Seven years ago, on a chilly fall weekend in London, I wandered into an Oxfam second-hand bookshop in Walthamstow along with a man I was beginning to know, beginning to fall in love with. In the poetry section’s top-right corner, I pulled out a copy of Lovers and Comrades. I showed it to him (lover, comrade) and we exchanged a knowing smile. What’s that about? he asked. I read aloud the subtitle: Women’s resistance poetry from Central America. That looks interesting, he said. It was published by The Women’s Press. On its front page was the simple inscription, to my lover and comrade, June ‘97. The book, edited by Amanda Hopkinson, had itself been published in 1989.
I was five years old at that time and the Indian Peace Keeping Force was still occupying Tamil Eelam. I was too young to understand what was meant by the word “rape,” but old enough to understand that the Indian Army was doing bad things to Tamil women and children. That was also the time when Eelam Tamil women started joining the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in droves–so whenever we heard a story of such-and-such atrocities against women, we also heard, very often in the same breath, that women were fighting back, donning combat gear and taking up AK-47s. Those were the decisive years when a lot of Tamil people in India, realizing there was no way out, decided to rally behind the Tigers, and identify with the armed Tamil liberation struggle.
That book I was holding in Walthamstow suddenly seemed similarly explosive with history, with an armed struggle from elsewhere, with its own women guerrilla poets. I vividly remember these loops of thought, just as I remember a deep sadness and estrangement that I could not articulate. How could I tell him, lover-comrade, what it meant to grow up in the shadow of a second-hand war, with poster-size pictures of Tamil Tigers? How could I tell him of the girl-love I felt towards the very dashing, very handsome Tiger combatants, men and women alike? How to articulate this lifeblood, this thirst, this memory? He was, he is, white, European, Francophone: worlds, worlds, worlds away. It was, it is, a void between us. I remember thinking, as I took his hand in mine and we stepped into the street, maybe poetry—poetry, someday. That way, we wouldn’t be seen as warring, as bloody, as strife-torn, but as people who loved, people who were romantic, people who only dreamed of a better future.
I was not a stranger to that longing, holding that book, promising myself I would put together something similar with the poetry of women fighting with the Tamil Tigers, in the hope of being better understood. That was what I had been doing in so much of my writing: taking things that rattled me (the Kilvenmani massacre), shake or shock me (domestic violence), make a fighter out of me (Tamil Tigers, Liberation Panthers) and smuggling them into English, and high art. As if that would validate my existence, my struggles, and those things that gave meaning and purpose to my life.
That is perhaps where the idea for this addition to Guernica’s Female Fighter series started: in unwritten words, in the unbridgeable distance between two lovers.
We sent out a call for submissions seeking poetry from female guerrillas, resistance fighters, and militants. The poems that we sought did not belong to the “poetry of witness,” which Carolyn Forche, in the anthology Against Forgetting, labeled a literary art where “the poem’s witness is not a recounting, is not mimetic narrative, is not political confessionalism,” or simply an act of memory. We sought poems that went beyond the testimonial in their blatant embrace of polemic. Responses to the call exposed the rich tradition of poetry by female fighters: submissions and proposals about Mariana Yonusg Blanco, who participated in the Nicaraguan liberation movement in the 1970s; Criselda Lobo (aka Sandra Ramirez), ex-guerrilla poet, now Congresswoman for the FARC; Commandante Yesenia, active in the ELN (National LIberation Army) in Colombia; Zimbabwe’s Freedom Tichaona Nyamubaya, who fought in the Mozambique liberation struggle; song-poems by women who fought in the Red Guard in the Finnish civil war; anonymous Maoist poets in India; Lorena Barros and Aida F Santos from the Philippines; and the poetry of Anna Swir (aka Anna Swirszczynska), a resistance fighter in the Warsaw Uprising; among many, many others.
In the end, we decided to feature five female fighter poets from three countries: Captain Vaanathi, Captain Kasturi, and Adhilatchumi from the Tamil Tigers; Lil Milagro Ramirez from El Salvador, who was a founding member of one of the first guerrilla organizations that would eventually become the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front; and Nibha Shah, who was an active fighter in the Nepali Maoist ranks.
The obliterary aspect of war—the individual being subsumed under the collective, the urgent need for anonymity (beyond self-protection, to enable the safety of one’s family), the actual act of taking on a new life as an insurgent—manifests in how little biographical detail we have about the female Tiger poets. Their literary/creative/political outputs appear under their noms de guerre. Biographical details become sparse, sketchy. What is verifiable, and within the remit of the existing archival work, are their publications, their dates of death, and the military operation that cost them their lives.
Writing in her introduction to Vaanathiyin Kavithaigal, a collection of Captain Vaanathi’s poems, Jeya, leading the Women’s Front (Magalir Munnani) of the LTTE, remembers getting introduced to her work while first hearing the poet read a poem on the Tamil political leader, martyr Thileepan, who fasted unto death. Captain Vaanathi, writes Jeya, fought in a time without bunkers, without fortifications, and died at 27. Vaanathi encapsulates the force of the poet-fighter’s persona: “She stood as a woman, and fought as a Tiger.”
Captain Vaanathi and Captain Kasturi were killed the same day, on the same battlefield. Their biographies each note: “Died on 11.07.1991 in the battle to capture Elephant Pass, the bloodiest confrontation the LTTE had faced to that point.” The Sri Lankan military base of Elephant Pass was of strategic importance, linking the northern mainland, known as the Vanni, with the Jaffna Peninsula.
The third Tamil poet, Aadhilatchmi Sivakumar, is not only a writer, but also worked as a producer for the Voice of Tigers (Puligalin Kural), the Tigers’ radio program. Her poetry is clearly rooted within the liberation movement, fighter-adjacent, clearly demarcating her own position as a writer within the movement even while writing her friends on the front lines:
Everything is now a dream
many of my friends
are now on the battleground.
A few of them, in graveyards.
Me alone, with a pen in hand, a poet.
My rationale for choosing these particular Tamil poems was not necessarily to convey the most poetic, most romantic, or the most aesthetic mode—though all of the above exist within their body of work. My own bias as an editor comes from my feminist leanings, and my search within their volumes for poems that were explicitly political. As an Indian Tamil who supports the right of self-determination for the people of Tamil Eelam, I also wanted to use this project of selection to show that the struggle to construct a nation of Tamil Eelam was emancipatory and liberatory—not only invested in the necessity to safeguard the linguistic and cultural aspects of Tamil existence, but in forging a feminist, egalitarian, anti-imperialist way of life.
In the work of Captain Vaanathi, we see that project of national liberation linked directly to the liberation and emancipation of women, and an unabashed feminist agenda:
We will build the tomb
For women’s exploitation
We will dig the graves
For society’s backward ideas.
In her poetry, becoming an armed combatant is not about escaping oppression, but ending it.
Articulation of militancy, as enshrined and embodied in women, presents a radical departure from convention. First, it is an intervention into the body of war poetry that traditionally exalts men and centers their experience, including within the Tamil poetic tradition. Secondly, it alters our perception of the battleground—smashing the stereotype that it is a male preserve—and it also dismantles the lazy, patriarchal belief that gallantry and valor are male, masculine traits.
War poetry naturally fits into elegy-adjacent forms, showing a certain preoccupation and predisposition towards death, both in eulogies to fallen comrades and in the poems that foretell, celebrate, or mark the impending death of the poet. We encounter recurrent imagery of graveyards, memorials, and burials in the poems of these combatants, as we do the striking metaphor of the sowing of seeds. This is echoed in the work of Lil Milagro Ramirez when she writes The holes left by our dead have to be filled fighting. It attests to the continuation and progression of struggle. This continuation is not only seen as a process intrinsic to struggle, but held out as a project even within literature and writing.
Proceeding from this, it is inevitable that female-fighter poems resonate across cultures, languages, and struggles. Nibha Shah’s poem “Kaili” finds a distinct parallel with Kasturi’s “Tea Baskets.” While the latter draws upon the exploitation of tea plantation workers in the south, and Nibha Shah’s poem personifies the lived reality and struggle of one young, impoverished orphan girl called Kaili, they both posit a revolutionary solution as an answer. Kasturi poses a rhetorical question:
When will there come a day,
where, marching as fire-gods
they torch away their sufferings?
It is a question that finds an immediate counterpart in Shah’s declarative:
From Kaili’s womb rises the revolution, inquilab,
Does reading their poetry change the outward perception of female militants? At the outset, it challenges the predominant discourse that these women were merely brainwashed, forced into bearing weapons. I would argue that these female fighters used poems as tools of political commentary, and that far from being unwilling recruits, innocent recruits, helpless recruits, they were acutely aware of macropolitics—that their armed struggle was taking place in the context of an imperialist world order, of superpowers and foreign nations meddling in their affairs, and that there were geopolitical considerations at play. Kasturi uses the form and format of poetry to berate imperialist superpowers, writing: “Most often, your interventions / have left behind only scorched earth.” Such a telescopic view is counter-balanced by an investment in the individual, and in the micropolitical, as when Nibha Shah slyly asks, “People only saw the tree fall./ Who saw the nest of the little bird fall?”
It is a shameful disservice to their liberation struggles if we reduce, restrict, and flatten their discourse to a purely local context, to a question of language and territory. The freedom they envision is not limited to a particular place, or withheld by only one enemy.
Lil Milagro Ramirez writes that “Your combat name / belongs in history.” To read these poets is to reclaim their rightful historical space. To read them together is to embark on a resistance project, an attempt to undo imperialism’s blacklisting all of guerrilla movements under the punishing, isolating banner of terrorism. To read these poets is to also remind ourselves that the systems within which we operate as “progressive” writers are sometimes complicit with the same capitalist and imperialist systems that have allowed such voices and struggles to be annihilated. While literature is eager to celebrate the author as activist, its rarefied realm is never opened up to the activist/fighter as author.
Immersion in the struggle, and a feeling of aloneness as a writer within it, an inside-outside existence, is exemplified throughout the work of female-fighter poets. It begs one to address the question—why poetry? Without succumbing to the inevitable comparison, of the pen and the sword, or its inverse, of power flowing from the barrel of a gun—we have to allow the work of these poets to shed light on how they saw their writing in the context of their guerrilla activity.
I urge readers here to approach their work as a critique of colonialism, occupation, the imperialist world order. I would invite them to partake of what these female fighters are doing with poetry: Poetry as op-ed, poetry as resistance, poetry as a call to arms, and poetry as a call to poetry.