A poet's search for belonging
by Shelley Daily
From the June, 2018 issue
Poet Zilka Joseph smiles warmly at the small audience that's gathered to hear her read at Bookbound bookstore. Her face framed in long black curls, and wearing purple-rimmed glasses, a jean jacket, and a flowing purple scarf, she looks much younger than her fifty-four years.
Most of the poems she shares are lighthearted-"Hibiscus and Smoking Incense" is about the chaotic traffic in her native Kolkata, India. But the poems in her 2016 book, Sharp Blue Search of Flame also span themes of loss, death, and hardship. Many, she says, she cannot bear to read aloud.
"I've gone through so many periods of loss and struggle," Joseph explains later. In Kol kata, she was a beloved high school teacher at the all-boys St. James' School and she and her husband, John, lived with her parents. But in 1997, she left her job and family behind to follow John to Chicago, where he had a work visa as a software engineer.
"Suddenly there's this vacuum- absolutely nobody in the city knows you," she recalls. Intensely lonely, she volunteered at her neighborhood elementary school and taught ESL at an Indo-American cultural center. Three years later they moved to Rochester Hills, where John had a job in the auto industry. Once again, she felt "like an outsider."
"Very few people looked like me, walked and talked like me," she recalls of her time in suburban Oakland County. She was stared at in the grocery store, and people asked about the color of her skin. After getting her green card, she taught at the Roeper School and tutored other immigrants at Oakland Community College-all while nurturing a burgeoning poetry career. "The talent was there somewhere, but it developed in Michigan," she says.
A decade ago, she and John moved to Ann Arbor, where she won a Zell Fellowship and earned an MFA in poetry from U-M in 2009. In addition to her 2016 collection, she's authored two chapbooks; been published in
literary journals, magazines, and anthologies; and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and a PEN America award.
An American citizen since 2011, she's alarmed at the Trump administration's anti-immigrant policies. "Anybody who has a sense of justice and humanity-whether immigrant or not-should be deeply worried," she says.
Settled in America, she still longs for her homeland. Her poetry often explores how her lives in India and the U.S. intersect.
In "Where Sparrows Nest," she imagines her next flight over oceans, desert, and mountains to visit her parents again: "the rush up two flights of stairs, / mumble a quick Shema- // will I see their faces? Feel their thin / arms, sweet embraces? Or find // empty shells, a handful / of dusty feathers?"
In 2008, she celebrated the launch of her chapbook Lands I Live In at her hometown bookstore. Her parents were proud but took her poems literally. She laughs recalling how her father would question lines from her poetry, saying "I don't remember it happening that way."
Joseph's mother passed away in 2012, and her father died two years later. She spent the last three months of his life at his bedside.
Her grief over their deaths remains fresh. Her poem, "The Eye of the Poppy," rages against her mother's dying. "It is my gift to her," she says, as her eyes overflow with tears.
The youngest of three children, Joseph grew up in a Jewish family that was "very open" to other religions and cultures. Her father was a marine engineer and her mother a housewife who Joseph says had more independence than many women of the time-she performed traditional Indian dance and played bridge.
A "bookish" child, Joseph learned Marathi, Hindi, and Bengali as well as English. But at age six, she contracted polio. Her parents were devastated-they had not immunized her because of a contamination scare.
In "Something Falls," she describes returning home from a street fair with her parents and grandmother, her face "flushed and happy." Then her health takes a violent turn: "… I writhe on the bed, // suck in their terror like a black hole // while some wrathful angel // leaps off nightmare's ladder / to wrestle my flailing limbs to the ground, // and watches as I drag my wounded body // the way I will do / for the rest of my life."
Her parents carried her everywhere for six months. She learned to walk again with leg braces, enduring stares from other children. "It made me more resilient and able to deal with a very judgmental world," she says. "It helped me to come to terms with differences and bias."
She first noticed John-the youngest of six children in a Catholic family from the south of India-as a "handsome" cricket player at a corporate match. Coincidentally, they already shared the same last name. After they married, they lived with her parents because "we didn't have plum jobs," she says. They decided early on they didn't want kids.
"Anything Zilka does, she's intense about," John says. He adds that she's also "compassionate" and cares deeply for her students-she's still in touch with families from her teaching days in Kolkata. They've been married now for twenty-six years, and he says she's taught him how to be "an equal partner."
Joseph has post-polio syndrome, which causes fatigue, muscle weakness, and some pain. To cope, she uses heat, massage, and rest. "I pace myself," she says, to stay as healthy as possible. On their trips to America's national parks, John will often hike long distances while she remains behind to bird watch.
In addition to teaching creative writing workshops, she offers one-on-one coaching and editing. Sally Ziph, a student and friend, says she "welcomes in people who might be intimidated otherwise." She's "kind of a maverick," Ziph says, because she makes writing accessible to non- academics in an academic town. Joseph says she writes "for everyone … If it moves them or helps them make a connection, that is enough of a reward for me."
She appreciates Ann Arbor's diversity and has found a sense of belonging in its writing community. She doesn't know when she'll return to India again. For now, she visits her native country in her poetry.
"In a way there is no gap," she says of her lives in India and Michigan. "Everywhere you live is part of you."
[Originally published in June, 2018.]
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