Skin. Muscle. Bone.
Minal Hajratwala’s latest poetry collection, Bountiful Instructions for Englightenment, published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a collective for which she is a co-founder, randomly opens to “Worship at Guadalupe Creek,” and the second stanza reads: “ Let me lean/into your tongue’s/exquisite roam.” Alright now! And it concludes: “ Under the bridge, tequila/chants our names/ like Buddhist deaths.” Hajratwala is the author of the award-winning epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, which was called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by the Washington Post and Out! Stories from the New Queer India. She graduated from Stanford University, was a fellow at Columbia University, and was a 2011 Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar. As a writing coach, she loves helping people give voice to untold stories. She tweets at @minalh. And you can learn more about her goings-on at minalhajratwala.com.
1. What was your last bite?
If I were a lady, I’d just nibble. Since I’m not, I chew and chew and chew. Eventually I have to spit. Sometimes it comes out red, like the betel stains all over the footpaths and stairwells of my city. Sometimes it’s a fetid oily rainbow. Once in a while, a pure golden thread.
2. Tell us about your cootie catcher and how did it become a part of your readings?
The cootie catcher was ephemeral! I no longer have it, but it was the size of a big dog’s head, with four magazine images glued on (one of Beyoncé), and bright colors and numbers inside.
Randomness, serendipity, and divination drive my work sometimes, so I wanted to introduce this quality into my readings. I asked audience members to choose numbers, via the cootie catcher, allowing that to drive the order of the reading. It kept me off balance, and introduced an element of suspense in between each poem. It also allowed me to relax, knowing that each reading would have both spontaneity and curation, so that I didn’t have to make Serious Decisions about presenting mySelf differently for different audiences each time.
It’s important now, on my third book, to remember to have fun as much as possible.
3. Tell us about starting a collective press? Why a collective?
The power of the circle is much greater than the power of the dot.
We were three experienced poets who figured out that if we pooled the money we’d otherwise spend entering contests in the ridiculous market that is American poetry publishing, we could start a press—where poets could be empowered to create beautiful books, work with artists, and take charge of every aspect of production. It’s been beautiful. We’ve published two books so far, launched a poetry app, and raised a bunch of money to fund operations. We’ll open our first call for manuscripts in February. For more details go to www.greatindianpoetrycollective.org.
4. What do you know about leaving? About returning?
I wrote my nonfiction epic, Leaving India, over the course of seven tough years. It was published in 2009 and the next year I moved to India. I wouldn’t call that journey a return, though. I never lived in India; I am a newcomer, an immigrant here. I arrived not knowing very simple things, like where cooking fuel comes from, or how to cross the street. I learn something every day.
I know a lot about leaving, but almost nothing about returning. I suspect returning is a myth; as Ursula Le Guin writes, “You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.” Or maybe it only happens at a later age, when I’m ready. I mean, of course, someday we all return, stardust to stardust. I’ll let you know then.
5. What have you learned about enlightenment and unicorns?
Unicorns are all around us; we just have to see them. The same is true of enlightenment. Through extreme practices, such as daydreaming on hammocks, moving words around for hours, and having consensual sex, I have managed to experience this truth once a decade or so.
6. When you coach writers, what kind of coach are you? Why do people/writers need to be coached?
I am a fairy godmother, and also an onion-peeler, and also a masseuse. I work with a lot of women, queers, survivors, people of color, immigrants, people whose stories the world works to silence. The other day a client asked for a visualization to protect her from the negative thoughts that deluge her as she tries to writes. I talked her through the geological layers of the body: skin, muscle, bone. The bones are where we hold shame; the muscles are where we hold tension; the skin is the boundary between ourselves and the world. We created a golden layer of light above her skin, a kind of protection spell. Then she wrote, for the first time in ages. Following her need, I found myself describing the three-part process of writing: the purely creative act as the bone, inner and private, invisible to everyone; revision as the muscle, bringing strength and craft to the body of work; and finally publishing, pushing it out through our skin. Each part has its role.
Writers can run into trouble at every phase. Just as sometimes the body can benefit from expert guidance to heal or train or stretch or perform in a certain way, so can the writing process.
In my own process, I had to learn that having such a need is not a personal failure. It’s actually part of our condition; we’re not supposed to struggle through everything alone, although there is a certain part we can only do alone. There are many ways to get help in this process, and for some people, one-on-one mentoring in a safe, confidential space is a good path. Courses are another, and I try to make mine supportive and encouraging, while also providing genuine help. Writing groups, a good writing or reading buddy, even a great book that shows the way, can also help us.
7. When you are alone, what’s your word? In the presence of people, what do you whisper in their hair?
I love you.
I love you.
8. How does your writing keep you visible, from disappearing into yourself?
Oh, much better to disappear. Then when you reappear, it’s magical and scary, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin.
9. What is the old story you are hoping to revise, re-vision, for the New Year?
The story of stress and blame. I’d like to replace it with a story of laughter and fire. I want my process to become as free and exhilarating as fire, which goes where the fuel is. I’ve always been a water person, so this is new and exhilarating to me. I want to learn not to get stuck in blaming myself or others for anything at all, just burn through each moment cleanly, leaving no traces.
10. Kore Biters Womanifesto: Please add two-three tenets for transgressive and transformative behavior that you believe every woman writer should abide by or incorporate into their lives or writing practice.
1. She shall turn the battle outward, against the silence, instead of inward against the True Voice.
2. She shall abide only by those “should” which resonate most deeply with her own sweetest desires.
11. Come up with a writing prompt that considers laughter and deep breathes.
“She should not laugh loudly in front of all the world and should preserve her decency at all times.” —Bülent Arinç, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, July 2014
“ ‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. ‘They are afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said, ‘undercut their world view.’ Then I asked some women students, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ They are afraid of being killed,’ they said.”—Margaret Atwood, December 1990
Take 5 minutes (no more) to browse these images.
Choose one woman in one of the photos.
This is your mask for the poem.
Wearing her face, write a poem about how laughter is a threat, and what it threatens.
Contributed by Minal Hajratwala