Southern Illinois University Press. 2014. 65 pages.

Reviewed 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 then imagines a former Bangladesh, and pictures her mother as a child following her own mother “down worn / stone steps to the old pond” in a time when the occupation of East Pakistan was beginning to infiltrate their daily lives—“She knows / the strange men joining / them daily for meals mean / her no harm—they look like / her brothers do nights they / jump back over the iron gate[.]” The haunting and foreboding element, we know, is that these soldiers are there, indeed, to enact extensive harm. The foreshadowing of violence is further magnified by the directed attention to the men’s likeness to the girl’s own brothers. Here, danger bares a familiar face and the appearance of trust is deceptive.

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