She’s one of the world’s best poets, an award-winning novelist, and also a fabulous dancer. A frequent visitor to Italy and Florence, Tishani Doshi will be talking about her work, reading some poetry and dancing at a special event at the British Institute Library this month. Director of The British Institute, Simon Gammell, caught up with her.
Your first novel The Pleasure Seekers was based in part on the story of your parents. Could you tell us about your family background and your own sense of home?
It was inspired by my parents’ love story, but it was also about reverse immigration: the story of a Welsh woman who comes to India. I’d read so many stories of the Indian going west, the kind of losses and gains that entailed, so I really wanted to document this other movement, a movement made not for economic necessity but simply for love. My mother is from a small village in north Wales, my father from a Gujarati family in Madras. They met in Toronto. My sense of home seems to be tethered around where they are, which is Madras, and the Bay of Bengal.
As well as being an award-winning poet and novelist, you are also an excellent dancer. How does the interaction between these different means of expression work for you?
I came to dance accidentally, so I’ve always occupied that space differently. I’ve had to create a physical vocabulary of my own. Poetry was an earlier more primal compulsion, but in a way, they have come to be in dialogue with each other over the years. The human body and the body of the poem are my two great obsessions; they share questions of time, rhythm, shape, beauty, power. If one takes away, the other restores.
The human body and the body of the poem are my two great obsessions; they share questions of time, rhythm, shape, beauty, power. If one takes away, the other restores.
A recurrent theme of your work seems to be the situation for women in India. How does this relate to international feminism and the MeToo movement?
I begin with the body as a dancer and the female body that I happen to inhabit, so while I am deeply invested in ideas of reclamation and feminine power in the body, I have to balance that with the brutalisations the body is exposed to. India is a particularly dangerous place for women. The deep bog of patriarchy we are stuck in seems to be never-ending, but there has been a change these last ten years, a kind of breaking of silence, and so many voices pouring in to fill that void. I feel a sense of community, not just in this country, but worldwide, whereas before there was the greatest isolation. Shame has been replaced with power, and that is a thrilling feeling.
Please tell us about your relationship with Italy, and in particular, Florence.
Italy is love for me, just love. I first came here as a college student, I was 20. I discovered I loved wine, had a past life experience in Rome and thought Naples was the most exhilarating place I’d ever seen. In Florence, I bought a black miniskirt, listened to questionable Pearl Jam covers in small bars and gasped at the beauty of Giotto. I never wanted to marry, but it’s inevitable, I suppose, that when I married, it was to an Italian.
You travel extensively and have an international profile, but where does your heart lie?
Hopefully beating in my rib cage, but seriously, much of my life has been about skirting the periphery, being the outsider, navigating questions of belonging, so frequently my heart is estranged to me, and I think that’s why I’m a poet. I’m trying to understand myself, get close to myself. I’d say the place where things are most still, where there’s no need for tussle or movement, is the place where I live now, south of Madras, on the beach, a small fishing village in Paramankeni. There are days there when I think everything can end now and it will be all right.
Event at The British Institute, June 28
Tishani Doshi will be discussing her novel Small Days and Nights, reading from her latest volume of poetry A God at the Door and performing a dance to her celebrated poem, Girls are Coming out of the Woods, at The British Institute on Tuesday, June 28.
The books are available at Paperback Exchange (via delle Oche 4R, Florence).