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Divya Victor explores South Asian resilience in award-winning book, 'CURB'

Cover of CURB by Divya Victor on a yellow background. CURB is in big block letting in yellow, the "U" is on a 45 degree angle. Below is an illustration of a suburban row of houses in black and white, the house on the far right has a light on.
Divya Victor/ Nightboat Books

After 9/11, hate crimes rose against members of the South Asian community as they were racially profiled as suspected terrorists or as “un-American.”

Now two decades later, Michigan State University professor Divya Victor has reflected on how this violence has impacted the ways South Asian immigrants navigate public spaces in a new book of poetry called CURB.

It recently won the Open Book Award from PEN America as well as the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award from Claremont Graduate University.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Victor about the book.

Interview Highlights

On how the book's name references the public spaces where South Asians are met with violence

I became curious about how South Asians, Middle Easterners, those of Arab heritage are seen in public spaces. And 20 years since, I remain interested in where violent crimes and assaults, what we sometimes called bias incidents, where they are taking place, and it's most often taking place in the neighborhoods in which South Asians and those of Middle Eastern descent, where they live, where they have conducted businesses, where they go to school. And I became really interested in how those neighborhoods are constructed and how these sidewalks and lawns become sites of both micro- and other kinds of aggression.

On how grief played a role in writing the book

In so many South Asian communities, grief is a public event. It's a shared event. It's a communal event. But in the wake of 9/11 and since, we have not been public about our grief because of the fear of being perceived as greater threats to, you know, the national understanding of who the, you know, the United States belongs to. And so, writing this book, for me, was a way of acknowledging even to myself how much I had not acknowledged within me, my own fear, my own disbelonging and my own sense of displacement in this nation.

On the men she memorializes in the book

When Srinivas Kuchibhotla was shot and killed in 2017 in Olathe, Kansas by a man who saw him as an undocumented Iranian, for example, he was misinterpreted at that moment. When Sunando Sen was pushed onto the subway tracks in Queens, New York several years ago, he was pushed by a woman who thought he was responsible for the September 11 attacks. And these acts of misinterpretation and misrecognition cost these men their lives. And I think because poetry is the work of reinterpreting language and helping us understand how we see what we see and why we see a certain way, this book became a way for me to take charge of some of the interpretive frameworks that I'm constantly subject to.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: After 9/11, hate crimes rose against members of the South Asian community as they were racially profiled as suspected terrorists or as “un-American.”

Now two decades later, Michigan State University professor Divya Victor has reflected on how this violence has impacted the ways South Asian immigrants navigate public spaces in a new book of poetry called CURB.

It recently won the Open Book Award from PEN America as well as the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award from Claremont Graduate University.

Victor joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Victor: Thank you so much for having me.

Saliby: I want to start by talking about the form of your writing in CURB. It's not strictly just poetry or prose. You also include text from immigration forms, excerpts from other writers' work and even geographical coordinates. Why did you bring all these pieces together for your readers?

Victor: You know, in some ways, I think this book is a book of poetry in English that includes many languages. It includes Gujarati and Tamil and Malayalam, various South Asian languages, and also the language of bureaucracy, which is often the language in which immigrants and children of immigrants and refugees are most commonly described in the United States.

I'm very curious about how poetry can offer a kind of counter-language to the language of bureaucracy.

So much so that the idea of being "undocumented" has become a kind of identity category itself. So, I think we have a really deep and unchallenged relationship to documents, especially bureaucratic documents. And I'm very curious about how poetry can offer a kind of counter-language to the language of bureaucracy.

Saliby: The name of your book, CURB, is overall a reference to public spaces, like sidewalks and lawns and the interactions held in those places. Why did you center this book on public displays of belonging or not belonging in some cases?

Victor: Well, I arrived to the United States as an immigrant and as an undergraduate in the same year as the attacks on the Twin Towers happened. And so, I felt myself particularly open to a very particular and unanticipated kind of scrutiny in public spaces.

I noticed right away that I was being interpreted and kind of surveilled in these casual ways and all these public settings that I was in.

And I noticed right away that I was being interpreted and kind of surveilled in these casual ways and all these public settings that I was in. If you went to a bar or a restaurant, you know, people would ask you, "Where are you from?" And that question wasn't a very warm question. It was a question, you know, offered with a head kind of cocked to the side, a question that's grounded in suspicion.

And, you know, that's 20 years ago now, and I became curious about how South Asians, Middle Easterners, those of Arab heritage are seen in public spaces. And 20 years since, I remain interested in where violent crimes and assaults, what we sometimes called bias incidents, where they are taking place, and it's most often taking place in the neighborhoods in which South Asians and those of Middle Eastern descent, where they live, where they have conducted businesses, where they go to school.

And I became really interested in how those neighborhoods are constructed and how these sidewalks and lawns become sites of both micro- and other kinds of aggression.

Saliby: Jumping ahead, one of the first poems of your book was inspired by a conversation you had with your mother in the first year of the Trump administration.

I believe you were on a walk in a public place, but she expresses fear of living in this country. You've said that conversation was the beginning of your writing process for CURB. Can you speak more on that?

Victor: Yes. And if you don't mind, I might read that poem. It's a short one.

______________________ , since you asked:

yes; I am
afraid all
the time; all
the places are all
the same to me; all
of us are the same to all
of them; this is all
that matters; all
of us don’t matter at all.

And this was nearly verbatim what my mother offered to me when I asked her how she was feeling in, you know, as we walked the public space in our neighborhood, right after the Trump administration had taken hold.

I realized is that this fear of being an alien under siege, someone who was being perceived as a threat or a terrorist or a foreigner, even when we're born here, that goes back to the mid 1800s.

And we were just pulling, you know, a Radio Flyer with my, at that time, ..... my toddler in there. And I had to take her fear really seriously, and I had to study the history of that fear. And what I realized is that this fear of being an alien under siege, someone who was being perceived as a threat or a terrorist or a foreigner, even when we're born here, that goes back to the mid 1800s.

And so we have a really long history with that fear, and I wanted to take that history seriously and try and understand what is the face of that fear now, in the present moment.

Saliby: In the book, you meditate on the deaths of five different South Asian men killed by racists or nationalists, mostly after 9/11. You've spoken on the grief the community, your community, has felt with these deaths that has not always been reflected in the greater American society. Was writing this book a way to bring your readers into this grieving process?

Saliby: Yes. The faith healer and writer Valerie Kaur has written extensively on how after 9/11, in the wake of the hate crimes that resulted after 9/11, the nation did not grieve with us, as she writes. And that made us, I think, experience national belonging as this shattering experience, to belong to this country was to also deny our own grief, was to also, you know, squirrel ourselves away into a kind of untenable privacy in our grief.

In the wake of 9/11 and since, we have not been public about our grief because of the fear of being perceived as greater threats to, you know, the national understanding of who the, you know, the United States belongs to.

And in so many South Asian communities, grief is a public event. It's a shared event. It's a communal event. But in the wake of 9/11 and since, we have not been public about our grief because of the fear of being perceived as greater threats to, you know, the national understanding of who, you know, the United States belongs to.

And so, writing this book, for me, was a way of acknowledging even to myself how much I had not acknowledged within me, my own fear, my own disbelonging and my own sense of displacement in this nation. So, writing became a way for me to first acknowledge what I had experienced and continue to experience, and then I had to take on the charge of representing what my community had experienced. And bringing this book out is to offer one interpretation of a collective experience.

Saliby: I'd like for you to read and maybe speak on one of these remembrances. It's called "CURB 2" which memorializes Balbir Singh Sodhi.

Four days after 9/11, a man who said he wanted to shoot "towelheads" murdered Sodhi as he was planting flowers outside his own gas station. So, I'll let you take it from there.

Victor:

Text of poem that reads: CURB 2

            Mesa Star Chevron Gas Station

            Mesa, Arizona

to bend            tall grasses 

to edge            brittlebush

to bow             camphorweed

to restrain       pricklyleaf 

to end              paperflowers

a knee             give way to yards folded

a handful        mulch red some selvage

a nod               hang flags then hang him

a sheaf            documented lullaby

& sign              here & here                         & here

Balbir Singh Sodhi's murder was, sent a quake through the community. He was mistaken for terrorist merely because he was wearing a turban on the day, and as a Sikh man, this turban is part of his identity. It's part of his understanding of how we belong to this cosmos.

And it was a misinterpreted sign, and I'm so interested in how South Asians, Sikhs and Muslims and Hindus and Christian South Asians are misinterpreted in these public spaces.

When Srinivas Kuchibhotla was shot and killed in 2017 in Olathe, Kansas by a man who saw him as an undocumented Iranian, for example, he was misinterpreted at that moment. When Sunando Sen was pushed onto the subway tracks in Queens, New York several years ago, he was pushed by a woman who thought he was responsible for the September 11 attacks.

These acts of misinterpretation and misrecognition cost these men their lives.

And these acts of misinterpretation and misrecognition cost these men their lives. And I think because poetry is the work of reinterpreting language and helping us understand how we see what we see and why we see a certain way, this book became a way for me to take charge of some of the interpretive frameworks that I'm constantly subject to.

Saliby: Divya Victor is an MSU professor and author of the award-winning book CURB. Thank you for joining me.

Victor: My absolute pleasure. Thank you.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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