Facts of Life: Reflections on Ignorance and Intelligence is the result of Rehana Shamsi’s observations, experiences, and relationship to her former society. Many of the poems bring to the forefront the emotional and psychological trauma caused by men’s traditional dominance over women in majority of South Asian households. Women’s constant struggle to overcome suppression is a major theme covered in this collection of poetry.
In addition, Shamsi showcases her perspective on life in general. Through her captivating and incisive style, she explores joys and sorrows, challenges and choices, and ignorance and intelligence.
Heartfelt poems for those interested in Asian and migrant diasporas. We travel as the writer migrates from India to Pakistan to U.S. and to Canada. Through narration and imagination, Rehana tells us of the hopes, dreams, and trials of a refugee, migrant, child, and parent. We share her struggles with outdated traditions in Pakistan (Evenly Trapped) and her disability (When My Brain is Lost). We see the refugee camp where the “little girl survived among demons and friends” after her existence was impacted like “Katrina disheveled New Orleans” (Jewel of Freedom). We feel her moments of sorrow felt after loss of family (Faint Smile) and after the attack on her adopted city on 9/11 (Our Great Nation Stood Tall). A deep love of family is sewn throughout the narratives (My Family by My Side). It is a must-read in our current era where some would tell us that xenophobia can somehow “make things great again”. A wonderful work from a budding poet …Read It! (Disclosure….she is my aunt.)
I was contacted by the author’s son who asked if I would be willing to read his mother’s book of poetry and post a review of it on my blog.
With his request, he gave me a brief description of the book and the poems as well as a bit of his mother’s history.
Rehana Shamsi was born in India, but her family moved to Pakistan in 1947. The society she was born into is one where male dominance and male supremacy are a fact of life. Women have no rights. They start out life as a possession of their fathers and this “ownership” only ends when the woman is married.
However, even though their fathers no longer own them, this does not mean that they achieve freedom. No, the only difference is in who owns them – they become property of their new husband.
For those of us who grew up in Canada, this is difficult to fathom. I grew up with a family who prized education for all children – not just males.
In Rehana’s society, girls were not sent to school. “Gender disparity was the rule of society. Before marriage women were under the strict control of their fathers or elder brothers and after an arranged marriage, husbands were their absolute masters. Women were not allowed to make any decisions or leave home without their husbands’ permission.”
Luckily for her, Rehana’s family did not believe in gender inequality and Rehana was the first girl in her family to attend school. She was even afforded the same freedoms as her brothers. However, all around her she saw gender discrimination and was powerless to do anything about it. She saw young women forced into unwelcome and unwanted marriages with men often double or triple the bride’s age.
In her introduction, Rehana states “These poems focus on my relationship with my former society. I voice the nearly ineffable emotional trauma that South Asian women suffer under male sovereignty – the ignominy of extreme oppression.”
So, why did Rehana write and publish this book of poetry? She answers that question in her introduction.
“I have tried to bring these issues to the forefront and have juxtaposed some poems to make it clear that to unshackle ourselves from unfair restraints, women have to try audaciously to achieve their rightful place in society. In my writing, I want women to realize that suppression is not our destiny if we learn to stand up for ourselves.”
I sincerely hope that Rehana’s poetry reaches far and wide and that upon reading it, women (especially those currently living under the thumb of a man) recognize that they are NOT powerless and that they are not alone.
I may be a white Canadian woman of Irish descent who grew up in a middle-class household, but I care. I care about women’s rights in India, in Pakistan and elsewhere in the middle-east.
I say to those women – Look at Rehana. Read her poems. See that she understands your despair. Now, take courage from her words and do whatever you can to escape your current situation. You are not cattle. You are not a possession. You are a person worthy of happiness. You just need to reach out and grab it.
The poetry in this book is thought-provoking and full of emotion. Through her words you can feel Rehana’s passion for justice.
I rate FACTS OF LIFE: REFLECTIONS ON IGNORANCE AND INTELLIGENCE as 4 out of 5 Stars.
Rehana Shamsi’s poems provide an insight on life experiences and hardships, which are neatly captured with her simple, diverse and interesting concepts. Her words are well chosen to precisely reflect her emotions, and the book is a joy to read.
Poetry is a dangerous thing because it can make you feel the experiences you never had in your lifetime. And, that’s perhaps, defines beautiful poetry. When I started reading Rehana Shamsi’s collection of poems, “Facts of Life”, I never could imagine what was in store for me. I have a particular predilection for poetry; I love reading them, all types from every literary epoch. So, I was intrigued to lay my hands on “Facts of Life” when offered a chance to read and review the same and, I definitely have got more than what I expected.
Rehana Shamsi was born in undivided India, but her family moved to Pakistan after the partition of 1947. Later in life, she migrated further west and currently lives in Toronto, Canada. Her myriad experiences of life have made her poems a reflection of the society, culture and time she has gone through. Lined with personal emotions and feelings, her poems are like colourful graffiti of words.
There are 11 distinct categories in the book, namely, Awareness After Repression, Gender Disparity, Resurrection, Health, Migration, Family, Facts of Life, Old Age, Bereavement, Nine-Eleven andCuriosity and Others. All of the 96 poems are placed in a way so that the reader gets a feeling of reading them in chronological order. They denote the poet’s personal journey of life as well as the journey of the humankind with time. Except for a couple of them, all the poems are in free verse, unrhymed lines with no fixed metrical pattern, but together they produce an artistic tapestry.
Still, in South-Asian countries, women are much infantilized and have to subjugate to the male-dominated patriarchal form of society. Rehana has given a voice to those mute sufferings of millions of women deprived of education and are forced to live an ignominious life. She has neither raised a furore nor has spoken strongly in favour of neo-feminism. But her words serve as an inspiration to fill up the lacuna between wish and action. She has accentuated on the inner strength of women, the determination and the mental prowess that help her to win over her destiny.
To liberate her stretched-out existence,
the girl strove to learn the art of healing.
Moon smiled with its
morning dew invited her
to wash away blues,
glorious sun helped visualize
rainbow on the sky,
inebriated her soul,
assisted her beyond the mist.
(Excerpts from A Brave Little Girl)
The tone of optimism and positivity echo in these lines from “Golden Dreams”. This optimism is the very essence of her poems.
I was one hell of a dreamer
of sweet dreams
holding on silently
to precious thoughts,
for prized ambitions.
Watching drifts of wind,
I stood firm and waited
for barriers of confiscated choices
to be removed.
Poets often have romanticized the concept of love with wonderful metaphors or ornamental imageries. Rehana, without using a figurative language has succeeded in explaining love here in the poem, “Taj Mahal”.
love, like a coin,
contains two sides;
receiving and delivering
do not differ in
I constructed a Taj Mahal around me
without waiting for someone else
to begin building the monument of love.
The poem“Sacrificial Lamb” blew me away. Poverty compelled a family to hand over their fifteen-year-old girl to the landlord, who deflowers her. The soul and body of the girl got shattered and, in lieu, the family survived for the season.
It reminded me of the poem Hunger by the award-winning poet Jayanta Mahapatra. Both the poems are equally poignant, they reveal the naked truth, the way girls are used as commodities in the South-Asian countries.Rehana’s usage of figures of speech is worth mentioning. Like she says in the poem, “Sweaty Terror”,
Your crimson affection like furious rage,
leaves me trembling inside
as though I’ve escaped, narrowly,
from my own Pearl harbor.
The mere mention of Pearl Harbour brings at once in your mind a picture of wreckage and devastation and what the poet wants to convey here.
The egregious effect of the partition of India is portrayed in the poem, “Jewel of Freedom”. The after-effect of 9/11, the way it created an atmosphere of distrust, terror and confusion is brought out poignantly in the poem “Soy Milk and Chocolate Cookie”.
Rehana has not only handled the social issues with a élan but her poems on personal relationships, on her family and grandchildren, her parents and friends- will produce a lasting effect on the mind of the reader. Her wisdom has reflected itself in her words. Her words have created pictures effortlessly in her poems.
In a few poems, there is a verbiage of emotions with more than necessary words and analogies, but that is again, what we call poetic license. I would have been happier to read some more poems on nature (as I’ve a penchant for writing on Mother Nature).
I recommend “Facts of Life: Reflections on Ignorance and Intelligence” to everyone who loves poetry and who believes,"Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words." – Paul Engle
If you like poetry rich with history and love of family, you will enjoy these. Some poems are about the writer’s migration as a child during the India-Pakistan separation. They are about the challenges faced when growing up in a society where a women’s voice is often muted and power confined by societal norms. It also shows her voice expand but new challenges faced after she settles in New York then in Canada.
Touching poems of remembrance and hope! This is for those who want to learn about the Pakistani/Indian experience and it could certainly describe the experience of many migrants today as they travel from East to West.
“love begins life, awareness delivers power, forgiveness brings comfort.” – Facts of Life
About The Author
Rehana Shamsi was born in India, and grew up in Pakistan; where she graduated in Political Science and Urdu Literature. She moved to New York, United States in 1995, where she studied Nursing and English Literature. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada. Facts of Life is her first published collection of poems.
“Writing restores buried integrity and individuality.” – Facts of Life
Facts of Life is a collection of 96 poems written by the poet on every topic under the sun, essentially comprising of grave social issues around women in some South Asian countries. Ms. Shamsi was fortunate to be born in an educated and liberal family, however her peers did not share the same fate as her; these are her poetic reflection on their ignorance and intelligence. Her poems cover the severity of male influence on women in some cultures, lack of compassion in the world, struggles and survival of a migrant, and many other facets of our daily lives.
The 96 poems are categorically divided into 11 subcategories, extending from dominance, gender inequality, migration, health, family, distress of losing someone and even the devastating events of 9/11; thus plenty of subjects to choose from. The cover of the book is neat and sophisticated, keeping the focus on the content, which speaks for itself.
Because the poet was born in India and grew up in Pakistan at the time of the India-Pakistan partition in 1947, she has closely observed the culture of ‘male supremacy’ and its destructive effect on their women. Things have changed over the years, but this gives us an insight into the history of a culture where women lived in silence and ignorance. Women, even today, are victims of injustice and abuse in some parts of the world - Jean Sasson’s stories of women from Middle East, Malala Yousafzai’s anecdote are all testimony. This is her effort to reach out to women of those regions where this kind of sovereignty is practiced even today.
Through her poems she also manages to put light on sensitive issues of girl child, abusive arranged marriages, human trafficking and prostitution, and even child marriages, which is unfortunately not restricted to just one region, but other parts of the world too.
“Disturbed past – my history, comforting present – my victory, cheerful days – my serenity, peaceful nights – my ecstasy, pleasant future – my destiny.” – Facts of Life
Migration can be planned or involuntary, either way it brings with it bittersweet experiences. The poet moved to Pakistan after partition, and then later to United States; where she witnessed prejudice at various stages, before she was recognized as one of them. Her poem Jewel of Freedom and a few others tell of those occurrences. She beautifully voices some Facts of Life that enrich, and sometimes suffocate, our daily lives. Invest in Beautiful Thoughts and Soldier be at Peace, are two of my favorite poems from this category that is written in a matter-of-fact manner.
Poems in Facts of Life together shares the story of Ms. Rehana Shamsi, who witnessed first hand harsh reality of women in Asia and Middle East, struggles of migration, overcoming ailing emotions, bereavements of loved ones, and the support of family through all. It’s not just her story, but also that of all women around the world. Her poems have a depth that comforts you and encourages you to think of the world at large. The book offers a wide selection of themes that are both beautiful and true-to-life. The rich, simplistic and pragmatic poetries make this book a joy to read.
“Dust your sense of humor, And keep it handy within your reach.” – Facts of Life
Until next time Happy Reading!
Love & Peace