India ink

An immigrant poet straddles two worlds

Aug 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

Zilka Joseph lives, works and studies here in Michigan, but her poetry tells the story of a woman who exists in two different places. Born in Bombay and raised in Calcutta, Joseph has been in this country since 1997. In a physical sense, moving here meant leaving everything behind. In her poems, she shows that it isn't where you live that matters, but what lives on in you.

"It's like having two families, being part of two cultures," Joseph says. "I have things to say about America and things to say about India. But I don't feel a difference in the sense that you carry both of those worlds within you."

Her two worlds, India and Midwestern America, are woven together in the imagery-rich poems from her first chapbook, Lands I Live In, published last year by Mayapple Press of Bay City. In her poem, "Ten Takes on Snow," Joseph crystallizes a moment and explores how her experience of a Michigan snow contrasts with her ethnic identity.

My first winter by Lake Michigan
covered me with white, cold, alien snow
till there was no light left
in my tropical eyes.

Joseph grew up with a deep appreciation for her culture in India. Her poems are filled with memories of a nurturing mother and father and a general sense of familial warmth. When she came to the United States to teach, it was hard to leave her family behind. But she maintained a close bond with frequent phone calls and biannual visits.

After her book was released in this country, Joseph was invited to do a launch at the Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata, India. It's a familiar haunt that she visited often since she was a little girl, and even while she was working on her Master's Degree in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. On May 12, 2008, she was back in India reading her poetry in front of about 30 people, including her parents, who are in their 80s and still living in Calcutta. Joseph received significant press coverage, which included an interview with one of the country's leading newspapers, The Statesman.

"I think my style may be a little different from other Indian writers writing in English," Joseph says. "But it's not that different. I know [my book] was liked and appreciated in India, even the physical appearance was commented on. They really liked it."

Here in the United States, Joseph's book was also a success. It was nominated for the 2008 PEN American Center Beyond Borders Award. Before the book's release, she published work in several journals in India and the United States. Because of some of the powerful and intricate descriptions of traditional foods in her poetry, Joseph has work published in Gastronomica: A Journal of Food and Culture and forthcoming in Enopoetica: An Anthology of Poems About Wine.

To her, food is an important part of the cultural experience. Her piece "Tropical Fire" is about a chili plant that sits on her windowsill. The fruit of the plant is an essential ingredient in the preparation of curry dishes. In "Faraway Aunt" she brings foil-covered chocolates to the young nieces she visits in India on one of her visits. The poem "Kaulee Haddi" means 'soft or tender bone' as in the tip of the chicken breat bone:

My father loves boki flesh,
tender breast meat steeped in flavor,
fallng off the triangle of translucent bone.
The supple end curves to pliant
tongue drunk with masala—

The way she captures very specific details with such clarity, one wonders if Joseph carries a notebook everywhere she goes.

"What's interesting is I don't take notes," she says. "In fact, I'm one of those people who resist it. For me, it works against my creative process. These are things that sort of land and stay in my memory."

In India, Joseph was asked if her book was autobiographical, and it is. And yet it's more of a re-examination of the past through the filters of her imagination. The process works well in conveying her multicultural experience. Each description of a snowflake, a taste of traditional food or the feeling of touching down on an airplane after a long journey allows the reader to live those moments too.

When she speaks of her life in two lands, she stresses the importance of arrivals, instead of departures. She dresses in typical Western attire. Among her many literary influences she cites both Bob Dylan and Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Although she's worked as a teacher, journalist and librarian, as a poet, the 44-year-old is just beginning. It's only in the past few years that she's really devoted herself to her writing. And she's currently an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the University of Michigan.

"I think the blossoming time is still to come," she says. "I'm just beginning and still need to develop as a writer. But there is something very real happening here."

Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].