Rochelle D'Silva in conversation with Jessica Faleiro
Rochelle D’silva is a spoken word poet who performs across venues in India, invoking conversations about belonging, home, and cultural influences. Her poems, furnished with deep imagery and functional metaphors, provide clear pathways into her world and her ethos. Rochelle curates a monthly poetry open mic in Mumbai called “Words Tell Stories” which features local and international artists, and runs a slam series called “Mumbai Poetry Slam.” She has a double Masters degree in Journalism and Arts & Media from Griffith University, Australia, and has released a poetry and music album titled Best Apology Face (2017), that is available on Bandcamp and iTunes. Her debut collection of poetry, When Home Is An Idea (Bombaykala; 2017) can be purchased here.
In an interview with author Jessica Faleiro, she talks about her poetry, space as a geographical and metaphorical concept, and her recently launched debut collection of poems. This interview has been edited.
Jessica Faleiro: I had the pleasure of meeting you at the Goa launch of your first book of poetry, When Home is an Idea a few months ago in Margao. We met up again at the 2017 edition of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, where we were able to have a much longer chat and I was keen to explore the impact on you of having spent much of your life outside of the country of your birth. In the poem “Where are you from?” you write:
I am asked
Where are you from?
Where are you based?
Which piece of land, which area, which zip code,
Which border defines you?’
And then in “Anonymous” you write:
wants to remain anonymous
stop interrogating me.
As someone who is a global nomad myself, I find deep resonance and meaning in these lines. So, perhaps this is a good place to start from. Could you please tell us where you were born and where you spent your formative years?
Rochelle D'silva: I think I’m still being formed! I was born and raised in Bombay until I was twelve, after which, I moved to Bahrain for high school. At the age of around seventeen or eighteen I moved to Bangalore to do my bachelor’s degree and ended up staying there until I was about 25. Following that, I did a five-year stint in Australia, and then found myself back in the sweaty arms of Bombay.
Watch Rochelle D'silva perform her poetry to music.
JF: I’m curious, is there any sense of frustration for you when people ask about you where you’re from? The lines I quoted from “Anonymous” (“please / stop interrogating me.”) give us a sense of this, but I was hoping you could elaborate for us.
RDS: Honestly, it depends on how I’m feeling at the time. There are moments when I have the patience to respond to that question – Where are you from? Other times, I just leave it at I’m a child of the universe, or I’ve moved around so much that it’s difficult to answer that question.
JF: Do you feel that you have a connection to Goa?
RDS: I always say that Goa is in my blood; it is one of the places where I truly feel like I belong. I retreat to Goa every few months. It helps to ease my soul. Apart from the fact that we have a home and family and roots in Goa, I feel at ease here. I love the weather, the food, the breeze, the palm trees, and the serenity that the landscape offers. I don’t see myself tiring of Goa or shying away from my Goan heritage.
JF: Was there ever any particular point, moment, or age when you felt that you were different because you belonged to the Goan diaspora?
RDS: I have always known that I am different. I have always felt different. But I became painfully aware of my Indianness when I moved to Australia in 2009. There’s a verse from one of my spoken word poems:
I have never felt more Indian
than when I left the country of my birth
Never realised that my skin was brown
Or that our accents are generously coupled
with copious amounts of head bobbing
Didn’t realise that Indians smell like curry
And while the average person will boast
of having tried authentic butter chicken
at least once in their lifetime
That is still a bad thing
JF: Are there any core childhood milestones or moments that have influenced or triggered these geographical movements in your life?
RDS: When I was younger, it was my parents and their travels that prompted my displacement. I remember moving to Bahrain when I was twelve years old and feeling panicked and alone when I realised that I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call a friend or go down and play in the park like I used to. I think having to start over at age twelve, move to a new school, and make new friends in an alien environment, highlighted my social awkwardness. What started as relocation because of external factors like parents, school, college, job, etc., soon changed to travelling for personal joy and fulfilment. I realised that I enjoy being on the road and love the journey more than arriving at a destination. Being in limbo allows me to be anonymous; it affords me the privilege of recreating myself and writing my own story. Today, I seek this displacement more consciously and keep slipping away on solo trips to unknown places.
JF: So, where is home right now?
RDS: Fortunately, or unfortunately, this will always be a difficult question for me to answer. So, I’m going to give you the dry version. I am based out of Bombay, but keep travelling as much as possible every month, every couple of weeks. So, home is still an idea, a feeling, a state of mind.
JF: Please talk about your intention behind launching these particular poems, and why now.
RDS: I think I’m finally at a place where I’m comfortable putting my work out into the world. I’ve always used my poetry to explore themes of identity and belonging, along with relationships and the evolution of self; so it was great when my publisher mentioned that they were looking for work that was in some way linked to the same themes and also linked to Bombay in some way. When Home Is An Idea is my humble contribution to the multitude of books on the subject.
JF: You structure your book into three sections: But what is home anyway?, Limbo and The Re-return . Could you please tell us the reason for the structure and what these three headings signify?
RDS: The three sections of the book clearly define my relationship with Mumbai and India in general. “But what is home anyway?” is a reflection of my constant battle with self and my environment. The second part, “Limbo,” is the state of how I have felt so many times; nursing my guilt while longing for other cities and places. “The Re-return” is symbolic of my return to Mumbai and what that has entailed for my art and my person. I look at the book as an honest recounting of my life. The poems don’t have to be read in a particular order, and the three sections themselves represent questions I still ask myself and the realities I still grapple with.
JF: Allow me to quote a few lines here from your poem “Survival”:
but not too fast
your breasts might shake
your ass might wobble
they are already staring so hard.
Hold your bag like this
close to your chest
your elbows are weapons
your sharp tongue
will be drowned
Rely on your sense
yet don’t be angry
by what they show you …
When reading these lines, I felt their power and as an Indian woman, living in India, I could instantly relate. However, this poem seems a little out of place in a collection that is largely about movement, distance, identity, and belonging. Could you please explain?
RDS: This is one of the first poems that I wrote when I moved back to Bombay. I became so much more aware of my body and felt like I was being made to feel apologetic for it. I buoyed between rebellion and understanding but, ultimately, I had to return to self-preservation at all costs. To me, it is a poem that clearly depicts how I felt when I moved back. Bombay is not an easy city to live in and it definitely pushed my boundaries.
JF: One of your poems, “Chasing A Ghost”, points us in the direction of the interesting dynamics of your relationship with Bombay:
Looking out at the cloudy haze that is Bombay
from behind dusty window screens
that keep neither dust nor mosquitoes out
Slowly lulled to sleep on bumpy bus rides,
I navigate the unknown that is my home
Tomorrow I will be somewhere else
A little closer to who I am,
and a lot farther from where I want to be.
Do you feel Bombay gives you whatever you need right now, or are you planning to shift out of the city anytime soon? If the latter, where do you see yourself moving to?
RDS: I have never consciously planned my life or my actions. I like living in this bubble where anything is possible, and I am open to all possibilities, even the scary ones. I have felt a growing unease within myself, and a need to be closer to nature. Bombay gives me family and friends and poetry, but I find that I need to leave the city at least once a month for my own sanity. I see myself oscillating between Goa and Himachal, my two favourite places at the moment.
JF: I’d like to shift and focus on the form and your creative process. How did you come to poetry and where do you feel, at this moment in time, it is taking you?
RDS: I remember writing my first poem when I was six. It was a cutesy poem about a tree (I still write tree poems). I have always used poetry as a way to make sense of the world. I would write about anything I was thinking about, or emotions that were too overwhelming to process, and of course about relationships and love. For me, poetry has been an escape, a healing, a muse, and the greatest friend I’ve ever had. I think it’s taking me on an adventure. All I have to do is keep saying yes and stay open to all the possibilities on offer.
JF: Could you talk about the difference between written poetry and spoken poetry? Do you have a natural preference for one over the other?
RDS: In my experience, spoken word poetry is more conversational and easily accessible. With page poetry, the reader has the benefit of time to absorb the poem and the poet can play with structure and form. I have spent most of my life absorbing poetry in all forms, and I am very biased towards the art form. I love the rush of a great performance, when the feedback from the audience is instantaneous. But I also love the quiet contentment that comes with seeing your words grounded on a page. And then there is the peace I derive from poems that are written as catharsis and never reach anyone else’s eyes or ears.
JF: Did you always have an affinity for the spoken word?
RDS: I actually have terrible stage fright (always have and it looks like I always will). I have severe public speaking anxiety and have a pretty strong tendency to bail just before a gig. But once I’m up in front of that mic, something shifts and I become this person I don’t fully recognize.
JF: What did you do before poetry came into your life the way it has? And how did you come to performance poetry?
RDS: I was in my final semester during my Masters, and I had taken up a class called Producing Culture. It was a fantastic course that opened me up to so many new forms of expression. A friend passed away and I was very disturbed by the news. I wrote a poem about him and his life, because I wanted to tell his story. I memorized the poem and “spoke” it to my class as my final assessment. My classmates asked if I did spoken word, and I had no clue what that was. I looked it up and was very intimidated by the results. I saw Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye, and Andrea Gibson, and remember thinking that my poetry wasn’t and would never be as good. But one thing led to another and I found myself attending open mics, slowly gaining confidence, and thoroughly enjoying the experience of performing to rooms full of strangers and friends. But before poetry fully took over my life in this way, I was a content writer and had a regular full-time job.
JF: What encouragement would you give to young poets struggling to find ways of making a full-time living out of being poets today?
RDS: I would say that anything is possible. If you want to make money as a writer/poet, you can. How much money you make will depend on you. If you’re getting into poetry just for the money, it might not be the best move. Working for yourself, investing in yourself, requires a certain amount of resourcefulness. It requires you to actively chase your dream and believe in yourself.
Photos featured are © Rochelle D'silva.
Jessica Faleiro is a novelist, travel writer and a poet. Her debut novel Afterlife (Rupa; 2012) is about a family from Goa and their ’ghostly’ encounters. Her poems, fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Asia Literary Review, Indian Quarterly, Coldnoon, Mascara Literary Review, Muse India, IndiaCurrents, Times of India and in various anthologies. Jessica hosts talks on the writing life and runs creative writing workshops. She has an MA in creative writing from Kingston University, UK. Afterlife can be purchased here.