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December 07, 2020

‘It’s All In Your Head, M’ Is A Memoir About Radical Self-Love

Text by Shreya Ila Anasuya

Widely published poet and essayist Manjiri Indurkar speaks with insightful honesty about her craft, form, writing about the “personal” and what community can mean for a young writer

Manjiri Indurkar’s first book, a memoir called It’s All in Your Head, M, is an intimate, intricate look at the relationship between abuse, trauma and mental health. It is a self-portrait that says so much about the world the author is from – an entire universe that emerges from one person’s story.

 Excerpts from a conversation with Indurkar….

Photographed by Joshua Navalkar

Can you talk about working as a poet and a memoirist and how the forms influence you? How do they bleed into each other? Which do you enjoy more? Which comes easier to you?
Most of the time, I am able to find poetic influences in the dreariest of places. I will read some statistics, some data, and I will be able to visualise a verse in my mind. Which is to say that something as creative and stimulating as a memoir piece is bound to get the juices flowing. For the longest time, the things I was not about to tell anyone were written in the form of a poem. “I win my colony’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa with popular consensus/and I get to sit on the lap of my azoba’s friend for as long as I like” is a line about my CSA experience from a poem that has nothing to do with CSA.

It is easy to hide clues like these in poems. In some ways, I was always working towards writing a memoir. The first step was poetry; then came the essays and, finally, this book. But now that I am so used to opening up my life to people, memoir-writing has become the easier thing to do. I have, in equal parts, hated and loved writing this book. Using my creative licenses, making associations with literature and cinema the way I have in my head my whole life, and giving others a peek into that part of my head was fun. The way poetry and memoir writing bleed into each other is visible in the book, where one merges with the other and continues to flow.

One of the pitfalls of writing poetry in the confessional style – especially as a woman or femme person – is the same pitfall memoirists have to navigate. Which is less focus on the craft and much more on the personal details that the writer is supposedly revealing. Do you get this reception? How do you feel about it?
This one time, in a bid to compliment a young poet, a friend told them that their poetry resembled my work. This made the poet insecure I think, and they responded with a dismissive “but she writes about her life, and I don’t”. I wasn’t invited to that conversation, so I didn’t respond, but in my head I was shouting, “How do you know I am writing about my life?” I have written about my life as much as any poet has. Our lives inform our poetry, they always will, but that does not mean I am writing about mine.

And it is frustrating that I get this all the time and people don’t take my poetry for what it is – literature. Look at what happened to Plath’s work. We hardly take her seriously as a poet. Plath had Electra complex, so she wrote Daddy; Ted Hughes cheated on her, so she wrote Lady Lazarus, because Plath came into our dreams and told us that. Sometimes, please let the writer die and read their works for what it means to you, and not what it meant to the poet.

A follow-up to my last question: the stigma around writing the “personal” (which, as the slogan goes, is political, of course) is especially intense when the subjects are socially taboo. This includes experiencing sexual violence, living with illness and navigating trauma – all of which you write about. How can a writer work around this?
What has worked for me is owning my struggles and talking about them. The first time I opened my mouth to talk about it, I thought the walls of my room were going to collapse and kill me. The second time it was harder still. But I had to keep pushing myself, and thank heavens for the ever-supportive people in all phases of my life who kept pushing me to do the same. Each time I felt fear, I turned to them instead of turning inwards, and by the fifth time, it got easy. The only way of undoing the stigma is writing about it, talking about it. Not everyone is in the position to do that, which is why those who can, should. Which is why I do it; because now I can.

One of the other things your writing does for me, continuously, is that it collapses the false binary between physical and mental health. Within biomedical systems, the pervasive pain experienced by women, trans and gender non-conforming people is so often dismissed. There is a growing body of work by people in these communities talking about their experiences. Has it helped you to be able to read this body of work, and in a sense, be in conversation with it through your own?
Yes, of course. I read a lot of essays published in places like Skin Stories, people penning their experiences on Medium.

Stories of trans people, non-binary people, fat people, people with various forms of visible and invisible disabilities – It, in a way, is people standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us, and making space for those who will come after us.

I have been called “courageous” a lot lately; but so much of my courage is not mine. Rather, it is the courage I have borrowed from the people who were constantly pushed to the margins, from their stories. It made me realise my role here too: to pass on this courage to the next person in need of it.

You write about how much Mumbai films shape ideas of romance, including yours. But in your memoir, while you grow out of that India, you remain hopeful about love. Can you tell us a bit more about what romantic love has meant for you?
Cinema set unrealistic expectations, and it took some time to grow out of them. But, it also taught us to value ideas of love no matter the circumstance. I am a romantic at heart still, so I can’t imagine my life without romantic and other kinds of love. I’d fight for it. I find the idea of love radical. It is something we have been warned against so much in our society that even a small fight for it in your living room feels liberating. A fight for your love is a fight for all kinds of love in my book. It transcends ideas of class, caste, race, gender. It is something worth fighting for and always will be.

Aside from writing, you also teach. Can you talk about the importance of community and mentorship for emerging writers, especially in a country where the literary community is particularly fragmented and inaccessible?
I am a writer today because of this community and the mentors I had. Fellow writers were always there for me whenever I needed their help, their feedback. It is an essential practice. We have to nurture new writers; it is our moral and ethical responsibility. Writing might be a solitary act, but, for me, literature is about building a culture not just of reading and writing but also of supporting each other.

I have been writing for some time, so I understand the craft maybe a little more than someone who has just started writing, I have to then help that person if they come to me. It is that simple. I want to challenge new writers to think about things that might have missed their radar, I want them to think of literature as a tool of much needed and radical change. And I want to have conversations with them and learn from them. In a way, I am hungry to learn from anyone who is willing to teach me and equally hungry to share my learning.

Who are the poets and memoirists who have influenced your own journey the most?
Memoirists: Jeanette Winterson, Roxane Gay, bell hooks, Maggie Nelson, Joan Didion, Olivia Liang, Stephen King, Richa Kaul Padte, and Johanna Hedva’s essays, and the essays by the countless number of women who write every day about their lives with such beauty and grace.

Poets: Nandini Dhar, Sumana Roy, Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Fernando Pessoa, Arun Kolatkar, Arjun Rajendran, Suniti Namjoshi, Gulzar, Dushyant Kumar, Uday Prakash, Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

What would your advice be to young writers who want to write poetry and memoirs?
The biggest favour any young writer can do to themselves is to write without any inhibitions – which are often related to market demands. Fears of what will get published and what won’t. Just read, read, read a lot. And write. Write for yourself, for your friend who reads all your works. Then edit. Form a community of writers, not the people who you think have “made it” but the people you can actually respect, whether or not they have many readers or big books published. Have conversations with people who are not writers, or at least conversations that aren’t about writing or literature. Watch good films and bad ones. Write in your journal. Don’t be in a hurry to publish books. It will happen.

Your first responsibility is towards yourself. Nourish your writing, your thinking, your environment. Read the news. Read books you don’t usually like to read. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, everything. Read bad writers too.

Your life’s pursuit should not be to become famous; that will be the default byproduct once you learn to be honest to your inner self and the voice that guides you. Listen to that voice; don’t let the noise of the capitalism-fueled publishing industry crush it. You, and not this noise, are what matters. Remember that.

Disclaimer: Anasuya was the managing editor of Skin Stories, an erstwhile digital publication where a number of Indurkar’s essays were published.


Shreya Ila Anasuya is an award-winning writer, journalist, editor and performance artist.

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