TBR: Could you trace your journey as a poet, from your first book to the second?
Sufia Khatoon: Being ‘self aware’ of your identity and individuality as you age, especially as a poet and process the things not in your control through your poems. Processing ‘the daily’, ‘the ordinary’, ‘the silence’ in the mundane chores, routine and aspirations that somehow simplifies our understanding of the real meaning of life. This journey of being aware and experience this ‘every day uneasiness’ which overwhelms my senses often is the reality of being a poet for me. Living with this constant uneasiness and seeking comfort somehow and write about it, defines my journey from Death in the Holy Month to Ger-mi-na-tion.
It is the every day, my immediate reality, my community, the people I come across on the streets, the problems of my time, my illnesses, the deaths, illogical moral codes, the mental equation of not fitting it or relating to my environment, at times feeling absolutely helpless, at times reassuring myself to keep writing and the clash of ideologies and beliefs with the system of a mapped life for a woman.
My poetry or my process of writing comes from a very painful place, an experience very difficult to define. As an individual I am trying to cope up with the limitations and challenges I face as a Muslim woman every day, especially as a daughter, sister and an opinionated woman. I don’t feel like I belong in any place or around people who follow a specific pattern or structure of society.
Both Death in the Holy Month and Ger-mi-na-tion, highlight this constant uneasiness I experience as a sensitive and outspoken poet.
This gender chosen role for women is like a pandemic plaguing the future of women around the world and I am struggling to come to terms with my gender specified role and identity. Creative souls like us need nurturing and the kind of love that can help us build our abilities with financial support. Most of us are still struggling to make things work, live a life of dignity and focus on our writing. Deep down I am very angry for facing the consequences of being an opinionated woman like so many of my sisters out there. It shouldn’t be this hard to be ‘ourselves’ at the end of the day. I focus about these struggles in my writing especially in Ger-mi-na-tion, emphasizing on the pomegranate tree as a symbol of ‘choice’and using it to fight for our beliefs.
TBR: Loneliness, sadness and hope, are recurring themes in your poetry. How has writing about all of it, helped in your journey with your emotions as a person and a poet?
Sufia Khatoon: Frankly the day I picked up the pen and wrote my first poem was the day I realised I was going to experience a typhoon of emotions and loneliness was already gripping me. With each passing day practicing the art of writing, the discipline required to be an honest poet, the constant troubles of the mind, life’s uncertainties, the worries of livelihood, security and being a Muslim woman with an intellect of a poet-artist, I go deeper inside my mind and unlock the uneasiness more. This feeling of not belonging anywhere kind of makes it worse.
I have always lived with loneliness; it’s like living with a sadder version of me. Coming to terms with the different waves of emotions you feel is quite challenging for any writer/poet. The more I write, the more emotionally vulnerable I have become, I guess that’s the truth of a poet’s life.
But poetry has taught to me speak about my feelings, experiences about life and difficulties with honesty, often fueling my heart to be braver and face things one day at a time.
Loneliness is an epidemic which millions of people live with difficulty, which often triggers depression, anxiety, panics and other physical as well as mental health issues. My loneliness too puts me through these issues.
I grew up without the company of like-minded friends, the lack of warmth and hearty laughter, to surround myself with people who will inspire me to look at the beauty of having this life. This craziness and exuberance for life is what loneliness is taking away from me. So in my poems I am seeking for answers, to reach out to other lonely souls and comfort them that they need to live for themselves first. Find things to combat loneliness and sadness hands on and maybe find hope to enjoy our time here. Though there isn’t any kind of solution to cure this thing but we have got to try. I try my best and push myself to join different activities or socialize which again is exhausting; nobody is going to get you when you have a heightened sense of things or has that kind of time to spend with you.
I guess that’s why I write, to win against this but you see words aren’t people, you can’t have conversations with ‘words’, which is something I really crave for. The kind of discomfort I feel, I can write about it and move on to the next day of uneasiness, that’s what poetry helps me with, living with this ‘uneasiness’ steadily.
TBR: Do you think the journey of a poet is different from that of writers of different genres?
Sufia Khatoon: Not necessarily, writing prose, poetry, non-fiction, etc any genre is a matter of constant patient and trust in one’s voice. It is rather difficult to produce any kind of good work which needs time; often it takes one whole lifetime to achieve that with great emotional pain and endurance.
It’s mostly circumstantial, if we can call it ‘fated to be a poet/writer’, nothing is easy especially being a poet/writer. The kind of environment you receive, different kinds of fight you face to change your circumstances and keep writing against all odds is what produces great poetry, humane stories and literature. Some writers/poets have good resources, some don’t have it to efficiently promote and practice their chosen forms. Mostly I feel financial support, family support and literary circle support is required for writers and poets to realize their literary strength and powerful voice.
For some who keep facing the wall, keep going, someday you’ll figure it out.
TBR: Tell us about the most difficult part of writing a book like ‘Germination’
Sufia Khatoon: The most difficult part was writing about the struggles during the pandemic, especially my physical and mental health and using that discomfort in the poems.
Ger-mi-na-tion is about owing my body, talking about its growth in terms of ‘the pomegranate tree’ where the body resists against being stereotyped as merely feminine and seeks to be normalized.
When I say ‘I prefer procreation of a garden than a bloodline’ I mean the tree taking ownership of itself and living by its choices. Living with the discomfort of constantly being looked at as a woman only meant to procreate and continue the race and how I am fighting to take control of the ‘choice’ given to me as an individual. What is unique about this particular tree that I use as a metaphor of my own body is its reluctance to bear edible fruits over the years, which actually helped me identify with it so deeply. It ger-mi-nates as a woman’s body in stages and witness the challenges to sustain in difficult environment.
But technically it’s not just a symbol of fertility, it’s widely known for that maybe, but it has healing properties and references to Paradise, Greek to Persian Mythology and very different legends associated with its existence over the ages.
I write on the biblical references not in a direct way like when I say ‘Did Eve ate a pomegranate and sinned for all?’ I am questioning the idea of Eve being a woman who is believed to have caused ‘The Fall’
Was it the apple at fault, the snake or Eve? Or the fruit was a pomegranate?
Also in the Persephone and Hades myth, she ate six seeds of a pomegranate and was cursed to be in the underworld for six months.
Taqenishiyan, Fridaus, etc I use these imageries especially of rain soaked palms for the idea of prayer healing the body, the tree and the fruit does the same thing.
My tree isn’t bearing edible fruit that was the inspiration behind the book, telling me that the power of choice is very hard to practice but we have it knowing we will face repercussions; the tree is choosing the freedom to practice it.
I am resisting just as a tree, just like so many woman to have the power to choose in my own hands and I am facing the consequences every day with the hope someday, it’ll be better for some of my sisters out there.
We do have desires and we can write about longing for that love, so here the tree becomes by friend, at times my companion, at times my spiritual realm, at no point it projects sensual love but mostly the idea of comfort, affection and care which is too a form of love. So overall the poems aren’t about heartbreak or despair in general. It’s about be human condition and the present world
TBR: Who are the poets that influence you? How do you see the future of Indian English writing?
Sufia Khatoon: I didn’t grow up in a household where reading books or indulging in cultural activities was considered part of a child’s mental growth. I and my siblings are the first generation to go to University and have a career especially the women of our families. I did write from an early age though and eventually found myself hiding in corners with books and writing stories. I am constantly discovering new poets to read, the contemporary ones who are alive and writing some amazing poems. Rumi, Omar Khayam, Gibran have been helpful in easing my restless mind. Poetry writing and reading in itself though has been more influential in developing a deeper sense of connection with the spiritual and healing aspect of poetry.
TBR: Do poets inhabit their politics more than other writers? If yes, then how has your politics been a part of your work as a poet?
Sufia Khatoon: Definitely Poets reflect what they see, like genuine voices highlighting the things that matter for our existence. Practicing freewill and freedom of existence in itself as a necessary space for nurturing the human soul. Since poetry invokes or rather is a very efficient medium for protest, activism, a sort of space of projection of social concern, maladies that plague our times, a powerful tool for searching our own voices and concerns. It acts as a breather when needed as well as a place to hit it hard when things need to change.
The problems that affect me have become my cause for voicing my concerns especially as a Muslim Woman writer or you can call it my politics. I use my Body as text in writing, normalizing the use of body in language is what I am trying to do through my writing. A woman’s body has been used a muse for centuries by men but a woman can use her own body to study, reflect and write with, since it is a part of her, we can’t tag it is just sensual. When we say ‘My finger is itching, we can say ‘ my vagina or breast is itching’ in a biological point of view, everything is a part of our body. As a poet-artist I study the anatomy of things which includes the study of human body or any kind of structure to have an independent understanding of its growth. For Ger-mi-nation I did the same thing, the body of the tree is equal to my body, as nature made it. To mark the body as mere feminine is stereotypical, like so many women play sports, I run more than 10km since I try to control my stress and other illnesses my body deals with, so the kind of changes illnesses can bring to a body is absolutely different. You see bodies sitting under the bridge, in a corporate setup, in movie halls, inside a bus, etc isn’t just feminine, it is what an ordinary person uses the body for, since that is our physical aspect, flesh and bones. Our bodies are our first identity.
I am normalizing the usage of body in literary text, as normal as combing of hair or dressing up for office. As a woman writer, you have that power to express your opinions through writing; it gives us courage to do so.
TBR: Could you share two of your favorite poems from your book Germination, and tell us, why you think they’re special.
Sufia Khatoon: I love the title poem, the English Ghazal and some specific poems that talk about surviving in the distressed times. Sharing these poems as I talk about spirituality, the conflict of forced beliefs, nightmares and loneliness deeply rooted inside the body.
My body is a tombstone of desires,
my feet without a milestone
buried deep inside bitterness.
You are the warmth I wish to embrace in this cold weather.
What do I know about love?
My palms are for those who pray for release.
Some say, you are haunted by the spirits of emptiness
and refuse to let me sleep in you.
You are my shadow,
standing tall with your branches entwined
within the walls of my heart.
I am scared of death and the small,
dark spaces inside a soul.
Do you know how we can escape this reality?
You are the prayer I utter,
a lover, I passionately love.
Our souls at night soak the empty beds
and the soil around, releases our nightmares.
I am stuck like the water in your roots,
while everyone moves forward,
away from this place, this haunting.
I am guarding my body from the burning moth
and the spirits living in your pomegranates.
Tadapna mera nah samjhe koi
(no one can understand my agony)
Words leave gashes deep —
Your punishment for not obeying ‘us’
and our ‘beliefs’ is to be ostracised
into the pits of ‘guilt’.
The pomegranate roots entangle and untangle,
grow deeper inside my feet to ease my mind.
I am reminded that a God-man can call the stars
and cure a mind out of control.
Can’t I love God the way I want to?
Can’t I have my own star?
I hear everything —
the noise of thoughts are exhausting.
It’ll burn your growing red buds,
it’ll burn you down to ashes.
Choose the method to end my endurance
and leave me around the tree.
It has known Death; it has grown from it,
perhaps I’ll too grow out of this pain —
out of this feeling of nothing-ness.
When you give me the name of the devil —
When you call me an atheist —
I hold the fallen flowers,
I draw a jafri in my chest;
I give it the colour of water,
I fill the hollowness with strength,
and I soak my feet in its heart.
*Jafri is a marigold flower in Persian, it is also called jali or latticed screens used in Mughal architectures
Sometimes when I break your fruit,
the seeds are bittersweet resentment
lingering on my rain-soaked palms.
Mouth the words of hate and resent anything
threatening your self esteem.
Resent me too,
if I fail to keep my promise of sharing your fears.
Your silence is a 3000-year-old star
manifesting love for those whom revengeful loneliness haunts.
Do you want to hear about the pain of the sparrows
losing their feathers and becoming smokes of sadness?
Talk to me through this panicked, unforgiving
stillness of the night nesting inside my heart.
Hold me as long as possible,
let my body be buried under your shade
deep inside your roots.
So when the seasons change
and I am sleepless in that dark place —
we will always be together.