Come join me for the virtual worldwide launch of my poetry book Chant of a Million Women. All you need is a device with an internet connection and a Facebook account. Check the times for your area. See you tomorrow.
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.
I’m going to be at the ICES Colombo next week, July 11 at 4 30 pm, for the launch of City: A Journal of South Asian Literature in English.
The launch is for the special edition of City which features Sri Lankan literature in English and in translation from Sinhala and Tamil.
If you are in this neck of the woods, join us at the ICES and meet the editor, Ajmal Kamal and the other contributors.
“Colombo” is published in issue 6 of New Ceylon Writing. You can find it on page 27 here or read it below.
Colombo – by Shirani Rajapakse
huff and puff their way to good health,
proud of the city’s walkways,
the affluent thrusting their
jelly bellies ahead
as they valiantly attempt to compete
with young trendsetters
their ears blocked to reality,
sweating it out by
lakes and parks dressed
in designer clothes stretched taut
across wobbly frames.
They do their thing,
walking, strutting on legs
that can barely hold so much weight,
serious looks on smug faces,
while community dogs stare in amusement,
calling out to friends to come
observe the show.
There’s a whole generation grown up
on an unhealthy lifestyle, unable to cope,
a last bid to get their act together or
face the consequences,
sprawled on a bed with tubes sticking out
from every corner
while they gasp out in agony and plead
to every God known to man
for a second chance.
Yet hospitals are overcrowded.
They are as popular as
restaurants and watering holes.
Every minute someone’s sick, every minute
someone needs medical attention, and
every minute someone dies in
a lonely old home unable to cope, away
from families that have
no use for old flesh anymore.
The Way It Is, at International Times today.
Four of my poems are featured on VerseWrights today. They are “Dream of the Housemaid”, “Questions Left Unanswered”, Driving Down Galle Road” and “The Violinist.”
Issue 5 of Cities + is all about secrets. Here is what to expect in the issue.
“We send you on a hunt to find answers written in urban landscapes and whisper (or maybe shout) to you about Rankopolis, the most ‘city’ of all cities. There is a polemic on the parasitic nature of the urban-rural divide. There is a series of conjurations based on Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ (if you don’t think you can see the invisible, think again)(actually always, always think again). And there is a most impressive contributor who literally unearthed the secrets of her garden. That’s not even an exhaustive list. ”
Check out The Old Road on page 58.