“To Write is to Take Action”: A PEN Ten Interview with Diane Mehta
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week Hafizah Geter, PEN Ten guest editor and editor at Little A from Amazon Publishing, speaks with Diane Mehta, whose debut poetry collection, Forest with Castanets, was published this month by Four Way Books.
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
Reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was a defining moment when I was 17. The propulsive pacing, the sour, shocking smell of death in the beginning, and the big ideas of justice, faith, and suffering created a whirlwind thrill of a feeling that made me hungry to read and write. It changed me utterly.
2. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
Rhythm always tells the truth while in the meaning hides it a little. I’m less interested in confessional conveyer-belted truths strung together in some organized fashion than in exploring the tension between the wit and tricks of rhythm and the stories the poem tells. Facts: I tend to find that halfway through my time with a poem, I stop lying and flip the meaning to its opposite. But even then, fiction is utterly in its element inside all poems. Truth-telling also exists in the syntactical choices you make.
This is true in Audre Lorde’s lyrical poem of quiet rage about Emmett Till, “Afterimages,” in the line, “Trapped houses kneel like sinners in the rain.” The stressed syllables of “trapped houses” literally traps you there before you can crawl out. You see and feel it happening in slow-motion with the elongated vowels of the word kneel, and before the pacing speeds up into the ironically casual “sinners in the rain.” The arrangement of the words and the sounds they make, and the timing, tells its own story of violence undercutting a superficially lovely society. It’s the story of a murder laid on top of the syllables.
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
When I catch a feeling, I follow the sounds and push forward around the rhythm that feeling is defining, and work intensely, weaving sounds into the rhythm and backtracking to fit in the logic, and keep exploring and defining it on the page until I’ve had enough. I work intensely for weeks at it. Anything I write fast ends up in the garbage.
If I put in the time, momentum takes care of itself. My process is to leaf through books, walk around, and think. It’s as if I’m trying to figure out an equation but can’t find the numbers. I’ll riff off someone else’s rhythm, then let it go once I get sucked back into my work. I’m practical: I print work out, read it aloud, get irritated at how wrong it sounds, and sigh a lot. It is always other writers—unless it’s the ocean!—whose work inspires me. Often it’s a phrase in a scene that hits some high-strung, bizarre, or perverse place that compels me to write.
4. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
R.K Narayan’s slim novel, The Painter of Signs, takes place in Malgudi, the famous small town of his imagination. I love that this town courses through his writing. His storytelling style is spare and cautious, and although he has written dozens of novels and possibly hundreds of stories, this one always felt especially poignant because the sign maker is a kind of poet, determined to get his calligraphy right and leave time for the paint on the sign to dry—metaphors for technical work of writing. When he gets a commission to write a sign for a woman named Daisy at the Family Planning Centre, the narrative quietly shifts into a tale of India struggling to modernize. It gets right to the heart of the difficulties of trying to maintain a traditional romantic relationship when both parties are trying to be independent but especially as women begin to seek out their independence and their reproductive and marital rights.
5. How can writers best contribute to society? How can artists affect resistance movements?
Practice the art of being a good observer and experiencing feelings, and pay attention to the injustices around you. Being a writer is inherently political. You are creating a historical record and marking a moment in time, and often that has more teeth than the histories we are too often deceived into believing as true. If you read diversely and look at the world in a way that is more Cubist than absolutist, the right concerns come through.
All writers have a civic responsibility. To write is to take action, and then you have to follow up your words with deeds—practice kindness, form opinions, stand up for others. Artists need to present many sides, but they don’t have to come up with clear answers. Telling the personal stories of people who are oppressed is one way of giving them back some of their dignity and proving that resistance works. A single investigative story can create change. Jennifer Gonnerman’s New Yorker feature about the Bronx teenager Kalief Browder, imprisoned at Riker’s for three years after being accused of stealing a backpack, elicited a huge public outcry. He committed suicide. But Gonnerman drew attention to the hell of solitary confinement and to the sickening delays of the court system. It propelled New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to commit to criminal justice reform.
“To write is to take action, and then you have to follow up your words with deeds—practice kindness, form opinions, stand up for others.”
6. Whose words do you turn to for inspiration?
John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, George Herbert’s “Prayer (1)” and “The Affliction,” Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” and Glanmore Sonnets, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover” and “Carrion Comfort,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map,” “The Bight,” and “At the Fishhouses;” Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Old Testament Book of Job, and Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant and Dubin’s Lives, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.
7. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and John Berryman’s sonnets. I’m closely re-reading Rilke’s Elegies and his short, lyrical prose. I’ve been dipping into Marianne Moore’s prose but also the appendix to it, which is full of serendipity and obsessive and tart responses to people or descriptions of objects like her watch. Next is Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street—I’ve eaten up The Door and Iza’s Ballad—and some Flannery O’Connor stories, starting with “The Enduring Chill.”
8. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
Curated facts. We must educate ourselves in other ways of thinking by reading outside our experience. That means reading news on different channels than the ones pushed at you. We should all be following news in other countries, and not only in relation to what the United States is doing but to see what’s happening on the ground regionally, so we can formulate our own ideas and develop a sense of what other identities and values are like. Hopefully that helps us see the world with more caring and complexity.
It’s far different being a writer in Brooklyn than in Saudi Arabia. In a liberal society, where the threat of incarceration, torture, or death isn’t an explicit possibility, the challenge to free expression is interior. You must have the courage to be honest with yourself and say what’s unpalatable or against the norm. It’s difficult to take a stand. But you also have to be willing to dig deep, to understand the context and the history and the social constructions that underpin much of what you might be inclined to say. It’s important to interrogate your opinions, because when you self-censor, you stymie debate.
9. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
I am in constant argument with myself, and that tension enters my writing. I was raised partly in Mumbai as a semi-secular Jain, in a country that has the huge burden of the British Raj and Partition behind it. Similarly, I am Jewish—but I didn’t learn this until we emigrated to America—so I have the weight of that, too. I’m constantly looking for ways to put my two parts together. My work seems to be about making a proper home for myself. A friend noted recently that there’s an obsession with the words grief and belief in my poetry collection and that at one point I even rhyme the words. That seems to sum me up.
Most writers I know have intense curiosity, intense grit, and intense doubt. I don’t buy the tortured writer sensibility—one can be practical and even happy and flourish creatively. But writing can be torture and writers can be tortured and difficult people. To write well, you have to observe closely and get vulnerable to convey emotion. That’s not always fun, though it leads to psychological acuity and you need that.
10. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
I don’t believe in using writing for shock value, and regrets aren’t useful. But perhaps the weirdest moment I had to grapple with recently was writing a rape scene, which I shaped, with difficulty, by a close reading of how Elsa Morante handled the rape of her protagonist in the beginning of her novel History. The protagonist has an epileptic fit during the rape, which helped me work in a kind of defense mechanism of imagination in a scene in the novel I’m writing, when the character has to find a way to get through these minutes. I foregrounded it in her imaginative personality and littered the violence around it as if saying this woman has the intellectual resources to avoid being defeated.
11. What advice do you have for young writers?
Be patient and don’t publish everything you write, and learn how to fiddle with a sentence until it feels earned, and until you feel like you are practically singing when you read it out loud. And find yourself a few good editors.
12. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
Abraham Verghese, Jenny Erpenbeck, Sarah Moss, Emily Ruskovich, Marilynne Robinson, and Edwidge Danticat; Adam Zagajewski, Terrance Hayes, Marilyn Hacker, Ian McGuire, Anthony Marra, David Grann, Eliane Brum, Colson Whitehead, Siri Hustvedt, and Laura Hillenbrand.
13. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Muriel Spark would be a hoot because she was such a diva and because she existed in an era that was after the women’s suffrage movement and before second-wave feminism—so she was an unlikely feminist and an oddball writer. She wrote fast, and discarded the details. She was a bit of a nut, but she was spot-on about human psychology and provocative about what she expected of her readers. I’d want to talk about the women in her stories and ask: Why does she kill them all off or dismiss them with a kick? Is it really she who is Mrs. Jean Brodie? Are superficial women worse than dull men because they believe them? Did she put a woman in the Driver’s Seat as an act of female agency and power or was she also interested in revealing the cruelty of a woman—maybe like her!—who could make a man so submissive that she could trick him into murder? We’d have a great argument. In the end, I’d probably agree with whatever she threw at me because I’m in love with her attitude.
14. What do you think makes a piece of writing compelling?
Thick, heaving sentences full of syntactical risk, thrilling verbs, and which take you from A to Q to Z with leaps of thinking and vervy, exacting diction. I love when the writer follows these with short, sober prose as a way of punctuating the previous moment in the simple statements that follow. Complexity while probing and provocation or risky, weird thinking that goes out on a limb also excites me, especially Roberto Bolaño in 2666 and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
15. Why do you think people need stories?
Stories give meaning and structure to events or experiences. Grimm’s fairy tales introduce children to difficulty, danger, and adventure through the lens of ordinary people and in a way that’s not as terrifying as a news reel. It is through other characters that we can see ourselves more fully or understand a situation. Think about that infamous Eddie Adams photograph taken in Saigon, at the exact moment when South Vietnamese Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed a Viet Cong prisoner during the Tet Offensive. It’s a story in miniature, shot in a microsecond. Until that time, Lyndon Johnson had been pretty successful at pumping out propaganda, and while resistance to the war had been growing, people didn’t see or hear the stories of individual people as starkly as they did from that moment after. Stories change things because they make us feel.
“Stories give meaning and structure to events or experiences. . . . It is through other characters that we can see ourselves more fully or understand a situation.”
16. You write in three genres. How do they influence one another?
Accidentally and over time. I’ve been living with poetry’s rhythms for a long time, and can move that from one genre to another—but it took me a while to understand that this tactic wasn’t always useful.
When I started writing a novel, I thought years of writing poetry would help, but it didn’t for at least five years. I’d stripped my prose to what seemed fictional, per connect-the-dots examples of contemporary writing. Then I’d find myself letting loose in overdone passages, desperate for an outlet. I didn’t want experiments because that was too disorderly for my historical story and for my style. But in year six of one of the later drafts of my novel, I finally leaned on my skills as a poet. But at 100,000 words, the altitude was different! The way to organize this was to tackle each chapter in the same way I’d tackle a poem: work on it until slowly it started to give way to me. Then I tried to control the exuberance that I am often proficient at, but which in fiction or prose tends to runs off the track. Revision is where I refine and transfer my skills.
It works the other way around, too. In prose, everything feels less precious. Prose adds a necessity for clarity and definition that nudges my poems to sit up straight. I’m more exacting about narration in poems now, and am clearer and less dense syntactically. Because I now notice, across genres, that my mind wants to go places and discover stuff, I aim for serendipity under control.
Diane Mehta’s debut poetry collection, Forest with Castanets, came out this March. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, and raised in Bombay and New Jersey, Mehta studied with Derek Walcott and Robert Pinsky in the nineties and has been an editor at PEN America’s Glossolalia, Guernica, and A Public Space. Her book about writing poetry was published by Barnes & Noble books in 2005. She is finishing a historical novel set in 1946 India. She lives in Brooklyn.