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Harper’s Canada Terrifies Me

I feel as if I’ve reached my capacity to follow the news around the elections.

I don’t need more awareness on how islamophobic Harper’s Canada is becoming, the rise of violence against Muslim women because of islamophobia, comments on “barbaric cultural practices”. It hurts too damn much. I live this reality every day. I am afraid of crossing the road in my headscarf because what if there’s a bigot behind the wheel who would gladly run me over. This is not paranoia. A friend of mine is recovering from severe injuries after being beaten on the streets of Vancouver while wearing a headscarf. She was hospitalized. I have twice been pushed and shoved by white men in public places.

I feel small. I am afraid. And everyday I hear stories that make me realize how justified my fear is.

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“You can’t do that! Stories have to be about White people”

This. All of this.

Media Diversified

Young Writers of Colour

byDarren Chetty

I’ve spent almost two decades teaching in English primary schools, which serve multiracial, multicultural, multifaith communities. I want to explore two things I have noticed.

1)    Almost without exception, whenever children are asked to write a story in school, children of colour will write a story featuring white characters with ‘traditional’ English names who speak English as a first language.

2)    Teachers do not discuss this phenomenon.

Furthermore, simply pointing these two things out can lead to some angry responses in my experience.

Why are you making an issue of race when children are colourblind?”

is an example of the sort of question that sometimes gets asked.

Well let’s look at that. If children were writing stories where the race of characters was varied and random, there might be some merit in claiming that children are colourblind. However, even proponents of racial colourblindness…

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Rape Culture – Cover Your Eyes

While you were sleeping

little-girl-crying-39-resized

Rape culture is when I was six, and my brother punched my two front teeth out. Instead of reprimanding him, my mother said “Stefanie, what did you do to provoke him?” When my only defense was my mother whispering in my ear, “Honey, ignore him. Don’t rile him up. He just wants a reaction.” As if it was my sole purpose, the reason six-year-old me existed, was to not rile up my brother. It’s starts when we’re six, and ends when we grow up assuming the natural state of a man is a predator, and I must walk on eggshells, as to not “rile him up.” Right, mom?

Rape culture is when through casual dinner conversation, my father says that women who get raped are asking for it. He says, “I see them on the streets of New York City, with their short skirts and heavy makeup. Asking for it.”…

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No Apology

Mehreen Kasana

On my way to class, I take the Q train to Manhattan and sit down next to an old white man who recoils a noticeable bit. I assume it’s because I smell odd to him, which doesn’t make sense because I took a shower in the morning. Maybe I’m sitting too liberally the way men do on public transit with their legs a mile apart, I think to myself. That also doesn’t apply since I have my legs crossed. After a few seconds of inspecting any potential offence caused, I realize that it has nothing to do with an imaginary odor or physical space but with the keffiyeh around my neck that my friend gifted me (the Palestinian scarf – an apparently controversial piece of cloth). It is an increasingly cold October in NYC. Sam Harris may not have told you but we Muslims need our homeostasis at a healthy…

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On Creativity and Spirituality

I am most creative when I am spiritual. When I am able to connect the beauty around me with the beauty within me, I feel energized to create, to express beauty, and to interact with the mysteries and beautiful peculiarities around me. When I feel spiritual, I notice that I become happier, I become kinder and more patient, and I love more strongly.

I was more spiritual when I was younger, and perhaps that is also why I felt more creative and motivated when I was younger. I don’t necessarily feel I have become a better writer with age. I have to struggle to keep that purity and honesty when I set my pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I have to take a moment, a deep breath, and deliberately attempt to wipe away cynicism, doubts, cliched ways of thinking, all the rhetoric of every-day “adult” life that gets accumulated in my head and finds a way of seeping into my writing, the lack of passion, and notions of what is “realistic”, or “practical”. I have to try harder to simply be.

I used to write to find myself, the core of my being, to connect with the Creator, the Oneness, the Open. I would constantly be composing poetry in my head, thinking of beautiful ways of phrasing anything interesting I saw, my fingers itching to write EVERYTHING down, to describe it all, to paint it with my words and preserve it.

I don’t do that as often anymore. In fact, I rarely write just for my spirituality, for myself. I rarely write now just for the sake of writing, of BEING on the page. Mostly because I have no time.  And also because I’m too busy writing academic and analytic essays, which have a way of sucking the passion and creativity out of me.

I have an action plan to get in touch with my creative, spiritual, writerly self.

PLAN:

  • Write min. 1 page of free writing first thing every morning. In freehand, on paper.
  • Meditate. Take 5 minutes everyday and devote it to silence. No thoughts. No worries. Just silence.
  • Read for pleasure! At least one page. Every day. Just simply for pleasure, and no other reason.
  • Be grateful. Before I go to sleep, think of 3 things I am especially grateful for.

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
― Ray Bradbury 

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50,000 words

Things I need get out of the way as I plunge into the next 50,000 words.

  • – I probably shouldn’t tell people I’m writing a novel. Not until I’m finished.
  • – My first draft will probably be terrible. That’s how I write. It will be messy and poorly-edited and embarrassing. I can make it better later, Right now I need to just write. Get all the stuff out. No one else will be reading. I shouldn’t judge it. Must make my inner editor shut up. Once I have the clay, I can mould it and shape it the way I need it to.
  • – I’m always plagued with doubt and self-loathing when I write. I need to NaNoWriMo this. Except not so many words every day, or in one month. I’ll be kinder to my self. 🙂  I need to type away. Stop the doubt, and just have fun
  • – Must write minimum 250 words daily, but aim for 500.
  • – It’s okay if it sucks. I just need to finish writing it. That’s my only goal for now.
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Grieving for Peshawar – ‘the smallest coffins are the heaviest’

Grief

More than 130 children dead. Not just numbers, but names, children, lives, futures. Dead. How are the parents processing this? The children who survived this, lying in hospital beds with bullets in their bodies, visions of death and blood, of their screaming classmates flashing before them. How are they processing this?

When they return to school, there will be empty desks and missing teachers. The playground will be emptier. How will they pick up their pencils and their books and continue? How will they console each other? How does one proceed from here? How do we gather ourselves and continue to live? There is darkness all around.

Today, the world mourns with us. Tomorrow it will forget. But we won’t. We can’t. This isn’t just politics. These aren’t just numbers. These are entire lives ended forever. There will be families who will sit for dinner and think of those who will always be missing at the table. There will be notebooks and textbooks with names and doodles scrawled into them, never to be touched again. There will be uniforms hanging in the closet never to be worn again. There will be emptiness. There will be spaces filled with grief and pain rather than lives. There will be echoes of laughter and mischief, of ambitions and hopes – interrupted, halted – haunting their loved ones at every corner. There will be family photographs and school photos found in boxes and on walls and in the frames, and they will look back at us and remind us how the children once lived.

These four studied together and died together.

Names

Here a few of their names. Say them out loud. Again. And again. And again. Let them sit heavy in your heart.

Ali Khan
Apsha
Awais
Farhad Hussain
Farhan
Fazal Raheem
Gulsher
Hamayun
Hamza Ali
Naveed
Saeed Ur Remham Shah
Syed Abdullah

All The Rhetoric 

On social media our profile pictures are turning black. We keep posting and posting and repeating words and articles. Because we do not know what else to do. We feel helpless. It is already too late. What can I do to show that I am so grieved and hurt and the tears can’t stop? What can I do to show that I am absolutely devastated? What can I do to show that I am livid with anger and horror? I want this to never have happened, but it has. And there’s no going back. And I can’t do anything. So let me offer my meagre words. Let me add more words to your outpour. Let me release the grief and pain and I will listen to your words and your grief and your pain and your anger. I will read your posts. We will discuss this again and again via texts and phone calls. We will embrace each other at vigils and stare into flickering candle flames. We will share our poems and quotes and pictures and hashtags. We will share our tears and anger. Because we need to do this. We need to vent our frustration and grapple for solutions. Let us come closer and console each other. All the rhetoric won’t bring them back. But perhaps speaking about this event in our different ways will help us wrap our heads around it. Perhaps it will help prevent future catastrophes. Speak about it. Say their names. Raise all hell. Be angry. Cry. Let all the pain out. Somehow, we will survive this.

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A Journeying Reader – Personal Essay

written for my poetry workshop in the style of Nick Thran’s ‘A Working Reader’

Exploring

In second grade at Ladner Elementary School, my teacher had a bookshelf of books arranged according to reading levels. There were the simple phonetic books that had more pictures than words, and then there were the chapter books that more advanced readers were encouraged to take home to read. It was 2001 and my family had just migrated to Canada. I was in ESL and I was put in the picture-book reading group.

The Junie B Jones chapter books were all the rage back in second grade. They had colourful covers and hardly stayed on the shelf. There was so much text on the pages. They felt so grownup.

I saw one of the books on the shelf—finally available. I picked it up. Mrs. Suki swooped in and looked at the book disapprovingly. “I don’t think you’re ready for those books”, she said. I put it back on the shelf. She directed me towards a picture book, humiliatingly simple. I felt small, and confused and wondered if I should be angry.

Few days later at the school library, I check out my first Junie B Jones chapter book. I like to think of it as an act of rebellion. There was a satisfying amount of text on the pages. Within months I had finished the entire collection of Junie B Jones in the library.

Take that Mrs. Suki.

Found

The books I always return to are books in the Anne of Green Gables series. My cousin lent the first three in the series to me. The first time I read the first book, I understood perhaps half of it. Anne Shirley had a wild imagination and I liked her instantly. I was eight and still in ESL when I read them. They were a challenge, but somehow that didn’t matter. I didn’t feel like I needed to understand everything. I instantly liked the concept of kindred spirits. Lucy Maud Montgomery became a kindred spirit and her books had an almost religious appeal to me. The delicious appetite for beauty and nature in her books cultivated my own appetite and appreciation for beauty. I rejoice when I meet a kindred spirit and can recognize trees as friends. I discover that part of myself when I go back to these books. It feels like I’m surrounded by the beauty of wilderness, of the starry sky, of moonlit ocean waves, dewy forests, and branches budding with spring.

And this our life, exempt from human haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Shakespeare

A week before my first day of university, I re-read Anne of the Island, in which Anne Shirley goes off to university. It fit.

It’s like that feeling when you’re searching for that poem that you really need to read, to satisfy this certain gnawing in your chest, and you can’t find that poem that puts it into the words you need, so you write that poem. Except, I often would find that poem. I would find that “poem” that I needed in the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily of New Moon books.

Abandoned

I read Oliver Twist by Charles Dicken when I was eleven. It was extremely painful, yet I couldn’t put it down. It was dull and there were too many characters and the dialogue was difficult to follow. But for some reason I finished it. I think it has to do with continuing to rebel against Mrs. Suki. I eagerly took on books that looked difficult and suffered through them. I don’t remember ever abandoning books as a child, even if I didn’t like them or if didn’t understand them. I wonder why that is.

I don’t have the patience or the time to read what doesn’t interest me. This realization makes me kind of sad, but it is also a relief. I no longer feel like I have to read War and Peace. As if I have something to prove. I think I’ve already proven it.

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden is the most recent book I’ve abandoned. I intend to go back to it. I also abandoned Anna Karenina. I also intend to read it. I don’t think I ever really abandon books fully.

I abandoned Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway during my first year of university. I had him has my creative writing 200 professor. Then last summer on a coach ride from Bristol to London I finished it. It was winter and the London streets were decked with lights and holiday fervor. Took me a year to read it. I think of cellists, Sarajevo and grief when I think of pulling into Victoria station my second time in London. My partner was reading Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone, which I had given him. That look on his face as he flipped through the pages intently. The story, the characters, that world, he was discovering it for the first time. There are books I wish I could forget and read all over again for the first time.

Remembering

It’s interesting how memory can sort of meld everything together like the colours of the sun and sky burning together at sunset. Kind of like how a perfume can stir a specific memory of childhood, and you can’t really separate the childhood from the smell, and it’s all beautifully blended together, part of each other. That’s how I feel when I read Beverly Cleary to my little brother. He’s seven and he sees patterns everywhere. I want to have children and take them to the library and let them pick any book, no matter how fat and thick and pictureless it is, and watch them read it for the first time. I read Great Expectation a few weeks ago for a class. To my surprise I liked it. Robert Munsch and Roald Dahl are also kindred spirits.

I always feel like writing after reading a book or a poem. Because I have more to say. I feel like the world on the pages has blended with my world, and what I’ve read is now a part of me, and if I close the book, I won’t be separated from it. I have more to express because of this new growth in my world.

Rilke is another kindred spirit. He also gets it. Have a look at this excerpt from the Eight Elegy:

With all its eyes the natural world looks out

into the Open. Only our eyes are turned

backward, and surround plant, animal, child

like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.

We know what is really out there only from

the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young

child and force it around, so that it sees

objects—not the Open, which is so

deep on animals’ faces. Free from death.

I want to read more poems about the Open. I used to write a lot about the Open, trying to understand it, to access the thrill and mystery of it. It was easier when I was younger. I guess there’s been some sort of a movement against that type of exploration that has affected me—maybe not. But sometimes I feel embarrassed to share my fascination with spirituality—as someone who is fond of it, finds it very useful, and is not necessary critical of it. Being not critical of spiritualty feels like a fault somehow and it shouldn’t. I want to ACCEPT the Open rather than tear everything apart and criticize it and analyze it, which after two years of university education, I feel I ought to. I needn’t be suspicious of my own truths. Cynicism is exhausting and it makes me grumpy.

I like that Rilke is unflinchingly open about exploring the Open in his poetry. I would like to read more modern poets who are. I have a collection of poems called Nonexistent Poem & Songs of Love written in the style of Sufi poetry. Sometimes I find phrases that make the whole poem it for me.

Many of Kamila Shamsie’s books take place in Karachi. When I discovered her books, I felt that relief—the momentary fulfillment of hunger for stories of Karachi, of my stories. A quote from Broken Verses: 

“Don’t you know how much I hero-worshiped you when I was a kid? You were Marie Curie crossed with Emily Bronte crossed with Joan of Arc to me when I was ten. And when I told you that, you said my cultural references were the sign of a colonized mind.”

What often makes a poem great is that one line that just perfectly says it, exactly how you could never had said it and you feel so excited and relieved to have it recognized by another, and pinned down so perfectly on the page for you to marvel at. That one line can make the poem.

Reading feels like an exercise in accepting what is before me. Writing feels like a search to give it a name. Writing feels like a prayer. A prayer and a memory and words and a childhood rebellion and smell of chai in Karachi and holiday lights in London streets and eating apples as Jo March wrote her novel and Price Edward Island and looking out from Green Gables and Hafiz and Ghalib and listening to ghazals and finding kindred spirits in coffee shops and all of it melding together into one till you can’t separate them any longer.

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On writing that kind of poetry

I had a meeting with my poetry workshop instructor a few days ago and we talked about all the poems I’ve been working on for the workshop. She is a beautiful, insightful human being who approaches my work with so much respect and sincerity that I can’t help but believe in myself, in my words, in my capability as a poet. It is what I need. To believe that there is something unique within me that is worth telling, worth creating, and worth sharing.

She made me realize that I need to be unafraid of putting more of myself in my poetry. Of exploring my background, my experiences, my approach to life.

She suggested I take a theme and work with it, write smaller poems, a collection, explore different aspects of my experiences, my childhood, my obsessions, my histories. They don’t necessarily have to be about me, but need to be rooted within me, have a strong sense of where they are coming from and why they are being written.

I want to explore the political, the spiritual, and personal in my poetry. It is a difficult mixture, but I know it’s all connected in the way I approach the world around me.

There are memories of Pakistan, of childhood, of immigration, of longing, of being lost, of anger, of love, of discovery and of wonder. I have so many questions and fears and so many unresolved experiences to look back to.  I will craft them. I will bead them into a thread gently and sincerely. I will relive. I will go back and go forward and look within. I am realizing how much more bravery it takes to write a poem that is closer to the heart, that is honest, than a poem that is merely written to play around with words for effect.

I will write ghazals and I will talk about wearing shalwar kameez on the skytrain. I will talk about the time I tried to reread the letter I had written in Urdu only to realize that I no longer could.

There is a quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that comes to mind. Rilke is a kindred spirit. He gets it. He puts to word what I didn’t even realize I was trying to say, and yet I really needed it to be said.

Write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?

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