Djebar, Assia


Image of the author.

Image by Michel-Georges Bernard/CC licensed

1936 Born in Fatima-Zohra Imalayen in Cherchell, Algeria on August 4.

1957 Publishes first novel, La Soif, under pen name Assia Djebar.

1958 Publishes second novel, Les Impatients. Marries Walid Garn. Works toward advanced degree in history at University of Algiers.

1962 Publishes novel Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde.

1967 Publishes novel Les Alouettes Naives.

1969 Rouge l’Aube, a play written in collaboration with husband Garn, performed at the third Panafrican Cultural Festival held in Algiers. Publishes volume of poetry, Poems pour l’Algerie heureuse.

1977 Directs her first film, La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua.

1979 Directs second film, La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli, a documentary juxtaposing French newsreels of World War I and II and Algerian women singing traditional songs.

1980 Publishes short story collection, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement. Marries Malek Alloula, Algerian writer, and they reside in Paris. Appointed to Algerian Cultural Center in Paris.

1985 First novel of projected quartet published, L’Amour, la fantasia.

1987 Second novel of projected quartet published, Ombre sultane.

Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade: Expressing “Third World” Feminist Issues

Revising Colonial Constructions of History

Image of Fantasia book cover.

Fantasia, 1993

Djebar revises traditional history in the novel using several techniques which successfully decenters the colonizer’s version of history and make space for the participation of women in the struggle for national independence. Djebar first presents colonial history in the form of letters, diaries and published accounts of French soldiers and officials, searching through them to find places where women bubble up to the surface and their participation is recorded despite history’s determination to erase their contribution and existence. In addition to finding moments in which the colonizers are forced to confront the problematic existence of women revolutionaries, Djebar presents the words of women freedom fighters themselves, translating them from Arabic to French. Recording the women’s stories in sections of the novel titled “Voices,” Djebar troubles the split between the spoken and the written, suggesting the limitations of traditional history and the richness of her culture’s oral traditions. Considering the French invasion of 1830 and the twentieth century War of Algerian Independence, as well as adding pieces of her own autobiography, Djebar complicates the notion of linear history, presenting an alternative view of the interdependence of the personal and the national, the past, the present and the future.

Subjectivity and the Subaltern

The intellectual movements of the 20th Century, including Derridean deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, have continued the move away from the 18th and 19th century notions of the universal subject, contesting the unified “I” and replacing it with fractured, multiple subject positions. Feminist theorists like Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, Gayatri Spivak and others are interested in theorizing female subjectivity in all its diversity and multiplicity in answer to phallocentric constructions that continue to figure subjectivity as masculine and female consciousness as lack. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak summarizes her project of constructing a new model of female subjectivity, a project Djebar takes up in L’Amour, la fantasia: “My readings are, rather, an interested and inexpert examination, by a postcolonial woman, of the fabric of repression, a constructed counter-narrative of woman’s consciousness, thus woman’s being, thus woman’s being good, thus the good woman’s desire, thus woman’s desire” (299). Djebar joins her own voice and life story with the stories and voices of Algerian women revolutionaries, replacing silence and the colonizer’s version of history with a celebration of female experience and expression. Speaking neither for nor to her subaltern sisters, Djebar speaks with them, emphasizing the collective nature of female expression. Djebar realizes the ways in which her own story is intimately linked to the forgotten and silenced testimonies of other women: “Can I, twenty years later, claim to revive these stifled voices? And speak for them? Shall I not at best find dried-up streams? What ghosts will be conjured up when in this absence of expressions of love (love received, ‘love’ imposed), I see the reflection of my own barrenness, my own aphasia” (Djebar 202). In telling their stories, Djebar and the women revolutionaries reclaim not only their individual and collective voices, but their bodies as well.

Speaking the self is linked in important ways to speaking the experience of female embodiment. Sidonie Smith articulates the intersection of subjectivity and body that occurs in autobiographical projects: “When a specific woman approaches the scene of writing and the autobiographical ‘I,’ she not only engages the discourses of subjectivity through which the universal human subject has been culturally secured; she also engages the complexities of her cultural assignment to an absorbing embodiment. And so the autobiographical subject carries a history of the body with her as she negotiates the autobiographical ‘I,’ for autobiographical practice is one of those cultural occasions when the history of the body intersects the deployment of subjectivity” (22-23). Djebar’s treatment of the veil, her own escape from cloistering, and her subsequent access to academia and writing suggests that the female body is a locus of potential power, rebellion, and knowledge that threatens the status quo of male privilege: “The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: The body which male neighbors’ and cousins’ eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they cannot completely incarcerate it, the body which, in trances, dances, or vociferations, in fits of hope and despair, rebels, and unable to read or write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message of love” (Djebar 180). The image of the dismemebered hand at the novel’s conclusion suggests the connection between body and voice, subjectivity and embodied experience: “Later, I seize this living hand, hand of mutilation and of memory, and I attempt to bring it the qalam” (Djebar 226).

Feminist Challenges to Discourses of Nationalism

The story of Djebar and the women freedom fighters is also the story of Algeria and the journey from colonization and subjugation to independent nation. Djebar’s text refigures nationalist strategies by replacing history written by the colonizer with a history of heroic women. The re-writing of history is a common step in the project of nationalism, but most often the revised history of a colonized nation continues to be a male-centered history. By moving women from the margin to the forefront of her recreated history, Djebar documents women’s historic roles as revolutionaries and makes the case that they deserve status as full citizens in the new nation they have helped to build. Danielle Marx-Scouras draws connections between Djebar’s themes of subjectivity, body, voice and nationalism as they relate to Djebar’s feminist political agenda: “The amputated hand symbolizes Algeria, mutilated by a history written by the hands of others (French historians, writers, artists) but, perhaps more importantly for Djebar, it also represents Algerian women amputated in their desire to write or express themselves. The dominant images of the novel – abduction and rape – sexualize the representation of Algeria, which becomes, in the final analysis, the female body. If it is on this body that the history of the French conquerors has been written, it is from this body that the decolonization of a people must be written – be they men or women” (176). The nation that women have helped to make independent has a duty to recognize the issues and concerns of women’s oppressions. Djebar’s project seeks to “resurrect so many vanished sisters” (204), to restore them to their rightful place within the new nation, to have their voices speak and be heard as full participants in the project of decolonization and nation-building.

Selected Bibliography

  • Djebar, Assia. Vaste est la prison: roman. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
  • —. Far from Madina. London: Quartet, 1994. (originally published in French as Loin de Medine. Paris: Albin Michel, 1991)
  • —. A Sister to Scheherazade. Dorothy S. Blair, trans. London: Quartet, 1987. (originally published in French as L’Ombre sultane. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattes, 1987.)
  • —. Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade. Dorothy S. Blair, trans. London: Quartet, 1985. (originally published in French as L’Amour, la fantasia. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattes, 1985.)
  • —. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, trans. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992. (originally published in French as Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement. Paris: Edition des Femmes, 1980.)
  • —. La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli. 1982.
  • —. La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. 1979.
  • —. Les Alouettes naives. Paris: Julliard, 1967.
  • —. Rouge l’aube. Alger: S.N.E.D., 1969.
  • —. Poems pour l’Algerie heureuse. Alger: S.N.E.D., 1969.
  • —. Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde. Paris: Julliard, 1962.
  • —. Les Impatients. Paris: Julliard, 1958.
  • —. La Soif. Paris: Julliard, 1957.
  • Donadey, Anne. “Assia Djebar’s Poetics of Subversion.” L’Esprit Creatur 33:2 (Summer 1993): 107-17.
  • Green, Mary Jean. “Dismantling the Colonizing Text: Anne Hebert’s Kamouraska and Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia.” The French Review 66:6 (May 1993): 959-66.
  • Ghaussy, Soheila. “A Stepmother Tongue: ‘Feminine Writing’ in Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Calvalcade.” World Literature Today 68:3 (Summer 1994): 457-62.
  • Goodman, Joanna. “L’Ecrit et le cri: Giving Voice in Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia.” Edebiyat 6:1 (1995): 1-19.
  • Marx-Scouras, Danielle. “Muffled Screams/Stifled Voices.” Yale French Studies 82 (1993): 172-82.
  • Mortimer, Mildred. Assia Djebar. Philadelphia: Celfan Ed. Monogs., 1988.
  • —. “Language and Space in the Fiction of Assia Djebar and Leila Sebbar.” Research in African Literatures 19:3 (Fall 1988): 301-11.
  • — . “The Evolution of Assia Djebar’s Feminist Conscience.” Contemporary African Literature. Hal Wylie et al, eds. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents & African Lit. Assn., 1983.
  • Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia.” Yale French Studies 83 (1993): 71-93.
  • Page, Andrea. “Rape or Obscence Copulation? Ambivilance and Complicity in Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia.” Women in French Studies 2 (Fall 1994): 42-54.
  • Smith, Sidonie. Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ed. New York: Routledge, 1987.
  • Zimra, Clarisse. “Writing Women: The Novels of Assia Djebar.” SubStance 21:3 (1992): 68-84.

Author: Jennifer Bernhardt, Fall 1996
Last edited: June 2012

Darío, Rubén


Ruben Dario portrait

Image by Quibik/Public Domain

Rubén Darío was born on January 18, 1867 in Metapa, Nicaragua (later renamed Ciudad Dario). At birth, he was named Félix Rubén García Sarmiento and later took the old family name, Darío. His parents divorced and he was adopted and raised by his godfather Colonel Félix Ramírez. Dubbed El Niño Poeta (the poet child), Darío began reading at the age of 3 and at 12 he was already publishing poems. He called his first three poems “La Fe,” “Una Lagrima,” and “El Desengano.” In 1882 in an attempt to secure a scholarship to study in Europe, Darío read his poem, “El Libro” to conservative Nicaraguan authorities including President Joaquín Zavala. He was denied the scholarship because his poems were considered too liberal and officials feared a European education would further encourage his anti-religious sentiments. Instead, Darío traveled to El Salvador where he met the well-respected poet, Francisco Gavidia. Gavidia introduced Darío to the rhythmic structure of French poetry, which later became the cornerstone of Darío’s revolutionary verses.

At the age of 19, Darío moved to Chile and dabbled in journalism. That year he also wrote his first novel, Emelina, which was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, his poetry received praise in competitions. In Chile, Darío was confronted with prejudice and racism due to the dark complexion of his skin, compared to that of the European-influenced Chileans.  Despite his disillusionment and despondency, Darío continued to be prolific in his writing and published some of his more popular works such as Azul, Otoñales, and Primeras Notas.

In 1890 at the age of 24, Darío married Rafaela Contreras and a year later while living in Costa Rica his son, Rubén Darío Contreras was born. After fleeing from a military coup, the couple moved to Guatemala where he was recruited in 1892 to represent Nicaragua in festivity celebrating the four-century discovery of the New World. The following year his wife died and he began to drowned his sorrows in alcohol. Soon after, Darío involuntarily remarried his ex-girlfriend, Rosario Murillo, after her brother forced him at gunpoint. Rosario’s brother found the two lovers in bed and arranged a marriage in order to restore his sister’s honor and reputation. Darío, who had no recollection of the previous night, awoke the next morning with a hangover and a new wife. Although never divorced from Rosario, Darío fell in love with and lived with his mistress, Francisca Sánchez del Pozo. In addition, Darío did not limit his sexual relationships to his wife and mistress and fathered several children, some who died and others he never met.  Throughout his life, Darío indulgance in alcohol and women made him notorious for his immoderate lifestyle.

In 1893, Darío was appointed consulate in Columbia by President Miguel Antonio Caro and traveled to Panama and Argentina. In 1896 Darío published Los Raros, poems about other writers such as Poe, Lautréamont, and Ibsen who he likened himself to and who he considered his “twin souls.” Later that same year he published Prosas Profanas, a book of poems which documented his trademark rhythmic style and modernist approach. At 31, Darío worked for La Nación, an Argentinean newspaper, and reported his impression about the Spanish during its war with the United States. While still working as a poet and journalist, he was named Ambassador of Nicaragua in Paris in 1903. Darío wrote several poems that exalted his Latino origins and culture such as “Cantos de Vida y Esperanza” and “Viaje a Nicaragua e Intermezzo Tropical.” He published his autobiography in 1912.

In 1914 Darío was honored in New York with a silver medal from the Hispanic Society of America. Later that year, he fell ill to pneumonia and recovered only to find himself financially bankrupt. Colombian poet and friend Juan Arana had to beg in the streets of New York to support Darío. He also managed to collect money from friends in Buenos Aries and from the Nicaraguan government. The following year Darío returned to Nicaragua and died there in 1916 at the age of 49 (“Cronologia”).

Major Works

As a poet, journalist, and novelist, Darío remained a prolific writer through his life. He published his works between the years of 1879 and 1914. Darío gained recognition throughout Latin American and Spain with the 1905 publication of Azul, a full-length collection of his work. Azul introduced Darío as the spokesman of a new Latin American modernism. The collection incited a literary revolution because Darío replaced the complex Spanish verse with a simple, direct structure (Rubén Darío 1867-1916). His most celebrated book, Cantos de Vida y Esperanza, was published in Spain in 1905. Although the book touches upon modern themes such as exoticism, it focuses primarily on Darío himself and his search for higher consciousness. It serves as a retrospective account of the author and his Hispanic roots (Rubén Darío). Darío is also well recognized for his collection of poems, Prosas Profanas, which cemented his talent as an engineer of words and language. Darío’s work varied in inspiration and form. However, he always linked his work to a deep-seated pride in his Hispanic origins. In addition, Darío often wrote about his various travels and experiences. Darío was primarily influenced by other poets such as Díaz Mirón and Julián del Casal (Rubén Darío).

Darío’s Poetry

The social condition throughout the 19th century gave rise to an intellectual vacuum that sought realization through art, science, and politics. As a result, the modernist movement between 1880 and 1910 developed in an effort to quench the thirst for understanding and enlightenment. Modernism is a combination of romanticism, parnassianism, and symbolism (Modernism in Poetry). Darío is a modernist artist who describes his poetry as “the Hispanic form of the universal crisis in literature and spirit that began around 1885″(Ruben Dario y el Modernismo).

Most countries in Latin America obtained political independence from Spain before 1825. However, independence brought political corruption and violence, which furthered a social eagerness for freedom. During the mid-19th century, Latin American writers modeled free thinking French and Spanish romantics to express the disillusioned Hispano condition. Darío became the voice for his people by using free verse to express values such as individualism and freedom (Modernism in Poetry).

Darío’s poetry, unlike his predecessors’, was able to fuse traditional poetic style with new innovations to create a uniquely Daríano verse (Pena, “Darío y Whitman”).Darío is considered the father of the Latin American modernist movement because of his innovative rhythmic and metric structure and his sensual imagery and symbolism (Rubén Darío 1867-1916). He is attributed with adding a musical, rhythmic quality and an unparalleled sensitivity and cognizance to his verse. Poet Jorge Luis Borges said, “Darío’s place is central. It is not a live influence but a reference point: a point of arrival and a point of departure, a limit that has to be reached or surpassed” (Rubén Darío y la Critica).

Fellow poet Enrique Anderson Imbert said, “With incomparable elegance, he brought to poetry a joy of living and a fear of dying” (Rubén Darío y la Critica).  His poetry and prose left an indelible dent in Hispano literature. Darío created a new poetic world and revolutionized traditional patterns and rhythms.  In his poem “El Canto Errante,” Darío summarizes his poetic ideals and philosophy, “Poetry will exist as long as there is a problem of life and death. The gift of art is a superior gift that allows you to enter into the unknown of the before and into the ignored of the after, in the world of dreams and meditation. There are no schools; there are poets. The true artist understands all the ways and finds beauty in all forms. All the glory and eternity are in our conscience” (“Cronologia”).

Related Sites

Modernism in Poetry
Rubén Darío 1867-1916
Rubén Darío Biography
Selected Poems


Author: Daniela Villacres, Fall 2000
Last edited: May 2012

Lee, Li-Young

Family History

Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1957, the son of exiled Chinese parents. His mother came from a noble family; her father Yuan Shi-kai was the first president of the Republic of China. Lee’s father, Lee Kuo Yuan, came from a family of gangsters and entrepreneurs. Their marriage received official disapproval; moreover, Lee Kuo Yuan attached himself to a nationalist general in the Chinese civil war. During the course of the war, the general switched sides and Dr. Lee found himself in the position of personal physician to Mao Tse-tsung. This lasted for less then a year, after which the family was exiled and moved to Indonesia. There, Dr. Lee helped found a Christian college, Gamaliel University, where he taught both English and philosophy. However, the tides of politics again turned against the family as the then-dictator of Indonesia, Sukarno, began to stir up anti-Chinese feelings. This movement, combined with a few unguarded, pro-Western conversations, caused Dr. Lee’s arrest in 1958 and subsequent sentence to nineteen months in an Indonesian jail. After the completion of the sentence, the whole family began a second, supervised exile to Macau. However, they never reached the Indonesian government’s intended destination; instead, they were rescued from the guarded ship by an ex-student of Dr. Lee’s who brought a boat alongside the ship and spirited the family away to Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, Dr. Lee became a hugely successful evangelist and the head of a million-dollar business. However, in the words of Lee, “He was driven almost solely by emotion and at one point got into an argument with somebody and simply left Hong Kong. We just left it all and came to America.” After a short stint at being the greeter for the China exhibit at the Seattle World’s Fair, the family moved to Pittsburgh where Dr. Lee attended seminary. After graduation, Dr. Lee became a Presbyterian minister at a very small church in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. Though read to frequently by his father, Li-Young Lee did not begin to write himself until he came to the University of Pittsburgh. There, under the guidance of Gerald Stern, he realized his passion, not just for hearing but also for creating poetry. Currently, he lives in Chicago and is one of the few full-time poets in the United States.

Lee’s Poetry

Book cover of Rose, 1986.

Rose, 1986

With such a background, it will come as no surprise that Lee’s poetry talks of  exile, the Bible, and, most especially, the combined strength and tenderness of his father as some of its many themes. He also often uses the language of poems to create an atmosphere of silence, an atmosphere that is reminiscent of the classic Chinese poets Li Bo and Tu Fu. This may occur in part because of his own silence as a young child — it was not until the age of three that he suddenly began to speak in full sentences. Later, upon his arrival in America, he returned to silence. Feeling ashamed of his inability to speak English, he spent years playing only with other foreign children; though he could not speak their languages either, they shared the common bond from shame of speech. A poem that exemplifies this silence while displaying his father’s mixture of tenderness and austerity is “Early in the Morning” from Lee’s first book Rose.  The last two verses are as follows:

My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers, pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.

But I know
it is because of the way
my mother’s hair falls
when she pulls the pins out.
Easily, like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.

An Abbreviated History of China in the Early Twentieth Century

In the beginning of the twentieth century, through the influence of new industrial centers and an influx of Western missionaries, China began to feel some unrest. There was a growing awareness of the modernization occurring in the Western world and a desire for a reassertion of China’s national identity. The Ch’ing dynasty fell, leaving several strong forces battling with each other. The one that provided the intellectual force for the revolution wanted more individualism, Western intellectualism, and an increased emphasis on science and technology. However, these intellectuals were mainly centered around the large cities and ports of China and were not trusted by the people living in the country. It was therefore mainly warlords, like Lee’s maternal grandfather, who from 1912 to 1949 inherited most of the power and ruled by force as “chauvinistic nationalists.” Some modernization did occur, but to a large extent, the old order of patron-client relationships had broken down without leaving a new order to replace them. Because of this, the farmers and other country people were hugely exploited.

During this turmoil, various communist rebels moved to the country and began to stir up unrest there. Mao Tse-tsung became the Leader of the Chinese Communist party in 1931, going on to become the chairman of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1959 and chairman of the party until his death. It is no wonder, therefore, that Dr. Lee, a nationalist (anti-Communist) affiliate, did not serve long as Mao Tse-tsung’s physician.

An Abbreviated History of Indonesia in the Early Twentieth Century

The future president of Indonesia, Sukarno, challenged colonialism for the first time in 1929 and was jailed for two years, after which he spent eight years in exile. During World War Two, his fortunes changed and he became the Japanese recruiter for laborers, soldiers, and prostitutes. He then pressured the Japanese for independence and on June 1, 1945 made a famous speech outlining his five principles of Indonesian nationalism: internationalism, democracy, social prosperity, and belief in God. On August 17, he declared Indonesia’s independence and became the first president of the new Republic.  The Dutch, meanwhile, did not grant formal independence until 1949.

During the years that followed, while the country did attain a growing sense of “national identity” following the advent of better health care and education, Sukarno himself indulged in wilder and wilder extravagances. In 1956, the parliamentary system was dismantled and Sukarno declared himself the head of a new “Guided Democracy” and “Guided Economy.” Assassination attempts grew more frequent as his cabinet of 100 corrupt ministers became infamous, yet he was still able to engage the nationalistic feelings of the Indonesians in 1965. However, later in 1965, Sukarno arranged a coup that killed his enemies and declared a new revolutionary regime. At this time, another man stepped in, the General Suharto, and reversed the coup, taking over Sukarno’s power at the same time. Again, it is easy to see Sukarno might imprison Dr. Lee for his Western leanings and Christian teachings.

Books by Li-Young Lee

  • Lee, Li-Young. The City in Which I Love You.  Brockport, N.Y.: BOA Editions, 1990.
  • —. Rose.  Brockport, N.Y.:  BOA Editions, 1986.
  • —. The Winged Seed, A Rememberance. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Works Cited

  • “China.” CIA Factbook. Web.
  • “East Asian People.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Web.
  • “Indonesia.” CIA Factbook. Web.
  • “Mao Zedong.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Web.
  • Miller, Matt. “Darkness Visable: Li-Young Lee Lights Up His  Family’s Murky Past With Poetry.”  Far Eastern Economic Review (30 May): 34-36.
  • Moyers, Bill. “Li-Young Lee.” The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
  • Muske, Carol.  “Sons, Lovers, Immigrant Souls.”  New York Times Book Review (27 Jan. 1991): 7.
  • “Sukarno”  Encyclopedia Britannica Online.  Web.
  • Xiaojing, Zhou. “Inheritance and Invention in Li-Young Lee’s  Poetry.” MELUS. Spring 1996: 113-32.

Selected Bibliography

  • “Award-Winning Poet Talks About His First Book of Prose.” Radio Program: Weekend Edition-Sunday—NPR. 26 Mar, 1995.
  • Hesford, Walter A. “The City in Which I Love You:  Li-Young Lee’s Excellent Song.” Christianity and Literature (Autumn 1996): 37-60.
  • Huang, Yibling. “The Winged Seed: A Rememberance.” Amerasia Journal (Summer 1998): 189-191.
  • Lynch, Doris. “Arts & Humanities—Poetry: The City in Which I Love You.” Library Journals (1 Sept., 1990).

Author: Hannah Fischer, Fall 2000.
Last edited: July 2012

Ramanujan, Attipat Krishnaswami


A. K. Ramanujan, born in Mysore, India in 1929, came to the U.S. in 1959, where he remained until his death in Chicago on July 13, 1993. Not only was Ramanujan a transnational figure, but he was also a transdisciplinary scholar, working as a poet, translator, linguist, and folklorist. Although he wrote primarily in English, he was fluent in both Kannada, the common public language of Mysore, and Tamil, the language of his family, as well.

Ramanujan received his BA and MA in English language and literature from the University of Mysore. He then spent some time teaching at several universities in South India before getting a graduate diploma in theoretical linguistics from Deccan University in Poona in 1958. The following year, he went to Indiana University where he received a PhD in linguistics in 1963.

In 1962, he became an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, where he was affiliated throughout the rest of his career. However, he did teach at several other U.S. universities, including Harvard, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, and Carlton College. At the University of Chicago, Ramanujan was instrumental in shaping the South Asian Studies program. He worked in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and Linguistics and with the Committee on Social Thought. In 1976, the government of India awarded him the honorific title “Padma Sri,” and in 1983, he received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Major Works

Collected Poems, 1995

Collected Poems, 1995

A. K. Ramanujan’s theoretical and aesthetic contributions span several disciplinary areas. In his cultural essays, such as “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” (1990), he explains cultural ideologies and behavioral manifestations in terms of an Indian psychology he calls “context-sensitive” thinking. In his work in folklore studies, Ramanujan highlights the intertextuality of the Indian oral and written literary tradition. His essay “Where Mirrors Are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections” (1989) and his commentaries in The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967) and Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages (1991) are good examples of his work in Indian folklore studies. His ideas about Indian sociolinguistics, language change, and linguistic creativity can be found in his 1964 essay written with W. Bright, “Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change.” Finally, The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan was posthumously published in 1995 and includes poems from several previously published volumes of poetry as well as some previously unpublished poems.

Contributions to South Asian Studies

“Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” is an essay that appears in social anthropologist McKim Marriot’s India Through Hindu Categories (1990). Ramanujan’s ultimate answer to the title question is yes; it is what he calls “context-sensitive” as opposed to “context-free.” These terms, taken from linguistics, refers to different kinds of grammatical rules. In applying them to cultures or ways of thinking, Ramanujan relies primarily on a text-based analysis.  He cautions that they are “overall tendencies”: “actual behavior may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor guiding the behavior” (47). “Context-sensitive” is, he suggests, the more appropriate term for what others have taken for an Indian tendency toward inconsistency and hypocrisy, as well as, perhaps tolerance and mimicry. Ramanujan cites Edward Said’s Orientalism here, suggesting a European source for these stereotypes created out of a necessity to essentialize and exoticize the Eastern world.

Context-free thinking, which Ramanujan attributes to Euro-American culture, gives rise to universal testaments of law, such as in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the European philosophical tradition, such as the work of Hegel. Context-sensitive thinking, on the other hand, gives rise to more complicated sets of standards such as the Laws of Manu, by which appropriateness depends on various  factors, especially factors of identity and personhood, such as birth, occupation, life stage, karma, or dharma. Ramanujan stresses that this difference in philosophical outcome is not a symptom of irrationality, but a different kind of rationale.

Folklore Studies

Context-sensitivity is a theme that appears not only in Ramanujan’s cultural essays but also in his writing about Indian folklore and classic poetry.  In “Where Mirrors are Windows” (1989) and in “Three Hundred Ramayanas” (1991), for example, he discusses the “intertextual” nature of Indian literature, both written and oral. By this, he means that Indian stories refer to one another and sometimes to other versions of the very story being told.  He says, “What is merely suggested in one poem may become central in a ‘repetition’ or an ‘imitation’ of it.  Mimesis is never only mimesis, for it evokes the earlier image in order to play with it and make it mean other things” (1989, 207). It is important for Ramanujan to note that these intertextual influences do not occur in a unidirectional pattern.  He emphasizes that the oral and written traditions, the Sanskritic and local traditions are in dialogue with and mutually influence one another.

As a scholar and translator of works in the South Indian languages Kannada and Tamil, Ramanujan worked to make non-Sanskritic Indian literature acknowledged in the realm of South Asian studies. His translations include Interior Landscapes: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967), Speaking of Siva (1973), Hymns for the Drowning (1981), and A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India (1997). In The Interior Landscape (1967), Ramanujan covers another sense of intertextuality which lies in the symbolic evocation common in Tamil poetry. Here, he discusses the highly stylized symbol system of Tamil poetry in which different landscape features evoke emotional tones, meanings, and relational qualities. Necessary to understanding any Tamil poem is knowledge of the symbolic context and tradition in which it was written.

Sociolinguistic Theory

Ramanujan’s work in sociolinguistics also critiques Sanskritic Indology. As shown in his 1964 essay with W. Bright, “Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change,” Ramanujan opposes those who would posit a monolithic standard grammar for Indian languages. Rather, he seeks to legitimize the vast variety of linguistic dialects found in India. Specifically, here, Ramanujan and Bright compare a Brahmin Tamil dialect with a non-Brahmin Tamil dialect. The Brahmin dialect, they found, was much more inflected with Sanskrit loan words and styles, whereas the non-Brahmin dialect tended to shift by innovation on existing phonologic and morphologic features rather than by foreign adoption.

As pointed out in Rajendra Singh and Jayant Lele’s (1995) re-examination of the argument, Ramanujan and Bright do not address the political and economic ramifications of this differential grammatical shift. However, their point, in 1964, was only to acknowledge and legitimize linguistic innovation as it occurs in various social groups in India.

Ramanujan’s Poetry

Ramanujan wrote poetry almost entirely in English. Reviewer Bruce King called Ramanujan, along with two other transcultural poets, “Indo-Anglian harbingers of literary modernism” (cited in Patel 960). This description highlights several characteristics of Ramanujan’s poetry, perhaps less common in other transcultural poetry. Characteristics of his modernist style include an almost jarring realism and hints at a kind of confessional style. While reviewer Geeta Patel agrees with King’s description of Ramanujan’s work, she faults King for failing “to plumb the ramifications of exilic writing and the reconstruction or retrieval of the fantasies of tradition… that are characteristic of writing in a postcolonial transnational world” (Patel, 1992:961).

Themes of hybridity and transculturation are highlighted in the following two poems, both from Second Sight (1986). Ramanujan discusses the first poem, “Astronomer,” in “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” (1990). He says that this poem is about his father, who was a famous mathematician. He describes his father:

He was a mathematician, an astronomer. But he was also a Sanskrit scholar,
an expert astrologer. He had two kinds of visitors: American and English
mathematicians who called on him when they were on a visit to India, and local
astrologers, orthodox pundits who wore splendid gold-embroidered shawls
dowered by the Maharaja. I had just been converted by Russell to the ‘scientific
attitude’. I (and my generation) was troubled by his holding together in  one
brain both astronomy and astrology; I looked for consistency in him, a consistency
he didn’t seem to care about, or even think about. (4)

“Astronomer” is an attempt to make sense of his father’s seemingly contradictory image.

The following poem, “Chicago Zen,” exemplifies the theme of transnationalism and might be an attempt to imagine himself as another hybrid image.

“Astronomer” (Second Sight, 1986)

Sky-man in a manhole
with astronomy for dream,
astrology for nightmare;

fat man full of proverbs,
the language of lean years,
living in square after

almanac square
prefiguring the day
of windfall and landslide

through a calculus
of good hours,
clutching at the tear

in his birthday shirt
as at a hole
in his mildewed horoscope,

squinting at the parallax
of black planets,
his Tiger, his Hare

moving in Sanskrit zodiacs,
forever troubled
by the fractions, the kidneys

in his Tamil flesh,
his body the Great Bear
dipping for the honey,

the woman-smell
in the small curly hair
down there.

“Chicago Zen”  (Second Sight, 1986)

Now tidy your house,
dust especially your living room
and do not forget to name
all your children.

Watch your step. Sight may strike you
blind in unexpected places.

The traffic light turns orange
on 57th and Dorchester, and you stumble,

you fall into a vision of forest fires,
enter a frothing Himalayan river,

rapid, silent.

On the 14th floor,
Lake Michigan crawls and crawls

in the window. Your thumbnail
cracks a lobster louse on the windowpane

from your daughter’s hair
and you drown, eyes open,

towards the Indies, the antipodes.
And you, always so perfectly sane.

Now you know what you always knew:
the country cannot be reached

by jet. Nor by boat on jungle river,
hashish behind the Monkey-temple,

nor moonshot to the cratered Sea
of Tranquillity, slim circus girls

on a tightrope between tree and tree
with white parasols, or the one

and only blue guitar.

Nor by any
other means of transport,

migrating with a clean valid passport,
no, not even by transmigrating

without any passport at all,
but only by answering ordinary

black telephones, questions
walls and small children ask,

and answering all calls of nature.

Watch your step, watch it, I say,
especially at the first high

and the sudden low
one near the end
of the flight
of stairs,

and watch
for the last
step that’s never there.

Selected Bibliography of Ramanujan’s Works


  • Ramanujan, Attipat Krishnaswami. A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India. New Delhi: Viking, 1997.
  • —. (with S. Blackburn, eds.) Another Harmony New Essays on the Folklore of India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. 294-344.
  • —. The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • —. The Epic of Palnadu: A Study of Translation of Palnati Vinula Katha, a Telugu Oral Tradition from Andhra Pradesh, India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • —. Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
  • —. Hokkulalli Huvilla, No Lotus in the Navel. Dharwar: Karnataka University Press, 1969.
  • —. Hymns for the Drowning. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • —. Interior Landscapes: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1967.
  • —. (with Edwin Gerow, eds.) The Literatures of India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
  • —. Mattu Itara Padyagalu And Other Poems. Dharwar: Karnataka University Press, 1977.
  • —. (with Vinay Dharwadker, eds.) The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • —. Poems of Love and War. New York: Colombia U. Press, 1985.
  • —. Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • —. Samskara. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • —. Second Sight. Oxford: Oxford University. Press, 1986.
  • —. Selected Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • —. Speaking of Siva. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1973.
  • —. The Striders. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.


  • Ramanujan, Attipat Krishnaswami. “A Story in Search of an Audience.” Parabola  17.3 (1992): 79-82.
  • —. “Classics Lost and Found.” Contemporary India: Essays on the Uses of  Tradition. Ed. Carla M. Borden. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • —. “The Indian Oedipus.” Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook. Eds. Alan Dundes and Lowell Edmunds. New York: Garland Press, 1983.  234-261.
  • —. “Introduction.” Folktales of India. Eds. Beck et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.  xxv-xxxi.
  • —. “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” India Through Hindu Categories. Ed. McKim Marriott. London: Sage Publications, 1990.
  • —. “On Folk Mythologies and Folk Puranas.” Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. Ed. Wendy Doniger. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • —. “On Folk Puranas.” Conference on Puranas, University of Wisconsin, Madison, August, mss. 1985.
  • —. “The Relevance of South Asian Folklore.” Indian Folklore II. Eds. Peter Claus, J. Handoo and D.P. Pattanayak. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages, 1987. 79-156.
  • —. (with W. Bright.)  “Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change.”Sociolinguistics: Selected Readings. Eds. J.B. Pride and J. Holmes. London: Penguin, 1964.
  • —. “Some Thoughts on ‘Non-Western’ Classics, with Indian Examples.” World Literature Today 68 (1994): 68.
  • —. “Three Hundred Ramayanas.” Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition. Ed. Paula Richman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • —. “Toward a Counter-System: Women’s Tales.” Eds. A. Appadurai, F. Korom, and M. Mills. Philadelphia: University of  Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
  • —. “Two Realms of Kannada Folklore.”Another Harmony New Essays on the Folklore of India. Eds. Blackburn and Ramanujan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. 41-75.
  • —. “Where Mirrors are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections.” History of Religions 28.3 (1989): 187-216.

Selected Reviews and Commentaries on Ramanujan

Book Reviews

  • Chandran, K. Narayana.  “The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan.” World Literature Today 70 (1996): 762.
  • Venkateswaran, P.  “The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan.” Choice 34 (1996): 121.


  • Dharwadker, Vinay. “A. K. Ramanujan: Author, Translator, Scholar.” World Literature Today 68.2 (1994): 279.
  • Jha, Rama.  “A Conversation with A. K. Ramanujan.”  Humanities Review 3.1 (1981).
  • Naik, M. K. “A. K. Ramanujan and the Search for Roots.” Living Indian  English Poets: An Anthology of Critical Essays. Ed. M. Prasad. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd, 1989.
  • Parthasarathy, R. “How it Strikes a Contemporary: The Poetry of A. K. Ramanujan.” Literary Criterion 12.2-3 (1976).
  • Patel, Geeta. “King, Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezeliel, A. K. Ramanujan, Don Moraes.” The Journal of Asian Studies 51.4 (1992): 960.
  • Ramazani, Jahan.  “Metaphor and Postcoloniality: The Poetry of A. K. Ramanujan.” Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1988): 27.
  • Shulman, David. 1994.  “Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan (1929-1993).”  The Journal of Asian Studies 53.3 (1994): 1048.
  • Singh, Rajendra and Jayant K. Lele. “The Autonomy of Social Variables: The Indian  Evidence Revisited.” Explorations in Indian Sociolinguistics. Eds. Rajendra Singh, Probal Dasgupta, and Jayant K. Lele.  New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995.
  • Venkatachalapathy, A. R. “Obituary: A. K. Ramanujan.” Economic and Political Weekly 28.31 (1993): 1571.

Works Cited

  • Patel, Geeta. “King, Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezeliel, A. K. Ramanujan, Don Moraes.”The Journal of Asian Studies 51.4 (1992): 960.
  • Ramanujan, A. K. and W. Bright.  “Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change.” Sociolinguistics:  Selected Readings. Eds. J.B. Pride and J. Holmes. London: Penguin, 1964.
  • —. Interior Landscapes: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • —. Second Sight. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • —. “Where Mirrors are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections.” History of  Religions 28.3 (1989): 187-216.
  • —.  “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” India Through Hindu Categories. Ed. McKim Marriot. New Delhi/London: Sage Publications, 1990.
  • —. Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
  • —. A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India. New Delhi: Viking, 1997.
  • —. “Three Hundred Ramayanas.” Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition. Ed. Paula Richman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • —.  The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Ramazani, Jahan. “Metaphor and Postcoloniality: The Poetry of A. K. Ramanujan.” Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1988): 27.
  • Shulman, David. “Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan (1929-1993).” The Journal of Asian Studies 53.3 (1984): 1048.

Author:  Candy Wagoner, Fall 1998
Last edited: June 2012

Das, Kamala


Painting of Kamala Das

Image by Sreedharantp/CC Licensed

Recognized as one of India’s foremost poets, Kamala Das was born Kamala Madhavikutty on March 31, 1934 in Malabar in the state of Kerala (Dwivedi 297). Her love of poetry began at an early age through the influence of her great uncle, Nalapat Narayan Menon, a prominent writer. Das remembered watching him “work from morning till night” and thinking that he had “a blissful life” (Warrier interview). Das was also deeply affected by the poetry of her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma, and the sacred writings kept by the matriarchal community of Nayars (India World). She was privately educated until the age of 15 when she was married to K. Madhava Das (India World). She was 16 when her first son was born and she said that she “was mature enough to be a mother only when my third child was born” (Warrior interview). Her husband often played a fatherly role for both Das and her sons. Because of the great age difference between Kamala and her husband, he often encouraged her to associate with people of her own age. Das said that he was always “very understanding” (Warrier interview).

When Das wished to begin writing, her husband supported her decision to augment the family’s income. Because Das was a woman, however, she could not use the morning-till-night schedule enjoyed by her great uncle. She would wait until nightfall after her family had gone to sleep and would write until morning: “There was only the kitchen table where I would cut vegetables, and after all the plates and things were cleared, I would sit there and start typing” (Warrier interview). This rigorous schedule took its toll upon Das’ health, but she viewed her illness optimistically. It gave her more time at home, and thus, more time to write.

In an interview with Shobha Warrier, Das indicated that her husband was the greatest supporter of her progressing career. Even when controversy swirled around Das’ sexually charged poetry and her unabashed autobiography, My Story, Das’ husband was “very proud” of her (Warrier interview). Though he was sick for 3 years before he passed away, his presence brought her tremendous joy and comfort. She stated that there “shall not be another person so proud of me and my achievements” (Warrier interview). This depiction of her husband differs from his description in Merrily Weisbord’s biographical work that was published after Das’s death.

Das’s achievements extend well beyond her verses of poetry. Das says, “I wanted to fill my life with as many experiences as I can manage to garner because I do not believe that one can get born again” (Warrier interview). True to her word, Das dabbled in painting, fiction (Warrier interview), and even politics (Raveendran 53). Though Das failed to win a place in Parliament in 1984, she was later successful as a syndicated columnist (Raveendran 53). She moved away from poetry because she claimed that “poetry does not sell in this country [India],” but fortunately her forthright columns did (Warrier interview). Das’ columns sounded off on everything from women’s issues and child care to politics.

In December, 1999 Kamala Das converted to Islam, creating a furore in the press. Less than a year later, Kamala Surayya announced plans to register her political party ‘Lok Seva,’ (see articles available through the section on “related links”).

Das passed away on May 31, 2009 in a hospital in Pune, Maharashtra, India.

Womanhood in Das’ Poetry

Das’s uncanny honesty extended to her exploration of womanhood and love. In her poem “An Introduction” from Summer in Calcutta, the narrator says, “I am every/ Woman who seeks love” (de Souza 10). Though Amar Dwivedi criticized Das for this “self imposed and not natural” universality, this feeling of oneness permeated her poetry (303). In Das’ eyes, womanhood involved certain collective experiences. Indian women, she argued, did not discuss these experiences in deference to social mores and Das consistently refused to accept their silence. In her work, feelings of longing and loss are not confined to a private misery, but rather they are invited into the public sphere and acknowledged. Das insisted that these feeelings had been felt by women across time. In “The Maggots” from the collection, The Descendants, Das illustrated just how old the sufferings of women are. She framed the pain of lost love with ancient Hindu myths (de Souza 13). On their last night together, Krishna asks Radha if she is disturbed by his kisses. Radha says, “No, not at all, but thought, What is/ It to the corpse if the maggots nip?” (de Souza 6-7). Radha’s pain is searing, and her silence is given voice by Das. Furthermore, by making a powerful goddess prey to such thoughts, Das makes the case for ordinary women to have similar feelings.

Eroticism in Das’ Poetry

Coupled with her exploration of women’s needs was an attention to eroticism. The longing to lose one’s self in passionate love is discussed in “The Looking Glass” from The Descendants. The narrator of the poem urges women to give their man “what makes you women” (de Souza 15). The things which society suggests are dirty or taboo are the very things which the women are supposed to give. The “musk of sweat between breasts/ The warm shock of menstrual blood” should not be hidden from one’s beloved (15). In the narrator’s eyes, love should be defined by this type of unconditional honesty. A woman should “Stand nude before the glass with him,” and allow her lover to see her exactly as she is (15). Likewise, the woman should appreciate even the “fond details” of her lover, such as “the jerky way he/ Urinates” (15). Even if the woman may have to live “Without him” someday, the narrator does not seem to favor bridling one’s passions to protect one’s self (15). A restrained love seems to be no love at all; only a total immersion in love can do justice to this experience. Much like the creators of ancient Tantric art, Das makes no attempt to hide the sensuality of the human form; her work seems to celebrate its joyous potential while acknowledging its concurrent dangers.


Das once said, “I always wanted love, and if you don’t get it within your home, you stray a little”(Warrier interview). Though some might label Das as “a feminist” for her candor in dealing with women’s needs and desires, Das “has never tried to identify herself with any particular version of feminist activism” (Raveendran 52). Das’ views can be characterized as “a gut response,” a reaction that, like her poetry, is unfettered by other’s notions of right and wrong (52). Nonetheless, poet Eunice de Souza claims that Das has “mapped out the terrain for post-colonial women in social and linguistic terms” (8). Das has ventured into areas unclaimed by society and provided a point of reference for her colleagues. She has transcended the role of a poet and simply embraced the role of a very honest woman.

Her Works

Das has published many novels and short stories in English, as well as in the Indian language of Malayalam under the name “Madhavikutty” (de Souza 7). Some of her work in English includes the novel Alphabet of Lust (1977), a collection of short stories called Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories (1992), in addition to books of poetry including Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), The Anamalai Poems (1985), Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996), and Yaa Allah (2001), a collection of poetry with Pritish Nandy (1990), and her autobiography, My Story (1976). Some of her fiction pieces from the 90s in Malayalam includes Palayan (1990), Neypayasam (1991), Dayarikkurippukal (1992), and Chekkerunna Pakshikal (1996). After 2000, she has published several works including Chandana Marangal (2005),  Madhavikkuttiyude Unmakkadhakal (2005) and Vandikkalakal (2005) .

Three Poems from Nine Indian Women Poets

The Dance of the Eunuchs (from Summer in Calcutta)

It was hot, so hot, before the eunuchs came
To dance, wide skirts going round and round, cymbals
Richly clashing, and anklets jingling, jingling
Jingling… Beneath the fiery gulmohur, with
Long braids flying, dark eyes flashing, they danced and
They dance, oh, they danced till they bled… There were green
Tattoos on their cheeks, jasmines in their hair, some
Were dark and some were almost fair. Their voices
Were harsh, their songs melancholy; they sang of
Lovers dying and or children left unborn….
Some beat their drums; others beat their sorry breasts
And wailed, and writhed in vacant ecstasy. They
Were thin in limbs and dry; like half-burnt logs from
Funeral pyres, a drought and a rottenness
Were in each of them. Even the crows were so
Silent on trees, and the children wide-eyed, still;
All were watching these poor creatures’ convulsions
The sky crackled then, thunder came, and lightning
And rain, a meagre rain that smelt of dust in
Attics and the urine of lizards and mice….

The Maggots (from The Descendants)

At sunset, on the river ban, Krishna
Loved her for the last time and left…

That night in her husband’s arms, Radha felt
So dead that he asked, What is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses, love? And she said,
No, not at all, but thought, What is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?

The Stone Age (from The Old Playhouse and Other Poems)

Fond husband, ancient settler in the mind,
Old fat spider, weaving webs of bewilderment,
Be kind. You turn me into a bird of stone, a granite
Dove, you build round me a shabby room,
And stroke my pitted face absent-mindedly while
You read. With loud talk you bruise my pre-morning sleep,
You stick a finger into my dreaming eye. And
Yet, on daydreams, strong men cast their shadows, they sink
Like white suns in the swell of my Dravidian blood,
Secretly flow the drains beneath sacred cities.
When you leave, I drive my blue battered car
Along the bluer sea. I run up the forty
Noisy steps to knock at another’s door.
Though peep-holes, the neighbours watch,
they watch me come
And go like rain. Ask me, everybody, ask me
What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion,
A libertine, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake
Before it clasps my pubis. Ask me why like
A great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts,
And sleeps. Ask me why life is short and love is
Shorter still, ask me what is bliss and what its price….

Works Cited

  • Das, Kamala. “An Introduction.” de Souza 10.
  • —. “The Maggots.” de Souza 13.
  • —.”The Looking Glass.” de Souza 15.
  • —.”The Stone Age.” de Souza 16-17.
  • —. “The Dance of the Eunuchs.” Ray, David, and Amritjit Singh. India: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983. 156-157.
  • Eunice de Souza, Ed. Nine Indian Women Poets. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • —. “Introduction.” de Souza 7-9.
  • Rediff on the Net. Web. <>
  • Dwivedi, A.N. Indo-Anglian Poetry. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1979.
  • Raveedran, P.P. “Text as History, History as Text: A Reading of Kamala Das’ Anamalai Poems.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29 n2 (1994): 47-54.
  • Ravi Database Consultants. India World Poetry. Web.
  • Warrier, Shobha.  Interview.  Rediff on the Net.  Web.

Related Links

Rediif Interview

The Hindu Condolences

Merrily Weisbord’s biography of Das

Author: Preeti Bhanot, Spring 1998
Last edited: June 2012

Filipino American Literature

“The identity of a Filipino today is of a person asking what is his identity.” - Nick Joaquin

“This is then what one finds in Filipino fiction: a self that shares in all of the contradictoriness of the national self.” - Ninotchka Rosca

The Postcolonial Meets the “Ethnic” United States

The study of Filipino American literature offers a place for the frames of postcolonial discourse and the literary efforts of the “hypenated” or “ethnic” American to converge. This intersection offers a challenge to the putative need to separate these endeavors on the basis of the United States’s seemingly shaky status as a colonial power (Prior to the American occupation, the Philippines spent three centuries under Spanish rule). American annexation of the Philippines occurred after two separate wars: the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Filipino-American War (1899-1902). U.S colonial rule of the archipelago was loosened during the Commonwealth Period of 1935-1946, a period after which the Philippines gained its independence. In addition to that, the issues of colonization become complicated in light of the fact that the Philippines experienced decades of enforced “free trade” with the United States up to and even after this independence. Such a fact raises all sorts of useful questions about the effects of neocolonialism, and also the latent “colonialism” of alienation and discrimination experienced by some immigrants.

Filipinos in the United States

Approximately 150,000 Filipinos migrated to the United States during the period of 1906-1946, most of them settling in California and Hawaii (Hawaiian sugar plantations commissioned many Filipino laborers). After arrival citizenship evaded Filipinos for many years. The 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Independence Act merely elevated the status of these new arrivals to “nationals” from “aliens.” From 1946-1964, about 30,000 Filipinos, mostly World War II veterans and their families, arrived in the United States. 630,000 people came in the next wave of Filipino immigrants who arrived between 1965 and 1984. The United States’s 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and the later political and economic uncertainty created by the Marcos regime in the Philippines are two factors which increased Filipino immigration during this period.  At present, the Filipino American population is the fastest growing Asian American group in the United States, and statistics illustrate that this community will surpass the numbers of Japanese and Chinese Americans combined in the next decade. American-born-Filipinos are referred to as “Flips,” a term whose origins are unclear. The suggestion that this term comes from a World War II acronym for the phrase “fucking little island people” has caused some to shy away from the term. Others have reclaimed it and changed the acronym to mean “fine-looking island people”. Others still find it more plausible that the term is just a shortening of “Filipino”.

Filipinos Writing in the United States

Picture of writer Jose Garcia Villa

Jose Garcia Villa, 1953/ Library of Congress

The key question for Filipino writers and critics is how to retrieve (or gain for the first time) their “lost” and “unified”identity. The umbrella term “Asian-American” seems fallacious to those writers (e.g. Carlos Bulosan, José García Villa, Bienvenido Santos, and N.V.M Gonzalez) who migrated to the United States during the first part of the century. Villa was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1943, and Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (1946) continues to hold weight in literary discussions on Filipino American identity today. “I tell you to wait for the inevitable war/Of armies and idealogies, and the enduring love./In our time when every man must lie for life,/Nothing will survive but this historic truth,” writes Bulosan in “Last Will and Testament” (Evangelista 150). For these writers, the United States is a place of discovery and re-cultivation which are ends to a process akin to a necessary exile. Critics like Oscar Campomanes and N.V.M. Gonzalez, in an anthology of Asian American critical essays, point to the discrepancies of models for true Filipino American identity as they remark on the recent success of Filipino-American writers like Jessica Hagedorn whose 1990 Dogeaters seems to search for a past and national identify not important to all Filipino writers (Cheung 80-83). Literary critics are also prone to question Carlos Bulosan’s dominant presence in studies of Filipino American literature. Campomanes claims, in Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling’s Reading the Literatures of Asian America, that the emphasis on Bulosan’s work comes at the expense of a lack of equal concentration on other writers “whose exilic writing did not fit with the immigrant ethos” of the American mentality (55-56). This claim is part of an ongoing critical discussion on the politics of the U.S literary marketplace and hasty generalizations about minority populations. The work of prominent writers of more recent decades (e.g. Ninotchka Rosca, Ephifanio San Juan, Linda Ty-Casper, and Michelle Skinner) adds to the richly complicated question of the possibility of a true Filipino American vision.  N.V.M Gonzalez is particularly conscious of the categories and divisions of minority literature as he describes the work of Bienvenido Santos: “In such a writing as this, the themes of racial bias, nostalgia, and alienation find authentic expression, but the rendering must be understood not as ethnicized American or Western ideas, better that they be understood as ritual responses by the Filipino in full voice … stifled, silenced, and thus forced to echo itself ” (Cheung 71).

A “Different” Asian American Literature

The seeming indecisiveness of agenda for Filipino-American writers (to exile themselves from the home country, accept the status of a hyphenated American or find a bridge between the two) is not exclusive to this branch of what we term as “Asian American” literature. There are, however, some ways in which the Filipino American experience veers away from the “normal” Asian American lifestyle, and these differences contribute to these writers’ literary intentions. Ephifanio San Juan Jr. claims, in “Filipino Writing in the United States, “that Filipino Americans remain an exploited and disadvantaged, not a ‘model’ minority” (142). Oscar Campomanes, in his arguments that all types of Filipino American writing are “exilic” in some way, counters Bharati Mukherjee’s strict dichotomy of immigration and expatriatism( Lim and Ling 57). The uniqueness of Filipino American writing comes, for critics like Campomanes, from its inability to fit neatly into divisive labels. What makes Filipino American literary efforts different, even from South Asian American writers, is the combination of the length of the total colonial experience, the involvement of the United States, and the varying degrees of willingness to assimilate into the American cultural landscape. Further complicating the matter is the Filipino appraisal of its own “national”language (Pilipino, stemming from Tagalog) which, according to an entry in the 1995 Encyclopedia Americana written by Leonard Casper, is known as “Filipino English.” The pluralism of national consciousness within the Philippines (eight vernacular languages and three distinct geographical divisions) also precludes an immediate and unified “home” or”national” identify.

Major Themes

Critics tend to agree upon the importance of configuring and re-creating functions of the imagination for Filipino-American writers. This imaginary attempts to ease the shock of alienation and isolation resulting from immigration and helps to bridge the homeland to the United States for the Filipino American. Rocio G. Davis describes the import of this quality along with the elements of irony and “double perspective” in an anthology of essays on Asian American immigrant literature (Kain 118-119). In her explication of the work of Hagedorn and Rosca, she states, “the interaction of historical facts and memory are the tools that construct the immigrant’s elusive story as the need to see beyond superficial accounts and tell their own versions, albeit fictionally constructed — to create, ultimately, a mythos rendered official in the telling,” (125). The theme of invisibility is also one that is often explicated in critical works. San Juan attempts to differentiate between the themes of those writers like Bulosan who write of a “radical project of solidarity of people of color against capital” and writers like Santos and Ty-Casper who write with “conciliatory or integrationist tendencies ” (151).

Commonly Cited Works of Fiction and Poetry

  • America is in the Heart (autobiographical), Carlos Bulosan (1946)
  • The Bamboo Dancers, N.V.M. Gonzalez (1959)
  • Dogeaters (novel, nominated for National Book Award), Jessica Hagedorn(1990)
  • Many Voices (poetry), José García Villa (1939)
  • The Peninsulars (deals with influences of Spanish colonization),Linda Ty- Casper (1964)
  • “Scent of Apples” (short story), Bienvenido Santos (1979)
  • State of War (novel), Ninotchka Rosca (1988)
  • Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco (2010)
  • When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard (1999)
  • American Son, Brian Ascalon Roley (2001)
  • Dream Jungle, Jessica Hagedorn (2003)
  • When the Elephant Dances, Tess Uriza Holthe (2002)
  • Magdalena, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard (2002)

A Selection of Authors and Titles for More Research

  • Bacho, Peter. Dark Blue Suit and Other Stories. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
  • Bruchac, Joseph. Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Asian American Poets. Greenfield Center: Greenfield Review, 1983.
  • Cordova, Fred. Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans. Dubuqued: Kendall Hunt, 1983.
  • De Jesus, Melinda L. Pinay Power: Peminist Critical Theory: Theorizing the Filipina/American Experience. Hove:Psychology Press, 2005.
  • Francia, Luis H. and Gamalinda, Eric, eds. Flippin’: Filipinos on America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
  • Huang, Guiyou. The Columbia Guide to Asian American Literature Since 1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Kaplan, Amy and Pease, Donald E., eds. Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Kim, Elaine H. and Lowe, Lisa, eds. New Formations, New Questions: Asian American Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Kowalewski, Michael, ed. Reading the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
  • Mendoza, Susanah Lily L. Between the Homeland and the Diaspora: The Politics of Theorizing Filipino and Filipino American Identities: A Second Look at Poststructuralism-indiginization Debates. Hove: Psychology Press, 2002.
  • Peñaranda, Oscar et al. “An Introduction to Filipino-American Literature,” in Aiiieeeee!, 1975
  • Rafael, Vincente L. Discrepant Histories : Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
  • Root, Maria P.P. Filipino Americans: Tranformation and Identity. New York: SAGE, 1997.
  • Ruoff, LaVonne Brown and Ward, Jerry W. Jr., ed. Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.
  • San Juan, Ephifanio, Jr. Beyond Postcolonial Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
  • Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Sumida, Stephen H. And the View From the Shore: Literary traditions of Hawaii. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Works Cited

  • Cheung, King-Kok, ed. An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Evangelista, Susan. Carlos Bulosan and His Poetry: a Biography and Anthology. Seattle, London: University of Washington Press, 1985.
  • Kain, Geoffrey, ed. Ideas of Home: Literature of Asian Migration. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997.
  • Lim, Shirley Geok-lin and Ling, Amy, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
  • San Juan, Ephifanio, Jr. “Filipino Writing in the United States.” Philippine Studies 41.2 (1993).

Author: Reshmi Hebbar, Spring,1998
Last edited: June 2012

McGuckian, Medbh


Medbh (pronounced “Maeve”) McGuckian is a poet born on August 12, 1950 into a Catholic family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As a northern Irish, Catholic woman, McGuckian dealt with severe social, political, and religious tensions.

I know being a woman for me for a long time was being less, being excluded, being somehow cheap, being inferior, being sub. I associated being a woman with being a Catholic and being Irish with being from the North, and all of these things being not what you wanted to be. If you were a woman, it would have been better to be a man; if you were Catholic, it would have been a lot easier to be Protestant; if you were from the North, it was much easier to be from the South; if you were Irish, it was much easier to be English. So it was like everything that I was was wrong; everything that I was was hard, difficult, and a punishment.


McGuckian is the third of six children. Her father worked as the headmaster of a school and as a farmer, and her artistic mother served as an early influence on McGuckian. For her secondary-school education, she attended a Dominican convent, where she came to the conclusion that she wanted to be a poet. She went on to attend Queen’s University, Belfast in 1968. There, she studied English, met and took classes from Seamus Heaney, and received her B.A. in 1972. McGuckian continued her education and did post-graduate work in the English department of Queen’s University until 1974 when she received an M.A. During that time, she began to write for local papers and magazines. One of her poems was first published in 1975. After graduation, she went back to her secondary-school to teach English. She also taught at St. Patrick’s Boys’ College in East Belfast. In 1977, she married John McGuckian, also a teacher. They have three sons and one daughter and currently reside in Belfast.

The Flower Master and Other Poems, 1982

The Flower Master and Other Poems, 1993

Since the publication of her first volume of poetry, The Flower Master in 1982, she has written six more collections. She became the first woman to be named writer-in-residence at Queen’s University in 1986, and has received many other honors as well. McGuckian uses a rich, lyrical style and well-defined grammatical structure to hold together her mysterious feminine imagery. Although McGuckian’s poetry focuses on many subjects common to the female experience, it is written in a voice so undeniably private, that it is almost impossible to gain an understanding of her personal experiences with femininity and motherhood. McGuckian’s secrecy serves both as a protective barrier for her and as a seduction of the reader. Commenting on poetry, she writes,

I feel that you’re going public – by writing the poem you’re becoming a whore. You’re selling your soul which is worse than prostitution – in a  sense you’re vilifying your mind. I do feel that must be undertaken with the greatest possible fastidiousness. (Wills 63)


Most of the themes and issues that McGuckian addresses in her poetry are typically feminine. She is generally read “as a poet obsessively concerned with femininity, with her personal life, even with the dimensions of her house, to the exclusion of wider, more public concerns” (Wills 61). Her poetry is full of images of nature and the home, such as the moon, flowers, water, house, pregnancy, and birth; and in many of her poems, nature is representative of the feminine unconscious. It is also important to note that she only indirectly describes the body by using these symbols. For example, McGuckian typically uses the home as the metaphorical equivalent for a woman’s body. Similarly, she also concerns herself with a woman’s shape, her function as a container for a child, and the subsequent “fragmentation of the woman’s body” (Wills 63). This is exemplified in her poem, “Marconi’s Cottage.”

Another primary theme in McGuckian’s poetry is familial relationships. These take the form of both the maternal relationship between mother and child and the sexual relationship between husband and wife. Describing her poetry, McGuckian says: “It’s like embroidery. It’s very feminine, I guess. They are very intricate, my poems, a weaving of patterns of in’s and out’s and contradictions, one thing playing off another” (Wilson 19).

Mother Ireland

McGuckian is not an ordinary Northern Irish poet. She does not clearly address the social or political circumstances of her region; what references she does make to the Catholic or nationalist image of Ireland are veiled and obscure. In fact, she undercuts the archetypal, nationalist myth of Mother Ireland by turning this public image into a private discourse about her body. In her poems “The Heiress” and “The Soil Map,” McGuckian creates a tension between politics and her personal, feminine experience.  McGuckian identifies woman with the land, yet does not reduce her to the common Mother Ireland. It is also characteristic of her to imagine the body as a place of struggle, and, oddly, the mother as an alien figure: “Rather than representing the continuity of generations, maternity for McGuckian is associated with historical discontinuity, bodily disruption, and loss” (Wills 161). Like many Irish contemporaries, she expresses her strong feelings of both love and hatred towards Ireland. On this subject, McGuckian says in a 1988 interview, “I don’t think anyone can really be Irish in Ireland. It is such a dreadful place. It’s blood-sucked, you feel like you’re walking in blood” (Wilson 21).

The Collections

Marconi's Cottage, 1991

Marconi’s Cottage, 1991

McGuckian’s first poetry collections, The Flower Master (1982) and Venus and the Rain (1984), concentrate on familial relationships. Although both collections are full of images of reproduction, McGuckian approaches the subject with antithetical emotions in each volume. The Flower Master, filled with images of death, focuses on a disillusionment with bearing children. This depression is contrasted with the feelings of expectation and joy that are found in Venus and the Rain. Here, the predominant images are of growth, newness, and the mystery of womanhood. In this collection, McGuckian uses the idea of pregnancy on a dual level: the speaker can be seen as being pregnant with child or with the idea of a poem. In McGuckian’s third collection, On Ballycastle Beach (1988), she explores the inner life of a woman within her body and home, and also a woman’s relationship with her children and husband/lover figure. These relationships are associated with violence and loss, in contrast to the purity and wholeness that one might stereotypically connect with the maternal image (Wills 182). Her language is extremely emotional and personal. Marconi’s Cottage (1991) is a collection of McGuckian’s most mysterious poems in  which she even invokes the presence of a Muse. It centers on the value of poetry itself and is broken down into three parts. The first appears to focus on the conflict between two opposing types of fertility: motherhood and artistic creativity. The second section celebrates the birth of a daughter, and the third represents a realization that both types of creation (birth and poetry) are worthy of celebration. Captain Lavender (1995), represents a slight shift in focus away from the feminine. This collection is divided into two parts. The first poems attempt to deal with her father’s death, and the second half of the collection is an articulation of her experiences teaching a writing workshop to republican and loyalist prisoners at the Maze prison.

Works By The Author

  • McGuckian, Medbh. The Book of the Angel. County Meath: Gallery Press, 2004.
  • —. Captain Lavender. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1995.
  • —. The Currach Requires No Harbours. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 2010.
  • —. Drawing Ballerinas. County Meath: Gallery Press, 2001.
  • —. The Face of the Earth. County Meath: Gallery Press, 2002.
  • —. The Flower Master. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, reprinted as The Flower Master and Other    Poems, Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1993.
  • —. The Greenhouse. Oxford: Steane, c. 1983.
  • —. Marconi’s Cottage. Oldcastle: Gallery, 1991.
  • —. On Ballycastle Beach. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, reprinted, Oldcastle: Gallery, 1995.
  • —. Portrait of Joanna (chapbook). Belfast: Ulsterman, 1980.
  • —. Selected Poems. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1997.
  • —. Shelmalier. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1998.
  • —. Single Ladies: Sixteen Poems (chapbook). Buldeigh Salterton: Interim Press, 1980.
  • —. With Damian Gorman and Douglas Marshall. Trio Poetry. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1981.
  • —. Venus and the Rain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.


National Poetry Competition prize, 1979, for “The Flitting”
Eric Gregory award, 1980
Rooney prize, 1982
Ireland Arts Council award, 1982
Alice Hunt Bartlett award, 1983, for The Flower Master
Cheltenham Literature Festival Poetry Competition prize, 1989                                                                                  Forward Poetry Prize, 2002

Related Sites


Works Cited

  • Sered, Danielle. “Personal interview with Medbh McGuckian.” Emory University, Atlanta, GA. April 1998.
  • Wills, Clair. Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry. New York: Clarendon Press, 1993.
  • Wilson, Rebecca. “The Mutiny of Selves: An Interview with Medbh McGuckian.” Cencrastus. (Spring 1988): 29.

Selected Bibliography

  • Boland, Eavan. A Kind Of Scar: The Woman Poet In A National Tradition. Dublin: Attic Press, 1989.
  • Bradley, Anthony. Contemporary Irish Poetry. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.
  • Corcoran, Neil.  “Medbh McGuckian.” The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland since 1960. A Brucoli Clark  Layman Book. Ed. Vincent B. Sherry Jr., Villanova University.  Gale  Research, 1985. 352-55.
  • Docherty, Thomas. “Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian.”  The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern  Ireland.  Ed: Neil Corcoran. Bridgend: Seren Books, 1992. 191-210.
  • Haberstroh, Patricia Boyle. Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
  • McGuckian, Medbh. “Comhra, with a forward by Laura O’Connor (An  Interview).” Southern Review 28.1 (1995): 581-614.
  • —. Private Papers. Special Collections, Emory University.
  • Murphy, Shane. “Obliquity in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian.” Eire-Ireland 31.3-4 (1996): 76-101.
  • —.  “‘You took Away My Biography’: The Poetry of Medbh McGuckian.” Irish University Review 28.1 (1998): 110-32.
  • O’Connor, Mary. “‘Rising Out’: Medbh McGuckian’s Destabilizing Poetics.”  Eire-Ireland. 30.4 (1996): 154-72.
  • Porter, Susan. “The ‘Imaginative Space’ of Medbh McGuckian.” International Women’s Writing: New Landscapes of Identity.  Eds. Anne E. Brown &  Marjanne E. Gooze. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.
  • Wolff, Janet. “Women’s Knowledge and Women’s Art.” Feminine Sentences:  Essays on Women and Culture.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. 120-141. 67-84.

Author: Suzanne Temple, Spring 1999      Last edited: July 2012