In her powerful debut collection, Seam, poet Tarfia Faizullah weaves together a history of brutality in an unflinching and honest way. What does it mean to carry the weight of your county’s scars? What it left after war, and who pays the price? How do we reconcile our identity and culture when we’re caught between two worlds? These are questions Faizullah set out to ask when she traveled to Bangladesh for one year to interview women who had been raped during the Bangladesh Liberation War. In “Instructions for the Interviewer” Faizullah writes “Once, she will say, I didn’t / know there was a hollow inside // me until he pushed himself / into it,” (lines 1-4). She tells the harrowing stories of these women in a thoughtful and poignant way. Through this, she gives face to the over 200,000 women who were raped.
Many of the poems are titled “Interview with a Birangona.” The term Birangonas is the Bengali word for war heroines. The Bangledeshi state, in an effort to honor these women, now refers to them as this. Despite this effort, family members and friends shunned many of these women and blamed them for the rape. This is best illustrated in the last “Interview with a Birangona” poem, where the speaker asks the interviewee if she went back home after the war: “My grandfather’s // handprint raw across my face. Byadob, / he called me: trouble- // maker. How could you let them / touch you?” (lines 2-6).
What is especially striking about this collection is the speaker’s willingness to acknowledge her own privilege. In the poem, “En Route to Bangledesh, Another Crisis of Faith” says, “because I look like them – / because I am ashamed / of their bodies that reek so / unabashedly of body – / because I can-because I am / an American, a star / of blood on the surface of muscle,” (lines 33-39).
One of my favorite poems in this collection (among so, so many), is “Elegy with Her Red-Tipped Fingers,” which is about the speaker’s deceased grandmother: “ . . . of newsprint dark with Bangla: language I speak / now to your grieving daughter, this language // of bodies of women were once broken / open for. Put up your hair, you will never // again admonish. Please let me see your lovely face” (lines 50-54).
This collection is also special to me because I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Faizullah at Bowling Green University, during the Winter Wheat conference, where she signed my collection. Watching her read gave voice to the poems, and being able to talk to her after was amazing.
The entire book is compromised of just 65 pages. The cover is beautiful, and the poems are riveting in their emotional honesty. This book made me want to know more about the Bangladesh Liberation War, so I did quite a bit of research after my first read. Although research isn’t required (as most of the key points of the war are either explained after poem titles, or within the poem) it enhanced my reading.
Read more about Faizullah by reading this fabulous interview conducted by the Paris Review by clicking here.
Buy the collection here.
(Photo courtesy of poemoftheweek.org).