Interview with Author Moni Brar
by Christine Nessler
February 8, 2023
Poet Moni Brar shares pieces of her own personal history as a reflection of a collective history in her poem, Migrant Wish. Through her poem she explores numerous challenges she has faced as a Punjabi immigrant who moved to Canada from India during her formative childhood years. The poem, along with much of her writing, has also helped her examine the themes of identity and belonging within the context of the immigrant experience.
Working through personal and collective intergenerational trauma, Brar’s poems can be challenging to write. However, poetry allows her to apply different lenses to those difficult occurrences in her own past and that of generations before her. Migrant Wish allows Brar to rewrite some of these experiences she and others have faced as immigrants, or at least question them.
“In Migrant Wish, I am trying to take the past and envision different futures with it,” said Brar. Although she grew up and lives in Canada, Brar often is asked ‘Where are you from?” an insensitive question based on the color of her skin but also deeply wounding for a woman who continues to struggle to find her place.
Moving between the first and second stanza of Migrant Wish, Brar tries to resolve the division she feels inside herself.
“I have this desire to belong to an environment, culture and country that I feel like I will never truly belong to because I straddle two worlds,” said Brar. “So, it’s that living in the in-betweenness and this sense of having a splintered self that I try to reconcile.”
Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Brar vividly remembers shouts of derogatory names and jeers of ‘Go Home!’ when out in the community, both alone and with her family. In the first stanza, she explores that feeling. As a child she wondered, what is home?
“Is it a house that you go home to each night and sleep in,” asked Brar. “Or is it a place that you belong to, a place that accepts you and invites you to belong to it?” In Migrant Wish, Brar writes, “Don’t they know that such a place no longer exists? That you are firmly wedged between two worlds that continue to reject you? That the notion of home exists only in their minds?”
The second stanza was inspired by the SS Komagata Maru, both a ship and an example of one of many incidents in the early 1900s where immigrants of Asian origin were denied entry into Canada and the United States.
“Though that incident happened long ago, the ripple effect is still felt within my community and even within the embodied experience of being a Punjabi-Sikh person today.” said Brar.
She shared her own experience of being denied entry recently when she was stuck in an airport in India for two days, meaning only to pass through on her travels. The airport officials wouldn’t allow her into the country, or to transit through, so yet again Brar had the sinking feeling she didn’t have a home despite being in the country of her birth.
“If Canada isn’t home and India isn’t home, then where do I belong?” asked Brar.
The third stanza calls out cultural appropriation, something Brar has spent a lot of time butting up against in recent years. Things she was once ridiculed for as a child, like turmeric tea and facemasks, are now seen as trendy for wellness in pop culture.
“It’s fascinating to me that in my lifetime I have seen this transition,” Brar said. “Who is wellness for?” She points out how traditional ayurvedic remedies once used by diverse populations, including the economically-marginalized, are now being overshadowed by consumerism and capitalism, making these wellness remedies inaccessible for the originators. Turmeric, who knew? Oh yeah, Punjabi women, that’s who.
The final stanza references a poem called A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert. In her poems’ response, she questions what Gilbert really saw in Calcutta, wondering if perhaps he was looking through a lens of white privilege and needed to make the scenes of poverty, greed, and prostitution more palpable for himself rather than the reader.
As a poet, Brar’s struggle is to stay true to her artistic voice.
“One of the big challenges I have in the artistic process is trying to find a way to honor art making and meaning making in my own cultural way and with my mother tongue,” said Brar. She is caught between trying to make art as a Punjabi woman and making it relevant to people who don’t come from the same worldview or frame of reference.
But oftentimes, the struggle comes back to a sense of belonging.
“My biggest concern mirrors this larger insecurity I have of not belonging,” Brar said. Identity and belonging are not just themes of Brar’s writing, but rather a constant undercurrent.
The exploration of the interconnectedness between identity, belonging and land has connected Brar with her Indigenous brothers and sisters in Canada. Upon hearing the name of our online literary journal, The Good Life Review, she was reminded of a concept central to Indigenous value systems, “the good life”—to live a life that is balanced, and in connection with family, community, and the land.
This Good Life is something Brar aims for in her work.
“I am trying to create a balance through my writing,” Brar said, striving for connection with her family, her Punjabi and Canadian communities, and the land to ground her poetry.
Like Canada’s truth and reconciliation work, Brar is hoping to shed light on and address past wrongs and a dark history.
“We are starting to face some of those dark moments in our past,” Brar said. She categorizes her own poetry as ‘dark’ because she explores topics such as religious violence, sexual abuse, intergenerational trauma, and occupying both the role of the colonized and the colonizer. But the way she explores those topics and often the themes of belonging and land become transformed through the medium of poetry.
“Poetry renders the dark into something beautiful,” said Brar.
You’ll find her beautiful poem, Migrant Wish, in Issue #10 of The Good Life Review.