Editorial Assistant Rosie Leggott’s Interview with 2022 Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize Winner Moni Brar
Rosie Leggott: Your bio reads, “She believes art contains the possibility of healing.” Has art had a healing effect on you? Was this part of your goal with this poem? Can you elaborate on the healing qualities within your work?
Moni Brar: Poetry has been an integral part of my healing journey. It’s helped me make sense of the senseless, in terms of multiple personal and intergenerational traumas. I use poetry to approach pain in a different, gentler way, and it has led me to finally find the courage to say the unsayable. I don’t think it would have been possible for me to reconcile events in my past, like childhood sexual abuse and religious violence, without poetry as the vehicle. In this poem, I attempt to link intimate pain to collective trauma and show the reader how one can echo within the other.
RL: Your poem Dispossession in Five Acts is not only broken down into five sections, but each section has a different style. How did you decide what was going to go into each section? How did you then decide which style would appear where? Is this sequence something you struggled with, or did you know from the beginning that this was the format that you had in mind?
MB: This poem came out in a fury! Each section appeared to me as a snapshot, with the content bound tightly around a central image or memory. The sequence came about with ease, but the format is where I spent time experimenting. My aim was to demonstrate resistance through the use of inconsistent form.
RL: You write with empathy and dedication. These are some of the things that make this poem have such a large impact on the reader. If you are comfortable, could you please go into further detail on your experiences with dispossession and the inspiration behind this poem? In addition to this poem, you also submitted a piece entitled before dispossession there was just soil. Does this topic often recur within your poetry?
MB: Dispossession continues to weigh heavily on my heart and mind, so it appears often in my poems. In the first stanza of Dispossession in Five Acts, I refer to the Radcliffe Line. It’s the line that was created at the end of the British Raj to divide the subcontinent into Pakistan and India. It led to one of the largest migrations in human history—18 million people migrated and 3.4 million were killed. My parents lived through this dispossession of land, property, and possessions. My father shared vivid, horrific memories from this period that left such a huge mark on me in terms of what losses we can incur at the hands of others. As an immigrant-settler in Canada, I’m also keenly aware of how my presence here dispossesses the original inhabitants of their land. That is something I continue to reconcile.
RL: There is a second half of the title that reads (or How to Be a Model Minority or Not). The phrase “model minority” is not one that I was familiar with before this poem, but the way that you write it highlights the absurdity of this as a concept. What made you choose to put this as an addition/optional second option to the title?
MB: The concept of “model minority” is something I’ve always grappled with. Throughout my life, from sitting in a classroom at Harvard, to sitting at a meeting in boardroom, I’ve felt this need to put on the mask of the model minority, to live up to this expectation of a “hardworking, striving immigrant.” However, while those around me have this perception of educational attainment and socioeconomic success, the cost was my repressing important parts of myself in terms of cultural and individual expression and living an inauthentic life. I added this concept to the title because it’s another form of dispossession—this model minority myth robs individuals from being seen beyond a stereotype.
RL: I love the quote that you chose to place at the beginning of this poem. The quote works so well with the tone of your poem and, when combined with the title, sets the flow of the piece for the reader in advance. Was this addition to the piece found after the construction of the poem, or was it part of the inspiration behind it? This quote on its own is anti-oppressive and when combined with your poem it has an effect of resistance. How does this quote and the ideas it represents affect your writing?
MB: I love this quote, too! There is such power in it. Canisia Lubrin is a force! I had it written in the margins of one of my notebooks, and I return to it often as these words give me strength. After I had written the poem, it felt like this quote would serve as the perfect lead in. I see this quote as a call-to-action, and my writing, including this poem, try to answer that call.
Moni Brar was born in rural India and raised in northern BC on the land of the Tse’Khene. She is the winner of the 2022 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award and a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. She believes art contains the possibility of healing. Her 2022 Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize winning poem "Dispossession in Five Acts [or How to Be a Model Minority or Not]" will appear in Issue 295 of The Fiddlehead.