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Book Review: Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam’s Indivisible

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By Abigail Licad

As the first anthology of South Asian American poetry ever published, Indivisible heralds a monumental literary moment. The impressively rich heritage and exquisitely vibrant scene of Desi verse showcased by the collection render the long delay more perplexing and disappointing, but still serves as great cause for celebration.

Edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam, Indivisible displays a wide poetic cross-section of voices from different backgrounds, ages, and styles. The introduction incisively acknowledges that the given poetic diversity – characterized by a tangled web of themes, languages, religious and ethnic ties, and diaspora – often throws up “inherent contradictions” if one endeavors to define a unifying concept of “Desi literature.” Yet, the editors point out, these inherent contradictions are also key in cultivating rich fields for further “cross-fertilization” of rich poetic forms that have always been abundant in South Asian American poetry.

Despite the marked and wide-spanning contrasts between the various poetic explorations in the writers’ works, there is one constant and dominant thread that weaves across the rich tapestries of verses: the strong sense of story they provide. The story and backgrounds of stories that drive poets’ works derive from histories both small and large, whether consisting of personal memories or those of collective memories from the emergence of nationhood or its attendant conflicts. Often, these lived experiences are then juxtaposed against grander, mythical narratives, most prominently that of the “American Dream.” The poems reject the founding myth of the American Dream: hard work brings proportional success. Instead, the poets speak of its hypocrisies – its forgetfulness of its own immigrant origins, its scorn toward differing cultural frameworks, and its tyrannical demand of subjugation to dominant and privileged views of American society.

The individual stories are often heartbreaking in their revelation of the prejudices against South Asian Americans. In “Dot Head”, by Vandana Khanna, the speaker narrates a bullying incident during which her brother is hit by a bottle on his forehead. The bleeding red wound in the center is likened to a bindi – a mark of foreignness that would incense harassers, but anointed by the author as a blessing: “… they got it wrong./It was a sign of being blessed after temple […] a holy mark, glittering.” In the move to elevate the bullying incident to a holy event, the description of  the head-wound as a bindi becomes a way of transcending the memory of the traumatic experience through finding solace in one’s spiritual heritage.

While such bad experiences are painful, in “Memoir”, Vijay Seshadri states that “[t]he real story of a life is the story of its humiliations” and argues that such humiliating experiences foster more profound capabilities of feeling and understanding. In other words, pain is also growth, which, as all the poets in Indivisible attest to, can lead to the beauty of poetic expression.

Alongside private narratives, major South Asian events such as Partition and emigration are explored. Perhaps the most beautiful and moving account is by Faisal Mohyuddin in the long poem “Ayodhya”, which details the 1992 Babri Masjid Demolition that took place in Ayodha, India. The speaker addresses his dead friend Husham, who was among the many Muslims victimized in the massacre. Mohyuddin captures in moving musical language the foolish senselessness of the violence:

That afternoon, children exiled into the bowels

of misunderstood history, suffering

from the inheritance of their parents’ grievances,

hypnotized by stories that spoke of imaginary pasts,

of holy birthplaces and forgotten birthrights,

ripped through Ayodhya, roaring like a stampede

of elephants, thirsty for the taste of a brother’s blood.

Like the violent  turns in South Asian histories, the tyrannical American myths of guaranteed success through hard work is also ruthlessly interrogated by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “Indian Movie, New Jersey”, where the American medium of film ironically becomes an escape from the American reality of immigrant struggles:

[…] Here while the film-songs still echo

in the corridors and restrooms, we can trust

in movie truths: sacrifice, success, love and luck,

the America that was supposed to be.

But in “It’s a Young Country,” Reetika Vazirani, while agreeing with Banerjee, concedes to the strongly seductive power of these constructed beliefs:

We say America you are

Magnificent     and we mean

we are heartbroken.

As they yield to the emotional force of stories, poets in the anthology often echo the psychically laborious process of negotiating between countless nuanced perspectives that one could possibly adopt in telling them. Vandana Khanna, for example, asks in “Echo”: “Not, why do I write about the past? but, what story/Must I tell?  Dilruba  Ahmed’s “The 18th Century Weavers of Muslim Whose Thumbs Were Chopped” also urges writers and readers to resist the forgetfulness  that plagues history, as she asks of their victims, “Later,/will their stories vanish, too?” 

Added to the constant need to negotiate between perspectives in poems is the paradoxical use of English, the colonizer’s language, to enact verbal resistance against the colonizer’s deeds and legacies. Further, the effort to find precise correspondences between ideas and English words is limited by the use of a foreign language. Consider for example the following strained iterations that speak of utterance in a foreign tongue:

I mispronounce myself.

–Kazim Ali, “Event”

[…] Far up in the front the teacher makes word-sounds

Jagjit does not know. They float

from her mouth-cave, he says,

in discs, each a different color.

[…] They are

waiting for him to open his mouth,

so they can steal his voice.

–Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, “Yuba City School”

[…] Solder your sentences with unnecessary light:

diaphanous, solipsism, hegemony, cataract.

Let’s elide the things we won’t talk about.

[…]

Your words all seem brighter than mine.

–Sejal Shah, “Everbody’s Greatest Hits”

Fleeing before the war’s black howl,

          we left behind language

                         words too heavy a burden to carry.

–Pireeni Sundaralingam, “Language Like Birds”

Oh so many questions, sir,

I cannot help myself

I cannot shut my mouth.

–Meena Alexander, “Slow Dancing”

In each of the instances above, the poems point to the inability of language, especially the English language, to fully capture intended meanings, which renders writing to be quite a rigorous process (Sundaralingam). Dangerous consequences of elisions or neglect of essential truths constantly lurk behind writers’ efforts (Ali). And yet, despite the frustration that writing brings, the very difficulty or even impossibility of expressing full meaning nonetheless compels the poets to greater effort (Alexander).

Finally, the personal biographical statements of each poet that introduce their work reveal the complications of attempting self-identification in the diaspora. Defining and contextualizing oneself in terms of mere geographical or ethnic affiliations are shown to be shortsighted. As the quotes below illustrate, many of the poets in the anthology deny the facile recognition of oneself as unambiguously “South Asian American” or “Desi”:

A Mangalorean Catholic, I pray in Konkani, count in Kannda, swear in Tulu, sing in Hindi, write in English, and dream in American.

–Ralph Nazareth

Being a Pakistani Punjabi Muslim Midwestern American has infused and confused my existence since 1978.

–Faisal Moyuddin

I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and hold passports of two countries, neither of which I particularly consider “home.”

–Mona Ali

I am a Malyali Hongkonger, Bombayan, and New Yorker (not American), and my nation is the Republic of English.

–Jeet Thayil

A Chennai and Coimbatore Tamilian from Northern Virginia, as apt to say bugging as rumba nandri, I identify with language’s musical inflections, rather than a particular race or nation.

–Ravi Shankar

Ultimately, what lend the greatest richness to the poems in Indivisible are the tensions between personal and social histories that propel the poem’s narratives. Each poem in the collection maintains within it a macrocosm of histories and historical lessons. The anthology is a must-read for anyone desirous of experiencing the powerful role of poetry in relating to and admiring the contributions of today’s South Asian American community. The publication of Indivisible was too long a coming, but worth every moment’s wait.

Bio:
Abigail Licad
grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. at age 13. She received her undergrad degree from UC Berkeley and her M. Phil. in literature from Oxford University. She is the managing editor for Hyphen, an Asian American culture and politics magazine based in San Francisco, CA. She hopes one day to complete a villanelle.

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