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Celebrating Poetry & Asian Heritage Month: Sheniz Janmohamed's Meetings With Remarkable Women

"These poets have reminded me to push beyond industry expectations of kitsch and exoticism. They have found their voices in street corners, sari folds, deep wells, honey bees, city grates, plane rides and parking spots. They’ve peeled poems off of telephone poles and chai glasses."

book cover The Body of My Garden

In celebration of Asian Heritage Month, I revisited my bookshelves, desk, bedside table and floors (my room is small and my books are many) to uncover some of my favourite books by South Asian Canadian authors. While I was rummaging, a question arose in my mind: How can I possibly choose a handful of authors from a vast array of books?

Inspired by Natalie Zed’s recent blog post about the lack of reviews for poetry books by Canadian women, I decided to compile my own list of South Asian Canadian female poets (that was a mouthful). What began as a list of scribbled names slowly turned into a recounting of memories.

The heart dreams you
reads you thick like honey
spreading amber fragments of light
upon the page.

-Rishma Dunlop, The Body of My Garden

The first poet I discovered in undergrad was Rishma Dunlop. Her book, The Body of My Garden, became a constant companion- on subways, streetcars, long walks and “study” dates. I came back to her poems when I was unsure of myself—when I needed the voice of a poet who had memorized the sea in her fingers to metaphorically splash some salt water on my face.  When I met with her for the first time, I handed her a pamphlet of poems that would’ve been tossed in the garbage if I found them today. She was gracious and receptive, even though they were crap. I still remember the glint of her antique ring hitting the light of the sun, the stain of her lipstick on her cappuccino cup, the sweeping lines of her carefully penned autograph.

Book Cover Women Dancing On Rooftops

I am Allah’s roused jugular vein
I am Allah’s favourite purple jamun fruit
I am Allah’s wet green-brown henna
I am Allah’s Friday prayer, Friday moon

-Yasmin Ladha, Women Dancing on Rooftops: Bring your Belly Close

I discovered Yasmin Ladha though a dear friend and poet, Sandy Pool. She found Women Dancing on Rooftops: Bring your Belly Close and thought it would resonate with me.  As I flipped through the pages, I was bombarded by opposing images, voices and poetic styles. It went against the grain of conventional poetry. It was daring and unapologetic—sensory overload at its finest. Ladha reminded me to be fearless in the pursuit of a line, even if it may be deemed heretical. Although I have never met her, I take comfort in knowing that we share the same publisher.

Book Cover Dharma Rasa

The eye of the wind, shooting cannons of bougainvillea blossoms.
Drops as large as silver rupees splat on the mud walk
creating fast flowing rivulets freeing children’s boats.

- Kuldip Gill, Dharma Rasa

The first and only time I met the late Kuldip Gill met was a sunny day in Toronto. We agreed to meet at the hotel she was staying at. When I greeted her in the lobby, her pure white hair and red lipstick proved to me that you can be beautiful at any age. She was the epitome of grace. We had a coffee at the hotel cafe, brainstorming about the etymology of words and the structure of ghazals. We had a buffet lunch at an Indian restaurant and returned to the hotel so she could change for the book launch we planned to attend in the evening. Dressed in black with a subdued but intricately designed Kashmiri shawl, Kuldip apologized for making me wait for so long in the lobby (in truth, the wait was quite short).

Kuldip was my first mentor, the first poet to understand my voice without trying to change it. She taught me how to find the jewel of each line and discard the excess. She allowed me to be free with form, as along as I respected tradition. When she died, I stood outside my house, barefoot. Baffled. I had no idea she was ill. I remembered the last words she sent me—and how she was eagerly awaiting my response. I never had the chance to write back.

And now, I see myself in the new generation of poets: Doyali Farah Islam, a sufi poet who speaks to me like I’m speaking to myself. Danielle Lagah, who has the gift of pulling her ancestors out from their dusty graves by writing them into existence. Priscila Uppal, whose style is just as unique as her poetic voice. Soraya Peerbaye, whose kindness almost exceeds her immense talent.

There are so many more poets who have not been named (please forgive me). These are simply reflections of my journey, reflections of poets who have moved me to write, re-write, stop writing, keep writing, forget writing, remember writing.

They have reminded me to push beyond industry expectations of kitsch and exoticism. They have found their voices in street corners, sari folds, deep wells, honey bees, city grates, plane rides and parking spots. They’ve peeled poems off of telephone poles and chai glasses.

This is, by no means, an attempt to marginalize their talents by their cultural identities, nor do I wish to ‘claim’ them. It is simply an attempt to hear them once again. To give them a space to be heard.

Where we shouldn’t have to strain our ears to listen.

Sheniz Janmohamed is spoken word artist, author and graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. She has been mentored by Dionne Brand, Kuldip Gill and Janice Kulyk Keefer. She is also is the founder of Ignite Poets, a youth spoken word initiative with an emphasis on social awareness. She has been performing for over 7 years and has been featured at the TedXYouth Conference (Toronto, 2010) and This is not a Reading Series to name a few. Her first book, Bleeding Light a collection of sufi-inspired English ghazals, was published in 2010. Bleeding Light explores a woman’s journey through night. She knows that in order to witness dawn, she has to travel through dusk first. Throughout her journey, she is caught between West and East, religion and heresy, love and anti-love, darkness and the knowledge of light.

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