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Ravi Shankar on His Revelatory Memoir and The Embrace of The Totality of The Experience

by Brendan Dowling on January 4, 2022

Ravi Shankar is a Pushcart Prize-winning poet and editor of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, whose work has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, and PBS NewsHour. In 2008, he had a thriving career in academia when he was pulled over by a New York City police officer for a supposed traffic violation. The police officer arrested Shankar, who is of South Indian descent and weighs 200 pounds, on a warrant for a 150-pound white man. A judge eventually dismissed the case, but not before Shankar had to spend seventy-two hours in jail. That experience, which also involved the arresting officer using racist language, understandably traumatized Shankar. Shankar had a later run-in with the law a few years later when he received a DUI after having some celebratory beers with members of his soccer team. In 2013, he violated his probation for his DUI by driving with a suspended license. This infraction caused him to be sentenced to a 90-day pretrial detention at Hartford Correctional Center, a level four facility for adult males. While incarcerated, Shankar was promoted to full professor, an event that the local media sensationalized in their coverage and politicians used to score points during a contentious election. Shankar ultimately chose to resign amidst the media and political pressure placed upon him, and his marriage ended during this experience as well. In his elegantly wrought and emotionally transparent memoir, Correctional, Shankar recounts his own experience with the criminal justice system, exploring how race, class, and privilege shaped his time in the correctional facility. Critics have met Correctional with enthusiastic reviews, with Foreword Magazine writing that Shankar’s “elegant prose is strewn with references to philosophy and poetry, helping to make his storytelling compelling—even entertaining. Correctional is the story of a beleaguered man on the road to redemption, trying to set the record straight.”

I wanted to start by asking you about the Ralph Ellison quote you being the book with, “I feel the need to reaffirm all of it, the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unlovable in it, for it is all part of me.” Can you talk about why that was the perfect starting point for your memoir?

In many ways, it’s a memoir that I never expected to write. I never anticipated in the middle of a very successful life I would somehow end up incarcerated. In the course of living through that experience, though, I have found that it’s been kind of a blessing in disguise. It exposed me to a side of America I never thought I would encounter. I had to grapple with sides of myself that were buried. In writing this, my measure was to be as authentic and transparent as possible, to reveal both the ways in which I was treated unfairly and also the mistakes I made, and to embrace all of it. I mention in the book there’s this great Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, the scar is the source of the beauty.  I really believe that’s what real art is made from, the embrace of the totality of the experience.

As we read your story, the title comes to take on many different meanings. Can you talk about why Correctional was the ideal title for your memoir?

I’m a poet, so as a lover of language I love multivalent, polyphonic kinds of things. Of course, it refers quite literally to Hartford Correctional Center, which is where I spent ninety days and met many of the men whose stories I share. In a deeper, more philosophical sense it’s also a correctional in the sense of a grappling with my own regret, but also a rewriting of the story. Because I was a public figure, a professor in Connecticut, my story was covered sensationally and inaccurately in the media. So it’s a correctional of that narrative as well, a kind of reclaiming of that story. Ultimately my hope is that it can offer some kind of vision for fixing what is really by any measure a broken system, when it comes to both a legal system and a system of incarceration. In that way, I hope it can be a correctional as well.

You write about two very different experiences with the media following your two arrests. What observations have you made from your experience with media and incarceration?

The first time I was wrongfully arrested, jailed for seventy-two hours in New York. I was called a sand n***** and it was a wrongful arrest and an erroneous warrant. That time I felt really justified and I was on NPR.  I felt quite self-righteous and I felt that there was an audience, certainly not mainstream media, but a media willing to cover the story, because it was at a time when there were a slew of different racial profiling cases. The second time my experience was certainly very different in a few different ways. One of the things, in Connecticut, as in many American states, they’re allowed to publish information about someone before they’ve been convicted of a crime. Oftentimes, even if you’re exonerated, that information isn’t published. I also at the time was a professor at Central Connecticut State University, which was a public institution. Though my brushes with the law were relatively minor—they were only misdemeanors—it is pretty sleepy in Connecticut. I think there was a certain alliterative appeal to “Poet and professor promoted while in prison.”

I came to find out because the union—I thankfully had a union—told me that some other faculty members in the past had been convicted of felonies that had never been covered at all! Certainly I was one of the few faculty members of color in our department. What role did that play in it? I don’t know. The one thing that I found with journalism—this was pre-fake news—but once the pattern for a story is established, there’s really no room for nuance or complexity or sophistication, even as that story continues to evolve or transform. In my case, my misdemeanors, I think were reported on no less than seven times in the Hartford Courant. I was featured on the news, I had reporters waiting where my little girls were getting on the school bus, and news vans and helicopters above my house. It was a very surreal moment. A Hartford Courant reporter spent some time with me and I showed them my tenure and promotion files, my publications, my evaluations and letters of recommendation. He was very impressed and said, “I can see why you were promoted.” Of course none of that never made it into any of the stories.

I guess I came upon the limitations of the media in covering and, in fact, when I actually won a settlement from the university authority, that was also not really covered like it should have been. The one other thing that I will say, we talk about bias and neutrality in the media. My story was covered by a reporter who happened to be a former Republican legislator in the Connecticut senate during an election year when the governor appointed the Board of Regents, so I became a convenient political football to score political points. Somehow my story got caught up in all these local and regional manifestations.

The book is structured around the six seasons of India and letters that you write to key people in your life. How did you land on this structure? Why was it meaningful to you?

I should say that my partner Julie, who is also a writer and teacher of writing, helped me in a way come up with the structure, which was pretty late [in the process]. This book went through seven major revisions and each time there was another excruciating layer of unpeeling that had to happen. I felt like there was a way in which I wanted to address the important people in my life, yet the book is a public book. It felt like the epistolary form would be a good way to engage with it. I had in my mind Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which begins as a letter to his son. I thought, “How am I going to explain this to my daughters? That in the middle of my life, when they were just growing up, I ended up being arrested?” That was really the first letter.

When I was thinking about it, this is a book about immigration and about India and the U.S. In India, as you mention, they have two additional seasons to our four. The monsoon, the season of heavy rains, and also the pre-vernal season that comes before spring. It felt to me somehow metaphorically like I had been trying to, in the act of assimilation, trying to flatten or compress or mash down these six seasons into four. It seemed like an interesting lens to look at my own struggles with immigration. They’re kind of the poles that the narrative takes place in between. Each one is a letter to different people, and then it ends with a letter to the universe. It felt to me a way to infuse my intimate and personal voice without compromising the overall story I was trying to tell.

A lot of the writers who are meaningful to you weave their way throughout the book, like Hart Crane. How did your background as a poet influence your approach to your memoir?

As a poet, you’re a lover of language. I’m kind of a lyric and philosophical poet. It did feel like the enormity of this story couldn’t really be contained in poetry. Moreover, I really feel that this is a story a wider audience would appreciate. Initially there was a bit of a learning curve. I’ve taught writing for many years and have written critical essays, but the larger contrivances of plot and dialogue and the forward momentum that a story like this needs to have took me some time to master. While I was going through it, particularly those ninety days in Hartford Correctional, the writers around me, figures like Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane and Etheridge Knight, were kind of a life raft. I clung to whatever texts that I could find because it helped me to make sense of my world, to provide me a distraction, and to pass time in some way. I tried to pay homage to some of those writers in the course of this, but I think my training as a poet might have come also in the architecture of the book. I’m hoping that with those epistles, those letters, that there is a structure, kind of a music in some way. That’s certainly how I conceive of my relationship with language when I’m writing poetry.

In your current life you’re still working with people whose lives have been affected by incarceration. Can you talk about your work with And Still We Rise?

I am actually teaching at Tufts and I’m also doing this work with And Still We Rise, which is a Boston-based theater company comprised of actors, directors, who have all been impacted by the incarceral system. It’s run by a terrific Shakespearean trained playwright, Dev Luthra. I always knew about what was happening in the criminal justice system on a theoretical level, but experiencing it firsthand, and seeing the many obstacles and challenges the men and women that are incarcerated have to deal with, has really deepened my commitment to doing this kind of work. I’ve also taught some writing workshops at the New York Correctional Institute. This theater company that I connected with last year, I thought I would just be a writer, and it turned out that they actually wanted me to be an actor. (laughs)

I made my acting debut in their show last year, and we’re actually working on recording material for a show next year. The wonderful thing about this group is that it’s a forum for everyone to tell their own stories. You’re encouraging people to find their own voice. Everyone there is in support of that. I think these stories are what humanize. They’re not just people who have been incarcerated. There’s one woman, Lois, who’s an African-American grandmother, who has four sons who have been in and out of jail. Her stories are very much about worrying about that phone call and trying to put money on the books for commissary. So it really does approach this story from a lot of different angles

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

I’m such a lover of librarians and libraries in general. It was, for me, a safe haven [growing up] in Northern Virginia, Manassas, known for the Battle of Bull Run and Lorena Bobbitt, not the most cosmopolitan place on earth. For me, the library was a sanctuary. We had this great library in Prince William County where I would spend hours, just reading one book or another. That love has continued when I was at the University of Virginia. I worked in the stacks of the Alderman Library and there I got to see some of the archives and rare books and some of Edgar Allan Poe’s manuscripts. Even up till the day of writing this memoir, I had a fellowship at the University of Sydney. The research library there really helped me do some of the research that was necessary. I think libraries are the lifeblood of this country. I certainly am appreciative of the time I’ve had at libraries. Just the idea that you can go and freely get a book on just about any subject—there’s inherently a democratic virtue to that idea that I find deeply appealing.