Interview #85 — Michelle D'Souza
Michelle D'Souza is a poet and critic, and managing editor of Mascara Literary Review. Her essays have appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, Southerly, Westerly and The Weekend Australian.
Michelle’s short stories, Letter to Pessoa won the UTS Glenda Adams Award, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing and was shortlisted in the Steele Rudd Queensland Literary Awards. She won the Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize, and has been a Fellow at Kingston Writing School, a Visiting Scholar in Creative Writing at UNC, Charlotte and a Fellow at Hawthornden Castle.
Sarah Holland-Batt blurbs The Herring Lass saying you ‘fossick[s] through the detritus of language with a bowerbird’s gleaming eye.’ What were the early reading influences that has led you to this capacity?
That was a great blurb from Sarah, a poet whose work I admire so much! The image has been a distinct aspect of my poetics and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with that through metaphoric tropes and persona poems. Some of my stories weave in and through imagistic possibilities. Gaston Bachelard wrote, “But the image has touched the depths before it stirs the surface.” Image relies on variation, depth and tone, less on structural linearity to tell stories which are less centered and often disrupted in place and time. I have become interested in how voice and particularly multi-vocal performance, archive and rhetoric can be used with image to interrogate power and restore lost stories.
Starting out as a poet, I was influenced by Carol Frost, Judith Beveridge, who has helped many Asian Australian and culturally diverse poets, Dipti Saravanamuttu, Sujatta Bhatt, Tracy K Smith, Louise Glück, Sean Singer, Natasha Tretheway, whom I took a class with at Catskills Poetry Workshop, Derek Walcott, Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson. I was privileged to meet the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly in Vermont at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. I think it is important that Australian teaching is open to overseas writers as they bring different concerns and practices.
When you speak of capacity, I am delighted with the capacity to help others also, and how, with the help of community, positive outcomes have happened to open up the spaces for other writers. I’ve come to appreciate that history and our collective capacities are as important as one’s own capacity. It has enriched my work beyond measure.
I feel like you write about the burden of inherited literatures. There’s a beautiful line from Night Birds in The Herring Lass: ‘I try to erase whiteness, her artifacts’. In a wider sense, what does this mean to you?
I am not sure if that was my intent; it was more of a nuance in the poem; an image of New York’s Bethesda fountain in lightly, falling snow:
I try to erase whiteness, her artefacts ̶
a snow-dusted angel of the lake, the symmetry of elms,
undressing like brides in the night’s incomplete sentence.
The image is a portal; open to many readings so it’s curious that you should note that particular line. I wrote the poem before it became reproachable, in some circles, to speak about ‘whiteness’ in Australia. But the resistance to whiteness as symbolism is surprising because many writers have used the image to animate subtle arguments about race and racism or to contrast innocence and social progressiveness.
A more recent use of the symbolism of annihilating whiteness and its ubiquity appears in Judith Beveridge’s poem ‘Fogbow, Scotland’. It is dedicated to her father, so I may be wrong, but I read, in its dialectic, a resonance with themes pertinent to the temporal economies of migration. As in the poem you mention, ‘Night Birds,’ Beveridge alludes to light and the horizon as a whiteness that is abstract, ‘a rainbow drained of colour’, a whiteness that is ambivalent and invisible, (‘still no view’) It is a ceremonial poem of mourning but also of regret, perhaps, for how that burden of inherited culture might feel as we negotiate pathways to the future:
We walk the length
of the esplanade, smell the herring and cod stacked
on the pier, hear water splash a sullen laughter:
still no view ̶ only a cold offering of white ̶
a wholesale transmigration of colour to the afterlife.
(Sun Music, 211)
I’ve come to appreciate that history and our collective capacities are as important as one’s own capacity.
You write very poignantly about landscape throughout your work – there is always a movement or displacement happening. Even the non-human animals are struggling with belonging and place. How do you think about this in relation to our immigrant selves, and our settler realities?
That’s a lovely question Sumudu. I guess, I believe our minds are a part of nature, and therefore subject to impermanence. I’m reminded of a poem ‘The Chase’ in which the scarp and riverside forests of Kuring-Gai National Park feature and where nature becomes consciousness; the speaker reflecting on the trespassed lands of First Nations people who have suffered invasion dispossession, disease and violence. Travel and movement have become so much a part of our lives that we are translocal, and I try to explore that in my writing; it’s something that Tina Giannoukos wrote about in her review of Vishvarupa.
We are also displaced from time, because of discontinuous histories; I mean those of us who face gatekeeping and borders are limited by horizontal progress which accelerates our losses compared to those more anchored, making it harder for our stories to be told. We tell our stories at great cost. So, I am interested also in the landscape of time; the temporal as well as the spatial is very important if we want to renew form and restore our history for the future. This historical and archival mapping is present in The Herring Lass, in Letter to Pessoa and in my novel-in-progress.
The colonising view of South-Asian femininity is of docile, sensual and obedient women. You present a female sexuality in your poetry that is absent of that exoticising gaze. Would you speak about that?
You are probably thinking of the poems in Vishvarupa that contemporize and innovate the mythologies of Sita, Laksmi, Sarasvati, Kali, Durga and Parvati. Durga is a good example. She sees herself as deviant, non-binary in her gender. She says that Vishnu, one of the ‘sensitive new age gods’ is paralyzed by her ‘transcendental play’ and she asserts powerfully, ‘what I see is myself in this world.’
This femininity also knows its vulnerability and worth. Laksmi says ‘even poets are stalking me/ I am dripping in gold they can’t resist.’ I feel it is problematic that this value coding to which we are subject, is not reciprocal. As women we quickly learn that we are likely to be appropriated or put to decorative purpose. Sometimes, others become our surrogates in the economy of inclusion and merit; as writers we are likely to experience some degree of borrowing and derivation of our work, at times without acknowledgement. There are mutable and shifting energies of passivity and aggression within the feminine. Feminine aspects are not merely gentle and generous, and I am interested to explore this in writing.
Being Asian-Australian there is always the politics of writing and then the politics we write about; how do these things intersect for you, especially with the work you do with Mascara Literary Review?
That’s a big question. In answering I’d like to narrow focus on two modalities I’ve developed through our work in Mascara: interceptions and discursive empowerment.
It’s important that we reclaim our subjectivity and that’s what #interceptionality is about. It’s about declonising in our minds and hearts so that we are not afraid to speak our truth. We are not afraid to undo the authoring of our work by history, by discourse, by replications and imitations. Ask any writer whose culture and ancestry is disenfranchised and they will know the experience of being positioned and being spoken for; they will understand the redistribution of agency, and the complicities at work in literature and art that undermine voice. Australian Literature has a fair bit of catching up to do in this regard.
It is paradoxical that criticism is focused more keenly on the voices of legitimate complaint rather than the voices of compliance, where, I would suggest, we actually need to have a higher index of critical rigour. Because these are the spaces where pressure is being placed on minority narratives to collapse and compromise. In failing to discern the need for a crisis response for non-white settler literature, literary criticism has remained partial, framed and a mediator. As authors, shouldn’t we be concerned about the coalitions of agency? Isn’t it natural that we should question who is responsible for the conceptual and architectural designs, the master narratives that underpin the writing industry, and also the institutions of literary criticism?
We are also displaced from time, because of discontinuous histories…
In the story Disappearing, a character begins to 'revise her point of view and amend her style to reframe...’ . This is a kind of empowerment. How much of Letter To Pessoa was that for you?
Well, throughout that ‘bad romance’ story, ‘Disappearing’, Celeste, is not the narrator, and clearly, by the sadistic hints of her narrator, she is manipulated narcissistically. It is only by a casual, seemingly minor disengagement that she comes to resist being authored and finds a way to shift from his narrative to her own, in which she is the protagonist. Even though he is the narrator, they are both disappearing from each other’s lives, but her disappearance becomes active and purposeful, and it signals her rising agency.
The act of writing is empowering; it often entails revisions. In the stories, I experimented and found a way to subvert and revive the imposed conventions of realism, which represents life as having a beginning, a middle and an end, whereas we live moment by moment, always in transition and partly unreconciled. Indeed, I am happy with the aesthetics of fragmentation that the stories embody.
The concept of having and using, as Pessoa did, heteronyms, seems a perfect tool for the immigrant or displaced writer. What is the role of autofictive personas?
I like the idea of being made up of parts; it’s a post-Platonic, Buddhist perspective. I accept that the self is relational, re-inventing its ‘selves’ in time because that is the nature of reality; our lives are changing so rapidly, decaying in one sense, but also exposed to the consequences of death and loss. Thinking and writing are always in postponement; this process of loss and rebirth is accentuated for the migrant, who has to forget their past and reinvent themselves. Postponement also suggests that there is a false linearity, propriety and structure in realism that authors have resisted going back as far as Defoe, Woolf, Joyce, Coetzee, Rhys, Pessoa; as well as contemporaneously in the work of writers like Gerald Murnane, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti.
There is an ambivalence in fiction; stable and linear constructs like character and plot may not sufficiently represent the subjectivity, experience and simulacra of contemporary life, post-feminism and post-truths. I think auto-fictive personas enable us to render visible the liminality of our lives, the multiple thresholds we necessarily cross in order to survive. Recently, for example, I have changed my social media persona to Michelle D’Souza as this was my mother’s name and it feels protective, after a year of being vulnerable and targeted for my literary activism. Because I have been independent in my thinking, and because I have felt displaced from my people and my family, this feels like a fluid and instinctive gesture, that is nonetheless quite powerful.
I like the idea of being made up of parts; it’s a post-Platonic, Buddhist perspective.
You’ve co-judged several short story prizes. How important is it to ensure that there is greater representation in the selection of judges for prizes, and overall on the editorial side of things?
For me that was an opportunity to contribute and of course it does make quite a difference to diversify the judging of literary prizes. This is an area that Liminal is contributing to with its new Fiction Prize and the collaboration with Brow Books. There are several Australian prizes that remain restricted to the methodology of the white settler gaze in terms of appraisal. This is problematic; it assumes that only a limited and invariably homogenous cohort of individuals have exclusive access to literary expertise in a given genre. It sends a strong message to all of us that the hierarchies are entrenched and embedded in institutionalised and corporate establishments. Whatever it takes we must free up these spaces; they can no longer be credibly sustained as benchmarks. We’ve got this. It’s going to take more than talking about it though. We need to stand our ground.
Can you tell us what you have planned for the future?
I have been working on my novel and a trickle of new poems. I’m delighted that UWAP are re-publishing my second poetry collection, Vishvarūpa, this year as it was out of print with 5IslandsPress who are closing shop. I’m also thrilled for the collection of stories that Margaret River Press are publishing, We’ll Stand In That Place, which I was privileged to judge.
Of course, I hope that as a community we can continue to support each other and expand our diverse, transnational spaces, reaching out to writers from other countries and being in conversation with writers and thinkers here in Australia. I am careful in what editing roles I might take up going forward as it has conflicted with my writing time.
I am also writing a scholarly essay on Interceptionality and the work of Behrouz Boochani as a way of reflecting on the unsettlement of Australian poetics.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Stay focused on your work. Your strength as a writer is the relationship you have with language. Learn from your teachers about craft and techne. It helps very much to be part of a network in academia or in industry, and you should remember to give back to your communities and networks. Overall, however, short-term dynamics are often reflected in these spaces.
Writing needs to be honed by our individual and private practise. Reading and writing has the capacity to teach us much that is enduring. I see writing as an art, a vocation not a career and ultimately you must be prepared to resist even your mentors at some point, if that is what it takes to develop your work, your voice, and you will know when that time comes because of your confidence in your work; a confidence that builds over time. Learn to listen to your own deepest voice; not the reactive voices of defence or competition or injury, no matter how scarred you may feel. Writing can recover all we have lost. It is generative. It takes time and courage, but that voice is your compass, your partner, your power and your deepest pleasure. This is what I have learned.
There are several Australian prizes that remain restricted to the methodology of the white settler gaze in terms of appraisal.
Who are you inspired by?
Thich Nhat Hanh and the late Ajahn Chah. Buddhism has taught me a path I return to, again and again.
What are you currently reading?
I have been reading Milk Teeth by Rae White, Calenture by Lindsay Tuggle and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys.
How do you practise self-care?
I try to make a little time to meditate, to observe the mind’s processes. It provides inner light, psychic energy and renewal. I like to walk or go to the gym and to grow plants.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means being part of a caring and connected creative community in which ideas about the future we want to share are worth the price we pay for them.