A woman’s heart is a chamber of deep emotions. It holds within enough happy feelings and experiences as well as some angst and agonies with some deep scars which a woman always forgets, and moves on every morning of her life. Busy with her innate sense of accountability to her varied roles that life had bestowed upon her, she does not allow these emotions to overpower or overwhelm her. However, there are times, when all these emotions come burning to the fore, and end up inundating her heart. Yet, she soon keeps them at bay and marches on.
I have always wondered – why should women do that? Why can they not be free from these emotions? Why should a woman suppress only because the society around her teaches her to not express?
I recently caught up with one such woman – Lopa Banerjee – who chose to dive deep within, take a walk amongst her memories and then bring them all to the fore. For herself and for all the women around her.
Lopa is a Dallas, US based poet and writer who with the sensitivity of her pen, and the thoughtfulness of her words is making deep inroads in the world of literature. A teacher and student of literature, Lopa published her first book Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey in 2016 that received many accolades. An Honorary Mention certificate at Los Angeles Book Festival 2017 and a First Place Category Winner at the Journey Awards 2015 (Category: Narrative Nonfiction/Memoir) hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media LLC, USA.
She has also published two books of poems – Let The Night Sing and Woman and Her Muse: Poetry & Memoir which again have got some rave reviews and recognition. She has also been instrumental in bringing out the works of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate of Bengal, in English – The Broken Home and Other Stories and Tales of Transformation: English Translation of Tagore’s Chitrangada and Chandalika.
Here are a few snippets from our conversation.
Swapna: Thank you so much Lopa for agreeing to talk to us. At Eyra, we celebrate womanhood. Our name takes its roots from the Goddess Eye of Ra (Egyptian mythology) who is the most powerful metaphor to a woman’s fierce independence, anger and violence. Closer home, in Hindu mythology, Goddess Saraswati is the embodiment of knowledge and peace and is also known as ‘Ira’. Even in Greece and Russia, Ira is the name of the Goddess of Peace.
And for me you are a classic example of that perfect woman who symbolises all that Eyra stands for.
And I am glad we are getting an opportunity to talk to you and share your story with our readers. Your book ‘Thwarted Escape – An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’ seems to be your attempt to acknowledge, accept and then move on. Tell us more about your book.
Lopa: Thank you dear Swapna, it is a great honor and privilege to be chosen for this beautiful author interview for Eyra, a creative and editorial forum for women who I believe, are the architects of the core fabric of our society. They are mothers, nurturers, caregivers as well as profound artists intrinsically connected to nature. Hence I have always been intrigued to discover and essay their sagas, their journeys.
‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, my memoir/narrative nonfiction book, published four years back (Authorspress, 2016) will always be special. As I already said in all my other interviews that I grew/evolved as a woman, a mother, a daughter along with the book. I started out with writing a chapter of the book with my firstborn, Srobona, tucked in my womb, and later, when I delivered her sister Sharanya, I instinctively added another chapter on the experience of birthing her, thinking that the chapters would complement each other. But later, my yearly visits to Kolkata from the US and getting back there as a daughter, a daughter-in-law, most importantly an immigrant, implored me to look at the narrative of the book from other dimensions. The memoir was born from a number of disjointed essays where my pent up, calcified memories wreaked havoc in my mind. The book took shape when I realised that all of them could come together and take a novel-like curve.
As I have written in the preface of the book, its seed had been sown within the bolted doors of a solemn writing lab of the University of Nebraska, Omaha, where I was pursuing my Masters’ degree in Nonfiction writing. But with the passage of time, the idea of writing a diaspora story reared its head stronger every day, and thus, the book evolved from the seed of a personal essay to a collection of personal stories told through the lens of a wistful immigrant woman in the US. I had laid bare my soul and chiseled myself as a narrator depicting some of my most excruciating, life-changing moments and epiphanies in the book. But I personally feel that more than my attempt to acknowledge my memories, it is the basic craft of placing my alter-ego as a protagonist and looking at the concept of ‘Home’, the family, and the various particulars of my emotional landscape which formed the crux of the narratives. It is as true in the first few chapters where I dissect my childhood memories, my pent-up story of child molestation, my awkward years of groping with the nuances of puberty, as it is in the later chapters where I depict my journey as a woman, mother and a Bengali immigrant in the US.
Swapna: Writing is highly therapeutic, gives solace and acts as a major catharsis to see life ahead. A women’s life in India (back in the 80’s and 90’s) was fairly well laid out. Education (with enough restrictions), marriage (US or non US groom), children, and so on. I am sure you also went through the same rigmarole. Tell me when and why did you decide to pen your journey.
Lopa: Yes, writing and also music came in my life quite early, with therapeutic effects in my whole being, and there was a paradigm shift in my entire persona when I came out with my books, my published pieces, both online and in various anthologies/mags/e-zines. But that happened quite later in my life when I understood that these writings of mine needed an outlet, and most importantly, an audience. Yes, I do belong to a typical orthodox Bengali Brahmin family with a largely patriarchal mindset. But fortunately, my mother was a teacher of Bengali literature and Sanskrit, so the foundation of love for the literary world in the core of my being was there since the start. All that I remember from my early years is that I wanted to do something creative—not necessarily writing, though, but probably painting, music, dance, or something related to the arts. From an early age, I somehow instinctively felt that my creativity was a gift. More so whenever I felt emotions strongly from within, which our culture taught us to suppress. You can say I have been quite subversive, in that way.
However, my writing journey did not start in a day, but grew as an organic process with the studies of English literature since my formative years in college and university in Kolkata. The study of poetry, drama and fiction has shaped my persona in many inexplicable ways. The essence of it all grew on me with time, as I was born and evolved as a writer in the later years. Since I had always loved writing, I took up journalism too, after my Masters’ in English in Kolkata and the freelance writing assignments in various newspapers, magazines during that phase were in some way, small milestones which enabled me to find out that my writing can have an audience. But they were mostly articles/essays, and also content writing pieces focused on particular subjects.
Much later, after being an immigrant in USA for a while, the study of contemporary English literature with an emphasis in creative nonfiction writing in the University of Nebraska gave me further impetus to first envision myself as a writer and then to gradually work towards attaining it, and then social media came in my life, like many others, as an added stimulus to flourish as a poet, an artist and a storyteller. Various prestigious online magazines and journals have given me the much needed platform to showcase my work and virtual groups including The Significant League gave me two awards, Reuel International Prize for Poetry (2017) and Reuel International Prize for Translation (2016) and the validation to continue my journey with my head held high, so it is definitely very precious to me.
Swapna: As a writer, for me, poetry appeals when I want to walk down the memory lane or express something deeply emotional. With your impeccable language and deep mastery over words, you chose an integrated format of poetry and prose for your work. Tell us something more about that. Did prose do justice as much as poetry does?
Lopa: Thanks so much for the kind appreciation for my world of words! Nothing is more humbling and gratifying for a writer than the reassuring words of another writer or a reader with whom poetry, or the magic of words resonates on a deeper level, while referring to his/her works.
In my writing journey, though prose happened first, as a feature writer and blogger, somewhere along the way, poetry publications happened as poetry has always been the food for my soul, my source of sustenance amid the darkest of times. It’s difficult to say whether I chose poetry as a medium to give vent to my pent-up emotions, or whether poetry chose me as a vehicle to express unsung lyrics. But in the course of this journey of mine, both poetry and prose have walked together, hand-in-hand, and I have drenched myself in the essence of both these apparently diverse forms. What would you say of Maya Angelou or Alice Walker who walked through the fire of their own stories, celebrating the poetry of life itself? What about the prose of Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, or in our very own Indian writing, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitabha Ghosh, Arundhati Roy? I’ve found a lyrical quality in many of their stories. Even some of Oscar Wilde’s short stories I grew up reading were deeply poetic in their very essence.
Hence I would like to say here that I am a believer in the fluidity between genres and forms. That way my prose sometimes becomes lyrical, and my poetry becomes an amalgamation of poetic vision and the details of prose. These intense authors have widened my horizons of thinking regarding literature and art. I see this world as a visual poetry in motion.
Swapna: India holds a myriad linguistic treasure of literature that beautifully depict the social, cultural, mythological fabric of our country. You have been involved in bringing out translations of Gurudeb Rabindranath Tagore in English. Tell us something more about it. How did that journey begin?
Lopa: Translating Tagore’s work had rather come to me as a promise that I had silently made to my mother during the day of her demise, as my first recognition of his literary works came from her teachings. Over time, Gurudeb Rabindranath Tagore has grown on me like old roots, like a religion quietly observed and internalized. His music, writings, art and above all, his existence within me, I would say, is like a subterranean flow which would never stop and give me sustenance for this lifetime. Hence, even attempting to translate his words is like finding my own resonance in this universe. I am sure many Bengali authors, rather artists would tell you more or less the same, due to our literary sensibilities which are shaped by reading his works in original Bengali.
Since I was more intrigued by the presentation of Tagore’s heroines in his fictional stories and dramas, I wanted to transcreate the stories of those protagonists in English for the global readers through my English renditions. Thus ‘The Broken Home and Other Stories’ happened, which is my translation of two novellas ‘Nastanirh’ and ‘Laboratory’, along with six women-oriented short stories. This was followed by my English translation of his feminist dramas ‘Chitrangada’ and ‘Chandalika’, which I compiled in a book titled ‘Tales of Transformation’. These two books are born from my quest to understand Tagore’s heroines more deeply through the complex nuances of their emotions.
Also, I would like to add here that in my book ‘Woman and Her Muse’, I have a memoir dedicated to Gurudeb Tagore, how I see him as a beacon of hope in my diaspora life.
Swapna: Who is Lopa? While the world sees her as a successful poetess, writer, teacher, mother et al, but what do you see Lopa as?
Lopa: To me, Lopa is always a child woman, a mad, free-spirited child woman who always lives in a bubble of her dreams, is always tethered to the poetry of life in its myriad hues. She is a lover of nature, of mysticism that resides not in temples, mosques or religious sites, but in her inner sanctum. I often see myself as a bird trapped in a woman’s body, a firm believer in the mystic Sufi poet Rumi’s saying: ‘Only from the heart can you touch the sky.’ The heart is the abode of our boundless possibilities, I strongly believe.
Swapna: Tell us something about your upcoming work.
Lopa: One of these days, probably in summer, I intend to come out with my debut book of fiction, ‘All That Jazz: A Romance Novella’ and 10 short stories as an e-book in Amazon Kindle. The novella and the stories are set in the backdrop of the throbbing city of Kolkata, the suburbs of Bengal, the mist-laden mountain cities of North Bengal, Delhi and its outskirts and in various cities in USA. Through this collection of fictional tales, I have attempted to trace the journeys of various women, the men in their lives, and also the life of a transgender woman, the sparks of their indomitable passion and desires and subtle, irresistible emotions that define those myriad journeys.
I have also completed a prestigious translation project, which will be the first English translation of an award-winning novel of Bengal’s doyenne of literature, Ashapurna Devi. The book is already with the publishers and they will decide on the publication date this year. I am truly looking forward to it!
Besides, I am working on a poetry collection in collaboration with a Mexican-American poet and artist based in Dallas, the theme of the book will be centered on our diverse ethnic identities.
There are also other collaborative projects, like editing an anthology of poetry based on a beautiful prompt during April, the Global Poetry Writing Month, a few publications of some poetry here and there, all of which I wrote during the lockdown period, post COVID-19. I also write blogs and feature stories on social issues, education, culture and entertainment on an ongoing basis for a few online blogs/mags etc.
All in all, my life has been a roller-coaster ride of diverse experiences and I am thankful to God for these unique opportunities given to me.