The first time I heard Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's poetry was in a song on Lal's 2008 album Deportation. The track, "Your Body Could Start a War," is about airport security post 9/11. It starts with an eerie warped bass which crashes into a loud and steady beat, followed by an urgent piano to the climax of Piepzna-Samarasinha's vocals: "my lover's tits are explosive -- hips are illegal -- my lip gloss it a bomb and so is my hijab -- we are terrorists for crossing these lines on a map no one but them can see."
As I re-read those lines I can clearly hear her voice in my head. Up until now spoken word was the primary way I consumed poetry. Which is why I thought it would be a bit of a struggle to read a book of poetry. I'm an avid fiction reader and I made the rookie mistake of first trying to read Love Cake like a novel. I finally realized I had to treat these words differently and more tenderly -- a task which at first felt as labouring as trying to slow down breathing after a run. Fortunately, Piepzna-Samarasinha's poems are well worth the process.
Love Cake is Piepzna-Samarasinha's second book of poetry. The U.S.-raised, "Toronto-matured" queer Sri Lankan writer is also a spoken-word artist, activist, event organizer and teacher. Her work has also been featured in many anthologies including Persistence: Still Butch and Femme, Yes Means Yes and The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities.
In an interview, Piepzna-Samarasinha tells me her new collection is really about "surviving violence from a queer and trans people of colour perspective...it looks at the ways in which as communities we find to heal and be resilient from abuse, violence, war and imperialism." Very heavy and complex topics for such a small book but in these few, carefully planned words her poems pierce through suffocating legacies of oppression:
Sri Lankan resiliency miracle love poems 1-9:
Me learning how to cook Sri Lankan food at 23
from cookbooks in the library
taking a name researched in books
I don't know for sure is mine
but know for sure is not
the Dutch East India employee
who raped-I'm sorry, "married"
That tiny poem is bursting with insight. It reminds us that not everything needs to be explained with a PhD thesis. Nor do these topics need to be void of humour. When I saw her perform some of the poems at Love Cake's Toronto book launch, the following excerpt had the crowd hollering with laughter:
...And then of course there are the white geeky post-anarchist guys who used to hate me and later loved me and wanted to fuck me because white anarchist boys always want to fuck angry brown girls as a complement to their bell hooks collection.
Did I mention her writing is pretty fearless?
Close to Piepzna-Samarasinha's heart, is the importance of allowing youth access to stories from their ancestors:
"Having a sense of legacy, having a sense of where we come from, that we're not just plopped down in the world rootless is really important...I think that for queer and trans youth of colour it can be really easy -- though it's changing -- to feel like you are the only person in your community who's been queer, who's been trans, who's been a rebel, who's been a resister...I think that one of the purposes of art is to make sure that those stories and that legacy doesn't get destroyed," she said.
Love Cake chronicles Piepzna-Samarasinha's own discovery of and relationship to her ancestors and gives space for the next generation to explore the beautiful and frustrating ambiguities of culture, space and history. This is especially crucial in a country like Canada, and a city like Toronto, which at once opens its doors to immigrants while leaving most other doors locked. The lie is that this process and outcome is natural and unchallengeable.
In "irresistible," a poem set in Toronto, she writes:
If we didn't have Sri Lanka
at least we should have this
these small ten blocks of city
but they make us pack up and leave
till the idea of a village is impossible
the idea of being from anywhere
for 300 years
Piepzna-Samarasinha's creative work is interwoven with her social justice activism and she is grateful that her generation doesn't feel the need to separate the two. I am also grateful for this since art is often more accessible and digestible than other forms of knowledge sharing. Whenever I think about the value of storytelling and art for social change I recall Welsh novelist Raymond Williams' quote, "to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing."—Ellie Gordon-Moershel
Ellie Gordon-Moershel is a Toronto-based podcaster with the F Word Media Collective.
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