Dwelling on the Tongue: South Asian women poets at Literati


Ambalila Hemsell, Tarfia Faizullah, Ashwini Bhasi reading at Literati as part of Rasa Festival

Ambalila Hemsell, Tarfia Faizullah, and Ashwini Bhasi took to Literati's lectern as part of the Rasa Festival. Photos by Sairah Husain.

“It’s a small world,” is a clichéd phrase we sometimes use to convey the less than average spaces between physical existences.

Fellow Ann Arbor residents Sreyashi Dey and Paroma Chatterjee experienced this exact phenomenon upon finding themselves together on a return flight to the States from Kolkata, India last year. Discovering that their shared final destination was Ann Arbor, these strangers turned friends took to discussing the state of Ann Arbor’s arts and culture scene, particularly from a South Asian perspective. Their conversation was informed by a national environment infused with rhetoric that seems to jettison the importance of inclusivity and multicultural awareness.

Agreeing that there was South Asian dance representation in the Ann Arbor area, and the occasional UMS performances featuring South Asian musicians, Dey and Chatterjee brainstormed about filling that gap to feature multiple art forms on a more regular basis. Their brainstorming produced multi-cultural, multi-arts organization Akshara that seeks to present “art inspired by India.”

One of the arts featured on Wednesday, September 6 was poetry, during Akshara's first annual Rasa Festival.

I was grateful for hurrying over to Literati bookstore right before the poetry reading, after having seen Facebook publicity for the event encouraging audience arrival a half an hour before the official start. The Rasa music event “Raga, Tala, Rasa” at Kerrytown Concert House the night before had such a full house that attendees needed to be turned away at the doors. The room filled up quickly for the poetry night, and attendees without seats stood toward the back near the coffee bar and stairs. Luckily, my earlier arrival allowed me a seat near the front. I sat, anxiously awaiting the readings by three women poets: Tarfia Faizullah, Ashwini Bhasi, and Ambalila Hemsell.

Tarfia Faizullah is a Bangladeshi-American poet and educator from West Texas via Brooklyn, New York. Her debut book of poetry, Seam, is a multi-award winning work, remarkable for its sobering interviews with Birangona, the “brave women” of Bangladesh who were victims of rape at the hands of the Pakistani army during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

While Faizullah read mostly from her forthcoming Registers of Illuminated Villages, joking that she was reading for edits, the 1971 Liberation War was still an ever-present theme. She introduced her poem “Village of War” as a piece about collaboration with an occupying force and “self-sabotage.” Al-Badr paramilitary force commander Muhammad Kamaruzzaman collaborated with the invading Pakistan army on June 25 and led them into Sohagpur village to massacre every one of the 164 total male village residents. Sohagpur is now known as the “Village of Widows.”

Faizullah verbally immortalized those who faced their mortality so horrifically and, in doing so, we can never forget. The combination of the horrific introduction to the poem with Faizullah’s even tone was chilling, as I sat with a visceral knot. As someone who comes from a mostly Pakistani background, I have purposely read about the Liberation War in novels, essays, and first-hand accounts that are erased and ignored in Pakistani grand narratives about the seemingly neutrally named "separation of East Pakistan." During Faizullah's reading, the audience sat quietly as the literal dead weight of the poem born down.

It was evident that Faizullah carefully selected her poems to cover a range of emotion. In one poem, a vivid, memorable line eerily anthropomorphized the edge of a knife as "it glints, it winks."

In moving toward concluding, Faizullah described that at previous poetry readings she has attended, poets seem to have a convention of announcing a “two poem warning” to mark the reading’s near end. She joked that having never understood why this happens, she would be honoring this same convention.

Next, she read a piece that was more personally family-oriented. She addressed her chottu bhaiya (little brother) and poked fun at her father offering a line she “modeled from

It is like this. The night is lonely
until it isn’t. You bite your tongue

after eating orange rubbed with chili
before wishing for a kiss

from the man whose fingertips
unearth the softness in you.

We tell each other the names
of our dead. The cities we live in

are gnawing then burying
the cadavers of opulent dreams.

We tell each other to dream.
When you send me pictures

you’re collecting of women
in your family smiling, I unhinge.

It is like this. The night is our hair
inking the torsos of men into reliquaries.

I don’t know why we don’t know our own holiness,
but once you were a young girl, and so was I.

Ashwini Bhasi, both a genomic data analyst and poet, took the mic next. She is 2016 nominee of a Pushcart Prize for her poetry on the presidential election. Her scientist-self was evident in her poetry as her words had a precision to them, and were read with purpose.

Introducing her piece by placing responsibility on India’s justice system, she read about a Dalit law student raped and brutally murdered in her kitchen in Kerala, India. My visceral knot returned. Sexual violence is a trauma that defies description, but Bhasi so carefully, clinically, and artfully attempted capturing it. Bhasi's reading elicited simultaneous feelings of red fury and deep sadness.

Following this reading, saying she read too fast, Bhasi quickly pulled some other poems from her bag. Amusing and playful, her next poem, “My Body Is Somebody,” is Bhasi addressing her body in conversation:

-- not part of me. She makes up games
like Quidditch and plays with me.
Body throws me down

on the playground and laughs
with them who laugh at me.
My body is a gaping hole

that swallows things whole,
she never uses teeth to chew food,
but chews on me. Body and I, we run

marathons together, but we always
stay on separate lanes. When we finish last,
body laughs her ass off. Body keeps

making jokes I cannot understand.
Example: you and me -- we are a cream cookie,
so filthy and clean simultaneously.

Body decides when I can:
    (a) zoom like a hummingbird
    (b) run like an elephant
    (c) stomp like a rhino
    (d) move like an anaconda

and she invariably chooses (d)! Body tells me
good girls don’t cum easy, she makes a cage
out of ribs, keeps my breath and breasts small.

Body never feeds me but she needs to be fed
    continuously -- cookie |
kulfi | popcorn | cake |
    samosa | rasmalai |
dosa | idli | pizza |
    rice | rice | rice
with dal | more rice and ghee
-- then claims she’s still empty.

Sometimes at night, body talks to me
differently. She says she wants
to be a part of me, but I cannot listen

to her mocking nonsense!
Like at 3 a.m. yesterday,
when she woke me up

with her limbs stuck
mid-spasm and bones grinding
the pain down into sizable portions

-- she was crying. Even with her belly
distended with chips, beer
and fear, she was trying --

to hold onto me. But when I slipped
out of her sweaty heat, body joked
into the distance between us:

Hey, do you know
why we slither, not swim? We ate
our own legs to be slim.

You’re a bludger,
I am a beater.
You’re a seeker,

I am a snitch.
C’mon bitch, let’s stop
fighting like this.

Body then laughed
at my silence, pulled
herself out of bed,

crawled to the refrigerator,
and swallowed --
more cake.

Helen Zell Writer in Residence (2015-2016) Ambalila Hemsell followed Bhasi. Her first reading was "Passport," a self-reflective poem on the privilege and responsibilities as an American associated with holding those "blue books." The poem went on for about 10 minutes, it was a lengthy one, but Hemsell's voice did not break as she read through tears.

In "Jigsaw" Hemsell laments over never having learned Gujarati from her mother, who attended English-medium schools in India. Hemsell read in a voice that sometimes wavered, but her words were a force. Concluding her reading and the end of the evening, Hemsell passed out a card with her poem “Cusp,” to the audience:

My body was a muscled egg, and you the pulsing yellow

    waiting for the breaking open, the ache
    the hook and loop, the clasp
    the wake, the wick and wax, the cusp

and all around, the bellows.

    The swing, the swell, the well, the water
    the summoning spell, the yell, the shudder

of light before the dawning.

    The wait, the wash, the wailing,
    the bloom, the blood, the sailing.
    The storm, the storm, the storming.

I'll see you in the morning.

I left the reading having felt sorrow and anger as well as laughter and self-reflection. These women’s words were inspiring with their words and clear reminders of an ancient Indian line an organizer used to kick off the night:

“Saraswati dwells on the tongues of poets.”

Rasa's Riverside Arts exhibition features South Asian-inspired multi-arts
Shiva Effect: Rasa Festival's dance events will conjure the divine

Sairah Husain is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library.

Akshara's Rasa Festival continues with performances, art, films, dance and more through September 30. Visit rasafestival.org for the full calendar. The festival's other literary event is on September 28 and features Zilka Joseph, Saleem Peeradina, and Shri Thanedar signing and reading at the Faber Piano Institute, 3042 Creek Dr., Ann Arbor. More info is available here.