An Interview with Sasenarine Persaud
An Interview with Sasenarine Persaud
“And we chant the hymn of ages / Om bhur bhuwa swaahaa / Oomm bhur bhuwaa / Swaahaa tat savitur.” So ends the final stanza of Sasenarine Persaud’s poem “Porknocker, Come Home!”1 Beneath a “diya-lit sky,” a miner, fresh from his journey into the Guyanese interior, sings the Gayatri mantra at a puja, submitting to the scent of daal mingling with “bhajee, baigan / Curry.”2 Persaud’s poem invites us all, especially those in the Indo-Caribbean community—Hindu, Christian, Muslim, none of these—to pray with his porknocker. In one sense, the Indo-Caribbean reader, caught between his own thrills of ambition and the burdens of history, is Persaud’s porknocker. This sentiment energizes the poet’s work, much of it centered on the lives of the descendents of Indian indentured laborers who poured into the West Indies during the nineteenth century. Today, it is estimated that more members of this largely multiracial community populate pockets of New York and Toronto and London than the Caribbean itself.3 While sociology books frequently cast the collective narrative of the Indo-Caribbean immigrant community within a comfortable teleology—migration, assimilation, cultural hybridity—Persaud’s poems avoid any such summary. The poet basks in the complex simplicity of the Upanishads. Like Walt Whitman, he is unafraid of contradiction.
Cultural hybridity—a staple of postcolonial theory and zealous reviews of Zadie Smith’s novels—a concept that I believed as an undergraduate would resolve all my identity crises, is particularly taken to task in Persaud’s work. His formulation of Yogic Realism, less a critical construction, more a “progressive comprehension,” connects ancient Indian philosophy to the writing process.4 His nine poetry collections, including The Wintering Kundalini, and three works of fiction, including Canada Geese and Apple Chatney, blaze a stubborn, if fraught, trail back to India.
Born in Georgetown, Guyana, Persaud lived for several years in Toronto before settling down in Tampa, Florida. He holds an MA in creative writing from Boston University. His most recent poetry collections are Unclosed Entrances: Selected Poems (Caribbean Press, 2011), a selection of the Guyana Classics Library, and Lantana Strangling Ixora (TSAR Publications, 2011). This interview took place over e-mail in January 2012.
Stephen Narain: Yogic Realism holds that writing can serve as a “conduit or yoga for union with the divine spirit/consciousness.”5 How do you view the connection between your practice of yoga and your writing process
Sasenarine Persaud: First, understand that yoga is of Hindu origin. Saying that yoga is of Indian, as opposed to Hindu, origin is the result of a concerted attempt to separate yoga from Hinduism and, then, to appropriate it—a plundering of Hinduism that has continued unabated for more than two thousand years. Hindus have gladly shared yoga with the world. We now hear of Torah yoga, Jewish yoga, Christian yoga, etc.—cultural appropriation. The essence of yoga is spiritual, where all facets of life are integrated in the search for the divine, which we call by many names. Yoga is popular because of the health benefits, a form of exercise and relaxation, but the search for/union with the Jivatma and Paramatma is missing.6 In writing, preoccupation with “craft” is the equivalent of yoga for exercise and relaxation. Where writing, ultimately, is about truth and a connection to the spiritual, there is congruence with yoga. All of this fuels and is intertwined in my writing. My practice of yoga does not seek a separation between yoga and writing.
SN: You suggest that, at different points in one’s life, different forms of yoga—meditation (Jnana yoga), physical postures (Hatha yoga), selfless action (Karma yoga)—are suitable.7 Your practice of yoga sounds fluid and intuitive. Describe its development and evolution through the years.
SP: Yoga is as fluid as Hinduism. Perhaps no other culture is as fluid and could have given birth to yoga. Growing up, it was everywhere and especially in the discourses of pandits in mandirs and during pujas on the Bhagavad Gita, which is a holy text of Hinduism and the seminal discourse on yoga. From an early age, I understood and accepted the great complexity of Hinduism, with yoga at its core—an aid in the search for self and Self. There were yoga sessions in temples by both local and visiting practitioners from India. An uncle practiced one form of yoga. There was the Raja Yoga Center. An aunt practiced another form of yoga. I read several books on yoga in Guyana, including the Bhagavad Gita and Autobiography of a Yogi [by Paramhansa Yogananda]. There were no strictures to practice one form over another. In North America, I witnessed the rise of the yoga with a lopsided emphasis on the physical and a continuing attempt to separate it from its Hindu origins and purpose—the spirituality, the seeking of union with Self, the search for that which is true, Samadhi. In Guyana, my turn back to Hinduism and yoga was both spiritual and political, fueled by the discrimination of Indians, the ongoing evangelical work of Christians to convert Hindus (what I wrote in one of my poems, “conversion is the highest form of disrespect,” is still true),8 and the horrors of the PNC/Burnham regime. Gandhi, the greatest public figure in the last two thousand years, was a great Karma yogi, yet he considered himself a politician seeking truthhood, i.e., Samadhi. He was also a Jnana yogi and a Bhakti yogi. He read that seminal yoga discourse, the Bhagavad Gita, every day for the last forty years of his life; he demonstrated an application of various yogic paths, depending on the time and circumstances and his own consciousness in his search for truth and Self. Transpose Gandhi’s life and paths of yoga to writing and you have, perhaps, the most concrete example of Yogic Realism. My practice of yoga and my writing are inseparable and embody all of this.
SN: Your fiction frequently lacks the Aristotelian catharsis common in Western narrative. You describe the punctuation and verse breaks of your poems as murtis, Hindu objects that focus the mind during worship. You tie differences in crafting a story’s structure and voice to differences in practicing Hatha yoga and Jnana yoga. Discuss other formal effects of Yogic Realism.
SP: The end goal of yoga is Samadhi. This implies a change and a deeper understanding of something of self. Implicit in yoga is the understanding that understanding is a progression. It may be rapid depending on the consciousness of the practitioner; often, it is an incremental part of a whole. My characters reflect this. There is change, there is understanding, but not in the quick, easy way that most Euro-American-influenced literature and art want. Take the great Hindu saint, yogi, and writer Tulsidas. In his Ramcharitmanas, he (re)wrote the Ramayana so that it could be enacted in real life dramas as Rama Lilas, involving entire communities and spanning several days—[Derek] Walcott talks about Trinidadian Ramleela productions in his Nobel Prize address. This is a very yogic concept of writing and being. It may also be political. It is posited that Tulsidas also wrote the Hindi Ramayana, his Ramcharitmanas, to counter the massive forced conversions and brutality of Islam in India. The Western mind wants to see a play in an hour or two or three—instant gratification—and go home. Look at Shakespeare’s plays. None have the depth and fluidity of Tulsidas’s great drama. Nobody is at the same time and place, mentally and physically, all the time. Yoga-Hinduism recognizes this. That is why there is a multiplicity of forms and ways. What I write reflects this. I write prose and poetry; I write works that are long and short. Verses that are fixed in line length and verses that are not. If you look at my most recent book, Lantana Strangling Ixora, most of the verses are three lines. Why? Three is central to Hinduism: the three main forms of yoga; the triple manifestation of divinity, the Trimurti, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesha; the three forms of being, Sattvic, Rajasic, Tamasic; the three basic rhythms/taals in music, vilambit, madhya, and drut. In Lantana Strangling Ixora, three-line verses was the form that was right for this stage of my writing and how I wanted to say what I wanted to say. Much of my more recent writing is an extension of Jnana yoga, the search for knowledge of self and Self. Bhakti yoga, and the personification of spirit, is never far from the surface. In writing, poetry (or prose) that is not constrained by form is part of Yogic Realism; it is, also, Jnana yoga. Form unconstrained by form isn’t contradictory to the Hindu-yogic mind.
SN: You write with great affection about your father’s storytelling, often “tailored to fit a new land.”9 How do the history, landscape, and culture of Guyana affect your construction of Yogic Realism? Does it?
SP: I’ve dealt with elsewhere how, in much of my work, place is muse. The landscape of Guyana and of every place I’ve seen and internalized is important. My work talks to history, especially the history of Indians and Hindus, all the time—and, of course, to politics. Burnham and the PNC forced me, and many of us, deeper into Hinduism and yoga. This made us stronger. Guyana was overwhelming Indian when I was growing up, although we felt like a minority because of British rule and, later, the Burnham/PNC regime. This and the plethora of Hindu festivals had a great impact on me and the formation of Yogic Realism. There is a history of Guyana that predates the coming of Europeans, Africans, and Asians. Wilson Harris makes a wonderful contribution to this presence. The Guyana in which I came of age was marked more by Hinduism than anything else, but that “anything else” cast a long political shadow over Indians. It was time of great ferment. If I were part of and yet not part of this other, who was I? If I wrote from this other, but didn’t quite write like this other, what was I writing? Questions which led me back to yoga-Hinduism and eventually to define my aesthetics, Yogic Realism. Everything I’ve seen and heard and touched and tasted has become part of me and yet in a deeper yogic sense is not part of me.
SN: You challenge the work of Salman Rushdie, Homi Bhabha, and many of the “anointed pandits” of the school of hybrid thinking. You suggest that their criticism conflates “outward cosmetic change” with deeper cultural “discontinuity.” Change, you write, is a “natural process of continuity, of ensuring that the strongest seeds survive, thrive, and flower—a honed sameness.”10 What do you mean by this?
SP: Hybridity displays a kind of laziness of deep thought, the Euro-American need for instant and neat categorizations, rather than the constant search for self and Self—a very (but not uniquely) yogic-Hindu preoccupation. How many of the major proponents of “hybridity” are Hindus? Not Rushdie, not Bhabha, not Walcott—Indians who subscribe may have Hindu ancestry, but are Christians, communists, Muslims, etc. or engage in Hindu-bashing to find fame and favour in the West. Early [V. S.] Naipaul and Deepak Chopra come to mind. Regarding honed sameness, I turn again to A. K. Ramanujan, who recounts how on remarking to a villager that his knife looked old, the villager replied, yes. They had the knife for centuries: they had changed the blade at times, the handle at times, but the knife was the same, had stayed true to the original in shape, form, and function. And what about the memory-knowledge embedded in our DNA? The science of the mind—such as yoga—still baffles most scientists moreso Euro-American-schooled literary theorists. There is an ancient Hindu saying that the kamal gatta, no matter in which mud or pond it grows, still bears the beautiful, sacred lotus.
SN: Your relationship with Ugandan-Goan novelist and professor Peter Nazareth seems to represent an ideal bridge between creative and critical writing.11 Please discuss the development and impact of Nazareth’s mentorship on your career.
SP: Peter has recently written about this in his fifteen-page introduction to my selected poems Unclosed Entrances. And I have talked about this elsewhere. What can I add except that Peter came along at the right time? He has always been there for me. Over the last two decades, he has been the only person I could turn to at any time to read and critique my work, which includes all my published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry during this period; three unpublished novels; a dozen unpublished stories; three unpublished poetry manuscripts—all in various iterations—and my essays. Peter gave me the confidence to write about my own work. His is a brilliant mind. He made me see that I had to do this, since the critics didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have the depth of knowledge of Hindu philosophies and literatures, or the willingness to learn, to understand. What has been unique in our relationship has been his honesty in saying he didn’t understand or know about something when he didn’t and that mentorship is a process in which the roles are occasionally reversed. The outcome is a relationship of respect and trust.
SN: On the genesis of Yogic Realism, you write: “I never thought that I would come close to inventing anything . . . [,] least of all a term for my method of writing, and for a whole way of writing and art.”12 You seem to be an accidental theorist! What gifts do you believe artists can bring to the table of theory and criticism?
SP: All theorists are, in a way, accidental theorists, and yet, in one deeper Indian sense, nothing is accidental. I can now look back and see that all my life has been leading up to Yogic Realism and to the literary space I inhabit. As artists, we are uniquely placed to articulate what we are doing in our works and, indeed, we have a duty to do this—especially when the critics can’t do it, or won’t do it. In an interview, the artist provides a window on the creative process. And this is what you have allowed me to do. Thank you.
Stephen Narain was born in the Bahamas in 1986 to Guyanese parents and moved to the United States as a teenager. A graduate of Harvard University, he is currently a Soros Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he is at work on his first novel.
1 Sasenarine Persaud, Unclosed Entrances: Selected Poems (Warwick, UK: Caribbean, 2011), 43. Porknocker is a term for the gold and diamond miners who work in Guyana’s interior.
2 Ibid., 42.
3 Manuel Orozco, “Remitting Back Home and Supporting the Homeland: The Guyanese Community in the US,” GEO Working Paper (Washington: US Agency for International Development, 2003), 2.
4 Sasenarine Persaud, “Kevat: Waiting on Yogic Realism,” Critical Practice 6, no. 2 (1998): 89.
5 Persaud, Unclosed Entrances, 9.
6 Persaud defines Jivatma as “the individual consciousness or individual self which one needs to understand first before understanding the Paramatma.” He defines Paramatma as “the universal/divine soul/consciousness or universal/divine Self, or Super-soul.” E-mail with author, January 2012.
7 Persaud, “I Hear a Voice, Is it Mine?: Yogic Realism and Writing the Short Story,” World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (2000): 532.
8 Sasenarine Persaud, “Dismembering H-India,” A Writer Like You (Toronto: TSAR, 2002), 16.
9 Persaud, “I Hear a Voice, Is it Mine?,” 531.
10 Ibid., 534.
11 I would like to thank Professor Peter Nazareth of the University of Iowa Department of English for his support in preparing for this interview.
12 Persaud, “Kevat,” 89.