Coconut. Brown on the outside and white on the inside. A term that has been hurled at me by South Asian brown folks who think I’m not brown enough, not South Asian or Sikh/Punjabi enough, and who, when they meet me in person, ask, “Have you been to India?” Coconut, a bold title for Canadian National Slam Champion Nisha Patel’s debut poetry collection. For some of us, Patel is speaking to our South Asian teenage hearts. The poems “even the punjabi girls wouldn’t play with me” and in “on the day priyanka chopra and nick jonas get engaged” give a sense of how relationships are not just about race but about loving your queer self and saying no to any marriage proposals. The heteronormative expectations take a toll on the queer brown femmes, and the poem “baby, be the life of the party,” a coming-of-age poem of a young queer brown person growing up in the prairies, is painfully accurate, if I do say so myself.
The opening poem, “fat girl tweets about pussy,” sets the tone—a millennial fierceness with a sense of loneliness waving underneath. The poems “how I chose to remember it” and “what is a country” offer a sense of longing and loss. The rhythm in “grief” cements that Patel is a spoken-word poet; when you strip away fierceness, the grief pours out: “I admit that nowadays, I fall into your absence like there is nowhere else I’d rather be but following you.” Patel’s debut collection demands voice and demands that the reader speak these words out loud.
Political poems offset the coming-of-age poems. Patel does not hold back. “justin trudeau has nothing to wear on diversity day” is a humorous punch to the gut—I mean to everyone who has participated in “diversity day dress-up.” I burst out laughing at “justin thinks they sound nothing like yoga class.” Patel’s witty commentary on cultural appropriation is in opposition to her poem “dear jason kenney,” which is a reminder of collective rage within young South Asian communities. Patel offers us: “empire was/ built on a foundation of my people’s broke backs,/ when I say my people,/ I mean everyone who is done with mourning quietly/ in the shadows of a white politician.”
With the political poems I am reminded of how the shift in power is slowly moving towards women who are not afraid to express their rage. Something about living in Alberta makes everyone political; Patel, based in Edmonton, intersects race and politics in a way that is both humorous and stinging. But of course you don’t have to live in Alberta to identify with Patel’s poems.
—Sharanpal Ruprai is the author of two poetry collections.