Thursday 25 January 2024

Dipika Mukherjee chats with Elaine Chiew About Writer's Postcards and her travel-writing

Credit: SC Shekar


Dr. Dipika Mukherjee’s collection of travel essays, WRITER’S POSTCARDS (Penguin Random House SEA), was published in October 2023. Her work is included in The Best Small Fictions 2019 and appears in World Literature Today, Asia Literary Review, Del Sol Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review, Newsweek, Los Angeles Review of Books, Hemispheres, Orion and more, and she has been translated into French, Portuguese, Bengali and Mandarin Chinese. She is the author of the novels SHAMBALA JUNCTION (Aurora Metro, winner of the Virginia Prize for Fiction) and ODE TO BROKEN THINGS (Repeater Books, longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize), and the story collection, RULES OF DESIRE (Fixi). Her latest poetry collection is DIALECT OF DISTANT HARBORS (CavanKerry Press, winner of Quill and Ink Award). 

Her work has been performed and installed at the South Asia Institute and the American Writers Museum in Chicago, and is being developed into a choral composition by Art Choral Canada for live performances in 2024-2025. 


She has received grants and fellowships, including an Esteemed Artist Award from the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (USA), Illinois Arts Council Agency (USA), Ragdale Foundation (USA), Faber Foundation (Catalonia), Sacatar (Brazil), Rimbun Dahan (Malaysia), and Gladstone Library (Wales), among others. She has taught in the United States, India, China, Netherlands, Malaysia and Singapore and was Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at Shanghai International Studies University, China; Affiliated Fellow of the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden, the Netherlands; and affiliated to the Roberta Buffet Centre for Global Studies at Northwestern University, USA. 


She is currently core faculty at StoryStudio Chicago and teaches at the Graham School at University of Chicago.

Credit: Author


Book Synopsis:

Part travelogue, part memoir, and part commentary, Writer’s Postcards is a collection of essays that examine imagination and culture through the lens of geography. A flaneuse and person of the world, Dipika Mukherjee takes readers through various encounters from her highly mobile life: the lugubrious literature of Brazil; the linguistic diversity in China and Tibet; and meeting the Dalai Lama while travelling as a lone woman through New Delhi. She examines the political unrest in Myanmar after the brief international reach of Burmese books; weighs in on Chicago’s literary landmarks and famous writers; reminisces on the languid feasting of Diwali celebrations at Port Dickson by the Malaysian-Bengali community; and finds new notions of home, identity, and belonging in the Netherlands-among many others.

Thought-provoking and unabashed in its entirety, this is a collection of essays that goes beyond the personal and communal to examine issues of international concern.


EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Dipika. What an honour to have you. Thank you for sending Writer’s Postcards. I really enjoyed reading these essays about travel, solitude, spirituality, writing, teaching, food, cultural festivals, family bonds, unsung voices, and so much more. What was the impetus for this project?


DM: Thanks for these fabulous questions and such a nuanced reading of my book! My impetus would be the gendered landscape of travel writing, even today. I belong to Facebook groups of Women Travel Writers and I personally know a very diverse group of women travel writers; I have written for travel magazines and inflight magazines like Hemispheres and Orion, where women are well represented, but google “BEST TRAVEL BOOKS” and it is the Bill Brysons and Paul Therouxs of our world that pop up.


Then, at an international conference in Bali a few years ago (an essay on that is in the book) there was a panel on travel writing, which was all Caucasian. I was appalled. In a place like BALI, in this conference on writing populated by local university students, we were modeling who could travel and make that travel worth writing about. When I brought this up to the convener, she shrugged and said she couldn’t find a panelist beyond this group that had published a book on travel. 


So I summoned my inner Toni Morrison and vowed to write the book I wanted to read. Hopefully one that readers around the world will all want to read :)


Of course, travel for brown or black people is harder than for white people. Except for a few countries like Singapore and Japan, our passports are viewed with suspicion and there are more roadblocks. But the welcome is there once you clear the bureaucracy and I wanted to talk about being a brown woman and seeing the world without exoticizing it or othering it, while also acknowledging my own privilege in having the means and the education to travel as I do. 


I hope that readers, after reading this book, give themselves the permission to travel and be intrepid. Anais Nin’s words are especially true for travelling women: Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.



EC: You begin with an essay on Rimbun Dahan, and I loved your descriptions of how nature encroach, or forms part of daily living and artistry within the residency. How has nature enriched or crept in unguardedly into your own inspiration channels, musings and expression? 


DM: I am a bit of a tree-hugger…no, really! There are days when living in the heart of Chicago—an amazingly happening literary city! —just feels sad, either because of the cold, or being away from the bustle of Asia and the food. My panacea is to walk to the lake, past a large green lung, and literally just stop and hug every huge tree until I feel calm again. There is something about these old trees, even when they are bare in winter, that feels timeless, their rough bark a caress on the cheek. 


I need a literary residency to finish a draft of a book, whether it is Rimbun Dahan in Malaysia, or Ragdale in Illinois. In a slow walk through the moist tropical undergrowth in Malaysia or the midwestern prairie in Illinois, there is something about the resurgence and resilience of plant life that is reassuring for the writer. Research shows that exposure to trees is restorative both physically and mentally and I can personally vouch for the fact that a walk amongst these most gentle guardians of our world relieves my anxiety. Also, a walk in the forest is most excellent for unknotting plot kinks when all else fails; the trees whisper suggestions through the breeze. Once, during a walk through Wisconsin’s Door County, I saw a red fox like a blaze of fire through the woods, and that magical creature unlocked a door in my mind I had not before considered opening. 


EC: You write about many sojourns (especially loved the one about travelling to Tibet to meet the Dalai Lama) as well as resident-expatriate stays in Singapore, Shanghai and Amsterdam, and you reference the ‘flaneuse’ too. There’s a real sense that place imprints in individuated ways on identity, and personhood also leaves indelible traces on place. How do you see your journeys dialoguing or diverging within the tradition of “flaneusing”? 


DM: Flâneuse, is defined as the feminine form of Flâneur, a french word for the idler, a man strolling unhurried through city streets, an invisible man while watching his surroundings intently.


The American writer Lauren Elkin wrote a book called Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, and she writes of how women are never able to shed the invisibility granted to men; they are, in most parts of the world, subject to the male gaze, no matter how unwanted.


Although it is true that a woman often has no choice to be invisible in the same way a man can be invisible, there are also ways in which a women have a distinct advantage in simply blending in while travelling. As a non-threatening female, especially when travelling solo, I am often the recipient of immense acts of kindness by strangers. Families invite me into homes, strangers share stories, waiters give me an extra portion on the house. As someone who is never viewed as inherently dangerous, which a male stranger often can be, I find myself being welcomed wholeheartedly into new places, and often left alone to wander at will, without the policing that a foreigner is sometimes subject to. 


EC: I especially enjoyed how much this essay collection speaks to the urban-dweller bibliophile, as you say, “the Word immortalized through time in brick and cement and art”. I too examine signs and Words on building, street, stone and arch. Tell us about your relationship intersecting reading, writing, with specific city literary traditions.

DM: Oh, where do I begin with this lovely question? I love Leiden because of the Wall Poetry at every corner, in multiple languages, such deliciousness to be savoured no matter what the weather, over and over again. My heart broke in Myanmar, in the mausoleum of the last Mughal Emperor for he was a poet who died exiled and alone; the walls of his final resting place encase him forever in his own poem, translated into other languages. Kolkata is a city of bibliophiles, and the street art during the annual goddess festival, the Durga Puja, is often filled with very literary references and erudite puns. I love cities that revere books, thereby honouring language in the best possible way.

EC: One of the hard-hitting essays for me is “The Advantage of the (Global) Asian Writer”, in which you cover the gamut landscape of publishing for the subaltern in succinct fashion – from stereotyping to neglect, the importance of prizes to the building of a sustainable literary ecology. What do we need to do more of, what do we need to do less of? 


DM: Asian Writers need to group together more into collectives and groups that support each other. In a city like Chicago there are a number of MFA programs, public courses for creative writing, and open mics for newbie writers. There are groups that have a regular reading series for Black writers and for Latin voices, but there is not a single regular reading series for Asian writers. We need to build communities of writers who support each other, especially as Asian families are still dismissive of careers that are too “artsy”, and we need to read beyond the bestseller lists and learn to love our own stories and mentor those who are trying to tell them in new and fabulous ways. 


We need to lose the scarcity mentality—our own kiasuness— when it comes to building our own writing communities. Helping other writers flourish opens up new opportunities open up for us all in new and exciting ways. 

EC: Thank you for joining us on ABB, Dipika. Good luck with your book!

DM: Thank you for having me.



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