “a continuing act of colonization.”

“It also meant privilege and access that is intrinsically linked to one’s socio-economic status. We are the products of our education and the quality of education we receive is a product of our family’s economic standing – especially in a country where the state of public education is dismal.”

Giri left Nepal when she was 17 and did not go back for an extended period until she was 30.

“This is a long time to be away from a language and its traditions. My relationship with the Nepali language strained over time and English became the sole language of expression for me. English won in the end and I became estranged from both Nepali and Hindi.

“When I write in English, I’m acutely aware I will never be able to reach a large section of the Nepali population, but it is something I have come to terms with. I am also aware that the act of writing in English and not in Nepali is an act of exclusion on my part, but I have come to terms with that as well.”

At the poetry translation workshop on the tiny island of San Simón in Galicia where we met in September 2019, she was translating into Nepali.

“I see translation as an act of recuperating the distance between myself and the voices and traditions that were side-lined by English. It is an act of personal labour and an act of repentance even.”

But, at the same time, the Nepali language has imposed its own dominion over other languages from Nepal. Nepal has always been multilingual, but the state has forced its people to sideline their difference in favour of a single language, a single “ideal” identity. When I think about this, I find comfort in the “neutrality” of English as a lingua franca, but this might be a more selfish self-affirmation of sorts.’

Giri tells me that “Nepal's literary scene is very much dominated by Nepali. It was officially declared as the national language in the late 1950s and since then the country has imposed a single language policy on its multilingual people. So translating other languages spoken in Nepal into Nepali and vice versa is critical to challenging the hegemony of a single language and its literary tradition.

“Writer Manjushree Thapa writes about the constant need to ‘uncouple the adjective ‘Nepali’ from the language ‘Nepali’. She writes, “Nepal’s literature is a much vaster body of work than Nepali literature.”

With regard to translating international poetry into Nepali: “I think we are still very much drawn to the Western “canon” or we privilege the “canon” and to be honest we do not have a large output when it comes to poetry translations in general. So, there is a lot of work to be done for poets and translators, but that also means that readers from Nepal have a lot to look forward to!”

Me too

Giri is the editor of These Fine Lines, an anthology of poems written by women who explore their female experiences within the spectrum of abandon and restraint, a spectrum demarcated by cultural and social norms. This work and her role as co-creator and producer of Boju Bajai, a monthly feminist podcast in Nepali, remind me of her powerful poem Me Too. This stanza comes towards the end:

Me, too, can

rule, rouse, rage, ravage

Look at me! Look at me!

Me, too, can be king.

Me, the blind pawn,

Me, the naked knight

Me, the still, stone-faced rook,

Me, the bishop, cutting corners.

Me, the queen never

the king, but

Me, too, can kill.

I ask her how engaging with her audiences has affected what she writes and how she writes poetry.

“To be honest, I did not write Me Too as a performance piece,” she says. “There are very few poems that I have consciously written for the stage. But performing them in front of an audience certainly adds a new layer of meaning to the text. It becomes open and inclusive and the audience's reaction and feedback become an extension of the poem or maybe even the poem itself.’

In one of Giri’s poems, To live, and die in this body I do not own, a ‘cento’ or collage poem composed entirely of lines from poems by other poets, she remind us that our language is borrowed or perhaps even ‘stolen’ language. But she also reminds us, as the eminent Maltese critic Oliver Friggieri wrote in 1986 in his book L-Idea tal-Letteratura, that poetry is all about how ‘common’ language is organised, or rather reorganised, into something new. There is a crispness in the natural flow of Giri’s lines that might hide how carefully she constructs them. How important is structure and rhythm?

“Isn't that the poem? A play between the rhyme, the breaks, the form? I do rely on recording the poem and listening to it during the editing process which is where I really focus on the rhythm. Writing the Cento or putting together the cento was a way of bringing together voices that were particularly important to me at that time. And it was also a way to see whether there was a universal essence in the works of poets from such different histories and backgrounds and whether I could bring them together to create a specific meaning or emotion.”

On a more human level, I tell Giri that I found Naniji (which means grandmother in Hindi) particularly touching. I ask her to tell us a bit about the real-life experience that inspired it.

“It's a poem about an old woman and what she chooses to or tries to hold on to in between remembering and forgetting. My grandmother had dementia and towards the end of her life, I saw her, or maybe imagined her, recreating certain moments. She would ‘perform’ these repetitive actions that appeared to be the crystallization of what she held most dear.

Giri plays with words in intelligent and playful ways, creating unusual semantic connections from words connected by rhyme or alliteration, making us constantly aware of how language makes and shapes us, exploring emotions, doubts, self-awareness, sensations. The secret, I suppose, is that she never lets the cleverness of the play hold sway, not even in An Archive of Consonants, which is a lot about words but also about place.

“That’s quite nice of you to say. I do feel that it is because of my own growth as a writer, a lot more conscious reading, more experimenting, and a lot more editing!”

Itisha Giri was invited to Malta by Inizjamed to take part in this year’s XVth edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Because of the new restrictions on outdoor events, this has now been cancelled and Giri will be recording a reading which will be available online in the coming weeks.

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