A Conversation with Tarfia Faizullah
Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems appear in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, and are anthologized in Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (Wipf & Stock, 2012). A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University where she served as associate editor of Blackbird, and is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and other honors. She lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches creative writing and is an editor for Asian American Literary Review and Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.
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LR: Can you share with us some of the decisions you made around structure and narrative when you were putting together Seam?
TF: Seam centers around a long sequence entitled “Interview with a Birangona,” which imagines the process of a Bangladeshi-American female interviewer speaking with a birangona, a Bangladeshi woman raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War. The sequence is woven with and bookended by poems interrogating the interviewer’s own heritage and personal losses.
I began writing the first of the interview poems my second year of graduate school, and put them away until two years later when I received a Fulbright to Bangladesh to interview the birangona and conduct further research on the 1971 Liberation War.
Seam is a book that narratively and structurally relies on distance: between two continents and cultures as well as between the year of Bangladesh’s independence and its modern moment. “1971,” for example, the first poem of the book, imagines the Bangladeshi-American interviewer imagining her mother as a young girl watching her mother bathe in a pond during the war. When I returned from Bangladesh, I had a stack of six years’ worth of poems. Only then was I able to begin the work of shaping Seam into a collection that tries to both enact and traverse that distance.
LR: How did your experience as a Fulbright scholar in Bangladesh influence the development of your manuscript?
TF: One of the main reasons I applied for a Fulbright to Bangladesh was because I had started to worry about the ethical consequences of “Interview with a Birangona.” So many of the women who were raped in 1971 are still alive in Bangladesh, and I began to question whether the project was appropriating the voices of the very women I was struggling to render and understand.
Seam could not have happened without my time in Bangladesh, where I spent a year researching the war and interviewing many birangona. My daily life also became part of the mosaic of my time in Bangladesh, and therefore part of Seam.
When I began to speak with the birangona, I realized how inadequate those early poems truly were. They could not encompass the full complexity of their lives nor mine. I spent a great deal of time with a family of sisters, each of whom had been raped during the war. At one point, while I was interviewing one sister, another sister came up behind me and gathered my hair in her hands. “You poor thing . . . you must have no one to comb your hair,” she said.
I still have no words for how I felt about a woman enduring such horror feeling sorry for me. In this way, and so many others, my time in Bangladesh made me rethink culture, victimhood, violence, and empathy.
LR: When writing about historical events, particularly those involving war and human suffering, what are your thoughts on the responsibility to navigate, on the one hand, accuracy, and on the other, poetic license?
TF: I appreciate Susan Sontag’s assertion in Regarding the Pain of Others that “As objects of contemplation, images of the atrocious can answer to several different needs. To steel oneself against weakness. To make oneself more numb. To acknowledge the existence of the incorrigible.”
In the end, I don’t believe that there is an art that can ever render something as unreasonable and as violent as human suffering. I tried to write a book that acknowledges the limitations of that rendering as much as it is helpless before those “images of the atrocious” and the ways in which those images are forgotten even as they continue to haunt us.
Seam, in the end, is a deeply problematic and troubled book. It must be, because it attempts the impossible: to plumb the very thin line between witnessing and voyeurism.
LR: How has translating Bengali poetry into English influenced your own work as a poet writing in English? Have you also written poetry in Bengali?
TF: I’ve never written poetry in Bengali, though often I dream in it as a result of having grown up speaking it. It wasn’t until I began translating that I realized how much I took for granted how deeply metaphorical and musical Bengali is until I began translating. “Amar bukh fete jachche,” for example, is a phrase that could loosely translate to “I’m sad,” but literally means, “my chest is exploding.” Translation has made me think about how poetry must do the dual work of being both specific and expansive. It has also keenly sharpened my awareness of language as both a tool for communication as well as a machine upon which the tiniest of cogs and screws are dependent. I’ve acquired a deeper understanding of what Wittgenstein might have meant when he wrote, “Like everything metaphysical, the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.”
LR: If you were asked to create a syllabus for an introductory course to Bengali poetry, which poets would be on your reading list?
LR: When balancing your teaching and editing duties with your writing life, what does your typical writing schedule look like?
TF: Lately, I’ve been drawing a distinction between drafting and writing. I’m constantly immersed in viewing the world as a writer, even when I’m not drafting poems. I carry poems around for entire years sometimes before drafting anything on the page. To be honest, sometimes when I’m writing, it looks like I’m napping (though sometimes I actually am just napping).
I try to be practical about writing, but one of the things I love about writing is that it isn’t so practical. On days I teach, I don’t try to immediately write, because it takes time to transition into the kind of headspace writing requires. On days I work in a windowless cubicle, I try to write early in the morning before I’ve checked email, made coffee, or even brushed my teeth. But truly, there’s no real rhyme or reason. It is what I love to do more than anything in the world, so I make time for it.
LR: Do you have a writing group or writing partners? How does working with other writers affect your writing process?
TF: I continue to sustain long-lasting individual conversations with a couple of other writers, and I participate from time to time in The Grind, which emphasizes the disciplined and daily practice of writing over the course of a month. Any number of conversations with other writers, be it exchanging work, a discussion of craft, or sharing poems by our favorite poets, encourages me to take more risks and write harder and with more heart.
LR: Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Kundiman? How have the resources that Kundiman provides served you as a writer both in and outside of the retreat?
TF: I spent many years afraid of my own Asianness. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a South Asian writer and avoided any organizations or anthologies or publications that presented themselves as Asian. Not too long after graduate school, though, I began to reconsider the limited ways I was viewing myself as distinct from any community: I’ve always been afraid of my own vulnerabilities. Conversations with Cave Canem fellow Jamaal May and Kundiman fellow Matthew Olzmann anchored my decision to apply. Kundiman continues to be a place where my own complicated histories as a South Asian and American simultaneously remain intact and fall away, and I continue to be moved by the difficult dialogues I sustain with fellows who have become loved ones I can’t imagine my life without (y’all know who y’all are).
LR: What new projects are you working on now?
TF: In addition to translating a 19th century Bengali poet, I’m at work on a second collection of poems and a memoir. I’m also collaborating with composer Jacob Cooper and photographer Elizabeth Herman, respectively.
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