Interview with Pascale Petit
We’ve asked for a picture of what you see from your writing desk – what does your typical writing day look like?
Thanks to my Literature Matters Award I’ve had two whole delicious uninterrupted writing months so far, and one more to come in December. My favourite routine is to wake up really early and start writing in bed while watching the birds out of my window, feeding in the flowering dogwood. The woodpeckers come often, and Basil our aged Siberian forest cat (a rescue!) keeps me company.
After breakfast I go into my writing shed at the top of the garden and start new poems in longhand. I have piles of natural history books clustered there, and poetry collections to dip into, to remind me what’s possible. Neruda is never far away. I compose in cheap, thin, wide notebooks, lightweight, so I can bring them with me on travels. I also have notebooks where I collect words and phrases, and I take loads of photo notes with my iPhone.
My shed overlooks a field where there is a changing pageant: rabbits, foxes, pheasants, hens, cows, a bull, pigs, or sheep with their lambs. I’ve seen goldcrests flit from thistle to thistle, and once, a woodpigeon perched on the roof and her song reverberated down over me, amplified by the wood like a drum. It felt as if I was inside her throat!
I feel penned in if I sit too long, so take regular breaks, wandering around the lanes. High Cornish hedges border our garden, crammed with nettles, ferns and wildflowers, and I love to work on those with my bare hands, weeding and checking on plants, helped by my feral cat Mouse.
I also have a garden den where my computer and printer are, and this is where I edit or do admin, after lunch when I have a creative dip. By about four or five I might have another spurt, and squeeze in more drafting or editing, before making dinner at 8.
You trained and worked as a visual artist – does this inform your work in words?
I trained in sculpture at the Royal College of Art, and spent the first part of my life as a sculptor. I did write then too, but not at the same time, I’d write for a year then switch and become a sculptor, totally focused on that. Incredibly, I gave sculpture up. I found I enjoyed writing poems more, that I got more from metaphor than brute materials.
However, both my writing rooms – the shed and the den – look like small artists’ studios! And I still have dried bats, bird skulls, and a menagerie of strange objects around me, as I did when I was an artist. As for the sculptures, they are now, at least to me, made with words. I shape my poems around images, or arrange them as if they are installations to walk into, sensory creations where I can play, however dark the subject. I learnt this escape-trick when I was a child, escaping from my mentally ill mother into my imagination.
Your last collection, Mama Amazonica, also explored some aspects of family and inheritance –how does Tiger Girl relate to your last collection?
Tiger Girl explores foreignness, how it feels to be foreign in Brexit Britain. I am a French citizen, even though I’ve lived in Britain almost of my life, but have this year been granted British citizenship. I found the process stressful, and had to send my passport off for eight months – I was grounded! The tiger girl is my half Indian grandmother who brought me up, who mothered me when my mother could not. She was born in Rajasthan and spent her first years there, then moved to Secunderabad in Madhya Pradesh. The tiger comes from stories she told me, about how one walked up to her cot when she was left in a tent in the jungle. I’m going to India soon to three tiger reserves, to explore this secret heritage – I only found out she was half Indian at her funeral.
It’s a natural progression for me to write about my grandmother, who was the ‘good’ mother, and who took me in for part of my childhood, after a whole book about my real mother who wasn’t able to care for me. In Mama Amazonica I placed my mentally ill mother in the Amazon rainforest. What happened for me during the writing of that book is that my attitude towards her changed from one of hostility to love. It’s a natural progression for me to now write about the woman who saved me, and the poems about my grandmother are praise poems, though also explorations of what life might have been like for her as a mixed race child in India, then mid-Wales, where she brought me up.
Your writing imagines your own and your family’s history in different places – most recently the Amazon Rainforest. How important is place to your work? Does the place come before the themes? Has it been challenging to write about your own and family members’ lives against the backdrop of another place’s history?
I have been obsessed with the Amazon rainforest for twenty-five years, ever since I first saw a photo of Angel Falls in the book Waterfalls of the World, and walked into a travel agent and asked how I could see this wonder in Venezuela’s Amazon region. Once there, I met the Pemón people who inhabit that Lost World, and tried to learn some of their language. I fell in love with everything about that landscape, visited it twice, trekked to the top of Mount Roraima and was canoed upriver to the base of the falls. The second more ambitious trip was too hard for me and I fell ill for a few years. So I didn’t go back to the Amazon until 2016, when I went to the pristine lowland primary jungle of Tambopata National Reserve. Again I went twice, and on my second visit saw a jaguar!
The place comes first I think – the poems grow out of awe of nature. With Mama Amazonica, I metaphorically took my mother to the Madre de Dios region, inhabited by my favourite animals and plants, and that helped me to love an unlovable but ill parent who had neglected and abused me. I placed my mother in this scenario, but she too is a metaphor for the equilibrium of the forest, as much as the jungle is a metaphor for her fight for survival against an abusive husband. It’s impossible to fly over long tracts of primary rainforest without being aware of damage – from gold-miners and loggers, and the Transoceanic Highway, which currently reaches as far as the jungle town Puerto Maldonado. The highway brings destruction, and the forest is diminished.
Tambopata Research Center, the lodge where I stayed on those two trips, is run by Rainforest Expeditions, and they employ people from the Ese Eja native community of Infierno, a settlement near Puerto Maldonado. This tribe own a national park next to Tambopata National Reserve, though ‘own’ might not be the right word, as they might say it is owned by the apex predators: the jaguar, puma, giant river otters, harpy eagle, and green anaconda, and also by the great kapoks and ironwoods, the giant trees of the emergent canopy. The Ese Eja receive a large portion of the income from eco-tourists, and the remainder funds scientific research. The scientists’ speciality is to observe and save scarlet macaws, a keystone species that signals the health of the ecosystem.
It came naturally to me to write about my family in this place, but of course we don’t belong there. Perhaps I make a surrogate home in such a faraway place because I never had a proper childhood home, and don’t have strong roots anywhere. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to the Amazon. All I can think is that there were two Amazons in my childhood – my grandmother’s garden in mid-Wales, and an overgrown vineyard in the Languedoc where I camped with my mother in summer holidays.
Is writing near the coast changing the way you think about your own identity and heritage places you’ve spoken about France, India, Wales and England – while you write Tiger Girl?
What I love about Cornwall is its wildness. Where I live, in a lush valley just under Bodmin Moor, it’s rainforesty. Everything grows gigantic – the ferns, nettles, thistles. And my garden is bordered by those incredible hedges! I suspect that one day I will write about them, but not yet. As for the sea, I’m not so near, but it terrifies me, in a good way. Living in Cornwall doesn’t change how I feel about my identity though, I felt like an outsider in London and I do here. What has changed is that I feel more at home living in nature, London always felt wrong.
You wrote in your proposal for the Literature Matters Awards that foreignness is a key theme of your new collection, particularly framed in the context of Brexit Britain – how can literature speak to the sense of foreignness? Why do you think literature is important to this now?
The theme of foreignness is crucial to many living in today’s Britain, and indeed, in Trump’s America. Immigrants, particularly those who have settled here most of their lives as I have, feel uncertain about belonging now, even though we are all foreign in our ancestral DNA. My previous collections have explored issues such as mental illness, rape, trauma and child abuse. My poetry appeals to people outside the literary spheres, and speaks to those, who, on reading my books, realise that literature can help them transform and heal their lives. Tiger Girl will also deal with class issues, as my grandmother came from an Indian servant caste, working as a cleaner and in a chip shop while I lived with her as a child. I think the poems might appeal to the less privileged, as well as to those who feel marginalised by Brexit.
How has thinking about the importance of literature informed your work on the Tiger Girl poems?
Literature is important because it can transform the pain of life into beauty. I don’t think it should hide the pain, but it has this magical ability to transform, to change “what happened” into “what happens in the art”. What happens in Mama Amazonica for me is that I love a mother I couldn’t love in life, at least in the confines of the book. That’s a big deal for me, because isn’t love everything?
Literature saved my life when I was a teenager. I needed to escape into a created world, and to make that world as real and physical as I could, with words. It gave me hope. I would wish that escape hatch for everyone who needs it, whether it’s to create literature, or to read it. My half Indian grandmother also saved me. Tiger Girl is a praise poem to being saved.
I didn’t think I could write about her before, but the Literature Matters award encouraged me, so here I am imagining what her life might have been like in Rajasthan, and this secret of her being half Indian. It’s not closely biographical though, as there is very little information about her past – these poems fictionalise her story, and what it’s like for a child who has to hide that they are mixed race.
Does Tiger Girl have an ideal reader? Is this reader different from your usual reader, and can you describe them?
I love to reach readers beyond the poetry world, beyond the literary world, people who come across one of my books and enjoy it for the awe of nature, or the awe of human nature, or who might feel that it speaks to them about their family situation. It’s particularly rewarding when people come up after my readings and say how much they can relate to my work and how it helps them to come to terms with their own family troubles. With Tiger Girl I hope this happens, but I also hope that anyone who has felt an outsider, made to feel that they don’t belong, because of their culture or class, will enjoy the book. I treasure my young readers too, teenagers who contact me to say how much my work means to them.
If you could only pass on one book that showed the importance of literature, what would that book be?
It is impossible for me to limit the importance of literature to one book! There are so many that are vital. But here are some I might take with me to a desert island if I got stranded now:
- The trilogy: Staying Alive; Being Alive; Being Human, all edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe)
- Translations from the Natural World by Les Murray (Carcanet)
- When My Brother was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon)
- The Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke (various translations)
- Everything by Selima Hill
- Everything by Tomas Tranströmer
- Everything by Pablo Neruda