Poetry and Indo-Guyanese Feminisms
Poetry as a Revolutionary Art Form
Poetry is a literary form of expression that captures an author’s voice in any form they choose. For this reason, women-authored poetry has been described as a radical form of expression. Audre Lorde writes that “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change.” Indo-Caribbean poetry must be analyzed through this very scope—for which we understand these women’s voices as historical and contemporary revolutionaries. Their poetry, mostly free-form, speak of Guyana’s colonized past and push towards a future that retains Indian culture, but sheds its misogynist and racist skin.
Women poets like Das, Singh, and Yardan have paved the way for newer poets Sharleen Singh and Janet Naidu. Like their predecessors, Sharleen Singh and Naidu produce “a window—unique in many ways—into the social problems that bedevil [Guyana].” Even as newer poets enter into Indo-Diasporic literary practice unpublished, their poetry explores a digital space. This allows for even greater pairing of poetry with photographs and other media that document the Indo-Guyanese diaspora. Aside from poetry, Guyanese artists Roshini Kempadoo and Grace Aneiza Ali continue to create this “window” of perspectives that entwine photography into their creative narratives. As the diaspora expands and more Indo-Guyanese immigrants populate various places on Earth, it is hoped that their imaginative art and literature grows.
From Kala Pani to “New Politics”
Indo-Guyanese women poets often wrote from the outlooks of their culture: a twoness that is as much Caribbean as it is Indian. Joy Mahabir explains, “If the writing of Indo-Caribbean women poets who have emerged on the literary scene over the past two decades (1990 to 2010) is explored, it becomes apparent that there are recurring themes associated with the motif of Kala [P]ani, literally the ‘black waters’ crossed by the Indian indentured laborers when they journeyed to colonial plantations.” As Joy Mahabir writes, the Kala Pani emerges in scholarship as the “black waters” which placed the Indian peoples in the context of an existing Afro-Caribbean community. Feminist considerations of women-authored poetry center these women’s voices in “transoceanic dimensions of indentureship and post-indentureship” that understands the ways “[B]lack bodies have been criminalized in relation to Indian and non-[B]lack bodies.” Scholars like Mahabir, Gabrielle Jamela Hosein, Lisa Outar, and Brinda J. Mehta make it abundantly clear that Indo-Guyanese women poets do not discuss the Kala Pani and post-colonial politics as mutually exclusive experiences. While the Kali Pani refers specifically to the space and time of indenture, it also speaks to the feminist discourse that entwines the histories and experiences of women from African and/or Indian descent. As such, understanding Indo-Guyanese poetry from its diasporic roots, must come from a place of exploration into the political and historical transformations of Guyana: transformations that have historically dealt with tensions between the Indian and African communities.
Mahadai Das’s first collection of poetry entitled I Want to Be a Poetess of my People speaks to both the Kali Pani and the political landscape of Guyana in the 1970s. Letizia Gramaglia and Joseph Jackson write that Das’s poetry collection “foregrounds the recovery of a historical Indo-Caribbean female experience: one which sees the role of Guyanese women in cultural and economic production, biological reproduction, combined with the tripartite intersection of ‘co-operative socialism,’ women’s labor, and ecocritical perspectives.” As Gramaglia and Jackson closely read Das’s poems, they begin by affirming the presence of the Kala Pani and later address Das’s poems as a response to Forbes Burham’s presidency directly following Guyana’s independence from Britain. Nigel Westmaas describes this period (1968) as emphasizing “new politics” that was as much characterized by Guyana’s independence as it was by the country’s “failure or inattention to...women’s rights/ feminism.” Das’s poetry, in addition to the poems of Yardan and Singh, propel Guyana’s “new politics” by invoking female presence and authority throughout their pieces. Not only does this convey a vision of Indo-Guyanese women free from “male imaginative writing,” but it separates Indo-Caribbean women from rebarbative stereotypes prevalent in Eurocentric literature and films.