In Conversation with Nadia Misir: on Archives, Reclaiming Grammars, Poetry in Ordinary Moments, the Politics of Commutes, and Social Media

by Amanda Goonetilleke

Nadia Misir is a writer from Queens, New York. Her writing explores “diaspora, intimacy, grief, and growing up Guyanese in Queens.” Nadia’s work has been published in QC Voices, POETRY, Kweli Journal, and more. 

I first saw Nadia perform at the first open mic I attended since moving to New York. I had never seen a brown woman on stage navigate the otherness and longing of diaspora. Since then, I’ve followed her generous Instagram posts where she muses on marigolds, finds line breaks in ocean waves, celebrates the found poetry in hookah menus, and finds spring in unexpected moments throughout the city.

 

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Photographed by Angel Gonzalez 

 

In a recent AAWW panel, you talked about how you move through memory with family photo albums because so many gaps exist in institutional archives of Indo-Caribbean history. I would love to hear your thoughts on preserving memories and histories: in what ways do you archive?

I reread Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman and Paule Marshall’s “From the Poets in the Kitchen.” I reread Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts” to remind myself of the “violence of the archive.” Hartman asks “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know? How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it?” She continues “There is not one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage.” So too for indentured women sent to the Caribbean. 

Gaiutra Bahadur responds to an archive of colonial-era postcards featuring portraits of Indian women in Trinidad between the 1870s and 1890s: “An extensive paper trail—colonial travelogues, captains’ logs, ship surgeons’ diaries, and confidential Colonial Office dossiers on errant overseers—provides evidence of the women’s physical lives, but does not—indeed cannot—reveal much about what they thought or felt.” 

Reading Hartman and Bahadur together, thinking about works like Rajiv Mohabir’s I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara—a translation of the only known work written by an indentured laborer in the Anglophone Caribbean—have expanded my understanding of what an archive is, has been, can be, of its impact. 

I’m trying to think about how to locate archives that exist outside of institutions and in the kitchen at the back of my grandma’s house, in the retelling of a memory. What does community archive building look like and how do we make that accessible to everyone in a community? 

I record my relatives gyaffing, I try to conduct oral interviews when I have the time, I reread the letters that chart their migrations from Guyana to here and elsewhere. I try to remember that they have lived full lives. In an interview I did with my grandfather about nine or ten years ago, he recounted a memory I had forgotten until stumbling on it on an old thumbdrive. He had become smitten with another passenger on the ship, a schoolteacher from Berbice who was also returning from England. I asked how they met and he said: “Just happened that she helped me to put on the life jacket and from then on we became great friends. The captain on the ship has the power to marry you. And the day before we arranged to get married. She came up so nicely dressed and then one of my friends looked at her and he said ‘Ms. Singh, words fail me.’ And finally, she said to me, ‘You know we better not go through with this.’” 

The rest of the interview was about his love for country-western music, Jim Reeves, cinema and how he learned to make pepperpot. I learned so much about Guyana, a country that really only existed at that point in my life a memory I couldn’t keep up with, through conversations with my grandparents and family members. I was 25 when visited Guyana for the second time (the first time I visited I was just learning to walk), so I tried to find all of the ways that sense of Back Home was recreated at home and in my neighborhood. Archiving gave me a sense of comfort, but also loss. 

I’m realizing that family photo albums are not only an archive to mine, but a privilege too. For so long I’ve said there are no archives without realizing members of my own family, especially my grandmother, had access to cameras and some agency in preserving what they thought were important and joyful moments in their lives. My mom curated her own photo album when she was a teenager and the inscription reads “Moments of Eternal Bliss & Pure Joy.” I think archiving those moments that bring us joy is as important as archiving our traumas.

 

Courtesy the National Archives UK

 

I take too many photos of things like the way neon lighting from a Guyanese-Chinese restaurant like Caribbean Cabana hits the sidewalk and meets the shadow of the J train as it pulls into the next stop. My impulse to archive is rooted in my fear of forgetting. I take a lot of five second videos of empty spaces. The line for the Q10 near Union Turnpike and Lefferts Boulevard loops through a tunnel that separates a small grocery store from what used to be a 24-hour cafe that sold pizza, bubble tea and baked goods. In that small space so many things are coexisting: different text styles advertising vegetables, people trying to avoid running into each other as they hustle for the bus or train, a big flock of pigeons that feed nearby. These are mundane things, but they make up the anatomy of a place. Gentrification threatens that everywhere in the city. If I could pick two things that drive my desire to archive, I would choose gentrification and diaspora.

 

Your poem “manual for the tongue whose first language is a churile of my second” was included in the July/August 2019 edition of Poetry Magazine featuring Global Anglophone Indian Poetry. Why did you choose to submit this poem?

Rajiv Mohabir was one of the guest editors of the issue and invited me to send a few poems for consideration. I was over the moon. Especially because his writing has helped me think through my own practice and development as a writer. This particular poem I began in Marwa Helal’s Vernacular as Resistance poetry workshop. In that workshop, I learned that by using the oppressor’s language, by repurposing it, we could negotiate power and resist. I was thinking a lot about different grammars and what it meant to grow up hearing Guyanese-Creole English be referred to as Broken English. I was never taught Standard English grammar. I was aware of the way grammar worked inside my house, on Liberty Avenue and at school. I was aware of the class implications that came with code switching between each of the different Englishes I grew up with: versions of Creolese that locate the speaker’s class and proximity to “town” or the “countryside”, and the standardized English I was taught at school. This poem was a step towards thinking about how to reclaim what is still called bruk up, broken and raw. 

The churile is one of my favorite jumbis. There are different definitions of who a churile is and why she wails through the night, so I’m interested to hear how others define churile and their own churile stories! According to the jumbi story I grew up with, the churile is the ghost of a woman who has died during childbirth. The churile is charged with causing miscarriages in living women and wanders the night holding her dead fetus. Her hair is described as being unruly and wild. I think history lessons live inside the jumbi stories we’re told growing up. Churiles get a bad rap because they are reborn as a physical manifestation of female anger and grief. They are not confined to one space, but wander about. This manifestation of loss and grief is how I think about my own relationship to language, especially to the English language, and empire. As a child I felt more admiration than fear for the churile. I’m teaching a class this semester about academic writing through the lens of monsters and it’s given me a lot of ideas about how I would revise this poem to capture more of that.

 

What is something ordinary you’ve found poetry in recently?

I love this question because it makes me feel so seen! Today I found poetry in trying (and failing) to light a match. After lighting one, it took me three matches to light a candle with three wicks. I have a fear of fire and being burned, so lighting matches intimidate me. There were also two matches connected at the tip. Part of me wants to split them apart to hear a satisfying crack! but the other part of me wants to preserve the unexpected oddity. Yesterday I found poetry in the dips and folds of my unmade bed. It was like a small collection of hills sprouted from my untidiness. It’s comfy comforter season so I find myself writing, reading and grading papers from bed. On a walk with my boyfriend a few weeks ago we heard someone playing the trumpet from one of the surrounding buildings. He told me he’s heard this person practice for years and that they keep getting better. There’s something so beautiful and intimate about listening to, but not actually seeing, someone practice an instrument. It made me want to praise those whose process and practice spill onto the street, scoring childhoods and morning walks.

 

You often write about your commute on the A train and the Q37. Do you think your commute has made you a better writer? 

I think my commute has made me a more observant writer. Sometimes I’m afraid to people watch because staring can be a hostile act, but I always take notes on my phone about things like what the Q37 might smell like on that particular day or snippets of conversations I pretend I’m not listening to. On October 7, 2014 the train conductor on an uptown D train declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s not that the train doors won’t open, they just won’t open right now.” Shortly after on the 1 train the train conductor of an uptown 1 train said, “Get off the phone and get on the train!” Language is not a static thing and listening on the subway reminds me of all the ways people innovate and manipulate language.    

Commuting has also taught me a lot about the politics of space, accessibility and gentrification. I don’t believe there is a separation between art and politics. To write is a political act. So it’s also important to me as a writer to constantly interrogate the privilege I carry with me when I walk out of the house and use the MTA, to question the politics of what’s happening around me. In high school I wrote a personal essay about my commute from the last stop of the A train to Broadway-Nassau in the financial district every morning to get to class. Rereading it now feels a little haunting: “I always need to acclimatize to this new atmosphere, so different from that of my neighborhood, from that of under the subway. From the roti shops and lottery shops. From the shops that sell stacks upon stacks of vegetables and fruits outside on the sidewalks. The plastic bags hanging above dangling in the air. From the shops that sell the Bootleg Bollywood Films.” Even as a fourteen-year-old sixteen stops through Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan speaks volumes about where you come from, how it’s changing, who’s changing it and who’s being brutalized, demonized and pushed out of their homes. I’m more conscious of this, more angry than I ever was about everything that is unfair and oppressive about the MTA.

 

 

 

 

 

Social media gets a bad reputation, but you seem to use it as a really beautiful tool in your writing and process. Can you tell me about your relationship with social media as a tool as a writer?

Instagram and Snapchat allowed me to bear witness to a piece of me dying when my grandparents died. Since then it’s been the easiest way for me to keep track of my own writing and observations. Snapchat and Instagram’s story feature have also given me a medium to experiment with what a visual essay might look like. I find myself in this mode when I am in my grandparents’ home. There’s something about the jilted process of taking a photo, writing something and doing it again that makes drafting feel more manageable to me. A part of me does want some kind of an audience, or else I would just log all of this into a doc only I could access, but I don’t post for likes or court followers. I think that’s what’s kept my relationship to social media a little more productive and a little less draining. I try to curate my feed to include my favorite writers, artists, scholars, animals, community organizers and memes. I want to read more work that exists outside of what’s being published in the usual circuit of literary journals and sites. There’s so much language floating around and I want to ingest it all, take it all apart, have opinions about it. It’s also connected me to important writing spaces that exist outside of academic institutions, like Laura Pegram’s Art of the Short Story workshop. Without social media it would have taken me a longer time to find Kweli and its healing spaces. You and I also connected on Instagram before meeting—so it’s been a way for me to expand my community on even the days when it feels difficult to get out of my house.

Amanda Goonetilleke

Amanda Goonetilleke (she/her) is a software engineer living in New York City. She is in way too many book clubs, and loves to write and make art. She is extremely passionate about plants, poetry, board games, and especially her cat Luna. Her latest aspirations are to create the perfect butternut squash soup recipe, and to become a dungeon master in D&D. You can always find her on the C train writing questionable poetry into her Notes App, daydreaming and eating her way around Clinton Hill, and jogging in Prospect Park. 

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