Few journeys are ever single or simple. Whatever we leave behind often moves alongside us – whether as a source of harm, or healing. In ways that feel radical, and necessary, Sarala Estruch’s revelatory debut poetry collection, After All We Have Travelled, invites us to look with new eyes at the complexity of diaspora, and how the violences implicit in empire may impact successive generations. The poems also reflect strong energies that arise in speaking beyond the silencings of history – as Estruch does here, through fragmentation and uncertainty.
Published by Nine Arches, and edited with great thoughtfulness and care by Jane Commane, After All We Have Travelled is a collection which speaks additionally to me as someone who lost their father in childhood, as Sarala did. This is something about which Sarala and I have talked about briefly in person, and in more depth within the interview which follows this review. Because I feel that both her poems, and the themes she explores, will speak to many of us with multiple heritages or languages, and complex histories, in addition to reviewing her collection in this blog, I wanted to offer Sarala a space to talk about how about how the collection came together, and the thinking, and reading, and living which informs the poems.
Review of After All We Have Travelled by alice hiller:
After All We have Travelled’s prefatory poem, ‘On Sound’, notices how it remains at a “frequency / our ears // cannot touch/ but // the body / hears”. In the speaker’s history, this reverberation is true of the separation before she was born (at the insistence of his family), of her Indian father and European mother. ‘Starting from a Dream, 1983’ observes the speaker’s pregnant “mother-to-be” waking at night in a separate room, in his family’s home. By day the family appear “as though they are // already / watching her leave”. At the close of the poem the speaker’s unborn self rises up into an act of self-claiming that fuses separate perspectives into a voice that is simultaneously scattered, and whole:
All too soon, the “single star” of the speaker’s father has been extinguished by his early death. Elegising his gifts to her, and honouring the inarticulacy of childhood bereavement, ‘the things that remain’ is made up of fourteen tiny couplets, laid out as seven pairs, with a central dividing space running between them. Enacting smallness, the worn objects hold a potent residue of love alongside the grief through which they have been cherished:
Speaking to a theme to which Will Harris, Sarah Howe, L.Kiew, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Nina Mingya Powles and others respond, this second section also documents the complexity of growing up of mixed cultural heritage, and the fragmentations and dispossessions of self that can ensue. In ‘Freight’, these include “believing people/ were praising the whiteness/ in me when they called // me ‘pretty’.” Set alongside this is the confusion of travelling alone to India to meet the plethora of loving relatives who nonetheless chose to be strangers during her father’s lifetime. ‘Home/Home’ begins “It is hard to feel Indian when this country is as unknown to you/ as you are to her.”
Like a tide flowing back, from the midpoint, the poems shift towards reclamation as the speaker understands what she has lived without, and becomes more able to heal. ‘how to talk about loss’ reflects “for // decades i’ve been a river-bed/ bereft ~ not a drop of// what i was made to hold ~ ”. Responding, ‘To leap’ is one in a sequence of passionately alive love poems encompassing an energy of deep regeneration. Opening with an epigraph from Toni Morrison, ‘I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.’ this honours “pitching your strength/ at every atom that has pressed// you down & soaring”, then ultimately “learning to live// with doubt, learning to rise in it;/ learning to love like that.”
The collection closes with multiple reintegrations. Arriving at “Indira Gandhi International Airport” in ‘Return’, the speaker and her Jamaican husband are told by the immigration officer that their children are “universal.” ‘Dear Father’ records a sense of homecoming in India when the grandfather, who originally refused her and her mother, now welcomes her husband and children, making her lost father also present again with them: “These rooms pulse with you, motes/ of thought and feeling still in motion.”
Three powerful poems directly address the harm resulting from the British Empire. ‘The Residency, Lucknow’, documents “crumbling walls pierced with exit wounds.” ‘Vaisakhi, Vaisakhi’ contrasts the speaker’s family observance of the Spring Festival in 2019 with the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, when the British Army killed somewhere between 400 and 1500 of the people who had gathered peacefully in Amritsar to celebrate, wounding many more. ‘Grandfather Speaks (Via Audio Recording)’ documents how the family dispossession of their home, in the Punjab during Partition, remains unspeakable by him even in the present day:
The final poem, ‘Ghazal:Say/ After Will Harris’, centres around a memory of the speaker running to meet her father in a “garden”, and cutting her knee. Her spilt blood is both historical fact, and a metaphor for the redemptive interpersonal transactions that occur through the reactions of art-making and art-sharing, and the energies that they confer on those who create and receive them. In a way that encapsulates both personal experience and the reverberations of history, the speaker realises: “All I know is you’ve been gone these long years and, at the same time, you haven’t,/ you’ve been right here.” The collection ends with loss and connection inseparable from each other, remembering a father and daughter who have moved beyond fixed time into the resonant indeterminacy of art and memory:
Interview between Sarala Estruch and alice hiller
alice: We both started out trying to write novels – then found our projects translating themselves into poems. I found the wildcards, and subconscious dark woods of poetry helped hold spaces in bird of winter that simultaneously required, and denied, language. What led you into poetry from prose, Sarala, and how did writing in this form help you realise After All We Have Travelled?
Sarala: Yes, ever since my late teens, I had been wanting to write about my parents’ story – how they met, loved, and separated. I kept trying to find ways into writing it. For years, I thought the book would be a sort of historical novel set in London in the 1970s and early 80s (where my parents met and then lived together for several years). Then, in 2016, after reading Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, I tried to write the story as an experimental novel or a hybrid work of prose/poetry, but eventually realised that what interested me most – where the energy really resided – was in the poetry.
I came to see that I was less interested in narrative progression and more interested in language, specifically language’s ability and inability to explore the complexities of human psychology and emotion. Saying that, narrative is still important to me, and, in some ways, my collection could be described as a novel-in-verse, but the experience of feeling and thinking beyond the ordinary day-to-day parameters is more important, if that makes sense.
And yes, as you’ve said, poetry is a place where it is possible to attempt to speak about things for which ordinary language doesn’t suffice – inexplicable loss, complicated and prolonged grief, devastating personal, communal and/or intergenerational trauma. Poetry helps us in our attempts to articulate that which cannot be articulated, to create a language (or a non-language) of the unspeakable.
alice: That’s such a beautiful and thoughtful answer. I love the idea of the ‘language (or a non-language)! Following in that train, during your launch with Nine Arches Press, you referred to the voices of the poems in After All We Have Travelled as coming from their ‘speakers’, rather than necessarily articulating your single experience. I see my poems as speaking through and with me, but coming from a larger hinterland. Would you be able to say something about how your poems are voiced?
Sarala: I think when I insist that the voices in After All We Have Travelled are those of ‘speakers’, I am trying to draw attention to the fact that, while I have drawn on personal experience and family history, these poems are not purely works of autobiography or biography. The poems are works of invention and craft; throughout the writing of AAWHT, factual accuracy was less important to me than emotional and imaginative truth.
In addition, a huge source of inspiration for my work, beyond my personal experience, is the work of other poets. The poems in AAWHT were created in conversation with the works of writers including Bhanu Kapil, Marie Howe, Emily Berry, Sarah Howe, Sandeep Parmar, Kayo Chingonyi, Ocean Vuong, Will Harris, and many others.
alice: Those are all poets whose work has also been crucial to me in different ways. Some of them, like you and I, also operate in more than one language. ‘Bouchon’, meaning stopper, explores your work’s relationship to language, and to the blockages which also shape it, but moves beyond them towards a space of freedom and speaking. The poem ends ‘There are no stoppers –’ How has this journey come about in your own work and life as an artist?
Sarala: These are all such excellent questions – thanks so much for your care and attention to the work, alice. I think, in terms of ‘Bouchon’, the poem is speaking about how language can get in the way of experiencing things, how language can sometimes ‘stopper’ the world by making us see things in a habitual way, rather than allowing us to experience things afresh, as children do, without language. This poem is about having a complicated relationship with language, fearing how language can ‘hold things down. Its false claim / to ownership’ (which, of course, can also refer to the colonial impulse of ‘naming’ that which is ‘unknown’, but which may already have a name). I think this poem is about embracing the joy of not knowing; how there can be real joy in being in a place where you don’t have the language to describe the things around you, which takes you back to experiencing the world in a sensory, pre-verbal way. I suppose, in my work, I am interested in exploring ‘the nameless / things, a poet spends her life chasing and / never quite arriving at’. It’s a way of accepting that we can’t know or control everything; that it’s OK to ‘just be’ – this is also a form of belonging. You don’t need to know everything in order to belong.
This was a new way, for me, of writing about unknowing, which is a strong theme of the book and of my life, if I’m honest. There is a lot about my family history and about my parent’s countries and cultures that I don’t know and that I often feel shut out or apart from, since both my mother and father immigrated to England before I was born (from France and India, respectively) and, also, as a result of the difficult, painful things that families avoid speaking about and which are enveloped in shame, such as my paternal relatives preventing my parents from marrying and being together. However, in this poem, the speaker is embracing the state of ‘unknowing’, how it can be a fertile and joyful ground to stand on.
Of course, another important theme of the book (and one that is even more significant in my pamphlet Say), is the journey of moving from being unable to speak (about trauma, childhood bereavement, and complicated grief) to finally finding a language and the courage to be able to voice these experiences and emotional states, so yes, that is also another possible reading of the poem – thank you.
alice: Developing what you say here, poems including ‘The Residency, Lucknow’, ‘Vaisakhi, Vaisakhi’ and ‘Grandfather Speaks (via Audio Recording)’ address the ingrowing silences and shames that living beyond catastrophic loss may precipitate for some individuals, and considers the ways that art-making can offer spaces of communication, as well as commemoration and witness, which confer agency on both creator and recipient. Was that something which was important to you?
Sarala: Yes, very much so – thank you for putting it so beautifully. Attempts at communication and connection are central to my work, as are attempts to create poetry of commemoration and witness. Trauma is carried in the body and passed down through generations, so speaking about and sharing our experiences of trauma, in a safe way and in a safe environment, can create space for reparation and healing, which is so important – otherwise we become stuck in cycles of suffering.
Thank you for everything you’ve said here, particularly about the poems’ attempts to confer agency on both creator and recipient – this is such a vital component of the work.
alice: It is a collection which means a lot to me Sarala. I feel changed by reading it, which was part of why I wanted to share my response to the poems and ask you more about them. In reviewing After All We Have Travelled, I was strongly drawn to your experiments with form, and the freedoms these gave you, which of course generate agency for both reader and writer. Would you like to say something about this space of deep play, perhaps with reference to ‘Camera Lucida/ After Roland Barthes’?
Sarala: Yes, I consciously wanted to include a wide variety of forms in this collection, having been inspired by Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, in this regard – Howe’s use of multiple poetic forms really highlights and illustrates the points she is making about the instabilities and multiple possibilities of language/meaning, and also in terms of shaking up the English canon and creating a space where multiple poetic forms (originating from various countries and cultures), languages, cultural myths and histories can sit side-by-side and be enriched by one another. Howe’s work also creates a fruitful space to think about the many possibilities inherent in cross-cultural and mixed-race relationships, and mixed-race identities. I was drawing on all of this while writing AAWHT.
It was also, as you say, a space for deep play – a liberating and (mostly) joyful (although, of course, at times highly challenging) experience to write these poems in the forms they asked to be in.
‘Camera Lucida’ was strongly inspired by Barthes’ eponymous text on photography and mourning. The poem began because I had a memory of seeing a photograph in my father’s photo album which carried a lot of significance to me. I told Sarah Howe (who worked with me as a mentor on these poems) I wanted to write about this photograph but I wasn’t sure how. She suggested that I read Camera Lucida. As soon as I began to read Barthes’ text, I very quickly felt the urge to replace the word ‘photography’ with the word ‘father’ or ‘lost father’. Barthes seemed to be, from the very start, speaking directly to my experience of losing a parent, while, at the same time, speaking very intelligently about photography. I, therefore, played with Barthes’ words and incorporated many of them into the poem (the words in italics are direct quotations lifted from Camera Lucida) – so this poem is, in part, a found-poem.
Early drafts of the poem included several parts, which were short and fragmentary, like discrete photographs. Then my editor at Nine Arches Press, Jane Commane, had the wonderful idea of drawing faint boxes around the separate parts of the poem, so that they would visually appear to be photographs in a photo album. In addition, I asked Jane to typeset the poem so that ‘the photographs’ slowly fade over the course of the poem, so that the final ‘photograph’ is only faintly visible, evoking how memory (like photographs) fades over time. At least, that is my reading of the poem. I am open to other interpretations; I don’t think an author has absolute authority over the meaning of their work, and, in fact, there is often a lot in a work which the author does not know is there, since it is as a result of the work of the unconscious mind.
alice: I agree very strongly with what you say about the role of the unconscious mind in generating and shaping the work we make. Continuing with the theme of the deep experiences which inform our beings, I wondered if we might think alongside each other about early childhood bereavement, which I touch on in my review also, and is something my own work addresses. One of the most moving and profound journeys of After All We Have Travelled is towards finding forms of words to hold this succession of losses, which travel alongside a child as they grow towards adulthood and find their parent is absent also from the new places that are opening in their lives. Could you say something about the process of creative reclamation which your collection performs, and the sense of nurturing presence it generates?
Sarala: Wow, alice, I can’t quite express how very grateful I am for your careful, close reading of AAWHT and what the work is trying to do.
Yes, the central journey of the collection is the process of moving through life as a child who lost a parent, then as an adult and, finally, as a parent oneself, and all of the different and cumulative losses of growing up and living without a parent throughout the various stages of one’s life. However, as the closing poem ‘Ghazal: Say’ suggests, even while the person who was bereaved in childhood has keenly felt the loss of their parent throughout their life, they have also, at the same time, keenly felt their parent’s presence: ‘All I know is you’ve been gone these long years and, at the same time you haven’t, / you’ve been right here’.
The creative reclamation of After All We Have Travelled is the acknowledgement and expression of what bereaved persons know to be true: when you lose someone important to you, at whatever stage of your life, the person never fully leaves you; they are still always here, with you, within you – in your mind and in your heart. They are always present in your life, just as the loss of that person is also, simultaneously, always present. Expressing this perplexing, contradictory, and yet strangely beautiful truth gave me much solace, and I hope that readers of these poems will find a similar solace.
alice: I personally felt that beautifully realised, complex, tender solace Sarala, and it is one of the many elements of your work that I wanted to bring to others. Finally, and to close, can I thank you again for the gift of your poems, and ask what you are working on now, and where we may hear you read from After All We Have Travelled in the months to come?
Sarala: Yes, I am currently working towards a second collection of poetry, as well as a work of creative non-fiction. Both continue to explore and develop themes of identity, (un)belonging, and loss, which are so central to AAWHT, although in new and different ways.
In terms of readings: I am reading at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival Lounge (online) on Tuesday 27 June, at Ledbury Poetry Festival on 1 July (with Stephanie Sy-Quia), and at Deal Music and Arts Festival on Saturday 8 July (with Jessica Mookherjee). I am also teaching an online poetry workshop on writing poems about memory and family history for Verve Poetry Festival on 18 July.