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Identity & Literature: Vijay Seshadri as Elizabeth Bennet?
The Believer Logger’s Laura Standley interviewed poet, writer, and professor Vijay Seshadri about how poetry, nonfiction, and teaching intersect, among other things: “And so that problem of the self was always a big problem for me, always a big issue. And it’s doubled for the immigrant because the immigrant tends to come from an older world….”
They discuss identity, the reading experience, the sci-fi aspect of our contemporary lives, how it manifests in a poem’s subjectivity, the likes of Fernando Pessoa and, well, Jane Austen…
VS: …When you’re an immigrant, you’re at the bottom of the ladder. You might not be at the bottom of the ladder economically. We weren’t. We were middle-class people, and my father was an academic, a scientist. Those contradictions led me to feel that the role in society I was given didn’t jive with my sense of myself. I think, in fact, that is the case with most people. Everybody feels themselves to be in an original relationship to creation, and feels confined by their social role.
But I think it was really kind of apparent to me growing up that this was the problem. In some sense, I was attracted to creating personas, and to being in literature where you can live another life. I read Pride and Prejudice, and I am Elizabeth Bennett. I’m not Darcy. I’m Elizabeth because Elizabeth is the consciousness of the book. And I didn’t feel that I couldn’t be one with Elizabeth Bennett because Elizabeth Bennett was a white woman living in Regency England and I was an Indian kid in mid-twentieth-century Ohio. So, am I Elizabeth Bennett or am I not? It’s not a question I’ve ever answered.
BLVR: You’re touching on another preoccupation of mine—parts versus their whole, individuality versus universality. We have a self, and we’re in a body, separate from everyone else, or at least we feel like we are, and at the same time, we can be Elizabeth Bennett. And as your reader, I am you. Is that a mind trip? Is it something that you consider?
VS: I think it’s strange to think this way for people who are living in the world and whose survival is dependent upon their representing and acting out a certain self—a lawyer or a politician, for example. But for a writer, it’s exactly the opposite. It shouldn’t be strange for us—the way everybody else lives is strange for us. Because, in a sense, our business as writers is to be other people, even if you’re writing essays, even if you’re writing lyrical poems that are just about your own experience. In some way, the richness of that poem is dependent upon your ability to somehow imaginatively transgress what other people consider borders and boundaries of identity.
Take someone like Duke Ellington. He was a black man living in the beginning and the middle of the twentieth century. He thought of himself as an aristocrat. Nobody could tell Duke Ellington, “You’re not an aristocrat, man, because you’re black.” And his music is aristocratic music. It’s not demotic music. And, certainly, the business of artists is not to be reductive but to look at things and see everything in its individuality and its uniqueness.
So yes, this whole thing about the self, about the nature of identity, it’s obviously an issue. There was that whole period where people would question if one had the right to write about the sufferings of other people if one hadn’t experienced those sufferings. Whether, for example, a white middle-class woman who had an elite education had a right to write about an African woman having a baby without the benefit of medical attention. But it seems to me that it is dangerous to literature to think that she couldn’t. It’s also dangerous to humanity, because they’re not that different.
There’s a controversy that surrounds Sylvia Plath, having to do with the claim that she was using the sufferings of others. She uses the Holocaust to dramatize her own inner life… And there, you get into a very interesting and complicated and, for me, still unresolvable rhetorical issue: How far can you extend your metaphorical relationships to experiences like that?
Read the full interview at The Believer Logger.