Feminsting Reads: Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Lambda Literary Award-winning writer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Bodymap, published this summer by Mawenzi House, returns often to the word “home.” Home is a meeting of body and map,
tattooed on Piepzna-Samarasinha’s breastplate and charted throughout the work in sensory memories, corporeal trauma, physical pleasures.  “You’re going to find the people you can sketch the secret inside the world with. If you can’t find them you can sketch the secret inside of your world inside yourself,” she writes. She sometimes sketches ‘the secret inside of world’ with lovers, and we’re lucky enough to get to listen to the lyric she finds: “Just dissolve into the deliciousness of lying down with someone else who knew what it was like to always lie down.”

The co-founder of the touring performance group Mangos with Chili, and an artist with Sins Invalid, Piepzna-Samarasinha is also the rare kind of poet whose every line comes to life with insistent emotional vitality, as though she was standing right in front of you performing, speaking, describing, naming what so often goes unnamed. This month, the voice from her poems came to life in the garden of a Bed-Stuy café. She sat down with me to talk about queer femme of color and working class poetics, the disability justice community, the triggers in writing her forthcoming memoir, and being the most kickass community scholar ever. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

You talk about having “advance degrees in how to listen” in the Bodymap’s acknowledgements. What kind of voices were you listening to while writing? Who were your influences, your companions, your ideal readers?

I think the primary people I was writing for and to were the disability justice community – the community of genius sick and disabled queer and trans people of color. Who have, of course, been organizing and surviving since people have existed, but the phrase ‘disability justice” was created by Patricia Berne, Leroy Moore, Mia Mingus and Sebastian Margaret, who were Black and Brown and poor white, queer and trans disabled revolutionary organizers and artists in a collective called the Disability Justice Collective that came together in the mid-2000s to try to create a disability movement that wasn’t just a single issue, white disabled folks movement, but that held the beauty and struggle and story of our disabled queer Black and Brown bodies.

One thing I’ve said a lot on the tour I just did for Bodymap is that I’ve been disabled since 1998, but it took me til 2008 to find queer, disabled communities of color, and it took til this–my fourth book–for me to write about disability.  Coming up in queer and trans communities of color where of course there were hell of disabled and sick folks but we mostly didn’t talk about disability or ableism, I held this belief for so long that my disabled, sick and crazy stories wouldn’t be sexy or accepted or palatable if I shared them–they were just these secret, boring, insert-ableist-word-here stories.  This comes out of the ableism of the world and our communities, and also out of the thing that I think many of us who were QTPOC artists in the 90s and 2000s knew, which was that so many of us know the experience of being worried that your poems were too queer or trans for the POC open mic and too “unintelligibly” Black or Brown for the mostly white queer or trans space. So how the hell would you write about disability?

The book has a beautiful movement—from an invocation of muses in your first poem, to diaspora, to chronicling lost and found loves, to exploring the pain of the body and its joys, to a mediation on family. What was your process for putting it together?

I always crack up a little at this question. For me, mostly the process of writing a book is, you write a lot of poems on the subway and on your phone when you’re in the bathroom, and you look up a couple years later and are like, hey, there’s 40-50 poems, that’s enough for a book. And then you figure out how many of them are actually good enough to get put into print forever. But what is also true for me is that with every book, the themes of my life for the past few years emerge–and in this one, it was disability, healing sex and love as a queer femme of color survivor of violence, and long term healing from abuse, reckoning with my family of origin and making new family. I start with two poems–one about queer of color diaspora, being an immigrant who has and is pushed out of multiple homes because of gentrification and global capital, and one that is a love poem to Worcester, MA, the rust belt city I grew up in, naming her as a hard femme. I wanted to start with land, and move into body.  The sections that follow–the next is documenting the real deal of several transformative loverships I’ve had over the past couple of years, because I really want more documentation of the true life adventure stories of queer, femme of color, survivors of sexual abuse and how we, I, relearn to have sex.

And then there’s the crip section right after. I wanted these sections to overlap and wanted them to be next to each other. I wanted there to be a place that was specifically about disability, and for there also to be disability and survivorhood throughout the book, not ghettoized or walled off in its little unit away from the rest of the book.

With “hard girls,” which is the fourth section, I wanted to have a section that blatantly and unapologetically focused on femmeness, specifically femme of color bodies, lives, sexuality, lovers.  Femmes have kicked ass in the past decade and through time to organize and build and write, but there’s still so much assumption that queerness equals masculinity. I wanted to have a hard femme of color poetics.

Finally, with the last section I wanted to land the book in a place that explores where I’m at and have come to hitting year 20 of healing from childhood sexual abuse.  I wanted to meditate on my family and intergenerational legacies of trauma, and how the way I see my family has changed over time.  Not from the Christian idea of forgiveness that’s pushed on a lot of survivors of violence, but I did want to capture the place of accountability, compassion and witness I have for my family, as survivors of violence who also caused harm.

bodymapIn the section “crip world,” you focus on disability. And in the poem “Dirty River Girl” you map the sick body onto the landscape of industrial pollution in your hometown, showing the relations between corporate and corporeal contamination. You ask “What it would take for a river that polluted/ to be loved?/ What would it take for us to know our bodies beautiful?/To wash them clean?/ Nah—not washed clean.”

I love this moment because it’s almost as though you’re thinking out loud on the page—listening to a normative idea of purity out loud, and then thinking us against it. The poem ends on a moment of self-love, and surrender. How does ableism and what you call “internalized ableism” affect your artistic process and how do you see your work as thinking against those modes of ableist thought?

I think one of the three million dollar disabled questions is that one of, am I really disabled? Can I claim that? Almost every sick and disabled person I know has gone through that struggle–no matter how “visible” or not our disabilities are. One way ableism plays out is that the ableist world tells us that disability is a private concern, a private medical/health condition–not that we are a hugely diverse people with our own histories, cultures, movements, internal struggles. When we don’t know that, and when the white capitalist colonialist able bodied cispatriarchy tells us that our bodies are either perfect/good and ablebodied, or disabled, broken and useless unless they can be molded into an able bodied norm, it’s really hard for many of us to claim the d-word as something that gives us power.

These are disability justice stories. I can’t tell the story without telling all of it- the rust belt water, the abuse, the queer community, the survival, the jerking off for pain control.

There’s something straightforward and raw and sensual in the scenes of sex, consent, and touching you orchestrate in your poems. I was wondering to what extent that was deliberate, or a way of taking ownership of a space in literature that is so often male, straight, cis-gendered, etc.  

In terms of my process, nothing I do isn’t on purpose. And when I first starting writing, there were hardly any poems about sex in my first book: it was all about 9/11, racism, immigration, death, abuse- documenting the hard, erased stuff. Around the time my first book came out a decade ago, I was studying with Suheir Hammad, who has done so much to document Palestinian survival and life and also oppression and trauma, but who also writes some amazing love and sex poems, and I was like, uh, I feel like a dork but I wanna learn how to write about love like you do! It kinda started there.

I think a lot about archiving and queer of color memory and I think that our love stories and our sex stories are some of the most important stories we have. Especially with the rising of homonormativity, I think it is really important to write down how we love and fuck “in the fullness of our difference,” as Jewish femme writer Joan Nestle said.

I wrote “Sometimes, if you fuck me really good, I will write you a poem” when my collective house, The Shark Pit, got evicted by the tech boom in summer 2012 in Oakland. I was living on couches and trying frantically to find affordable housing which all of a sudden was hard.  That poem is of two disabled broke queer folks having sex in the car. Class and race and displacement is in the center of that poem and at the center of the sex.

I think with queer folks there’s pressure to have to have sex that’s flawless, where no one is ever triggered or awkward or gets scared.  I wanted to write about survivor sex that is really hot, and also awkward, filled with memory, complicated.

What kinds of reactions do you get from friends and lovers who show up in your poems?

As somebody who writes from my personal history, community and reality, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the ethics about writing about people. I believe our community stories need to be documented, and that they are sacred and I also don’t want to cause harm. Staceyann Chin said to a friend in a writing workshop something like, if your family is worried about how you write about them, they should’ve treated you better. I hear that, and I also think thinking about motivation is really important. I want to write with the desire to heal myself and my communities by telling some truths. But truth and healing are complicated creatures. Where I’ve landed for now is: I believe that everyone has a right to tell their own story.  Folks in my life have the right to tell their story about me, even if I might disagree with it. I’ve made mistakes and fucked up along the way, but I stay with that belief.

Your memoir Dirty River is coming out from Arsenal Pulp Press this fall. And your poems are often autobiographical. What were the differences between writing a prose memoir and writing a lyric or prose poem? How do the two interact? Was there a difference between choosing material for a poem as opposed to for the book?

I’m really proud of the working class poetics in my writing. Marge Piercy said that one part of her working class aesthetics as a poet is that a lot of the events happen in really short period of time–there’s not a lot of working class books where one flower blooms and dies. It’s more like documentation of all the crazy shit happening all the time. So, in terms of poetry versus memoir, it takes a lot to write a book of poetry but poems are short and you can write them on the bus. It’s a more class accessible artform in terms of time. Writing a 300-page memoir, it’s a lot harder to do that on the bus. It takes time, and that’s part of why it took me ten years to finish it.

I never really thought of myself going there—to write something other than poetry—until I had a friend say to me: you tell stories you’re a storyteller. And then I was like, oh yeah. I think there’s a lot of people who grew up in spoken word and slam in the ‘90s in my generation who hit a moment where we said, “Are the stories we want to tell that are longer than 3 minutes?” Writing it was one big trigger. I had to write about some of the most difficult of things of my life.

A lot of us the things that we most need to learn as queer writers of colors aren’t taught in MFA schools.  Like, no one talks about what the emotional techniques are that you need to learn to hold yourself when you’re writing some of the most difficult parts of your life.  That writing is spiritual and dangerous, that you can pray and set up an altar and ask your ancestors for help before you write. I had to learn this as I went. I also went to grad school to buy time to write because there was no way I could finish a book while teaching Asian Arts Freedom School, working at the eviction hotline, etc, but then I had to really decolonize my mind from some of what I learned during grad school after I got out—like that narratives had to have this linear framework, have a hero, have everything accounted for. Our lives aren’t accounted for. I am so grateful to Gloria Anzaldua, who I return to over and over, whose biomythographic work showed me that it was okay to jump around in time, because as QTPOC all our ancestors are present- everything is happening at the same time.


Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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