In their response to this issue’s selected poems, Kavya and Natalie navigate the unique pain of the sojourner. Their analysis shifts between the expositions of ‘Expatriate Dream’ and ‘Ugly’ – from Md Mukul’s ghost echoes of home to Warsan Shire’s geography of displacement, the essay elucidates all the agony and burgeoning, defiant hope of life lived in a foreign land.
This essay explores the poems ‘Expatriate Dream’ by Md Mukul and ‘Ugly’ by Warsan Shire. One of the key themes in ‘Expatriate Dream’ is the hardship that the persona goes through as he thinks back about his homeland where he is loved by his Mother. Similarly, in ‘Ugly’ the persona laments to her Mother the hardships she has gone through because of her appearance which differs from the norm in either of her homelands. These poems are similar in depicting the alienation faced by both personas.
Both poems display the disillusionment of living in a different land from their homeland. Since these personas stay in a land that is different from where they were born, their differences lead to alienation from their host countries. In ‘Expatriate Dream’, this is seen through the persona’s homesickness, characterised by the stark difference between his life back home with his mother and the hard life he has in his host country. Meanwhile, in ‘Ugly’, the conflict is in the way the persona is treated by the people for being ‘different’. This can be seen through both poems’ strong usage of visual imagery. In ‘Expatriate Dream’, there is a strong image conjured of the persona’s wish to return to his mother by the imagery, especially in “Lying in (her) lap, / (he) saw the constellations, mother”. The brilliance and expansiveness of the constellations seen while lying in his mother’s lap is used as a visual and tactile image of comfort. The visual imagery also creates a juxtaposition with the hard, comfortable “shelf bed” he sleeps on in his host country, hence demonstrating the stark change in his circumstances and his disillusionment. This amplifies the sympathy the readers feel for the persona, as he had been so badly treated by his host country that he so emphatically and clearly dreams of his home, where he had been doted on by his mother.
On the other hand, visual imagery in ‘Ugly’ creates a sense of self-hatred by the persona which stems from the treatment by the people around her. The persona seems to bemoan to her mother, “why did you not warn her…that men will not love her / if she’s covered in continents, / if her teeth are small colonies, if her stomach is an island, / if her thighs are borders”, hence creating a heightened sense of pity for the persona as she questions her physical image due to the comments made by the people around her regarding the differences in their looks. Not only is she deemed as unattractive, the speaker becomes synonymous with a geopolitical region, an ‘other’ space. Her enlarged stature repels, even as it creates an ironic sense of her being larger than life. She becomes weighed down by the impressions others place on her, including that of imposing their expectation of what she is, rather than who, hence making her less of a person and more a representation of her community’s history. Thus this shows that she has suffered the living in the new country, even if unlike the persona in ‘Expatriate Dream’, she does not wish for the return to her homeland.
Both poems effectively convey the social exclusion that both the personas of the poems experience. This can be clearly seen in ‘Expatriate Dream’, where the persona longs for the little quirks of his home that he was able to experience when he was back in his own country. This is portrayed through the juxtaposition in his description of how life was back at home and how life is in his expatriate life. The differences between both experiences depicted in this poem shows how the persona feels when he is out of his country, trapped and stripped off his happiness and freedom. In this poem, visual imagery is effectively used to convey the longing that the persona has for his mother’s love and the warmth of the familiar surroundings back at home. The persona clearly felt the loss of love and affection when he wrote that it was “so long since (she) made (him) a cup of tea” and asks “if the jar of rice is still there”. Through the vivid use of visual imagery, the poet successfully made the readers visualise the delightful memories that the persona had with his mother and how he enjoyed every single moment of it. This is clearly juxtaposed when the persona said that he was “now nothing waits for (him) here”, which makes the readers think of a very unwelcoming experience and possibly empathise with him. Hence, through visual imagery, the debarment of the persona and how he feels alienated when he is out of his home country is portrayed in this poem.
As for ‘Ugly’, the poem not only portrays social exclusion but also the reactions that the persona faces from her own family. In the poem, we see that “As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her. / …They said she reminded them of the war”. The persona is also described as “ugly. She…carries whole cities in her belly”. This serves as a visual image, an inflated version of how society perceives the persona’s looks even as she is metaphorically bloated with the history of several ‘whole cities’. This causes the reader to feel sympathetic for the persona, and emphasises the discrimination faced when being in a new country, from various sources, and this is effectively conveyed through usage of visual imagery.
However, both poems are different in the changes of reactions to the discrimination faced in their respective host countries. The persona in ‘Expatriate Dream’ remains stagnant in his longing for his home country, deciding to relish in the memories of his childhood. We see him in a personal state of stasis, at rest and introspective, stagnating in his longing for home. This can be seen through the tone in “Expatriate means dream-drenched agony”, which is an emphatic, superlative exaggerated and opinionated response to the environment he experiences in the host country. This showcases the depth of his melancholy in this new country in comparison to life at home and with his mother. He remains in this state, with the poem ending with the emphatic “I remember you too much, mother”. This then creates a sense of sympathy among the readers as through desperate and longing tone used, it evokes a lot of emotions and further highlights the close-knit relationship that the persona and his mother share. Hence, in this poem, the persona’s reaction to discrimination was that he was constantly reliving his childhood memories and forget about the reason he is in a foreign country, making him static in his own beliefs.
On the other, the persona for “Ugly” shows growth in her self confidence through the repeated use of short, impactful sentences at the beginning and the end of the poem. The usage of the full stop in “Your daughter is ugly” shows how much the persona believes in her own unattractiveness through the fact that it was structured as a statement, using the host country’s standards to dictate her beauty. However, this changes by the end of the poem, when the persona’s mother is told “but God, doesn’t she wear the world well.” The use of a full stop instead of a question mark in “doesn’t she wear / the world well” shows that she found beauty in her imperfections, which is indicative of her growth as a person and her self confidence, hence indicating that she no longer was bothered by the discrimination and jibes at her physical attributes from those in her host country. This causes the readers to feel relieved at her development as a character, which emphasises her strength, triumph and resilience. Hence, the poems are different in terms of the development of the personas when facing discrimination by their host country.
In conclusion, both poems effectively convey the discrimination faced by the individuals by the society and this is conveyed through the use of visual imagery in both the poems.
As a child, NATALIE was surrounded by Literature books since her mother has an Honours degree in English Literature. Her love for this subject has grown due to her mother’s influence on her. It was this influence that made her take Pure Literature in Secondary 3, which was the driving force behind her passion for Literature till today.
Even though both KAVYA’s parents have Science based backgrounds, she really had the drive to pursue Literature. The interest sparked from her need to be different. Hence, she adopted viewing of language and literature from different perspectives, even up till now.
Photo credit: Victoria Lee