“My hope is this book is not simply a literary artefact, and that it is used for more than my own personal redemption”: An Interview with Ravi Shankar

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side by side series of the cover of correctional

“There are those traumatic memories that the brain will try to repress, and there are those that one can relive minutely in such vivid detail that it feels like it is all happening again right here, in this very moment, and that it will continue to happen like this, not just then and now, but forever.” So writes Ravi Shankar, invoking the latter, of his apprehension by New York police officers in 2008, during the implementation of Mayor Bloomberg’s ill-advised stop-and-frisk policy of the post-Iraq invasion years. The promising poet had just left the Manhattan launch party for Drunken Boat, the online journal he co-founded; he spent the following seventy-two hours in a state of incarcerated suspension.

This was just a rehearsal for the legal and professional travails that dogged Shankar in the years thereafter. His new memoir, Correctional, detailing this period, positions traumatic memory and its Hartmanian alignment with a paradoxical capacity for both knowledge and nescience at center-stage: the reader is warned that the tale to be told may in one sense be fictive as much as factual, but that it will, nonetheless, be told truly. What ensues is a candid and often excruciating exposure not only of the protagonist’s inner workings, but those of his real-world mise-en-scène: a juridical-institutional backdrop revealed as a makeshift pretense from the other side of carceral walls.

Shankar is known primarily as an award-winning poet whose multiple volumes include translations and edited works. Many of the themes of Correctional are previewed in his recent collection of new and selected poems from the past two decades, The Many Uses of Mint (2018)—his youthful sense of ambiguous dispossession (“I never owned what has been taken from me”) and racial objectification in “Exile,” his insouciant distance from the concern of “parents [who] quarrel about his future” in “Notes Towards Timekeeping,” and his skepticism around the worldview of his tradition-bound Tamil father, as well as the cultural constraints that kept his mother from a less circumscribed life, in “Immediate Family.” In the memoir, these poetic flourishes grow into extended narrative life and inform the personal detail metaphoricity can otherwise seem to displace as imaginal poetic license. The hard descriptiveness of Correctional—there is a lot of apt sociological history woven into the personal story—along with its prison vehicles, unforgiving holding-rooms, relentless calls to attention, and remorseless periods of waiting, is another kind of confession, grittily unsentimental, from which the consciously poetic seems almost deliberately excluded, along with an account of Shankar’s vocation as a poet.

In Correctional the poet instead becomes a contemporary and prosaic kind of Everyman: atypical, but not so unusual in the ethnic welter of the American present, traversing his own Indian heritage to that of the Black, Hispanic and Latino, and white men who populate the halls and wards and shared cubes of the Hartford Correctional Center where he’s been sentenced to ninety broken days of pre-trial detention. Here Shankar meets the kind of men he’s never yet had occasion to really meet. They cajole, charm, insult, include, exclude, exasperate, and even inspire him; he vows to bring their stories into his, so that he can speak their collective voice—inasmuch as he has one while they, he learns at firsthand, usually don’t.

Shankar’s fall from presumptive grace—as much from the exceptionalism of South Indian Brahmin caste-identity as from its acquired American counterpart in middle-class reputation—prompts the question at the heart of the memoir: Why would a talented and successful son of relative privilege so sabotage his own best interests? The interrogation it describes only betrays the degree to which a reason for the fall can’t be univocally answered: as a function of socio-cultural juxtapositions, of psychoanalytic dynamics, of historical race-relations, of personal psychology, of post-9/11 prejudice, of the perversity of fate.

All are necessary but not sufficient conditions, and reason is left wanting. It must, instead, surrender to not-knowing, and to the questions that allow for the certain but humbling knowledge of how little one can know of one’s unseen motivations. With the specter of the “war against terror” casting a long shadow over the litany of misjudgment it set in train, perhaps the Rumsfeldian is the closer epistemic reference-point than the Socratic. Even so, there is a redemption here, giving the lie to so many miscarriages of justice. A fall is a seed for the growth of a via negativa, which only gains by losing, and Shankar’s hard-won words on the page are the telling trace of what has already been shed. We learn to see, as he does, from the reversed view granted in the falling.

Martin Kovan: Correctional, to me, is the writing and righting of justice. It puts American justice itself on trial, but also “does justice to” the multivalent fact of carcerality and the experience of others whose voices you represent. This also implies the question of which aesthetic means is best able to do justice to the memoir’s trans-generic nature as a literary and documentary artefact. How did you approach the poetics of memoir?

Ravi Shankar: From the beginning I envisioned myself an immersion journalist, dropped into this scene. It was initially a means of survival. I’m someone who’s coming to memoir through being a philosophical, lyric poet, and while I’ve written critically and academically, I intended for this to be a very different kind of book. I formed genuine relationships with these men, and I made a promise to them before I left Hartford Correctional Center. They shared the intimate stories of their lives and pleaded with me to remember that I have a voice that they don’t really have. That impulse I carried with me from the very beginning and it just felt innately that life-writing and non-fiction seemed like the right genre. Also, my own story had been previously reported sensationally (and inaccurately) and legislated in the court of public opinion via the media, pre-“fake news,” and I found out important things about journalism: there isn’t much room for complexity in journalistic narrative.

 MK: The front page paratext states that the memoir “is a truthful recollection of actual events in my life, but as a work of literature re-creates certain events, locations, and conversations from memory.” What is your sense of the relations between factuality and the constructedness of “literature”?

RS: I think that the factual nature of reporting everything that I saw, as a kind of ethnographer, was crucial in writing Correctional. I included that note because I’m keenly aware that inner workings of memory are imperfect, and that trauma by its very nature is shapeless and any form that we impose upon it never quite encompasses all of its shadowy tendrils. The formal conditions for the book evolved upon writing because I initially began with notebooks full of material—overheard prison slang, the bureaucratic lexicon of the prison authorities, the content of the meals in the chow hall. The literary element is very self-consciously crafted, as is the chronology of the book. In the chapter “The Three Poisons,” I use the tropes of the Buddhist “three poisons” as a very fabricated and self-conscious literary form, and yet it seemed the best way to discuss in vivid snapshots the various complications that happened that lead me to incarceration.

MK: That relation between literality and metaphoricity is echoed in another anecdote: your in-prison “theft” of a pencil, which serves as a means for, and symbol of, the act of writing. This is experienced by you as “a minor victory [that] feels triumphant.” Is writing (and/or righting) for you inherently subversive?

RS: Of course, it’s also an extension of the very reckless impulsiveness that landed me in trouble in the first place, but I do believe I would gamble a lot for the ability to read and write, especially in a space where your self-expression is not encouraged. You are discouraged from telling your own story, which paradoxically might be the very act that can help heal your trauma. I found that the only encouraged inscription of narrative is that of self-surveillance. Any act of writing your own story, therefore, is in essence subversive. So little is untainted by the unremitting carceral pressure that wants to make you complicit in its own self-perpetuating mechanisms of harm. I knew for me, because it felt very much like I was witnessing the end of my life, my career, my family, my community—I had been shamed and ostracized and could only cling to my identity as a writer.

MK: You describe being called a “sand nigger” by a white officer, falsely identified, and forced to endure unjustified custody, and then the legal restitution of your innocence. Do you think it’s possible to adequately communicate this kind of prejudicial experience in discursive prose?

RS: Can you write skin? That’s an enormous lexical and ontological question that has no easy answer. For my part, I wanted to share through my eyes what it is like being a first-generation Asian American and only recognizing just a tiny bit what it was like to be Black in America when I was racially profiled and wrongfully arrested. Through writing Correctional I struggled with such elemental questions: was it an appropriation for me to take on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), even though that is what I heard and even participated in speaking at times? What’s the language I can use to tell a story from the perspective of someone who has both benefitted from the systems of privilege that exist and yet has been discriminated against by those very same systems?

Because this conversation lives on darker bodies, in the untranslatable idioms of skin, in the everyday interchange that someone who is marginalized has with someone who is not, and how that person has been socially conditioned to play a certain dialogical role in that space in order to fulfill or to contradict another’s expectation of them, it’s nearly impossible to delineate in discursive prose. But it’s worth the attempt. When you’re hit with that in-your-face kind of stark racism it’s no longer the arena of microaggression. To this very day, I can see the vicious leer of Officer Murphy’s face so clearly, his hand resting on his gun, taking sadistic pleasure in roughly cuffing me.

MK: At one point you write, “During my stay, any surface with writing on it has become my best friend, and I’ve clung to texts that float by like life-rafts.” Can you see a direct relation between this function of text in prison and the role of memoir outside it?

RS: We often forget that prisons are constructed not just to keep people in, but to keep the public out. Living under constraint, where there’s so much censorship, I have to admit that I smuggled back to my cube any bit of text I encountered: scraps of Inmate Request forms; someone’s court order left to drift in the rec yard; books on everything from shamanism to economic theory. I think that in life-writing and memoir, by articulating traumatic memory, there’s a biblio-therapeutic aspect of healing that ensues. But sometimes prison-writing necessitates linguistic distortion. I’m thinking of a book like the very first prison memoir written by an African American man and recently found, edited by Yale scholar Caleb Smith, and published a few years ago. It’s called The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict by Austin Reed, and includes sections of magic realism, psalms, riddles, clear exaggerations alongside anthropological detail; somehow Reed needed all those distortions to get at the psychological disfigurement that prison manifests in his mind.

MK: You also write, “Ultimately, the Dept. of Corrections is an Orwellian misnomer: the DOC ensures that criminality is alive and well.” On the other hand, the very fact of incarceration means that all prisoners are equal “under correction,” and you describe moments of solidarity, community, and even the loss of identity in prison society.

RS: I learned so much about subculture and the divergent models of family that are performed in prison. I saw particular kinds of bravado and hypermasculinity, which included belittling some of the other prisoners, as well as incessantly working out, speaking misogynistically and homophobically, and making casual, persistent references to violence. Then I also saw men with tattoos and scars braiding each other’s hair and playing chess and cooking together on the prison benches. The biggest moment of whiplash I felt was the moment that I was told I could keep my promotion to full professor. I found out by watching it being reported on the television news. I was utterly humiliated and yet, on the inside, when people found out, I was transformed into an instantaneous hero. Being acknowledged by this wider world, no matter how negatively, somehow became a reason for these men to deify me.

MK: You’re literally transformed inside the carceral situation to the opposite of what you are on the outside. There’s a strange symmetry going on and yet you were also aware that the way you’re being depicted on the inside is not really true to your authentic self, either.

RS: There was a flattening out of my identity happening on both sides at once. Because of the glaring racial disparity, American prison does not reproduce American society at large. Of the sixty men I was confined with, there might have been four or five white guys and the rest were men of color. Those who were completely indigent had to forge alliances to survive. I met men who couldn’t even afford to pay the 5% of a $2500 bond necessary to get out. Certainly, my being educated and middle-class, none of those things gave me any status inside. But the fact that I was on television and was this professor who’d been arrested for drunk-driving? All of a sudden, I’m now one of the guys.

MK: Given this metamorphosis in prison from would-be victim to celebrated pillar of the prison community, does this mean that social capital, however distorted, means more than the authentic truth of a person—which you at best only approach in your memoir?

RS: Jiddu Krishnamurti once wrote, “If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.” So in an empirical yet ontological sense, we need to shed social capital, conditioned response, inherited bias, in order to arrive at the truth of the self—the paradox is that it cannot be communicated without then putting back on the clothes of social capital, conditioning, bias, etc. which might serve the narrative, but not necessarily the still incommunicable depth at the center of the self. In the real world, what I’ve learned is that you can be impervious to the gaze, even while knowing that judgement surely exists, and that one minor transgression can haunt someone forever, particularly if they are a person of color.

MK: “When you’ve disconnected from yourself, there’s no room for anyone else to do it to you,” you write. “It becomes pre-emptive. You’ve shamed yourself.”—hence, self-alienation. “But to be arrested when innocent?”—this produces other-alienation. You also write: “I felt, perhaps even more intensely than since I was a child, foreign to myself and ever more foreign to the world around me.” Thus: a double-alienation. Could you comment on this dialectic?

RS: Though I was born in Washington D.C., am an American citizen, and U.S. passport holder, there’s a way in which I have never been accepted as American. I am called an Indian American and there’s a way in which I started to embrace that identity in time. Social interaction wants to categorize people in an easily identifiable way, and when you don’t fit comfortably into a category, you can either try to—which is what I think I was doing by suppressing an essential part of myself in order to fulfill the role that I thought was expected of me—or you can go totally rogue and recreate yourself from scratch. If you can do that and not be as concerned about your perception of others’ perceptions of you, perhaps there’s a way to find genuine wholeness.

MK: You write, “I was special.” Your own sense of exceptionalism is perhaps what underlies risking a challenge to the reality-principle (authority, tradition, power) and thence transcendental signs of order (hierarchies, identities, truths). You write that a Brahmin is entitled to “feel you can get away with anything because everything is due to you.” I wonder if in rejecting this bias the “anti-Brahmin” super-ego replacing it needs proof of the falsity of the Brahmin thesis, to which end the self/ego—which is all along only “desperate to assimilate”—is its sacrifice.

RS: Truly fascinating speculation, because I’ve come to believe that some of the magical thinking I ended up feeling arose directly out of assuming that as a wronged Brahmin I had every right to do what I was not seen doing. I did feel like I need to test the limits of that thinking out in the real world, and that’s also in part the anarchist in me, because I still feel that capitalism itself is a form of systematic oppression repackaged as free choice. If I wanted to be a conscientious objector to capitalism, what could I do? Subvert and steal?

MK: “My own raga will be less about mastery and more about error, less about the sound of God and more about learning how to hear my fellow humans,” you write. To what degree is humility a moral and a spiritual response to writing carcerality?

RS: At Sydney University, I studied the roots of American incarceration. Of course, the Puritans had brought over this system of sanguinary punishment and public executions and flogging, spectacles that were done in public, and the Quakers, who were the liberal party of the time, believed that prisons were a more humane alternative. I believe the puritanical urge to shame those who deviated from conformity departed but just descended into the subterranean space of the prison. The two principles the Quakers believed in were silence and labor, silence for reflection and labor and industry since “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” We still see these principles reflected today in solitary confinement and prison labor in for-profit prisons.

As a writer, you always want to be talked about, shown on television, turned into a trending social media topic. But when I received all of those dreamed-for things, it was the inverse of what I had hoped. I was in the newspapers and in the blogosphere for all the wrong reasons, to be dragged around the town square, publicly humiliated, and shamed. Going through my own fears, I met these men where they were and they were nothing like what I might have expected. Hearing their stories made me feel more American. They made me feel more deeply human. A better teacher certainly. A more considered father hopefully.

MK: Prison-identity provides a seal of shame as well as access to a more universal sense of belonging, which you note when you write, “It’s with horror, but also a sense of sanctuary, that I realize that I’ve become one of them.” Is there an implicit judgement entailed in the comparison between free and prison life?

RS: I was a little bit shocked to see how some of these men greeted each other as if they were back at a family reunion, and there were some people, which is where incarceration intersects with other issues like homelessness and addiction, who would proudly boast, “Every winter I get arrested, so I can stay in prison over the winter and get three hot meals and a mattress, and get out by summertime.” There was a genuine sense of community, and even in the small space of the bunks, people took great care to maintain their space, some would fill it with pencil sketches and song lyrics, and others would share out what they had freely, to one and all, even to me, a middle-class professor.

On the outside, even with my supposed equals, I saw streaks of contrivance and affectation, not just in them, but in myself. The constant positioning of oneself relative to another in the competition of the literary—or any other—arena. The disguised jealousy. The desperation for attention. But in prison, I found men who simply wanted to survive the night and others who wanted to improve their lives, but were not given the tools to do so. I was always heartened to see the effort they made, despite the institutional pressures that conspired otherwise, to preserve dignity in their lives.

MK: The irony is you’ve forged authentic connections with some of your prison cohort, yet when you get outside you find that some of your oldest friends have turned their backs on you for comparatively superficial reasons.

RS: I write in Correctional that my bullshit-detector is broken because I can’t tell when I talk to some of these men whether what they are telling me is true or not. Everyone says that they’re innocent of their charges—a proud minority are guilty—but they also were capable of disarming vulnerability, so totally overturning the expectations I had had of what these men would be like. At the same time, I was dropped from the holiday card list and my phone calls were unanswered by some of my oldest friends. However, even this idea of being accepted by the men at HCC is transitory, for after the first 45 days, when I thought I had it all figured out, I had to go back in on multiple occasions to finish the 90 days and each time, I was with a different group of men and an outsider again.

MK: Towards the end of Correctional you offer a summation of conclusions reached and present a plea for a tolerant society. Perhaps you could reflect on the fact that your own experience unfolded during Obama’s presidency, and of what the years since then might have meant in terms of your proposed revisioning of civil democratic society and the “indelible ineradicable interconnectedness” of its unequal subjects.

RS: During the time I was writing Correctional, I could have hardly foreseen what would happen with Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, and in some ways this idea of “indelible ineradicable interconnectedness” seems far away. George Saunders likes to talk about radical empathy, and I like that idea very much because it feels like there’s a way in which we are sequestering ourselves in echo chambers with people who believe exactly what we believe, and we’re losing the capacity for genuine empathy and true connection.

In 1980 there were maybe 250,000 people in jail, and last year there were over 2.1 million, nearly a 1000% increase in thirty-odd years! Under the guise of the war on drugs, it’s not a coincidence that the two greatest moments of American prison population expansion came after the American Civil War in the post-reconstructionist South in the 1870s, and after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s. What I have come to feel is that we are all in some way complicit in perpetuating this harm and that unless we are doing something actively, we are preserving the status quo. My hope is this book is not simply a literary artefact, and that it is used for more than my own personal redemption; I want readers to humanize the incarcerated population and then to try to do something actively to shift the paradigm, on a local or a national level.