In April, Shalini Rana, sibling of Shiv Rana CLN6, won third place in the Steger Poetry Prize. The Steger Poetry Prize is a prestigious award presented by celebrated poet Nikki Giovanni at Virginia Tech University. This year there were over 100 entries which were narrowed down to 12 finalists.
Shalini answered a few questions for us about her brother and her prize-winning poem, Scenes//Funeral Day.
Could you tell us a little about you and your brother Shiv? What are some of your favorite memories or special activities you would do with him?
My name is Shalini Rana. I’m from Vienna, Virginia and am a recent graduate from Virginia Tech, where I studied Creative Writing and Professional & Technical Writing. My current work as a poet is informed by experience—namely my experiences involving my family and my brother, Shiv, who suffered from Batten Disease and died before his tenth birthday. I was fourteen at the time. As much as my poetry is about death, it’s also about the minutiae of loss shaping a person’s existence and mindset from childhood to adulthood.
As a young girl, I remember crawling into Shiv’s crib at night and listening to Ronnie, his night nurse, tell us stories while she and my mom hovered above us. I would squish his stuffy nose around, calling it a “macaroni nose” because it sounded like when you move mac ‘n’ cheese around in a bowl. I bugged him whenever I could, and he’d respond through sassy facial expressions.
I also remember when, before he was diagnosed and still new to a tracheostomy and feeding tube, I fed him a small piece of namkeen, an Indian savory snack. I fed it to him in his mouth just to see what would happen. A couple of times I naively wondered if this experiment made Shiv’s condition get worse. As if through some curious malfunction of his trach, the namkeen piece got sucked up into his brain and flicked on the wrong group of brain cells.
How did the poem come to you and what was the process like for you as you wrote it? What has this experience meant to you?
Scenes//Funeral Day came to me rather randomly for an assignment in my poetry capstone class. I wasn’t expecting to write about my brother, and purposely hadn’t until then, but somehow I knew I wanted to write about his funeral. The out-of-order scenes and the detached yet connected voice came pretty organically out of what I felt I had experienced that day: floating in the surreal profundity of it all yet painfully aware. The experience of sharing this poem has been nothing but fulfilling. After not talking or writing about a good fourteen years of my life for so long, and only now starting to, I see that the universe is listening and is always ready for our personal narratives. In fact, when I shared the poem at the Steger Prize ceremony with Nikki Giovanni, I felt a heaviness similar to the one I had felt when I read a poem about my brother at his funeral. The heaviness was good. I think it was strength.
I’m sure as a senior everyone is asking you this but, what are your future plans?
Since graduating I have moved back home to start a tech consulting job and continue writing. I have been researching poetry MFA programs and will be applying soon. I’m writing what I call a memoir of poems that explore the intersections between my brother, my family, and myself. Thanks for reading.
You can read Shalini's award-winning poem Scenes//Funeral Day below.
mothers’s eyes: two hollow buttons
lowered Her sari draped
neatly over her head The priest
a devout puppeteer chants Hindu
prayer with an aged lilt and motions
for my mother to resume her role
in the ritual for a dead child
with hands trembling, she does
my brother’s nose: a butterscotch morsel
peeking out from the black-boxed wood
he lies in I weep, compose myself
and promise not to look again
in a red wine room stage left from where family
is giving speeches a boy hollers
out from the base of his bones
and to the sunlit roof
of that morning.