A few months ago, I was a featured panelist at the Indo-American Arts Council Literary Festival. The panel focused on poetry specifically and I was the youngest author of the group. I was also the only American author. Everyone else defined themselves as South Asian writers who had migrated to the United States, but continued to return home. At one point, the facilitator asked us how we felt as South Asian writers and how we shaped our work in a place outside our motherland. For me, it was a strange question. I don’t see myself as a South Asian writer, even though I largely define myself in relation to my Indian and South African upbringing.
When I tell people I’m an American, I know I have said the wrong thing. It’s uncomfortable, their reactions and my need to defend my right to my home. I feel profoundly connected to India. My relationship to South Africa is just as special, though I experience it in smaller ways. But neither of these nations feel like home. When I think about my mother’s country, I feel like I’m wearing her clothes, pulling at things that don’t quite fit. My father’s country has become less mine after his death. I’m an American writer. This is my American life. This is what America looks like to me, people who look like me and unlike me.
This sounds like childish American idealism, but this idealism has fueled my family for years. Those laughable diversity advertisements don’t seem so laughable to me, not when I grew up in Queens, New York, a place where more than 50% of the population is foreign born and where more languages are spoken than anywhere else in the country. I grew up with parents who spoke different languages, only one of which perfectly overlapped. It didn’t seem strange to me that a young American woman of Indian and South African descent could be a writer - at least not until I started writing, not until I started looking for names that sounded like mine in libraries, or even on blogs.
The first poem I ever wrote was about my father. I wrote it on the day of his funeral. I was eight years old. When I think about that poem, I think of my all-consuming grief, my powerful love. This is difficult to explain to White America, where death is something people get over with time and counseling. In Brown America, we have a yearly ritual for my father. We continue to pray for the peace of his soul and the peace of our family. My writing stemmed from this little, careful place.
Some poets on Tumblr, literally sign their name to all their work. I do not. My decision not to attach my name to my poems was initially based on a formatting aesthetic. Now, it seems like an easy way for people to forget who I am. At first glance, my love poems could be just like the love poems a white poet would write. Once, I wrote a poem and ended it with the line “I believe the epic is true. One day Odysseus and Penelope will kiss again.” I didn’t want to end it that way. I wanted to write “One day Ram and Sita will kiss again.” But I didn’t want to be so different, and besides, did it really matter?
It does matter. I know the story of Ram and Sita as well as I know the story of how my parents met. For me, they aren’t props to be used when a poem needs another push. I could write about karma and samsara without checking anything on Google. For me, this is real: there have been thousands of Rams and Sitas. On one hand, they are always kissing again. On the other, they are always waiting to be reunited. When my father died, I kept thinking about when, if ever, I would see him again. I used to have this dream of running into him on the street and not recognizing him. If I wrote a poem about that, it would turn into something else. A cliché. A cheap culture poem.
For a long time, it was easier to write about the pain of being brown. My mother reads everything I write and a few weeks ago, she sat me down because I wrote something about wanting to peel off my brown skin and reveal white, white bones. This is a sentence I first said when I was eleven years old. “I am scared for you,” she said, “I don’t want you to feel this way.” I rolled my eyes and read the poem aloud to her, the whole thing. In the middle of the poem, I wrote this verse: “I am going to spend the rest of my life in a body that is a source of boundless joy and endless pain.” I looked at my mother purposefully- it felt like the strangest thing to write that, even stranger to believe it.
I realized a few years ago, I don’t hate my skin anymore. When someone mispronounces my name, I don’t flinch, I don’t apologize for them. I am tired of saying sorry. I am tired of writing for people who want me to be different, but hope I don’t make a big deal about it. It turns out, I am always making a big deal about things. The reason I started writing was because I was making a big deal about my father dying. No one wanted to listen then. Even now, I suspect, it is too much.
Poetry has been the biggest microphone of my life. When I first started blogging, back in 2009, it felt like I was waving my thoughts all over the place. By the time people started trickling in, started listening to me, I had learned to write about easy things. Even my pain was easy, how it felt like I was rubbing the same wounds raw. I have lived most of my life within the margins of safety: the way I dress when I’m going to be out late, how politely I speak English, what I say to a TSA officer at the airport.
The thing is, though, I don’t just want to be safe. There is no life in safety. There is no growth. There is no love. There was no safety for my parents when they got married, when they moved across the world to be together, when they started a family. There was no safety when my father died. There was no safety when I wrote my first poem, when I started reading my work aloud, from one elementary classroom to the next., when I started my blog, when I published my book. There was no safety when I started writing this essay. My safety is important, but it is not enough. The fact that I have had to give up safety, even momentarily, to pursue a fuller life is a profound injustice. I imagine brown folks everywhere know what I mean. I imagine white folks will have to grapple a bit to understand our truth.
Resistance sounds like work, like stretching a rubber band just before it snaps. If I write thousands poems about being brown, I will not become less brown and I will also not become more brown. This is true of my love poems and my family poems and my time poems. Every poem I write is a brown poem, even if the reader forgets a brown woman wrote it, even if the reader never knew a brown woman wrote it. I have a home in all of my poems. No matter who else sees their footsteps there, these poems are always, first, mine.
Yena Sharma Purmasir a 22 year old poet and author from New York City. Her first book of poetry, Until I Learned What It Meant, was published by Where Are You Press in 2013. A recent graduate from Swarthmore College, Yena has spent her first year of “real adulthood” doing a year’s worth of service at Hour Children, a non-profit supporting formerly incarcerated women and their children. Yena was the Queens Teen Poet Laureate for 2010-2011 academic year. In 2014, she was the recipient of the Chuck James Literary Prize from the Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore College. Most recently, she learned that she is one of Coffee Meets Bagel’s “top 10% most LIKED members.” She owes all of her success to her family and friends, who not only read her poems, but also continue to help her choose the perfect profile picture.