Coolitude poetics interview with Elizabeth Jaikaran
Elizabeth Jaikaran was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, and currently resides on Long Island with her husband. She graduated from the CUNY City College of New York in 2012 and from New York University School of Law in 2016. She has written for numerous platforms, most prevalently for Brown Girl magazine, and has published along a spectrum of genres, from legal analysis to comedy. As an author and a lawyer, Jaikaran hopes to be a voice for communities residing in underrepresented margins. She is the proud child of Guyanese immigrants.
Trauma: Stories is a collection of true and extraordinary stories that speak of the abuse suffered by Guyanese women, girls, and members of the LGBT community both in their native country and after immigrating to the United States. Through carefully crafted prose and poetic undertones, the author, Elizabeth Jaikaran, reveals accounts of the horrific violence and trauma through the lens of Guyanese culture and history. Along with these stories are points of fact, gathered from newspapers, agency studies, and governmental records, that illustrate the far-reaching existence and impact of violence and strict cultural norms. Also on display in these stories is the strength and resilience of Guyanese women as they have struggled to survive and flourish. This story of a small and often overlooked culture has needed to be told, and Jaikaran tells it with amazing courage and grace.
Rajiv Mohabir: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some of my questions! I have been a fan of your work, your essays published on the Huffington Post as well as your work on and for Brown Girl magazine, Literally, Darling magazine, and The Muslim Observer. To begin with, what got you into writing?
Elizabeth Jaikaran: I am such a huge fan of your work and your art, so I am very appreciative of your kind words. My first interactions with writing as a creative outlet run parallel with my realizations of my own voice and what my voice means as either a woman, a person of color, or as a Muslim. These three identities, existing concurrently within me, have had a deep impact on whether or not I was confident in my voice throughout much of my life. As a child, I learned pretty early on, much to my delight, that writing was a beautiful loophole through which I could be expressive in a world that did not give much credence to my voice. It was a medium for me to express my opinions and my emotions without fear of being interrupted or belittled by some other more demanding (deserving) voice. Writing continues to play that role for me. It is a personal phenomenon that I discuss in the self-titled chapter of my book Trauma, and is such a huge part of my life and how I understand myself. I always carry a writing journal with me. I write in the mornings, on the train, and during lunch. When an idea for a story strikes in the middle of the night, I clumsily climb over my husband and off of the bed so that I can jot it down in my journal, lest I want to lose it forever in the abyss of my own brain. The first time I ever saw my work in print I was just eight years old. Writing and publishing have been my greatest loves ever since.
Rajiv Mohabir: Your primary work is journalistic in nature. Your first book Trauma: A Collection of Short Stories, just released by Shanti Arts Publishing, is a collection of stories in the first person that narrates the lives of women in your family. After each woman’s story, there are short essays that contextualize the complicated history of Guyanese spaces. What was it like writing in the mode you chose? What were the emotional stakes in writing about the sufferings and joys of the women that you come from?
Elizabeth Jaikaran: Writing creative nonfiction was certainly difficult, not only because of the level of craft that is demanded in that kind of writing, but because of the content with which I was engaging. These stories essentially recreate the worst days of the lives of each of the women in the book. Reconstructing those scenes and listening to scathing emotional accounts from multiple sources surrounding these moments was an uphill battle both in terms of my own emotional wherewithal and my ability to discern a single monolith of truth from the varying narratives produced by these interviews. Despite the difficulties of it all, collecting these stories allowed me to feel the closest I have ever felt to many of these women, especially to my grandmothers, who never shared these dark portions of their history with me or with any of their other grandchildren. It allowed me to see whole other dimensions of them that I never knew existed — that many people never realize exists for the elder generations of their own families. At the same time, writing creatively as a craft also begs for the discernment of even the finest details that I discovered have become lost after so many years. What did the air feel like on the day of grandpa’s funeral? How did the dust on the dirt road feel when it touched your feet? These are the kinds of details that I labored over, for they play a huge role in the success of the recreation of these scenes. Ultimately, I had to fill in some of the gaps of perceptive details with my own experiences when visiting my parents’ country: the surprisingly crisp air at different times of the day, the way dust laces like silk around one’s toes while walking the streets, and the chorus of voices of melodic creolise that only a Guyanese marketplace can produce. Maintaining creative craft while remaining true to the narratives of these stories was a difficult task to materialize but, in the end, this work became so much more valuable to me, and to readers, because of its ability to skate on both lines. Overall, I am so entirely grateful for this process and all that it has given to me and to the women around me. By learning these stories, recording these stories, and publishing these stories, I feel free — we all feel free.
Rajiv Mohabir: Reading your phenomenal book made me remember both Sonny Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body and also, more importantly, Gaiutra Bahadur’s work, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. Who are your literary and journalistic influences?
Elizabeth Jaikaran: First, thank you so much for such a gracious compliment of association. I am a huge fan of Gaiutra Bahadur’s work. If I may digress and discuss her very quickly — Bahadur’s Coolie Woman is such a boon for Indo-Guyanese seeking to learn about their history. The bibliography, on its own, is a treasure and I am grateful to be able to witness our community’s rediscovery of itself because of her intellectual labor. As far as my own influences are concerned, I was heavily influenced by South Asian women authors growing up, primarily because they constituted the very first representations that I saw of myself (albeit imperfectly) in the literary world after years of reading Judy Blume and authors of the like. Arundhati Roy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Jhumpa Lahiri are examples of authors that inspired me to take my writing seriously. Their respective successes showed me that people who look like me could be valued for our voices, of all things! It is my hope that our cultural community’s literary canon may continue to grow so that other young writers in our diaspora will be able to look to more apt representations of themselves in literature, and the longing gaze to South Asia can be quieted.
As I entered my college years, diaspora-focused authors became additional sources of inspiration for me. After being assigned the works of Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat many times during my undergraduate studies, they quickly became the authors with whom I identified the most with respect to my writing style because of their evident experiences with migration, notwithstanding our very different backgrounds. The story of migration, and of being the first of a generation to be born in a new land, is one that I have found is a common thread in producing some of the most impressive literary works I have ever encountered. These authors inspired me to pursue a place in that canon.
Rajiv Mohabir: A lot of people today talk about race not being important for the sake of national unity, or that racial politics should not come to bear in true art. I’m drawing from what is commonly held as de facto truth in many writing spaces. Your book, however, placed racial and ethnic identities at the center of the text. How do you understand the racial politics in the United States that implicate writers and immigrants alike — given your unwavering and powerful voice?
Elizabeth Jaikaran: I reject narratives that try to posture the erasure of race or ethnicity as a form of progress. The existence of those things, by themselves, do not threaten progress or nationalism. Rather, disenfranchisement based on those characteristics creates the kind of antinational and/or regressive realities that proponents of such erasure fear. While the human experience is far from a monolithic one with respect to how we all engage with or experience life vis-à-vis our identity, the existence of certain experiences stemming from identity are necessary discussions on both political and artistic playgrounds. I, too, have witnessed the interaction of race rejectionists and art in literary spaces and I firmly believe that this stunts the artistic development of many communities, including our own cultural community. As I explained before, writing was a means of expression that was extremely valuable for me when coming into my own voice as a child. This is true for many communities in the margins. Writing about our experiences, which inevitably centers our immutable characteristics like race, ethnicity, or other characteristics that directly impact our daily experiences, allows communities to learn, grow, and heal. We are not just words on a page, no matter how beautifully dressed or how wonderfully abstract. We come from real places — real lands with real town and city and street names. We descend from real people from different pockets of the world with their own very real traditions that still peer into our languages and customs today. These are necessary points of discussion for anyone who is interested in a successful conversation about the human experience. I had to place race and ethnicity at the center of Trauma because, in Guyana at one point in history, these characteristics were, in fact, central to daily life and determined a great deal about the individual experiences of Guyanese people. It determined who were on plantations, who were mining the interior, and who were eligible for government jobs. In the United States, our political health could also greatly benefit from a stronger ear toward understanding how these immutable characteristics interact with other institutions to create streams of injustice that flow into the country’s margins. I often hear identity dismissed as a political “distraction” with the “real” issues being class disparities told through bottom-line conjectures of dollar bills and economic review. Very often, this end of the spectrum does not take into account how issues of identity impact the very economic algorithms that they look to for solutions. As a result, I, naturally, believe that writings which center our experiences with identity are necessary cultural productions that American immigrant and diaspora writers have been creating in glorious abundance. This is the kind of honest writing that can, ultimately, contribute to a community’s healing. Anything short of this kind of honesty would, truly, be unjustly discounting the level of healing that can be obtained through art. Postulations of identity as insignificant threaten that potential.
Rajiv Mohabir: A central geographic location that appears and reappears in your work is New York City — Queens and Richmond Hill, specifically. I was wondering if you can tell me a little about why the city is important to you and to your history as a descendant of indentured laborers?
Elizabeth Jaikaran: Queens is my home. Richmond Hill is my home. No matter how many years pass, it always feels like home. In Queens, New York there is a small enclave in Richmond Hill/South Ozone Park that is heavily populated with Guyanese immigrants and heavily developed commercially by those same immigrants. As a teenager, I lived with my maternal grandmother in Richmond Hill. She worked as a teacher’s assistant by day and baked and sold black cakes out of her home for supplemental income by night. In addition to a home that always smelled like fresh black cake, she gave me the most “Richmond Hill” life I could ever imagine: Eating fruit on the front step on a sunny afternoon, walking on Liberty Avenue in pursuit of the most reasonably priced vegetables each weekend, and dodging the eyes of nosey neighbors who would always report my movements to her. Aside from my affection, specifically, for my grandmother’s home, I have always been in awe of the way this cultural community, by choice, stays together. In the context of indenture and later migration, the close geographic placement of this community seems to almost reveal a fear of separation as vulnerability. And so, the community remains as close, proximally, as they were on the ships and on the sugar plantations, scarcely creating pores for others to step inside. While it is my wish that such vulnerability will dissipate into a new wave of collective strength, it is also my honor to witness healing before my eyes, in a community that chooses to heal together.
Rajiv Mohabir: And now, the question of genre. Why did you choose this specific form for Trauma: A Collection of Short Stories?
Elizabeth Jaikaran: Short stories are such a powerful way to offer readers events like the ones described in Trauma as opposed to a journalistic approach of simply recounting the events in a report fashion. I saw this genre as a way to add dimension to the women I wanted the world to know about — to make readers care about them, love them, and grieve with them. In addition to my desire to have their stories out in the world, I also had the desire, as discussed earlier, to be a successful and powerful storyteller. I found that recreating these events of trauma as stories, with scenes and dialogues and plot, was the best way to go about achieving both goals.
Rajiv Mohabir: Can you tell me about any other projects that you are currently working on? What’s next for you as a journalist and writer?
Elizabeth Jaikaran: Now that I am a practicing attorney, my time at the moment has been very limited with respect to writing. In fact, for the last year, I have been primarily focused on growing as a lawyer and funneling my spare time into professional volunteer efforts with respect to immigration law. The current political climate leads me to believe that, at this moment, I need to wear this hat more often in order to help undo some of the harms that have been perpetrated against the country’s most vulnerable demographics as of late. Nonetheless, I am finally discovering ways to make more time for writing and for creating new work. I am currently working on a book of poetry, as well as a fictional collection of short stories that are set in Queens, New York. I am also, at the moment, enjoying every second of speaking about Trauma with all varieties of audiences. This book truly does serve as a dream materialized. In November, I will be finalizing a tour schedule for visiting bookstores and universities in varying pockets of the country. I am uneasy with excitement at the idea of creating more work and sharing it with the world all over again, while always, in all that I do, nodding to the community that birthed me.
Coolitude: Poetics of the Indian Labor Diaspora