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  • Meena Kandasamy

(Guernica) The Poetry of Female Fighters

Seven years ago, on a chilly fall weekend in London, I wandered into an Oxfam second-hand bookshop in Walthamstow along with a man I was beginning to know, beginning to fall in love with. In the poetry section’s top-right corner, I pulled out a copy of Lovers and Comrades. I showed it to him (lover, comrade) and we exchanged a knowing smile. What’s that about? he asked. I read aloud the subtitle: Women’s resistance poetry from Central America. That looks interesting, he said. It was published by The Women’s Press. On its front page was the simple inscription, to my lover and comrade, June ‘97. The book, edited by Amanda Hopkinson, had itself been published in 1989.


I was five years old at that time and the Indian Peace Keeping Force was still occupying Tamil Eelam. I was too young to understand what was meant by the word “rape,” but old enough to understand that the Indian Army was doing bad things to Tamil women and children. That was also the time when Eelam Tamil women started joining the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in droves–so whenever we heard a story of such-and-such atrocities against women, we also heard, very often in the same breath, that women were fighting back, donning combat gear and taking up AK-47s. Those were the decisive years when a lot of Tamil people in India, realizing there was no way out, decided to rally behind the Tigers, and identify with the armed Tamil liberation struggle.


That book I was holding in Walthamstow suddenly seemed similarly explosive with history, with an armed struggle from elsewhere, with its own women guerrilla poets. I vividly remember these loops of thought, just as I remember a deep sadness and estrangement that I could not articulate. How could I tell him, lover-comrade, what it meant to grow up in the shadow of a second-hand war, with poster-size pictures of Tamil Tigers? How could I tell him of the girl-love I felt towards the very dashing, very handsome Tiger combatants, men and women alike? How to articulate this lifeblood, this thirst, this memory? He was, he is, white, European, Francophone: worlds, worlds, worlds away. It was, it is, a void between us. I remember thinking, as I took his hand in mine and we stepped into the street, maybe poetry—poetry, someday. That way, we wouldn’t be seen as warring, as bloody, as strife-torn, but as people who loved, people who were romantic, people who only dreamed of a better future.


I was not a stranger to that longing, holding that book, promising myself I would put together something similar with the poetry of women fighting with the Tamil Tigers, in the hope of being better understood. That was what I had been doing in so much of my writing: taking things that rattled me (the Kilvenmani massacre), shake or shock me (domestic violence), make a fighter out of me (Tamil Tigers, Liberation Panthers) and smuggling them into English, and high art. As if that would validate my existence, my struggles, and those things that gave meaning and purpose to my life.


That is perhaps where the idea for this addition to Guernica’s Female Fighter series started: in unwritten words, in the unbridgeable distance between two lovers.


We sent out a call for submissions seeking poetry from female guerrillas, resistance fighters, and militants. The poems that we sought did not belong to the “poetry of witness,” which Carolyn Forche, in the anthology Against Forgetting, labeled a literary art where “the poem’s witness is not a recounting, is not mimetic narrative, is not political confessionalism,” or simply an act of memory. We sought poems that went beyond the testimonial in their blatant embrace of polemic. Responses to the call exposed the rich tradition of poetry by female fighters: submissions and proposals about Mariana Yonusg Blanco, who participated in the Nicaraguan liberation movement in the 1970s; Criselda Lobo (aka Sandra Ramirez), ex-guerrilla poet, now Congresswoman for the FARC; Commandante Yesenia, active in the ELN (National LIberation Army) in Colombia; Zimbabwe’s Freedom Tichaona Nyamubaya, who fought in the Mozambique liberation struggle; song-poems by women who fought in the Red Guard in the Finnish civil war; anonymous Maoist poets in India; Lorena Barros and Aida F Santos from the Philippines; and the poetry of Anna Swir (aka Anna Swirszczynska), a resistance fighter in the Warsaw Uprising; among many, many others.


In the end, we decided to feature five female fighter poets from three countries: Captain Vaanathi, Captain Kasturi, and Adhilatchumi from the Tamil Tigers; Lil Milagro Ramirez from El Salvador, who was a founding member of one of the first guerrilla organizations that would eventually become the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front; and Nibha Shah, who was an active fighter in the Nepali Maoist ranks.


(Read the rest of the essay here)

(Read the poetry selection here)

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