Varuna Naicker reviews We Need to Talk by Manveen Kholi

We Need To Talk

by Manveen Kholi

ISBN-10 ‏  9392494297

Red River Press

in partnership with Centre for Stories


We Need To Talk is raw, truthful and confronting. Manveen Kohli, a British-Indian poet, captures the brutal hypocrisy of what it is like to live in a society where the existence of women is a contradiction. The honesty in which Kohli writes her poetry leaves the reader nowhere to turn but to confront the harsh truth that we force young women into a lion’s den without raising a finger to tame the many lions. From the title, Kohli had my attention. We Need To Talk. The masterful 4 words instill an alertness for what is to come next. The title foreshadows the content of the entire book: I need you to listen to what I have to say. 

The first section of eight, the poem “When My Home Country isn’t Home” dives headfirst into exploring the contradictions of Indian society. What is immediately noticeable is the choice of language Kohli employs. Her verses are sparse and not overly layered with descriptive metaphors and similes. She lets the subject matter do the talking and her poetry is all the more powerful for it. “When My Home Country isn’t Home” immediately acknowledges Kohli’s position to the reader as an Indian living outside of India; an insider and outsider in the eyes of Indian society: 

These people always remind me
that India is home,
but won’t ever talk about how I am treated
as a foreigner.

She quickly transitions topic, highlighting the unbalanced accountability women and men are subject to in this society. Using emotive religious language, Kohli drives home the point that piety is preached whereas respect for women’s bodies and their agency are not: 

an uncle will put his hands
on his niece’s body
and use those very hands to pray,

The verses move quickly and cut to the heart of the issue. The minimal, blunt language creates a sombre tone which aids Kohli’s overall objective; this is necessary conversation, not a nice one. 

As We Need To Talk continues, it is clear that the entire book will be unapologetic in its commentary of the society the author sees around her. For some, this may be confronting but if so, that is all the more reason why it is needed. This is incredibly true for the next two poems “Daddy’s Issues” and “Don’t Call Me Pretty”. The two poems are dark and reference the violence the author is subjugated to by those she trusts. In “Daddy’s Issues”, Kohli challenges the primordial pedestal which the concept of ‘family’ sits upon within Indian society. 

She refuses to dilute the experiences of her father’s abuse to save their relationship, challenging the patriarchy entrenching Indian society through her closest source: her father. Indian women see this time and time again. We are told to forget our grievances in favour of protecting the family dynamic. Familial domestic violence is punctuated with an asterisk as if to say that it is less severe than violence outside the home because forgiveness is waiting behind the door, biding time until the victimised family member walks through. But Kohli draws a clear line in the sand, instead opting to not absolve her father of his crimes; she will not carry the burden of forgiving him, as if she does, she is betraying herself:

so I will stop here
because Dad,
writing about you
is like returning
to war while
still having PTSD.

“Don’t Call Me Pretty” returns to examine the societal contradiction rooted in misogyny where women are framed as instigators, despite the fact that sexual violence being inflicted upon them. The repetitive phrase: 

Didn’t you know?(30) 

The phrase punctuates each double standard, reinforcing femininity as dangerous for purely existing: 

Didn’t you know that
your breasts and legs
should have
been concealed
for your body is a meal,

The verses poke holes in how we understand consent through a harrowing account of sexual violence. The author begs the question: what is the point of teaching girls consent when it is the boys who need to learn? The simple, plain language puts the irony of blaming women front and centre. The reader is hard pressed to concede that this is anything but injustice at its worst. 

While the earlier poems in We Need To Talk are imbued with anger, grief, and a demand for accountability from the external forces at play, Kholi’s later poems take on an introspective and reflective nature: they are letters to herself (in fact one is titled “Love Letters to Myself’). “Intrusive Thoughts” uses perhaps the most poetic language out of the entire collection. Kohli describes to the reader how insidious her anxiety can be and the various ways it manifests itself by sabotaging her daily existence. She does not break away from her pattern of using minimalist language, and although the tone is still direct, there is a trepidation that is not as apparent in her previous poems. It only adds to the rawness of her work and shows that We Need To Talk encompasses many topics that are not broached in Indian society, mental health being a core one. The juxtaposition between the fleeting nature of anxiety attacks, yet its anxiety’s permanency demonstrates Kohli’s talent at communicating the visceral through language: 

Sometimes anxiety
feels like the only
constant in my life
for it may leave
for a while but
never permanently,
and when it reappears,
it grips me with
such ferocity
that it takes
the oxygen
out of my body.”

We may not see her anxiety but we feel it. 

Kohli’s skill as a poet is flexed as she traverses many different emotions without losing the reader’s attention through the directness in her address. “Tribute” is an ode to the loved ones in Kohli’s life. In the last verses, Kohli proves that she does not paint men with a broad brush stroke. The verses concerning her grandfather, her brother and her lover are written with tenderness and love. For me, the poems serve a dual purpose. They are an homage to the men who showed her true love, and on a broader level are a reminder that misogyny is not a sickness, where the sick have no choice but to succumb. The tales of her brother and his love for her demonstrate that men have agency to choose love over complicit violence, and this love the author basked in: 

Having a father
who starved
me of love
and a brother
who gave it
in abundance
taught me
one of the most
important lessons
of my life.
A man is not
always defined
by the one
who raised him.”

The final verses bring We Need To Talk full circle, with Kohli dedicating her last sonnets to her mother’s experiences dealing with the very same patriarchy and misogyny examined in prior pages. There is solace in Kohli’s words to her mother and she acknowledges that the grief she feels, her mother is not a stranger to either. 

We Need To Talk is a holistic retelling of what it means to be a young Indian woman. The ferocity in its censure of Indian society, of the reproduction of toxic masculinity, to me, comes from needing to speak the truth into existence so that these topics do not remain in the shadows. The power of Kohli’s poetry comes from interweaving the bad and the good, the light and dark, to create a complex world that is brave and truthful to the experiences of many Indian women. The poems will no doubt spark discussion and be the catalyst for inspecting how we replicate the world around us in our own relationship dynamics. We Need To Talk is a work that deserves a wide audience and pause for conversation for many years to come. 


VARUNA NAICKER is a Fijian-Indian writer from Penrith, immigrating to Australia when her parents moved from Fiji in 1999. She holds a Bachelor of Communication degree and a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Governance. Varuna has deep interest in how social institutions form people’s perception of themselves and the perception of the world around them. She has worked in various media, including film and writing.