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On Poetic Process, Online Community, Inspiration & Histories of Migration : in Conversation with Pavana Reddy

 Words & Images: Naomi Joshi



 Pavana Reddy, also known as Maza Dohta, is a poet and songwriter from Los Angeles. 

What is your ethnicity? And where were you raised?

I am Indian, although my dad is Fijian, but his roots also go back to India. I was born in Canberra, Australia. From there, our family moved to Fiji. We were in Tonga for a bit, then moved to Canada, and then here to LA. Quite the journey of migration, I’ve been everywhere.

When did you start writing? Has it always been poetry?

I started writing short stories first, but quickly learned that I tended to gravitate towards poetry. It was this natural process of reading books and getting to know characters that I wanted to write about. I’d fall in love with a certain character and think, I want to write something about them. It would always be a rhyming, cheesy poem and it just kind of branched out from there. 

How does poetry allow for you to express yourself?

It allows you to really see problems from a more forgiving perspective. There’s something about writing that helps you find the beauty in even the worst circumstances. I think that’s what I was really trying to chase as I was dealing with my own problems - to find something in the experience that makes the pain worth it. Poetry has a magical way of doing that.

Have you been able to build communities and empower them through your creativity?

Two years ago I was approached by a group of South Asian girls from Philly who were all classically trained in Bharatnatyam. They took Rangoli and interpreted its story through the form of dance and music. It’s still one of my favorite shows I’ve done to this day. It’s always an amazing feeling to see how my work has impacted other artists. 

Have you found a community of writers or poets that youve collaborated with?

I haven’t done any collaborations with other poets as of yet, although, I would absolutely love to if the opportunity presented itself. Poetry and writing is definitely a very solitary activity for me. So, the community that I’ve established through my work is mostly online. Funny enough, the poets I know in real life don’t have an online presence. 

Would you say your poetry, in a sense, is not meant to be read aloud?

I wouldn’t say ‘not meant to be’, I just think spoken word has taken over the idea of poetry in the way it is supposed to be expressed. A lot of people expect that with poets, but we don’t all express ourselves in that way. 

Where does your inspiration come from?

Everything and everyone. People, their stories. It could be something I was feeling in a really angry moment or a happy one. A lot of things from my childhood - honestly, everything really impacts my writing.

Would you say that youre influenced by certain styles of writing? Maybe from certain cultures?

Definitely, I grew up on Tagore and Rumi, the classics. Although my favorite is Sarojini Naidu, mainly Eastern poets. That’s what I was hunting for as I was growing up, poets that look like me and that come from a similar background, instead of everything that was being fed in school.

Are there any pieces of clothing or jewelry that you particularly love?

I’ve never been much of a jewelry or fashion person. Aside from my septum and earrings, I usually don’t wear any. I love wearing black, no matter the occasion.

What about your tattoos?

I have a lot, but my favorite is my wolf. When I was growing up one of the first books I read was The Call of the Wild. At the time, it was my sister that would teach me to read. The wolf is a reminder of those days.

Have you ever had the chance to visit South Asia?

I've been to India twice. The first time was just a trip and the second time I ended up moving there. I went right after high school. I was in Bangalore for about two and a half years. That was an amazing experience. 

What was it like going back to the homeland’, in a sense?

It was different because I didn't grow up there. Also, growing up, my parents didn't speak the same language. My mom's Hindi is enough to get her through conversations, but she's Telugu and my dad doesn’t speak Telugu. So growing up, they only spoke to us in English. Meaning, I didn't really have that language aspect when I went to India. It’s always shameful when you go back, as an Indian, and people say: you don’t even speak the language! What’s wrong with you? So, there was definitely a disconnect in that regard. But there was still a sense of home - the people that I met, the friends that I made, I miss it so much. 

Your father, who you said is Indo-Fijian, whats his mother tongue?

I grew up understanding that it was “Fiji-Hindi”, which a lot of my Indian friends would describe as “broken” or “botched” Hindi. Ironic, considering Indians were brought to Fiji as indentured servants, and their language was understandably shaped differently over generations. 

How would you describe your upbringing? You traveled around the world so much - was family very important to you? How did you navigate that constant movement?

My extended family is really scattered. They’re in Australia, India, Fiji and Canada. But we didn’t really grow up around them. I didn’t have a lot of cousins, or people my age that I could spend time with. It was just us. My mom really wanted to find a life for us that was steady. She tried to get us away from a lot of the racism that she experienced in both Australia and Canada. There was a lot, and all that travel didn’t really allow us to be a big part of our extended family. But, the sense of family that I have within my own is strong. They’re my biggest supporters. I don’t think that moving around as much as we did would have been as amazing as it was if I did it with any other family. It was necessary. And I understood that from a young age.

Was it hard for you? Or did the process of moving become normalized?

I became used to it. Two years was the maximum time of us staying anywhere, and so that’s what I grew up to expect. That’s also why I wrote so much, because I didn’t really form strong friendships. But no, it was never a hard thing. I just kind of understood it. And I also liked it.

Was the racism that you experienced in Australia and Canada different from the kind of racism you experience here?

Yes and no. I was so young when we lived in both places, so for me, the racist experiences weren’t anything that impacted me directly. It was much more about seeing what my family had to deal with, which is also something I became aware of at a very young age. But I wouldn’t say that it was anything worse than what we deal with here. Racism is everywhere, you can’t escape it, especially in white-dominated spaces.

Can you tell me a bit about the titles of Rangoli (2017) & Where Do You Go Alone (2019), and why you chose those?

Rangoli is an Indian art form made with colorful sand. It’s a symmetrical design that I grew up watching my mom create. Every time we’d enter a new space or a new home, she would draw one at the entrance as a way of blessing. My mom had a big influence on the actual book, so I had her do a rangoli design outside of her house, and the cover of the book is a photo of it. I titled the book Rangoli and put rangoli on the cover, because it’s my most personal collection. It’s my way of welcoming readers before they enter our home.

In regards to Where Do You Go Alone, there’s so much that went into that cover and title. Let’s take it back to when Carl Sagan put together the Golden Record for Voyager 1. He wanted to make an album of all the sounds of Earth in hopes that in some distant future, maybe when Earth is no longer here, there’s always a reminder floating among the stars. Included on the record were sounds of the ocean as well as classical music from all around the world. One particular song that he chose was a raga sung by a woman from Goa named Kesarbai Kerkar. She wrote the lyrics that translate to ‘where do you go alone fair maiden, do your feet not know?’, hence the title to my book. I couldn’t get the image of that haunting song being played on a loop in distant space out of my head. The cover of my book is a photograph of Keserbai’s great grandniece in her aunt’s home in Goa. 

Was there a certain intention when writing each book? Does each one coincide with a different phase in your life?

Rangoli is more of an expression of my upbringing and my family. There’s a lot of South Asian heritage in that book. Whereas Where Do You Go Alone is more universal. As a South Asian writer, that cultural influence is always present, but at the same time it’s not something I want to be boxed into. I wanted to write to brown girls who are growing up in a place like the US and who are dealing with the struggle of identity without that being the entire story. Where Do You Go Alone is also heavy with themes of love, loss, friendships and sexuality.

Would you go as far to say that Rangoli is written for the South Asian, diasporic subject?

The vast amount of backgrounds that have reached out to me about Rangoli made me understand just how many people connect with it. I wrote this book from a South Asian perspective, but since I published it, it’s proven to be something that moves far beyond that.

Have you ever experienced any tension between your own South Asianness and your Fijian identity?

I grew up feeling the tension between both sides. It’s always been an interesting experience identifying as both. One thing I saw a lot on my Fijian side of the family is this idea of: Fijian first, Indian next, mainly because there's that disconnect. Indians don't necessarily see Fijians as one of them, in addition to their lack of recognition of indentured slavery. So, there are many problems, which caused Fijians to not want to be associated with the South Asian region. When I’d go back to my Indian circle, I’d feel the tensions of not only being Fijian, but being dark skinned and from a single parent household, all things which are looked down upon in our culture. I think India has a lot of work that needs to be done. Even nowadays, it's hard to feel proud in stating: I'm Indian. You want that pride, but that pride isn't fully there. And it took me a while to understand this. It wasn't until I actually had an Indian community around me that I realized: wow, this is completely different from my Fijian family. I had to leave that Indian community on my own when I was about 17, because they were so excluding. I just couldn't do it anymore. 

How does it feel to speak so publicly through the poetic form, especially when being so exposed in regards to your own experiences and upbringing?

Everyday it’s a little scarier. I went from sharing my work under the pseudonym Maza Dohta, which is a term I got from a book called 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I was on Tumblr sharing my work under this pseudonym because I was so scared of people identifying me. But when I saw how many people were relating to my work, and girls were telling me that it was saving their lives, I thought: okay, maybe I could be a little bit more serious about this. As much of a blessing as that is, I still am really hesitant even now to show more than just my words. I’m trying to break away from that. But it’s such a personal form of art. I just feel like I’m displaying everything that I am on the page. And it’s so scary to have strangers be able to know these personal things about you.

What does Maza Dohta mean?

In the book, your Maza is the person who lives in the semblance of reality, and Dohta is the part of you that lives in the shadow world. I felt like my writing was part of that shadow world. I also learned later that in Japanese Maza and Dohta can also translate to mother and daughter, which was surprisingly fitting.

Loss, trauma and grief seem to be really dominant topics in your poetry - would you say ancestral trauma has influenced your work and even the construction of your identity?

Definitely. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. Since I could understand words, I’ve understood struggle. I’ve understood that everything we have is a result of hard work. Privileges that we weren’t supposed to have, and how hard that was worked for - especially my mom, who grew up in a tiny village, wasn’t supposed to go to school past the seventh grade, and had to fight her way through college. She eventually got her PhD, and just worked her way out of that village into this bigger world that she wanted to be a part of. That’s been a huge part of my entire life, knowing my mom struggled, knowing my dad struggled, and then seeing how we struggled as a family after losing my sister. I don’t think I really can remember a childhood past 10 years old, that’s when I had to grow up. There’s no way I can write without taking all that into account. 

Were you raised religious?

Religion was something that I didn’t really experience until I lost my sister - that’s when it consumed our lives. I kind of saw religion as a way to cope with pain because of how it was introduced to me, so in a way I was always a bit hesitant to completely accept it. My brother and I would have to go to this kind of “Hindu Sunday school” where we were taught the teachings of a Saint in India. The dynamics surrounding this group confused me as a teenager - it just felt really restricting. I didn’t feel good about who I was when I was a part of that group, and it felt like everything I wanted to do as an artist and who I was as a person wasn’t what was “acceptable.” I made the move to leave that group when I was about 17/18 because I had so many issues with the social dynamics of what I was being taught. When it comes to religion and spirituality, I’ve always felt more comfortable keeping that to myself. 

Do you consider yourself Hindu today?

Hinduism is a complicated religion filled with so much richness, wisdom and beauty, but to ignore what Hinduism is doing to marginalized communities in India and the suffocating beliefs it upholds, I can’t proudly say that I am. 

Youve explained that Rangoli is very much influenced by the figure of your mother. Whats her relationship to you as an artist?

My mom is extremely supportive of my work. Her background is science but she’s an artist at heart, which is why I asked her to create the art for Rangoli. I love creating with her.

Where Do You Go Alone seems to grapples a lot with love, heartbreak and the process of finding your way back to yourself. How did those concepts circulate through your writing and what is the inspiration behind the way in which the chapters are split up?

The chapters are based off of full moons. I wanted to emphasize how life is a constant cycle - you heal, then something happens and you have to heal from that again. It’s a never ending process. That’s really what the moon represents to me - it goes through these phases, but it always ends up whole. You’re always striving for that wholeness. And that’s what I was imagining with each chapter.

There seems to be a common theme of nature - can you speak to this? Is the concept of nature crucial to your writing style?

Definitely. That's been a huge part of my writing since I started. I think it's also due to the kind of work I was raised with. Again, Sarojini Naidu is someone I absolutely love, and her use of description within her poetry was something that I really, really wanted to emulate. I want to be able to paint a picture with my words. 

Do you consider yourself part of the South Asian diaspora?

No, definitely not, because I didn't come here from India. And our struggle wasn't that of an oppressed people within India, either. I wasn't born there. I grew up in Australia. I don't speak the language. So, I feel, to insert myself into that space would be pretty disingenuous. I want to make clear that Rangoli is not a book based on my experience of the diaspora. That's not true at all. It's much more based on my mom's influence on my life: her stories, her struggles, because I wouldn't be here without her. And then a lot of that book is dedicated to my sister. It’s about what I've learned on my own whilst growing up and trying to find my own identity. 

What was it like growing up in an immigrant home and constructing a kind of multi-layered identity?

It was interesting, to say the least. I still had the pressures of thinking that I had to be a doctor or a lawyer. Becoming a writer was literally unacceptable, even though it was very clearly part of me. But yeah, it was a struggle. There were a lot of expectations that I had to separate into: the ones that were true to me, and then the ones that weren’t. And that was a constant battle between me and my family. At the same time, it taught me so much strength, and a sense of who I am, anywhere. That was something my mom made sure of: never, ever, ever, ever forget where you come from. 

When growing up, were you surrounded by people that were struggling in similar ways, other immigrant families, maybe even other Indian or South Asian people?

Where I grew up in Canada was very secluded from other South Asian families. Everyone that I went to school with was white. I grew up in Kamloops, which is a small town four hours north of Vancouver. The South Asian community was pretty much nonexistent, my family was the South Asian community.

Did you feel there was a lack of that sense of community? Do you feel like your books of poetry are an exploration of finding some kind of belonging as well?

Maybe it’s all the traveling we did, or the fact that I’ve always been someone who reaches inward to deal with problems, but I never desired a community of any type. And when it came to other South Asians, I was always hesitant because of my past experiences. After I released Rangoli however, I made so many new friends who definitely proved me wrong, they showed me that what I experienced wasn’t the only image of our communities. When I published Rangoli, I wanted other brown girls to be able to read it and not feel alone if they ever felt the way I did. A little reminder that you could still be proud of who you are, even if others aren’t.

What is home to you and how is this notion explored through your poetry?

Home to me is anywhere you feel accepted. I think I found that home now. I feel more at home here than I’ve ever felt in any other place before. There’s a lot of disconnect from home in my books. There's a lot of this - having to say goodbye. That's what home was to me for the longest time: temporary. That’s what’s being expressed in the book - I’m learning now that I can actually find a place to call my own. And that family doesn't necessarily have to be blood. 

How does poetry function as an outlet for healing? Have you received any kind of feedback from other people about how your work has helped heal them?

For me, if I am able to write about it, that's how I know I'm on the path towards healing. My way of really dealing with stuff is writing about it. It’s my therapy. The best feedback I've ever gotten about my work is from girls telling me that they were able to express themselves to their parents through some of my poetry. That's so powerful.

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