Nabina Das (translator), Alam Khorshed (curator), Arise out of the Lock: 50 Bangladeshi Women Poets in English, Balestier Press, 2022. 176 pgs.
Arise Out of the Lock is a poetry collection by fifty Bangladeshi women poets, curated by Alam Khorshed and translated from Bangla into English by Nabina Das. With a deep affinity for nature and Bangladeshi culture—alongside references to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Animism, Tantrism and other practices—Arise Out of the Lock presents voices that flow with the force of a river as they whisper, poke, prod, and scream. This is a collection that challenged me to derive my own meaning from the works, while simultaneously considering the historical and modern Bangladeshi contexts that inspired these poems.
Above all, these poems are thoughtful in the way they paint a multi-faceted view of Bangladeshi women’s experiences.
There is the drunken passion of summer romance. There is humour that winds around the cognitive dissonance of growing up—of turning from carefree child into guarded commodity. There is love and destruction, next to political, social, and economic upheaval. There is deep disappointment in an inability to participate in politics due to gender. There is grief, trauma, and death. There is desire. There is melancholy and the weight of living in a patriarchal world that was not created with female freedom in mind. And much more.
The poems in Arise Out of the Lock are presented in order of poets’ births, beginning with the title work by Sufia Kamal (1911-1999) and ending with two poems by Shweta Shatabdi Esh (b. 1992). Moreover, the collection itself is split into three sections—“Arise Out of the Lock”, “Let There Be Some Anger”, and “What a Woman’s Got to Do in Heaven”. I could see efforts were made to have the first few poems of each section tie back to the section title; however, the further I read, the significance of the divisions became less clear to me, as the themes of the poetry seemed to mesh and mix among one another, regardless of assigned section.
I wondered if the choice to create three sections was a call-back to the way Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan had once been one country and then later split. If the birth year of the first poet of each section was a reference to important years in Bangladesh history—1911, 1957, and 1970. If it was an allusion to the popularised three stages of a woman’s life: maiden, mother, crone—or as I’d like to think of it, matriarch. If it was just a practical way to split up the collection evenly, though perhaps not as the last section was noticeably longer. These possibilities, minus the last one, were all things that seemed to speak to themes within the collection. In the end, I wondered if the fact that I found it difficult to understand what guiding principle determined these section breaks was the whole point. That is, life defies easy categorisation, and the real work is to break down the artificial boxes we have been placed into.
Next, in my view, a good translation ultimately accomplishes several feats at once. Firstly, it is accessible enough to foreign audiences that they have something to latch onto, even as they are plunged into unfamiliar waters. Secondly, it retains some of the flavour and cadences of the original text, indicating to the audience that they are traversing a particular landscape. Direct translations might be sacrificed for the greater good, that is, meaning, intent, rhythm, sound, etc. And oftentimes, as original meanings are lost, new meanings are created. Happily, I felt that the poems of Arise Out of the Lock did all of these things (at least as far as I could tell). Subsequently, I had a wonderful time navigating the ways in which the translation of Bangla terms and grammar into English created unfamiliar phrases that invoked powerful imagery.
In her Translator’s Note, Nabina Das mentions that if she and the people behind this anthology were to do more, they could “search out the LGBTQ voices (so hard to locate in a milieu where they’re considered a taboo), and also include poets from Bangladesh’s indigenous communities…” I appreciate that she acknowledged the limitations of this grand project, and I would be delighted to see a second anthology that did include these voices.
Undoubtedly, being well-versed in Bangladesh history and culture would vastly enrich the reader’s experience, however, lacking such a background should not deter one from picking up Arise Out of the Lock. This is a collection that has been curated and translated with the utmost care, and it is definitely worth several reads. As Sadaf Saaz puts it so eloquently in the foreword:
… the creative spaces in Bangladesh, especially in poetry, have been largely dominated by men. Dipping into this book will be like the delicious potential discovery of a treasure trove of work by women who bring out varied aspects of the collective Bangladeshi experience.—Sadaf Saaz
How to cite: Phu, Sharyn. “Arise Out of the Lock: On Resistance, Connection, and Enchantment.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 16 Sept. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/09/16/arise/
Sharyn Phu is a Yale-China Fellow and Visiting Tutor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has written for Synergy: The Journal for Contemporary Asian Studies, The Yale Literary Review, and Vietcetera. She received her BA in East Asian Studies from Yale University.