Displacement, otherness, immigration, and homesickness are among a list of canonical literary themes that describe the identity and life experiences of Indo-American immigrants. But in Zilka josephthe thought-provoking 2021 poetry anthology, In our beautiful bones, these are expressed in a unique and particularly nuanced way.
Rendezvous with colonialism
Joseph elegantly explores feelings beyond Indo-American identity. For example, she recognizes our long and strained relationship with colonialism and, therefore, the tenuous sectarian politics that exist in India:
“Settlers with your white eyes told our stories.
The Raj kept us slaves in our own country!
“Joseph? Are there names like that in India? Are there Jews in India?
I found this line particularly deep because this question could have been asked of Joseph in either country – India or America. This demonstrates that “Indianness” is nuanced and, by nature, has a plurality that is often overlooked. In India, and even more so in America, we are all grouped together as Indian-Americans or Asian-Americans.
The line above is “Story», Where Joseph recounts his journey from childhood to adulthood. Her unique education and experience in India as a Bene Israel, and what it means to her in India and America, contributes to her poetry. This book could be considered autobiographical, with tales of his life woven into the framework of his poetry.
Our diverse diaspora
What does it mean to be Indian?
It’s our food, our accent, our skin color, our value system, our beliefs, our parties, our fears and insecurities (justified or not), superstitions, Bollywood, colonialism, Gandhi, Nehru, the system caste, education, stereotypes, prejudices, our perceptions of the West, Eastern mysticism, yoga, and more.
Yes, that’s a lot! The Indo-American identity is all of this and more. A precise description cannot categorize this experience. And Joseph accomplishes this colossal task by gracefully weaving one or more of these ideas through his powerful poetry, highlighting the various nuances of Indianness.
Beyond the skin
As an American-Indian immigrant, Joseph is obligated, either voluntarily or in a circumstantial way, to prove that concealed under her brown skin, Indian accent, and masala food, she is better at English than the average American. Tthis is ironic considering that Joseph was an English teacher for most of his adult life:
“We could have triple doctorates and earn Pulitzers
even a Nobel or two
non-native speakers of English
they call us to America.
Sometimes Joseph would get the opposite reaction:
“How come you speak English, they ask
how come you speak english so well.
Neither of these examples is overstated, and there is a good chance that most Indian immigrants can identify with both.
Threats and dangers in the world
Crime and danger exist no matter where we live – whether we live in India or America, they just take on different hues.
In a poem about the night the Babri Masjid falls, Joseph speaks of his father’s frantic panic when she comes out as curfew is declared. A primordial fear rises in his father in the face of the dangers of blind anger born out of sectarian fervor – and that, perhaps, those on the streets would not be able to tell the difference between a Bene Israel and a Muslim:
“Do you know what they can do to you?” “
In his next poem, as an immigrant Desi, Joseph acknowledges that America is not much safer. SHe discusses the dangers of gun-induced violence in America:
“You who build all the weapons … it is your own children who are riddling you with bullets.”
Unity in discord
The most charming thing about Joseph’s work is that, despite the differences, misunderstandings, and the clash of civilizations, there is a common thread – a thread that unites us all as human beings.
For example, COVID-19 has affected us all around the world. In most cases, these are the same people who hurt poor minorities the most. Politicians and bureaucrats in India and America have hesitated and failed. Overall, the first responders and essential heroes made sure we were taken care of and there was food in our fridges. Joseph recognizes this:
“Bless the hands
of each farmer, worker, gatherer,
packer, transporter, who touched
every bag or box of food! Oh everyone who
worked at Trader Joe’s, Bombay
Grocery stores, Meijer’s, Kroger’s,
Costco, Patel’s! You rock.
You are our rock. You feed
all of us. You feed,
you save my soul.
She ends her magnificent collection with a “Pray“who recognizes the inherent goodness – hope and light are within each of us. We can resonate with his desire to hover above divisions.
In our beautiful bones
“Dancing in the sun
in our own shiny skin
in our beautiful bones.
In our beautiful bones is concrete, honest and easy to read. Zilka Joseph’s poignant poetry collection expresses what it means to be an Indian-American and leaves no aspect of our highly layered identity intact. It is a celebration of the Indian diaspora in America. To pick up your copy today!
Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan The pre-children’s life was devoted to the complex field of communication sciences. After choosing to be a full-time mom, reading and playing with her energetic boys was a fascinating journey. It (re) vivified in her a sense of wonder in all the little things. She constantly sees the world through small eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen the meaning of life for herself and her family.