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Words and warriors

By Puja Sen

26 October 2016

Nepali women slam poets write on their lives and times.

Words and warriors

In the introduction to These Fine Lines, a collection of poems written by young Nepali women, the editor of the anthology Itisha Giri asks, “What kind of women are we?” The poems seek to present to the reader an “intimate insight into the Nepali female experience” – an attempt to centrestage the lives of women in their own words, to represent their own subjectivities. At any point in history or anywhere in the contemporary world, this is an important cultural effort. Each act of self-representation contains the possibilities of evoking a consciousness on what being woman means in a hierarchical and unequal world, where women themselves are plotted along different levels of advantage. While these poems can indicate binding experiences across class, caste and ethnicity, one in which we are able to detect and recognise patterns of structural inequality of which we are all part, it is worth examining what is distinct about the Nepali experience and the poems of these particular women. Can it be representative of all Nepali women? The introduction cautions that they are not. But what does it say about the fraction it does represent?

These Fine Lines was steered by a group of young Nepali slam poets who are a part of the poetry network called ‘Word Warriors’. The collective was formed following an event organised by a bookshop called Quixote’s Cove in Kathmandu, in collaboration with the US embassy in 2010. Slam or spoken word poetry first gained ground in Chicago’s working class bars in the US in the late 1980s. A countercultural form, it emerged as a challenge to the kind of highbrow poetry perceived to be locked in academia, and as an attempt to subvert the conventions of the existing literary canon. The focus was shifted to its performative aspect and the poems began to be delivered with great emphasis to engage its immediate audiences. These poems are usually performed in cafes, bars, bookshops, and as such may be regarded as an urban art form.

Slam poetry is consciously political and like in the US, where the form developed, it tends to focus on marginalised identities along racial, sexual and gender lines. Given the immense success it has enjoyed in the US in the past decade, we are seeing its growing popularity in other parts of the world. In Kathmandu, it is the Word Warriors who have been at the forefront of this phenomenon. And with support from organisations like the Danish Centre of Culture and Arts, they have also been taking this art form outside the urban limits of the capital city through one of its programmes, Write to Speak. While Nepali-language literature has had stalwart women poets such as Parijat and Banira Giri in the past and Momila and Sarita Tiwari more recently, this collection is the first of its kind in Nepal.

Although containing elements and techniques of the spoken word style, the collection in These Fine Lines is written poetry and is thus tied to the formal constraints of the written word. American writer Karen Finneyfrock in the foreword describes the poems as both “fragile and fierce”. That certainly is an aesthetic that has long belonged to women’s poetry, especially those that carry a political awareness. “It is exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful,” wrote Adrienne Rich in 1971 in her essay ‘When we dead awaken’, speaking of a moment in American women’s writing that was finding its feet in the feminist tradition. Every generation of women writers has to continue to struggle with the canon, or the literary marketplace that still upholds as its pinnacle the masculine artist.

While women have traditionally tended to talk/write tentatively, with a good deal of throat-clearing, as if, like Rich argues, they are being overheard by men, these poems, in line with the emphatic ethos of slam poetry, do not suffer such inhibitions. Spoken word poetry carries a confidence of its audience’s alliance with social movements and progressive causes. Regardless, it has taken time for women poets to claim that subjective pronoun, the ‘I’, to make their own personal reality be representative of the political and social order, and take the power of representing rather than be represented. While some poems in the anthology carry that tentativeness, most of the voices are sure-footed and self-possessed. The most powerful of these is Ujjwala Maharjan and Yukta Bajracharya’s ‘You’ll do me no harm’, a poem that has enjoyed sustained appreciation in Kathmandu poetry circles as spoken-word performance over the past few years. It is a powerful expression of anger, pain and self-recovery, speaking directly of domestic violence masquerading as love.

Is there a distinct way women write poetry, one that can be differentiated from poetry written by men? Virginia Woolf, in writing about how the daughters of educated fathers might help prevent war, once argued that though men and women inhabit the same social order, there are differences in how it is experienced: “Though we look at the same things”, she wrote in Three Guineas, “we see them differently”. This anthology is useful in this regard. It is divided into five categories: ‘Spaces’, ‘For our mothers’, ‘Of fear, love, and longing’, ‘All we have lost’, and ‘The battles within’. Each of these explores the peculiarly gendered relationship we have to our surroundings and the people in our lives. They speak of exile, loss, defiance, anger, longing and desire.

The first section of the anthology, ‘Spaces’, offers poems of exile and the city. “The city sticks to my skin”, writes Jerusha Rai; Ajapa Sharma speaks of the city as a “hallucination, dizzy with excess life” which churns the stomach into a “violent nausea”. While the first is of Kathmandu, and the second about Kolkata, it is a good view of the chaos and the excess auditory and visual stimuli of Southasian cities. Poems about cities, however, present the chance of seeing snapshots of how men and women of different classes inhabit urban spaces, something that does not necessarily come through in these poems. In most literary cultures it has been men who have taken greater ownership of the city, and given us representations of it and the people in it – a fact that reflects urban realities itself. These poems show us the broad external environment – the valley, the hill, the moon, the temple – often through the prism of nostalgia and a sense of melancholy, but not necessarily the particularities of place and characters.

‘For our mothers’ is the most interesting section in the book. It gives us glimpses of relationships daughters have with their mothers, offering a view beyond stereotypical depictions of nurture and selfless service to the home and hearth. One of the most important and intimate relationships of women’s lives is seen through its complex perversities and emotional struggles. The poems evoke a certain kind of psychic realism in which mothers, unable to explain or articulate their anger and discontent, generated often by the daily tedium of their work, turn on themselves or their daughters.

The section opens with Arya Rajouria’s depiction of the passive aggressive relationship between two women in the kitchen, the site of daily invisible labour that has often been the subject of poetic anger and the arena of female struggle.

The Kitchen is a silent civil war zone

bound by wedding rings

that clank with pots and pans

and hiss in the fryer.

The bitterness of one and the venom of the other are infused into the meal so that the dish is “tinged with swollen claw marks and red war paint”. As the women in the poem battle each other, it is reminiscent of Marge Piercy’s 1982 poem, ‘What’s that smell in the kitchen?’, which turns the potential for self-destruction outwards. Suffused with tension, food becomes a weapon that breaks the stranglehold of domestic servitude: “Burning dinner is not incompetence but war”. This searing last line of Piercy’s poem does something significant. It transforms the locus of women’s daily labour – cooking, cleaning, and maintenance of the home – into a space of outright guerrilla warfare. The women in this poem dream of grilling their husbands “spitted over a slow fire”, of serving them a dead rat with a “bomb in its belly”. This is the fantasy of personal militant action against a social order that assigns men and women their roles but still believes this is a natural order, allowing little outlet for feelings that have to undergo repression to maintain the peace of the household. The lives of women are “cooked and digested, nothing but leftovers in Tupperware”.

The poems in the section are sometimes staged as a debate between traditional mothers and their modern daughters. Yet the burdens placed on mothers in society are something women are intimately aware of. These are poems about young women trying to find their personal freedoms, and what that means; about them trying to stake ownership over their lives and choices, in a fast changing world. They also depict senses of guilt and resentment because this assertion of autonomy is perceived as a rejection of the mother. Empathy and protectiveness also find a space because of the close identification women feel in a society that burdens them with the expectations of certain roles. Bartika Eam Rai’s ‘The daughter of your father: a five part account” demonstrates this conflict.

You try to guard your mother’s ego.

In her lifetime, her pride is

the only thing she has ever truly owned.

However, the inability to be a ‘good daughter’ sometimes might mean choosing personal freedom, to change the conditions of one’s life. Rai’s poem articulates this eloquently, as resistance to a mother’s hold often seems to inadvertently ally with the father, a struggle quite different but borne of the same patriarchal system. Yet this is not struggle against the mother but the social order that constrained her in the first place. In the end, she writes, “There is no way back home”.

Yukta Bajracharya’s ‘Family Ghost’ on the other hand is an evocative poem about a family organised around the spectre of a male ego, which demands its attentions long after it has died.

At times, your loud wails of disappointment

Over respect you should have gained

And love you carelessly lost

Still brings our chewing mouths to a halt

During lunch

As we swallow it down without chewing, without choking;

We became good at this long ago.

The demanding ghost stomps about the house unwilling to let go of the power it wielded in life. It speaks of a male psyche that is unable to understand the system of privilege that accords it power in the first place. It is a system in which it is impossible for women not to be attuned to the feelings of men and feel responsible for them in a way, but excuses men from returning the favour: to be both disconnected when it suits one and wail loudly about respect not gained and love carelessly lost. The metaphor of the ghost makes clear the difficulty of transcending the burden of emotional labour that women bear. The last line rolls out a scathing indictment: “At least, living with it is far better than living with you”. A few pages later, another poem by Bajracharya observes this skewed scale of emotional involvement: about the damage done by a father whom the daughter does not know if she still loves, but knows certainly that she doesn’t like. These are reflections on the family, which show it to be a site of both security and control, exerting influence but also generating defiance.

‘Of fear, love, and longing’ explore the relationships women have with other men, their lovers. The poems in the collection articulate an engagement that gives a sense of emotional life, disappointment as well as desire. Jerusha Rai’s ‘Margins’ and Rubina Chitrakar’s ‘Silent screams the night’ both seek not just sexual satisfaction but an emotional responsiveness from their lovers, while Byanjana Thapa’s ‘Tuesday night tango’ and Nikita Tripathi’s ‘Foreplay’ dally in eroticism. One would have hoped to see in this collection more poems exploring queer love and desire. Breaking the mould of conversations on romantic love as they exist is incomplete without accounting for the full range of human possibilities when it comes to love and sex. And although, these are not the strongest poems in the collection, they are important for their expression of female desire. Expressions of women taking ownership over their own bodies in a society that seeks to rigidly control and confine sexuality is always a radical act.

Mainstream representations of female sexuality disconnect women from their bodies. We watch these bodies, and our own bodies, as if from a distance. To speak of one’s own self, to find our minds in our bodies, registering hurt, desire, disappointment and longing furthers a real conversation about sex and sexuality – one that does not sideline emotional states and the inner life of women. It is not easy to advance discussions such as these in an overwhelmingly male-driven media industry.

Sareena Rai in ‘Two Prisons’ relates these concerns in the section “The battles within”:

I am shy about my body –

this prison that holds me down

with the ball and chain of an identity

I never picked.

I wish I could be who I want,

a boy today

a girl tomorrow

maybe, a nobody next week.

The body, so central to the imagery when it comes to gender, is both challenged as an essential condition that determines gender identity and undercut with the desire to be ‘nobody’. This literalising of the disconnect of body and mind is an interesting device.

Irina Giri writes also of a dream of weightlessness in her poem ‘Weight’, where she is sundered from her body in a dream, only to wake up and find herself tethered to her 41 kilograms.

In the final analysis, These Fine Lines is indeed a good interrogation of the question laid out in its introduction: what kind of women are we? But it fails to yield what might be particularly Nepali about it, not that it needed to do that. It would, however, be interesting to see the performance of marginalised identities as it intersects with class, caste and ethnicity – a truer spirit of the slam. Women have things to say not just about themselves, but should be capable of extrapolating their stories as stories of the nation itself. These poems are certainly not afraid to be overheard by men or the dominant culture. It’s no longer the tentative use of the “I” or the personal story that is the cause for hesitancy, but perhaps in laying claim to narratives that are politically and historically set in the contexts they inhabit, to speak directly of civil war, democracy and government, nationalism and federalism, the question of class and ethnicity. Poems that would show us the personal lives of women and tell us something of the macro questions of the country.

~ Puja Sen is a Kathmandu-based journalist and former assistant editor of Himal Southasian.

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