An exciting new trend in literary studies is approaching the narrative arts from the angle of the cognitive sciences. Pireeni Sundaralingam is one of those creative souls bridging the gap between the two disciplines. The multitalented Sundaralingam wears many hats, including poet, scientist, writer, and editor.
Sundaralingam recently spoke on this enthralling topic at San Diego State University. First, a reading of her poetry. Interspersing personal narrative and readings, she captivated students, professors, and community members. Having grown up in South Asia and Europe, themes of her poetry included her own memories and observations of the effects of war on the psyche, myths and rituals, and the refugee experience.
Then, Sundaralingam briefly described the intentions behind her project, the first ever Anthology of South-Asian American Poetry: Indivisible. Considering that South Asians are the second largest minority group in the United States, and the influence South Asian poetry has had on certain quintessential American writers, it was time for those interesting echoes (as Sundaralingam put it) to be acknowledged.
After the reading and publishing portion, the series then morphed into a cognitive science based presentation. Sundaralingam titled this part “The Art of Making the Familiar Unfamiliar.” Sundaralingam summed up how she looked at poetry: as a way of getting people to look again. In an ever increasingly media saturated world she has found it too easy for people to consider terms like war or genocide as simple snapshots. Hence the title: making the familiar unfamiliar.
Engaging the group in several exercises — with the point being that the human psyche can avoid or change details and yet still make assumptions about the whole — she brought the conversation back to poetry. Her aesthetic, she says, is one that hopes to help people go from looking at the whole to looking at the details. Without going too far into the neuroscience aspect of the discussion, Sundaralingam proved that our conceptualizations affect what we see, and in turn, what we don’t see. Poetry can help us to tease out the details, as a painter would. We were then graced with a reading of two more of her poems. Lovely, sensory-rich pieces.
Thank you, Pireeni Sundaralingam, for your excellent work! The event was brought to San Diego State by the annual Laurie Okuma Memorial Reading, which brings women writers of underrepresented groups to the San Diego State University campus, as part of the Hugh. C. Hyde Living Writers Series.