What makes a racist?

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By Nisnasla Dharmasena Bertholameuze 

Anupama Godakanda within her poetry collection Phoenix: I am a Racist tries to analyse the term ‘a racist’. Within the preface to the collection of poetry Godakanda explains her quest in doing so. Once accused for been a racist she embarks on a journey towards understanding and analysing if she is a ‘racist’ in keeping with her beliefs. Godakanda’s thought process follows thus:

Who am I as an individual and a citizen of a modern nation-state? 

What is my socioeconomic purpose in the overall scheme of things?

What is the role of a poet as a social being in today’s society?

Does a poet writing in English have any relevance in Sri Lanka today?

What are my limitations and strengths as an aspiring woman poet writing in English?

How does my status as a member of the so-called majority affect the production and reception of my work?

Should I transcend the perimeters of my racio-religious and national perimeters and be more ‘liberal’ and ‘global’ in my approach to my subject matter in order to be a successful poet? If so, to what degree should I be so?

Phoenix: I am a Racist is Godakanda’s self-realisation towards this quest. She not only wrote the poems in the English language but translated them in to her native language, Sinhala, as well. This is a unique experience for readers and it enhances the readability as well. Her attempt is bold in using a name like Phoenix: I am a Racist as well using two languages to reach out to a versatile set of readers. 

In the title poem Godakanda boldly stands with her confirmation as a racist. 

I hold you, of me and mine,

Dear unhesitantly

Until you prove otherwise;

I hold you who are not of me and mine

Dear, unhesitantly,

Unless you prove yourself

To be too dear.

Godakanda brings in historical female figures throughout her poetry in comparison with modern day characters. In the poem Hera Restored, Goddess Hera, goddess of women, marriage and childbirth is called upon.

Hera, restored to her rightful throne –

Her flowing golden locks, shorn

And dyed a skullcap;

Her trailing robes

Of the myriad hues of the tropical twilight sky

Torn away in disgust

For they were done to pleasure a spouse

With ever-roving eyes –

Trussed up in nondescript grey,

She rules the world of men,

And in extension,

Of the alien and the enslaved.

Niobe, Kuvanna, Diana,

And Monica

Cringe in terror

Of their certain fate.

Anupama Godakanda moves towards the haiku style of poetry in several of her poems. Her short poetry is heart piercing and at the same time universal in meaning. This is evident in Home.

I am looking for a home

I’ve never had

Still sure of having had

In yours…yours…and yours…

In those precious seconds

You’ve let me into your hearts.

Godakanda’s poetry based on romance touches on emotions not many are bold enough to explore with.  She firmly stands within her beliefs and emotions. In a society calling for conformance Godakanda keeps on walking in to the unknown emotional landscape. When to let go is such a moment of questioning.

Tell me when exactly

Is the right time

To let (you) go?

And go on

With what,

I’d like to know?

For you had filled

My horizon

With your absence

To the very brink 

And my guilt

Had tipped the forth

Off the edge;

From romantic poetic verses Godakanda moves towards the socio-political landscape of Sri Lanka. There she revisits the past where within a revolution more than 60,000 perished. Revising 1989/90: For the 60,000  is such a tribute for all those long gone.

I sat with her on the mound of earth by the hearth

As I used to in her house by the tank,

Our little store of chit-chat, all spent,

Weary of skirting those minefields and flash-floods of memories –

Why did she have to come?

Why on earth have I come? –

We gazed into the devouring flames

And willed the kettle to boil sooner, in unison,

So we could have that one last cup, as we all used to,

Then turn in for the night.

Phoenix: I am a Racist is Godakanda’s voyage in to the meaning of the controversial word ‘racist’ as well her tribute for a nation tormented by the very same word. Such is her catharsis of the term ‘racist’ that the reader too will find peace within Phoenix: I am a Racist.