"Writing is something that I really come at as a writer. And I think, like many writers, we all bring our lenses to what we write. Science — now I'm realizing more and more — it's an entire language. Which, of course, has a culture associated with it as all languages do. And I bring that language and culture to my writing"
Writing is something that I really come at as a writer. And I think, like many writers, we all bring our lenses to what we write. Science—now I'm realizing more and more—it's a language, it's an entire language. Which, of course, has a culture associated with it as all languages do. And I bring that language and culture to my writing.
You're listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name is Madhur Anand. I am a poet, writer and professor of ecology and sustainability. I normally teach courses in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph but I have taught a course on creative writing in science in the past. And I've just introduced, actually, into the curriculum an undergraduate course—a third-year course—called Creative Writing for Environmental Scientists.
This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart is an experimental memoir slash biography. We call it a memoir in halves. It's a book that explores on the one hand, the histories of my parents, which started when they were children, before the partition of India, and follows the trajectories of their lives and various significant and small moments that they encountered along the way. Through leaving their homes, being refugees into a new newly established India, and then immigrating to Canada and their early journeys as immigrants here. It also then physically flips over. And then you hear from another voice, which is my voice.
And I reflect on their stories. I reflect on my knowledge of science and of course I talk about various aspects of my life as well. My parents are present actually in my first book of poems, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, but they're not central characters. Pretty much at the time that that book was published in 2015, my mother had a heart attack and that was a point of transition for me towards what would ultimately become This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart. I realized at that point that I didn't know many details of their lives and that I wanted to—I think probably unconsciously because it did end up having this effect—I realized that I would need some reason, I suppose, to start spending more time with them.
So initially I was making notes about the things my parents were telling me, but then at one point it became overwhelming and I started to record their voices. And as I did, so it became very, very clear that their voices were so strong. And so characteristic that I didn't feel comfortable narrating them in the third person. I pretty much used everything they told me, but what they were telling me was selective. And I didn't take it upon myself to fill in the blanks, so to speak. And because of that as well, I wanted to honour the gaps and the missing pieces, to honor their own voices. But once I started to make that switch and take the first person on to tell my mother's story, to become my mother, to tell my father's story, to become my father, it forced me to, to do some things differently. There were many times where I forgot who was speaking, whether it was me or my mother. I got so curious about the, the, the voice that was coming.
It just sort of invoked the things that I'm naturally curious about. So it was as though my mother suddenly became curious about the species of trees in her environment. It was as though my father was curious about the historical developments of theoretical physics, because those are all things that are natural to both of them, but of course were never expressed in their own lives. And in some ways they're expressed now by me.
Excerpt from This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart
Everyone has it
In 1947 a line is drawn across the state of Punjab. The man who draws it imagines an organic, undulating curve, like a river. What cannot be seen is how it changes course every year. If a river cuts the left bank, it deposits silt on the right. And vice versa. Everything in nature at first seems straightforward, but closer inspection reveals something sinuous and, ultimately, crooked. Punjab means “five rivers.” Adding a line-like-a-river by hand on a map does not seem unreasonable. His little arrows indicating human displacement are impeccable.
But maps are still of very poor resolution. What cannot be seen are fenceless farmer's fields, entwined bodies of lovers, birds nesting. Superconductivity has been discovered, but there is still no known mechanism to trigger the amplification of electrical currents without the input of a human hand, the flicking of a switch.
Most people think they are above average in some way. My sisters each think they are the prettiest. My brothers both think they are the strongest. My mother thinks she's the best mother. I am smart enough to know that most people, in statistical terms, are average. That is the law of large numbers. The man who drew the Partition line believed that most people are lucky. But luck is just another word for things we do not understand.
So the partitioning of India into, you know, different parts and you know, the part of India where my parents are from Punjab. Punjab, the region, was partitioned into the countries of Pakistan and India in 1947.
That's a history that I couldn't avoid, basically, if I was going to tell my parents story, because that's, that's where their lives really begin. Because they were children at that time and had to leave their homes. It's an arbitrarily drawn line that led to a lot of, a lot of heartache. And a lot of horror. The concept of Partition is it seems like a really sharp and focused thing, but you sort of, the more you look at it, just as like, the more you look at a line that's crooked. If you kind of zoom out on a map, it looks like a line, but as you zoom in and zoom in and zoom in physically—this is the concept of a fractal—as though you were looking at, say a coastline, right, as you zoom in and zoom in, it just gets more and more crooked and confusing and turbulent.
And so that was sort of how the trajectory of their lives then started to appear to me and led to the structure or the style of the writing.
Do you want to hear aap beeti or jag beeti? My story or the story of the world? These are lines that my mother told me one day when I was in the hospital visiting her. And she kept saying those words aap beeti or jag beeti and I didn't know what they meant. I looked it up. And in fact, I just literally put aap beeti or jag beeti and into like Google to see if it would translate it for me. And it pulled up this quote from a novel, a really old novel entitled Umrao Jan Ada. And I recognized it because there's been a couple of really famous Bollywood films made about that novel. It's a film that's always fascinated me. There's a moment in that film where the main character, this, this courtesan is going to her guru or the person who's training her—because courtesans in that time, they had to be not only beautiful, but extremely intelligent and also had to be poets.
So she's bringing some lines of poetry to ask for feedback on it. And the, the aap beeti or jag beeti part is a couplet in one of her poems.
What struck me is that it made the whole project come full circle in a way, because—you know, my mother has this way of doing this, actually, she can really get to the heart of something in a couple of lines. This idea was exactly the mirror, the asymmetry, the duality and challenge for writing this book that I treated both literally and figuratively. Because I told their story, and my story, and the story of the world.
Excerpt from This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart
April dreams from April notepads
I find a notepad in April of 2019, after completing the first draft of this book, a time when I find myself taking screenshots of cherry trees blossoming in Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which are broadcast on the Internet.
I check back every few days to see which trees will bloom first, the order, the location, the individual, its species, its origins, and take new screenshots each time, even if nothing changes. Plants with accession numbers starting with “X” represent plants whose origins are unknown. In the first few days of April, change is slow. Even no change is as meaningful as change, in science. Why track spring this way? Why track it elsewhere? Because I cannot go in person. Because watching, observing, even from a great distance, is the next best thing to witnessing. And I want to slow down time.
Constraints are interesting. I mean, it sounds like such a negative word, but it’s really important and constructive to have them as, as both a writer and as a scientist. I mean, absolutely necessary to have them as a scientist. I think also necessary to have as a writer, but where those constraints come from as a writer, you really kind of have to make those decisions.
I wrote, uh, many of the poems in A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes are written in 13 syllable lines. And I guess I was aware of constraints, that that constraint would help me, but I was also aware that I had to develop a voice and oddly that constraint of, of syllabics helped to shape my voice in a way that felt authentic. It helped with the creativity.
So when I discovered that I was writing in, 13 syllable lines and I remembered from some of actually my own studies on studying carbon in plants to reconstruct past histories, that the number 13 appears in some of the isotopes. So I looked that up and that's where I learned about the, the ratio of 12 to 13 and how isotope with atomic mass 12 is so much more frequent in nature. And 13 is, is very rare.
For me, actually, that proportion of 99 to one in terms of rarity, I think it does actually represent accurately the, the specialness of poetry in our universe.
So I've had the opportunity, just a handful of times now to teach and, or, you know, run workshops on poetry and science, creative writing workshops. One year I taught a first-year seminar course at the University of Guelph, which encourages interdisciplinary connections to be made. And it's a wonderful time to be meeting students on their academic journey because they're only in first year. And so they haven't declared majors. And so we read poems by poets who either were, or weren't scientists, but who wrote about science. And then we had a number of poets come visit the class by Skype, which was really wonderful. And then, and then I assign them a portfolio of writing and one exercise that I did, I recall with them, it showed, uh, it was a really interesting exercise in revision, which of course, if you're a writer, you know how important that is. For me, revision is not just, you know, taking a first draft and editing out a few things and fixing things.
You know, I, I take revision quite literally to see things differently. And it's, it's a constant challenge as a writer to challenge yourself to see things differently. So what I did was I asked them to bring into the class an object, a natural object, animal, mineral, vegetable, and then we put the objects on, in the middle of the table. And I asked them to then sort of randomly select from the pool of objects that were in the class. There were about 20 students in the class, maybe less. So then I asked them to, to write a poem, an object poem, right? That's what we call it. Based on that, just sort of their senses. Their observation. And, of course, what they know of that object or what, maybe, even what they don't know. Uh, so I asked them to write them, write these, these poems.
And then we called those poems, the first draft. Then I asked them to take about a week or so to identify the objects to the most sort of detailed description that they could make. So if it was a leaf, you know, to find out what species that leaf was from, if it was a rock, try to find out what were the minerals and what was it made of? And then to read at least one scientific paper about that, the sort of scientific element of your object, like a primary source, like a scientific paper published in a journal, and then to take a little bit of time to think about what they learned and then go back and revise their poems, just revise them. And it was, there was such a striking change in them, and everybody did it in a different way.
I think many people have this perception. And I think to a large extent, it's true that the scientific worldview lacks empathy. And I've heard really famous scientists who are also poets—in fact, one is a Nobel Laureate scientist and poet—I asked him once, you know, why do you write poetry? I asked him also, what can scientists, you know, why should scientists read poetry? Why should scientists write poetry? Do you have an answer for that?
He could have said, “No, I don't have an answer.” Which would be fine. Like a lot of people sort of take that approach, “You know, I do what I do, and I don't know why. I don't have a grand theory of things.” But he said that he thought that scientists could learn empathy from reading and writing poems. And I have experienced that myself. And so the way I think that even this, just this little exercise with these students, this was a way for them to learn the scientific basis of something through an empathetic lens. Science is never really detached. I mean, it can be used that way and seen that way. And it's certainly really important for scientists to not be biased in their approach to scientific discovery, but learning science and knowing science can increase our empathy. And of course, I think reading poetry can also do the same.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Madhur’s work, including her memoir This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Madhur Anand challenges the divide between art and science and proposes new structures for writing, informed by the natural world. She discusses:
01:06 | Her Governor-General-Award-Winning memoir This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart and taking on the voice of her own parents
06:29 | The turbulent history of Partition and how it influenced her family history and also the structure and style of the memoir collection
07:50 | Telling many stories at once —“ Aap beeti or jag beeti?” My story or the story of the world?
11:05 | Using constraints in both scientific inquiry and writing
12:40 | Helping students move beyond superficial editing to actually re-vision their drafts
15:47 | How both studying science and reading poetry can increase our empathy over time
Pick a primary scientific article, read through it, and explore the peculiar structure and language of the scientists. While doing this, find approximately 30-50 words that stand out to you and write them down. Then, you are going to write a poem using those words. You may add nouns, adjectives, and verbs to guide your writing.
The other exercise that I have done in writing workshops, which I find has always led to interesting things, is an exercise around found poetry. This is something that I did myself in A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes. There are 13 poems that are composed of text, and only text, that is found from within one of my own scientific articles. So there's the poem and then there's the scientific article that's footnoted.
I found that that was another way to kind of support the coexistence of more than one truth or more than one way of knowing. So I found it really useful to do myself. And then at one point I wondered if it would be useful for others to do it. So as an exercise, I take one of my papers and I give it to the group. And for the most part, these people, these groups of people, whether they're undergrads or community members, they probably have never read a, a primary scientific article because why would they? Like they don't need to. You know, most of the science that we hear about, is sufficiently covered by like Scientific American or the media or something like that.
So they, first of all, discover the very peculiar structure and language of how scientists communicate to one another. Then they also kind of are confronted with the richness of the, of the vocabulary contained within. Anyway, I ask them to write a found poem based on based on the article. So I instruct them to make a list of about, I don't know, 30 to 50 words that they encounter as they read the article. And I insist that they don't have to understand everything that they're reading.
And then I tell them that they are going to have to make a poem out of those words. And if they're not, um, used to writing poetry, then I, I sort of help them out by suggesting that they want to have a, like a mixture of nouns and adjectives and verbs and so on, just so that they'll have something to work with. But of course somebody can also write a brilliant poem composed only of nouns, I tell them—it's just a little harder to do that. And so then they attempt that. I'll say, “Okay, now I'm at the front,”—they have a paper version and I have an electronic version—“and I'm at the front here, I'm here. I'm your like dictionary or thesaurus person here.” In the sense of, they're not allowed to ask me what words mean, but they're, uh, they can ask me like, if they're starting to compose their poem and they happen to need like a, “therefore” I don't know, or a “red” or something, you know, then I'll say I can search the article for that.
It's a really fun exercise and it always leads to really interesting, uh, really interesting poetry. I've done it with high school students too—it's phenomenal what they come up with. It's amazing
Structure and Turbulent Flow
Well, I knew from the very beginning that the line of the story, the so-called narrative arc, would not be anything that one might normally expect in a novel or even in a nonfiction book. I had taken a couple of writing workshops, and I've heard all about the narrative arc, with its climax and denouement. There was no such thing to be had in the story of my parents and in my, my takes on it but I didn't know what the line would look like.
I did imagine somehow in my mind, from a pretty early phase in writing the book, this type of flow that I have encountered many times in my career as a scientist. It's called turbulent flow, and it occurs in fluid dynamics, but it's applied to many different systems, including ecological systems, including economic systems where there's a, a linear—it's called laminar—flow for a certain phase of, of a systems dynamics, but then for a variety of reasons, which are, which become parameters in the model, there's a point of transition between that laminar linear flow to immediately into a turbulent chaotic flow.
So there are models of those types of systems. And then the question is when did things change from laminar to turbulent and how, and what, what causes that? And I didn't use that explicitly as a model for writing this book, but in, you know, in a way it sort of does follow certain trajectories of, of those types of bifurcating systems. So the alternating voices of my parents are like oscillations in these types of complex systems. And then when you make that, switch, that nonlinear switch, over to my side, which you have to do physically—you have to turn the book over physically. Then my side appears more turbulent. But I don't think I wrote it deliberately turbulent. I think that that just does actually represent my, my current voice