An Interview with Azad Ashim Sharma, Author of Boiled Owls

Boiled Owls—by Azad Ashim Sharma, out today from Nightboat Books—interrogates our narratives of addiction and recovery, as it imagines other possibilities for life and collectivity. What would it mean to consider addiction as part of capital’s promise? How do you craft a narcopoetics? In my conversation with Sharma we look at language, political consciousness, and what Bhanu Kapil calls our “cadences of survival.”

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: You describe recovery with the word stuplimity, which refers to a sense of “overwhelming excitement and stultifying boredom emanating from the same object.” Could you say more? What have you found in the regular, repetitive practices of recovery? 

Azad Sharma: I encountered that wonderful word reading Lisa Baraitser’s Enduring Time, as that text explored the work of the indomitable Sianne Ngai. I gravitated to it at a particular moment in my recovery where, following a period of relapse, I found myself writing a paper for my MA in Creative-Critical Writing at Birkbeck alongside a renewal of my attendance of my local 12 step fellowship. 

If addiction is a repetitive illness where the subject makes the same choices expecting different results but ends up being left with the same carnage and pain, then I found that recovery began to seem repetitive in a different way, allowing one to experience new and exciting things. Then there’s the nuance: that addicts sometimes, as was my case, lead double lives, and there’s a thrill or excitement that comes with that, which is of course part of the illness. With recovery there is also a boredom that emanates from the daily rituals one has to do which—whilst absolutely necessary, in my experience, to continued sobriety—can also become, if one isn’t careful and present for them, mechanistic and automatic functions of survival. Stuplimity perfectly captured those thoughts in a neat conceptual world where boredom and excitement could co-exist. 

Returning to definitions: of addiction (making the same choices expecting different results) and recovery (going through repetitive rituals to experience the same world you’ve been living in but which now seems altogether different and new)—I’m reminded of Freud’s axiom about repetition not necessarily implying or producing reproduction. Addiction reproduces via repetitive behavior a dissonance with the consequences. Until one surrenders to the starkness of reality one can’t make that first leap of faith into recovery. But recovery is calibrated to that axiom, so much so that it really does feel to me at this time of writing like a truth. Every day I have a morning and evening routine to ensure I get through the day clean and sober and end it with the acknowledgement of that practice of sobriety. I’ve only ever relapsed when those rituals fall by the wayside and I’ve replaced them with something else—usually work in my case. There are other times when the rituals have become automatic, numb, motionless and that can be dangerous in its own way. The opposite of addiction really is connection and I’ve experienced that as a connection to the rituals of recovery—prayer, meditation, meetings, gratitude, and funnily enough: reading and writing. 

Writing, like recovery, is a repetitive exercise that encounters exciting new discoveries and possibilities even as it necessitates the sometimes difficult ennui, the struggle of getting down to writing, of fuelling yourself with enough other literature to gorge on whilst reading to embrace the ugly truths that come with the processes that create the conditions for writing

Rather than explore objects—in the sense Ngai is writing about—I tried to take an objective engagement with the addiction-recovery binary and find the ways in which stuplimity was a term that deconstructed and evoked new possibilities from a simple binary—and that was just my truth because I’ve got relapse in my story. For me there wasn’t a line from addiction to sobriety but a weirder and more estranging path that also held space for the nourishment I needed at the time, the lessons I needed to learn, etc. Above all, I hope evoking the necessary repetitions and boredom that comes with recovery is productive, even as it tests the commonplace narrative which carries this eerie euphoria around recovery. I hoped that by engaging with Baraitser and Ngai my poems would complicate an easy picture and make it more mundane, quotidian, and thus alive and in motion.

Dante Silva: You write about “narcocapital’s promise,” which I understood as the insistent compulsion towards “more, more, more.”  How do you situate this compulsion in historical and political context? How do you craft a consciousness that allows for resistance, refusal? 

Azad Sharma: Certainly narcocapital is about that compulsion to consume more ad infinitum but it is also about the inherent and intrinsic toxicity that capital manifests from the get-go in any rudimentary understanding of Marxian terminology and Marxist theory. It’s a term I’m not entirely finished with and I intend on continuing to explore its various manifestations in our social world, especially in literature that seeks to explore addiction and recovery. What is it, though, narcocapital? Perhaps the idea of profit itself, the processes that make profit socially acceptable, that financialize wealth and forecast infinite growth on a planet with finite resources—these are fantasies that we’ve been living with for centuries and they are to my mind or in my interpretation, an addiction. There have been, as the history of struggle and the tradition of revolutionary thought teaches us, serious alternatives provided by the past which open horizons to a more hopeful and liveable future. Capital as a narcotic needn’t always be the toxin we imbibe unthinkingly or “with regret.” We can leave it behind and I use the collective pronoun to embrace the fact that no one person crafts a socialist consciousness or a Marxist critique. These are and always have been collective projects. 

Ours is an era that has seen untold horrors, narcocapital is also related to the sale of arms to aid genocide as well as the spread of ecological catastrophe—these are diseases of consumption, to be absolutely clear, genocide is the merciless and disgraceful consumption of life, the anthropocene is the relentless consumption of and hoarding of resource on our limited planet, but they are also “facts” we are instructed to live with, told are necessary, and denied the right to actually have democratic say on. Recovery literature is, at least in my interpretation of it, rooted in a consciousness that has as much in common with what we are learning about Indigenous Amerindian communities and their comrades via the recent histories from Peter Linebaugh or David Graeber, as it does with the Marxist theories of degrowth from Saito Kohei. It is rooted in an idea of the Commons that we desperately need to make manifest. If human rights and international law were truly held in common we wouldn’t allow breaches of them, period. Similarly if the oceans were held in common we’d stop destroying them and let them regenerate. But the toxin of capital comes in and compromises all ideals and hopes, all dreams and realities extinguished by its cycle of production, circulation, consumption. Recovery not only taught me to think of other people but also other life—it is clearly a program that survives and aids so many people because it is about living with and in the absence of the profit motive. What one is essentially saying about these possibilities is that it is necessary to live in a world where consumption and the generation of “more” profit do not hold people in the vice of bad logic. I think recovery allows for and necessitates a refusal of capital as narcotic based on abstinence from toxicity, from behavior that is destructive, whilst also requiring a collectivity to call into action that hard-edged refusal. 

For example, when an addict pulls up another addict on their behavior or perhaps something that might seem trivial to non-addicts, like a gratitude list that’s a brief and too matter of fact, there’s a consciousness raising there encouraging someone to do better, to connect more, to live with freedom. In our political context, a global one in a time of terror, genocide, and the absolutely unbelievable refusal to direct a sincere effort from “those in power” to preventing further ecological catastrophe, the kind of consciousness raising on offer from the refusal to consume in a particular manner (i.e. relentlessly and without thought of consequences) is a powerful one, not necessarily an antidote—because addicts in recovery are very far from having the solution to complex global issues—but a process of psychic rearrangement that might be useful for others (non addicts) to go through to halt the repression of context we are witnessing at this juncture: what will there be to have “more” of when we’re destroying what’s left?

Dante Silva: Could you speak about the form of your work? There’s a modernist impulse that appears here—where (or whom) does it come from? 

Azad Sharma: Form is such a beautiful tool, particularly in the rich tradition of modernist literature, a global tradition as the scholars have recently found out! My engagement with modernist (and late-modernist) literature is entirely indebted to Sara Crangle and all the wonderful folks I’ve met through my time at the University of Sussex in those halcyon days. I miss those days terribly. . . anyway, I read avidly during my undergraduate and initial postgraduate studies as I found such relief and, dare I say, identification with modernist texts, particularly poetry. The thing about modernism and the avant garde is when you encounter, say, Lee Harwood’s translations of Tristan Tzara or Joyce’s Ulysses or Mina Loy or Arun Kolatkar or Amiri Baraka (!) after having been fed on the bland diet of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade and 19th century bourgeois “realism”—those aforementioned beauties feel like lightning in your hands, they open you onto an experience that the drivel we feed young people as “literature” tends to mask. All that rebellion with language, that freedom to do whatever you wanted to on the page, to be unapologetic—so dreamy, so wonderful, so inexhaustibly brilliant. I remember reading Baroness Elsa, for example, and just having this utterly new engagement with walking on the street. I think that’s stayed with me—often I write ‘on the go’ as it were. That I’m now going to visit New York and, in a sense, pay homage to the streets that inspired Elsa, is just a real honor. 

The forms in Boiled Owls stem from my engagement with that tradition, trying to search for the new in the contemporary, the old, the near-past of literature. I am also engaged by the continuing tradition of late-modernism, and a lot of my academic work (forthcoming though it is) relates to how a new generation of UK based writers (predominantly writers of color) are bringing a new iteration of projects to do with language, form, anticolonial politics, that were embraced from the 50s onwards by, say J. H. Prynne or Barry MacSweeney or Anna Mendelssohn. Though the late modernists were not as coherent a group as we’ve come to understand the avant-garde and late modernism is more of a posthumous concept to periodize and define a particular endeavor in counter-cultural UK literature, I think there’s a case for broadening the scope in a similar way to how modernist studies since the 1990s was “globalized” or “decolonized” depending on what framework one uses. I return to John Wilkinson’s and Keston Sutherland’s work regularly but I read them alongside Nathaniel Mackey, Wilson Harris, Bhanu Kapil. I’d say that coupled with the concern for modernist forms is also a sense that when using them to value discrepancy, inconsistency, and experiment. Such that my recovery couldn’t be a simple linear process, writing these poems over six years brought about shifts in form, register, and with Anthony Anaxagorou and Stephen Motika’s editorial sessions, a tautness I never thought possible with my work. But there’s also an underlying influence of Jean Dubuffet’s art on the formal shifts. I’m a huge fan of Dubuffet and the shifts in form and style he was able to bring into his art over a healthy and long life. I think we should all keep things varied, keep with the shift that poetry allows, that writing allows. 

As such, Boiled Owls represents a first for me in approaching the page with a sense of imminent closure or battling with the edges of closed form with the indeterminacy that recovery participates in. Normally I’d write these strange collaged sequences of poems, focused on embracing difficult and complex concepts like duration in the time of a pandemic or a Fanon inflected exploration of the dialectics of racialization in the wake of the war on terror, for example, but doing so in a way where language hangs loose within the concept like a slackline between two oaks in Spring. But with Boiled Owls I wanted to open my practice up to the possibility of new audiences, addicts in particular, who are far from a homogenous group and don’t always share the same levels of education and literacy—simply because recovery programs are cross-sections of society which can be good to get people like me out of a silo. When I was new in the 12 steps, I met loads of wonderful and wise people for whom the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was often the book that got them into reading. I needed to come out of a strict poet’s context and move into that context. I wanted the poems to be engaged, as the modernists were, in that concern about and for the audience, readership, reception, but also to not be overburdened by that. I had to really sit down and think about who I was writing for and why this book needed to be written (it began as just an exercise in making sense of what recovery means and perhaps as a way of staying committed to it). There is also the fact that addicts often talk about “keeping it in the day” and for Modernism, the “day” was a glorious conceptual field. The feedback I’ve received has been both from writers and from addicts who are not always writers, and they’ve all said they read the book both fast and slow, because there’s an attunement in the poems to pain that can be difficult for the reader to parse through with ease. This feedback tells me something about form in Boiled Owls, because it contains that and the conditions for that reading experience. I’m deeply moved to receive those gestures of candor and support for my work and that people in my local meetings have bought the book is just extremely significant to me, in a way that perhaps, for now, escapes language. 

Ultimately, though, I kept returning to Surrealism as a vehicle for the overlaying of recovery and addiction implied in relapse, a kind of hallucinatory experience of return that Césaire famously captured in his Notebook, but also in the more precise use of the symbol, sign, reference, and dream. Surrealism has always been my first encounter with modernity’s underside, and it’s a practice for me that keeps unfolding. Modernist literature is such a rich source of knowledge and I often fear that in the current era of trending literatures and the vacuity of “BookTok,” alongside the defunding and military occupation of universities by terrible financiers and fraudulent vice chancellors, we are in serious danger of losing sight of its value, its influence, and its lessons. I really am glad you picked up on that formal question, it’s perhaps the greatest recognition of the effort that went into the book I could receive. All my work has always been about pushing the boundaries of and experimenting with the layers of form that we have access to. 

Dante Silva: I read Boiled Owls as an argument for a rigorous and sustained practice of love (and by love I mean some amalgamation of care and political praxis). At the end of “Familiar Intervention” you write, “I know what I’m thinking about when I’m thinking about Love.” What, if I may ask, are you thinking about when you’re thinking about love? 

Azad Sharma: Primarily my family. My brother has severe autism, and I’ve been part of his care team since my teenage years. Also we’re a fractured and fragmented family due to Apartheid in South Africa, exile, my father lives in India, and the majority of my family are still in ZA. My partner is Palestinian so she, like me, experiences these fragmentations albeit with far more intensity and contemporaneity than mine do. Yet love, the mutual practice of being with, brings all that into cohesion. I love them even when our relationships can seem dysfunctional or burdensome or difficult. When I went into recovery, I’d never have survived had I not had that love and had I not carried close to me the memory of my maternal grandparents who went through so much just to get to the UK in their exile as political activists in Apartheid South Africa. It was that love and those memories that enabled me to forgive myself for my wrongdoings, move on, and think of being the person I was raised to be rather than people pleasing and fitting into a narcocapitalist society (with all its antecedent issues involving race, gender, sexuality, coloniality, etc). 

Love is a revolutionary force, it is premised on collectivity and being present, it moves towards and for liberation. But there were times when, in the throes of addiction, I didn’t recognize the person I had become, and found it hard to show myself love. My family, friends, fellows, all taught me another way and I’m so grateful to know that. Love is also a world making term and feeling—those you love become your world and in terms of the care/political praxis amalgamation, that is really what rigor and sustenance amount to, isn’t it? It permeates everything we do when we explore love as that amalgamation, when we think about love, when we do love’s work, when we make works of love. I’ve felt incredibly fortunate to have a brother like mine and to have such a strong relationship with him, to learn from him and that is testament to my parents and grandparents, really. I feel incredibly blessed to know the love of my partner, to know her history, to learn about Palestinian struggle through her family’s lived experience of it. They were so supportive of my recovery and still are. Addicts can often be judged but they didn’t judge me at all but wrapped themselves around me. We hadn’t even met in person at that time (it was the lockdown when things got real that way) and I just found that so generous, so compassionate, so unexpected. That my book is both about recovery and about this practice of love seems entirely truthful given recovery is about thinking of others and love is directed to or received from an Other. It dismantles the artificial borders created between people and it is the gateway to recovery. But it’s also about those micro experiences that lead to the acknowledgement of loving and being loved. All those little moments that resonate and live in these poems that might seem trivial or mundane but carry this weight, this significance, because when I reached out a hand someone close to me (usually my partner) was there to hold it. Not everyone gets that these days and I wrote these poems to extend that to a reader who might need it, particularly a reader wrestling with addiction or in recovery and in need of identification.

Dante Silva: What role does humor have in your work? How do different forms of affect work with/against the subject matter? 

Azad Sharma: There is truth in humor as there is in anger and I know from experience that if you don’t find new ways of having fun in recovery the “old” ways start to seem appealing again even as they were so destructive and depressing. There’s a lot of great humor in the fellowship, there’s a lot of great humor to be had through therapy, through meditation. Above all that’s just because recovery lets you live again, and life is full of absurdities. But it is also the case that in recovery I had to learn everything from a state of ignorance. I didn’t know how to laugh without being drunk, nor to be “funny” or to have banter, etc. So humor was this great discovery and belly-laughs are really such wonderful things! I simply had to include some of those moments. I don’t think it works with or against the subject matter, I think a variety of affect is just ubiquitous within all subject matters. Affects are indecent, inconsistent, implacable. But beneath that humor is the truth of what addiction costs, what the recognition of its abductive wringer actually is, the scars one carries having survived it and knowing how subtle an illness it is. Sometimes I can’t always trust my instincts, my gut response or feeling could be an entire fiction leading me back to a relapse without me being conscious of it. The humor helps deal with those strange facts of recovery, those difficult tribulations. 

Dante Silva: It seems we’re in a “post-internet apocalypse,” as you write. I’m curious about the word “apocalypse,” and the real and perceived crises of the present that it suggests. How do we see outside of these?

Azad Sharma: I kept returning to the idea that the dystopia is now, that what we are living through is apocalyptic, that there is something fundamentally dangerous about the end of history consensus and how it’s broken open to neofascisms. You can’t really escape the apocalypse but you can build from within it a future engineered by hope and the struggle towards liberation. Post-internet is this whimsical but popular theory about culture since web 2.0, the influence of anything from cat memes to WikiLeaks, it seems almost a redundant category given its breadth, but at the same time, there is also an apocalypse happening with that so-called and often cited ‘democratic’ space online. 

When critique’s pertinence allows one to see the confluences and compromised sites of oppression associated with the “virtual” or digital with the “real” or analogue world of living freedom, perhaps therein lies the place from which resistance and futurity can begin to be made manifest as alternatives to this bland diet of emojified, redundant language, and the brutality of power and its desire to reproduce itself as domination and destruction. 

It’s normal to look at the world and feel anxious or depressed—I think they’re healthy responses to the world we are living in. Addiction, though, is a hopeless condition at the same time as it is a repetitive behavior that communicates our predicament. I had to find a way out of it to face the reality of the post-internet apocalypse rather than wasting away this precious and fragile life. There’s also the other consideration regarding internet addiction which is a veritable 21st century monster lurking in any household with a modem. What is the way out of our reliance on the digital? The post-internet apocalypse for me is characterized by that double bind, reminding ourselves that these relatively new forms of media and communication are extremely limited and toxic even as they offer the glimmer of democratization and free speech. 

In recovery, connecting with people in a more genuine and responsible way enabled me to look at crises and think about how I could contribute to a collective way to bring us out of crisis-mode and into collaboration. Writers these days face a crisis of confidence and envy—plugged into the matrix of big publishing algorithms and the hijacking of literature by mere “content”. But at the same time, post-internet culture gives us access to something like the aesthetic investigation (to think with Eyal Weizman and Matthew Fuller) where we can see on the ground live broadcasts from Gaza which run counter to the dominant ideology and the colonial registers that frame all of Historic Palestine as a site of “necessary” exception. It’s totally unhinged that so-called “credible” news outlets are justifying the genocide in the Gaza strip despite the ICJ finding plausible evidence of Israel lying continually about the presence of “terrorists” in hospitals, for example, alongside further plausible evidence for a contravention of the genocide convention! In this context of aesthetic investigation, post-internet culture also carries the promise of seeing the apocalypse as an apocalypse rather than through the veneer of progress and necessity. In that sense, we need to use post-internet tools as tools to re-engage with our social world and forge connections rather than using these tools as a place to spread hatred, fake news, etc. That sounds like an obvious platitude for which I apologize. . . I guess a phrase like “post-internet apocalypse” brings to the fore this tension between truth and ideology that I’m getting at here.