Interview with Misbah Khokhar


Misbah KhokharMisbah Khokhar is a multi-talented and multi-disciplinary artist who has previously contributed to the Peril Poetry Map; we are delighted to see more of her work here as a part of our current edition. Here, we share this interview with Sarah Gory, which dances through home, in maps, via self-made mythologies and animal instinct as a part of our Queensland Poetry Festival guest edited collaboration.


Home is more about the people that I am with, than necessarily a place, since I’m an architect of chimerical spaces, and I invent sacred spaces within smaller environments, like my own bedroom, kitchen. The house I live in now is a space I re-imagine with my partner and cats—we create, we nurture ourselves and each other. But at the same time home is speculative, dislocated, ephemeral moments caught up in smells, colour, and sound. At the moment the smell of chimneys in West Brunswick, around 5.30pm reminds me of Punjab, and I’m gripped in a paralysis of longing. I want to travel back to Punjab, to dream under the stars there, to travel through the village.

Queensland was the place I was taken to from Karachi. It was the place where I began to grow up without very clear boundaries about myself. I had to develop good boundaries. So as a child, I returned to Pakistan several times and then when I came back to Brisbane I tended to mix up sensations, smells. But from where am I returning? Which place is the place of return? Obviously the unconscious is the unreliable yet persistent place of return and so art is the language of this return.

I started creating new in-between lands in my head. The map I’ve made for this project is one tiny fragment of the maps I make, these neural connections, new infusions, transfusions, transmogrification of territory. I connected with others who felt they didn’t belong. Queensland is an incredibly powerful space for me—it’s now become a dreamscape for me, I’m no longer physically present there except in the mouth of birds.

Don’t you think that home is about energy? A certain energetic feeling, ‘feeling at home’. A home can happen in the blink of an eye, as much as homelessness. Not living in Queensland physically transforms those spaces into myth. I find new stories, it becomes a place of myth-making, which is fantastic for me as a creator. Backyards, sheds, cold green grass, lost friends. And West End—it’s changed so much. It’s hard to be a singing gypsy there now unless you own a cafe called that. The reality for a lot of my generation is that we inhabit the houses of landlords, we cover the walls with our art, with the blue-tac we swear we won’t ever utilise again. We rummage for cheap-free furniture. I panic when I see my cats getting older, and I think, ‘where can I bury them when they die?’, or ‘perhaps I can find a taxidermist who will do me a good deal’. Home is really where there is love happening. The love I have for my partner, for my art, for my cats, for the birds that fly past my window at 6am and again at 5.15pm and for those rare and beautiful friends I welcome in. Home is where stillness and chaos meet, where love happens, otherwise it’s just another small rented space floating in space.

Because of that word ‘identity’ and its multiplicity, we all feel different about the spaces we inhabit, or we haunted.

Spaces are not neutral. There is always some kind of power, even if it’s invisible, it’s lurking under the floorboards. And power isn’t always a bad thing, and lurking power can be wonderful. I remember living in a house with a group of miscreants, drifters, anarchists on Russell street in West End, number 34 to be exact. We were all lost, but each of us had this mutual respect for all the other souls coming in and out of the house. There was power lurking under those old floorboards, we soaked it up with our bare feet. The reason these places continue to inform us as artists is because we examine them in a double process. Firstly while we are in the space we are aware of a narrative we are involved in. Secondly, and this is where time seems to do strange non-linear things, we float above the narrative and make the connections we need to make in order to propel the narrative into new more meaningful relationships. The melancholia is actually happening in a slightly dislocated present, we are in the presence of a narrative, but we are aware that this narrative, as writers, experiencers, will be altered by our memories, desires, and perspectives.

Colette has this quote that resonates with me. “A woman claims as many native lands as she has had happy love affairs. Likewise, she is born under every sky where she recovers from the pain of loving”.

I fell in love in Pakistan with someone I couldn’t be with. And in a sense, I fell in love with Pakistan, but I couldn’t live there. It was as Marguerite Duras may have said, ‘the impossibility of love’. I fell in love, and also stumbled so many times in Queensland. There are shards of me underneath Jacaranda trees, in the beaks of currawongs in the morning, in the portentous crows, in the delicious white noise of cicadas.

Pakistan and Queensland do overlap. There are fault lines inside us all. The land mirrors that. My dreamscapes are like lay-lines. We all have them. Artists then, are the ones that listen and map out these lay-lines…these fractures in ourselves, these places of eruption. These moving tectonic plates are from where we write our narratives, write our myths. I am into specifics. I can point you to areas, times of day, to the hands of a stranger and say: ‘there in the folds of his flesh, in the salt and grime of his forgotten hand is an afternoon in Karachi where I danced on a lawn’.

Geography is not limited to physical land; it expands and encompasses the bodies of strangers. Sometimes I resent this. Sometimes I love it. I am bodily aware of the guises I may choose to wear or have thrust upon me. Being given an identity can be a violent act as well. Am I a woman of colour? How much colour do I have? Am I Australian? I know I’m a feminist and I know that the way I navigate space, the way I move in space, specifically Queensland is going to be very different than a middle-class white woman’s navigation through space. Or an Indigenous person’s navigation through space, or a Police officer’s way of moving through space. Sure I rode down streets in West End late at night and I thought I was flying. I don’t want to cage myself in my house because of all the rapists around.  Involving myself in feminist dialogues has encouraged me to question, challenge and be challenged. I was a feminist the day I asked my dad, age 8, why God was a he.

I then decided it was a religion for men. I decided I would make my own mythologies.

Perhaps it is animal instinct to want to belong when you are a little child. But wanting to belong is very different than wanting to fit in. The only important belonging for me, is belonging to myself. I feel like belonging also resonates with longing and being owned or owning someone. The word comes from old english, ‘together with’, ‘at hand’. Sociology, cultural studies, feminist studies, such important spaces for me to find voice, to articulate and find new intersections of narrative….you take away those tools so people cannot support, analyse and critique society, you disempower an entire generation from questioning and making new connections of meaning and power in society. The ability to critique, shape, influence, re-imagine our lives, our connections, our relationships is what is being taken away with the funding cuts to universities. I fear homogeneity. I want a society that is pro intellectual, that encourages divergent thinkers, humanitarians, and artists.

I’ve never found it easy fitting into different groups, whether they’re music collectives, poetry collectives.  So yes, my childhood growing up as the only non Caucasian girl at school was an experience of being an outsider (until Grade 5 when Ann Nguyen arrived Yah!)  I really wasn’t interested in Johnny Farnham, the colour yellow, and putting streaks in my hair. I was that girl who went to my Fancy dress in Year 3 as a sari-wearing Cyndi Lauper. I wasn’t interested in boys when I was younger. I thought some boys were beautiful, but these boys seemed to want to intrude on my space. But we knew where the power lay as little girls and so we turned our backs on each other. I liked to hang out at school with, I guess they would be called the ‘weirdos’. I remember them, Tony who had red hair and was really funny and getting into trouble in class. Another kid who wore really high prescription glasses.  I became early on in my life, an entertainer. That was how I came to find myself in the popular group. I made everyone laugh. I told stories. I choreographed dances.  I want to connect, but what is this insistence on belonging? Connecting is far more empowering. Belong to yourself. Connect with others. I would like to find my tribe so I could be in the travelling gypsy circus doing my shows, but I fear they are most likely wandering gypsies in the further regions of Asia, Europe? Perhaps my tribe don’t even exist. So I’ll have to invent them!

Share Misbah’s collaged vision of her remembered, layered Brisbane here.


Sarah Gory

Author: Sarah Gory

Sarah Gory is a reader, writer, and cultural producer. She is the Director of Queensland Poetry Festival, and has previously worked with Queensland Writers Centre, National Young Writers Festival, and Oxfam Australia. She has had short stories published in The Lifted Brow and Stilts.