Interview by Rob Taylor
Exhibit (1985): fourteen. eleven. – Renée Sarojini Saklikar
His brother excels—French, English, math, science—
he takes a paper route,
buys milk when an old woman offers two dollars
with the coins he fetches a carton,
holds it, high –
Father: You took her money? She’s an old lady.
Son: But Dad, she gave me, she gave—
I ran all the way.
Father: Take the money back.
to the woman’s house.
Before the car drives away, before the plane takes off—
this paper-route boy
lags behind in his home—
everyone is waiting—
he touches each piece of furniture,
good-bye, sofa, good-bye lamp—
His arm brushes
against a locked door.
Status: It is his brother’s body, found.
When she hears the news about her paper-route boy, the old woman—
the woman, old,
when she hears the news—
from children of air india
(Nightwood Editions, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.
If you’ve spent much time in Vancouver’s literary community, you’ve probably heard of, or run into, Renée Saklikar. If you’ve heard her read, I’m sure you remember her. A co-founder of SFU’s Lunch Poems reading series, and a regular blogger and interviewer on her own site, Renée is also one of the most dynamic and compelling readers in town. Much of the work she presents is part of her “life-long poem chronicle” thecanadaproject and deals with issues of place, race and identity in her life, and in the broader Canadian society.
The first “chapter” of her life-long poem, children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013) is set to be launched on November 13th at 7 PM at SFU’s Woodward’s Building (149 East Hastings, Vancouver):
The book explores the Air India bombing: both the event itself and the ways in which it has lived on in individual memories, court cases, media coverage, archival records, etc. It is a personal story for Renée, who lost her aunt and uncle in the bombing. children of air india is a powerful book, filled with the stories (lived, researched and imagined) of those involved in the events, most especially those who died that day, and those who were left behind. It is a compelling and haunting entry point (or re-entry point) into an event that should loom much larger than it does in our collective Canadian memory. And in the story of our country that we’ve constructed for ourselves.
I e-sat down with Renée to discuss the book, imagining the lives of others, the slipperiness of memory, and writing for the page v. the stage. Renée quickly took control of the interview, stretching out my questions, interrogating them, and making more of them then I ever could have. It’s a great skill of hers, and one that makes me glad to know that she is out there working through difficult histories and ideas, and sharing her results with us.
Rob: “Exhibit(1985): fourteen, eleven.” is part of a larger series of “Exhibit” poems that run throughout the book, adding depth to the (usually redacted) names of victims of the Air India bombing mentioned in official reports. Over and over they are some of the most powerful poems in the book. Can you speak a little about that suite of poems – how it came into being, and how it progressed? Did you feel any anxiety imagining (and constructing) the lives of strangers in this way?
Renée: Originally, this work, the first completed sequence in my life-long poem chronicle, thecanadaproject, was to have been a series of prose poems, exploring memoir as a kind of manifesto document, rather like Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill, introduced to me by Wayde Compton, my mentor at The Writer’s Studio at SFU.
The deeper I entered into the archive that is Canada/Air India, the more a kind of urgency began to call out at me – that’s really the only way I can put it. There was something otherworldly about sitting and reading document after document and just getting deeper into the language of those documents.
Within the Air India archive, there exist thousands of documents, from the over twenty-year investigation into the bombing, from the lengthy trial that resulted in acquittal, and from the subsequent inquiry into that investigation as well as my own personal collection of artefacts. The more immersed I became in this archive, voices started to rise up, particularly of the eighty-two children under the age of thirteen who were murdered. The writing of this work has been over a span of about five years and during that time, I began to believe in ghosts, in the power of spirits. I believe my introduction to the book speaks to how that feels: when one becomes both transmitter and transgressor.
Coda: interesting, about that word, “victim.” It has always made me uneasy. In children of air india, the word occurs only once.
Rob: I’m glad you’ve mentioned thecanadaproject right off the bat. Your bio on the back of the book describes it as “a life-long poem chronicle about [your] life from India to Canada, coast to coast.” Can you speak a bit more about the project, and how children of air india fits into it?
Renée: thecanadaproject is on one level, a kind of memoir-manifesto, which explores place, identity, and hopefully many other things; also processes. It includes:
• a work-in-progress prose poem novel, The New Douglas Chronicles, about an old river town located on an imaginary West Coast;
• a series of place poems, incantations, really, about life from India to Canada, via Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Northern Ontario, Northern Quebec, Montreal, Saskatchewan and then to British Columbia;
• and a series of essays, for instance, a 6000 word essay, still unpublished, entitled, Man with Golden Helmet, in part, about my father and his life in New Westminster.
Rob: The poems in children of air india are built upon a great deal of research on your part (as the three pages of references at the back of the book make clear). What was your research process like? Did you research a great deal up front, before writing? Or did you write from personal experience and knowledge to start, and fill in the details later?
Renée: My research process was slow and cumulative. The poems would come to me as visitations, from some place that feels both holy (not quite sure what that word means, only that is important and comes to me as I contemplate this question) and also terrifying. I would spend days and evenings reading documents, reviewing correspondence, looking at records and photographs, and I would also visit sites (these are listed in the book). Then, usually, in the early mornings, sometimes in that period before dawn, the voices would start.
Rob: Building on that, while much of this book is based upon (and sometimes directly excerpted from) outside sources, much of it is also deeply personal, as your aunt and uncle were killed in the bombing. Did you wrestle with how to mix the two perspectives/narratives?
Renée: The wrestle is the work, in a way. The idea of being grieving niece and daughter; poet and writer; witness and citizen; receptacle for voices; these stances are roles that are like openings to a central dialectic: subject v object. I see the work as a kind of meditation on that spiral. What it means to be inside history and outside of it. Two writers have influenced me in this approach: Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Now, the interesting thing is this: I didn’t actively consider Spivak’s seminal work, Can the Subaltern Speak? until after having completed the manuscript! And yet, many of her ideas and her language for exploring this central reality of what it means to be other in any society, appear in my own work. It is as if the language of the experience came to me before I understood what it was.
Rob: Have your family members seen the book yet?
Renée: Yes. I offer this book to my family and all the families of Air India, with a sense of bowing my head before their readership.
Rob: Memory, and through it, History, are malleable forces in the poems in children of air india. I’m thinking here of poems like “June, 1985—” with its repetition of the line “Another version of this moment exists.” The poems in the book repeatedly cycle over the same moments from different perspectives and while bearing various amounts of knowledge, with each revisiting producing a different results. How did your grappling with “memory” – your own memory of the event, but also larger questions about the slipperiness of memory – shape the book?
Renée: Perhaps my previous responses speak, at least partly, to this question. Again, the waywardness of memory, its spiral intertwined with dates, locations, names, absent/still present, that is the work itself. Also, the work of grief, which never follows a straight line, which can last a lifetime, particularly in a culture which very quickly demands, “move on!”
Rob: How much do you think you “know” about the bombing?
Renée: In my past life, as a lawyer, as an occasional family spokesperson regarding Air India, I might have attempted an answer. Now, the work of the poems must suffice.
Rob: What of it can never be known?
Renée: we never speak of it
Rob: Many of these poems reference Paldi, the town on Vancouver Island where Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only person convicted for his involvement in the Air India bombing, designed and tested explosives. In the ways you consider the town, though, Paldi becomes far more than a backdrop for a single element of the larger drama. Can you tell us about Paldi and what it represents for you within the broader themes of the book?
Renée: Again, for the most part, the book must speak to these things. It is as if any language I might have to communicate about Paldi, can only be realized through the language of the poems. Here are some narrative fragments from outside the language of the book:
The Paldi Poems (as I think of them), are an attempt to situate the bombing of Air India Flight 182, Canada’s worst act of aviation terror, within the frame our complicated Pacific coast history, which is of Empire, of settlement, of intersection: race, class, location, events, individual stories.
I conducted a site visit during the work of the manuscript which is reflected in the poem series. It was a kind of pilgrimage: Paldi is one of the first settler communities to have been entered in British Columbia’s geographic name register, although, I think most British Columbians still don’t know much about it.
I wanted to visit the place where men and women from many different backgrounds had lived and worked together. It’s really beautiful and the families who remain share a rich history. My visit was to honour that history, a desire to make sacred again that which had been desecrated. Perhaps the Paldi Poems can be seen as an act of redemption.
Although, as I write that word, I’m wary of what Rachel Blau DuPlessis in her long poem Drafts, warns against, the “plumpness” of making too much meaning out of the incomprehensible.
Rob: I’ve had the privilege to see you perform your work in public on multiple occasions, and often I find your poems don’t fully come to life for me until I hear/see you recite them. Lines like “There will be nothing for you in that cadence that is the falling of their names.” (“June, 1985—”) and “the only oxygen present / is now” (“and it’s dimensions”) almost demand to be spoken aloud. Are there poems in children of air india that you particularly prefer to read in public? Do you find the experience of presenting these poems to be enjoyable?
Renée: I don’t know that enjoyable is quite the right word for the experience of reading any of these poems; but I think I know what you are getting at: I have to prepare myself emotionally, physically, and spiritually, each time I read these poems in public. Afterward, I’m exhausted. To read children of air india, out loud, perhaps for both poet and audience, is a kind of harrowing.
Rob: Are there poems that you think reside primarily in performance/public oration, and only secondly on the page?
Renée: This question interests me very much. It reminds me of questions I’ve heard put to other poets with whose reading style(s) I might share a kind of commonality: we’re expressive and alive to rhythm, and our voices project well. That said, the poems are first written for the page.
In all my writing, sound, rhythm, the breath as a kind of field, a sort of weight, silence and space—these are preoccupations stemming from the body in the act of inscription. During the writing of poems, I guess I don’t really separate writing from reading out loud, I don’t separate the page from the body.
For the poems in children of air india, as I’ve mentioned, I must prepared myself emotionally, physically, spiritually, before reading the poems out loud. It is as if the text is a kind of kryptonite and I must treat it with just enough care that the poems come through. And, also, I must take care not to care too much, lest the words drift into bathos, that shadow cousin of pathos. Always it is a kind of calibration. To keep the channel open. Performance is a site of research. I’ll be writing more about this in an essay (I say this about a lot of things, by the way!).
Rob: In the closing poem of the book, “For an Afterword that Might Be Read as a Preface”, you write “and after, there develops an ecosphere, a habitat that surrounds any public/private tragedy”. For me, this echoes lines from an earlier “un/authorized interjection”: “Those on the cusp, become centre of / a gyre” (p. 26). Clearly you put a great deal of thought into how the post-tragedy world is constructed (repaired?), and what make up its composite pieces. How do you think your book fits into those new ecospheres, both our collective one (if there is such a thing) and your personal one?
Renée: I am honoured to think that it might fit there. I will await word from the world.
You can buy a copy of Renée Saklikar’s Children of Air India from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website or Amazon. Or, if you’re in Vancouver, you can pick up a copy at Renée’s book launch on November 13th!
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.