Calling Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press) a fierce fantasy, Sarala Estruch (The Guardian) states, “Women, queer and non-binary voices are loud in the face of repression in a poetry collection that bridges fantasy and reality in modern Caribbean society.” Here is her review:
Shivanee Ramlochan may not yet be widely known on this side of the Atlantic, but she will be soon: An active literary presence in Trinidad with her exciting, original verse, Ramlochan’s work examines, among other things, Caribbean identity and the fabric of modern Caribbean society, she is shortlisted for this year’s Forward best first collection prize.
This extraordinary debut collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, uses speculative poetry – a genre that explores the human experience through fantasy or the supernatural – to challenge and transcend conventional gender narratives and reimagine Caribbean society through a queer, radical feminist lens.
Divided into three parts and set against a Trinidadian backdrop, the collection contains fragments from the lives of anonymous women, queer and non-binary individuals who struggle beneath the weight of patriarchal oppression. In The Abortionist’s Daughter Gives Cold Comfort, a woman is refused a termination on legal grounds, while in Vivek Chooses His Husbands, a gay man names his lovers after festivals – Corpus Christi, Phagwa, Samhain, Hanukkah – because “[y]our father said not to take faggots to your bed”. In Trinidad, as in many Catholic countries, abortion is illegal, and consensual same-sex relations were only decriminalised earlier this year. The voices are collective, yet unique, suggesting the importance of community in resistance without forfeiting individual difference.
The middle section, The Red Thread Cycle, comprises a sequence of seven poems that explore the stories of a single (or several?) rape survivor(s). The sequence enacts the speaker’s struggle to find a language in which to speak “the unspeakable”: “Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station. […] Don’t say forced anal entry.” Visceral, disturbing and subversive, these poems detail devastating accounts of power wielded over the vulnerable, but end with the speaker reading her poem in front of an audience in an act of triumphal survival, in which she psychically murders her attacker: “Each line break bursts me open / for applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy / is grating out gold halleluiahs / beneath the proscenium of his grave.”
Ideas around the power of language and the fluidity of identity recur throughout the book. The collection contains a polyphony of voices and languages and imagery that draws from sources as various as the Hindu and Christian scriptures and Caribbean folklore. It evokes the complex multiplicity of Trinidad’s cultural landscape, a result of the country’s long history of invasion, colonialism and migration. All the Dead, All the Living is a rhythmic, playful poem written in Trinidadian Creole about the experience of attending “Jouvay” – or J’Ouvert, the opening ritual of the annual Trinidadian carnival, a ceremony that can be traced back to colonial days, when slaves would imitate the celebrations of the slave masters. Participants cover themselves in paint, oil or mud in order to camouflage their identity. All the Dead, All the Living celebrates the powers of transformation and anonymity that come with Jouvay, because – as the poem suggests – it is the ability to shape-shift that enables the oppressed to evade their oppressors:
At Jouvay, it eh matter if you play yourself
or somebody else. […]
Wine en pointe and wine to the four stations of the cross,
St James soucouyant,
deep bush douen come to town […]
Ramlochan counts magical realists Federico García Lorca and Gabriel García Márquez among her influences. Fantastical elements are interwoven throughout these rich and inventive poems, most visibly in a series of poems that explore the Trinidadian folklore of the “douen”: a demon-like, forest-dwelling creature, believed to be an incarnation of the spirit of an unbaptised child. Ramlochan’s “duenne” is reimagined as a transgressive force that exists outside of the framework of traditional power structures and can, therefore, threaten them. In Duenne Lara, the speaker serenades the duenne, wishing to be inhabited by it: “come live in me, little / lover, come / claim these metatarsal prayers. // Everyone knows I am a haunting.”
This astonishing debut gives voice to sufferings and struggles of women, the queer and non-binary, reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s call for “the transformation of silence into language and action”. But what makes this collection truly revelatory is its bold envisioning of a Trinidad – and, beyond that, a world – in which identities and hierarchies of power are fluid rather than fixed. It is a fierce world, ripe with possibility: “I am the queen / the comeuppance / the hard heretic nature intended.”
- Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan is published by Peepal Tree. To order a copy for £7.73 go to guardianbookshop.comor call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
- Sarala Estruch is a Ledbury Poetry Critic, a mentoring programme launched by Sandeep Parmar and Sarah Howe with Ledbury poetry festivaland the University of Liverpoolto tackle the underrepresentation of BAME poets and reviewers in critical culture.