Manahil Bandukwala: Emerging Writer Award Winner 2019

The Emerging Writer Award is open to anyone published in a given year in Room, who has not already had a book published. The award comes with a cash prize of $500. Room’s Tamara Jong spoke with our 2019 winner, Manahil Bandukwala, about inspiration for her poems “White marble atop hill” and “Maps”, her earliest writing memory and why she finds writing in notebooks so freeing.

The Emerging Writer Award is open to anyone published in a given year in Room, who has not already had a book published. The award comes with a cash prize of $500.

Manahil Bandukwala is a Pakistani born-and-raised writer and artist living in Ottawa. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Paper Doll (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Pipe Rose (battleaxe press, 2018). Her work has appeared in The Puritan, Coven Editions,, among others. She is also an editor for In/Words Magazine and Press and serves on the editorial board of Canthius. See her artistic and literary projects on her website. Manahil Bandukwala’s two poems “White marble atop hill” and “Maps” were featured in Room’s issue Changing Language 41.2 and she is the winner of the Room 2019 Emerging Writer Award.

Room’s Tamara Jong spoke with Manahil about inspiration for her poems “White marble atop hill” and “Maps”, her earliest writing memory and why she finds writing in notebooks so freeing.

ROOM: Congratulations Manahil! How does it feel to win Room’s 2019 Emerging Writer Award?

MB: Honestly, I’m pretty floored. I saw Meghan’s email as I was getting ready to log off for the night to go to bed. I read through the email a few times to make sure it was real. I called up my mum right away to tell her the news. I really wanted to push my writing to new places this year, so having that happen so early in 2019 is pretty amazing.

ROOM: In your two poems in Room, “White marble atop hill” and “Maps, the images from the lines “strip the skin off my body” and “push pins into your body” stayed with me long after I read them. How did these poems come to be and what was the source of inspiration for them?

MB: These poems speak to the colourism, racism, and anti-Blackness that is really prevalent in South Asian communities. Growing up in Karachi, I would hear a lot of “get out of the sun or your skin will become black.” Ads for skin-lightening and fairness cream were super popular and promoted the idea of attaining beauty by making your skin lighter. This is a continuing form of colonialism and white supremacy, and so-called POC are often complicit in it. The poems are really about what happens when you instill into a kid that they’ll never amount to success or beauty because they have dark skin. “White marble” comes from anger at this, as if saying: “well, what do you want me to do about it?” The imagery is very messy, not letting these cultural norms continue on without accountability. Colourism can’t just be cleanly swept away. “Maps” has this sense of defeat and conveys the dangerous result of perpetuating colourism – self-hatred and self-harm. A lot of poetry from South Asian writers touches on immigration, food, and family, which are all really hauntingly beautiful. I love reading this type of poetry, but it is also necessary to check our racism and prejudice as non-Black POC.

ROOM: When did you start writing? I read in an interview that the library was like your second home growing up and that you had read all the children’s books in it. What was your favorite children’s book (s) and why?

MB: My earliest memories of writing start when I was about seven. I have a collection of stories, poems, and plays that I wrote in Comic Sans that my dad saved. I loved writing about fairies. I once dictated a story to my mum while she wrote it down. I made that into a little book (complete with illustrations) that I gave to my school library. My favourite book series growing up was most definitely Harry Potter—internally as I say this I’m going “Why, J.K. Rowling?” But when I read the books for the first time, I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Portland in the summer of 2005. The third movie was coming out and my aunt wanted to take my older sister and I to watch it. I sped through the first three books and loved them. Another series I really liked was called Full House: Michelle. It was a spin-off of the show Full House, although I didn’t know about the show when I was reading those books! The library I went to had them. I remember going through the shelves looking for a book in the series that I hadn’t read yet. There was also another spin-off series called Full House Stephanie, which was in the adult library that you had to be thirteen to enter. Eventually the librarian recognized me looking longingly into the adult library and let me enter when I was eleven.

ROOM: In your piece for Rob McLennan’s My (Small Press) Writing Day, you mention that you rediscovered handwriting in notebooks (that you later type up) and that you write in the interim spaces between school and work. What do you enjoy about writing in notebooks and what kind is your preferred medium? Do you still write in the in between?    

MB: I find writing in notebooks allows me to just write without concern for needing to make it look right. When typing on a screen, I can see what the product looks like, Microsoft Word underlines words, it screams at me about grammar, and I can’t play with capital/non-capital letters without it autocorrecting something. A notebook doesn’t do any of that, which makes it more freeing. I’m not tempted to erase things, and those things might find their way into a poem at some point. My strongest poems have definitely started in notebooks. I want to say I still write in the in-between but the truth is, I don’t. Part of that is because I’ve really tried to use the in-between spaces for reading. I read a lot more in 2018 than I did in 2017, which I’m super happy about. The other part is because I went from working a 9-5 to being back in school, which threw my schedule off a bit. I started typing out poems again for a while, but now I’m working a co-op job again and can hopefully get back to writing by hand. I travelled to Vancouver from Ottawa by train this summer, and there wasn’t Wi-Fi for most of the journey. I actually filled a notebook up with writing and have slowly been turning that into poetry. I like taking my time with that writing so I can infuse each piece with things happening in the now.

ROOM: You’re also an incredible artist. Loved your collaboration work for Flora/Fauna with art alongside poetry. You make terrific miniature creations called Backyard Worlds and earrings with your sister Nimra. The process of collecting items for these projects is fascinating. I loved the Shire world and that it’s been built into the hollow of an 18th-century German dictionary. What do you enjoy about making these small worlds? How do you balance your writing time, and creating art?

MB: Thank you so much for your kind words about all these projects! Creating the miniature worlds with Nimra is super fun because it’s a place where we can really combine our talents. Nimra has a very good eye for aesthetic and design, and I love the feeling of crafting with my hands. We craft our vision with our materials in mind, but also change the flow of what we’re doing as new ideas come up. It helps that we’re so in tune with each other’s styles. I often feel like I’m not very good about balancing my art and writing time. For a while after I started writing seriously, I neglected my art. Projects like Flora/Fauna, Mitosis, Backyard Worlds, and both my chapbooks are part of my effort to bridge those two worlds. The literary world has been very supportive of my art, often being the biggest patrons of my prints. I love it when people send me pictures of my art up in their homes and offices.

ROOM: Your chapbook of poetry Pipe Rose came out last year with battleaxe press. Congratulations! In the project description, it says that it explores migration, loss, culture and belonging. How long did it take you to prepare this collection of work?      

MB: Pipe Rose was an interesting project. I found that a lot of the poems fit under loose themes of land. The first title I had for the collection was In the midst of a fracturing. I was interested in this idea of the body as land that’s trying to pull itself together. I took the poem “Pipe Rose” to a poetry workshop for review, and someone mentioned really liking the title. Poetically, I loved the sound of it. My editor, Natalie Hanna, who is seriously one of the most wonderful and compassionate people I know, really helped bring the narrative together. I wanted the collection to end with “Partition,” because that provides a somewhat optimistic outlook to the searching and failing to find that comes up.

ROOM: What book are you reading right now?

MB: I just finished reading The Better Monsters by Puneet Dutt. I’m also a few pages into The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa.

ROOM: What’s your next writing project going to be?

MB: I’ve been finalizing the layout and cover of my newest chapbook, Paper Doll, with my editor, Jim Johnstone. The chapbook is coming out with Anstruther Press in March. It really focuses on the movement of water. The poems jump between the past, present, and future, which I see as existing side-by-side. Unlike Pipe Rose, which ends on a sort of optimistic note, Paper Doll sort of lays out what could have happened but didn’t, or about an inevitable decay. How can you find roots for yourself among the constant waves?


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