SJ Sindu’s Dominant Genes, winner of the 2020 Black River Chapbook Competition, centers on race, class, nationality, sexuality, and gender identity. Sindu’s second chapbook, Dominant Genes defies genres by combining elements of essay and poetry and impressing upon its readers that we are not one thing but many things, even many people, throughout our lives. Dominant Genes embraces the in-between spaces where art and identity thrive. The idea of inheritance is also centered in this collection, as denoted in its title, reflecting the poet-speaker’s textured relationship with racial, national, sexual, and gender identity.
Dominant Genes opens with “Birth Story,” situating readers squarely in the poet-speaker’s difficult relationship with her mother. The relationship is difficult mainly due to the speaker’s queer identity. “My mother, out of love, stitches up my heart,” begins the poem, but it quickly turns sinister. “While she’s at it, my mother stitches up my mouth, too, and turns her needle and thread to my brain.” Her mother is a source of comfort, helping heal the speaker’s broken heart, but her intentions, however pure, are misguided. While the speaker is suffering from the oppressions her various identities bring, the humane solution is not to silence her or alter her brain (as with electroshock therapy and other “interventions” that have been used against queer communities), but the opposite. Healing is found in the speaker embracing her myriad identities, but her mother seems to fear this embracing, as seen in her attempt to fix what she perceives as broken in her daughter: her sexuality, her womanness, and her brain chemistry. By stitching up the speaker’s mouth, she’s silencing her daughter and creating the representation of the woman she has been conditioned to want her daughter to be.
In “Draupadi Walks Alone at Night,” Sindu’s speaker states, “I come out to my mother three times. Each time she consoles me, sits by me while I cry, strokes my hair and tells me . . . I don’t have to be different. Bi, meaning two paths. One path lets me stay in their lives. The other sees me cast out. My mother tells me to choose.” By invoking Draupadi in the title, Sindu pulls in the complex and painful tale of the heroine of the Mahabharata. Perhaps the world’s first iteration of the virgin/whore paradigm, Draupadi was known for her beauty, intellect, and will, despite being forced to marry five brothers. Her beauty and wit become the root of her misery. Draupadi is misunderstood and mistreated by her family and her husbands, but that does not result in her losing her sense of self or her voice. Draupadi’s path is a lonely one. Like the story of Draupadi, Dominant Genes carries tension between the poet’s identities and her family’s lack of understanding. The last page reads,
my mother tells me
to write nice stories
to keep my serpent tongue caged
this is her wisdom
in this new world
my ancestral power
is to be feared.
The speaker ignores this request and chooses a celebration of her voice over alleviating her mother’s fears. This is the plight of the queer artist as well as the woman artist, told constantly to hold her tongue, to keep it “caged,” to better fit in the world. It is good that the poet-speaker ignores the mother’s request, choosing instead to tap into her “ancestral power,” her serpent tongue “a gift / from the women / of my family,” a direct contrast to the gendered mindset inherited from her grandmother in a piece titled “Girls from the Island.” The speaker is both embracing her matriarchal inheritance and rebelling against it, forming two separate halves that are working against each other. It is not clear which matriarchal inheritance will dominate as Sindu’s speakers both suffer from speech and lack thereof, further texturing the title, Dominant Genes. Which genes will lead to survival? Which inheritance will lead to pain and erasure? The answer, as provided by Sindu throughout the collection, is both, though the quality of survival and the weight of pain vary greatly.
This duality of womanness, for Sindu, is as present as parental figures’ fears, and crescendos tragically in “Banana Tree Wedding.” “The stars say I will be married twice,” so the family marries the speaker to a banana tree, hoping to trick fate. Being married twice is unacceptable, unwomanly, so the wedding is an act to try and satisfy the stars while preserving what they perceive as their daughter’s value. “In order to craft a wife who puts her husband first you have to convince her she’s not the seed in her own fruit,” writes Sindu in “To All My Suitors and the Aunties Who Send Them My Way.” The poem problematizes the notion of fate; it’s acceptable for a woman to take control of fate if it’s to secure a worthwhile husband, but as soon as a husband is gained, the bride must open her palms and give her fate to her husband.
In Dominant Genes, being a woman means being angry. The poems rebel against gender conformity. At one instance, readers find a speaker cutting off her hair, “hoping the courage” to defy cultural norms seeps through her scalp. There is no way to lose this rage, despite the speaker’s movement through identities, first as a lesbian, then as bisexual, which she denotes as “meaning co-existence, meaning contradiction, meaning war.” The poems are fighting an internal war as well as an external one, desperately trying to reconcile self, family, culture, and nationality. There is no relief in dropping queer identity either, for simply existing as a woman means being “an object, a prize to be won and a prize to be shared,” and rebelling against that notion also results in isolation. The anger inherent in this objectification becomes a source of healing, a way to “stitch” “two selves back together.”
In this chapbook, readers parallel the outsider’s perspective. “Gods in the Surf” positions the reader in immediate contrast to “American city friends” with their “innocent childhood / beach trips Florida vacations coconut sunscreen.” The speaker, in contrast, associates the beach with the “military planes” and “land mines” that marked the bloody and long Sri Lankan civil war. The poem closes with “if I heard a helicopter / I should sink my body into the ocean / and trust it to hold me.” Here, safety is not found with humanity or society, but in the rejection and absence of them, something the speaker’s American friends, with their “impractical swimsuits” likely to fall off during duress, don’t understand.
The power of women, specifically through speech, is threaded throughout the book and seen in the many attempts to silence Sindu’s speakers. “I drink my coffee to keep the anger down,” states the speaker in “Draupadi Walks Alone at Night.” “I’m full of bad questions,” we read later. In “Pant Hoot” a “man / visited my class” and taught the speaker to vocalize “like chimpanzees,” specifically, the rescued chimpanzees at Fauna Sanctuary, a rehabilitation center for chimps saved from American medical testing. The speaker takes on the speech of the survivors who have endured being poked, prodded, and “cut open” for the benefit of others. Like the women in these poems, the chimpanzees are wrestling with their trauma:
when they’re not ramming
shoulders into cage bars
or spinning themselves
in endless stress circles
the chimps laugh.
The speaker tells us, “surviving doesn’t always mean you’re healed.” Living in a world that is “cruel to women” sometimes means survival is the best that can be hoped for.
The chapbook attempts a reclamation of sexual and gender identity and cultural inheritance. “I twisted it again and turned myself on,” confesses the poem “To All My Suitors and the Aunties Who Send Them My Way.” Later, in “How to Survive a Pandemic,” we read
plastic cocks in a drawer
are so much better than a real one
how awful when it’s attached
and I just think masculinity is so much better
when you can boil it clean.
She meets her own needs on her own basis, skipping over her parents’ pleas for marriage and a family, choosing instead a simpler alternative, one that can be boiled “clean.” In the eponymous poem and the final poem of the chapbook, the speaker is controlling the narrative and gaining power over her mother:
is afraid of snakes
and as a child
was a favorite pastime
I ’d beg snake toys from relatives
and chase her
I ’d twist snakes
out of newspapers and old scarves
watching my mother
scream and run away.
Even in this childish action, there is a breaking from family norms and gaining liberty, but with that liberty comes isolation. “Her revulsion / was a sign of weakness / and I could feel like the strong one,” continues the speaker. “I’ve always had a serpent tongue.” Now the mother’s fears are toward her child, becoming inherently tied to identity:
When I told my mother
I wanted to be a writer
she said nothing
she didn’t have to
we come from a country
where writer means dead child.
It is only natural for the book to close on a reflection of Sindu’s various identities, including her identity as a writer. These poems wrestle with queer identities, sexual autonomy, inherited matriarchies, cultural and gender norms, and, throughout it all, the role of the poet to express, process, and heal. These poems don’t seem to have answers, not yet, though we know Sindu and her poet-speakers are going to keep writing, even if that means inflicting grief on a mother who “goes to sleep / every night thinking / dead child dead child dead child.”
Dominant Genes. By SJ Sindu. New York: Black Lawrence Press, 2022. 37 pp. $9.95.