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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

No Homeland Here

Reflections on poetry as a refuge from history
By Gaiutra Bahadur |
OCTOBER 9, 2020

As I chased after oral histories to conclude my SAADA archive this summer, I was consumed by the late poet Meena Alexander’s memoir Fault Lines. Alexander was born in Kerala, but oceanic in her identity, a product of sea crossings and multiple countries––India, the Sudan, the United States and the United Kingdom. Her words took hold and would not let go.

History is maquillage. No homeland here.

There I was, here I am, trying to capture a history of my homeland. Both words––history, homeland––give me pause because the ground beneath them seems constantly to be shifting, unsettled by questions. Whose history? Which archive gives us the tools to tell it right? Which homeland? Guyana? India? The United States? Is land by itself enough to make home? And how do I guard against the emotional fuse lit by the merging of those two words––home and land––a fuse so often in the hands of self-serving politicians? I didn’t understand what Meena meant by comparing history to maquillage, to make-up, but her phrase lodged in my brain. It seemed to present itself as some mysterious password to unlock a blinding truth that kept eluding me.

How can history be like Red Ego enunciating the curve of a lip, or kohl endowing an eye with the power to startle? Does history give us a pretty face to present to the world? It so often seems only to give us corpses, which require only an undertaker’s skill with cosmetics, to present a final face for those who mourn.

History is maquillage. No homeland here.

I write this as Guyana, my “homeland,” yet again makes dead bodies of its own in the wake of an election. An election held in March took five months to resolve, as the party in power, which seemed to have lost, insisted it didn’t and, accused of rigging, decided it would itself allege a stolen election. The threat of violence between Guyanese of Indian and African origin lingered throughout this impasse, and I thought we were past the danger when the party in power finally conceded. I was wrong. Yet again, history came and claimed its victims, young people of both ethnic backgrounds killed brutally, last month. This story is one Guyanese have reenacted time and time again since the early 1960s: contested elections, dead bodies. No homeland here.

Grieved by this moment, I feel unable to do anything but to take refuge from history in poetry. Meena Alexander often did. In her memoir, she confessed that she “took to reading poems day and night so that history might not consume me, render me dumb.” It was a relief, as the violence was unfolding, to read poems submitted for entry into my archive on Guyanese immigrants living in the United States. I’ve been collecting oral histories, documents and ephemera related to the material objects that people brought with them in their migrant journeys. The entire project seeks to redefine what an archive might be: to allow those physical items to somehow enter the archive of our history. And the call for poetry submissions went even further, to make poetry not only a refuge from history but also a kind of substitute for it.

I did not expect to be archiving poetry when this project began. This was supposed to be a project in material memory, and it was going to culminate with a pop-up exhibition at CHHAYA, a community development organization led by my dear friend Annetta Seecharan, who was, like me, born in Guyana in the first decade after its independence. When the pandemic hit, I was busy figuring out how I would display a collection of dolls, an Islamic skullcap, a child’s suitcase full of aged documents, a brass lota brought from India during indenture days. Faced with the fact that an exhibit could not happen this fall, that I couldn’t display the things themselves, I decided that I would ask poets to evoke those things instead with their words. I put out a call for submissions.

With sensitivity and insight, the poems offered catalogued a range of things we carried: cutlasses, a masala brick, jewelry made from Guyana gold, a necklace, a carahi or cooking pot, a childhood photograph with an image of Black Jesus, Customs-forbidden fruit, even a wooden table. It was difficult to choose among the 25 poems submitted, but in the end, three stood out: “One Last Bag,” by Elizabeth Jaikaran, “repeat movement until” by Nadia Misir, and “Ramu” by Moses Bhagwan. An audio reading of each poem will enter the archive.

Winners from left to right: Nadia Misir, author of "repeat movement until"
Moses Bhagwan, author of "Ramu"
Elizabeth Jaikaran, author of "One Last Bag"
What gave life to all three was voice. Each had its own distinct and seductive voice. The speaker in the poem by Misir, a gifted writer who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens College, was a wedding ring handed down in a family. She gave elegiac voice to the ring, chronicling its experience with labor, with skin, with surfaces, with temperatures, with grandmothers and granddaughters, with death. The poem by Jaikaran, the author of the short story collection Trauma, impressed me with its buoyant wit, though what it documented was heavy: the weight of a suitcase stuffed with contraband guinep and also (through a migrant trying to please her Queens cousin) the weight of family expectations. And the poem by Moses Bhagwan––a veteran of Guyana’s struggle against colonization, a fighter for a just postcolonial destiny for the country, and a key figure in two of its political parties––gave voice to a sugar cane cutter who, carrying his cutlass home from the fields in 1964, has an ordinary but disturbing encounter with his plantation manager. He wrote the poem while locked up by the British in a detention center in Guyana’s interior. Like Jaikaran’s poem, it is written in Creolese and inflected by place and generation.

The gifts of all three brought me back to Meena Alexander. Although she was from other corners of diaspora than Guyanese have inhabited, she seemed to know so well our quarrel and negotiation with the English language. Each of the poets, perhaps especially the two writing in Creolese, seems to be to doing battle in the way she did when she wrote: “Sometimes, I think of the English language as a pale skin that has covered up my flesh, the broken parts of my world. In order to free myself, in order to appear, I have had to use my teeth and nails, I have had to tear that fine skin, to speak out my discrepant otherness.” I can’t wait to share the discrepant otherness that these three poems elevate to rhythm and voice.

Maybe through their idiom, they tear the fine skin of our colonized history. Maybe they can be a refuge from a history of violence, recurrent still in headlines. Or maybe, as they enter this archive, they will simply become history, part of an alternative history by migrants using maquillage to present a better face to the world than headlines allow.
Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture, is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Newark in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media. Her Archival Creators Fellowship project focuses on documenting within Guyanese communities descended from Indian indentured laborers. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.