Furqan Mohamed is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online publications. In this interview, Hope Lauterbach, a member of the Growing Room Collective, had the opportunity to ask Furqan a few questions about her work in a mini-reflection of 2020. The interview explores the challenges of writing for and about community. Furqan’s recent essay, “Thoughts on Community”, can be viewed here.
[This interview was conducted via phone call, and portions have been edited for clarity.]
ROOM: You’re in school right now, at the University of Toronto, is that right? What are you studying?
Furqan Mohamed (FM): I am a Gender Studies and English major and I am doing a minor in Creative Expression and Society. My focus in this minor is a little bit more towards poetry. I just completed a poetry creative writing class which had 25 students, and we were broken into groups of four. Every week on Thursday, we would share our work and give each other notes and ask for notes on our own work. At the end, we had to compile a big portfolio for the professor. It was pretty enjoyable.
RM: You recently won the Open Drawer Poetry Contest with your poem “Breakfast”, and it was really cool to see you experimenting with [the abecedarian] form. Very challenging! When I got to the X line, I had to look that word up. That was so brilliant. Could you tell me a little about your poetry influences?
FM: I am, I think like any sane person, a Dionne Brand fan. I adore her word choices. I think that every time she speaks I learn something new. I find myself writing down words. I had the chance to listen to her—I was supposed to be in class yesterday but I was hopping in and out of the Jackson lecture with Brand and Professor Walcott—and her opening was a poem and it was so gorgeous. She’s so generous with her words and I feel that every time I put my pen down to paper or start writing on my keyboard, that I have to be as generous as she is.
[“Breakfast”] was actually a prompt from my creative writing class last year, where we were told to write a poem in a form we had yet to experiment with. I’d done sonnets before, and I’d done haiku before, and I’d done open verse before, but I’d never actually tried an abecedarian. I thought it was so whimsical. It was giving Dr. Seuss, and I felt like, ‘I have to try this!’ And I did. I wrote about my family and growing up in a big house, because I thought trying to get back to those childhood influences would be the most appropriate for what I would call a childlike form, if that makes any sense. So, that poem was at the behest of my professor. The whole point of the Open Drawer Poetry Contest is to go back to work that you haven’t really shared with anybody and find those hidden gems. So, I went back and found this from my first year of university, first semester poetry that I didn’t really think of as being that big a deal, but I’m so glad that everyone else seems to enjoy it. It was one of those poems you write for the sake of writing it to see if you can and I enjoyed it. I enjoy reading it back now as well.
FM: That’s a really good question. When writing that piece, “A Love Letter to Eldest Daughters”, it sat in my head about, like how you mentioned, how we reward people for bending over backwards for other people. We sort of fetishize and applaud people who spread themselves too thin, without really asking why we demand that of some people and not of other people. And just the way that the women in my life can only be celebrated when they’re doing things in service of other people and never just being rewarded for things they do for themselves or they do for other women. There is that delicate balance writing about things that are inner-community conversations.
When I write about “A Love Letter to Eldest Daughters”, it is a focus on immigrant families and the way that families of colour build things like honour. It’s how the eldest daughter is supposed to be the lieutenant to her mother, and she’s supposed to be the second mother and the wife to everybody and the mother to everybody. Black women especially are supposed to be everybody’s board to lean on and there’s that space where white feminism can come in and say, “well, you’re being oppressed. It’s very simple. You’re being oppressed by this culture. Let us save you!” and I get nervous sometimes that that’s what people might think that I am opening the door to. People say, don’t write about certain things that happen in your community. Don’t write about like, gosh, the hijab. Don’t write about certain things because you’re inviting onlookers who do not belong to this community, who do not have the nuance, who will project their beliefs onto these communities.
I can get kind of scared sometimes, like when Megan Thee Stallion was shot. The amount of Black women who came out to air Black heteropatriarchy in very white publications, I was like ‘oh geez, people are not going to give this the time and space that it deserves’, but also like, ‘wow, I hate that it’s bravery, but you have to have these kinds of conversations anyway.’ It doesn’t do us any favours by pretending these issues don’t exist, and also saying that “it’s to protect the community” implies that violence is inherent to us only, that our culture is so bad that it has to be protected from outside critique. So, we can’t talk about the faults. No. We’re human beings. We have flaws just like any other community has its flaws. Ours are just specific to our people and our women, and they happen in this setting and this context.
When I want to write about certain things, I tell myself it’s more valuable than not writing it would be. Not writing it would be more damaging than writing it is said to be damaging. I think about a lot of other Black women writers and the pushback that they receive, and of course they are operating on much bigger platforms and much bigger publications. I’m an indie writer, I guess you could call me. I don’t usually receive a lot of pushback for writing certain things. I have found that the best part of writing that makes me feel less alone is when I write about things that are inner-community so to speak. I appreciate the opportunity to do that for someone else. So, I aim to share certain experiences, not just violences, or oppression, or the challenges I face through my own personal context, whether that’s being Canadian, or being Black, or being Muslim or being a woman, but also the joys, the things that make me very happy about my culture. In the very first publication I wrote for, Teen Eye, which no longer exists, I wrote a roundup on the best online Eid outfits for Muslims, men, women and non binary people. People might say, why would you write about that? It’s too specific. It’s silly. It’s too much. My response would be the same thing, not writing it would be worse than writing it could be.
RM: Right, cause it’s sort of like self-silencing if we don’t talk about it, if we think, ‘oh well, it doesn’t have a place’. I read your piece on the Childish Gambino “This is America” video. You wrote, “Remember that within communities, dialogue about who represents what, and what represents who should always be welcomed.”
FM: I wrote that when I was seventeen. My opinion has changed. I think I am much sharper in what I have to say. I try to give people and things and art the benefit of the doubt, but when you’re young you don’t want to step on any toes. I think when I was writing that, I was in that headspace of trying to talk to people who really liked the Gambino video. But as I’ve gotten older and especially in the context of the lockdown and quarantine, I have tried to write in a way that does not coddle people and read things that do not coddle me.
Last night, when I was listening to the Jackson lecture, Dionne Brand opened with a poem and before she began said something to the effect of, “This is a commentary on a Black aesthetic, not the Black aesthetic.” And she said, “I would like to hold open the door for disagreement.” If somebody of Dionne Brand’s stature says that she is prepared for people to disagree with her work and say that it doesn’t fit with their description of the Black aesthetic, for example, then the rest of us have no business trying to claim that we speak for a certain community. There are so many people who can be contributors to what we call “the Black Story,” or “the Story of the Woman”, or “the Story of the Immigrant”. The idea that there’s a limit, or a certain amount of people who can only do that telling is something I do not agree with or subscribe to.
RM: Thinking back to June this year, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we’ve got this civil uprising, and suddenly all the attention is on Black folk and the content that we produce. For a lot of Black creators, I think there was a ticking clock, like, this is my time to submit, I’ve got to take this opportunity. That’s very stressful. There was a lot of talk about community at that time. Has your perspective of community changed this year?
Do you find yourself reading more for comfort or for education? Because there is often this expectation that Black folk need to be educating everyone, but we also have to take care of ourselves. I just asked you a barrage of questions, so I apologize. I guess the main question was that in perspective of community, has what you’ve read this year changed?
FM: Sometimes I reach for things that are comforting, things that I know I will agree with. If I read an article on Bitch Media or Room I know that I will agree with it for the most part. I know that it will resonate with me and the work that I do, the work that I find most valuable in my life, feminist work, anti-police work. But I’m reading things now that challenge me a little more and ask me to abandon older ways of thinking about certain things. I really admire the work of people like Mariame Kaba, who is an abolitionist organizer, and the way that she writes is so generous, even her tweets, which are like 280 characters! It’s so generous, but it’s no BS. It’s not here to hold you gently. I think, as both a writer and a reader I am now more interested in writing that does not coddle, that does not make excuses.
In July, I also received emails from indie publications run by white women who asked me to write for their website and I’d scan the website and see not a lick of a person of colour. Not a single article concerned with racism or the contradictions of white feminism, or the limits of white feminism. Seeing everyone decide for themselves that this was the summer of racial awakening, that all of a sudden people who had no interest became interested because there’s now a market for it, it was a little upsetting. All I could think of was, I’m not interested in being coddled and I’m not interested in coddling anybody else.
I think that anybody who is serious about actually having equitable and compassionate literature (whether that’s non-fiction, analytical work, or poetry) would have no problem accepting that the work is not there to coddle them. Seeing the rise in books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, or writer, Ibram X. Kendi, who I myself have recommended to people, now, I don’t think I would. In July, I did. Now, I don’t think I would because I think it belongs in that category of work that seeks to coddle, and to hand-hold and for lack of a better term, to make white people feel bad, like ‘oh, look at this sad moment that we’re in’, instead of work that calls you to do something or work that calls attention to you and tells you to wake the hell up!
Get in loser, we’re getting justice. Whether you like it or not.
That is the work that I am now most interested in producing and the work that I am absolutely reading a crap-ton of while I’m in lockdown. As a student, I don’t get to read much for pleasure but when I do get to read for pleasure I’m looking for work that goes ‘oh shoot, I guess I have changed, or shoot, I need to think better about this, or get sharper at articulating this.’
RM: What three books have inspired you this year?
FM: No Language Is Neutral by Dionne Brand (anything by Brand, really, but I appreciate this title in particular!), Know My Name by Chantel Miller, Port of Being by Shazia Hafiz Ramji
RM: What are you reading right now?
FM: I’m reading a lot of Mariame Kaba. I’m reading a lot of abolitionist writing. It’s writing that asks you to both come as you are but also abandon any arrogant ideas of what you think things like justice are, where they come from. I have the most amazing friends. They will do this thing where once in a while we get on Zoom and read each other our favourite poems. I have found myself really coming back to Adrienne Rich’s poetry, and I find her writing to be both comforting and very freeing. Dionne Brand, of course, like everyone else. Right now, I am almost done with Samantha Irby’s latest book, Wow, No Thank You. She’s an essayist and she’s very funny, but in an uncomfortable kind of way, because you’ll read her writing and you’ll go, ‘I can’t believe she said that out loud!’ One day I’d like to see myself published in a collection of essays, and I think that her work has been very formative for me on the path there.
RM: I love the idea of a Zoom poetry reading. I am going to try and get my friends to do that. I love that. I love sharing poetry. That is my love language. Like, tell me your favourite poem please. Which leads me to ask, what poem has touched you the most this year?
FM: There was a poem that just came out that I know everybody on literary twitter has been freaking out about. “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” by Noor Hindi. It’s so sharp. Like I was saying earlier, it’s not a poem that coddles you at all. It comes from a place of care and love for her people. The author, I believe is Palestinian. Somebody on twitter said, “My love and my anger come from the same place,” and I’ve been thinking about that for weeks. So, the poem from Noor Hindi that I know everybody, with great reason, has been reading with their jaw on the floor, is so to the point, the line, “Metaphors about death are for poets who think ghosts care about sound” has been sitting with me. Sometimes, I’m just standing washing the dishes and I’ll think of that line, like, I will never write anything as good as that line! It’s so poignant. It’s not a poem that’s fucking around. It’s very clear. I love the confidence, and being concise, because sometimes both for noble and annoying reasons poetry can be about who can say something the best, but this is not a poem that’s concerned with itself, or sounding pleasant to the ear. It just is.