One of the ways I have always felt connected to my heritage, across so many diasporas, is through books. Stories have always made me feel connected to people, places, and ideas in a way that intertwines with my own understanding of the world.
Diverse literature is so important. Hearing a range of voices that might broaden, complement, or perhaps even challenge your life experience is — in my humble opinion — almost a necessity in today’s world. At the same time, this creates representation: these voices are heard not only by those outside of their experience, but by those within it, who see themselves reflected in it. When you grow up as a minority, seeing yourself reflected this way is a powerful thing.
This is why, in adulthood, I am increasingly hungry for stories that come from the South Asian diaspora. In addition to the collections already gathered on my shelves, my recent trip to India supplied me with a stockpile of literature that I struggled to transport home — physical books are significantly cheaper in India!
Back-Home Book Club invites you to explore these stories with me. In the spirit of #WorldPoetryDay, here are five poetic voices to open up our worlds.
Firesmoke by Sheniz Janmohamed
Sheniz Janmohamed is a soul of the world. I recently followed her trip to Kenya through her social media, watching avidly as she explored the richness and spirituality of her grandmother-land. On stage, the poet speaks life into her words with her soul bared, allowing the audience to languidly explore each syllable.
“Writing Firesmoke was like playing with fire,” she says in the preface. “In order to write these poems, I had to locate, gather, and lay down the kindling of the past — my attachments and fears — and watch them burn.”
The collection begins with a section of ghazals, inspired by the forms popularized by Persian tradition. One of the tenants of this style is a “signature” in the final couplet: invoking the author by pronoun, name, or metaphor. Here, “Israh” weaves her way through the explorations of self, strengthened by each layer shed.
A rock once belonged to a mountain,
A mountain that was once under the sea,
now at the height of the stars.
Close your palm and sit like Kilimanjaro.
Let the snow swirl around you
Let the world nest in the rock of your being.
Root yourself in this earth
and it will root itself in you.
The book also collects sections of free verse and short poetry, peppered with Janmohamed’s trademark self-reflection through nature. The ghazals, however, are the part of this work that shine the most brilliantly: the story of growth that threads through each subsequent poem keeps me turning pages in earnest. Just as Israh compels me to follow, I wonder where the author might take her words next.
Collected Poems by Jeet Thayil
“Unhappiness is a kind of yoga,” Self-Portrait suggests, jarringly. “A breath meditation; besides, do you want to be happy or do you want to write?” For anyone who has dredged up their thoughts and experiences, contended with their existential dread, only to turn it into art — this question nags.
Like the intermingled energies of a crowded street, a city both polluted and full of life, Jeet Thayil’s poetry is filled with ideas that maneuver their way around one another — a tangle of traffic, but every one ultimately getting where they need to go.
Against foreign walls
we reinvent our mythologies, find ourselves
newer heroes, fresher seed,
and thus sustaining, conceal the need
to build on glories of the second-hand.
Mine is a generation stuck between shores,
doubly exiled and doubly betrayed,
unscarred, uncertain, permanently afraid
In addition to new and previously uncollected poems, the hefty volume reprints over three decades of Thayil’s work. The words leave one entangled in the life of a stranger, emotive and illuminated by a harsh, bold light. I am engrossed in its mysteries. Who are these dedications and inscriptions for? While a central theme is relationships with people, I am drawn most to the poems that characterize Thayil’s relationships with languages: the familiar walls of English, the nostalgic melancholy of Malayalam.
Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur
If you follow any woman on any form of social media, you’ve probably encountered a quote from Rupi Kaur. Sparse in form, but flowing with the depth of her internal landscape, the works in this book are brief, searching, and emotionally relatable — reaching out with the authenticity of the writer’s experiences as if to say, “You, too?”
did you think i was a city
big enough for a weekend getaway
i am the town surrounding it
the one you’ve never heard of
but always pass through
there are no neon lights here
no skyscrapers or statues
but there is thunder
The language is accessible, unintimidating; the beauty of the book is in the journey. This is a work of self-determination. Just as its creation was therapeutic, even cathartic for Kaur, readers can find the same catharsis in its pages.
Milk & Honey is special to me for another reason — last year, I had the opportunity to perform alongside its author. “Thanks for sharing the stage with me,” my copy reads in her handwriting. By creating herself from scratch, Kaur is a writer who emboldens others to do the same, as she explores her own depths and reaches new heights.
The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers by Bhanu Kapil Rider
“If England is a test, then I have failed it,” writes Bhanu Kapil Rider. Episodic recollections take the reader between places scattered through memories, compelled by an unspecified search, fevered and hectic. “One hour to Bombay. Somebody is asking me the question. I reply, ‘Coffee, please,’ and the moonlight turns into pure red sun, and then the clouds, and then the earth.”
When she is grown, she realizes she has forgotten everything. How to live without explanations. How to travel light. How to let the earth go. How skin can see.
What is the shape of your body? What are the consequences of silence? How do you begin? These recurring questions title each work, like cycling dreams. So, too, does it read: the language of flowing consciousness pulls the reader between thoughts that meander from one to the next, dealing with themes of memory, intimacy, and violence.
Various works by Lalnunsanga Ralte
If I saw a printed collection of Lalnunsanga Ralte on my bookstore shelves, I would buy it in a heartbeat. Until then, I perk up at any mention of the name, knowing that I can expect harsh social commentary paired with smooth, flowing verse.
The following excerpt is from Fak You, in which the poet offers his sardonic blessings: fak Eliot, fak Shakespeare — fak, of course, here meaning bless. “From inside this box, dreaming, fak everybody.” If any poetic work here sums up the importance of seeking out marginalized voices, it is this one:
Now that you have learned a word in my language
Maybe I will learn one in yours
And then maybe the boxes we have put each other into
Will start to take the shapes of people
Standing across each other amidst the rubble
Arranging the stones trying to make something beautiful
Through books, and through poems, we experience pieces of another person’s mind — and pieces of the wider world. As National Poetry Day comes to a close, think about your own experiences, and how you might share them with others.
Have you read any of these, or plan to? Leave a comment with your thoughts! This is also my first book post, so let me know if you’d be interested in more.