Charles Adès Fishman & Smita Sahay (Eds.)
Veils, Halos & Shackles:
International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women
St Paul, Minnesota: Kasva Press LLC/ Alfei Menashe, Israel. 2016.
Pages: 555. Price: INR 1200 / $ 24.95.
First-ever anthology of international poetry on oppression and empowerment of women
Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay’s edited Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women is a fascinating and an exquisite anthology of international poetry housing more than 250 poets from across the globe that engages in the universal aspect of violence and oppression that women face all over the world. There is no single theme around which the book revolves, rather there is a plethora of themes: rape, incest, acid attack, female foeticide, harassment, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking, child abuse, maltreatment, abusive marriage, social injustice, repression, war rape, date rape, to name a few. The book is an enriching contribution to the ever expanding discipline of gender studies.
Most of the poets featured in this anthology are well known names in their respective countries. Not all poets featured are poets, per se, rather we have a substantial range and variety of people from all walks of life: freelancers, academicians, professional writers, teachers, artists, activists, editors, actors, photographers, lawyers, etc.
Even though sexual violence and oppression is thought to be primarily women related, men are not immune to it. Yes, men also get raped and suffer child sexual abuse like girls. And herein lies a unique aspect of this anthology (and in that one ought to applaud the editors) that it houses poems of more than two dozen male poets, who have written about gender atrocities. The strength of this book is that each set of poems is followed by a testimony by the poet wherein we get a peek inside a poetic mind at work; elaboration on what inspired, moved, provoked them to pen these poems and their thoughts on violence and oppression in general. All the poets have apprised the readers of testimonies. Most of the testimonies are very interesting. In fact, I began reading the testimonies first. The experiences shared by most of the poets are interesting and thought stimulating.
The introduction, written by Laura Madeline Wineman notes that, “Such poetry is subversive and dangerous because it critiques violence myths presented in the media that perpetuate stereotypes which, in turn, promote ignorance, logical fallacies, and fear. Such poetics do more than speak top power. They resist the abuses of power by imagining a better world. They enable poets to claim power over experiences and stories that are frequently missing from the culture at large. Fishman and Sahay have put together a book of hope.” I fully agree with Laura when she says, “I would be lying if I said Veils, Halos and Shackles didn’t move me to tears.” She concludes by saying that, “Women deserve the right to live free from violence because it’s a basic human right. We all deserve it. We are all worth so much.”
A captivating painting titled “The Core” by Malaysian-American artist Lucy Liew featuring a lonely, young (presumably) woman sitting and hiding her head between her legs has been used as the book cover, which is an apt selection because the book was conceived in response to the December 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi.
The dedication itself feeds into the twin issues of oppression and empowerment that this book seeks to address. Sahay, a Mumbai-based writer and Charles Fishman, an American poet, has dedicated this book to Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate; an Afghani woman poet Nadia Anjuman who suffered censorship in the hands of Taliban and died after being beaten by her husband; Jyoti Singh Pandey who was brutally raped in Delhi in December 2012 and countless other women who have been victims of gender violence. Sahay and Fishman wanted to include a poem by Nadia in this anthology but were unable to obtain the rights to print it. Consequently, her name and a brief biographical note is published, along with the title “The Silenced” on a blank page in this book. A regret note is attached with the blank space that reads, “Nadia Anjuman’s “The Silenced” could not be included in this anthology because permission to use her poem, in both existing and new translations, was denied by official representatives of Wisehouse Publishing, AB.”
Many poems are inspired by Malala Yousafzai. Linda K Arnolds’s poem on Malala is powerful and moving. She says:
Malala, we applaud you who fractured Allah’s wisdom---
. . . .
Let education be our staff; reform, the backbone of our souls.
(Backbone of Our Souls)
Stephen J Cipot’s “Prayer for Malala Yousafzai” is endearing. Stephen adds that his poem is meant as “an inspirational poem (a halo), for Malala Yousafzai.”
…you are the beautiful butterfly
that took on the dragon and transcended our world,
showing us a better way all the way to Heaven,
and the future now.
Violence is perpetrated in insidious ways and is a worldwide phenomenon. Rape is a festering sore of modern civilization. Rape is a topic that most people prefer not to talk about Countless poems in this anthology tries to grapple with this issue and Max Babi’s “A Pierced Soul” lends this theme an unusual readability:
I think I abhor no other four-letter words more
This is one of those
males shrug it off, just one of those things,
females sweep it under a carpet of
rape thus remains obscure as an orphan
ubiquitous as oxygen and yet
corrosive as acid.
Some poems are chilling and gave me goose bumps. The feeling refused to fade however much I resisted. Most of the contributors to this anthology are survivors of sexual violence and gender related violence. B. Elizabeth Beck’s poem on incest invites us to look at the hypocrisy of the world we inhabit in order to empower other incest survivors.
Hypocrisy is the worst form of cowardice
Like my father’s ivy league education
carefully removed his seersucker suit, Brooks Brothers tie & penny loafers
before climbing under my Laura Ashley nightgown.
(Grandma’s Mink & Army Jackets)
Leslie B. Neustadt’s “Carry-On Baggage” effectively brings out the trauma that incest survivor goes through.
It wasn’t genocide or famine
that ravaged my life,
just my father’s
Even though most of the poems are an outcome of first-hand experience of violence and oppression, still others write out of empathy and concern giving voice to those who have none. Dane Cervine’s poem “I Stare at the Headlines” is one such poem that jolts people out of the torpor to become allies to those who cannot speak for themselves.
Mariam in the Afghan refugee camp, widowed, beaten
teaches the women around her to make clothes,
shakes the journalists by the shoulders, says
You have language, you can write, tell them!
He further adds that in “matters of gender and race, and all differences, it is important that those who are oppressed have strong allies who will stand side by side with them and, when they cannot speak, who will speak for them. To be the one speaking as the oppressed, is necessary but insufficient for change to occur in the world. Allies of those oppressed must speak, too, and bear witness.” Of particular interest is Susana H. Case’s poem “The Acid Thrower’s Wife” that moved me to tears:
Returned by the authorities
to the husband who threw her life away
like tossing wastewater
out the back door,
he hides his monster wife-wraith
in the kitchen, sobbing
as she scours pans.
There is little escape
from 39 surgeries, the scrape and graft.
Adele Jones’s “Severed”, a poem on the trauma of genital mutilation is remarkable for its rhetoric:
What was her crime?
Dare a girl child presume
Rights -- to choose pleasure
Instead of pain?
Eileen Tull’s “Everest, or How Do I Get Down?” is a scathing comment on the accepted culture of victim blaming that is one of the many responses to rape.
I was my rapist’s Everest.
It’s because I was there.
Wrong place, wrong time.
Wrong street, wrong walk.
The book serves the purpose of creating awareness and empowering those who have suffered abuse. The mere ability to voice oppression is empowering. Tearing the societal veils and shackles of customs, traditions, shame and guilt these poets have come together to offer these poems to lend voice to those who have none, comfort to those who have suffered abuse and hope for the future. All the poems are unique making this anthology an interesting and a meaningful read. The book can be a useful referential text for all those interested in gender studies. It is an enriching contribution to scholarship on gender studies, both in India and around the world.