||Sabu and Taboo
by Cary Fagan
Ian Iqbal Rashid's debut collection of poems, Black Markets, White Boyfriends, was marked by the sympathetic personality of its author-an irony considering the confusions and paradoxes that Rashid (or rather his persona) seemed to feel about himself. Born in Dar-Es Salaam, Tanzania, but raised in Toronto, he felt imprinted by a past that he could not remember. This sense of strangeness and difference expressed itself in his homosexuality and the exoticism of his dark skin and hair "thick as snakes", which he consciously exploited for erotic ends even as he viewed himself with analytical detachment.
I looked forward to seeing where these unresolved contracts would take Rashid and am disappointed to find that they haven't taken him very far at all. He has largely dropped the sharp ironies and self-accusations, in favour of a much simpler and rather limp tone of melancholic self-pity. Whether he is writing autobiographically or in fictional guise, the voice doesn't change much.
The new book consists of poems and what the title page calls "short prose", a description meant, I think, to distinguish these pieces from prose poems. Indeed, these works lack the tension and compression of language that usually characterize prose poems, while at the same time they cannot be called stories. The title of the first of these, "Song of Sabu", suggests wonderful possibilities. I remember watching old movies in black and white in which Sabu, a boy actor usually wearing only a loincloth, used his mixture of innocence and cleverness to defeat whatever evil forces were posed against him and the good white people.
In an endnote, Rashid gives a brief history of the actor, who was discovered outside Mysore in 1936 and starred in such pictures as Elephant Boy and Thief of Baghdad. He was often photographed with "young starlets", joined the American Air Force and flew in the Second World War, but as an adult he "was not permitted to act as a romantic lead," and his career faded.
Unfortunately, the endnote is more interesting than the prose work itself. Like so many other monologues in the voice of a historical figure written by poets in recent years, this one gives us a disillusioned character recalling his years of success. Rashid does touch on the question of identity:
"I loved my countries. India made me. America made me famous. They ask me to choose which. Who chooses? Me? I cannot. The better question: who chooses me?"
Here Sabu considers himself a victim, which may well be true, though we are shown none of the seductive temptations of America, fame, and wealth that may have drawn him. Rashid also gives us nothing of his own response to the Sabu phenomenon. At one point he has him say, "Men who loved only women remarked on the beauty of my body," hinting at the identification that the poet seems to feel-an identification overlaid perhaps with sexual attraction, which metaphorically adds up to a kind of self-love and even self-hate. But this is speculation on my part; Rashid does not explore these hints.
The same missed opportunity occurs in "Barbie", although the subject-matter is less promising, having already been worked over by feminists and social critics. Rashid's twist is that a Barbie doll is dismayed to find herself loved not only by a dark-skinned child (darker even then the tanned "Malibu Barbie") but by a boy. Again, though, he seems to give up on the piece before he is really done with it.
In a poem called "Bastards of the Diaspora", Rashid offers a revealing quotation by Himani Bannerji: "What makes us think that an existence in any given moment is anything but authentic?" This doubt about the authenticity of the self is common enough, both among real people and in literary characters-self-consciously so since the 1940s. But it can take on an even more poignant intensity in someone who feels caught between two cultures but belongs to neither, while also being marked by sexual difference. Sabu may well have believed that his stardom was fraudulent (what we now call "the impostor syndrome"), just as a dark boy who loved his pink Barbie must have felt that he was violating some taboo.
The Rashid of the first book might have uncovered these or other ideas, and the Rashid of the second book seems to know it, for he buttresses the new volume with three poems from the first, as if trying to give it weight. Only one new poem, "Mango Boy", in which the poet imagines his white lover's back as a kind of projection screen, has some of the same intellectual verve.
The melancholic tone is more suited to the poems near the end of the book which concern a friend or former lover who is ill, apparently dying of AIDS. They are graced with a simplicity and honesty, as the poet admits: "I have been monitoring / my love growing so pale, flawed / cowardly...." The title of "Memorial Service" informs us that the lover has died, and here again Rashid's earlier voice comes through, as he finds himself unable to escape an embarrassing sense of self-consciousness. These last are modest poems, an admirable trait under the circumstances. In the poems earlier in the book and in the prose works, boldness is called for, but it is there that Rashid is most disappointing.