Ramna Safeer: This is a difficult question because there are authors who are outright with calling themselves “feminist authors” and then are simply incredible women who write incredible novels with incredible and versatile characters, which I think is just as feminist.
I guess the author that does both of these things so beautifully and elegantly is Zadie Smith. She wrote her 500-page novel White Teeth, when she was just in her early twenties. It’s still one of my favourite novels. It’s one of those books I’m scared to reread because I wonder how it could possibly be as good as the first time reading it.
She writes about being an immigrant in a culturally shocking land and the way the accompanying loss and remolding of identities unfolds over generations. She writes non-white female characters with ease and affluence and most important, a realness that mirrors my own experiences growing up around great brown women. She’s honestly incredible.
Other authors, especially ones that speak to me specifically as a young South Asian woman, are Jhumpa Lahiri, Tahmima Anam, Ghalib, and Arundhati Roy. They all write wonderfully about identity and being human, even when they’re not, really.
F: Why is poetry your genre of choice?
RS: I wish I had some deep and profound answer to this, but I honestly don’t. The short answer is poetry is the most accessible. It’s a couple of lines or stanzas when you’re on the bus to a long day at university.
The long answer is, it’s what first caught my eye. I was raised by parents who were deeply in love with Urdu poetry, even as they uprooted their lives in Pakistan and built a better one for us here in Canada. My name is actually a garden in Bangladesh mentioned in a book of poetry by famous Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Urdu poetry is so lyrical, like music. I didn’t understand much of it as a kid but I wanted to mirror that lyricism with what I knew, so I started writing tidbits here and there and soon started filling journals.
Poetry is strange. I don’t always get along with it. A lot of what I write is complete shit. But sometimes it’s not, and that feeling is worth it. I’ll always be in love with how a poem I write quickly on the back of my school notes in the middle of lecture can turn out much better than something I’ve sat down and toiled over for hours. It’s the magic and the frustration of it all.
F: You talked about the significance of your identity as a first-generation immigrant from Pakistan to Canada. How does poetry enable you to explore and express this identity?
RS: I try my best to make sure my poetry is never being apologetic. Being Pakistani-Canadian is a confusing identity at times, and scary and sad and complex, and I sometimes have to remind myself that I’m allowed to write about the anger and frustration that can so often come with those things.
South Asian young women are so often painted as vulnerable and weak and docile. By writing poems that are sometimes all these things but a lot of the times not, I can feel like I’m not subscribing to anything except myself.
Racism and Islamophobia are real parts of my life and continuous phenomena that have changed me and continue to change me. Sometimes they tear at me and sometimes, more often now than not, they make me more confident in my brown-girl identity. My poetry, I think, is a reflection of that.
F: What would you say to writers who are trying to straddle different cultures? Have you ever felt a disconnect between the culture you live in versus your family’s culture?
RS: Always. It’s something I’m working hard to reconcile, these two areas of my life. It’s an exhausting and ongoing process. I guess my advice to people trying to straddle two different cultures, especially one that ties you to your roots and another that surrounds you everyday, is to be persistent. Be persistent with yourself, with others, with the world in your efforts to understand yourself.
I had people tell me no one wanted to hear what I had to say. I had people say my poems were overdone, forced, didn’t fit neatly amongst today’s contemporary poets. It made the disconnect between my parents’ culture and my surrounding culture wider at times, but it also made me more determined to find where I fit between the two.
My advice to young brown female poets particularly would be to embrace growth. For so long, I rejected my parents’ culture entirely because I thought it was the solution. I thought “assimilation” was okay, would help envision myself in a neat, tidy identity. I wrote all my poems and stories with thin white girls as the central characters and felt sick afterwards. Now, each of my poems is central to me, brown and flawed and confused and unapologetic and myself entirely.
F: Talk to us about your recent project, Cherish Chai.
RS: Cherish Chai is going to be an online space for me to map my journey to recapture my parents’ culture in any way I can find. This can include poetry and literature, but also films, food, fashion, culture, or conversations and collaborations with other people. An example could be a post about novels I’ve made an effort to read by South Asian authors, or a recipe for the homemade chai tea I grew up drinking, or an interview with a brown woman in my life who inspires me. Each of these things may seem small, but are all part of a path to embracing a culture I spent too long neglecting as a kid.
The project is something I’m still working on. Since it’s so dear to my heart, I want to make sure I do it right and when it does go live, it’s professional and embodies exactly what I want it to be. As of now, the official launch of Cherish Chai is on November 1. I’m excited to see where this takes me.
F: How has writing allowed you to find your place in the world?
RS: Oh, man. Writing has done everything for me. As a kid, books were my best friends. As a teenager, writing was all I needed to keep sane. Turning 19 this coming year, words are still the most angering and loving of friends. I don’t know where I would be without writing, without words.
Writing hasn’t so much allowed me to find my place in the world as it has helped me realize that it’s okay to not know my place.
Ramna Safeer is a Pakistani-Canadian poet living and going to school in Kingston, Ontario. She is in a Pre-Law English Major program. Her work has been published in several literary magazines, including Atwood Mag and Parenthetical Zine. She is scared of a few things but ready for everything. Her blood is probably coffee and she might wave at you thinking you’re someone else because she forgot her glasses at home.