Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
Leaving Yuba City: poems by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1997, 116 pp., $12.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Neila C. Seshachari, English Dept., Weber State University
Leaving Yuba City is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's fourth volume of poetry, the other three being Dark Like the River, The Reason for Nasturtiums, and Black Candle. Divakaruni's Arranged Marriage, a collection of short stories, and The Mistress of Spices, an award-winning novel which will soon be made into a movie, have both been critically acclaimed.
Parts of Leaving Yuba City were awarded both a Pushcart Prize and an Allen Ginsberg Prize, while the poem, "The Maimed Dancing Men, written after Francesco Clemente's Indian Miniature #3" (45), was included in The New Yorker special double issue on India (June 1997).
Yuba City is divided into six sections, with five additional poems that raise their heads between the interstices of the sections, as if to announce that they breathe in their own nuclei and stand on their own. The topics of the poems range from a poet's growth to the social and political implications of immigrants' lives, the experience of growing up in colonial India, and the poet's reveries triggered by the works of artists: paintings by Francesco Clemente; photographs by Raghubir Singh; films by Mira Nair, Ketan Mehta, and Satyajit Ray. At the heart of these poems is the cold reality of women's experiences, their concerns and struggles, their unspoken influences and silent heroism.
The section called "Moving Pictures" gives, in six poems inspired by Indian films, vignettes of blighted lives surviving amidst conditions of squalor and, occasionally, nature's beauty. The indigent tea boy, inspired by Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay, says at the end of the day, "My soles are turning to stone. I must / lie down. The night-dust /is warm as Shiva's ashes./ When I have five hundred rupees / I can go back to my mother in Bijapur. / Till I fall asleep I watch / that fierce glistening,/ the sky full of scars."
Those who read Divakaruni's poems for the first time may be astonished at how the poet writes with such sensitivity and poetic sensibility on issues like abandoned babies on hospital steps, a daughter recollecting her nights spent with her prostitute mother, young Hindu girls growing up in the care of Catholic convent sisters who despise their religion and traditions. But this world of uncertainty, injustice, and suffering is not without its humor and humanity. There is no rancor in Divakaruni's poetic vision—only chiseled images that cling to one's consciousness "like shards of glass."
In the prose poem, "The Babies: II," the narrator, who takes the newborn babies abandoned on the hospital steps to the Children's Ward and turns her back on them when she leaves, knowing they would have been sent to the orphanage by the time she returns the next day, ends with the comment: "They suck and suck all through my sleep so that when I wake I will carry inside my buttoned-up body the feel of their tugging mouth."
In "The Brides Come to Yuba City," we meet brides "like Harvinder, married last year at Hoshiarpur / to her husband's photo, which she clutches tight to her / to stop the shaking. He is fifty-two,/ she sixteen. Tonight—like us all/she will open her legs to him."
"How I Became a Writer" is one of the finest narratives of a poet's growth in contemporary poetry. When the little girl, who is afraid of the sounds of her "gorilla" father in the next room, tiptoes out the door and runs to take refuge in the kitchen in the early hours of the morning, her mother hands her chalk: "'Write mo-cha.' Her cool fingers / petal over mine like the layered red plantain flower / we are writing." At the end of the lesson, the triumphant little narrator who has received a hug from her mother for writing so well says, "and I, my heart / a magenta balloon thrown up / into the sky, away / from iron fisted gorillas, from the stench of piss, / I know I'm going to be / the best, the happiest writer in the world."
It is this joy of creating a real world which hides nothing, mitigates nothing, condones nothing, and rants at nothing that mesmerizes readers of Divakaruni's poetry. Those who think that intense political and social activism cannot go hand in hand with pure poetry would do well to read Leaving Yuba City.
Manhattan Music by Meena Alexander. San Francisco, CA: Mercury House, 1997, 231 pp., $14.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Jyotsna Sanzgiri, Dean of the Organizational Program, California School of Professional Psychology
Salman Rushdie's The New Yorker article (June 23 & 30, 1997) entitled "Damme, This Is the Oriental Scene for You!" contextualizes the complexity of the racial descent of many South Asian writers today. He explains that "Indians...have long been migrants, seeking their fortunes in Africa, Australia, Britain, the Caribbean and America, and this diaspora has produced many writers who lay claim to an excess of roots" (50). Meena Alexander is a novelist who creates characters with this complex, multicultural heritage Rushdie describes. Two female characters dominate her most recent novel, Manhattan Music. The first is Sandhya, whose name Alexander describes as "those threshold hours, before the sun rose or set, fragile zones of change before the clashing absolutes of light and dark took hold" (227). We often find Sandhya pensively brooding over her life, struggling to integrate her heritage as a South Indian woman with that of her husband, Stephen Rosenblum. Every single day that she lives in New York City, she tries to assimilate into the teeming, bustling life swirling around her on Manhattan Island. For the most part, she experiences a deep sense of needing to annihilate her Indian self altogether, to become white. "But nothing felt right. Neither gestures nor words came out right. As she walked toward the bus stop, a thought gripped Sandhya. Supposing she were to swallow the green card, ingest that plastic, would it pour through her flesh, a curious alchemy that would make her all right in the new world?. What if she could peel off her brown skin, dye her hair blonde, turn her body into a pale Caucasian thing, would it work better with Stephen?" (7).
Sandhya's close friend, perhaps her own alter-ego, is Draupadi, named after a character in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The legendary one who "had five husbands and triumphed over so many ills survived a battlefield too" (171), Draupadi's father tells her. While Meena Alexander's Draupadi appears on the scene wearing a "leather jacket, Benetton sweater" (3), unlike the mythical one who probably wore a nine-yard sari, both the ancient and modern Draupadis spend time disentangling their lives from their lovers', fighting moral battles: in ancient, mythic India and in contemporary New York.
Alexander's Draupadi embodies the diaspora Rushdie refers to. When she contemplates her roots, she realizes that her "ancestors were scattered from British sailing ships, dark bits of ground pepper flung onto plantations in Trinidad, Fiji. Bonded laborers from India scratching the dirt of the New World" (4).
Our novelist's poetic prose brings us into the consciousness of these women's souls. The very fact that they allow themselves to become intimate\friends, try to understand each others' psyches, and save each other from sinking into suicidal despair is testimony to their own courageous spirit, not necessarily the cultural environment they try to live in with dignity. They are able to have intense loving relationships with lovers, with friends, and this capacity for caring allows each woman to move beyond pain and self-doubt into a greater sense of self, of courage. Sandhya eventually finds "She was no longer fearful of the shadows in the trees, of the sharp cries of a strange bird. She stood her ground. There was a place for her" (227).
Draupadi manages to find herself through her art, through her writing a play for a friend who wanted her to create one that "...involves crossing borders. Imagine us all, black, white, yellow, brown, stripped down, leaping into water" (118).
This is Meena Alexander's fourth novel, and possibly her most profound, her most poetic. The characters, both male and female, work at surfacing their buried lives, their memories, ecstatic and violent, with their more conscious lives in the US. The resulting novel is a heroic journey, eventually resulting in an enriched inner life. Both women, Rushdie would agree, have "torn up the old map and are busily drawing their own."
Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America edited by Sunaina Maira and Rajini Srikant. New York: The Asian American Writers' Workshop, 1997, 480 pp., $ 16.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Neila C. Seshachari, English Dept., Weber State University
Contours of the Heart is the fifth anthology of South Asian American writers published in North America in the last five years, three of which were devoted exclusively to South Asian women writers. (See Rustomji-Kerns's editorial for a listing.) The editors of all five anthologies, including this present publication, are women. It is significant too that three of the five publications have been published by South Asian organizations—the two volumes of Her Mother's Ashes and Other Stories: South Asian Women Writers in Canada and the United States of America were published by the Toronto South Asian Review Publications, while Contours of the Heart was undertaken by the Asian American Writers' Workshop.
These observations in mapping the literary history of South Asian writers in North America will not seem out of place if we remember the support and impetus that Native American writers or Hispanic writers or Jewish writers receive from specific publishing houses that promote the publication of their works.
South Asians started coming to the USA in significant numbers only after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that removed discrimination against Asians in immigration quotas. The highly educated professionals of the first-generation immigrants were devoted (mostly) to professional advancement in their new country and made no time to pursue writing as a vocation or avocation. A large number of today's South Asian American writers
belongs to the second wave of immigrants, very often composed of the relatives of the first pioneers and the new generation born or raised in this country. Torn between ties to an ancient culture of their imaginings and the verities of growing up in race-conscious North America (that is nevertheless becoming increasingly multi-ethnic and multicultural), today's young South Asian writers have become the inheritors of double visions and victims of double standards; they are even subject to schizophrenic self-definitions. Caught between two cultures, they struggle to discover their true voices and identities. In another sense, however, these young writers are the inheritors of the uncertainties and tensions that constitute the seedbed from which good literature can rise.
"What is the map of one's home?" ask the editors of Contours. "Is a map still useful, or even necessary, if it fails to encompass the imaginings of a person who locates herself in multiple spaces?" Contours of the Heart explores these spaces.
As Sunaina Maira and Rajini Srikant point out in the "Introduction," these writers collectively (1) challenge the monolithic construction of South Asian identities, (2) reveal the subtleties and complexities of class, gender, sexual orientation, national or regional origin, religion, and generation, and (3) shed light on multiculturalism, which, while fostering the expansion of the literary canon, has itself created a narrow genre of ethnic literature. "[T]he space we were trying to enlarge was alive with paradoxes and conflicts," they say.
The six sections of the anthology deal with different aspects of confrontation and settlement in a new continent. Abraham Verghese's "Foreword" and Sucheta Mazumdar's "Afterword" highlight the issues and struggles from which South Asian identities are constructed and re-created.
This collection bubbles with energy. It contains poems by Agha Shahid Ali, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Meena Alexander, and Abraham Verghese, among others. It features the work of six photographers, critical essays on key topics like attempts by "non-resident" Indians to reconcile the conflict between cultural and commercial homelands written by Vijay Prakash, identity formation on campus by Sucheta J. Doshi, and gender relations in the Indian community by Shamita Das Dasgupta and Sayantani Dasgupta. Essays on films include Bakirathi Mani's "Moments of Identity in Film," along with the editors' interview with film director Mira Nair. The anthology also includes some good fiction and nonfiction by Bapsi Sidhwa, Tahira Naqvi, Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, Rajini Srikant and others.
Contours of the Heart includes the works of 55 writers—some well-known and "established," others struggling to find their voices and their identities. Visionary editors like Maira and Srikant, and the support of institutions like South Asian Writers' Workshop are two essential ingredients that can foster South Asian writing as it reaches maturation and comes of age in the decades ahead. Contours of the