Poetry / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Two Poems

by Divya Victor


Kithwomen are divided along color lines. We must first be checked-off as “fair” “dark” or “wheatish” in order to be checked out. The ubiquitous product of skinshame—a cream called Fair and Lovely—offers kithwomen a “safe” “skin lightening technology” while “empowering individuals to Re-script their Destiny.” Because skin color is destiny, as Unilever well knows. And that is both fair and lovely. As is the destiny of the thousands of Indian workers whose lives have been poisoned by mercury because of the Anglo-Dutch company’s use of Kodaikanal, and kithwomen, as its toxic dumpsites. And today, stunned in the bright lights of American Supermarket Individualism, I pick my way through 18 foundation shades—Maybe She’s Born With It! Maybe It’s A Profitable Biopolitical Caesura Affirmed By Imperialist Expansion!

An early discovery about the disparities of skincolor happened with two pairs of pedal-pushers dropped around two pairs of ankles. Two five year old girls mirror each other, pants down, shirts up, guts out. They push their torsos forward until both their belly buttons touch. One has an innie and the other an outtie. They want to fit together; to click into place and form an antenatal union postpartum, years after their separate mothers carried separate fetuses of separate caste and creed—one smeared in holy ash, the other washed in a holy font.

Between her groin and her belly, the slim pale lines showed where her body could fold in two or three, like white edges of surf show us where the wave ends and the ecru shore begins with a spray of down. I pretended that those lines showed us where they had peeled me from her and laid me in the sun to turn brown and laid her in the bed to turn white. We pressed our palms together, clamped our mouths shut and tried to breath through each other’s bellybuttons, turning blue from our different browns.

These pale waves that run the length and breadth of all bodies are called Langer’s lines—topological contours that tell you how your collagen naturally orients itself and how the skin spreads outwards in waves. In order to discover how skin put itself together, the scientist Karl Langer stuck metal picks in a cadaver and watched for the directions in which skin fell apart.

When our parents carried us back to our separate homes we must have understood how insufficient it was to have just one body—how meager and useless to have just one.

In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, there is a scene in which a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter discuss how Milkman could hate Hagar’s (the daughter’s) hair—they ask: “How can he love himself and hate your hair?”

Kithwomen could learn something from black women about how a braid can be a chain; how a comb can become a weapon—or—about how a braid can moor us to kith; how a comb makes a part between kith and unkith—follicle by follicle.

Kith hair wraps around the teeth of a comb; cream, gold, and black. Kith hair speckles the sink after a mustache has been trimmed. Kith hair is caught in a drain—our black cord through pipes and pens—ink and blood running through these knotted dark lifelines.

Age 11, Singapore. A Eurasian classmate complains to the teacher that kithchild’s hair is too big; that kithchild’s curls are blocking the blackboard. Kithchild is sent to the back of the class and stays there until she graduates.

Age 12, Singapore. A Chinese classmate asks kithchild if it ever loses its pencils and erasers in its hair; if it gets tangled up while walking tall under short trees; if it might swing from those branches in case that happens.

Age 13, Singapore. A Malay classmate asks another classmate to leave kithchild alone when kithchild is asked if kith eat lice caught in each other’s hair.

Age 14, Singapore. Kithchild cuts off all its hair because it has to play the role of Macbeth in an all-girl production. A Chinese classmate asks with great concern if kithchild is worried that hair now looks like kithman’s crotch.

Age 16, Singapore. Kith saves enough money to pay for kithchild to have hair chemically straightened at a salon. The cost is a large fraction of Mother’s paycheck earned at an institute for the cultural advancement of kith whose kith arrived as indentured labor almost a century ago. At the salon, kithchild sits with head bowed and eyes red because salon employees are called to look at kith hair. The pointing and the looking. The ways of eyes and fingers that create kith and unkith. And kith looks back at kith sitting in other chairs looking on at kith being looked at. Their heads bowed and eyes red too. With black shrouds around their necks, they are bodiless. Kithchild walks back home, its scalp crusted with blood and hair smelling of formaldehyde. Mother washes pillowcases every other day to remove the blood and stench of change from the house.

Age 38, Baltimore. Mother standing in a PayLess Shoe Store has her thick, waist-long braid touched and pulled by a white woman. Startled, Mother shudders at the compliment. Your people have beautiful hair. My people, Mother learns, do not like to be touched by your people. Kith is born between aisles 8½ and 9.
Editors' note:
"I is for Innie" and "H is for Her Hair" are included in Divya Victor's Kith (Fence and Book Thug).
ImageDivya Victor is the author of Kith (Fence / Fence Books/ Book Thug), a book of verse, prose memoir, lyric essay and visual objects; Natural Subjects (Trembling Pillow Press, Winner of the Bob Kaufman Award), UNSUB (Insert Blanc), and Things To Do With Your Mouth (Les Figues Press). Her chapbooks include Semblance and Hellocasts by Charles Reznikoff by Divya Victor by Vanessa Place. Her criticism and commentary have appeared in Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, Jacket2, and The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet. Her work has been collected in numerous venues, including, more recently, the New Museum’s The Animated Reader, Crux: Journal of Conceptual Writing, The Best American Experimental Writing, and boundary2. Her poetry has been translated into French and Czech. She has been a Mark Diamond Research Fellow at the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum, a Riverrun Fellow at the Archive for New Poetry at University of California San Diego, and a Writer in Residence at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibit (L.A.C.E.). Her work has been performed and installed at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Los Angeles, The National Gallery of Singapore, the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibit (L.A.C.E.) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Divya Victor is Assistant Professor of Poetry and Writing at Michigan State University and Guest Editor at Jacket2. She is currently at work on a project commissioned by the Press at Colorado College. (Photo credit: Jon Gresham)
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