The recent wave of anti-Asian violence this year reminds us all again of our vulnerability and our long, fraught, and relatively under-explored history in this country. Just like their European counterparts, South Asian immigrant laborers, students, merchants, religious leaders, and professionals came to American shores filled with hopes for a better life, only to be faced with hostile government policies and anti-immigrant sentiment rooted in racism and xenophobia. And since the events of September 11, 2001, there has been more visible violence against South Asian immigrants in the U.S — yet many cases go unreported because of fears of deportation.
Divya Victor's new book, Curb, considers post 9/11 domestic terrorism against South Asians across America. Like her previous book, Kith, this is also a hybrid collection of verse and prose, memoir and history, reflections and imaginings, cultural criticism and what writer Cathy Park Hong has called "minor feelings."
The opening piece is a brief, heartbreaking statement made by Victor's mother during a casual walk:
yes; I am // afraid all // the time; all // the places are all // the same to me; all // of us are the same to all // of them; this is all // that matters; all // of us don't matter at all.
In her endnotes Victor says that confession, from a mother fearful of everything and everyone in a foreign country helped her cross an emotional threshold to begin the book. Like blood blooming from that open wound, Victor's words spill onto page after page with an unstanchable urgency. In addition to exploring her own modes of survival, belonging, and displacement, she meditates on the deaths of five South Asian men — Balbir Singh Sodhi; Navroze Mody; Divyendu Sinha; Sunando Sen; Srinivas Kuchibhotla — killed by white supremacists and nationalists.
Victor's painfully vivid and sharp fragments of prose and poetry are loaded with kinesthetic and synesthetic images as well as multilingual alliterations and repetitions. Many of these pages have geographic coordinates at their top-right corners to locate the specific sites of the events being described, and to remind us that reading is a physical act that leaves traces. The carefully-constructed white spaces on Victor's pages are not merely aesthetic flourishes but much-needed pauses to allow the language, emotions, and thoughts to flow into us and pool in those places that 24/7 news and social media have left numb.
There are experimental pieces where Victor takes formal legal documents like immigration petitions and turns them into deeply personal accounts of sensations and perceptions: "I am filing a petition for her eyes & her tendency to leave jars open, & the way a nape turning away from me is a bride walking towards me ..." And a series of conversations with South Asian immigrant Uber drivers that reveal casteism, internalized racism and colonialism, but also kinship:
... what he wants to say // & cannot // is that my eyes // are the color // of shade, a dark // oval left on the earth // by a fig tree // from his hometown ...
Even the more traditional pieces, with scenes familiar to most immigrants, are unsettling. For example, the block party where Victor's Indian first name becomes prolonged, agonizing small talk, like the weather or a local business:
They face her, head cocked. Olivia? Vivian? Vivia? Diva? Tibia? "It's Teeveeya", one offers [...] She is laughing the same laugh that she has heard her father laugh at so many all white office parties, cheering their attempts, playing surrogate to their embarrassment, comforting them into peace in their mouths ...
And the gardening scene, when:
Do you have stones, someone is asking me. Where you are from, do you have stones, like these. We have purple sunbirds, I am saying, & their hearts have four rooms, one for every answer to questions like these.
This book is not only for South Asians or immigrants. The treasure trove of metaphorical, literary, and cultural symbols and allusions goes beyond South Asia and America. Victor, a professor of creative writing and transnational poetry and poetics, brings together rich strands from other geographies, mythologies, and timespaces too. In doing so, she helps us all recontextualize, reconstruct, and recharge our own memories. Her goal is to have us interrogate what we remember, feel, think, and know about South Asia's place in the world, its immigrant diaspora, and the losses of these five men in particular.
In a 2018 essay, Victor writes about witnessing a childhood incident in India where a mother presses sugar into a young girl's cut lip to stop the bleeding. Sugar on the gash. Describing how this facilitates debridement — "the removal of dead tissue and foreign objects from the site of a wound" — Victor asserts that poetic acts of debridement can occur at the woundings in our histories, so that "the scene of recitation becomes the scene of wounding, and subsequently, and importantly, the scene of rescue."
Curb is more than a personal poetics of loss and identity. It is even more than a well-written eulogy of five murdered South Asian Americans. It is a profound act of poetic debridement for the South Asian American diaspora, and an insistent plea to resist erasure by first acknowledging, absorbing, processing, and remembering our own communal histories.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and host of the Desi Books podcast. https://jennybhattwriter.com.