Tishani Doshi and Carlo Pizzati are among the authors heading to Listowel next week, writes Marjorie Brennan.
It is hard not to feel a stab of envy while chatting to writers Tishani Doshi and Carlo Pizzati. The married couple have breathtakingly accomplished CVs and a work-life balance that most of us can only dream of.
They spend about half of the year at their home in a remote fishing village in the state of Tamil Nadu in India and the rest travelling the world, lecturing and attending literary festivals.
Kerry is next on their itinerary, with the couple both appearing at this year’s Listowel Writers’ Week festival where Pizzati will discuss his memoir Mappillai, and Doshi will give a poetry workshop and speak about her latest novel, Small Days and Nights. Doshi says the couple find their trips abroad provide the perfect counter-balance to their solitary existence at their beachside home.
“When we travel, it is really like a camel’s stomach, amassing all these experiences so we can chew on them later and digest them and savour them in a way, because we go from being very solitary to being very social.”
Pizzati and Doshi met in Chennai (formerly Madras), the capital of Tamil Nadu, where Doshi was born to an Indian father and a Welsh mother. Pizzati was born in Switzerland, grew up in the Veneto region of northern Italy and attended Columbia University in New York before becoming a foreign correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, and also presenting and producing a political talk show on Italian TV.
He has also covered Irish politics, and one of his first trips here was to interview Gerry Adams. Pizzati says he has always felt a special connection with Ireland, and recently discovered a possible reason for this affinity.
"For Americans, it would be normal, but my family from both sides have not left the valley for four or five hundred years, so obviously some Irish sailor walked into a bar down there at some point at the beginning of the 1800s. We are trying to figure it out,” he laughs.
Pizzati’s latest book is about another country with which he has a special relationship, India. His book Mappillai (son-in-law in Tamil) is about his experiences living with his in-laws in urban Chennai and later with his wife in the village of Paramankeni. There is no shortage of books written by westerners about India — with the spiritual journey to ‘find’ oneself a recurring trope, and Pizzati was very wary of falling into the trap of explaining the country to its own inhabitants.
“I call this a serious book in funny clothes but I also call it the journal of a stupid white man in a brown country. I was very happy to see that the critics have recognised that. I think Indians have had enough of white people going to India and telling them about their country — I also resisted writing about India for ten years because of this very same reason.
“It was such an impossible conundrum… but I found the key when I realised that I would just relay my experiences without drawing any grandiose conclusions about the meaning of the Indian culture in the world or within India. I try to explain how living in India somehow massages Indian philosophy into your mind, spontaneously, naturally.
"I have read the Vedas [ancient religious Hindu texts] and I meditate and do yoga but I have tried to explain in the book that it is by living there that you learn the non-attachment and the patience and all of that, it is not taught to you necessarily in the demagogy of religion but by the quotidian occurrences of life.”
Pizzati says that being married to another writer has been a mutually supportive experience.
“I have heard that sometimes there is a submerged competitiveness that can exist [between writers who are in a relationship] but I think we arrived at it mature enough and it strengthened that aspect of not being envious and competitive within the relationship. We rejoice in each other’s success and it has been very helpful for both of us.”
Doshi concurs with this sentiment, saying that being married to a writer also helps alleviate the loneliness of the creative process.
“It can be terribly lonely to be a writer….. It has been a joy and comfort to be somewhat less lonely, to think that I am in my room working, and he is in his room, working and then we meet at lunch and we can talk about things.
Doshi has published several books of poetry and fiction and has also had an illustrious career as a dancer, touring internationally with the renowned Chandralekha Troupe. Her most recent collection of poetry, Girls Coming Out of the Woods, was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award in 2018.
The powerful title poem was written just over six months after the gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi led to international outrage; Doshi tells me how a journey in Ireland sparked its creation.
“I have been writing poems about women, particularly violence against women, for some time but that incident really was a watershed moment. It was the following July and I was on a bus in Ireland passing this forest, and I had this image of women and girls coming out of these ancient forests in different stages of mutilation, the whole idea of the poem being a resuscitation in a way, bringing back the voices of those who were silenced.
"It was a strange moment of disassociation, of thinking about home, being in this place, passing by that scenery and just having that image. For some reason, that image stayed with me and I wrote the poem as a kind of a chant, an anthem.”
The poetry workshop that Doshi is giving at Listowel is titled ‘Love, Death and Breaking News’.
Whereas the first two are evergreen themes in poetry, the latter topic is something that reflects more contemporary concerns.
“Love and death are the ancient topics of poetry… I brought in the breaking news aspect of it because actually a lot of the poems in English that I have been writing recently have to do with responding to things I read about in the news. I wanted to explore the immediacy of poetry and how do we think it stands up to the grander ideas of death and love.
“I think the consensus is that unlike fiction, which needs a much longer gestation period, poetry can be more immediate, and it can respond to all the political things that are happening now and the things that we are angry and concerned about.”
Listowel Writers’ Week runs from May 29-Jun 2. Memory and Memoir with Carlo Pizzati and Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, May 31; reading and interview with Tishani Doshi and Kit de Waal, Jun 2; three-day poetry workshop with Tishani Doshi, writersweek.ie for details.