Of Words and Waginas
- The Masala Trois Collective (Author)
Desilicious: Sexy. Subversive. South Asian. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Priscilla Uppal (Editor) and Rishma Dunlop (Editor)
Red Silk: An Anthology of South Asian Canadian Women Poets. Mansfield Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mridula Nath Chakraborty
Like all work that dabbles in identity, these two anthologies of South Asian writing explore the central contradiction of professing identity and denying, in the same breath, its essentialism. The editors of Red Silk admit that their impulse in coming out with this anthology was to shed some much-needed, and belated, light on poetry by “South Asian Canadian women writers,” even as they work with the “full knowledge” of the “reductive, constrictive and false categorization” of the label “South Asian woman.” The anthology draws a nuanced map of immigrant and diasporic South Asian poetry, its invention and reinvention, with all the associated themes of “tradition, transplantation, stereotype, oppression, submission.” But what emerges most strongly and poignantly in this truly remarkable collection is the sense of South Asianness as loss; the implication is that this nomenclature is, at the same time, an “unfinished thing” as well as an “intangible hope” (Rishma Dunlop “The Poet Contemplates Her Art”). All eleven poets celebrate an “astonishment that depends on loss” while acknowledging that “there is tenderness in every geography” (Dunlop “Naramata Road”). The loss is most immanent in the case of Priscilla Uppal, whose poems for “a runaway mother” acknowledge and anticipate the many more geographies she will have and “continue to lose.” The sorrow for a lost mother/land expresses itself through the “uninvited guests” (Shauna Singh Baldwin) of “collective memory” (Kuldip Gill, “Bachma’s Musings”) and in “all the departures I must take / everyday” (Proma Tagore, “when places leave”). But if the lingua franca of diaspora is in the “leaving / all that marks the beginning” (Sandeep Sanghera, “The Women in this Village”), Sonnet L’Abbé spiritedly cautions against any such “dwelling on / the dangerous pore / of the origin” (Bi-Polarity). Danielle Lagah nevertheless tries to “Find India in its Poets,” but discovers that “they are too busy / finding themselves” or “they are too busy finding Canada / in me.” It is left to Sharanpal Ruprai, the absolute jewel in this collection, to pin down “the insistence of the body” (L’Abbé, “Theory, My Natural Brown Ass”) in the five Ks of religious Sikh iconography, the kesh, kangha, kirpan, kara, and kachera, within “a Canadian cultural hegemony.” Even as Soraya Peerbaye tries to provide the last word that “a South Asian woman is, in a way, a sixth sense,” Hiro Boga sums up lyrically all the claims, denials, and seductions of identity: “Every no bears in its belly the sibilant / yes: a pomegranate seed white in its / sheath of translucent red” (“Sarva Mangalam: Left Hand Poems”).
Desilicious, too, works with this yes/no ambiguity, making sex/desire the pivot of identity, and attempts to give its readers “sans shame . . . a generous dose of much needed desi lovin’.” Desi here, the blurb tells us, is a Punjabi term referring to “of one’s own people,” and as the anthology tries to penetrate the heart of South Asian desire, it throws up for examination, the entire shebang of “geography, weather, voices, fabric and foods” that are its essential baggage. This anthology too argues for a quintessentially “South Asian” sensibility, a nuance that profoundly influences the shape and sound of sexuality, and yet all that it can do is gesture or gesticulate towards it. The collection promises to be sexy and subversive, but what it delivers is guilt and transgression. The emotional landscape of most of the pieces is one of longing, the “what if” of love and lust (Milan Bose “Sex, Lies, and Hash Pakoras”), the “achy breaky heart” that wants, ultimately, a “fabulous indo wedding,” same-sex notwithstanding (Sunil Narayan “In Search Of”). This is not to deny that the material presented is difficult, but delivered with astonishing panache. The prose pieces are incisive, mature, confident, and savvy in their awareness of the multiple contradictions of South Asian desire; the list of contributors is an impressive line-up to watch out for. But even though they are polished and thought-provoking, they do not allow for much raunch or romp. They are too full of the angst of identity, even the deft pieces by Navneet Alang, Roohi Choudhry, Tanuja Desai Hidier, Sharmeen Khan, and Siddharth. It is the poems that find a sensuous inroad into the heart, that make the pulse beat, that make the blood rush to the groin. In fact, if one aspect emerges clearly from this anthology, a primer groping for the definition of South Asianness, is that sex and desire, in the case of these writers at least, are mediated far too much by “the desi tight cunt syndrome that prevents you from laughing during sex” (Aziza Ahmed “Metal Pleasure”). Plenty of self-conscious giggly laughter emerges when one sees one’s image all too clearly in the mirror, but the nudge-nudge wink-wink shock of recognition certainly prevents one from pleasuring oneself. And this critic would have certainly liked some of that.
- Cultural Angst and Diasporic Echoes by Satwinder K. Bains
Books reviewed: Of Silk Saris and Mini-Skirts: South Asian Girls Walk the Tightrope of Culture by Amita Handa
- Five Anthologies by Christopher Levenson
Books reviewed: Doors of the Morning by Fred Cogswell, New Life in Dark Seas by Stan Dragland, Writing Class by Michael Barnholden and Andrew Klobucar, Vintage 1999 by League of Canadian Poets, and Vintage 2000 by League of Canadian Poets
- Discursive Adaptations by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: Reaching for the Clear: The Poetry of Rhys Savarin by David Solway, Something Blue and Flying Upwards: New and Selected Poems by Roger Nash, and A Dirge for My Daughter: Poems by Frederick Philip Grove and Klaus Martens
- Poetry for an Audience by T.L. Cowan
Books reviewed: Visiting Hours by Shane .L. Koyczan
- Deixis / Dreams by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: A Suit of Light by Sheila Fischman and Anne Hebert, Installations (with and without pronouns) by Nicole Brossard, Robert Majzels, and Erin Mouré, and She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel / Elle serait la première phrase de mon prochain roman by Nicole Brossard and Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood
MLA: Chakraborty, Mridula Nath. Of Words and Waginas. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 81 - 83)
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