Hera Naguib on “the violent essence of any creative activity”

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The Sillerman First Book Prize is now open through December 1st. To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, an interview with poet and Prairie Schooner contributor Hera Naguib on constructing her first book and the joys and difficulties of working in the Pakistani literary scene.

What are you working on right now?

I'm working on my first collection of poetry which deals loosely with the idea of personal origin. These poems are about family, myths, and my relationship with the city I live in, which is Lahore.

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How are you conceiving of ordering the collection?

I’m still in the process of writing the manuscript. But the earliest poems were written as part of my MFA thesis at Sarah Lawrence College. However, I wasn't satisfied with a huge chunk of it, so when I completed the program and soon after I landed back in Lahore, Pakistan, I re-visited the poems and chose the poems that, to me, felt most alive, true, and those I enjoyed writing to guide me on writing towards a manuscript that feels most reflective of myself.    

Do you have images or poetic tics that recur? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not.

For a long time, I was attached to the word "dust" and "throat". The former usually occurred in poems about Lahore. A friend in my MFA program pointed this out to me and I understood it was functioning like a placeholder, with little value, and it came from a place of laziness and fear to dig deeper and a tendency to romanticize the place I was writing about.

On the other hand, I’m still attached to the word “throat” and I’d use it in every poem if I could. It’s an indicator of something concrete and highly sensitive at the same time (if that makes any sense).  

How have you decided, so far, which poems to include in the collection?

I’ll say again that I'm interested in the poems that I find most reflective, that is, those that I feel honest to me and those I enjoyed writing the most. I think that's a more constructive approach than to choose poems which got more attention or those that landed in a good journal or magazine. It is certainly very tempting to be swayed by the idea, though.

Do you have places in mind that you'll submit to, once you're finished?

I would like to send my work to places where poets whose work I admire have been published and presses that promote diversity (women, poets of color, international poets) among the writers that they publish. I'm also looking to publish my work both in the U.S. and in Pakistan.

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

I will always have to remind myself to be patient, bolder, and kinder to myself during stretches I haven’t been or am not able to write for one reason or the other.

Has publication of individual pieces in the collection changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

I think it has made me more aware where my strengths lie in writing and it encouraged me to write more on a specific subject and to reflect on it from various angles. It can be distracting though, because you’re tempted to repeat what helped you succeed. You have to remind yourself to keep diversifying and re-inventing what you’re putting on the page and not keep on writing that same poem again and again.   

You teach at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, Pakistan, and earned your MFA from Sarah Lawrence, and so in your teaching and publishing work (with Papercuts and the Desi Writers Lounge), you've been a part of US and Pakistani literary communities. What kind of conclusions have you drawn from your literary citizenship in various communities?

The communities are poles apart. Unlike in the U.S., it’s a challenge to keep writing in Pakistan and not feel a strong sense of divorce from a practically non-existent literary community. The resources for a literary community to exist are, unfortunately, lacking. Overall, the publishing industry is very young and publishers are more interested in bringing out works of nonfiction (biographies, coffee table books, academic books). There’s a dearth of publishing houses devoted to publishing poetry and fiction. In turn, writers, particularly those of English, publish internationally. This leads to its own politics because those publishing internationally usually enjoy more success and their work, thereby, overshadows  writing in Urdu or other local languages. Of late, writers and translators, particularly those writing in English, have also been turning to India, where there’s a stronger, and perhaps, more liberal, publishing vision, as well as a rising number of literary agencies interested in connecting Pakistani writers to Indian publishers.

Apart from the above, finding support from institutions and academies is rare and often unfound in Pakistan. Academic institutions rarely perceive writing (whether in English or in any one of the local languages) as a discipline from which one can carve a way of life, such as they do for the visual arts. And the reason for this probably circles back to the sorry state of publishing businesses in the country. In turn, the discipline is often trivialized or sidelined to a subject or something to be facilitated apart from the program, such as, in a literary club or as an elective. I’d be curious to learn how many potential writers have been turned away because of this climate. I think these factors get in the way of creating  thriving literary communities.

On the other hand, there have been efforts to stir and revive a literary scene through the annual literary festivals that take place in the major cities of Pakistan. Though I don’t know how long or how successfully the initiative can last without a more active local publishing scene and whether it will pave avenues for such growth or not. Similarly, Desi Writers Lounge and the bi-annual magazine that the initiative releases by the name of Papercuts, attempts to acknowledge this deficit and address a growing curiosity among young and emerging writers by providing workshop and publication opportunities. We often work with well-established South Asian writers and translators in many ways with the hope to generate a serious pursuit of writing and foster a sense of an active literary community among emerging South Asian writers. Also, through our workshop sessions, we educate young writers about the plethora of opportunities available to them internationally.        

Your poems often seem to struggle, beautifully, with violence and what it means for the speaker to encounter and engage with violent moments, what that means for her own humanity. In "Lahore," your speaker says "Some- // times I want to know what it’s like to lurk / in your alleys—a shadow, panther slow, // heart at war-beat speed, ribcage a rattling / artillery, veins a tracery tender as a thread // across a child’s palm." –here, and elsewhere, the speaker's sense of herself begins to bleed a little, into another being—does that make sense? In "I Come From a Long Cry," the speaker says, "There are people / and things in my mind who think they were me…" What is that bleed? What’s the risk these speakers encounter when they look?

This is such an exciting question! Thanks for the sensitive reading! The first thing that came up in my mind: well, at least all that passive aggression didn’t go to waste!

I think my choices for such moments vary from poem to poem. First, I think the violent moments in my poem come from a desire to resolve, or perhaps, better understand the violence around me (and the anger in me, since anger is an emotion I struggle with on a regular basis). Hence, there are the lines above, from the poem “Lahore”, in which the speaker voices a weird desire to identify with a suicide bomber. The speaker is the city Lahore, in the form of a persona that is “nameless” and traversing past these various comedic or violent figures in an effort to find a voice for itself. When you make such work in Pakistan, you’re at risk of being perceived as pandering to some post-9/11 stereotype or propaganda of Pakistan as a dangerous nation of suicide bombers and honor killings. Luckily, I’m not that important and most won’t notice. But it’s a needless comment, though understandable, given that there’s a prevalent understanding that certain South Asian realities are more readily marketable to Western presses.

A lot of it, though, goes back to artistic intent, which is always a political one as well. The truth is, life in Pakistan IS very oppressive, violent, and hostile. For me and, perhaps, for other writers,  not addressing such subjects can be akin to looking the other way. I’m interested in exploring that relationship of violence with our daily lives and the violent moment as definitive to our public and personal histories. Sometimes, the event lies outside the poem, while, in other instances, the violence is part of it. In the poem, “The Interview,” which was recently published in Prairie Schooner, the speaker is numbed and removed from the climate of beefed up security at a local school yet equally embroiled and aware of the tension and gravity of the situation. Anyone living in Pakistan knows the irony of living in this contradictory state.

At other times, the interest is purely for the sake of drama, for an opportunity to enjoy writing that (hopefully) feels highly textured, alive, and real to me. This is specifically true for my poem “Ghar-e-Hira”, which recounts the myth of the first revelation of Quranic verses that were delivered to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Jibrael (Gabriel). In the Quranic narrative, the prophet is approached and gripped by the angel and commanded to recite the divine verses three times and each time with more force after the illiterate prophet protests that he cannot. For the prophet, the birth of the book is a moment of utter fear. For him, each divine revelation came to unfold in terror and spams and shivers. Yet, in the same narrative, it changed the dynamics of history forever. As someone who plays with language, it’s an absolutely awe-inspiring narrative symbolizing the potency and the burden of the word and the violent essence of any creative activity.    

Hera Naguib is a poet and teacher based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her poems have appeared in World Literature Today, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Spillway, diode, and elsewhere.