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Nomad Nabina Das

This is the first in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das. Born and brought up in Guwahati, Assam, India, Nabina has a novel titled Footprints in the Bajra (Cedar Books, Delhi) and an MFA from Rutgers University. Winner of several writing residencies and national poetry prizes, Nabina’s poem has been included in the Nagaland Secondary Board of Education syllabus. A 2007 Joan Jakobson (Wesleyan) and 2007 Julio Lobo (Lesley) fiction scholar, she has worked in journalism and media for about 10 years, trained in North Indian classical music and folk songs, and performed in radio/TV programs. Nabina lectures in classrooms/workshops, designs brochures and poetry post cards, and blogs at http://nabinadas13.wordpress.com/. She loves reading (never call it teaching) poetry and doing street theater with children. In this blog, Nabina will primarily be writing about Indian books, authors, and literary scenes, occasionally expanding her focus to the wider world of South Asian connections to literature and translations in English.

I used to begin my bio note by saying: “Nabina Das lives two lives…” I’d explain that after living in the US for a considerable time and taking annual or bi-annual trips to India, where I was born and brought up, time had begun to appear halved to me. Has that notion changed, now that I am back in India, to “settle down,” in the local parlance here? I’m afraid life just feels even more splintered, and in a good way. So let me start by rewriting the line as: “Nabina Das lives many lives...”—although this is not a bio I’m writing. Rather, a hello to my colleagues at Prairie Schooner and readers all over the world.

After considering myself as a fairly long-time Upstate New Yorker – given that I know the difference between maple syrup and hard cider – and then as a short-term but proud Jersey-ian (my Camden friends would vouch for that), and now that I’m back in India after completing an MFA in Poetry from Rutgers-Camden, my writing wants to express itself in many forms; like they say in academia: “The discourse is many-layered…”! Well, this could also mean, I bring not only mangoes, monsoon showers, lotus petals and sequined saris to my work, but also, diverse styles, voices, diction – the practice of a discipline that makes me thirsty for more and my readers, too. The bard poet of my home state Assam, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, invokes this notion in his immortal Assamese song: “Moi eti jajabor” (I’m a nomad). The nomad here is not a mere traveler, but one who gathers essence from places and people.

The year that I lived separated from my family, chatting with my dear ones continent to continent on Skype, taught me a lot. Most importantly, it taught me to respect the privilege I have. After my father passed away on Dec. 20, 2010, while I was in Camden, it became even more pertinent to understand the nuances, to put it in a rather clichéd manner, this great story called life offers us. Being a poet and writer, with one novel published and poems in anthologies and journals, writing is for me not just about holding printed and published pages in my hands, but about understanding how it calls attention to life’s smallest challenges and pleasures, and how it strengthens our resilience.

Right after Rutgers, I went to Skidmore’s NYS Summer Writers Workshop for a whole month, interacting with Campbell MacGrath, Carolyn Forché and Peg Boyers. Then back in India, I went to an international residency at Sangam House, with the distinction of being a Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellow. Soon I’ll be off to University of Stirling, Scotland, on a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship for Creative Writing, from April to June. In all these places, I find myself in conversation with writers and creative practitioners from all kinds of backgrounds. I no longer live inside a map. The fragmentation of my life – now do you get it when I say, “Nabina Das lives many lives…”! – bodes well for my own discipline. For a young girl always in love with writing, who took her hesitant first steps out of her home many years ago in Guwahati, Assam, the journey has been good in the sense that my own memory has inherited other memories, constructing bits and pieces all the while.

I hope to bring readers of the Prairie Schooner blog some of that, and also share from my back-background of being a journalist and teacher. Of the book reviews, critiques, poetry and fiction posts, Q&As and profiles that I’ll be doing here, a lot of it will be guided by my desire to know better about people. Labeled as a “feminist writer,” and even a “poet with an agenda,” writing in English, Assamese and Bengali have enabled me to be true to my vision. Just as Édouard Glissant believed language to be a resistance to creation within and without, my multiple linguistic citizenships embolden me no end.

On the personal front, when I’m not talking and sharing (thanks to social networking) with writers all over the globe, you’d find me spending quiet evenings watching movies with my husband Mohit Chandna who teaches French and Francophone Lit in an Indian university, drinking shiraz, and reading poetry and short fiction – often in that order. The other things that keep me sane are sketching/painting for wall frames, poetry postcards, handmade pottery; music, and traveling. Through her daily communication, my mother also makes sure I am not just any daughter, any woman, but, in her unrelenting allegiance to Tagore’s notion, a “feminine individual.”