"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.