Tag Archives: #ushaakella

Left to Right: Book- 'I Will Not Bear You Sons' and Poet - Usha Akella

Usha Akella’s ‘I Will Not Bear You Sons’ Pulls No Punches. And It Shouldn’t Have To.

Usha Akella tells no lies. 

The first time I met this poet, producer and founder of South Asian poetry collective Matwaala was at a Desi poetry reading moderated by India Currents. It was a surreal moment for a South Asian American teenage girl who grew up on a diet of Mahabharata reruns and idolized authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. My love for South Asian literature always began and ended with the literature itself, but the poetry readings gave me the opportunity to witness the beauty of a thriving community built around this art form. And at the forefront of building this community is Indian-American poet Usha Akella. 

Matwaala Co-Founders, Pramila Venkateswaran (left) and Usha Akella (right) (Image from Poets &Writers)
Matwaala Co-Founders, Pramila Venkateswaran (left) and Usha Akella (right) (Image from Poets &Writers)

The 2019 Creative Ambassador for the City of Austin, Usha uses her platform as a poet and as a storyteller to advocate for immigrant rights and gender equality. When I watched her read for the first time, I was struck by her refusal to mince words. In recent years, the so-called “third-wave feminist movement” is often asked to soften its message, simplify itself, and turn its head at the more implicit forms of misogyny that plague America today. In fact, I’ve often found myself reading and writing poetry wondering whether the forthrightness of my activism will offend, as though the realities of gender inequality need to be sugar-coated to be swallowed. 

Usha Akella’s latest poetry book I Will Not Bear You Sons does none of that. This collection of poetry delivers the pain, purpose, and newfound power of marginalized women in their rawest forms. This book dances from the misogynistic expectations placed on South Asian housewives to China’s foot-binding tradition to sexual harassment experienced by working women. Beyond her activism, this book also weaves sharp-witted social commentaries with penetrating glimpses into post-pandemic life. True to her cuttingly honest writing style, in I Will Not Bear You Sons Usha Akella offers an outreached hand to women everywhere — as well as a confident middle finger to the patriarchal norms which silence them. 

The book is broken into two sections — I and We.

While I offers autobiographical looks into Akella’s experiences as both a writer and Indian-American woman, We acts on her hopes for intersectional feminism, and tells the stories of marginalized women from other cultures and identities.

“Can women ever cease perceiving their ‘tragedy’ as ‘Mother’?”, Usha writes in Ants  — a poem that is dedicated to her Amma but widens into a broader discussion about familial ties and patriarchal perceptions of motherhood.

What is interesting about this book is that Akella recognizes the collectivism buried in her individual narrative; she manages to use her personal experiences to connect with other women and uplift different communities. One of the most memorable poems in I Will Not Bear You Sons, in my opinion, is Women Speak — a matter-of-fact call for justice. Although nowhere does Akella talk about herself in this poem, it grows clear through her strong sense of voice that Women Speak is a command for every woman, Usha included. 

Despite her support for intersectionality, however, Akella is also self-aware of the regional and socio-economic divisions which exist within the feminist movement.

From A Brahmin Niyogi Woman to a White Woman toys with the differences between Western and South Asian notions of freedom. “I didn’t dye my hair blue,” writes Akella. “I didn’t say fuck you!,” highlighting this divide with a discerning, humorous outlook on Western and Eastern stereotypes.

As a teenager somehow grappling with both realities, I thoroughly enjoyed her sense of humor, even in its darker moments (think: sardonically dismissive references to AIDS, homosexuality, and divorce). What does a feminist want? Akella’s poetry slyly peels back the layers to this question, while also revealing how internalized misogyny and generational judgment distort a possible answer. 

The titular poem of the book, I Will Not Bear You Sons, undoubtedly shines through. In fact, my only critique of Akella’s book was the positioning of this poem, which manages to overshadow shorter, and perhaps underrated pieces like Storm and Harmony. It’s an interesting demise, where I Will Not Bear You Sons may be too good for where it is placed, and we see diluted successors to this poem rather than a powerful lineup.

The piece below, which has been included with Akella’s permission, chronicles Akella’s feelings of isolation and oppression within her own family. Personally, I was drawn to the poem’s strong sense of chronology, where Akella uses specific visual imagery to walk her readers through the most intimate parts of her life. The poem begins at the door, where the readers are introduced to this setting and Akella as a person. She then slowly moves the narrative into different parts of the house, her use of setting paralleling the poem itself — a journey within the innermost pieces of her psyche, which has been damaged by the patriarchy and now seeks to heal through poetry and group empowerment. The very phrase, I will not bear you sons, is unforgettable on its own, yet the way Akella repeats this line gives the poem a defiant and enduring heartbeat. It’s one of the longer poems in this collection, as Akella has plenty to say about the demands to birth a male child, a society which degrades and commodifies women, a history of misogyny which perpetuates this society like a terrible machine — this poem is a lot, and I found myself only getting angrier as the work unfolded. The range of emotion in this book is beautiful. Yet it is Akella’s unadulterated anger, which spreads like wildfire in this poem, that truly brings I Will Not Bear You Sons alive.

What can a door deliver?

 

The setting of this poem is innocuous—at the door,

A door is innocent of its exits and entrances,

What can a door deliver?

Hellos, bye-byes, blessings, Namaste, a peck on the cheek …

 

An open door can be the hole in a noose.

 

I had just celebrated his seventieth birthday,

decorating the house so, so, fit to welcome a God,

the saris draped on the ceiling, cascading rainbows

falling from the sky,

we wore our finery, our ornaments

as if the earth was liberated from every evil.

 

The food was laid out—kitchen-labor, labor of forgiveness,

I will not waste words on the menu

for I must speak of women, wombs and India.

 

A poem can glisten like a fresh wound.

 

In his speech he praised his wife,

his daughter, his sons, his grandchildren,

he omitted his daughters-in-law, and I

stilled my voice on the verge of bleeding red like a period,

and they ate and ate and danced and smiled and smirked,

and all was well with the world.

 

– Usha Akella in I Will Not Bear You Sons


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 


 

Desi Poetry Reading Hits Home

This article is part of the column – Poetry as Sanctuary – where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora. 

Can you think of major experiences of your life and community, whether it is to celebrate birthdays or weddings, or to mourn a loss or even at the rituals around a funeral, without some music and song, be it folk traditions or prayer chants? Poetry is so seamlessly woven into our lives that we may turn to its wisdom by sheer instinct, to find what comforts and elevates.

The Indian epics of Mahabharata with the Gita, literally the song of the God, contained within it, and the Ramayana, or the more recent religious text from the five-hundred-year-old Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib, are all written in verse. These verses are memorized and still sung aloud or chanted privately, as they were before the written word was invented.

Poetry belongs in the community, especially now, as the world goes through these transformative times.

On June 30th, India Currents(IC) and Matwaala held a poetry reading event with five award-winning South Asian women poets addressing activism. Matwaala director and poet, Usha Akella, said that it’s time to bring poetry, a minority art amongst arts, out from the university halls and into the community.

Two of the poets read poems about the Nirbhaya incident of the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh, showcasing how poetry can be activism by bearing witness. Sophia Naz, a poet on the panel, described each poem to be an experiment and an act of activism. She sees the process of subjective meaning as a democratic act of a dialog between the poem and the reader. The activism is inherent in poems as the reader must engage to make sense of it, with the meaning changing with every reading. At the end of the 90 minutes, Srishti, IC moderator, said how she found the session cathartic and was glad that several poems gave expression to what she felt.

Poems read in community have a way of connecting us to our spirit and with each other.

This is the first in a series of articles for the new column – Poetry as Sanctuary. Poetry for the poetry lovers and the poetically curious in our community. The articles will be written by our diaspora poets who are from the FB group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. This group meets weekly, on Saturday nights at 8:30 pm, to read and listen to poems, in all languages, with impromptu translations. We have poets who read in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Sindhi, Farsi, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean, and other languages.

About a half a dozen years ago, Mahendra Kutare, started meetups and formed a group that now goes by the name Kaavya Connections. Many of us met at the monthly gathering in San Francisco that Mahendra hosts. Three years ago, we started meeting once a month in Mountain View and has morphed into a weekly group since the shelter-in-place started in March.

Weekly social distance poetry meetup.

Although the group is open to all, it is not an open mic, since we are not a performance space. Ours is an art practice space for poetry lovers who have a deep and old commitment to poems. Unlike some other poetry groups, we do not expect or provide a critique of poems. Our intention is to connect people through the love of poems, and we end up co-creating poetic conversations. It is an affirmative space by intention, following the Hindustani tehzeeb (protocol/tradition), where praise for the poets attending a mushaira or mehfil, poetry recitation event, is called, ‘daat dena’, where the listeners repeat words that the poet says or ask the poet to re-read some lines (mukarar), as a way to set the pace and punctuate the poems with generous praise, by saying ‘Wah! Wah!’ (great!) or ‘irshad’ (repeat please), depending on the response evoked by the poem being read.

We will be in touch with poems, and until then check out the recordings of the event.

I can recommend Sophia Naz’s the United States of Amnesia, where you might find yourself wanting to soak up phrases like “I know the smell of Genocide” or “I have fallen in your uncivil war of a thousand and one episodes. This beast you thought you tamed? He prowls the profiled night wearing a police uniform.”

Zilka Joseph’s poems on 25 responses to everyday racism, or the ghazal about Jyoti Singh, were immersive and evocative. She calmly stated the obvious, “Poets, words are witness, make darkness burn.” I was taken by her simplicity.

I heard poems about mothers who lost their sons and a reminder that George Floyd was a spark that ignited cataclysmic events brewing for hundreds of years – “take a breath brother because you are more than 400 years of hate and hurt”.

Usha Akella’s phrase, “Sanskrit mantras in my veins” or the poem Enough demanding “bring back our caged children to a field of sunflowers” kept me wanting more.

 “How much of knowing do we need before we say it.” –  I poignant end to a thought-provoking session. I knew I was ready for the next reading, as soon as this one ended.

Thank you, Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik for using the IC platform to elevate these minority voices that speak for the disenfranchised communities. I look forward to the next poetry reading.

This article is part of the column – Poetry as Sanctuary – where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora. 


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association, and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.