[TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault, victim-blaming]
This performance by Pages Matam at the Washington DC Beltway Poetry Slam at the 2013 National Poetry Slam is incredible. Click through for my thoughts and the full text of the poem.
This performance is especially relevant to me after having just attending the University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center Survivor Speak Out (an organization for which I volunteer). It was a night dedicated to creating a safe space for survivors of sexualized violence (including stalking, interpersonal and domestic violence, childhood abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault) to speak and share their stories. Part of the reason this type of violence is so stigmatized is because of the culture of silence that we impose of survivors because of things like victim-blaming and shaming, which Pages Matam explores in “Piñata”. He starts off by recounting an overheard snippet of a conversation (To the man on the bus I overheard tell a woman in conversation—presumably a friend: “you are too ugly to be raped…”). The audience audibly groans and gasps at this line, but this kind of thinking, that sexual assault is somehow a compliment or about sexual attraction (when it’s really about power and control) is fundamental to rape culture.
Amongst the personal stories of childhood abuse and examples like Elizabeth Fritzl, Matam includes the “Vietnam prostitute” (referring to camptown women and how American military and colonial occupation feeds human trafficking), which I think is so powerful. The connection between what neo-colonial superpowers like the United States, the “western world” more generally and sexualized and racialized violence is so important and not often discussed with more homogenous feminist groups. He implies that the matrix of oppression and violence that is patriarchy that uses sexualized violence as a tool to assert and maintain power by destroying weakness (which is associated with femininity) is also the one that upholds neocolonialism. As someone born and raised in the United States but also occupying a somewhat liminal racial space as an Asian American woman, I find myself very conflicted about even buying into the American project considering the heavy vein of neoliberalism and neocolonialism on which the country relies.
I am so drawn to a couple of lines towards the end of the poem where, even though in the written text it reads, “A murmur of bodies left vacant/by the souls that spend years, pills, poems, and death/trying to learn to reclaim them”, in performing, Matam repeats over and over “years”, “pills”, and “poems” to express just how long and tiring the process of healing and reclaiming oneself can take. The raw emotion there hits me so hard.
UPDATE: Check out Pages Matam’s follow-up story and post about the poem and that conversation he overheard.
The full text:
After Tina Mion’s “Pinata” painting
To the man on the bus I overheard tell a woman in conversation – presumably a friend:
“you are too ugly to be raped…”
…Dear man on the bus,
Tell the one in five women of this country, that they are beautiful,
their four counterparts, spared torment ugly.
Tell the one in three women of this world,
That you will not make piñatas of their bodies.
Watch morsels of them, spill greedily
to the famished smiles of your ignorance
Shaped like bloodthirsty children. How your words
Hit repeatedly, until they broke open
Like shattered papier-mache cradle
How their blood flowed like candy until Hollowed insides
Jaws mangled into misfortune from when they tried to scream
For their Legs torn into a crucifix
Loud cry of eyes muted
Tell them how beautiful their silence is.
…Dear man on the bus
From smothering cat-calls,
to quickened pace of trek home
Rape with a dress on.
Rape without a dress on.
Raped as children, who couldn’t even dress themselves.
Tell them how ugly their consent was.
Tell the depression, the post traumatic stress
The unreported. Tell Mahmudiyah,
A footnote in the history of crimson Iraqi sands
How beautiful the military’s silence is
Cloaked in how we don’t ask, and they
didnt tell, in the name of country.
Tell Elizabeth Fritzl
How pretty the flame of her skin was,
that turned her Father a torturous moth of incest
’til she gave birth to 7 choices she never had
…Dear man on the bus
Tell my 11th grade student, Lauren
That she wanted it, her beauty had them coming.
Tell my 7th grade student, Mickayla
That she wanted it, her beauty had him coming.
Tell my 3rd grade student, Andre
That he wanted it, his beauty had him coming.
Tell the 8 year old me,
The God in me I loved fiercely was so gorgeous,
that cousin twice my age,
wanted to molest the Holy out of me,
until I was as ugly as she was.
Rape is a coward hiding its face in the make-up of silence.
A murderous fruit, that grows best in the shadows of taboo.
A Vietnam prostitute with red white and blue skin,
A murmur of bodies left vacant
by the souls that spend years, pills, poems, and death
trying to learn to reclaim them.
…Dear nameless assailant
How this bus carries the burden of your stick and blindfold Patriarchy
that has only taught you to treat women like ceiling strung jugs
Violence claws up from your throat,
Like a monstrous accomplice to the 97 percent
that will never see jail
…Dear man on the bus
As these words fall out of your mouth,
I pray no one finds your children beautiful enough
to break open, making a decorative silent spectacle out of them.