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Naima Rashid: An interview

Afshan Shafi

Naima Rashid is an author, poet and literary translator. Her works include a translation of Parveen Shakir’s selected poetry titled Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press), her own poetry and fiction, as well as a series of literary translations from Punjabi and French into English. She has a background in linguistics, education, and writing and has taught French language at the French Consulate of Jeddah and the Alliance Française de Lahore, as well as French Literature at Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore. Her writings on visual arts and other subjects have appeared in Newsline magazine and other publications.

Naima spoke to The Aleph Review about her latest translation, feminist tropes and more.

Afshan Shafi: When did you first encounter the work of Parveen Shakir? What elements of her work particularly caught your attention?

Naima Rashid: I had possessed a copy of her complete works for many years, but avoided reading it with any serious curiosity because I was deterred by the image I had absorbed of her. When I did read it from cover to cover, though, what really struck me—and what kept me hooked—was the extent to which she had been misrepresented and undermined as a poet in popular memory.

What I am drawn to in her work is the sheer range of moods and nuances of experiences that she covers with equal intensity, and the journey that this can signify for a reader. One moment, she is dark and direct, sharp as a blade. The next, she does a volte-face, talks of the tiniest things, the smallest gestures and begins to sound like a little girl ranting or a child looking at something in wonder for the first time. Some works are to be taken purely at face value, while others contain worlds behind worlds, layers of nuance and mystery.

On the subject of motherhood alone, her poems are a treasure trove, capturing the full spectrum of the creature that is a mother. One moment, she is protective as a tigress, guarding herself and her offspring from predators inside a ring of fire. The next minute, she is as vulnerable as any mother on earth, counting the miles on a journey of retreat as her child slips further and further away from her into his own life.

For me, this fullness as a woman, as a human, and as a poet is incredibly beautiful.

AF: When translating, how do you draw a balance between the literal and the conceptual quality of a text? The act of translation has often been likened to the construction of a bridge between two cultures and idioms. Would you say the latter holds true for your experience?

NR: Different translators find different mechanisms for striking that balance, as the process is highly subjective and varies not only from person to person, but also from phase to phase for the same person. While translating poetry, as opposed to prose, I find the process to be very intuitive and the timing and faith of it more crucial than anything akin to strategy, method, or tact. I read the poems many times, spaced out over several months, until their full ‘feel’ is internalised. By this stage, I almost know the poems by heart, so when I’m reading them, I’m looking at the words of the original but bringing the past into the field of meaning, and their literal quality lingers like a memory. When I’m finally ready to put pen to paper for the translation draft, the poem is almost finished in its larger rhythm.

I would say that the essence, rather than the conceptual quality, is the guiding element. By that, I mean the complete matrix of the poem’s tone, diction, sonority, and the full gamut of text, subtext, and nuances. Once you feel that in your pores, the rest flows.

The sole purpose of translating literature is to build, as you say, bridges between two cultures and idioms. I had a very interesting experience in this realm recently when I translated five poems from Defiance of the Rose into French for a francophone audience at the French Consulate in Jeddah. It was a readers’ circle, very awake to different cultures and literatures, and very engaged and inquisitive as an audience.

We got to see which poems crossed over really well and where something or the other needed explanation. One poem, Tomato Ketchup, which was very straightforward for audiences in Pakistan, needed several readings to be understood by this audience. The poems on motherhood almost always touch a chord regardless of the language. It strengthened my conviction that despite the imperfections of translation as a means of relay, the world is so much richer for what does carry across, and the conversations and exchanges that ensue.

Naima Rashid

AF: Shakir was famed for breaking through the linearity of oft-used poetic forms in Urdu. Conceptually, she pushed the envelope, as it were. She bravely spoke of female sexuality and the vividness and urgency of the female voice against the backdrop of a patriarchal setting. Can you elaborate on these facets of her oeuvre? Which poems in Defiance of the Rose do you think best illustrate her ‘otherness’ or her prescriptive ‘outsiderness’?

NR: Shakir was as much a practitioner of the traditional ghazal as she was innovative and experimental with free verse. She was really pushing the envelope at all levels—form, subject matter and, very importantly, the language itself. Her language is the hybrid Urdu of an educated urban elite in Pakistan and easily absorbs English words and expressions in its midst. It is almost conversational. This was an important contribution to the literary tradition of Urdu, as it allowed this special suppleness of Urdu to become mainstream and set a precedent for a poetic idiom in Urdu that can be conversational, effective, and immediately relatable. It favoured transparency rather than opacity.

As I said earlier, her embrace of the feminine experience leaves no shade unexplored. In her earlier poems, which seem naïve compared to her later works, when she touches upon the sensuous aspects of love, her voice is full-throated and unapologetic. About the urgency of the female voice against the oppression of patriarchal settings, sometimes she addresses the subject directly, like in the startling Tomato Ketchup. Even when she does not state it in so many words, you see hints of this silent burden, this unseen but acutely felt pressure, throughout her poems—the cross she bears as a woman, the fardel of responsibilities that society weighs upon a woman, and in the midst of that, how she still nurtures her spirit and her ambition. Given that the corridors of experience she was exposed to in both the bureaucratic and poetic worlds were both terrains particularly hostile to women, how does she take care of her personal and professional growth? How does she survive in a jungle which is always “teeming with scorpions”? Against this voice that she raises in her poetry, the overarching testimony is her life itself. As far back as the ’80s, she was a single mother, a professional woman and a revered poetess bestowed with all regional accolades.

The prescriptive otherness you mention exists as a subliminal echo throughout her work. It goes beyond her roles to an existential level. In many of her poems, there is a leitmotif of insidious creatures being very close at hand, creatures which are essentially at odds with humans—sly, hissing, slithering. She is acutely aware that any moment, she could be stung, bitten, clawed at. This tension, forever taut, and forever present in her poems—essence of rose pitted against essence of venom, a beast waiting with bated breath at the threshold, and a stillness, a lull—a moment as fine as a hair’s breadth in which she at once senses the danger and instinctively makes a move for survival.

I wouldn’t pin it down to a certain number of poems, but I would say the opening piece, When the Wolves Come—which could very well be an accent piece for her complete works, —and Those with the Memory of Camels, capture this otherness, this sense of being a stranger, an alien, very well and give a good idea of this tension, a continuous chord in her work.

AF: What are the most pressing tropes in Shakir’s poetry that you think would resonate with the pressed-for-attention youth of today? What does she have to say that would powerfully impact (the mostly female) millennial and Gen Z auteurs and pen-pushers today?

NR: Shakir was writing in the ’80s, but her verse is still fresh and relevant today. Her improvised idiom would be, I should think, directly accessible to millennials. If new writers were to draw lessons from her life and works, it would be lessons in fearless reinvention of style and subject. As a writer, she was so comfortable in her skin that, as a result, her language was unburdened by the weight of any pretence to sound weightier, more serious than was true to her. She scaled a full gamut of expression, embracing the strengths of her uniqueness. Whenever you embrace your core as an artist wholly, you will touch the peak of your power.

During her life and after her death, to this day, she has been unfairly compared with other feminist poets from Pakistan whose gravitas she lacks. She never took the pressure during her lifetime and openly resisted its weight without apology, always choosing the journey that was true to her person. That self-belief is the greatest takeaway for any aspiring writer.

For female writers, once again, I would say what her work says is: be who you are as a woman, as a person. Be the shade of you that will most authentically bring that confidence to your work. Your work will sparkle.

AF: Do you think there are certain affinities or thematic approaches that you share with Shakir or perhaps with other Pakistani writers outside the English canon?

NR: The translation project was conceived because, at some subconscious level, there was an experiential connection. Somewhere, at the confluence of being a woman, experiencing the oppression of patriarchal structures, juggling familial responsibilities and professional ambitions, I was drawn to this work, which was, experientially, sliced along the same axis. So many of her poems echoed truths and experiences I was myself traversing and battling, as I imagine were many other female readers.

Inevitably, I would say that there is bound to be an affinity at the level of the experiences and where they intersect. Apart from that, as a reader, I connect with the works of Munir Niazi and Bano Qudsia. Kulyaat-e-Muneer and Haasil Ghaat are always by my bedside. They all share a similar clarity and transparency of expression, something like the quality of freshwater brooks, and an absolute simplicity, lack of posturing and pretence. So, as a reader and student of their works, I have an affinity with them. All three are maestros of lucidity, and I am only a student of their works.

AF: In my reading of your poems, I found there is a consistent refrain or an appeal for freedom from the demands of the purlieus, the societal. You speak of a certain kind of freedom from the past, from the ancestral weft, from perhaps even the demands of love as a traditional construct. Please elaborate on this facet of your poetry.

NR: As square pegs in round holes, aren’t we all always trying to free ourselves of frames or other paradigms of containment? Like all creatives, I question and resist many of these constraints on the self, how they shape us, to what extent they define us, what we lose by freeing ourselves of these constructs, what we gain, what alternative paradigms exist for necessary human experiences, etc.

AF: The play between the demands of ‘modernity’ and the perceived simplicity of the past find expression in your work, repeatedly. In individual poems, the past offers a kind of consolation and for the inverse, modernity affords a kind of comfortable numbness. Where does the poet locate herself in the present age, in your opinion? Where does a poet writing in English and the mother tongue, find her forbearers? Or is it a kind of pleasant rootlessness, as it were?

NR: It is exactly that, as you say, a pleasant rootlessness. Living in the times we are living in, with the levels of mobility, flexibility and access that our lifestyles afford, the exposure and nomadism that modern life embraces, I sometimes feel that the axes of time and space, chronology and geography flex and merge to give way to a continuum of consciousness which is a far more real and pertinent frame of reference for ‘reality’.

This rootlessness, this eternal nomadism and comfortable numbness can also be disorienting and unsettling beyond a certain point and can make one feel somewhat unhinged. It is here that the past becomes a solace, an anchor, a tangible, memorable measure of reference.

A poet writing today has access to an unprecedented range of influences, with the dissolution of geographical boundaries in so many ways, not least the boom of translated literature from many parts of the world, hitherto inaccessible linguistically.

AF: What interests you at the moment? Is there a manuscript on the horizon?

NR: There is a suite of projects I have been working on for the past four years since I quit my teaching career to focus full time on my writing. There is my own volume of verse which is ready to be pitched, a collection of short stories set in contemporary Lahore, which looks at the city as an amorphous organism, with stories set at different pulse points in the city’s topography. These are all in different stages of completion. For the next two years, I’m just keeping my head down and finishing them off. After that, there is my first novel, which is struggling to get out of my head and on to paper, but can’t find space just yet, and two mega translation projects.

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Mar 30, 2020

Having recently discovered Parveen Shakir's poetry, I read this interview with great interest. I now look forward to reading Naima Rashid's work!

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