Unplated: An Interview with Biswamit Dwibedy
Ekphrasis, erasure, and the power of a diner to shape our words
Biswamit Dwibedy is the author of six books of poetry, a memoir, and two novels. He works at the American University of Paris. We have known each other since about 2002 or 2003, as young folks in Iowa City trying to discover what paths we were meant to walk.
Biswamit’s writing career has flourished, and he walks along his chosen path with clarity and vision. It’s truly been such a joy to watch his work unfold over the years. Here, we talk about his development as a writer, how his time working as a waiter shaped his craft, and how erasure, collage, and food all weave themselves through his writing.
JS: To start off, I wonder if you could tell me a bit about yourself and your work. How did you come into writing as a practice and profession?
BD: I am a writer working in several different genres—poetry, fiction, memoir, and scripts. Originally from India, I lived in Iowa for several years, and then moved back to India, splitting my time between Bangalore and Odisha. A few years ago, I moved to Paris, where I teach creative writing at the American University of Paris.
I came to writing through the work of some of my favorite writers: Cole Swensen, Sandra Doller, Leslie Scalapino. I came to writing having realized it was the only thing I could do. I came to writing through food and the service industry—as a waiter at a local diner in Iowa City, home to the famous writers’ workshop. The place attracted writers from all over the world, who came to the diner for breakfast. Some colleagues of mine at the diner used to attend the workshop too—and many others were avid readers. Coming from a foreign language (I moved to Iowa from India when I was eighteen) I was fascinated by the literary activity happening all around me, and I realized there was nothing else I could do, would rather do.
JS: When you and I first met, which feels like a lifetime ago, both of us were working in the hospitality industry. How has your experience in restaurants influenced your work, and/or your perspective on the world around you?
BD: At a time when I couldn’t really afford a proper education, working in the hospitality industry allowed me to make enough money to pay rent and buy books. I was lucky that I was in Iowa City, and regularly serving students and faculty of the workshop at the restaurant.
Working at the restaurant also allowed me to fiercely sustain a creative practice, of reading and writing—I was eavesdropping on conversations and including fragments in my poems; I’d bring a stack of poetry books to the diner and leave them at the bar for my colleagues (who’d normally never read poetry) to dip in between rush hour. All this was also a way to revolt against the circumstances I found myself in, waiting tables as opposed to pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering, which is what I’d move to the United States to do. And of course, there is no better way to study human nature than to work as a waiter at a greasy diner. It’s the greatest education of all.
JS: You're not only a prolific writer of prose and poetry, but you approach your work from a variety of angles. The first I want to dive into is the concept of erasure: In your work, what erased narratives do you explore? How, in your perspective, can we weave food into our narratives in a way that counters this?
BD: I think my interest in erasure stems from a very literal approach to the word. Coming to English language and literature from a foreign language, I simply wanted to play with found text; erase and create my own poems (what is known as “black-out poetry”). It was also a way of erasing my own “identity” from the poems. I feel an immense and impractical expectation from writers of colors to write about nothing else but their race and the many issues therein. I wanted to explore the materiality of language, disrupt it from within—without having to produce writing based solely on my identity.
Life, after all, as Deleuze says, is not a personal thing. And such experimentation did lead me to approach voices and narratives that have been erased in a whole new way. A major project I am working on right now is about Indian immigrants to England and Europe in the early 19th century. They were cooks, ayahs, sepoys, and servants who crossed oceans and brought with them ancient culinary traditions. I am very interested in that exchange, as I am in culinary and alchemical traditions rooted in ayurveda and Islamic cultures. These are narratives that have been completely erased and my writing, which is so often historical and ekphrastic, is a way to exhume these stories.
JS: I found myself asking similar questions about your emphasis on ekphrasis and collage in your poetry, and wondered how you see food supporting our creative writing in these ways? How can it help us build a more vivid world, or study the intersections between subjects and identities?
BD: Wonderful question! I am constantly trying to expand the definitions of collage and ekphrasis. To put it very simplistically, my writing is a collage of all the voices that came before—particularly of the American women writers from the Language poetry movement—to whom I owe my life. Their writing saved me! I am also thinking of the protagonist of my novel, who was an Indian immigrant, first in Ireland and then in London, accused of plagiarism in the late 18th century.
Though he was writing a memoir about his life in India, he collaged sections from other English travel writers, and I find that fascinating—that your own experience could be articulated in a foreign language, using the words of writers who came before you. In recreating his writings, poems he might have written, I am using collage widely; letters, poems, journals—all of it becomes material to weave together a narrative that has been lost.
And as for ekphrasis—I’m looking at and writing about everyday objects from different centuries, which, to me, is no different than writing in response to paintings. I am tempted to call my two historical-fictions “ekphrastic novels”. Every scene, every plot point is driven by something I am looking at, whether it is medieval Islamic illuminated manuscripts, scientific instruments from the 16th century, or deeds, leases, and maps from 19th century London. These material objects contain infinite stories. I also greatly appreciate ideas of chance and accident that are at work here; it somehow helps me free the narrative from ideas of identity and intention.
JS: Your writing is so exciting to me because you aren't afraid to experiment and play, and you think across disciplinary "boundaries" (a good example being your connection between writing and visual art). How does our perspective shift by refusing to stick within specific structures, or by exploring our work across fields? How does connecting our writing to visual art strengthen our authorial voice?
BD: As I mentioned, the visual arts help me take the focus away from the authorial voice—the chance and accidents it brings into play. I treat each thing I look at as a frame that drives the narrative, much like a comic book. Can we actually create a narrative that is driven by the visuals we encounter? I am writing this in a park in Paris on a beautiful day, surrounded by trees, and I see no reason not to look at a magnificent tree or a garden as a work of art. Poetry, writing is all inherently connected to the world around us; my writing is not an isolated event but brings together events, voices, across time and space. In a way, that is also breaking boundaries. So, I see my work as trying to break boundaries both in relation to form and content.
JS: Historical research is often interwoven within, and serves as inspiration for, your work. I wonder how this work intertwines with the concepts of erasure and collage, but also if and how food has appeared in your research. Are there any themes that have jumped out at you?
BD: I have been circling around the subject of food, hoping that I won’t have to disclose details about my project, but this question demands clarity and connection. The novel I am working on is about the first Indian restaurant in London, which was in business for two short years, 1810-11. The protagonist was serving authentic Hindoostani cuisine to the royalty and aristocrats of Regency London. So research has included everything from recipes crafted in that kitchen, how ancient recipes were tweaked to accommodate British tastes, to what spices were available and where they were sold. In fact, the project demanded that I cook some of those recipes here in Paris and write poems about that experience. Another project I am in the process of finishing is a memoir based on my time in Iowa, and so much of the action takes place in the kitchen of a diner in Iowa. So really, work really has been centered around food for years now.
JS: Finally, I'm feeling called to ask about your favorite food memories. Are there any that have had a particularly notable impact on you or your writing?
BD: Waiting tables at the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City was the greatest experience of my life. From serving presidents (Clinton, Obama) to hungover freshman and sorority girls, every moment there was special. The upcoming memoir Hundred Greatest Love Songs delves into that time of my life using the titular playlist as an organizing principle. There was always a song playing in the background and the book is divided into a song, an event, a friend. My favorite memory of course is serving food to drunken customers, walking back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room while listening to some amazing music as an equally drunken cook makes breakfast for a hundred people as if it were no big deal at all.
JS: Anything else you'd like to tell me?
BD: I have a book of poems called Hubble Gardener that was written almost entirely during my shifts at the restaurant. It is ekphrastic in that it draws from the idea of conversation between four friends in the show Sex and the City. It delves into the history of Eirik the Red, the father of the first founder of America, and Carl Seashore, who worked on the psychology of music at the University of Iowa. As with all my books, it is a love letter to my friends. I think you will enjoy the poems about eggs there.