launch of “Immune Systems”

Yes, another book.  I’m humbled and excited to announce the imminent release of “Immune Systems” through Transit Lounge.  “Immune Systems” is the result of two trips to India, and a lot of percolating.  The first half is kind of verse novella on the uncanny and fraught world of medical tourism.  The second half is a suite of ghazals on travel, desire, estrangement and (yes) bodies.  For some insight into the process, check the posts here.

The launch is on Tuesday 17th March at 6pm (for a 6.30pm start) at Collected Works Bookshop, Nicholas Building, 1/37 Swanston St, Melbourne.  The book will be launched by the multi-talented poet and artist Luke Beesley.  I would love to see you there.

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Thanks to Transit Lounge publisher Barry Scott for his faith in the poems; and to Anjum Hasan and Ali Alizadeh for these generous quotes:

‘Andy Jackson has made a most delicately probing poetry out of the detritus of urban India. This is a humane and moving book.’
−Anjum Hasan.
‘Andy Jackson writes exceptionally well about India. But, as though unsatisfied with merely writing about one of the world’s most wonderfully complex social scenes, Jackson is drawn to the country’s medical system. This focus perfectly suits his terrific poetic gift for fusing the clinical with the affective. The poems in Immune Systems are succinct and absolutely engaging expressions of a humanity caught between the demands of the body and the vagrancy of the mind.’ – Ali Alizadeh
There’s a Facebook event set up for the launch if you’re that way inclined.  If you can’t make it and would like to buy a copy, you can order it through Transit Lounge or of course drop into Collected Works any time after the launch.

a few more things before I (try to) land back in Melbourne

I had every intention that I’d write this post before I left India, or perhaps in Bangkok on the way home.  But as those last few days sped by, they felt precious.  Faced with a choice between soaking up the last sights of Panjim and Chennai, and staring at a monitor in an internet cafe, well, what would you do?

Most of my last week in India was spent in Goa, a place I really knew very little of, apart from its reputation as being crammed with ageing hippies and beach resorts, with a segment of the local population desperately fighting to protect its natural resources.  After my very short visit to the capital, I can say it’s not entirely untrue, but there is of course worlds more.  When I think of Panjim now, I remember the old buildings’ flaking paint, dozens of dim little bars the size of walk-in-robes, small hills blanketed with palm-trees, floating casinos (yes, boats on the river), and the overall sense that while tourism has its impact, the city and its people persist.

Old Portuguese quarter, Panjim, Goa
Mandovi River, Panjim, Goa

I came here to attend the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, at Dona Paula, just south of Panjim.  While the attendance left a little to be desired (due mostly to the festival co-inciding with a plethora of other events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Indian army entering Goa to claim it back from the Portuguese), the talks, readings and discussions were an absolute feast.  A sample of some of the events can be found on You Tube here.  We saw and heard Amitav Ghosh on Goa’s resilence, Jerry Pinto on Indian cinema, powerful poetry from Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih & Robin Ngangom, a wonderful philosophical short story from Anjum Hasan, and of course, and a whole lot more.  I was scheduled to read my poems alongside Manohar Shetty.  A long story, but I read alone – to a small but appreciative audience.

Interestingly, it was here that a nagging doubt about this project (writing poems about medical tourism in India) started to untangle itself.  For a long time, I’d felt uncomfortable about what I was writing – was it too much focussed on the spectacular, the poverty, the visible disparities between India and the rest of the world?  How could I be true to the complexities I was encountering, which included scenes and scenarios that stir up anger, grief, confusion as well as admiration?  Were my poems too much concerned with the Otherness of India?  Will there be a difference between how they are received by Indian people and non-Indians?

"Unselfishness is God", Mylapore, Chennai

Unanswerable questions really.  But I couldn’t stop asking myself.  To the point where, over the course of the residency, at times I’ve felt a bit constrained by my own self-critique.  And somehow the Goa Lit Fest helped me relax.  Himanshu Suri (Heems from US hip-hop act Das Racist) said he often worried that he was at risk of “self-exotifying” or “performing his race” in front of their predominantly white audience, while also trying to remember that there may only be a few people at their gigs he really relates to – and it’s they who he is “winking at”.  I am also always encouraged and challenged when I hear resident Indians express a sense of injustice.  Novelist Kiran Nagarkar said something so clear and important, inspired by a compassionate anger at the clearing of Mumbai slums, that “architecture is about human dignity”.

It seems to me now that the key to the dilemma of this project is that there is no key – except to continue to question, and to take risks, to explore various dimensions of empathy and affinities, to include the gaps and doubts, to be immersed in the poems not in how I imagine they might be received.  I have about 25 or 30 rough drafts of poems to work on.  Who knows how many will survive my surgical eye, but for now, it feels like there is a good chance a lot will.

The early poems feel a little chaotic and flailing around trying to capture the initial shock of arrival, with the urgency of a sense of injustice and discomfort.  The poems from mid November feel a little fragmented and tangential, finding fascinating stories and grappling to fit them into poems.  And the poems from my last few weeks are relatively settled, calm, philosophical, as if I had found some kind of stable poetic ground.  I shouldn’t be surprised that the poetry went on a journey parallel to mine.

I have a lot of thankyous – Asialink and the Australia India Council for funding and supporting this project, the staff and students of the English Department at the University of Madras for their enthusiasm and interest, Prakriti Foundation, India Intercontinental Cultural Association, Goa Arts & Literary Festival, Anna University, Wellspring India MediTour, Dr Smilez Dental Clinics, my friends and contacts (especially Syam, Prabalan, Eugenie and Mr Matthew), and everyone where our conversation went further than where I’m from and cricket!  It’s been an amazing journey.  I’m still on it, and I hope it brings me back to south India soon.

Marina Beach, Chennai
one last sit on Marina Beach...

post-India post

Before I reminisce and debrief myself, I’ve put up a few photos – go back to the individual pages, and you’ll see photos on most of them…

India leaves me with distinctly Kolkatan memories.  Rachael is leaving a day before me, so we take a taxi out to the airport, organised by where we’re staying – the Sunflower Guest House.  They load her luggage into the boot, then realise they have a flat tyre, so immediately set to swapping it with their spare.  Lungi-ed men stagger up to the car to watch and scratch themselves.  Nearby, a hjira propositions a truck-driver.  Piles of rubbish burn.  On the way back from the airport, 2 am, the taxi stops at a mechanic to get the flat tyre repaired.  Ah, India.  Maddening and wonderful.

Kolkata International Terminal is hilariously slapdash – it has a strong 1960’s vibe to it, there are very little actual counters and signs, there are I think four shops…  The local terminal is much more equipped and welcoming.  Even the pre-paid taxi sign is more obvious.  Intriguing.  Makes you wonder if Kolkata expects any visitors.

After waking up at 6am in Ali and Penny’s loungeroom in Dubai (thankyou so much – it was a superb stopover), I packed myself into a smooth, air-conditioned, conversationless Emirates taxi, then into a smooth, air-conditioned, conversationless Emirates airplane – for around sixteen hours of limbo.  The land around Melbourne is yellow from a harsh summer.  The light is yellow, somehow more open, broad.  As the plane lands, burly airport workers punch each other playfully.  At customs, a peroxide-mulleted woman shouts in her best “Kath & Kim” accent to a man filling out his declarations form at the front of a queue, “yous carn’t fill that out thayre, sur!! You’ll haf ta go over thayre!!”.

Walking around Melbourne with India still in my body is strange.  Everyone seems slower, fatter, bigger, more cumbersome and clumsy, yet also self-consciously “cool”.  I ride a tram and there is only one conversation happening; the others strain to surreptitiously listen in, keen to somehow assuage their boredom and detachment.  The streets are impeccably clean.  There are footpaths.  It’s windy and cold.  Lunch at an organic cafe costs as much as a double room at Hotel Derby, Puri.

It was definitely time to come home, and being in India reminded me of how Australian I am, how it is in my bones and muscle.  But I don’t feel I’m at home.  I feel alienated.  It’s as if I slipped into another time entirely, and have slipped back in to Melbourne and nothing’s changed.  I go straight back to my RMIT course, our home in Coburg, our bills in Coburg, and because I’m sick (a throat cold from someone on the plane, I think; how ironic!) I’m spending my time indoors and lethargic.  Maybe my soul is still lost in transit, circling some lonely baggage carousel somewhere.  I’m sure it will catch up with me someday soon…

So, was India what I’d hoped, expected, planned?  No.  It’s completely confounding and astounding.  It has its own agendas and energies, which force you to accommodate to it.  I’d wanted to go to the International Poetry Festival in Kolkata, but we got stuck in the West Bengal Hills.  I’d wanted to meet some friends of friends in Hyderabad, but they were away when we were there.  I’d wanted to go to Varanasi and Bodghaya, but underestimated how huge the country is, how “little” you can fit in in three months.  I’d wanted to find qawwali, but even the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department don’t know anything about the Deccan Festival.

We did somehow, with only a few days notice, manage to meet up with a lovely Bangalore-based writer, Anjum Hasan.  Her poetry is evocative, lyrical and restrained, quite beautiful.  We had a very civilized dinner at the Jayamahal Palace with her and her partner Zac, talked about the arts and literature scene in India and Australia, cultural nuances and annoyances.

Would I go back?  Yes.  Not yet, but hopefully soon.  Next time, I’ll plan in advance, get some solid contacts, base myself in one place, do less trekking.  India reminds me of the luck of birth, how our futures are shaped so much by where we’re born.  Being born into my life, I have the mind and sometimes the financial ability to travel.  I’ve caught the bug, I think.  Who knows what it will do to me!