On Poetry, Truth, and History: An Interview with Nisha Patel

In the summer of 2020 I was researching South Asian poetry in the Canadian diaspora. Nisha Patel was one of the poets I selected to study and interview.

In the summer of 2020 I was researching South Asian poetry in the Canadian diaspora. Nisha Patel was one of the poets I selected to study and interview. Through my research I wanted to gain a nuanced understanding of the priorities, trajectories, and goals of South Asian diaspora poetry. I talked to Nisha about her new book, Coconut, forthcoming with Newest Press in 2021, and how she approaches writing on illness and fatphobia while grappling with stereotypes of diaspora poetry. This interview was conducted over Zoom and then edited for clarity.

Manahil Bandukwala: Hi Nisha, I’m so excited to talk to you about your work.

What are the priorities you focus on in your writing? What have they been? I’m thinking about your chapbook, Limited Success, which came out in 2018. How have your priorities changed or evolved since then?

Nisha Patel: It’s funny that you’re referencing an older chapbook of mine. Limited Success was a collection of my previous years and many of the poems were ones I had written two or three years prior to it getting published. Publishing the chapbook meant for me to be a send-off to those poems. But when you go on tours, you end up selling old merch you have. I ended up selling hundreds of copies of this chapbook, long after it was first released. People associated some of those stories with who I was in that moment. A lot of my early writing had to do with race and diaspora and what my identity was in terms of the Canadian context. I was here as a settler on Treaty 6, and figuring out who I was in relation to my parents and their expectations. That was what I thought were essential but also common themes for diaspora brown writers.

After doing workshops, teaching a lot of classes and refining [my work] through slam and performance, I started talking quite a bit about my femininity, my relationship to queerness, and my relationship to sexuality on top of discussions I was already having on race, racism, and oppression. I leaned into a really big bend that was very much about my feminine body. Not just issues that affect brown bodies, but issues that affect women in particular. A lot of my upcoming manuscript, which is called Coconut, deals with things that affect the female body. I write almost centrally in some places about genitalia and the physical parts of a body, as well as the related emotional repercussions . The themes [of my writing] have changed, although instead of just switching from one theme to another, they all bleed into one another. What I’m finding is there’s more nuance and depth to what I’m writing now as compared to what I was writing before.

Manahil Bandukwala: That’s one thing I’ve noticed with my writing as well. You have this body of work and once it’s published, you feel it’s complete. There is closure. But as you said, during your tours, you’re going back to it and sharing it. I was talking to another writer who said she hasn’t been able to go back and read her chapbook after it was published. I was wondering how you feel about going back and reading old work.

Nisha Patel: It’s so interesting to me, because, like I said, almost 400-500 copies of the chapbook sold. Most of them I’ve sold in person at a show. That feels very human. At the same time, I want to say, this is all past work. This is not my best work. But my good friend pointed out that if I was writing my best work three years into my career, I would have nothing to look forward to in the future. So by that definition, you should never be at your best work. You should always have something more to grow into. I always want to say, these poems are who I am today. They reflect who I was, and they affect who I am today, but they’re not necessarily who I am. I always try to mix old work and new work at shows, and make sure people understand the evolution of my writing.

MB: I want to ask about the politics you’re interested in exploring in your writing.

NP: There are two things I’m afraid of writing about. One is illness. I have a Canada Council grant on hold right now for a second manuscript. Most of the reasoning for that manuscript was to write something that really delved into illness. I have a serious mood disorder that I’ve been managing for the better or for worse for many years, but most of my writing is not informed by that at all. I was already finding things hard, and now I have this new diagnosis of a chronic illness. I am a new diabetic. I feel like there’s a lot of fear in delving into it. Not because I’m afraid of what people will think, but because I’m afraid of not being accurate to pain and trauma without retraumatizing myself. I’ve really been waiting to heal enough to be able to access stories and to come out of them with something that is healing. That’s something I really want to write about. The politics of being a South Asian person who has a mental illness and the stigma around it. Some of the horrible and traumatic things I’ve experienced because of that. If you know about mood disorders, most of them are comorbid, which means most people who have a mood disorder also suffer from something else. My mood disorder has the highest rates of suicide, the highest rates of obesity, the highest rates of diabetes.

... I’m afraid of not being accurate to pain and trauma without retraumatizing myself. I’ve really been waiting to heal enough to be able to access stories and to come out of them with something that is healing. 

How does that manifest in a body that is constantly trying to heal? What am I healing from? Some days managing multiple illnesses feels like I’m a science experiment. I’ve been internalizing that and focusing on getting through before I get ready to write.

Secondly, I haven’t delved into fatphobia, the politics of being a fat person, and having a fat body, and the traumatic events I’ve experienced because of that. Even saying the word is hard for me. How deeply ingrained that is in South Asian culture. That plays into who I am as a woman and I haven’t done a lot of delving into that.

But I have been talking about queerness, and what it means to be a queer person in a heterosexual relationship. My partner is cis, I’m cis, and from the outside we look just like a straight couple. But both of us are queer. I’ve been exploring the experimentation you do as a [queer] person of colour, which would be different from the experience of queerness for someone who isn’t. Those are areas I want to explore, often very visually.

MB: You talked about fear of writing and retraumatization. Retraumatization happens not only when you’re putting it down, but when you’re editing, and then again when you’re going to publish. You’re sitting with it for a long time.

NP: I teach a lot of workshops to young folks. One of the things I teach is how to write about trauma. In that workshop, the main takeaway is don’t write about it if you’re going to hurt telling that story. You can write about trauma in ways that are extremely empowering. Even getting your story out is a way of empowering yourself. But at the same time, if you have to experience trauma to tell a story about trauma, you are creating more trauma for yourself.

MB: I think about Doyali Islam’s book, heft, where she writes on illness. I was speaking to her and she said it took around eight years to complete. It’s such a huge endeavour.

NP: It makes me nervous, figuring it out. Being an artist in a capitalist system means you have production deadlines. Healing on a deadline is awful. I intended to take a year to write my first manuscript. It took much longer than that. My second manuscript, I thought I could write it in two years, but I don’t think I can. I’ll be ready when I’m ready.

MB: I was reading on diaspora and the idea of home. Home is a place of comfort and refuge but it is also a memory. My grandparents, after Partition, left Gujarat and came to Pakistan.

NP: We’re from opposite sides of the same border. The absolute violence of having to be displaced and leave a place that was home for you. All the migration that happened there. For me, having been born here, what does that mean? My relationship to you, for instance, is different from my relationship to people who grew up here. Who may have shared history.

MB: I think about inheritance and the legacy of Partition. There are things we don’t write about because they’re traumatizing, and things we shouldn’t have to write about. Partition falls into that because the people who experienced it should not have to go back and relive it for the sake of putting that down for an external audience. As descendants of that, it still affects us.

NP: In 2018, I made the switch from working in politics to being a full-time artist. My parents were so disgusted or fearful or scared, that they kind of bullied me into coming to India with them because they thought it would be good for me. I had really romanticized the idea of returning to Gujarat. What I found was that the amount of violence against women overshadowed my whole experience of being in India again. Instead of coming home, I was thinking “home is not here.” I thought I would go and write about it and feel connected to my ancestors, and experience spirituality in a different way. Instead, I came back, and a lot of my manuscript, which became my book, ended up being these really harsh critiques and anger at both myself and the state of Gujarat. What I thought was going to be home ended up being a very violent place.

MB: What are we told versus what’s the reality? Those critiques of the mangoes of diaspora poetry—how much of it is anger at the mango versus the frustration of romanticizing a place? Not everyone is able to just go and sit in Karachi and enjoy a mango in a monsoon.

NP: There were days like that, picturesque Eat Pray Love moments, and then there were days where I was afraid for my life.

MB: Assimilation, like nostalgia and diaspora, has this negative connotation.

NP: I think it’s wrong of us to question and doubt and judge the way we and our ancestors have learned to cope with who we are in changing worlds. Assimilation became a way to stay safe in a new reality. Doyali talks about how she does not have her own language because her parents assimilated. There is no right way to be an Indian person or a brown person. Any judgment on assimilation is a form of gatekeeping of those identities. It’s a form of lateral violence. There are people who grow up in places that aren’t India and they don’t always maintain the same traditions. It doesn’t make them less of an Indian person or less of a brown person. It just means they’ve accepted different behaviours as part of who they are. I can’t begrudge any person I know who has assimilated more into the culture around them in order to stay safe and thrive. This form of “true” Indian culture from Indian nationals is a form of lateral violence and is deeply rooted in sexism. The idea that a brown woman’s virtue is taken away because she is less Indian. Or Indian men who don’t want to marry “western” Indian women. There’s so much violence when you start ascribing definitions of what an Indian brown person is like.

I think it’s wrong of us to question and doubt and judge the way we and our ancestors have learned to cope with who we are in changing worlds. Assimilation became a way to stay safe in a new reality.

MB: There’s that idea that we’ve been influenced by western ideas because we’re questioning patriarchy.

NP: My cousin sent a Snapchat of her mom baking quiche, and said, “how white are we now?” Is the preparation of quiche something we associate with white people now? Her mother, who has been in Canada since she was eighteen, is surely allowed to make a quiche without her own daughter saying “look how white you are.” She’s lived more than half her life in a white-dominant country. I think it’s amazing that my parents and aunts and uncles still cook Indian food, but even if they didn’t, that wouldn’t make them less Indian.

This is something I had to process. That was violence I experienced from other brown people as well as white people. Then I started putting my foot down. The word “coconut” is an incredibly violent label and you’re putting people into boxes. I can be someone who enjoys and is proud of the aspects of my identity that might be completely looked down in spaces of Indian nationalism. The idea of a homogenous Indian identity is a misnomer because there are some two-hundred languages.

MB: It doesn’t just come from white people. It can come from brown people policing what you can and cannot do.

NP: While dealing with my own diabetes, I realized I can’t access a lot of my traditional foods because they’re not healthy for me. My mom sees it as a total betrayal of my heritage to say I can’t eat white rice at dinner or I can’t eat naan anymore. I’m trying to live in a body that doesn’t have a working pancreas anymore. There are more important things than not being able to eat biryani.

MB: Your forthcoming book is called Coconut. Does your poem, “Coconut,” from Limited Success appear in it?

NP: No, actually it doesn’t! The coconut poem that is now in multiple chapbooks, was the first poem I wrote as an artist. I wrote it five or six years ago, and at that time it was this outpouring of all these things that were the most difficult for me to deal with in my life. From that I got a sense of the things that were affecting me and how I could work through them. That poem was this manifestation of where I was in my life at the time. When it came time to title my manuscript, I didn’t want to put the poem in my collection because it had a time and place. It lived its life. At the same time, I thought, why don’t I reclaim a word that has been harming me for so many years. It is a racial slur. Brown folks are the only ones allowed to say it. We shouldn’t even be saying it to each other. It’s traumatic and there is a lot of lateral violence.

The poem ‘Coconut’ was technically simple. I write straightforward poetry a lot of the time. It doesn’t match my book Coconut, which is a more serious meditation. The poem ‘Coconut’ is  self-explanatory. The book Coconut tells a story.

But for me to accept the nuances of someone who identifies with that word while still valuing all of my identities— no one else had done it yet. This poem meant a lot to me. I think it’s really symbolic, having a book titled after the first poem you ever wrote. Not everyone has that luxury. The poem “Coconut” was technically simple. I write straightforward poetry a lot of the time. It doesn’t match my book Coconut, which is a more serious meditation. The poem “Coconut” is self-explanatory. The book Coconut tells a story.

MB: The line, “I love you, I choose you, but I still can’t bring you home tonight.” It encapsulates such a huge experience of being a teen and a young adult. You wrote this a long time ago and for you it has that time and place. But it’s still relevant.

NP: That’s the beauty of having work from the past. I’ve always intended for my chapbooks and my published work to not be future-looking, but to be markers in time. It shows who I was as a person at that particular time. In my teen years and my early twenties, I did struggle a lot with the idea of marrying or dating outside of my ethnicity. It was this big, scary thing that dominated my dating life. I had multiple white partners who asked if I was ashamed of them. Why can’t I come over? Why can’t they meet my parents? It’s funny, because now, my partner is Indigenous but white-presenting; this is a total growth from not being able to tell my parents about my partner, and now having my partner talk to them and see them regularly. And be a part of my family. I’m 28, nearing 30, and having a mature adult relationship is different from being 17 and kissing boys in secret.

MB: To explain differences across a cultural divide is difficult, to say the least. What is seen as shame on one end is protection on the other.

NP: And the violence that happens to a brown body when you have a white partner who doesn’t see your culture and heritage. The Coconut title comes back to that. A lot of my white partners treated me like they would have treated a white person, and had the same expectations for me, when that’s not the case. My partner now, who is incredibly loving, is someone who values all the nuance of my identity. I never once felt like I had to act or speak a certain way, or codify my behaviour or language.

MB: The first poem of yours I read was from the group chapbook you had, Water. Lady Vanessa performed in Ottawa, and I opened the chapbook to your poem, “Chai Tea Latte.” I read that at a time when I really related to the poem: “the girl in the green apron asks for a name to stain inky the white / casket where she will brew my bloodlines into something more palatable for seventh-generation tongues.” The way poetry has this legacy and lineage, and carries down. I think a lot about names and authenticity, whatever that means, and grappling with going to Starbucks and giving your name. Just being this huge burden for the other person to take. At the same time, it makes you authentic or it makes your experience more “valid,” because you sound brown.

NP: Names and words have such power and history behind them. One reason why I like to use my full name at shows and performances is because to anyone who is brown, they would recognize that both parts of my name are incredibly common. I tell people I have a “Jane Smith” of names. It makes me feel powerful. For white people and non-brown folks, I hear “you have such a unique name.” For me it’s a private joke that people have no idea how common this name is. I live an ordinary life and you have no idea about it and you don’t understand that. I want ordinary things like happiness and security and health for my loved ones. I love giving power to my name that way. It matters to me to work with language, especially my mother tongue, no matter how fleeing it is for me to grasp. I’ve taken up no longer italicizing Gujarati words. I don’t have to do that anymore. Reclaiming the power of what should have been ordinary for me and turning that into something that is empowering.

MB: I liked the contrast of “Coconut” and “Edmonton Girl.” In “Edmonton Girl,” you write, “though you try to question it, I don’t wonder if I am Edmonton yet because my heart knows this city.” The sense of just, being, and the question of belonging and nostalgia is so prevalent in diaspora poetry and diaspora studies. What is “diaspora”? Is it an identity, a space, is it temporal? What is diaspora to you?

NP: You and I both now use Twitter to access poetic discourse, but I didn’t early on in my writing. I only had in-person communities, which is so beautiful because you can see poems come to life in actual bodies. But in Edmonton, still to this day, the local community of Indian girls doing poetry does not exist in the same way I’ve accessed it online. Online, there’s this really progressive conversation about diaspora poets and them using the same tropes. How tired some of those conversations are. In person, the local community is not at that stage yet. Diaspora poetry is at a very different space on a performance level.

Although diaspora is a community I feel a part of, I’m not always writing for that community. The gaze I have been trying to cater to lately has been my own. The gaze I am trying to figure out is what I want to read.

I talk about performance a lot because I perform more than I am published. All my work comes to life in performance. To me, accessing the diaspora as a network of community is very different from writing about diaspora. Although diaspora is a community I feel a part of, I’m not always writing for that community. The gaze I have been trying to cater to lately has been my own. The gaze I am trying to figure out is what I want to read. But in the past, if I’m writing about being in the diaspora, I’m writing for a white gaze. Those things have all shifted. The discourse online really affects me. I see people complaining about the imagery of a mango, or the book cover of a woman’s silhouette with her eyes. All these things that other diaspora poets who have the luxury of having wide audiences say “these are tired and I don’t want to talk about them.”

But it was almost a sacred experience for me to show my partner the beauty of making mango lassi at home. I might not be sophisticated enough to take part in these conversations with big diaspora Twitter poets, but I’m still experiencing the life of living in diaspora, and how to write about it on my own terms. I feel like those are experiences we have to honour because many diaspora poets go through that period as part of their transformation where they write about their identity so much that eventually that becomes a foundation for them to accept other intersections. All those things are really important but I do feel so scared sometimes entering the Twitter world of poetry. I’m still writing about mangoes, and I’m going to still do it. There’s a whole audience of people here who need me to write about these things.

MB: It’s been very wonderful and refreshing going, “we’ve all been there.” We’re still there in this trope space. Mango lassi is great. It’s so sweet that you showed your partner how to make it.

NP: There are some experiences that Indo-Americans experienced much earlier than me. For me, I’m not in that space. We have similar identities, but we’re in different spaces. It’s really important to understand that you grow at your own pace. You have audiences and people who listen to you in different times in their life. You referencing a poem I wrote four years ago means something different to me now. When I perform old work, I do it for a new audience.

MB: If I go back and read that poem now, it’ll mean something different to me now than how it did three years ago. That’s a very cool thing about poetry and what it’s able to do and influence.

NP: I consider it a matter of privilege. I see brown American poets saying they’re so tired of diaspora poetry. What gives you the privilege to be able to say that you’ve gone past it or overcome it? There are many fledgling communities who still don’t have that voice and still need those conversations.

MB: Why is diaspora so poetry defined in such a narrow way? I’m seeing diaspora poets who are writing about a huge variety of everything. What goes viral on the internet?

NP: It’s complicated. Poetry finds us at different times in our life. It’s not up to the writer of poetry to determine what people are going to need at any given time. That’s why our job as poets is to be truthful and honest in our work, because we don’t know the impact it’s going to have for someone else.

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Nisha Patel is an award-winning queer poet & artist. She is the City of Edmonton’s Poet Laureate, and the 2019 Canadian Individual Slam Champion. She is a recipient of the Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund Award. She is also the Executive Director of the Edmonton Poetry Festival. Her debut collection COCONUT is forthcoming with Newest Press.

About the author

Manahil Bandukwala is a visual artist and writer. Her most recent work is a collaborative piece with Liam Burke, Orbital Cultivation, now out with Collusion Books. She is Coordinating Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine, and Digital Content Editor for Canthius. She is a member of VII, an Ottawa-based creative writing collective.