At thirty-two an urgent care doctor called and told me that my fasting blood sugar of 397 mg/dL was dangerously high. Fasting blood sugar for me should have been 85-120 mg/dL. I had to learn my body’s new diabetic language and quickly. Milligrams to deciliter. I had 397 milliliters of glucose per every deciliter. I tried to understand it. I closed my eyes. I opened my eyes. Everything was blurry.
I met a couple of my Caribbean Indian friends for coffee in a Vietnamese coffee shop in the East Village after I got the news.
“I was just diagnosed with diabetes,” I said. “My father has it as did my Nani.”
Both looked up from the shared dessert. “Oh no, R—, already?” Andil asked. Already. Was it all predetermined, written in my star chart? Drawn in the lines of my palms? That I, the great grandchild of an indentured laborer, would absolutely become insulin resistant?
I was surprised by what he said. As though, somehow it was not really all my fault. I was still caught in the guilt web: a fly wrapped and unable to move in the silk threads of anxiety.
According to an article published October 18, 2015 in The Lancet, Diabetes and Endocrinology by Naveed Sattar and Jason M R Gill,
South Asians, particularly when living in high-income countries, are at a substantially elevated risk of type 2 diabetes compared with white Europeans, and typically develop the disease 5–10 years earlier and at a lower BMI.
Epigenetics is the study of how genes coded in our biology are expressed. It accounts for the “lessons learned” of past generations and shows exactly the ways in which traumas are mapped into a bodily memory based on environmental factors that cause certain genes to be expressed or repressed.
In 1890 the SS Jura departed what was then Calcutta bearing a man named Lachman. Lachman had signed an indenture contract that brought him out of the Faizabad-Ayodhya area to work on the sugar plantations. The “agreement” that he signed, either with gusto, trepidation, or against his will, stated that he would be bound to a sugar plantation in Demerara for a period of five years with the possibility of resigning for another five years. If he fulfilled two indenture contracts, then the sovereign of Britain would grant him return boat fare to send him back to India.
This man would become the father of Mohabir, my great grandfather. What comes next is my speculation based on years of reading into my history. The family record is a bit dodgy in that only the main event is remembered.
Aboard the ship the cooks served food without pork and beef—after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 which was the first war for India’s independence. In this rebellion Indians—Muslims and Hindus alike—were tricked into biting British bullets greased with pork and beef fat that polluted the bodies of the religious people. The British were liars. They always have been in their communications with their colonized constituencies. India was no less. Perhaps they thought that aboard the ships they would avoid possible mutinies by forbidding both pork and beef on the journey, a remaining dietary restriction for many in Guyana today as this mutiny occurred during the period when jahajis were actively being shipped as human cargo.
On the SS Jura the jahajis were given simple white cotton kurtas, dhotis, and saris to wear. Whole grain atta was replaced with refined white flour, gurd replaced with refined white sugar, chawr replaced with white parboiled rice. The diets of the people were replaced by the colonially conscribed analogous foods that underwent more processes than the foodstuffs that the Indians ate in their home villages.
When Lachman arrived, he was sent to the plantation to live in a logie—or the converted enslaved peoples’ barracks—with a woman who would then become his common law wife. She was indentured and protected by Lachman on the boat, entering into a relationship of necessity that would keep her from being sexually exploited by the shipmates and the surgeons. Their union was born of a new ritual: that of the colonial distribution wherein those with agency were white and unbound, land-owning, and cruel. There are no bystanders in this process who were not cruel and diabolical. Not even the planter’s white wife who sat on her veranda, attended by Coolies, and gifted children sweets. She was as guilty as the planters and the whip cracking drivers who sat atop horses, hats piled high on their heads, gone to assess the Coolies’ daily labor.
As they worked the fields, Lachman and his wife woke every morning at four to prepare the day’s meal: one roti with salt and rice boiled in either milk or yogurt, both served with what achaar or chutney they could make from Amazonian mangoes and imported masalas.
In the field, Lachman marched with his cutlass in his hand. His wife was summoned to the planter’s house to do housework for them—possibly to clean the estate house, cook food, or mind the planters’ pickni. When she got there the planter took her into the bedroom and raped her on a white sheet. The day grew long and then dark. She was unable to rebuff his advances—she was only a Coolie after all. Where was the mem-sahib? Where were the other Coolies? What about the children?
Night began its hum of music: insects and birds in steady orchestration. Lachman returned to the logie. The barracks of rooms in a line stretched out before a trench of human waste. The smell nauseated him as he approached, expecting his “wife” to be in the home, returning from the estate house with some happy treat for them to enjoy. But the house was empty.
He asked his neighbor in a newly developing language of plantation Hindi, “Bhaiya, ka tu jane hai ke hamar stri kehar gayal?”
“Uu sahib ke yahan se nahin lautal ba ab tak,” he answered without concern. She had not yet returned from the estate house, but this was not unusual. The white sahibs could own whichever woman he wanted, by force, bodily or economic, that incarnated in bribes of living in better conditions and treats of chocolate.
Lachman went out and summoned his neighbors, “Uu logan hamke dhoka marat rahe. Ham nahin chupchap se sahen sake hai. Chalo hamar sange aur ham aapan shikayat deb ii gaure backra rakshasan ke.”
His neighbors clamored together in the night, wielding hoes and cutlasses. With torches lit they approached the magistrate’s house.
“Me want you mus’ gi’ me back me wife,” Lachman’s eyes roiled with reflected flames.
“You go go you home, wha’ me one me go take,” his white words in Pidgin scalded the crowd.
“Me na go go da’ side til me wife come wit me.”
The planter left his home bearing a pistol while Lachman’s wife looked on from the verandah. The assembled crowd made the white man shake with fear. He fired one round and hit Lachman square in the chest.
“Hai bhagwan you kill me,” were probably his last words.
What became of Lachman’s wife? Was she raped by the white planters until she was no longer a person? Did her children survive their mixed-race status in the colonial hell designed and architected by the British? Did he descend into alcoholism as well? My father used to say that Mohabir was possibly mixed-race: Scottish and Coolie as a way to account for the green eyes in his family. My eldest nephew, however, sent his saliva to the authorities who say he is forty-eight percent “South Asian,” leaving fifty-two percent a mix of European ancestry. His mother is white, his father, Coolie. I took a DNA test and found no evidence of this familial story in my own genes.
Lachman’s descendants remained in Guyana after the British reneged on their promise to return our ancestors to their homes. Instead, they gave parcels of land to the Coolies whose contracts ended. My father’s family were sent to New Amsterdam and Crabwood Creek. Sugar begat Lachman. Lachman begat Mohabir. Mohabir begat Sewdass. Sewdass begat Chandrnarine. Chandrnarine begat R—.
They settled into lives of rice cultivation and trading. They became poor and destitute. They ate refined carbohydrates and processed foods. There was a specific kind of class honor in eating canned foods packaged from the colonies.
When my father was forty-two, he began to see double. In Orlando the doctors gave him a diagnosis: Type 2 diabetes—Adult-onset diabetes. A disease of “lifestyle.” He didn’t know if his father had it or was susceptible, or about his grandfather or great grandfather either. What he knew was that in the last one hundred years our family’s diet had changed significantly from the combination of hard, manual labor in the field to carbohydrates available in all sorts of refined packaging. With our colonized diets diseases stalked us.
When he called to tell his mother, my Aji, he said on the phone, “Ma, me get sugah.”
In his book Why We Get Fat And What to Do About It, Gary Taube makes the connections between colonization, changing food ways, and diabetes. The thesis of this book is to reevaluate the widespread belief about the factors of obesity, which rely on a one-to-one correlation between calories in and calories spent. Obesity is an epidemic that comes from on overreliance on carbohydrates for sustenance. Eating carbohydrates, he says, also leads to sluggishness and lack of motivation for movement.
The connections with colonization that Taube provides include looking at folks in Native American populations who have had significant changes made to their diets after American occupation began. High protein diets were replaced with diets of refined white flour and white rice and white sugar. Taube writes,
when isolated populations start eating Western foods, sugar and white flour are invariably the first, because these foods could be transported around the world as items of trade without spoiling or being devoured on the way by rodents or insects. (Taube 171-172)
The poet in me leaps to connect the dots—to make a metaphor about my ancestors’ labor being transported throughout the world in order to fulfill British desire for luxury. That our suffering is what we inherit from this flawed and tragic system. We eat what was convenient for our masters to ship, not what our ancestors taught us to eat.
Taube says, “Eat Western diets, get Western diseases—notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer” (Taube 168), which are all major health concerns in Indo-Caribbean populations. This “nutrition transition” he points out leads to other concerns as well, including mental health issues.
In my own familial history, my great grandparents on my father’s side left a rural India in which they relied on agricultural work to live, eating carbohydrate rich diets, spending time in the fields working. The carbohydrates they consumed did not undergo the same process of the carbohydrates that they began to consume once coming to Guyana. In fact, they moved from eating their whole grain wheat and rice to eating more refined white starches.
As the next generation left the plantations and became freed of the colonization that bound them to the sugarcane fields, they remained indentured to a colonized diet that had them rely on sugar—whether the actual refined sugar of the plantations, rum, or the white refined flour and rice of the colony.
Growing up with this inheritance several things changed for my family: language, religion, and food. One of the Caribbean Hindu sweet treats, served after attending prayer services like jhandis or jags, is persad. My Aji’s recipe relied on flour, sugar, and ghee to make what is analogous to what folks in India would call halwa. Instead of wheat germ, white flour. Any quick Google search will produce many unsubstantiated claims that wheat germ will help lower chances for cardiovascular disease and diabetes given its whole grain magic.
In paper bags filled with grapes and bananas came persad. Persad is a sweet dough that is eaten with the hand after offered to the gods. I provide her recipe below—full of all the colonized staples that after consuming increase the risk for diabetes.
- 1 cup white all-purpose flour
- 1 cup refined white sugar
- 1 cup ghee
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup maraschino cherries
- In a large karahi pot melt the butter.
- Pour in the flour and paache fry it until it becomes a golden brown (iike laal hoijai—my Aji would say).
- In a separate pot heat the milk and mix in sugar. Warm until all the sugar dissolves.
- When sufficiently browned add the milk and sugar mixture to the flour very slowly to avoid making lumps and stir frequently. (Some people substitute condensed milk for the whole milk during this step, though I’ve heard of folks using additional sugar.)
- Add the vanilla extract along with the raisins and maraschino cherries.
- When the contents come together with a dough-like consistency take off from the stove and let cool.
I mused to my white ex-sister-in-law once that diabetes in my community results from colonization of our traditional food ways—that the irony of this disease is that WE, the brown dehumanized workers, descend into a disease that makes it dangerous to consume sugar. That the slave trade and then the indenture trade was developed just to sweeten foods and drinks for white people—that we suffered for someone else’s luxury. She rolled her eyes and said, “Oh sure, blame whitey.”
And I absolutely do. We have no records of most of the women we descend from—just what patriarchy tells us through our genetic expressions.
That diabetes is referred to as a “lifestyle disease” puts the onus of this epidemic on personal choices that individuals make that don’t account for histories of forced migration. It absolves white colonizers from the havoc that they burned into us. The trauma of being thingified, raped, and becoming possessions of white people has long lasting scars across the line of descent, marked on our genes.
After my own diagnosis I felt shame creep into my life. It was kudzu strangling out the forest with its broad leaves of anxiety. Sugar was poison. But so too became many other things that I love. Daal and rice. Roti. Pelau. Chai. Milk. Lassi. Faluda. Goja. Sawaine. Vermicelli. Khir. Ras malai. Dosti roti. Pera. Bake. Joy. Laughter. Gladness. Ever being happy again.
I had done this to myself. I deserve the misery since it was me wha’ get sugah.
Type 2 diabetes results from what is known as insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that the body produces naturally, secreted by the pancreas, that helps to make energy in the form of glucose available for cellular use. When we eat carbohydrates of any kind: sugar, starch, legume, the body produces insulin to help and get the energy out of the bolus. It either allows the glucose to be used as cellular energy or deposits it as fat in fat cells for later use by the body.
Insulin resistance occurs when the insulin secreted is not recognized by the cells and the glucose in the bloodstream is not taken up to be used. This results with higher levels of glucose in the blood stream which can eventually lead the diabetic into complications from hyperglycemia. A blood sugar of over 600 mg/dL can result in diabetic coma. A diabetic coma can also be induced through low blood sugar, or sugar that is below 60.
When the body resists insulin, glucose builds up in the bloodstream.
According to Medical News Today, the types of foods to avoid are exactly the types of foods that I like to eat and that are very Guyanese:
- sweets, such as cupcakes, chocolate, and ice cream
- soda, fruit juices, and other sweetened drinks
- large quantities of alcohol
- processed food
- potatoes and other starchy vegetables
- dairy, especially milk
- fried food
- low-fiber white rice, flour, pasta, and bread (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/305567.php)
Mitai and persad. Mauby and sorrel. Rum, rum, rum. White flour. Alu ball—alu anything. Khir, vermicelli. Phulowri, barah, puri, baigani…Roti. Rote. Rice.
Type 2 diabetes is commonly believed to be a “lifestyle disease” that can be preventable with exercise and diet, being white, and not having a history of indenture in your family.
My father’s family isn’t the only place where insulin-resistance punishes us. It is also on my mother’s side. My Nani, née Emma Vera(sammy)—of Tamilian ancestry, was compelled by her Hindu husband, twenty years her senior, to change her name to Amla Devi Prashad—a name befitting a mahrajin, the wife of a brahmin pandit. My mother says that her mother never really converted and was buried in England with Christian rights, her epitaph marked with the cross of Jesus.
Emma was the second daughter of a poor Madrasi couple who lived in abject poverty just outside of Georgetown, Guyana. When Hari Prashad—by then a well to do pandit—passed by her home he saw her and wanted to marry her. Their marriage could produce a wife who, because of her economic status, could be easily controlled.
Emma’s mother was named Maude Watson and she was a convert to Christianity though she may have once been Muslim. Orphaned on the boat arrived at Georgetown, Guyana on June 18, 1894, she was adopted by a Black family as a small child, no more than three or four years old. According to family story narrated by my Nani’s sister, she was forced into Christianity at her adoptive parents’ behest and was kept as what my aunty calls a “slave.” What became of her daughter, my Nani, was to follow: mental health decline, a victim of domestic violence, and death from sugar.
My Nani was the second born and stubborn-born, according to her sister. She wanted so much to marry the affluent man Hari Prashad who had not yet risen to his economic status that would allow him to enjoy owning multiple properties in England, including the flat that my father and his brother would let in the 1970s.
According to my mother, her mother was an insulin dependent diabetic only once they moved to England from Guyana in 1962. Her shots were regulated by her husband and my mother remembers the bruises that the syringes left along her arms, the induration from the repeated injections of the hormone. When she was done with one spot she would move onto the next. “She loved to sneak sweets when she thought we weren’t looking,” she says, also admitting that her mother loved sweet and colorful drinks like sorrel and mauby.
Looming large in the narrative of diabetes is my Nani’s death. She and my Nana had moved to England when my mother was fourteen years old. I asked my mother about her life and the illnesses her mother had, since growing up the circumstances of her passing were shrouded in mystery. My Nana and Nani would daily wake from sleep, perform puja, and eat breakfast. Following breakfast Nani would gather the uneaten rice and roti from the night before. Part of my family’s sadhana, or daily ritual, was to feed the birds that grew to expect the jhutha of the devout. A cousin recounts to me that, the night before, Nani had lots of sweet drink and was disoriented and incoherent. Was my Nani experiencing complications due to diabetes that would lead her into the next world?
My mother recounts the story, her own memory mired in the upset of witnessing abuse and the mental degradation of her own mother. Nani, at sixty-one years of age, “blacked out” and fell to her death bearing the plate with rice for the birds. The end of the story concludes with my mother praying the Hanuman Chalisa and my Nani taking the shape of cardinals in our dreams.
What has always troubled me about this story was the passing out before the fall. It is possible that my Nani had unchecked hyperglycemia which could lead to disorientation and diabetic coma, thus resulting in the kind of “blacking out” that my mother describes. I look to Mayo Clinic to help explain this to me. It’s possible that my Nani suffered from diabetic ketoacidosis which according to the Mayo Clinic’s website,
develops when you don't have enough insulin in your body. When this happens, sugar (glucose) can't enter your cells for energy. Your blood sugar level rises, and your body begins to break down fat for energy. (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hyperglycemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20373631)
Complicating matters further, Nani had bouts of “madness” or moments when she stopped making sense to the people around her. My mother speculates that due to her mental illness, which never received a proper diagnosis from health care professionals, she was not able to properly look after herself. She was in and out of mental health institutions and would spend time catatonic and quiet.
That time when my Nani grew disoriented and her speech garbled result from this deterioration of her mental health or could it have been somehow related to her blood sugar levels? With either high or low blood sugar levels, diabetics tend to become short, confused, repetitive, and hard to understand. When I asked her this question, my mother responded that isolating one “reason” that is not interconnected with another is an impossible feat—and would produce a result unbecoming of understanding intersectional politics.
But what about sugar is it that is so irresistible to me? I am programmed to want foods that will store as much energy as possible. That and because it is proven to be addictive. I am addicted to sugar. The white refined granules can be found in many places that I least expect. Trying to read all the labels shows me directly how exactly it has haunted me.
In 2011-2012 I took a leave from finishing my Master of Fine Arts degree at Queens College and stepped away from my job teaching English to speakers of other languages for the NYC Department of Education, to live in Jaipur, India for a language learning fellowship through the American Institute of Indian Studies.
Going to India was monumental for me the first time I went (2003-2004), being the first of my family to return to the subcontinent since our ancestors left in the late 1800s. Learning Hindi in India as a brown person is quite an experience. I am often read as Indian but not quite from the city where I am. I am often asked if I am Tamilian when I’m in Delhi and when I’m in Ernakulam, folks ask if I am Punjabi. When I am in India, I am actually a ghost. A forgotten remnant of the past, unreadable and queer.
Of course, I was not a diagnosed diabetic at the time, but realize now that I had symptoms common to unchecked and undiagnosed hyperglycemia. I drank an entire liter of Bisleri water before I left my home each morning and had a hard time staying awake in class after eating my usual morning “breakfast” of simple carbohydrates. Across the street from my home in Jawahar Nagar Sector 4 was a sweets shop. Daily new and seasonal treats would be whipped from almonds, cashews, vermicelli noodles, milk, phirni, and of course sugar. I ate as much as I could, topping it off with fresh samosas and katchoris from the shop in Raja Park on my walk to language classes. Then chai breaks every two hours kept me hyperglycemic.
After class, I studied for exams at the Anokhi Café, a Western style coffee shop that adjoins the clothing store. Hindi for sugar is चीनी chini. Hindi for diabetes is मधुमेह रोग madhumeh rog—literally meaning honey-rain disease. I have honey-rain disease. Me get sugah.
My daily order was a French press and some kind of cake, pie, or muffin. When the waiters served us our treats, placing mugs and plates on piles of notecards and notebooks, I reached for the sugar tray.
Only after having this ritual for several months did I notice the packaging of the brown sugar that I ripped into. The brown sachet was marked with black and pink writing that read: Demerara Sugar. Demerara as in Guyana. Demerara as in one of the counties in Guyana my family is from. Demerara as in me. A brown sachet like me. I was not a ghost after all. I was alive despite colonial and national amnesias. I lived on as sugar. How many people have I poisoned into amputated limbs on the Indian subcontinent, my temporary and ancestral home?
Another staple in my childhood home was khir, also called sweet rice. I think the word khir was used by folks from my father’s village: Crabwood Creek in Berbice, and not so much by the city Coolies like my mother’s family in Georgetown.
Khir is basically what it sounds like, rice that’s been cooked to be sweet. Usually my family would make it for extra special events. These include the visiting of a family member gone unseen for ages. Like when I returned from India the first time, when I walked into my home in Florida, I could smell the cinnamon and sugar right away.
When my father would make it, he would boil the milk, white rice, and refined sugar together until it was almost pudding-like. After it cooled it would be easy to cut into squares. But that’s not how we used to eat it at all. My sister, brother, and I would take three large ladles of the white goop and eat it with vanilla ice cream. My father once admitted to putting vanilla ice cream into the pot as he made this dessert. This is his recipe below.
Khir / Sweet Rice
- 1 gallon of whole milk
- 3 cups white rice
- 3 cups of white sugar
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- ½ cup raisins
- 1 cup vanilla ice cream
- In a pot slowly heat the washed rice, milk, and sugar. Do not let the mixture come to a boil, rather keep it simmering. This will take a very long time so you will need to add more milk slowly as it boils down.
- Place in the cinnamon sticks and cloves.
- Put in raisins about 30 minutes before the kheer is finished.
- At the very end, when the kheer is all done, when the rice is soft and the mixture is thick, put in the vanilla ice cream and let it melt.
- Take off stove and let cool for five minutes before serving.
In my birth month in 2019, I woke to take a fasting blood sugar test, a routine that I do every three months to monitor my A1C levels. I produced three vials of my blood for the doctors and lab technicians to determine my average blood glucose level for the last three months. A1C stands for glycated hemoglobin—the test determines how much glucose is fused to each hemoglobin molecule.
When I went back for my follow up appointment my doctor furrowed his brow.
“Your A1C level has increased dramatically from 7.1, which was borderline anyhow, to 9.8. Have you been sticking to your exercise and meal plan?” he asked.
I was shocked. I had been on the job market trying to find another tenure-track assistant professorship in creative writing in order to leave Alabama. In the weeks I accepted a position at Emerson College a journalist in west Alabama called for the KKK to rise again and ride to Washington DC. During this same week a local coffee shop was the site of Nazi sloganeering where a man carrying a pistol jumped on a table and began spouting vitriol. This was supposed to be a “safe space”yet the owners support open-carry laws. The last thing that happened was a shooting across the street from the veterinary school where the police burned an apartment to get at the alleged shooter of a police officer. It was time for my interracial, queer family to leave.
Being on the job market caused me anxiety and stress, causing my body to produce more cortisol, the stress hormone, which triggers the release of insulin in the body as well. When in fight or flight reaction the liver releases glucose to fuel the cells for either engaging the opponent or turning tail and running the fuck out of the way. My enemy was not an enemy as such—rather it was stress, which also drove me to eating chocolate ice-cream once or twice.
“I have been…” I lied, not thinking clearly.
“We have to see if your body is still producing insulin. These numbers are dramatic and shocking. Sometimes our bodies just stop producing the hormones that we need. It’s not your fault—the human body is apt at betrayal.”
Didn’t I know it. But it was my fault. Chocolate. Ice-cream. Donuts. Peanut butter cups. Cheesecake. Christmas pudding. Black cake. Roti. Rice. Fried rice.
The doctor gave me an insulin pen to take daily, injecting myself with twenty units of insulin in the morning until he could take more blood from me to check my platelets. He wanted to see if my body, in fact, had stopped producing this hormone altogether.
I fell into a guilt spiral. Diabetes is called a “lifestyle disease,” meaning it was because of my own choices that I got into this predicament. When people say this, I now roll my eyes. Me know. Me get sugah. I punished myself plenty since my diagnosis in June 2013—berating myself for what I thought were my choices: being an unhealthy unbalanced vegetarian from 1998 to 2010, enjoying sugar in my coffee. But I have come to a place where I think the term “lifestyle disease” absolves white imperialists of the havoc they have wrought all over the world.
I have inherited diabetes as an epigenetic transmission, from living millennia eating a healthy diet only to be colonized over one hundred years ago and to have my food ways changed. If this is what people mean by “lifestyle disease,” then yes—my life has been styled by dehumanization, toil, bondage, and survival.
The doctor returned with my lab results. My body is producing insulin. I exhaled and renewed my determination to keep my blood circulating, to try to avoid complications of hyperglycemia that killed my Nani. I have three more months to exercise and eat a diabetic friendly diet before we move on to the next step.
I take the dog on long walks, one and a half hours in the morning and forty-five minutes at night. I convince myself that carbohydrate eradication from my diet will give me back my pancreas. I skip breakfast. For lunch I eat tuna on a bed of arugula and almonds. Dinner is usually some hunk of meat with greens. And then I finish with whipped cream and blueberries sweetened with xylitol. High fat. High, high fat. I have tried to eliminate all refined starches including flours and sugar.
But everything that I crave is sweet. Maple syrup candy. Fudge. Cream soda. Mithai. Ladu. Barfi.
Poet, memoirist, and translator, Rajiv Mohabir is the author of four books of poetry including Whale Aria (Four Way Books 2023), Cutlish (Four Way Books 2021) which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and recipient of the Eric Hoffer Medal Provocateur. His poetry and nonfiction have been finalists for the 2022 PEN/America Open Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry and in Nonfiction, the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, and both second place and finalist for the Guyana Prize for Literature in 2022 (poetry and memoir respectively). His translations have won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2020. He is an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Colorado Boulder.