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A transgressive collection that celebrates rejection slips

Mukta Sambrani’s anthologised but unpublished collection grapples with the hierarchies of language, the secret lives of birds and much besides, writes Lora Tomas.

Lora Tomas  28th Jun 2014

Mukta Sambrani

hen a tourist (also referred to as "the first reader") starts unwrapping peanuts bought on the streets of Bombay, he chances upon a page of Anna Albuquar's curious manuscript. He immediately buys the rest of that heap of papers from the peanut vendor. As he reads through, he "thinks Anna is like him, a tourist, lost somewhere in mystic India taking Sanskrit and Tantra lessons or perhaps learning a temple dance somewhere in the southern states or in Orissa." The intriguing and at times baffling manuscript ("I am likely not to be understood here in the east and there in the west.") is poet Mukta Sambrani's unpublished project Broomrider's Book of the Dead: a book in no genre based on found fragments from the notebooks of Anna Albuquar a.k.a. Anna Plum.

Born in India, Mukta Sambrani moved to the United States in 1999, and graduated from San Francisco State University with an MFA in Creative Writing. She currently lives in Oakland, California, where she works as a school administrator. In 1997, Writer's Workshop (Calcutta) published her first book of poems, The Woman in This Poem Isn't Lonely. "I wrote Broomrider's book of the dead between 1997 and 2003. It flowed between 1997 and 2001. I made more edits after 2001. There was a little re-arranging, quite a bit of editing. It was my MFA thesis," said Sambrani in our e-mail interview.

Broomrider's Book of the Dead, influenced by Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, is experimental in every sense — a lengthy meta-text that plays with form, font and blank spaces; the prose and verse pieces progress non-linearly and create a loop; lines break or are scattered over a page in a way that challenges the habitual sequence of reading, while notes to the reader, editor's notes, footnotes and instructions additionally pepper the text. It's a crowded collage and an eloquent concoction that will make you look up all the references it states or implies. And there are many.

Sambrani's manuscript evokes various theories and names from the fields of linguistics, psychoanalysis, semiotics, deconstruction, gender studies, narratology, queer and postcolonial theories, (poststructuralist) theories of the body, Marxist literary criticism, religious, mythological and contemporary creative writing studies and so on.

I could sense Freud's theory of melancholia as the libido's "evacuation" into the past ("I sing dirges for the dead all day."); Hélèn Cixous's concept of écriture feminine or women writing that should unravel the inherent phallo-centricity of language, which limits the flow of female "white ink" or breast milk ("The body informs the formation of the body of language."); Chandra Mohanty's critique of "hegemonic Western feminisms" which have constructed the "third world woman" ("Are you married yet? A widow then? Oh, I am sorry but don't they burn widows on the pyre with dead men? You must have had a very unusual experience."); or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the duo that dealt with the notions of female "anxiety of authorship," the fear of misogynist (literary) criticism and the urgency to transcend it ("I don't care if I am considered a strong poet, as long as I am one. That is/ If we were to spend the rest of our lives wondering, /if and how we answer our influences, or whether we answer at all, /or if our answers are a result of misreading the masters...").

Sambrani's protagonist Anna is writing from a mental asylum, or in the words of the feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva, "the blank space:" "All rhythms become static between the all too white walls." In her notes, Anna addresses the institutional rawness and violence against the other two inmates — a Painter who paints in blood and believes the state hates her for being an artist, and the messianic Mataji who is "everyone's mother," the primal Mother Goddess, if you wish. But then there is also the witch Broomrider, a fictional character the Painter mentions as an even more ancient mother figure. We stumble upon her throughout the text in the footnotes about the antithetic, best-selling "Broomrider's Guide to Broomriding, the critically acclaimed 'how to' book by Anna Albuquar," which dispenses nebulous advice but nonetheless manages to capture the public's eye.

“Anti-canon has the danger of forming a canon of anti-canonism. Post structuralism can be an ism. Feminism can be an ism. We have to work hard to not fall into the recursion of fighting the thing with the thing itself”

On the other hand, the frequently mentioned character Ishmail, Anna's "diabolical double," her alter-ego, mentor, critic, and subsequent editor of her work, could stand for the canon, academia and phallo-centric literary criticism. "Anti-canon has the danger of forming a canon of anti-canonism. Post structuralism can be an ism. Feminism can be an ism. We have to work hard to not fall into the recursion of fighting the thing with the thing itself," said Sambrani.

Sambrani said that her protagonist was obsessed with capturing memory "beyond constraints of time and place, beyond decay, illness and the failing of the body. She is obsessed with writing about writing. I am curious about the architecture of our experience. As we move toward a world that is hyper-digitised, our psyches become more and more of an orchestration of fragments of media, sights, sounds, words and visuals. Anna's writing leans back to lean forward. It captures the history of writing through writing in a world that constructs itself out of fragments of media."

The book employs symbols, incantations, language of folk magic and ritual practices; it plays with cosmologies and invents its own. The effect of such poems seems not to reside so much in the meaning itself, but in associations, sound and rhythm, as in the example of Anna's Book of Charms:

                                                                       Bury female
                                                                       fetus found
                                                                      fields of glass
                                                                     cover dead hail
                                                                       mother rise
                                                                      Return to fire

Of the recurring motifs of bodies of water and mermaids, Sambrani said that all cultures of the world and all civilisations had emerged proximate and in relationship to bodies of water. "Mermaids live in two worlds. The Little Mermaid is an immortal story of irreconcilable differences between the life of one world and the other world. The original science fiction story is mythology."

Sambrani is equally fascinated with birds, for more than the fact that they also inhabit two different worlds: "I was just having fun writing about Dodo, Walrus and Birdbrain — making fun of some bird-named publishers who may never touch me."

"I suppose the self defeating prophecy — the writing of a failed writer — the premise or the conceit may seem too conceited to some readers or publishers, or maybe writing about writing stopped being cool but I did not get the memo," Sambrani said about this manuscript "meant to aspire and languish." However, according to Anna's antipode Ishmail, rejection slips are part and parcel of this art. Here are some from her collection:

Dear Miss Albuquar,

We would like it very much if you would be kind enough not to reproduce any part of our letter in one of your poems in the future. Especially since our friends at Dodo, Walrus and Birdbrain warn us about your extreme idiosyncratic mysticism which both, compels you to do it and keeps us from publishing you.

Sorry Anna. We can't.

Rejection slip number three

Vehement rejection note from passionate editor to interested colleague Anna Albuquar? Are you kidding me?

And when I asked her about the chance tourist and the peanut vendor from the first paragraph of this interview, she said she had lived in Bombay from 1992 to 1999, the longest she had lived anywhere in India. "I discovered that my writing meant something to others in Bombay. I love Bombay. Who knows what discarded manuscripts peanuts and chana jor garam gets wrapped in? Anything is possible in Bombay."

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