Gas, Food, and No Lodging by Devi Laskar (Finishing Line Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Leonora Simonovis
The term “interculturality” has been widely used in pedagogic and academic settings to contextualize the interactions between individuals from two or more cultures. Rather than speaking about others and their differences, an interculturally competent individual seeks to establish a dialogue that acknowledges diversity and, at the same time, focuses on aspects that make communication possible and that enable an understanding of another person’s culture. In a world where borders are becoming increasingly porous, more and more writers address these exchanges in their work from a variety of perspectives, sometimes as observers, others as insiders. Such is the work of poets Erika Sanchez, Javier Zamora, Juan Felipe Herrera, Layli Longsoldier, Natalie Diaz, Sherman Alexie, Li-Young Lee or Jaswinder Bolina, to mention just a few.
Devi Laskar, author of the poetry chapbook Gas, Food & No Lodging, is one of those writers. She conveys the physicality of intercultural human experiences in each one of the book’s seventeen poems. The images portrayed invoke a sense of familiarity that can, at times, become uncomfortable truths that hit too close to home.
Laskar takes the reader on a road trip through the American imaginary and its landscapes: crowded streets and jammed freeways, fast food joints, family gatherings, and fairytales turned parodies. The diversity of characters and their ways of being represent a variety of emotions, from humor and irony, to anger, sadness, and loss. But this imaginary is not, in any way, homogeneous or traditional. The different voices and characters turn ordinary moments of everyday life into something we cannot take for granted. The author represents her own experience in the South, where her family was racially targeted. Thus the need for “Shape-shifting,”
Since I’m the unemployed poet who hasn’t
published in eight years my husband
says I have to find an accountant to help us save.
I wanted to write a sestina
and since there are five of us, I asked each one
for a word: Mine is collection.
Humorous and playful lines become a relatable factor for the reader. The richness and vividness of images bring us into a world in which “we begin/ to choose the moment of our emancipation/the first time we ride without training wheels.” Resistance and emancipation go hand in hand in this book, pushing the boundaries of language and culture and exploring the different ways of belonging. The characters in the poems give us a first row view of their lives, like the “red queen,” whose outfit is not so much a curiosity as her silence, broken only by “gum smacked like gunfire;” the “Aunt-By-Marriage” who represents the history of a family and a culture; or the brother that triggers a conversation about the food and the tenets of assimilation in a new country.
In some poems the voice recalls fairy tale figures such as the wicked stepmother, but without ties to a particular story. Instead, “How to Cackle Like a Wicked Stepmother” tells us what it takes, from the accessories she must have, to the castle, dungeon, and henchmen to go with it: “eye-shadow the color/of a bruise, lips too crimson to/be kissed, a castle with a working/dungeon.” Other fictional and mythical figures such as Persephone or Scheherazade are inserted into the contemporary reality of the poetic voice, turned into real people who go on dates and would trade anything to enjoy “Rollercoaster rides” or “caramel apples.” Their stories invite us to look twice at the things we think we know because they are not what they appear to be.
The title of the book suggests, through the negation at the end –No Lodging–, an absence that cannot be repaired, but that can be compensated through the exploration of the quotidian as other. The portrayal of Indian tradition and culture, the brokenness of trying to find one’s identity in a second language, the push pull of family affairs, are all themes that weave themselves into the heart of the book. The inner world of the characters inevitably become intertwined with the public arena, letting us know that disconnection can be breached through our words and actions. In this sense, language becomes an anchor against displacement and strangeness:
She’s one girl split open, spit tested
in a shouting match with the devil and better
angel of what she wants to say, what spills
from those blistered lips on a given day
The words that spill out of each and every poem speak from a blistered reality that has much to offer. The girl in the poem, in spite of her brokenness and the feeling of not belonging anywhere, is determined to move on with her life. Thus, Gas, Food & No Lodging constructs an array of intercultural connections and dialogues that enable the reader to reflect, not only on his/her own reality, but also that of other individuals who feel exiled in their own home country and whose lives have been up rooted by pain. Every word comes up short in representing what this means and yet, the brevity and power of the chapbook give the reader enough to pause and reconsider.