Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"eating a $5 plate of string hoppers, I think of my father"

snoozing in front of Seinfeld on the beige on beige recliner
his belly folds after years
of american chop suey, hamburgers and Michelob
he really wanted to eat
was ever on the shelves
of Iandolli's or the Big D
I think of that man
who cried three times in my life
once when appamma died
once when our dog died
& once when I sent him
a 99-cent package of tamarind candy
& he called me long distance after Ma went to bed
weeping from tasting tamarind
for the first time in thirty years

By Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Leah Lakshmi Piepza-Samarasinha is a queer Toronto-based performance poet of Sri Lankan and Irish-Ukranian ancestry. She has just released her first book, Consensual Genocide.

I was thrilled to discover her primarily for one reason: her work is in the same biting, revolutionary vein as Gloria Anzaldua's and Cherrie Moraga's, not the weak, Western-pandering vein of many other women of South Asian heritage writing in English.

This poem captures the immigrant experience without having to resort to cheap tricks of exoticisation. Memory and dislocation are addressed here by comparing food -- string hoppers and tamarind juxtaposed beside everything available on North American supermarket shelves. What is especially admirable is that this poem could easily have veered into the whole Orientalist terrain (you know, "spices"). Instead, the poet accomplishes in just one mention of a 99cent pack of tamarind candy what Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tried to convey via a whole novel.

It is often said that it is food, even more than language, that keeps us rooted to our origins -- and this poem demonstrates this in a raw, honest way. In remembering her father, the poet pays homage to his own memories. Eating string hoppers, a dish from his native Sri Lanka (at $5 a plate! So exorbitant is the price of home, so far away from it), she is taken back to a visual of him watching TV, the way his belly folds from years of eating things foreign to his tongue and his heart, presumably with little relish.

She then follows the trajectory of the food motif into memory. She details the only three incidents during which she herself witnessed her father's tears -- when his mother died, when their dog died, and when he called her long distance after she sent him that packet of tamarind sweets. In each of these three memories of hers lies a link to a memory of her father's.

The poet's website is here. I wrote to her, when I first heard about her a few weeks ago, but she hasn't replied. I am so excited that a Sri Lankan woman is coming out with work like this, and I intend to keep an eye open for more from her.

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Blogger bibliobibuli said...

loved this.

the title adds a whole new dimension to the story, doesn't it? ... not so long ago i found myself back in cold rainy london and prepared to pay seven pounds(!!!) for an "uthappam" which was my usual malaysian breakfast!

the poem's so very poignant ... the whole piece builds up to the pathos of those last two lines which bring home all the sadness and sense of dislocation of the individual cut off from roots

isn't there such an irony about the candy being just 99-cents? it's a tiny thing but forces this huge crisis in him ...

you talk about the poem really well too - you're right about the speaker's memories being linked to her father's memories of his - which gives the poems a sense of layeredness ... two generations missing sri lanka

it's odd that i'd never heard of Michelob before today and then met the same beer brand in the novel i'm reading ("house of sand and fog")!

5:43 PM, May 16, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Sharanya, you have again picked a lovely poem and I can't thank you enough for expanding my narrow and limited world consciousness, as you share with us an intimate understanding of this poem.
[Aside: I apologise and hope you don't mind that I shifted Leah-Lakshmi's name to the bottom of the poem, least a few readers didn't realise that the title actually spills/ flows into the poem (and very significantly so).]

So, would any reader care to elaborate on the significance of the form of the title in relation to Sharanya's wonderful write-up? (wink) or perhaps, on the aspects of the craft of this poem, or issues raised by it?

10:35 PM, May 16, 2006  
Blogger Jane Sunshine said...

I loved the honesty of this poem. There's something so evocative about food memories which the poet captures: 'weeping from tasting tamarind'.

6:43 AM, May 17, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Falling asleep watching Seinfeld tells us how the father’s life must have been for 30-odd years or so. It must have been like a re-run of a sitcom: day in day out, the same old show, the same old “beige on beige recliner” and the same old fast food and alcohol – no varying at all.

Food, as Sharanya, you have shown us, plays a part in this poem. At the ending lines, when the poet sends him some exotic fruit candy, this probably makes him yearn for a homeland he left 30 years ago or so, or a past life long having gone. So much so that tasting the candy moves him to tears.

I notice that the poet never uses punctuations, relying on the capitalizing of a word to indicate the ending of a sentence before the word. The effect is a little strange, but still very effective, particularly on the 3rd line ending with “Michelob”. The missing full-stop might make you read on past the end of the line, to the next one with “Nothing”. “Nothing” rather comes on unanticipated. In the wake of the list of fast foods, it is so stark and empty and alone. It then runs-on very strongly, and doesn’t list foods again, those he likes, because he can’t find these in some deli or that famous burger joint. Same again with the line ending with “Big D”. But as both these line endings are end-stops, you learn to pause at those endings on subsequent readings.

I like the way the poet wraps her poem neatly with the word “years”: near the start, mentioning “after years”, and right at the end of the last line, closing neatly with “thirty years”. She utilizes time-related words very skillfully, and the last line is practically all such words. She again uses another time-related phrase, “once when” three times, right inside the body of the one stanza. They tell us how long ago all this crying took place, especially the first two instances. Repeating “once when” and “died”, also on those lines, at their endings, tells us how, besides someone and a pet having died, something else long ago has also vanished.

2:56 PM, May 17, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

As much as this longish title "eating a $5 plate of string hoppers, I think of my father" spills into the poem, it also stands alone on itself, with the poet reflecting on her father and her cultural roots through him when she eats a humble Sri-Lankan dish that is ironically made 'exotic' and 'foreign' in the Western world where she now resides in. Indeed, (the 'foreign'ness of string hoppers is reflected both in the English name it is now called (instead of 'uthappam') and the price that is paid for it. Although the globalisation of food, if I may call it so, allows national dishes to be made available, there seems to be that nostalgia and longing for the 'original' and 'authentic' taste, one that brings back memories so deep that it makes a grown who hardly cries weep. I enjoy Leon beautifully points out how despite all the material comforts enumerated in the poem, something has still been lost.

For me, as the poet attempts to draw upon, recover and build on her father's memory, she is left with a profound sense of her hybrid self that straddles over her various belongings/be-longings that tugs at her.

2:22 AM, May 18, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

dreamer idiot - you're right except that utthapam is not the same thing as string hoppers - we clearly need to give you a gastronomic education when you're next in kl!!! ;-P

12:30 PM, May 18, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

oops...(sheepishly) No wonder the google I did for uthappam and string hoppers seem different.

Yes, a gastronomic educational tour of KL would be great. :)

6:48 PM, May 18, 2006  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

String hoppers are "idi appom". :)

I arrived just past midnight this morning at my uncle's house in Singapore, and there they were waiting for me in the fridge -- idi appom, with potati sothi. Typical, every day Sri Lankan fare.. Made me smile, when I thought of this poem. And of how even for me, thanks to a lack of culinary skills or knowing any other Sri Lankans I see often who possess them, this simple meal is something I only have a few times a year.

Am glad you felt the same way about this poem.. it's so very personal, yet somehow strikes a chord, even when one has no idea what an idi appom is! Dreamer Idiot -- no probs about changing the place of Leah Lakshmi's name. Thanks for doing it, it does read easier. :)

2:31 PM, May 19, 2006  

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