“[A]t the intersection of many roads and seas”: An Interview with Rajiv Mohabir

by Jun 26, 2024Contest, Interviews, News

Poet, memoirist, and translator, Rajiv Mohabir is the author of four books of poetry including Whale Aria (Four Way Books 2023) and Cutlish (Four Way Books 2021) which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and recipient of the Eric Hoffer Medal Provocateur. His poetry and nonfiction have been finalists for the 2022 PEN/America Open Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry and in Nonfiction, the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, and both second place and finalist for the Guyana Prize for Literature in 2022 (poetry and memoir respectively). His translations have won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2020. He is an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Rajiv Mohabir, our 2024 Nonfiction Contest judge, is interviewed by Isabelle Joy Stephen, our 2024 Nonfiction Editor. 

ISABELLE JOY STEPHEN: Genre — let’s talk about it! You were kind of tickled at AWP when I suggested you judge the nonfiction contest. Do you think of yourself mostly as a poet? A storyteller? A vessel for/of witness? Why? Why do you think we continue to differentiate between genres? Is it purely a marketing thing? Or is genre useful for telling us how to read something?

RAJIV MOHABIR: Yes–thank you for this question and for making space for me at BWR. It was fun to meet you at AWP and to consider judging this contest in nonfiction. I think of myself as more of a poet who wrote a memoir. If I have to choose one and say definitively maybe I will say this because I have written more poetry in my life than prose. I wasn’t actually expecting to write a memoir but I was excited to consider the fact that all this writing I had done could be formed into a manuscript.

I suppose we can think of genre as a container of sorts, for our complicated ideas. Sometimes the dawn calls for a chant. Sometimes a song. Sometimes a dance. Sometimes our ideas follow the dawn. It’s up to what moves us to celebrate either through prose or poetry. The ancients didn’t really make these distinctions of where exactly a story can live–what materials must make its home, which kind of elemental lime must bind one brick to another. 

Maybe it’s the same in writing–that the idea of genre is a marketing tool as you say. I’m drawn to layering of ideas through text. But it’s also become more than this now, hasn’t it? I mean, the thing about my memoir is that it asks exactly this question: which house can I live in. As with my history of migration, I couldn’t possibly just live in one house. Unless it’s at the intersection of many roads and seas.

ISABELLE: In the past, you’ve called your memoir Antiman — titled after a Caribbean slur (Guyanese) for gay men — “queer” in the sense that the shape of the narrative exists outside of “the received structure of what memoir does typically” (you said that in The Rumpus; I really love this phrasing). This work is full of so many different kinds of storytelling, from the recordings of Aji (your grandmother)’s songs in Bhojpuri, to translations of ragas and “fauxtales,” to an “E train” chapter where prose is organized around a subway line. Not to state the obvious, but we often see hybrid work coming from people who themselves are not “received” in those typically racist, sexist, and homophobic structures. I want to know — what have you found insufficient in “traditional” memoir? Ill-fitting? And how did you find ways around it? 

RAJIV: I can’t imagine telling a story without breaking into some kind of song at various points. Maybe this is epistemological to Caribbean storytelling. Maybe it’s just because in high school I was a chorus and theater gay. But songs hold stories–how they’re sung, what they say, how they’re interpreted. There’s no singular way. We are all singular in our voices though.

In many contemporary memoirs that are written in traditional, chronological, teleological narrative structure there seems to be a lot of pressure on figuring things out completely–that the writer has a flawless, unified perspective that makes pronouncement the “natural” end. It’s like having felicitous grammar–you are expecting a certain kind of logic to follow that even if you cannot predict the end of the sentence it will seem like a natural place to arrive. I don’t have things figured out. I am excited to learn for the rest of my life–and maybe even after it. The inclusion of poetry and songs in translation, retellings in Creole, and transcriptions allows for the fragmentations to appear together. My hope is that the readers will be able to make sense of the complications without my reliance on regularization or on normativitiy. I give you the bricks. Build the house of story.

I think that your hypothesis is right, that people whom Empire cannot locate–and those who refuse to cast themselves in readable light (think of the “good” immigrant or the heteronomativity or even the homonationalist support of Israel of white cis gays) our narratives are necessarily complicated and nuanced. I’m certainly not of the “right” kind of immigrant family, easily fitting into the historization of South Asian migration to the US. I’m the wrong genre of South Asian.

Funny how genre looks like gender. People get joy out of both of these things and this is not a judgment on conforming. Conformity isn’t available to everyone. I don’t want to slowly die in my body, my spirit trapped in the regulations I internalize that tell me exactly how and what I should be in the world. Whether that’s queerness or even using Bhojpuri in my writing that I publish. I like to think expansively about genre instead of thinking about fitting into someone else’s category for me and for what I do.

ISABELLE: In 2021, you published BOTH Antiman and Cutlish, a book of poetry. In The Rumpus, you speak about these books in terms of a chronology of sensibility: “The speaker in Cutlish’s poems is very much as Rajiv is after the last chapter of Antiman. In my mind these books go together hand-in-hand; much of the poetic sensibility I realized, translated, and discovered from Antiman is fully put to experimentation in Cutlish.” I’d love to hear a little bit about your process of writing these two books — were they written side by side, or in this order? Do you think they should be read in this order?

RAJIV: I started Cutlish first as I was living the memoir as an MFA student in New York City. As I walked to work at John Adams High School (I was an ESL teacher and I also taught creative writing there as well before the ESL scandal in 2013…) I passed through little Guyana. I was recently returned from India where I went on an AIIS Language Fellowship and began composing Bhojpuri couplets in my head as I walked, inspired by the sugar cane vendors and the roti clappers. The form itself was based on chutney music of Sundar Popo and Ramdew Chaitoe. I began this book in 2011 and it was published almost exactly a decade later so these poems took time to deepen.

The memoir I began in Hawai‘i in 2015 after my first book of poems (The Taxidermist’s Cut) won the Intro to Poetry Prize from Four Way Books. I wrote essays to help situate my poems for readers–to create a trajectory and platform for Indo-Caribbean poets in the United States. It was when I had amassed many essays that I saw that I had enough bulk to put together another book, this time in mixed genre. The memoir “happens” from about the year 2001-2011. I knew I wanted to write about my Aji and her importance for my thinking about our languages and our songs. So there is that connection between the two books: the speaker is Rajiv from Antiman’s final chapters! It was amazing that they came out almost together so that people can get a sense of how I became a poet and then what poems I was singing at the time. 

As for the order that people read them in, I’m not really too worried. But it would make sense if folks like the memoir that they find the poems. Or even vis-versa. If folks are interested in writing poetry maybe my memoir could show how I did this. Not that it’s a how-to but rather a how-did.

ISABELLE: You continue along with themes of musicality in Whale Aria, a new collection of poetry out just now from Four Way Books. Where do you see Whale Aria in your chronology of poetic sensibility? Who is the speaker here? What have they learned or processed in the interim? Do you feel like your body of work is distinct from your own body? 

RAJIV: I feel very much that Whale Aria is a follow up of The Taxidermist’s Cut in the eco-critical stakes that have grown roots. While I carry musicality forward through considering humpback whale song structures as posited by biologists, the poems continue the line of questioning that I previously began. Questions of the spirit, queerness, migration, and natural history all emerge as phantoms in this collection, but on the ocean. There is also prose in the book that almost shows what the biologists claim and how I stage a poetic intervention.

What is music that exists in the nonhuman animal world and why do so many people respond to it? Why did the humpback become a charismatic species making Americans feel as though they were worth trying to save? Why do I as a poet and writer feel drawn to make the metaphor of dark bodies migrating across swaths of oceans without belief in national belonging, teaching each other folk songs? Is it that the history of South Asian indenture coincides with the industrialized hunting of these cetaceans?

These inquiries have spawned three book manuscripts. The first of which is Whale Aria. There is just too much material to only have it be a fleeting interest for me. That or I really took to heart the advice to follow your poetic obsessions. I was so moved by being submerged underwater at Waimea Bay and hearing whales within two miles singing underwater. How the song curled around my solar plexus. How it activated my throat. How it sounded deep into my spirit and hasn’t yet let me go.

ISABELLE: In BOMB and elsewhere, you’ve spoken of working with your past selves. Do you believe we have multiplicities, different versions and editions, of our past selves? Is the process of working with them different in memoir than in poetry? How do you placate them? Do these conversations ever end?

RAJIV: I see writing a memoir as collaboration with past selves. Tapping into the emotional vocabularies and the affective reservoirs of a younger self demands a lot of attention to memory and imagination. In poetry the truth compact between poet and reader is different. In poetry we can render emotional truths. The emotional truths in nonfiction have different stakes since the readers come to the page for different reasons. 

We are not just one thing. The way you describe yourself changes from situation to situation depending on context. I use the terms queer, South Asian, Caribbean, Indo-Caribbean, fag, Indian, gay, Guyanese, American, etc. Which one is the most correct, I wonder? So then the question emerges: how do you write a life of shifting identities? We cannot see what we do not know. Here’s an exercise for readers: Close your eyes. Imagine a makara. Can you even begin to understand what I mean? Close your eyes. Imagine queer brown people exist. Can you see us yet? (Also–can you read with closed eyes??? Insert eyes emoji.)

I think that there are a lot of readers out there who really crave a simple narrative of identity construction/creation. It’s okay. This will never end and all I can do is to continue to rigorously interrogate my own writing practices. Am I being honest emotionally? What are the stories that are worth imagining? This kind of hybrid writing is not for everyone. Not everyone would agree that any of my selves: past or present are human–or as animated as white queers. It’s funny also how literary magazines say they want queer BIPOC writing but shy away from nuance and intersections of identities in the poems and prose they publish. I’m not too surprised when gatekeepers cannot see me. They are too busy defining the parameters for others to identify with. 

ISABELLE: You speak of translating Aji’s songs “into a language [you] could use” (Antiman 235). Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with translation? What relationship do you see between your translations and the source “text”? Do you tend towards a word-for-word translation, or a sense-for-sense?

RAJIV: What I mean by this was that I wanted to take the language of the folk song and have it bear upon my own poetry, treating it with respect, our oral literatures. Even calling it “oral literature” does some discursive violence by relegating the performance and iteration of song into the space of the “literary”–which is automatically stratified and hierarchical in Western thinking. For there to be a “literary” there must also be a non-literary: which to me stinks of high culture vs low culture. Give me low culture if it means my family gets to be included; but really, this kind of division to me is something I think about often. I mean, it’s only relatively recently that the Western world thought of me and my ancestors as human so of course our songs and traditions would have little value to the white world (unless you’re a religious studies PhD who is obsessed with South Asia).

I wanted to take the poetics and poetries of oration and wind of them, a type of storytelling and singing that I could use to make sense of the world around me. My migration story is not over. Does it ever end? And so with migration, I consider translation as migration of one text into a rendering, an iteration, a song-performance in a new language. What I mean here is that the binaries fail us again here: word-for-word OR sense-for-sense. I have been thinking through what I’m calling deviant translations where there are myriad iterations presented together to give a sense of what the meaning is, yes, but how the meaning is constellated in a web of associations and referents. I translate in and out of Creole, Guyanese Bhojpuri, and English to render each re-rendering anew in a spiral of kala pani traversing. 

Taking this as a jumping off point I have edited a collection called I Will Not Go: Translations, Transformations, and Chutney Fractals (Kaya Press, forthcoming in Fall 2024) where I have asked seventeen Indo-Caribbean poets, writers, and scholars to translate two chutney songs first as directly as they’d like (whatever that means to them), and then also to use the poetics of the songs to write original poems. It’s my answer to Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei–where the translators belong to the ethnic community of the cultural productions that they are engaging. The eye is not one of the white culture-vulture, but one of reclamation.

ISABELLE: Your inter-disciplinary expertise comes out often in the multimodal nature of your work. On top of studying language in almost every way the academy deems possible, you have a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. You’ve said, in an interview with Kundiman, that you “have never seen these things as disconnected… [you] wonder if it’s the academy that tries to separate them.” What are the best ways to work against the academy? Who are other writers that you see intentionally writing into paradox? 

RAJIV: I saw on X (formerly Twitter) someone tweet about how queer BIPOC have to be able to articulate our particularities of ourselves and our intersections/assemblages of identity in a white world in order to be seen or even thought of as relevant. Especially in the literary world where we have been “represented” through colonial force and lenses. But this pressure did not drive me into the studying of language and religion and histories and queerness–I came to those things through my own insatiable hunger for understanding and learning. I think this is how I can hold my head up and not think of my writing as reactive to Empire or the desire to be included. I’m weaving my own mat to lay on the ground, I’m cooking a feast on the chulha (fireside) to invite everyone to come and lime. My poetry and writing is part of a poetic practice rooted in my ancestors’ throats with newness born of my own generation. 

There are other poets and writers who are doing this kind of work too, of the writing into the paradox of being the self despite academia. Here are a few: Tessa McWatt, Dionne Brand, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Divya Victor, Barbara Jane Reyes, Minal Hajratwala, Nina Sharma, Kei Miller, Addie Tsai, Sayantani Dasgupta (North Carolina wali), and Billy-Ray Belcourt. This list can go on forever!

ISABELLE: What is at the core of your curiosity? 

RAJIV: I think my curiosity is constantly shifting and adapting to new input–like one question really leads to another. What I like about this question is that it essays to locate an origin. The short of it, and this was the hardest question that I have been thinking on for several days, is that I am not sure. I love the natural world, all of the facts that feel themselves as if poetry. I am haunted by the ghosts of my family’s history, and sometimes writing feels as though it’s sparked through the necessity to write. It’s against death, my writing and therefore my curiosity. 

I wrote an essay “From Sugarcane to Diabetes” about diabetes that no one wanted to publish until it was picked up by Carla Cudjo at River Styx. This essay attempts to wind colonized food ways into the development of type two diabetes, and my own family’s history with sugarcane and disease. And what about queerness? Where does that fit? It took someone with a familial history of diabetes and colonization to actually see what I was doing in the piece. She had the same questions, that same curiosity that I had that enabled her knowing and resonances that the paragraphs and recipes sang.

Right now I am also working on a project that is woven of flash essay, poetry, and photos tracing the migration of the north Pacific humpback whale subspecies that travels from Hawai‘i up to the inside passage of Alaska. I was driven by my dreams, by their songs, and by questions I had about human cultures and natural histories along these migration lines. Maybe this is also a proxy for thinking through my own migration story. 

ISABELLE: What’s a book that’s recently come out that you’re excited about, and what’s one that’s forthcoming that you can’t wait for? (You can include your own MS in this!)

RAJIV: Nina Sharma’s The Way You Make Me Feel: Love in Black and Brown is just out and it’s doing some really great work about building solidarities between Desi and Black communities in the US. 

The Land is Holy by noam keim

The Translator’s Daughter by Grace Loh Prasad

Earthly Gods by Jess Nirvana Ram

Watcha by Stalina Emanuelle Villareal

Crafting the Lyric Essay: Striking a Chord by Heidi Czerwiec

Brown Women Have Everything: Essays on Discomfort & Delight by Sayantani Dasgupta 

ISABELLE: What kind of work do you want to read from our authors this summer? (You can be as general or specific as you want about this).

RAJIV: Queer me. Stretch me. Tongue me. Experiment me. Lick me. Do all the things that feel wrong in writing but sensual and that you’re horny for. Fragment me. Poetry me. Radical politics me. Animal me. Natural beauty me. Ecopoetry me. Eco-degrade me.

Decolonize. Be messy. Tell the truth. Lie. Autopsy the personal truth…


To learn more about Rajiv Mohabir and his work, you can check out his website here. To learn more about BWR’s 2024 contest, you can read the guidelines on our Submittable page, or flip through our most recent contest issue, 50.2, by snagging yourself a copy from our online store.