Each finite desire is contained within a coloured light bulb, and they climb the rooftops of houses and their vanity is subdued by the darkness that contains mustard seeds, cow dung, motorbike fumes, and soap on warm bodies. They lean over rooftops made of mud bricks and pretend to pluck the lights like fruit, and when the strings of coloured lights burst they sound like the ululation of women at a wedding far away. Imran and Irfan’s beautiful faces behind heavy eyelids see aeroplanes, and they imagine the strings of electric lights are runways. Imran and Irfan once had long limbs and hands as soft and light as bird wings, and it was easy to fall in love with them. But not so easy now.
“My name, Misbah, goes back to the Hebrew word, Mizpeh. My spelling is Arabic, but the word is found in Genesis. The word is often used to decorate tombstones—the word itself is an amulet to protect lovers who are apart, as well as being a meeting place of the lost tribes of Israel. I think my Auntie Safira named me well.”
Sometimes, as an interviewer, you find yourself wishing you could be free from the literary equivalent of the “observer effect”. In exploring your subject, you grow ever more keenly aware that you are merging with your subject, unable to look without touching, incapable of avoiding the changes wrought by your own act of observation and that pretending not to be implicated in the conversation, seems both futile and illusory.
So it was with Misbah Khokhar, Pakistan-born now Melbourne-resident poet, musician and thinker. While her poetry is lucid and rich, there is also something beautifully specific about her idiolect – that particular variety of language that relates to just one person – that manifests like a lovely painting seen through the distortion of your wine glass. It’s hard to describe what a conversation with Misbah feels like.
At first instance, it seems straight forward.
Misbah is a poet. An Asian-Australian poet. Almost. Filtering her answer to my first question, “how do you identify” seems almost impossible. She says:
“I have been uncomfortable with any identity where my physicality, my ‘me-ness’ is contained or defined by a country. It’s been that way since I was little. Do I dare admit that for a long time I thought I wasn’t from Earth? I started to feel certain I was from outer-space (but we are all floating in space anyhow)—I don’t feel distanced from earth, rather I have a great love of this mad planet, but I felt like I was in this world but not of this world. I still feel that way. The circumstances of my birth I have made, I guess like Sarah Bernhardt, into a post-modern Carteresque tale, born in the middle of a civil war, in a hospital with no running water—and possibly helicopters hovering over the sandcastles of Karachi. This obsession with outer-space inevitably drew me towards the inner space, and I wonder whether what we see in the cosmos, those pictures of stars colliding, nebulas—are somehow connected to our inner space. The memories of Pakistan inform me—I am in a real sense an exile of that place and don’t know if I ever want to return. These memories, feelings mix with my memories and feelings about Australia. I feel like a post-futurist hybrid. I think human beings are complex but also simple. Most of the cells in our body are younger than our chronological age, around 10 trillion cells make up our bodies. By the age of seven, I have regenerated all my cells—of course this slows down with age. We are not fixed beings, any of us, and this feels very freeing to me. But then I can feel so old—ancient, sometimes like I’m tapping into a Jungian ‘collective unconscious’.”
This process of interviewing so many writers, has given me pause for reflection about my own “Asian-ness”, there is so much difference and communality between myself and the writers I’m talking with, so much amplitude and excitement between them all – and yet it is allegedly suitable to group us all together under that great banner “Asian-Australia”? Every writer in this collection is describing something very specific to them, and difficult to define. Like trying to keep vapour in a jar.
Misbah’s early experience with writing and poetry were very religious; she would listen to her father recite the Koran and repeat each Sura back. For her,
“the words had such power and majesty, and such music. I think it was Burroughs who said that ‘Islam’s power comes from its music’. I was a child who was exposed to three languages, English-my mother tongue, Arabic and Urdu, and I quickly learnt how to sing in Arabic and Urdu.”
Later when she went to university she “fell heavily” for the Romantics, for the Russians, and for the early 20th Century writers, later finding the “hot-house poetry of Anne Sexton, and the biting breath of Plath.” It was in this way, while doing her MPhil in Creative writing that Misbah’s advisor came face to face with the ‘other’ poetry that she had not previously considered “poetry”. She recounts: “I would tell her these stories of my childhood and she would sit there completely attentive, urging me to go on. But it was her question, ‘Why aren’t you writing about this?’ that startled me. I am indebted to Bronwyn Lea for this moment, it was momentous—I can place the moment when I went ‘Ahhh!’”
Imran, Irfan and the Electric Lights has many of the lovely qualities of Misbah’s poetry, a brief, cinematic narrative with a sweep of familiarity, an assumption of intimacy, and a kind of opacity – who are Imran and Irfan? And why did we once fall in love with them? Aren’t we still a little in love with them now? As with many prose poems, I feel as if I should know more, that the explication is right there in front of me, but as with all poems, I realise that the deciphering is the pleasure. As readers we have our own experience of the finite realization of desire, catching a glimpse of a light illuminated, then listening to the shattering bulb.
Misbah describes this moment of familiarity and then the magical otherworldliness of her poetry as follows:
“While my work may seem nostalgic, recalling other moments, and other lives, I am really trying to transcend the concepts of past and future—I’m the kite-flyer, or the falcon trainer—but I really want to be the kite or even better, the falcon.”
What do I know at the end? What can I say I have truly observed? Memory? Nostalgia? What can I truly know of Misbah?
“Did you know you can stand on Adelaide street in Brisbane to catch the 380 bus to Red Hill, and there you can smell Karachi’s port? Only at a certain time of night, around 8pm onwards—the smell of fish, human effluvia, rain. It’s really there, like a portal between the two worlds. Both Australia and Pakistan are mythical worlds to me, but I embody aspects of each meta-physically and in some circumstances my identity comes across as a mix of both. But what of the maternal line, which goes back through the Irish and French?
I see the ‘exotic’ in my own reflection, ‘the colonisation of my physicality’, and then I feel the gypsy blood of my ancestors coursing through my veins. Identity, homeland, belonging—sites of unrest, spaces filled with blood and love. Those lines on maps, people fleeing across borders in the face of danger and death, people lost and desolate, lovers re-united, whole indigenous communities wiped-out, surviving on the edge, and the sacred spaces we find again, we re-invent, interpret and claim as our own…these questions or positions of identity are so powerful and urgent. I look down at my brown feet, with that demarcation line where the foot becomes the inner heal, it shifts from brown to a pinkish white and I think of my aunt’s feet.”
After the interview, I look down at my feet, staring intently at that line of transitioning flesh: caramel yellow to ruddy pink. My mother had tiny feet, calloused and bunion-burdened from years of high heels. My feet look nothing like hers.