Pranika is a poet and human rights activist from Nepal. Her poetry explores the phenomenological experience of growing up as a woman in Nepal, and the changing social dynamics of Nepalese society. Her poem “Invitation to Baam Dev” was translated from “Baam Dev Lai Nimantrana” and published in Zubaan – South Asian Feminist journal. She is also a founding member of CHAUKATH – a network of young feminists in Nepal aiming to create a space to examine society, culture, politics, religion, media and literature through a feminist lens.
You write poetry extensively both in English and Nepali. Can you talk more about the environment that educated you in reading and writing poetry in English, and what your relationship is to Nepali poetry and Nepalese languages in comparison? Do you think of your poetry as having a multiplicity of audiences?
Yes, I do write poetry in both English and Nepali and the choice of language for the particular poem depends on the language the thought stems from. So, when the lines come to me and I sit down to write, do the thoughts come to me in Nepali or English? This determines whether that particular expression will be in English or Nepali. I write my prose more in English and poetry in Nepali.
My father used to write poetry from his teenage years ‘til his late twenties, but then he stopped writing. Back in school, we had a trigonometry teacher who loved poetry and he was the one who recited poetry to us and encourage us to write. I was in the fourth grade then and wrote my first poem in Nepali. It was called ‘My Country Nepal’. When I showed it to my father at home, he gave me a rupee note and patted me! Since then, I started to write from time to time. When I was in the fifth grade, I wrote a poem about a sister hoping her younger sibling would come home for Bhai Tika. This poem got edited a bit when I was in seventh grade and it got published in my school’s silver jubilee edition. This poem even got me a pen-pal from Pokhara – someone who was studying forestry. I think I was in grade nine when I first wrote a poem in English language, and it was an expression of first pangs of a school girl crush! My English language teacher was amused but he was also encouraging.
In our school, we had to study more than just the government prescribed English texts, so we were introduced to writers like Thomas Hardy. From then on, my love for books grew and I read most of the classics in my school library. My mother’s cousins also introduced me to ‘Wuthering Heights’ which, in a frenzy, I finished in a day and a half! She also introduced me to wonderful English poetry – I remember starting with ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ by W.B. Yeats.
In terms of language, I do not think of my poetry as having multiple audiences. However, in terms of themes, I do think that my writing has the potential to reach many audiences and I am consciously exploring these opportunities. That’s why I am prepared to translate my poems into as many languages as I can. I am fostering collaborations with Koi/Koyu linguists, Newari poets, Maithali poets and Nepali poets who write in English. And I welcome anyone who will be interested to translate work into other languages. My poetry is accessible but also sarcastic so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea! But assertion, defiance and longing in my poems is something that everyone will understand.
I love that you find inspiration in Parijat’s work. I frequently recommend her to Nepali students who want to read more poetry, because she lived an extraordinary life but was also a wonderful, accessible poet. Which female poets do you recommend to your peers?
Laxmi Mali – I find that my themes resonate with her. She wrote ‘Aama timro naam ke ho’ on citizenship and the lack of women’s rights in transferring their citizenship to their children. It’s especially relevant at the moment. But I also love the boldness of Banira Giri’s work, and the political assertiveness of Niva Shah. I could recommend any of them as great poets.
Poets from countries like India can write in English and still expect a sizeable Indian readership, which isn’t really the case in Nepal – not yet anyway. So, who do you think of as your audience when you write poetry in English?
I have never thought of it in that way. For me, initially, it was about trying my hand in the language in which I thought I could express myself. My thoughts are more articulate when I write my prose in English, so I thought, why not poetry too? However, poetry is a different ball game. People have been polite, saying my strength is writing in Nepali than English which sometimes I agree, sometimes I disagree. So my English language poems have been written with no public audience in mind. And some of the personal ones have always been written with my partner in mind, since the theme has been our relationship. But the translations of my poems in English (one has been translated and published in South Asian Feminist Journal, and the second is on its way to Nepal’s English literary magazine,) is definitely targeted at the urban youth of Nepal, as well as the English language literary world.
I feel I’ve never really succeeded in translating my own poems from one language to another. Only twice I have succeeded and that was because at that time, quite out of blue, I was able to write what I wanted to write in both languages, one right after the other! So I have two poems with the same theme, written in both English and Nepali. I first wrote one in Nepali and immediately was able to write it in English. The other one I wrote in English and then in Nepali.
Great poets continue to find huge difficulty in translating poems authentically from Nepali to English. I find that metaphors and colloquialisms rarely have an equivalent in English, and vice versa. Is this a barrier for you as well, or do you just find that Nepali and English are not particularly languages that converse well with one another on a structural level?
I do think that translating poems from one language to another is difficult. And I do agree that that these two languages are very different from each other and the translator should not only have a good command over both of the languages but also have a good grasp of literary nuances of both the languages. If this does not go well, then the translation will either be a bland literal translation which will lose the essence, or it will be like a riddle with a bizarre sentence structure. Additionally, I wonder if writing just with the theme in mind is a better way of translating the poems. Great poetry can be produced when translators stick to a theme, but write as if they are writing their own work.
You sometimes recite in Koi Rai language, which seems to me a highly valuable contribution to Nepalese poetry. Multi-lingual poets are integral to the revival of marginal languages. Do you see a pressing need for poets to write and speak in endangered languages that have suffered history of oppression?
I do think it is important, and am consciously working on this with the help of a Koi Rai linguist who is a poet himself. He translates my poems and I practice my pronunciation and diction with him for the recital. I definitely think that multi-lingual poets writing and speaking in endangered language play a significant role to conserve the language. I am not sure about revival, because it has limited readership, and for Koi it is just one village out of the whole country. The villagers care more about issues of daily survival than poetry. It is more of a romantic notion. It has its own charm, but whether it will actually revive the language is questionable because this is not a well-accessed form of communication. Nevertheless, it is an effort that needs to continue with a hope that it will not vanish in entirety!
Let’s talk about feminism within your work. You write about women with a tactical lack of prescribed feminine appeal. They’re certainly not poems that rest on depictions of feminine grace. Can you talk about the role of feminism and the representation of yourself (and other women) as something beyond the traditional obedient Nepali woman?
I will say that it’s something to do with my personality – I am direct, and this can come across as arrogant. Ever since I started to consciously use poetry as a medium for advocacy, I have tried to adopt an unapologetic tone, because I feel this urge not to beat around the bush or smooth over uncomfortable topics. I want my message to be clear. Now whether feminism has a role in it? I think it is somewhere in the middle. My earlier writings were not clearly written with a conscious feminist mindset. It was more about recording my personal experiences – most of my work in my first collection ‘Ma Bhitra Ki Euti Keti” (‘The Girl In Me’) are written like this.
In the last two years, however, I consciously started to write with the mind of a feminist activist because that was the only way I could keep myself sane, with the constant news of rape, domestic violence – you name it. There are poets indeed who raise the same issue in softer tone, but it’s not my style. I feel a strong need to act. I think I’ve had enough of the polite self-controlled lady-in-waiting female persona. It does help to be a purring cat but every once in a while, you need to show your claws! That is what I believe in, and I hope it comes through in my poetry. I want to send the message that women are not afraid. We are through with being intimidated and cajoled. In short: this is a war cry.
That’s such an informed response but I want to make a side-note because I’m interested that you describe yourself as ‘arrogant,’ but go on to describe an agenda that is simply ambitious and assertive. Nepalese society sometimes seems uncomfortable when faced with strong women. I think the recent mayoral election demonstrates this – some of the criticisms levelled at female candidate Ranju Darshana seem to be the same things that male candidates are praised for. Characteristics like confidence are perceived as bossiness – as if women are stepping out of line. How do people respond, to use your wonderful metaphor, when you ‘show your claws’?
People immediately think that they are getting scratched! They spring into this defensive position. Others will label you forever as ‘the aggressive one’. The classic angry feminist. But it’s so rare that any of them will take the time to ask why that claws had to come out. Nobody is interested in the force that drives empowered women. Such irony in a country where goddesses who are aggressive front-liners have been revered for centuries! Perhaps arrogance is the mask that I choose to hide behind, but my political journey is nothing to do with ego.
Itisha Giri said that ‘Women in Nepal are required to negotiate their existence against the multiple demands made on their being’. She describes young female poets as having a ‘disruptive voice’ within society. It’s not necessarily a comfortable journey, is it, do be a female poet in Nepal? Do you think poetry might still be considered a quiet act of rebellion, or have we moved past that?
I do not think that we have moved beyond that. This is still my experience and I do not consider it a quiet act! Maybe it was once considered a quiet act has now developments in equality allow us a more assertive voice.
Being a female poet in Nepal, according to my limited exposure and a long observation of the generations engaged in writing, is certainly difficult. It has its own school of thought, its own forms of analysis, and the status of your work relies heavily on the status of you as a person. Maybe this explains why female poets find it hard to be taken seriously.
Though you write in English, you write extensively about Nepalese life. How do you negotiate the difficult task of familiarising the western reader with a Nepalese cultural setting? Do you think you even need to familiarise the reader? Maybe it’s appropriate for western readers to sometimes feel alienated or confused by a text that’s not about them.
I do not know how successful I have been in this area of my work. My op-ed write-ups certainly are all about Nepal, and it is not so difficult to familiarise the reader to these pieces. In my English poetry, I do not know if that comes across as clearly. In fact, sometimes I wonder if my English poetry can even be called poetry, in the technical sense. I don’t get many opportunities for serious, critical feedback. So few people are able to tell me in detail how much they understood my work in English. Either people are merely courteous, or they are just indifferent to what I write. So, I cannot really answer this. You are the first person who has taken this much of an interest in my poetry! So naturally, that’s exciting. I feel starved of the opportunity to discuss poetry in a serious, analytical way.
Nepal is a country where the poetic and the political are deeply intertwined. Poets have been imprisoned, election campaigns have been fuelled by poetry collections, protest poetry has changed the trajectory of social discourse. Can a poet survive without making ideological observations in her writings in these days, uninfluenced by the conflicts happening around her?
As in other parts of the world, in Nepal too, one’s social network, the critics’ circle, your fellow poets – they all play an important role in getting you recognised for your writing. Therefore, I feel that whether or not you make ideological observations in your writing matters less. This is solely based on what I have observed and experienced, but I feel that political impact alone has less significance than maybe it used to.