Polarization can also be good: Meena Kandasamy, poet, writer, translator and activist

Meena Kandasamy is a name synonymous with strength and feminism, advocacy and equality in literature. Her poem Rape Nation, written about the gang rape of Hathras, went viral on social media in 2020. Her lyrics are about dissent and she rages at the plight of the oppressed. At the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, Kandasamy spoke with Reya Mehrotra about her Mulligatawny Dreams, the pandemic, the impact of polarization on her work and the significance of translations to the contemporary period. Edited excerpts:

How was the pandemic for you as a writer?
I was stuck in London with two kids. The pandemic also impacted my relationship with my partner, but we survived it all. On the work side, I didn’t manage to write much but I did work on some translations and wrote a bit about how women were spending their time during the pandemic. Timelessness gives way to finding time to write, but I still think the best stories I wrote in that era came from the ground.

We are increasingly polarized in our thoughts. What kind of impact do you think this will have on society in general?
On the one hand, polarization occurs outside of us, and on the other hand, it also occurs in intimate spaces. I hear people say that they can’t be in their family groups, that their mother, their sister or their neighbor become unbearable overnight. So how do you find space to be yourself in the midst of it all? Polarization is largely linked to the structure of the state, politics and the media, but it is also part of intimate spaces, which is dangerous. But the fact that it’s there also has a huge impact, because even if you change one person at a time, you manage to do something good. This means that political work is not only for political parties but each individual must make a small intervention. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and WhatsApp universities work, but that doesn’t mean you’ll stay away from social media or hide. The answer lies in the struggle by being there.

Does it impact your work in any way?
Social media platforms allow instant access to things and some platforms have algorithms specifically to amplify this. A writer should be where opinions are formed. Rigorous forces or the right do not wait for a book to come out to form an opinion. They have a strong social media presence. As a democratic force, you have to be where the people are and not isolate them because of their opinions. I don’t think being vocal on Twitter takes away from my poetry or the beauty or lyricism of what I’m trying to write.
Polarization has been around for hundreds of years. The caste system is not new. In Tamil Nadu, it has existed since the 12th century. Women have been treated less intellectually and oppressed for years. It’s all just more visible now. As a writer, those who call you on Twitter are not those who read your work. Last September I was at a conference and some people started protesting my writing about Ram and Sita. I was like, when I wrote it ten years ago, you were living under a rock, you weren’t in touch with literature. Just when someone is visible on social media, you hear rumors and voice your opinions.

You translated the novel Women, Dreaming by writer and activist Salma in 2020. Do you think the translations have found their way among readers and publishers?
Translations have acquired more prestige now. Previously, it was considered a stenographer’s job. Now there is more intellectual rigor. There are a lot of awards and honors for that and it is talked about more openly. Translations are considered serious literature.

Do you think early authors or poets are more accepted by publishers and readers than before?
No. And I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. I remember I struggled to get my first book of poetry published. Then Kamala Das (writer and poet) helped me. She told me about a young man from Kerala who ran a poetry house. Random people like NGOs would come to me and tell me they would publish my work, but after a year they would tell me that the committee had decided not to. When you are young, the struggle is real. This is where social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram come into play these days and where new writers find their own audience.

About two decades ago you wrote in your classic poem Mulligatawny Dreams “I dream of an English full of the words of my language”. an English in lowercase an English that will tire the tongue of a white man…” In your opinion, how far have we gone towards the dream?
I wrote the poem almost two decades ago when I was 17 or 18. I am a Tamil woman writing in English. Tamil is very much alive in everything I say. If I wasn’t Tamil, I don’t know if I would have much to say. I write with a particular perspective and point of view, but I’m also very influenced by my mother tongue so I always dream of “an English that will tire a white man’s tongue”.

What is your next job about?
I am writing my own collection of poetry after 12 years. I also prepare translations of Thirukkural which is an ancient classic text of Tamil poetry. I am also working on a novel.