Indian American poet Raena Shirali is the author of two poetry collections. Her latest book of poetry, summonings investigates witch-hunting practices in India. Informed by her academic and poetic approach, Shirali’s summonings looks at the deeper patriarchal roots and misogyny that impacts accused women’s lives and choices. Her first book, GILT was awarded the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. Shirali is also the winner of a Pushcart Prize and is a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. She has an MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University. Shirali spoke to Scroll about her book and the world from which it has come. Excerpts from the conversation:
Tell us about summonings. What made you choose the practice of witch-hunting in India as your key focus for this collection?
I first encountered news about witch-hunting in India while working on my first book, GILT; a few poems in that collection are thus predecessors to summonings. After that initial point of contact, I found myself thinking about witch-hunting constantly, wondering what forces outside of blatant misogyny enable such a practice in these quite close-knit communities. I found myself wondering about the role of colonialism, patriarchy, religion, economic structures, and my wondering led me further into research. What I found, and how I considered those findings as an Indian author writing in the West about a subject in the East, are the central preoccupations of summonings.
You mention that “these poems explore how antiquated and existing norms surrounding female mysticism in India and America inform each culture’s treatment of women.” What were some of the observations you drew from this exploration?
I began by considering women’s safety (or lack thereof) in each country. How did we become societies where women are not safe in public, alone, at night – you can really insert any condition here and see the ubiquity of danger. Of course, both cultures treat women as second-class citizens to varying degrees, in ways that are sometimes even supported by legislation, despite purporting to be beacons of equality. But I was also interested to find that suspicion of women’s sexuality is deeply rooted in mythologies related to both Hinduism and Christianity. In both countries’ histories of witch-hunting, menstruation, nudity, masturbation, have been recontextualised, remythologised, into signs of witchcraft, signs of evil. There is rampant suspicion of knowledge that only women have access to (that of herbs, seeds, recipes). So, at the root of this fear of female mysticism is the fear of not controlling women’s knowledge, controlling women’s sexualities, controlling women’s bodies – and the latter extends logically into sexual assault and rape, the belief that a woman’s body is expendable and somehow “deserves” to be controlled by men.
In one of your recent interviews you note, “...the risk of including every piece of research within the body of the manuscript itself is that you create an unreadable text, one that is so bogged down by information that it loses the poetry.” Are there any particular poems in summonings that you really struggled with the information versus the medium you were writing in? And how did you make your peace with them?
This is such an excellent question. Poems like “the village men find some [fellowship], [hunt]” and “ojha: rituals” were particularly fraught when it came to balancing the voice speaking in the poem with the research I brought into the text. That’s no coincidence, I think – both poems involve writing from the perspective of perpetrators of crimes against women, which is obviously a subjectivity I struggle to engage with from a position of empathy, but also a position I knew had to be represented in the book because without it, witch-hunting itself might not exist in this way. In poems where I was uncomfortable stepping into the persona at hand, it was tempting to lean more on research in order to speak.
The revision process for those poems involved several drafts where I did not allow myself to bring in any research at all, and only thereafter revisiting research as a kind of supplement to the drafting process. In some cases, writing in the third person (as in “ojha: rituals”) allowed me to make my peace – allowed the poem’s approach to feel more journalistic. In other cases, focusing on craft approaches like imagery, form, sound, allowed me to remain invested in and distracted by the writing process, such that the poem could be written at all.
Tamil poet Malathi Maithri in her poem ‘Demon Language’ (translated to English by Lakshmi Holmström) writes, “The demon’s features are all woman. Woman’s features are all demon.” In “daayan, feet facing forward,” you’ve referenced physical attributes that people commonly associate with witches in India. Colloquially, terms like chudail continue to be used to insult women in the country. How do you think terms and language like these influence women’s psyche and position in society?
This poem of Maithri’s is stunning. It reminds me of a quote from the anthropological research I encountered while writing summonings: “Every woman is a potential witch.” The mythology around what a witch looks like, smells like, walks like – terms like chudail or daayan – create a checklist against which all women can be measured, compared, matched, and thus victimised. Not only does it fuel this culture of danger (read: non-safety, vulnerability) I referenced earlier, but it enters our subconscious as women. It affects how we self-style, how we walk, what fragrance we wear. It positions us under at minimum two iterations of the male gaze simultaneously – the male gaze of desire (which we are conditioned to covet, but only insomuch as we do not become too desirable) and the male gaze that prescribes criminality (which we are told exists at odds with desire; no one wants to court the witch).
I often think about how much time I spend considering my body in public spaces, and how much of my mental energy is dedicated to both seeming appealing in certain ways and ensuring my own safety. I would argue that these preoccupations we are forced to entertain, as women, not only damage or psyches, but our collective intellects. They limit what we spend time on, and why. They limit where we can go, and why. Ultimately, they limit what we are capable of. They reify our status as second-class at best, victim at worst. As Maithri writes, “Outside earth / she stands.”
Can you elaborate more on the association between Goddess Kali and the women persecuted as witches? Kali’s image is often invoked to showcase her power over the demons, while your poem “the universe will end and kali will still be here” directs it towards her strength in helping the accused women release their rage.
Of course. Goddess Kali, as readers may know, alternately represents violence, and sexuality. As referenced above, regarding this duality of the male gaze towards women as either motivated by a punitive tendency or a sexualising tendency, I see a direct connection between how our mythology ascribes a binary to Goddess Kali, and how our current culture ascribes a similar binary to all women.
Furthermore, Dakini, who is often represented as one of Kali’s associates, is alternately known to be a demon, or a goddess. And “Dakini vidya” can be translated to witchcraft. Thus, Dakini’s “vidya,” her knowledge, becomes the witch’s knowledge. Thus “Dakini” comes to mean “witch.” Through these transmutations and evolutions of language and symbolism, Kali’s associate is, herself, a witch. This serves to reify both Goddess Kali and women more broadly as both potential witches and defined by two characteristics only: our potential for sex, and our potential for violence.
I think one can see Goddess Kali in my book as a reclaimed and reimagined patron saint of victimised women. Whatever she is, she transcends the binary that has been ascribed to her, and as humans, our attempts to understand her only reduce and limit her. I imagine those words resonate with many women reading this interview – reduced, limited. This is the condition we are forced into by attempts to contain us.
In many cases of witch-hunting in Indian states, female relatives or women living around the accused have been reported to play a part in furthering rumours or instigating violence against them. Was this something you wanted to explore in summonings too?
Absolutely. One of the most fascinating aspects of this dynamic of accusation, to me, was the familial and communal – how neighbours, friends, relatives, are the very entities that turn against one another. I resist the idea that any human is innately evil, and I wanted to be careful in the text to not imply that these friends and relatives of victimised women are ignorant or evil in any capacity. Rather, this was one of my guiding research questions: if I assume that these individuals were motivated by something to turn against a woman so close to them, what was the motivation? I thought it unlikely that the motivation would simply be fear, or misogyny, given that other women living around the accused can become accusers themselves. Poems like “the village goddess talks to herself while applying kohl,” “daayan imagines herself as the village goddess,” and “to curse or to pray” explore those dynamics in more detail. Under violent patriarchy, and given a tenet of self-preservation, I can absolutely understand why a woman would point a finger at another woman. And I can understand that motivation without moralising it or supporting it. To accuse is to momentarily be safe. To accuse can be to survive.
Between the ojhas, villagers and accused women, there is a clear hierarchy of power that leads to an accusation and subsequent violence against women. Your poems elicit a sense of clarity the accused women have of their power and powerlessness in the face of such attacks. How did you approach this understanding through poetry, and how much of it was informed through your research?
Interviews where women from these villages spoke candidly were vital to my research. Whether or not women interviewed had been victims of a witch-hunt, they gave voice to how powerlessness they felt in reality, while retaining a power of spirit – to speak out on this subject at all when living in a place where you could be accused of being a witch, is innately powerful. So it was not only what these women said, the content of what I learned, that motivated this sense of accused women’s clarity in my poems – it was the fact of their speaking, the fact of their voices, that ultimately inspired and shaped the defiant tone of some of the pieces in summonings. I am beyond grateful for their strength, their words, their truths.
On the form and art of docupoetics, poet Kathryn Nuernberger has written, “When the tension in a poem is rooted in the act of learning, the experience of the human mind working on the page can be very exciting…” Over the course of putting summonings together, what were some of the learnings and realisations as a poet?
This quotation is a perfect one with which to approach summonings. I want to be careful not to imply that I have any answers as a result of researching for and writing this book. On the whole, witch-hunting is still inherently mysterious to me, even as I have come to learn and understand much about the apparatuses that motivate and perpetuate the practice. If I learned or realised anything, it is that I, like any author, am limited by my own subjectivity, by what knowledge I have access to and the context in which I interpret it. But I also learned that acknowledging the distance between my own experiences as a woman, and those experiences of women living in Indian states where this phenomenon takes place, was an opening into the poems. Exploring that distance – exploring the fact that I will never understand – created new poetic and philosophical opportunities. In the Foreword to summonings, I reference that these poems are failures, in some way – failures to embody another persona, failures to “fully understand” a phenomenon so far from my personal experience. If there is one thing I learned, it is that failure is an opportunity. Failure is a lesson. Failure is art. Failure is human.
Mariyam Haider is a researcher-writer, podcaster and spoken word artist. Her latest writings are available at Post-it’ing Life.