– What is Britishness? It might be easier for me to answer than ethnic English people because I can answer it with a colonial perspective. I can be outside and inside simultaneously and think about Britain, not only in its own self, but with its legacy. In my poetry, I’m not interested in thinking about a homogeneous community in the world. Britain has something that is in transition. It has always been in transition ever since people have lived in Britain. We are just in the latest phase of that transition, says Daljit Nagra.
Daljit Nagra has been highly recognized for his multicultural vision and a dazzling new poetic style in British literature. In some sense he resembles Danish poets and writers such as Yahya Hassan and Sara Omar, and he expresses themes they too have unfolded, but his vision on society and culture is, one could argue, more accommodating, mature and humorous.
Daljit Nagra deals with such huge themes as growing up as an immigrant in an English host culture, and he gives voice to the resistance and paranoia towards English culture within ethnic cultures and among individuals with a mixed background. He pulls no punches, for sure. Daljit Nagra includes his personal experience and cultural observations in a diagnosis of maladies and ailments of contemporary British society, yet never without some sort of relief through the contours of a multicultural vision and the ambivalent love of Britishness.
I have set up an interview with Daljit Nagra at the British Library in London. Daljit Nagra is a busy man. Besides writing poetry, he also works as a professor of creative writing at Brunel University. In between he gives readings all over the country at high schools because his poems are set for the GCSE-level and A-level exams, which underlines the canonization of Daljit Nagra in British literary history.
When I meet him at 3 o’clock in the foyer of the British Library, he has just returned to London after a reading in Nottingham to 2,100 exam students at the Royal Palace. Daljit Nagra visits the British Library several times every week, as he lives not that far away in Harrow with his wife, Katherine, and their two daughters Maia and Hannah, he tells me.
Since his first publication, Daljit Nagra has been widely praised for his poetry. He has won The Forward Prize for Best First Collection for his first book “Look We Have Coming to Dover” from 2007, and he has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize several times among other awards. Today he is a member of the very prestigious Council of the Royal Society of Literature and is mentioned extensively as the Queen’s next Poet Laureate by several British newspapers, including The Guardian, in fierce competition with such poets as Simon Armitage and Benjamin Zephaniah.
The Punjabi Prelude
– Actually, my dad was a champion wrestler in India from the Punjab region. He first came to Britain in the late 1950s, where he worked as a labourer in production line factories, says Daljit Nagra.
Two years later, Daljit Nagra’s mother came, and he (b. 1966) and his brother were born in West London. So Daljit Nagra has never lived in India, even though Indianness is a very prevalent theme in his poetry.
At the time, when Daljit Nagra’s parents emigrated to Britain, the country had an enormous increase in 24-hour production line factories, and they desperately needed people like Daljit Nagra’s parents to work, so his mother worked on a rag trade making clothes from home for factories and then later worked in a hospital laundry. Finally, Nagra’s parents bought a corner shop in Sheffield, South Yorkshire when Daljit Nagra was 16, and the family moved up north.
– My parents were very much a part of an economic success story. My mum wasn’t educated at all. There were no books at home, also there was no English at home. Eventually, my mum learned enough to speak shopkeeper English. Enough to be able to buy and sell. Yet onto this day when I visit my parents, we speak Punjabi. We come from a Sikh background. My dad doesn’t wear a turban as such. But my granddad wore a turban. My mum is a vegetarian. My dad eats meat, so really his Sikhism is quite relaxed, Daljit Nagra tells – and continues:
– I already started moving on from Sikhism as a teenager when discovering rock music, being into football and then getting into the lyrics of rock songs from typical western bands like The Jam, The Clash and Sex Pistols. I used to really enjoy the lyrics of rock and punk music. And then I discovered William Blake’s poetry at 19 and yes, that changed my life totally, says Daljit Nagra.
Along with writing poetry, Daljit Nagra has worked as an English teacher in various schools. Right after graduation with an MA in English literature and Modernism (with a thesis on W.B Yeats and D.H. Lawrence), he started teaching English as a foreign language in Czechoslovakia for about half a year and then in Greece about half a year. Finally, in England where he did loads of menial jobs, he decided to take a training course, and he became an English teacher in secondary schools for 17 years, before poetry led him into new roads.
– Also as a school teacher, you are more conscious of different types of English. And you are much more aware of language. Because you have to know how to communicate, literarily, when you are teaching. When you are a teacher, you are used to being aware of an audience. How to get people excited or get calm. That kind of effect you also use in poetry. As a side benefit, I have heard a lot of slangs. I have taught in London schools. London, being this melting pot of language, Daljit Nagra tells me.
Look We Have Coming to Dover
“Imagine my love and I,
our sundry others, Blair’d in the cash
of our beeswax’d cars, our crash clothes, free,
we raise our charged glasses over unparasol’d tables
East, babbling our lingoes, flecked by the chalk of Britannia!”
(From Look We Have Coming to Dover!)
‘Look We Have Coming to Dover’ is the title of Daljit Nagra’s first collection of poetry, published by Faber & Faber in 2007. The title is a reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’, but is also a comment on the many refugees passing seas or oceans to reach the land of promises. The poem has a political agenda. When Daljit Nagra wrote the poem he was thinking of the second wave of migrants as Blair’s generation, which the poem alludes to by saying, ‘Blair’d in the cash’.
– I guess the main thing for me also is to tell the story of the first generation who arrived in a hostile environment, which has improved so I feel more confident publishing my poems about my community now. I want to tell about their relationship to their children, people like me, rather than focus on the first generation in relation to the white host community, says Daljit Nagra.
In his first collection, Daljit Nagra attempts to mix up the English language as much as possible. The poems destabilize language, especially through the experience of reading them, because the reader is not reading conventional English. The reader is at siege as some of the characters are: The immigrant characters haven’t really settled in Britain. And they don’t know if they are going to get back. Daljit Nagra wants the language of the poems to bring forth a feeling of that dilemma.
– As such, I don’t seek to settle the nouns as they are. The solid nouns sometimes turn into a verb, or adjective, things like that. I want to play with the language as much as I can. To move away from standard English and move away from the dictionary English. I want to translate the voices of my family and relatives. I thought I will invent a language for them and dignify their voice with sophisticated diction in my poetry. Too often when Indians are given a voice, they are made to sound silly. So, when making an Indian talk like they do in my poetry, I thought I can make fun of my own community. We have been here long enough now that we can laugh at ourselves. I had really written some of those poems in the 1980s, 1990s, but because there was such a hostile environment then, I could not publish them, but today I can, says Daljit Nagra.
Especially, the poem ‘Singh Song’ from ‘Look We Have Coming to Dover’ has been used for the exam boards in Britain.
“Cos up di stairs is my newly bride
vee share in chapatti
vee share in di chutney
after vee hav made luv
like vee rowing through Putney”
(From Singh Song!)
– ‘Putney’ means wife as well as being a district in south-west London, and I’m drawn to the humor and towards white working-class tradition and what you find in cheeky songs. I wish to do an Indian version of all that. To me, it is meant as a celebration, but with tension, says Daljit Nagra.
Daljit Nagra writes about living between cultures or living and co-switching between east and west. He likes to describe the Indian shops and to tell the stories about the economic success of the migrants. The first generation of immigrants who came were the uneducated, but they succeeded and, in consequence, they changed the British cultural landscape, and even revitalized Britishness, according to Daljit Nagra.
“Vut a summer it was in di heights
ov de moors and di Scafell Pike
and we rolled through di flowers
and we hugged in di bowers”
(From The Balcony Song of Raju & Jaswinder)
– In my second book, ‘Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine’ (2011), I wrote about empire, because that is what I come from. With the phonetics I attempt to put in the mouth of the reader the Indian voice. I have to make them physically inhabit that voice. I tend to use deliberately loud sounds. Also, I want to dramatize that feeling of almost having to shout to be heard as an outsider, and I just seek to get as much energy into the poems as I can, tells Daljit Nagra.
Playing with the language allows Daljit Nagra to be witty, humorous and inject energy so the poems are constantly moving away from that quiet reflective voice of someone sitting in the room contemplating.
– I’m really interested in playing with tone. Am I serious or am I ironic or playing with both? I will call that the ambiguity diction. I would say all my poems play with a second or third meaning in the words. I spend a lot of time working on double-triple meanings in words, so the poem becomes slippery, says Daljit Nagra.
In his poetry, Daljit Nagra also uses words that have a feeling of Indianness in their pronunciation. Some with more open vowel sounds, more plosive, and sounds with extended vowels. The voices at the end of the lines of the poems often have to earn their exclamation mark so they have lift-off energy. He tends to use triple rhythms rather than duple rhythms, like anapests and dactyls. There are pacy rhythms that are speeding in his poetry.
– I’m not an iambic man. I’m an anapest man, Daljit Nagra laughs.
Ramayana – A Retelling
“Raavana was a true lover:
only careful wooing was the way he would float her boat.
But he felt rushed, it came out too cocky
‘Come now to my crystal bed in Lanka.
Let’s be getting tip-top pleasure!’”
(From “How to simply Sweep a Lady off her Feet”)
Daljit Nagra has also written a celebrated retelling of the ancient fairy-tale The Ramayana in 2013. He seeks to encourage the merging of peace and reconciliation between east and west, and in that sense this book supports his multicultural vision.
Today the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana is, according to Daljit Nagra, a part of British culture as Diwali is celebrated all over the country as a festival of light.
– Children from primary schools have to know a bit about Ramayana. The children in Britain generally know who Prince Rama, Ravana and Sita are. During Diwali, children will dress up as monkey gods or Ravana with 10 heads. So I felt it was time to retell my version of the story of the Ramayana, Daljit Nagra says.
“Where will our walls finally end? In
the gigabytes of our biometric online
lives, in our passports? To keep us
from trespass, will our walls be raised
watchful as the Great Firewall of China?”
(From Hadrian’s Wall)
In his latest book ‘British Museum’ from 2017, Daljit Nagra changes his view on Britishness and multiculturalism a little from his previous poetry collections. In this collection British icons and institutions, such as the BBC, British Museum, Hadrian’s Wall and Cambridge among others are treated from a multicultural and a national identity angle. Yet he is still writing from the immigrant perspective or a second-generation immigrant point of view, but he now also expands his themes to the general cultural currents in British society and history. Although he doesn’t mention Brexit directly, this poetry collection is clearly written in the context of the mood that led to Brexit.
– One of the things I want to put across in my latest collection ‘British Museum’ is to exaggerate or dramatize the paranoia of being an outsider. There is no language for that, so I thought I will invent that. Also I try to dramatize the feeling that even though you are a part of the host community, this community will probably never really be able to understand you, but you can probably understand them because you live a life close to theirs, but they don’t live the life of the outsider, says Daljit Nagra
What is Britishness?
PGW: It seems to me that you are also genuinely trying to describe Britishness in ‘British Museum”, most notably in the poem “Hadrian’s Wall”?
– Britons have been struggling to find out what Britishness is for many decades: What is distinctly British? Maybe you cannot really answer that question directly. Partly, I wanted to play with that in British Museum satirically, humorously and seriously. In the poem Hadrian’s Wall, I was partly just thinking about walls, historic walls. Anthropologically speaking, human beings build walls, they like security walls. Then if you take that argument right to the end, where does the wall end? Do we put up walls in our imagination to shut people out? Maybe China is one example where people cannot go online and find information. And if you start building walls like Trump or Britain by shutting off from the world through Brexit, where does that finish, where do you stop that? In my poetry, I’m trying to remind people of a more complicated history. We have to see that there is a vibrancy, a dynamism in cultural mixing, says Daljit Nagra.
Daljit Nagra (b. 1966)
Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London.
British Museum (2017), Faber & Faber
Ramayana (2013), Faber & Faber
Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! (2011), Faber & Faber
Look We Have Coming To Dover (2007), Faber & Faber
On Daljit Nagra’s website you can find several of his poems: http://www.daljitnagra.com
This interview has been published in Anglo Files – Journal of English Teaching 192 2. 2019. Copyright Peter Graarup Westergaard.