Poet and fiction writer, Rochelle Potkar started writing ‘late’. In fact, she began devouring books to make up for what she felt was ‘lost time’. Rochelle’s work transcends country and culture and her strong individual voice has received immense recognition and several prestigious awards. Here, she tells SheThePeople.TV Books Editor Archana Pai Kulkarni how, in times of uncertainty, she has kept the faith, as she guards her writing time, and dwells upon the seismic times.
Congratulations on being nominated for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize for Paper Asylum (Haibun), the award that recognises the revival of poetry and books that can change lives. Tell us about a couple of books that changed yours.
The God of Small Things and Kafka on the Shore blew my mind off its hinges and made me think of the world in different ways. Other than these, many books have had incremental and elemental effects within me.
We are in the midst of a pandemic. In times of social distancing, uncertainty, and flux, how have you been coping? How have being locked down, the altered rhythm of our lives and the paucity of time and space affected your writing? What are your thoughts at the moment?
I had the same writing routine before the lockdown too, but now I filter news: COVID collaterals, demographic shifts, racism, inequity, cross-border politics, inequality, recession, unemployment. One can take only so much. I narcotize after that into escapism with books, movies, knowledge, spirituality. I believe the earth resets, every now and then, with floods, ice ages, wars, pandemics and natural calamities, and humanity will survive and roll on.
Globally, we are witnessing deeply disturbing traits of inhumanity—the callous attitude towards migrants, the shocking treatment of corona warriors, the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, and caste, colour and race rearing their heads. As a writer, do you feel duty-bound or compelled to focus on these issues? Or is there a recurrent theme you keep returning to?
More than a conscious duty, I am absorbing through the skin, assimilating all that’s happening around at an unconscious level. My recurrent thoughts are still on what they were before the pandemic – pervasive social inequality and personal~interpersonal politics, though now it includes deeper emotional journeys of crossing through a very unrestful time in history.
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You have expressed your happiness at the prose-and-haiku form of haibun getting acceptance. Do you feel that this form of poetry was only marginally explored and its potential not recognised? What has your experience been?
Haibun and haiku are niche forms compared to mainstream free verse poetry. But then that poetry too is niche. So a niche within a niche is what we are saying. It’s a sub-culture of form, and an all-embracing form for theme, tone, and juxtaposition. It welcomes the storyteller and poet in me. Closest to diary writing, this form doesn’t beg closure like short story or flash fiction, but for the ornamentation of haiku. Haibun is now gaining readership and publishing support, which is good news for all practitioners of lyrical prose and tightrope brevity (haiku). Red River Press, India recently published an anthology: The Book of Haibun.
What does the title, Paper Asylum, signify? Considering that haibun possibly uses autobiographical bits and pieces as the base content for the poet’s journey, how and when did words become your refuge? What attracted you to this form?
I too seek solace in words. So the title ‘Paper Asylum’ seemed apt when I was searching for the most synthesized word for the contents of the book. Poetry and haibun are more confessional in nature, when compared to fiction that has characters that are alter egos or human shields to its author.
You were in a corporate job, and gave it up to start writing. What prompted this decision? You have mentioned that you were not a reader either, as a child, and that you began devouring books hungrily to sort of ‘catch up’, because you felt you had started late (at 27). Tell us more about your journey.
Yes, growing up I read Nancy Drew’s, Nancy Friday’s, Sydney Sheldon’s. I didn’t come through a literature program (rather Commerce), so by the time I reached corporate life I didn’t read any book at all. When I began seeking soulful stories – I was surprised there was a genre called literary fiction. The God of Small Things was the first book I read, then more. This was a few years before my own writing keeda kicked in.
You have been open about the fact that you witnessed domestic violence at home, and that to you, the outside of the house felt safer than the inside. You have also spoken with admiration about your mother’s dignified resilience. How have these aspects of your childhood affected your approach to art? Are you a feminist?
I believe in equality for every being. As a writer, I have tried freeing myself from inhibitors from an inner life and those that trickle from outside. Woes like self-doubt, delusion, fear of making mistakes, failures and rejections, and also assimilating success (that too can be very distracting), keeping approvals-disapprovals-judgements-praise-criticism-opinions outside the threshold of this temple. I only allow constructive critique; the greed is to improve. Conviction and equilibrium are important to create, also an anthropological approach- rather than an emotional one- to ecosystem politics and gatekeeper nexus.
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My mother regaled us (two) daughters. She was very proud of her girls – so I turned out self-assured of my place on earth, under the sun, almost to the point of feeling entitled to a bloody good life. Maybe that appears in my seeking as a writer too – for equanimities and equalities. Around the bend of the next 5-10 years, I want to form a collective (arts and literary) to pass on the mic to as many valuable unheard voices that I can. Because there are still so many unheard voices.
Do you think that a poet needs both a speaking voice and a writing voice? Do you think performance gets a bigger audience for poetry? How important are public readings to you?
Being an introvert, I don’t covet public readings too much. I like to travel on its pretext to break off from a sedentary lifestyle. I don’t think poets need to have a speaking voice and a writing voice. They need to have a strong voice if possible varied in tones, themes, moods, and muse. And a medium to hold that voice then: a receiver. I know Spoken Voice poetry garners a huge following via social media in comparison to page poetry book sales or readings, but I have been satisfied as a page poet. Also, my compulsion to create is much more than all composite factors: readership, following, sales, fame, posterity.
In an interview elsewhere, you’ve mentioned that in the kind of schizophrenic society we live in, it might be the best time to be a fence-sitter. Can a writer truly be one? What do you think is the role of a writer, especially in these times?
A writer should be a voice of conscience, but also span her/his gaze 360 degrees for an all-round perspective. There is a cost you pay for going against dominant narratives – and a choice on the degree of risk and inconvenience you are prepared to take. Though art causes a shift, it also causes imbalances. And the gap between preaching and practising on an hour-to-hour basis needs self-examination, reflection, and scrutiny. It isn’t easy walking a tightrope.
You made a lot of lifestyle changes to make time for writing, including giving up stepping out to shop. Tell us a little about your writing routine, and share how you manage to guard your writing time so fiercely?
I watch for biorhythms of when I can write best. Those times have to be fiercely guarded. It’s the Pareto’s principle at play. When each day slips like sand through one’s fingers, time is of cognizance. As we know writing is a long journey.
You debuted in a character role in the Tamil feature-length film, Taramani, directed by award-winning director Ram. Are you considering doing more films?
That was a one-off experience. Even though that was a small-timed role, I realized it’s hard work being an actor. You have to give so much. Juxtapose that with being a writer: you take in so much. I prefer the latter. I am now a screenwriter working on my second screenplay. The first one was shortlisted at the 2020 Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay competition from over 1300 entries.
Your short story collection Bombay Hangovers is being released soon. What is this book about?
These are 16 short stories around the characters living in Bombay across a section of caste, class, and religion. From Vishwakarma Publishers, agented by The Book Bakers, it’s due to release soon.
Why do you think it’s necessary to translate poetry? What are the projects you are working on?
The world and India are blessed with melodious languages and multitudinous dialects. It’s a forest – it’s birdsong. It is necessary we transact the meaning of experiencing the same life, on the same planet, through translations and seek deeper nuances of living. With poet Sanket Mhatre, we are soon to release a bi-lingual, cross-translated book of Marathi and English poetry, ‘Coordinates of Us’/ सर्वअंशातूनआपण.
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If you had to give two valuable tips to aspiring writers, what would they be?
More! Write without fear – you will be judged in any case, so enjoy the creating tremendously. Allow yourselves to make mistakes. Most of the learnings come from mistakes. Success doesn’t make for good enough lessons. Challenge yourself in themes, tones, voices and edit to chisel things for sharpness. A writer’s life is a biography of peaks and troughs. Self-diagnosis and self-acceptance are key. Especially in an age of flux, everyone must think of psychological well-being, even if it’s a rather invisible concept.