Passing Through: A Conversation with Jhani Randhawa
By Lyle DanielJune 30, 2022
I first met Jhani and Teo Rivera-Dundas when we were all living in Los Angeles in 2017. Together they run a sweet, multiform, mostly online publishing project together called rivulet, that publishes hybrid work exploring the interstitial. Last spring, I was also able to edit an expansive essay that Randhawa developed for the latest issue of Soap Ear, an online magazine that I co-edit with Leah B. Levinson.
So many of my favorite people can be described as “soothing” or “grounded” or “warm,” but even in the shortest of chats with Jhani, I find that any distance from each other only helps in our conjuring of forces of care. In that spirit, the following conversations about Time Regime offer several vantages on the collection’s excavation of buried family legacies, histories, and affects within the vicious contemporary embodiment of time.
LYLE DANIEL: Jhani, thanks for sitting down with me today. I was just swimming in your book for a couple weeks, and I felt that the water was warm. Starting with the idea of water, I’m wondering what’s going on with rivers, canyons, stone, and water in this text.
JHANI RANDHAWA: Well, I’m so happy first to chat with you. And it’s such a joy to share this work with people who read with such care and intention.
I’m also happy that the water felt warm. I think that’s a really interesting reflection, impression, or sensation to share, because so much of this work was actually composed in winter, and also in spaces of grief and reflection and in response to grieving. I think there’s such a heartbeat to grief. It feels so full of a warm blood. It moves and it has a life force, and itself feels warm and present in my writing life and in my processing through language. So, I’m very interested in the warmth that you felt in this book, and I feel warmed by that as well. A friend shared with me that she felt there was grief-tending happening when she was reading this.
What does that mean, exactly?
Yeah, wow! I have an impression of what it means for me, and for my friend who was reading it. Almah felt like she was not alone in reading it — there was the invitation, or something, which is what I intended in a lot of this writing. And I guess that is related to water. Water is such a space of renewal, of healing and of cleansing. It can also be like —
Dangerous and full of ghosts, and sometimes invisible dangers. I love your question, “What’s going on with the rivers in this text.”
When I was reading it, I noticed that there is flow, but then there are also fissures. There are divisions. There are the line breaks and dropped sentences. It’s as if the form almost becomes a challenge to the kind of flow that we’re tempted to draw out in this conversation.
Yeah, it’s a good point. There’s a lot of ancestral work that this collection is exploring. I’m really interested in forces of water or rivers, these forces that are long and unending and violent. And they also smooth. They smooth away and they refine the landscape. And if we’re willing to touch and put our hands against a form, we can feel the subtle histories of very deep time. When you talk about these edges and sudden line breaks, I think about what water has washed away, what history has just completely cut out of experience or the possibility of experience. But what it does is also leave space, and in the negative space there is just potentiality. I think water is dangerous for that potentiality.
We lose with it, and we’re also lost without the potentiality.
We lose with it, and we’re also lost without it. Mm, I couldn’t have said it …
You brought up the ancestral feeling, experiences, legacies that are all running through this work. And I get the sense that ailments, wellness, and nourishment can be complex to locate within one body or subjectivity. I’m interested in how writing this collection influenced your thoughts on connectivity and isolation? How it felt when you were writing — did you feel like you were doing a lot of channeling? Was that hard? I imagine it was hard.
This is a beautiful reflection. A lot of this work was responding to the time that I spent in South India. I was 22. I wasn’t necessarily isolated. I was in a program. I had wonderful friends and the biggest family. But I was learning a lot about the realities of colonial ancestry and immigrant nationalism, and a bunch of shit that made me feel really isolated. So, there was a different kind of isolation in earlier poems. But “Bhog” might actually be the only one that I wrote during COVID, now that I think about it. I definitely think that solitude, if not, isolation, is something that this collection considers.
But also, I’m like, “No J, this whole work is about isolation.”
So, it’s not just solitude, but isolation.
Yeah, it’s isolation, and a lot of this work was also written in New York with certain feelings about isolation, even when in community — even in such an active and activating place. What it means to be a precarious worker and radical thinker in such a highly policed environment. And also, what happens in social atmospheres when you’re coming out as gender-queer and your community can isolate and punish you for resisting expectations? But that isn’t an answer to this question. I feel you were asking about channeling as well.
Yeah, but as I read the book, there was also a lot of channeling of ancestral queerness, or divine queerness, even. So, it all flows and it doesn’t, you know? But I just remembered there’s two different jazz songs Fred Moten turned me onto. I can’t remember who wrote each of them, but one of them is called “Alone Together” and the other one is called “Together Alone,” and that’s what you made me think of just now, talking about New York and urban precarity in contemporary neoliberal life.
I think about translation in terms of linguistics and form — ideas about passing and how you translate your body from one space to the next. There’s affective translation as well as material translation. My family speaks multiple languages Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and those aren’t languages that I was taught. There’s a line that I use in one of my poems, which is basically that these are things that I was never meant to inherit. Essentially, this is what I mean.
It’s in “Soft Power,” right? The end of it. It’s,
… to let language
bead up and break loose I had to re-cycle those things we inherited:
an impossible coveting
our sole neutered seeds.
Yes, yes, thank you for reading. It’s interesting because there are certain spheres of a language that are not are not accessible to everyone who speaks the language. There is still so much policing inside of language. And withholding. It’s funny because I think about that a lot, too, as a material to work with.
I’m bringing up a few things right now and that’s the way that I think. I’m thinking about translation and inheritance and silence and the way that we can pass through and code-switch through these spaces in order to navigate around and inside of all of these spaces. To gather more for ourselves than what we would have had, had we just received a language.
Part of the channeling work for me has been in a practice of trying to learn Punjabi and having so many different people in my family push back against my learning and my use of it and how I’m using it. This is possibly regional. It’s possibly caste-related. It’s possibly just a lot of residues. I think about residues of inheritance, being the only half-white person in my family who’s trying to learn the language. I find this pushback really interesting.
Can I ask a clarifying question? When you said that translation has to do with passing, I thought of two meanings of passing. One is passing away through death. The other is passing, whether in race or gender, of occupying liminal spaces that are a privilege in various ways but can activate real empowerment in many ways. I was wondering if that’s kind of what you were getting at.
Thank you for asking that question. It is both. Sometimes, at least in a kind of like postcolonial state and especially with the rise of new imperial states and new nationalisms, if you are to be and move into one sphere, you have to cut yourself off from another. So maybe there’s another kind of passing. Maybe this is dramatic, but like dying, having to kill off —
Yeah, the loss of belonging, in a way.
Yeah, yeah. I’m happy that you brought those multiples in. And translation does seem like an act of extending belonging. Belonging is bringing something else to mind that my friend Almah also shared with me. It’s a devotional idea of belonging to something as a sense of surrendering the self or a kind of power position. Yeah, I don’t know. What do you think about that?
I think a lot about how, passing as a straight white man — whatever the hell I am in “reality” — this position is almost the limit case of what the neoliberal US state, the white supremacist state, interpellates to operate exclusively through power structures. But reading this book or having a devoted hang with a friend or just surrendering to different structures can bring new possibilities without us knowing what effectiveness would look like beforehand.
We can leave that up to the prism of potential.
Does that resonate with what you’re thinking about?
It really does. It set off a lot of bells in my brain.
I want to read the passage you referred to in one of your questions: “the monstrous platelet I’m cut from. My dissipation, her face, which tulip tree: / the barbiturate-elect ridicule her tomb.” I want to just use isolation as a way to move through this poem and this particular moment.
Since we last talked, I needed to do a little bit more etymological scratching into those experiences. I want to say in terms of wellness: a lot of these poems feel deeply like the shuttle in a loom. There are all of these threads but there are these shuttles that move back across to weave the things together and hold things in place. The two epigraphs that begin this collection feel important to your questions about isolation and channeling. And specifically, Nisha Ramayya’s, which is, “lovesick of the ‘rod of the sovereign’ / she sits on the rod ‘of miraculous refusal’ / the paint peeling off her arms.”
That’s from the book States of the Body Produced by Love, which I think we can also think about as states of the body produced by isolation, produced in isolation. And I think about the figure in Nisha Ramayya’s epigraph. It’s a metaphorical figure, a figurative being, but at the same time this figure is emblematic of so many Tantric goddesses in and around South Asia that at one point were painted and had edifices applied to them. When I read this quote by Nisha, I think about the refusal of the edifice. And in the terms of paint peeling off of the body, a refusal of an edifice can be seen as an illness, a refusal of …
Maybe a veneer? That’s a cliché, but …
Yeah. It’s funny but in particular this goddess, the paint peeling off of her arms also feels very specific to measles and smallpox, which were important illnesses in the 18th and 19th centuries in India which colonial governments used to apply particular practices of biological imprisonment in villages.
Nisha Ramayya’s book is really fascinating. It ruminates on histories of Tantra and how Tantric feminism is an important devotional practice, especially for immigrants and children of immigrants in niches, writing in the UK. She’s thinking a lot about devotional practices as part of a decolonial project and of the body.
I was thinking about devotional practices arising in these kinds of spaces of isolation. And I was also thinking about “miraculous refusal,” in Nisha’s words, as an illness. We isolate, which, literally means the prevention of spreading diseases. Placing something in isolation prevents relation to people or beings. Who defines sickness, really? And if refusal is a sickness, then it can spread, and it can be a revolutionary act, or state of being. Maybe it’s passive, I don’t know.
One thing that we didn’t quite draw all the way out in our last talk was when you were talking about passing, you were talking about inheritance. Just now you made me think that one of the amazing or “miraculous” (to use Nisha’s term) things about passing is that you carry that heritage, even when it’s expected that you don’t, as if you were just another white slave to the Enlightenment. But you have so much more. You are capacious. In a way, there is that impurity that is contagious. I see it is here. I see you doing it. I do. So, I agree. It does have to do with passing.
I see it in a lot of these poems including the title poem “Time Regime.” You’re in a dance with the Paul Hershman essay “Hair, Sex and Dirt,” observing how your body interacts with the reading of that text where Hershman studies something your body might actually be doing. And that’s something I relate to a lot, the performance of reading. Then when you get to the Muriel Rukeyser quotation, you’re like, “no more masks, no more mythologies! Now for the first time, / the god lifts his hands, his hand. The fragments join in me with their own new music.”
We are back to quarantine here, but we have music that the masks can’t contain — even when we’re happy to wear masks to keep people safe.
Yeah, that raises such an important tension in this idea of contagion. Maybe this is a stretch — but it reminds me of shadow work.
What does shadow work mean exactly?
I could be wrong, but it’s kind of a Jungian-inspired approach to performance. The shadow work is lifting up impulses that have been shamed socially and culturally into performance and seeing what happens in this social container of a safe performance space. It’s like taking the mask of social graces and affect off and allowing jealousy to have center stage and find its own nuance rather than being stymied. That’s one idea of shadow work.
Thank you. I needed the CliffsNotes —
I’ve never done it, so that’s only hearing —
You’re a shadow of the shadow.
I’m just a little leech on my friends and I pick up on their ideas, sucking their blood. [Laughs.] But I’m thinking about that tension of a mask. It’s important that we wear a mask so that we contain harmful substances, literal harmful particles that we don't even realize we could be a vector of. Its mitigating the impact. There’s a tension there that I think is really beautiful and interesting and has to do with passing in this weird way.
And it reminds me of an idea from Citizen by Claudia Rankine. This is one of those classics from that book. I’m going to misquote it but it’s essentially “people die because, white men can’t police their own imaginations,” right?
That is a really challenging quote on multiple levels. I’m thinking about how we need to keep masks. But for Muriel Rukeyser and me, in the performance of the reading, there’s also this desire to kind of rip off other masks.
Lyle Daniel studies objects such as poems and sounds. He sometimes creates his own, and usually jots his notes when feeling flummoxed. He co-founded and edits Soap Ear.
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