In 2014 I was living in Kelowna, B.C. and taking a few writing courses at Okanagan College. That winter, the college arranged for a reading by Renée Sarojini Saklikar. It was the first reading I had ever attended, held in a small, brightly lit classroom on the first floor of the college. I distinctly remember Renée’s overflowing energy, and the care with which each word exited her mouth. She spoke with a distinct cadence and seemed to be moved by some otherworldly rhythm, perhaps owing something to the fact that, as she says, the stories in children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013), belong to the dead and the collective. The book went on to win the Canadian Authors Award for poetry, and was short-listed for the Dorothy Livesay Award.
That evening, she began by asking anyone who knew someone affected by murder to raise their hand.
“So, there’s two of us in the room,” she said.
She went on to describe how her aunt and uncle were murdered in the Air India flight 182 bombing, and how this spurred her poetic and literary investigation of atrocity. “Murder, mass murder, identity, what does it mean to lose someone to violence?” These are some of the questions children of air india seeks to address.
“Violence emits a kind of sonar whether we like it or not, whether we want to respond to it or not . . . ” Saklikar says, “ . . . and Canada has a peculiar relationship with this trauma . . . but we don’t really want to talk about it . . . we silence it.”
Renée and I conversed over e-mail, and her thoughtful and surprising responses inspire me anew each time I read them.
ROOM: With all the important work you’ve done, politically and poetically, in terms of your creative work, what are you the most proud of?
RSS: On one level, to have conceived of a lifelong project, thecanadaproject, initially, without a lot of guidance or forethought, without learning, and without a knowledge base of the literature that comprises such ventures, just being broken open by several life events, and by chance, perhaps grace, staying open to concepts, impulses, and so the thing came to me, and I, drawn to it, now reside in that compulsion to chronicle and every day, try and give to the endeavor, the work, at least some small part of myself and the world.
On another level, I’m proud (and shy to say it) of the first complete work from the project, the book-length poetic sequence, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections, a book that kinda put me on the literary map of Canada, took me five years to write, many missteps and wayward turns, and somehow I completed it. And then thinking more about that word—“pride”—and how discomfited I am by it, I think with gratitude, on all those way-finders and mentors—and people—such as my cousin Irfan and my family who supported me in the process of writing that book, all the dead, those names, absent/present, and at least I had the sense to keep open, to the work.
And most of all, I’m proud, in a broken-down, grateful, pick-myself-
up-kinda-way, of remaining curious, delirious about making contact with process, with the inside and outside worlds around me, with others, friends and strangers, to stay true to the work—some days being better than others—still searching for that golden thread.
ROOM: As a former lawyer, and the partner of someone actively involved in political life, how do you approach the political as an artist and poet?
RSS: With care, with abandon, with reflection, with wonder, with research, with praxis, with the dance most of all. The margins are at the centre.
ROOM: Has your approach or philosophy shifted at all over the years?
RSS: What a great question! Yes, I think so. “Less fear, more love.”
For example, in 2014, this wonderful person, Owen Underhill (Turning Point Ensemble), sent my book, children of air india, to Jürgen Simpson, a composer in Ireland. They, in collaboration with many others, including Irish and Canadian artists, directors, musicians, opera singers, made it into an opera, air india [redacted], which premiered November 2015 in Vancouver.
The process, the people involved, changed me in ways I didn’t fully realize at that time and perhaps never will; music, dance, other artistic practices wove their way back to me.
Finally, after years of solitary writing, after a great deal of time spent sitting, pretty much immobile, with the documents concerning the, er, dead, and finding myself to be—well, I’m wary of saying it—but, really, a kind of channel for these voices that kept rising up from the documents, that’s the only way I can put it, finally, in the process of making an opera, I could give over some of this monumental grief, a kind of heavy stasis, to others; they could carry it too, and did, so beautifully. Somehow, that process, which I’m only just recently beginning to divine, helped me seek a lighter way of being.
ROOM: Is there one question or theme that you find keeps coming up as you explore different creative projects?
RSS: To find the beloved. Gates, doors, locks. Midnight. April and October, portals to a very still afternoon. Objects, all of them. The Inner-net. Birds. Stars. Trees. The names of things, especially flowers and trees. The surface feel of things, textures. Ruptures and interruptions. Tilts and slants. Gesture. The dead, everywhere, especially, Canada-Ireland-India. Chess. The Rani of Jhansi. The twelve gates of the city of Ahmedabad. Roses. Bees and everything to do with bees, especially the honeybee and bumblebees. Flowers, therefore. Colours: blue, black, pink, green, grey. Ombré shades of every colour ever seen. Rajas and sutras. That hour just before dawn. Cardamom, ginger, turmeric. The years: 1215, 1066, 1492, 1867, 1848, 1916, 1919, 1942, 1982–1985, 1967, 2002, 2013–2017. 2050. 2075. Before, after. Sweet-salty. The s-curve in everything. Gujarati-Angle/lish-Irish Gaelic-Latin-Greek. French. Arabic. Making: language-love-pottery-painting-prints-jewelery-tattoos. Weavers, smiths, warriors. Edges, borders, thresholds, after-parties, secret assignations, covert operations, subverted and slant ways of looking. Empire and resistance. Land masses: geology and shape-shifting. Glaciers. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Currents. The town of towns. Rain. The Rann of Kutch. The Lance of Kanana. Mother Lakshmi and Maria/Magda. The Canadian Shield. A green hill far away. Bogs and peat. Granite. Oceans, rivers, the tides, the moon. Layers. Fragments. Taking communion. Make-up and adornment, dresses. High heels. Barefoot. The number one thousand. Time.
ROOM: I love that! Are you surprised by any of these things?
RSS: Every day, all the time, especially at dusk, or at midnight, or just before dawn. At 2:30 p.m., many an afternoon.
ROOM: Do you think you’ll ever be done with any of it?
RSS: no endings, only and ever after: branching paths, subdividing endlessly.
ROOM: That’s so true. Whenever I see you in public you are always such a shining light, even before you launch into a reading that is serious and heavy (concerned with murder, death, racism, inequality etc.)
RSS: Such a beautiful observation. Thank you.
ROOM: This might be a little heavy, but I feel like I can ask you, how do you reconcile the light and the dark?
RSS: With exploration, open/ness, inquiry. Dancing. Love. Prayer. Making things. Trying to be open—
ROOM: And how do you balance the heaviness of your work with the necessities of daily living?
RSS: Here I must give a shout-out to my husband, who supports me in so many ways, and to my family and friends. My god, in this time of trouble, of so much suffering and turmoil, I am given these chances, every day, to make things, to dance, I could fall on my knees with gratitude. My mother, her body broken, still so alive in her mind. My sister, who I don’t see nearly enough, sending me email even though—
My cousin Irfan.
ROOM: Thank you for your deep honesty and truth-telling throughout this interview, and in the literary work you do. Before we go, can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
RSS: I’ve just submitted a book manuscript, Listening to the Bees, in collaboration with Dr. Mark Winston: he’s written essays and I’ve written poems—all about bees!
And I’m also continuing to work on an epic long poem, THOT-J-BAP, with a new chapbook from it, to be launched by Nomados Press in November.
Cara Lang was one of the assistant editors of Room issue 40.4 "Let's Make Contact."