Preeti Kaur spent sleepless nights writing a collection of poems after the August 2012 killing of Sikh worshipers by a white supremacist at a Wisconsin gurdwara. She states, “I felt that someone, maybe me, needed to put something out into the world which spoke to all of our different embodiments — as hyphenated people, as Sikh-Americans, as Sikhs who are part of a kaum in the global sense, as an immigrant community, as citizens of the world, as citizens of this nation.”
The result is “Letters Home,” which connects the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, tragedy to other events of racial violence in U.S. history. The poems address Balbir Singh Sodhi, Vincent Chin and in the excerpt below — America at large.
please forward: to the 50 states/ the white house/ all territories/ the flagged patch on the moon
the gurdwara door is open
our bare feet like cracked glass
our covered heads bulletproof from ego
we turn our backs on bellingham
build our gurdwaras from post traumatic cinder
of bombed birmingham black church
nina simone sings tera bhaana meetha laage*
to tune of mississippi goddamn
gunpowder lines noses of children
left behind wailing mummy papa we will never forget you
‘the love that forgives’ a lullaby
which sears obedient
into a bittering lemon
i stand half mast, america
i grieve for my future son, america
i grieve for all nights, america
i grieve for all nights
Waheguru Waheguru Waheguru
*A Sikh prayer invoking acceptance of sacrifice. Literally, it means “May I experience Your will as sweet to me.”
The complete text of “Letters Home” can be found on Preeti Kaur’s website, The World I Stitch. Her poetry appears in Qarrtsiluni, The Langar Hall, On Being, in The Loft Literary Center’s spoken word CD ¿Nation of Immigrants?, in the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection and the Calcutta-based Sikh Review. Her work will also be published in an upcoming anthology from The Memoir Journal.
To learn more about Preeti Kaur and her poetry, read our interview with her. In this first part, she describes where she grew up and how she got started writing poetry. Check back for the next installment of the interview, in which Kaur discusses her poems “You Bring Out the Punjabi in Me,” “Where-Ever It Is Dark” and “Letters Home.”
Where are you from in California? What was it like to grow up there?
I am from a small town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. My hometown is actually the center of California, marked by a palm tree and a pine tree along a spot on the highway which cuts through the town. The pine represents the northern half of the state and the palm represents the southern half. Maybe it is an accurate representation of the San Joaquin Valley as a metaphor of divide. Maybe it is an accurate representation of the San Joaquin Valley as a metaphor of divide.
It was wonderful to grow up in a small place, in the way that as long as your basic needs are met as a child, one does not assume there is anything very different about a small place. The San Joaquin Valley is primarily an agricultural economy and geography, politically conservative and unlike the rest of glamorous California. Today the San Joaquin Valley is known as the most impoverished area of the country, with a resurgence of the kind of extreme poverty previously experienced during the Depression.
I grew up in a comfortable home, thanks to both of my parents, but outside of home I witnessed this disparity every day. Migrant farmworkers’ children would come to school daily smelling like urine because their families simply couldn’t afford to wash their clothes. The San Joaquin Valley isn’t a big metropolis or even a favored area of the state, where massive social programs and educated do-gooders are hovering around to fix such problems. Instead problems simply existed, stagnating.
Witnessing that kind of disparity required me, and I think many young people who grew up in the Valley, to recognize that the world is complicated. We each had a choice on whether or not to be sensitive to those complexities, at a young age.
At the same time, growing up in a rural area was isolating. I grew up in a strict Sikh household in this small place. During the ’80s and ’90s there weren’t many Sikh or Punjabi families in the area. So there was the constant feeling of having to explain yourself, translate yourself. So there was the constant feeling of having to explain yourself, translate yourself. But that also was an early lesson of wisdom — that no one will ever have the familiarity you wish another person to have, as no one can be you. It taught me to retreat into the comfort of isolations.
How did you start writing poetry?
I grew up paying careful attention to language. In the Sikh tradition our sacred text, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is written with extreme detail to rhyme, rhythm, and metaphor. My father’s lessons in trying to impart the pronunciation and recitation of Sikh prayers helped to tune my ear to the ways words can have a musicality of their own. As I grew, he explained the multiple meanings of these words, their layered intentions towards introspection; I became enchanted with metaphors, especially those that permeate Sikh theology. I became enchanted with metaphors, especially those that permeate Sikh theology.
I also grew up respecting oral tradition. Punjabi culture is notable for its oral tradition of poetry and song. I remember attending functions with other Indian families in neighboring towns, where Uncles would take the stage and start reciting poems, on and on, and Aunties would recite the wildest boliyaan to dance gidha.
My grandmother was the major force in growing my appreciation of language, though. I used to write letters in Punjabi to my grandmother, since she had only been educated till the fourth grade and understood none of my English. She would respond with these effusive letters full of love and also with lines of poetry, specifically dohras, which are couplets of rhyming verse.It felt like magic every time I would receive a dohra written just for me. It felt like magic every time I would receive a dohra written just for me. My most memorable is one dohra she wrote in her last few years of life, where she talks about standing on the terrace drying her hair. A flock of crows flies by and she asks them to deliver a letter of love to me in America. (It sounds infinitely better in Punjabi.)
Her ability to execute language gorgeously, despite a limited formal education, emboldened my love of language’s worth. I adored my grandmother. If she thought poetry was the best thing ever, then I felt it was something I should pay attention to also.
It wasn’t until I encountered June Jordan’s Poetry for the People at the University of California, Berkeley, that I started formally studying and writing poems. I think it was love at first writing.
Check back next week for the second part of our interview with Preeti Kaur.