Soraya Peerbaye book cover, Tell, poems for a girlhood | Canadian Writers in Person | 2018-02-06

Soraya Peerbaye discusses poetry’s ability to ask difficult questions at Canadian Writers in Person

On Jan. 30, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course presented Soraya Peerbaye reading from her poetry collection Tell: Poems for a Girlhood. York teaching assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

Soraya Peerbaye came to the Canadian Writers in Person series to talk about her collection of poetry Tell: Poems for a Girlhood, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. Peerbaye presented her talk on Jan. 30.

Soraya Peerbaye

Soraya Peerbaye

Tell: Poems for a Girlhood is partially based on the Reena Virk murder case, which took place in a Victoria, B.C. suburb in 1997. The murder of Virk, who was of South Asian descent, made international headlines and shook the Canadian public due to the viciousness of her assailants, who were all teenagers: seven girls and one boy, between the ages of 13 and 16, five of whom were white.

The media accounts of the time focused on the violence of the attack but did not consider the racist implications. Virk was depicted as a girl who didn’t fit in. Peerbaye asks in her collection of poems, “What did she not fit into?,” prompting us to reflect on the norms of gender, beauty and race that Virk and other young girls are expected to fit.

“I was haunted by the story for more than 10 years. I could not let it go. It would not let me go,” said Peerbaye. She read the news coverage, went to the trial, read court transcripts and was left feeling that Virk was not visible in any of the testimonies, “as if she wasn’t there,” as if she hadn’t existed as anything more than a murder victim.

Peerbaye asks in this collection of poems, who has access to the innocence of childhood? She also reflects on her own memories of girlhood and adolescence.

The cover of Peerbaye’s book Tell: Poems for a girlhood

“One of the things that poetry makes possible is working with things that are incomplete, torn, damaged,” Peerbaye said. She looked for details about Virk in the court transcripts, and then wrote from there, “trying to see her … trying to reach an audience that is willing to ask questions and not necessarily have those questions answered.”

Some of the questions she asks in these poems are about the links between a colonial mindset and violence. “Part of the book is about how far we can map colonial racism, beyond the mentality of a few teenagers,” the poet said, noting that her poetry collection asks readers to look at this murder story not just as one sensational event, but as part of a long history of colonial violence that needs to be examined.

On Feb. 13, poet Jordan Abel will visit York University to read from his latest collection titled Injun. Readings are free and open to any member of the public. For more information, contact Professor Leslie Sanders at leslie@yorku.ca or Professor Gail Vanstone at gailv@yorku.ca. All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm in 206 Accolade West Building, Keele campus.