Julianna DeMicco talks to Vandana Khanna, author of poetry chapbook The Goddess Monologues (Diode Editions, 2016). Read on to discover how the immigrant experience shaped Khanna’s writing and how she uses myth to examine the complexities of modern womanhood.
Editor’s note: The interview below has been lightly edited.
JD: Tell me about yourself as an author. What parts of your background influence your writing and style?
VK: One of the biggest influences in my writing life has been being an immigrant: hearing stories in two different languages, living two separate lives as a child. Reading and writing became a way for me to find my place—it became my way to fit into a world that was of my own making.
JD: How are these influences expressed, mined, or explored in your new chapbook The Goddess Monologues?
VK: The poems in The Goddess Monologues sprung from the myths about the gods and goddesses that my grandmother would tell me when I was a child visiting her in India. I loved the characters and the stories: the epic fights, the betrayals, the lessons they learned. With the birth of my own children, I’ve revisited some of these same stories and found so much drama and adventure that they’ve taken root in my imagination.
JD: The religious allusions in this chapbook really struck me. For example, the narrative surrounding Sita’s captivity. I’m curious about how you see that captivity reflecting Sita’s status as both a woman and a goddess?
VK: Many of the poems are reinterpretations of the actual myths. I wanted a bit more freedom with the stories so I tried to move beyond the specifics of each of the myths to get to the emotions and implications working below the surface. The more traditional view of Sita is that she is the perfect goddess, the perfect wife.
In my version, Sita is more complex—she is “allowed” to resent her situation, to question how she got stuck with the label of “being perfect.” Just her act of questioning her fate becomes an act of rebellion. It was important to me to have Sita become a woman, more human and less goddess. It’s her humanity that makes her relatable and still exceptional.
JD: I’m also interested in the juxtaposition of Pavarti and her previous reincarnation Sati. In these poems, what are these goddesses are saying about marriage and domesticity? How do those ideas influence you as a poet and as a woman in today’s world?
VK: In these particular poems, I tried to focus on some of the complexities of marriage and relationships, how these life events can change a person in unexpected ways. I wanted to examine the standard ideas of how society (and these myths) believe wives should act, how someone in love should behave.
Added to that was this notion of constantly being reincarnated and how that really puts a strain on a relationship, an idea that I found to be both funny and sad at the same time. In my mind, these poems were working as a kind of reimagining or retelling of bad breakups—with all of the anger and hurt and metaphorical walking in the rain. The stories themselves seemed a good fit for these poems.
JD: For me, The Goddess Monologues expressed the complexity of womanhood, both in expectation and reality. I’m curious if this is something you want people to think about when reading this chapbook?
I did want the poems to work with some of these ideas of what it means to be a woman, to be “perfect,” to be a wife. I wanted to highlight the tension between obligation and personal freedom—how it’s not so easy to exchange one for the other. There are consequences when you meet expectations and when you subvert them.
JD: What kind of projects are you working on or thinking about right now? Is there anything you’d like to explore or do that you haven’t yet done?
I’m not sure what my next project is—I feel like I’m not quite done with these goddesses just yet. Whatever is next, I hope to come to the page with an open mind. I want to be free to make mistakes and change things around. I want to allow myself to be messy for a little while.
Vandana Khanna was born in New Delhi, India and attended the University of Virginia and Indiana University, where she earned her MFA. Her first collection, Train to Agra, won the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize and her second collection, Afternoon Masala, was the co-winner of the 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, 32 Poems, and Prairie Schooner, as well as the anthologies Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation and Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. She lives in Los Angeles.
Julianna DeMicco is a rising senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus, and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically those written during the Medieval Era to those written in the Early Renaissance.