A global pandemic has asked us to adapt, reframe and reflect on the essence of our offer. Respect Due is our response to this time. Covid-19 is both remote and personal and so is this exhibition. A small selection of creatives have nominated someone who has had significant impact on their creative journeys and the wonderful artist Naki Narh has been commissioned to bring them to life. Enjoy.
The industry might have been the same. But I'm a different person, I now know that it is an industry.
Her work was groundbreaking and her reputation is perhaps greater overseas than it is in the UK (especially in Canada and India).
But in so many ways, she and her work embody the complexities of postcoloniality, diasporic liminality and courageous transgressions and the ways in which England/empire/diasporas continue to mark our lives.
What did your industry look like when you first started?
The industry might have been the same. But I'm a different person, I now know that it is an industry. Then, I didn't know that. I suppose I was both naive and idealistic. And I haven't really lost that; More than anything else I want to do my best work. And if doing my best work means not getting published, I can't help that. It's important to get published because one doesn't write in isolation. In those days, there were books. You didn't have the digital platform at all, there were films, but I don't know how seriously films were taken as an art form. They were just beginning to be taken seriously. Television;. we certainly didn't have it in India that I remember when I was 20. What year was it? 1961? I don't think we had television. So books were supremely important in a way in which they're not now. The other thing that's very different is that people made a huge distinction between what was literature and what was popular. That is different from 60 years ago, the celebrity cult is massive now. And it's not good for one. Now, it's reversed itself to the point where if something is popular, and if it sells like mad, then it's literature.
Best advice on the industry you have received?
When I was young, I was very idealistic. So I didn't even apply to become a member of the League of Canadian Poets, because I didn't think I was worthy. I thought I should at least write four hours a day, six days a week. You don't always produce something, but you should sit and try six days a week. After I'd done it for 11 years, I thought well, perhaps I'm worthy to ask whether I may join. And they took me and I did my first reading for them, and they all clapped. And I felt wonderful. As I was being applauded by my peers, my friend Gwendolyn MacEwen said ‘Suniti, don't take it seriously. Don't let it mean very much to you when they applaud you. And don't let it mean very much to you when they don't. It doesn't matter that much. You still have to do your best work. Ignore both.’
You have to stay your own course and not be diverted. If they say you're wonderful, then you can become sloppy. And if they say, you're terrible, you can give up - but you have to keep to the course. It's not a matter of saying I know better than you or anything like that. Look at the work that you're actually doing. It's the work that matters, not your ego.
What are you proudest on in your career?
Sometimes you don't even feel proud, because especially if it's something like a poem, or fables, it's just a matter of luck. You're lucky if you get something. Afterwards, you can spend a long time cleaning it, getting it into its best form, but you can go for days, you can go for weeks, without even getting two lines
I think that some of my work is better than other bits of my work. And I think that some poems, maybe five, really stand out, and perhaps five fables, but otherwise I just write because I've always done it. Maybe I do it from habit. Maybe I do it because it's just what I want to do. And I think I do it because I like it.
What character trait do you feel has most assisted you in your career?
Well, Gill Hanscombe says, I have a lot of perseverance. When I asked her what that meant, she said ‘Well, supposing you were asked to write a whole row of S’s, you would find it very hard to stop and write the S's backwards. You don’t stop - you just keep on doing it.’
What are your hopes for your industry in the future?
That what people start valuing will change. When you are calling something literary or you're calling something wonderful because it happens to be writing or it happens to be sport, or because it happens to be music, the truth is, you're not thinking about sport, or about music, or about literature. All you're thinking about is celebrity and the glamour of celebrity and you've lost the thing itself already. Trying to do a really good job becomes meaningless if the emphasis is not on what it is that you're doing. My hope is that what people start valuing will change as then perhaps what we pay for would change.
What advice would you give to young people in your industry now?
I want people, especially young people to start valuing their own work. I can understand people wanting money of course we want money, it's useful. I can even understand people wanting praise, it makes one feel good. But that’s not the work.
Once upon a time there were seven sisters; their names were Patience and Piety, Restraint and Chastity, Abnegation and Frugality, and searing, tearing, powerful Pain. Pain was the eldest, Pain the boss, Pain who said who was who, and what was what. She was feared by the others, and at times, in desperation, greatly loved.
"Where would we be,” they cried, “without Pain? She ennobles us. She makes it possible."
Thus the seven little piggies, time and time again, led to slaughter.