The interview was published today on the blog.
I’m guest blogging about my reason to write Chant of a Million Women at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Read it below and do go over to her page to comment, and also read the other guest blogs.
Let’s Raise a Chant for Women across the World
Have you ever felt there was something you needed to say but didn’t know how to articulate it? Maybe you felt the things you wanted to say wouldn’t be accepted by people, or they wouldn’t understand or feel awkward reading about them? It isn’t easy to speak about topics that are taboo or difficult to discuss. No one wants to address subjects that make them uncomfortable so these matters get shoved into the back of a cupboard and forgotten. But the problems don’t go away. They simmer in the background and grow bigger and darker until they consume everything. Yet no one wants to address the elephant in the room.
Chant of a Million Women is a poetry collection that addresses the very issues that people feel awkward to talk about. Published in August this year, the poems raise concerns people shy away from like abuse, discrimination and the role of patriarchy in defining and controlling women’s lives.
“You can’t mold me into
something you want—those
rough hands trying to create
dreams that can only shatter.” (Response to a Man)
I believe poetry is a good way of dealing with matters that are difficult to express, taking the topics one by one and opening them out in a way that people don’t feel out of their depth. At least that’s what I hope. I’ve brought together different stories of diverse women in various places and attempted to tell their story in verse. Their stories, their sorrows with my words.
“You rape and torture and
target us even when small and unable
to defend ourselves against brute force.
You forget we have rights too.
Law enforcement men turn the other way or
tell us we deserved it for being who we are.
They hurt us more, but we stand our ground.” (You Can’t Handle It)
Everywhere we look women are shortchanged. Every day somewhere in the world a woman or girl is raped, killed, abused or discriminated against and no one seems to care. You’d think it was in so called ‘backward cultures’ but it is hard to look away when it happens right in your own neighborhood or to someone you know. We only think we are safe, but seeing the sheer number of instances happening worldwide, we really are far from safe.
“Everyday someone was ground in the dust.
The hands of the woman holding the scales
trembled with fury at the injustice,
but no one could take off the blindfold.” (Lines of Control)
Women’s bodies are still ‘owned’ by men whether we like it or not. For instance, in many cultures, a woman can’t terminate a pregnancy even when the pregnancy is a result of rape because patriarchy barges in, in the form of religion to tell a woman it’s wrong. Yet patriarchy doesn’t tell her how to cope with the trauma of bringing up the child of her abuser, having to see in the child the horror she experienced every day.
We haven’t really come that far in some aspects. And that’s why we need to keep shouting from the rooftops and getting together around the world to ask, nay, demand our right to be who we are meant to be, not some idea that men think we should be. We are not products or valueless objects that can be used and abused and thrown on a garbage dump.
“My body is my own.
Not yours to take
when it pleases you, or
use as collateral in the face
of wars fought for your greed, or zest to own….
It’s not a product.
Not something to bargain, barter for goods
and services, share with friends,” (Chant of a Million Women)
As I watched the hashtag #Metoo on Twitter and repeated in almost every timeline on Facebook I realized the reason we talk about women and what we need, will never stop. It is an undeniable fact that despite the advancement we have made, despite the many accolades women have won and the barriers women keep shattering, women are and will continue to be treated less than what they deserve even in the developed world because, well, sadly one half of the world has yet to appreciate and value the other half of the world and until they do there will continue to be disharmony, discrimination and women will continue to be sidelined. We are more than our bodies. We are half the world and what keeps the world moving.
“I’ve got a vote, but
I can’t use it. Can’t make much of a difference.
I’m the major minority.” (Major Minority)
We are not defined by the color of our skin, length of our hair, the way we look, the clothes we wear or the work or places we go to. You can read more stories in verse in Chant of a Million Women.
Shirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and author. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Her poetry collection Chant of a Million Women was self published in August 2017 and is nominated for a Reader’s Choice Award.
Rajapakse’s work appears in publications around the world including, Flash:The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Litro, Silver Birch, International Times, City Journal, Writers for Calais Refugees, The Write-In, Asian Signature, Moving Worlds, Citiesplus, Deep Water Literary Journal, Mascara Literary Review, Kitaab, Lakeview Journal, Cyclamens & Swords, New Ceylon Writing, Channels, Linnet’s Wings, Spark, Berfrois, Counterpunch, Earthen Lamp Journal, Asian Cha, Dove Tales, Buddhist Poetry Review, About Place Journal, Skylight 47, The Smoking Poet, New Verse News, The Occupy Poetry Project and in anthologies, Flash Fiction International (Norton 2015),Ballads (Dagda 2014), Short & Sweet (Perera Hussein 2014), Poems for Freedom (River Books 2013), Voices Israel Poetry Anthology 2012, Song of Sahel (Plum Tree 2012), Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, World Healing World Peace (Inner City Press 2012 & 2014) and Every Child Is Entitled to Innocence (Plum Tree 2012).
She has a BA in English Literature (University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka) and a MA in International Relations (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India).
She interviews, promotes and review books by indie authors on The Writers Space at shiranirajapakse.wordpress.com
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Rajapakse explores identity, values and women’s role in society through the poems in Chant of a Million Women. She also looks at the concepts of beauty and the standards imposed on women to conform. Some of the poems are hard hitting and take on subjects that are uncomfortable to talk about like rape, female gender mutilation, abuse and male dominance. She talks about power and the quiet force that keeps half the world moving even when there is no hope. The language is simple yet the thoughts and ideas are not. They rise from the depth of our very being to swirl through the pages compelling the reader to step into worlds created within the covers. There is magnificence and strength juxtaposed with violence and weakness as are other opposites such as the divine and human frailty. These poems are like a breath of fresh air, provoking, mesmerizing and entertaining. At our core is a chant, soft, like the susurrus of leaves only breezes understand. Sometimes it opens lips to sing like gurgling waters meandering from here to there, to wherever it flows, or the soft tread of footfalls on the path outside. But sometimes, it’s a roar so loud thunder stops in its tracks in awe.
“Truly the voice of millions of women can be heard throughout these pages. It belongs in every school library and the title poem, Chant of a Million Women, should be memorized by every girl (and boy) in every country, its theme, “my body is a temple” chiseled in every heart and holy place across the Earth.” Amazon review by K.M
The book launch for Chant of a Million Women concluded a little while ago. I’ll share a little bit of the history of my book.
Chant of a Million Women has been in the making for about five years. I never thought the poems here would be part of a collection because when I started writing poetry I had no objective of publishing collections that were theme based. My poems are on diverse topics that are as far off as the sun and the moon. I was submitting to literary journals and anthologies and it was very encouraging to have many poems published.
But as I started accumulating more poems I realized that the only way I could keep track of all the poems was to separate them into themes. I was already finding it quite tiresome to wade through folders to find poems to submit to journals. Separating them into themes and sub – themes was definitely the way to go. I found some themes had more poems while some, less. Soon sub themes were merged or changed and I had about four themes.
The strongest was about women.
I had enough for a chapbook but I didn’t want to publish this collection as a chapbook because I realized that there were more stories I needed to tell in verse; stories that were getting written down in my mind. All I needed was to get my lines organized to write them down.
By the end of 2015 I had my collection. I took the name of one of the poems as the title of the book – Chant of a Million Women – because this is not just poems about women. It is about our stories, our lives, our loves and losses. It is about the despair and heartache we face as well as the humiliation, violence at the hands of our male peers and family and friends. It is also about the strength we have within ourselves even at the most trying times and of our ability to stand up for ourselves and our beliefs.
Several incidents that took place around me influenced my thinking. The horrendous gang rape of a young girl in Delhi and the lukewarm response to the child that was raped, the vehement outcry against a Tunisian woman from Femen for exposing her body in public, young girls caught up in the war in the Middle East and most terrible of all, the attempt to stone a defenseless Sri Lankan woman working in Saudi Arabia for allegedly having an affair out of marriage, and several others became topics to explore issues of violence against women, exploitation and patriarchy.
Yet everything is not dark and dreary. There are moments of fun and amusement and also power and strength of women who not only rise up like the lotus rising from the mud, but they also play equal if not superior to the male.
It is a chant.
And now I bring it to you. Seventy three poems about, and, for women, that were influenced by women – mostly unknown women, sit within the folds of the cover.
Take them as you will. You may see your reflection in some or recognize a friend in another. They travel from history, through continents and time. They are a chant that bubbles low at times but roars at others.
“My body is my temple.
Enter with reverence.”
On Basso Profundo, August 11, 2017.
Toward the end of Shirani Rajapakse’s plaintive and eloquent book of poetry, she has a piece called “The Poetess.” In its final lines she writes:
She walked with a spring in her step.
Her expression serious. They turned around
as they saw her pass.
She felt such pride. At last to be known.
Even if to just a few.
They did not know she had
nothing to show.
The last line surprised me, and moved me to immediate disagreement. Chant of a Million Women is certainly a notable achievement: it chronicles so many moods, in so many stories, from ancient Indian epic legends to the insurmountable challenges of every day. It consolidates and focuses our attention on the myriad ways men subjugate and objectify women, and the paltry few effective means women have to fight back. This applies particularly to cultures bound by tradition, such as one finds in India and the Middle East.
And women’s situations are so hopeless in this collection that fighting back isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about maintaining something so basic as one’s identity. So often used as a simple ornament, a status symbol, or property to be hidden away, the women in these poems lose their onetime promising selves to a male society, be it as some idealized – but definitely owned – prize, or a simple, reviled piece of furniture, or worse, a victim of violent crime.
Ms. Rajapakse places her poems in a number of milieux: traditional sexist households, dangerous, sometimes murderous, public thoroughfares, urban settings and rural. Often, no setting is specified, except the consciousness of the dispossessed woman.
A million women would indeed raise this chant. They would be fortunate were they to make it this resoundingly, with such force. The poetess distills their suffering to a specific litany, as though a bell were ringing to toll the offenses, forming a high-relief frieze of the hundreds of thousands of wives, daughters, and princesses whose stunted lives impoverish us all.
This is a distinctive, consistent collection in which the milk of human kindness has no place. Nowhere are the kind whispers of a lover or even the support of a life partner. Ms Rajapakse has consistently chosen her pieces with a eye to the plaints and sorrows of women. I salute the courage with which she lends her voice for the forgotten and uncared-for women suffering in so many places in the world. Take up Chant of a Million Women and experience its elegant phrases and its moral force.
After many days of working on it, my cover is now ready.
What are your thoughts?
Cover Image by Shirani Rajapakse
Cover Design by FayeFayeDesigns