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.
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.