forgetting urdu: An Interview with Zehra Naqvi

Rachel Thompson interviews Zehra Naqvi, winner of Room‘s 2016 poetry contest.

Zehra Naqvi is the winner of Room‘s 2016 poetry contest. She is a Karachi-born writer and editor residing on unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver). She recently completed her undergraduate degree in English Honours and Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her work has also appeared in Schema Magazine, The Talon, and Jaggery.

ROOM: Your poem begins in 1858 with the redcoats. How did you first learn this history and what impact did it have on you to learn it?

ZN: I grew up hearing this history from my parents and my grandmother. My grandmother was born in British-ruled India and experienced the violent 1947 Partition as a young woman, fleeing to the newly created Pakistan. Her stories of Lucknow, India fascinated me. They are the connection I have to my ancestral land in India, a place that can no longer be home because of the legacies and continuing aftermath of colonization. I felt a sense of longing and loss when I heard her stories. I continue to learn about the history of the British Empire’s invasion and occupation of India, which resulted in the migration of my own grandparents to Pakistan, and then my parents to Coast Salish lands because of the difficult conditions in Pakistan. It’s a tragic history, and it’s painful to witness how this centuries-old colonial legacy continues to impact my family’s movements and sense of displacement. When you have to move, things get lost, people get left behind, languages and practices forgotten. For us, generations have been experiencing this. I feel I have to go back, locate, and make sense of the forgotten and the scattered. Through my writing, I want to piece together what got left behind.

ROOM: You right-align the prose poem, which mimics Urdu’s own right alignment, challenging the English reader to see their own language in a strange way. Tell us about that choice and your intention here.

ZN: I wanted to incorporate aspects of Urdu poetry in the poem. I envisioned the poem as an English sonnet trying to become a ghazal—a classical English form trying to become a classical Urdu form. I cannot write poetry in Urdu. Upon immigrating to Canada as a child, I forgot how to express myself in Urdu writing.  So English is what I have, but I want to try to make it do the work of Urdu. The poem has 14 lines, a volta and a couplet, like a sonnet. But it is right aligned like Urdu, and the only words that are capitalized are words directly referring to British colonial symbols. The Urdu language does not have capital letters. Urdu letters appear to have an equal presence on the page, while English letters like to engage in the business of capitalization and hierarchies (not to imply that the Urdu doesn’t have its own complicity in imperial practices, because it does). While I break the sonnet and slowly attempt to turn the sonnet into a ghazal, I ultimately fail. In a traditional ghazal, the poet includes their name in the last two lines. I feel I have not earned this, so I insert the name of Ghalib. What I have on the page is not a traditional ghazal nor is it a traditional sonnet. It is a hybrid. And the poem fails because English cannot be Urdu, it cannot fully substitute Urdu, and this displaced poet no longer remembers how to write in Urdu.

ROOM: Contest judge, Marilyn Dumont, noted your juxtaposition of violent images like “bayonets and bleach” and lyric images like “the bows and masts of nastaleeq.” Did you begin writing the poem with one image in particular?

ZN: I had a few disparate images, of bayonets, bleach, and parchments with the ink of Urdu calligraphy fading. There was colour and lack of colour, ink and bleach, and paper, and the feeling of being lost at sea. The first draft of the poem did not make much sense but contained these images and emotions. It was borne out of an impassioned moment of free writing, and these images came pouring out onto the page. I felt there was something meaningful there so I kept playing with the poem, chipping away at it, giving it form. Throughout the rewriting process, the images began to connect and it became clearer to me what the poem was trying to express.

ROOM: Have you written other poems influenced by the Urdu language?

ZN: I have been writing a few ghazals in English, but I find them quite challenging. I’ve been experimenting with form to find ways to incorporate my Urdu voice in English. However, I feel a part of me is dissatisfied when I read my English poetry aloud to my Urdu-speaking family, so I’ve been re-learning Urdu with my mother. I want to be able to write poetry in Urdu, but I’m not there yet. As a bilingual person, I am aware that there are certain things I can more easily express in Urdu that I struggle to in English and vice versa. I’ve been curious about exploring this within the in-between space of the two languages where I find myself right now.

ROOM: Do you feel pressure to write on specific cultural themes or topics given the current geopolitical climate—or is the weight of distant history enough? Is there more urgency today to write about Muslim experiences?

ZN: There’s certainly pressure and there’s certainly a great deal of urgency. A lot of that pressure comes from myself. Sometimes it can also feel like an expectation, that as an immigrant Muslim woman of colour there are things I ought to be writing about right now. A part of me resents that pressure. It can feel like a trap. And yet, at the same time there is such a void, especially within CanLit, when it comes to representation of Muslim writers. I did not grow up reading Muslim women writers, but I desperately needed them. I have to write into this void, as many Muslim writers of colour are doing. I have to create space for myself and for my communities.

More urgently, imperial games and wars are being waged on the basis of intentional stereotypes about people like me. My communities are burning. I need to respond. I am privileged to have the ability to speak out about these issues. I owe it to my twice-immigrated grandmother, my scattered family, my elders, my refugee aunties and uncles to use my voice. It is my responsibility to fight for my communities and myself. And yet, I have to remind myself that I am not just geopolitics. I am not just trauma, colonization, war, and displacement. I am not just borders, post-9/11 politics, and islamophobia. I am not just a response to a series of headlines and historic wrongs. I do like writing about spring showers, the night sky, and ocean waves. It can be suffocating and exhausting to limit myself to writing only about issues like racism, Muslim identity, and displacement. There is a lot of trauma there and to constantly write from a place of trauma takes a toll.

Moreover, I can keep writing frantically and things can continue to get worse. Many Muslim writers are writing, and sometimes I cynically wonder to what end? Who is listening? The powers that be can destroy entire nations at the stroke of a pen. My pen can’t keep up with the sheer magnitude of loss and destruction. So, I’m trying to find a way to write and respond from not just a place of trauma and anger, but also a place of celebration and joy. The latter is more difficult but necessary. To have a balance of both, I think, would be to have sustainable writing.  That is, to write inwardly, for myself, for my people, and not just to address the gaze that others us.

ROOM: What is your writing routine like?

ZN: It’s very unstable and something I desperately need to work on. I just graduated from a creative writing program and my writing routine was very much organized around my coursework. I’m on my own now, and it’s difficult to stay accountable to my myself. I usually manage to write most when I’m writing toward a deadline, so I’m currently on the look out for submission deadlines from magazines and literary contests. 

ROOM: What poets are you currently reading and taking inspiration from?

ZN: I have been reading Urdu poetry (slowly, with assistance, and often in translation) and familiarizing myself with Urdu feminist writers such as Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, and Parveen Shakir. I’m also excited about poets who have found an international audience through social media and non-traditional means, such as Nayyirah Waheed, Rupi Kaur, and Warsan Shire. I love what Safia Elhillo does with form and language in her poems. Mohja Kahf’s Hagar Poems is a wonderful addition to Islamic feminist literature. Also, I was recently quite moved by Fatimah Asghar’s “If They Should Come For Us”.

ROOM: What has winning the Room poetry contest meant to you, and do you have any suggestions for others thinking of entering the contest next year?

ZN: I cried when I found out “forgetting urdu” won the contest. I remember squealing to my mother, “Marilyn Dumont read my poem and she liked it!” I greatly admire her poetry and wrote on The Pemmican Eaters for a class, so to even have her read my poem, was a huge deal. I was not sure how such a specific poem about Urdu cultural references would be received, but Room created a space for it. I am so grateful, to Marilyn Dumont and to everyone involved in the process for believing in this poem. For those thinking about entering the contest, and for those who are writing from the margins, if you’re feeling as though there isn’t any space for your writing within CanLit, there’s probably a place at Room for you. Go ahead and submit.

[Photo credit: K. Ho]


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