Mishra, Sudesh (Raj)
MISHRA, Sudesh (Raj)
Nationality: Fijian (permanent resident of Australia). Born: Suva, 21 November 1962. Education: University of Wollongon, New South Wales, 1981–84, B.A. (honors) 1984; Flinders University of South Australia, 1985–89, Ph.D. 1989. Career: Lecturer in English, University of the South Pacific, 1989–93; Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Flinders University of South Australia, 1993–96. Member, and president since 1991, Fiji Writers' Association. Awards: Flinders University Postgraduate Scholarship, 1985–89; Harri Jones Memorial prize for poetry, 1988; Australian Research Council Postdoctoral fellowship, 1993–96. Address: CRNLE, Flinders University, Bedford Park, South Australia 5042, Australia.
Rahu. Suva, Fiji, Vision International Publishers, 1987.
Tandava. Melbourne, Meanjin Press, 1991.
Memoirs of a Reluctant Traveller. Adelaide, CRNLE-Wakefield Press, 1994.
Ferringhi (produced Suva, Fiji, 1993).
Preparing Faces: Modernism and Indian Poetry in English. Adelaide, CRNLE-University of the South Pacific Press, 1995.
Editor, with Seona Smiles, Trapped: A Collection of Writing from Fiji. Suva, Fiji, Fiji Writers' Association, 1992.*
Manuscript Collection: Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English (CRNLE), Flinders University, Bedford Park, South Australia.
Critical Studies: "Little India" by Vijay Mishra, in Meanjin (Parkville, Victoria, Australia), 49(4), summer 1990; interview with Annie Greet, in CRNLE Reviews Journal, 2, 1993.
Theatrical Activities: Actor: Play —Ferringhi, Suva, Fiji, 1993.
Sudesh Mishra comments:
If all writing is about running away from platitudes, I write to run away from that greatest of platitudes—death.
I tend to work with traditional poetic forms because I like breaking the rules that govern them, not from a sense of bloody mindedness but from a sense of the complexities of a postcolonial existence. As the descendant of indentured laborers from India, born in British Fiji and having spent my adult life in Australia, I am very much aware of the impure character of my inheritance. Outright rejection of any part of this inheritance would be, to say the least, a utopian maneuver. For how can I rid myself of the sediments of history that constitute my being as discourse? And these sediments are Indian, Fijian, English, Australian, American. I may not like the legacy of colonialism, for instance, but I cannot deny that it forms part of my discursive being. So I engage in a perpetual quarrel with myself, and the use of traditional forms is part of this quarrel. I look at it this way: if the sonnet form represents the imprisoning structures of colonial legacy, then I will attempt to implode the form itself with the intention of making room for other sediments that were denied legitimacy by the logic of colonialism. Toward this end, I smuggle into a given form vernaculars, voices, stresses that go against the grain of tradition and history. The idea is to break the rules from within, so that, while the negative of the sonnet form is always there, the prosodic laws governing it may be at odds with what is perhaps considered normative. In many ways this is the postcolonial condition par excellence: the never-ending struggle of competing positions that signals the equally never-ending search for identity.* * *
Born and raised in Fiji, Sudesh Mishra writes poems that reflect the influence of high modernist poets, including Yeats and Eliot, and of a British colonial education. But like the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, Mishra works both with and against his inheritance. He uses traditional poetic forms to relate untraditional stories, many of them about growing up in the South
Pacific. In "Irony," from Tandava, he writes, "For now, I shall be content to deploy / This compass, cause laughter or raise hackles, / And scare the freckles off politicians / And prigs." Increasingly his work is steeped in irony and is less purely lyrical in its impulse.
Mishra is self-conscious about his poetic influences. In "Confessions of a Poetaster from Fiji," the opening poem of his first book, Rahu (1987), Mishra reveals that "at twenty" he got "hooked on Yeats" and that he "lays strange bricks to fashion [his] own Byzantium." In "Feejee," from his second book, Tandava (1991), he echoes Yeats's Crazy Jane poems:
"I am of Feejee,
The bitter land of Feejee,
And hate is all we know," cried she,
"Leap down that mango tree
And dance with me
In this bitter land of Feejee."
His "Black Swans in Ballarat" hearkens back to Yeats's wild (and black) swans at Coole Park, although Mishra's swans are more politically symbolic than are Yeats's:
What history is this, unmarked by the slaver's staff, we watch sailing across the vague municipal lake?
The poem ends with a rhetorical question, as do many of Yeats's most famous poems, but the question positions the poet as dark, like ink, not white, like prototypical swans and poets:
So we watch—colonizer and colonized, assailant and victim—the concert of ebony swans that leave
in their wake the arrowheads of invisible tribes. And what if we gave history to them; would they carry our botched visions through their centuries, slaughter their white image with a squirt of ink?
Mishra often seems to be attempting to do just that, to slaughter a dominant worldview and poetic tradition with his "squirt of ink." In poems such as "The Grand Pacific Hotel" he describes an Indian's sense of his own invisibility and desire to use his language against him: "I tire of the turban, / The looped cerements of my non-presence. / Some day I will name myself in their script."
The object of Mishra's satire is often the tradition from which his poetry emerges. His "Loving Song of R.J. Tangaya" performs a parody of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and of The Waste Land. He substitutes for the bartender's call of "Hurry up, please, it's time," in Eliot's poem, his own "HURRY UP SAHIB ITS TIME." Mishra's awareness of his influences, then, is self-consciously ambivalent, going against his own words in "Feejee" that "ours in the simple faith in what is said." In another poem, "Confessional," Mishra writes of his sense of being out of place as a nonwhite poet from a tropical island:
By a decade or two
I missed the limbo. Louis Armstrong
And hallucinogens. A decade or two since
(I understand soundly that a decade or two
Ago there wasn't a slot in the uppity throng
For brown lads who horsed on canefences.
Mishra's allusion to American empire, particularly as represented in the music of Armstrong, is especially complicated. While Armstrong was black, he is used here to represent white privilege, just as Mishra's own work might be used to justify modernist poetry. But Mishra's work, while written in an idiom familiar to readers of white modernist poets, cannot be mistaken for theirs. Rather, it reflects the vision of a poet born closer to cane fields than to American or European cities. His career as a writer of criticism, fiction, and drama, as well as of poetry, promises to be long and accomplished.
—Susan M. Schultz