From a Newtown Literary contributor: Ashley Somwaru
Writer Ashley Somwaru's work was featured in issue #18 of Newtown Literary. Ashley is an Indo-Caribbean woman who was born and raised in Queens, New York, where she received an MFA in poetry from Queens College, City College of New York. She published a chapbook in 2021 titled, Urgent \\ Where The Mind Goes \\ Scattered, from Ghostbird Press. We interviewed her about poetry, culture, and her connection to Queens, and her answers are below.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
I think of the pockets of different influences lining the streets with food stands and clothing stores dedicated to that culture. I think about a religious center placed behind someone’s backyard. I think that this is the place where everyone is seen and unseen at the same time. I think of home.
How does Queens influence your writing?
While my ancestry is tied to Indian roots, and my upbringing felt like I was raised in the paddy fields with my father in Guyana, all my writing comes back to Queens. Queens is my childhood. It allowed me to break away from my inheritance of culture and create an identity as a New Yorker in my writing, where I could question some Indo-Caribbean traditions and choose to create different paths.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
In Rajiv Mohabir’s memoir, Antiman, I felt like his family was my family: his Aji was my Aji. The use of his many languages, songs, and prayers in his writing reminded me of my own household and the songs I heard growing up. I felt like my community was seen in ways traditional publishing never allowed. It inspired me to keep writing outside of the expected and allow my experiences, even if sparse, to be noticed.
What inspires you? Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for your poems featured in the journal?
I’m fascinated by the precious moments in life; the things we overlook. The halal carts in Queens that seem to be open all night. The parks where my family has had many volleyball competitions. I wanted to feature these treasures but also dig into darker aspects of my culture: the superstitions and the perspective of women that lock them into being “evil” or “unfit for society.” I wanted these ideas to play and clash with each other, to see what happens when seemingly different lifestyles come together.
What does your writing process/routine look like?
I have to be in movement. To think about my words, I’ll be walking up and down the hallway in my home. We’ve been at such a standstill, sitting in a chair with the quiet doesn’t work anymore. Maybe I don’t work in the calm, I work in the messiness of life. And I didn’t know about it until now. But there is never one process of writing to me; my writing always takes on different tactics to create. Sometimes, I think of a form and mold words into shape. Other times, words spill out of me, and I keep writing without restricting myself. Recently, I learned to take breaks if I’m trying to force my poem into something it doesn’t want to be.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Poetry is always on my mind. When I’m not writing, I collect language. This might be through taking a walk and listening to the sounds or conversations that pass by. I would watch a movie, read a book, and analyze the way professional dancers create stories through dance and song. Seeing other crafts and writing down words, feelings, or snippets that I find interesting help me to write without pressure until the idea of a poem pops up.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on a hybrid poetry collection that focuses on the Indo-Caribbean woman’s experience, particularly on the inheritance of rage, restriction, and degradation of women in the Caribbean; and what made it to Queens. Although I want to write about women’s suffering to show what is being brutally unanswered for, I also want to bring a new perspective. I want women to be seen as powerful beings, as one who wields the right to make her own decisions and live her life regardless of the social norms she’s breaking.