HYDERABAD: Selected for the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program with its glittering alumni of U.S. Poets Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winners, Rochelle Potkar, Mumbai-based writer and poet was in town for Hyderabad Literary Festival 2016. She was among the poets, writers and filmmakers chosen from 34 different nations of the three-month Iowa residency program. Her book of short stories ‘Arithmetic of Breasts and Other Stories’ carries the burden of melancholic urban settings. Quite juxtaposed to this her poems are delicate and are ready in the form of a book named ‘Four Degrees of Separation’ to be released this Spring by Poetrywalla. We catch up with her. Excerpts from the interview.
How do you see yourself before Iowa and after Iowa?
I was always pursuing an idea to embody any form be it haibun, short story or any other form or even novel. For novels I pursue two genres, one is realism and the other is magic realism. So, this was happening before I went to Iowa and Iowa happened very suddenly. It was unexpected. I was told to submit just 15 pages and not think much about what comes out. You do your best and you don’t hope much. When the letter came it was like an invisible god talking. Then within a month and a half it happened. Iowa is a self-sustained planet. From an outsiders point of view it’s a place for dreamers and dreams. The sunlight on corn, the sprawling green and the people in the campus, the book launches on the streets, writers coming and talking without canopies, colours across streets – there’s everything that a writer wants. Then there’s an art library building above turquoise water with cinema unfurling and fetes happening everyday over there. Iowa is the Mecca for writers. You just walk in the morning. When you see an Afghani woman poet the stone-pelting and oppression becomes so real. Or sitting with a Saudi Arabian poet the death penalty issued for poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh is recollected.
How the structure is different from what India provides?
We have Sangam Residency and it’s tough to get there. There’s a dearth of residencies in India. We should have residencies in the country by the State. Writers need places to dream and need to be nurtured. And the State needs to take responsibility for that.
How do you see India as a contrast to Iowa’s dream topography?
India is one of the best among tropical countries with its own beauty. Many Iowas can be created here. It doesn’t require that huge a funding that it is impossible. A writer has a day job, so if he leaves what does he do. I had proposed something to the American Library, US Consulate when I returned. I made a proposal on having South Asian Residency, but I needed support from South Asian writers like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But I didn’t find as much enthusiasm for this project. There are so many project proposals and you need funding for them. We need really strong funding. I sent another proposal to the Consulate for Mumbai Residency.
You talked about magic-realism in your works. Are you borrowing from maestros like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie?
I will say I am influenced by Haruki Murakami. I will say poetry is magic realism in itself. Arundhathi Subramaniam calls poetry the Dark Art. You see poetry itself is very magical.
In your short stories we come across characters from the lesser strata. Do you deliberately choose your characters from the socially oppressed sections?
My magic realism stories may or may not take the colour of social strata, but when I am doing realism stories I feel it’s the poor that have so much to tell. The more I see the more I seek and search more human exitence. They have much more drama and conflict which is very urgent in nature. Their struggles are real and palpable.
So does it make for quick-bite-fodder for the West from a country like India?
I’m not sure. When I was in Iowa, I was on the other side of the globe and I was thinking of India. When I was in New York, sitting at Times Square I was thinking of a story of that servant or that driver or that sweeper; if that will make sense. If I lived over there. I realised yes, it will. In India since we are used to all this characters it’s like the references of mango and coconut tree writing. We are tired of mangoes and coconuts. For an outsider it is beauty despite being cliched.
Why water appears so much in your works?
Water is deceptive and changes colour. We all are living deception. Taking cue from this, I’m working on a Realism novel following lives of four women. One of them is queer.
I love this city. I have friends here who run magazines and publishing houses. I like the warmth of people. I was here for RaedLeafPoetry Award for which I was shortlisted in 2013. I love the warmth of this city.