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Poetry International

This review appeared in Poetry International on November 25, 2017.

Micro Review: Chant of a Million Women by Shirani Rajapaske

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  • November 25, 2017
Chant of a Million Women by Shirani Rajapaske

 

1Chant of a Million Women by [Rajapakse, Shirani]42 Pages
Create Space, 2017
ISBN: 9789553828507
Reviewed by Jessica Wright

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.

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“Strong free verse on many topics. An experience.” – Book Review

Read the recent review of Chant of a Million Women posted on Goodreads, Amazon and on the blog of Jim Bennett. Or read it below.

Strong free verse on many topics. An experience.

five stars

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.

 

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Let’s Raise a Chant for Women across the World -Guest 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.

Guest author: Shirani Rajapakse – Chant of a Million Women

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.

This is the theme poem from my poetry book “Chant of a Million Women” available now at amazon.com or books2read


Author bio

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 WorldsCitiesplus, Deep Water Literary Journal, Mascara Literary ReviewKitaabLakeview 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 PoetNew 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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Chant of a Million Women

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


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Movie Poem: Chant of a Million Women

This is a short “movie poem” of the title poem Chant of a Million Women, that I released at the end of my book launch on August 22, 2017.

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The history of my Chant

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.

 

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and text

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.”

 

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Co host for the Launch: Audrey Barber

The fourth amazing woman joining me as co host at my launch of Chant of a Million Women.

Audrey Barber

Image may contain: 1 person, smilingAudrey Barber is the founder member of Silent Women Saving Women (SWSW) and an hotelier based in the Middle East. In January 2000 her life changed when she and her fiancée were attacked by a group of six men. Her fiancée fought off the men and her life was saved. But his wasn’t, and he died in her arms at the hospital. That experience left her shattered but she didn’t give up the fight for justice. Five years later the attackers were sentenced to death. Audrey made up her mind to fight for others who didn’t have a voice.

Volunteering at various charities and centres for women and children she came across many young girls who were abused, raped and molested and some even committing suicide as a result of the trauma they faced. Joining with women in the Middle East who had experienced similar tragedies and atrocities she formed SWSW, a group of women from the Middle East actively working towards uplifting the lives of women and young girls who have been abused and exploited, turning her tragic story into one of hope for many other women.

After seeing a 14 year old Yemeni girl who had been sold off to a 41 year old man brought to the child welfare center brutally raped with acid thrown on her private parts, she decided to act. The girl didn’t survive but Audrey vowed she would do whatever she could to help such girls to get an education and live the life they rightfully deserved.

She visited Yemen to meet other women who are “doers” and strengthened SWSW. When SWSW becomes aware of any child about to be sold, or sold as a child bride it intervenes making contact with the Man or his counter-parts/family and negotiate a reasonable price for the child to be given to SWSW. The child is taken out of the country and brought to the specific location where she is treated/checked by a doctor within the group. The child is provided shelter and counselling as well as placed in a local school. This is for children who have not been raped or sexually assaulted. For those who have been molested, raped, sexually abused the process is more intense because apart from medical attention they also require assistance in dealing with trauma, as these girls are physically and emotionally destroyed.

SWSW has now extended its work beyond Yemen and work in Egypt, Afghanistan and several other mid-eastern countries. SWSW is not affiliated to any organization or human rights group. It is merely a group of women who have endured atrocity and trauma who have come together to help other women and save girls. The work it does is self funded.

Audrey has two wards – two Afghan sisters she rescued. The elder was raped by her uncle and the other is just 5 years old. Both girls are orphans but are now leading a happy life. They will be handed over to the state since she is a single female and a non Muslim and therefore cannot adopt, according to the law of the land.

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Cover Reveal

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

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, text

 

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