‐ Home of the Best in Caribbean & Black British Writing ‐

Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves

Written by Devon Campbell-Hall for WASAFIRI (Autumn 2004, Issue 43, Global Cinema) on no date provided

FEROZA JUSSAWALLA, Chiffon Saris, Tsar Publications, Toronto, 2003, 
ISBN 894770-13-7, Paperback, $16.95
RAMAN MUNDAIR, Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves, Peepal Tree Press, London, 2003, ISBN 1-900715-80-5, Paperback, £7.99

Review by Devon Campbell-Hall

Feroza Jussawalla and Raman Mundair grapple with the politics of the South Asian diaspora and the fractured experiences of migrants on both sides of the Atlantic in these recent volumes of poetry. Both explore their own identities in these pieces, using the sari as a signifier of memories. With precise language, they weave disparate images into a web linking their first-generation migrant selves with the land of their birth. Both contend with bleak, universal women’s issues: domestic violence, miscarriage, rape, and the agony of childlessness. Yet stylistically, these collections have little in common.

Raman Mundair’s début collection of poetry, Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves is best enjoyed directly from the page. This is gutsy writing; even the silent spaces in between words are emotionally raw. Hers is an insider’s view of otherness that begins in the womb:

Seeded in desperation
I blossomed secreted
in the folds
of my mother’s trousseau sari (p 11)

Mundair identifies herself as a ‘Punjabi Alice’, who, upon migration to Britain from India as a child ‘found no true reflection of herself [...] but mirrors which dissolved, shrank and obscured her size’. An early piece within the collection, ‘Name Journeys’, outlines the fractured existence she felt as a migrant child, 

travelling from South
to North, where the Punjabi in my mouth
became dislodged as milk teeth fell
and hit infertile English soil. (p 16)

There is nothing childlike in this collection, however, which would fit more comfortably into the category of ‘womanist’ than under the vague rubric of migrant literature. The cover photograph is of a dark-haired woman standing naked amongst a tangle of abandoned market stalls. She looks over her shoulder, as if to warn a younger self against the publishing industry’s tendency to exoticize and commodify the writings of British Asian women. 

Contending with issues such as domestic violence with unforgiving directness, Mundair makes no excuses for the chaos of her first-generation identity. There is a resigned maturity about her voice, yet she maintains an unexpected sense of wonder. No topic is sacred, and readers get the feeling that there are no literary taboos under the steady, piercing gaze of her language. These poems stand in defiant rejection of the ordinary, even when describing that most everyday of events in ‘The Red Chamber Revisited’; a scab Mundair cannot resist picking off to ‘let the wound weep’ (p 27). A clear metaphor for her own morbid fascination with the rawness of her own migrant experiences, I found this one of the most memorable pieces in the collection. 

I must confess that I have yet to recover from my first encounter with Raman Mundair and her luminous writing. At the 2003 ‘Midnight’s Extended Family’ celebrations at the Barbican, she read from Lovers to an audience transfixed as much by her presence as her use of language. She is a dangerous poet with a compassionate, unsentimental eye for truth. As an academic, performer and workshop facilitator, Mundair is an exceptionally talented young woman, and this collection would prove an outstanding resource for any student of diasporic or contemporary British literature. Scholars might expect a first volume of poetry to be loaded with overfamiliar metaphors, but this collection will not disappoint. 
Overall, although Chiffon Saris represents a significant contribution to the long line of Feroza Jussawalla’s published writing, I found Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves a more sastisfying read. I await Raman Mundair’s upcoming novel with greedy anticipation.

This is a review of Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves

View this book
‐ Home of the Best in Caribbean & Black British Writing ‐