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Displacement, otherness, immigration, and homesickness are among a list of canonical literary themes that describe the immigrant Indian-American identity and life experiences. But in Zilka Joseph’s thought-provoking 2021 poetry anthology, In Our Beautiful Bones, these are uniquely expressed and particularly nuanced.
Tryst With Colonialism
Joseph elegantly explores feelings beyond the Indian-American identity. For instance, she recognizes our long, fraught relationship with colonialism and consequently, the tenuous sectarian politics that exist in India:
“Colonists with your white gaze told our stories.
The Raj kept us slaves in our own land!”
“Joseph? There are names like that in India? There are Jews in India?”
I found this line particularly profound because this question could have been posed to Joseph in either country – India or America. It demonstrates that “Indianness” is nuanced and, inherently, has a plurality that’s often glossed over. In India, and more so in America, we’re all grouped as simply Indian-Americans or Asian-Americans.
The above line is from “Herstory”, where Joseph recounts her journey from childhood to adulthood. Her unique upbringing and experience in India growing up as a Bene Israel, and what that means for her in both India and America, contributes to her poetry. This book could be considered autobiographical, with accounts of her life woven into the framework of her poetry.
Our Diverse Diaspora
What does mean to be Indian?
It’s our food, our accent, the color of our skin, our value system, beliefs, festivals, fears and insecurities (justified or not), superstitions, Bollywood, colonialism, Gandhi, Nehru, caste system, education, stereotypes, prejudices, our perceptions of the west, Eastern mysticism, yoga, and more.
Yes, it’s a lot! The Indian-American identity is all this and so much more. One specific description cannot classify this experience. And Joseph accomplishes this colossal task by gracefully weaving one, or several, of these ideas through her powerful poetry, emphasizing the varying shades of Indianness.
As an Indian-American immigrant, Joseph is compelled to, either voluntarily or circumstantially, prove that concealed under her brown skin, Indian accent, and masala-laced food, she is better at English than the average American. This is ironic given that Joseph has been an English teacher for most of her adult life:
“We may have triple Ph.D.s and win Pulitzers
even a Nobel or two
non-native speakers of English
they call us in America.”
Sometimes, Joseph would get the opposite reaction:
“How come you speak English they ask
how come you speak such good English.”
Neither of these examples are exaggerated and, chances are, most Indian immigrants can relate to both.
Threats and Dangers Globally
Crime and danger exist regardless of where we live — whether we live in India or America, they just take on different hues.
In one poem about the night when the Babri Masjid falls, Joseph discusses her father’s frenzied panic when she is out as the curfew is declared. A primal fear rises in her father from the dangers of blind wrath born of sectarian fervor — and that, perhaps, those out on the streets wouldn’t be able to differentiate between a Bene Israel and a Muslim:
“Do you know what they can do to you?”
In her next poem, as a Desi immigrant, Joseph acknowledges that America is not much safer. She addresses the dangers of gun-induced violence in America:
“You that build all the guns… it’s your own children you riddle with bullets.”
Unity In Discord
Most charming about Joseph’s work is that, despite differences, misunderstandings, and the clash of civilizations, there is a unifying thread — one that binds us all together as human beings.
For instance, COVID-19 impacted us all globally. In most cases, it was the same folks who hurt the most– the poor minorities. Politicians and bureaucrats in India and America faltered and fell short. Across the board, first responders and essential heroes made sure we were taken care of and that there was food in our refrigerators. Joseph acknowledges this:
“Bless the hands
of every farmer, laborer, picker,
packer, transporter, that touched
each bag or box of food! Oh all who
worked at Trader Joe’s, Bombay
Grocers, Meijer’s, Kroger’s,
Costco, Patel’s! You rock.
You are our rock. You feed
us all. You feed,
you save my soul.”
She ends her magnificent collection with a “Prayer” that recognizes inherent goodness — hope and light are in all of us. We can resonate with her desire to soar above divisions.
In Our Beautiful Bones
“Dancing in the sun
in our own shining skin
in our beautiful bones.”
In Our Beautiful Bones is concrete, honest, and easy-to-read. Zilka Joseph’s collection of poignant poetry expresses what it means to be an Indian-American and leaves no aspect of our highly layered identity untouched. It’s a celebration of the Indian diaspora in America. Pick up your copy today!
Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan’s pre-kids life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a full-time mother, reading and playing with her high-energy boys has been a fascinating journey. It has (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. She constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.