Southern Illinois University Press: 2014
Review by Trista Edwards
In her debut collection, Seam, Tarfia Faizullah moves across landscapes and time to piece together a familial tragedy which presents the reader with a legacy of loss, violence, and pilgrimage. The collection spans present-day west Texas’ oil-rich fields, the domestic coves of Virginia, and 1970s Bangladesh in an effort to understand, discover, and memorialize tragic events that unfolded in East Pakistan.
The collection offers a historical epigraph in the book’s first poem, “1971,” to set the context of the speaker’s harrowing journey to learn about her ancestral land:
On March 26, 1971, West Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel who were demanding separation of the East from the West. The war resulted in secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi sources, two hundred thousand women were raped, and over 3 million people were killed.
The speaker ponders her own physical similarity to the other travelers aboard a plane to Bangladesh as she journeys to her homeland to interview the rape victims of the 1971 occupation—“I take my place among / this damp, dark horde of men / and women who look like me—because I look like them—because I am ashamed / of their bodies that reek so / unabashedly of body— / because I can—because I am / American, a star / of the blood on the surface of muscle.” The convergence of bodies is intimate, anonymous, and visceral. The speaker feels shame in the other boarders’ unhygienic bodies, yet she is set apart from the horde because of her American-ness. She is both apart and a part of these people who share the same racial heritage—their connection is inescapable.
Faizullah’s collection takes a sinister turn as the speaker takes on the role and title of “interviewer” to the various female victims and survivors of the mass rapes that happened some forty years ago. Faizullah’s language, however, remains delicate and understated to create a powerful and unsettling image of a brutal act. In the series of poems titled “Interview with a Birangona,” the interviewer/speaker asks various questions presented as an epigraph in which the poem becomes the response in the voice of a Bengali woman. The fifth of the series asks, “Who was in charge at this camp? What were your days like?”
All I knew was underground: bodies piled on bodies,
low moans, sweat, rot seeking out scratches on our thighs,
the makeshift tattoos he carved on our backs to mark us.
Over milk tea and butter biscuits, the commander asks
what it feels like to have dirty blood running through our
veins. There were days we wooed him, betrayed each other
for his attention—now he turns me over on burlap.
Many of the poems in Seam deal with events that appear to offer no redemption for those involved and, perhaps, there does not need to be an attempt to redeem (as this does not seem to be the speaker’s purpose). Yet, Faizullah does seem to suggest that acknowledgement itself can be a powerful, healing force. In the collection’s closing poem, the speaker leaves us with a literal departure and the idea of forging onward, however unknown that may be: “The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed / lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned my / face toward it.” Sometimes hope, the poem hints, is only a tiny bit of light and the will to follow it.