Interview with Shaunga Tagore
Interview done by Janet Romero
JR: Why and when did you start writing poetry?
ST: At a very young age — probably when I started writing with chalk on my bathroom door, or adding my own two cents to my parents’ biology textbooks they tell me I was always furiously flipping through. I experienced a lot of racism, (hetero)sexism and different kinds of regulation at a young age too, and I think what that did was make me really quiet and closed up in a lot of ways. But expressing myself creatively was something I did to become myself again – whether that be through writing, acting, music, or just telling stories about how I imagined my life to be, instead of the scary, oppressive way I often experienced it as.
JR: What writers/poets/activists have influenced your writing?
ST: First and foremost, my family: my parents and sister created an environment for me where creativity was valued and encouraged. Now still, there are so many ways I am creatively inspired by the lives and perspectives of my friends and family, even in ordinary moments. I’m also lucky to be a part of Asian Arts Freedom School (a creative arts and radical Asian history/politics group), where the conversations and stories continually influence and push my own writing.
As for famous people — some that come to mind: Arundhati roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Shyam Selvadurai, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Leah-Lakshmi Piepzna Smarasinha, Himani Bannerji, Andrea Smith, Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, as well as Enakshi Dua and Priscila Uppal who worked with me and helped me so much on my manuscript.
JR: The erasable woman is your masters thesis project, why did you choose to write it in poetry? Was this challenged? How and why?
ST: I was just sick of writing like an academic (ha ha). My topic was exploring colonial violence against racialized queer women, as well as how broad systems of oppression or histories can manifest intimately on women’s bodies, and in personal relationships. I find that poetry can express this intimacy in ways academic writing cannot. A lot of people in academia would not consider poetry a legitimate way to express theory or politics, but poetry IS theory, it IS knowledge, it IS political. I was really lucky to end up with a supervising committee who understood and supported this kind of project (Ena and Priscila). Anybody who pissed me off during grad school about this or other topics, I probably ended up writing an angry poem about so it’s all good.
JR: Why the title The Erasable Woman?
ST: The Erasable Woman is a title of one of my poems and I feel it fits the entire collection. A major theme that runs through my manuscript is erasure…being forgotten, lost, ignored, invisible, expendable, disposable. At the same time it asserts a physical, spiritual, sexual, emotional, undeniable presence in the midst of being/feeling erased. that’s one of the ways I tried to express the complexity of what it means to experience oppression and survive/resist it at the same time.
JR: This week Black Coffee Poet is dedicating its space to bringing awareness to the issue of violence against the Womyn Forgotten on Decemeber 6th, how does your collection of poetry speak to this issue?
ST: Erasure is such a key and powerful way that violence is allowed to continue. Black Coffee Poet is calling this week: Remembering the Women on December 6th. This speaks to the ways in which racism and other oppressions in feminist movements is ignored and the well-being of women of colour is not considered. As well, the value of challenging sexism, homophobia and transphobia in a lot of anti-racist or queer initiatives is often marginalized and not given enough importance. So many things in this world are structured through erasure: mainstream education denies the violence of colonial conquest on this land by largely painting it as a benign, peaceful process; national media doesn’t pay enough attention to the ways in which violence impacts marginalized bodies or communities; survivors in/of abusive relationships are silenced and shut down when they try and fight/talk back; queer or unconventional love/desire is constantly trivialized and demonized; expressing or feeling certain kinds of emotions is constantly minimized. There are all these ways that the experience and process of erasure contributes to violence and to breaking apart bodies, relationships, communities and selves that deserve to remain whole. I wanted to explore the topic in my own way through my writing.
JR: How does your identity as a womyn of colour (and other ‘identities’) influence and factor into your work?
ST: I can’t separate myself from my social position (or my mashup of ‘identities’), and I can’t separate myself from my writing (I don’t believe that anyone can), so it all becomes intertwined. In this particular work it was important for me to centre the voice of a queer woman of colour, because it’s not a perspective that’s often given attention – in literature, feminism, anti-racism or queer politics.
JR: What other topics/themes are covered in the erasable woman?
ST: Love. Fear. Pleasure. Lust. Pain. Glamour. Death.
Haha, that quote is from a recent Andy Warhol art exhibit, but it fits my writing too! But other than that: body politics, queer politics, colonial/sexual/physical/emotional/spiritual violence, intimate relationships, community relationships, experiences/notions of home and (be)longing, surviving, creating, and generally kicking ass.
JR: How is writing about the issue of violence against womyn in poetry different from writing about it in non-fiction or fiction?
ST: I find that writing/creating/expressing a similar topic in different genres can bring different purposes, meanings, or value to different audiences. There would be certain things I would be able to say about violence against women of colour through poetry that I wouldn’t have the space to say through academic language – just because of the restrictions/shape of the form. Similarly, I recently performed a dance piece at an asian arts freedom school festival (earlier this fall) that was inspired by 3 poems I wrote in my manuscript, but brought a different level of meaning to the poems that I wasn’t able to express in words. There are so many ways to resist violence – and all have their values and limits – whether its poetry, other creative arts, non-fiction, organizing a rally or a conference, supporting someone close to you during a rough time, even just having a conversation where you discuss the ideas. They can all be useful in different contexts, depending on what message you’re trying to convey and to whom.
JR: You use some images in your collection (photos along with drawings), can you tell us why and how you came to this decision?
ST: I always start with a feeling or idea that I need to express (sometimes desperately), and I follow my intuition, as well as work with my skill set, to give shape and form to that feeling/idea the best and most honest way I can figure out how. For example, at one point I wanted to create something that expressed how the bodies of women of colour are judged and marked by oppression just by living in the world. So, one of the pieces that appears in my collection (bodysnatchers) contains a series of photos with oppressive words actually written on the body. It just made the most sense.
JR: Unfortunately, folks reading the review of The Erasable Woman and this interview have not had the pleasure of reading your work because it is currently not available to the public, can you tell us what your plan/hopes are for this wonderful collection of poetry?
ST: The Erasable Woman is still a work in progress that i am currently fine-tuning, and I’m hoping to get it published in the near future! I’m really excited about how it’s shaping up and have been doing readings at various events in the city. Please check out my website (which is new and still under construction), but you can read some of my work there or check out other things I’m up to. And feel free to email me at email@example.com if you want to get in touch about anything!
Thanks so much to Janet for the thoughtful questions and for reviewing my work. Thanks also to Jorge (Black Coffee Poet) for putting in the work to create this space!
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday December 10, 2010 for videos of Shaunga Tagore, Mel Gayle, and Jorge Antonio Vallejos (Black Coffee Poet) reading their poetry about STOPPING Violence Against Women forgotten by mainstream media and many white feminists.
By Suritah Wignall
A Space Gallery
401 Richmond St. West
Exhibition ends Dec 11th 2010
One of the hardest things that I have ever had to deal with is being a dark skinned black woman. For the longest time I felt uncomfortable in my own skin; these feelings came from my upbringing, my childhood experiences in elementary school, high school, and in my college years.
I went to a predominantly white catholic elementary school and an all girl catholic high school. The urban arts scene in Toronto has been transformative because it is filled with poets, artists, playwrights, actors and singers from all cultures and backgrounds who speak of their struggles, beauty and pain. It was there that I learned about the hardships and beauty of culture and skin tones.
Visible/Invisible is a collection of four images that represent all the things I have ever longed for, from childhood to my adult life––love, affection and then acceptance. It is my hope to show that the only way to love yourself is to fully accept who you are.