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Natasha Ramoutar’s debut poetry collection, Bittersweet (2020), reflects on a “reconstructed homeland” of the Indo-Guyanese diaspora and Scarborough, Ontario (Cover copy). Playful, inventive, and poignant, the artfully titled Bittersweet asserts poetic creation as a tool to explore the persistent aftertaste of racism, colonialism, and the self, while asking: “How do you unravel a history of trauma, that which is woven / within you?” (Ramoutar 72).
In answering this question, Ramoutar is like a cartographer, drawing maps from “home to home, from Toronto to Guyana to South Asia” (Cover copy). Meanwhile, Scarborough remains omnipresent as a “city of travellers” (32) within which Ramoutar weighs her life against history, like tea leaves, shifting “back and forth, / reading for the past instead of the future” (5):
Ask me where I come from and I will tell you: from the remnants of melted sugar cubes, from the rough grains ripped from stalks, from spices and saccharine scents, from a sweetness that mixes with cardamom hanging in the air. I come from a line of bittersweet women, women shrewd enough to empty pockets, to upturn kingdoms, to launch ships to war. On a journey long ago, I witnessed the origin point: fields of cane standing tall like soldiers on patrol. But cane is raw, just long stalks, unbridled and wild and free. (2)
What is striking in this poem, “Cartography I,” is the associative imagery between “remnants of melted sugar” and women. Both are “rough grains ripped from stalks,” reduced from “fields of cane standing tall like soldiers” to something bittersweet (2); pleasure tinged with suffering. This layering effect underscores Bittersweet as Ramoutar returns to different “origin points” to collect pieces of her homeland and explore her third-culture identity (2).
The back cover states that when writing Bittersweet, Ramoutar meditated on “memory—[personal and collective]—prompted by photographs, maps, language, and folklore.” The collection draws from these sources to evoke metaphor and renovate form. For instance, “All Inclusive” mimics an advertisement for an all-inclusive vacation package (34). The poem parallels “white-sand beaches, / places we can dub nirvana” with colonialism: “six days of escaping, / six days of imposing” (34). Ramoutar’s inventiveness with form, such as creating an all-inclusive vacation, a fire-starting guide (9), and recipe (67), subverts the positive multi-cultural identity of Scarborough, revealing it as problematic. She does this by taking familiar markers in western culture and defamiliarizing them to show their harmful nature. Most importantly, Ramoutar confronts readers from outside the Indo-Guyanese community with challenging subject matter, asking them to reflect inward and create something positive in the process.
Whether it raises awareness of systemic racism or begins unravelling readers’ relationship with trauma, Bittersweet has something for everyone. While the audience for some poems is primarily those outside the Indo-Guyanese community, others speak directly to “diaspora babies” (13) who “walk on eggshells” (69) and are made to suppress their identities: “never add your own flavours. They’re not a good fit” (67). These poems share stories of resilience in marginalized communities by celebrating the parts of language, dance, cuisine, and history that are retained and reclaimed. These bits of collected memory blend with a constant yearning to know a home that was stolen, as exemplified in “Us Diaspora Babies, We Do Not Sleep”:
This boat, it rocks back and forth like a cradle on the Essequibo
us diaspora babies swathed in red life jackets,
the steady shifting trying to lull us to dream.
This boat tries to comfort,
but us diaspora babies,
we do not sleep —
only dream with eyes wide open,
grasping at the water of our homelands,
droplets slipping through our fingers with each midsummer
Us diaspora daughters,
listening to our parents’ stories of the golden era
of a far off youth.
We know of home through photographs and UN reports,
but what of seeing with our own eyes?
What of divided states of being?
What of us diaspora babies,
Us diaspora daughters,
exiled before birth? (13)
Bittersweet by Natasha Ramoutar is a “sugary syrup” (61) of sensory details with an aftertaste of racism and colonial violence. The poetics are clever, the form and content engaging, but the real reason to read Bittersweet is that it validates Indo-Guyanese diasporic experiences as being as true and important as any other. As Ramoutar unravels internalized trauma and explores her identity, readers are invited into a space where they can safely do the same. One must read the collection to reach Ramoutar’s conclusions that Ramoutar draws, but rest assured, “it comes together / slowly” (72).
Ramoutar, Natasha. Bittersweet. Mawenzi House Publishers Ltd., 2020.
Cover copy. Ramoutar, Natasha. Bittersweet. Mawenzi House Publishers Ltd., 2020.
Review by Aliza Prodaniuk. Aliza graduated from McMaster University with an honours BA in English and Cultural Studies. She secretly enjoys sci-fi and fantasy but will tell you she only reads literary fiction. She is currently creating and exploring in Dundas, Ontario, where her work dabbles in murder mystery, eco-fiction, and realistic fiction. Her writing has been published in various business, science and travel magazines/journals, with her most recent work appearing in the Canadian Journal for Medical Laboratory Sciences. She’s currently happy to have time to focus on her work while learning alongside other writers at the U of S.