Sounds in Translation: An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah

by    /  October 31, 2019  / Comments Off on Sounds in Translation: An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah

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This past September, Tarfia Faizullah flew in from Chicago to join City of Asylum as they wrapped up their 15th annual Jazz Poetry Month. Prior to her performance, Faizullah sat down in the Alphabet City green room to chat about the importance of representation and about writing as a tool to help communities understand one another. She also shared insights about how she’s approached her growing body of work, including her two poetry collections, Seam and Registers of Illuminated Villages, in which Faizullah addresses the impacts of war and her experiences as a Bangladeshi-American woman. Faizullah’s works, which often transcend borders, have been translated to Chinese, Tamil, Bengali, and Persian. Her work has also been featured on BuzzFeed, Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, Hindu Business Line, and Poetry Magazine, among several other publications.

On Growing and Learning

Have you always wanted to write poetry? And how do you choose between poetry and other genres like fiction or nonfiction? 

Poetry has always interested me. I’m Bangladeshi-American, so Bangladeshi culture, which is very literary and musical, was a natural part of my upbringing. When I was a child, my mother had me recite poems in both Bengali and English. 

Although I write both fiction and nonfiction, I think there’s something special about how poetry is a compact, radical art form. Although it’s compact, poetry is simultaneously flexible. It can be anything it wants to be such as nonfiction and fiction at the same time but it has this element of music to it, which makes poetry itself innovative. It’s also special because it began as an oral tradition, so it’s available to the illiterate, too.

Who is your favorite poet or author of yours at the moment, and what about their work resonates with you? 

I never know how to answer this question because I have too many favorites to name. I want to shout out a couple of my close friends who are also amazing poets Jericho Brown and Francine J. Harris. Jericho’s and Francine’s works are both different from each other, and I love them both as people, too.  

I love Francine’s work because she is masterful at making strangeness into something legible and felt. Her approach to writing always creates such vivid moods and textures. For example, she experiments a lot with syntax and grammar by manipulating punctuation and repetition. 

Jericho has a form called the duplex in his latest book, The Tradition. As a poet myself, I’m always fascinated by formal poetry and structure. The duplex’s role in his latest book is truly inventive.

On Marginalization and the Need to Listen

Speaking of poets’ works, I noticed your writing focuses heavily on the lasting impacts of war. It reminds me of Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of The Sympathizer, who said war affects more than soldiers it affects their families, friends, and future generations, too. I know you wrote about the birangona women raped during the Bangladesh War of Independence so I was curious, what do you think can be done to elevate their voices and other forgotten voices?

When I hear about “forgotten voices,” I think not so much that they’ve been forgotten, but that they’ve been marginalized. These voices may have active roles inside their own communities, which means they’re not forgotten at all in certain spaces. So maybe the question is, “What can be done to make sure that we’re paying attention to those voices?”

I think the voices are clear, but the problem is that people do not necessarily listen to them. In order to pay attention to these marginalized voices, we could make the effort to learn about the history of other cultures besides the mainstream, dominant white culture. We all come from stories and backgrounds that feel familiar and close to us but are not necessarily known by others. That’s where writing comes in. Writing can reach a greater audience. 

I also think we want to forget. It’s easier to pretend we don’t see or hear anything outside our own concerns, so even when there are a lot of people drawing attention to these marginalized or forgotten stories, it’s not necessarily true that people will honor them. Society is stuck in these horrific cycles of violence and forgetting about violence or cycles of violence and pushing the people inflicted away, because we don’t want to be held responsible. Writing asks readers who engage with works about these subjects to be thoughtful about cycles of violence and to think about how they can make sure that these stories and ideas are not easily erased. 

When interviewing the birangona who you met on your Fulbright trip, how did you make sure you represented their voices and stories as accurately as possible, especially for an audience that may be unfamiliar with the war and its victims?

I made sure to include a clear historical context and wrote the poems from these women’s perspectives. By writing from their points of view, my goal was to record their stories and then transmute, transmit, their stories into poetry. Because Bengali is a musical language, I noticed I translated not just their stories but the sounds of what they said into poems as well, which are tangible works that honor their hardships and elevate the sounds of their inner psyches.

Since you interviewed these women in Bengali, did you run into translation problems? If so, how did you ensure that you told these stories in another language, such as English, as clearly as possible? 

For me, poetry is an act of translation. When I write poetry, I translate ideas, images, and sounds into something that can be called upon. It’s difficult to depict in a fully transparent manner what another person goes through. By virtue of writing personal persona poems, I took a huge risk in getting these stories wrong. To combat this, I wrote poems that served as bridges between their experiences and my own understanding of them. Through this approach, my job was to make these complicated things they shared translucent for a wider audience.

On Asian-American and Asian Representation

It’s clear in your writing that you’re prideful of your Bengladeshi-American identity. As a Bengladeshi-American woman, how does it feel to witness the recent rise of Asian-American representation in literature and in mainstream entertainment? 

It’s wonderful. This refers back to the question of forgotten and marginalized voices, and to see folks get the attention they deserve is amazing, though I think I struggle with the broadness of terms like “Asian-American.” I understand that it’s a functional term, and it seems like any term like that is inevitably going to hit some of the marks and miss others. American democracy is a funny experiment the idea that people can be so different from one another but sit at the same table. Historically, I think there have been many instances when we felt this wasn’t possible. 

My father recently said something beautiful. He said, “Forward is really not so far away.” 

Is there a certain piece of Asian-American entertainment you love at the moment and think everyone should watch or read?

I think Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things continues to be a text I’m astonished by and refer back to a lot. I also want to shout out the graphic memoir Good Talk by Mira Jacob and the novel Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam. I’m also very excited for Monica Sok’s forthcoming debut A Nail the Evening Hangs on. Hai-Dang Phan’s recent collection Reenactments is stellar, too. 

Do you think Asian and Asian-American literature receives the recognition it deserves? For instance, when the movies Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell came out, most of these audiences were Asian and Asian-American, but Asians and Asian-Americans want these films and works of literature, to spread to all audiences and change all of America’s misconceptions about Asians and Asian-Americans. 

You know, sometimes I go back and forth about this. I don’t know if I care if everybody gets what we talk and write about. I’m not worried or concerned anymore of what others think about what I do or what my friends of color do. Writers of color also write to their own people, which I think is great. More importantly, writers of color should be able to write simultaneously to their own people as well as broader audiences without judgment. 

Since I’ve been writing professionally these past 10 years, I’ve seen Asians and Asian-Americans get more attention and more credibility. But Asians and Asian-Americans have had this credibility and these talents all along. Do I think their works should be paid more attention to and be honored on a wider scale? Yes, of course. 

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