I was lucky enough to stumble upon Tarfia Faizullah’s poetry when I went to a literary festival in Indiana last year. Her debut poetry collection Seam serves as a brutal, but honest, history lesson of Bangladesh’s tragic Liberation War of 1971 and its effect on hundreds of thousands of women and their families. But it is so much more than that. Seam demonstrates how a piece of history, a distant memory, can stitch its way into a person, even generations later. The speaker takes us, “reeling backward” (8) into her mother’s memories of war time Bangladesh. And we are invited along as the speaker travels over two oceans to “…a country / split from tip to tip by such / black mold…” to speak with women who were raped as a result of the war. Although the speaker is asking questions of these women, it’s herself who she interrogates most heavily. As readers, we watch while the speaker struggles with her right to ask questions of the Birangonas, (the women, war heroines, raped during the war) and the feelings that swirl through her mind while she maneuvers a body that is clearly hers… a body that has not been torn like those of the Bangladeshi women she interviews.
In the first poem of the book, “1971”, Tarfia invites us into Bangladesh of the past. Of a sweet memory of a daughter watching her mother bathe in a pond, clearly a common ritual, only we are introduced to the water through a devastating image: “bayoneted women stain / pond water blossom…” (1). It is this image that opens the reader to a woman’s familiar memory, watching her mother bathe herself on a warm afternoon, only to have this memory torn and mutilated by the atrocities of the Pakistani soldiers:
…and a Bangladeshi
woman catches the gaze
of a Pakistani
soldier through rain-curved palm
trees–her sari is torn
And from there, the memory truly is mutilated, shown to us through flashes of beauty and horror; a woman washing her face “until her nose pin shined”, then… “a helix of blood“ (8). The speaker is showing us what was ripped away, and not just from the bodies of the Birangonas themselves, but from memories as well, which live on through all those affected.
The book goes on… Sharing the experiences of Bangladeshi survivors, while the speaker assesses and questions her own place in the country of her family. This is especially poignant in “The Interviewer Acknowledges Shame.” The speaker is able to enjoy her body’s desires, give in to “the familiar / arched shuddering”, (43) only to later review the footage of her interviews and experience shame:
she begins to write about it in third person,
as though it was that simple
to unnail myself from my own body. (43)
The change of tense in the poem’s closing line perfectly captures the speaker’s realization, that while the stories she hears from others have a profound and altering effect on her, she is still privileged enough to escape from the realities of the past… something the Birangonas will never be able to do.
Each time I read and reread these poems, I am left with the realization that I may never again think of Bangladesh without these stories imprinted on my mind. Seam reminds us that history is not something we can choose to ignore or forget. As we are shown, history makes a place for itself within the speaker.
This a beautifully written collection…and an important book to read and learn from.