Purvi Shah / To shine a light / It is not that

Purvi Shah Artist Statement:  Giving Voice - On Seeking, Advocating & Shared Wonderings

In poetry, I seek refuge: how lines etch awnings of a sanctuary, stanzas as pillars of a sunlit gazebo.

In the work of justice too, I imagine we are striving to create a more sturdy & cozy home for each of us, fashion this small & expansive world a better space for us all to live in – however troubled our communities, however temporary our stays.

The miracle of justice, poetry, and life is this fraught temporariness, how we hold our hands out at first rain, how we shiver at the threat of brisk breeze, how we both suffer alone and together – as in our private pains, as in our rooms of violence, as in our pre- and post-9/11 lives.

Poems pass through moments, as do our lives. Both poetry and justice necessitate a vision, a series of quiet actions built from contemplation and our own observations. Both poetry & justice necessitate desires, this wanting & wanting more, this knowing & knowing more. This stitching between – a kind of locking of skewed, errant and yet beautiful tiles – is the movement between the world of poetry & this world itself, between the world itself & the world we desire – the world we will one day make.

And we & the world move, finding ourselves in a permanent quest for any and all of the above – justice, poetry, community, a new world, life. My work as a seeker, I find, underlies my work as a poet and as a social justice advocate. Indeed, my work as a seeker is my life, its own life itself.

And so, for me, both poetry and the work of justice is a leap of faith, a crossing of lines, an edifice of desires. It is a love of community, our common brought into one home – even if just for moment. It is an archive of the state of our homes/the dreams of the homes we never had. In both my poetry & work for justice, it is the possibility that matters, and how everything there matters.

And then yet, unless you believe the quest for beauty is political, my poetry is not always political. And unless you believe the choices one has and makes are open as our dreams, then my poetry is not always nonpolitical. From my love poems to the socially-rooted poems here, my poetry always is an invocation, a calling forth for dialogue, a naming of a wondrous experience or shared sorrow or unmanifest longing. It is the space between poetry & justice, traveled. Between me & you, traveled. This traveling as home. A same world & not.

Perhaps as you read this, you wonder if you came for information; you wonder if all this is indeed, information. And if you are wondering, whether about poetry or justice or this life or yourself or what homes I have crafted here, then your inner seeker too has ignited. And if that has transpired in this moment, then I have done my work too – through the words & through the desire to share a common wondrous space, that space of just right, just now, justice in poetry manifest with the common bond of imagining what yet will and can be.


Creative Note:

Artistic advocacy events—in response to terrible tragedies—crystallized the following poems. The first, "To shine a light," I shared with dhol accompaniment by Sonny Singh at the Jan. 15, 2013 Sakhi-led vigil to honor Jyoti Singh Pandey, victim of a fatal gang rape in December 2012. "It is not that" is a selection from the 2011 polyphonic multimedia performance Together We Are New York: Asian Americans Remember and Re-Vision 9/11. In this community-based public arts poetry project, for which I served as Artistic Director, nine of us Asian American poets interviewed community members on their experiences with 9/11 and the decade since as part of the 10-year anniversary reflections. After our poet team meetings and my conversation with Rajinder Singh Khalsa, survivor of a hate crime in 2004, "It is not that," emerged—and became the opening of our group production. In both of these poems, many of the bold lines are shared—with the other poets in the Together We Are New York production or with the vigil attendees. These poems draw upon moments and their ripples as they strive to create—in their public invocations—a new space.




To shine a light

for Jyoti and all the victims & survivors of sexual violence and for our future

Yesterday I saw a father carrying

two girls, one on each shoulder, clasping

in one hand a bookbag. If only, we each

could be so supported through our lives,

a tenderness of living, a hope of loving.


So why are we all here?

To shine a light.



Your eyes held so much wonder, marveling


at this movie – Life of Pi – this film

that would be your last. Your brothers

miss your sparkle. Your parents, holding                 you now as flame.


Many names you have been called – treasure, 

lightning, India’s daughter, anonymous. And even


your own: Jyoti, the light.


In your shadowed radiance, we raise

a lamp, lead darkness

into flame, death into survival.


So why are we all here?

To shine a light.




Let me tell you a lie and make it truth. This is darkness.

Say she wanted it. Darkness.

Say she asked for it, wearing such unrespectable clothes. Darkness.

Say she was too Western. Darkness.

Say she never screamed or fought back. Darkness.

Say she lost her honor. Darkness.

Say she trusted the wrong person. Darkness.

Say we should all be worthy of trust. Light.


So why are we all here?

To shine a light.




You see, before she died, she lived.

Let me correct that: before she was brutally

gang-raped and murdered, she lived. Believing

in pleasures, movies of magic, friends

who honor, making it home safely

so that we can light                 another day: this, the dream.


So why are we all here?

To shine a light.




Wherever I turn, I see vigils: Newtown, Oak Creek, Quetta, Delhi, New York City.


Some say vigils are just a waste

of time. I say, actually we’re just


in time. Just in time to turn


the tide, just in time to shine our light.


So why are we all here?

To shine a light.




There’s a lot of talk these days about India’s rape culture. 

How it’s the most dangerous place to be born a girl. True.


Yet, let’s take this moment to shift lights: here,


in the U.S., 1 in 6 women is raped. Every 2

minutes, a sexual assault. A priest with hands

too near, a football coach groping, a partner forceful. 

Seems like we have a legitimate problem as well.


Yet, how we throw stones, make a false distance. So we need


to pick up a candle in our own

neighborhoods, dorm rooms, lockers, homes.


So why are we all here?

To shine a light.




They say rape is a Western invention, brought on by scanty clothes.

I say, go ask Draupadi of her pain.

I say, go see the luscious stomachs blooming

from saris, swatch of fertile skin, a field

of poppies, a world’s eighth wonder.


So why are we all here? 

To shine a light.




A woman is not a metaphor.

She is skin and bones.

In fact, she is more – she is the courage of a baby bird about to fly.

She is the heart of a friend holding your hand at a hospital.

She is a soul watching a galaxy spinning around her.

These aren’t metaphors but incidences of light, the way hope, desire, dreaming, is as real

as light on your face in the mornings, as real

as the men & women facing

water cannons, tear gas on Delhi streets.


You just have to believe it to see it. You just have to see it

to believe it.


So why are we all here? 

To shine a light.




Say we believe a world without sexual violence is possible. 

Say we see a world where boys, girls, people of two spirits have a space


to dream and be. Say we believe

in the light. Say, we will make

it so. Say, even if you don’t believe, we

will make it so.


So why are we all here?

To shine a light.




Her name is Jyoti Singh Pandey.

Let us say, when we leave here tonight, Jyoti,


you may have lit

a spark in Delhi but you have


ignited a blaze across our world.


So why are we all here? 

To shine a light.

So why are we all here? 

To shine a light.

So why are we all here? 

To shine a light.


Go then, shine.




It is not that


I spend 364 days forgetting


& 1 day remembering.


It is just that


on this day


you will listen.


On this day


you will hear.


Hear then, what I have


to say. Hear then, what


has been said. This day


contained many days, unsuspecting

fractal of time:


a terror, a backlash, an unsettling;

a lost friend, a friend lost, an unsettling;

a hate crime, an interrogation, an unsettling;

a gaze in the mirror, one’s mirrored gaze, an unsettling;

a ground hollowed, a community center under attack, an unsettling.


What space


does a day take? Not even we know. Not even you


know. But this too, we must aim


to know. We aren’t here to settle


a score. We are here to unpack


a day. Imagine a wave before


it becomes sound. Imagine a sound


before it becomes wave. Here


we will meet you. So that once


again, we can imagine this space


here together and together we

can imagine here


this one







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