Renee Sarojini Saklikar’s books include the award-winning Children of Air India and Listening to the Bees. She was poet laureate for the City of Surrey and is co-founder and curator of Lunch Poems at SFU. Her epic fantasy in verse includes Bramah and the Beggar Boy and Bramah’s Quest (2023).
The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns, THOT J BAP, an epic fantasy in verse, weaves poetry with politics into a family saga that connects themes of eco-catastrophe, injustice and resilience. In Bramah’s Quest a time-travelling demigoddess helps seed savers and resisters survive climate change and global inequality.
Interview with Yvonne Blomer
Yvonne Blomer (YB): From your first book of poems, Children of Air India, to Listening to the Bees, you are expanding what poetry can do or, how it can work with other subjects, or even perhaps the “why” as well of poetry. Can you tell me a little bit about what led you, what was the spark, to writing this /these epic poems in the THOT J BAP series?
Renée Sarojini Saklikar (RSS): Thank you for this thoughtful acknowledgement of my poetics: to be true to an original vision, even if that means treading paths forged either much earlier (such as the epic or rhymed formal verse) or the avant garde from the 19th century (collage, the work of Mallarme and Beaudelaire) or those that haven’t quite been realized (such as blending fantasy and the epic with eco-fiction), seems to be my poetry-karma!
I guess like many poets, I just try and stay open to the sounds, images, rhythms that arrive: one beat, one poem at a time.
It’s only after the work is out in the world that I think, “oh, okay, that’s interesting, I seem to be pushing boundaries, re-imagining forms, thinking of the page as an architectural space, these are all trends I’m now seeing in my work, now that I’m onto my fifth published book.
For THOTJBAP, given it’s ten year inception and the breadth of its scale, there are several “inception strands”:
The first started up when I was in the middle of the harrowing task that was composing and staying open to the voices in my first book, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood 2013)—to free my psyche from the demands and weight of that work, to step out of that archive of thousands of background documents, and the sadness of it all, I allowed myself to just write.
And one day, seated at a table with a view to the Fraser, when I lived in New Westminster, I started doing random free-writes to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and I think that’s where the title of my epic originated, “the heart of this journey bears all patterns.”
I ended up with, if memory serves, about a 100 linked short poems or notes towards poems: just stuff that came up from my subconscious.
When I started to look at the imagery, something just clicked, and I started to sense a narrative that would take the speaker on a journey.
And I realized, okay, this is going to be a long poem. I didn’t really think that would turn into a decade of writing into an epic form!
I just started going deeper with each poem, line by line.
And I realized, as I entered the editing stage of my first book, “oh, this THOTJBAP thing, it’s going to be huge, and I can’t do both at the same time. I put it away to focus on Children of Air India.
And here’s the thing, images from those original one hundred poems started to kind of knock on my subconscious, usually early in the morning; or after traveling (pre pandemic).
And I started to think about “what would happen if” and that question led me to all kinds of things: climate change research; readings about epics, from both Western and Eastern cultures, especially those cultures interacting in the geographical/economic forum known as the Indian Ocean, all of that mixed in with an obsession with form poetry and ballads, as well as chants and riddles; and this sense of another dimension, just parallel to ours:
I’d entered the stage of world-building, common to fantasy and speculative fiction. Those genres were my “go to” books for relief from the Air India research.
And the deeper I went into world building, the longer the poem, the deeper all its ways and means. I remember travelling to Paris, one of the imagined sites in the epic series, and taking, like, a whole suitcase of drafts and readings, that I made my husband haul around!
YB: Bramah’s Quest is global in its approach with characters from multiple cultural backgrounds and mythologies. Can you speak about your characters for a moment, and how they came to you and what research informed them?
RSS: Bramah first came to me after a bus ride, west to east, UBC to Vancouver Kingsway where I now live. I got off the 41st bus and saw a dilapidated Vancouver Special with a verandah, on the ledge was a battered toy horse, and suddenly I thought of this young girl with a toy horse she called Bucephalus (legendary/mythic horse of Alexander the Great).
Somehow, my world building became this ecosphere where the character(s) just sprang to life and that “what would happen if” question animated how they interact with what’s happening to the planet in terms of climate change and social inequality.
The more I researched both these themes, in science and political reportage, characters such as the haunted Dr. Abigail Anderson, born in the year 2020 and featured in the first book of the series, Bramah and The Beggar Boy, just seem to come alive for me.
It’s such a gift, I realize now. To be saddled with this fertile imagination; but, also, whoa, how to tame it and tend it: that’s where the epic comes in, I guess.
In Bramah’s Quest, there is the Grandmother, a matriarch person of colour, skilled in healing crafts, gardening, a seed saver. She’s a composite of family folk tales of my maternal and paternal grandmothers; and Aunties and relatives from my South Asian family; she’s also a kind of incarnation of the feminine divine.
One of the new characters, a favourite of mine, is the warrior general, Sherronda, whose real name is Shanti-Ben, which in my mother’s language, Gujarati, means sister of peace. As the duality suggests, Sherronda, inspired, in part by Viola Davis in the Woman King, is full of contradictions.
Sherronda is the opposite of Bramah, and I guess I’ve come to see them as aspects of female/femme personas:
Sherronda related more to Kali (often associated with ferocity and edginess; she is sometimes depicted with a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other) is an kind of emotional opposite to Bramah, who related more to Lakshmi (more radiant and smooth, linked to lotus imagery).
Both characters are in tension and in tandem with each other.
YB: Is the main character Bramah partly you?
RSS: I do get asked this a fair amount: nope!
I wish I was like her, though: she’s “brown, brave and beautiful” part English and part South Asian, unsure of her origins, she’s raised an orphan, and just beginning to realize her powers as a demi-goddess.
A skilled locksmith by trade, she’s nimble and quiet and observant and very skilled with her hands. I’m one hundred percent South Asian and definitely not a handy person. Pretty much my best skill is word-making, I guess. And some days are better than others!
YB: I’m curious to know what she takes from you as the author, and what you learn from her as she unfolds as a character?
RSS: I think Bramah is the kind of person I’d like to be!
She is a composite of people I admire; particular craftspeople and skilled artisans, with their intensity of focus; and especially, those, such as carpenters and potters, painters, and weavers, who make things both beautiful and functional.
One of my favourite lines from Bramah’s Quest says, about Bramah, “the tougher the moment, the more quiet.” Bramah is not a “shouty slogan-y” type of person. She is not an extrovert. Her motto is “let all evil die and the good endure.”
YB: This is a long epic poem, that uses rich poetic devices. Can you speak to your use of the list poem, or lists in many of the poems? What are the lists doing for the narrative arc?
RSS: An interesting observation! I hadn’t thought too much about lists. More about forms poetry and ways of shaping and structuring both poems and the narrative: how to structure the poems so that the readers and the poem itself, can perceive a story line, a set of linkages…
Perhaps the lists are a means of communicating loss, the loss of a planet ravaged by climate change.
I’ve come to see list making, especially as I use it, full of longing for things that are disappearing; and for the power of naming things, people, places, as a way to hold onto that which is being erased.
There is again that duality because to name can be, to colonize, to appropriate.
So there is that tension between nostalgia and power.
We can then maybe see lists, and their presence, as linked to what I’ve come to see as a central theme in Bramah’s Quest, it’s essence: that of history. (whereas the essence of the first book, was language).
YB: I’m curious also to know why poetry for this story? Did you contemplate writing a novel in traditional prose, or was the voice of Bramah and the other characters always shaped by language and line?
RSS: Poetry seems always to be first impulse. And the language, in its first instance, always shaped by rhythm and sound and the way to counterpoint those two things into image, into the line.
I think the novel in verse comes from the characters, as they arrive and beckon, and demand that their voices be heard, and the voices emerge and are linked to that sometimes ephemeral sense of a world running just parallel to the one I’m in, the writing a portal, and reading an act of time travel.
I am smiling as I write this, oh those voices and characters, knocking at the door, glimpsed sometimes fleetingly, on transit, in parks, the boundary-land of sleep and waking: and then to return—
YB: Any questions I’ve not asked that you so wish someone would ask? Let’s ask it.
RSS: Wonderful questions, helping me to see what’s there. In the act of creating, it’s just reception…
After, when the language fills the poems, and the characters and narrative, the texture appears, then the reader helps me to see what’s there. Thank you!