Q&A with Meher Manda, author of Busted Models

Writer Meher Manda's work was featured in issue #12 of Newtown Literary. Meher is a poet, short story writer, culture critic, and educator from Mumbai, India, based in New York City. She earned her MFA from the College of New Rochelle where she founded The Canopy Review. She is the co-founder and co-host of An Angry Reading Series in Harlem and the author of Busted Models, a chapbook of poems from No, Dear Magazine. Here, she speaks in-depth with us about Busted Models and her creative process.

How did you choose the title for this collection?

I have to admit, I cheated my way into titling the chapbook. The poems in this chapbook are an essential limb of a larger collection in progress, titled Some of Many Women. When I chose a few poems to cull a chapbook from the manuscript, I went on a process of revisiting older works for some inspiration. Busted Models was the title of the first ever short story I worked on after moving to the US, and the moment I saw that on the page, I realised that there was no better title for the disobedient voice in these poems. So basically, I stole from me.

There’s an active, physical quality to the poems in this book—the reader is consistently reminded of the body of the speaker and others. Can you talk a bit about this?

I’m sure this holds true for many women and marginalised folk, but my sense of physical memory is very distinct and incisive. All of my experiences are alive and ticking because of how clearly I remember the positioning of my body, of the tremors it felt, the sensations it responded to, of how it was looked at and held and how it felt smothered. At the same time, as a young girl growing up in Indian culture, you’re constantly made aware of your body, and the bodies of others. In the way you are to hold your head, assume a submissive posture when speaking to the elders, the way you are to cover up, sit, how far apart your legs can go (not far at all).

There is a Kamala Das poem called “Relationship” where she says, “My body's wisdom tells and tells again / That I shall find my rest, my sleep, my peace.” And I trust my body’s wisdom to inform me of the tension, the disquietude, the discomfort that comes wedged in our lives. So to write about my life or the lives of women within that context can never be divorced from an almost liturgical servicing of the body.

While the poems here sweep through geographical locations, periods in time, and points of view, many of them deal with pressure from the confines of what builds or seeks to contain us—whether it’s a home, family, religion, nation, or the course of one day. How did this come to be a theme of your work?

Thank you for this question: I think it perfectly captures the residing sentiment of the collection. I think the confinements of social regulations always exist, no matter the time, place, or point of view. I think there is always an active sociological structure that is informing your life, sometimes positively supporting it, sometimes actively critiquing and pushing back on it. And I think home, family, faith, country, laws, culture, tradition, become the placeholders, the proverbial shoulders from which the shots of proper behaviour are fired.

Personally, I’ve spent a great deal of my life straddling these social laws, hitting back, being punished for hitting back. And I think the sweeping travel between times and places only seeks to establish a solidarity, particularly with the women who came before me, and the ones who will come after, who have lived, or will have to live, and imagine the full breadth of their lives and the possibilities within fixed contours.

Many of the poems in Busted Models deal with feminine anger. Can you tell us about harnessing (or not) that anger?

I think anger has been the most potent, stand out emotion from my life. Which sounds a little sad as I say it because why not love? Why not generosity? But anger has been, for better or worse, the first trigger to discontentment, the first sign that not everything is conducive. My friend, writer Brian Birnbaum asked me on his podcast whether I do not think that anger, inherently, is a negative feeling, and it is. It can consume you, bleed you hollow.

Having grown up in a culture that policies anger selectively, that upholds male aggression as a sign of virility and is quick to accommodate their discontentment, while female anger is always dismissed and even worse, suppressed, that decrees who gets to be angry and who doesn’t, I’ve come to accept anger as a tool of dissent. And I think every person finds a way to take their anger and channel it into their life in a way that’s productive, I suppose, and for me that has always taken the shape of writing. To write about this moment in time, this culture, stories that are committed to gender politics of a country, is to recognise the anger that I feel, that many around me have felt, and continue to use to recognise where exactly we went wrong. And to feel this anger, to write about it, is also a revolutionary move. Like José Olivarez says in “Poem In Which I Become Wolverine,”