‘Shaped by the intellectual and cultural environment of their times and their own creative preferences’. Interview: Yasmeen Hameed
Yasmeen Hameed is an eminent Pakistani Urdu poet with twenty-five years of experience in the domains of literature, art and education. A feminist at heart, she is presently working with LUMS as ‘Writer in Residence’ in its Social Sciences Department.
She has authored five verse collections in Urdu besides translating contemporlary Urdu poetry into English and contributing a monthly column to the Books & Authors supplement in The Daily Dawn. She has also interviewed some renowned Pakistani literary personages on PTV and participated widely in poetry symposia both at home and abroad.
She was awarded Tasmgha-i-Imtiaz in 2008 for her literary achievements.
A distinguished alumna of Lahore College of Home Economics, she is presently running The Lahore Alma School in DHA, Lahore.
Q: How do you view your bilingual pursuits in literature?
A: In my college days, I was drawn to Urdu poetry and English fiction. Somewhere along the path, I found myself writing verse in Urdu. There was however a period, some twenty years ago, when I wrote in English for a while but then I stopped myself, not quite deliberately but I think, somewhere deep down I wanted the language of my creative self to be my own. Then I went on to translate Urdu poetry into English and enjoyed the experience. My Oxford book of Pakistani Urdu Verse was the outcome of this phase. Writing prose somehow came more naturally to me in English. My schooling must have had something to do with it, but gradually I became equally comfortable with both the languages, although I cannot claim to have mastered either of them. This bilingual experience has been personally rewarding; another language is always an asset. One can reach out to more people, to a larger readership and also remain connected to a larger body of original texts.
Q: Whom would you rate as the best Urdu poet of the century (present and past) in terms of literary contemporaneity?
A: When literature is a constant companion, it is difficult to label any one writer or poet as ‘the best’ and give the rest a secondary status. There are certainly some poets whom I like more than others or I should say that they are closer to my own sensibility and temperament as a poet and I admire them more. There is a particular kind of poetry that has had greater appeal for me and I have always been more drawn to it. I will deliberately not mention Mir, Ghalib or Iqbal, who are of course the great masters. I would come right down to the twentieth century and name Noon Meem Rashed, Majeed Amjad, Nasir Kazmi and some of my closer contemporaries, poets like Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Sarwat Husain and Zeeshan Sahil. Sometimes I think, I might have quitted writing poetry a long time ago had I not stumbled upon some of the verses of Saleem Ahmed, which opened up for me a world of images and ideas that I had not known until then.
نےٴ امکاں کو صورت دے رہا ہوں
گرا کر خود در و دیوار اپنے
میں اپنے گھر کو وسعت دے رہا ہوں
Naē imkān ko sūrat dē rahā hūn
Girā kar khud dar-o-dīvār apnē
Main apnē ghar ko vusaat dē rahā hūn
میں اس کے جسم کا ہوں ایک ذرہ
مری کل عمر اس کی اک گھڑی ہے
شجر جیسے ذرا سے بیج میں ہو
کوئی شے مجھ میں مجھ سے بھی بڑی ہے
Main us kē jism kā hūn ēk zarrā
Merī kul umr us kī ik gharrī hai Shajar jaisē zarā sē bīj mēin ho
Koī shai mujh mēin mujh sē bhī barrī hai
Q: Do you think that female poets and novelists, from Pakistan writing in English have successfully advanced the cause of feminism through their work?
A: This question brings forth another question: Should all female poets and novelists, writing In English or for that matter, in Urdu or any other language be expected to advance the ‘cause of feminism’, whatever that is? Whether explicit or subtle in style, women like their male counterparts do write about their own concerns, and some of the issues particularly relevant to their lot, do find a place in their writings. The Bride by Bapsi Sidhwa is one example. I believe that creative writing cannot be driven by a single or a particular agenda. It is something else that guides a literary artist. It is much more complicated than simply sloganizing a cause. Genuine creativity gushes forth through a deep, internalized experience, which, in fact is difficult to define or explain.
Q: How would you compare Bapsi Sidhwa, Sara Suleri and Mohsin Hamid inter se?
A: I am not one for comparing writers. All writers have their own, unique universe, shaped by the intellectual and cultural environment of their times and their own creative preferences. Crow Eaters was published in 1978 whereas Moth Smoke was published in year 2000. Bapsi Sidhwa and Mohsin Hamid, belonging to the same place, were nevertheless born into two different worlds. I have yet to read Mohsin Hamid’s most recent book but the interest for reading that he and others of his generation have generated among our youngsters is something to be happy about. Sara Suleri’s preference of the genre is different from these two. I like her use of language whereas I admire the way Bapsi Sidhwa weaves her stories; in her own words, ‘wafting on the swell of’ imagination.
Q: Would you subscribe to the view that creativity is ‘a journey into the wilderness of language’ as espoused by (Nobel Laureate) Seamus Heaney, the celebrated Irish poet?
A: Yes, very aptly said. Language is the basic tool of all writing. The real craftsman sets out to explore the myriad possibilities within it. A great writer recreates and reinvents language with the deftness of his craft. Here is where the conscious self of the writer steps in, goes through the rigor of exploring and learning. It’s this toilsome yield of barren, non creative periods that flowers into excellence during the more fertile, creative phases of writing.
Q: What is poetry that does not address itself to the individual consciousness, that does not convey an experience of verification at the personal level?
A: Poetry should perform this function. The reader cannot be ignored. The poet may not consciously write for the reader but the reader within the poet does relate to the world beyond the self, and here is where the self becomes one with the outer peripheries of existence; where seeing within and without becomes one. Here is where the connect with the individual consciousness is established. This is not a rehearsed process. This is just how it happens or should happen.
Q: How do you look upon modernism’s rejection of tradition in art (literature inclusive) and its stress on freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism and primitivism?
A: Freedom of expression or experimentation does not necessarily mean the rejection of tradition. Tradition is there to stay. What is radical today will have no meaning tomorrow unless it is significant or potent enough to take root, live on and become part of the tradition or become a new tradition itself. The new must replace the old; the new must be new because it would be the product of its own time and age, but its worth will only be measured through its capacity to survive. What to this age is tradition must have been modern once. The concept is relative. Who could be more radical than Wali Dakkani, who died in the early years of the eighteenth century? There might not have been a Sauda or a Mir, had there not been a Wali.
Q: What is the role of a literary artist in a consumer-oriented society?
A: Consumerism has legitimized mediocrity. The question is: Can the true literary artist resist the temptations that come along with it and opt for the longer route to success or failure? The entire world, including the world of art is caught up in this mesh.
Q: How do you reconcile your domestic functions to the exigencies of your career as an educationist, and then as a literateur?
A: It was a long journey and things have worked out, somehow. I have established a routine and those around me, especially my children are very accommodating. I learnt from my mother, very early in life, to discipline myself. She was a gynecologist in the Pakistan Army and even after her retirement, I saw her work with a high degree of professionalism till the age of seventy five. She kept an immaculate house and seemed always to manage all this with great ease. I have learnt a lot from her.
Q: It might seem rather presumptuous to ask you as to how you would self-appraise your poetic work in Urdu vis-à-vis Zehra Nigah, Ada Jafri, Parveen Shakir, Fehmeeda Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, and Shabnam Shakil, to name a few.
A: I am a harsh critic of my own work. I am also an avid reader of all my contemporaries, female and male. Each of the poets you have mentioned here have a distinct style of their own and their contribution, individual and collective, has added a new dimension to mainstream Urdu poetry. As far as my own poetry is concerned, I hope that I am different from all of them, just as they are different from each other.
Q: How would you explain these lines in the context of the general tenor of your poetry? Main ik harf-e mukammal ho to jāūn
Kisī ki laghzish-e guftār mēin hūn
A: This job ought to be left to others. As a poet, it is difficult to comment on one’s own work. Sometimes, so many shades of a thought go into writing a single line that its meaning cannot be articulated. Perhaps an outsider can interpret it more objectively. To put it briefly, these particular lines are about the vulnerability of perfection, about the absolute, the ultimate, the desired, that must remain unattainable.
Q: Any new project that you are working on?
A: Yes, I have translated poetry of South Asian languages into Urdu and am now trying to find the time to give the book a final shape.
Q: What are you reading these days?
A: I usually read more than one book at a time, unless it is a work of fiction. These days I am reading essays from Islam in South Asia, edited by Mushirul Hasan and Gopi Chand Narang’s new book on Ghalib.
Q: Which books and authors do you keep on returning to?
A: Such books are several. I don’t usually go back to works of fiction, but I re-read poetry all the time: Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Rashed, Baudelaire, Zymborska, and many others. I also keep going back to critical essays by various authors. One of my favourites is Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. There are many more such books. I am self-taught and books are my only, my very revered teachers.