Commentary, Interviews

Review & Interview // “Where Insects Bite”: A Conversation with Carolina Hotchandani and Review of The Book Eaters

by Weiji Wang | Contributing Writer

A few poems into Carolina Hotchandani’s The Book Eaters (Perugia Press, 2023), one gathers that memory loss has been afflicting the speaker’s father. He is seen grasping for words, and the speaker describes the stories he used to tell and how vividly he would tell them. The father’s character takes form, and his image hearkens back to the book’s prefatory page, in which Hotchandani dedicates The Book Eaters to her parents. Her father’s name—followed by his lifespan (1939-2022)—serves as an obituary. At this realization, I pause. Am I hurtling toward a moment when the father in the book is pronounced dead? I typically disassociate from this kind of tension, as if my avoidance can annul an undesired denouement, so it surprises me when I continue to turn the pages, gripped by the poems’ push and pull.

From loss and remembrance, Hotchandani directs my attention to the speaker’s present ruminations: 

I find myself mining you for the history 
you lived through— 
mining you the way they 
suck from the earth to make theirs 
the coal, the gold—

By recalling the excavation of natural resources from stolen land, the speaker mulls over whether her attempt to retrieve her father’s memory constitutes exploitation. And when a word escapes her, “like that furtive deer—its hind legs / springing over brush,” she notices that “the conifer forest / embraces the deer while sheltering it from human eyes.” She posits, might one’s loss mean safety for another? Hotchandani writes also:

Sometimes I believed the future lived
under the surface
of the present,

and if I tried, I could
unveil it.

The sentence re-arranges the past, present, and future into a new configuration. Here, it is not the past that lies beneath the present, but the future. The speaker is unafraid to contradict herself, and because her poems continually resist fixed notions, they gain momentum.

Hotchandani suggests that a loved one’s death occasions an opportunity to revisit their life story: “You watch and rewatch your favorite TV sleuth / intuit the culprit, apprehend the truth.” Where a life ends, commemoration begins. We can never finish mourning, and in the process, new lives inevitably begin. A poem about larvae feeding, entitled “Casemaking Clothes Moth, Tinea Pellionella,” is laid side by side with “How Can It Be—,” a poem where the aging father eats constantly because he does not remember having already eaten. The moth larvae are insatiable as they pupate and burgeon into life, while, for the father, the persistent need for food indicates the retirement of his memory faculties. Hunger sutures loss to transformation. The Book Eaters goes on to chronicle a mother’s labor, where her body metamorphoses into a collective of alienated body parts, into a body consumed with feeding another body’s hunger, into a body sustained by the ideas conveyed by language.

Woven through Hotchandani’s collection is an overarching metaphor–“the book eaters.” The poet shows how some insects carve holes in books, stripping their contents of continuity, as they loosen entire pages from bindings, undoing the state of order. A worm-infested book stands in for the mind ravaged by memory disorder, which, in the poet’s imagination, takes on insectile qualities. Hotchandani makes her metaphor versatile, using book-eating insects to reflect on not only the symptoms of dementia but also her own responsibilities. A species of beetles helps the speaker articulate her concerns over the gendered division of labor. How does a mother find time to nourish her physically and mentally exhausted self? How does a mother relieve herself from the bind of birthing and nursing? Observing how beetles tunnel through a stack of books, Hotchandani writes in “Deathwatch Beetle, Xestobium Rufovillosum”:

And I have felt some envy, some desire.

That my hunger pull me forward, too.
That my voice be the beetle’s body,

piercing through the human fictions,
unafraid to conjure death as it moves.

A metaphor analogizes one experience to another. As Hotchandani creates one after another metaphor to visualize language and memory loss, she evokes a wealth of experiences that fills the silences resulting from aphasia and forgetting. Metaphor, the nature of which is to proliferate, compensates for an illness that silences and erases. There is kinship between device and subject matter, and it is touching to witness this expression of kinship when circumstances put to test the ties between the speaker and her father, whose condition removes years of her life from his conscious mind.

To learn more from this tender and insightful collection, I wrote several questions for Hotchandani, who enlightened me with her insights into the capacities and limitations of metaphors as well as into assembling a first manuscript of poems. Together, we compiled a conversation from our exchange.

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Weiji Wang (WW): In “Portrait of Aphasia as a Row of Shells,” the speaker says, “I scavenged my mind for metaphors to give me refuge / from your silences.” Do metaphors occur to you instinctively?

Carolina Hotchandani (CH): Metaphor-making itself does occur instinctively to me. I think I’m drawn to poetry as a genre because of my penchant for likening experiences to things. So, yes, when faced with my father’s memory loss, I found myself overwhelmed by the withering away of our shared memory—and needing to fill that void with language. Or, I needed, in some way, to metabolize that absence by likening it to a presence. In the book’s first poem, “Portrait of Aphasia on a Plum Tree,” for instance, the father’s forgotten word is memorialized; it is compared to a ball that’s kicked too high–into the clasp of a plum tree’s branches–and left there. Yet even as I make this metaphor, I am aware of its limitations; my father’s memory loss is not undone by likening it to a thing. The ball is (painfully) unable to be the forgotten word of the father, and the speaker’s desire for the lost word (and the lost father) continues in the poem, even after the first metaphor is summoned. The ball keeps shifting in the poem; it is likened to the speaker, who leaves her body “like a ball in motion” because this desperation to create a balm out of language abides. 

This process of making metaphors feels quite natural to me. But then I also self-consciously reflect on my metaphor-making in the book; there’s a “meta” element in The Book Eaters insofar as one of the themes of the book is its own coming-into-being. As I was writing this book, I was thinking about what purpose my writing served; what did I want out of these anticipatory elegies? The elegy does not reverse time; it does not bring back the dead or the younger versions of ourselves or the people we love. But I believe the metaphor does catalyze a sort of chemical reaction by which thoughts and feelings undergo a metamorphosis: pain, when compared to an object outside its realm, is suddenly placed in a new context such that engaging with it becomes, for me, possible. There were certain feelings that were quite difficult to explore, and I think the metaphor offers a new object to which I can direct my attention while still trying to grapple with the original feeling. This makes me think of how James Geary considers metaphor in I Is An Other. He writes, “A metaphor is both detour and destination, a digression that gets to a point.” I like thinking of the metaphor as both “detour and destination.”

WW: I love thinking of metaphor as a catalyst for metamorphosis! “The book eaters” is a shared vehicle in metaphorizing both memory loss and new motherhood, which is to say metaphor helps you transition from one subject to the other.  How did you pull this transition off?

CH: Thank you for this question! I love that you ask this because the greatest amount of labor went into forging conceptual linkages between the motherhood poems and the poems on my father’s memory loss. I knew that these strands of the book tackled shifts in identity, but I was not satisfied with having the book cohere around a fuzzy notion of “identity loss”; I needed to find an image that could concretize this concern. One day, I was mulling over how my body had been repurposed when I became a mother, that is, how I was no longer able to see myself as a container for ideas. I had suddenly become a container for milk that would dispense itself in sync with another’s hunger! How bizarre! How porous my body seemed! And it occurred to me that, as a nursing mother, I was like a book being eaten by insects—a book offering a type of nourishment to living beings that its author had not intended to deliver. At that point (in 2020), I wrote the title poem “The Book Eaters,” (which was about nursing and simultaneously reading), and as soon as that poem was conceived, I had this “Aha” moment! I could write about memory loss in similar terms! As I witnessed memories leaving my father “like tea leaves from his reused tea bags,” (quote is from my poem “A Little Water” in The Book Eaters) I realized that he and I were both no longer insular containers for ideas. The moment I thought of book-eating insects, I became obsessed with learning all about archives ravaged by bugs.

WW: As the focus shifts from memory loss to motherhood, the referent of the second person “you” in the book changes from the father to the daughter. I’m also curious about the poem “Small Green Bowl,” where you address the issue of using the second person.

CH: “Small Green Bowl” is my daughter’s favorite poem in the book! And it is a poem that addresses the fungibility of identity and of the language employed to call up identity. One minute, I can be an “I,” but the next, I’m speaking to my daughter and referring to myself in third person: “Mama loves you,” I say, or “Mama’s going to the kitchen” because, at such moments, I’m privileging my daughter’s perspective of me. In this poem, I explore an aspect of language acquisition I have found quite intriguing–that is, how one comes to inhibit an “I.” When my toddler daughter first started making sentences, she would say “you” to refer to herself. She would say, “Do you want blueberries?” to mean, “I want blueberries.” Of course, she did this because my husband and I referred to her as “you,” and the only linguistic connection she had to her own desires came from the questions we asked her about what she wanted. So, she thought “you” was a sort of name for herself. We had to separate her from that pronoun and show her that she was an  “I” to herself, and I could be a “you” to her or a “she” to her.

But, as your question suggests, language’s relation to identity is posed not just by this poem but by the entire book. As you said, the first section of the book is largely addressed to the father: he is the “you” in these poems. But, as I was writing to that “you,” I was also aware that he hadn’t always been this version of himself. If I’d addressed him twenty years before, I’d have been talking to an entirely different “you,” yet the pronoun remains the same. This multiplicity of persons within us interests me quite a bit–that is, how I can speak of myself as an “I,” but if I am (internally) looking at myself from a distance, I might say “you” to myself, the way I do in “Order of Operations.” There, the “you” is like a secret “I.”

WW: You’re absolutely right that the second person seems to be what poets go for when we write about more distant versions of the self than the self at present. To me, “Order of Operations” revisits the speaker’s teenage years, and the multiplicity of identities you talk about comes through in the “you.” The speaker says:

You try to follow your father’s dictum: 
Stay ahead; cover next week’s chapter in algebra 
now, so when the teacher delivers the lesson
in the future, the future will be a memory 
for you–the word problem you’ve already
solved.

Here, even in the speaker’s youth, there is this need to master the future, to assimilate it into the present and the past. There is the need for perfection. This reminds me of “I Keep Searching for the Perfect Metaphor,” where the speaker insists on a metaphor more “perfect.” How does this impulse relate to your writing process?

CH: Well, the search for a fitting metaphor never seems to lead to a satiation of that desire, even when I find some kinship between an experience and an object. Because the desire for a metaphor for memory loss—is it really a desire for a metaphor? Or is this sought-after metaphor standing in for some other beyond-reach object—like everlasting life for our loved ones?

It is true that I, like many writers, am perfectionistic (which, of course, means something different for everyone), but in this book, I think that my pursuit of objects with which to compare the decline of my father was extremely difficult because the metaphor creates a presence, and my father’s memory loss consisted of aporia, holes, lacunae. Of course, I wanted to fill them with language! Yet I was also interested in representing the strangeness of the gaps in his memory. This longing for representation led me to read about insects ravaging books; I looked at photos of books carved out by moths; I read about the kinds of tunnels made in the books eaten away by insects. I’d go down these rabbit holes, and then, I’d suddenly stop myself and think, “Why am I doing this? Where did I begin? Wasn’t I writing about loss?” This reality check led me to recreate this experience (of being sidetracked) in the book. I was very aware of the paradox in searching for “perfect” objects that might bring forth loss in a poignant way.

WW: What you said about going down rabbit holes, as well as how it deprives you of satisfaction, feels so true! Even if you manage to convince yourself that the existing metaphor is “perfect,” new ideas will surface and challenge that thinking, so gone is the feeling of having perfected the language. You remind me, in poems like “Possible Consolation of a Brain Scan’s Topography” and “I Become a Historian,” that memory loss does have a material correlative—the smoothened gyri, ridges on the brain—and that it is not as abstracted as I think it is.

CH: The moment my father’s memory started to go, I instantly worried about what this meant about his brain: what was happening to it? I looked up brain scans of men in their seventies (he was seventy-six when I started to notice a change) to see the possible shapes of my father’s brain. I suppose my worries led me down a path of visualizing the source of his decline. I needed to locate the culprit responsible for the gaps in his consciousness. Pregnancy and new motherhood were also overwhelmingly physical. But I’d say that there’s something surreal about stark shifts of identity, whether such changes occur because of memory loss or because of becoming a parent. Even when there are material explanations for radical changes in what we think of as a “self,” one feels—or I should say that I felt—both with my father’s decline and with my entrance into motherhood—a psychological whiplash—as though a collision had occurred between my sense of normalcy and this new reality that I was suddenly living.

WW: Yes! I think “Chiaroscuro” suggests pregnancy may not feel as real on the body as one may imagine. The poem describes the pregnant speaker taking a photo of her sonogram to send to her mother. This gesture makes the photo not an aesthetic object but a piece of evidence, to be shown to another and to get their affirmation. It’s like, Look, I’m pregnant! Tell me I’m pregnant! As she takes the photo, the speaker notices in the camera a white splotch on the sonogram that is the light’s reflection, which she can’t bypass. She describes the splotch as “a white nimbus” and describes it as “the baby’s twin.” I imagine the speaker conveying to me that her child, despite a part of her body, feels airy, unreal, and out-of-reach, like a nimbus. This way of conceptualizing pregnancy feels so fresh.

CH: I think that, for me, “Chiaroscuro,” along with “So the Humans Reproduced,” was motivated by my reflections on how human reproduction was similar to and different from, say, my desire to represent my thoughts in a poem. I know the comparison between birthing a child and writing a book is clichéd, but I wonder if we can defamiliarize the cliché for a moment to really sit with that question. Do I write because I need to double myself in some way? Am I desperate for copies of my thoughts because of an awareness that the original (any given thought) ceases to exist the moment after it’s birthed? And, is this desire for representation the reason why, in spite of climate change and school shootings and so many other crises we face, people continue to want to make babies? “Chiaroscuro” compares the real baby (in the sonogram) to the light reflected on the photograph of the sonogram in order to raise some of these questions I was wrestling with as I tried to understand why I was called to become a mother.

WW: Can we backtrack somewhat to where you touch on the book’s different sections? The first and third sections of The Book Eaters discuss how losing one’s language portends the loss of one’s identity. Between the two sections, you have in the middle a section titled “The Making of Mirrors,” which revolves around reproduction and motherhood. This section complicates the issue of identity loss because it brings into the picture one’s identification with one’s cultural heritage. In “Self-Portrait as a Woman Halved,” the speaker reflects on being mixed race and notes how her daughter appears “white.” In a way, she expresses concern about a potential identity loss.

CH: In the first section of the book, “Memory, Halved,” I primarily explore dementia as a cause of identity loss (my father’s). But his dementia, I suggest, is inflected by earlier traumas caused by his family’s displacement during Partition. In the second section, the stark shift in identity is my own—caused by motherhood—but, similar to the first section, I show how the biological occurrences of pregnancy and motherhood are complicated by culture: in addition to having a new body—with its new feeding function—I was (for a short while) consumed by thoughts of how my daughter appeared “white” and how maybe I’d not relate at all to her experience of the world. The third section of the book attempts to take the “information” of the first two sections and formulate a new notion of what it means to be a self, given that memory loss and motherhood challenged the speaker of this book to see identity as much more porous than previously imagined.

WW: There are several “portrait of aphasia” poems that open with was it not then. For example, “Was it not then, as you thudded over memory’s potholes / embarrassed for swerving too late, I searched for ways / that your forgetting echoed mine” (“Portrait of Aphasia on a Burnished Moon”). Was it not then becomes an anaphora across poems. It frames these questions that feel rhetorical but are not. The speaker sounds at once self-assured about her memory and doubtful of it. She is not the one affected by aphasia, but her language replicates how one fumbles for words that surely exist in their consciousness. And her questions go unanswered! I’m so interested in this utterance.

CH: As I wrote about my father’s memory loss, I was constantly reflecting on my own memories and on how much I could or couldn’t rely on them. My father forgot parts of my life I couldn’t believe he was forgetting, and in some moments, his forgetting stood in stark contrast to my remembering. But there were also moments when he’d forget something, and his doing so shook me to the core, destabilizing my own memories—and my sense of their presence and solidity. In a couple of poems, I write about my father forgetting I studied abroad in England when I was in college. I was so affected by his forgetting this—partly because that year was so formative for me. But his forgetting also made me wonder, what has been lost, really, by his forgetting this? Do I even actively remember that time? No, I don’t; in fact, that time and the person I was then seems alien to me now. How is this alienation from my past different from my father’s forgetting? I was probably trying to feel closer to my forgetful father as I likened my own distance from my past to his. The phrase “Was it not then” likely emerged in me from an impulse to sympathize with his tenuous memory.

WW: It leaves me to speculate about it comes to pass that, another anaphora, which appears in the final poem. It signals departure, like the poem points out, and metamorphosis. Speaking of which, transformative processes like pregnancy and pupation weigh as much in The Book Eaters as loss, either of a family member or of a place to call home. “The Trees That Pointed to Trees” has this sentence: “Remarkably, nothing is lost when the figure / who equated change with loss departs.” Is this how you think of your place in history–that is, outside of it?

CH: What I’m trying to say, in those lines, is that change is a given; it’s the only constant in life. And if one is fixated on a stable sense of self, then life will constantly feel like loss. This perspective needs to shift! If, instead, change is seen as the default state, then change can be observed with something akin to equanimity. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think it’s easy to embrace change: clearly, my book documents my own struggle to accept the reality of my father’s cognitive decline, of my mother’s cancer, of my own body changing into a mother’s body, an aging body, etc. My poems record my attempt to understand what humans are containers of, what memory is, what books do for us—stitching together the present and the past—but, in the end, these objects, too, are perishable. They may outlast us for a bit, but then what? Then, the fires and the floods! In some sense, written history itself is just a blip in time. The materiality of archives are subject to the elements, as the book-eating insects show us. I think it’s important that we, as a species, contend with this reality. My book is my attempt to reckon with this eventuality and approach it with some humility.

Carolina Hotchandani is a Latinx/South Asian poet born in Brazil and raised in various parts of the United States. Her debut poetry collection The Book Eaters won the 2023 Perugia Press Prize and was released in September 2023. Hotchandani holds degrees from Brown, Texas State, and Northwestern universities. Her honors include scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Community of Writers, Tin House Writers’ Workshop, and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Her poetry has appeared in The Atlantic, AGNI, Beloit Poetry Journal, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and other magazines. She is a Goodrich Assistant Professor of English in Omaha, Nebraska, where she lives with her husband and daughter.  

Weiji Wang 王唯冀 grew up in Guiyang, China and lives in Lafayette, Indiana, where she’s an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at Purdue University. She teaches creative writing and serves as The Nation‘s assistant poetry editor as well as Sycamore Review‘s managing editor. Weiji’s writing can be found in The Margins, American Poetry Review, and Rain Taxi Review. A Tin House Summer Workshop alum, she holds a BA in English and cinema studies from University of Pennsylvania and has received financial support from the Community of Writers.