In these immaculately crafted and powerful, polyphonic poems, Usha Akella issues a rallying cry for all women to unite, resist and fight the violence of the patriarchy.
When Usha Akella’s I Will Not Bear You Sons was published by Spinifex Press in March, 2021, it found itself embroiled in an avalanche of controversy. Men’s rights activists from across India and its diaspora took personal offence to the book’s title and to random excerpts from its eponymous poem that accompanied the book’s various media promotions, especially the lines:
I will abort every male fetus I bear,
I will live to ensure there are no more sons,
I will live to see your bloodline cross over
with you to the other side
Readers that included both men and women read these lines as invincible proof of the blatant promotion of misandry, toxic feminism and male foeticide. The book’s writer and its publisher faced a storm of adverse and abusive reactions on social media and were subject to outrageous threats, both verbal and otherwise. It is owing only to their sheer grit and artistic commitment that the book endured and lives to tell its many-faceted truth.
While the reader’s right to interpret a text certainly remains indisputable, what aggrieves the creative (and academic) conscience is the frequent lack of integrity summoned to the acts of reading and interpretation. Texts are both constituents and alternative (re)presentations of the world. Every text, while reflecting/refracting the world as it exists somewhere, also constitutes a universe of its own, putting forward an idiosyncratic logic of ordering its systems of relations. The task of meaning-making demands devout engagement with the entire body and spirit of a text. Interpretation has its elaborate erotics that cannot be sustained by fork-picking ideas/lines/sentiments from the text’s organic body for impetuous or whimsical attention/scrutiny/consumption. In poetry, especially, where connotation and suggestion often hold sway over denotation and clear statement, the risks of misinterpretation, even for an initiated reader, run high.
Keeping the title’s syntactical structure intact, one wonders if an innocuous phrase like ‘I will not bake you muffins’ or even an outrageous one like ‘I will not bear you an orgasm’ would have prompted reactions even remotely analogous to what I Will Not Bear You Sons met with. One suspects such phrases would have been met with the opposite reaction. What struck home in the original phrase was the (radical) affront to a clear civilizational prejudice and a deep-seated culturally-sanctioned erasure of women.
For readers well-acquainted with Indian culture, the title is symbolically loaded with an epistemology that needs no explanation. In a country where the traditional benediction showered on married women has been their ability to bear a hundred sons, the title of Akella’s book frames itself as a blatant blasphemy. Today, in the backdrop of the shameful overturning of the Roe v Wade decision by the US Supreme Court, I Will Not Bear You (Sons) gains in foresight, hindsight, relevance and poignance, and will, perhaps, strike as blasphemous in the US too with equal vigour.
Narrativizing a planetary history of women’s victimization, dispossession and suffering, and the transcultural and strategic disempowerment of women’s selfhoods by patriarchal scripts of being and performance, I Will Not Bear You Sons is an anthem of intersectional feminist solidarity. In her poem ‘Ants’, Akella comes up with an interesting coinage: “woeman” which, for me, nails the collection’s essential thrust. The perpetrator and the victim in this narrative remain fixed throughout the rapid shifts in geographical locales and cultural practices, as does the determination to dissent. Akella’s arc is ambitious and uncompromising. From female foeticide, infanticide, arranged marriages, dowry killings and rape, to female genital mutilation, foot-binding, forced breeding of African American enslaved women, sex work, consumerism and climate change, she interrogates almost every cultural script of patriarchy. Her politics is militant, her irony unmissable, and her empathy, global.
The sixty-three poems in this book are divided into two sections, ‘I’ and ‘We’, and speak evocatively to each other, denoting a shared geography of experience, oppression and resistance. And yet, in keeping with the architecture of feminist solidarity, the two sections refuse to remain confined and interpenetrate one another with the assurance of a shared allegiance. Autobiography merges with social history and vice-versa with the result that the voice of the ‘I’ is validated by the ‘We’ and that of the ‘We’ is animated by the ‘I’.
Pluralist and multicultural though the collection is in its feminist avowal, it is also astutely conscious of the differential power-games of culture in a globalized world. Diasporic in its anchoring, it reads cultural encounters through a postcolonial lens and attempts to resurrect the invisible and the marginal within mainstream cultural dialogues. In ‘I Can’t/Won’t Write Like a White Male Poet’, the poet’s claim to “speak with a tongue 10,000 centuries long” is an attempt to place herself firmly within the rich and ancient oral traditions of the East, but also within a tradition of feminist performance symbolized through Kali’s outstretched tongue (“…we stick out our tongue at countries that try to claim us,” she writes in ‘Poems I Can’t Write’).
Constant within the axis of these poems is the writer’s inherited worldview: “the Brahmin Niyogi sensibility” which she relentlessly attempts to explore, excavate, critique, re-assess and sift for what is tenable, valuable and worth handing over to the next generation. In ‘Simple Equations in the Niyogi Worldview’, Akella brings out the hollow binaries between the traditional and the modern, the cultured and the uncultured, the East and the West. This is a strain that inheres in most of her poems about India/ns. In ‘Darbar of Frogs’, for instance, the binaries find metaphors in the figures of the frog and the swan, and the forced turning of the latter into the former:
“We’ll pluck her feathers now to make her a frog.” They nodded unanimously.
The astrologers looked thoughtful making many calculations in their
notebooks. “It is time,” they nodded agreeably. The priests cleared their
throats and began to recite Sanskrit slokas. Manu, the head priest, was a
very busy frog these days. He had hundreds of skinning-the-swan events to
The reference to Manu, the first Hindu law-giver, makes Akella’s stance explicit here. But even otherwise, what she describes has heart-wrenching resonances for the Indian reader. While the loss of identity in arranged marriages (to the extent of giving the bride a new name) has been a fairly common practice in India till the last century, the country’s political right-wing has, over the last few years, taken a keen interest in saffronizing/Hindu-izing the Indian identity by violently punishing difference. A spate of mob-lynchings and vigilante-attacks in the recent past, in an attempt to make the Indian populace conform to orthodox Hinduism by terrorizing difference into submission/complicity/death/erasure has dominated the Indian socio-cultural sphere, and of these, along with witch-hunts and gang-rapes, Akella’s “skinning-the swan event” is a pertinent and painful reminder.
In ‘Harmony’, the frog’s “amphibian” world is again detailed, this time with exclusive reference to the acts of cooking and eating. The rituals of preparation and serving are elaborate, the division of labour is immediately apparent and so is the culturally-sanctioned power equation between the server and the served:
careful not to spill out too marked an appreciation
keeping the possibility of her pride in check,
doing her a favour, multiplying her virtue.
But power, as Akella consistently notes in her poems, is a layered phenomenon and finds its own niches in which to flourish so that even this server “unseen, in the kitchen,/ sanctified by self-sacrificing labor” wields power over “a daughter-in-law who is allowed/ to chop and measure, forbidden from/ the fine act of cooking in this goddess’s kitchen.” ‘For a Certain Kind of Woman’, again, outlines how sexism in women and their uncritical participation in the patriarchal machinery of othering destroys the possibility and potential for feminist solidarity. Akella’s “certain kind of woman” is neither virtue unadulterated nor the pious self-sacrificer. She is, rather, an ambitious, colluding subject of patriarchy, rigorously self-trained to fit the model of the ‘angel in the house’. She raises herself to “empress of her domestic domain” by respecting every patriarchal regulation so that “her husband is a little snug ring on her finger,/ so smug, he doesn’t know he is being worn.,/ thinking he wears her…”. By joining hands with patriarchy, such a woman, according to Akella, “takes all of us 5½ centuries back,/ she personally immolates other women who/ are responsible for the air she breathes.” “She is the kind of woman who makes a woman like me necessary,” asserts the poet and rightly so, for it is only by acknowledging our shared victimhood as women and by rooting for one another that a way forward and towards the discourse of rights, justice and equality can be found.
Rejecting the overwhelming inequities of patriarchy, Akella finds nourishment in a different kind of tradition – one of brave, free and fearless women bonding in and for love. “Have I thawed at least one hard sinew in my heart?/ Am I lighter when I reach the other side?” she asks in ‘Bridges’ and bids us ask the same questions to ourselves every day. Solidarity can be built only on the poignant recognition of our shared vulnerability and our shared desire to conquer and be conquered by love. Akella’s poetry, therefore, is keen to build bridges and connections across time, space, history, religion, culture and philosophy. Kali, Katyayini, Mary, Mirabai, Draupadi, Kamala Das, Anne Frank, Anne Boleyn, Sylvia Plath, Meena Kandasamy, Manuela Sáenz, Kamala Harris, Clara Sherman, Radha, Shakuntala, Sakhi, the unnamed African-American women who were enslaved, Turkish women immigrants, sex workers on Rosse Buurt, the Somalian girl Astur, the Delhi rape survivor Jyoti and Akella’s own mother, grandmother and daughter – all hold hands across the canvas of these poems to respond to the poet’s call to “harangue the stars with your voices” (‘Women Speak’).
There is plenty of straight speaking in these poems and yet, the craft remains immaculate. Akella is conscious not to let her politics mar her poetics and in the best of her poems is to be found a sublimation of desire, rage and hurt into the universality and timelessness of art. “For the truth is, I have not traced/ a face longingly as an embroiderer/ traces the outline of a flower,” she writes in ‘Not Enough’. In ‘Requiode’, home becomes “a newborn calf” that “often rearranges itself on its fours,/ like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope”. The intensity and exquisite tenderness of lines such as these travel like gold threadwork across the undulating fabric of this collection. Akella’s language has both the quietness and force of water, her metaphors are flushed with the heat of sincere passion and her rhythm has an incantatory spirit that seems to grant her poems the strength of a prophecy.
To me, the book is the decisive dismantling of a threshold on the global map of patriarchy. “Enough! No More!” the book’s cover, with its multi-hued feminine hands speaking for all women, seems to say. A palimpsest of voices offering a catalogue of injustices, these poems refuse to for/bear any longer. The eponymous poem ‘I Will Not Bear You Sons’ says:
I will have daughters dead by female infanticide,
daughters dead by dowry burning,
daughters mutilated by ritual genital cutting,
daughters slicing their wrists,
daughters anemic, anorexic, stunted into size zeros.
Here is feminism at its fiercest and its most vulnerable, pouring out through a poetic conscience that recognizes its force and fallibility. There is no misandry here, no strategic planning of male foeticide, no refusal to birth or assertion to bury sons. Here is only an overwhelming pain that has no kin – the pain of annihilation of the self, of the species, of love, possibility and faith. Here is only a guttural wail for lost daughters and a creative transmutation of this pain into distilled poetry whose oracular feminist vision asserts, against the Bible and Yeats, of a second coming like
… the blight
of women staking the earth,
taking their own in every possible way (‘Poems I Can’t Write’).
Usha Akella’s I Will Not Bear You Sons is published by Spinifex Press and is available to purchase here.