Talesha Maya’s Ode to the Brown Girl Through Poetry

brown
The poet, Talesha Maya

This is using my words and my voice
To empower myself
To pave a new path
To stand in my truth
free from guilt and shame
This is my rebellion…

This is how Talesha Maya caps the first bit from her second collection of poems, “Brown Girl Problems and Other Poems.” In person, she is charming and kind. But with a pen, she unleashes the power of suppression that centuries of tradition and culture have imposed on her, carrying on the personal narratives she was able to craft in her first book, “Fragments.”

Using her newly released book of poems to express her thoughts, Maya delves into the intricacies of being a Hindu woman living in the U.K., a brown-skinned girl in a fair-skinned world. She uses poetry that comes in all shapes and sizes to advocate for women who are the same, attacking the very ideals of colorism, privilege, discrimination, and sexism that have plagued womankind for millennia. She even brings the Hindu goddesses to the table, calling out the hypocrisy of worshiping them while chastising human women for coming in anything other than sample form. Maya speaks to SEEMA about using her poetry as a way of coping with her own thoughts and experiences, and how she hopes it could be a beacon for other women to rise up.

I really appreciate the fact that you don’t stick to a particular style or form of poetry, that there is just as much rhyme as there’s free verse and broken form. Was that a conscious decision?

No, actually. It’s so interesting because my writing is a coping mechanism, so I can’t always control how it comes out, I just need to get whatever it is out. I’m not intentionally focusing on the form of poetry, I’m just writing whatever comes to mind.

These themes that you’re exploring in this book, of male child preference, body shaming, mental health, and others, are these ones that you’ve written about and explored just as deeply before?

So “Brown Girl Problems” actually started because of a poem in there called “Period Rant.” I went through this circumstance it describes – [of] my granddad’s funeral and the reactions I had from family members and me being on my period and not being able to participate in certain rituals. It came from a place of anger and needing to really find a healthy place to be able to express that. The book is really about exploring my identity as a South Asian woman, and that includes body image, my political views, a combination of everything.

i told them i cannot help what happens to me
no more than i can change my ethnicity
it’s predetermined
can’t you see
it’s how i’m meant to be
there is nothing wrong with me
i am not “dirty”
Period Rant

You talk a lot in your book about your family, your grandparents, growing up with a single dad. Could you tell me more about how your upbringing influenced your journey to poetry?

I’ve been writing since I was about seven, mainly from school. But the reason why I started writing poetry actually was because at the age of 14, I lost my mom to suicide. I needed a place or some way to express the grief, the anger, all those confusing emotions. My work is heavily influenced by that because, selfishly, I write for me. And then if other people can relate to it, that’s an added benefit for me. That’s why most of the work that I write is so personal, and it does include family in there, because it’s me dealing with what’s going on in my life.

Apart from personal material, you also make references to several topics that could be “controversial,” like the entire chapter about Hindu goddesses. Did you hesitate while putting those out there?

Definitely. I was going to remove it actually, because I felt so scared about what the reaction might be to that. But my publisher felt strongly about keeping it in, and I also [felt that] after having a conversation with her. I read a book about Hindu goddesses, and I just felt like we don’t really talk about those little stories about them as much. It wasn’t until I read that book that I felt, “Oh my god, I didn’t know this about this or that sort of thing.” I just felt it was an interesting way of writing. For example, in the poem “kali ma lives within me,” [I take] these qualities of Kali Ma, which may be seen as negative, and apply them to myself.

Please remember
Kali Ma is known as the dark Goddess
With skin as dark as the night’s sky
She is still worshipped by many
Dark is Beautiful

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Image credits: Soulful Group

Your book also dives a lot into the aspect of colorism. How do you personally connect to it?

Like a lot of young Asian women, I have experienced colorism. It’s such a ridiculous thing to me because here in the West, people are putting on self tan and sitting and bathing in the sun because they want to be darker and have a tan. And within Indian culture, there’s such an emphasis on being “fair and lovely.” These ideals of being an Asian woman centered around fair skin, long hair, slim, petite, all these ideas are so old fashioned and are deep trenched in colonialism, actually. I had that experience when I was 15 and some beautician handed me a tub of bleaching cream, I literally did not know how to react. I thought, “what am I supposed to do? am I supposed to be polite and take it? or shall I say, ‘what the hell?” And it really affected my self esteem. I already had body image issues, but then to add on top of that this idea that you’re brown or dark, and that means you’re not beautiful, that’s another thing. I used to love Shah Rukh Khan, but now that he endorses “Fair and Lovely,” I don’t know if I can.

in her soft voice, she told me
boys don’t like dark skinned girls –
use this it will help”
my fifteen-year-old self
aghast and confused
slowly reached out my hand
as to not be disrespectful
Unfair and Definitely Not Lovely

How supportive has your family been of your work?

Enormously. They are so proud of me. I was so worried about what the reaction might be, but I’ve not had anyone say anything negative there. It’s interesting, because it’s a creative career, you think sometimes, “Oh, what are they going to say?” But they’re really lovely.

That’s good to hear! Where do you see yourself going with your poetry? What’s the dream?

I think I’m moving slightly away from poetry. I’m really into spirituality and self-development and self-improvement, I’m actually studying holistic massage therapy. So I’d like to write something that can be helpful to other people and maybe weave in my experiences, something that I feel is going to help people heal and learn and grow.

Have you thought about performing your work in India?

I would actually love to. I hadn’t written any of my books [before] I went to India in 2018. But when I revisit, I’d love to perform. In fact, hopefully, I’m going to make “Brown Girl Problems” into a video and put it on YouTube, so maybe that will be able to be shared with my family in India and more globally, but I would love to go and perform there.

I never saw a lot of work like this being performed in India, it’s much freer for Indians outside of the country to have these conversations.

I’ve noticed, even when I visited in 2018. It’s the expectations, like “you should pick up your cousin’s plate for him,” certain things that I would not think twice to challenge here. But when you’re there, you don’t want to upset your family. So there are uncomfortable conversations that you want to have. But I know it’s definitely changing. Because some of my younger cousins have read the book, and they’re having these conversations.

This article appears in the June issue of SEEMA Magazine, check the rest of it out here!