Book Review: “Bodymap” and “Dirty River” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

By Andrea Gutierrez

» Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in make/shift (Summer/Fall 2016, no. 19)

Bodymap: Poems (Mawenzi House)
Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Arsenal Pulp)
by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

A writ­ing teacher once told me that as a writer, I need­ed to under­stand my rela­tion­ship to the body: my body, a body, the expe­ri­ence of being in a body. The mean­ing of this escaped me at first, but only because I felt I had no rela­tion­ship to any body, least of all my own. My body held gen­er­a­tions of shame, vio­lence, regret, long­ing, and loss. My body held secrets. Bond­ing and con­nect­ing with my fat, brown cor­po­re­al being was the last thing I want­ed to do. Of course, I failed to see that this was itself the rela­tion­ship in question.

I thought of this often as I read Leah Lak­sh­mi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s unfor­get­table new books, Bodymap and Dirty Riv­er. The ten­sion of the body is every­where, start­ing with the first words of the first poem in Bodymap: “to be in dias­po­ra, maybe you are always a ghost / always miss­ing some­thing.” This ten­u­ous con­nec­tion between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract (because what is more abstract than bor­ders and nation-states?) fuels the nar­ra­tive threads through­out both books.

Leah Lak­sh­mi Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha teas­es out her own rela­tion­ship to the body in Bodymap, writ­ing it as both a site and an instru­ment for map­ping out her world as a queer, crip, work­ing-class femme of col­or. To map her body (“you’re going to find the peo­ple you can sketch the secret inside of the world with. if you can’t find them you can sketch the secret inside of your world inside your­self”), or to use her body to cre­ate a map (“Your body a map to the stars, your spots tamarind and char­coal, on an already caramel skinned map. Gor­geous”), is ulti­mate­ly what she hoped would lead her home—or rather, to a sense of “home.” In the poem “Ster­num,” she has an epiphany:

I asked her where home was
she stopped perfect silent in the middle of writhing screaming
said home? home is right here
and touched her chest light

Which leads to the author’s next tat­too, the word “HOME” across her chest:

then wait, what color is home?
we mixed ink the color
of red brown sri lankan road dirt
in the cup

The earth, the body-this tat­too, a meld­ing of the two. And yet it’s worth not­ing that the ink is only a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Sri Lankan soil, an approx­i­ma­tion not unlike the foods and tra­di­tions from the old coun­try that exist in the lives of immi­grants and their chil­dren, not unlike the ten­sion that bira­cial, bicul­tur­al indi­vid­u­als feel with­in their bod­ies ·and their lives. Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha dives head-first into this ten­sion, to dev­as­tat­ing effect. “I don’t know how to write about becom­ing brown,” she writes in her mem­oir Dirty Riv­er, “but I know I have to.”

I’ma be hon­est with you: Dirty Riv­er destroyed me. I’ve got shelves full of mem­oirs, but I can­not ade­quate­ly express how dis­ap­point­ing it is that so few of them are by writ­ers of col­or and queer writ­ers. At a time when the mem­oir is so laud­ed, so sought after, so damn prof­itable, it’s clear that most of that val­ue is placed on the true sto­ries of white cis­gen­der folks. So once I final­ly had this pre­cious tome in my hands, I rejoiced.

Enter Leah Lak­sh­mi Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha, stage right. Queer. Crip. Work­ing class. Femme. Of col­or. She is all of these things at once. And it’s the non-lin­ear, non-chrono­log­i­cal telling of Dirty Riv­er that best con­veys this mes­sage, a genius strat­e­gy that beau­ti­ful­ly reflects the messi­ness, anguish, and pos­si­bil­i­ty of a life lived at intersections.

I write this review a few days before Moth­er’s Day, which seems appro­pri­ate con­sid­er­ing that Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha’s moth­er looms large through­out Dirty Riv­er. I sus­pect that Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha has tepid feel­ings toward the day like I do. “She is the woman whose love was enough to let you live to grow up, to get out,” she writes in a chap­ter titled, sim­ply, “Mom.” “She is not a mon­ster. She is your moth­er. The moth­er who abused you. The moth­er who loved you.” I cried. How can the abused and unmoth­ered child find home? How can this child under­stand their rela­tion­ship to the body?

As I go back to review my notes scrib­bled through­out Dirty Riv­er, I real­ize that I’ve under­lined, cir­cled, and brack­et­ed just about every oth­er line in the chap­ter called “Spin­ster.” Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha real­izes what she wants in terms of part­ner­ship and fam­i­ly. A psy­chic tells her there’s a child in Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha’s future, one that will heal her. She balks, says that this is what her moth­er did, and it was fucked-up, and she did­n’t want that. “You’re not going to do it like your mom did,” the psy­chic says, “but it’s going to heal you any­way.” Map­ping one’s heart and desires is how you know you’re on the jour­ney home. I get the sense, after read­ing Bodymap and Dirty Riv­er, that Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha is already there. ☀

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