Janet Naidu was born in Covent Garden, Guyana, a rural village close to the sugar plantations of Farm and Diamond. Janet comes from humble beginnings—her father worked as a cane cutter and her mother sold greens in the village and in the market place. She, along with her seven siblings assisted their parents in earning extra income.
Janet has made Canada her home since 1975. In 1973, two of her poems appeared in a small booklet called Heritage. After writing sporadically over the years, her first collection of poems, Winged Heart (1999) was short-listed for the Guyana Prize for Literature, poetry category. Her other two collections include Rainwater (2005) and Sacred Silence (2009). Her poems capture themes of uprooted movements, nostalgic memories, resettlement, feminism, resilience and survival. Her writings also include essays of cultural and historical themes.
Her poetry and writings have appeared in news media, online publications, anthologies, referenced in books on Indo Caribbean themes and in the Women’s Journal of the University of the West Indies.
Janet obtained a BA from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of London, UK.
Janet, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. I’d like to focus on your collection Rainwater, in addition to your writing, in general.
Q. At what age did you start to write? What do you remember writing about? Does that writing still exist today?
A. As a teenager I sold greens in the village with my mother and had a notepad to write down credit given to the villagers. I used to also make little sketches and writings at the back pages when I waited for people to purchase items in our baskets. But most significantly, I started writing to pen pals around the world after posting my name and address in a pen pal magazine. I had pen pals from New Zealand, England, Germany, Japan, Pakistan, USA and many other countries. It was during this time, I entered into writing to pen pals around the world, telling them about my family life at home, and life in Guyana. I used to get creative, talking about simple things in the village, like when the sugar cane would burn and the cane dust would come through our windows. I made it sound exciting. Living in Canada, I am often taken back to that time when I was care free and thoughts of the natural world flowed so greater then. This reflection continues to influence my writing.
Q. As a young girl, growing up in what was then British Guiana, which book(s) influenced you most? What do you think accounts for this influence?
A. As a young girl, I don’t recall having books other than what we had at school. Shakespeare was the main poet and we learned so much about him that I participated in one of his plays, Romeo and Juliet. When I attended Secretarial school, as I concentrated on learning to type and write in Pitman’s shorthand, it was mainly to get a job, like my older sister who was a Secretary. However, while I was at the Secretarial school, I came across a book lender down the street from the school and I started to borrow books there. Many were romance or action novels.
So, when I started to work as a Secretary for an American company in Georgetown, I met the family of the late dramatist and poet, Rajkumari Singh. It was through her encouragement, and hanging out with her Messenger Group she’d formed, that I started to read literary books, like the works of Guyanese writers and poets—A.J. Seymour, Edgar Mittelholzer, Wilson Harris, and Martin Carter. I attended plays staged by Rajkumari at the Theatre Guild and found myself in a literary circle that inspired me. I started to read the works of English poets and writers. I was most influenced by the works of the Bronte sisters, Emily in Wuthering Heights and Charlotte in Jane Eyre. I read the poetry of Robert Browning, Byron and Shelley, noting their expressions and rhythmic style. I also found myself thinking of the cane fields, trenches and the workers, especially the sugar cane workers and what village life was like.
I also grew to appreciate the efforts by Rajkumari to create a space in her home and nurture some young emerging dramatists, artists, writers and poets—Rooplall Monar, Mahadai Das, Henry Mootoo, Gushka, Elfrieda Bissember, and others whose writing touched me. It was with Rajkumari’s encouragement I wrote a couple of poems of the Heritage booklet that she published. She had a great passion for literary creations and was an accomplished writer, dramatist, poet and a public literary and social figure of Guyana.
Q. I imagine you have an extensive catalogue of poems in your portfolio. How did you go about selecting the ones for Rainwater? Was it a difficult process?
A. When I came to Canada in 1975, I continued to write poems sporadically while I was trying to settle in a new environment. So, I had some poems from back then, a few of which were edited and published in Rainwater. But many of the poems in Rainwater were written during the 80s and 90s. I had also returned to Guyana a few times and had some fresh insights, seeing people, places and contemplating my ancestral heritage. I started to ask more questions about their journey from India to then British Guiana in 1915, and their ability to survive amidst much adversity. I was thinking about my move to Canada and survival under different conditions. So, when I was putting the poems together for Rainwater, I was thinking about these different landscapes and movement of people in different spaces, time and adaptation. The process was somewhat difficult at first as the poems traced this movement and resettlement to different continents. Once I grouped them into four sections, I started to imagine this movement in terms of time and people. I started with an ancestral reflection and closed with a poem on feminism, bringing my thoughts to Canada and what ‘freedom’ and ‘independent’ thinking could look like.
Q. Which is YOUR favourite among all the poems in Rainwater? Why is that particular poem your favourite?
A. This is a hard one as I have many favourites because of their different evocations. Although several poems reflect nuances of my Guyanese environment and my ancestral South Asian heritage, one of my favourite poems is Reckoning Shades for bringing the subject of one’s identity to the fore, particularly because it speaks to migration to Canada. It asks us to think deeply about who we are as newcomers, the struggles of adaptation and settlement while living in the skin of one’s cultural history and existence as a human being. It only touches upon the surface of underlying issues facing us as Canadians of diverse backgrounds.
Q. The theme of Rainwater echoes through many of the poems in the book. Can you tell us why this is so? Guyana, after all, is known as The Land Of Many Waters. Is there a connection?
A. Yes. Because Guyana means The Land of Many Waters, for its numerous rivers, creeks and streams, I found this to be symbolic of one’s movements across the land. The canals lead to Kokers, allowing water to flow out to the sea and this is a constant reminder of low tide. Rain itself came to mind and how we kept rainwater in barrels beside our houses. I felt a parallel fluidity happening with the people across this land, coming and going and pouring out new cultural practices while developing new ones from the mixture of peoples. I saw rainwater too as a metaphor for the freshness of this cultural fusion in our nation. Several poems touch upon the natural fauna and flora and cultural expressions.
Q. What was the hardest poem in Rainwater to write? Why was it so difficult?
A. Rainwater on Shaken Limbs was one of the hardest poems to write because I had to picture when my grandparents came from India to British Guiana around 1915, since they did not pass down their stories of the harsh indentureship conditions. I imagined my father telling me stories of those who came from Madras (now Chennai), how hard they worked, and I had to visualise their legacy in the fields, trenches and rivers. I felt that, while this poem brought out the need to tell our story again and again, there was still much more to recall, to write about—the turmoil of their arrival, survival and dedication to family and society.
Q. The poem The Unknown Path is dedicated to your brother Arnold, “silenced for 33 years now in Columbia.” The poem itself is a poignant evocation of the circumstances of his disappearance and the background of his departure from Guyana. How much of the poem was written based on facts, versus your imagination and research? Please explain…
A. The poem is a mixture of facts, my imagination and research. Between 1966 (when Guyana achieved independence from Britain) and 1970, the economic and political conditions had deteriorated. Many young men were leaving Guyana for a better life, many travelling secretly to Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Mexico and ultimately to the US. My brother left with a friend and he wrote me a letter that he was going to cross from Columbia to Panama. We never heard from him after that or knew of his whereabouts. I met a gentleman who told me he met my brother at a ‘coconut’ boat in Medillin, Columbia. The gentleman made it to Panama and Mexico where he currently lives with his family and he shared many other stories that are not in this poem. I always wonder about the drug cartel that dominated this part of Columbia in the 1970s and what might have happened to my brother. Sad, and hence my imaginative reflection in the last three verses of the poem.
Q. Do you think that great poetry has to come from the experience of pain and grief, from longing and separation? Please expand…
A. Although it is true that pain and suffering help us to capture moments that might not otherwise be felt, I don’t think that great poetry HAS to come from pain and suffering. A good poem uses words in wonderful ways that could also evoke memorable moments in a fresh way. One of my favourite poets, Jane Hirshfield, wrote in her book Ten Windows that “Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means?” We bring our different selves, experiences, feelings, ideas and new ways of seeing. So, we can write a poem about our vision or a viewpoint on some social situation or a poem honoring someone. This is how I see the mysteriousness of poetry creation.
Q. Rainwater is dedicated to your father and grandparents who arrived as indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu in 1915 on the SS Ganges. Did they have and still have a great influence on your poetry? What is this influence and how do you explain the transference to your poems?
A. When I was growing up in Guyana, I knew my grandparents, but I was not conscious of their struggles and their cultural heritage. Under the British system of indentureship, they came in 1915 to work in the fields. I knew them when I was growing up but did not think to ask them questions about their life in India. While they retained many cultural practices, they had little time to transmit the knowledge of their histories to their children. Later, when I became more conscious and knowledgeable about their world, they were no longer around. This created a longing to know and understand them. My poetry relied on what I knew and then I started to imagine what I did not know. I started to wonder and reflect. Living in Canada in the early 70s and 80s brought out more of this historical reality of my existence and I was writing more about their journey to the west and how I was seeing them in a new world, almost something like how I was seeing myself in a new world.
I was touched by the fact that my grandmother, a single woman at the age of 20, travelled on a boat for several months to a foreign destination. She spoke Tamil. I did some research and found a lot of information at the Guyana Archives. The poem, Tamarind Grove was in memory of my grandmother – we called her “Pati”.
My poetry of late has not been as strong on my ancestral heritage as I have had satisfaction in the reflections I shared in both Rainwater and a later publication, Scared Silence. I continue to write on a variety of themes.
Q. Brinda J. Methta, in one of the blurbs on the back cover of Rainwater, describes your work as being “Indo Caribbean and universal at the same time.” Do you think your poetry is different in this respect from other Indo-Guyanese poets and writers?
A. When I write, I hope my readers may want to think about something different or something new. We each have our own style and we genuinely want to convey something. So, I cannot say my poetry is different or the same as other Indo-Guyanese poets and writers. Rainwater does contain a mixture of poems, including migration, identity, love and feminism. A long poem, Ammani’s Cushion, is a dialogue between a young man and a young woman about independent thinking in their relationship.
Q. Frank Birbalsingh describes Rainwater as a “lyrical evocation of her[your] bitter-sweet Guyanese past.” Why bitter-sweet? Do you know what he meant by that?
A. I think he was probably seeing Rainwater in context of memories and experiences that are both happy and sad. Now that I am thinking about this, I believe it could be that the poems are like moments which mark your life in a myriad of ways.
Q. The cover art for Rainwater is based on your own 2005 sketch/watercolour Settlement. Have you done much painting? Please tell us more about this hidden talent…
A. I used to sketch in my notepad— in pencil and charcoal, when I was a teenager, walking around the village, selling vegetables with my mother. I later learned to do landscapes in water color, but only on a small scale. When I came to Canada, I joined an art class in the evening and painted a waterlily which I eventually used in my first poetry collection, Winged Heart (2005). I do not paint regularly as an artist, as this is something one needs to dedicate time to. However, when I was putting the poems together for Rainwater I wanted something of a rural scene that reflects the rain coming down and showering the land, hence this painting. I share Vincent van Gogh’s thought when he said, “The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting”. So, if time moved more slowly, and the hours are extended, I may be able to take a brush of colors to a canvas.
Q. What period of your life do you think has influenced your poetry most of all—child, teenager, young adult, adult? Can you expand and tell us more…
A. When I was a teenager and a young adult in Guyana and in my adult years in Canada. As a teenager and a young adult, I was beginning to discover things about nature, work, place and people. I became more aware of my surroundings, my father and mother at work, people in the village and their lives and I was becoming more conscious through my writings to my pen pals around the world. I was writing a few poems at this time.
I was also becoming more conscious of the steps we were making in our lives, as many people were leaving Guyana, families were being separated and many of us did not know where we were going, what the place had to offer.
My most prolific writing commenced as an adult when I moved to Canada. I had lived with my siblings for a very short time, then I moved to a room in a house down the street and within a few months I got a bachelor apartment in the heart of Toronto at Yonge and Wellesley. I did not even know I was living right next door to Toronto legendary Hard Rock heavy metal Club. Whenever I heard the music, I though this must be Canadian type music. Once, I went in to see what it was all about and found it crowded. I left, of course.
Although I made some friends not far away, and at the University of Toronto where I was studying English Literature at the time, many nights I was in my cocoon. I would borrow books from the library. I read Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Then I came across Leonard Cohen’s books—The Energy of Slaves, Death of a Lady’s Man and his selected poems. I became inspired and started to write occasionally. I did not realize he was a musician until much later.
Q. What is the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process in completing the cycle for one of your poems?
A. The most difficult part about the process of writing poem is editing it after having been inspired to write down the initial poem. Language is the first step in terms of imagery and the senses they bring. Images are like a photo lens—you pause and when it feels right, you decide with a degree of satisfaction and awe. Then you wonder if the images are painting the picture of what you are trying to evoke. Sometimes, I may be exhausted over this silence and uncertainty. I would leave the poem and come back to it later, maybe another day or longer. In this way, frustration can make a poem sit for another month before you get to it. I have revised a poem where once there were clouds and I could not wrap my head around the right words and then out of the blue, fresh thoughts emerged like music, a dance, a cool breeze and then I finally felt a sense of satisfaction with the composition.
Q.What do you think are the most important magazines/journals for aspiring poets to subscribe to?
A. There are many good websites and journals for aspiring poets such as The Danforth Review, Prairie Poetry, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, Bywords, The Antigonish Review.
Q. Have you been on any literary pilgrimages? If so, which and what did you gain from them?
A. I have not had the opportunity to go on any literary pilgrimages. It would be awesome to do this someday.
Q. What do you consider the mark of achievement for a poet? How does she know she’s been successful?
A. I think the mark of achievement is when a poet has written poems she wishes to share with an audience, for what good is a poem if it is available only to the writer? By sharing the written expressions in an open microphone forum, by publishing her work and by affecting a reader’s sense of awareness, meaning or transformation. Success is a matter of interpretation. A poet can write just a few poems which are exceptionally good and never write another poem. So, I think there is never a single way to identify a ‘mark’ of achievement. It depends also on if people are interested in poetry and I get this feeling that poetry will live on forever and a poet’s mark may even be known after a poet has passed on just like some painters have experienced. Who knows when that mark will come? The readers and reviewers will know I am sure.
Q. Your focus has been mainly on poetry so far, I believe. Do you have plans for extending your writing to prose, perhaps a short story collection, or a novel? If not, why not?
A. Yes, poetry is my first love. I am fascinated by how a single word can be full of discoveries. I have written a couple of short stories that were published in a Journal in New York, USA. I had in mind to continue this genre and hope to do this sometime down the road. I have been working on a novel where the setting is mostly in Columbia relating to my brother’s disappearance, a fiction with some known material and imagination. But I have not had a chance to continue on it. I hope to also do this sometime soon.
Q. What do you think are the most common traps that up and coming poets encounter, and how could/should they overcome them?
A. The most common traps include ‘time to write’ and balancing this with other demands in one’s life such as work and family and of course the mindfulness of one’s own personal care. It is very difficult to overcome the challenges of getting more ‘time to write’ uninterrupted. But one has to make the time, even steal time by going to the library, away from family demands. I sometimes go to the library and don’t tell anyone, and I put away my cell phone and spend a good couple of hours there. I have written a couple of poems under this type of undisturbed condition.
Q. Is writing poetry cathartic in any way for you? If so, how and why?
A. Writing a poem can sometimes by cathartic. When I was younger, I was discovering many things about life and it helped me to express myself in this art form. In many ways, it was a healing to have a sense of nostalgia about one’s existence in a new world. I tried to overcome dealing with issues of alienation and discrimination when I lived in Toronto in the 70s and 80s. I had more strong emotions about certain things and writing was much easier to tell my story. These days, as age creeps up on me, I find myself more in a pastoral zone. Writing poetry for me is very good for my mental and physical well-being, as it allows me to express thoughts, ideas and new ways of seeing things.
Q. Do you think someone could become a poet if they can’t feel the emotions of their characters and themes?
A. To be a poet, one must feel the veins of their characters. They must be able to stir, excite or bring wonderment to the reader. As a poet, you must put yourself in their shoes and walk with them throughout the experience being conveyed; you have to see with their eyes in order to see what they see, feel what they feel. Without the emotion of those in the poem, a poet will only be putting words to paper. But they must draw out, pull out from the gut and mind of the character—their emotional and psychological world, even in a curious way, for the reader to better understand their energy and spirit—why they are in the poem.
Q. Is there a central theme in your poems? Is there a common message to the reader?
A. So far, my poems have had a dominant theme of migration and resettlement elsewhere with some ancestral backdrop—experiences of Guyana and Canada. The common message to the reader is that, no matter where we go in the world, even with new discoveries, we carry with us all that we have known—where we were born and raised, the experiences we have had; for memory plays a fundamental role in our existence.
Q. If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming poet, what would it be?
A. Remember, no matter how uncertain you may be of your writing at first, keep writing whenever you feel like writing until you feel satisfied with your composition. Be sure to read the works of other poets and if possible, be part of a writing circle to help with motivation. These will help you ward off the challenges of a ‘writer’s block’. Keep a note pad and write words that move you, inspire you and you may even use them in your poems down the road. Keep writing!
Q. You’ve obtained your law degree. You’re a champion of workplace equity. You are a painter and poet. You’re the founding member of Pakaraima. What’s next for you?
A. Oh gosh, this sounds like I never stop…It is true that I am a highly motivated person in many ways. I plan to continue to write more poems and who knows where my other writings will take me. Only time will tell.
I also hope I can pass the baton to someone to keep Pakaraima Writers going and serve not only the Guyanese Canadian community but also people who have a Caribbean cultural background.
Q. What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org