The Missing Slate | You experienced the Zia regime firsthand. We constantly hear that literature and the arts in general died out or weren’t encouraged, but how bad was it – really?
Ilona Yusuf | Actually, it didn’t die out – it was just that it was underground. Like Adrian Husain in Karachi; he had a group called “Mixed Voices”, and they were a group of poets, all of them were still writing… Shireen Haroon who’s Maki Kureshi’s daughter, Moeen Farooqui, Adrian Husain, Salman Tariq Qureshi – they were all part of this group and they were writing and they were participating in creative writing workshops; they were also, I think, venturing into translation. And so you can see that all of these poets have a background in Urdu as well as in English. Same in Lahore; Waqas Khawaja was there during the eighties and he had a group and they published two issues of a newsletter called Cactus, [which] featured translations from Urdu and probably from Punjabi into English and… I can’t remember offhand the main members of the group. He was very active and this was all in the eighties and a very deliberate attempt to bring together writers, so that they weren’t in total isolation.
So it wasn’t that things weren’t going on, they were. It’s just that there were no public platforms where you could showcase your work and then there was no encouragement for writing in English either. I mean in Urdu, because of the repression, you had no freedom of speech and that’s why you have this poetry of resistance, but in English it took a different line altogether.
The Missing Slate | Were those forums available for poets before the eighties?
Ilona Yusuf | Yes, like I said [during the panel], the poetry competitions were under the umbrella of the British Council. Taufiq Rafat was a great mentor. I didn’t personally go to his creative writing workshops but I know people who [did], and I am told he was wonderful – he would actually guide you so that you were able to realize your own potential. It wasn’t like he was trying to propagate his own style. Then, universities like Punjab University were also having poetry competitions.
The Missing Slate | So why do you think forums like these soon disappeared? Was it fallout from Zia’s censorship and suppression policies?
Ilona Yusuf | I think probably there was an agenda, for a particular type of Islam and politics. And anything which was related to freedom of speech was not allowed. During the eighties, they would rough people up in the universities and these were all students you know… student factions. So it doesn’t make for a good atmosphere really… I [had] actually left college by that time but, I do understand that it was a difficult time. But writers carried on – Alamgir Hashmi was writing for newspapers and he said that it was a different experience, newspapers were the forum for a certain amount of literature. I mean, you look at the earth… you look at a rock – there are ways of breaking a rock. Water will make its way through cracks. It may be a rock but there are little cracks from which things will permeate and find their place and eventually they’ll deepen the cracks and then something happens.
The Missing Slate | You mentioned poetry of resistance being written in Urdu during the eighties; was there a similar trend in English poetry?
Ilona Yusuf | You won’t have it in the way that you have it in Urdu, which is a very conscious amalgamation of political and other themes. That’s not the case with English though; I mean Maki Kureshi has some poems which are very political. She writes about Karachi when there was enormous strife in Karachi. She is an excellent poet… very small output, but an excellent poet. You will find a little bit here and there in Daud Kamal, although Daud Kamal doesn’t do that – he has very short, very deep poems, but only about five to ten line poems, maybe a very few political ones here and there.
The Missing Slate | Why do you think there wasn’t a more overt response to the oppression of the regime in the poetry written in English?
Ilona Yusuf | I don’t know really… I mean to me it’s not necessary to be political per se. If you look at Ghalib, [he] was not a political poet. He lived through the mutiny and wrote poetry through [it all]. But, he’s not a political poet, he’s a philosophical poet.