Read To Win

Eight stylish South Asian poets in the diaspora you must read for their striking ideas

They navigate what it means to carry with you your family’s story, habits, preferences and attachments across borders.

In a poem about eating fried fish for breakfast as a child, Aimee Nezhukumatathil says she used to “wonder why we can’t/ have normal food for breakfast like at Sara’s house –/ Cheerios, or sometimes if her mother is home:/ buttered toast and soft-boiled eggs/ in her grandmother’s dainty blue egg cups/ and matching blue spoon. Safe. Pretty./ Nothing with eyes.” With limbs in both worlds, their homeland and hometown, these poets navigate what it means to carry with you your family’s story, habits, preferences and attachments across borders. Their poems are textured with shades of South Asia, though not limited by it.

The fiction of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has long familiarised us with some of the experiences of our compatriots after they leave their home countries, and these poets add a vital, rich layer to our understanding of what it means to occupy the South Asian diaspora.

Reetika Vazirani

Born in Patiala and raised in Maryland, Vazirani published two books of poetry to critical acclaim before tragically committing suicide in 2003. She won a Pushcart Prize, a Barnard New Women Poets Prize, and many others. She was on the editorial team of two leading literary magazines of our time, Callaloo and Catamaran. Yet, her work is little known in India. Her poetry is eerie, full of ghosts and haunting, as seen in her poem “Lullaby”.

I would not sing you to sleep.
I would press my lips to your ear
and hope the terror in my heart stirs you.

A third book of poems, Radha Says, was posthumously published in 2010.

Tarfia Faizullah

Tarfia Faizullah, who is from Bangladesh, wrote a collection of poems, Seam, based on the lives of the birangona (Bengali for brave woman/war heroine) – Bangladeshi women raped by the Pakistani army during the Liberation War of 1971. The award-winning book is harrowing in its straightforward intensity, taking the form of interviews with these women. Based in Detroit, Faizullah travelled to Bangladesh to speak with them. One of the women narrates:

Are you
Muslim or Bengali, they
asked again and again.
Both I said, both.

Her next book, Registers of Eliminated Villages, will be published by Graywolf Press in 2018.

Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil is a poet of endless reinvention. What has she not written about? Her book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, is a culmination of four years of travels between the country of her birth (England), ancestry (India), and residence (America) where she asks strangers the same 12 personal questions. Hunanimal: A Project for Future Children is inspired by the true story of Amala and Kamala, two girls living with wolves in West Bengal in 1921. Of that process, Bhanu writes:

To write this, the memoir of your body, I slip my arms into the sleeves of your shirt. I slip my arms into yours, to become four-limbed.

Kirun Kapur

Turns out, I never was a girl, I was all
those girls, a girl statue, torch raised, you know the one –
standing in the harbour, wearing a sari.

Kirun Kapur’s description of the Statue of Liberty takes one’s breath away in this poem. Her work exists at the intersection of her two worlds – North America and South Asia. She says in the same poem, “I am proof nothing is lost.” Her book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist, won the Arts & Letters/Rumi Prize for Poetry and the Antivenom Prize for first book.

Alok Vaid-Menon

“Where do all the sad girls go”, asks Alok Vaid-Menon in a poem where they go on to say:

tried to love myself,

but went outside and

they punished me for it.
tried to heal myself

but went inside and
i punished me for it.

As the work of a gender non-conforming performance artist and writer, Vaid-Menon’s poetry investigates the body, society’s response to someone who doesn’t adhere to norms, race, and transmisogyny. Born and raised in Texas by Indian immigrant parents, Vaid-Menon has performed at over 400 venues in 20 countries.

Vivek Shraya

In “#notallwhitepeople”, Vivek Shraya points out,

you are a good person

your parents laboured
you grew up poor

many truths can be true
at once you can be all
the above
and you can be racist.

She wrote her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, in response to lived experiences of racism in Canada as the child of Indian immigrants. The book won a Publishing Triangle Award and is currently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

Imtiaz Dharker

You are good at this,
recognising happiness when it comes
along the track. You acknowledge it,
say it out loud. There it is.

— The first sight of the train

Imtiaz Dharkar’s powers are difficult to distill into a few words. Everything from the simple observation of a person’s ability to see the happiness in their life to the idea that slippers piled outside a holy place are “like a thousand prayers/ washing against the walls of god” is within her reach. As a Pakistan-born British poet, she writes about home, geography, displacement, and conflict amongst many other things. Her poetry has not only won awards, it is taught as part of the British GCSE and A-level syllabus.

Aimee Nezhukumutathil

I promise dark gatherings of toadfish and comical shrimp
just when you think you are alone, hoping to stay somehow afloat.

Aimee Nezhukumutathil recited these lines from her poem to her students, whom she teaches environmental literature and poetry. She was born in Chicago to a Filipino mother and Malayali father, both of whom are scientists. She credits her parents as the first poets she knew because of their deep love and respect for the natural world. Her work is a celebration of landscape and various species, as well as of relationships and family. Her books have won numerous awards, and her next one, Oceanic, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2018.

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