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“It was like it took my whole life [to publish this book] and yet it also happened very quickly,” Sunu P. Chandy tells City Paper about her soon-to-be published debut poetry collection, My Dear Comrades. A civil rights attorney and social justice activist, as well as a spouse and mother, Chandy is a proud multi-hyphenate.
After earning her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law and beginning her legal career in the late 1990s, Chandy found a creative outlet in writing poetry. She took classes led by former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith and distinguished City University of New York professor of poetry Kimiko Hahn, as well as other poetry workshops at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Among the welcoming community of multicultural poets and with Hahn’s encouragement, Chandy felt confident moving forward with a graduate program in creative writing. She worked on her degree for three years, writing and revising during the evenings and weekends while working full time in the legal field. In 2013, she completed her MFA at Queens College, CUNY.
She moved to D.C. the following year to continue her legal work and social justice activism. Since 2017, she’s served as legal director at the National Women’s Law Center and in 2021, she was included on the Washington Blade Queer Women of Washington list. As a poet, she co-leads monthly workshops at DC Arts Center with other local queer writers.
“After the MFA, I just put the poems on the shelf. I didn’t have the time between working as a lawyer and working full time as a parent,” Chandy says. “The silver lining of the pandemic was that it allowed me to spend time in a more structured way.”
During lockdown, she joined the Unicorn Authors Club, an online community primarily for writers of color that offered mentorship and community accountability. By committing to the program, Chandy revised poems that she’d abandoned for nearly a decade and also found ample inspiration in her current life—such as raising a preteen—to compose new works, too. (Some of the most touching pieces in her collection focus on the small beauties of domestic life: little tiffs and make-ups, zipping up a hand-me-down parka, rescrewing toothpaste lids, putting together puzzles, and other little miracles of familial love.) She reordered works and started submitting individual poems to journals, while also shopping the full collection. It soon won the Terry J. Cox Poetry Award, for which Chandy received both a cash prize and publication by Regal House.
My Dear Comrades is both deeply confessional and communal. The personal and political are always intertwined—especially for queer women of color—and Chandy uncovers those implications in uncanny ways, as in the opening poem, “Just Act Normal,” which sets the tenor of the collection: a humorous memory of sneaking onto a television game show set expands into a larger rumination about border crossings and creating contingency plans if family members are left behind.
There are poems about Chandy’s issues with infertility and adoption, personal frustrations, and professional disappointments. As a queer woman and the daughter of Indian immigrants, her works tease out her intertwined identities; in “Too Pretty,” she both fears for and envies two girls flirting and sitting on each other’s laps on the subway.
But her legal experience also figures into her writing, from restrictions against adoption to the severity of immigration laws. In “All Rise,” she states: “I learned this rule by observation: we must stand when the judge enters the courtroom. … In that moment I learned much of what I needed to know about the law.” There are hierarchies and systems of power; Chandy’s poetry operates from a place of betweenness, a limbo of both belonging to and excluded from, but always observing and trying to find occasions to connect, make meaning, and make changes from within.
“Someone I work with heard me read my poem as part of an American Bar Association event,” Chandy says. “She didn’t realize it was my poem, and she wanted to share it with her colleagues because it’s more effective than bars and graphs. It’s about the lived experience of the LSAT.” In this poem, “The successful candidate must hail from a well regarded law school,” Chandy interweaves her experiences of taking the standardized law school test with anti-affirmative action policies, microaggressions by classmates, and the layers of privilege afforded to so many law school-bound students against the struggles of their first-generation classmates. The standardized test, she poetically argues, is anything but an objective marker of law school readiness.
“My initial impulse to write is very personal. The question of sharing it is a hard question because I feel that same risk anyone speaking out might feel,” Chandy says. “But sharing allows people in those identities and circumstances to feel seen and heard and understood. And it also can change culture, [by reaching] the people who aren’t in those categories.”
My Dear Comrades, by Sunu P. Chandy, will be published on March 28. The D.C. book launch, with Chandy, starts at 7 p.m. on March 28 at Politics and Prose’s Connecticut Avenue location. politics-prose.com. Free.
A Maryland book launch starts at 7 p.m. on March 29 at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. writer.org. Free.