Cloaked Silences in Reetika Vazirani's
Jane Alberdeston Coralin
the Lost Letter
Calling her Reetika bothers me. See, she wasn’t my friend, or
my colleague. In fact, I never knew Reetika. I only knew of her. And
I mean that I only knew her work, her poetry, a blue fire burning across
a page. I came across her work completely by accident: I had sent a
manuscript of self-conscious poems to Beacon Press for their Young Woman
Poet’s Prize. I was much younger and breathing into too much of
the city’s exhaust. Not too long after, I received a rejection
notice (good thing) and a book in exchange for my entry fee (better
thing). The book was Reetika Vazirani’s White Elephants.
For weeks, White Elephants became my ritual; I was immersed,
drugged, hypnotized by the arcs of beauty in her text, the wonderfully
enigmatic ways she structured a line, a breath. She was God to me in
those poems, a bit of rock and pepper and gauze. But here I am telling
The following is never an easy fact to broach, yet I include it because
it has become part of what of we know about her and it becomes harder
to circumvent or avoid it. July 2003, Reetika committed murder-suicide.
She was found at the Washington DC home of a friend, next to the body
of her two-year son, Jehan. Why is it important to mention this here,
framed around the dream that is my lost letter? I cannot tell you what
murk was in the depths of her depression, what might have led her to
end both lives, but I feel as if her poems might have held something
of a pulse, some constrained bit that tells us about the complexities
of migration and the keloid scars it leaves on the body and mind. Will
these culturally strategic and consensual silences fail to protect the
migrant female body? And for Vazirani, they inhabit her emotional body,
as bell hooks, in her article "Selling Hot Pussy"
tell us: ". . . silences will not protect you."
When I learned of the suicide, I remember my heart cracked. I felt I
did lose a friend, a long lost, my words wrapped up in my own silence,
a love letter to a poet admired. It pains me that I never sent Reetika
a letter telling her how much her poems shook me, turned me inside to
out, how they made strive to be a stronger and hopeful and passionate
This article, in a very small way, is my arm’s reach to understand
what truly can never be known or understand. It is my way to no longer
In 1968, Reetika and the Vaziranis, her four brothers and sisters and
her parents, migrated from Punjab to Silver Spring, MD. At the age of
twelve, her father, a Professor of Dentistry at Howard University, committed
suicide (Shea, 40).
“…it was a disappearance…because
I was never told that he died. I read two obituaries sitting at the
kitchen table, and at that time, I didn’t know what suicide
was – I thought it was a disease. We never saw the body, there
was never a funeral” (40).
Though the strain of his passing ate at the family's
hopes, they did not speak about his death, the mother's silence a contagion
amongst the children. In the 2003 Poets and Writers interview,
Vazirani continues to explain that until she was 26, she was emotionally
numb, having “…no sense that there was a place for me in
the world except in books" (40). Though her father’s suicide
was, in Reetika’s terms, a “complete rejection,” his
act begins Vazirani's journey toward definition, not a place for her
in the world, but a way to live in the world that doesn’t want
you. Watching her mother bleach her skin, Vazirani encountered the migrant’s
hunger for acceptance via an attempt at self-erasure. She named this
“…proof that we [people of color] needed to get rid of our
surface in order to be presentable” (40). In contrast, were Vazirani’s
poems attempts to reassemble herself?
In her poem “Mrs. Bishwas Banishes a Female Relative,” we
are offered a moment of confession, bare of detail, blanched by the
narrator. “Once she knew what was shame. / She was the steady
one. / How unsteady she has become” (White Elephants,
12). Though we don’t (and won’t) know who she of the poem
is, we understand that she is to remain anonymous; she is to be forgotten,
lost like a bad memory. And yet, what she has done is not to be overlooked
as whatever it was has tainted the family's honor. The family and its
name are to be protected by making the granddaughter invisible. Additionally,
the granddaughter's forced exile from the family name and the family
home (we think of home here as both distance between self and family
and self and country) is told through the poem's tight-lipped pitch.
"She is not my granddaughter. Let her wander, then" (27).
The girl is stripped not only of Home as family but Home as country.
"Let her wander then/ . . .let her clothes grown thin" (27)
warns Mrs. Bishwas, clearly acting as matriarch. Whatever the girl did
to cause her banishment becomes a re/mark on homelessness and statelessness.
In Vazirani’s poem, we are reminded of our choices as women: a
girl without shame is a girl without family who is a girl without heritage
who is girl without a home. The transient or exiled body is continually
traumatized by its in-between-ness, the encounter of being separated
from home, in which the exile body carries the knowledge that it will
be unable to return. In this poem, as in many of Reetika Vazirani's
poems, her readers are offered a place of embarkation, a dock that looks
out onto the expanse of the exile's journey. In the poem’s testimony,
the reader is offered a vision, however dimmed, of the journey. On the
surface, testimony or telling the story offers a chance to recover from
the difficulties of that passage, the events that precede it and the
heartbreaks that follow her arrival.
However, underneath the skin, this re-telling fails as an opportunity
for catharsis; the problem of secrecy within the narratives of exile
reanimates itself. In Vazirani's testimonials, the silenced or cloaked
narrative works itself into the physical and/or emotional body. In our
earlier look at Mrs. Bishwas’s warning, we understand that our
banished girl narrative of exile leads to “her clothes grow[ing]
thin” (12). Hence, we imagine an emaciated character, aimless
and, more importantly, silent. Those cloaked silences are symptoms of
a larger parasitic anguish which eats at the woman's body in exile.
This parasite locates itself in the weight of secrets in which the woman
works to protect herself (and, by extension, her honor) in order to
rescue her body. What must remain unsaid cloaks the exiled body back
from narratives, which mark her through migratory experience. Though
relieving that anxiety by revealing oneself, via the testimonial (for
Vazirani – the poem is the medium), is possible, one can visualize
how 'uncloaking' the female body can unearth a bevy of problems for
the voice of the dis/located woman migrant.
Silence or what is concealed (sealed) in a literary work acts as shield,
sculpting the text into a palimpsest of stories, those spoken and those
hushed. In Vazirani's poetry a careful dance happens in which the text
maneuvers between revelations and what is withheld in the teeth. Listen
again to what is unspoken in Mrs. Bishwas's reprimand in the previously
mentioned poem: “That is not the way. That is not the way to behave.
What kind of way is that to behave” (12). Though there is an implication
of an interrogation of the subject/reader, Vazirani employs a period
at the end of each line, as if to remind the reader that what is being
said is rule, ritual, and, in some ways, a form of testimony, a telling.
The psychology of the poem’s punctuation becomes a stern judgment
against the granddaughter, a way to say she has been proven guilty before
being considered innocent. Signs of the narrator’s attempt at
self-preservation through the space of her text (whether it be the preservation
of family or the self) are realized, through the scrim of what is related.
In this veiled telling, we can’t know anything about what the
character experienced, only what is observed about her. The reader discovers
the gift, the anomaly of her text, a text that can be envisioned as
a political document because she conflates two issues - the emotional
confrontation between the sexualized female subject against that of
the isolated immigrant. This apparent suppression of particularly female
narratives, through the frenetic yet lyrical text, does not work as
a salve but instead inflicts as deeper wound in Vazarani's poetic body.
In “Laleh of Caravy Street,” Reetika’s narrator speaks
to an invisible interrogator: “Yes I was born here,/ back of my
father’s building, two blocks / of Trinidad above Nisseem’s
shop, / the city, an island, southern, we’ve been,/ we are. Now
what?” (World Hotel, 96). In seeking the opportunity
for a better life (freedom), the textual immigrant in Vazarani’s
poems very much mirrors the desires of the immigrant in her fight to
negotiate new realities. Through this, her resistant reply to the prevailing
narrative, the poet sheds the impression of the female body as cargo
by plotting or mapping where her body travels: “I need a visa,
ticket / out, black dress, luggage for shoes” (96). This narrator
tells us exactly what she needs to get across from one reality to another.
In fact, the enjambed moment between ‘ticket’ and ‘out’
reveals the true nature of the word "visa," which in this
poem is the "ticket out" for Laleh of Caravy Street. However,
what is silenced in that narrative exists in what Laleh is asked to
exchange for that visa, ticket, out.
This re-membering of oneself post-exile through the act of poetry-writing
(a form of testimony, I argue) aids in recovering or reassembling the
self. However, this growth is cauterized by the silences left to seethe
beneath the text. The work then, in this super-conscious state, a state
in which the subject attempts to liberate the female-subject from becoming
society’s lost woman, becomes self-reverent, while at the same
time attempting to expose a larger global truth. Vazirani's poetic testimony
is a voice that rises out to speak for the double immigrant, the exile
twice removed from ancestry, from history, from self. Though it is dangerous
to essentialize these poems as representative of the South Asian experience,
I do believe that these voices are refracted from Vazirani’s personal
life. "One might justifiably speak of South Asians using the metaphor
of space as the canvas of their representation." (Srikanth, 3)
This refraction allows for a multifaceted understanding of the poem
experience. It is, in Vazirani, both a narrative of removal from and
return to Home, if only fleeting, if only in a dream.
In both testimony and poetry there is the importance of language, how
what is spoken can affect the course of a life, the linguistic and cultural
spaces that language inhabits and how that space reflects on the body
and on the tongue. Vazirani’s lack of punctuation, an almost stunted
and hurried affectation, is a visceral response to what is stereotypically
the orderliness of poetry. It comes to us in spurts and starts, in an
almost nervous voice, as if the migrant were being tested on the validity
of her location, her citizenship. At the same time, on closer inspection,
her poems are secretly fixed in forms like sonnets or sestinas; the
form becomes cloaked by her stylized use of punctuation and tools such
as caesura or enjambment. Still, I believe her poems represent the anxiety
between telling and silencing. There are holes to fill in between those
The pressures and limitations put on speech through the lens of the
two genres, is realized in the silences. We have characters (however
controlled their narratives) that will not speak out of place, their
silence stalactite and marooned in the body of its host. For Vazarani’s
work, those locations exist in her character’s suffering. Throughout
the text, though Vazarani reveals for the reader the center of her character’s
pain, she resists making her experience singular. In Vazarani’s
history, she sheds the personal for the international, as far as the
international for her was embodied in the global imagination of her
as a migrant. Every bit of information we receive from her through the
body of her poems is rooted in her transient body. And in this, the
migrant woman’s body relates to the body in pain.
How does the embodied self, in its inability to reconcile those emotional
fissures, reflect the state of the South Asian American woman writer
who must transcend her experience in favor of the myth of the “good
migrant,” while using the language of Abroad as opposed to the
language of Home? "South Asian American writing is marked by 'ways
of living at home abroad or abroad at home – ways of inhabiting
multiple spaces at once, of being different beings simultaneously, of
seeing the larger picture stereoscopically with the smaller.'"
(3) For Vazirani, the intellectual space of the migrant experience and
the physical space of the migrant body cannot be metabolized (Morris,
5). She says in her essay, The Art of Breathing, “I didn't
have the cultural confidence to be proud…I felt like a foreigner
in my home" (Budhos). In Vazirani, we find the immigrant confronting
and conjoining those spaces, those weighty silences alive in the unspoken
anxiety of the Indian living in the West, and, importantly, living the
Howard Norman, in his article for Conjunctions
of the same year of Vazirani’s suicide wrote, “For the seriously
depressed person, language is dead – the symbolic order fails
him or her. Whichever demon [Vazirani] succumbed to, this notion could
not have been entirely true … at least not up until the final
shattering of her mind, the dark night of soul, or however one attempts
to describe some unfathomable, desperate rage…. Because she was
writing fine poetry merely weeks before the end. For all anyone knows,
language – poetry – may have been the last thing she held
on to” (Conjunctions:41).
Whatever might have been operating at the moment of Vazirani’s
“shattering,” I believe that the problematic silences in
the poems, lived through the voices of separate characters, offer an
insight into the immigrant narrative, which continuously lives itself
out in the body, especially in the woman's body, as Zora Neal
Hurston called it - the mule of the world. Having felt isolated
by world’s view of her Otherness, her experience (which Center
fights to squelch) ironically rises; it becomes that vein which stands
to speak for self (self as one and self as immigrant woman). Her poems,
in a sense, become like her mother’s skin bleach, stripping her
until she has nothing more to strip.
What is the psychological cost of resisting, resistance against the
prevailing dominant narrative? Vazirani in her poem "Ras Mohun"
in her first book White Elephants writes about the immigrant
experience, though how that immigrant experience plays depends on how
the poem is read. Her voice supplants the subaltern by reminding the
reader of the lie of citizenship, the knowledge that her world is not
all it seems; that the attainment of citizenship (the term that is now
conflated with freedom) is not perfect, not clean. Her poem offers its
readers (both the voices inside and outside the immigrant experience)
a way under the imagination of the West, the dream America that moves
from mouth to ear across the world:
"To have survived my life so far and have landed
here, not next door or where tropics cut through cane,
I know, in spite of all I can lie about: languages
I speak, my church affiliation, foreign princes:
that there is nowhere to go and anything is possible."
The poem continues :
"Culture shock is not your reflex upon leaving
it is when . . .someone asks your name
and the name of your religion and your first thought is
'I don't know', or you can't remember what you said last time;
you think there is something you forgot to sign . . .
and you are positive
that those green-shirted workmen in the room right now
want to take you in for questioning."
Between those lines, one can read the secreted acceptances
of the immigrant experience, take-what-you-can-get "to have survived
my life so far,” the sliver of a warning: be careful what you
ask for. That sarcasm of quiet hopelessness bleeds into the next line:
“not next door or where the tropics cut through cane”: how
close is next door to the immigrant? The poem conjures pictures of the
exile experience, the legacy of coolie history, the journey from home
to the Caribbean (subspace, in colonial terms), to cut the cane that
led to those places in which the immigrant may never see his family
The screen that exists for Vazirani lives in the way the poem seeks
to illustrate the isolation and vulnerability the immigrant feels, the
irony of being caught between Center and Home, physically and emotionally.
She expresses this dislocation by locating the immigrant in her memory
of the dock, the intersection of the body, the water and land, though
the dock is not truly the site where body connects to land. This, one
would imagine, would be the place where the body would knee-jerk or
seize itself in culture shock. But the shock comes in the way the immigrant
is confronted by the nameless and faceless someone in the poem. The
dock suddenly becomes the metaphor for that someone-character who interrogates
her, who questions her identity.
For Vazirani, that natural link, the impossible return lives in her
work's presence of mind. That silencing that speaks louder than the
language that imprisons it is how our poet returns to home. This return
is complicated by the possibility of veiled narrative and fictions that
exist in poetry. However, we can see how her characters both acclimate
and resist the Center, while searching for a place to rest, a place
which might mirror the memory of Home, even with its complicated histories.
“I was completely taken by the idea of multiple masks, which,
I think, captures the experience of the migrant…captures something
of my whole life, the surprise and juxtapositions of shifting borders
and affiliations” (Shea, 42).
Her poems, in my view, are interstices, the brief moment between revealing
the scarred feminine and protecting the female body from the societal
gaze. In her work, Vazirani’s story becomes a careful testimony,
a lyrical cacophony of narratives, those masks she mentions, the interwoven
foils, some protectively withheld beneath others, leaving us wondering
what is being shielded, what and who is being disguised.
Born in India in 1962, Reetika Vazirani spent most her life in transit.
In 1968 her mother, a diplomat and her father, a professor of oral surgery,
settled the family in suburban Maryland. In 1968, her father committed
suicide. Reetika, fluent in Hindi and French, began her academic studies
at Wellesley College in biochemistry, in order to soothe her parents’
expectations, but then switched to economics. However, a pivotal moment
in her life came at Wellesley, where she met poet Derek Walcott,
who would become her mentor. After graduating in 1984, she was awarded
a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship which enabled her to travel to India,
China, Japan and Thailand, the places which would inspire her to pursue
poetry with fervor on her return. In 1991, she wrote White Elephants,
which would later be chosen first place for the Young Woman’s
Poetry Prize. She returned to study poetry at the University of Virginia,
where Rita Dove became her mentor. It was at UVA that
the poems for World Hotel came to light. In 2000, she became
a writer-in-residence at William and Mary College. In the fall of 2003,
Reetika was slotted to teach at Emory University. Those plans where
interrupted, however, by her suicide in 2003.
Works Cited and Referenced
Budhos, Marina. “Out of India: American yogis have enthusiastically
embraced all things Indian. But what do people of Indian descent think
of Americans "borrowing" their culture?” Yoga Journal,
March/April 2002 [Internet]: http://www.yogajournal.com/views/672_1.cfm.
Halkias, Alexandra. "Nationalism, Lipstick and Kitchen Knives:
Mapping Persona and Power in the Life and Death of a Poet." [Internet]:
Haynes, Rosetta. "Voice, Body, and Collaboration: Constructions
of Authority in The History of Mary Prince." The Literary Griot,
1999, 11:2, 18-32.
Hooks, Bell. "Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female
Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace, " Black Looks,
Kissam Morris, Margaret. "Audre Lorde: Textual Authority and the
Embodied Self," Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies,
2002, 23:1, 168-190.
Salih, Sarah, ed. The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave,
London, GB: Penguin Books, 2000.
Shea, Renee H., "How To Leave and Where to Stay: Traveling With
Reetika Vazirani," Poets and Writers Magazine, Jan/Feb
2003, 31:1, 38-44.
Srikanth, Rajini. The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature
and the Idea of America, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press,
Vazirani, Reetika. White Elephants. Boston, MA: Beacon Press,
Vazirani, Reetika. World Hotel. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon
Newson, Adele S. and Linda Strong-Leek, eds. Winds of Change: the
Transforming Voices of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, New
York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1998.
Jane Alberdeston Coralin's work has
been published in Louisiana Literature, The Paterson Literary
Review, The Bilingual Review, Step Into a World: a
Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, Bum Rush the
Page: A Def Jam Anthology, Black Issues Book Review and
other anthologies and journals. In 2004, she received the Associated
Writing Program’s Intro Journals Award. With authors Lisa Alvarado
and Ann Hagman-Cardinal, Jane has co-written Sister Chicas,
a novel about three young Latinas released by Penguin Books/ New American
Library in early 2006. She is currently completing her doctoral studies
in English literature and creative writing at SUNY Binghamton in upstate
New York. Jane is a proud alumna of Cave Canem. A version of this paper
was presented at the panel, ‘Perspective in Ethnic American Literature’,
at the annual New Jersey College English Association Spring Conference,
March 18, 2006.
Published in Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 2006.
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