Climate Action, Identity Politics, and CanLit Aesthetics: An Interview with Farah Ghafoor

Rebecca Mangra

ROOM: The subject of climate action reoccurs in your work often, especially in your prize-winning poem “Self Portrait with Polar Bears.” The line, “How sick I am with beauty, / how spoiled of light,” is a beautiful rendering of the guilt that I think many of us sit with in regards to our role in climate change. Your earlier work from 2016, nature, animals, and the environment function prominently as well. I think that’s such a natural direction for writers of all stripes to explore because we’re always pushing away debris and glamour to find the root of things—whether that’s in life, love, loneliness, or crisis. Can you speak more about how your art intersects with the natural world, especially in its current state of endangerment?

FARAH GHAFOOR: I think my work has always been heavily inspired by the natural world. Maybe the reason why that might be is because I grew up in places with a lot of greenery. But I think more recently, at least in the last five years, I’ve been experiencing and becoming more aware of how much worse the world is going to be with climate change, and how it’s going to be extremely difficult for people in the Global South to survive. In general, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for all of us. That’s when I started incorporating research into my process. I would start with pieces of news and articles, or photographs and art online. And so along with my research process, I would also just become more aware of what’s in my immediate biosphere. I’ve read How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and that’s something she talks about. And so now I’m always trying to identify birds and plants and rocks around me. Just this morning, my mom sent me a bird video expecting me to identify it. And I was just like, Wow, I don’t know, but I looked up their calls and plumage.

But, yeah, I feel like research and becoming more aware of my immediate surroundings, like in the natural world, is so important to my writing process now. A lot of my work starts off as a response to an event or an idea. Like in “Self Portrait with Polar Bears”—I was responding to photographs and a BBC Earth documentary. Later, I was researching the concept of the rewilding of grizzly bears in the States. And so that’s sort of where I came up with the poem “The Jungle Book: Epilogue” that was in The Seventh Wave. And so I started to use these pieces of research and these ideas as the kernels of the poem. I guess they’ll [poems] turn into something completely different. I guess it changes each time. But I think that has been my response to climate change as a writer. It’s just been to document or reflect. To educate on some level. And I feel like educating is a big part of my process because I feel like I should be communicating all this research, all these weird and magnificent things. A lot of people don’t know about what’s in their immediate biosphere or the crazy stuff that’s going on in the animal kingdom, like how starving polar bears are eating dolphins for the first time in history, or how melting permafrost might release ancient diseases. I hope that especially in my newer work, I can write more on a visionary level: to explore ideas, what-ifs, and ways to live in the future.

ROOM: You’ve also written about current events, like the Christchurch mosque massacre in New Zealand, and topics relatable to BIPOC-identified folks, such as the ‘butchering’ of our names. As a Pakistani-American, visibly-Muslim woman writer, what is your approach to work that centers intimate aspects of yourself? Artists are always incorporating themselves into their work to some extent, and one might say you can’t divorce art from intimacy, but what is the process like for you?

FG: I struggle with it more because I’m actually a very private person. And so poems about my identity will not come easily, or they just feel like they’re too private and too close to home. I find that it’s easier for me to write about events that are related to me in some aspects, like the Christchurch shooting that happened or microaggressions, which have some distance from myself. That’s the only way I think I can sort of reflect on my identity and my role in a greater sense. I feel like maybe that’s why I don’t write nonfiction. Because in poetry, you can always hide to some degree and you don’t have to say the thing. I think I’m gonna try to write more about my identity and events like this because I feel like, you know, if I don’t do it, who will? Events like Christchurch, especially hate crimes and stuff, can be so easily forgotten in the news cycle. Everything goes so fast now. And I feel like even if I write a poem, people might forget about it tomorrow, but if I write a poem, and then it comes out, like in a few years, then I feel like that’s [a type of] documentation. A reminder of what happened, and especially as a reminder that Islamophobia is so alive and well.

ROOM: It really goes to show how prejudice lives in really deep-rooted ways, and has the potential to erupt in these violent encounters anywhere. The documentation you’re speaking of is so important.

You know, it’s interesting—I’m reading an essay collection by Tajja Isen, the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine. One of the chapters is about personal essays and the fact that recently, there’s been a boom in personal essays by people of colour, which is great. But editors tend to only really pick up essays where people of colour are suffering, or they’re reflecting on violence that’s happened to them in some way. And she talked about identity and the word itself, and that sometimes it’s used as kind of a buzzword to describe essays by people of colour. And when you see that, especially to white readers, that’s a signal that says, Okay, this is something that one ‘should’ read, right? But the word “identity” kind of homogenizes people of colour or reduces their work in a certain way. For you, do issues like that come to mind when you write poetry that kind of centers being Muslim, or being a woman, or all these kinds of different intersections? Do you feel pressure to bend against/subvert stereotypes? I find it exhausting to always feel like my experience can’t just be; it has to push against something, be made new, and not in a challenging craft way that all writers should aspire to, but specifically in the sense that it seems like as a woman of colour, my experience has to have a certain arc to get published. It can’t just exist without something tilting it in a specific way. Does that make sense?

FG: Yeah, so I do feel that pressure at times, but I’m also unable to write under those expectations. I can only try not to think about the way it’s going to be perceived and what’s expected of me as a Muslim woman poet. That term “identity” used by editors and audiences creates an expectation for the kind of work BIPOC are supposed to prioritize writing and publishing, but that’s not how poetry plays a role in my life. In that regard, I’m at the mercy of how others value my work, how quickly it will be picked up.

This issue also gives you that feeling of othering—that your experience isn’t normal or can’t be normalized, so it can’t exist just as itself, as you said. For example, a poem about prayer, which is as foundational in my everyday life as eating three meals, will be an identity poem, whereas a poem about a family gathering at Christmas or Thanksgiving will not be. I have to say I’m a bit jealous of people who can write a poem about going to the grocery store and have it received as well as their other work, and how their friends and family will not be judged through some narrow frame.

ROOM: I really enjoyed your poem “Oryx” from AHVAZ // AAVAZ // AVAAZ: A Chapbook Anthology of South Asian Poetry. What does the word ahvaz mean?

FG: It means both a sound and a voice. That’s what it means in Urdu, and probably in Hindi. I guess those three words are just different versions of the English transliteration.

ROOM: That’s beautiful. I also googled what an oryx is and then I saw it was an endangered animal. But in Arab culture, it’s a symbol of beauty and power. I thought that was really cool as well. The poem is crafted like a fine jewel. Your work is filled with such delicate yet startling imagery. You write: “Inside of me, always, is a smaller animal / with a glittering mirror for a face.” As a Muslim woman, I thought this was an apt metaphor for the ways in which we juggle how we see ourselves vs. how others see us vs. how others see themselves and their values inside of us. And I’m not just referencing to non-Muslim folks, but even how Muslim men see us, and also other Muslim women. We’re by no means a homogenous group. Is this one of the threads in “Oryx” or is it based on something completely different?

FG: Oh, no, you are pretty much on the dot in a way because when I was writing it, I was primarily thinking of the ways I view my own self, especially in that line you referenced. Once I read your analysis, I was just like, that’s also right. Because how I view myself is definitely influenced by the projections and the actions of other people who are non-Muslim or Muslim. And I think this is not actually something I was too introspective about as I was writing it. I thought that all of these accumulations were just my own personality, or how I view myself, but I was thinking about your analysis, and I was just thinking about how if you’re Muslim, you’re always being watched, especially if you’re Middle Eastern or South Asian. You’re always being surveilled more than other people. And so, the acts of self-surveillance and self-awareness have always been a way to protect ourselves because it’s something that a lot of us had to grow up with. And so maybe I was thinking that this contributed to my own sense of self-censorship, and, you know, my own inner continuous turmoil, as I was writing this poem. Among Muslims, there’s always going to be some judgment that makes us reflect constantly on our demeanor and how we look. Whether that kind of reflection is useful or not for us [is up for debate], but I think, culturally, it’s always been instilled in us that sense of self-awareness and reflection—at least for a lot of people.

ROOM: Yeah, I mean, I feel like the general public also doesn’t really understand just how widespread Islam is. You know, it goes beyond South Asia and the Middle East—for example, I’m Guyanese and Guyana is this super small country in South America. I think the dominant religions are Christianity and Hinduism, but there’s also a strong, albeit small Muslim population there. Even in my community in North York, Toronto, a lot of the mosques are headed by Guyanese imams and have a huge Guyanese membership.

In terms of writing, it’s a lot of balancing—when you bring certain pieces to editors, most of them already have an idea of what a Muslim woman should write about. I think we can both say we’re beyond the point where we care what that looks like, but the ways in which we’re trying to express what we’re going through in the 21st century and in a post-911 era are interesting.

FG: Yeah, exactly. I actually didn’t know much about Guyana. Wow. That’s really cool. What you were saying about editors approaching submissions and writers who are Muslim—I think that the market responds a lot better to negative experiences with your race or religion than it does otherwise. I feel like it’s not often that I encounter people writing toward Islam or in a more positive light. I totally know people have their own traumas and that’s often why people write poetry. But I feel like that is something editors are more inclined to.

ROOM: It’s definitely a complex topic and comes down to who gets to edit publications. Where they come from and what lens they are looking at things through. It’s why it’s great that something like the AHVAZ chapbook exists to center voices like South Asian women poets. Creating spaces like that is so important to fighting back the wave of trauma-based writing, which is important as you said, but it’s also nice to make room for love, light, and as you said, writing toward Islam. 

As a young and emerging writer, what has been your experience like sending out your work and navigating the Canadian/US literary scenes? As an emerging writer myself, while I do think the industry is trying to make more space for marginalized/new writers, I often feel like it’s still quite cliquey and interested in only some or certain kinds of marginalized voices, as we touched on earlier. I work at a literary magazine, so I know how hard it is to cut down hundreds of submissions to a handful and manage a publication, but I think there are still more ways we can invite emerging writers, especially those of marginalized backgrounds. Sometimes, it feels like in CanLit especially, it’s basically five writers in a trench coat. [Laughs]

FG: Well, when I started out, I was in high school. I was only exposed to the American market for poetry and those literary magazines (Poetry, The Adroit Journal, etc). When I came to CanLit, I noticed they are totally different. They value different forms and aesthetics. Obviously, different content as well. The way they are structured are also totally different—in the US, there are more book contests and more literary magazines funded by universities, versus the government funding that a lot of Canadian magazines get. In Canada, there are more festivals and the publishing process is different as well as the promotion process. I feel like those differences contribute to how we experience publishing especially for minority writers. In both markets, there is an emphasis on trauma-based writing from BIPOC folks, but in the US there are so many more opportunities to accommodate more leeway [in subject matter]. In CanLit, the market is much smaller. When I say market—I feel like I’m talking so clinically about poetry [laughs]—the size of CanLit is also smaller based on population. I actually haven’t been in CanLit very long—I only discovered magazines a few years ago. I have noticed the same couple of people being published in magazines and how it’s structured and funded is definitely a contributing factor. In contrast to the US market, where it feels like a big block party—there are corners you might want to stay at more than others. In comparison, CanLit feels like a small reading where people are listening to five people read their work. The aesthetics of Canadian and American poetry, based on origins or population or teaching styles, [are different] and I feel like my writing does lend better to the American aesthetic. Inside and outside of identity-based writing. CanLit actually does not lend itself to my own practice or work.

ROOM: Do you have advice for folks just starting to send out their work? 

FG: I would say to submit only to places you like to read regularly. Don’t be afraid to stand by your morals, especially when you’re submitting to magazines. Institutions can change, but take a stand somewhere based on your work.

ROOM: That’s good advice. Especially, when you’re starting out, you tend to agree with editors about changes, even if you don’t want to, because you’re too scared to lose the opportunity to get published. 

What current projects are you working on? You talked earlier about a manuscript. Is that for a full-length collection?

FG: Yes, it’s for a full-length collection. I don’t want to share the title because it might change—I don’t want to embarrass myself later on. It’s still interested in climate change, but more veering on the side of the systems and power dynamics that affect climate change, so generational dynamics, capitalism, and imperialism. I’m pivoting from my previous work that was more focused on climate grief and climate anxiety. Climate anger. [Laughs]

ROOM: Well, you’re still so young, so your dynamics and aesthetics are always going to be evolving.

FG: Yeah, hopefully! I hope to never get stuck on the same thing. 

ROOM: There’s so much out there in the world to write about. My last question is a bit of a random one but indulge me: you used to put in previous author bios that you “deserved a cat”—did you eventually get one?

FG: Oh my god, yeah! [Laughs] I was a teenager and I was like, I want to put something fun in my bio. I did get my cat for an unrelated reason—it’s the family cat. His origin story is completely different than what I originally hoped for. His name is Kovu, like from Lion King 2. He’s a Russian Blue and a year old. 

It’s been so nice talking to you!

ROOM: Likewise! Can’t wait for your collection. 

 

Rebecca Mangra is a Canadian writer and editor. Her critical writing has been published in magazines such as Canthius and PRISM international. She is currently working on her first novel.

Farah Ghafoor‘s work is published in Arc Poetry Magazine, Prism International, CV2, Ninth Letter, The Fiddlehead and elsewhere. Her poems have been longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets and Best of the Net, and taught in postsecondary courses. Born in New York, she was raised in New Brunswick and Ontario, and resides in Scarborough.

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