Light a candle tonight

A few years back, I wrote a poem in response to a 2006 CBC Radio Ideas show about Dalits or untouchables. (See Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry, Mother Tongue, 2008).

Mung Beans   (for Bujji Govinda)

A widow, she hitched a ride home from the market.
A fruit seller.
Two men in the cab of a truck. An old man on the bench in the back,
so she climbed in.

I would kill myself, she says, but what about my children?

The truck pulled over under a tree.
The driver and his companion told the other man to leave.
She knew then, she says, and she was afraid.
They spread her out on the hard bench
and did things to her for maybe an hour.

All rapes are the same, really, and each one is its own:
each man’s whiskers a different shade of hard
each man’s prick with its own insistent voice. One man’s knees
got sore and so they took her outside to the soft ground under the tree.
When they ran out of things to do they looked for other utensils.
That’s when she ran.

I pour mung beans into a jar and dust catches in the back of my throat.
I rinse the beans and pour the water down the drain
to find its way back outside into the ground.
The beans are not exactly round.
On one side there’s an umbilical scar: the hilum.
Just below its white indentation,
the radicle. This is the nub of the first root.
Nosing its way toward moisture, it splits the dark skin.

Washed and washed and washed again,
the bean meat swells. We eat the sprouts: the pale root,
the first leaves’ little flapping wings, and the dust from Bujji Govinda’s feet
running through the tangled vines. Mung beans, she says.
They tripped her and she fell.

She is a loose woman, the policemen say, to be hitching a ride like that
alone in the dark. What did she expect?
A Dalit.


When I heard about the young woman gang raped on a New Delhi bus and subsequently dying, I felt the despair many of us feel when we’ve been thinking and writing about these issues for many years. When I read about the Italian priest who wrote that women are partially responsible for domestic violence because they don’t cook and clean well enough and wear tight clothes, well, I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.

So I did both, and sat down to write. By doing so, writers can only hope that our work, in some way, shines a light into these dark places. Two recent examples illustrate this.

Upon first reading, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Selector of Souls, a novel about Indian women struggling to find a way out of domestic violence and the impunity given to men who prey on the vulnerable and marginalized, seemed more fantasy that reality. But seeing the response to the young woman’s rape – the calls for systemic change both in attitudes and in the justice system – we can hope that Baldwin is just one of the lights shining in that darkness, helping make transformation possible.

Set in the 1980s, The Round House by Louise Erdrich highlights the similar ways in which First Nations women have been targeted for abuse and the lack of zeal in the search for the perpetrators. Wally Oppal’s report from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry presented the evidence for this in Canada in distressing detail, but an earlier work by Maggie de Vries, Missing Sarah, that tells the story of her sister’s path to the downtown eastside of Vancouver and Willy Pickton’s farm, challenges our attitudes in a way that empowers us. And one thing you can be sure of, reports of missing women are not treated in the same cavalier attitude today.

Like many of us, these women are writing in what often feels like darkness. But, as Amnesty International says, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Light one tonight.

National Day of Remembrance and Action Against Violence Against Women

I returned two books to the library yesterday; The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon and The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin.  At first glance you’d think the books couldn’t be more different. Lyon’s story of Aristotle’s daughter Pythias, set in ancient Greece just after the death of Alexander the Great, is written with her usual spare style  – clear direct sentences, simple telling details, gaps in the narrative that often reveal more than the narrative itself. Baldwin’s epic story of two Hindu women – one seeking escape in the Catholic church, the other with one braceleted arm reaching out to the Sikh community – is twice as long and stuffed with description, characters, scenery and almost all the issues of twenty-first century India: domestic violence, the killing of infant girls, abortion rights, religious strife, AIDS, Hindu nationalism, test bombs, and terrorism.

But they are both stories of women struggling to find a way to live their own lives in a time and place that refuses to see past the fact of their femaleness and subsequently shuts down most options. When they either lose or leave the patriarchy that both supports and oppresses them, they try on different guises to determine which suits them best. Or rather, which guise allows them to be themselves. They are all women of great resourcefulness and courage. They are both books worth reading.

In a Globe and Mail article, Annabel Lyon wrote: “Sometimes it seems there are only two veins in ancient storytelling left to be mined: the parodic and the morally righteous. We enjoy clever anachronism or historical revisionism….We also enjoy the sensation of moral superiority we gain by looking back at less enlightened times. Weren’t women treated horribly back then! Wasn’t that outrageous!”

The same can be said of stories we read about countries like India. We lament the injustice and feel at least a twinge of righteousness. But on December 6, we would do well to swallow that feeling. On that day in 1989, 14 women were killed at the École Polytechnique in Montreal:

  • Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
  • Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
  • Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
  • Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk
  • Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
  • Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
  • Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

Marc Lépine killed them he said, because they were women. He did not know his victims. But most assaults against women are carried out by men they do know. In fact, one or more women are killed every week in Canada by their husbands, boyfriends or former partners.

There is a pivotal scene in Baldwin’s novel where the women of the community bring a female god out of her cave and insist their husbands listen to what she has to say. Because the women have united across caste and religious divisions, they are able to reveal that the men are often as oppressed by community expectations as the women are. Entrenched traditions begin to shift.

Our efforts to change thinking around gender roles and around domestic violence are continuing; stories like Lyon’s and Baldwin’s are welcome additions to this discussion.