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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