Serena Alagappan’s Sensitivity to (Cultural) Temperature – Michigan Quarterly Review
an image of Serena Alagappan against a black grey background

Serena Alagappan’s Sensitivity to (Cultural) Temperature

For Serena Alagappan, the recently elapsed Diwali and rapidly approaching Hanukkah have encapsulated years upon years of “tender” memories. From decorating clay pots, or diyas, for Deepavali to lighting the menorah for Hanukkah, “gather[ing] around flame” with loved ones has been a tradition baked into her brain since childhood – a childhood also defined mostly by three other dreams.

From her 2021 Oprah Magazine intern biography:

(1) get a pet giraffe
(2) Read every book in the world
(3) become a writer.
(She settled for a giraffe lamp and a few stuffed animals!)

A Rhodes Scholarship, an award-winning poetry collection and a forthcoming debut book later, Alagappan’s literary voice sings of the similarities that her Jewish and Indian American upbringings have ingrained in her. She is also the recipient of the 2022 New Poet’s Prize for her debut pamphlet, Sensitive to Temperature, which was published this past June 2023 and braids the environment into human existence.

“I was inspired by Daisy Lafarge, and her collection Life Without Air, which similarly probes interpersonal crises alongside environmental ones,” Alagappan wrote in an email interview. “I think the economy of language in poetry is a particular challenge and pleasure because I feel permission to begin a poem based on a single image, phrase, or moment, without an idea of where the poem is going.”

“Slipface,” the first poem in Alagappan’s Sensitive to Temperature does a similar thing. It begins with the image of loose sand, meandering into wistfulness for company –

With imagery that combines and interlaces raw land with raw emotion, Sensitive to Temperature continues to explore the nurturing role of nature with its simultaneously timeless transparencies and evocative enigmas.

Although now she’s working on her first book – as the war rages on in the middle east – Alagappan’s love for poetry remains as much a part of her present as it was her past.

She’s currently an instructor for the Estuary Institute, a team of writers currently designing and teaching online workshops on the intersection of environmental science, social justice, and the literary arts. Alagappan’s poetry workshop, titled Land, Body and Voice, explores a variety of themes such as ecopoetics and environmental writing, writing about mental health, poetry in protest and resistance, the poetics of orality and speech, and migration, movement, and crossings.

“Despite logging in from different time zones, climates, and countries, we’re tethered when we exchange poems and share in the alchemy of words,” Alagappan wrote. “I think literary artists can humanize conflicts that seem intractable, and I turn to them for hope.”

A comparative literature graduate of Princeton University’s Class of 2020, Alagappan decided to lean deeper into social sciences while pursuing her master’s degree in Social Anthropology at Oxford. Although she already had years of interviewing experience— interviewing Holocaust survivors, Syrian refugees, and dozens of Deaf ASL poets and artists for her thesis at Princeton—formally studying anthropology changed the way she listened to the world. The experience opened her mind to the power of “subjectivity” and the importance of ethnographic interviewing methods – allowing her to view meaningful conversations as “spontaneous literature.”

Experimentation is nothing new to Alagappan, who grew up in a family of humanities enthusiasts. Her maternal grandmother (a ceramicist and an oil painter) and grandfather (a photorealist illustrator) were both artists by passion and profession. Her father – a philosophy major who now works in education and a Tamilian-Indian American who was born in Thailand – has also been incredibly supportive of her literary career. Much of Serena’s journalistic work focuses on the intricacies of South Indian and Jewish culture with an emphasis on the “particular” love of her grandparents. Her paternal grandfather, Iyah, taught her that the gifts of natural phenomena like capillary action– even if grounded in scientific principle –have a “wonder” worth worshiping. And her maternal grandparents’ love story helped her understand the value of offering the art (of life) from the heart. But one of the most impactful moments in Alagappan’s burgeoning literary career came from her mother, Francine. 

“I have moments when I want to quit writing, but my mom once said something that has stuck with me since. “Just try to stop,” she said. ‘You won’t be able to.’”Alagappan explained in an interview. “I think my mom’s point was, when you feel moved to create in general, it’s not something you can ever fully walk away from.”

Raised in an interfaith family, Serena’s upcoming book, tentatively called – LOVE OVER LANGUAGE: THE SEARCH FOR PARTIAL UNIVERSALS – captures the journeys of couples whose love for each other transcends cultural and linguistic differences. In sculpting this, she has interviewed couples who speak or are learning the following languages: Gujarati, Spanish, French, Farsi, German, Italian, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, American Sign Language, Japanese, Indonesian, Yiddish, Hakka Chinese, Russian, Yoruba, Arabic, and English. Using her background in anthropology, sociolinguistics, and comparative literature, Alagappan hopes to “reflect” metaphorically on how these disciplines inform human love as a form of human language.

“I am writing this book in part to honor my parents and to celebrate cross-cultural connection,” she reflected in an interview. “The confluence of my parents’ disparate traditions has allowed me unique access to extraordinarily different belief systems and communities.”

Sibani Ram is a recent graduate of Duke University, originally from Iowa City, Iowa.  She is passionate about medicine, literary arts, and her Indian American heritage (both its challenges and its opportunities). Her writing has also previously been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe & TeenVogue

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