Solidarity, Motherhood and Immigration: Poet Divya Victor Shares Her South Asian Experience

“Solidarity is the truth that historical debts never get paid in full. As an immigrant, I am standing on the shoulders of Black and Asian American civil rights leaders. … I feel morally and intellectually called to constantly honor this.”

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“Filling out immigration and citizenship documents and forms was the first kind of collaborative writing we did as a family,” said poet Divya Victor. “If you’re sitting around the dining table, hands smelling like curds and pickle, and you’re writing the forms out, what does that mean? What does it mean that this is when we collaborate on a literary activity?” (Courtesy)

Born into a Tamil, Catholic family, poet Divya Victor spent her childhood in India, her teen years in Singapore, and now lives and works in the United States.

Her latest poetry collection, Curb, is an unflinching exploration of the inequities that suffuse modern American life. Focusing specifically on the South Asian community, Victor’s book examines both the racism and xenophobia that threaten the sanctity of South Asian lives, as well as the anti-Black, racist, casteist attitudes that stand in the way of South Asian liberation.

Together, we discussed immigration, solidarity, motherhood and the importance of discomfort.


Mathangi Subramanian: Curb is framed around four hate crimes perpetrated against South Asians in the United States. Why did you choose this framing?

Divya Victor: Every time the news of a hate crime popped up on my newsfeed, or an uncle or a cousin would be like, “Did you hear about this?” my entire nervous system would flare up. There would be this heightened attention, this alertness. I started noticing a rhythm in my attention: first panic, then anger, then fear. And, since attention is a kind of affection, I started asking myself: Is this how, under Trump, I will love my kith? Is this how I will belong to strangers who are like family?  

When you ask how I chose these cases, I think, really, they chose me.

Subramanian: Given the wave of anti-Asian violence we’re currently experiencing, the framing feels eerily prescient.

Victor: The attention to anti-Asian violence is now heightened, but this history is more than 200 years old. It’s a history that’s congealed around anti-Asian and anti-immigration policy that goes back to Benjamin Franklin’s suspicion of Germans, it’s a history that’s now bleeding out of anti-Black violence. I learned so much from Cathy Park Hong’s ‘Minor Feelings‘ and Erika Lee’s ‘America For Americans‘ about how this aspect of national character shapes our identities as Black, or white, or Asian.


“The attention to anti-Asian violence is now heightened, but this history is more than 200 years old.”


Subramanian: Actually, solidarity is another thread that runs strongly through this work. What does solidarity mean to you, and how does it show up in your work?

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Curb by Divya Victor.

Victor: For me, solidarity is the truth that historical debts never get paid in full. As an immigrant, I am standing on the shoulders of Black and Asian American civil rights leaders. There’s no way the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 would have passed without the radical Black intellectual and activist work of that decade. It’s a debt that I cannot repay. I feel morally and intellectually called to constantly honor this in my poetics. Vijay Prashad’s work has taught me a great deal about this.

And then there’s the moral work of acknowledging anti-blackness in South Asian communities. I frequently experienced it as misogyny, [as people saying] “So and so is beautiful, but she’s dark.” Growing up in India, I wasn’t aware of the anti-Blackness at the heart of colorism. Moving to Singapore and coming to the United States, I saw how transatlantic slavery and Asian indenture are historical foundations for perpetuating misogyny, colorism, and Brahminical supremacy. Solidarity is a kind of activated kinship—a relation that’s already written into the insecurities and securities that frame our lives.

Subramanian: Related to kinship, I loved the way you treated motherhood in this collection. What role did motherhood play in your writing process?

Victor: I was very reluctant to write about motherhood, because the rules, models and images of motherhood that I inherited didn’t match how I was living it.

I experienced motherhood as a kind of emergency. It started with an emergency C section and it didn’t stop being an emergency—which is another kind of alertness. I became alert to the many ways in which I remained foreign, even as I was delivering an American in a foreign land.

Our child, Zameen, was born in Singapore, and my identification was “foreign mother.” I was in Singapore on a work visa, but I used to be a citizen there too! My attention to the alienation of motherhood became one way of coping with how the nation interrupts even birth. And I realized that alienation is not inherent; alienation has legal and bureaucratic sources that I needed to observe. This brought me into writing through the dead language of bureaucracy because I knew how to enliven it as a mother. And that’s why the poems about inter-racial parenting and birthing are also about geopolitical control, and fabricated national borders.

Subramanian: Let’s talk about enlivening dead language. Several poems in this collection are modeled on immigration forms, which employ the “dead language of bureaucracy.” What was your goal in using this poetic form?

Victor: Since I was 11 or so, the nation state has been trying to flatten me into a paper person. The United States has an ontological obsession with defining people by paper. That’s why ‘undocumented’ or ‘legal’ become identities here.

Filling out immigration and citizenship documents and forms was the first kind of collaborative writing we did as a family. I began to think of it as a kind of literary enterprise. If you’re sitting around the dining table, hands smelling like curds and pickle, and you’re writing the forms out, what does that mean? What does it mean that this is when we collaborate on a literary activity?

As a poet, I’m also a paper worker. How, then, do I disobey the rules inscribed into these immigration forms? How do I distinguish myself from being somebody who is merely filling a certain form? How can I rise from the flattening that the nation state has imposed upon me, as a “documented” subject?

Subramanian: I have to say, as someone with loved ones going through the immigration process now, the intimacy of these poems made me cry.

Victor: I was writing the “Petition for Alien Relative” section during the pandemic, and I was missing seeing kith everywhere I traveled—in airports, in bodegas, in gas stations. I missed seeing the recognition that we would share for a fraction of a second.

For me, rising from the flattening was the act of writing our names again and again into the placeholders. It’s a metaphor that felt like a coffin. We arrive in some ways already dead, because as immigrants, we are known by the administration only through our utility, which is a kind of death. Curb imagines the lives that are still throbbing, pulsating, while hidden behind these papers.


“We arrive in some ways already dead, because as immigrants, we are known by the administration only through our utility, which is a kind of death. Curb imagines the lives that are still throbbing, pulsating, while hidden behind these papers.”


Subramanian: Speaking of moments of recognition, I loved the set of poems about encounters with South Asian Uber drivers. What inspired these poems?

Victor: Pre-pandemic, I traveled all the time for work. I noticed moments of levity and relief with Uber rides with drivers who had South Asian origins. Most of the conversations were unremarkable, but sometimes, we’d have a conversation about family or the immigration process, or this instant, even fatherly form of concern that emerged in a transactional relationship.  I’d get an Uber or a taxi with a Punjabi uncle, and I’d exit feeling so much more like myself. Even if the conversation was about ordinary things, even if the conversation was about them not being happy with the thing that their daughter’s doing in college. I would still feel more grounded than I did in the meeting I’d come from, or the meeting I was going to.

I wanted to take the feeling that emerged in these exchanges seriously. Poetry is a way of acknowledging the small moments of magnetic affection between people who have no real foundation other than all the assumptions, the projections, and the (very real) fantasies of belonging that we call ‘identity.’

Subramanian: One poem that particularly resonated with me was “Curb 6,” which is about casteism and anti-blackness among South Asians. Can you talk about what this poem is about, and what inspired it?

Victor: “Curb 6” notices a historical pattern: South Asians have used aspirational whiteness to guarantee or claim their presence in the United States. Our quest for citizenship, over the last century and a half, has been wrapped up with aspirational whiteness.

Even now, in some articulations of South Asian immigrant rights, I see a lingering trace of, “We have a right to be here, we demand to be here.” But I’m more interested in how we can acknowledge our position as guests here, as people who benefit from settler colonial logics that continuously displace and disenfranchise indigenous Americans. How do we acknowledge that? And, in our quest for complex representation, how do we also call into question anti-Blackness and casteism that’s rife across media representation of South Asian life?

I wanted my book to contain the complicated experience of an “us” who do not acquiesce to the model minority myth and who have a great deal of power to build coalition towards collective liberation.

Subramanian: Coming from a Brahmin family, the casteism you described forced me to confront my privilege, which I appreciated—even if it was uncomfortable.

Victor: Poetry should make people uncomfortable. And I hope that the discomfort of those who are used to being comfortable is a kind of pedagogy. Poetry can be a stage upon which those who are used to being comfortable learn what it’s like to be uncomfortable. Let it be a rehearsal space for them to figure it out. And from this discomfort, let a deep compassion for experiences unknown to us can emerge.

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About

Mathangi Subramanian is an award winning writer, author and educator. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Quartz, The Hindu, The Wire, The Indian Express, Skipping Stones, Thinkling and the Seal Press anthology Click! When We Knew We Were Feminists, among others, and she has received a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholarship, a Jacob Javits Fellowship and an Office of Policy and Research Fellowship from Columbia Teachers College, where she completed her doctorate in communications and education in 2010. In 2016, she won the South Asia Book Award for her novel Dear Mrs. Naidu. Her latest book, A People’s History of Heaven was published in March 2019 by Algonquin Books.