I Exist. Therefore I Am won the State Literary Award 2019 in the short story category.
I Exist. Therefore I Am won the State Literary Award 2019 in the short story category.
Here’s what they said about the book.
I Exist. Therefore I Am Shirani Rajapakse
Nine short stories set in India, all well-written stories focusing on discrimination against women in India. Drink Your Milk and go to Sleep is a harrowing tale of gender discrimination and infanticide. The speaker is forced to abort a series of female babies as their sex is detected in the womb, but one survives to full term, only to be murdered by the mother. The second, Shweta’s Journey, is about a woman who is duped by Swamiji, a bogus religious guru who appropriates her wealth and proceeds to govern her life. The third, A Room Full of Horrors, focuses on two female students’ attempts to pay their tuition fees in an institution that feels hopelessly, and some may say maliciously bureaucratic, presided over by the gratuitously unhelpful patriarch, Mr Singh. Other stories address women on death row, women experiencing existential crises, and women caught in the snare of convention and patriarchal expectation. At her best the author’s style is direct and the stories have real force; they seem driven by a powerful sense of frustration and outrage. Poignant and moving, the book deals with issues that require more of a profile.
February 4, 2019
January 1, 2019
You can’t mold me into
something you want—those
rough hands trying to create
dreams that can only shatter.
You are no sculptor and cannot shape
perfection from mud nor
chisel beauty out of a slab of granite.
I am flesh and blood
just like you.
Not made of clay or rubber that
bends at your will.
Don’t even try to change me
for you will not like the person
I might become in your hands.
Leave me as I am and let me
mold myself as I have done all this while.
I am an individual, a human.
Not a doll made of plastic
or wood that you take out to play
when it pleases you.
Shirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and short story writer. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and 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 critically acclaimed poetry collection Chant of a Million Women (self published 2017) won the 2018 Kindle Book Awards. It received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Readers’ Favorite Awards and was chosen as an “Official Selection” in the 2018 New Apple Summer eBook Awards for Excellence in Independent Publishing. Her recently published short story collection I Exist. Therefore I Am is also about women and is set in India. Rajapakse’s work appears in many literary journals and anthologies around the world. Rajapakse read for a BA in English Literature from the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka and has a MA in International Relations from JNU, India.
This review appeared in the Island on July 11, 2018. You can also read it below.
July 10, 2018, 9:25 pm
Title – ‘Chant of a Million Women’
Poetess – Shirani Rajapakse
An author publication
The chief merit of this memorable and thought-provoking collection of poems by Shirani Rajapakse consists in the fact that it is a cogent and arresting endorsement and a refreshing re-statement of the dignity of womanhood. The poetic ‘discourse’ it stimulates goes well beyond what are seen, traditionally, as women’s rights issues; although such concerns continue to be exceptionally relevant and need to be kept alive. The collection is essentially also all about the ennobling presence of the Woman in the world. This aspect of the ‘Chant of a Million Women’ imparts to the collection a timeless dimension.
The poem from which the collection derives its title sets the tone and the fundamental substance of these poems. What is particularly relevant about this poem is that it transcends the domestic plane, pertaining to the challenges faced by women, to the indignities and suffering borne by women in conflict and war world wide, over the ages. This broad context lends to the poem a topicality as well as a universal significance. The woman’s body, we are reminded, is her own; a precious part of her that must be kept inviolate and whole. It cannot be abused and belittled, among other things, by contending parties in wars, to further their respective agendas. Hence, the reference to ‘collateral’, ‘appeasement’ and ‘rewards’.
‘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,
Not give to appease the enemy, reward
the brave who sported so valiantly in the
trenches, stinking of blood and gore.’
The freshness of perspective in many of these poems prevents us from viewing them as expressive of trite themes, such as, the ‘battle of the sexes’. Instead, what we have here are portrayals of the stark socio-political realities faced by women, which have the effect of throwing their dignity and humanity into strong relief. For instance, the speaker in the poem ‘Sadness’ says of harsh words that were flung at her:
‘a piece inside smashed into
smithereens, pierced by your words
as I walked away. Forever.’
In the poem, ‘Standing my Ground’, the speaker says about her individuality and independence in an impersonal world bent excessively on material pursuits and consumerism.
‘But no one notices in the millions
surging forward that
I stand my ground, refusing to
move an inch, waiting as I am, here,…
my face lifted to the sun shining down
through diaphanous clouds flittering by,
bathing me in gold and orange….’
‘To Dance with the Wind’ is memorable for the evocative use of imagery and its deftly handled rhythm that help capture the central mood of the poem which centres on the wistful yearning of repressed women for liberation in every vital aspect of their lives. Among other things, there are striking metaphors here that are suggestive of the dehumanizing impact of formal religion:
‘hidden behind a black wall while
all she wants is to soar with the winds,
graze the clouds, turn her face to the sun,
let her curls dance, dance, dance
like a myriad hands moving out to catch
pieces of the sun..’
The ‘Chant of a Million Women’, consisting of poems written by Shirani Rajapakse over the years, and published in local and international journals, could be considered a refreshing input to local creative writing on the meaning of womanhood. Very hard to beat is the poetic sincerity and strongly felt emotion running through this collection. The collection succeeds because it provokes profound reflection on what it means, and what it has meant to be a woman in a mainly patriarchal, repressive world.
A Page to Turn Blog of Bobbie Stanley
Reading Books in a Southern State of Mind
January 24, 2018
Rating: 4 stars
It’s hard for me to review poetry. Prose makes it easy because grammar, flow, characters, and plots come into play. Poetry, though, can’t be dissected quite the same way. This book, while technically fewer pages than a lot of the ones I’ve reviewed, took significantly longer to read because it pulled me through so many experiences. To say that I enjoyed it wouldn’t be quite accurate; each poem in this book made me thoroughly feel something, but most often those feelings were desperate, angry, and painful. They shed light on lives and experiences I will probably never have a chance to understand through my life path. They forced me to see things I would rather ignore and called out my typical American behavior of overlooking the hardships women face outside of this country.
There were times while reading this that I felt overwhelmingly guilty for having been born into a life that some people will never know. I felt guilty for taking for granted the freedom that we have and for failing to use my voice when I have so much more opportunity to do so than women in more countries and societies than I can count ever will. There were times when I felt embarrassed for the way that our society has taught people to behave. Not all of these poems were particularly enjoyable in their experience, but every one of them sparked thought and brought up very real questions that we should all be considering. That is the true value in this work. It is not a light read. It is not something you’d carry with you to the beach or enjoy over a night, relaxing vacation. There’s nothing relaxing about this. This is a book that sparks movement, that demands action. If you are prepared to be dragged into a reality that most of us would prefer to ignore, this is a great way to do it. Let these words show you the things you haven’t learned yet. Let them make you angry. Let them draw you out and call you to action. Well done, Shirani. This is a powerful collection, and I hope it calls forth the action and attention it deserves.
Several issues are discussed in Chant of a Million Women. There’s also quite a range of emotions carefully placed between the pages. In the following weeks I’ll talk about a few poems.
But I’ll start with the first poem. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” This not only sets the stage as it were to the collection but it also kind of pulls in the idea of the role of women from history to the present not being very different.
The influence for the poem was a statue of a woman at the side of a mandir (temple) in India. The old beautiful carvings on the outsides of temples depict women in many poses. Almost all of them are of women with large breasts and voluptuous hips.
I’ve traveled a lot in India and seen many interesting places. Since I like art, history and culture my travels tend to take me to places where I can find all of this in abundance and the old temples are a definite must see on my itinerary.
Viewing the statues and images I came across an interesting find. In quite a few of the images of women in the carvings in mandirs and abandoned places the breasts were darker and I used to wonder why, until one day I saw why when I turned a corner in a lonely mandir and surprised a devout follower of whatever God resided inside that mandir.
The image of that encounter I witness stayed in my mind although I wrote about it many years later.
They come to this place every day
to touch you.
Lonely men with desires unfulfilled.
Can’t afford the real thing, costs too much
these days, a glance, a caress.
They can barely afford food for the day.
You’re the best they can have;
voluptuousness in stone.
They ogle and marvel, then
gradually draw nearer.
A furtive glance in every direction to check
if anyone’s watching and a hand
lifts up to cup a breast.
Human and rock merge for a blissful moment.
An eternity passes as time
drags itself to a screeching halt.
Sighs of contentment escape.
they return to a place at a distance,
to admire and hope.
Later, moving inside they speak to God, plead
with him, cajole, sometimes demand.
Karma always questioned in times like this.
A truth hard to accept.
The reasons why never defined, lying hidden
in the cosmic ether beyond their
Your breasts are a shade darker than
the rest of your body,
colored from constant caresses of
lonesome men seeking stolen pleasures.
A slow smile playing on your lips, one arm
resting on a hip pushed out to the side,
the other raised from the elbow,
fingers encircling lotus, you stand waiting
for what might be, as they shuffle past,
like the devout, softly singing praise
of the one within.
Quietly taking in their fill they return to
homes devoid of love and desire.
Who are you,
proud woman standing nonchalantly
gazing into the distance as they walk past?
What was your fate?
Willed by the hand that chiseled
you from a large rock hewn out from
another place one sunny day eons ago.
Who was the man that yearned for you so,
he cast you in stone in remembrance
to watch over the years
and give hope to
a multitude of desperate souls?
This idea behind the incident I saw and the image of the dark breasted statues reminded me of something I saw in a telephone booth on a street in London. This was a time before the mobile phone and if you needed to make a call you’d use a public phone. I don’t know if those still exist, but one of the things that greeted you when you entered one of those phone boxes was a whole load of calling cards with photos of women, much like the statues of the women in those ancient temples. It appeared as though modern women were trying to emulate the statues which were probably carved out by men who were seeking the ideal woman and not finding that around them, they were creating images in stone.
It seemed very sad. We’d come so far yet as women we hadn’t given up the notion of pleasing others – of turning our bodies into objects of pleasure for men and it didn’t matter that we were getting exploited as well. “On a Street in London” ends the collection. Between those two poems there’s just about every emotion and situation women have faced, put down in verse.