I'm going to keep this introduction short because goddamn. We are lucky to live in a world with Raena Shirali, and this interview is proof of that. We talk about her beloved pit Harley; how reckoning her identity and history informed themes of survival, race, assimilation, and trauma in her debut book (which you must read); and why she hopes this collection helps readers look "especially when the looking hurts."
A little about Raena: she's the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017). Her honors include a 2016 Pushcart Prize, the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize, the 2014 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, & a “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Prize in 2013. Raised in Charleston, South Carolina, the Indian American poet currently lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she is the Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry, & serves as a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine. You can read her poems online at Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, and Tupelo Quarterly.
TW: sexual assault
Tell us a little about your dog Harley. How did he come into your life?
Harley is an incredibly energetic pit mix puppy, though his crazy comes in bouts—right now, he’s curled up next to me on the couch, snoring and apparently dreaming about squirrels.
I imagine origin stories like Harley’s are common, especially because of the stigma that comes with rescuing a pit. About a year ago, I found myself saying to a prospective roommate—without having planned to at all—that I was looking for pet-friendly housing (which was maybe a bit preemptive on my part, considering I had no pets and no pet prospects). Before I even moved in, my soon-to-be-roomie sent me Harley’s info, and I really just could not handle how adorable he was. Fast forward through a winding a series of Facebook posts & meetings with Harley at his foster home, to the adoption event at our local Petco, where Harley was crated on the bottom row (because he is huge) of stacks and stacks of perturbed animals. He had apparently just shredded a comforter out of stress. Bits of stuffing were scattered around his cage, and an event employee—a self-proclaimed “pit expert”—told my partner and I what a huge mistake we might be making by rescuing him, regaling us with tales of pits gone wrong, none of which were about Harley. We very awkwardly paid for and took him home anyway, and I’m happy to report that he has not shredded a comforter to date (R.I.P to the two shoes he’s chewed up, though). Haters gonna hate.
What impact has Harley had on your writing? I know in the thank-you notes for your book Gilt (YesYes Books, 2017), you thank Harley for “making every day possible.” (Oh, my heart!) Other than the general force field of love and support dogs offer, does Harley help make the actual process of writing possible?
Perhaps this has more to do with the nature of my projects, but writing can be extremely traumatic for me. There are certain poems whose generation I find cathartic, but for the most part, my writing either seeks to reconcile aspects of my identity as a woman of color and survivor of sexual assault, or seeks to interrogate cultural and national systems related to the treatment of women. And I love doing that work, but that’s not to say it isn’t painful. Harley really helps me write by helping me not write—by making me look up & around & see something that’s alive & not human & that has, I think, a good soul.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that I have struggled with depression and anorexia in the past, and those struggles are ongoing simply by virtue of my having to be vigilant about, say, feeding myself enough, or making myself get out of bed. Having a 68-pound dog-son to take care of every day means I have to get up. I have to eat. I have to take care of myself in order to take care of him, in order to not be bothered constantly so that I can then have the space to write. As a Virgo, the joy of having a pet has come largely from daily regimen—regimen that necessitates that I be mindful about making space and time for writing, for cooking, for exercise. Especially now that I’m on a writing residency, where every day opens before me like a blank page, caring for Harley is indispensable to caring for my work and myself.
"Harley really helps me write by helping me not write—by making me look up & around & see something that’s alive & not human & that has, I think, a good soul."
Speaking of Gilt, I have to say this book took me by surprise in the best way. It turned out to be everything I wanted to read about grappling with first-gen identity and being a woman of color in America and the added complexities that brings to the romantic realm. How did the vision for this book come about? And what is your hope for this book?
Goodness, that’s a wonderful insight, and is a nuance of the book I’m always excited to discuss. GILT was born out of my MFA thesis, and so part the challenge came from having to find a way to explain these seemingly disparate tropes—interracial relationships, anxieties around marriage, sexual violence, heritage, the political body, the personal body—as part of a whole. I think I feel attached to the vision for this book because it developed alongside a true reckoning with myself; my first year of graduate school, I realized I had to stop trying to compartmentalize aspects of my identity for the benefit of the Other—whether that was my family, or the predominantly white spaces I’ve always had to navigate, or as you mention, a string of (also very white) boyfriends. And it’s no coincidence that I was single or heartbroken for much of the generation of this book. Being alone made me reconsider the self not as a limited entity, but as one that is shaped and informed by so many cultural forces. I pictured the self sitting alone in the room with all the book’s various tropes radiating out of her, out of the room, out of the country. That’s when I began to see the book’s arc and questions as inherently connected. My hope is related to your observation about being first-gen, “being a woman of color in America,” being told throughout my life that my experiences weren’t valid; I want GILT to validate the experiences of women of color, victims of violent crime, immigrants—anyone who has been told they won’t be seen. The book’s dedication (which will appear in the version that goes live March 15th) reads: for survival. for your multitudes. I hope this book makes readers look at those multitudes, especially when the looking hurts.
In “camouflage,” a poem that has stuck with me since I read it, you write: “i’m durga, i’m kali, i’m the strange ochre / notch on their bedposts.” Perhaps one of the things I admire most about Gilt is the candid way it addresses the fine line between what makes us feel powerful and what makes us feel othered or mistreated, especially in sexual relationships. This poem is a fine example of how a desire to assimilate further muddies that. Can you talk a little more about these themes in your work?
Thank you for these killer questions, Ruth. In “camouflage” as well as in “if i wrap myself in gold,” I’m thinking about how the desire to approximate a white romance narrative can be an assimilatory trauma in and of itself. While the speaker in “camouflage” struggles to embody white, teenage sexuality and eventually attempts to define her sexuality in the terms of her exoticization, “if i wrap myself in gold” deals with a different aspect of romantic assimilation—in the latter, the speaker considers the pressure to marry as a young Indian woman, alongside the standards of femininity she’s being held to by her lover, her family, and herself. You are, of course, right to say that these dynamics are muddy, and I think that’s because the line in these poems isn’t simply one of consent—that is, POCs are rarely (if ever) exoticized because we want to be, and so our consent is often not even part of the equation. In that sense, to be exoticized, especially by our lovers, is subversively damaging, in that it keeps us at a distance from true intimacy, and has a defamiliarizing effect on our selves.
In my work, I’m trying to resist the desire that we have (that even I have as I’m writing this) to push toward the ultimate empowerment, the ultimate acceptance of oneself and one’s sexuality; because “empowerment” is an easy word to throw around, but is a state of being I’ve found to be so evasive in my life—and that’s precisely because we spend so much of our existence as women of color living in the realm of invisibility, of vulnerability, of trauma. So the speaker in “camouflage” isn’t exactly empowered. She’s using others’ exoticization of her in order to begin to understand her sexuality. I think it’s much more interesting—and worthwhile—to write into those moments of defamiliarization, and I want my poems to provide space for those nuances—the steps between exoticization, objectification, and that lofty goal of “self-actualization.”
"...to be exoticized, especially by our lovers, is subversively damaging, in that it keeps us at a distance from true intimacy, and has a defamiliarizing effect on our selves."
What poem scared you the most to write in this collection? Why?
“CROWD/GIRL” was incredibly difficult to write, and to revise, and I have never once read it in front of an audience—it still scares me that much. It, like “Holi: Equinox Approaches,” was written for the twenty-year-old woman who was gang raped in front of her village, by her fellow villagers, as “punishment” for being perceived as being in a relationship with a Muslim man in India. We were just speaking about interracial relationships and the internal trauma they can instill—I knew I couldn’t write this book without addressing the very real cultural and physical trauma that fear of the Other can entail, too. “CROWD/GIRL” is written, as the title indicates, partially in the collective voice of the villagers (the audience of this unthinkable display), and partially in the voice of the anonymous victim. I was, and am, concerned in this collection about the political function of persona, and I really believe that to do persona well, and to write about violence you aren’t physically connected to, you have to be willing to involve yourself—whether that means recognizing the shortcoming of the project, or being willing to emotionally go there with your speaker(s). I’ve tried my best to do that in GILT, and my new project is one where I delve even further into persona work.
On a really basic level, this poem was the most difficult to write because I am so fucking angry and no words even BEGIN to form an adequate elegy for that woman. And it disgusted me that Western media reported on it like America doesn’t have its own legacy of rape with which to reckon. So I wanted the poem to make a Western audience look at this shit, and above all, I wanted them to recognize it. I wanted to take the reader right up to the moment of assault and force us all to look, and to recognize ourselves as part of the village that sits by, complacent, while women are mistreated this way. Lastly, writing this poem forced me to write my own assault onto the page and into the book. So the challenges “CROWD/GIRL” brought with it largely inform the project, precisely because they were debilitating to engage with in the moment.
"I wanted to take the reader right up to the moment of assault and force us all to look, and to recognize ourselves as part of the village that sits by, complacent, while women are mistreated this way."
In a recent and magnificent interview with Fox Frazier-Foley, you said, “…at some point growing up, I just stopped explaining what being ‘Indian’ meant. I was always going to be not-quite.” I feel that – I was always told I was either too “exotic” or just a white girl – I never felt like I was enough of either. Does navigating identity on the page help shape how you think about yourself out in the world?
I’ve touched on this in a previous question, but the short answer is: absolutely. GILT is unique in terms of the books I can or will write in my life, because I wrote it essentially as I was learning who I am as a woman of color—as I was starting to own my Otherness as part of my identity. Most writers say in some capacity that writing helps them make sense of the world; that’s no less true for me, though I think part of the process for me was owning experiences I’d spent a long time denying or flat out pretending didn’t exist—like being the subject of racial harassment growing up in the South. Navigating identity in those instances, I always think back to Bishop’s “Write it!” I can’t spend any more time not writing about being chased down in pickup trucks. I can’t spend any more time avoiding the subject of rape because it’s “too close to me.” If we all stayed silent, where would the poems come from? If I’m silent in instances of injustice in the world, who am I?
Back to Harley – have you ever read a poem that reminds you of him? Or that makes you think about or understand your love for him in a new way?
The speaker in Ada Limón’s “Service” connects on an animal level with a pit bull, a breed that is stereotyped as violent, aggressive, uncontrollable—but that is actually highly intelligent, loving, and fierce/ly loyal. Both the pit and the speaker in “Service” are female, so in that way it differs slightly from the way I think about and appreciate Harley, but I love how this poem asks us who can be tamed, and asks us to think about how we train women and animals to act. Harley is most himself when he’s least containable—my partner and I call it his “overdrive”—when we come home and he has to hold a toy in his mouth and wiggle around in circles for a full five minutes to calm down, or when he hurtles without abandon through the yard at a squirrel. I’m in awe of him in those moments (even if they’re accompanied by annoyance at his ignoring my commands), but I also recognize myself in them. I’m most myself when I’m screaming along to Hairspray in my car, which I’ve been told to stop doing by a couple shitty exes. And yeah, that’s a silly example, but I think, as women, we’ve been told that at our least containable, we’re the least desirable, and in that way our selves are shameful. Limón writes, “Girl, no one’s going to tell me / when to take a leak, when to bow down, / when not to bite.” I try to keep those lines with me when Harley acts out, because in some sense, he is acting in line with his internal self; I try to hold that up as a model for my own behavior, while simultaneously, you know, preventing him from actually ever catching a squirrel.
"I love how this poem asks us who can be tamed, and asks us to think about how we train women and animals to act. "
A metaphor or simile for Harley?
Trying to come up with one made me instead want to catalogue the nicknames we have for Har, which I think are their own little metaphors in a way (and also is maybe me copping out of the question, lol, sorry, Ruth). Here they are for your enjoyment / for you to be mildly disturbed by: Angel Butt, Dingle Berry, Dangus, (Sweet, Sweet) Dodo Bird, Honey Bun, Honey Bunches of Harley, Honey Bear, Sweet Prince, Principessa, Mashugana, Pringle Butt, and Shlarp (coined by my partner for the gross slurping sound he makes with his big old tongue).