Riverbend

There are hidden pieces of bone in my mother’s breath: she spat out fragments of history for her children to augur. The mystery of my childhood loomed in her silence: where am I from?
When my son will grow to know himself, what country will he call home when home is a
constant leaving?

 

this is where the river bends
the wind stole the laughter from my cheekbones
scattered it like ash across continents
who knew that when I left, my shadow would not follow?
who knew that my body contained so many borders?
lost languages forsaken for English syllables
even when a country spits you out
turns you into baggage never claimed
forgetting that you birthed nations
long before they destroyed them
carried the book of God in one hand
gun in another
raised children the way a country raises a flag
we offered songs to honour the dead
even when our countries spat us out

 

I came here when I was 18 with two suitcases and a draft date for the military. Leaving my homeland was complicated, painful. My older brother and I reunited and became legal guardians to our younger brother. We lived in a tiny apartment with no furniture and a crazy dog. The corridors smelt like wet sawdust. We found ourselves in the open, gaping mouth of the City. We ate dinner on the cold kitchen floor in our winter jackets. A decade later, I’m archiving these stories so that I can one day tell my son how much strength his mother and his grandmother and his great-grandmother had. More than anything, migration demands resilience.

 

the leaving came swiftly
I arrived while still drowning
I tried to flee a history that won’t goodbye
there will always be a swelling in my heart
that no passport could ever quell
home –
nights of praying
steeped deep in the knowledge that some journeys
you can never return from
nights of words whispered
steeped deep in the knowledge
that some relationships
you can never return to
nights of mourning
steeped deep in the knowledge
that even permanence is temporary
and when the time comes to leave
things will never be the same again

 

My mother left her homeland with two young kids to live in my father’s country. English got stuck in the back of her throat. After the divorce, she had three young mouths to feed, a hot temper and an endless stack of bills. Being alone in an unfamiliar country is like waging a war with no ammunition. She no longer has a home and lives in the landscape of memory, somewhere between now and
two decades ago. Who would she be today if home was a place she never left?

 

bring us your children, your pilgrims, your women
we’ll make a citizen out of you
bring nothing
solitude will be your companion
don’t speak of the way silence broke into you
scrubbed the mother tongue out of you
hung you out to dry like rusted metal
trade your gold teeth
your grandmother’s antiques
you last name
lay down your weapons
only your grief will pass through customs
no longer in the land that spat you out
this land
pregnant with promise
will swallow you whole
knuckles clenched, bones shivering
if you become lost in the loves you left behind
and all the colours of your childhood

 

My grandmother left her homeland with 3 young kids and a crowbar for a husband. She lived in an asbestos hut with no electricity and an outdoor toilet. There were snakes in the grass outside the hut. She worried that her children would get bitten while playing outside. It was my mother who ended up in hospital with poison traveling through her blood. My grandmother worked as a janitor, cleaning empty high schools. She eventually learned the language and became a teacher. She walked with grace, even while walking to the guillotine of a loveless marriage. She taught me that time is thin and unforgiving.

 

my grandparents left and never returned
my mother returned after 10 years
and was never the same again
loneliness in a new country
can turn you into a blank map
memory will flood you like the walls of Jericho
before love became a question of distance
and before distance became a question of survival
there were lips that burned from forbidden kisses
language that didn’t break your teeth
names with ten letters
the smell of jasmine in july
plumeria in august
the season of endless rain that reminds us
that everything returns to the sea

 

When people ask me where I’m from, it’s not a straightforward answer. I tell people I’m
A citizen here but I want to tell them I’m from colonized land and lost language. I want to tell them I’m from a boat that shipwrecked two thousand years ago off the Konkan Coast. I’m from an archaeology of oral tradition; a descendent of the ten lost tribes. There are reasons people leave their homelands that remain unnamed – I am from the shadows of those reasons. I’m also from so many new beginnings, if you hold this story up to the light, you’ll see refractions of your own story.

 


Lishai is writer and community animator with roots in diasporic oral tradition. She has spent a decade creating and facilitating arts-based programming in schools throughout Canada and has also worked extensively as a poetry coach with Toronto Public Health, The Toronto Public Library and Unity Charity. She has collaborated with countless artists including, co-founding Ink Veins: Young Women’s Writing Collective, co-authoring a graphic novel, Why Birds and Wolves Don’t Trade Stones and co-creating an album, From Here On. Most recently, her creative non-fiction was chosen as the winning piece for Malahat Review’s Open Season Awards. She is currently living in India with her family and writing her first novel.

“I chose to pursue a career as a storyteller because I trust that some stories need to be told, some stories heal and forgive and there are some places you can only travel to by gathering with community, sharing stories, and trusting that people will catch your words and hold them.” – Lishai

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