From a Borrowed Land, Shash Trevett
Within a narrow frame, scarcely thirty pages, Tamil expatriate Shash Trevett has woven an intricate tapestry, a haunting testimony to the ways in which subjugation of one culture by another breeds anguish and alienation. Writing in what Trevett terms “a borrow tongue” (English), from “a borrowed land” (the United Kingdom), this poet presents us with a cycle of with lamentations for a lost, or at the least displaced, way of life.
It is through the erasure of words themselves —of language— Trevett contends, that an entire people may be subsumed. Certainly, we here, in North America have seen a similar process played out in the repression of indigenous languages spoken for centuries by Native Americans. In the U.K. itself, Gaelic was banned for varying periods of time in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. And yet … and yet — those who remember can never be silenced. Even in a borrowed language, spoken and written in a borrowed land of exile, truths may be told. And heard.
The opening section of Trevett’s brief work contains a caustic indictment of the Sri Lankan government’s deliberate policies aimed at that nation’s Tamil minority, beginning with the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, which declared henceforth that Tamil would no longer be considered one o the national languages. Only Sinhala was to be used officially. Although that repressive statute was later repealed, the suppression of the Tamil and their way of life continued and, if anything, intensified over subsequent decades, escalating to an all-out civil war.
I remember the day the tanks rolled up
and we hid in that narrow room at the back
of the house. The birds fell silent.
• “Stone Walls”
Ms. Trevett writes of killings, disappearances, the subtle mathematics of atrocity. She includes in this setion her translation of a poem by contemporary Tamil poet Rudhramoorthy Cheran, “Grave Song”, alongside his original text. Cheran speaks of a man forced to dig his own grave and how “the horrors he felt / were trapped within his unspoken words”. Again, we encounter the theme of forced silence. “[T]hese unspoken words sank / into the soil ….. There are no ghosts / above that grave.”
Trevett follows this with her own response, spotlighting a different atrocity in a different land, the story of the captive Korean “comfort women” during World War II. In “The Memorial”, she evokes those ghosts, “the shadows of those / who have grown old in silence ….” With this “Memorial” Trevett reminds us that the personal is also the universal —What happens in one place may be bitterly mirrored in another. Ours is a small planet though it contains multitudes.
In the mid-section of her book, Trevett seems to break away from those searing depictions of war and cruelty with a series of verses grounded in the early classical akam style. In these formal love poems, a woman yearns for her absent lover. “I look to the blue hills,” Trevett writes, “and wait for his return. / His beauty like the blooms / of the tiger-claw tree ….” (from “Blue Lotus Flowers, II, ‘What She Says’”).
Ah, but these are not simply love poems, not taken in the larger context of the work. The absent partner is not merely off on a hunting trip or fishing expedition. He has gone into forced exile — or perhaps he is among the Disappeared, taken as a political prisoner, or worse, murdered by the authorities. “The sun has parched my tears / my bangles slip from my wrist … For he has gone to the wasteland … And here, by my waterless well / bandits threaten my laurel tree….”
Trevett has purposely, defiantly, resurrected an ancient Tamil form to give voice to the survivors of modern-day oppression. Hers is a striking rebuke. She follows this jewel-like sequence with the poem “Village”, which describes a place “beyond the edge of our dreams / where only women live. Survivors …” To the same extent that Trevett has nailed to the Wall of Silence her indictment against the harsh repression of the Tamil people, “Village” also makes clear Trevett’s indictment of a Patriarchy which weaponizes the act of love and turns it into rape. Earlier in her cycle, she writes:
When they shoot blindfolded men in the back
and take souvenirs …
… When they rape girls and grandmothers
and celebrate the hecatomb of their success …
• “Things Happen”
Trevett guides the reader with grace between the specific tragedy of the Tamil and the universal tragedy of Humanity as she follows her paean to the Wife of Noah, who not only had a name, but was given many names by many cultures (“Nama’ah”), with another translation, “My Songs”, from the young feminist poet, Vinothini. “When will I finish writing my songs?” Vinothini asks wistfully and answers that she will never finish, that instead, her unwritten songs “rest / in the hands of that little girl / who won’t release them … they are perfectly safe / in the hands of that little girl.”
Rather than allow us to relax into this message of hope, Trevett responds, using the form of a concrete poem, with a stunning rebuke levelled againts those members of the British House of Commons who twice voted down the Dubs Amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act. That amendment would have required the U.K. government to provide sanctuary to little girls (and boys) who are refugees stranded in Europe. “NO / they said / as / mobilised / children endure / alone on Europe’s / dung heaps … [with] nothing left to sing ….”
From a Borrowed Land contains but 23 poems, counting the translations. Still, it contains multitudes. Sold as a “pamphlet” in the United Kingdom (we would call it a chapbook), the work is a tour de force and a necessary document for anyone seeking insight into the current situation of the Tamil peoples, many of whom, like Trevett herself, live in diasporic exile from their homeland. Trevett speaks on behalf of all refugees, moreover, she speaks on behalf of all women who have witnessed atrocity. And she speaks on behalf of all who would condemn such atrocities, all who believe that humanity, with all its multitudes, can do so much better.
• Luther Jett
Trevett’s book may be ordered from the English distributor Blackwells through Amazon, thereby avoiding the exorbitant cost of shipping from the U.K. And those interested in learning more about contemporaryTamil literature, and the responses of Tamil writers to ongoing repression, may wish to peruse the lengthy essay by Prof. M A Nuhman, “Ethnic Conflict and Tamil Poetry in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka” posted on-line at https://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/9716 The Professor includes English translations of a number of poems composed by modern Tamil authors.
W. Luther Jett is a native of Montgomery County, Maryland and a retired special educator. His poetry has been published in numerous journals as well as several anthologies. He is the author of four poetry chapbooks: Little Wars (Kelsay Books, 2021), Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father, (Finishing Line Press, 2015), Our Situation, (Prolific Press, 2018), and Everyone Disappears, (Finishing Line Press, 2020). To read more by this author: "Recessional," The Wartime Issue, Vol. 7:2, Spring 2006. To read more by this author: "Recessional," The Wartime Issue, Vol. 7:2, Spring 2006.
Shash Trevett is a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the UK to escape the civil war. She is a poet and a translator of Tamil poetry into English. Shash’s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies, she has read widely across the U.K. and is a winner of a Northern Writers’ Award. Her pamphlet From a Borrowed Land was published in May 2021 by Smith|Doorstop. She is currently co-editing (with Vidyan Ravinthiran and Seni Seneviratne) an anthology of Tamil, English and Sinhala poetry from Sri Lanka and its diaspora communities, to be published by Bloodaxe Books in 2023. Shash was a 2021 Visible Communities Translator in Residence at the National Centre for Writing and is a Ledbury Critic. She is a Board Member of Modern Poetry in Translation.