"Our Synonyms: An Epic" by Yena Sharma Purmasir showcases the adventures and complexities of womanhood
Our Synonyms: An Epic, a poetry collection written by Yena Sharma Purmasir, is a brilliant work of art that showcases the captivating complexities of womanhood through women of religious mythology. The book carries five iconic characters through their journey of discovery in a thought-provoking book of alternate perspectives.
Purmasir was inspired by the false, sometimes metaphorical portrayal of women in religious traditions, and wanted to retell their story. Classic concepts in religion, like forgiveness and redemption, seemed different for the women in the stories. Purmasir says that, “the subjugation and violence of women is this awful timeless thing. And to think about these characters as real women meant thinking about the real possibility of their rage, their pain.”
In the opening poem, Purmasir writes: “the summer i learned the word rape / was the summer my dolls learned to jog, / like that woman in central park.” Purmasir alludes to the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case in a powerful way: from the perspective of a young girl, still learning to navigate the world.
Throughout the work, she makes various other hints to pop culture and also to religious characters and scenarios. Some characters, she knew she would include right away, like Draupadi of the Hindu tradition. Others, she decided to use when thinking specifically about other religions: “...it made sense to think about Salome, who is sort of the inverse of Draupadi. Where Draupadi remains hidden, Salome is revealed.”
She wanted to include Mary, considering her story as the mother of Christ. “And in thinking about Mary, I also thought about Yashodhara from the Buddhist tradition, the wife of the Buddha before he gave everything up…There are so many of these women across time and religion who lose this precious holy thing: a child, a marriage, a life.”
Although most of the characters in the book are from religious traditions, Grace is not. In “O Grace,” Purmasir writes to Grace, who is a character in the book. However, this character also represents a real young woman who wrote under that name in an anonymous account of sexual assault in 2018. She writes, “That’s the name we give you,” and “...Almost is one of those words, Grace. / No one knows why we need it, / until we need it.” She addresses both the pseudonym and the account in a free-verse poem that highlights the importance of coming forward in its beautiful, stream-of-consciousness style.
“I included Grace, the woman who was sexually assaulted by Aziz Ansari—because she’s of this time, we know her story, and we know she’s real. And still what happened to her feels deeply familiar and relevant in the context of these mythologies,” Purmasir says. The separate settings in the story only enhance the real hidden pain of these women, that is so often hidden in their original texts. It is enlightening to feel what these women could have felt, to see how they see. There is a new, heartfelt connection formed between ancient iconic characters and readers in this century.
The format of the book sets it apart from other poetry collections. “Because I was working with different religious traditions, I didn’t want this book to feel like a collection of random, stand-alone poems. That doesn’t mean you can’t read it that way—but I thought about how in the world of epics, of The Odyssey or The Ramayana, characters come back,” she explains. An epic is a long work of poetry, generally narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic figures.
Purmasir honored these women, in their realest form, for their personal adventures and victories. In writing this epic, she has told the story of womanhood in such an empowering, uplifting way.
I especially enjoyed the imagery, rhetorical questions, fact interludes and illustrations that were included in the book. They not only worked well beside the verse, but made me reflect on my experiences as a woman in our society.
“I hope readers come away thinking critically about the subjugation and dehumanization of women. It is everywhere, in our personal lives, in our media, in our classics. And we can’t possibly create a just, safe world for all people if we don’t look at all the inequity and name it for what it is.”
Our Synonyms: An Epic is a must-have for anyone because it is not just a thought-provoking story—it encourages, empowers and unifies. It is now available at Party Trick Press as a piece of e-literature.
Click here to purchase Our Synonyms: An Epic by Yena Sharma Purmasir from Party Trick Press.
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