An Interview with Fatima Ijaz
Reading Fatima Ijaz's debut collection of poems can be likened to descending into a labyrinth of smoky memories, both wrenching and affirmative. The book titled The Shade of Longing pulls the reader into an intimate pact with the poet's mind, shrouding us in the colour and metaphorical shadows of her poetic vision. This collection is one to truly linger over for it leads one into the beautiful forests of the unconscious.
Afshan Shafi: How did this book evolve into its final form? What was the process of writing it like? Was it completed in spurts or with a certain consistency?
Fatima Ijaz: For many years of my life, I was a traveler. I visited many places around the world to study and travel; I was a gypsy in my yearning to go on these journeys. However, for the past few years I have been based in the city of my birth, Karachi, and have acknowledged the need for returning to my roots and staying in one place consistently. Part of me, however, out of habit or compulsion, is still going on long journeys! This is my writer self.
This book was like going on a long journey to the realms of the past, to all the people I’ve been, as Joan Didion puts it: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be...” I wanted to reconnect with these past selves and see what may occur. It was a long exploration and it took me around one and a half year to compile all these poems. The process was thrilling, like speaking to many odd mirrors at the same time. Once the journey started, I was in a place of mind where I couldn’t stop and it was a constant, consistent practice.
AS: Memory is a strong refrain throughout the book. It seems to pull at you as a poet and again. Please give us further insight into your engagement with memory when writing this manuscript.
FI: I think there’s always a looking back, which is a part of our lives, isn’t it? We do it casually in our conversations, in our introspections. The past lives with us in mysterious ways. We build our current relationships based on shared history and sometimes we recall the difficult past that left us with rifts in our relations. Memory is a constant sub-text in my book. Life goes on but the past, like a second love, simmers alive in the dark.
The writing started out as an exploration of the games memory plays and its first title was Memory Book, which later evolved to the first chapter in the book. To quote a line from this part of the book: “What you were then, is running past, what you are now.” Not just are our relationships affected by the passing nature of time, but also who we fundamentally are, is altered. Thus, memories are complex; we are looking at the past with the lens of the present. My book is an attempt to wrestle with memories; to be honest, to dive into the experience and not interfere, to map out this emotional arena with precision.
AS: Dreams multiply and emerge in riveting forms throughout your text. Can you elaborate on how this element ascribes a further texture of meaning to your poems?
FI: In a sense, with wakeful memories being a significant theme in the book, it’s all about the imaginative world of dreams as such. In one of the poems, they are evoked as: “And there in the woods, are cast nets by fairies/Translucent dreams that bespoke of long-lasting.” So it is a dream within a dream; the dreamscape of a memory, which further recounts dream nets spun by fairies.
I find writing poetry to be a transportive act and it literally carries you away to dream-states and other worlds. To truly be in and of these realms one must loosen the grip on so-called reality, and I think poems can be invocations to these surreal, dreamy ways of being.
“My book is an attempt to wrestle with memories; to be honest, to dive into the experience and not interfere, to map out this emotional arena with precision”
AS: What were you reading, listening to and learning about during the writing of the poems? There is such a sense of richness and proliferating symbolism in most of the poems. How did this come to be?
FI: Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book which relates the feeling of loss so well. Certain of Patrick Modiano’s works including So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood which deal with the ways memory works and so much that goes into confronting lost memories. Interestingly, it was more instrumental music that was transportive and helped me access and re-live lost times, for example: Mariage D'amour by Paul de Senneville and Gnossiennes by Erik Satie. I’d add, that I also read and interpreted silence.
As I write in the preface to the book, the journey of going inward into lost times and old selves, didn’t end in those realms, but rather also traces coming out of those states into the present—thus, of the five chapters, the last one is called Leave-taking. However, perhaps the deep plunge into the sea of the past left the writing experience soaked and even ‘rich’ in longing.
AS: What would you say were moments of key emotional significance in your life which enabled your poetic landscapes?
FI: I think writing this book helped me face a lot of things that I had locked out of my present consciousness. Thus, it was a daring act—to access those parts of yourself which you are afraid to touch. I think writing poetry is empowering, bold but also difficult. There’s exploration of stories of heart-break and the beauty of what once was, childhood friendships that were lost permanently, the evolving relationship with one’s mother, regaining the power of being a woman but also confrontational poems which seek to unmask different faces of the patriarchy.
AS: I loved the supernal and otherworldly aspects of your verse. Have the latter always been an interest or is there an inherent curiosity in you for the other realms?
FI: There’s a passage in Portrait of the Artist as Young Man by James Joyce, in which he relates how perhaps spirituality is experienced more profoundly in art and literature than in conventional ways. This is something close to my heart and the reason why I feel it is so important for me to be immersed in literature, art and writing. These are all realms of intense imagination and yes, we visit other worlds when we explore these domains. I have faith in the power of literature!
AS: What's next for you as a poet? What excites you as a writer at the moment?
FI: At the moment I am experiencing the feeling of being read in a very different way. I mean, it’s not a single published poem but in fact a whole book that many people are reading at the same time. It is an overwhelming experience.
Next, I have started working on new poems under the theme of portraits and power dynamics – in doing so, I am working more closely with music and want to explore rhythm and intensity. Let’s see what it evolves to. I am also trying my hand at short stories and have one forthcoming in the next issue of Kyoto Journal.
Fatima Ijaz is based in Karachi, Pakistan and teaches English and speech at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA). She is a contributing editor at Pandemonium Journal. She graduated in English from Hartwick College, USA and York University, Canada She holds an MA in English linguistics from Eastern Michigan University, USA.
She won first prize at The Mclaughlin Poetry Contest in Toronto (2007). Fatima has been a reader at the Karachi Literature Festival (2020, 2021) and her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Aleph Review, Ideas&Futures, isacoustic, Tillism, New Asian Writing, Kitaab, Rigorous, Zau, The Write Launch, The Bombay Review, The Missing Slate, Kyoto Journal and other places. She has also written on literature and culture in Naya Daur, The Friday Times and DAWN. Her book, The Shade of Longing and other Poems, has recently been published both as an e-book and as a print edition by The Little Book Company.
Afshan Shafi lives in Lahore and has studied English literature and international relations at The University of Buckingham and Webster Graduate School London respectively. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Poetry Wales, Blackbox Manifold, Flag + Void, Luna Luna, Clinic, and 3am magazine. Her poems have also appeared in the anthologies, Smear (edited by Greta Bellamacina), The New River Press Yearbook, and When They Start To Love You As A Machine You Should Run (edited by Heathcote Ruthven). Her debut chapbook of poems, Odd Circles, was published by Readings (Pakistan) in 2014. She has also served as a poetry editor for The Missing Slate and as an assistant editor for GoodTimes Magazine. Her prose has appeared in Grazia (Pakistan), The News on Sunday, Libas Now, OK! (Pakistan) and Daily Times (Pakistan). She is a senior contributing editor at The Aleph Review and a founding editor at Pandemonium Journal.
Instagram: @afshanshafi1 | @afshanjourno