By: Josh Brown
‘Coconut’ is a term used to denigrate someone as brown on the outside and white on the inside. “The Cocont Girl” is the second collection of poems from British born Punjabi poet Sunita Thind.
BAME people born in the UK face complex and contraditory challenges arising from a double identity. They belong to a defined community – Bangladeshi, Sikh, Hindu, Afro-Carribean, etc. They participate in their cultural heritage , the rich legacy of dress, music, food, dance, poetry, etc. The wider world identifies them by their national background even if in a negative and prejudiced manner. Yet at the same time they are also ‘British’ or English, Welsh or Scottish. You may be Bangladeshi but born in Birmingham and identify also as Brummy. You are just as likely to enjoy a Big Mac, listen to the same commercial ‘pop’ as any other person of your generation and wear the same fashion.
This dual identity may not sit comfortably and can be a source of conflict both external and, more problematic, internal. Are you Brummy or Bangladeshi? Are you Welsh or Yemeni? The apparent ease and pride with which the celebrity chef Tony Singh inhabits his Sikh and Scottish identities with pride, wearing both kilt and Dastar (turban) is wonderful but almost certainly not typical. For many British born members of BAME communities this is a source of confusion, tension and conflict exaccerbated by the racism and steroetyping they experience on a regular basis. Sharing the values and aspirations of the host society can easily conflict with the different community traditions. This is especially so where those are deeply conservative or significantly at odds. It is complex and difficult to select national values in place of those of home and family and can be equally difficult to reconcile yourself with wider practices and beliefs that contradict those of your background. This is especially so for women if they come from a community with attiudes toward their role and definitions of what it is to be female that are in significant contrast to the behaviour and definition of 21st century post-feminist women.
There is a term to describe this plight, “Double Consciousness”, created in 1903 by the noted black American academic W.E.B. Du Bois to describe the conflict challenging Black Americans in his ground-breaking “The Souls Of Black Folks”. It is closely linked to the notion of “Cognitive Dissonance” the confusion experienced as a result of holding values or beliefs that either contradict one another or conflict with experience and reality. Du Bois’s concept has been extended by others, most notably Franz Fanon in his first book witten in 1952 “Black Skin, White Masks” and by black feminists who extended it to embrace the concept of “Triple Consciousness” resulting from being both black and female.
Poetry can readily confront both sides of such complexities, the positive and the negative, the up and downsides, the benefits and costs. There is another use of the term ‘double consciousness’ specifically in relation to poetry known as “Wordsworthian Double Consciousness”. This refers to the practice in poetry of examining apparently conflicting or contradictory concepts or emotions. Wordsworth did this in poems such as ‘We Are Seven’. So did Dylan Thomas most notably in his greatest poem ‘Fern Hill’. Perhaps the best and most succinct example is, of course, William Shakespeare’s perfect oxymoron “Parting is such sweet sorrow”
Not surprisingly, Du Bois’s use of the term has been examined by numerous black poets. There is a long list of them in the USA including Gwendolyn Brooks, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. The most recent collection ‘The Tradition’ awarded the Pulitzer for poetry in 2020 by the magnificent Jericho Brown examines both the bitter internal conflict of being black in Trumps America and being gay in a fundamentalist Christian community. James Baldwin produced probably the most acerbic statement of it in his 1960’s essay “The Fire Next Time” saying of his father “He was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”
Similar poetic exploration of the experience of those facing racism and bigotry have been provided in the UK by poets such as Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Poetry is enjoying immense popularity at the moment but not without controversy particularly the criticism that too much poetry being published today lacks strength of content or focus. The importance of message and context is something Portsmouth Poetry values in the community, educational and open poetry competitions we have run. The choice of collections we choose to review is prefers those poets who use this powerful supreme art form to make significant and insightful statements which extend and enhance our understanding and humanity. So we have been waiting for a new writer to exploit the capabillity of poetry to investigate the BAME experience both with pride and the literary scalpel. ‘The Coconut Girl’ is such a collection.
The Coconut Girl is a collection of 37 poems published in 2020 by Derby based poet Sunita Thind. Born in Bedford, Sunita is a Punjabi Sikh. The collection investigates and outlines the experiences of a Punjabi woman in the UK today including her battle with ovarian cancer which returned four years after her initial treatment. It is powerful moving poetry supplying an insight into the experience of others and a challenge to aspects of the BAME experience from a female perspective. The double consciousness is taken apart and placed under a literary miscroscope.
From the first poem it is clear that this is work with important things to say with righteous anger but with affectionate honesty. ‘Good Little Punjabi Girl’ describes the restrictions placed on women living in the UK with its opportunities and challenges. It is incisive, critical and contains some great lines such as the opening, “Shuffling off into extinction, she was the inferior protoype” and later “she is famished for freedom” and the moving description of a compliant sister as “adapted to the fundamental principles of sadness”
This is a poet unafraid to challenge the cultural traditions she clearly loves. The second poem “Punjabi School” relentlessly describes an abusive teacher “Mr C, by night a bone-chilling Punjabi Educator”.
Consider these opening lines for ‘Frozen Flowers’ about the death of an elderly woman:
“Her pale eyes still have lightening in them,
sliced peach cheekbones;
shimmering, pleated turban atop her halo
making acquaintance with death.”
Pretty impressive first two lines in an exultant and sensitive poem and it is followed, in contrast, by a raging angry poem about far right racism! Every poem is its own statement, a separate investigation of the beauties and terrors of being an ‘outsider’ in a land distorted by its empire past.
How far this fearless poet is prepared to go can be guaged by the poem ‘A Child Bride Unfurling In An Adult Galaxy’ which fumes against the abomination of child marriage, taking the scalpel of her poetry to a topic many BAME communities would rather not have aired.
“Bitter is your adult saliva,
tongue circling this pre-teen mouth,
tsunami of lust in your pants.
You are not civilised in your grief, Mr.
Marrying this soiled cherub?”
Sunita Thind is equal in her rage against the bigots who would direct their hatred at her and the darker realities of Punjabi life in India and the UK. She uses her skill as a poet to voice her rage as dual citizen and as a woman.
“Invite the lust into this male brawl
by the boys gagging for my lady parts.
Do they know these iridescent planets?
Circumventing dark instalments,
a glimmer in the twinkle and dew morn.”
Or the rebuke to a father angry at his daughters failure to comply –
“Petrol coloured was your anger,
burning the fat off me with your sulfur slurs.
The level of scarring,
apart from my kin”.
These topics are powerfully viewed from a female perspective which is visceral and sensual in its images. They are testing and uncomfortable, rightlly so, to a male reader, and brutally defiant in the face of cultural repression. Lines like,
“In the ancient dark I wish to be newborn in the violence of love”
and the challlenge to religious conformity
“Stunted by deformity of faith,
force-fed scripture like a corn-fed duck
I grieve for my own faith.
Religious contraptions and false gods
hampered by dogma,
icons of irrelevance.
I was a thorny schoolgirl
of toffee-hued skin
listening to spiky sermons,
gagged at the Gurdwara.
The once heady bustle of my head is now dutiful,
a funeral of flowers in my hair”
The aliterative word use here is lovely, akin to what is known in Welsh poetry as ‘Cynghanedd’ (check it out in Dylan Thomas). A funeral of flowers – Wow! How much sadness is compressed into those last two beautiful lines?
In many of the poems, Sunita lays open the cruelty and lust of attitudes within her people that repress and victimise for the inescapabe sin of being born a woman. You cannot help but feel that such candour is incredibly brave and could come with a heavy personal cost did you not know that she is loved and supported by a husband and caring family.
The title poem,‘The Coconut Girl’ faces that bitter contradiction of double identity. It begins by stating the cruel slur “Brown on the outside, White on the inside” and returns to it to conclude,
“A Punjabi paradox was the Coconut Girl”.
Sunita also revisits the assault on her body and identity resulting from the return of her ovarian cancer. ‘My Womb Is A Park of Carnage’ is disturbingly candid poetry
“This bountiful harvest of organs in the cracked sink.
Slurping bodily fluids on the floor.
The lonesome hair of this lab rat enduring tailored hopelessness.
Buttered by fear, blindly winking.
Depleting fertility, the youthful marrows.
Health culled, blister burns, solidified blood.
The hospital highs, vampiric skin.
A specimen in the jar, this disposable beauty.
The diagnostic conundrum, the monochromatic health.
No more premenstrual beauty.”
Read that a couple of times and not be moved. Read it and realise this is a stunning poet long overdue. There are several other women poets you could list her as sucessor to. Sylvia Plath for starters. ‘The Coconut Girl’ is a milestone publication in contemporary poetry. It has been a privelege to be able to review and recommend it.
‘Coconut Girl’ is Sunita Thind’s second collection published by Wild Pressed Books price around £10.
An earlier acclaimed collection ‘The Barging Buddhi and Other Poems’ was published by Black Pear Press and also written from the perspective of women living between two cultures. Both are available from the usual sources. Portsmouth Poetry urges you to buy through independent local booksellers when possible.
Josh Brown Portsmouth Poetry UK