Starting the new year in good company.
This review appeared in Poetry International on November 25, 2017.
In her book Chant of a Million Women, Shirani Rajapaske’s poems read as tributes to women all across the spectrum – transwomen, women of color, immigrant women, and women across socioeconomic classes. She is unafraid to tackle uncomfortable or taboo topics such as female mutilation or rape, while softening them with beautiful language. For example, in the poem “Mutilated” she describes the sewn-shut labia of one woman:
“Lips you yearn to kiss, mold
to your soft being. Soft, pliable rubies
hidden forever from view.”
A theme across her poems is the struggle women face to overcome inequalities in a male-dominated society. Several of her poems such as “I Live in Dreams” and “Lost in Thought” are about women wanting to go beyond their current lives, to achieve more and to escape their norms. In the poem “Major Minority” she more directly addresses this topic, relating it to the “major minority” of women in the country who feel as if their voices, and votes, don’t stand a chance within the patriarchal political structure. Of the subject of abortion, she writes:
“Entombed from the womb
by man-made rules,
religious decrees you twist, like you did the
bougainvillea vine outside the window, to
suit your wishes and not any
God that ever was.
You amuse yourself in a childish game,
playing God almighty to trap me.”
Men in power twisting rules regarding women’s reproductive rights is something that all women, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, creed, can relate to. Touching on topics like these makes Rajapaske’s poetry universal. While her language takes the reader on a journey filled with beauty inside of the darkness of the topics.
This is a fine collection of some seventy-three poems. From the opening, At the Side of the Old Mandir, you will realize that Rajapakse is treating you like an adult. While there is sex in several of these poems, they are not graphic.
There are many points of view explored by Rajapakse, including what it’s like to wear a full body covering such as the Niquab (recently made illegal in the Canadian province of Quebec.) I’ve personally always considered all religions to include a strong dose of social control, and this poem, To Dance with the Wind, reinforces my prejudices.
For an example of a woman most definitely in control, turn to Colonized, from which I’ll include this teasing snippet: “You were marked. /Stamped with delicious dragon-fruit /pink. /Scandalous. //Mine. /Branded like a buffalo in the field.”
For a terrifying experience, turn to The Shower. For another, turn to The Lonely Woman. This is not for the faint of heart.
In The Decision, this: “They tasted alright to me, /sweet with a hint of sour /that is what I’ve come to expect of grapes, /and of this thing we call a relationship.”
For an introspection into another damaged relationship, turn to Inside the Old Room, which begins thus: “What would the walls say if only /they could speak? /Would they tell you of the fantasies I dream /when I am not with you?…” and that’s just the opening.
I should mention that Rajapakse uses titles subtly, often setting the physical scene but not revealing the plot of the poem. For a rare example where she uses repetition, turn to On Campus: Just Before the Exam, which is quite frightening.
For one last favourite here, this is from The Man from Over There: “The verse about you /described you as you were. As you are. /Nothing seems to have changed. /You should have changed. /Grown wiser, better, /but you have not.”
Back to the star count and my usual boilerplate. My personal guidelines, when doing an ‘official’ KBR review, are as follows: five stars means, roughly equal to best in genre. Rarely given. Four stars means, extremely good. Three stars means, definitely recommendable. I am a tough reviewer. I try to be consistent. Rajapakse has great range in this book, writing with power and control. You will find your own favourites here, as well as those mentioned above. Five stars feels right on. Highly recommended.
Kindle Book Review Team member.
Check out the review below or go to Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine to read poems by other writers in Issue 29, September 2017.
Editor’s Book Review: Chant of a Million Women by Shirani Rajapakse
This month I had the joy of reading Chant of a Million Women by Shirani Rajapakse, a Sri Lankan poet and fiction writer.
This poetry collection covers lots of themes, including identity, relationships, freedom, dignity, war, struggle and rape, but its main message is captured in the title poem, “Chant of a Million Women”, which opens with:
My body is a temple, not
a halfway house you enter for
temporary shelter from
the heat and dust swirling through trees.
This poem really embodies the spirit of the whole collection, giving women a voice, a reminder of our self-worth and ownership of our own bodies.
“I Live in Dreams” is a mingling of dreams, reality and longing, and a similar mix of melancholy and hope can be found throughout the collection. In particular, “Asking for It” is a powerful commentary on rape and victim-blaming culture, and “Unwanted” is short but touching, and one of my favourites. “To Dance with the Wind” has some wonderful imagery which really did make me feel like I had been picked up and taken by the wind.
Overall this collection is spirited and powerful, and above all, it has an important message that is expressed so well. This is one of my favourite collections I’ve reviewed so far, and I would thoroughly recommend it.
Chant of a Million Women is available in print from Lulu.com and Amazon, and also as an eBook at http://www.books2read.com/shiranirajapakse.
You can also find Shirani Rajapakse in Flash Fiction International, Mascara Literary Review, Asian Cha, Deep Water Literary Review, Dove Tales, Earthen Lamp Journal and City Journal, among others.
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.
Amazon has started taking down reviews because they believe the reviews are done by people known to the writers. As if that’s something wrong.
Now we all know that self published writers rely a lot on reviews to get their books out there. It’s part of the marketing strategy for most indies.
But do we know all the people who review our books? I don’t think so.
I don’t review books by people I know. I review them because I find a book interesting, or I follow an author and I like her/his style of writing and want to read more, and once I’ve read the book, if I like it, I leave a review. It’s my way of saying thanks for writing a great book.
I have ‘met’ a lot of writers on Facebook and Twitter. I’m a member of an unimaginably large number of writer groups. We discuss writing, share experiences and help each out out, not necessarily in that order. We also have loads of fun hanging out in the community. Sometimes, if we find we click, we include those new writers in our friends list. But do we personally know all of them – no.
So when someone reads and reviews our books, it mean s/he is doing it because s/he likes our book and is appreciative of it and wants to let us know in the nicest possible way – by leaving a review.
But Amazon has started to take down reviews because in some strange logic that they only seem to understand, they assume that we have asked, or personally know all the people on our Facebook or Twitter lists.
Maria Lazarou has just started a petition to get Amazon to reconsider their decision. If you are an indie author, or if you support indies, or if you love reading, please consider signing the petition. You can also leave a comment to let Amazon know why you think their move is not a good one. To sign and leave a message, go here.
“I wasn’t too sure what to expect as I’m not into fantasy but I was pleasantly surprised and glad I read Beneath the Masks. I liked the start, how the scene is set with the three moons glowing in the sky and then moves to the ball inside. It felt a little like reading a historical romance but with the touches of fantasy. The story ended at just the right place, keeping readers wondering if there is more. Loved it.”