Dear Mama: An Immigrant’s Secret Cry by Dr. Shailja Sharma: A Review

Candice Louisa Daquin 

The way to analyze and appreciate this short book of poetry on the reality of being an immigrant, is to consider how anyone who is not an immigrant, will find it very challenging to understand the depth of nuance behind this experience. As an immigrant myself, I was immediately (and with exceptional bias) drawn into this well-crafted depiction from Dr. Shailja Sharma. Such honest writing lends itself to the medium of poetry exquisitely. Where else can we just let go and express our deepest grievances and perturbed souls?

Above all, this is a brave collection. I say brave because many immigrants will never have the opportunity to publish a tell-all book but of those who could, few do. When we immigrate, we are urged to leave behind our former lives and who we were for so many years, and transform to become part of a melting pot. There is a strange shame attached to speaking of the past, as if it implies a weakness of character, which of course, is absurd. Ironically Dr. Shailja Sharma and myself both immigrated to Texas, a state that is filled with immigrants but has at its heart, a long list of expectations for its citizens. Often immigrants to Texas find they are unwanted, ostracized or just ill at ease. Alternatively, most end up thriving and being accepted. It is this odd juxtaposition of experience that is difficult to summarize or make sense of. How can you at once keenly miss your old life, whilst being embraced in a new one? How can you feel like an outsider, at the same time that you connect? 

Even if you see / Me, you cannot feel me / Because my extent goes / Beyond where your sight ends / The real me starts there.” (I am the Destination). 

It’s the discord of trying to inhabit two worlds, which many immigrants do, either through language, trope, culture or memories. Poetry is the ideal stage for such wanderings and moreover, poetry evokes that duality of emotion and the everyday. Being an immigrant isn’t a singular experience, it varies immensely from person to person. Some immigrate without choice, or even against their will, having no other recourse. Others dream of immigrating their entire life, only to be disappointed with their new reality. For some, immigration is a huge improvement of their lot, whilst for others, not so much. Within this, there are a multitude of cultural considerations, but one thing all immigrants share is a longing for what they have left behind. Even if you immigrate with your entire family, you lose something of the person you were before. This may be welcomed, or not, but it’s a part of you nonetheless. 

To live in a country that you didn’t perhaps go to school in, or form your earliest memories in, means you often feel like an outsider to some degree. Yes, there are many ways of fitting in, but fitting in is a conscious act, something you have to persuade yourself to do, rather than a natural state. Immigrants know even if they are not told by others, who observe their different customs, languages, accents, fashions, behaviors etc., that they are not quite the same. This can cause a self-consciousness that is hard to explain to someone who has never felt it. Yet we can sit next to someone on a plane, who is bringing saris to the US for their sister, and without many words being exchanged, what emotions are attached to the act. An act that cannot be replicated by purchasing candies from your childhood on Amazon. A palpable, living, breathing yearning that only those within it, can fully translate.

Even now, many years later, I find myself unable to be quite at ease in some social settings where Americans talk about American things like Superbowl and Prom. I find myself wanting to say something that would be culturally appropriate to my culture, or laugh and make a joke that nobody at the table would ‘get’ because they didn’t grow up with me. Our children’s books differ. Our fashions. Our moral compass, everything is culturally distinct even in the age of social media. What a white sock means to you is different to what it means to me. It’s those hidden nuances that mean everything. They breed familiarity, they speak of belonging. It might be a form of transformation, where you are at the same time, yourself and yet changed. Dr. Shailja Sharma instinctively knows this as a poet, but also as an immigrant; her work reflects the dichotomous existence of immigrants throughout the world, piercing the idea we just shrug off who we were and climb comfortably into new clothes. 

The brutal among us may decry this and say ‘get over it!’ Because perhaps there are greater hardships. But do not discount the sense of isolation, loss, and strangeness that accompanies becoming an immigrant. At once, you are labeled, categorized, expectations levied upon you. The physical distance of your former life and current life, stark and impossible to ignore. For all your achievements, you are not ‘home’ even if you build a new (home) there is a sense of something coming before that. You can impart this to your children, or embrace your new life in your new land, but essentially you will always be an immigrant in your heart and that brings with it a special and secret yearning. 

Dr. Shailja Sharma writes this out in emotive, reflective poetry, to remind us there is more going on beneath the surface of those you think you know. They carry secret burdens or just the ache of missing people who are not with them, and this is but one facet of what it means to be an immigrant. Sharma, being a polyglot, understands language doesn’t define a culture or individual but at the same time, language coupled with life, is life. I thought it no coincidence that both of us have worked in the mental health field, perhaps to reach out to others and quell their inner pain, because it is understood, in our own loss of identity and journey to remake it anew. 

“There used to be a wall / with a hook that anchored / my belongings. Some wet memories / have pickled over the years.” (The Rain). 

The exactitude of understanding body/race politics is portrayed in the poem From Dear Mama, and whilst I am mixed-race and understand it literally, my own fair skin means I don’t fully know what it’s like to go into a room as a physically brown person. This poem illustrates how immigrants have to contend with bigotry and prejudice of all kinds, not least toward skin-color, and how society is beginning to shift in the opposite direction at long, long last. It is a poem of love and embracing: 

“You can define your life, brown girl /  Your root has become stronger / Yet, you have no ceiling on the top / You are deep in the Earth / And spreading beyond the sky / No matter what you choose / To do or to be / You can leave a mark / Strong, unique, and remarkable Just by being / Brown girl, your time has come / In the world of black and white / Your color will come soft and bridge the extremes / Your color will be your grace and your pride / Hold it tight / Smile, because brown is in fashion now / And your mama is smiling for you.” (From Dear Mama).

The metaphor in the poem Special Things Are Costly shows Sharma’s insight into humanity is one of her greatest strengths as a writer. Simultaneously, she recognizes the cost of transaction, between human beings and uses this as a potent metaphor for the immigrant experience: “There is a charge every time / You run a transaction to buy a bit of you.” These are palpable words of the immigrant experience, but can be related to so many others, including people of color, women, anyone who has lost a sense of themselves in the world that seeks to absorb them. 

I was deeply moved by the poem My Street. In my estimate, this kind of poem is almost a mantra of the immigrant experience, it says everything in so few succinct words:

“Time has travelled me far / beyond that street. I am tired. / But my childhood continues to / play over there. By itself. / On that street, where I grew up / and where I continue to grow / by mind’s extension.” 

I have often heard it said “well if you’re not happy immigrating here why don’t you go home?” This from people who have often never left the town of their birth. The complex reasons why someone immigrates, often means there is no ‘do over’: You can’t just retrace your footsteps. It is possible to make the best of a new world, whilst still harkening back to the old. It’s not that you are not giving it your all, or even embracing your new life, but that doesn’t dissolve the old. When non-immigrants understand this, as well as the immense sacrifice many immigrants make, then there will be less prejudice toward immigration as a whole. 

Yes, I read the positive, forward-focused poems on how Sharma learned to thrive in her new country. But what really stayed with me after reading Dear Mama, an Immigrants Secret Cry, were the poems on different aspects of loss, such as the poem Junkyard. The potency and thrust of truth in these palpable images of how immigrants can feel, is executed flawlessly. The way Sharma crafted this complex emotion left me tearful and glad to be reminded these emotions are not invalid or excessive, but as Sharma says, the ‘secret’ we who are immigrants, all carry:

“Cheaper / than childhood that gets traded / in daily transactions / of replacing the old / with the new.”

Remember the old saying; you can tell the worth of a society by how it treats its vulnerable? I think we should expand this to include ‘how it treats its immigrants’ – and it surprises me that countries like America and Canada can be so shabby in their treatment of immigrants, given they are founded upon immigration. I remember when I immigrated to Canada under a ‘Skilled Worker Visa,’ only to be told by employment agencies that I could work in Tim Horton’s (Canadian equivalent of Starbucks). I am not deriding a particular job, but it’s hardly the ‘Skilled Worker’ position granted me because of my education and professional attainment. 

It struck me as very odd that any country would seek skilled workers only to see Taxi drivers with PhD’s and hotel workers who were Doctors, en masse. We’re told as immigrants that this is the process and our children will benefit, even if we don’t. I don’t have children so I pushed hard for myself, but my point is: Is this how we should treat immigrants? Like they need to earn their rights once in a country, despite all the earning they’d done to get there in the first place? If we hired half the people we have in America and Canada today, who are qualified but not considered so, by obtuse international rule makers, we’d resolve the national shortage of; nurses, doctors, teachers, etc. I never understood these kinds of xenophobic policies and they do the opposite of bringing us together. With books like Dear Mama: An Immigrant’s Secret Cry and the diligent work of Dr. Shailja Sharma and people like her, I can see change coming. I say, bring it on. 

Dr. Shailja Sharma has succeeded in this little collective voice of poems, to evoke, and remind, all who have lost, of the generational depth of that loss and how much people and places matter. If we want to go about our lives pretending this is not so, that’s our choice. I prefer to join Sharma in her recollection, because this is what it means to be human, to love, to be proud of who we are and who we came from, to never forget our culture, our histories, our ‘home’ and what made us, us. 

“That was / my grandparents’ house / They were / more than a / gene-pool / I need that soothing / randomness back / because that is / where I truly belong / Even though the bubble / has burst / I can live on its / moisture.” (That House) 

5th April 2022

CANDICE LOUISA DAQUIN is an Egyptian/French Sephardi immigrant to America, working as a Psychotherapist and Editor. Daquin co-edited The Kail Project and SMITTEN, two award-winning poetry anthologies from Indian women poets and lesbian poets respectively. She worked in publishing for many years in Europe. Her latest book Tainted by the Same Counterfeit is due out September 2022 by Finishing Line Press. 

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