• Choosing Exile: Poems of Loss and Displacement

    Sophia Naz in conversation with Jhilmil Breckenridge

    November 23, 2017

                                                                                                                                                                                                         Image Courtesy: Desi Writers' Lounge



    Jhilmil Breckenridge(JB): What is your earliest memory of poetry? 

    Sophia Naz (SN): There was quite a lot of poetry around me when I was growing up, mostly Urdu; my father's family comes from Allahabad and writers like Qurrat-ul-Ain Haidar and Ismat Chughtai were family friends. My mother wrote in Urdu but only one poem survives. My earliest memory of poetry is a dark summer veranda in our haveli in Bhopal with all my aunts, uncles, and older cousins engaged in baitbazi.

    JB: What is on your nightstand right now?

    SN: My reading habits are somewhat butterfly like, flitting from one book to another, so this is quite a large pile! 

    Odes, by Sharon Olds
    Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, Translations by Priya Sarukkai Chabria
    Ring of Bone, by Lew Welch
    I, Lalla: the poems of Lal Ded, translated by Ranjit Hoskote
    When Sun Meets Moon: Gender Eros and Ecstasy in Urdu Poetry, by Scott Kugle
    The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro, by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Chris Daniels
    Water and Dreams, by Gaston Bachelard
    The Golden Legend, by Nadeem Aslam 
    The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

    JB: Who is or are your favourite author/s?

    SN: Favorite authors? There are so many! This list leaves out classical Urdu authors such as Ghalib, Mir, Faiz, and Iqbal, becausethey are in my blood. I feel we step into a river of language at birth with porous skin; later on, even after stepping out of that river, it stays with us in our veins.

    Among the poets: Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Mahmoud Darwish, Adunis, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jaime Sabines, Agha Shahid Ali, A K Ramanujan, Adrienne Rich, Farrogh Farrukhzad, Imtiaz Dharker, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

    Among the foreign writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Marguerite Yourcenar, Anais Nin (I later found out I lived on her street in NYC!), Samuel Beckett, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Colette, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Naguib Mahfouz, Nazim Hikmet, Orhan Pamuk, Italo Calvino, Czeslaw Milosz, Anna Akhmatova, Haruki Murakami, and Gao Xinjiang.

    Among contemporary poets: Jeet Thayil, Arundhati Subramaniam, Manohar Shetty, Arun Kolatkar, Tarfia Faizullah, Ranjit Hoskote, Tishani Doshi, Sumana Roy, Meena Kandasamy, and Nabina Das are all doing amazing work. The most wonderful part about working as an editor for City (a Pakistani journal) is discovering the wealth of literary talent that South Asia possesses.

    JB: Tell me a bit about your childhood and early life.

    SN: I was born in Karachi in 1964. My father was a doctor in the army, so that meant moving to a new city every two years. Constantly being uprooted reinforced my introspective tendencies.

    I began writing poetry at the age of six, primarily in English. I think I was a bit intimidated by literary Urdu. The thespian and orator, Zia Moheyuddin, married my second cousin. I remember hearing him recite when I was around seven and could not understand a lot of what he was saying. Basically, though, the event that triggered my poetry was the pain of the absence of my father, who was a POW in India post the 1971 conflict. Thankfully, he returned in 1974. I wrote about it in ‘Last Sojourn in The Sundarbans’, first published in Kitab.

    I had to start working at the age of 19, as a flight attendant for the Saudi Airlines, in order to help support my family, because my father was forced into early retirement by General Zia at the time of the coup. I chose to leave Pakistan in 1986, worked for 2 years in Thailand, then transferred to New York on an airline crew visa. After about 6 months, I resigned and was undocumented for about 7 years until I was granted political asylum in 1996.

    JB: Most poets have themes they obsess over; are there any themes that your poetry often worries about?  

    SN: Choosing exile does bring with it undercurrents of loss and displacement. These often turn up in my writing. However, to quote John Muir, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” So delving into personal displacement brings one to generational displacement, to Partition, to the erosion and loss of our syncretic culture in South Asia, which, as you know, has had horrific consequences on both sides of the border. I was born into a Muslim family and I am married to a man with a Hindu Indian background. So, these are all divides that I have negotiated in my personal life. Here, I am in America,  an immigrant writer of colour witnessing rising tides of xenophobia in Europe and the US. It is impossible not to be deeply connected to, and concerned by, the human condition; my own and the world’s.

    I often write about Eros, girlhood, and womanhood from the perspective of someone who knows the steep price society extracts from a woman who has made unconventional choices. I would say that my twin obsessions are history and language, how the word has shaped the world and vice versa. The word randi once meant woman, now it has come to mean prostitute; how did we get from there to here? You could say my poetry is like the aerial roots of the banyan tree, connected to a branch of the whole while keenly feeling each breath of the present.

    JB: Please tell me a little about Kayakalpa and your practice.

    SN: It all happened quite by accident. After resigning from my airline job, I was earning my living as a practitioner of shiatsu and reflexology in New York’s West Village when I met my husband, Raam, in a cafe. As it turned out, he lived around the corner from me and soon I was experiencing my very first Kayakalpa session.

    Kayakalpa is a form of applied alchemy, from the tradition of Tantra and the Siddhas. It is an amazingly dynamic practice that uses various techniques of purification and nourishment to elevate your vital energy and refine and expand consciousness. My husband & I do the sessions together. I work on the left side of the body and he on the right, for the portion that involves the application of an herbal-mineral paste called Alepa. He comes from a family of traditional practitioners going back many generations. I have been practicing for 27 years. Our Kayakalpa Samadhi Retreat is in Glen Ellen, and people come to see us from all over the world. Our site is www.kaya-kalpa.org

    JB: What is your daily routine? 

    SN: I get up at 5:30 am every weekday. After dropping off my son to high school, I go to the gym, where I work out, do yoga, followed by self oiling/massage (with medicinal oils that we make from scratch) and a steam bath. Post that, I am glowing and ready to start my work day.

    On the weekends, I prefer to walk around a lake that is a short drive from my place. It is a lovely, wooded secluded place. Many of my poems are germinated on those walks.

    I do write daily, even if it’s only a sentence. This is mostly in a paper notebook. The writing eventually gets funneled to a “poetry scroll” in my computer.

    JB: What motivates you to keep writing?

    SN: I write because I am in love with language, I love its sonic beauty, its visceral punch, its lilt, cadence, idiom, riddle, humour. The narcotic thrill of feeling it come alive in your bones. I believe in the potency of words. There is a certain dichotomy to the life of a poet because the act of writing requires large amounts of solitude, whereas the act of sharing what one has written is a social act. I am unequivocally a fan of the former. Getting published is the icing on the cake, but writing is the whole cake, moulding that raw dough of thoughts and sensations into words and making a poem rise from the mess on paper. That’s what it’s all about for me.

    JB: What makes you smile?

    SN: Babies,; the persistence of innocence in a cynical world.

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