Nothing sounds quite so fascinating to a fan of all things science fiction than to hear that cognitive scientist (who has held research posts at both MIT and Oxford) is planning to do a live reading. And much to my delight, SDSU’s intimate Love Library recently showcased just such an opportunity when they invited Pireeni Sundaralingam to perform for an intimate crowd of less than 75 attendees.
Rather than focusing on the content of her work in progress (Creativity, Poetry, and The Brain) which highlights the bio-chemical and neurological relationships between creative works and our minds, she delved headlong into a rather more personal sphere. Reading largely from her collection of personal poetry, Sundaralingam unwound tales of dual self-identities: a Sri Lankian and Englishwoman, a creator and surveyor, a superstitious child and a youth haunted by civil war. One poem in particular stands out to me. Pireeni recalls that pensive and halting manner in which the Sri Lankian people—now scattered by violence—decide not to hail one another on the streets as she reads her poem, “Language like Birds”.
It is Paris, Berlin, New York,
it is any one of countless cities, any one
of endless lands in which we find ourselves,
our careless hurrying through crowds
cut short, silenced in one moment
by the sight of teeth and hands and jaw,
by the familiarity of bone.
These are the faces that reflect our own,
the eyes of exiles that will search
and search again for patterns in the skin,
kinship in the bones,
history in the hand-shape of strangers.
But we have no words to express our loss, no tools
to measure out the length of our leaving.
Fleeing before the war’s black howl,
we left behind language
words too heavy a burden to carry.
Destiny. Family. Fate.
These are the words that remain
when we find each other in foreign lands,
when we break open each word of our language
to share, to savor, to set free.
We open our throats and language,
like birds, bursts from our lips, words
exploding across city streets, brief
as the violence of gunfire.
The audience was still. As if one great collective breath had been punched from our diaphragm, we sat—a little breathless—with faces turned to Os. Simply, Sundaralingam is a master of the visceral when it comes to her writing technique. We see her explosions, we hear the gunfire of her past. Moreover, her work especially serves to connect us again to worlds we may have (intentionally) forgotten. Sundaralingam document the effects of war on her people in a way that unapologetically requires the audience to re-live these fragmented traumas.
This poem alone made it quite clear Sundaralingam’s link to her Sri Lankian heritage and homeland is of critical importance to her. However, in the crowning final moments of her reading, she read excerpts from Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (for which she served as co-editor). Though the audience didn’t appear to be quite as engaged with the works from other authors, the choice to display this work in particular was still a powerful statement. To hold for her homeland the sort of dedication that permeates beyond a single work and into a collective career was a humbling force to see in action. Ultimately, it can be said that to experience Sundaralingam’s work and unique voice is to unfold her life story–enrapturing her audience in an undiscovered world that deconstructs both the nostalgic and the transcendental.