22. November 2006. Interviews: Kunst & Kultur - Pakistan "I'm a poet, I'm a feminist, and I'm Muslim"

An Interview with the Pakistani poet Kyla Pasha

At this years Frankfurt Book Fair India was the ‘Guest of honour’. Consequently this year Indian authors are in the focus of attention in Germany. We wanted to broaden the horizon beyond India and interviewed the young Pakistani poet Kyla Pasha. The 27 year old Kyla Pasha teaches comparative religion and history courses at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore. She describes herself as “a poet, a feminist and a a Muslim”. The interview deals with the interlinkages of feminism, Islam and poetry. It was conducted via email in the course of three weeks in summer 2006.

You have characterised yourself to me as "I'm a poet, I'm a feminist, and I'm Muslim". Are these three labels equally important to you? How do they interlink?
I don't know if they're equally important. I think the importance of labels changes with each situation, and over time. Once upon a time, my first identity was Muslim. I was very invested in being Muslim, in theory as well as practice. I wanted people to think of me, or someone like me, when they thought of a Muslim, and that was my way of affecting change, or intervening.
And it still is. But Islam became a lot more important to me since I was 19, 20 years old and I stopped wearing it as a label as much. I spend more time thinking about how it works in the lives of everyday people, rather than how everyday people bend over backwards and work so hard to fit a static idea of Islam into their very fluid and difficult lives.
But I'm a Muslim through and through. I quote scripture in my poetry, the references are Muslim or Islamic understandings of Biblical stories. And I believe it strongly, and live it as I can.
Being a poet and being a feminist have sort of become the same thing for me. This, again, has happened over time. I'm 27 now, and I've learned that labels are useless as a badge to wear, but they can be useful in particular situations. And, in the particular situation of describing my poetry, I've been told by friends that I'm a feminist poet. And I've been convinced. My poetry is political not because I write about Palestine or honour killings in Pakistan - I don't. But because, I guess, I write extremely personal things, extremely close to who I am, and who I think my reader is. And I do write each poem as an intervention - into *some* discourse *somewhere*, into *someone's life*. Ani diFranco, an American singer-songwriter, sings "I hope some woman hears my music and it helps her through her day." It's a little like that. I hope someone reads a poem, stops, reads it again, stops. And then continues on with the rest of their day convinced that the world is really about other people more than anything else.
The label I forgot to give you was "Pakistani". I'm a Pakistani poet. I wear that for one single reason: it's my country, better or worse. And I kind of love it. It's better than being "South Asian", which is clumsy. And I'm certainly not Indian, though I love my Indians. It's actually because of my Indian friends: one day I realized that we ARE similar, but we really aren't the same. The leftist myth is wrong. So now I blow a kiss across the border and wave my green and white.
Can you explain more what is specifically feminist about your poetry and/or about you?
I think one way in which my poetry ends up being feminist is I write whatever is in my head and heart at the time. I write about my life, or things that trigger me in my life. Not everything is gender-centric in my life. In fact, maybe 50% of the incidents that trigger my poems are gender related. Maybe less. I write what I see and know and understand, and what is close to me. And that's a fundamental feminist principle. So I'm a feminist because I publicize, through my poetry, the things that are personal to me. I'm a feminist because I used the first tool from the feminist toolbox: the personal is political.
I do have poems that you would read and say, "Oh, wow, that's that crazy woman stuff." Poems with vivid images of - I don't know - menstrual blood or something. That's the joke - menstrual imagery equals feminist poetry. I have some of that. I say "cunt" every once in a while. But those are just symbols. Some of the subjects of my poems are women - either myself or other women, real women, imaginary women, "woman" as a category. So in that sense, those poems could specifically be categorized as feminist poems.
But mostly, I write love poems. I fall in love a lot. And I'm a religious person, so I'm constantly in a painful love relationship with God. And I want to have a meaningful, USEFUL life, so I'm in this love-hate relationship with a fucked up world. So all my poetry, to me, is actually love poetry. And THAT'S what makes it feminist, to me.
I have a feeling a lot of people would disagree with my notion of feminism, now that I articulate it this way. But anyway.
My friends tell me I'm POLITICAL. I'm the one who says I'm feminist. They don't necessarily believe that I'm feminist because I don't attach myself to every cause that the Pakistani women's movement espouses. I mean, it's not as black and white as that. How I get categorized depends on who is listening to me and what they are looking for.
You describe yourself as a feminist and a Muslim. In the Western image these two do not go together. Do you write also for a Western audience? Do you want to counter its stereotypes and prejudices?
I don't write explicitly for a western audience. Actually, myself and some of my writer friends have been talking about the trend in South Asian fiction particularly to write for western audiences RATHER than our own contexts - and how unnatural it begins to feel. We want to get past the mangoes and the monsoons, you know? So in my attempts at fiction (which I have not even tried to publish yet), I try to think of a Pakistani audience.
Where I do have a dual audience is when I write on my blog. I started that because I was frustrated with being divided over two continents, and divided on so many levels. My mother is American and lives in America. My father is Pakistani and lives in Pakistan. I was living in Seattle at the time, going to graduate school and I wanted to talk about Islam and Pakistan and America and geography and writing all in one place. I wanted to talk about popular culture in the same breath as religion, in the same breath as the news, in the same breath as love and family. Blogging is a wonderful non-fiction revolution that way, I think.
I'm not really into breaking stereotypes, not as my main activity. I sort of feel that if you ARE, in yourself, a broken stereotype, then you don't have to go about announcing that not all Muslim women are oppressed.
And there are questions I can't or won't address, questions that "western" audiences love to cling to: women and the veil for example. I simply don't care. Go ask a woman wearing a veil instead. You know? I'm not the mouthpiece, the spokesman for EVERY issue a "western" subject finds fascinating about what they consider "Islamic" or "eastern" or whatever other label.
If someone presents me with a stereotype, sure, I'll counter it. But only if I think I can do so effectively. Sometimes people ask you a question full of stereotypical impressions and bigotry, but really they just want to express their opinion. They don't want to listen. There's a hadith, or saying, of the Prophet Muhammad: when you go to visit someone, knock once. If they don't answer, knock again, and if they still don't answer, knock a third time. If after that they don't answer, leave. And don't judge the reason why they didn't answer. I like to apply that to life: if it seems like they might listen, I'll talk; if it seems like they've made up their mind, I have better things to do with my time; and my writing. My whole life isn't about being a Muslim feminist woman. Feminism is a tool, not an ideology. And other people have their own lives to live, and their own judgements to make.
When you say "Feminism is a tool, not an ideology.", what do you mean by this?
I know that many people consider it an ideology. They say "I'm a feminist" and "you're a feminist!" like they say "You're a Muslim", "I'm a Marxist", etc. But I think there are too many kinds of feminism, first of all, there to be one big Feminism out there. It's not like a nation or the Queer movement, we don't have flags, or colours.
Secondly, and more importantly, feminism is an intervention. It teaches you *how to read everyday* and find its sexist bias, its racist bias, its class bias, its heterosexist bias, its nationalistic bias, its religious bias, its secular bias. It teaches you to read between the lines, find what's missing, find the gaps. It's a tool to voice silence and uncover hidden things.
And you only use tools when you need them. You don't go around waving a flag with a monkey-wrench on it, just because you happen to use a monkey-wrench a lot.
In the context of this interview, labelling myself as Muslim and feminist is useful for certain reasons. Through it, your readership sees some things they would not have, and I have used my feminist tool to voice a silence, show something hidden - as have you!
You have been talking about your blog: Do you consider blogging as part of your writing?
I did not consider blogging as a part of my writing until you asked me for this interview, to be honest. But then I thought - I'm writig and it's public, so it must be a part of my writing.
I like blogging because it allows me to comment on my context a little more nakedly than my poetry does. Poetry is coy, you can hide some things, even though it's the most honest form of writing I have. With blogging, I can talk politics and geography, I can write like a columnist without begging someone to host my column, and I have full freedom of speech. (So much so that both India and Pakistan have banned the Blogspot domain now!) And yes, the potentially worldwide audience is probably the sexiest part of it. A blog is an amazing thing these days. In the big leagues, the blogs are more honest than journalism is - by big leagues, I mean the blogs that are most widely read. And that's because their writer's own them.
I like blogging also because of the personal mixing with the public and political so easily. It suits my personality really well. It's a good feminist tool.
You have talked in the interview about your poems, you have mentioned your blog, but so far you have not said anything about the play you have written. Why is that?
I'm guessing you mean Dost. I haven't talked about Dost because it was my first attempt at writing anything in Urdu and I didn't write it as a serious endeavour. I wrote it on a whim. I started it at 11pm and I just kept writing one night. Suddenly it was 3 in the morning and I was done with it. Then I went to sleep and woke up in four hours, and went to work. And that was more or less that.
Until I wrote to my friend Ponni Arasu in India a few days later, who had mostly inspired the play in the first place, and said casually, "Hey, I wrote this silly thing, want to read it?" And so I transliterated it into roman alphabet so that she could understand it and emailed it to her. And she said she wanted to perform it.
Dost means "friend" in Urdu and Hindi. It's a one-woman show, or a monologue, that runs for about 20 minutes. The premise is that a Pakistani woman goes to India to introduce herself. I don't know precisely how I got the idea. It wasn't a conscious intervention at all because, like I said, I was just writing it for fun. It has a lot of feminist causes and agendas laced through it, it's also got a strong border-crossing, peace-making theme between India and Pakistan. But, although Ponni has performed it in many small venues in India, and although I did write it for her to perform (in the few moments where I was taking it seriously), I still don't take the whole play seriously.
I saw her perform it for the first time in Madras in December, 2005. That hit home. It felt more real then. I started taking it more seriously. I also saw the potential for more such work and took that more seriously. And most of all, I took seriously my ability to write in Urdu. English is the stronger language with me, so that's the language I write in most of the time, but I'm discovering that I can write in vernacular Urdu effectively. Being half "gori" - half white - I did not have this confidence for a long time. And my environment reinforced that because, the truth is, my Urdu really is not as strong as my English.
I just recently realized it doesn't have to be.
Having said all that: I can write a lot better than Dost. It's alright. As a piece of writing, it's alright. But it's not great. I'm told it's effective. But, at some level, it doesn't matter what you tell a writer about her work: if she thinks it's amazing, and you think it's horrible, your opinion doesn't count. And if she thinks it's crap, no power on earth will convince her otherwise. I think it's just alright, and I can do a lot better. So I don't talk about it much.
I WILL be putting it up on my website soon though!
What motivation did you have to create your website? Have you also published poems on paper or on some other internet space?
I decided to put up my own website because I wanted my poems available to read publicly without having to go through a second party like a journal. I want to be published by journals and magazines of course because that's how one gets a reputation as a good poet - which in turn gets you more readers. But the internet is so central now that it's actually the primary vehicle for self-promotion. So I decided should be a showcase of what I consider my best work.
It's organized in suites of poems - collections that share the same general theme in some way. Since geography and place (and hence displacement) are central themes in my life, "Driving Home" contains poems about my notions of home and exile, family and love of place and people. These I organized under that title after the fact - I wasn't consciously writing for a theme. "Border" on the other hand is a conscious piece of work - all the poems are obsessed with war, crossing imaginary and real lines, fighting between love, geography and home. There are other themes I'm working on because I have a lot more poems!
The website was also a preliminary exercise in organizing my poems so that I could eventually publish them in book form. I don't want to just throw them together in a book - I want my first book to be a work in and of itself.
I am published most on I've published poetry as well as some non-fiction essays - mostly commentary on religious and social issues that strike me. I've also been published in the Alhamra Literary Review, out of Islamabad. They published an excerpt of a fiction piece I'm working on that - who knows? - might be a novel.
You have talked before about your writer friends. Who are they, are you organised in some way, do you meet regularly, ...?
Writers tend to find each other, so in Islamabad and Lahore, the two cities I've spent most time in, slowly people will admit to each other, "Yeah, I do a boring marketing job in the day time, but really I'm working on a novel." That's how we know each other. We're not really organized in anyway, me and my friends. We'd like to be, but I suppose we haven't yet figured out how to be organized or what to do. The people we are talking about aren't really "writer friends" but friends who write. Does that distinction make sense? I met people and later found out they also write. So I'm slowly beginning to get to know other writers and we're slowly showing our work to each other and trying to decide how to move forward with our writing careers, and in the meantime, we talk about the state of writing in South Asia, the substance, the politics and where we think it's going. We're young yet. There's still time for us to get organized.
To know about the writer scene, you'd have to ask someone who has a book deal and several novels under her belt - someone who doesn't have to send in manuscripts to Penguin India or Oxford University Press and pray that someone manages to even see it. The writer scene I'm talking about is friends sharing their work, like they share anything else. It's nothing at all interesting or glamorous. I wish it was. I'd love to portray an exciting literati! But if there is one, I'm not in it!
What should the readers of this interview know about your life, about what you are doing other than writing?
I guess what the readers might like to know is that I certainly don't earn a living writing. These days, I'm a lecturer at a university in Lahore. I teach comparative religion and history courses at the undergraduate level at a relatively new university. I live in a city away from my parents, in an apartment I share with a good friend. I go to a lot of gallery art shows - there is a much stronger tradition of visual art in Pakistan than there is of English language writing. I dream up collaborative work with other types of artists. And like all writers everywhere, I'm waiting for fame and fortune, while I make my living and pass my time doing other things!
That's about it!
by Kyla Pasha

Will you persist, axe to your own
throat, standing on the front lines?
I love your body, don't you love your body?
And all the dead rebound off
the ground, and say, "Tell her to
stop, Kyla, tell her to come live
on this side of the line, where there is
sparse shelling and time for tea between.
Tell her the world is made from dirt and water
which take care of their own - they take
care of their own in the end. No holding
the world, tell her, no carrying it on
your shoulders like that's what it means
to be strong." I was on the field, my love,
when they said, "Tell her: it's her
that has gravity, she already
calls the earth to her knees.


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