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Interview with Debjani Chatterjee
by Marjorie Coughlan*

Debjani Chatterjee is one of Great Britain's most well-known South Asian writers. Her many books (more than 45 to date) include not only her own collections of poetry and prose for both adults and children, but also translations and anthologies, which bring together stories and writers from around the world. She is a founder of the Sahitya Press and is currently chair of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE). As well as running her own workshops at Literary Festivals, in schools and in Community Centres, she is a member of Mini Mishaira, a special group of poets who run writers' workshops, give poetry readings and tell stories; and who, to quote The Scotsman newspaper, provide 'a vision of what could be possible in the future, for despite the differences in language, background and beliefs, the three poets speak with one voice'. PaperTigers caught up with Dr Chatterjee in York (northern England) during late October.
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At present you are attached to York St John University as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and Writer-in-Residence. As well as leading workshops you have been 'Writer-in-Residence' in a variety of other places - can you tell us a bit about the role?

I spend two days a week at York St John and offer tutorials to any students or staff members who wish to improve their writing. The Royal Literary Fund, who sponsor my post, are keen that I advise on any type of writing - not just creative writing. So I get to see student essays on a wide range of academic subjects, dissertations, even letters and textbooks! I have only just started here, but already I'm loving it.

In the past I've had a number of different residencies - for both storytelling and poetry. The shortest residency was a peculiar one in Sheffield: a well-known stationer's advertised for a Poet-in-Residence to encourage their customers to get into love poems for Valentine's Day - I got the job and found that I was really just expected to work for one day! They called me their Love-Poet-in-Residence and it was great fun because I was helping people to write their own little love ditties. I felt as if I was playing Cupid or Kama, the Hindu god of Love.

Before I took up my Fellowship in York, my Sheffield Children's Hospital residency in 2000 was the longest I'd ever had: six months. It was very challenging work and very enjoyable too. It involved doing many different things, including a verse booklet for the eye-department to give to children; and a huge poetry book for World Book Day. My role on the whole was to distract the children, so the poetry had to be entertaining. I'd just go into waiting rooms and perform a few poems; if children had plaster casts, I'd write a few things on the plaster; and sometimes if I had three or four children around me, we'd create a group poem together. When we did that, I'd try and make them very visual as well - so they might be shaped poems or poster poems.

So when you say Poster Poems, were they poems with pictures written by the children?

Yes. Let me give an example. I remember there was one group poem that used a picture of a flower. Each child had a line of the poem inside one of the very big petals and then the title of the poem formed the stem of the flower. We made a lot of poster poems and one of the things I'm proudest of is the 'Poetry Gallery' we created, using one of the hospital corridors. The Poetry Society funded my post and the hospital didn't appoint a successor when I left, but the idea of the Poetry Gallery was that it could be kept going with a minimum of effort. I have been back since and I'm glad to say that it's still there.

Did your experience at Sheffield Children's Hospital inspire your own poetry in any way?

Yes and no. It did inspire some poetry - my book Animal Antics came out of that residency because a lot of the poems in it are poems that I was performing with the children. Andrew Motion [the British Poet Laureate], who wrote the introduction, talks about poetry being salubrious, which is one of his favourite words. So there are poems like Wisdom Tooth, where Harry the Alligator is afraid of visiting the dentist and losing his wisdom by having a tooth pulled out, and has to learn that wisdom actually has nothing to do with teeth! But generally there are not many direct references to illness and pain and so on, because my purpose during my residency was mainly to distract and entertain. There are also some serious poems though - children need these too. I also created one or two semi-rude poems, which are not in that book!

Did you share them with the children?

Yes - because kids of a certain age love poems like that. One was about a hyena who was really very naughty - he would not stand in queues and was always spitting on the nice, clean hospital floor: and of course the children just loved that... but yes, that didn't go into this nice, clean book!

So when did you first decide to be a poet? Has it always been there?

Yes, from childhood. I always wanted to be a poet and storyteller. And I always wanted to do something else - so in childhood at different stages I would have said, "Yes, I want to be a writer and a spy!" or "Yes, I want to be a writer and a submarine engineer!" But the one constant was always being a writer and for me this was very much linked to poetry and writing stories. I was always telling stories to other children and I would also pester any relative to tell me stories.

And this was also true of poetry. I discovered when I was about 10 that if I sat down of my own accord to write a poem or a short story, my parents would usually leave me alone. My parents really believed in pushing us children: therefore, since I didn't like Maths, they thought it was their duty to give me large dollops of arithmetic and geometry to do in my spare time, especially on Saturdays and Sundays and I was very miserable with it - but then I realised that if I just sat down and they could see me writing, they'd say, "All right, that's a good thing to do! So carry on!" and I'd be let off doing Maths. So that too was an incentive!

Is your mother a writer as well? You've done some translations with her too, haven't you?

My mother has always been very artistic. She was really into all kinds of arts and crafts: painting, batik, Japanese doll making, ikebana (flower-arranging), pyrography - but no, she was not a writer. But when my father died, because I believe that writing can be so salubrious, to quote Andrew Motion again, I suggested that she and I translate a book together. It was a Bengali book of travel reminiscences, Album by Uma Prasad Mukherjee, a friend of my maternal grandfather's. One chapter in this lovely book was about my grandfather. I suggested to my mother that she should help me to translate it for the benefit of many of my cousins who are growing up without their mother-tongue - I have cousins in the UK and the US, who were born outside India and don't have our mother-tongue, or even if they can speak the language, they can't read a book in Bengali. After translating Album, my mother has taken up writing as a hobby and enjoys it.

My great-grandmother, though, had a natural gift for rhyme and she used to write Bengali nursery rhymes. She had little formal education but she made beautiful patchwork quilts and she would embroider her nursery rhymes on these.

Do you think that's where your gifts come from?

No idea! But I feel privileged to have been brought up with stories. When I sometimes hear about children who don't get stories told to them, I just can't imagine it. As soon as I could, I started reading voraciously and I've always been really interested in myths, legends and folk tales - so especially my early books for children (The Elephant-Headed God & Other Hindu Tales, Sufi Stories From Around the World, etc.) are retellings of traditional stories from around the world.

You have lived abroad a lot, haven't you?

Yes, so in Hong Kong, for instance, I read about the Monkey King; at school in Delhi I learned about the Greek Classics; and much later I discovered Scandinavian and Celtic mythology. I'm married to an Irishman and there's such a wealth of Celtic traditional tales - Irish, Welsh and Scottish - it's just marvellous, a treasure-house; and the Indian Classics and stories from the Middle East - I never tire of reading them. I've also realised that however old these stories are, they are always fresh, and so many of them continue to inspire very modern stories. Bollywood, for instance, finds the ancient epic stories a perennial source of inspiration in so many ways - either as retellings or they're just rewriting the same plots in contemporary settings. So yes, storytelling is still a driving force for me.

And when you're retelling stories, do you find your poetic voice resonates through them?

Yes, it does sometimes; but then I also have to think about who I'm writing for: is this for a child or is it going to be one of those stories which could be read to a child, perhaps by an adult? How old will the child be? Am I thinking as a child here in Britain? Increasingly, inevitably, I do see myself as a British writer, so I am targeting audiences here. If I'm writing a bilingual book and it's for children here, that means there are many things I cannot take for granted. So do I include notes or should the explanation be woven into the fabric of the story itself?

These are considerations... but I do believe very strongly that the world's classics and traditional tales cannot belong to just one culture or country. They belong to us all. They are our inheritance and we need access to them. This is what I feel the writer can do - give children that access. And when I find a parallel I find it so exciting - for instance when I discovered the Monkey King stories and realised with a shock that, hey! this is the same character as the Hindu Hanuman - just a much naughtier, more anarchic version. It was only later that I realised how this could have happened: Buddhist missionaries had taken the stories across from India to Tibet and China, and the Chinese took the character of the semi-divine monkey and effectively turned him into a wonderful Chinese character. Of course, there are many classic stories that have parallels in various cultures: the story of Noah's Ark appears in so many different lands - and again, the slight variations are really fascinating as well. In India for instance, it wasn't a boat or a ship, but a gigantic sea-creature that rescued the Indian Noah. The Cinderella story too seems universal.

As well as writing, you also run your own publishing company. Can you tell us a bit about it?

The Sahitya Press? Sahitya Press is really a very tiny press. I think there's a gap, really, in that there are not enough bilingual books produced - that's one reason I wanted to do them. The first books we did were all in Bengali-English. Right from the start, my aim was to produce bilingual books with lots of different languages and last year the Sahitya Press finally achieved that with The Song of the Scythe, a joint publication with Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust in five dual language editions. The Industrial Museums Trust want to encourage all the local communities to see that museums are interesting places to visit and we hope that the book gives that message.

Another book that came out last year was A Slice of Sheffield, which was jointly published with Sheffield Galleries. It is a bilingual anthology of poems, stories and anecdotes - all to do in some way with cutlery - though sometimes perhaps cutlery items are a metaphor for something else. I worked closely with the women and girls who contributed to it, mostly through workshops that I ran in community centres. It was a special project too because generally I was working with people who wouldn't have seen themselves as writers, really.

So may I ask what new projects are in the pipeline?

I have a new book coming out soon, called A Special Assembly: a South Asian charity in London asked me to write a story in which the main character would be a South Asian child with asthma. In the near future, I'm involved with some events at Sheffield's Off-the-Shelf Literature Festival and I'm going to Ilkley at the end of the month for the Ilkley Litfest, where I will run a morning workshop on writing ghazals in English and in the afternoon I'll participate with other poets in the Ilkley mushaira. Mushaira is an Arabic word for 'a gathering of poets' and this multilingual poets' event is now an established and welcome feature of the annual Ilkley Litfest. I am in a small group of poets and storytellers called Mini Mushaira. One of the Mini Mushaira writers and I are also taking part in an Islamic storytelling project in a Birmingham primary school. We'll tell traditional stories and will also help the children to create their own story.

*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor

Posted November 2006

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Debjani Chatterjee


photo- Debjani Chatterjee

By Debjani Chatterjee:

Masala: Poems from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (Macmillan, 2005)

The Song of the Scythe, in 5 dual language editions, translated into: Bengali by Rashida Islam, Urdu by Basir Sultan Kazmi, Arabic by Abdul Razak, Cantonese by Sai Cheung Lee and Somali by Mohamed M Noor (Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust & Sahitya Press, 2005)

A Slice of Sheffield (SGMT & Sahitya Press, 2005)

Rainbow World: Poems from Many Cultures, ed. with B Fraser (Hodder 2003)

Animal Antics (Pennine Pens, 2000)

The Snake Prince & Other Folk Tales from Bengal, ed. with R Choudhury (Sahitya Press,1999)

Nyamia & the Bag of Gold: Four Tales Retold, also in Welsh, translated by M. Evans (Longman Ed. 1994)

Sufi Stories from Around the World (HarperCollins India, 1993)

The Elephant-Headed God & Other Hindu Tales (Lutterworth, 1989)

Read more on PaperTigers.

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Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Make sure to take a look at our online literary journal, just a click away: WaterBridge Review

 

 

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