Book Review: Usha Akella’s ‘I Will Not Bear You Sons’

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By Nishi Pulugurtha

“May you bear a hundred sons,” “may you bear eight sons,” “may you bear sons” – traditional common blessings that most of us have heard. They clearly speak of an entrenched patriarchy that tears into the social fabric. The title of Usha Akella’s recent book of poems I Will Not Bear You Sons is a clear hark to these blessings. As she says about the poems in the volume: “They are thematically united by feminism, activism and autobiography.” The volume is divided into two sections – ‘I’ and ‘We’ with 37 and 26 poems in each respectively.

Usha Akella founded Matwaala  in 2015 and directs it along with Pramila Venkateshwaran. Matwaala is the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the Unites States of America. She is also the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin which organizes poetry readings in women’s shelters, senior homes, and hospitals. Akella has authored nine books that include volumes of poetry, a chapbook, and two musical dramas.

The poems in the first section ‘I’ of the book voice Akella’s experience as a writer and as a woman straddling two identities, Indian and America and as a woman whose work clearly reveals a deep sensitivity to the condition of women. The poems in the second section ‘We’ speak of marginalized women from all cultures struggling for their identities. As she notes, “I pay tribute to women, in the second section by addressing various issues like foot binding, FGM, rape, mysticism, politics, terrorism – hoping to rewrite a narrative of patriarchy and selfhood defined by the Brahmin Niyogi sensibility I was born into, and inculcated with.”

“Reemergence” speaks of the battles fought, of bonds that are created and exist in spite of all difficulties, of the reaching out, of the seemingly comfortable zone of the home and family:

Simple human actions, eating together, washing dishes,

of harmony, kinship and family—we are reconfigured

in a lucent house breathing a cornucopia of light,

limpid walls and tiles seem fluid like water

“Poems I Can’t Write” speaks of what a woman can write, or should write about, something that bothers and disturbs:

So, I took another story called Kali,

garlanded with the skulls of

each painful fall in the world

The Kali within that has to be brought out, to come into one’s own, to write about things that a woman wants to write about, what she feels earnestly about, using images and metaphors that express vividly, to craft words into poems that recreate, cry out, and boldly speak.

victim, abuser, wreaking revenge

senselessly on a battlefield, hurt,

hurting, hating, fatigued. emerging.

“I Will Not Bear You Sons” is a long poem that speaks of the daughter-in-law in a family who does not exist for most of the time, who is an absent presence, ignored and unheard:

In his speech he praised his wife,

his daughter, his sons, his grandchildren,

he omitted his daughters-in-law, and I

stilled my voice on the verge of bleeding red like a period,

and they ate and ate and danced and smiled and smirked,

and all was well with the world.

She is only remembered as a womb, a womb that must produce sons. There is a seething sense of anger that breaks through the lines.

The poems in I Will Not Bear You Sons voice the shared experience of women, from expectations of South Asian women at home, to the foot binding done in China, to sexual harassment in the workplace. Voicing an activism that combines social commentary along with lived experience, Akella’s poems reveal a keen sense of and the need to speak for social justice in all spheres. Images of cooking and the daily routine brilliantly coalesce to speak of division of labour in the kitchen and home that reveal the power structures in domesticity in “Harmony”. The irony in the title is brilliantly brought out:

he scrutinizes the rotis, tad over burnt, he says,

she is mortified; chastised she hurries to re-make one

more perfect round moon in this perfect harmony

Akella uses the metaphor and the structure of a recipe in the poem “Poetry in Spicy Mango Gravy” to speak of memory, metaphor, nostalgia, language, and cultural identity.

In “Lotus Feet” the lines speak of the pain that the feet endure, feet that are bound so that they look dainty and good, to satisfy the

masculine beholder whose gaze says make her

small small smaller till she cannot

stand; so perfect so beautiful so dainty,

imagine moonbeams for feet

and lotuses for footprints

“Ants” voices the hybrid identity that struggles to hold on in an ever-changing world.

Snow now white as

gammaxene — a hybrid

heap of memories haunts — the cumulus of cities: Hyderabad

Melbourne, Baltimore, White Plains, Austin. Madder than the hatter she

feels transiting from house to house.

What makes the poems reach out and speak so wonderfully is the fact that Akella brings the personal and the individual to create a narrative that is collective and that speaks without borders and boundaries.

I burst into petals of the sun,

I throw comets from my

navel, I am sprouting auburn blossoms

I burn the day. I am hell,

I am your air.

Centuries, breathe if you can. (“Recant at St Maximin”)

Misogyny, patriarchy, sexual harassment, forced silences, the experiences of working women, Akella’s poems speak of all these. Her activism is clearly evident in the honesty with which she speaks about these in her poems, in the metaphors and images that she uses that voice so much that needs to be spoken. They are also a social commentary on life. Characterized by a passion, brave and harsh at times, with wit at other times, the poems strike a chord as they speak of myriad women’s voices.  Many of the poems refer to real women and girls who have suffered, who had to bear the brunt of violence in a harsh world making the cries even more real and heart-wrenching. They voice a sense of identity, loneliness, anxiety as they move through cultures and time periods, uniting all in one large canvas. The volume is a wonderful addition to the oeuvre of feminist poetry by a major poet of the diaspora.

Bio:
Nishi Pulugurtha is an academic and writes short stories, poetry, on travel, film, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in various journals and magazines. Her publications include a monograph on Derozio (2010), a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019), an edited volume of essays on travel, Across and Beyond (2020) and a volume of poems, The Real and the Unreal and Other Poems (2020). Her recent book is a collection of short stories, The Window Sill (2021) and a second volume of poems is forthcoming.

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