#DesiReads: Gaia Rajan reads from her poetry collection, Killing It


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Hello and welcome to Episode 85 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Gaia Rajan reading from her poetry collection, Killing It.

#DESIREADS WITH GAIA RAJANINTRODUCTION

Gaia Rajan is the author of the chapbooks Moth Funerals (Glass Poetry Press, 2020) and Killing It (Black Lawrence Press, 2022). Her work is published or forthcoming in the 2022 Best of the Net anthology, The Kenyon Review, THRUSH, Split Lip Magazinediode, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. Gaia is an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, studying computer science and creative writing. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA. You can find her at @gaiarajan on Twitter or Instagram.

Killing It won the Spring 2021 Black River Chapbook Competition. Her second short collection, it’s a razor-sharp interrogation of queer Asian American identity, intergenerational trauma, and the detritus of American achievement. Here, lineage is at once redemptive and violent: “Sometimes // when people say I’m killing it I remember everything // exemplary I know or ever will traces back to a small girl // on the floor praying please, please, make them see me.” In this steely gut-punch of a collection, Rajan’s speakers don’t flinch, even when confronted with their own dissolution. They haunt ghost towns and cheer on bank robbers; they wake in the middle of the night with visceral dreams of a centuries-old genocide, trying to remember “how to coax a howl to eat;” they grasp for myths sturdy enough to hold, emerging empty-handed and furious. Killing It is a vibrant, disquieting collection that demands to be read with reverence and abandon.

On a personal note, let me just add that these poems are exactly how that last line described them: both vibrant and disquieting. You know, I’m a prose writer. And I am constantly in awe of how poets distill things down to the most essential and haunting ideas, thoughts, and scenes. Gaia’s poems do that so well that they deserve multiple rereads to appreciate both their language and their layers. Also: I owe Gaia a huge apology for taking three months to get this out there. My own book release, writing deadlines, and a constant backlog all contributed to this. I promise I will do better in 2023.

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the Desi Books website.

And now, here’s Gaia Rajan.

Gaia Rajan’s latest poetry collection, Killing It, is a razor-sharp interrogation of queer Asian American identity, intergenerational trauma, and the detritus of American achievement. #DesiReads @DesiBooks


DESIREADS WITH GAIA RAJAN

[Excerpted with permission from Killing It by Gaia Rajan. Copyright © 2022 Gaia Rajan.]

Killing It

My folks say hoping’s good but it’ll never save you,
because in our Ohio the best you’ll get is broke
televangelists and ravenous churches. My folks
are bootstrap royalty. Crisp in cuffed shirts and gold
wedding rings that flash on a backhand slap. I was the prodigal
daughter and then a prodigy, the child mothers prayed for,
spelling bee queen, good at silence. In town they say we don’t
deserve our breath but we call ourselves holy anyway
because even gods have short memories. All my friends are bored
waitresses who fold tips in their skirts like scriptures
and touch up smudged lipstick at the altar of convenience
store bathrooms. We line our cheeks with drive-through
grease and never talk about our bodies. Wait in the backseat
for a damp god. Like all good disciples, we are grateful
for our unmaking. We neon we bleeding leaving
one by one for the redeye shift. I don’t let things be faded
in poems. My folks believe in lotteries, not failures. The opposite
of dead is exemplary. They believe this every time they abandon me
kneeling at their beauty, their model, their myth. My folks know all
that is holy is only a failure of distance; white man,
far enough away, turns to god. Sometimes
when people say I’m killing it I remember everything
exemplary I know or ever will traces back to a small girl
on the floor praying please, please, make them see me

“…Sometimes / when people say I’m killing it I remember everything / exemplary I know or ever will traces back to a small girl / on the floor praying please, please, make them see me” ~Gaia Rajan, Killing It #DesiReads @DesiBooks

Rites
for A

You look so happy, your father will say after your first shift. You are good at being happy. You are seventeen, suddenly pretty. You understand how the world works. If you’re good at school you’ll meet a boy in science club or orchestra and if not you’ll meet him in the parking lot. You will like him because he does not know anything about you. You’ll fuck for the first time in this field if it’s still a field and if by then it’s a strip mall you’ll go to his car. You are good at being happy with usual men, their mediocre bodies. You’ll visit him at the end of his min-wage shift as a dishwasher and his elbows will be soaked and soapy. He’ll hug you and it’ll leave your back cold, like the idea of wings. He’ll break up with you when you both get into college out of state and you will not mourn. You will go to the DMV. You’ll roll a cigarette on the sidewalk outside the DMV and light it with the lighter a girl you loved gave you for your seventeenth birthday. The girl will be named something white and usual—Susan, Alice, Emma. She will have perfect pitch or a buzzcut. She will be Asian like you. You will hate her and if you finally realize you love her she will die before you can say anything. If you do not realize you love her then you will sit on the sidewalk outside a DMV and grind your cigarette butt into the pavement, and it will pop when extinguished, like the idea of fireworks, and you will drive away, and the cigarette will outlive you.

“You are good at being happy. You are seventeen, suddenly pretty. You understand how the world works.” ~Gaia Rajan, Killing It #DesiReads @DesiBooks

Inheritance

No one lives just once.
Get lucky and it’ll be a clean break

but sometimes an earlier self claws out
from your sinew, she escapes to the alley on break

from the gas station night shift and grasps her name
over and over in the dark or she loses her broken

voice begging at a border or she sprints home
sure something’s chasing her, breaking

brambles like the doe her neighbor shot
through the eye. Two of these a morning, I barely break

a sweat. I swore I could smell her, the body
sour with ghosts, blooming. Then the doe broke

through the trees again, bristling like she’d never
been killed at all. I wanted to say please break

please crumple all on your own. I wanted to say doe,
I don’t want to kill you. Please, I know how to break.

//

Sister, I don’t want to kill you. Please, I know how to break
my name in two. I’ve learned. I am mine. I am mined

for parts. Lightning. I flee past the doe, past the girl turning porous
in the field, past the night sky where we whispered mine

mine mine because we hadn’t ever seen a shaft so bright so full
of diamonds. Then the shadow I stumble into is mine,

her head bent back to her hands. She screams. I watch
her colorless tongue. I drive to the gas station where they mine

bones for neon light. I tell the cashier I like the blue. My mother’s
grandmother says I’m too young for ghosts. Says mine

are mostly imagined. In the papers, officials argue Partition’s murders
were a necessary cost. Progress preaches itself to me—

six bluebirds in a sack. Memory is about the body, not the past.
None of these memories are mine.

//

None of these memories are mine.
At night a small child follows me and I can’t remember

what to ask. Who are your parents. How long
since your hands. Do you remember

when you’re from. I watch her, praying not
for god but for language. Child, I swell, I remember

how to touch you, how to be a mother, how to coax
a howl to eat. I’m sorry. I said child and meant war. Remember

language is merely a field to walk through. Say sky and look, blue.
Say escape and find corridors of people you can’t remember

you lost. Say ghost and you open yourself to death. A myth
and an exorcism are not different things. Remembered

in a museum: a creature, weeping. Something happened to us but
I can’t remember what, I can’t remember

//

I can’t remember, I can’t remember
anything: the accepted murder of country. Quiet,

child, forget as much as you can, stop leaking
weeping streaking your ghosts across the floors. Quiet

was what the man told me before his hands
at my throat. The government wanted quiet

borders, planted graves at the aperture of progress.
When I was young, my mother took me to see a quiet

horse. I stuck my fist in its mouth. In 1947, two million people died
in migration. I fly back to the border, stand in the quiet

village again. Light on the other side of the door. It’s all over
India, the parade for independence. I watch my mother get quiet

pack a bag with an old newspaper, her mother’s knife, a blue dress
watch her cross the ocean and birth me again and raise me on quiet.

//

I watch her cross the ocean, birth me again, raise me on quiet:
she almost believed we were free. Free, say it again,

with feeling. I’m so tired of this body. I want
a new one. Don’t tell me about ache, you born all over again

in your ancestors’ sludge. Some of us learned to speak
in a cemetery or a dark kitchen, practiced again and again

to twist our mouths around our names. Some of us emerge
into ghosts so silent only the silence is left. Again,

my people die. Again, I swallow, reach back. Cussing cusping
homesick beast. Hey, what’s your name again.

I want to be called sky. Or bite. Palm. Air. I want
to shatter my name so no one can call for me ever again—

so my ghosts lose their way. Please, give me something useful
to do with my dead. Please: the words shot limp, gone, again

//

My dead— please— the words shot limp, gone. Again,
I make it summer because what else is there to want

except escape, banged-up Volvo whirring past preachers
promising hell, past my grandmother’s mother who wanted

to be a poet, past the year my mother lived below the temple believed
nothing and all the moonlight spilled over, past the want

for ancestors or a good story or a body— and time unspools
again. The border has my mother’s eyes. It wants

my body useful. Wants me thankful, silent,
leaving on a winning streak. I don’t want

to be a happy corpse. I turn on the tap, scrub at my skin
watch the water turn red like a wanted

poster. Not even my grief is new. I wander through corridors
where the dead are everywhere and full of want.

//

Where the dead are everywhere and full of want.
Where you can leap between centuries and not once

glimpse the faces of kin. Where every footfall leaves
wounds in the ash. I want to prove we were here once.

Everyone I could be is dead. I want someone to call
my name, to swear my body had been new once.

The gas station says enlist for the army if you’re devoted to your country
and I forget which. God of neon signs or dead women dear god oh god once

I believed. Once, a girl let the ghosts inside her body, brushed their hair
with her antlers, and she was never lonely again. Once,

a god was anything you couldn’t see up close. I promise—
I will kneel into the brush, try to stand, just once.

Leave the porch light on for my ancestors.
No one lives just once.

“In 1947, two million people died / in migration. I fly back to the border, stand in the quiet / village again.” ~Gaia Rajan, Killing It #DesiReads @DesiBooks

Baby Girl’s Third Birthday


In a dream, the end came. It had my mother’s eyes. Everyone was flying except for me. I looked up and saw wind in their skirts. It was raining. I was wearing a green dress. I turned off the sun. Go you! screamed the woman. I ran up the slide and didn’t slide down. I climbed a tree and watched the boy smile with his braces wide like big harps. Once my eyes didn’t let me open. Harps are scary. Everyone floated up to the moon and I couldn’t fly. I dug a small hole in the sandbox and stuck my hand in it. How long will I be drowning, I asked aloud. I was wearing big red lips. Up! Up! smiled my mother. A man put his hands on my face to see if I was bright. I like rabbits when they’re alive. I want to kill the moon. I beg the dream to let me back into my body.

Parable of the Unclean Land


And then every animal we’d ever slain clamored forth,
moaning like men, moaning like deer, the bullet
still in them, the bullet still rushing forward,
and there we were, steeped in blood. We’d been deadly,
we’d had to be—two women alone in the backwater
in my father’s old house and her father’s borrowed shoes.
We were always hungry, so I tracked blood into the house,
hid a .45 in the closet, dressed to mourn. My father taught me
how to kill and not flinch. First of four brothers
to skin veal, first to shoot a deer in the eye.
His wife was the woman at the fire who turned
his creatures on her spit. I was the girl. I watched
the way he held his gun, stayed up to practice
on the plywood out back. And when I told my father
I loved a woman he hit me in the jaw,
stayed up all night shooting plywood while I watched
from my window, and the next morning I made him breakfast.
I smiled, told him yes sir I understand sir I am just learning
how to be a proper woman
, followed the rats
into the smallest corners and felt dead
for months after. Unlike him, I am a good man;
every time I kill, I bury it. When he died I lived in his house,
killed deer the way he did, kissed the woman he hated,
kept goldfish. The house yawned open, and we had to try,
for the last time, to not die here. We fled
to the train station. Fruit flies hissed at the ticket counter,
covered the welcome sign. The deer’s left eye winched shut,
angry purple. Hissing, a goldfish appeared at my feet,
dirt still scattered on its flank, the shallows
of a grave. I was so sure that in the new city,
in the new house, I would be able to love her.
The creatures stood in a crescent, stamping their oily feet,
and we stood apart from one another with our eyes open.

“And when I told my father / I loved a woman he hit me in the jaw, / stayed up all night shooting plywood while I watched / from my window, and the next morning I made him breakfast.” ~Gaia Rajan, Killing It #DesiReads @DesiBooks

Pine Street


There’s a game we used to play called Mercy:
someone twisted your arm back so tendons almost volted

through skin. The boy whispered in my ear call mercy,
you know you’re just a girl, I’ll stop if you call, just

do it. I fought gasps until everyone else surrendered
to the sidewalk, until a scream swelled through

my throat, until streetlights smeared
into dropped dimes. I swear, I waited the longest

of anyone. Eight years later, an old woman
on the same street said you’re so strong, I don’t know

how you do it. Cupped her hands on my forehead,
passed them through my translucent form as if to give

a blessing, her breath rising sour into my mouth. I was admired,
though I was not loved. An image of a girl

but never the girl. The holy men said your life is a battle
you win through prayer, amen
, and the entire pew stood

as if to attention, cheers bleeding outward. I could never
leave that street. And when all the poplars shriveled up

I painted them forest green. I hid my gentleness like a wound,
and so, when I glimpsed something—a deer?—flashing

through those wooded backyards, those tiny metallic sparks,
of course I assumed it had to be a dagger.

What wouldn’t you believe to be victorious? I mean
alive. I scurried off into the smallest burrows to fight

alone, orphaned myself and called it liberation, left
my body at the altar of anything that flinched. The dirt

liked blood, and I learned it. Returned on my knees,
studied how to hold a shout, my arms

unhinging. Watched as I was buried, the dark
so full of writhe, a knife sutured to my throat,

something weak in me beginning, generously, to cry.


Gaia Rajan’s latest poetry collection, Killing It, is a razor-sharp interrogation of queer Asian American identity, intergenerational trauma, and the detritus of American achievement. #DesiReads @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 85 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we had Gaia Rajan reading from her poetry collection, Killing It.

Episode 86 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. And please share this via social media to support the writer and help raise the tide of South Asian literature. Thank you.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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