Vijay Seshadri is a poet, essayist, and literary critic. He was born in India, and lives in the US, having moved there at the age of five. He is the author of Wild Kingdom (1996); The Long Meadow (2003), which won the James Laughlin Award; and 3 Sections (2013), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He has worked as an editor at the New Yorker, and has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, where he currently directs the graduate non-fiction writing program.
We managed to get a hold of him when he came to attend Dhaka Lit Fest in November 2016. He graciously agreed to sit for an interview, and somehow juggled an array of topics in a laidback and light-hearted manner, ranging from language, teaching, being in the US, the partition of India and Pakistan, his writing, current and future projects, and his musings on life.
Anika Shah: I must say I’m a little nervous about interviewing you, your being a teacher and my being a student.
Vijay Seshadri: Well, yes. That’s a very South Asian thing though, right? The guru and the chela. In America students have a different relationship to their teachers; less deferential. Sometimes I feel like their chaiwallah.
Anika Shah: I heard your talk the other day, and you said that you like being a teacher because you get to say things and they are bound to listen to you. But then if you’re a chaiwallah… There’s this contradiction, right?
Vijay Seshadri: Well they’ll listen to you. But they’re given the license to think and judge and speak for themselves.
Anika Shah: But you still like being a teacher?
Vijay Seshadri: Oh I love it. If you love literature, it’s fantastic. Being a photographer, for instance, is probably difficult. But if you get to have a steady income teaching photography, it would make things a lot nicer, right? That’s the way it is with teaching. And I can talk about literature all day.
Anika Shah: You teach non-fiction writing. Why not teach poetry?
Vijay Seshadri: I did teach poetry for a long time. Poetry seminars and poetry workshops. But I was also an editor. So when the college I work at hired me full time, half of my contract covered starting and running a non-fiction writing program, which I did. And unfortunately, they didn’t have many tenure lines, so there weren’t many permanent faculty. I had to hire temporary faculty for that program all the time, and there were always courses that were waiting to be filled because we grew very fast, we were a popular program. I had to fill those courses myself. So over time I stopped teacher poetry simply because I was obligated to fill those non-fiction classes with my own body, so to speak. And then I got to the point where I realized I could really teach people how to write prose. Whereas I lost my confidence in how to teach people how to write poetry, relative to writing prose. And I think there is more of poetry that can’t be taught. And that contention goes all the way back to Aristotle. Aristotle says, the gift of making metaphors is inborn. You can’t teach it. Either you have it, or you don’t. It’s like having musical ability. Or mathematical ability. There’s no way to acquire it if you don’t possess it. And I found that that’s not necessarily true for prose. You can really teach people how to be serviceable, and even good, prose writers. A much larger population can become that. And a smaller population can become poets. And that kind of made the teaching more gratifying to me when I was teaching prose. I had a lot more success with my students. Success tends to reinforce the appeal of a discipline or practice. And so teaching prose writing and teaching seminars in prose writing, which in my case involved a lot of reading and literary study—I describe myself as a teacher of rhetoric—became satisfying and sufficient.
A S: You write both poetry and prose. Do you ever find your poetry overpowering your prose? Or is it not a problem because they are so different?
V S: I can never do them both at the same time. I can never sit there and say to myself, well, I will write poetry for one hour and I will write prose for another hour, and then I will go back to poetry. Or I will write poetry today and prose tomorrow. Somehow I have to finish whatever it is that I’m writing before I can go on to anything else. And so if it’s prose, I have to finish it. I can’t break it off and write poetry. I know some people who can, but I’m not one of them.
A S: How do you feel now that Trump has become president. You said that you’re not scared of Trump, but how does it feel? Or, let me be more specific – how does it feel that people actually voted for him?
V S: I think there are a lot of explanations that make sense to me as to why people voted for him. I don’t know if you went to the “Nasty Women” panel yesterday. It was a huge panel. These were white British writers talking about America, and oblivious to their audience, which was Bangladeshis, right? I was sitting there looking at that and I said to myself that’s exactly the problem, that’s why Hilary lost. All those Hilary people were living in their bubble talking to one another without any reference to the world around them. I mean, if they, the panel yesterday, had said, “Oh I’m in Dhaka, in Bangladesh. Even if I’m talking about Hilary, I should somehow make this relevant to these people.” And I think a woman got up and called them on that. She said, well, you don’t know our condition, and our situation, and you’re talking . . . And they could just as well have been in New York, or in London, or in Dallas, Texas saying the same things. And that is one fundamental reason why Hilary lost. And it was a very narrow loss. She won the popular vote. Trump is still as implausible a leader as he was before the election. But a lot of the blame goes to Hilary herself. And to the people around her and their inability to mount an appeal. They had a campaign but they didn’t have an appeal. And Trump definitely had an appeal. Then there was a vacuum of people who didn’t know, who could have been swayed one way or the other. So I think retrospectively I kind of understand it and I don’t think that people should be surprised or shocked. I don’t know what the consequences are going to be, but unlike most people, I have a lot of confidence in America itself. And in the system, and its durability, and what you would call the profound American national character. And I think there is little that you can do that is truly irrational with such a strong system of checks and balances. You know people say that fascism is possible in America, but I don’t think so. I might be naïve, I don’t know. But there are a lot of elements in America that are pretty strong safety mechanisms. And the country was designed very well, the government was designed very well from the get go. I think it will survive this. Who knows, it might in the long run be a good thing. I think the consequences for people like ourselves are kind of… we don’t know. For people who look like me, and people who look like you—how we’re going to be treated, how we’re going to be dealt with. That is worrisome, and it’s more worrisome than the other things that people there are worrying about. But I don’t feel desperately worried about that, either. A lot of the people where my parents live, for example, were probably Trump supporters. They are some of the nicest people I know. They were very good to us. They were good neighbors, good friends.
A S: Don’t you find that very contradictory?
V S: People are contradictory. And there might be other reasons why the Second Amendment, the anti-gun-control people have voted for him. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re racist. Their gun rights are paramount. There are people who voted for him because they are single-issue people and their issue is abortion. They are not necessarily racist at all. They might in some cases be far less racist than some people who call themselves liberals, because they are Christians. They have universalist human values that are inclusive.
A S: You went to America at a very young age. Do you identify with your Indian self?
V S: It’s not that I went at a very young age that caused the disintegration of my Indian self. It’s when I went, and what the circumstances were. There was no way when we went there to retain the culture. What was given to me of Indian culture was basically the food. Because my parents had to eat the food they had always eaten, or a facsimile of that food. They couldn’t really take to American cuisine, especially because they were strictly vegetarian. Almost everything else about the culture except its deep, instinctive character inevitably had to fall away because we came there when there were no South Asians. No Indian communities. There was no way to reinforce a connection to the Old World. Also my parents were of the generation of independence. I know you must know people like that here. My father died in 2015 at the age of ninety, and my mother died this past May at eighty-six. They lived through Independence. That generation, it seems to me, was much more worldly, sophisticated, much less tribal. They were really modern people. They were more modern than anybody you will find on the Subcontinent now. My father was very much a leftist. My mother clung to her traditions, and religion was important to her I think, but her habits of mind were of an extraordinary sophistication and understanding. And they were very broad-minded. That generation of Indians were socialists by default.They all had this hope. They were secularists; they believed that all these religious conflicts and these caste conflicts were going to go away because such conflicts were not rational, were stupid. Little did they know. And the disappointment of that generation—they are tragic in the disappointment of their hopes for this part of the world. Especially in India. Indian history is continuous from Independence and Partition on. That early generation of which my parents were a part had lofty ideas about how the country was going to emerge and develop. It’s sad to think of them because they worked so hard. National integration, unity. Socialism, secularism, democracy, those are the pillars of the Indian constitution.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that it was easy for my parents to become a part of the American world, the world of progressive Americans. They didn’t necessarily cling to their culture defensively. They believed quite positively in a kind of new world, in a world where cultural, religious, and racial differences weren’t rejected, but were just considered sort of trivial, not essential. I mourn them personally now that I’ve lost them, but I also mourn that idea they had. It disappeared. We seem to be fighting a rear-guard action against the forces of darkness and chaos now. Every society in the world seems to be doing that. They little imagined this situation. They were both scientists, they were both trained scientists and they thought, you know, science will solve all these problems. Science and technology. We will bring people out of backwardness and give them education. Education will solve all these problems. I guess I think it’s still an ideal worth holding on to, clinging to.
A S: How do you feel about America having this superpower that now seems like it can’t handle?
V S: America’s in crisis. But the crisis is late arriving in America. It’s a crisis that has been occurring in the world for a long time. And it’s been kind of washing at the edges of America for quite a while. Ever since 9/11. But now America seems to be really plunged in the whole world crisis. There is no leader in the world. It doesn’t matter that Trump is a lesser of a leader than Hillary would have been. The differences between them are not that great in relation to the kind of leadership we need, the quality of leadership we need. And the quality of leadership we need we don’t have. I think the world has some good leaders. I think Angela Merkel in Germany is a good leader. Ideologically I think she is much more to the right of someone like myself, but I trust her. I trust her ability to manage. That’s the way I felt about Michael Bloomberg, who was the mayor of New York. He was elected right after 9/11. He was too much of a capitalist for me, but he was extremely intelligent and competent and understood issues deeply. Those are the kind of people we need, and they are few and far between right now. And that is really a problem, because we are all bound up with each other.
A S: But it’s still different, isn’t it? I mean, what happens here wouldn’t affect America the way what happens in America would affect us.
V S: Because you are Bangladesh, and America’s America. That’s the tragedy, that they can’t see how radical the consequences will be, the effect it will have on people here.
A S: You said you were interested in Partition. Why?
V S: I think I’m among those people, and there are many of us, who have a tragic sense of life. Two absolute tragedies of the twentieth century were the Holocaust and Partition. In America people the Holocaust makes an impression on people, there are, or were, many Holocaust survivors who came to America. People there, and maybe in Europe have processed the Holocaust, insofar as such a cataclysm can be processed. I think in the subcontinent people still haven’t processed Partition. The almost psychotic nature of the India and Pakistan relationship is symptomatic of that. Still it is not something that people look squarely in the face. Because looking at it squarely in the face might lead to a reprise of the communal violence, which is always a danger in South Asia. Everybody still has to tread carefully around it. I have the luxury of being an American, so I can actually think about this in a freer way than people who are here can. I also have the luxury of being an Indian at the same time that I am an American. As far as my cultural allegiances, the art that I love, the history that I read, it’s really European are largely Western. I think I’m very well-informed about South Asia, but my bias in reading centers around Partition, around the political history that leads to Partition, around the history of South Asian Islam. I would be more likely, for example, to read Urdu poetry than I would Bhakti poetry, even though the South Indian community I come from arises from the Bhakti traditions.
A S: What drew you towards Urdu? You learned the language. And Farsi too, is it?
V S: Yes. I call it Persian. In Iran they call it Farsi, in the way the French call their language Français in France. But the Iranis in America also call it Farsi and they tell Americans to call it Farsi. But that would be like a French person in America telling the Americans to call French Français. Doesn’t make any sense, right? I studied Persian for two years. And I studied it just for the Urdu, because they are so close lexically. Urdu poetry is an extension of the Persian tradition. Even here the official language was Persian until 1834. And I’m sure in Bangla there are a huge number of Persian words. Like waapas. Do you have waapas, come back?
A S: No, we don’t.
V S: That’s an interesting one because it appears in Kannada. There are a lot of Persian words in Kannada, because there was Muslim rule in that part of Karnataka. Hyder Ali, and Tipu Sultan. Golconda and Bijapur. Muslims associated with the Delhi Sultanate, and later with the Mughals ruled part of that region for hundreds of years.
A S: So what drew you towards it? Learning the languages?
V S: It was an interest and also accident. One of the things I wanted to do was study the history of modern India—Partition, as I said, and because of Partition I was interested in the history of Islam in India. I was detached. Because I’m Indian I probably had a mildly Indian perspective on the history, but also a kind of detached American perspective. I was also a literary person. The way engineered my program of study in order to get funding was to say I’m going to study the literature, because I’m a poet. That was credible, given my background and training and the fact that I was a published poet by then, if I had said “I want to study political science,” I would have had no standing. So I said I’ll study the poetry of Islam in India, as a kind of way to get into the things that I’m really interested in, which are the politics and the history. Also Urdu poetry is one of the great traditions of the Subcontinent. It’s valorized, it has a tremendous amount of respect give it, and that respect has migrated to America, where if they know poetry of the subcontinent, what they know is Urdu poetry or what they know is mystical poetry, they know Kabir. They know Kabir better than they know Tagore, for example. People translate Kabir, people read Kabir as an extension of a New Age mysticism popular in the West. People don’t necessarily translate and read Tagore in great numbers. There have always been attempts to translate Urdu poetry. Translation was another thing I actually did want to do, although I never did get around to it. I have a few translations in 3 Sections. It was something I thought I would do more extensively, but I found of course that it’s very hard to bring classical Urdu poetry over into English. It’s a recondite, sophisticated poetry that is determined by word play within Urdu. It’s opaque and not transparent poetry for the most part. The judgments and the discriminations one makes of the poetry really have to do with underlying elements of the language itself that can never be reproduced in another language. Mirza Ghalib is one of the great world poets. But the translations in English are almost uniformly wretched. That’s not because the translators aren’t good; it’s because the body of work is so difficult to translate. I quailed at the difficulty years ago. I said well I’m just going to write my own poetry, I’m not going to subordinate myself to Ghalib. What are the chances of my coming up with something that’s anywhere near to the original? Will I be able to give anybody a sense of the magnificence of the work? I thought the chances were small. But later I decided to do some, and they turned out pretty well. And I felt well, the translation is not a great poem in the way the text I’m translating is a great poem, but it’s pretty good, it’s good enough. Now I feel I have this principle: if it’s good enough, then translate it, because at least people will have some exposure. So I’m working on the ghazals now.
A S: How did you start writing poetry?
V S: I just fell in love with certain poems. I never thought of myself as a poet. There were poems that I loved so much that they started me writing. They were the motives. Around when I was fifteen, sixteen, I read some poems, and I thought Wow. It kind of came upon me unawares. I didn’t really think about it. I was compelled.
A S: Did you always want to be a poet?
V S: I always wanted to be a writer. A little different than wanting to be a poet. I think I had a desire and ambition to be a writer very early. I didn’t know what being a writer was, it was just an ambition. It was the way Naipaul talks about his ambition. He didn’t really have anything to say, he just had the ambition to be a writer. He had to fill that out, and the ambition for him, as he always says, was based on anxiety. I don’t know what mine was based on. Probably isolation. It’s interesting to get back in touch with him. One of the first things I ever wrote was an essay on Naipaul. It was the first thing I published. No, I think it was the second thing I published. But actually it was the first because the magazine that published the first poem I ever published took it because I had promised them this essay about Naipaul. So they published the poem and then in the next issue they published the essay. I still think it’s a very good essay about him. I haven’t read it in years but I remember it as having insights about him that I never really saw subsequently. Such a very great writer.
A S: Who are your favorite writers?
V S: I have so many. The person I fell in love with originally was Yeats. You know, there are theses poets and artists you love when you’re young. And then they fall away. You think of them as gods, and you think, I wish I could be this person. You grow out of those connections and interests and into others. Other people take their place. Of all the poets to whom I have been attached, the deep attachments that have remained are to Yeats on the one hand, and to Elizabeth Bishop, the great American mid-century poet on the other. I love them. And then, I love Flaubert. I love Naipaul. He’s kind of unbearable and painful in so many ways but the writerliness is unmatched… and he has taught me so much.
A S: What about from South Asia?
V S: I like writers like Kamala Markandaya. And some of the twentieth century Urdu poets, like Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz. But South Asia has not influenced me tremendously. And the people who have influenced me, whom I find interesting, like R. K. Narayan, they’re really a Western influence. Narayan is a writer who writes like Chekhov. He was tremendously influenced by Chekhov (and Chekhov is sort of perfect for South Asian society). I remember when I was an editor at the New Yorker, Vikram Chandra was being published there. They were publishing a short story of his and the editor was a friend of mine, Linda Asher, a fiction editor at the New Yorker. She said to me about the story, “This is just like Thackeray.”Indian writing has a lot of that quality, especially Indian and South Asian writing in English. It is based on Western models. All writing is of course based on models. Western writing, Eastern writing. If you know those models first, though, you tend not to be influenced by the subsequent artifacts.
A S: Have you read anyone from Bangladesh?
V S: No, unfortunately I haven’t. I mean, there isn’t that much in translation, and I don’t know Bangla. And you know, Indian writers, Pakistani writers, their names seem to be disseminated in American culture, but Bangladeshi writers not so much. In America people know, say, Qurratulain Hyder, they know Manto. They know the names anyway. Educated Americans might have heard those names. They haven’t heard the names of Bangladeshi writers. There are great writers here, but the mechanisms by which culture is transmitted, when it comes to Bangladesh, are a little bit feeble, are not as robust as they should be. That has to do with academic connections as much as anything else, and it has to do with translation. That’s a big problem with all South Asian languages. Good translators into English are few and far between. There is not that much incentive for them, outside of academia. And you know there’s a lot of interest in Bangladesh but it seems to be so much on the social-science side, and not on the literary, humanistic side. Economists are interested in Bangladesh, development people are interested in Bangladesh, women’s-rights people, public health, all of those things. There’s a very active kind of interchange in those spheres in American life. But in humanistic and cultural spheres, no. Also, Bangladeshi musicians. There must be a rich musical tradition here, but it doesn’t really translate. And, you know, interestingly enough, I should revise what I’m saying because it’s not merely language but also nationality. Bengali writers are very well known in America, and Bengali literature is very kind of understood and respected and there’s a lot of interchange between America and Calcutta. Bengalis like Jhumpa Lahiri or Anita Desai have a presence in America. There are critics and scholars who are Bengali—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for example. But the Bangladeshi equivalent is not quite there yet, which has to do with history. If you think of Bengal as a linguistic entity, the divergence between East and West, Bangladesh and West Bengal, and their relationship to the world . . . there is a fissure, which is unfortunate and terrible.
A S: What are you working on now?
V S: I’m writing a couple of essays.
A S: I read somewhere that you were writing a memoir?
V S: The memoir is very frustrating. I can’t seem to explain what happened to me. (Laughs)It’s been so complicated. To kind of give someone, at least to give myself a coherent narrative of a life that’s so various and disparate. I was talking yesterday about how I was in the counterculture when I was young. I was a hippie. I went out to the West Coast and I worked in the fishing industry for five years. Those were very adventurous times. But I don’t seem to have a narrative frame or a way to explain them, to explain what was motivating me. I almost don’t understand myself now. I look and I say, “That’s like a dream”—when you wake up with a dream and slowly you’re trying to grasp it and keep hold of it, but it’s dissolving, dissolving. You wake up and you move from the bed to the bathroom, to the kitchen, and by the time have your breakfast the dream is gone.It was a vivid, exciting, interesting dream, but it’s gone. I think that’s the large process that’s making the writing of the memoir so difficult. The idea of the memoir is just to write and to make money, that has never been a good motivation for me. Success has never been a motivation. That’s my problem. Greatness has been a motivation, but greatness is a terrible motivation because you always fall short.
A S: So what has kept you going?
V S: Well, if I don’t pursue it I would get depressed, deeply… and wonder if I would just die…
A S: Die of depression?
V S: Die or something like that, because I fell short of what I wanted to achieve. SoI get up and try again. So that seems to be the, you know . . . because I don’t want to die, however sad I am. I wanted to live, and I still do.
A S: So, what are your inspirations, and what are your fears?
V S: My inspirations right now are… I feel that the things that really drew me to poetry I have dealt with, and so to a certain extent I am looking for inspirations. And the poems I’ve written recently really all have to do with the death of my parents. They are elegies to them. I feel like I’ve done that now. That’s such a large monumental thing, to find material with that level of reality, that level of significance is not really that easy. So I think because of those events, and because of the passage of time, I crave something more serious thananything I’ve craved before. I don’t quite know what that is. And inspiration is also something that you search for. You kind of open yourself to the world and you hope it comes, but you are really in a passive state with respect to reality. There’s a great quote by the American poet Randall Jarrell to the effect that a poet is someone who during a lifetime spent standing in the rain gets hit by lightning six or seven times. That’s what it is. So now I’m just standing in the rain waiting for the lightning to hit. I think inspiration finally is the belief that it will hit, not the hitting of it. The activity becomes just standing in the rain and being willing to stand in the rain and wanting to stand in the rain.
A S: What about fears?
V S: Fears… I think there’s anxiety. Fear seems to be specifically a fear of something. I think I generally feel anxious and I guess what I feel anxious about is I won’t have enough time to do what I can do and what I wanted to do and what I sort of set out to do, and you know… time will close me down somehow. The question is can you at some point in your life say you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish, can you feel satisfied? I probably would never feel that way. And even the thought of feeling that way frightens me. If I had any fear, it would be the fear of satisfaction. If I am satisfied, then what am I, I’m sort of dead, you know? Because dissatisfaction, disappointment, all of those things seem to be the things that have kept me the most alive.
A S: One more thing, how did it feel winning the Pulitzer?
V S: It’s great. You should get one.
A S: Oh I’m aiming for the Nobel really. Does it change much though?
V S: It changes everything, winning a big prize like that. People invite you to read a lot more.
A S: But does it change much in terms of creativity? Do you feel good?
V S: Yes, it makes you feel good, but I think its effects are ambivalent for you as a writer. It’s bad for me because I get all these opportunities to go around and give readings and talks in other countries and that takes a lot of time. And I am not someone who can write on the run, wake up in a hotel room and write and then go give a talk and then come back and write that night. There are a lot of people who can do that. But I am dislocated when I’m away from my piece of Earth, in Brooklyn. I feel disoriented. I feel disconnected. I am very much a creature of my own habits and my own spaces. So that has been a problem. The last two years I’ve been so many places, given so many readings. I have, also, a teaching schedule. Because my mother died this past spring I took the fall semester off. I thought I’d have some time to write, but I’ve been going all over the place. I was in the Midwest three times, I was on the West Coast, I was in a couple of festivals on the East Coast. And then I had about two and a half weeks in New York and then I came here. So, yes, . . .
Interview taken by Anika Shah, a writer and translator from Bangladesh, and the co-editor of Prachya Review
All the photos of Vijay Seshadri taken by Pranabesh Das