By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Bellingham, Washington, population 92,000. Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), India, population almost 4.5 million. A study in contrasts. But poet Sati Mookherjee, who spent school years in the former and summers in the latter, finds some surprising similarities.
“I’ve never thought about it before, but both first memories involve sunlight,” recalled Mookherjee, who reads from her new book “Eye,” at the University Book Store on Oct. 5. “My [first] Bellingham memory is of sun filling the picture window of our 1950s ranch house (where my parents still live), over a green carpet. I remember the sensation of my toddler body hurtling toward my mother, her arms outstretched, and I remember sensing the gaze of my father over me, warm as the sensation of light.
“My earliest Kolkata memory is of standing in the kitchen of my grandparents’ house, a trapezoid of sunlight across the floor, and my grandmother kneeling, rubbing my legs with sharp-smelling mustard oil. It must have been part of the midday pre-bathing routine.”
She praises Bellingham for its gorgeous natural setting, but, she notes, Kolkata ranks as a historic world city, much like New York City, in terms of its crowds, multilingual culture, and long-running enclaves of artists, writers, and musicians.
She’s always held affection for Seattle, where she was born and where she visited frequently growing up.
“Childhood memories are all about Pike Place Market. Bengalis love fish, so getting fresh fish was always the reason for my parents’ Seattle visits.
“Truth be told, I was terrified of both of the cartoonish heads of the dead fish, and of the steep wet hills rising from the market. I still remember those moments when we’d be stopped on the hill in our little stick shift Volkswagen Bug, that feeling of an abyss between the brake and the gas pedal, that the little car would fall backwards into.”
Mookherjee studied both writing and medicine at the University of Washington (UW), but decided, towards the end of medical school, to concentrate on writing. She does work, alongside her husband, at Bellingham’s Sendan Center, providing mental and behavioral health services to youth.
Through her UW writing courses, “My mentors at the University of Washington were Robert McNamara and Linda Bierds. I can’t articulate what the lessons were, other than to say that they both exemplify a life in writing that is characterized by a profound devotion to craft and tremendous generosity to other writers.”
The poems in “Eye” take their inspiration from real events: Her own grandfather, his exile from India, his travels, and his musings on life. According to the poet, the key to the work lay in some bold, brutal editing.
“‘Eye’ was originally three, if not four, times its current length,” she elaborated. “There were two more stories braided through it: The story of a Burmese woman (actually the parent of a friend) during WWII, and a fictional Roma family in Franco’s Spain. I worked on it for about eight years, and then the consensus of all who critiqued it was that although the writing was fine, the poems never really got at anything important.
“So I threw away two-thirds of the manuscript and really tried to listen for the beating heart of what was left, which is the motif of orbits, the ripples and intersections of our individual circular journeys, across the earth and in and out of life and death.”
Asked about advice for fledgling poets, Mookerjee confesses she doesn’t, yet anyway, feel like an expert.
“I feel as though I’m starting out, so I can only describe what I try to do, rather than give advice. I think the most important things to do are: a) to read widely, b) to keep writing, and c) to have a group of trusted writers you can share work with.”
Sati Mookherjee reads from her book “Eye” on Oct. 5 at 6 p.m., at the University of Washington Bookstore, 4326 University Way North East in Seattle. The event is free, but registration is required. For more information, visit ubookstore.com/events.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.