Three years ago, Rajiv Mohabir and I were living only a few neighborhoods apart in Queens, New York. He was a graduate student in the MFA program at Queens College and teaching ESL in Ozone Park. Because of his Indo-Caribbean ancestry, it wasn’t surprising to learn that he had ties to Richmond Hill, another Queens neighborhood, which had been nicknamed Little Guyana, but his residence in the borough was a much more complicated immigrant story. Shortly after the announcement from Four Way Books that his manuscript The Taxidermist’s Cut had been awarded the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry, I made an appointment to interview him about that journey. But I had to travel all the way to O’ahu to meet with him.
“In a way, it makes sense to talk about my life here,” Mohabir says, pointing with his chin toward the view of the ocean and the row of high-rise hotels along Honolulu’s Waikīkī beach. “This is yet another colonial narrative. And even worse—a settler fantasy. None of this is natural. Waikīkī used to be a wetland. Now it’s a tourist paradise.”
Mohabir’s keen awareness of place and history is informed by his sense of being an outsider no matter what place he inhabits. His parents migrated from Guyana to London, where he was born in 1981. Soon after, his family moved to Toronto, and then to Richmond Hill, a community thriving with culture, but not open spaces. “My father kept escaping city life,” Mohabir explains. “He wanted to reconnect with the land.” Lured by the promise of a rural haven, the Mohabirs relocated to Chuluota, Florida, a white working-class town.
Mohabir spent his formative years in Chuluota, where he began to reckon seriously with his difference, his apartness, by answering repeatedly that most invasive of questions, “Where are you from?” No, he wasn’t from India and neither were his parents. They were from South America. No, he didn’t speak Spanish. Or Hindi. Questions about his identity began to plant the seeds for the pursuits he would eventually undertake in college, but for the moment he felt trapped inside a puzzle of an ancestry. And just when he thought he was gaining ground toward acceptance, troubling comments about his body, about his physical appearance, rattled his confidence: “Once I dared play barefoot like all my friends and one of them said, ‘Your feet are just like leather.’”
But there was yet another difference he had to contend with—his sexuality. “Then it became too much,” he confesses. Despite the bright day and the jovial sounds from the beach, the mood takes a somber turn as he shows me the visible marks on his arms. He had become a cutter. “Scars are another kind of language,” he adds.
Suffering with depression as an adolescent was an ordeal for the entire family. “It’s like the fire went out inside me,” he says. “I believe my parents were trying to protect me, but this was beyond their grasp.” He was prescribed Prozac, but received no counseling, and so he moved through his adolescence inhibited and unresponsive. He took solace in writing “little snapshots” of thoughts and images that he kept to himself—a private diary he would later identify as his first attempts at poetry.
His other consolation was the annual trip to Toronto to visit Aji, his grandmother, an outsider herself because she refused to assimilate into Canadian society. Aji regaled Mohabir with stories about India and folk songs in Bhojpuri. “She nurtured my drive to find myself in the beauty of Indian culture,” he says.
And then there were those rare visits to Queens that made Mohabir long for the company of his immigrant community, and that made him more fully aware of his desire for intimacy with men. “I knew I wanted to explore my heritage and I knew I’d be back to live in the freedom of Queens someday. But first I had to heal myself.”
That healing process began as soon as he enrolled as a microbiology major at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where almost immediately he sought help at the counseling center. And then came the life-changing opportunity to live in India for a year through a study abroad program. He lived in Varanasi, where he was exposed to Hindi and rediscovered Aji’s world all over again.
By the time he returned to Florida in 2004, just one year shy of completing his undergraduate degree, he was on an alternative path and changed his major to religious studies. “My parents were disappointed I wasn’t going to become a doctor,” he says. “But they didn’t protest. And neither did they object when I decided to move to Queens after graduation. I was still looking for my happiness.”
For the next seven years he taught ESL as community empowerment for immigrants, a rewarding experience because he saw himself in the faces of his students, young immigrants from India, Guyana, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. “It was also disheartening to know all the obstacles they had to deal with in order to make something of themselves,” he says. “I had been there myself.”
Mohabir had a hard time letting go of this tough but rewarding job after he decided to enroll in the MFA program at Queens College in 2009, but the incentive to return to academia to focus on his intellectual and creative growth was strong. “When I told my mother I was headed back to school to get an MFA, she was relieved I was finally aiming for a practical degree,” Mohabir recalls. “Until I clarified that this wasn’t a master of finance but a master of fine arts.” And then came the next admission: that he wanted to write poetry. “It was like coming out to her all over again,” he says. He suspects that somehow she knew he would end up in good hands.
“Queens College was so good to me,” he says. “It took me four years to complete my degree but my professors knew that I was on a long journey with winding roads.” During his time there, he received a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study the Hindi language and culture in Jaipur for a year. Since his department had a translation component, the administrators encouraged this supplementary education, which fueled Mohabir’s imagination and work. Nicole Cooley, director of the school’s MFA program in creative writing and literary translation, was particularly thrilled for Mohabir. “His studies in India and his work with translation enriched and invigorated his poems,” she says. “They’re experimental in the very best sense, crossing boundaries in ways that open up our understanding of language and the world.”
But it was a challenge posed in Cooley’s poetry workshop that gave Mohabir permission to pursue the sensitive subject matter that shapes The Taxidermist’s Cut. She said simply, “Write something that scares you.” Suddenly, Mohabir was looking inward, unearthing the fears and anxieties of his youth in Chuluota, where he felt his body suffocating. “To be a man of color is tough. To be a queer man of color is even tougher,” he says. “I felt vulnerable being both, but I also learned to be fierce, to survive like a coyote in a pack of wolves.”
Lycanthropy—the transformation of a person into a wolf—is a dominant trope in The Taxidermist’s Cut. The speaker perseveres by moving openly among strangers, not necessarily in disguise, but not denying his true nature, either—which waits patiently, itching for the right opportunity to reveal itself. “I think of this book as my journey out of my body’s prisons,” Mohabir says. Intro Prize judge Brenda Shaughnessy was taken by the rawness and honesty of the manuscript, which she says was filled with unexpected turns and surprises. For her, this was a book “pulsing, with life leaping off the page.”
The book is also a conversation with masculinity, the tensions between desire and rejection, pursuit and persecution, and passion and fear, particularly as they are negotiated through the eyes of the paternal figure. The following lines encapsulate these complicated dynamics: “Dear Father, forgive me / for what your body made me, / for what I perverted, being a man / and taking another.”
For Martha Rhodes, the founding editor and director of Four Way Books, The Taxidermist’s Cut is an exciting addition to the independent press’s list: “The energy of Mohabir’s lines is what is particularly remarkable, to my mind. His lyrics, whether pure from the musical heart or erasure, rise from the page and engage our senses. This is what I look for in poetry—this kind of engagement with language,” she says.
By the time Mohabir received word that his book had been selected for publication by Four Way Books, he had already made another life-changing decision: to pursue a PhD at the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa. Currently in his third year of study, his concentration is on postcolonialism and queer theory, and American poetic movements from the 1950s to the present.
This relocation, like the one he made to Queens years earlier, was seamless. “Hawai’i is a perfect fit for my interests,” he says. “This is an occupied nation. Its troubled history, the activism around indigenous rights, and the conversations I have with my classmates from Fiji and the extensive Polynesian lands provide me with quite the political education.” Mohabir can’t contain this excited energy, so I suggest a walk along the beach heading toward Kapi‘olani Park.
As we trudge along the pristine sands of Waikīkī, Mohabir’s earlier statement begins to resonate: There’s always another story beneath the surface. Diamond Head, the majestic volcanic tuff cone, has witnessed the entire narrative. “There’s more to these names than just words on signs,” Mohabir says. “If you look up Queen Kapi‘olani’s story it will make you angry at the travesty of manifest destiny.”
Kapi‘olani Park is located along Kalākaua Drive, which is named after the last reigning dynasty overthrown in 1893, opening the door to U.S. occupation. The park, located at the end of a row of high-end boutiques, is populated by homeless people. Homelessness has become a contentious issue on the island. “Living here makes me grapple almost daily with how I belong or don’t belong, and that makes me a more ethical person,” Mohabir says.
For him, poetry began as a way to understand the self, but it also became a way to keep stories alive, particularly those that shaped his consciousness. Though The Taxidermist’s Cut has only recently been published, he has already signed a contract with Tupelo Press for his second book, The Cowherd’s Son, which won the Kundiman Prize and is slated for publication in 2018. “I use more creole in this second book,” he says. “I use phrases and couplets in Bhojpuri because language is identity. And resistance.” This is certainly a palpable lesson reaffirmed by Hawai’ian history and culture.
And although he’s immersed in his doctoral studies, Mohabir is still able to write poems, which are being influenced by the landscape and ecology of Hawai’i. It’s become an inevitable outcome of his residence on the island. When I press him for a specific example of this new direction in his work, he says: “I’ve begun writing about whales.” He looks out into the ocean as if they can be spotted in that instant. I scan the water, and then I understand completely: Of course they’re there, underneath the surface.
Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.