Meena Kandasamy Q&A: ‘I went to where Sylvia Plath is buried, and sat there hugging her gravestone’

The Tamil poet reflects on her new work The Book of Desire and her distinguished career

Your new book, The Book of Desire, is a translation of a 2,000-year-old book, the Thirukural, in particular its third part, the Kāmattu-p-pāl. Why is it so important to translate it now, and what does it offer to the contemporary reader?

This long love poem, consisting of 250 shorter self-contained love poems, is a timeless classic. How many books of poetry exist which a contemporary reader can read in bed to her lover? This is one. How many books of poetry where every poem fits a tweet?

You describe this as the first “feminist interventionist” translation of The Book of Desire. What does that involve?

Why now? I had been working on a translation for 10 years and more – I wasn’t satisfied that any of the existing ones did justice to the woman’s desire, longing, or celebration of sex. Every previous translator looked at these lovers as married – but except for one instance, that is not in the original, they are just man and woman. Doesn’t this text need this intervention?


You have provided an introduction that is a ‘political framing’ of the text – why was it important to do that?

The author of this text, Thiruvalluvar, is the greatest historical Tamil icon – the Tamil calendar starts with his year of birth. Even today, there are efforts to appropriate him by the right-wing anti-secular anti-Tamil Hindutva forces. They paint/print his pics in saffron, put sacred ash on his head – depict him as belonging to one religion when he belongs to all of us. This is not a battle that has come to an end. I write as a Tamil woman, and I feel the political urgency even though I realise as a poet that you can savour these poems without any knowledge of any of this.

This is a serious work – but it’s also tremendous fun. Do you have any favourite passages?

Give up desire or/ give up shame, good heart;/I cannot suffer/ the both of them.

Petulant, I went to pick/ a fight, dear girlfriend –/ but my heart forgot that,/ and ran after him for sex.

Your debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess (2014), is a powerful account of the murder of 44 low-caste labourers and their families in a Tamil village in 1968. When I Hit You: Or, a Portrait of the Artist As a Young Wife is a shocking portrayal of domestic violence. While both are based on real events, the first national, the second personal, both are fictionalised. Could you tell me a little about the process of making art from life and why it is so frustrating for the latter to be treated as memoir?

When I Hit You was published in 2017, about six years ago. I choose to respond to this easy/lazy conflation with memoir by writing Exquisite Cadavers – to point out how fiction/art comes out of life. They are stand-ins for each other, they cannot replace the other.

I do not want to be taken as a fussy author, for me it was an intellectual point I was trying to make. When you label something that I’ve labelled as a novel as a memoir, you are insulting my intelligence. You are robbing me of autonomy, agency, knowledge of how genres work, knowledge of my own artistic practice. That feels patronising, something that invades and violates your right to take up space.

All this to also make clear that I’ve nothing against memoir – just that if I was writing the same story as memoir it would be a radically different book in tone, in texture, in language, in messaging, in style, in length, and the talk/controversy it would have generated.

I think there could be a lot of writers who wouldn’t have been so put off, I don’t know! For me, it is not just life that informs fiction, but over the years, I’ve realised that in writing fiction (or poetry) I’m sometimes writing the future, I’m trying to untangle questions about what the future holds for me without having the slightest awareness (at the moment of writing) that it is my life I’m writing about.

What current book, film, TV show and podcast would you recommend?

Book: Variations on the Body by Maria Ospina, and There Are More Things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Film: Glass Onion: Knives Out

TV Show: Derry Girls.

Podcast: Nothing Much Happens. It’s supposedly bedtime stories that help you sleep, and it cured my insomnia like magic.

What is your current project?

I’m working on my novel, Fieldwork. I’m like halfway in.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Yes, I went to where Sylvia Plath is buried, and sat there hugging her gravestone. I deeply revere her.

What is the best writing advice you have heard? Or: what advice would you give to your younger writing self?

[Not something anyone told me, but something I’ve arrived at] Nine-tenths of writing is in the thinking. If you get that in order, if you invest enough time to lay out your thoughts, their progression – you’ll be able to produce something solid and beautiful.

Who do you admire the most?

Arundhati Roy.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

At any other time, I would have said the grander things. I’m writing this at 2am, sitting in the airport, feeling awful that the time spent with my children is going toward the implementation of a mild form of torture. At this moment if I was supreme ruler, I think I would abolish homework.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Angkor Wat

Your most treasured possession?

This toy dinosaur my son used to carry as a small kid. It went with him everywhere, I remember running through snow-laden streets once trying to find it (and I found it). It is most precious; I think (to him) the dinosaur was his mommy when I was away.

What is your favourite quotation?

Somewhere in the days of Orkut and Blogspot, I saw this quote. Toni Cade Bambara saying, “The role of the radical artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” That’s been my guiding light in everything I’ve written.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes.

A book to make me laugh?

Try Tales from a Vending Machine by Anees Salim.

A book that might move me to tears?

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky.

The Book of Desire by Meena Kandasamy is published by Galley Beggar Press