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Don’t Eat the Mango: South Asian American Poetry

Indivisible anthologyI’m a sucker for shiny objects—scarves, bracelets, candy wrappers—and drawn to nearly anything bearing deep, saturated colors.  Had I encountered Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry in my local bookstore, I would have been magnetically attracted to the book’s rich magenta cover, which is embellished with a U.S. map suggesting the sheen of an embroidered sari.  But even a quick peek into this new collection from the University of Arkansas Press proves that the volume is not just eye candy.  With titles such as “September 10, 2001,” “The Mascot of Beavercreek High Breaks Her Silence,” “Urdu Funk:  The Gentle Art of Subtitles,” and “Generica/ America,” the collection’s table of contents hints at the diversity of voices and themes among contemporary South Asian American poets.

* * *

In a Berkeley basement with a warmly-lit stage, Ishle Yi Park strums a guitar after reading a few poems, inviting the audience to sing a Marley tune.  A young Filipino-American man performs a spoken word piece that breaks into the rhythms of a civil-rights era song, with “lines….still hanging” from “tenement walls.” In a nearby neighborhood, a group of South Asian Americans gathers for “blackout” sessions in a darkened arts center, simulating both the unpredictable power outages of the homeland and the kinds of storytelling that help to pass the hours.

These are a few glimpses of the San Francisco Bay Area arts scene from the past decade. Then, as always, the Bay Area was and is a place of possibility.  As Bernice Yeung writes in San Francisco Magazine,  “[Asian American artists are] …emboldened by the inescapable allure of the California dream, which teaches us to put a premium on passion over practicality like nowhere else in the world.”  In the midst of the cultural flux of the SF Bay Area, three South Asian American writers—Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam—have channeled their passions into the publication of Indivisible, the first American poetry anthology devoted to American poets who trace their roots to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Even as the popularity of South Asian American fiction writers has soared in the last decade, the voices of their versifying counterparts have remained, for the most part, in the literary background.  Asked about their 7-year saga to find a suitable publisher for the anthology, the editors are likely to explain that, among other things, various presses suggested dividing the collection into thematic sections with headings such as “mangoes” or “spices.”

Juicy.  Spicy.

While the editors firmly opposed this characterization of South Asian American writing, such perceptions and portrayals of Asian and Asian American cultures persist.  Aimee Nezhukumatathil alludes to similarly exoticized notions of Asians and Asian Americans in her poem, “Mister Mustard’s Dance Club, Ladies Night,” in which a young man says to a seventeen-year-old woman,  “You know, them Asians can do/ all those bending things.”

And, by chance, I realized that two Indivisible poems that I’ve been compelled to reread lately happen to be about love and sex.  But here, the South Asian American version of love is not necessarily the juicy, spicy version that some publishers might like to publicize and sell.

[First disclosure:  some of my writing appears in the anthology.  But that’s not why I’m excited about the poetry in this book.  Second disclosure:  I know two of the editors.  They are friends of mine—smart, talented friends who have worked tirelessly to bring this substantial collection to fruition.]

My excitement stems from poems such as, “It’s Me, I’m Not Home,” by Reetika Vazirani. Vazirani incorporates the generic, impersonal language of the answering machine, “please leave a message after the beep,” to express the alienation and melancholy of modern love.  Here, lovers “disappear/ into the city” and “marriages” are “faithful to us for about a year.”  Likewise, “A loves B,” “B loves C” but “C won’t answer.”  The poem is by turns sarcastic (“I clap/for joy”) and plaintive (“You will call again?”).

The poem’s repeated phrase first appears enclosed in parentheses: “(please leave a message after the beep).” But by the end of the poem these brackets disappear, making the final line a bit of a plea, with the speaker’s “please” revealing a desire to connect with others even as she maintains emotional distance from her lover.  In “It’s Me, I’m Not Home,” the very advancements designed to help us stay in touch come to hinder intimacy and authentic communication.  Vazirani’s use of the villanelle—an obsessive, repetitive form—heightens the feeling that the speaker’s isolation is inescapable.

While Vazirani’s writing captures a state of alienation, R. Parthasarathy’s poem,  “The Concise Kamasutra,” depicts the intimacy of sexual union.  In twelve free-verse lines meant to evoke the formal structures of the original text, the speaker watches his lover sleep among “warm” blankets while “wakeful hands peel the skin off the night.”  Here, the “tight hardwood floor groans / under a slew of discarded clothes.”  When referring to the exterior world, Parthasarathy’s word choice is markedly different:  “We shut the whole untidy threadbare world out/ dogs, telephones, and the thin indifferent rain.”  In contrast to the modern melancholy of Vazirani’s villanelle, “The Concise Kamasutra” suggests that physical union can offer a balm against the “indifferent rain” of the world. Parthasarathy’s title might conjure Western misconceptions about—for example—“all those bending things,” but the poem’s more titillating moments are deflected onto the “tight hardwood floor” that “groans.”

“It’s Me, I’m Not Home” and “The Concise Kamasutra” are just a couple of the Indivisible poems I’ve loved and reread.  The collection is one of range and diversity:  free verse, formal poems, a little spoken word.  Established writers alongside up-and-coming voices.  The poems in Indivisible stretch far beyond any proposed “mango” and “spice” categories, incorporating elements from mythology, science, history, and pop culture.  And for anyone interested in South Asian American literature, the introduction is brilliant.

Despite the breadth of Indivisible, the anthology has some notable omissions.  I was surprised to see that work by Amit Majmudar, Tarfia Faizullah, and Tua Chaudhuri (whose first book manuscript, Lunaphiles, Linguists, and Other Lovers, was a recent finalist for the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry) was missing from the collection.  Granted, the two latter writers may have been undergraduate students when the anthology editors made their March 2003 call for submissions.  But I’ll take these omissions as a positive sign: one anthology of South Asian American poetry may not be enough.

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