Book Review: Lopamudra Banerjee & Priscilla Rice’s ‘We are what we are: Primal songs of ethnicity, gender & identity’

Lopa

By Chaitali Sengupta

“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.”- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words came to my mind after I finished reading this slim book of poetic songs, We are what we are: Primal songs of ethnicity, gender & identity, penned by the versatile poet and author Lopamudra Banerjee and storyteller, poet Priscilla Rice, both based in Texas, USA. Both of them present their sensitive works from the perception of a diaspora woman searching an independent identity in societies still deeply patriarchal. The book is a journey to self-knowledge, feminist in impulse, viewing and reviewing themselves against their own past through structured thoughts.

In the beautifully worded preface, poet, novelist, and acclaimed writer Dr. Santosh Bakaya writes: “Both come across as feisty feminists, unabashedly unleashing their twin collaborative energies singing primal songs of ethnicity, gender, and identity which finds expression in their powerful poems, essays, and monologues.” The title poem in this collection comes from Lopamudra’s powerful pen and confirms Dr. Bakaya’s claim: “Women. /Pathbreakers/Trailblazers and survivors/And purveyors, bursting/With perverse pleasure,” and then goes on to say, “Women, womb bearers and appeasers/ Nurturers, torchbearers, witches, and fairies” (Page 20). Stamped with her signature fierceness, this gorgeous poem unapologetically navigates layers of shape-shifting identities and is a delight to read. She uses memory and body as tools to express her story of survival and love. “Today, let me craft a poem on the nothingness/And the fullness of being/A pensive, barren woman, / An asexual, prose-driven woman, / An anemic, bulimic, jihadi woman” (“Let me craft a woman”, p. 23). She is both in her candid and authentic self in these emotionally charged lines.

Each poem is this book is an immersive experience. “In the month of Virgo, my endless sari/ A work of Meenakari and intricate epic tales/Walks the wet, fertile earth, pervaded by her cosmic spirit.” Lopamudra ends this poem saying: “Virgo is my second skin, the splinters and shards of the fetus/That bloomed into a babe…” (“The Virgo Diary”, pp. 26-7). The essence of being woman is crafted beautifully with words oozing poetry in a tone that is both urgent and intimate. “A river within me fills up and swells, and I become/ Its wind and melody, its continuum flow, / like birth, death and rebirth” (“A river within me”, p. 35). From poem to poem the readers will encounter the poet’s refreshing insight, her deep scrutiny how as a woman she undergoes some of the most trying moments. “My body has weathered the cycle and calendar/ Of bleeding, birthing, milking” (“The Scarlet rain”, p. 37). We cling to her words for those fortify us for our journeys, too.

Gender and racial identity are at the heart of many of the poems in this volume. “I can’t erase from where I come from. There were many times that I wanted to be from somewhere else-somewhere less country. Somewhere less me” (“Kay-so, a manifesto”, p. 101). Priscilla Rice’s words account for the complexities of belonging. The oscillation and the frustration of being lost between two cultures is palpable in her words. This new place is almost like a no man’s land for her. And she concludes: “I am not apologizing for my tongue and/ I’m going to let it do what it’s gonna do. / I can’t change my tongue, nor do I want to. This I know/ to be true.” The preservation of identities through language becomes an act of self-empowerment. In his well-written ‘Afterword’, Dr. Ampat Koshy talks about the honesty in Rice’s poetry” “Simple and direct with no attempt to varnish it except with what it is already decorated” Rice’s poetry is rich in exploring cultural identity and the notion of belonging and displacement becomes an accurate expression in these lines: “Home is the place where my Grandma Petra lets me take a nap/ And I wake up to the sounds of Cornelio Reyna and Ramon/’……. Home is the place where ‘no one gets old/ Where grandpas and neighbors, and cousins never die” (“Home”, p. 133). The lines are disarmingly simple and her language unadorned, but the effect is both dreamlike and real.

The poets have ambitiously chosen a wide subject matter with far-reaching perspectives. The poems grapple with both cultural and gender norms and demonstrate the changing notions of identity, gender, and ethnicity through their own reflections as they live through different experiences in different cultures. As such this volume has turned out to be a valuable discourse on cultural dualities, hybrid identities, emphasizing on paradox, conflict, feminism, and marginalization. It deserves a wide readership.

Bio:
Chaitali Sengupta is a published writer, poet, translator, and reviewer based in the Netherlands. Timeless tales in Translation is her latest work of 12 translated short stories by Indian authors. Cross Stitched words, her debut collection of prose-poems, is the recipient of Honorary mention award at the New England Book Festival 2021. Her book Legends Speak: Bengali women’s narratives in translation is a collaborative work of translation.

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