Interview conducted by Meggie Royer, PD Founder & Editor-in-Chief
1. If you could give any piece of advice to other young women of color who are trying to balance the struggles of work, sexism, racism, school, and life in general, what would it be?
Take care. Take care of yourself. Take care of your ideas. Take care of your body. Take care of your people, your family, your friends, your lovers. Take care of your heart. Take care of your mind. If this sounds like a cop-out, like some flowery language, I want you to know that I mean this with tremendous sincerity. People have written countless essays about how womanhood is inherently defined by pain. There are so many scholarly journals describing the visceral effects of racism, how it physically hurts us. Life is so hard. Life is so, so hard. Last night, when I should have been answering these questions, I was, instead, sobbing in the shower. The past few weeks have been so unbearably lonely, so sad. But I’m so protective of my joy. I love the sound of my own laughter, loud and sharp and unapologetic. I want that for you too. That no matter what happens, no matter how heavy and small your heart feels, that you are always struck by the beauty and power of your happiness – no matter how brief, no matter how fleeting. Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like your happiness is inconsequential. No matter what happens, always believe that you will feel good again.
2. How has your identity as a woman informed your poetry?
My womanhood is such an integral part of my identity. Every single thing I do is impacted by my womanhood, the way I think, the way I talk, the way I write. I know writers frequently talk about how much they hate reading what they write. But, when I write something powerful, something I truly believe in, I love to reread it. I love my writer’s voice. You know how when you walk past a mirror, you have to fight that narcissistic instinct to look at your reflection? That’s me – for so much, for everything. I’m not sorry about this. I like the way I look. I like the way I write. I am comfortable being me. I write like a woman because I am a woman. I write like a brown person because I am a brown person. I can’t think of being any other way. I don’t want to be any other way.
3. What is your favorite, most empowering quote for when you feel too small for the world?
This issue of Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column has given me unbelievable comfort, during the best and worst times.
4. How do you think the relationship between art and trauma functions?
I think art can heal trauma and I think art can expose trauma. Art can be soothing, like a balm for the soul, but it can also be violent and triggering. When something bad happens, it’s like a live wire, almost always buzzing. Yes, sometimes things like that can motivate art. But sometimes, it hurts to look at that part of ourselves. It hurts to remember. Maybe it will always hurt to remember. That’s okay. That’s a part of life. Art can be beautiful without being so intensely vulnerable. I hate the idea of people slicing at the same deep wounds because they’re trying to create meaningful art. As if that makes the pain worth it. Trauma isn’t worth it. It isn’t worth internet fame. It isn’t worth a popular chapbook. But at its best, art can heal. Art can serve as a reminder that our pain is real. That these things really happen. Art can invoke empathy and thoughtfulness from an audience. It is such a simple, such a powerful way to reveal our shared humanity. It can affect change.
5. How has poetry changed you as a person? How do you want your own poetry to affect and change others?
I wrote my first poem on the day of my father’s funeral. I was eight years old. At that time, my grief felt like it was drowning me. All I wanted was to stay afloat. I wanted to be sad, but I also wanted to feel like I had some degree of control on my life. Poetry helped. I couldn’t talk to anyone really. None of my friends understood. Writing things down, creating things, made it easier to understand my pain. It was easier to move through it. Poetry has made me a more resilient and adaptive person. When things are hard, when it feels like every day is measured by hurt and pain, I reread some of my favorite poems. I think about how other people have dealt with loss and pain. I feel less alone, reading about how someone else has described their own hurt. I want my work to do that for readers. Our lives, that feel so personal and unique, are mirroring so many other lives. It is such a powerful thing, to believe that none of us are alone in our suffering. That we are connected to each other, sharing experiences with people we may never meet. It doesn’t matter. I know you. You know me. We’ve read the same things. We’ve felt the same things.
Yena Sharma Purmasir is a 23 year old poet and author from New York City. Her first book of poetry, Until I Learned What It Meant, was published by Where Are You Press in 2013. She recently graduated from Swarthmore College. Yena was the Queens Teen Poet Laureate for the 2010-2011 academic year. In 2014, she was the recipient of the Chuck James Literary Prize from Swarthmore College’s Black Cultural Center.