Saima Afreen’s debut poetry collection ‘Sin of Semantics’ is hard-hitting. As the title suggests, Saima uses the power of language to assert the sin of having her own identity, her own voice in a country where women are raped and innocents are lynched. Many of Saima’s poems are nostalgic – while some recount her experiences with strangers in foreign lands, others are about the extreme grief of losing someone close to heart.
Though at first sight many of her poems may come across as a very personal account of moments of grief and happiness, there are political undertones which make this young poet’s work very relevant in an age where a woman having her freedom, her own voice, is deemed to be a ‘sin’.
TNM speaks to Saima Afreen, who is currently working as the deputy city editor at The New Indian Express in Hyderabad, about the inspiration behind writing the collection, the references to exotic places and to people throughout her poems and her experience of publishing her work.
There’s a lot of pain and anguish in your poems – of lost love, troubled families – they even hint at some of the prevailing political situations in the country (the Kashmir issue). Where do you draw your inspiration from?
The people and places we let go also create us. They live within us in different forms, choosing to come out when they can fit into the images as perfectly as a tailored dress. This is what personal loss is about. Kashmir is much more than that. A bleeding land forced to shut up, brutalised, locked up, and blacked out from the rest of the world, devoid of everything the denizens in the valley identified themselves with. An error posterity will never forgive us or this country for. The poems ‘For a Child of Kashmir’ and ‘A Couplet’ in the collection were written amid the 2010 unrest in Kashmir, which saw the brutal killing of protesters. This is 2019 and we are witnessing the horror at its worst, thanks to the brutal approach of the state and people blindly supporting it.
Poetry comes on its own when it is ready. What is perceived as inspiration are the triggers for the background work that the mind does while absorbing socio-cultural-political scenarios, later producing something uniquely its own.
You have referred to many literary giants in multiple poems in your collection. Have they all played a role in bringing out the poet in you?
Poetry touches the deepest layers of one’s being resuscitating what is lost or is thought to be lost. The memory is not just of you, it also holds prints of your ancestors buried deep within your DNA. We are not just of our times, we also belong to the times gone by, the echoes left behind. That’s why you connect to certain lines and specific words as if the image, the sweep of a brush stroke were created just for you.
In this regard, the works of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mirza Ghalib, Khusro, Kabir, Mahmoud Darwish, Anna Akhmatova, Rosmarie Waldrop, Anne Sexton, Edwin Muir, Dylan Thomas, Agha Shahid Ali, Seamus Heaney among others linger where I feel deepest as a poet. Powerful and evocative images touch where you hide your sunsets. What comes forward is a new page blank like the first morning. And on it you pour everything you own.
Your poem ‘A Polka Dot Umbrella’ is said to be inspired from the kindness you met at the hands of strangers. Can you share your experiences?
It was the autumn of 2017 and I was in Finland for the Villa Sarkia writers’ residency. It was a cold evening in Helsinki. I’d lost my way unable to find a taxi. It started to drizzle. My legs were badly chilled. It was getting dark. I noticed a girl sipping her coffee at a kiosk nearby. I approached her and she guided me to the tram routes and the next point to get a taxi. Her name was Velma. I thanked her and began to walk. She stopped me and handed me her umbrella. I politely refused but she urged me to take it saying that I would get soaked in the rain. I was deeply touched by the kindness of a stranger in a foreign country. This world needs more people like her to believe that goodness exists and that we all are connected to one another no matter which country, race or faith we belong to.
There are a lot of references to local places and cities in the poems – from the Moazzam Jahi Market in Hyderabad to Calcutta, Helsinki, Delhi and Gaya. There are also poems that recollect some very fond memories of your grandparents and your father. How exactly were you able to pen down these memories from your past?
People and places – each wrinkle is sculpted with a story. I listen to people’s faces, especially their eyes. Sometimes they hold a clay lamp, you try finding your way into their territory, but the moment that interests me more is when you are denied entry and that’s where the architecture of words begins. And places are the real canvases where you can pick your mood from. They find you, make love to you and leave you with their tales.
In the poem ‘Portrait of My Father As A Young Man’, I try to picture my late father as a young unmarried man in the Calcutta of the 1950s. The grandparents I talk about in the poems aren’t mine. They are of people I have spoken to. Heard the painful tales related to Partition and Kashmir. It connects me to the agony our family had to go through during the partition in 1947 and later in 1971 during the Bangladesh liberation war.
What does the title ‘Sin of Semantics’ mean to you? What does ‘sin’ mean here?
Poet Ranjit Hoskote writes in the blurb of my book: “Is language the original sin that condemns the human voice to an always-partial, always-incomplete communication? What is lost in this continuing act of translation from experience to language, and what is gained?”
Yes, I am a sinner. Sinful of using my voice, my language, holding myself with dignity under my brown skin, holding poetry as my religious scripture in a country where people are killed by mobs and where a woman can be raped and murdered while we have cow vigilantes to protect animals.
I am a sinner to have refused to bow down to certain customs and choosing to live and travel independently. Every day I commit the sin of being a woman, of celebrating myself, not letting the gender dichotomy overpower my words and actions.
It is only semantics that a poet has to offer the world, to defy the arbitrariness of a ruthless state, to register protest, to shake the sleeping, to offer healing that the heart is much in need of. The sin here means having your own identity, your own voice. And you commit this sin every day, become a rebel and still hold your head high.
Does the collection, in any manner, help you locate your identity as a Muslim woman writer of colour in the literary world?
Why can’t the world accept a poet as just a poet? Why do we need the classifications in terms of colour, creed, gender, nationality and class? Why can’t a poet just be a poet? An artist just an artist? But we live in an unforgiving world that reminds me every day of my volatile identity as a brown-Muslim-woman writer in South Asia. A poet/writer chooses to write what s/he wants to without having to hold a placard of identity. It is always there as an undercurrent in the writing.
Can you tell us your favourite poem from ‘Sin of Semantics’?
That’s a difficult question. Other than ‘A Polka Dot Umbrella’, I like ‘Winter is a Tea-Steeped Memory’. It was 2017. I was sitting at Cafe Goodio in Helsinki’s Market Square sipping coffee prepared with oatmeal milk and coconut sugar. The sun was a blob of butter floating above the south harbour lined with ships. The light seeped from behind their sails and suddenly it began to snow. The sea, the sky, the street dissolved into one colour. Everything was fading into the sweep of a brushstroke. In the midst of this tension is where the poem was born.
How difficult is it to publish poetry in India?
In terms of publishing a book of poetry, the scenario looks brighter than before, thanks to indie publishing houses like Yoda Press, Copper Coin, Red River, Poetrywala and Hawakal coming forward and taking it seriously. It is time that bookstores stock poetry collections than just bestsellers. It is annoying to see shelves for poetry completely missing in some bookstores, the space filled with cranberry chocolates, teddy bears and even earrings!
At the same time it’s heartening to see Atta Galatta, Oxford Bookstore, Kitab Khana stocking books of contemporary poets and even hosting book launches. A lot of open cultural spaces and cafes offer space for launches, readings, workshops and meet-ups. There is much more that needs to be done to promote poetry in the country, but it is heartening to see a good beginning.