#DesiReads: Raena Shirali reads from her poetry collection, summonings

#DesiReads Raena Shirali

Desi Books Ep 87 w/ Raena Shirali Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 87 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 Raena Shirali reading from her poetry collection, summonings.

#DESIREADS WITH RAENA SHIRALIINTRODUCTION

Raena Shirali is the author of two collections of poetry. Her first book, GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award, and her second, summonings (Black Lawrence Press, 2022), won the 2021 Hudson Prize. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University, Shirali is also the recipient of prizes and honors from VIDA, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Formerly a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine, Shirali now serves as Faculty Advisor for Folio—a literary magazine dedicated to publishing works by undergraduate students at the national level. She holds an MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University. The Indian American poet was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and now lives in Philadelphia.

Indebted to the docupoetics tradition, summonings investigates the ongoing practice of witch (“daayan”) hunting in India—specifically, in Jharkhand and in the migrant adivasi communities of tea plantations in West Bengal (though the phenomenon has also been documented in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Bihar.) Shirali accommodates the imagined while also honoring the actual by carving out physical space in her text for anthropological research and quotes from survivors. Her work interrogates the political implications and shortcomings of writing subaltern persona while acknowledging the author’s westernized positionality. Continuing to explore multi-national and intersectional concerns around identity raised in her debut collection, Shirali asks how first- and second-generation immigrants reconcile the self with the lineages that shape it, wondering aloud about those lineages’ relationships to misogyny and violence. These precarious poems explore how antiquated and existing norms surrounding female mysticism in India and America inform each culture’s treatment of women. summonings is a comment on power and patriarchy, on authorial privilege and the shifting role of witness, and, ultimately, on an ethical poetics, grounded in the inevitable failure to embody the Other.

On a personal note, Shirali’s entire premise here is incredibly fascinating to me as a fiction writer and instructor. I focus on both historical fiction and magical realism. And I so appreciate that she is upfront about her westernized perspective and privilege when writing about the subaltern. Some writers talk the talk about empathy while “writing the other” and still, to me, their writing about the subaltern comes off as exploitative (especially when we see how those books are then marketed to us readers.) Let’s call this the #SlumdogMillionaireDiscourse that we so need to have about those books. Quite frankly, they’re our American Dirt. We’re just not talking about them in that way. Yet. And it’s along the lines of, but not quite the same thing as, #MangoDiscourse, which I wrote about in 2021.

And now, here’s Raena Shirali. A transcript of some of the excerpts is also up on the Desi Books website.

Indebted to the docupoetics tradition, Raena Shirali’s poetry collection, summonings, investigates the ongoing practice of witch (“daayan”) hunting in India and is a comment on power and patriarchy. #DesiReads @DesiBooks


#DESIREADS WITH RAENA SHIRALI

To situate the excerpt I’ll read today, I’d like to open with a quote from the anthropological research which constitutes the back matter of the book. The first poem I’ll read, “at first, trying to reach those accused,” directs readers to this section of the Notes:

[Faced with poor wages and the associated dismal living and working conditions that accompany a suppressed working class…the adivasi workers connect the micro-, village-level strain of ailments to witchcraft rather than blaming the deaths on the lack of proper medical aid for the workers.] Forces noted as having influenced this culture of accusation include: land disputes, [anti-colonial tensions], [fear and suspicion of women’s sexuality], &, more broadly, [gender conflicts legitimized by religion, folklore, and patriarchal customs]. 

Each of these poems engages with those factors that engender a culture of accusation, which, of course, results in women being accused of being witches. But these poems also portray an author thinking critically about what it means to write into a subject so far from her personal experience.

[Excerpted with permission from summonings by Raena Shirali. Copyright © 2022 Raena Shirali.]

at first, trying to reach those accused

i swallowed burnt matchsticks, her hair a tar tumbleweed 

in the room’s south-facing corner. i did this to pray & i did this 

to feel. & then i swallowed my old chant : his name, his 

name : like i’m not made of my oppressor’s 

undoing. & then i swallowed theory. i swallowed 

plantation politics, tried prying plantains from my lips, plump 

from sitting on a velvet couch & touching them dry

to my wrists while reading about her body. strung up 

for slaughter, called names in the oppressor’s 

language, covered in silt. & then i swallowed puddles. & then i 

swallowed sandalwood & tried to cloak & cover 

& render her erotic, for the oppressor sometimes saves 

the objects of his desire.

& then i swallowed desire. i held the smoldering 

cow dung patty at my core. i smelled like it. i was shit & wanted 

to be shit. & then i swallowed pretense. swallowed 

countries. why try to get close when you could become, i said, 

& then i swallowed myself, chased me down 

with goat milk & shorn fur. & then i turned to the page 

& swallowed it & i took it like a shot & took it like a man & took 

the punches & still wandered through mazes of huts asking my people 

what it felt like to be oppressed. & then i swallowed tea. i swallowed 

the fertilized soil. & then i swallowed braids 

& locust shells & i wanted to smell like incense 

because the oppressor values patchouli & cedar 

so i bought a candle to smell like my heritage 

& then i swallowed wax & was viscous & suddenly then

i could not move. & my ankles were bound but they left my wrists 

free. & i could not speak but still 

i mouthed a name i’d never heard & i felt her 

like my own ghost. there was no magic : it was not profound.

“. . . & i wanted to smell like incense 
because the oppressor values patchouli & cedar 
so i bought a candle to smell like my heritage . . .”
~Raena Shirali, summonings
#DesiReads @DesiBooks

on projection

the gun to my head is ownership.
the gun to my head is 
i’m taking the word empathy 
& hanging it as on a laundry line
& watching it waver in wind
& not believing in words & also
relying on them. reader, men & women alike 
shutter themselves with superstition.

+

supposing i board
the plane, remain suspended

some sort of cloud,
buoyant, detached

for one full day, followed by my arrival 
in a place not 

of my mother’s dialect, not 
of my father’s kin, armed 

with language : [patrilineal], 
[marang buru], [flower feast], [nage era].

how surely i’d arrive with detriments : visible
tattoos, hair dyed lighter at the ends, english 

a target pinned to the chest, the west,
the inescapable truth of my birth. 

+

to explain the distance 
between self & subject is to admit 
the unlikelihood of my self
understanding a given subject. i’m talking : theorizing 

understanding. i’m talking : 
my inevitable failure to embody.
reader, consider 
the basic elements of this narrative—daayan, ojha : hunted,

godly. assume
telling any story fully 
involves considering all sides.

+

here, men wield village secrets
like weapons, catapult accusations
through the fields. i’ve read so much

about legs & backs : ache-laden
& no choice but to eat [paje] daily
& yet—. 

i’m just camera. i’m shutter, closed, i’m protected
from light, i’m just telling a story
to which i’ll never know an end.

+

no boarding the plane

no bitter root

no lean season

no poem

“here, men wield village secrets
like weapons, catapult accusations
through the fields. i’ve read so much

about legs & backs : ache-laden”

~Raena Shirali, summonings
#DesiReads @DesiBooks

before plantations, women rustle the brush together

cloth slings bursting with nuts & berries, wound
around a length of bamboo. here, daayans forage, are
but women. they sit together, 

feet dangling over roadside ditches, sharing stories of men 
who stand almost too tall, craning their necks skyward 
as if to project a peacock’s air : male bird : all preen 

& chosen. there are warnings. of villagers
who make shadows broad 
as buildings. what did it mean to sit alone

or in groups? a woman lights a candle
& my imagination is a failure. 
or a woman sits alone, cheeks red with sweat 

& the color red doesn’t signal. there 
are solitudes i don’t have
to interpret : no metaphor 

for her joy. & if i am 
aligned with anyone,               anyone 
in jharkhand, how can i say it’s not

with men : shaded safely at a distance
making observations : here : the art of taking 
note.  


“cloth slings bursting with nuts & berries, wound
around a length of bamboo. here, daayans forage, are
but women. they sit together,”

~Raena Shirali, summonings
#DesiReads @DesiBooks

lucky inhabitant

failing to conjure even distant relatives       i know not 

which women precede me, believe all this pain is at least 
our own    on my lap experts theorize

[witchcraft is no longer a personal matter]

state plainly [the women had nails
driven into their foreheads] & full up now with steel

& scythes & a list of weapons wielded

against us, am nauseous & taking it       personally     though 
at least am not asked to detail my assault on television

holding my chin up for photographers      dubbed icon

& simultaneously driven out of the nation
yes       you might say this makes me one of the lucky

inhabitants      yes      here there are no [jackfruit

trees] but in a chamber the semicircle of [men had red 
eyes—the kind of eyes that saw no reason and were filled

with cruelty] & somewhere online i am blamed

for not remembering     yes     gone now my willful ascension
the stairs, his room             & i don’t fight back      know what fate

awaits women who protest too much      no matter dialect

or country the question is the same     [ki jani]     they ask
in the motherland     & who knows     here we throw up

our hands & it isn’t in prayer 

there’s blood in the soil so they call it filth      blood 
on our legs so they call us gone      they’re not wrong 

& they will not     be fooled, won’t      take it back

it’s night & the [jackfruit trees] close in      there’s chanting
in the distance who owns               this world

Indebted to the docupoetics tradition, Raena Shirali’s poetry collection, summonings, investigates the ongoing practice of witch (“daayan”) hunting in India and is a comment on power and patriarchy. #DesiReads @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 87 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 Raena Shirali reading from her poetry collection, summonings.

Episode 88 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 poet and help raise the tide of South Asian literature. Thank you.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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