Writing Matters: In conversation with Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay, editors of Veils, Halos & Shackles
16th December 2017 came and went. With barely a murmured remembrance. That’s five whole years since Nirbhaya, the name this brave girl, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was hailed by, the one who fought her attackers and then fought to survive in hospital. Ultimately she could not overcome her grievous injuries. So what happened? Why are we still not enraged? Have we slipped into our usual drugged sleep of forgetfulness?
Sometimes protest becomes still. We lose heart and start to despair. I like to believe that it is during times of stillness that protest gathers steam. During that still period, we need poetry. The poetry of protest. That is why I dare to visualise Veils Halos & Shackles in the hands of not just random or selective readers but anyone who wishes to become more conscious across societies, across the world. Even those who are not diehard fans of poetry; yes, even them. I visualise this book as reading material in classrooms, and not just for literature or liberal arts students. It is no longer enough to be outraged by newspaper and television reports. Poetry must outrage us. Oppression fears poetry. The winds of change feed on poetry. Hence the need for Veils Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, published by Kasva Press, 2016.
Here we get behind the scenes regarding the making of this volume and also try to get an understanding of what the editors – Smita Sahay and Charles Fishman – experienced.
Shikhandin: Tell us about the beginning, that little seedling from which this book grew, apart from the accounts of the horrific crimes that sowed the original seed. And why the name/inspiration behind it – Veils, Halos & Shackles?
Charles Fishman: Thank you for this opening question, Shikhandin, and for the others that follow. I’m delighted that Smita has agreed to respond to your questions, whenever possible; wrestling with complex issues effectively and persuasively is one of her many gifts as a poet and thinker.
Smita Sahay: Charles and I were in conversation about his last book of poetry, In the Path of Lightning, and I found sanity in his justice-demanding yet hope-and-love-filled verses in the days after Jyoti Singh Pandey was assaulted and later passed away. There was no way to come to terms with what had happened and I was mute within my fury and grief. The violence with which Jyoti’s life had been snuffed out had left Charles, thousands of miles away from India, as horrified. As we tried to find comfort in each other’s emails, our intent to give artistic expression to this fury led us to conceptualise Veils, Halos & Shackles. We first contemplated co-writing a book, but then we were convinced that there were multiple voices that needed to be united and decided to go ahead with an Indo-American anthology. This initial version of the anthology grew organically into the international volume of Veils, Halos & Shackles that eventually came out, and this expansion is proof that sexual violence is more universal than we admit, that survivors are caged unspeakably within their own suffering and that uniting in the face of sexual violence is possibly the only way to fight it.
Our prejudices are deep-seated and therein lies our inability to see a woman as more than a goddess, an embodiment of family honour or a vessel preserving moral codes. These three words – these symbols – are almost universal in their significance. The lingering sound of the words, veils, halos, shackles, also stand for the often unheeded wails of millions of survivors and their loved ones.
Shikhandin: What were your first thoughts on beginning this long and nerve-racking journey of putting together poems on gender violence?
SS: Our first thoughts were of expressing our rage without letting it control us, of being able to find strength in love and hope as we processed our horror, of cracking open the isolation of survivors through solidarity, and finally of becoming a part of a global movement to protest against all forms of sexual violence.
Shikhandin: Why a book of specifically poetry, and why not prose or flash or a mix of genres, including art?
SS: Poetry brings us close to truth without letting it scorch us. How do we process trauma without getting consumed by truth? How do we protect ourselves as we are making sense of this truth? Poetry provides that shield – not distorting, not distancing.
Somehow both of us considered poetry as the singular channel, the only medium for this protest that we had conceptualised. All art is powerful, but poetry held our hands and we simply let it guide us. We have included poets’ testimonies as well, in the hope that these statements would serve as a bridge that would help readers new to poetry by adding additional context. Lucy Liew’s artwork that adorns the cover holds all of this together.
Shikhandin: Did you have any poet/s in mind, any poem/s whose lines resonated, as you mulled the idea of this book?
SS: Charles Adès Fishman’s A Dance on the Poems of Rilke and Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Dialogue series were two of the first poems that called out to me. Fortunately, both these poems are part of the book.
Shikhandin: Can you take us through the journey? The search, selection and compilation of the poems that went into this book?
SS: Once we started receiving submissions, we were working literally around the clock – because we were on the opposite sides of the globe. Every submission we received gave us strength, a jolt of hope, the joy of having touched fingers groping for the right words often thousands of miles away from us. We conceptualised the book in January 2013 and received the first poems from outside both America and India sometime in April. We reconsidered the scope of the project and decided it should be expanded, that we needed to compile an international anthology.
While this is poetry of protest, this is poetry and we stayed true to the art form. We went with poems that were honest and original in their emotional expression and that were also well-crafted. The submission and selection process remained most transparent, democratic and unbiased.
Usually, both of us were on the same page through this process, but sometimes we found ourselves engaged in lengthy dialogues. In spite of the age gap and our cultural differences, and though we had as many artistic debates as we needed before making a final decision, our collective vision remained aligned.
Shikhandin: Charles, in your work on the Holocaust, you have come across other poets, American poets, please share something from that experience – any poem or poet or narrative that moved you.
CF: I’ve written about the Holocaust in several of my individual poetry collections, but the most intensive effort I’ve made to enter the Holocaust as a traveller in horror, unsurpassable cruelty, genocide, racial hate, anti-semitism, misogyny, xenophobia, and overriding darkness, was my editing of two quite different versions of my ground-breaking anthology Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (first edition, Texas Tech University Press, 1991; second, revised edition, Time Being Books, 2007). If I was determined to select one poem from that more than 1,000 pages and add to that the pages from my own books, from the Writing the Holocaust blog I edited with John Z. Guzlowski, and from the poems I’ve published during my editing of the Journal of Genocide Research and PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators, it would have to be this extraordinarily moving poem by Leslie Woolf Hedley:
Chant for All the People on Earth
Not to forget not to ever forget so long as you live
so long as you love so long as you breathe eat wash
walk think see feel read touch laugh not to forget
not to ever forget so long as you know the meaning
of freedom of what lonely nights are to torn lovers
so long as you retain the soul heart of a man so long
as you resemble man in any way in any shape not to
forget not to ever forget for many have already
forgotten many have always planned to forget fire
fear death murder injustice hunger gas graves for
they have already forgotten and want you to forget
but do not forget our beloved species not to forget
not to ever forget for as long as you live carry it
with you let us see it recognize it in each other’s
face and eyes taste it with each bite of bread each
time we shake hands or use words for as long as we
live not to forget what happened to six million Jews
to living beings who looked just as we look men
people children girls women young old good bad evil
profound foolish vain happy unhappy sane insane
mean grand joyous all dead gone buried burned not
to forget not to ever forget for as long as you live
for the earth will never be the same again for each
shred of sand cries with their cries and our lungs
are full of their dying sounds for god was killed in
each of them for in order to live as men we must not
forget for if they are forgotten O if they are forgotten
forget me also destroy me also burn my books my
memory and may everything I have ever said or done
or written may it be destroyed to nothing may I
become less than nothing for then I do not want even
one memory of me left alive on cold killing earth for
life would have no honor for to be called a man
would be an insult —
Shikhandin: Smita, as an Indian woman, how do you feel about the holocaust induced sexual and gender violence, what parallels do you see vis-à-vis modern Indian women?
SS: The history of human civilization has been inked in blood, and wars have been fought as much on the bodies of women as on battlegrounds. The violence perpetrated on women during the Holocaust or the Partition of India and Pakistan, or on the sex slaves taken by ISIS, or that was perpetrated by Indian soldiers in Kashmir are in the end violence. Generations haven’t been able to heal from unspeakable brutalities.
But what does peace mean for women? What do caste, colour, nationality, religion mean for women’s safety? Does a woman escape if she doesn’t witness a war in her lifetime? Is she safer at work or home?
As an Indian woman, my blood runs cold every time the violated, uncovered body of a woman is found hanging in trees, every time bottles and syringes are found in tiny bodies of raped five year olds. I need answers every time a woman is raped at work or home and it goes unreported. I often ask myself, ‘What have we done to stop this? What have we done to abate this? Are we onlookers responsible at all?’
When we teach our little girls that they can be anything when they grow up, what do we teach our boys? Where are we going wrong in raising our sons? Why don’t we grow out of the goddess versus whore tropes, the victim versus martyr tropes?
Shikhandin: What similarities and differences do you (both) see in the violence towards girl children, women and those who identify themselves as women between India and the developed world?
SS: The world is unforgivably brutal to those who identify themselves as women in India and outside. There’s still too much stigma, imperfect laws and lack of employment opportunities. They are vulnerable to health risks – physical and mental. The developed world seems to be ahead on some of these issues, but there is still a lot of ground to be covered. Also, feminists need to expand their ideologies towards inclusion and intersectional, which is not the case right now.
Shikhandin: Do you see hope or despair in the near future? Tell us your thoughts, based on your cultural setting and also with regard to your views/idea of the world beyond.
SS: I see despair, now and then streaked with hope. The “Me Too” campaign was a huge wave and it gave vocabulary and voice to millions. Also, 2017 saw some of the most powerful people paying the price for sexual harassment. However, most of these crimes still go unreported, especially crimes smaller than rapes, such as street harassment, molestation, etc., and discriminatory practises will shift only through cultural change, which is a very gradual process.
Shikhandin: If you read/watched/heard a report of violence and brutality that shook you up again, and only a poet could comfort you, who/ what poem would you turn to (either from the book or elsewhere)?
CF: Two poems immediately come to mind: Sumana Roy’s gorgeous and exquisitely painful poem, “Rape of Sunlight” (397-98 in Veils, Halos & Shackles) and my own poem “Two Girls Leaping” (144-45 in the same anthology).
I choose these two poems because both deal with the impact of violence on female children. The girls’ fates are quite different, as were the impulses of the men in Roy’s poem, which led to the brutal, even grotesque, death of a young girl, when compared to the mother’s sudden, gender-specific but non-sexually related, smacking of her children in my poem. The men in “Rape of Sunlight” were driven by their hatred of women and their need to wound and de-sexualize them, whereas the mother in “Two Girls Leaping” slapped her daughters repeatedly, due to her fear that their exuberance was unseemly and could quickly become dangerous to them. The unavoidable link between the two poems is the vulnerability of girls and, by extension, grown women. These poems ‘comfort’ me, if that’s the word to use in this context, because they are focused on actual events that were witnessed by the poets and because they show that empathy can trump even violence and help us to see and, insofar as it’s possible, to understand the world we live in and which we hope to change for the better.
Charles Adès Fishman: Charles Fishman’s books include ‘The Death Mazurka’, which was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and ‘In the Language of Women’ (2011), recipient of the Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. The revised, second edition of his anthology, ‘Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust’, was published in 2007 by Time Being Books, which released his ‘Selected Poems, In the Path of Lightning’, in 2012. Fishman is poetry editor of ‘Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators’ and, with Smita Sahay of Mumbai, India, co-edited ‘Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women’.
Smita Sahay: Smita Sahay co-conceptualized and served as Associate Editor of ‘Veils, Halos & Shackles – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women’. Her fiction, poetry and book reviews have appeared in national and international journals and anthologies. Smita founded AccioHealth, a social venture in the field of mental health, and also teaches creative writing. Website: smitasahay.com