Everything Is Near and Unforgotten: An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah


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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. 

Do you think that, in any way, your own background gave you a window into the experience of the birangona?

I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how to be a woman in the right way—what it means to be a woman in a religiously conservative culture, and what happens when some attention is given to you as a sexual being.

So much of the time, these women have had a sexual self projected onto their identities, in part because the culture itself is conservative. When something violent and sexual happens to you in that context, it doesn’t necessarily go into an easy category, in terms of how you’re supposed to react, how you’re supposed to feel, what you’re supposed to think, or the way you’re supposed to live your life. 

Though the questions are very different, I experienced something similar growing up in West Texas as a Bangladeshi American. There was an empathy about having people try to categorize you when you cannot be so easily categorized. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand what it means when there is no vocabulary, or language, or even space given for you, as a being, outside of certain prescribed categories. In a lot of ways, these women seemed to me to be outside the usual categories. Their stories cannot be seen as either personal or political. They have to be seen as both simultaneously.  

How did you try to find the women you wanted to interview?

I had really great support from the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka. A freedom fighter during the war named Akku Chowdhury was very helpful in talking to me about his experiences and introducing me to others. Finally, a scholar put me in touch a woman named Safina Lohani. She fought during the war and now runs an organization that provides support to women who were raped during the conflict. It was in meeting her that I connected with a large number of birangona. That’s when I started delving into the interviews. But this was after a lot of false starts, a lot of touch-and-go. Part of the process was just trying to be open to the ways in which the project might change, trying to be attentive when those opportunities arose, and trying to take them when they were offered.

The interviews themselves defied description. They made me rethink my own assumptions about what we think about when we use terms like victim or survivor or rape or sex, or even something as simple as the concept of pity. I met a group of sisters who had been raped. It had never occurred to me, until I spoke to them, that a woman might share an experience like that with her sisters. I had always thought of the birangona as individuals, as isolated beings strangely removed from family. But of course an experience like that is never isolated. It always permeates through the community and through family. 

As I was talking to them, one of the sisters came up behind me and started playing with my hair. And she said, You poor thing, you must have nobody to comb your hair. That just totally blew me away. I thought I was there to ask what it was like for them. To have a woman who had survived something so horrible with her sisters, to have her pity me because my hair seemed unkempt—I never could have predicted something like that was going to happen. 

Did your experience alter the way you thought about the war and the women you met? 

It certainly brought to life some things about being Bangladeshi. Bangladesh was only liberated in the seventies. It’s very much a new country. My grandparents’ generation grew up thinking of themselves as Pakistani, not Bangladeshi. So my experience not only changed how I thought about the war, it complicated the very notion of being from a place and feeling a loyalty to that place. It also made me think about how we often focus on the victory of a war rather than its consequences. So many of these women, while they were held up by the new Bangladeshi government as war heroines, were often shunned by their families and social circles.   

So there was a kind of cognitive dissonance between what the new state was doing to try to protect them, and the difficulties they sometimes experienced with the people closest to them. It made me think about patriotism, the consequences of independence, and how often the wartime experiences of women are sidelined. A lot of people in Bangladesh refuse to acknowledge that anything like this ever happened. 

How did you shape the material you had gathered into poems?

It was a gradual process of putting things together, taking them back out, seeing where things fell, and realizing that some poems didn’t actually belong in the collection, even though it felt important to write them. I put the interview sequence at the center of the book because I felt doing so most accurately depicted my conversations with these women, in which I was also dealing with my own reckoning as a Bangladeshi American woman with a different kind of relationship to Bangladesh. The book tries to navigate some of those spaces. 

I was trying to figure out how to marry form and content to create a very human poem. Many of the interview poems happened very instinctively once I chose a form for them. The form became the lens through which I could focus my experiences and conversations. For example, a lot of poems from the perspective of the birangona are written in couplets. There’s something about the couplet that allows you to take two seemingly incommensurate objects and give them room to dwell beside each other. For me, a privileged Bangladeshi American woman interviewing women living in Bangladesh, the couplet became a way to put those concepts in the same space. It became a natural way of delivering the voices of the birangona as I had heard them.

Some of the poems, such as “Reading Celan in the Liberation War Museum,” took longer to figure out. That poem ended up being a crown of sonnets, in part because I think there’s something very obsessive about that form, just as there was something about moving through that museum that felt obsessive and meditative in equal measure.

I wanted each poem to be able to stand on its own, outside the narrative trajectory of the book. I focused on writing poems that would have integrity outside of the manuscript, and those were the poems I kept. Once Seam began to take shape as a book, I realized that a lot of the poems were trying to tell a story in a number of different ways, through a number of different timelines and perspectives. I don’t give voice to all of the perspectives, but I wanted to try to confront the ways in which, as Celan wrote, everything is near and unforgotten. So part of the experience was trying to weave together, say, a story my mother told me about watching her mother bathe in the pond behind their house during the 1971 war, while also trying to write a poem in the voice of a woman who underwent a very different experience during the war than my mother did.

How much of that search for poetic form is intuitive and how much comes from your knowledge of craft?

I’m always educating myself about poetry. I can understand, for example, that a sonnet has fourteen lines, and that it has a turn on the eighth line. I can understand what meter is. I can recognize a rhyme when I see it. But all of those tools are useless to me without imagination. Similarly, vision doesn’t find its shape without the craft. I don’t know how you render human vulnerability without the right vocabulary or syntax. So, if I have written a poem that seems to have roughly fourteen lines, I’ll ask, Is this possibly a sonnet? And I’ll try it as a sonnet. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll say, Well, maybe it’s not a sonnet. Maybe it needs to be similar to a sonnet, but to break out of that form a little bit. The tools are useful, but I don’t ever feel trapped or isolated by them. There is much more an expansiveness in thinking about form than there is limitation. 

A poem might find its form in the way a person seeks to find out who she is, how she can be seen. 

Right. I once heard the poet Li-Young Lee say, Syntax is identity. That’s something I’ve always believed, that everybody has a distinct vocabulary based on experience, upbringing, and geography. For me, form is a way of imprinting yourself. I think of it the way I think of the cave paintings of Lascaux, where there is this sense that somebody wanted to affix something permanent of themselves in a world, or a life, that is impermanent.