The Interview with Sophia Naz
by Anthony Watkins
AW: You have been called, maybe even called yourself, an “in between” from the world of hyphens. I see you are trying to bridge the otherness each of your two worlds see in the other. I wonder if you see more otherness between Bhopal and Karachi, or New York City and San Francisco than only the east and the west?
SN: When I came to NYC in 1988 it was before the advent of the internet and I still recall the crackling static of a call placed on a landline. I called home way more than I could afford just to hear the voices of loved ones in an inflection that encompassed belonging. In 2020 when we have constant connectivity and live in multiple worlds simultaneously the nature of in between-ness becomes a fluid construct. This is not to say I don’t have a visceral hunger for the sights, sounds, smells and textures of South Asia, I do, but in some sense the width of the hyphen between east and west has narrowed considerably in our hyper connected world.
San Francisco and New York City are urban metropolises in one stable political entity so of course there is more “otherness” between Bhopal and Karachi at the moment, but it is an entirely manufactured construct, a victim of the Partition which bifurcated the Indian subcontinent. Very few people outside South Asia fully comprehend the scale of utter horror that Partition unleashed upon the populations that now comprise India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The only comparable event is the Holocaust. While thankfully the Holocaust is now over except for the painful and traumatic memories of that horrendous genocide, there are almost 2 billion people who suffer in ways large and small from the Partition, from being unable to visit their relatives across the border to the awful torture of occupied populations of Kashmir in India and Baluchistan in Pakistan, to the current internment camps being constructed in India for anyone who cannot prove their citizenship, to the atrocities inflicted upon minority populations. The citizens of India and Pakistan are continually subjected to propaganda by their respective governments that Hindus and Muslims are enemies despite having coexisted in relative peace for centuries. This kind of toxic politics is why I consider the whole idea of the nation-state to be the root of much of the problems in our world.
AW: How do we get to a place where “otherness” recedes and we accept each other’s humanity, with each of us having our own set of experiences, but still being both equal and alike in more ways than first appears?
SN: I think poetry provides an opening for that to happen and I do think that we are moving finally in that direction. I read that the current Black Lives Matter protest is the largest in US history. That said, it’s going to take more than the toppling of racist monuments to bring systemic change to a culture where white privilege is an entrenched fact of life as recent events have so tragically illustrated. Poetry can play an important part in upending these hierarchies in which the status quo is embedded by bringing marginalized voices and viewpoints front and center.
AW: I know you as a poet and a strong voice for women, but you are getting a lot of attention for the biography of your amazing mother: Shehnaz: A Tragic True Story of Royalty, Glamour and Heartbreak. It seems like a natural for a good writer to tell a story so close to home. How did you come to write about your mother’s life? Do you have plans now for other biographies?
SN: Shehnaz is very much a part of my feminist writing. I could not undo the mental and physical violence my mother had to endure in her first marriage, but at least I was able to undo the erasure that she was subjected to in her lifetime. The idea of writing a book about my mother’s life had been percolating at the back of my mind for several years. The breadth of her life amazed me, her early childhood in Bhopal in an atmosphere of courtly customs and opulence, her youth rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous personages of modern Indian history and the brush with stardom when she was almost cast as Anarkali in Mughal e Azam. I found her anecdotes fascinating and felt they needed to be recorded. However, my mother always maintained a public silence about the painful circumstances of her first marriage and the devastating forced separation from her firstborn children.
In 2002 my mother spent an extended period of time with me in Canada when I was expecting my son, and that is when I started taking informal notes of some of our conversations. A decade later in 2012 when she passed away I went through her papers and found some letters and diaries. The letters were vivid accounts of occurrences that she had discussed with me over the years, and I found some of the diary entries quite poetic so I decided to translate them into English.
As often happens with ideas, I got busy with other things so it was not until 2018 when Jahanzeb Hussain, my editor at Dawn who was intrigued by some photos I had posted on Facebook, suggested that I should write about her. This took the form of an article on Mother’s Day which went viral. My inbox was inundated. Women told me how the article resonated with their lives or the lives of women they knew. Some even asked me to ghost write their stories. It was then I knew that six years after her death the time had come to bring my mother’s story to life.
As for future biographies, my husband Raam Pandeya has led an extraordinary life that has intersected with some of the most famous historical figures of our time, both east and west. I had done a fair bit of work on it before it was all destroyed in the fire that consumed our house three years ago, and I may revisit it someday.
AW: Do you write short stories or are you working on a novel?
SN: I do write short stories, some of which have been published and I am working on a novel which is structured as a series of interconnected short stories set in Karachi, the city of my birth, in two different time periods: the 1970s and the present.
AW: You told me once that you are completely self-taught, but reading your poems, or listening to your readings, I do not get any sense that you are either an amateur or a promoter of dabbling. You may have been self-taught, but have you been greatly influenced by other writers, and if so who?
SN: I take the craft of writing a poem very seriously, to the point of obsession sometimes. Often it feels like the poem is a creature that possesses me and won’t let go until I have satisfied its particular demands.
My poetic influences are many and varied. The legacy of colonialism in India means that I grew up speaking both English and Urdu. India has one of the richest literary traditions in the world, and it’s particularly notable for the number of brilliant poets it has produced. I have been particularly drawn to the wordplay of the great 15th century mystic poet Kabir, the 18th century poets Ghalib, and Mir Taqi Mir, and 20th century poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz who adroitly adapted the classical tropes of Lover and Beloved to progressive and socialist causes. The Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali has also been an influence. He translated Faiz’s poetry into English and also wrote some of the finest English language ghazals. Other Asian American poets that have informed my work are Meena Alexander whose poetics of dislocation speak hauntingly to my own experiences. Imtiaz Dharker whom I read in my teens was an early feminist influence.
While in my teens I was also introduced to the Latin American poets Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. The intense lyricism, passion and struggle against oppression found in Latin American poetry is something I resonate with.
I was 25 when I arrived in New York City and discovered Walt Whitman because someone had left a dog-eared copy of Leaves Of Grass on a table at Caffe Dante where I used to hang out. It’s been wonderful to gain a fuller understanding of his work and to be introduced to a whole host of American poets through the auspices of ModPo. Speaking of poetic influences, it’s impossible to overstate the impact ModPo has had upon my critical thinking and approach to poetics. It’s an important platform and all the more invaluable in the current pandemic.
AW: You have a background in acting, and now a non-fiction book about your mother’s life. Will poetry remain your focus?
SN: I am currently working on translations of poems by the Mughal princess Zeb-un-Nisa (she is another woman whose voice and influence has been largely erased by history) which I will recite as part of a performative writing project with my stepdaughter Tara Pandeya, a dance artist and dance scholar who also straddles east/west, with original choreography based on over 20 years of intensive research and practice of Central Asian Dance. We have a seedling project in the works — look out on my Instagram page Sophia_Naz_author for updates.
AW: You have a strong voice for women in all your writing, but it seems like a voice for Asian women is central to your poetry. This makes sense to me. Is it how you see yourself?
SN: I would like to be known as a writer in the same way that a male writer is simply known as a writer. Yes, I do have a strong voice for women because I feel that historically women’s voices have either been silenced or drowned out. However, I am also concerned with issues of social justice and racism, political oppression and silencing of dissent, and most urgently with the current climate crisis. Pressing as all the other issues are, they pale in comparison to the existential threat that all life on this planet faces in the age of the Anthropocene. I think poetry definitely has a role to play in bringing immediacy and poignancy to this massive and complex crisis. Like seventy thousand people in California these past couple of years, I lost my home due to wildfires caused by climate change, as did most of the people in Glen Ellen, the tiny village in the wine country where I live. The climate crisis is not just a news story for me, it’s the first thing I confront every morning waking up in the trailer and going through the village which is still rebuilding three years later.
AW: Do you find more readers in India and Pakistan or here in the United States?
SN: At the moment most of my readership is in India and Pakistan. However this phenomenon is not limited to my work; the vast majority of South Asian American poets are barely known to readers here. Things are starting to change though, last year I joined a much-needed initiative by Usha Akella and Pramila Venkatesaran. They are the co-founders and directors of Matwaala, a collective of poets from the South Asian Diaspora. The Collective aims to raise the profile of South Asian diaspora poets through annual poetry festivals in major US cities, and include readings, workshops, and panel discussions at universities. Last year I joined poets from across the US and UK to read at the second iteration of the Matwaala Festival which was held in 2019 in New York at Hunter College, NYU and Nassau Community College, among the venues. I was scheduled to read at the third edition of the Festival this past April, but of course it was canceled due to COVID-19.
AW: What should our readers know and understand about you and your work?
SN: My poetry is a liminal creature, dangling at the very edge of the English language, an aerial root anchored firmly in history yet antennae-like in its attunement to the present moment. I am fascinated by the etymology of words. Sometimes this etymology becomes the subject of a poem, as in “Blood Orange”:
from narangi to narañjo and then
like an umbilical stem
the nascent n snaps
& orange rolls
round, dimpled and English
out of our mouths
Often my poems carry hidden meanings, references to places, and events and bilingual homonyms intelligible only to readers familiar with both English and Urdu/Hindi. The poem works just fine without knowing any of these things, but I am delighted when I get the occasional message from a reader that they were intrigued by a particular juxtaposition and placement of words in a poem and upon research found an entire history which cast the poem in an entirely new light. I enjoy creating a rich palimpsest, one that reveals itself slowly like a complex perfume. Part of this endeavor is to write poems that are syntactically ambiguous with lines that can be read in multiple ways.
The origin of the word companion is com+panion, someone you break bread with. Poetry is like bread: it rises to the occasion but unlike bread it can be broken again and again, by companions near and far, eaten, digested and brought to the common table of our humanity to feed hungers we can’t always pinpoint or quantify.
AW: Thank you, Sophia.
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