A Home in My Ears: Talking to Divya Victor

How to depict place through a “ventriloquy of diasporic Englishes,” but without providing “so many hunting trophies and taxidermies lining the walls of genteel libraries”? How to locate one’s “diglossic or triglossic” milieu amid the “sonic abstraction of atomic parts from a word,” the “more filigreed densities of signification”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Divya Victor. This present conversation focuses on Victor’s book KITH. Victor is also the author of Natural Subjects, UNSUB, and Things to Do with Your Mouth. Victor’s criticism and commentary have appeared in Journal of Commonwealth & Postcolonial Studies, Jacket2, and The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. Her work has been performed and installed at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Los Angeles, The National Gallery of Singapore, the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibit (L.A.C.E.), and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). She teaches at Michigan State University.


ANDY FITCH: A reader might assume that KITH will foreground a particular place and local culture. But KITH doesn’t seem to offer any timeless representations of “India,” “Tamilian culture,” “Singapore,” “diaspora,” so much as it tracks specific histories, durations, lived experiences, moments. So could you talk about situating this book’s study of kith in time as much as in space — and / or about how KITH’s conception of kith makes it hard to separate those two axes?

DIVYA VICTOR: I like to think about “situating” as an echolocating act. I write to emit sound, and the environment of the poem returns this sound to my ear, triangulating my location within an imagined community I belong to (“kith”). This compositional act becomes a co-constituted environment, where the poetic line is the azimuth — a way of imagining a direction towards a place where kith lives, rather than a geographic residence in itself. There is no home in these poems. There are no timeless representations. Like all animals that echolocate, writers who compose from or into diaspora are always measuring distance and displacement from a roving origin. I am the sonic register of delayed messages that are returning to a home in my ears, from where I write.

The book works to undo a nationalist notion of India. Yes, it is a nation, but it is also just an idea, a political fabrication that ripped millions of lives into pieces at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 (and that continues to do so under Hindu fundamentalist reign). I have no interest in writing about India, per se. However, I am very interested in questioning and documenting how some people come to be perceived as Indian. North American audiences have a strange fantasy of homogeneity that connects Indianness to South Asian geography and ecology (palm trees, mangoes, peacocks, muddy rivers), even as the Tamilian diaspora has, since the 18th century, spanned Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Guyana, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Canada, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and other spaces. When I think of kith, I do not think of locations — that is, how a person has always stood on ground marked by a certain flag, somewhere. Rather, I think of practices of being at the site of belonging: how an ancestor batters an oily pomfret while wrapped in a cotton sarong, how an uncle’s hips sway while breathing the salt air of the Arabian sea.

What might you or your reader find particularly compelling or constructive then in conceiving of kith as an interweaving of many distinctive paces, temporalities, embodied phenomenologies, perhaps in distinction to some more static or segmented representation of self, family, ethnicity, culture — which this book in fact may characterize as “procuring an illusion of a documented incident…giving an impression of a personal experience”?

The essay you’re quoting from, in KITH, is “An Unknown Length of Rope.” It’s a study of the 18th-century American painter John Singleton Copley’s attachments to certain objects, including the object of race, within the visual rhetoric of a painting used in service of British abolition. The painting portrays an imagined event of black heroism, an imagined event which it uses to dramatize white benevolence during the 1780s. I was interested in how artists constructed evidence that could lead to liberation narratives. In the process of writing that essay, I was able to examine the ethics of writing poetry that could remain apathetic about, or even inimical to, the project of using aesthetic experience to liberate white audiences from moral culpability.

For so much of my life, the majoritarian cultures I lived within (Chinese-dominated Singapore, white-supremacist United States) coerced me to experience my national identity (as Indian) and linguistic identity (as hyphenated Tamilian-Anglophone) as what Gloria Anzaldúa might have called a kind of intimate violence. For poetry to offer the cicatrix of wounds to these very majoritarian audiences would bring them too much satisfaction. I don’t want poetry by minority writers to resemble so many hunting trophies and taxidermies lining the walls of genteel libraries. And much of it does. This is why the embodied phenomenologies within KITH are emphatically private, and also why they don’t just belong to human bodies — they also belong to vivacious objects, to what Dana Luciano and Mel Chen describe as “the animacy and the allure of non-human objects” that constitute kith. There are poems in this book about how the memory of the dead is laced with the scent of cheap soap and shaving creams, about the braids of the kithwomen coiled into pastoral sillage of downy, woodsy marikozhundhu (artemisia pallens). There are poems that catalogue the textures of salt manifesting in the armpits and on the soles of salt-workers in Gujarat. There are reflections on how long it takes for blood to coagulate on sidewalks, when a whole nation decides to slam into a foreign body taking a walk.

We post-1965 Indian immigrants are given a 50-kilogram allowance when we migrate to the United States, thanks to the in-flight empathies of United Airlines and Emirates. When we arrive, we remain attached to objects in the sense that even the dust on our soles is an index of the dunes of red earth we’ve traversed to get here. Make no mistake of it — cargo is what we are: “freights” and “frights” are one gaping vowel apart. There is nothing so simple or removed or cordoned as “personal experience” (I think Oprah invented this?). There are only intimacies that are deeply political and constantly impinged upon by the gaze of the reader. Reading can be a kind of pillage. My work as a poet is to protect what I do not even know I have to express.

What I wanted to locate was not a “time when we were ourselves” — nothing so chauvinistic as imagining that this ever existed. Rather, I wanted to document the everyday ways and methods of being Tamil in a body marked by the particularity of the tongue curling to a retroflexive consonant, or breath passing through the throat to sound உயிரெழுத்து uyireḻuttu (“life letters”), those vowels of longing. Any nation is more protean than the body, which even as ash is the evidence of so many sudden combustions in our shared histories.

Again I probably should have asked from the start for your own personal definition of “kith,” but it feels even more fitting to ask about developing an appropriate syntax for depicting or enacting kith. From the Anglo poetic traditions I know best, your prologue’s blocky, forward-marching final page starts off feeling very The Making of Americans (or perhaps, as in a subsequent subsection’s title, “Making of New Americans”), and then keeps elaborating both its surface textures and its rhetorical depths as we progress through it, opening various registers through rhyme, punning, reinvention of the litany — all seeming (to me) to culminate in the clause: “either by the way a ‘we’ exists or does not when we are not at home.” And KITH later will close on an abecedarian project taking us as far as “W is for Walt Whitman’s soul.” And we definitely can broaden the range of literary reference here, but could you describe your lived history of finding the right syntax for KITH (for the book as a whole, and for some specific sections)?

Your phrase “developing an appropriate syntax” makes writing seem much more analytical and intentional than how I experience it, and the verb “develop” also evokes for me uncomfortable associations with land development or occupation. I don’t develop appropriate syntax, I don’t think. Yet I do think there is a difference between depicting and enacting, and some of the compositional distinction between these rhetorical functions manifests in syntax. So I’d like to respond to your intriguing question by recalling that the word “develop” shares a root with the verb “envelop,” which is much closer to how I imagine the process of arranging words in sequence, or how I live within the temporary grammar of a poem.

So much of KITH is concerned with enacting, but there are certainly sections of the book like “Parent Patterns” where depiction takes place through the ventriloquy of diasporic Englishes — Tamilian English and Southern Anglo-Indian English (Dohra Ahmad calls these forms of “Rotten English” within global Anglophone literature). Here depiction takes place through quotation and through direct address to ancestors, and those still living as kith. Depiction, as I experience it while composing, feels (in Georges Perec’s term) auto-ethnographic. It emerges at moments in the book when I’m attending the infra-ordinary, the endotic (rather than exotic), the daily dainty in a Steinian mode. These are as sturdy as spider silk — the stuff that is close, immediate, known or knowable, as in these lines from “Parent Patterns”:

vy do yoo stand
neeyar the vindow
verr yoo will
undowtubbly catch one coldu

vy do yoo stand
neeyar that boyy
he is defeenately
going to make yoo
failu maths nextu time

vy are yoo looking
at me like one
Christmas tree
with all the bulbs
in yoover face like that

vy do yoo insist
on yelling and yelling
about small small
things like this and that

Enactment, as I experience it while composing, feels like an urgency within a body perched on the cliff of an idea. In a recent interview, Anne Carson distinguished poetry and prose through this amazing image of domestic disaster: “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.” Poetic syntax, for me, is similarly a kind of urgency for survival within the unknowable duration of an idea. I do not know, as I compose, how long the image, or the idea, or the fire, or the house, or I will last. Enacted syntax is the urgent arrangement of an improvised body in motion forward, down, and toward survival. This poem, from KITH’s “Paper People” section, offers an example of this experience of syntax as an enactment:

in dreams make ash from dung; draw
drawls from wells and bury fires in glass jars
to remember your mother’s mother
who has forgotten her mother’s mother’s mother’s child’s child’s child; fold her sari in twos fours eights keep pace of that face
down the line
account for her too because
she won’t herself thereself theirself
how to say
your eyes are like no one

The consonance in the early lines became a way of improvising through the palpably dry, cruddy, even sandy or pasty taste I felt in my mouth when recalling a memory of seeing holy ash kept in a Rubbermaid Tupperware box. This box was living in a Saraswati altar shoved deep inside an entryway closet, behind these heavy thrifted winter coats, of an Indian immigrant household in Virginia. I recognize both sound and syntax in the poem as responding to the feeling of tasting holy ash upon sight. Maintaining the grammatical arrangement of Tamilian English within the poem (“how to say”) was a way of offering a home for that altar outside something so shameful, so practical, so hidden as a coat closet — offering a place “thereself” for “theirself,” perhaps.

In “Portraits and Repetition,” two decades after she published Tender Buttons, Stein described her process as such: “I did express what something was, a little by talking and listening to that thing, but a great deal by looking at that thing…. I had the feeling that something should be included and that something was looking.” I too had the feeling that looking should be included. In the 21st century, when we think of looking being included, we are thinking of historiographic writing — a kind of poetry where the writing itself is a problem, where the gaze is a problem, where recollection itself is a problem, and so syntax becomes a way of documenting the poet’s grappling with those problems, the poet’s wrestling in the mud and blood of the line. There are many portraits in KITH: of living relatives, the dead, historical figures, fictional characters, mythological persons, poets (Whitman, Stein). The “appropriate syntax” for such portraits must acknowledge that misrecognition is the lifeblood of recognition, the very thing that allows the observer-writer to be constituted by what they observe or see — the image, of which Laura Mulvey (and Jacques Lacan before her) would say: “the image recognized is conceived as the reflected body of the self.” Syntax is the mirror, the speaker’s voice the gestalt, within the temporary grammar of a poem.

Again, as we discuss how an immersive enveloping or recognizing / misrecognizing plays out not just in KITH’s syntax, but also in KITH’s sound, I re-hear, as some of this book’s most emotive tonalities, lines like the following from “Family Portraits”:

there an arrangement of spines as
a derangement of girls as an arranged
marriage as a lone stranger as one
anger as a neon strangle as onward as if an
arrangement of spindles as if an estrangement
of wombs as if a harangued
marring as if a marauder
stronger as if one stranger as if none
wrangle and onward as if this was an arrangement

So could we discuss how litanies can channel otherwise unspeakable aspects of kith, as when the anaphorically insistent “THE FOLLOWING IS A SPECULATIVE LAUNDRY LIST OF OUTFITS LEFT BEHIND BY CORPSES AT THE 1919 JALLIANWALA BAGH MASSACRE IF ALL VICTIMS WERE FEMALE AND BRITISH, INSTEAD OF INDIAN WOMEN, MEN, CHILDREN, AND INFANTS” points us towards all the unsettling catalogues that cozier conceptions of kith otherwise might protect us from?

I am led by the ear and compose through the verbomotor pleasure of saying syllables out loud before I write. I’ve lived as a trilingual person within diglossic or triglossic Anglophone milieus, in India and Singapore. And perhaps this is why I’ve always imagined the poet’s mouth as a kind of theatre, constantly dealing with new act-drops and a constantly shifting fourth wall. That pleasurable self-consciousness of rehearsing a voice (within a poem) manifests in the sound of KITH the material — sonic abstraction of atomic parts from a word as a way to give voice to more filigreed densities of signification.

Religious litanies resonate in a really direct, quotidian way within my autobiography of sound. I was indoctrinated into Catholicism when I was a few months old. I also grew up in a predominantly Hindu neighborhood in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. My daily environment was demarcated by calls, bhajans, and prayers projected via loudspeaker from the Balaji and Ganesha temples, the mosque, and the Catholic church. The morning Adhnan (call to prayer) and the Sri Venkateswara Suprabatham, for example, are litanies in that they are repetitive in structure, consist of a series of petitions or invocations, and move between melodic rendition and recitation, much like the Beatitudes. The list form is enormously reassuring to my child-body, which I still carry in my ear as a form for summoning, invocation, recall, and retention. I’ve been moved for so long by Walter J. Ong’s important observation that the sonorously linked list is an invention of a mind that doesn’t yet need access to literacy. We link things together in images and through musically tethered lists in order to remember them. Ong notes that sound is evanescent. It can be observed “only when it is going out of existence.” My own attachment to repetitive, litany-like form was formed in an early moment of being within the gorgeous cordon of these calls and invocations, within a primarily oral attachment to the world — and those songs intended to awaken the Divine most certainly call to the poet still 20 years away.

“An Unbearable Sequence of Happenings” responds directly to the multimedia project Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, and seems to build out from a hand-over-hand syntax (“One thing radiating is in the middle of shade. The shade of the light is uniform and issued to the newly fleshed. To take issue with the midriff of a shade is to force air into a similar stillness”), to a gruesomely observed syntax, to a syntax that increasingly implicates, involves, dissolves, but never absolves the seemingly detached observer (“To carry on as if this does not drown you in wealls and welts or turn your chest into a whistle or a willowy hollow blowing whist whist whist go away”). So here again, could you describe inquiring into historical and ongoing atrocity (and inquiring into that atrocity’s observing, reflecting, re-presenting subject), specifically through syntax — and even while engaging seemingly fixed documentary images?

In the 1800s, lynching was a fairly common extrajudicial process of removing someone from society — and these someones had already died a variety of social deaths prior to that, because they were often poor whites or Mexicans or Asians. But as we know now, as the century slouched forward, the majority of lynching victims were black men. Especially between 1890 and 1920, lynching was fundamentally a spectacle designed to curb any hope for political and personal agency. As one black Mississippian recalls (and I’m borrowing this from Leon Litwack’s essay in Without Sanctuary): “Back in those days to kill a Negro wasn’t nothing. It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake.” It was, in other words, the spectacle of taking a person and turning them into a cipher, into anything other.

KITH is interested in exploring how and why we create racially marked ciphers who become constructions of belonging and community (kithship, kinship). The lyric essay on John Singleton Copley’s use of a fictional black boatswain (whose image was based on the likeness of Copley’s own indentured servant), for example, is a similarly motivated study. It was important to me that I write a book about my kith — about those who live under the sign “Indian” in some way — that included political and aesthetic representations of black folks, to witness our shared history of political struggle (for instance through the Free India Committee initiated by Bayard Rustin). It was my way of engaging with a recent historiographic writing that imagines a broader notion of kith, one that is not based on genetic and racial markers alone, but on shared histories of struggle for autonomy, civil rights, and dignity. I’m thinking of folks like Vivek Bald (Bengali Harlem), Vijay Prashad (The Karma of Brown Folk), and Anirvan Chatterjee (Black Desi History).

When I was making this “Unbearable Sequence” series, I was not looking at the lynched person. I was looking at the people looking at the lynched person. I was studying, within this poem, how averting (the eyes) and aversion are related within a lynching scene that functions as a theatre for the construction of whiteness. I’ve been studying the uses of the spectacular in sites of trauma for a while now, and the conventions of lynching photographs that troubled me and interested me the most all seemed to point to the exhibitionism inherent in white violence, which is always on show and within the frame of the photograph. The function of such a photograph as a souvenir to supremacy requires that the spectators / perpetrators are maintained within the frame, and thus, for me, a poem that responds to such materials as historical documents should demand that the poet and the reader are maintained within the frame.

To bear witness is to undertake the work of showing history as a forbear of the present: always reemerging, resurfacing, and resembling something or someone in the present. The syntax of “An Unbearable Sequence” is motivated by causal sequencing, with sequi pointing to “follow.” Syntax is used as a series of knots, one after another, or as this case demands, a rope. Unknotting one knot frays the next, which unknots and frays the next, and so on. I wanted to make a poem that could not be taken out of sequence, in contrast to many of the other poems in KITH and my other books, which undertake a conception of seriality closer to Oppen’s or Stevens’s approach to the fungible and episodic order of poems.

KITH engages with many photographic sources: photographs of the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, photographs of family picnics and Sunday afternoons, Reuters photographs of immigrants of Indian descent murdered in the US, and so on. Any engagement with photography is an arrogant act, in the root sense of “arrogance” as “claiming for oneself” — just as ekphrasis is arrogant in the way it seeks to give voice (ek, “out” and phrazein, “tell / speak”). To engage with lynching photographs in any way is to return to the site of making, of both death and the photograph. It is impossible not to become implicated in making use of the camera’s function in that historical moment, as what Susan Sontag considers “the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” At the documentary moment after a lynching, the camera acquires, among other things, evidence of the continued ownership of black bodies through the documentary act itself. The photographic act is thus deployed as anathema to the insecurity and the anxiety of the spectator’s very temporary hold on a historical moment, a moment that guarantees their superiority.

To me, this poem is not composed as an account of what happened. It is an account of what it might be to give an account of taking account of looking. The poem is a record of remove and distance. It behaves like an actuary at a funeral for strangers. The writing is an absolute act of trespass, but a purposeful one. The poem really has no right being there — and yet someone needs to take account. As Blanchot has it, “the essence of the image is to be altogether outside, without intimacy.” The photograph is a manifestation that reveals nothing, but the act of writing elevates it as a referent — and the poem draws the photograph from the order of the archive (where it has been made useful, indexed, inserted into discourses), and places it back in the disordered reign of the wilderness, among so many trees, for us 21st-century spectators to begin observing the difference between genuflecting to historical atrocity and kneeling, keeling passively over in the face of its present iterations.


Photo of author by Jon Gresham