The 2021 winning recipient of the Terry J. Cox Poetry Award
I write poems to build pathways out of the mazes of our lives—whether a social injustice, a personal grief, or often, both, and to remind myself of life’s small joys, with grateful observation and occasionally, humor. I am seeking always, what holds us together, personally and collectively. I am turning over this question of who does North America mean when it says “us,” and who do our communities of origin include within that idea, too.
I want my poems to open up spaces that can create a home for those of us who often don’t feel at home in this nation, given patriarchy, racism, and the range of systemic violence including minor slights that can make up a day. I write about the cost of our liberation, and the compromises that we may make along the way, no matter our backgrounds. The revolution must include who we were meant to be, both, as powerful, and as vulnerable. My poems may provide anchor to others and more freedom to love with authenticity. We must hold on to the truth of our lives, with less shame, as we work to build a world that is enough to hold all of us.
My book includes poems that span over two decades, from the late 1990s to the spring of 2021—one year into the global pandemic. Given that, some of the poems should feel outdated and yet sadly, we are again facing increased violence against Asian Americans as we did after 9/11, there is on-going police violence against Black people in this country, and we are in the midst of on-going work by survivors to address and prevent sexual harassment. We are also facing a series of new tragedies resulting from gun violence, and the failure to address this crisis. These poems include questions of how do we parent with integrity in this context, and in the middle of a pandemic, too. How do we make time for not just fifth-grade fractions, but also, finding the lost watercolors, and making coconut cake from scratch.
For the push to shape these range of poems into an actual manuscript during the quarantine winter of 2020-2021, I have to give thanks to one virtual literary community, but before that I want to name a handful of pivotal moments and important creative writing communities. My first poem that I published was in a Quaker magazine and resulted from my unease around whether our Society of Friends high school youth group was volunteering at a shelter for those who are unhoused more for our own benefit or for the benefit of the folks residing there. I want to thank all those who engage in social justice-related religious education for creating opportunities that raise these kinds of questions in the minds of young people.
Moving to my first year of college, I am grateful to my friend, Mina Khoii, for agreeing to submit her poems to the women’s center newsletter at Earlham College, as that was the only way that I was going to submit poems too. And I am ever thankful to Tina D’Elia for passing along This Bridge Called My Back and starting the seeds that grew into the formal Women of Color group. I also appreciate my women’s studies professors including Barb Caruso and Mary Garman, and I am so proud of the Audacious Sisters of Color writing group participants who took part in my senior project. After college in 1995, I led a writing group in Kerala, India, with women vocational students, and I will always treasure sitting on the floor together in their dorm rooms in a circle and writing – them in Malayalam, and me in English, and creating our literary community amidst the hanging laundry. My path then took me to Boston, and I was delighted that some of the members of SAWA – South Asian Women for Action, performed my piece, “Inheritance” at a Toronto South Asian queer arts festival, Desh Pardesh, in 1996.
After I moved to New York City in 1998, I participated in many rounds of women of color writing workshops led by Sister Bisi Ideraabdullah, and I so treasured the community building at the Imani House. In NYC, I also had the opportunity to perform poetry at many SAWCC (South Asian Womxn’s Creative Collective) salons and larger events, thanks to Jaishri Abichandani’s leadership. I must also thank SAWCC comrade, Swati Khurana, who wrote many letters of recommendation for my MFA applications, and thank organizations like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Kundiman for their terrific workshops and community building. Before the MFA process though, I was selected to take part in poetry workshops at the 92nd Street Y, and through Cave Canem’s multi-cultural writing groups I had the good fortune of taking a series of workshops, first with Tracy K. Smith and then with Kimiko Hahn. Those experiences led to my MFA at Queens College, CUNY, (part-time, for three years) where I was thrilled to work with incredibly kind and smart professors including Nicole Cooley and Roger Sedarat, in addition to Kimiko, along with so many terrific classmates. I also want give a shout-out to JP Howard and Women Writers in Bloom for so many wonderful gatherings that I enjoyed attending in Brooklyn, and I was enthusiastic to reunite with this group now, virtually. After moving to Washington, D.C. in 2014, I have delighted in connecting more closely with the local social justice poetry community, primarily through Split This Rock. I am grateful to the staff and board, and in particular, the leadership of Camisha Jones.
Finally, for this last stretch of pulling together the manuscript and having the nerve to submit it to potential publishers, I must thank Minal Hajratwala, and the Unicorn Authors Club, including the East Coast Early Birds and the Memoir Group. Minal is right – so many of us have this work inside of us, and often what’s needed is community, structure, and encouragement. And to be told that it’s okay to pause, for years, even. And to experience that it can feel good to pick-up the work again.
Ultimately, I also want to thank my family including my Dad for always encouraging me to put myself out there, and my Mom for showing me the laughter that can come from sharing one’s stories. I am also so grateful to my spouse, Erika, and our kiddo, for their encouragement and for allowing me time and space not only for morning writing groups, but for evening poetry events, too. Big thanks also to Allisonjoy Faelnar for appreciating my writing from the moment that we met, and to Marie Varghese for encouraging me through those MFA applications. Last, my heartfelt thanks goes to Jeffery Perkins, a wonderful writer and close friend. He always encourages me to pursue publication, even when I question it, or approach it half-heartedly. He asks me to consider what so many women writers have meant to me, including Audre Lorde, Meena Alexander, Gloria Anzaldua, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marge Piercy and so many others. As their words opened up crucial spaces for us, he reminds me that our creative work has the power to do so too, and even more so, when it gets out into the world.
Sunu P. Chandy is the child of immigrants from Kerala, India, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. with her family. She is a social justice activist including through her work as a poet and civil rights attorney. She holds an MFA in poetry from Queen College, CUNY and her work can be found in Asian American Literary Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Poets on Adoption, Split this Rock’s on-line social justice database, The Quarry, This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, and is forthcoming in The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood. Sunu has completed degrees at Earlham College (Peace and Global Studies / Women’s Studies) and Northeastern Law School. Sunu has previously served on several boards of directors including for Split This Rock, the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, and the Audre Lorde Project, and she is currently on the board of the Transgender Law Center. Following several years of civil rights litigation and other advocacy through government agencies, Sunu became the Legal Director for the National Women’s Law Center in August, 2017. Learn more about her work at www. sunuchandy.net and find her on Twitter at @SunuChandy.
Sunu P. Chandy’s collection of poems, My Dear Comrades, was the winner of the 2021 Terry J. Cox Poetry Award, and Regal House is proud and delighted to publish her book in 2023.