An exhaustive account of the inception and the fruition of the Kali Project by Co-Editor Candice Louisa Daquin
At the beginning of 2020 …
I had a conversation with Indian surrealist poet Devika Mathur about an anthology of Indian women poets. I had just edited Devika’s first poetry collection, Crimson Skins (Indie Blu(e) Publishing), and been reintroduced into the world’s love affair with Indian poets. Devika being so young and gifted, inspired me, along with Aakriti Kuntal, another trail-blazing Indian poet whom I have worked with many times, to approach successful Indian/American editor/poet/blogger Megha Sood about co-editing an anthology.
The purity of my appreciation for Indian poets writing in the English language, and their astounding ability to do this better than most native speakers, had struck deeply and fortunately. Megha Sood was as passionately interested in putting together a representative collection. We both agreed, given the current news reports of girls still being raped and molested in India, this would be our starting point and this gradually evolved into a fully-fledged project, with a book at its center. As soon as we put a call out, we were literally flooded with interest, and this is still the case. Not a day goes by when I do not get someone asking if they can write for The Kali Project, though the submission deadline closed in October 2020. That’s a fierce testament to the level of interest and need.
When my colleagues at Indie Blu(e) Publishing agreed to publish us, Megha came up with the unforgettable and utterly perfect name The Kali Project, and Kali was reborn! I felt confident, working alongside someone of Megha’s caliber, we couldn’t fail, but it was nonetheless a daunting task for myself, a French/Egyptian immigrant to America, I needed to further educate myself on Kali and what the women of India experienced. I was very lucky to find and befriend a huge group of Indian women poets and artists who through their generosity and knowledge, more than filled my head with relevant information and ideas. They are literally a whirlwind, a force to be reckoned with, and it only left me aware of how hard Indian women work.
We wanted to ensure we had a true mix of talent. It is never sufficient to invite only famous, or notable poets, but to consider all; all kinds of voices, all levels. The Kali Project has authors and artists as young as nine and well into their eighth decade. Those just starting out, those who have been doing this a long time. Kali is not exclusive to women. It is imperative men access The Kali Project and the reception we have received from our male readers thus far, has also been very positive. What good would it ever do to alienate the entire male gender, just to get across the point, gender inequality has to end?
Inception: Indie Blu(e) Publishing gets involved
Christine Ray and Kindra Austin, the women who created Indie Blu(e) Publishing, have actively sought to publish marginalised and oppressed voices from the very inception of their company, and it has remained their primary focus. Combining incredible authors with edgy, raw writing is the core of their mission as publishers. When they saw some of their Indian sisters speaking out about another atrocity of rape and murder of a young woman in India, there was no question they had to be involved.
As Christine Ray, Editor-In-Chief of Indie Blu(e) said: “The Kali Project is another example of setting alight the inequality of women in India by sharing their talented voices with an English-speaking audience. We wanted to introduce to our Western readers, those talents within India who speak with the same fierce voice and share the same goal of equality and an end to oppression. Indian writing has gravitas and brutal honesty that has existed for millennia, influencing poets from around the world.”
Poetry lovers may be familiar with how gifted Indian writers are, but an entire collection of women writers from India, sharing their experiences is a powerful cohesion of all aspects of oppression and defiance. From the very young to experienced, renowned writers, The Kali Project brings together the voices of Indian women speaking their truths. Be it infanticide, family violence, the emerging LGBTQ community in India, or the marital inequity Indian women face, these struggles are penned in exquisite poetry to enlighten and further awareness.
The Kali Project was born from a deep appreciation for Indian authors who write so beautifully in English despite it often being their second or third language. The craft and ability of these incredible writers is furthered by their passionate, vocal understanding of caste systems, familial inequality, subjugation, sexual assault, and ultimately, survival. It is important to note, those women at the extreme end of marginalization are harder to locate for an anthology edited and published in the West in English and we wish we had been able to access their voices because they remain, the most subjugated and continue to not have enough direct attention.
India is set to become the largest populated subcontinent in the world and already influences the West enormously with their art and eloquence of feeling and expression. Western readers can now appreciate an entire anthology devoted to Indian female poets, and their voices rising as one, for equality and respect. The Kali Project is an umbrella for all woman in India who have needed the strength of ‘Maa Kali’ during their life and speaks to every woman worldwide, who can tap into the fierce energies of The Kali and what she represents.
Indie Blu(e) Publishing continually offers the urgent subjects that matter most but are often overlooked by the mainstream. It has long been their mission to be that voice for indie authors and beyond, and they are delighted to offer The Kali Project a safe space to flourish. Having received over 1500 submissions, The Kali Project speaks to Indian women’s growing influence and power in the world, they are truly a force to be reckoned with, and Indie Blu(e) is extremely honoured to publish this collection. www.indieblu.net
As The Kali Project is the most ambitious project Indie Blu(e) Publishing has published, in terms of size, we also had to address the elephant in the room; Is it appropriate for a Western press to publish Indian authors? Some had thought it wasn’t and didn’t submit for this reason, as is their right. This is how we saw it: Movements succeed when all groups of people support them. The original movements in the sixties here in America would not have succeeded as much, had people of all walks of life not joined them. Therefore, there is no exclusivity to the support of a movement. Where one has to be careful is in the handling of subjects beyond one’s experience. Hence why, even with the best intentions in the world, you would not publish a book about Black Lives Matter solely by Anglo authors, it just wouldn’t be representative or speak directly.
It felt publishing and editing a book of this magnitude required cultural knowledge and sensitivity, and we were lucky enough to have Megha Sood on board for The Kali Project. Born in India and of Indian heritage, Megha could speak directly to the experience of women in India. She also is a highly accomplished editor and writer in her own right. Additionally, we tried to be as receptive and responsive to concerns raised along the way. Of course, with any large project, it is impossible to please everyone and there were those who walked away from the project because Indie Blu(e) Publishing is an equal rights publisher, promoting feminism and LGBTQ themes.
The project was very positively received and the support and enthusiasm from the community we became a part of, has been a life-altering experience for us all. One must be particularly aware when working with a culture different from your own, but with the right team, and listening to the community, this can be achieved. The important thing is to put the people first and let their truths be heard. No wrong can come from that.
Another consideration was the graphic nature of some of the poetry received. Indie Blu(e) has not shied away from publishing graphic works. Be it in response to the #MeToo movement (We Will Not Be Silenced), the LGBTQ community (Smitten, This Is What Love Looks Like), or the recent #BLM, #Trump, #Covid-19 year of hell (As The World Burns). As a small press, we feel our social conscience is our touchstone.
Women of India have boldly addressed subjects of; rape, sexual inequality, racism, casteism, and femicide and despite some daunting obstacles, not least the threat of violence and retribution, Indian women’s courage has lent their voices an unparalleled power. The Kali Project identifies, acknowledges and emboldens that change, and aspires to act as a vehicle of social change. The graphic nature of say, a rape scene might be blatant, but it was decided that, as with most art and expression, this shouldn’t be dissuaded.
The balance of classical poetry, alongside more modern themed works, and art, lends the project a fluidity and relevance that fits the inauguration of the first female American Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris, of Indian and African heritage. We are experiencing a cultural and gender shift in how women and different races are perceived and what they are able to do in society. The poets and artists of The Kali Project are an expression of this galvanization toward complete expression and freedom of thought.
With a President in power for four years, who many women felt, didn’t speak for them, and many immigrants felt, didn’t support them, we now see the potential for change that could begin to open more ways to utilize art and language for social progress. As much as social media is invaluable, the true grit remains on the streets, with the people. Print books have gained a massive resurgence. Paper is still powerful. Maybe coming off 2020 the hardest year in a while, we’re primed for social action like never before.
All along our intention was to utilize The Kali Project as a tool for change, not simply a book. It was always our intention to effect change through increasing awareness in the West, as we had with, We Will Not Be Silenced, which was Indie Blu(e)’s inaugural publication. We were founded on the principle of equality and enlightenment. What we have personally learned from this experience has been momentous and the outcome of the project has only just begun. By opening up taboo subjects, we enable marginalised and frustrated voices to speak about continuing inequality. Indian women have done so much already but it cannot hurt to continue to highlight this in any way we’re able.
We wanted to contribute to a bigger picture. Start conversations. Shift thinking. We regret not being able to reach those most affected in India and were aware how difficult it would be to reach the most rural and poorest Indian women who do not have access to computers, who do not speak English, who cannot be easily reached on social media. As much as possible, we solicited contributions from women of diverse ages, gender identities, sexual identities, social class, oft-published writers as well as writers and artists who had never been published before. Is Kali completely representative of ALL Indian women? It cannot be. Can any anthology be completely representative? It’s a challenge. We do our best, despite knowing we omit some of those who still desperately need to be heard. It doesn’t negate the value of the project, but it’s a regret.
It should be mentioned, The Kali Project doesn’t resonate as ‘negative’ and ‘bad news’ at all. Of course, there is the reality, and the reality can be very painful. It can also be joyful. This must not be forgotten. The love, enriching strength, and joy of Indian women is also borne out in The Kali Project. We were particularly moved by N. Meera Raghavendra Rao’s poem ‘My Mother-In-Law Surprises Me’, an account of the author as a young bride, and her positive experience “When two women understand each other / And feel at home with one another.”
It is just as important to show all sides of being an Indian woman, for every atrocity, there is hope, and strength, and this is why Kali was the perfect Goddess to represent the project, she is multi-faceted and both nurturing and powerful. “Kali / embodies the / boundless freedom / epitome of Shakti / of strength and power / standing unbound from all / restrictions.” Mehak Varun, ‘The Kali in Me’.
Balance is everything. For every negative, there is a positive and we tried to reflect that balance throughout the collection, with hopeful poems, even on difficult subjects: “Do not call me Lakhi meye (good girl) / And tell me I’m an angel / When you only try to teach me wrongly that love lies camouflaged / within your dominant behavior” …“Stop saying I am not enough, not worthy, not great / Because I know I have conquered mountains and moons, flown / across the skies, over the waves / I have danced and taught and painted and calculated and done / everything you told me I could not.” Mandrita Bose, ‘Do not call me Durga’.
Just the other day I watched Rama Rau’s fascinating documentary, The Daughter Tree (2019), and was struck again, as I have been throughout time, to the necessity of speaking up for women. In the region of Punjab, 1000 boys are born for every 750 girls. The documentary is about a midwife in Punjab state challenging the tradition of aborting girl babies. There are other causes to care about, as a person of Sephardi Jewish descent, and LGBTQ I know this acutely. But we gravitate toward those who capture our hearts. In my case, equality.
I hear many times that equality for women is ‘complete’ and there is no need for feminism anymore. That simply isn’t true. There are countless examples of inequality persisting and those who say feminism is dead or should be dead, you wonder what the real motivation is behind that desire to shut it down? How can equality exist with statistics and realities saying otherwise? Take The Great Indian Kitchen, an Indian Malayalam–language film written and directed by Jeo Baby (2021). The experience of many Indian women and other women worldwide, is that of submissive, chained-to-the-kitchen wife, who is ‘unclean’ when she menstruates. With realities like this, women’s move for true equality cannot be diminished or ignored.
I’ve always wondered, if someone wants to shut feminism down so badly, what do they get out of that? Where is the benefit? And what is the harm in being a feminist, which only means, believing women and men can and should be equal. This is a lengthy subject, but I speak for many women in saying, as long as a woman is paid less than a man for doing the same job, as long as a woman’s reproductive rights are controlled by a system and not by herself, as long as she is told whom she can love and whom she cannot, as long as she is derided for her age, appearance, sexuality and gender, then feminism is relevant. And feminists are not man-haters. They are equality makers.
The Daughter Tree provoked a consideration I have had ever since we first talked about creating The Kali Project, which is; How do we speak directly to those most affected, and are their voices heard? I would have to say, no, the most affected voices were not heard either by The Kali Project or anything else, and that is the real problem. When you have mass poverty, illiteracy, control of female populations, then how can you speak directly to the women?
The poetry and art in The Kali Project is in part, an indirect observation of, rather than a direct experience of, for some of the authors. That’s because in India, those who are bilingual, with regular access to a computer and have the time to write, are invariably a higher income than those most affected. It is not to discount the suffering of all walks of life, but we did regret not having some way to engage with those whom we couldn’t even contact, because we are English speakers in a foreign country. Yes, that is a regret. But what do you do? Do nothing because you cannot do it completely? Or hope that by starting a dialogue you are making inroads? I would say the latter.
That said, it is our wish always to be inclusive, to show all sides of something, to give everyone a chance to speak. It was a frustration watching The Daughter Tree, not to have been able to reach those women and girls who cannot write, nor speak in a foreign language, nor have access to a computer. I would dearly have liked to have their stories and shared their views. Because until we do, we risk having a very selective approach to a multi-facetted, complicated subject. As The Daughter Tree points out, there are reasons for some of the traditions enduring, there are factors of consideration and outcomes borne from no better option, and until we address all of those, maybe nothing will really change.
But with awareness, comes progress, and whilst many girls are still sold into marriage or married very young and denied choices and education, the shift comes in all directions and we hope The Kali Project will contribute to this shift. As women, we all know there is work to be done in every country, India is not alone, and that was the point, to ensure Indian women knew, their sisters in other countries were watching, they heard them, they stood with them. Just as when Black Lives Matter movements occurred in the USA, they were taken up by people in all countries. It is that universalism bequeathed us by technology, we can harness and run with.
Finally, the financial considerations related to The Kali Project were long discussed. It has never been our goal to indiscriminately profit from authors, as anyone who works in publishing can attest, this is a lofty goal at the best of times. Indie Blu(e) has actively sought to promote affordable, worldwide publications that can be purchased by everyone, hence why we publish in Kindle and print. The Kali Project’s contributors are primarily based in India, as such we harnessed Pothi, who are based in India, to be another more affordable option for purchasing. In addition, we are set to produce a hardback version of the book for collectors.
For some, a poem’s title alone will stand as testimony: “Disrupting boundaries / Challenging the forecasts / Mocking at man-made wonders.” (Kaikasi V. S., ‘Why are Cyclones Named After Women?’) Others are simply universal in their gendered strength: “I have all the light I need; you’re here, stuck with me.” (Himangi Nair, ‘light & dark’). Some poems just resonate with rebellion and honed fortitude: “No one looked into our eyes with love. / If they had, they’d have heard our souls talk. / Instead, all they said was / She’s hysterical. Women are like that, / especially when they menstruate, / especially when they stop menstruating, / especially as they approach death.” (Anna Sujatha Mathai, ‘Hysteria’). It is truly rare to find a book at 600 pages where you keep going from one incredible read to another.
Kali as received by others
Of all the anthologies I have worked on, I have never seen such an enthusiastic outpouring and this included the terrific reviews we received. I share but a fraction with you:
“Featuring poets from India and the diaspora, creating the bond of shared experiences across continents The Kali Project draws in the voices of women as women, and women as professionals – teachers, mental health workers, writers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, social workers – adding newer dimensions and a sharper understanding of the inner realities that are sought to be silenced by the patriarchal structures which society, religion, community, and class sanction and sanctify.”
— Charanjeet Kaur, Former Chief Editor and Features Editor of Muse India, and currently the Contributory Editor for Indian writing in English of MI. Consultant Editor of the SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research On Women)
“From my love of history, I was acquainted with the basics of the Hindu faith and one of their goddesses, Kali/Devi. It was immediately apparent, reading The Kali Project, why Kali had been chosen to represent this poetry anthology. To many in India, irrespective of faith, the depiction of Kali is a sign of a woman’s strength. Whilst Kali is both death and goddess, she has a strong nurturing/mother-figure side with the possibility of compassion. In this, we can contrast her with the Christian Virgin Mary. Kali exceeds the potential power of any idol, because she has an active persona, her ‘shakti’ (feminine energy) is a reality and she has several expressive incantations that give her a wide range within the Hindu faith. Thus, it is no wonder Kail became the natural spearhead of The Kali Project.”
— Dr. Belinda Román, Economist/Researcher/Historian
“Fierce feminine energy of Kali is rising today so that we can save ourselves from total annihilation. This volume is a sublime expression of that emergence.”
— Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, USA. An academic expert on Kali, Dr. Saxena wrote our detailed foreword and continually supported this project of women speaking their truth.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the writer.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Sephardi immigrant from France who lives in the American Southwest. Formerly in publishing, Daquin is now a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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