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Creating Possibilities for Survival:
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's Tonguebreaker

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's Tonguebreaker
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Tonguebreaker
Gibson: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Tonguebreaker is a survival handbook for working class disabled femmes of colour. In the opening inscription to the collection of performance texts and poems, Piepzna-Samarasinha lays out a blueprint for a crip future for “all femmes in struggle.” She creates alternate futures through her words, even as she refers to the reality of living precariously as a disabled femme of colour.

Suicide ideation is a reality that threads through the work. Her closing inscription to “All the femmes come back” refers to femmes who have lost their lives to suicide, as well as her own battle with suicide ideation. For Piepzna-Samarasinha, there is no one way to survive. Survival means living with loss, and not “need[ing] any more ancestors.” Survival is living despite pain (“Bed days”), and recreating alternate crip futures (“Femme houses” and “Small spaces”). Survival is “rewriting [her] story… as a storyteller” (“The stories you tell to save your life”).

In sections five and six, she writes love letters to her queer ancestors. Section five contains the performance texts that she wrote and performed for Mangos with Chili from 2006 to 2015. As Piepzna-Samarasinha explains in the introduction to this section, the group was a “queer and trans people of colour performance collective and tour that [she] cofounded and codirected.” She calls out to goddesses from South Asian and West African communities in “daughter of kali and oshun,” to Gloria Anzaldua in “a requiem for Gloria,” and to Marlon Briggs in “crossing the river jordan.” Each performance text becomes political in its ability to evoke the personal realities of a disabled femme of colour and aligns with Piepzna-Samarasinha’s belief that all performance is political.

The theme of calling out to queer ancestors continues in section six, which starts with a poem to her mother (and sexual abuser), “Cripstory.” While Piepzna-Samarasinha doesn’t forgive her mother, there is a sense of reconciliation through her recognition that by ignoring her own physical pain, Piepzna-Samarasinha and her mother were “both making history.” Piepzna-Samarasinha redefines history as “two disabled femmes… surviving.”

Piepzna-Samarasinha’s collection is also a testimony to queer love, where making love is an act of healing and survival. In “Prayer Ghazal for Orlando,” survival lies in disconnection from reality through reconnection with her lover: “The day the shooting happened I turned off my phone and fucked my lover.” The speaker compares their “cunts” to the “dance floor” of the location of the shooting. The personal space of intimacy becomes a political space of survival where the lovers deal with trauma through a celebration of life. The speaker is “satiated and thigh sore,” and yet “dressed and wound / to find [her] body.” It is this finding of one’s self through the love of another that Piepzna-Samarasinha calls survival.

In the end, Piepzna-Samarasinha’s collection is a language she shares with other disabled femmes. In her role as a “Crip fairy godmother,” Piepzna-Samarasinha creates possibilities for a crip future and queer crip survival.

Sanchari Sur (she/they) was a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow, and a 2019 recipient of a Banff Centre residency (with Electric Literature). Their work can be found in The Unpublished City (2017), PRISM international, Humber Literary Review, Room, and elsewhere. She is a doctoral candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University, and the curator/co-founder of Balderdash Reading Series (est. January 2017).

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