Sunando Sen was an Indian immigrant living in America. In 2012, at 46, he fulfilled his dream of opening a print shop in Manhattan. Six months later, a woman pushed him off a subway platform and into the path of an oncoming train. In her own words, she “hated Hindus and Muslims” and had been “beating them up” ever since the September 11 attacks.
Divya Victor’s poetry collection Curb, which came out earlier this year, integrates the atrocity of Sen’s murder into a larger examination of violence against South Asians in America. The twin towers fell 20 years ago, but as Victor conveys through her poems, the history of South Asian vulnerability goes far beyond 9/11.
Curb is dedicated to Sen and three other men — Balbir Singh Sodhi, Navroze Mody, and Srinivas Kuchibhotla — all killed by white nationalists on American soil. The poet documents their tragic stories, among others, next to nuggets of her own personal history. Jumping from anecdote to reportage to multilingual archive, Curb lays out a lyrical framework for understanding how white supremacy “curbs” South Asian safety in America.
The book’s title does not just represent restraint. It also points to “land” — a place where road meets sidewalk. It is a symbol of domesticity, but also of borders. Victor writes, “at the consulate, the line / for birth certificates is the line / for death certificates”. Governmental scrutiny is at the foundation of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country. But eager parents look to America for a better world: “first there as a line // & then there was a story”.
Bureaucracy claims narrator to that story. “This will form a good scar / this will be a ring of, ring of roses / a pocket full of passport poses,” the poet writes in reference to a childrens’ playtime rhyme from India. The “scar” is the “proof of identity” that America asks for again and again and again, made good only by the hope for opportunity. This is how the fear of getting caught holds the immigrant hostage, even when there’s been no wrongdoing.
“What is the force that can lift a child into the air and throw her across the world?” The contingency of “proof” — the license to exist, to stay — creates borders for the immigrant even before she’s born. Victor writes of her daughter’s birth, “our shared border is a fist / unfurling; a red flag // her, a thing pink / found in the maraud.” To be inflicted an identity based on “forms” and “laws” — to be claimed a trespasser — is the immigrant’s first violent experience.
With visas, USCIS petitions, checked boxes — immigrant survival overtakes naivety. Then the story changes. The South Asian has to figure out how to be brown in American public spaces, a challenge made more profound in the post 9/11 world. First clamoring to prove belonging, now a perpetual suspect. In the poem “Last Petition,” Victor writes:
“yes, I remember, we
parceled our family
& huddled in the warmth of an archive
set on fire.”
The immigrant is always rewriting her story. She is conscious of her body, and also the ground underneath. By listing geographic coordinates at the corners of some pages, Victor highlights the tragedy of this awareness. At the end of the book, she invites readers to look up the GPS coordinates on the internet, calling it a “kinesthetic and volitional act that leaves traces.”
This insistence on “leaving a trace” is how Victor asks South Asians to reclaim their stories from America. Back in her dedication, the poet lists the four men she is writing for next to the place they were killed in. And on that very first page, she blames the United States “for the force of feeling and action that ended their lives.” Sen, in New York. Sodhi, in Arizona. Mody, in New Jersey. Kuchibhotla, in Kansas. This is a powerful act of naming: the man and the place where he was murdered; the man and the place where he was made less than one.
“All my poems are manifests / for burials everywhere,” Victor writes. Her poetic documentation of hate crimes, most of which go unreported to authorities, often due to fear of deportation, responds to years of South Asian identity in America being turned into a threat. Curb, layered with reminders of immigrant survival, memorializes the pure potential of a life — and its right to live outside of one singular tragedy.