Politics editor RD Wood caught up with Tarfia Faizullah recently to discuss her poetry. Here is their conversation.
Could you speak a little bit about your early life – who were your poetic influences and how did you become a poet? What were the works that led you to this place?
You know, there are many answers to this question. I’m not sure how any of us end up anywhere, but I do know that by the time I was 7, I had read the entire Qur’an in Arabic. I didn’t understand the literal definitions of the words I was reading, but I did understand that words on a page, the music of language, and meaning all had a relationship. I’ve been pretty obsessed with trying to understand that relationship ever since.
Congratulations on how well your fairly recent book Seam is doing. It has won four awards and been through three editions from what I understand. That is a remarkable achievement in any context. Could you briefly discuss how this book came to be written and what it is about?
Thank you! Sometimes it feels like you’re throwing your art into a dark abyss, so it’s remarkable to me when anyone reaches up a hand to catch it. I feel very blessed that Seam and its histories have resonated with so many.
Seam began with my curiosity about the birangona, Bangladeshi women who were raped and/or taken as sex slaves by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War in which Bangladesh won its independence. I wanted to understand how you could survive and move on, and live. I couldn’t get over wondering what happens to the spirit of a person when something that horrific happens to you. That curiosity led to me traveling to Bangladesh on a research grant and spending a year there, learning more about the war and interviewing a number of these women.
The book is a collection of poems that has at its center a sequence of poems imagining interviews between a Bangladeshi American interviewer and a birangona. This sequence is interrupted by and book-ended by the what the interviewer is going through in her own life, including how she is changed by these interviews.
Another aspect of this work is developing your voice as a relatively young poet – how would you describe your voice and your overall poetic aesthetic?
To be honest, I’m not sure I would describe my voice or aesthetic. In a way, I leave that to others, as I don’t define myself by a singular aesthetic or way of speaking. I’m more interested in my own multiplicity and the way I change poem to poem.
I was wondering if you could speak about your everyday context – you have a transnational sensibility yet are firmly located in Detroit? And how does this play into your art and your politics?
Transnational! I never thought of myself that way, but I love it—that word feels really true and accurate. Thank you for giving me that way of thinking about myself.
My worldview is definitely informed by where I’ve lived and who my ancestors are. I’m a Muslim who was born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in West Texas. I have a strong connection to my Bangladeshi heritage, and have lived there and in the South and on the East Coast, and now I live in Detroit.
My worldview is also informed, though, by the connections between current events and history. In Detroit, for example, parts of the city being gentrified, and natives are being pushed further and further out. When I hear about cops shooting young black men, I also think of how unsafe women all over the world feel walking alone at night, and of my partner Jamaal, who I want to protect from any harm. This makes me think about what’s happening in Syria, for example, which then makes me think of the Holocaust, and then young transgender youth who are trying to find a home or make one. I think of my own feelings of displacement, fleeing from homeland to homeland hoping for a better one while never forgetting where I came from.
Each of these occurrences maintains their integrity as singular while being connected to a larger, vaster universe. All of this has happened already and is still happening under stars that are also, like us, born and then burning out.
In this way, I encounter many of my selves wherever I am. I meet people all over the world from all different walks of life and at different stages of it who remind me of someone else I know, or who remind me of myself. I guess, then, I would say that my art and politics are informed by my awe of the realization that we are all so similar and yet so different, regardless of where our ethnicity or religious beliefs or professional choices or community membership falls.
You are a keen collaborator with people outside poetry – could you discuss what you gain from other fields and how it nourishes you?
It is such a gift to be able to work with someone who believes passionately in manifesting their own truths. I learn so much from hearing a painter’s vocabulary, realizing that there is an equivalent in my own language, and that our conversation can yield a beautiful art object that is wholly new and bears the imprint of us while also standing on its own outside of us.
How does American-Asian relations look from where you stand culturally, socially, politically? And how is Kundiman important in the ecosystem at the moment?
One of the things that excites me about Asian American poetics at this moment is that we are getting less uneasy with being ourselves. I think our community has been haunted at times by the phantom of authenticity, and we question whether we should acknowledge our ethnicities in our art, and how, if we want to, we should do so. Poets like Cathy Linh Che, Matthew Olzmann, Ocean Vuong, Eugenia Leigh, Rajiv Mohabir, Kazim Ali, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Jennifer Chang, and Kundiman founders Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi, are testament to how wide ranging and singular our own voices and experiences truly are.
Kundiman is important for this very reason: it provides a coherent and cohesive space for the discourse between all of our distinctions and commonalities. It can be confusing and difficult to articulate who we are. I am so grateful to institutions and communities like Kundiman for giving us a safe and supportive space to try. Sometimes all we need is a safe place to be for a little while so that we can regain the courage to step outside.