Volume 40.1 features three poems by Komal Mathew, found here. We asked Mathew to share the inspiration behind these poems and hope the depth of context inspires you.
I said I felt shame, but shame was just the withered
fruit of what I felt, and on the other side of the orchard
swelled relief, restoration, a stronger volume of my own
oxygen at liberty among the trees . . .
—“Shame,” Timothy Donnelly, qtd. in Ed Ruscha
When I was in college, I made a major life decision that caused my family deep pain: I became a follower of Jesus. Now, almost twenty years later, I still feel the shame of my conversion, knowing trauma is too often caused by misguided “goods.” But over the years, I have had to remind myself that my story is not that story. I was not drawn to a monocultural deity (“Everything I Heard from the God of Nations”) nor am I blind to the forced conversions by colonizers, past and present. I made a choice and that choice was based on love and belonging.
These tensions are what I write about—what it means to leave good places, to love one’s heritage and change it at the same time, to belong to another, and to find meaning in the unexplainable.
Particularly in “Satyagraha for Thin Feet,” I was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s pursuit for truth when faced with Britain’s oppressive actions. In a 1930 letter to the British Viceroy Lord Irwin, condemning Britain’s salt tax, Gandhi ends with his clear ambition: “to convert the British people through nonviolence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.” Gandhi’s verb was purposeful and pointed, meant to remind the reader of the history of subjugation and to charge their actions against humanity.
When I first read about the Salt March, or Salt Satyagraha, I immediately thought of my mother who fasts from salt every Monday without much explanation. I imagined thousands marching 240 miles from Ahmedabad to Dandi to harvest salt from the sea, purposefully defying Britain’s unjust law. At first glance, Gandhi’s Satyagraha feels harmless, a passive action with little power, perhaps like fasting. But in practice, it is a bold voluntary act of resistance—dare I say, an act of conversion.
When I write, I often reexamine my cultural and religious heritage, which deepens my understanding of truth. In these poems, I remembered the march in light of my mother’s sacrificial actions and her honest desire for my good. Out of this liberating truth, I wrote these poems against feelings of guilt and shame and towards the freedom I inherited and maintained. On purpose. Maybe for someone else’s good.
KOMAL MATHEW is a graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology and Sarah Lawrence College. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Missouri Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse, CALYX, The New Republic, and others. She lives with her husband and children in Smyrna, Georgia, where she is the co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and the editor of Three Revisions.