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#metoo and other haunting truths

An essay by SHIVANEE RAMLOCHAN on her book Everybody Knows I am a Haunting
Published: 
Sunday, October 22, 2017

My first book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, was published on October 3 by Peepal Tree Press. I think no one is as surprised by that as I am. This is not the book I imagined I would write when I was ten years younger, but it is the only first book I could have written.

I never intended to be a poet, but I should have seen the warning signs.

As a young girl, I was more comfortable with the massive Complete Works of Shakespeare than I was with my extended family. As a teenager, I found the best way to get revenge on people—lecherous-gazed “uncles”; derisive schoolgirls who mocked my long, thick “country” plaits; teachers who made all the Hindu children stand up in religious instruction class—was to write about them.

Many events in my life have prompted me to be silent. When I was 12, at my uncle’s wedding, a guest commented that I had long, beautiful black hair, like a “Bollywood dolly”, and his gaze lingered on far more than my hair. He was easily three times my age. Women in my personal life have been beaten to the point of hospitalisation, and I have been mute before their attackers. Dressed in a green shalwar with my hair cut short, I have had a Hindu pundit sneer at me with lip-curling derision because he thought I was a boy in woman’s clothing. These are far from the worst examples.

Many people charge me with personal bravery for writing these poems, but the truth is, there have been many times when I have not been brave at all. I have frequently chosen uncomfortable and ashamed silence, for simple and complex reasons, all of which I own freely and without denial.

Writing this book is not an antidote to that, but it is as good a beginning as I know.

I have not worked in a vacuum. On April 27, at Poetry Forward, an NGC Bocas Lit Fest event, my book was pre-launched alongside the works of three writers I respect tremendously: Rosamond S King, Richard Georges and Andre Bagoo. It’s their poems I turn to when I need counsel, theirs and scores more Caribbean poets: Nicholas Laughlin, Anu Lakhan, Malika Booker, Loretta Collins Klobah, Vahni Capildeo, Rajiv Mohabir, Olive Senior, Sonia Farmer, and far more than I can name in a brief, revelatory essay. The searingly powerful poet Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné has become more sister to me than friend.

In my poetic life, I have never worked alone, even when the bulwark of my work has been created in solitude. As anyone who has ever paid attention to me knows, the first and most vital poet of my life was, and remains, my mother Deborah.

When I was a teenager, I was quietly ashamed of so many things, including my last name. Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting is an unquiet reclamation of myself. What I have tried to do in this first collection is to tell the subterranean truth beneath the truth: to shed light on the unspoken, to unearth secret shames and hold them up either to forgiveness or to clarity.|

These poems speak about rape; gender-based violence; survival; indentured labour; burying the past and revealing it. I cannot, nor do I wish to, decide how they are interpreted by their readers, but I hope that for every person who finds themselves in the company of this book, there is at least one truth worth telling.

Most of my working life is given over to the reading and criticism of Caribbean fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I learned much of what I know on my feet, with no specific training in book reviewing. In fact, I received a wealth of practical, unsentimental training as the former books writer of the Sunday Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section. Words, the thoughtfulness and care with which they are used, the power they have to make a world or dismantle one, matter deeply and dearly to me. Yet, for all that, I am not interested in critically informing anyone what to think about my poems. Frankly, that is not my business. It is my business to do the work of writing them.

One of my favourite poems, Stanley Kunitz’ The Testing Tree, says, “It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.” This is what I have worked for hardest in Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting: to look at the truth, to say what is most real about it without turning away. I hope I have done it well. I hope to do more.

Shivanee Ramlochan was the books writer for the Sunday Guardian's Sunday Arts Section for five years. She is a blogger and book reviewer.