Salt and Wounds: A Review of Divya Victor’s Kith

by Eric Schmaltz

Eric Schmaltz is a Toronto-based artist, writer, and educator. His work has appeared in Jacket2, The Capilano Review, Poetry is Dead, Lemon Hound, and Open Letter. He is the author Surfaces (Invisible Publishing, 2018). Find him on Twitter at @eschmaltzzz.

Kith
Divya Victor.
Book*hug, 2017.
$20.00, 220 pages.

 

Discomfort is a fitting affect to describe Divya Victor’s poetry. In an interview with Caleb Beckwith, Victor confesses that she has “been invested in producing discomfort for a very long time, and increasingly as a complement to aesthetic pleasure. This is tied to a larger political effort to thwart or prevent happiness from occurring in public places.” In this way, Victor positions her poetic practice alongside critical theorist “killjoys” like Sara Ahmed, or perhaps in the poetical company of Rachel Zolf and Douglas Kearney—writers whose experimental works actively draw their audience out of complacency amid systems of oppression and violence.

In her previous collections, Victor has unsettled and critiqued notions of identity formation, especially for those subjects who are marginalized by systems of law and governance. Her book Natural Subjects (2014) drew from fact and fiction, pop-song and anthem, documents and assembly instructions to deconstruct, as Felix Bernstein writes, “the relationship between sentimental notions of authorial authenticity and normative models of citizenship.” Victor thereby interrogated processes of subject formation and “naturalization,” i.e., the expectation that one adopts the customs and practices of a nation to acquire legally recognized citizenship. Victor used similar ideas again in Unsub (2015), where she recast the language of descriptions for wanted persons, or “unsubs” (a term used by the FBI to refer to an unidentified and unapprehended subject, whether alive or dead). Victor’s brief sketches of unidentified bodies perversely read like a catalogue of dating profiles. She strangely blurs the language of desire, predation, and escape to interrogate the stakes and processes of identity formation and othering.

Victor’s latest collection, Kith (jointly published by Albany-based Fence Books and Toronto-based Book*hug, formerly known as BookThug), continues her interrogation of bodies and identity formation via an autobiographical account of Indian-American diasporic culture. Victor’s choice of cross-border publishing speaks to her interest in flows across borders—national, personal, and poetic.

At first glance, Kith foregrounds border crossing through its format. Composed of 11 sections (plus “Notes” and “Acknowledgments”), the book playfully blends forms and types, among them the scrapbook, laundry list, epistle, archive, fill-in-the-blank, alphabet book, instruction manual, and prose poem. This formal juxtaposition highlights Victor’s penchant for genre-bending experimentalism as well as her linguistic and cerebral dexterity. Snapshots of Victor’s family are located throughout the collection; by turns candid and posed, her family is depicted in transit, on the beach, dancing, laughing, and playing. Victor thus situates her own identity and travels within the heart of the book. By dealing with deeply personal content through her poetic restlessness, Victor seems to suggest that identity—especially identity shaped by diasporic flows—can hardly be reduced to the standard conventions of lyrical verse.

Victor seems to suggest that identity—especially identity shaped by diasporic flows—can hardly be reduced to the standard conventions of lyrical verse.

Victor’s conception of diaspora in Kith parallels Lily Cho’s conception of the term in her essay “The Turn to Diaspora,” in that they both see the feeling of dislocation and loss as central to the diasporic subject’s identity. In part, Kith is an examination of the title word, which does not necessarily mean family (kin), but instead means friend or acquaintance. Over the course of the collection, Victor uses the word to refer not only to persons, but also to objects, resources, and commodities to denote the diverse, meaningful attachments that humans develop to persons and things as the foundation of community. Kith is not merely a poetic celebration of belonging, but, as indicated by the book description on Book*hug’s website, an interrogation of racial belonging: “How do ‘brownness’ and ‘blackness’ emerge as traded commodities in the transactions of globalization?” Victor is not necessarily interested in celebrations of diasporic identity; on the contrary, she is seemingly critical of them. She wants to know how trade—cultural, economic, and human—creates identity. As she put it in the interview cited earlier, Victor wants to know “how a racially marked poet can curb an other’s enthusiasm for reaching over, feeling closer to ciphers of ethnic experience, or even assuming that I endure one and its purported contents.”

The devastatingly-titled poem, “The Following is a Speculative Laundry List of Outfits Left Behind by Corpses at the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre If All Victims Were Female and British, Instead of Indian Women, Men, Children, and Infants,” embodies Victor’s stance.

The title evokes the violence of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who, on April 13th, 1919, commanded the British Indian Army to fire upon mostly civilians in India’s Jallianwala Bagh garden, believing that their picnicking in the garden signified insurrection. Reports indicate that hundreds were killed and 1,500 wounded by his command. With this event in mind, Victor composes a poem that is literally a list of laundry worn by British women:

6000 Calico nightgowns not stained with mud
6000 Silk or wool nightgowns not covered in blood
6000 Calico combinations not damp with well water
6000 Merino vests not splattered with blood
6000 Spun silk vests not stained by rust

The language of the poem corresponds to the proposition of the poem’s title, reversing colonial violence by projecting the events onto British women rather than brown Indian civilians. The title first leaves the reader to uneasily anticipate a list of bloodied and dirtied clothing. Victor, however, takes another, equally unsettling approach. The violence of the poem is not slaughter, but the preservation of the British subject—the fact that the women’s Britishness saves them from such violence. The language of the poem implies that the British victims of the poem are not victims at all since their clothing remains unsullied, “not stained with mud” and “not splattered with blood.” Victor thus implies that the crime of the civilians, in the eyes of Reginald Dyer, is nothing more than their diminished sovereignty as colonial subjects.

In the section of Kith entitled “Salt,” Victor examines another form of colonial violence: salt production. “Salt” centres around “a cyclone off the coast of Gujarat” that “killed thousands of salt workers / who earned 350 rupees (£5) a week.” The poem balances the life-sustaining and destructive properties of salt, citing both the tragedy of the 1998 cyclone as well as salt’s many pragmatic uses: “kith cleaned your teeth [. . .] kith extinguished your grease fires [. . .] kith boiled your water [. . .] kith refined your petroleum [. . .] kith was your offering to god, and so with kith you gargled your throat and fell asleep with kith in your mouth.” Salt, here referred to by Victor “as a kind of kith” to denote its deep cultural and historical resonances, is a familiar ingredient to anyone who spends time in the kitchen. In her case, Victor locates it “in a bowl on the rice in a pot beside the aluminum tumblers,” only to unsettle that familiar image in the next line: “in the pan on a field under the feet on your dark hands.” This juxtaposition reminds readers of salt’s origins in dangerous conditions and racialized labour. “Salt” ends with a prose section recounting the double violence of salt as commodity:

And yet, in the very state where Ghandi symbolically separated salt from earth, and Indian from colonized civilian, thousands of Indians remain enslaved to salt production through the persistence of salt monopolies and vice-tight contracts of indentured labour. [. . .] Without protective clothing or footwear, they suffer extraordinary occupational hazards and remain some of the least protected civilians in India, entrapped at the deadly intersection of poverty, illiteracy, and migrancy.

This prose section of “Salt” further recalls—or, for some, reveals—the unfamiliar reality of a familiar mineral, the bloodshed and life that are taken by something so commonplace as salt.

This prose section of “Salt” further recalls—or, for some, reveals—the unfamiliar reality of a familiar mineral, the bloodshed and life that are taken by something so commonplace as salt.

The last poem of the collection is a two-page prose poem entitled “W for Walt Whitman’s Soul,” which unsettles Whitman’s place as a celebrated poet of the American canon. Speaking at the 2017 Book*hug launch, Victor described Whitman as “one of the more beloved apologists for colonialism.” In Leaves of Grass, Whitman praises the opening of the Suez Canal as a trade route that opens India to the world. In her poem, by contrast, Victor critically reimagines Whitman’s fantasies of India and the canal:

It sits with a fork made from a lotus on an ivory chair eating an elephant steak in the company of bears and feral nautch girls on a monsoon evening incandescent with an appetite as mighty as railroads spann’d across seas and reclines, its cheeks burnished, its ass varnished by suns setting on bronze and sugared with saltpetre, its torso a tableaux for the annals of rectitude, the theatre for roiling or robust passage, a veritable Suez Canal towards missionary victories which thrust from such bejeweled and oiled loins anointed by coin—that emission of plump plums, lump sums into the Ganges, that coiling coy virgin maiden winding her languid locks, batting her lashes to its lashes—its spine a gentle wire.

This luridly detailed sentence, the first of the three sentences that comprise the poem, articulates Whitman’s conception of the canal as sexual fantasy—a “maiden” subject, a “virgin” body of water and land to be gazed upon with its “appetite,” its “plumpness,” its “cheeks burnished,” its “varnished ass” ready to be plundered by the colonial explorer. In “W for Walt Whitman’s Soul,” desire and the celebration of body and land—tropes deeply embedded in Whitman’s writing—are perversely revised to foreground the violence of this intimacy through the sexualized gaze of Whitman and of colonialism itself.

Over the course of Kith, it becomes clear that the book is not a rendering of diasporic identity in any way that is easy to consume. In these poems, Victor condemns the violence—in its many forms—that have produced the Indian-American diasporic subject as it is portrayed (and erased) in art, literature, history, and commodities. For Canadian readers, Kith is a necessary companion to recent books that critique and intervene in Canada’s ongoing legacy of colonialism, such as Dead White Men by Shane Rhodes (recently reviewed by Maša Torbica in The Puritan) or Injun by Jordan Abel, which perform similar interrogations into histories of racial violence. Victor’s writing describes the project of colonialism as intercontinental violence. In its unsettling way, Kith reminds us that the diasporic subject is often created first out of violence and displacement.

 


Eric Schmaltz is a Toronto-based artist, writer, and educator. His work has appeared in Jacket2, The Capilano Review, Poetry is Dead, Lemon Hound, and Open Letter. He is the author Surfaces (Invisible Publishing, 2018). Find him on Twitter at @eschmaltzzz.

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