Claire Albrecht Reviews Manisha Anjali’s Sugar Kane Woman

By | 22 February 2019

There is definite resentment, however, towards the ‘translucent ppl’ who ‘sweep up the dead’ (‘tape recorded bird sounds’); towards the 42 skin-lightening creams listed in ‘sun god whiteface part I.’; towards the ‘two kaiviti sisters’ who insist that ‘my child don’t marry indian / they treat you like a slave’. Anjali’s celebration of her identity rejects any notion of ‘less-than’ or ‘not-white-enough’ – of being something foreign, to be gawked at. She writes, ’give me one dollar / & you can take my photo’ (‘beach waif’). These poems don’t feel accusatory, though, or closed off from a white audience. There is rather an attempt to make the reader understand the often frustrated and embittered responses from Anjali and the sugar kane women.

The collection shines in the intimate familial moments shared between the poet and reader, which capture something beyond gender and culture. In works like ‘the mountain that grows on her back’, Anjali takes time and stretches it between her hands, as her feet melt into the flesh of her grandmother:

reptile kava skin
snake & cross tattoo.
my heels dig in to her wing bones circa 1912.
salmonish starch cotton sari in coconut sweat
i moonwalk across her crooked spinal chord
she hums an anti-indenture folk song.
when the earth shakes & seawater fills our tin home
i’ll be safe high up on the mountain that grows on her back.
beta, will you cry for me when I die?
all sugar kane women want to die.

The generational contrast between the ‘moonwalk’ and the ‘anti-indenture folk song’ tells the reader more about the differences between these personae than the age marker itself.

So, too, is the reader ‘folded in’ during more tactile moments of physicality:

I fold myself in half & in half again
I fold myself in half & in half again
on yr lovely lovely floorboards

little black frogs jump out of my heart & into yr kava bowl (‘moon lolo/sun fish’)

By the end of the collection, we are experiencing the sensory hallucinations as though we had taken the bowl of kava ourselves. Anjali has succeeded in creating a rich world of her memories and stories, and pulls the reader through whispering, ‘Come, let me show you’, only to turn her back to us at the close with the crashing and crushing declaration that all of it – the flower, the moon, the shark, the god – is ‘fake’. Is Anjali here questioning her memories, her experiences, her feelings—or those of her generational characters—in the haze of the kava and the years that have passed, or is it a commentary on the erasure of history by colonisers and white patriarchy? The last line, ‘the exile is fake’, reminds us of the underlying politics of these poems and the history of the women in its pages. If the exile is fake, Fiji is home—or is nothing at all.

In the end, we rely on the possibility that the duality of woman and the snake, the decay of the marigolds, are all as fake and real as each other. This sugar kane world is a contradiction, full of both life and death in unequal measures.

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