All over the world, girls and women are victims of violence, oppression, and discrimination. No country, no community, no religious or ethnic group is immune. Too often, women’s voices are stifled, ignored, or trivialized — and as a result, other victims of abuse feel alone and unsupported.
A Unique and Important Anthology
As part of the global effort to combat gender-based victimization, Kasva Press has published Veils, Halos & Shackles, the first-ever anthology of international poetry specifically addressing the oppression and empowerment of women. Veils, Halos & Shackles includes poetry from Brazil to Bangladesh and from New Zealand to Nigeria. Many of the contributors are among the world’s most accomplished living poets.
These diverse, impeccably crafted poems tell us that Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, Ireland, India, Israel, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, the US, the UK, and other countries are not so dissimilar where the oppression of women is concerned. Many of the contributors to Veils, Halos & Shackles are survivors of rape and other crimes that affect women and girls every day; others are grandmothers, mothers, daughters, friends, and teachers of victims and survivors. Still others write out of empathy and concern, having been moved deeply by the fate of human beings who just happen to be female.
Veils, Halos & Shackles will be officially published on April 1, 2016, with a cover price of US $24.95.
About The Book
The poems in the book are a part of a much larger global narrative, one that defies geographical, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. It is important to understand that gender violence and gender oppression are part of every society, affecting millions of women and families, and yet are seldom spoken about. Veils, Halos & Shackles breaks that silence and aims to bring this topic out into the open, into as many conversations as possible.
Marginalisation of survivors is as horrible as oppression and violence, and they suffer alone in silence. Through the testimonies of our poets, readers will know that they are not alone in facing or fighting this ghastly truth.
We feel that it is important to break away from inequality, exploitation and marginalisation of people born, or identifying with, the female gender. It is essential to include as many people as possible in the discussion — and not just women, and not only activists. We must work together for real and lasting change to be made in the lives of girls and women, and that’s why we are sending this book out into the world. We see Veils, Halos & Shackles as a singular extension of the global movement against all forms of gender oppression, one that will help bring to the attention of teachers, artists, governments and world leaders the necessity to act, to change policies, and to become a part of the ongoing dialogue.
Two Hundred And Fifty Poems, Two Dozen Nationalities
The book has more than 250 poems from poets of over two dozen nationalities. We started work on the book as an Indo-American project and circulated the call for submissions in India and the US. Surprisingly, we started receiving excellent poetry from places outside the US and India. We received over a thousand poems for consideration, some of them in languages other than English, for instance, Sindhi and Irish. We were surprised and encouraged by the international response we received, yet it hurt us to realize how deeply needed this book was.
We stayed true to our original intention in editing this book — to address sexual violence, gender inequality, and the empowerment of women through poetry. We primarily evaluated what a poem was communicating and how powerfully it used the poetic medium to do it.
This book needs to get into as many hands as possible, so that it can spark as many dialogues as possible. A personal story lifts a poem off the page, offering solidarity and empathy to the reader. For readers new to poetry, and for teachers teaching women’s studies and gender studies courses, these personal stories offer a powerful bridge. These testimonies are a part of history, as it should be recorded, in the words of those witnessing and experiencing it. Our contributors shared their testimonies readily — perhaps they saw exactly what we were working to achieve.
Launches and Readings
16 (and counting) launch readings have been organised in India, the US, UK, Australia and Israel so far. Both or us are working in tandem with the publishers, as well as our contributors, to hold successful launch readings and to ensure a wide circulation and distribution of the book. We hope that newspapers and magazines cover the book and the incredibly moving poems and testimonies that are included in it.
We are also beginning to reach out to universities offering gender studies curriculums. We believe this anthology will help teachers to stir interest in students regarding the violence and oppression that has characterized the experience of girls and women, and that has deeply affected everyone who has been part of their lives, across the world and for many centuries. We expect that the ensuing discussions in classrooms, at seminars and conferences, in editorials and articles, and in books, films and other media, will blossom into activism, not only limited to the classroom and the arts but also in political and judicial arenas. Further, we anticipate that this heightened level of awareness, concern, and dialogue will lead to real change through the passing of meaningful legislation and the subsequent decisions of the courts.
We do believe that collective voices, such as those in our anthology, can compel leading figures in governments to take notice of issues. We hope that this dialogue will continue through our Facebook page and through the new Veils, Halos & Shackles website that Kasva Press is now creating; we also anticipate that still other channels will open and that this communication will become clear enough, eloquent enough, and loud enough to change the current order of things.
Two Poems From The Book
Smita finds Susan Kelly De-Witt’s poem Sati very powerful. It is brutally evocative and haunting. Here’s the poem along with Susan’s testimony
for Roop Kanwar, in memory
On September 4, 1987. . . a young girl of 18 in the village of Deorala in Rajasthan was murdered. She was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. Yet, according to local tradition, Roop Kanwar had become a ‘sati’ and had ‘voluntarily’ immolated herself . . . . Two decades later, the problem has not disappeared.
— the Hindu, September 23, 2007
They said a hundred hand-sewn butterflies
ignited the gauze filaments
of your veil, that
once, when you fell off
the pyre with plainly scorched
feet, they hurried to lift you
back, onto the fire: Sati
Mata ki jai! Glory
to the Sati Mother!
They said you were struck by
the beauty of the gesture: Your body a lotus
of flame, your soul rising like incense
from its burning stem.
What do I know,
sitting here, continents away,
Weeping for whom?
They said you cradled
your dead husband’s head
in your lap as you burned,
with one skull —
Kelly-DeWitt wrote the “Sati” poem a long time ago, when the story first appeared in the New York Times and then in her local paper. She had read Bullmiller’s book May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India, which examined women’s disenfranchised roles in 1980s Indian society and was galvanized by Kanwar’s story. Had she lived, her choices would have been few, but she was not even allowed those choices. At the time, Kanwar’s family tried to make everyone believe that she had undertaken this act of her own free will, that it was not murder. Before sending the poem to the anthology, she did some more research. Kanwar’s story is still very relevant to the fate of women in India.
Charles is especially moved by Cheryl R. Cowtan’s poem “The Importance of Mustard” because it encapsulates an iconic experience — wanting desperately to please someone who has some degree of power over you & knowing the likely consequences of failing. In Cowtan’s life that anxiety, self-doubting, and emotional pain was the inevitable aftermath of the psychological and physical abuse her husband had visited upon her. Both her poem and her testimony are produced below.
The Importance of Mustard
I lift the limp paper towel
And peek under at the sizzling bacon
Just a few more minutes to perfection
I push the 1 on the microwave.
The cracked-wheat bread pops out of the toaster
And I lay it side by side on the beige tile counter
Four thick slices of marble cheddar cheese
Slide off of my knife
I place them on one side of the toast
Parked tightly beside one another like school buses
Then I pick up the tomato
Red and round and firm
I hold it to my nose and breathe in the scent
A smell that was three months in the making,
beneath the sunflowers.
I can hear my sons’ laughter as they run to the tomato patch
This traditional searching each day,
To see how many tomatoes the raccoons have left us.
I smile as their joyous cries carry across the lawn.
They have found a red one among the green globes
I slice the tomato delicately, trying not to bruise the flesh.
The slices look like microscope cross sections
Alien pockets of gel surrounded by webbed tissue
Ah! The bacon is done.
I air lift it with my fingernails, sizzling and popping
Down onto the cheese
The hot grease slides onto the rectangular prisms
Melting with contact.
I shake miniature black flakes and clear cubes
Onto the arranged tomato slices
I put on the top layer of toast,
And then I freeze.
Mayonnaise! It must have mayonnaise!
I rush to the fridge, uncapping the jar.
It slides out onto my butter knife
Jiggling on its way to the porous bread.
I press down on the toast and slice the sandwich
Into two triangles
He’s going to love this.
I start to carry it in to him
But the word “mustard”
Appears in my mind
And stops me.
What if he wants mustard on it?
I stop, waver, return to the kitchen.
Mustard, mustard, mustard.
I walk in a circle, not sure, not wanting to make a mistake.
What if I put it on and he doesn’t want it?
Do we eat mustard on bacon and tomato?
He shouts, “Where’s that sandwich!” from the living room.
I jump and bite back the startled noise while it’s still in my throat.
I’m surprised to find that I’m holding my finger.
It just started to ache.
An ache from a break,
From the last time I didn’t put mustard on his sandwich.
Cowtan: Cowtan worked as a counselor at a local women’s shelter for two years. Although she had been trained, and had read the stats, and knew how to identify abuse, she was not prepared for the horrifying lives some women were living. As an educational counselor, her mandate was to educate survivors of domestic violence about the cycle they were caught in. And there was a rotation of consistent behavior that made her think an Abuser 101 class must have taught these abusive husbands how to degrade, oppress, and hurt their wives because the stories were all the same. The tactics were all the same. The comments from the women were all the same. Domestic violence is a cookie-cutter phenomenon in our society. And, as such, it can be fought. Women can be made aware of the patterns, and male abusers can be identified by clear profiles. “The Importance of Mustard” highlights how the normal everyday can quickly and unpredictably turn into a violent incident over something as inconsequential as mustard. The poem also shows how this type of environment can damage a woman’s ability to think, make decisions, and stay calm, which are all required in the “leaving” of a violent relationship.
Three Years Of Careful Compilation
It took three years of careful compilation to bring the book together. Strong reactions to brutal, grossly unjust, incidents are proofs that we as a society are demanding change. The incidents, which create history, the watershed moments, are not isolated. And verbal and non-verbal forms of dissent are a battle against everything that allowed or facilitated such incidents to happen in the first place. Every candle throws light on unacceptable happenings over the world; every protestor’s voice compels others to break their silence. We join in. Every poet holds a candle; every poem speaks up against injustice; the book is a protest march — in libraries, classrooms, book clubs, readings and on the streets.
The voice of the book remains as strong as the voices of the protestors were in December 2012. Some voices do not fade, even when they are not heard for a long time — they are etched too deeply into our collective memories. Heartbreakingly, the book and the issue remain current.
Smita has co edited this essentially sensitive book with Charles. She has never believed men to be the sole oppressors or the enemies. Cultures, belief systems and socio-economic conditions, in the hands of men and women, have fanned this dangerous, despicable flame of oppression, violence and inequality. Just because women are oppressed, it is naïve to say that they are not the oppressors — this is something that I have attempted to address through my poem, The Coronation of Shilavati. And just because men are not oppressed as frequently as women, it is incorrect to say that they are the oppressors. Men have worked for women’s empowerment for ages: Rabindranath Tagore was unhappy that Urmila was absent in the Ramayana, Raja Ram Mohan Roy worked tirelessly to abolish the practise of Sati, and Justin Trudeau has famously said, “We shouldn’t be afraid to use the word ‘feminist.’ Men and women should use it to describe themselves whenever they want.”
In perfect balance, Charles’ poetry, though written from the male perspective is celebratory of women, empathetic to the violence and oppression they face, in a fluid, natural, unapologetic way, without reducing them to simplistic adjectives, honor systems or temptations. The poem, A Dance on the Poems of Rilke, is a layered, political commentary, while acknowledging and recording what women went through during the WWII. It salutes and condemns — it essentially invokes peace, kindness and equality.
The male-female perspectives have been very closely intertwined, without being restricted to being strictly x versus y perspectives. They both believe that men and women have a lot to express on this subject. Poets such as Ravi Shankar, K Satchidandan, Tabish Khair and Dane Cervine, have written with profound sensitivity, condemning deeply held beliefs and practices. Going one step further, some male poets have also spoken about the sexual violence they have survived. Every poet and poem has added dimensions, and perspectives to the anthology.
Smita Sahay is a poet and writer based in Mumbai. She is also an MBA holder and working on a venture to deliver better mental healthcare facilities using technology.
Charles Adés Fishman is a poet, editor, scholar and teacher based in USA. He is the author of The Death Mazurka a book that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.