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Everything Is Near and Unforgotten: An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah

February 10, 2014 | by

Tarfia Author Photo Web

In the 1971 Liberation War, in which Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, the Pakistani army adopted the rape of Bangladeshi women as a military tactic. Over the course of the more than eight-month conflict, the Pakistani military raped or made sex slaves of between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women.

In 2010, the poet Tarfia Faizullah traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to interview survivors of that atrocity, whom their new government has given the name birangona, a Bengali word that means “brave woman” but might be better translated as “war heroine.”

Seam, Faizullah’s collection about those interviews, and about the experience of traveling to Bangladesh to conduct them, won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and will be published on March 6. Faizullah’s collection translates the Pakistani army’s atrocities against the birangona into poetry. It also investigates, and attempts to come to terms with, Faizullah’s own heritage, identity, and experience. One of her interview poems begins: “Each week I pull hard / the water from the well, / bathe in my sari, wring / it out, beat it against / the flattest rocks—Are you / Muslim or Bengali, they / asked again and again. / Both, I said, both.

Tarfia Faizullah and I spoke by telephone in January.

The subjects of these poems have a striking, immediate urgency, and I wondered what inspired you to write them.

In 2006, I happened to go to a poetry panel at the University of Texas at Austin, where I saw a Bangladeshi writer, Mahmud Rahman. He had translated an excerpt of a novel, Talaash, by a writer named Shaheen Akhtar. Her book is about the life of a woman who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War. It was the first time I had heard about such a wide-scale atrocity in Bangladesh. I became fascinated by it, and started researching and writing the first of the interview poems, just from imagination. 

What made you decide to travel to Bangladesh to interview the women yourself? Was there a particular experience that made you realize you had to go there?

I realized very quickly there was only so far my imagination could go, and only so much research I could do from the States. So I applied for a Fulbright because it seemed—you used the word urgent, and it seemed very urgent for me to go to Bangladesh and record the voices of these women, and spend time in the country in which these atrocities occurred.

I was struggling to articulate the difference between being seen as a whole person versus self-fetishizing. I was starting to reckon with what it means to be a South Asian Muslim woman from West Texas, and how sometimes it was very easy to identify as one thing or another. At the same time, something about the poems I was writing felt off to me. There was something wrong in my assumption that, even if the poems were imagined, I could claim to understand what a woman who had undergone something like that would be going through, and what it might mean to her. 

Even as I was trying not to fetishize my own identity, I was running the risk of writing poems that exoticized or diminutized the experience of being a victim, or being treated as a martyr, when a lot of the birangona haven’t lived their lives that way. That was when I knew I had to go. Read More »