Aruni Wijesinghe’s 2 Revere Place
Aruni Wijesinghe’s 2 Revere Place is a collection about the home where the poet spent her early childhood. Like any place wrapped in the memory of childhood, 2 Revere Place for her has a mixture of pain and joy. What we remember, of course, tends to be the very best and worst. Otherwise, those memories would not last through the trials of adolescence. For Wijesinghe in this collection, these memories tend to focus on the fact that her parents are immigrants, and she is living in two worlds at once as a native to New York and a part of a family that has immigrated from Sri Lanka. The poetry reflects both the prejudice and the kindness the family experienced, and the beauty and pain of coexisting. Food matters here as culture is reflected in it. The poems explore the truly American idea of where a person fits in, and for the poet, she often feels that while she is gaining richness from both experiences, she doesn’t truly belong anywhere.
The poems are filled with the pain of racist conceptions other people have of her and how she is othered on a daily basis; she also doesn’t feel as connected to her family’s Sinhalese community. In “Listen in Sinhala, Answer in English,” she writes:
Our cousins can communicate
in Sinhala, a language I understand
but cannot speak. This is their superpower.
They whisper secrets in a code
I long to break (62).
This emotion, the feeling that she is both a part of and apart from her family runs through the book. She is in the awkward position of assimilating in a different way than the people she loves the most. This leaves her feeling permanently an outsider in her house. Outside of her house, she experiences an even greater form of depersonalization. She writes of one of her early encounters with racism, a little girl who tells her that because she has never heard of Sri Lanka, the poet made the culture and the place up. The neighbor girl says, “You’re black, she hisses, but you don’t want / anyone to know, so you made up something else” (115). The neighbor girl wants a way to define and control the narrator, and what she understands is the racial divide of the 1970s that divides black and white people. Because she is the child of immigrants, her humanity is erased.
However, if there are haunting memories, there is something about being a part of two cultures that Wijesinghe finds beautiful; she recognizes those things that she loves about both cultures. There is joy in the culture that she shares at home:
leave the clamor of America on the doormat
remove our shoes, walk gentle into the house
build a home enough
for ancestors and children
to sit together
Here, she is treated like an insider to the culture; she feels a part of something greater than herself and secure in her place. She is also excited by the American popular culture that she can partake in. She writes about her other self, the school self
who wears Keds
that squeak against the linoleum, carries
baloney sandwiches, foil-wrapped Ding Dongs
and milk money in a Snoopy lunchbox (70).
There is pain in having to split herself in this way, but there are aspects of the culture and her childhood that she loves including just being a kid and loving the natural world and the excitement of all the new things kids enjoy. The food of both cultures matters because the parents want to make sure that the children experience the culture they have entered without losing the culture of their families.
Aruni Wijesinghe’s 2 Revere Place is a complex collection because the poet is a complex person put into a challenging cultural space. She handles this discussion exceptionally well giving insight into herself and her world. This book is a reminder that the American experience, that life itself, is not simple. Because of this and so many other reasons, it is a beautiful book, one that should be celebrated and read. It is not one that can be quickly understood. Rather, one must grow with it.