Interview #68 — Shastra Deo
Interview by Sumudu Samarawickrama
Shastra Deo was born in Fiji, raised in Melbourne, and lives in Brisbane. Her first book, The Agonist, was shortlisted for the 2018 Mary Gilmore Award, commended for the 2017 Anne Elder Award, and won the 2018 ALS Gold Medal.
Shastra's work investigates the intersection of trauma, memory, and selfhood, with a particular focus on corporeality, embodiment, and strange species of fish.
Shastra talked to Sumudu about ghosts, fanfiction, her relationship to place, and being a 'good' POC.
"I like to use Athena as metaphor: sometimes a speaker leaps from the temple of the head, fully formed; I know their history and their wants and what the poem has to do for them."
Robert Browning used persona in his poems front and centre, but you use persona in a more oblique fashion—what is the draw for you—apart from the pure joy of imagining?
I suppose my use of persona has always felt front and centre to me! Only three of my poems feature an “I” that’s ostensibly me, Shastra: “गुम; or, Lexical Gaps”, which was written specifically for Cordite’s “Confession” issue; “Shastra Deo”, commissioned by Peril for the QPF2017 crossover issue “I Can’t Speak to You”; and “शिवलिङ्ग (Shivling)”, commissioned by Red Room Poetry. (I’m sensing a theme here and that theme may be money… Yikes.) The rest are entirely in persona.
I wouldn’t say there’s a conscious draw for me—I tend towards “characters” naturally, likely because of my background in short fiction. It doesn’t necessarily feel like imagining either, but closer to the process of discovering of a self discrete from myself that’s nonetheless rooted in my self… if that makes sense. I like to use Athena as metaphor: sometimes a speaker leaps from the temple of the head, fully formed; I know their history and their wants and what the poem has to do for them. More often, I’ll have an archetype (90% of the time it’s a fisherman because I also apparently have a type) who’s half-wrought in shadow. I tend to do a lot of research in those instances, and it can sometimes backfire.
For example, I spent a lot of time reading about fly fishing lures while I was writing “I Saw the Devil in the Cane Fields”, which was originally set in a hypothetical corn field in the American South. (I always imagined the poem’s speaker as a young Will Graham of Red Dragon and NBC’s Hannibal fame.) My honours supervisor suggested making the setting Australian instead, but I never changed the lure because it had taken me ages to pick one with the perfect name. Can you use a Jitterbee to catch anything in Australia? I hope my speaker forgives me.
After reading The Agonist and listening to your panel at the Emerging Writers Festival, I conclude that time makes ghosts of everything: of memory, of the body and story itself. Where does your interest in ghosts come from, and what do they mean to you?
“Time makes ghosts of everything.” I love that, Sumudu. I think ghosts are memory—memory haunts bodies, haunts places, haunts the narratives that hold our minor and miraculous lives together. Ghosts are that which return and return and return. The body has its own hauntings, too: phantom limb sensation, organ transfer memory, the traumatic self. And others.
If I had to pinpoint the origin of my interest, I’d say it started with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier—Bucky Barnes—is a soldier a weapon a body who is not stripped of memory but stripped of the relevance of memory: the past comes to him in flickers but it’s signifier without referent. The Winter Soldier haunts; the Winter Soldier is haunted. There’s this great exchange between Steve (Captain America) and Natasha (Black Widow) in the film:
Nat: Going after him is a dead end. I know, I’ve tried. Like you said, he’s a ghost story.
Steve: Well, let’s find out what the ghost wants.
If there’s anything that defines a ghost—more than its death more than its past more than the span of history—it’s what the ghost wants. That’s what I’m trying to pin down in my poetry. (Incidentally, “The Soldier” in The Agonist is the Winter Soldier. Go figure.)
"I think ghosts are memory—memory haunts bodies, haunts places, haunts the narratives that hold our minor and miraculous lives together. Ghosts are that which return and return and return."
"If love lives in the heart, I must have the words to outline exactly where it can be found—in that artery, that atrium. There’s specificity, but there’s also the feeling of the incantatory, the potential for magic. If you say the right words, something can change."
At the EWF panel you also said, to paraphrase, that you don’t pronounce your name ‘properly’. From medical Latin, to the rituals of witchcraft, languages found and lost, are present throughout your work. What is your process for discovering the language for your poems?
My accent is so bad I can’t pronounce my name properly at all! I only hear it the way it’s meant to sound at home, which is special in its own way. I wish I knew more Hindi, solely so that I could have yet another language for my poems, as you say. I’ve talked before about wanting to know where my memory of my native language went—where it used to reside and the process of dismantling that must have occurred in my brain and tongue.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between language and memory: memory as in memorialisation, rather than remembrance of the language itself. How we use language to engage in the act of remembering, and perhaps what we can’t remember because we no longer have the right words. That’s part of what I love about anatomical Latin. Here are the structures of the body, here are their names. If love lives in the heart, I must have the words to outline exactly where it can be found—in that artery, that atrium. There’s specificity, but there’s also the feeling of the incantatory, the potential for magic. If you say the right words, something can change.
I’ve based whole poems around obscure and probably pretentious words before. I can’t help it! I love learning about words and their etymology. I’m the sort of person who reads with a dictionary on hand (I’m lying, I use Google), so I write with a dictionary (Google) on hand, too. I love Robert Macfarlane’s “word of the day” tweets and the discussions they inspire. So much history is held in the mouth when we say the simplest of things—why not draw attention to that? But I know that obscurity isn’t for everyone. I try to make sure that even if the word’s odd, the music of it adds something to the poem.
Fanfic is often dismissed because the people who write it are mainly women – yet it is defiantly empowering for those who are involved, as Danielle Binks outlines in her essay for Overland. Is there something revolutionary in the practice which more mainstream literatures can learn from?
Fanfiction is such a wily beast. It’s a lot. We have to remember that it’s not homogenous—fanfiction isn’t its own genre, but a medium host to many genres, all of which have their own rules and expectations. Some of the most technically sound and sophisticated work I’ve read is fic. Some fic tries to mimic the canon, some is contrary, some introduces perspectives on characterisation that I never would have considered. It’s its own thing—I don’t think fic is practice for “real” writing, though it can be a means of whetting your teeth, if that’s what you want to use it for. I haven’t published any fanfiction since 2010—part of the joy of it, for me, was filling gaps that I perceived in the canon (I was writing fic about Persona 3 Portable, which itself has multiple endings, multiple canons). I’ve been more of a reader than an active contributor since.
However, I’ve referred to my poetry as fanfiction before: I’ve written poems that make speakers of “AU” (alternate universe) versions of the Winter Soldier, Will Graham, Hannibal Lecter, and characters from Final Fantasy XV and many other canons. Is this just intertextuality, or something else? What separates the writer who retells Joyce’s Ulysses in New York City from the writer who creates a no magic, modern day AU of Final Fantasy XV? For that matter, what can we say about the relationship between Ulysses and the Odyssey? There’s something to be said about transformativity, but where do we draw the line? It’s difficult. I know others are devoting time and thought to these questions, but I’m not sure there’s a clear-cut answer. As for me, well. I’m grafting my work onto rootstock. Sometimes I’m filling gaps in the canon; more often I’m using that canon to create my own mythos, as storytellers have done for millennia. Every writer, I think, is trying to define their own truth within the constraints of the form they’ve chosen—fanfic authors are no exception.
What I can say for sure is that we need to avoid the legitimacy distinction between fanfiction and, say, published writing—I’m really glad that this question has done that in its wording.
"What separates the writer who retells Joyce’s Ulysses in New York City from the writer who creates a no magic, modern day AU of Final Fantasy XV?"
You are currently doing your Phd, and The Agonist came from your honours work. How do you navigate the machinery of academia – what is the relationship between it and your poetic practice?
Personally, academia has been kind to me. I only started writing poetry because of Bronwyn Lea’s Poetics course at The University of Queensland, which I took in my second year of undergrad in 2013. Melissa Ashley was my tutor and I was lucky to be in a class full of talented, open, and incredibly kind poets. “Honestly”, “The Bering Sea”, “Mississippi Sound”, and “Salt, Sugar” all came out of that course (I was obsessed with NBC’s Hannibal at the time, which is probably apparent from the poems). I haven’t had a workshop group like that since, and I miss it terribly. Having someone to read and comment on my poetry was immensely helpful during my honours, and I had that in both my supervisor Bronwyn Lea and my fellow honours-in-poetry student Madeleine Dale (Madeleine is an incredible poet; you can find some of her work in Wildness and Subbed In). The best thing university gave me was a writing community, and I still keep in touch with many poets I met during undergrad.
Since so much of my work is researched or externally inspired, being in an environment where I’m constantly exposed to new concepts or ways of thinking is very productive for me. But PhD has felt a little cart-before-the-horse. With The Agonist, I wrote a lot of poems and then decided how they’d work together as a collection. With this new collection I’m planning, I’m doing just that—planning. Talking about the collection as a whole before I have all of the poems that will inhabit it goes against the way I’ve worked previously, but so far I’m getting results. Above all, the PhD has given me space, money, and time to write. How cool is that? However, I’m only a year in—let’s reconvene in 2020 to see whether or not I’ve abandoned academia to become an Alaskan ice fisherman.
Your poems live in the Mississippi River, in the trenches of the 1st World War, in the Bering Sea, inside bodies and in lover’s beds. You were born in Fiji, raised in Melbourne and now live in Brisbane. What is your relationship to place?
I think bodies—be it the body of the poet or the body of the speaker—are inseparable from place. Place is a character in and of itself; it has a history, narrative, and identity. If we stay in a place for long enough, its narrative coils into our own. That being said, I rarely write about the physical space I inhabit. I like to write foreign spaces, real or imagined (and often from fictional media), and colour them with my own experience and memory. Settings aren’t emphasised often in my poetry, but I always think about what a speaker is leaving and where they want to go. I feel as though a lot of my work centres around moments of travel, or in-between and liminal spaces. But those spaces can’t be separated from the speakers. Aracelis Girmay puts it more elegantly than I ever could:
“When the piece of a body is left (or a home is left) then the body begins being a constellation: one piece is there! one piece is there! If I leave my hair in the comb in my mother's house & walk out the door to go to the airport, then all of a sudden the body is everything between me & that lost piece. The body is made up, then, of roads & crickets & azucena & mud. How large we are. How ramshackle, how brilliant, how haphazardly & strangely rendered we are. Gloriously, fantastically mixed & monstered.”
This discursive relationship between place and those who inhabit it fascinates me—what do we unconsciously take from our environment? What do we unconsciously leave behind?
"I live in this body and am haunted by this memory every day, but I don’t want to exorcise myself. Instead, I play at finding methods of escape, or at abstracting myself."
Your acknowledgement to your parents and brother in The Agonist is very sweet—how do you navigate the personal in your writing practice, and the relationship between the private and the personal?
My mother is very happy I included the acknowledgement, which reads, “Above all, my deepest gratitude to my brother, mother, and father—none of these poems are about you. I promise.” I rarely include my own personal history in my poetry. I’ve certainly dipped into the well of memory to enhance the texture or colour of a poem, but I’m fiercely protective of my own narrative, and don’t think I owe my “I” to my writing. To be honest, it bores me! Writing my own memory, that is—not confessional or memoir as a whole. I live in this body and am haunted by this memory every day, but I don’t want to exorcise myself. Instead, I play at finding methods of escape, or at abstracting myself. I like to write about my interests rather than my experiences because the former is what self is really about to me. In that sense, all of my writing is super personal—it’s a record of my preoccupations, my love letters, and everything in between. You could create a timeline of my obsessions by going through my work. Things so personally meaningful I need them to be spoken by a mouth other than my own.
What do think of this particular moment in time of great success for poets of non-white backgrounds, such as yourself, Bella Li and Omar Sakr, especially as your works are distinct from each others? Do you see your work in conversation with these and other contemporary, local poets; or is the conversation much larger, across time and space?
It’s awesome! I love that there’s time, space, and hunger for these works, in all their difference and multiplicity. Of course, no writing is produced in a vacuum, and poets are a chatty bunch: we write poems for other poets, we write poems after other poets when we’re inspired by their work. In my view, The Agonist is in conversation with the poetry I was reading at the time—First World War poetry, Dickinson, Plath, Richard Siken, and others—as well as the pop culture texts I’ve mentioned. If a reader were surveying the field, perhaps they’d disagree with me—I’ve always felt that readers can pick out meanings in the work that writers may not have seen or intended, and that’s not a bad thing. I think the conversation will be more readily perceived in the far future, if our work lasts that long. But we are engaged in a dialogue of some sort by virtue of writing now, in this place and time. The implicature is there, embedded in what we choose to write about, if and where we are published, and who reads and engages with the work.
You are UQP’s first poet from a South Asian background. The Agonist is on its third printing. Looking at the bigger picture, what do you see is the future of poetry in Australia?? Is there a tension between the politics of accessibility and the art?
Tough question! I’m still learning about the past and present of poetry in Australia; it’s hard for me to think about the future, simply because I don’t know what work will survive, and by what means. What survives isn’t always important or moving; indeed, it may not have been important or moving in its contemporary time, either. Relics and their survivability have a great deal to do with power.
Personally, I’m looking forward to slipping quietly from time—I hope my work survives, but I hope it’s separated from me, the poet. Death of the author and all that. I certainly hope the fact that I was UQP’s first South Asian poet isn’t the most memorable thing about The Agonist! I’m more interested in knowing what people think about the structure, the musicality, or what the poem does on the page. How it makes people feel. However, I acknowledge that my identity is important with regard to what the poem does off the page—how it’s received in the wider dialogue that is poetry in Australia.
I’m often anxious about whether I’m 'good' or 'bad' representation, to be honest. Am I a good POC writer? What does being a good POC writer entail? I don’t know! I like to think it’s about doing what’s honest and truthful for me, a person of colour. (This is all entirely internal, by the way—no-one has ever told me I’m a bad POC! We’re our own worst critics.) In talking about the politics of accessibility, I have to acknowledge that I’m incredibly privileged, too. The circumstances of my birth were lucky—my natal chart says so.
Please tell us about what you are working on right now.
A suite of poems that mashes up the legend of the Fisher King, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Final Fantasy XV to create an allegory/mythology about nuclear waste burial. It’s gonna be great (I hope). My PhD project engages with ideas from the field of nuclear semiotics, which posits, in part, that language will degrade faster than radioactive waste, highlighting the difficulty of communicating with far-future generations. I suppose I’m testing poetry’s potential to act as warning message and to preserve memory through language. It all comes back to survivability.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Submit widely and don’t take rejection personally. I only had two poems published when The Agonist won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, and neither publication was paid. The right reader will find your work, but only if you put it out there. And make sure you have some stable income—something to keep the wolves from the door. I’m honestly so grateful for my retail job.
Who are you inspired by?
Noctis, the protagonist of Final Fantasy XV. He is a very good and strong boy. He suffers from chronic pain and depression, he has the weight of the dawn on his shoulders, he wants his dad to be proud of him, and he is so, so loved. Whenever I’m having a bad day I ask myself what Noct would do and the answer is almost always “work hard, try your best, and let your loved ones help and support you”. Other times it’s “take a nap”—equally sound advice, I think.
What are you currently listening to?
Mostly lofi chill mixes by the bootleg boy on YouTube. This one’s my favourite. Also, I’ve watched the entirety of Samurai Champloo twice over the last couple of months and I’m totally enamoured of the soundtrack.
What are you currently reading?
Wilfred Owen, Sara Eliza Johnson’s Bone Map, and any Ada Limón I can get my hands on.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means referring to myself as “ambiguously brown”; it means sometimes getting asked where I’m from; it means occasionally pressuring myself to put my lived experience as a Fiji-Indian migrant into my work and then saying “heck no, that’s not me” and writing about pop culture instead. It means having the freedom to make that choice. But mostly it means growing up eating the most amazing food, yet still craving burgers or lasagne or schnitzel all the time. Sorry, Mum.