I’m a relentless reviser. I fuss and I fidget over everything, most of all poems. It is hard to leave it alone. It is hard to let it go. To do so, you have to remind yourself it ever happened. You have to give it a shape. From 2005-2014, I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t stop asking, what do we sound like when we try to express ourselves after the horrific has occurred?
I could remind you that 200,000 Bangladeshi women, known as birangona (war heroines), were systematically raped during the 1971 Liberation War. 200,000 women. That’s roughly two stadiums worth of University of Texas and/or Michigan football fans. Or what you’d get if you added 76,000 more people to the population of my hometown in west Texas. A human adult body is typically 4-6 feet. That’s miles and miles of savaged women. And then there are the women in my own life. It wrecks me to think of it. Multiply that feeling by 200,000. Multiply that feeling by the number of women who were killed or didn’t speak up.
None of that tells me, though, what a single individual’s mind and body might be trying to say to each other as it’s happening. And what about the work that must be done after you’re finally released by whatever has pinned you down to use you against your will? How to revise the damage that has been done? What does the psyche of a person who has been enslaved sound like as it begins to repair?
I spent a year in Bangladesh so I could ask women who underwent this atrocity themselves. Before I went, I would have assumed that a book like Seam, the book of poems I wrote as a result of my time with them, ended inevitably in darkness, in a life endless with pain and grief. Only after that year could I see that we still have the choice to revise our stories towards the will to continue, rather than a desire to die. Atrocity is not just a socio-political concept, because surviving it is a daily biological and psychological fact.
If I could revise Seam, I would write images of the hard grace of survival. The women I spoke with taught me that all the outrage in the world can’t replace everyday patience, the slow and repeated movements of the concert between a mind and body in action. I wouldn’t have needed to make metaphors of the sunlit corners of the clean and meticulous homes they keep. The deft swerve of their bodies as they made tea or teased a dancing child or consoled an upset neighbor writes itself.
I didn’t write Seam with a goal in mind. I had a handful of questions. I told myself not to expect answers because then I wouldn’t be part of the conversation in front of me. In the end, I always want to see if anyone is willing to trust me with the truth when I ask them for it. If I could revise Seam, I’d write the laughter and affection that happened after I answered the questions they asked me.
Maybe the point is not forgetting, but looking back and re-seeing. It is possible to revise powerlessness into the power we still have over our own actions. We don’t have to destroy our records of trauma to live free of them. Everything is near and unforgotten. It is possible to remember and let go.
I can’t revise Seam, but I can look back and see that I was hurting and so were they. I was laughing and so were they. It’s only now, five years later, that I’m finally able to open the notebooks I kept during my time with them. It’s only now that I can write the final poem of Seam that I couldn’t see the shape of then. Maybe writing and revising allows us to practice what seems so difficult when we’ve been wounded: to loosen the seams of our scars until we are less afraid to open ourselves to the world. Maybe the grace of poetry is that it allows us to revise outrage into the fortitude of daily work songs.
INTERVIEW WITH A BIRANGONA
9. What do you do to survive?
We keep open houses.
We are not afraid to smile.
Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Register of Eliminated Villages (Graywolf, 2017) and Seam (SIU, 2014), winner of a VIDA Award, GLCA New Writers’ Award, & the Milton Kessler First Book Award. Recent poems appear in Poetry Magazine, jubilat, New England Review and are anthologized in Best New Poets 2013, The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation, and elsewhere. She is the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor of Poetry at the University of Michigan and co-directs Organic Weapon Arts with Jamaal May.
10.09.15 by Tarfia Faizullah