The Space of Poetry: Rajiv Mohabir
I cannot recall the exact moment that the existence of Rajiv Mohabir’s work entered the deepest part of my consciousness. Regardless, it has since lodged itself into a snug little corner of things I hope to always have the luxury of recalling throughout my lifetime.
It’s often proposed that representation viscerally matters; it makes what feels like an impossible dream feel that much more in reach. As a first-generation Guyanese-American residing in Little Guyana, the pursuit of the literary fine arts as a viable career path might as well mean becoming the first NASA astronaut to perform the Nutcracker on the moon. Learning of Mohabir’s poetry prompted the thought that perhaps, the distance between Queens, NY and space is only as wide as the Atlantic.
Back in the early winter of 2021, Jore co-founders, Sahmi and Mashiat, sat down with Mohabir for an in-depth discussion on both his work and his life, covering topics on: the path to an MFA and PhD; complexity of family relationships regarding queerness; and the joy to be found in creolized identity despite the psychic, economic, and social destitution that indentureship continues to have on the Indo-Caribbean community.
Path to MFA: Master in Finance!
When asked to describe what pushed him to pursue an MFA in Poetry and Translation from CUNY Queens College, and later, a PhD in English from the University of Hawai’i, Mohabir begins by explaining that he “came to writing late.” At 28 years old, he was working as a school teacher in the New York City public school system. Having become disillusioned by the severe racial and economic disparities of opportunities within the public school system, along with a growing pull back towards the songs his grandmother used to sing to him as a child, Mohabir decided to take the plunge to apply for MFA programs.
Like any respecting child of immigrant parents, Mohabir decided to call his mother to tell her the news. The conversation went along the lines of:
-Rajiv: I’m doing an MFA!
-Mom: What’s that?
-R: Master in fine arts :)
-M: *shows tons of excitement and enthusiasm*
-R: *thinks that Mama Mohabir is being such an ally!*
-M: I’m happy you’re going to get your Master’s in finance!
Mohabir jokes that his mother could not even hear the words “fine arts,” and goes
on to explain that both his mother and father expressed a sense of disappointment that their son had decided to pursue a career in the arts rather than something more
“practical,” such as business or the hard sciences. It’s a scene many children of immigrants are familiar with. Our parents abandon their homelands and all that they’ve ever known in pursuit of a new homeland that promises ample opportunities of success for their children.
Mohabir explains that he decided to one day sit down with his mother and explain that he was, in fact, taking full advantage of the sacrificial decision she and his father had made.
“The result of your sacrifice is me living in this other fulfilled way,” he explained to her.
Eventually, with time, both of his parents came around, which Mohabir credits much of this to his landing a teaching gig in the BFA/MFA program in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing department at Emerson College.
Queerness Puts You Outside of Time
Another aspect that Mohabir credits to his decision to pursue a path in the fine arts is his queerness. He explains that since coming out to his family, it essentially “took him off of a timeline.” There was no expectation for him to get married, start a family, buy a home, etc. With this understanding, he not only obtained an MFA, but also a PhD, the latter which carried him to both Hawai’i and India for the first time.
Being an occupied territory of the U.S. government, Hawai’i has a unique history of indentureship, which includes Indo-Fijians. Coming from a former indentured people himself, there was a sense of familiarity, and perhaps even community. Mohabir also explains that, at the time, the University of Hawai’i was the only school in the U.S. system that offered Hindi and a creative dissertation program. Having recently returned from Varanasi, India where he learned Hindi while working on a translation piece, he decided that he wanted to spend further time deepening his work across these spaces. “I guess it’s true what they say,” Mohabir jokes, “if you live in Varanasi for too long, you either go mad or turn into a poet.”
However, his queerness not only placed him on the outsides of traditional life milestones, but deeply affected many of his familial relationships. Queerphobia and homophobia within the Indo-Caribbean community runs deep. Though the issue is one filled with complexity, a major factor is shame: Log kya kahenge, or as we say in Guyana, Yuh nah gah shame? Mohabir expands on this further, noting that “the most off putting part about my sexuality is not necessarily that I’m queer, but that I have one and can talk about it freely,” emphasizing that his openness and disregard for secrets is what has produced the “even though” relationships he maintains with many members of his family. But Mohabir pushes the community’s relationship to shame even further.
“What if we use that shame, harness its velocity, and use it for beauty instead of upset,” he suggests. “I think, maybe, that’s the space of poetry.”
Storytelling that Holds a Mirror Up
If you have spent any time with Mohabir’s poetry, the presence of Indo-Caribbean culture and history is undeniable. He credits the companionship between his art and his heritage to his grandmother and the songs she would often sing in Bhojpuri, a common language used amongst indentured populations within the Caribbean. The language was created on plantations and borrows words from all of the languages that were present in the environment (Hindi, Punjabi, Portuguese, Dutch, etc.). Now a dying language, Mohabir admired his grandmother’s Bhojpuri songs, and proceeded to be the only person in his family who decided to transcribe and translate them, eventually publishing them into a chapbook.
Despite the incredible feat, Mohabir explains the discomfort that his family experienced seeing his grandmother’s songs in the language of the indentured.
“Storytelling and accountability often go hand in hand,” Mohabir notes, “[and] storytelling that holds a mirror up to your immigrant family members carries the risk of losing kin.”
But it is precisely this storytelling that offers joy in being part of a creolized identity, allowing us to explore the different spaces our single body occupies.
Sahmi's and Mashiat's conversation with Rajiv will soon be made available on Jore's Youtube page. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the incredible work he is producing with Coolitude, a project that examines the cultural productions of writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers who descend from indentured laborers from Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, Mauritius, South Africa, Fiji, and those in second diaspora in England, the United States, and Canada.
And for some phenomenal summer reads, pick up any of his books: I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara; The Cowherd’s Son; The Taxidermist’s Cut. His hybrid memoir, Antiman, to be released later this year in June, is currently available for pre-order.